Reflecting on the Mountbatten Institute – 10 Year Alumni Anniversary


The ticketing agent wasn’t too impressed as I put my two oversized pieces of luggage on the scale. “They’re overweight. You’ll have to leave some things behind or pay a hefty fee.” This was March 2006 and I was saving any extra penny I had for pints and weekend escapes across Europe. Needless to say my mom and sister walked away with mismatched shoes, college sweatshirts and other items forcibly deemed unnecessary overflowing from their arms after saying a tearful goodbye. My teddybear somehow made the cut though.

I arrived at London’s Heathrow and was instructed to sit on the ground in the arrivals hall with the others who had landed before me while we waited for the rest of the intake to arrive. I was exhausted and nervous. I had no idea what to expect from both the Mountbatten Institute (formerly Mountbatten Programme), nor the other 29 participants who joined me from all corners of the US.

Joanna and I bonded over going to uni in Baltimore. Emily (Z) and I made friends quickly as she was the only volunteer who responded to my invite for a smoke outside to break the ice. I learned it was neither academia nor international work experience that brought her here though. It was simply, Europe!

We were brought by bus to a hostel in Paddington for the first few nights. I was in awe at the amount of luggage Erin, also a fellow New Jerseyian, had managed to bring over. We were going to be in London for a year. Each of us at a different work placement, from mostly prominent banking to only two of us in marketing/special events roles. Erin was fashionably prepared for all of it.

I met Angele on the hostel doorstep later that afternoon. I didn’t believe her when she told me her name. After all I had never met anyone from New Orleans before. Angele, Jaime, Heidi and I walked to Portobello Road the next morning. Flashbacks of my time studying abroad only 3 years prior flooded in and I felt overly confident that I had already mastered London during my first time living there at 19. I was so naive about how this next year would change me forever.

Mountbattens on Portobello Road

First day in London, Portobello Road; Courtesy of Heidi Kristin.

See, what made this time so much more different than the first time I lived abroad was simply, it was no longer my first time. Sure we were older and more mature. I mean most of us were at least 22! College was in the past and we all had a minimum of a year of professional work experience under our belts. To leave our happy lives of “adulthood” behind meant that there was an additional element that unified us all – we were all true travelers at heart and for many of us this wasn’t our first rodeo abroad.

That night our friendship bonds began to form deeper as we partied into the wee hours at the Hiccup Bar in the hostel’s basement, flirting with foreign boys and searching out new partners in crime. Late that night Emily (S) greeted us with Indiana-based childhood friend Gerrad, as they both were the last of the group to arrive. I knew then that we were onto something good.

Fast friends at the Hiccup Bar, Paddington

Fast friends our first night at the Hiccup Bar, Paddington; Courtesy of Sarah Lauderbach

I started work shortly after at the international leading market research firm Forrester Research. I was an Event Coordinator managing corporate events for the C-level suite where my bosses provided exclusive and customised research consultancy to Europe’s most prominent organisations. I was lucky that my direct supervisor Daniel was one of the original Mountbattens, an English gent sent to NYC years earlier, so his appreciation of a life split between professionalism and adventure was well understood. As part of my role I galavanted around London sourcing amazing gifts to include in our prestigious event invitations such as mini port bottles to invite them to our VIP event in Portugal or tea from Harrods for our annual London event. Later that year after a private tour of Tower Bridge I hosted dinner inside its historical walkways.

While in the Mountbatten Programme we were also working toward our Cambridge-endorsed certificate in international business practice. Throughout the year we were whisked away to attend educational seminars at prominent places such as the UN in London, and other talks in Paris, Oxford and Cambridge; but also participated in team building exercises in Dorset and Brighton. The days were long but the nights were even longer as we surely took advantage of the mini breaks at hand.

