This is my journey from humble beginnings to who I am today

The plane jolted me out of my seat and I woke up.  I panicked; deep in my dreams, I forgot where I am and the sight of so many people around me in a dark plane, accompanied by the humming of the engines confused me deeply for a minute.  I felt a knot in my stomach and I soon realized that the plane was descending.  The soothing voice of the captain over the speakers confirmed that we were landing in Nairobi, Kenya.

This was my first ever flight, from Bucharest to Sofia and Sofia to Johannesburg, aboard now defunct Balkan Airlines.  It was a cold afternoon in January 1995 when I left Bucharest and the weather was miserable.  Thick clouds were hanging low over my capital and the little plane, holding only 20 passengers, was slaloming through them to avoid turbulence.  In Sofia we changed to a Jumbo jet, my first love in airplanes, a magnificent bird that took my breath away when I saw it.

“We will be in Nairobi for refueling for about 1 hour” said the captain again.  Nairobi!  The sound itself was like a fairytale for me.  Since childhood I dreamed of names like Nairobi, Tanganyika, Zanzibar, Mosi Oa Tunya.  The Africa of my books (The 15 years old Captain, 2 weeks in a balloon, The Boer War, David Livingstone’s diaries) was spreading before my eyes and in few minutes, I will actually touch it.  It was just about sunrise when we cleared the clouds and the vast savannah of Africa revealed herself to me.  Through the little window I could see the shapes of the flat-topped acacia trees, the golden grass waving in the wind and some huts in the distance.  I was watching in awe this new continent, my first ever adventure outside my country.  I was anxious, from reasons which I didn’t understand or care to explain, because I was deeply happy.

I was heading into a complete unknown: a young student, leaving behind a young wife and a 10 months old daughter, heading into the ‘dark’ continent.  The general rule after the fall of Communism in 1989-1990 was that most young people were leaving Romania for US, Canada or Australia, the lands of milk and honey and of every possibility.  Drones of young Romanians were exiting the country to find a better life, after the tremendous suffering we were all subjected to for decades.  My departure to Africa produced a great reaction in everyone I knew, from family to friends to my teachers and classmates.  Africa?  Now?  When the whole world is open to you, you choose Africa?

The unknown made me extremely happy and it was shocking to see how conflicting this was with my rationale of the obstacles in front, lack of money (I had a few hundred dollars in my pocket, two-week tourist visa for South Africa and a one-way ticket) and no real plans ahead.  I wanted to reach Cape Town and continue my studies there.  I had no clue how I will get there and how I will pay for my studies.  And yet, I was giggling with excitement and wonder.  I was in Africa!

As we landed, the plane doors opened and a wave of heat rolled inside.  With the heat came my first smell of Africa: a sweet fragrance, from the acacia flowers combined with the dust of the plains.  That smell was deeply engraved in my memory at that moment and every time I exit the plane anywhere in Africa, this is the first thing I do: I smell my Africa.  I realized then that you can read all the books in the world, have all the knowledge of all the places, but you will never understand them properly until you smell and touch those places.

We took off after about an hour and we headed South to Johannesburg.  The immigration process was fast and easy and once in the arrivals hall I realized I was in a complete foreign country, with very little money and no place to go for the night.  Wondering around, I see a gentleman looking intently at me; I tried to not pay attention, but then he approached me and asked me if my name was Sebastian.  I answered ‘Yes’.  ‘Come with me, Estera sent me to get you’.  Estera was a friend of mine from Romania, who apparently contacted this gentleman to wait for me at the airport in Joburg.  He drove me to his house, where I met his wife and I stayed there for 2 days, while getting acquainted with the city.  This was a good omen for me and again, I felt happy.

During these 2 days, they took me to see the shops in Joburg and some of the city sites.  Nothing impressed me more than the mountains of fruit at the local markets: large heaps of oranges, bananas, mangoes were filling the spaces to the bream.  The abundance was so overwhelming, my hosts thought I was going to faint 😊.  They couldn’t understand why I was not surprised at the skyscrapers of Joburg, or the civilized parks and roadways, but I was completely in awe of oranges and bananas.  How could I have explained to them that the only orange I saw was once a year at Christmas when we were given 1 per child.  Bananas were the stuff of dreams and Pepsi?  I drank my first Pepsi when I was 18 and it was stolen from my uncle’s secret stash at his bar.  Romanians were under strict rations in the last decade of Communism and tropical fruit was a capitalist dream.  And here I was, swimming in oranges.  I bought a sack of them and ate them all on the way home.  My new South African friends thought I was insane… I was in heaven!

