In which I go on safari, see one of the seven wonders of the world, and change my life

The second week of March was spring break for University of Botswana students. On the evening of March 7, the ACM group, our professor Georgia, her husband Tris and her daughter Elena (a Knox alum) flew from Gaborone to Maun to embark on a safari, followed by an independent trip to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. What followed over the next 10 days was incredible, unbelievable and life-changing. I assure you that everything you are about to read is the absolute truth. This is a long one. Buckle in.

Our flight to Maun, which had been arranged months in advance, was delayed four times, so we arrived in Maun at 10 p.m. We were picked up at the airport and taken to a location called Audi Camp. Audi Camp is one of many businesses that hosts safaris and other excursions. We were housed that night in the most luxurious tents I had ever seen, complete with actual beds and fans. We arose at 6 a.m. for breakfast at 7 a.m., and then loaded into a truck to be driven into the middle of the Delta.

When we arrived at the waypoint of our journey, we were separated into pairs and boarded mokoro. A mokoro is a traditional canoe used in the Okovango Delta, carved from wood and steered by a standing pilot in the back using a pole. This was our transport both in and out of the Delta. Our guides poled us to an island where we set up camp and had lunch, and we then embarked on a bush walk, which is essentially a walking safari.

I didn’t even know that the most exciting moment of our bush walk had occurred until we returned to camp. Apparently, a lone bull elephant we had seen from afar shortly after leaving camp was rogue. He followed us for the entire walk, attempting to herd us into a breeding herd. This was a potentially very dangerous situation for us, but our guides led us back to camp with expertise, never allowing our confidence in them to waver. The remainder of the trip to the Delta continued with much less excitement, with a second bush walk the following morning and a trip back to civilization by mokoro.

We returned to Audi Camp for another night’s stay. Our dinner that night was by lantern light due to a sudden power outage. We took this time to shower and relax, knowing that the next four days would be filled with hard travel and camping.

The next morning we once again loaded into a truck and headed for Mababe National Park. Everything went smoothly for the first half of the day. But we hadn’t counted on heavy rains. No more than a kilometer from our campsite, where the crew awaited us with cots and hot food, we were blocked by a new lake filled with hippos. The next four hours were marked by trailblazing through the bush, getting stuck in the mud three times and completely failing to reach camp. Finally, when we were half a kilometer from camp, our guide, Parks, simply walked there to alert the crew and have the crew truck moved closer to us. We all got out of the car, took off our shoes and trekked through a swamp, down a hippo path, 500 yards away from a large group of hippos. At this point, the stress was so great for me that my emotions broke and I began sobbing, and later became physically ill in camp. I say this not to complain or to gain sympathy, but so that you can mark the incredible life change I went through during the course of this trip.

Tuesday was filled with many more hours of hard travel as we left Mababe and traveled to the region of Chobe National Park commonly known as Savuti. Arriving there in a timely manner, we had the privilege to spend several hours on a game drive throughout the park. I should note that this park was the only time the landscape met the stereotypical image of “Africa” most people have in their minds. Savuti was characterized by broad, open plains of long grass and umbrella acacia. We even had the opportunity to get out of the truck and touch a massive, ancient baobab tree. We then proceeded once again to a camp that had been set up for us, planning to rise early in the morning.

beabab tree

Before we headed to the main part of Chobe National Park on Wednesday, we got to enjoy another game drive in the Savuti region. It was at this point that people began to mention lions. We had already spotted elephants, wildebeest, Cape buffalo, giraffes, impala and zebra. People were ready to see carnivores. And then we saw a leopard. I’m not kidding. We really, truly saw a leopard. He was just lounging in a tree off the road a ways, scratching his face, napping, doing leopard things. It was an incredible moment, and we all felt so privileged, as so few people ever get the opportunity to see a leopard. But alas, we had to move on. Chobe was calling.

Upon reentering Chobe National Park after several hours of traveling, we were greeted by a lazy river with wide, open planes on the opposing side.

