When I was in primary school, every year the Grade 7's had a week long educational trip to Cape Town. It was compulsory, I had to go. Thirty years later I don't cringe any more when I remember that week, but I still shake my head a little bit.
I can use three words to describe that week - fear, confusion and hunger. The fear wasn't something new, my years in primary school were spent in a haze of constant nausea - that was what fear felt like. The confusion started with the 800km trip down to the Cape. All the kids looked like they were excited and knew exactly what was expected of them, and they happily crowded into the bus. I was last to get in, and of course all the seats were taken by then. The bus had those benchlike seats where two kids could sit comfortably, three kids were a bit crowded, but fine for short distances. A teacher saw me standing and ordered two girls to make a space for me next to them. Of course they resented that, I hated it and spent the next 799km sitting uncomfortably close to the edge of the seat, aware of the sighs and eye rolls. Not a good journey.
The hunger. I still had lots of issues with food at that age, and a week away from home was a challenge. I remember one evening just eating a few bites of rice because the chicken dish had raisins in it and the sight and smell of the swollen raisins made me want to gag. By the next morning I was very hungry, and when I got to the breakfast table and saw the bowl of soggy cereal in hot milk I cried with disappointment and again ate nothing. And then there were the peanut butter sandwiches. And the cooked vegetables. So little I could eat, I remained hungry the entire time.
It was an awful week. There were two things that kept me going. The first was a specially allowed visit by a favourite aunt who lived in Cape Town. That meant so so much - a familiar face, a hug, someone smiling at me!
The other thing was my imagination. On top of the mountain next to the suburb we stayed in were two beacons, a white one, and a red one. Every morning after breakfast and every afternoon when we returned from the day's outing I would go outside and around the corner and stand staring at those beacons. I had decided that it was my dad, standing on top of the mountain, waving white and red flags, signalling to me. Telling me that I am not alone, everything will be fine. I stared and stared at the 'flags' until I had to go back inside. And that kept me going. It made me feel calmer, and loved, and not so very alone. It was powerful.
Looking back, I find it interesting because from my perspective I did not have a very close relationship with my dad at that age. I think deep down I knew that he loved me and would support me and would save me. Even though he was 800km away at that time, in some strange way I believe he really was on top of that mountain.