Two days later, they bought me a ticket on the Translux Bus to Cape Town.  At the door of the bus, he gave me an envelope and said: ‘open it in the bus’; I thanked him for their hospitality and their kindness to a stranger.  He said ‘Don’t forget to pay it forward’

I sat on my seat in the bus, I can see it now, 11B.  Translux was a double decker bus and 11B was close to the middle door on the ground level.  It was getting dark and the long trip to Cape Town would take us through the whole of South Africa for a journey of over 18 hours.  I knew I wouldn’t sleep a minute, even if we were driving at night.  As I sat down, I remembered about the envelope my host gave me and I opened it.  Inside was a note saying: ‘this should get you through your first year of college, stay focused and you will make it through’.  Behind the note was a check for 8000 ZAR (South African Rand), worth at that time 2500 US dollars, enough to pay for my studies.  I sank in my chair, not being able to get my head around this incredible gift.  What just happened and why?  25 years later and, looking back, I am asking the same question: ‘Why?’  There was nothing in me that was extraordinary, I came from humble origins, with no connections and no perspectives.  I was fresh off the Communist train, left with deep scars of torture, beating and humiliation in political prisons and military confines.  I never traveled outside my country, my English was poor and I was not educated.  Why then?

Right before the bus left, a middle-aged gentleman sat next to me, on 11A.  He greeted me, I greeted back and then he fell asleep.  A couple of hours later, driving in the dark of night, I see the bus slowing down towards a powerful light in the desert, looking like an oasis.  As we approached, I realized it was a gas station.  Complete with showers, restaurants, clean toilets and even ice-cream!!!  In the middle of nowhere, in the African bush.  We disembarked and after I went in and bought an ice-cream, I stood outside the station, in the dark, listening to the bush of Africa: I have never heard any of the sounds of Africa prior to this… growls and chirps and loud screechy noises but altogether contributing somehow to the ominous silence of the bush.  It wasn’t annoying, it was soothing to my ears and I loved it with all my being.  I smelled Africa, I listened to her songs at night and I fell in love with her, there and then.  No matter what was ahead of me I knew I will always love her.

As I turned around to head to the bus, I saw the 11A gentleman standing behind me in silence.  ‘Quite beautiful isn’t it?’.  I agreed. ‘I see you have an accent, where are you from?’.  I told him.  ‘What brings you to Cape Town?’.  ‘Trying to get into college’.  ‘Which hotel are you staying at?’.  I hesitated, he saw that and immediately explained that he studied me a bit in the bus and saw me reading from the diaries of David Livingstone and was very keen to know my story.  We headed to our seats in the bus and I told him my adventure so far.  He listened intently, with great interest and asking questions.  Then, he excused himself and fell asleep again.  In the morning, stopping at sunrise at another incredible gas station in the desert, we went for coffee inside.  I wanted to drink mine in the bush, to experience my first sunrise over the plains of Africa.  He sensed that and gave me privacy.  I sipped my coffee slowly, smelling its amazing aroma, combined with the morning smell of dew, sand and flowers from the ‘veld’ of South Africa.  Every moment spent was sinking deeply into my soul, digging a rut that will transform my life forever.  I had no clue then that my entire life from then on would be tied to Africa, that she would shape it in such a way that it will completely change my view of the world and make me the person I am today.

Approaching Cape Town, I fell asleep in my seat.  Suddenly, I feel a gentle touch on my hand.  11A was letting me know we have 15 minutes to the bus station in Central Cape Town.  ‘When you get off the bus, wait for me 10 minutes, don’t leave’.  Where would I leave, I thought?  I had no place to go, so I agreed.  We got off, I saw him going to a VW minibus, where a lady and 5 boys were waiting.  He hugged them all and they he started to explain something to them and suddenly I saw them all turning their faces towards me and waving at me.  They all came to greet me and Mike, the 11A man, said: ‘How about you come stay with us for a while, until you find your feet in Cape Town?’.  I was speechless.  Somehow, the ‘terrible’ unknown so many feared for me, was rolling a red carpet instead.