“That’s Namibia,” Parks said. We all looked at him askance. He explained that the Chobe River is the border between Botswana and Namibia, and that the planes we saw were actually the Caprivi Strip, one of the most famous tracts of land in Africa. And then we realized that all the animals we had seen up to that point were an absolute joke compared to what we were going to see in Chobe. Within 30 minutes of entering the park, we pulled into a massive breeding herd of elephants with at least half a dozen babies and watched them for 20 minutes, one mother even coming within two meters of the truck. Whole herds of giraffes wondered by. We were adorably charged by a two-year-old bull elephant holding a stick. But we didn’t see any lions.

baby elephant

On Thursday morning, we got to enjoy a three hour game drive before heading back to camp to pack up our things and drive into the town of Kasane. We witnessed a week-old baby elephant eat leaves for what was probably the first time. Still no lions. We were heading out of Chobe amazed, but with some small measure of disappointment.

Then Parks got a phone call from the crew. There were lions.

We raced through the park in the opposite direction that we needed to be headed. When we reached the waiting crew, they told us that the lions were under a tree a few meters off the road. Did we squint under the tree and use binoculars? No. We drove straight into the bush, right up to the tree. Lounging underneath were two female lions and two cubs. I was turned around in my seat in the cab, leaning through an interior window to whisper with the people in the back and get a better view. Then one of the lions roared. I have never whipped around and put on a seat belt so fast in my life. Parks quietly informed us that we were fine, that she had simply been scolding an annoying cub. Then someone whispered that the male was behind us. Elena and Mason rose from the seats, turning around and each placing a leg outside the truck, only to quickly scramble back in after Parks warned them to remain in the vehicle. We reversed and we watched the beautiful male disappear under a tree to seek shade. The two females and cubs emerged from their own tree into full view, treating us to the most amazing view of wildlife I have ever experienced. But we had a boat ride to catch, so Parks slowly headed out of the bush and proceeded down the road.

Then people in the back started shouting that the male was chasing us. Sure enough, he was coming down the road full tilt with fire in his eyes and fury in his heart. Parks stopped the car. Those in the back screamed for Parks to keep going, but suddenly the lion stopped. Parks calmly turned to me and explained that you have to stop when a lion gives chase to your vehicle, or he will learn that behavior and chase other vehicles in the future. Apparently lions are dogs, in some sense. Safe from the rage of the king of the jungle, we left Chobe and entered the town of Kasane.

In Kasane, we immediately boarded a boat which took us on a three hour tour of the Chobe River (luckily, no unexpected squalls blew in for the Skipper to contend with). Here, we got incredibly close to hippos, saw a crocodile for the first time, pulled right up to some baby elephants playing and were blocked by a bull elephant swimming out into the water. Leaving the wildlife behind to catch our ride to the Zimbabwean border was bittersweet.

By the time we had gotten our visas and crossed the border, it was about 7:30 p.m. We took the half hour trip into the town of Victoria Falls and enjoyed a hot shower and meal at our backpackers while watching a traditional dance troupe. Believe me when I say that was the best shower I have ever taken in my entire life. Was the day over? It was not. Our backpackers just happened to be the hot spot in town, and Elena, two members of the ACM group and I made some great friends. One of them offered to drive us to our various activities the next day. He also just so happened to own four elephants.

I got to ride an elephant. For free.

elephant feeding

Yes, at 11 a.m. the next day, our new friend drove us all to the bridge which crosses the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia so Elena and I could watch the other two girls bungee jump. For the first time ever. From one of the tallest jumps in the world. We then proceeded to our friend’s elephant ranch, wherein we rode and fed elephants. We then proceeded to the Victoria Falls park, where we had a delicious lunch (I tried crocodile — it’s fantastic). And then we saw the falls.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, will ever live up to or do justice to Victoria Falls. They are the single most mighty, powerful, incredible thing I have ever witnessed. Though we rented rain coats, we were soaked to the bone by the end of the tour, simply from the mist. At each new observation point I expected to be used to the view, and was floored each time. I cried a little bit. In a previous blog post I said that you have to go to Johannesburg. If you can only go one place in Africa, I rescind that claim. You have to go to Victoria Falls. Just trust me on this.

vic falls

All of the other students were leaving that night, but I was having a really wonderful time and could feel myself growing as a person, so I decided to stay another night and leave on Saturday. Elena and I had another fantastic night with our new friends, and were invited boating the following afternoon. We spent Saturday morning touring around the town, and were picked up from our backpackers at 3 p.m.

