IVHQ volunteer Melanie Bernstein reflects on the labour intensive work, exciting weekend adventures and what she’ll miss the most as a volunteer in Victoria Falls…
I sit on the porch overlooking a private game reserve, as I have done almost every evening for the past month. However, on this particular occasion, I am watching with somewhat melancholy eyes. It is my last night of my volunteer program and I am watching my last sunset in Zimbabwe.
As the orange ball of fire transforms the sky from blue into increasingly deep hues of pink, magenta, red and purple, the zebra and elephant in the distance become still. It is as though they are equally transfixed with this incredible sight. Oh, Africa…you certainly have the most beautiful sunsets of any I have ever seen.
It is during this time that I think back on my experiences here over the past month and how it has added such a vital chapter to the depth of my existence. I did things I never thought I could do and, in turn, made some of the most incredible memories of my life. From working in the hot afternoon sun, digging trenches to create a watering hole for the local wildlife to making bricks in order to build a new classroom at a local school, I have never done such hard physical labor in my life. (Most of my other jobs have involved simply lifting up my fingertips to bring them down onto the letters of a keyboard…somehow it just doesn’t quite compare.) What made this sort of work relatively easy, however, was that I was able to directly see my contribution to the community. For example, the fence I built one week will be there for years to come. Part of MY creation is permanent fixture in AFRICA. Who gets to say that?
Aside from the work, I think back to the weekends that were spent taking advantage of the various tours and activities in the area. We took a day trip to the neighboring country of Botswana one Saturday and swam at the very top of The Victoria Waterfalls another. However, the most intense experience out of the entire trip hands down, was rafting the Zambezi River.
Though it started out relatively calm, the river quickly increased in difficulty until the unthinkable happened…we capsized in the middle of a set of class five rapids. It happened so quickly and suddenly that I didn’t have time to take a full breath before plummeting into the chilly waters. After a few seconds, fully submerged, I had been tossed around so much that I realized I had no idea which direction was towards the surface and which was further into the depths of the Zambezi. All I could do was pray that my life jacket would live up to its name and that my tired lungs would soon feel the sweet release of a big breath of oxygen. Fortunately, that moment did come, but subsequently came the next terrifying realization that I was in the middle of class five rapids. Without a raft. Alone. Before I could appreciate the short breath I had the luxury of gasping, the next rapid covered me like a thick and insistent blanket, sending me down into breathless darkness again. After a few rounds of this, the water calmed and our guide plucked me and each of my raft mates out of the river, flopping us into the raft like half dead fish. Recuperate. Repeat…for nineteen rapids! Towards the end, I couldn’t decide if this was terrifyingly fun or terrifyingly terrifying…probably somewhere in between.
The best part of the entire experience however, was not the work, the tours nor even the incredible wildlife I observed (many of them very up close and personal!). It was, in fact, the people. From our host family to our guides to the other volunteers, I couldn’t have asked for better folks to be by my side during these thirty days. Spending every waking moment with them, from meals to game drives, from picking up rubbish from the side of the freeway to dancing the night away at Shoestrings (the local backpackers bar), my satisfaction was increased exponentially because I was able to share it with some of the most incredible people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.
A tear slides down my rosy red cheek just as the upper crest of the sun disappears beyond the horizon and the day officially comes to an end. I am not sure what new adventures will await me upon my return to my adopted home of Costa Rica tomorrow, but I do know that my experience in Victoria falls sends me back West a bit stronger, a lot wiser and bursting with appreciation for my time here in this magical country, known as Zimbabwe.