Punting in Cambridge

Punting in Cambridge; Courtesy of Jamie Bettcher

My most prominent reflection of Mountbatten lives amongst the friendships that were created during post work drinks sipping pints and eating chips for dinner to save our pennies for weekend escapes across Europe. A typical weekend included dancing to our favourite cover band The Fabulous Feedback Band (now replaced by much younger lads) at Leicester Square Irish pub O’Neills on Wardour Street, arriving home at 4 am, taking a 30-minute nap before heading to catch the budget National Express bus only just in time for the cheapest flight of them all at 6 am. We’d arrive in a new city, drop our bags at the hostel and by 9 am were exploring and trying to figure the new foreign place out with a thick hangover to make it extra special. It wasn’t uncommon when returning to London late Sunday night and being asked at customs where I just came from that I’d stare back blankly, the trips started to blur into one.

Mountbattens in Paris

Mountbattens in Paris; Courtesy of Stephanie Otanez

This was 2006 remember. Likely only a quarter of us were on Facebook. I refused and was still on MySpace. I called my mom weekly from my international calling card and only would SMS (text) my friends in emergency situations. After arriving in a new town, it was an old-school map and an inkling for the closest pub that got us around.

Once we met the South Africans, thanks to an introduction via Angele and her co-worker, weekends were also spent in east London having traditional braiis while sunbathing in their backyard, learning South African longarming dances late in the evening at Zulu’s and sharing our cultures over too many Savannah ciders. We hosted an amazing Halloween party at the Leicester Square Australian pub, Walkabout, to show our South African and English friends what the holiday really is all about. Em (Z) and I kept the tradition for 4 years later in NYC , and they still were they were the most celebrated parties of the year.

Halloween at Leicester Sq Walkabout

Halloween, 2006 at Walkabout Leicester Sq; Courtesy of Jaime Bettcher

Living in communal housing was a challenge as it took college-living to another level. 8 of us shared a 4-bedroom townhouse in between posh Maida Vale and sketchy Kilburn Park. As most of us shared a bedroom with a friend, Emily (Z) and I’s friendship became even closer as we also combined wardrobes and the large bottle of water to quench our frequently hungover thirst was passed between us as a nightly ritual. When it came time to host the other Mountbattens’ for a good old fashioned American bbq, our house, known as the “crack house” (no drugs were involved) was the place to be. It might have been termed that for our residence in proximity to the ghetto, or the pure debauchery that took place regularly. Frankly, our flat ran out of water most mornings, and Em Z and I, the last to wake up, would flip a coin on who would get to shower before work.

Mountbattens celebrating

“Blade” and “Bullet” celebrating at the flat after returning from Paris; Courtesy of Andy Cervantes

From March 2006-March 2007 I was lucky to not only experience more of London and the UK than ever before, but also 13 other countries. We cheered steins at Oktoberfest in Munich, ate baguettes under the Eiffel Tower, hiked under olive groves in Cinque Terra, and bathed in ancient outdoor baths in Budapest. We ate perogee in Kraków, smoked a spliff in Amsterdam and sat for hours trying as many beers as we could at a small ancient beer house in Antwerp. And the above was just touching the surface.

Salzburg pretzel twins

Pretzel twins, Salzburg, Austria; Courtesy of Jaime Bettcher

Being a Mountbatten alumni makes me so proud. I was lucky to move to the NYC area upon returning to the States, along with many of my closest friends. With one of my dearest Mountbatten friends, Jaime, we have mutually made it our mission to keep traveling somewhere new in the world each year together. The bond that you have with a fellow Mountbatten is for life, and still very true today. Once a Mountbatten, always a Mountbatten as the saying goes. It truly is a global lifeline and I’ve met fellow Mountbattens while traveling in Australia, Thailand, Japan, California and South Africa. We are travelers and we are one.

On March 6, 2006 I boarded a flight from Philly to London not knowing what the opportunity would provide. Today is March 6,  2016 and I am writing this on a flight from Philly to London to return to my home now. Ten years later to the day and I am living my dream back in London after a few detours in NYC and Australia getting to know the world beyond Europe. I’m lucky that many of my friends in London today are former Mountbattens, and wherever I go “home” in the world…be it London, Australia or NYC, Mountbatten unifies us all. I feel extremely lucky and grateful for the opportunity.

Mountbatten reunion

Mountbattens reunited exactly 10 years later to the day: Courtesy of Angele Cory

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Uncovering an England I Never Knew


So what’s it like to be back in London? This loaded question keeps being asked yet I’ve quietly gone about my transition landing in the Big Smoke undetected as if I were a phantom. No Facebook broadcasting, Instagram snapshotting or even blog writing. Gasp. But that doesn’t mean I’m holed up in seclusion exactly.