I kid you not, I have now watched the sunset while boating on the Upper Zambezi. This actually happened to me. And that’s when I realized I didn’t want to leave. I knew I was supposed to go back. I knew if I stayed another day I would miss a class. I just didn’t want to go. So I didn’t.

The following day was much more relaxed. My professor’s family and I enjoyed a lunch in the world famous Victoria Falls Hotel. I met some very nice German guys in my backpackers (they’re everywhere, I swear). At 10:30 p.m., I dutifully took a taxi to the bus station and boarded a bus to Bulawayo. By myself.

I arrived at Bulawayo at 5:30 a.m. and was informed by some taxi drivers that the bus to Gaborone from that street didn’t come until 2 p.m., but that a bus came to another street at 8 a.m. The only problem was that it didn’t come every day. We came to the conclusion that we would wait until 6:30 a.m. and call the other office to see if the other bus was coming. At 6:30 a.m., they promptly left without me. As I sat wondering what to do, a woman approached me and asked what I was doing there. After I explained the situation, she told me that this wasn’t a safe place for me to wait. I assured her that if I couldn’t catch the 8 a.m., I would go into a café to wait. She told me which café she worked at and left. I sat there for another five minutes, still wondering how I was going to sort this, until I was approached by another cab driver. He informed me that the woman had told him that I wanted to go to Gaborone, that the other bus was most certainly coming, and that he would take me there. And that is exactly what happened.

During the course of my trip from Bulawayo to Gaborone, I met a very nice Zimbabwean lady named Sue who lives in Gaborone with her British husband and children. We talked amicably at all the stops, and as we entered Gaborone she sat down next to me. When she asked me who was picking me up, I told her I was catching a cab back to campus. She gave me a look, and invited me to simply hop off with her, saying that she and her husband would give me a ride back to campus. And that’s how I traveled from Zimbabwe to Gaborone by myself. Through confidence and the kindness of strangers.

When I say that this was a life-changing experience, I don’t only mean that I witnessed incredible things that few people ever get to see. I mean that I am changed as a person. I feel confident. I feel calm. I went from so much anxiety over being stuck in the mud that I vomited outdoors to traveling alone in southern Africa. So I hope that you don’t judge my ego when I look you in the eye and tell you, “I can do anything.” Because I can. And I know that now.

Jozi

On Friday, Feb. 21 I departed Gaborone at 7 a.m. in a 13 passenger bus. Our destination: Johannesburg, South Africa. We had a rich weekend planned, complete with visits to the Cradle of Humankind and the apartheid museum, along with hours of free time. But first we had to get there, and it was very early.

It is first extremely important to note that northern South Africa is hands down the most beautiful landscape that I have ever seen in person. No contest. It is a rolling ocean of huge hills-that-are-almost-mountains, all covered in a carpet of light green grass and dotted with small trees. As you drive along twisting, small highways, you are constantly confronted with new views of gorges, valleys, mountainsides, and the sky between peaks. I have never had a less boring five hour drive.

A little less than an hour outside of Jo’burg, we stopped to visit the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is so named for the large number of very old fossils found in the area. We had intended to explore the Stratfontein Caves, the discovery location of the oldest known human fossil, but they had been flooded in the recent rains, so we instead visited the Maropeng museum. After a tour and lunch on the grounds, we continued into the city to check in to our backpackers.

