One of the cities I visited during my 9-month working holiday in the United States was Washington DC. And of course, when you’re in Washington, you have to visit The White House. Naturally, it is a huge tourist attraction and when I got there, there were queues and queues of people waiting to go in. Big, muscular security guards were admitting people in groups of about 25 at a time. I had limited time in the city and didn’t want to spend what I estimated would be at least 2 hours in a queue. I decided that as I was on my own, it might not be too difficult to slot into a group much further up the line. I approached one of the guards, explained my situation and asked him if I could join the group that was going in next. And he said yes! He could easily have turned me away and told me to wait my turn, but instead he showed understanding and simple human kindness. It is a gesture I still remember today, 22 years later.
The life lesson learnt here is that sometimes, a seemingly small and insignificant act or gesture can make a huge difference in someone’s life. We should all practice random acts of kindness every day.
One year, after spending the winter ski season working at an exclusive resort in Denver, I decided to use my earnings to see as much of America as I could before returning home to SA.
One of the many places I visited was the Zion National Park – the oldest National Park in Utah, and known for its incredible canyons. I joined a Green Tortoise Adventure Bus Tour, a budget, backpacker-type organisation that arranges trips to many of America’s most famous national parks. The costs of the trip are kept low by, among others, getting the people taking the tour to muck in with some of the chores – preparing meals being one of them.
One day, I was helping one of the other girls make a fruit salad. We were chopping pineapple and, because I love the hard core of the fruit, I put it into the salad. The other girl, however, was throwing it away. I was horrified that she was chucking it out, and she – because she never ate the hard core - was equally horrified that I was putting it in!
There are actually two lessons here. The first one is that even people who like doing the same thing (exploring America’s Parks) in the same way (on a low-cost backpacker bus), will not always like doing everything in the same way. We are all so different and we all believe that our way is the best way (otherwise, why would we do it?). Tolerance and compromise are key.
The second lesson is almost a corollary of the first. Just because you have always done something in a certain way doesn’t mean someone else may not have worked out a better – or a different but equal – way to do it. We can all learn from each other.
During my working holiday in the United States, I had the opportunity to visit the world famous Niagara Falls. These falls (made up of the Horseshoe, Bridal and American Falls) form the international border between the Canadian Province of Ontario, and the US state of New York. They have the highest flow rate of any waterfalls in the world, and have a vertical drop of over 50 metres.
Despite their immense size, the falls – when observed from a distance – appear quiet, serene and peaceful. It’s only when you don the mandatory blue raincoat, step on board one of the Maid of the Misttourist boats, and venture into the dense spray inside the curve of the Horseshoe Falls that you truly become aware of their size and force. The noise of the water is deafening, and you can’t help but be a little awed by the sight, sound and sheer power of almost 2000 cubic metres of water per second as it crashes down into the pools in front of you.
The life lesson here is that we should never underestimate the power of a person. From a distance (either physical or emotional), they may seem unimpressive and unremarkable. It is only when we venture closer that we are truly able to appreciate their strength.
While working on a yacht in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I met and befriended a young South African couple. They invited me to join them on an overland trip into Kenya to the Serengeti National Park to watch the famous wildebeest migration. It was awe-inspiring – open plains filled with wildebeest, antelope and zebra as far as the eye could see, and of course all the predators. I saw lion and cheetah, with many vultures and hyena cleaning up the carcasses left behind after a kill.
On this particular day, I watched three male lions as they ran towards the massive herds of animals grazing on the plains. Two of the lions were young and in their prime, but the third was clearly much older. As they ran, the older lion grew tired and slowed down. One of the young lions ran on ahead, soon leaving him behind.
The behaviour of the other young lion, was, however, markedly different. As if realising the plight of the older lion, he also slowed down, frequently stopping altogether to look back. It was as if he was encouraging him not to give up, to keep going.
I was very touched by what I saw. I realised that there are indeed times when even the King of Beasts needs encouragement.
The life lesson here is that we should never be too busy with our own purpose to look back at those who may be slower than ourselves, and encourage them to keep going. Let us never walk so tall that we cannot stoop to help those who have fallen.
I recently had the chance to travel to Maputo in Mozambique. I was there on business, but was also able to spend a little time exploring some of the city. One afternoon, I ended up in the market, walking though the different stalls, and chatting briefly with the traders. They were all friendly, but were obviously eager to sell me something – anything – and were not too subtle in the way they went about it! Quite often, such dogged persistence has the opposite of the intended effect, and instead of being persuaded to buy something, all I want to do is leave the market as quickly as possible to escape the constant hounding.
