The Empty Seat

“Sir, I notice that you’re very tall. Would you like me to place you in an exit row?” I was speechless. I had already mentally prepared myself for 17 hours of terrible discomfort. “That would be perfect,” I mildly responded, trying to hide my excitement.

In terms of length, my seat offered the space of a first class ticket. I could stretch my legs as far as I desired. As for the width, the seat resembled the classic “economy” experience. I tucked my reading (Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom) under my seat, prepared my ear plugs and sleeping pill in a tiny plastic case, and observed the diverse group of people chaotically shuffling down the aisle.

As the flight attendants prepared for takeoff, I was stunned that the seat next to me remained empty. What would I do with the extra space? Before I let my mind wander too far, I anticipated the arrival of a curious and wandering passenger.


Lucy, a retired and very religious woman from Texas, was my first visitor. Lucy, crowned in a bedazzled black cap, explained that she had been waiting more than twenty years for her dream of traveling to Africa to come true. She was joining friends in Zambia for a wedding. Lucy gleefully told me about the traditional dress that was custom made for her.

North Carolina

I’m terrible with names, so I often invent nicknames for people. North Carolina, my second visitor, was embarking on a two-month mission trip to Mozambique, followed by a one-month trip to Moldova. A nanny by profession, she previously engaged in mission trips to Nicaragua and China. With her Bible in-hand, this optimistic and squeaky-voiced young woman confidently remarked that the trip would bring her closer to God.


My final neighbor was Hunter (another nickname), a retired conservative from Texas who was joining his cardiologist and his cardiologist’s 14-year-old son on a lavish hunting trip to Namibia. A few months shy of 80, Hunter, a long-time instructor of construction, seemed to be checking off an item on his bucket list. After denying “one of America’s most popular cardiologists” five times, he finally agreed to join his pal for a unique hunting excursion.

Let’s pause here to inform ourselves about the geography of the southern portion of the African continent, just in case it’s a bit shaky. I’m living underneath the big red pin.

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Typically, I keep to myself on flights. I remove my earbuds only to ask if the wine is complimentary and inquire if they serve sparking, not flat, water.

As I became acquainted with the passengers who could not tolerate another moment in their tiny cages, I reflected on the purpose of my trip to South Africa. My reflections continued after reading an email that read, “I really hope you get the experience you’re hoping to get.” When prompted with the question, “What are your expectations?” by one of my new South African colleagues, even more thoughts crossed my mind.

The academic purposes of my trip are clearly defined: one, work 40 hours per week and make sense of my experiences via blog posts for three credits; and two, explore educational reforms in post-apartheid South Africa in the form of a 20-page paper for another three credits.

Of course, there’s more. As a self-proclaimed novice on South Africa, I want to understand this complex and colorful country through conversations and travels. I don’t expect to become fluent in Afrikaans or understand the full history of the African National Congress, but I hope to graduate from my novice state. As I’ve learned from experience and research, I’ll try not to be that American who advocates for Western practices of higher education while disregarding the local context.

What do I expect will happen in the next two months? Learning, adventure, reading and writing, discussions, and a few unexpected bumps along the way. And it would be great if I snuck in a few hikes, visited a local winery, and saw a giraffe along the way.


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