By LIORA SANDLER
'Don't forget to phone me!" was the first and last thing I said to my mother when I realized I was going to South Africa alone.
At first, I had been excited - a whole month without my family, especially my three older brothers! I love them, but even your loved ones can get on your nerves once in a while.
I had started to plan my three-week trip to my parents' country of birth. I was going to stay with my aunt and uncle in Johannesburg, and do lots of shopping and sightseeing.
I had thought about what I needed to pack and what presents to buy my relatives. And before I knew it, I was ready to go.
The next thing that bothered me was the actual flight. There were lots of "What ifs?"
"What if something happens to the plane?"
"What if I don't feel good?"
"What if I really need to talk to my mother?"
At the airport, I felt very shaky but my mom calmed me down by assuring me that everything would be okay. She said I can phone home whenever I need her - and before she had the chance to add anything else, it was time for me to leave!
We hugged and kissed, she said she loves me and reassured me that I'm going to have the time of my life. Well, it turns out, mothers really do know best: I had an unforgettable holiday that I'm going to treasure for the rest of my life!
My journey started from the second I stepped on to the El Al plane. Luckily, the plane was empty so I had a whole row to myself. A really good start to my trip!
And then I had nine hours all to myself; I read, ate, slept, watched movies and just relaxed while I heard my mother's voice echoing in my head like a mantra: "Everything will be okayâ€¦ will be okayâ€¦."
Now that I was so close to landing in South Africa, I thought of all the fun things I was going to do and see when I got there.
I can't say that I wasn't scared about being in South Africa, because it doesn't have the best reputation for being safe with its high crime rate.
But for the time being, I knew I had to be optimistic and open-minded.
Soon I was on my way to my aunt's house in Jo'burg, feeling much better knowing that I had one flight behind me.
From the first day, I was busy - mostly visiting family and sight-seeing.
Later, I spent a wonderful week at my cousin's hotel called "Hunters' Rest," which is situated in the foothills of the Magaliesberg, just outside of Rustenburg. I recommend this beautiful hotel to any adventurous family - especially if you want to play sport, eat great food and just relax. (www.huntersrest.co.za).
For the rest of my trip, I remained at my aunt's house so I got to know their domestic maid quite well, and let me tell you, if you think maids are gifts sent from heaven - think again!
Some people may like having a maid around them every second of the day, cleaning after every move they make, but I personally like having my privacy and my own space. Let me tell you, my mom was thrilled that I didn't like the "maid" concept too much.
I spent most of my free time shopping for myself and for my family back home. My mom gave me a whole list of things she missed from way back then, in her youth - mostly chocolates and sweets. And I bought my uncle a new book written by a Jewish journalist, Kevin Bloom, on crime in South Africa, called Ways of Staying.
If you are a shopaholic like me, shopping in South Africa is the ultimate experience.
Some salesmen will do almost anything to convince you to buy something from their shop. They are willing to go down more than 50 percent of the original price. And that's not all; they will dance, sing, and put on a whole show until you finally break down and open your wallet.
If you are a good bargainer, African markets are the place. You can spend hours and hours bargaining for the best price and let me assure you, you won't be disappointed.
Another highlight of my trip was visiting the Lion Park. This is no conventional zoo where you observe the different animals from outside the cages; here you get the chance to go inside the cages and interact with the animals - including lions and giraffes! You can even feed the giraffes and see (up close) the unbelievable lengths of their tongues.
During the rest of my holiday I went to the fascinating Apartheid Museum and Gold Reef City, a historical theme park in Jo'burg, saw a great show called "Footloose" (which I recommend for all ages), ate some delicious (kosher) food, and spent some quality time with my family.
My flight ticket cost around $900 but once you get there, things are pretty cheap, especially if you have very generous relatives as I do. Today the exchange rate is about four shekels per rand and about NIS 1,000 is more than enough for a month-long holiday, which in comparison to other countries, is very cheap, I think.
When I arrived back home, my head was full of great memories, enhanced by some of the wonderful photographs I took of what really is a beautiful country.
I truly recommend visiting South Africa, even for teens (like myself) on their own: You can have a wonderful time with friends and family, and cherish many unforgettable moments for years to come, without spending too much money!
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