We stayed in Melville International Backpackers, unsurprisingly located in the neighborhood of Melville. To begin to understand what Melville is like, think Wicker Park, but in South Africa. Historically home to artists, musicians, gays and lesbians, Melville is young, hip, integrated and safe. After arriving at the hostel, we were simply given walking directions to Seventh Street, where all the bars and restaurants are located, and left to our own devices. Needless to say, we had a great time.

We left the hostel at 9 a.m. the next morning and headed for Constitutional Hill, the location of the old prison and the current Constitutional Court. On the way our “tour guide” explained that he is actually a businessman, but hosts American students for these kinds of trips because he believes it is important. He told us that he is originally from Soweto, was involved in the struggle and was forced into exile during high school. He then spent several years as an ANC sniper.

After touring Con Hill, we toured the apartheid museum, and then traveled to Soweto. We had lunch in a locally owned restaurant, and then loaded back into the bus to head to the Hector Pieterson Museum, also in Soweto. For those of you who don’t know, Hector Pieterson was the first child to be killed in the 1976 student uprising in Soweto, and became a symbol of the struggle against apartheid. All three museums that we had visited had important, sobering stories to tell, and the mood at that point was rather somber. Our guide promised that we wouldn’t be going anywhere else sad.

Our next stop was the Mandela house, where we enjoyed a brief tour before walking along the most tourist-y street in Soweto. Our entire party enjoyed a drink together while we made plans to meet up for dinner at 7:30 p.m. that night.

On Sunday morning, we left the backpackers for the last time at 9 a.m. We traveled into downtown Jozi to shop in the mall at Nelson Mandela Square. After a few hours shopping on the somewhat upscale mall and a blessedly Western lunch of McDonald’s (seriously), we finally departed from Johannesburg.

Go to Johannesburg. That’s all I really have left to say. Just go.

Mochudi

Jan. 31 through Feb. 3, I stayed with a family in the village of Mochudi. Mochudi is located about 30 kilometers outside of Gaborone, and takes about a half an hour to reach by car. Despite its proximity to one of the largest urban centers in the country, Mochudi is an entirely different sort of place.

The members of the ACM program gathered at 9 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 1 to meet our transportation to the village, still very much in the dark about what was going to happen. Shortly after the program director and her daughter — also to attend the homestay — arrived, the students found that our transportation was simply a combi that we had hired. While we have all grown quite used to combis at this point, it was a bit of a squeeze to fit nine passengers and their luggage into the vehicle, as there is no trunk space whatsoever in a combi. However, we all wedged ourselves sufficiently and relatively comfortably, and proceeded to Mochudi.

After leaving the city of Gaborone, we spent some time driving through empty, beautiful landscape before we reached the village. We pulled into someone’s yard, where some sort of reception was clearly being prepared, and were told that the host families were not ready for us yet, and that we should instead take a short trip to the museum. A museum that was at the top of a long, naturally occurring stair in a rocky hill. We were wearing flip flops. A museum that we believe we had paid to visit, but refused us admittance without fee. Still, the top of the hill provided a gorgeous view of the surrounding countryside, complete with a herd of cows drinking from a river below us.

Less than 15 minutes after arrival at the museum, we were called back to the reception. We were treated to a delicious home-cooked meal in the outdoors and introduced to our host families before being sent home with them. My host family turned out to be neighbor’s with fellow student Emily Keast’s family, which lead to us sharing a ride and seeing one another multiple times that weekend.

Upon arriving at my host mother’s home, I was immediately stricken by her very lovely garden, lush with plants and featuring a beautiful mosaic patio. She then showed me around the four room house shared by her, her two adult daughters, Mmpo and Joyce, and two grandchildren by Mmpo, Tumelo and Mimi. Their chief modern pleasures appeared to be an electric kettle, cooktop and radio. I was generously given a room to myself. However, it was far too hot to be inside most of the time and I instead preferred the shady veranda. I was also given a Setswana name: Neo, which means gift.

Keast and I saw each other later that night when her host mother invited me and my host mother out to the farm to see “the lands” and have a meal. Keast and I walked through fields of sorghum and maize and were treated to a meal of pap (maize meal), beef and soup, all cooked over the fire and eaten with the hands.

