Thirty years ago this week I was bitten by an incurable, tropical bug. As I stepped from the plane onto the tarmac at Lilongwe International Airport, the destination of my first trans-Atlantic journey, I felt the hot humidity of air spiced with flamboyant trees, heard the earth say ‘welcome home’ and breathed it all in. For a teenager from a small northern town, six weeks in southern Africa was unimaginable. Even when I emailed my parents this week to recognize the passing of time we agreed it was one of the best trips any of us have been on – perhaps because it was the first off our continent, but also because of the miracle of it all. As my dad said, “it was an amazing and in hind sight almost unbelievable journey.”
That I remembered this exactly 30 years on is a funny coincidence – and also not. It’s a trip that makes its way into a surprising number of conversations, in part because it was so shaping for me. I am making my way through Chris Guillebeau’s book The Art of Non-Conformity and came across this quote in the chapter on legacy work:
I began to think about what I was doing next and my goals for the future. Was I going to be talking about West Africa to everyone I met 30 years from now? If so, how would I be different from someone who’s still reliving a war that ended decades ago? I could see that I was going to need more than had already taken place. …*
My sister turned 21 on the shores of Lake Malawi, blowing candles out in a cake made by our house staff. Not an everyday birthday. Also not an everyday place for me to snorkel for the first time. We drove through Zambia as efficiently as we could, and picked our way around trouble spots in Zimbabwe to see the safest and most impressive highlights – Victoria Falls, the Zimbabwe Ruins. We lingered in South African game parks and on Durban’s beaches. Thirty years later the scents, and sights, and tactile memories are still there and easily triggered.
My mom still has her list of animals we spotted (she loves the graceful giraffes; I giggle about the mini-van getting high-centred on elephant dung). I still have the travel journal I meticulously kept. It’s funny; I remember only being amazed every step of the journey (okay, not crammed in the back of a Volvo wagon with no air conditioning) but the journal is full of teenaged … teenagerness. Oh, 1985 me.
But this is not about ‘reliving the glory days’ – this is about what has happened since. What has happened since is a non-stop yearning to explore, and to make a difference in a world beyond Canada’s borders. What has happened since is observing my parents as they travel to more countries than I can recall, demonstrating what it is to really take in the world beyond touring. What has happened since is comparing notes with my sister on what she saw where, and adding or deleting those from my lists.
I’ve been home from Jamaica 2 months today. Thirty years later, this trip comes up a lot. Jamaica has the danger of becoming one of those experiences – ‘that thing I did once,’ not a line in the sand where I paused to assess my life and say how it was going go. In the last two days, maybe, I’ve begun to turn a corner. The promise of starting a job soon helps. Staying connected to the friends I made in Jamaica helps. Making sure to reconnect with my friend helps. And, the reminder from Chris Guillebeau helps … it’s okay that I to am someone who is going to need something more. I’ve been annoyed with myself for not just being satisfied with what has been, but love me or shake your head, this is who I am.
* I appreciate that Chris Guillebeau makes much of his work available via the Creative Commons license. I highly recommend you read what you can of his – even if you aren’t interested in an ‘unconventional life’ there’s great freedom in designing for yourself what success and happiness look like. 🙂 Chris’ West Africa comment follows his living there for 4 years and working with Mercy Ships, an incredible charity that I fully support. Please check them out.