On this occasion, however, one particular trader stood out from the rest. He was selling some very pretty teaspoons, which caught my eye and I went over to have a closer look. I admired the spoons, but decided not to buy them, and so started to walk away. The seller called me back, and began what I thought would be the normal sales pitch in an attempt to get me to buy the teaspoons. But he was different. He was so inoffensive and non-threatening in his approach, and he seemed so genuine, that I was drawn to him and actually stopped and listened to what he had to say, rather than thinking of the quickest way out of the situation.
In the end, I bought the spoons!
The lesson here is that persistence, backed up with the right approach and a positive attitude, will – in many cases - go a long way towards getting you what you want.
Many things have been said and written about the joys and benefits of travelling. As someone who has travelled extensively, I can honestly say I have loved the places I have been to, the experiences I have had and the people I have met – many of whom I am still in contact with. But as wonderful as travelling can be, Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca may well have been right when he said,
"Everywhere is nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel,
he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends."
As part of my sailing adventure I spent a lot of time in Antibes, France, I met a vast number of people who, like me, were also working as crew in the luxury yachting industry. I was always bumping into people I knew while on shore leave there, but, as lovely as it was to see them, I really began to appreciate the value of lasting friendships, as opposed to the many acquaintances I met on my travels.
At the end of the day, it is those friends with whom you have spent time, been with in times of need, stood by in times of trouble, nurtured and cared for, who will be with you in the long run.
When visiting the Grand Canyon, in the USA, I took the opportunity to join a guided, overnight hike down to the bottom of the Canyon. While water is usually available from taps along the route, there was a problem at this particular time, so we had to carry our own with us. It was thus a very precious commodity!
On the way back up the next day, I was almost at the top when I met a woman who had slipped on the loose gravel, grazing her knee and hand. She was feeling very miserable, as she had only just started her hike and had a long way still to go. I had some plasters in my back pack, so I stopped to help her, using some of my precious water to clean her wounds before putting the plasters on. This little bit of attention really cheered her up, and she was able to continue her hike in a much better frame of mind.
Sometimes, even the smallest gesture can make a really big difference.
One evening while in Naples, Italy, Tim, a fellow crewmate, and I decided to go out for dinner. We chose a tiny restaurant on the edge of a little harbour filled with colourful fishing boats. The tables were laid with white linen cloths and napkins, the evening was warm and still, and the lights twinkled on the water - it was a fabulous setting for an alfresco meal.
Halfway through the meal, while enjoying the atmosphere, good conversation and the great food and wine, Tim put his knife and fork down on his plate. He did this in such a way as to show that he had not yet finished his meal – or so he thought! The waiter, however, came up to our table and whisked Tim’s plate away. Tim was annoyed to say the least, and it was only after much upset and gesticulating that he finally got his meal back.The waiter was also upset and went off muttering, soon returning with the maitre’d who could speak some English. He explained to us that while in England, the way Tim had put his knife and fork down indicated he was not finished his meal, in Naples it showed that he wasfinished, and the waiter was thus only doing what was expected of him. Tim and I were fascinated at this complete contrast in table etiquette. We had had no idea.
Don’t ever assume that your own customs are the way of the world. Take time to find out about the customs of other places so as not to cause offence. (Ask open-ended questions so that you can find out about things you don’t know you don’t know!)
While I was working on a yacht in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, I met a wonderful South African woman sailor, Meme Grant, who one day said she would take me across the bay to the local shopping market. She came to pick me up in a little rubber dinghy, greeted me and told me to “jump in.” As the level of the deck of the yacht was a lot higher than the rubber dinghy in the water, I was horrified! However, I didn’t want to appear stupid and incompetent, so I took a deep breath and jumped. Of course, I nearly capsized the both of us! Meme was furious and shouted at me: “Don’t you know that you never jump into a dinghy?” I explained that I had never been in a dinghy before, so I had no idea. Meme, being the great teacher that she is, immediately calmed down and gave me my first lesson in dinghy skills. I learnt that when Meme said "jump in" she meant, “very carefully get into the dinghy so as not to capsize us”. I heard: “don’t waste time mucking about - literally jump.”
Don’t always assume another person will understand what you are talking about. Be clear and communicate the message you intend to communicate.
In Gibraltar, I witnessed an accident where a child was fooling around, fell off a wall and landed on his head. He became completely hysterical. It transpired, much later, that his distress was not from the pain of the fall, but from his belief – based on a film he had seen where a similar incident had occurred – that he was going to die from his injury. The parents tried to soothe the boy but soon grew annoyed with his continuous crying. Finally they became angry demanding that he stop crying. They did not actually ask him why he was so upset, they just assumed it was from the pain of the fall. They therefore didn’t understand what the problem was, and were unable to calm their child down.
Listen to what your children have to say. Respect that they have their own thoughts and ideas.