Because honestly, being back in London simply just feels like home. I feel normal as if I haven’t lived away from the US for close to five years and on the other side of the world gallivanting around the South Pacific.

Strangely, for the first time in all my times moving abroad, I don’t have the overwhelming anxiety and confusion over moving somewhere new. There is no culture shock, which even surprised myself. It’s such a massively refreshing feeling to know where to go and what to do. I know to stand on the right on the escalators, how to weave in and out of chaotic commuter people traffic, which sandwiches at Pret are my favorite and which ready-meal curries to avoid. I was elated last weekend to be even more in my element at Hawker House, a foodie night market with craft beer and hipsters in East London.

Street Feast, Hawker House

Street Feast, Hawker House

I’m heading up a marketing team at a tech start-up in trendy Richmond, and enjoying the fact that after 8.5 years with one company I’ve landed in a role that ticked all my boxes: start-up, newly created position, leadership opportunity, fun culture, technology focused and international. This means I’ll get to travel to see family and friends in New York more regularly and continue to go exploring in Asia and beyond.

I’ve taken the leap as an ‘adult’ to live alone in a one-bedroom flat in my old, posh stomping grounds of Nottinghill. This is the hardest transition of all as I’m used to my social calendar being filled months in advance and friends to dine with all nights of the week. With a long commute and late working hours coupled with my poor cooking skills I’ve decided in such a multi-national city that I should be living with flat mates again to meet people and explore new areas. I’ve landed on Clapham Junction, a middle-class neighborhood south of the river that will get me to work, the city or my friends in East London in about 20 minutes. It’s full of restaurants, nightlife and boutiques and even better, infiltrated with Aussies so I may just feel even more at home once I move at the end of December.

I’m also experiencing a very strange gravitational pull toward France. This happened while visiting Paris again recently in August 2014, and then I fell in love with Bordeaux in July 2015. As I begin to learn more about French wine I find myself planning on how to get to each unique region over time. Only two weeks ago I found myself back in Paris with two Australian friends hopping between arrondissements, sipping wine, eating fondue and waiting in an extremely long line to have my breath taken away at the magnificent view from the top of the Eiffel Tower. I never expected to say that it was so worth it.

In fact, I have a feeling that Paris will substitute what Sydney was for me in Australia; An opportunity to jump over every few months and catch up with an American friend just living the life like a local. We’ll see. For now though, I’m already booked to head over to Lille in January and Lyon to taste the wines of Cotes de Rhone in May.

So as a newly arrived expat I’d only be staying true to form if I devised my ‘must-do’ list or what others would deem as a bucket list. So here it is:

  • Uncover an England I’ve never experienced before
  • Hot-air balloon over Cappadocia, Turkey
  • See the Northern Lights and Fjords in Norway
  • Go to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland
  • Eat dumplings in Hong Kong
  • Drive down the coast of Ireland
  • Eat kimchi in Seoul
  • Learn French/Italian wine
  • Create amazing, lasting friendships
  • See family/friends more regularly

Goodbye Melbourne, Hello Again… London


These Two Eyes are on the move again, just a few weeks shy of leaving behind Australia to relocate back to my favourite city in the world, London!

But now this part feels too short; the waiting part. All of the songs I hear sound like home, like Melbourne. The familiarity of my apartment, my commute on my cherry-apple bike, the banter between me and my roommate, the smells and tastes of my favourite restaurants on Bridge Road – they are all reaching out to me saying, don’t go! The red wine and fun times keep flowing though, we stumble a bit but just go with it. Then I smile and remember that this is just another step on an amazing journey.

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Australia is a special place I know I’d like to come back to, even long term again one day. I recognize now the things I’ve taken for granted; the best beaches on the planet, world class food and wine, proximity to remote islands, a refreshing outlook on life, and lifelong friendships.

I’ve learned so much in my close to 4.5 years here and want to always keep these lessons front of mind:

  • Slow down, have fun and stop worrying about getting to the top.
  • The world is both small and accessible, keep traveling, always.
  • Do what you love and don’t settle for anything, or anyone, less. Life is what you make of it and there is no formula to follow.