The reality of where I was truly set in when my host mother and I returned home. Electricity is sold in units in Botswana, and my family had run out. We sat in the yard in the dark while we waited for more to be purchased, and I utilized the flashlight on my phone in order to use the outdoor toilet. Eventually, I simply went to bed because there was nothing else to do, and I knew I would be attending a funeral in the morning.

My host mother awakened me early in the morning to ready myself for said funeral. I filled a bucket with hot water from the kettle, which I then diluted with cold water from the outdoor tap. I returned to my room and stood in a much larger bucket while I washed. My host mother generously ironed my skirt and wrapped my hair in a scarf, and then I set off with my oldest host sister, Mmpo, who is about 35. We walked a short way to one of the village’s major roads, where we waited for a combi that would take us to the funeral.

I had been told that Tswana funerals are an affair to which one doesn’t need to be invited — in fact, doesn’t even need to know the deceased — to attend. This became extremely apparent when we arrived and I saw what must have been upwards of 200 people. However, it appeared that we had missed the beginning of the proceedings, as we quickly got into my host sister’s cousin’s car to drive to the cemetery. At the cemetery, the entire party stood graveside while a minister preached, singing for at least a half an hour while the deceased’s male relatives filled the entire grave with shovels. Once that task had been accomplished, everyone quickly returned to their cars to return to the original site of the funeral. During the wake, men and women sat completely separately. I was briefly told to crouch while we were told in Setswana what had happened to the deceased, as you have to be sitting for that and no chairs remained. Eventually a large group of women formed a line to fill plates with food and pass them down until everyone was fed. Once we had finished eating, my host sister, cousins and I promptly left and returned home.

Later in the afternoon, after my host mother had gone to a women’s society meeting and my host sister had prepared lunch for her children, my other host sister, and myself, I was sent with a family friend, Gigi, out of Mochudi for activities of the day. We returned to Gaborone in her car, and I sat in the salon while she had her hair done. We then went to another village immediately adjacent to Gaborone, Tlokweng, to attend a small backyard party. The occasion was that all the people attending the party had been involved in the production of a film, which they were screening. I couldn’t understand most of the film because it was principally in Setswana, but everyone else at the party seemed to think it was quite funny. When I finally returned home at 11 p.m., I fell into bed utterly exhausted.

When I awakened at 9 a.m. on Sunday morning, I was informed that I would not have attend church because my host family never did. Instead I sat on the front porch with family reading, watching the rain and enjoying a cup of tea while chatting with my mother.  It was around midday when the first meal of the day was being prepared, and I was asked to assist in making madombi, a type of dumpling. Yeast dough dusted with flour is folded in on itself until it forms a tight ball and then dropped into boiling water. They were served with a beef stew and fried cabbage salad, and it was by far the most delicious meal I have had so far in Botswana, made all the better by knowing I had helped to make it.

The day was characterized by more lazing about and bonding with my family, until early in the evening Gigi returned to pick Mmpo and me up. We stopped at Keast’s house to pick her up, and then went to Gigi’s boyfriend’s home to enjoy a few hours of conversation and wine. Not only did Keast and I bond significantly with Gigi and Mmpo, but with one another in a situation free from American social pressures and expectations. We returned home in plenty of time to rest and pack before our 6 a.m. departure the next morning.

As I left in the morning, my host family made sure we all paused so they could bestow even more generosity on me. I was given several phaphatha, a traditional roast bread similar to an English muffin, and African mint, a traditional tea herb I had enjoyed several times, to take home with me. It was also impressed upon me that this was my home while I was in Botswana, and that I must return before my departure for a farewell party.

The significance of my stay in Mochudi cannot be underestimated. Not only did I learned a great deal about the culture, but I was stunned by the kindness and generosity of my family. These people, who did not have much, willingly welcomed me not just into their home, but into their family. I never felt pressured to do anything or live up to expectations — I never felt judged for questioning or misunderstanding the culture. They simply shared with me their knowledge, their home and their kindness, and it is an experience that I will never forget.

