Jacob Maestri is a rising senior math major from Fort Smith, Arkansas. He recently traveled to Cape Town, South Africa and on a hard, fog-cloaked climb up Table Mountain, found new insights on the journey, the people, and the experience. 

Enjoying the view of Seal Island

After a short Uber yesterday, we found ourselves at the trailhead to hike up Table Mountain, the iconic backdrop for the city of Cape Town. After a long stare up the ragged edge of the cliffs, we started along the trail. It was arduous and breath-taking (literally). For the first hour of the hike, visibility was clear, expectations were high, and altogether we were in good spirits. However, just like with any long hike, about halfway up I started to become a sentimental pastoralist, beginning to feel comically and ironically close to the nature surrounding me. I took in the vista with hope and enthusiasm as the skyscrapers below were becoming smaller and smaller.

Just as I was settling into this mindset a sudden fog developed at the base of the mountain. The mist slowly rose to our elevation and overcame everything around us, blocking out the world beyond a ten-foot radius. And I was disappointed–this meant the view from the top would be like staring at a blank sheet of paper except for every angle and direction. But, then again, the mist brought a certain peace. The mist lingered on my skin and in my hair, and I felt close to the nature around me. I felt peacefully hopeless as I garnered no control over the fantastic whiteness that overwhelmed me. The fog overcame the mountain as well, and that brought a certain peace—to know that even the mountain could not escape the fog.

Mist along the trail

The fog seemed to sum it all up for me as my South African experience was coming to an end. I am a new student to the discipline of history. But, for every place and every person that I study and engage with, I am given a mirror in which I can see myself. The mirror often lets me view myself in a new light. So, as we studied the history of South Africa, the colonization, the apartheid struggle, the new and enduring quest for direction in a young democracy, I saw a lot of fog in the mirror.

I was met time and again with moments on this adventure where I was unable to feel anything at all–just mostly numb, like being surrounded by a beautifully senseless mist. Only one truth and one feeling seemed to resonate as I gazed into the glass, no matter if the circumstances were positive or negative.

Woman prepares the traditional boiled sheep head called “smiley”

The truth: When I surveyed myself and took a long thoughtful stare at my mind and heart, I realized that somewhere in there I am inherently afraid of those things I bias as different than me. This was not easy to come to terms with. But, I hope by realizing this I am able to combat it more easily. And I believe it is somewhat present in all of us—empathy and tolerance must be learned. They are not instinctual.

The feeling: Throughout it all, whether gazing at the landscape, witnessing excessive wealth and poverty alike, or simply breathing the sea-infused air, I only felt the profound sense of being alive.

It is clear that what is solving that hard spot and what is allowing me to feel alive is travel. It is, and will always be, the greatest and most powerful teacher. So, my advice to you who wish to escape, to wander, to adventure, to work on yourself, to simply feel like you are alive, is to travel. Go and experience the foggy complicatedness of the world. Fly, drive, run, bike, walk, crawl, and if necessary drag yourself to the place in which you wish to view yourself in the bleary mirror. And perhaps when you return to your life, to this sometimes boring, monotonous life, you will feel free from those hard spots in your heart. This is what I’ve felt in South Africa, and I can only wish the same for you. Perhaps, even you will be overcome by the mist.

Until next time,

Jacob F. Maestri