Making a move is never easy but the outcome is also never regretted. I think it’s because there is so much you can’t anticipate.  When I’m content I associate it with the place I love at the moment, the fun factor. But then the next minute I have a conversation about a 15-year old dying of cancer, and it hits me that life is so short. Do what you want and be happy, yet that is also difficult when family and friends are so far away and traveling to you for a visit isn’t an option. So is happiness Europe on a whim or a swim in Bondi over the weekend? They both win for different reasons.

I’ve always been one to follow through when I say I’m going to accomplish something and this is no different. Australia has given me the opportunity to pursue my dreams time-and-time again and now is just another chance to stay true to what I’ve always said; I want to live in London again one day.

In fact, when I first moved over to Australia I created a bucket list of sorts – check it out, and stay tuned because I will also do the same for this move too. I’m proud to say I’ve ticked off each one and so much more. I’ve snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef 3 times. I’ve visited nearly every major wine region across Australia and New Zealand. I’ve seen and tasted wallaby, kangaroo, crocodile, and a few other interesting creatures. I’ve visited every state in Australia and lived in 2. I’ve watched and learned to play AFL, NRL, croquet and lawn bowls. Visited the outback and red center, various coasts and hinterlands and conquered crazy fears like skydiving and shark diving. And I’m lucky to be a permanent resident and not just a backpacker restricted by timeframes; I got to do it all!

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Australia has also turned me into a food snob. I have a lot of very expensive average dinners. Or maybe that’s just how pretentious my palette has become. I’ve had to learn to fight the urge to eat before I fly, whilst in the lounge, on the plane and after to maintain a tinge of self-control (and moderate weight). And that’s partly because I fly so regularly my obsession and loyalty to the national airline Qantas is not sane.  I’m like that movie Up in the Air – always reaching out for that higher frequent flyer status.

And sometimes I sit on the tram and look at Flinders Station and think how beautiful it is. Melbourne is beautiful, especially at night. I watch the meter tick by as it gets more and more expensive, but it’s not London. It’s not supposed to be. There are trams instead of tubes, different arts, music and entertainment, secret bars and graffiti-clad laneways and then there’s the food and wine, of course. There’s nothing like it.

Flinders station

Flinders Station and passing tram

After seeing old friends in Brisbane this past weekend, I questioned to myself – why am I leaving all the people and things I love? My response was to also be with those I’ve loved first.

I popped back in London in July just to double check. At times it seemed a bit primal. A true melting pot changing neighbourhood by neighbourhood offering something to meet everyone’s wants. I went to sleep that last night thankful for Tommy and Paul and Jake and Dave and the people already in my life. I’m also thankful to show up in a city and call it my own. I have too many of these situations in too many cities: Brisbane, Philadelphia, Melbourne, New York, London. I love getting off the plane in each of these cities knowing I’ve already mastered the place. I know where to go for a beer, a bite and to kill time shopping or exploring.

Last year after returning from London I was nervous of the influence Australia was having on me. It’s almost as if life is too good. It’s a bit of a utopia of sorts. I realized as I tried to explain my dilemma how disillusioned it sounds. In comparison to the US my income is high, it’s safe, there’s minimal crime, you get free stuff on planes and people accept regular travel as a normal part of life. Oh, and they shorten everything they say which fits in perfect with the vocabulary I acquired as a teenager. So, what’s the prob? Right, I actually feel like I’m losing my street smarts. I’ll become unnecessarily cautious in some situations and too aloof or trustworthy in others that require alertness. I assume affluence is standard and have overlooked aspects of my fortune. This has caused me to recognize how removed from the society I grew up with I actually am.

So do I really just love London because it was my first? It was my first time abroad, my first time living overseas, and my first time traveling alone to new countries. But that’s what happens when you fall in love with a city at 13 years-old.  It will always be ‘my’ city. People respond in shock when I tell them it’s my favourite city in the world. I’ve lived there at 19 and 22. What will it be like 10 years later? American accents are everywhere – I won’t be unique anymore. I won’t have people asking every day where I’m from or how long I’m staying. That is my life on repeat, always asking ‘what’s next’ and despite a bitter sweet goodbye to Australia, I’m more excited than ever to begin life again in London.