Tonsillitis, my 21st birthday, and a great big hill

On my 21st birthday, I climbed Kgale Hill.

That may be a bit of an overstatement. Or possibly an understatement. Allow me to explain.

I am not what anyone would ever describe as a laid-back or easy-going person. I am not athletic. I do not deal with the heat well. All of these things are necessary in Botswana. Consequently, my first week and a half in Gaborone has not been the easiest of my life. I got tonsillitis, and ended up very homesick, hot, tired and unhappy. I was not in any way enjoying the amazing adventure that I had put so much time into.

On Wednesday, Jan. 22, I got a shot of antibiotics and began to feel better. The next day, another member of the ACM program suggested that a group of us go hiking on Friday, my 21st birthday. I agreed, along with quite a few other people. We originally had our sights set on a game reserve just a few minutes away, but after learning that we needed a car to enter, we decided to hike Kgale Hill.

Kgale Hill is essentially a small, rocky mountain on the edge of Gaborone, next to a very large shopping center, Game City. We had been told that homeless people and criminals can often be found there, but since we were going in the middle of the day with a large group, we decided that we would be safe. At 11 a.m. on Friday, we walked to another mall, Riverwalk, which is about a 20-minute walk from campus. From there we took a combi to Game City. We walked through the mall, crossed the street, and turned onto a barely existent game trail next to a large pile of rocks, following some very vague directions given to us by a fellow international student.

We proceeded to get lost in the bush for 10 minutes. We scrambled around, cutting ourselves on thorns, getting splinters, unsure of whether we were where we were supposed to be or not. When we finally emerged, a member of the ACM group, Mason Schweyen, approached a street vendor to ask for directions. When Schweyen returned, we learned that we were, in fact, not where we were supposed to be at all. It should also be noted at this point that both the combi driver and the street vendor recommended that we not hike Kgale Hill.

After receiving directions, we walked down the street about a quarter mile, until it hit a dead end. We then turned left along a blue fence. This was our trail. At this point, I was already incredibly hot, dehydrated despite having plenty of water and tired from all of the previous walking. I was the shortest person in the group, so it was already a challenge to keep up, and I ended up bring up the rear of the group. Not long after finally making our trail, I called out that I need to sit down for a minute, because we’d been walking at a pretty quick pace for a while. We all took a moment, drank some water and then carried along.

It wasn’t long after this that the trail began to rise. And I don’t mean that it had an incline. I mean that the trail was steep and rocky. My stomach was churning, my limbs felt wobbly, my mouth was too dry to swallow and I was breathing heavily. I called out again that I needed to stop. I know my body, and I knew that if I kept going at that pace, I would slow everyone down a lot more than just needing a rest.

It was at this point that Schweyen told other members of the group that he was just going to hike up with me at whatever pace I could go, and that others could go on ahead if they wanted to. Four other international students — Paige Wagner, Pekka Siika-aho, Sadie Izo and Kiley Clark — went on ahead and told us to call if we needed anything. The members of ACM — Sadie Botine, Emily Keast and Dylan Hinton — as well as Wichita State University student Dalton James, stayed behind. We scrambled up the increasingly rocky, steep trail at a slow pace, resting when I needed to, until I could go no further. We took pictures of the city laid out below us, and rested in the shade with our water and snacks until the other group called and told us they were on their way back down.

When he reached us, Siika-aho told us that we were just shy of half way up the hill. Wagner let us know that not far from where we stopped, it had become hand over foot climbing. We gave the other group a minute to rest, and then we all walked the rest of the way down together, carefully picking our way down the rocks.

As we passed the place where we had gotten lost in the bush, we saw an entire family of baboons. We stopped to take pictures, but quickly moved on when the male made noises at us. When we passed the street vendors we had gotten directions from, they cheered, and then asked if we would buy anything. We had seen no evidence of any criminals or homeless people.

