James was 24 in 1979 and studying at one of South Africa’s top Agricultural colleges. An opportunity arose for him to go abroad and he grabbed it with both hands. More than 30 years later, he still refers back to his days spent in North Dakota- one of the Northern most and coldest states in the US.
I went there for a work/study experience called the MAST (Minnesota Agricultural Student Trainee) program. Agricultural students from all over the world had the opportunity to work on farms and then earn some credits at the University of Minnesota. I had a two year visa. I was placed on a farm in a very remote part of North Dakota. Basically we were slave labour. Agricultural workers were not covered by the minimum wage in those days. But it was a real privilege to get into the program and there were some top people- all graduates in their early twenties. It was a good way to be introduced into the world of travel.
Why did your exchange take place in such a remote part of the world. What was it like?
Students could be placed anywhere in the tri-state area (North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota) because these are all associated with the University or Minnesota. In North Dakota, there is a place called Center which is the geographical center of the North American continent. Because it is not tempered by sea currents etc, it gets colder than Anchorage Alaska and it gets hot and humid in summer. It is said that the state bird is the mosquito.
What was life like?
I drove tractors, combine harvesters and planters from dawn to dusk. The growing season is so short in that part of the world, you plant when there is snow on the ground in spring and harvest when the snow is flying again in October. North Dakota is the pits. They say that after your first winter you freeze half your brain and are too dumb to move. But I left at the first opportunity, on the night of Halloween and drove to Minneapolis in my old Chevy Caprice.
What were some of the high points?
During the winter quarter (two semesters) in Minneapolis, groups of students lived in student digs together and every digs wanted to host a party. Then we were also invited to other (non foreign student) parties. We also used to go out in big groups and have sing-alongs in pubs. Every nationality could sing together but the South Africans couldn’t think of a single song which we all knew. On my first week-end off from the farm, I went to Deadwood South Dakota with an Australian friend. I will never forget how great it was to be among mountains and trees after the monotonous plains further north.
With the highs come the lows. What were the moments you wanted to teleport yourself back home?
I went hungry on a number of occasions. Once my host farmer went on holiday and left me in charge of the farm but left nothing to eat. I tried to hunt grouse and wild duck. As a slave labourer, I would be loaned to neighbouring farmers when things were slow on our farm. Car problems were a part of life as a poor student/slave. Once during the winter quarter I got terrible tooth-ache and had to have root canal done by a second year dental student. It took 6 sessions to do what a proper dentist would do in ten minutes. I eventually ran away but he tracked me down saying that he needed to finish the job to get his credits. But I refused to go back.
If I look back on all my life experiences, I can say that the 18 months which I spent working and studying in America was possibly the most memorable time of my life. Few people in my circle have experienced such adventures. Who can say that they have ridden a bucking horse in a rodeo, driven an eighteen-wheeler across Nebraska, ridden round-up in Bonanza country (as in the TV show) , been to a senior prom, smuggled Coors beer across the border from Montana into North Dakota where kids could only buy 3.2% beer, danced to juke-box music in a bar on the reservation for Sioux Indians. I have lived on scraps of pizza left by customers. I once lived on boiled potatoes for two weeks and I have camped out in the snow without a tent. Experiences like this influence who you are and where you end up. Life takes strange turns, one thing leads to another – seemingly without structure or direction. That period was just so intense, it remains part of who I am.