I can’t wait to visit old haunts and make new ones. To sit in a dodgy pub with friends I’ve yet to meet and those I know will help me transition. To travel like a big kid all of Europe on weekends and evolve my palette even further on French and Italian wines. To fall in love with boys with funny accents, achieve success in my new international job and to live somewhere where friends and family can and will come visit. There is still so much unknown to get excited about.

Recently, standing in an old warehouse converted into a music venue in a trendy Melbourne neighbourhood watching the Brisbane band The Jungle Giants, I drunkenly smiled a bit and said, “I want the whole time to be awesome, not just the last 20 years.” And so here I go, it continues…

Lisa Vecchio, Tower Bridge, London

Lisa Vecchio, Tower Bridge, London

London Calling


“Dad, take me to London,” I demanded as an assertive 13 year-old.  He turned right back around and said, “Lisa, save $500 for your airfare and I’ll take you.” Little did he know I’d been saving all along. In fact, I picked up pennies on the street, saved birthday money and hid away change after a trip to the mall. Far sooner than expected I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Dad, I have $500, when are we going to London?”

My love for all things English was irrevocable. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind about the ‘why’ behind my gravitational pull to the city nicknamed “The Smoke.”

Yes, I might have had an above average obsession with the British band Oasis. I watched documentaries, bought B-side and unreleased tapes from independent record stores and had my walls plastered with concert posters while other girls my age wrote teenage heartthrob JTT (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) love letters each week.

It started even earlier than that though. With an English grandmother, I have a particular fond memory of her brother, Great Uncle George, reciting this poem and the comical rhymes of “absoid” and “boid” in his posh London accent:

Spring is sprung, the grass is ris

I wonders where the birdies is

They say the birds is on the wing

Ain’t that absurd?

I always thought the wing was on the bird

Finally, on a cold, autumn night in November 1996 I was on my first British Airways flight from Philadelphia with touch down at Heathrow.

I was wowed at the cultural elegance over high-tea at Harrods, fascinated by eating greasy fish and chips out of a newspaper in the Cotswolds and drank too much tea it kept me up at night afraid of the ghosts that must lurk in the old bed and breakfasts. And I wanted more of it all!

When I applied to university my minimal requirement was that there was an exchange program abroad to London. Even when the study abroad advisor aggressively nudged me to try something ‘different,’ I let her know her efforts of persuasion were wasted on me. I was going to London. In fact, I was going to go earlier than suggested (second year instead of third), so I could go back again my fourth year.

I arrived in 2003 with a big grin, a chest full of anxiety and feigned confidence by shaking hands with every person residing in my Nottinghill flat. I was 19, and had the whole of London at my fingertips.

I knew to pretend to be asleep on the night bus so I didn’t have to pay the fare, drank Fosters with Aussie and Kiwi boys who swore it’s not a beer that’s drunk in Australia (it’s true, it’s not), and tried to re-assure my lecturers that although I was leaving class early, it was crucial that I couldn’t miss my flight over to Barcelona for the weekend yet I would have my assignment handed in on time.

In a span of 4 months I had visited 8 countries, fallen deeper in love with London than I could have anticipated and had a very hard time acclimating into routine university life once back in America. There was only one solution, I had to go back.

In 2005 I participated in a mini-mester (short semester) in Edinburgh studying global communications at Napier University. I lived in a hostel, stayed up way too late, drank too many pints, and traversed nearly the entire country. Today I’ve been to the Edinburgh Castle at least 5 times in my life, which frankly, is too many. At the end of the course my class boarded a plane to Baltimore while I boarded a different plane to London. Just a quick trip to just double check…yup, it’s still there.

When everyone asked about post-graduation plans I had my mind made up, I was going to move to London. My sister produced luggage tags as my graduation announcement and then the questions started flooding in. When are you going? Do you have a job lined up? A visa? The thing is I didn’t have a plan. I couldn’t get a visa without sponsorship, and I couldn’t get sponsorship without a visa. I just didn’t have enough experience behind me to get a job abroad.