Climbing Kgale Hill even halfway was incredibly hard for me. I’m not an athlete, I’m not in shape, I don’t even really exercise. But I tried. And I kept at it until I knew I couldn’t anymore. I think that’s important, and I think that’s what study abroad is about. Here in Gaborone, I will constantly be put in situations that are hard for me, that make me uncomfortable or afraid. But I came here to learn, and I came here to experience new things. As long as I keep pushing myself, and as long as I keep trying, I think it will be worth it.

Instead of Thanksgiving, England gives you…

Bonfire nights! More formally known as Guy Fawkes Day, Nov. 5 is celebrated here with bonfires, burning effigies of the famous traitor, fireworks displays and festivals. I was lucky enough to attend a festival at Crystal Palace the day of which involved the best roller coasters and doughnuts of my life. The fireworks display lasted a full 20 minutes. It was almost like American Independence Day except for the cold and the mud.

Needless to say, I will most definitely “remember, remember the fifth of November.”

Bonfire Night isn’t just for the one day, though. Many of my friends from Queen Mary went home this past week (since the university was conveniently having reading week for midterms) to attend not one but many family bonfire gatherings. Since this celebratory week so closely follows Halloween — with no buffer of Thanksgiving, mind you — it is also when you begin to see signs of Christmas. Shops big and small bring out their holiday-themed products, Christmas lights (called fairy lights here) go up on Harrods and all the major districts put up lights and garland.

While this has brought about a few groans from some of my American colleagues, the general feeling in the city toward an early holiday is rather jolly. I even overheard women in a Brick Lane market talking yesterday about how their Christmas shopping is already done! So, even though some — locals and foreigners alike — may claim that festivities and commercialization show up too soon, there seems to be much less stress and much more enjoyment associated with the holiday season.

Additionally, the week of Guy Fawkes, bonfires and fireworks is followed by more somber events which welcome a more reverent attitude along with the Christmas-y color red. Remembrance Day, what Americans observe as Veterans’ Day, is the atmospheric catalyst for the spread of love — and even some of that thankfulness I’m missing with a lack of “Turkey Day.”

Starting on Nov. 1, British people begin to “wear the poppy” which is the official British Legion symbol of remembrance. By donating £1 or more, one can acquire a red “Poppy Appeal” pin to wear all through the 11th day of the 11th month. Purchasing a pin goes to aid for veterans: primarily psychological help for the effects for post-traumatic stress. I bought one, too, of course.

On Remembrance Sunday (which took place on Nov. 10 this year) a crowd of British veterans, their families and civilian supporters gathers outside the Cenotaph near Westminster Abbey. I was there, too! The Queen, Prime Minister and members of Parliament are all present and lay wreaths of red poppies on the monument. Military tunes are played by a marching band in bearskin hats, “God Save the Queen” is sung by the amassed crowd, and prayers for veterans — fallen and living — are read. The event is concluded with a chilling “March Past” wherein veterans young and old, some even in wheelchairs, march the street to the cheers and applause of their family members, friends, and supportive civilians. It is impossible to not be moved by this.

Then just today, British Remembrance Day, American Veterans’ Day, I watched out the window in the library of my school’s building. It was 11 a.m. and I was silent. Looking down on Russel Square, all the red double decker buses had stopped. Many walking on the street had stopped, too. Most bowed their heads. Some had tears on their cheeks when the moment of silence was over.

It might not involve turkeys and pilgrims, but fireworks and poppies seem appropriate harbingers of the holiday season, too.

Not just ‘merica with a different accent

It wasn’t like I was thinking it would be a piece of cake understanding people here but my American ignorance predisposed me to think they’d at least surely understand me. It was while playing a game called “Articulate” with some friends I’ve made from Queen Mary that some of our linguistic differences began to click. If you don’t know, “Articulate” is much like the game Taboo except there are no words one cannot say in describing the word on their card. This post isn’t going to teach you how to play, so if you’re confused, go look it up…

Anyway, we were playing “Articulate: and and I was trying to describe Elvis Presley to my teammate. “Graceland! He ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog… Spent a lot of time in Hawaii… Scandalous when he shook his hips on television… I’ll have a blue Christmas without you…” The timer ran out and when I showed her the card, her response was, “You could have just said Las Vegas and I would have gotten it instantly!” Others around the room nodded. That’s the last clue I would have thought to use. Vegas for me has too many other connotations!

