How It Began - The John Ross Challenge
In January 2012, I jetted off to India for the second time to “find myself”, as many people would say, after completing my Masters. Due to struggles with depression during my five years of academic research and my yearning for adventure, my mother brought me a ticket to India as a gift to go after my dreams and visions of adventure. I use to tease my mother of these grandeur adventures such as making a houseboat at the top of the Congo River and then steering it down the river until it cannot go any further in order to show that one could establish houseboat tourism industry on the Congo. I think her surprised purchasing of the ticket was to keep me from going anywhere to dangerous and wild. Anyway, India was the best choice ever.
Although the hard slog of sitting at a desk everyday, writing on a blank white space in a digital sphere of my lit Macbook screen, my graduate research into Bushman communities of South Africa had brought a love for open roads, cultures and raw truthful experiences and adventures. Thus, my one and only goal that got me through all that pain of writing something that will never be used, was exploring the world off the beaten track. I use to tease my mother of these grandeur adventures such as making a houseboat at the top of the Congo River and then steering it down the river until it cannot go any further in order to show that one could establish houseboat tourism industry on the Congo. I think her surprised purchasing of the ticket was to keep me from going anywhere to dangerous and wild. Anyway, India was the best choice ever.
I had been to India a previously for a international film festival in which my short film, The Voice of Our Forefathers, was chosen and fell in love with the different landscapes, people, food and cultures of India. India can be a culture shock to many people. Most of my friends and family in South Africa don’t have the country anywhere near their bucket list. But I am different. Ever since I watched the Little Princess when I was a child, I had been interested in India and visiting India. Furthermore, my anthropological and ethnographic experiences working in the Kalahari with Bushman communities had given me a different view in engagement and participation of cultures different from my. India was an opportunity to learn. The country has so many beautiful different landscapes as varied as South Africa’s. I can still feel the heat on my skin, the image of the lush vegetation in city suburbs, the smells of cooking, mud and dust and little paths leading to the beach in the beach villages. India is also exotic, something different to the exotic landscapes, city centers, people and landscapes of South Africa. It is exotic in its food that everyone loves across the world, especially people in Durban. It is exotic in its religions where you will find villages with Muslim, Catholic and Hindu temples and churches side by side and in peace as they practice their customs and sing their prays across the town streets all the way to the beach. Their food just explodes in your mouth with wide variety of mouth-watering pleasures of the taste bud. People in India are so generous even in the most stressful of circumstances. Their customs are genuine and fascinating. Their ways of life different in certain aspects but the same as any place in the world – modern, busy, technological and always evolving towards a better life.
Anyway, after 2 months of traveling across Southern India from Mumbai to Thiruvananthapuram reading books, basking in the sun of Goa and Kerala, eating glorious food, drinking tea, meeting epic people and reflecting, I came up with my vision of who I wanted to be and what I wanted out of life. I wanted to life as an adventure in career, relationships, passions and faith. By the time I left for home in late March, I had everything sorted in my mind and soul of whom I was and who I was going to be from there on. However, this would all change on the third night back at the family home in Pietermaritzburg.
I arrived back in South Africa on the 20th of March wrecked after a ten hour flight with a tummy bug from hell. However, I was happy to be back and see my parents who came to pick me up. I passed out at lunch that day and woke up the next day. Upon waking up, my mother and I went to Standard Bank to clear up an issue I experienced in India when the bank froze my accounts. It was in the bank that afternoon when I noticed the first signs that something was wrong with her. She was standing in the middle of the bank staring into air like she was stoned. When we went to the consultant to chat about my accounts, she seemed slow in your thinking and space out. I thought it was odd but maybe she was having one of her off days or she had taken the wrong medication in morning. We returned to start cooking for my welcome back dinner. That night while cooking, my father and I noticed that the left side of my mother’s face was limp. She would laugh but the left side of her mouth frowned instead of smiling and her checks sag. We both suggested that something must be wrong with her medication and that she should visit the doctor the next day. We continued the night with the welcome back party, feasting on delicious food cook up by my mother while drinking an expensive bottle wine. The next morning, I went and visited friends for lunch while my father and mother went to see the doctor. My friends and I were busy enjoying a cold beer at Cavendish Mill restaurant over looking the falls, when I got a phone call that would change everything for me in 2012.
At the doctors, my mother was diagnosed at first of having a heart attack. She was rushed to hospital immediately where doctors assessed her situation. At this time I was rushing back to Pietermaritzburg in my car crying. By the time I reached the hospital the doctors had found out that problem was not with her heart but her brain. She had a brain tumor the size of a golf ball on the left side of her brain. That night she was operated on. The surgery lasted nine hours where they tried to remove most of the tumor that was causing such pressure upon her brain. At home, my father and I sat traumatized at the table in silence. My sister was in the Cape Town at the time not being able to be there at this life changing moment really destroyed her. She was stuck in Cape Town for another week until we could get her a flight back to Pietermaritzburg. As the week went on, my vision of whom I was and what I planned to do with my life, disappeared into the smoggy air of Pietermaritzburg. Today, I still can’t remember what I had planned for myself back in India, but as I write this blog, I think I have managed to replicate it some form or another.
As the week turned into another week, my mother lay helplessly in her hospital bed recovering from the brain operation. With the life and energy already sucked out of her by the cancer and the operation, I decided that I needed to do something so I came up with the idea of walking from Durban to Maputo in the footsteps of John Ross to raise money for the mother’s medical fees and give some light of inspiration to her to fight the good fight against the cancer. While plotting the expedition in Nairobi, August 2012, I received a phone call from my father. My mother had not responded to her Chemo and the doctors gave her a month to live. Thus, totally devastated, I gave up on the expedition because it was too late and had to move back to South Africa. On the 8th of September, my mother died.
I took another 4 years of traveling and working in Africa to revisit my dream of adventuring and the expedition related to the story of John Ross and his expedition through KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland and Mozambique with 30 Zulu Impis.
A video celebrating the life of the legend, Juliet Armstrong, by many of the people she touched in her life - An African Legend - Juliet Armstrongs Wake Video