Defeated, I took a backseat for a while. I got a job in marketing, related to my career goal, check. But, I lived at home. There were fewer and fewer friends in town and life was truthfully, boring.  I sat in a Starbucks one afternoon and tried to get my head around what I could do to change things. I re-read my old diary from my time studying abroad in London. There were stories of a 48 hour bender in Dublin to catch an Oasis gig, meeting the president of Sony entertainment at a bar in Leicester Square, and passing time napping on the grass in Hyde Park. Simply reading about the excitement and buzz I felt when traveling abroad was all I needed to motivate me to find a way to get there again.

After months of eating the Great Wall of Chocolate dessert from PF Changs to drown my misery, I partnered with my old friend Google and came across the Mountbatten Institute. A very different program than what it is today, Mountbatten offered me every opportunity I was looking for: sponsorship, a job, friends, higher learning and a visa. Cha-ching.

That next year changed my life forever. I met life-long friends who are still my trusted travel companions today, all while making our mark from the northeast corner in Maida Vale and Kilburn Park far across to East London to hang with our new South African friends (read about it here). I had it all, a marketing and event job that had me planning events in Tower Bridge, Paris, Amsterdam and Portugal, educational courses on international business across England and in Paris, and weekend adventures on budget airlines all over Europe with a crazy new group of friends. From 2006-2007 we visited 14 countries.

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I had thought I knew all there was about London from my quick study stint in 2003, but it wasn’t until I had a whole year that I discovered there was so much more to enjoy – curries on Brick Lane, live music and too many more pints to count. Sitting on the crowded Tube each morning, a commuter with the rest of them, London was my home. Sadly, another visa expired and it was back to life in America.

You can read about the vow I made to myself during the 4 years I lived across the river from New York City in Hoboken, New Jersey to visit the rest of the world – anywhere but Europe. In the meantime, I gathered documents and paperwork up to wazoo and was granted a European Union passport in 2012. You know what that means, right? I can legally live and work in London, or anywhere in Europe for that matter.

So why am I telling you all this? London is calling and in just a few hours I’ll be boarding a plane that’s landing at Heathrow. Albeit a short visit to my favorite city in the world, I’ve never been more excited!

Kalymnos, Greece

Anywhere but Europe


I made a promise to myself when I moved home from London in May 2007. I’m not allowed to return to Europe until I’ve seen more of the world that frankly, isn’t Europe.

I broke that promise in 2008 went I went for one last trip over to Greece but it was also the first time I stepped foot on Asian soil while briefly on the Turkish island called Bodrum, so I figure technically it was okay.

The following year I went to Thailand. That was my first Southeast Asian experience complete with Full Moon parties on the beach, $5 massages and picturesque long tail boat rides. It tore at my soul when I spoke to the bazillionth backpacker we met and realized I wasn’t doing the typical Southeast Asian backpacker circuit. Up until that point though, I didn’t even know it was a thing. I had no idea that Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam – these are the playground for mid twenty somethings who had saved up all their money at a real job to spend it all on a 6 month adventure having no job. I had 10 days. Hello Thailand, good-bye Asia.

In 2010 I ventured to Australia for the first time. I didn’t even want to. Australia felt safe to me, and easy. Almost as easy as just going back to London. Somewhere that I knew at some point in my life I’d go and wasn’t sure if it needed to be now. But, my travel buddy friend was going, so it was go or go somewhere else alone and at that point in my life I was too intimidated to travel solo. In that short trip though I unexpectatdly fell in love with Sydney nightlife and Queensland weather. I knew it was the right next step for me so less than a year later I moved to Australia and have been here for almost 3 years since.

In that time, the 7 years since I left London, I have declined offers of weddings in Tuscany and festivals in Sweden. But to make up for it I stayed true to my vow, and maybe even a little off course, to only travel on this side of the world. That has allowed me to adventure across Australia, to New Zealand and back on multiple occasions, as well as Japan, Vietnam, Fiji, South Africa, and soon to be Bali and the Gili Islands of Indonesia.