Geographic locations were even tougher. “It’s a town in Massachusetts. Red Sox. Lobster! Tea Party!” I learned after that one that there’s also a Boston in England and if I knew anything significant about it, they would have easily known what I was getting at. When it was my turn to guess, I learned that striped crosswalks are called a “zebra crossing” and that it’s not the “trash can” but the “bin.” When I described Oliver Twist by saying “Please, sir, I want some more” in the best accent I could muster they guessed it right but were too preoccupied laughing at my poor accent to guess at any more before time ran out.

I stayed over until past midnight playing that silly game. It was all too fun! It felt like I was getting good at it until we hit several “person” cards with football (soccer) players and then I was lost again.

For much of the night “Friends” was on in the background. I noticed that my English friends laughed at the more physical humor and that there were a few very American jokes they might not have gotten — especially the political ones. I failed to explain how the show is not very representative of real America, even though I still love it, too. I was also excited to discover some of the girls were as shamelessly “Pretty Little Liars”–obsessed as I am. They convinced me to start watching the reality show “Made in Chelsea” for a laugh and we compared the trashy “Jersey Shore” with the UK’s similar “Geordie Shore.”

What I got out of this evening — and basically every interaction I’ve had with English people — is that, yes, we do have a lot in common. However, being assumptive of what we do commonly understand is plain ignorance. After all, England is not just America with a different accent. It is its own land with its own social history and its own colloquialisms. I keep thinking back to all the pre–study abroad discussions I had with friends where someone would say, “Well, at least you don’t have to learn another language.” If I were to have the same conversation now, oh how many times I would roll my eyes!

Wait, I actually live here

About a week ago, as I planned to go on yet another daily London adventure, I found my cash in short supply. A couple days later, I was scrounging pounds and pence to make cheap lunches and dinners. Taking the Tube or bus around the city became a luxury as I discovered my maximum walking stamina. Eating out at least one meal every day was no longer ideal and I was realizing that most real London residents don’t eat out all the time. A few days after that I was on a day trip to Cambridge. You know, the beautiful old college town that looks like a kingdom? Yeah, I was there and actually found myself bored taking pictures after a while.

I’ve been brought to happy tears seeing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in The Globe and already seen four spectacular plays in the famous West End thanks to my British theater class. I made it out of Hampton Court in better shape than Anne Boleyn and took the stereotypical red phone booth photo the same weekend. I’ve had my fill of nearly everything the average tourist would try in the London area — with Stonehenge and Bath on schedule for tomorrow!

But studying abroad is so much more than that. The realization is sinking in: I actually live here.

Taking part in the touristy lifestyle is an essential part of the experience and I will seize every (affordable) opportunity to try something new while I’m here. That’s not how the typical Londoner lives, though. They haven’t all been around on The Eye and some of the students I’ve met haven’t even been inside St. Paul’s like I have.

Common to all Londoners are winding streets that change names every other block. They may hit the pub after work or take a break in a coffee shop. They queue up to grab lunch at “Pret A Manger” and navigate busy streets where cars, black cabs and red double-decker buses drive on the other side of the road.

It is these experiences that I’ve been soaking in lately. I walk those same streets to my classes and visit the same pubs and coffee shops. Just the other day I even had my first night out with local college students. This place is so much more than an extra-long vacation and it’s not just my party playground. I live here and the transition from awestruck-newcomer-tourist to temporary-resident who seizes every colloquial, English opportunity has begun.

Don’t worry, I’m still taking lots of pictures at every turn.

You can follow the bits and pieces of my experience on Twitter: @LitMajorForLife