We drove to their home, in beautiful Somerset West, at the foothills of Helderberg Mountain, overlooking the False Bay, with the Cape of Good Hope in the distance.  For about 2 weeks, I was part of their family, becoming friends with their boys, ranging from 20 down to 8.  They showed me the surroundings and made me understand the culture and history of South Africa like no book could.  South Africa was in a great transformation: Mandela was recently released from prison and just became the first black President of South Africa.  Culture clashes, old hatred and economic woes were afoot.  I saw none of that… I saw what will remain in my heart as one of the most beautiful countries I have ever seen, then, because it was my first country outside Romania and now, after having traveled to more than 150 countries and territories around the world.

A couple of weeks later they found me a small flat in town, adjacent to an old couple’s house and I moved in.  With the money I had from Romania I paid the rent for 2 months (it was cheap) and I bought a bicycle to go around.  I went to the college to find out if I have a chance to study there and if I could change my visa to a study visa, so I could stay in South Africa.  The secretary at the school was an excellent soul and helped me every step.  She fought with the people at Home Affairs office to change my visa and 2 weeks later I was enrolled.

What followed was a series of events that set my life on a path of extreme travels and adventures.  6 months later, my friends from Johannesburg called to say that they want to bring my wife and my daughter to South Africa to be with me and 2 weeks later they landed in Johannesburg.  My family reunited, we moved into the college at a student flat, where we could have our little place.  I was studying at full load and working 3 jobs (garbage collector, bus driver and mailman for the school) so I can pay our rent, utilities and food.  I was waking up at 4 am to drive the truck that collected garbage from campus and take it to the city dump.  Then I was driving the school’s van to the post office to pick up the mail.  After that I would go to classes until lunch, go home, eat with my family and then back to school until 3 pm.  Then drive the bus with the local students to the train station where they would go home.  Come home, study for the next day until dinner.  Go for a walk with my girls on campus, then in the evening I would play some kind of sport, usually tennis, soccer or basketball.

This happened for 2 straight years.  Until I left for the Kalahari San people, the expedition that defined who I am from the beginning until this day.  What happened next is the core of our next tab, “My Work”

My story is by no means extraordinary, because more exciting stories happened to many other people, stories of survival, of tremendous suffering and of great resolve.  But it is my story, built from absolute scratch, from absolute bottom.  It is the story of the insanity of a young man who left everything that was known, comfortable and safe for him, for a place so remote and so far-fetched in people’s minds, that it seemed completely impossible that he would survive, much less thrive in this new environment.  I built it step by step, through a lot of trial and error (lots of error…), through listening, learning and adapting to all that surrounded me.  It has not been copied to another’s life, it has not followed the rules of the powerful or the authorities that were in my life at that time.  I broke the barriers of my culture, my society and my religion and I was always considered deranged because of that.  But I listened to the whispers of my heart, the insights of my own conscience and the dreams of my childhood, because if I was to fail or succeed, it had to be done because of me and not because I listened to anyone else.  I tried to follow the rules that were imposed on me, by the institutions and organizations that I was a member of, but I hit my head hard against boards and committees formed of small minded people, bureaucrats that loved the attention of the masses and loved to control them.  I sat on committees where no one smiled and all were of one type: committee-think and committee-speak.  These were not the visionaries or the dreamers I was lead to believe they were, they were not the pioneers and the ‘voortrekkers’, the explorers of our wonderful world.  These were office people, full of manipulation and fake humility and when I finally realize that (much later on), I removed myself from any connection with any institution or organization and I formed my own vision, in accordance to my knowledge, my journey on this planet and my own conscience.

In other words, I evolved, I became, changing and adapting my world view as I grew older, because if we, as humans, are not willing to adapt and change, there is nothing else that can be done for us.

Snippets from the life of a Pilgrim

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