But despite all the places the world can take you to my heart sometimes just yearns for Europe. It aches for the dark pubs of London and those tempting english accents, as well as for the vineyards in France, the warehouse parties of Berlin and the beers of Antwerp.

I bit the bullet and said screw my rule; the world is small enough to not have to make geographic limitations. This August I’m offically going back to Europe!

A lekker reunion


In the summer of 2006 I was introduced to a culture I never knew existed. Whilst living in London an American friend had befriended a colleague who invited us to a South African bar in Leytonstone called Zulus (now unfortunately the Red Lion). It seemed like nearly every South African in London flocked to East London where they could bunch up 12 people in a 3 person flat and pay cheap rent – so Zulus was perfectly situated.

Zulus was a hole in the wall where Afrikaans from across London would meet regularly, braii (BBQ) next to the sand volleyball courts out the back, and sip on Savanna’s. Downstairs was a pub decorated in African trinkets with zebra fabric and wooden statues. Upstairs the club got too rowdy for my liking. At Zulus, you’re more likely to hear Afrikaans spoken over English. And it became our world.

From there slowly but shortly my close friends and I became dear friends with a household of South Africans. There were 6 guys and 3 girls living in poorly reputed Forest Gate in East London, and about 45 minutes west on the Tube sat our sad dwelling otherwise known as the Crack House on the cusp of posh Maida Vale and decrepit Kilburn Park. We were similarly 5 girls and 3 boys shacked up into 4 bedrooms.

Nearly every weekend we made the trip east, or vise versa, and became immersed in their South African customs. Days were spent laying in the sun, braiiing over wood boards in the backyard and learning how to say Afrikaans sayings like Hoe gaan dit? and lekker. At night, it was off to Zulus where we would be a select few American girls trying our Afrikaans out on foreign boys and dancing the traditional, ballroom-esque dance of langarming. Other weekends a handful of them would shack up at ours, bodies sprawled out on couch cushions haphazardly on the floor after hosting our traditions of an American BBQ with red Solo cups and beer pong.

Christmas 2006 was my first Christmas away from home. Although sad to be away from friends and family, my best friend Emily and I couldn’t have had a better second option spending Christmas in Forest Gate amongst a plethora of South Africans who cooked us a traditional feast before heading off to Zulus and dancing the night away. Just 5 months later our Visa’s had expired and we had to head back to the States. Saying goodbye to our colleagues and closest American friends was hard, but saying goodbye to the South Africans was equally as depressing. We swore one day we’d make it to South Africa to see them again and experience their culture in their own country.

Prior to meeting them I had encountered a few South African whilst living in London in 2003 and Scotland in 2005, but experiencing the Afrikaans culture was very new to me. Friends and family at home curiously questioned when I told them about my new friends whether they were black or white. The ignorance of white African’s living in Africa was not assumed. Do they make clicking noises when they speak? I had never before heard of Apartheid – how is it that us Americans have been so sheltered from far-off monumental global affairs? I don’t recall my high-school history class going into detail about Nelson Mandela and the race struggle that is still so apparent today.

Since returning from London, both myself and my good friend Jaime have ventured overseas nearly every year continuing our travel legacies. This past November was the year, and Jaime and I prepared for our trip to South Africa. With only 16 days to make the most of an enormous country we planned and detailed our route. We’d spend a handful of days in the cosmopolitan of Cape Town, where mountains and sea create a unique city like none I’ve experienced anywhere before. From there, we’d drive to the wine lands to meet up with our old friends the boys, before road tripping the Garden Route on the Eastern Cape and ending with a 4 day safari in Sabi Sands and Kruger National Park.

Prior to arriving I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was told Johannesburg was a dangerous city, ranked 50 on the global scale and even walking around during the day was unadvisable, so we chose not to spend time there.  A ranking of 50 is bad, but my college city of Baltimore is rated worse. Carjacking and mugging is common in general apparently, and the police are corrupt. You’re better off paying off a cop to avoid a night in the slammer then facing what’s on the other side.

With blacks as the majority they rule the country. But did that mean we necessarily should have something to fear? Many acquaintances we met along our travels were bitter – with the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) program stating that those disadvantaged by Apartheid are given preference for jobs before a white person – our friends fled to London in their 20s claiming there was no work and earning the pound allowed for a solid sum to send home to their families. In South Africa, a black person is black, a mixed person is colored, and Indians and some Chinese are classified under this rule. Saying your black or white isn’t taboo. You don’t look over your shoulder wondering if someone overheard and thinks you’re being racist. It is reality and government decisions are based on race. With that said, many question current policy leaders.

The reality for us then constituted, what is safe? Are we supposed to tip toe around and fear everything and everyone? What happened to giving the benefit of the doubt first, and judging second? This was a topic Jaime and I discussed in detail every night before we went to bed. Even locals say they fear walking the streets. Is this all a bit of paranoia or is it really as bad as they say?

Amongst the various travelers we met on our journey, from a middle-aged Afrikaans couple, to Irish sweethearts, a young South African miner to random people on the street – it was always a topic of conversation. “Two young white girls like you have to be careful.” “Don’t stop for anyone, lock your doors every time you get in the car, and hide the GPS.” “Take a taxi, even though its two blocks, always take a taxi.” Ultimatley, we opted for better safe than sorry. But I still question, is that a way to live? We felt it from the bottom of the country all the way to the top. In the end however, the people we met from tour operators to restaurant owners to taxi drivers to people in bars, the South Africans provided a warm and interesting experience.

Cape Point

L&J and Cape Point

On our fourth day we rented a car in Cape Town and headed to Cape Point, one of the most southerly points in Africa. I let Jaime do the driving at the onset and played navigator often providing friendly reminders about being on the other side of the road despite the GPS as we headed south. By the time we reached Cape Point the fog and rain had cleared and we hiked to the top of the lighthouse, weary of the Beware of Baboon signs sticking out from the bush. The guys had warned us to leave early, the 3 of them calling throughout the day pressing how horrific Cape Town traffic could be. But at this point, we were already late.

South African Baboons

Baboons!

Driving out from the Cape Point lighthouse traffic was a stand still. Would you believe it? Baboons! A truck was stopped just two cars ahead and had baboons hanging off its passenger side. Others aimlessly walked in the road, then scurried into the bush with a baby clinging to its chest. We sat there for about 15 minutes, snapping photos and admiring the vulgar, aggressive animals. Yup, we were definitely going to be late.

Finally, hours later we arrived at our old friend Cedric’s house in Paarl, situated in the center of the beautiful wine lands. Standing in the driveway awaiting our arrival with a beer in his hand, I nearly cried when he picked me up and spun me around. “I know you like beers,” he said, and we went inside.

After a bit of catching up, we were desperately late arriving to the braii at Jacques after 8 pm. Then again, we were on South African time. Being with Ced and his wife Althea, Jacques and Felicity and their new daughter Mackenzie, and Derek and his girlfriend felt like old times in London. We sat for hours reminiscing about the these times – each of us remembering different stories in a variety of detail. I even thanked them for speaking English with us around, as it is their second language. By the time the braii got going, and man do South Africans like their meat, it was after 10 pm on a Tuesday night. They say South Africa comes second to Argentina when it comes to meat consumption.

south african friends

Old friends, good times

Since leaving London at some point over the past 6 years we’ve all grown up a bit, but it still was as if none of the important stuff had changed. The guys are all married now, in their mid-thirties, and Jaime and I despite our cubicle-life, Ced’s right, we do like beers.

Paarl winelands

Paarl winelands

The following morning Ced and Althea took the day off of work to tour us around the wine region. From Paarl to Stellenbosch we took our time sampling wine and cheese from 4 different wineries, while Ced kindly did the driving. I was delighted to be introduced to pinotage, a South African red staple, which a bottle from Rhebokskloof Estate had to come with me.

snoek

Snoek!

That evening, we sat around the braii in the front yard as Ced cooked the snoek, a common fish found in the southern hemisphere and we had another late dinner relaxing in the summer breeze. The next morning, saying good bye was sad, it all went so fast. From here on out we were on our own in South Africa again, and Jaime and I began our road trip on the Garden Route, just her and I on the open road.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts on Cape Town, the Garden Route, and our African Safari.

Good Hope FM

Road tripping to Good Hope FM