My ninth-grade trip to France with my French class was transformative in many ways, but there's one moment that, 16 years later, stands out more than any other. We arrived in Lille and were distributed to our host families and, once at the Bénys' house, I took a shower in a light-filled bathroom. Once the rituals of arrival were over and the shower was complete and I was out of reasons to delay, I knew I needed to go downstairs and greet my host family and begin the awkward task of integrating into their lives for a week. I so vividly remember the feeling of taking a deep breath and making the plunge - the seemingly insignificant act of walking down the stairs somehow more daunting than the entire trip across the ocean.
I've arrived and taken that plunge in many other places since then. In Turkey, after my internship in Palestine in 2012, I woke up in the hostel in Sultanahmet, where I'd arrived a few days before the friend I was going to go WWOOFing with. I realized I was in a new country, on my own, where almost no one knew exactly where I was. It was equally terrifying and thrilling to feel untethered, like there was no ground underneath me.
In Tunisia, where I first traveled for work in 2013, I remember getting into the hotel in the early evening and staying in my room for the rest of the night and, somewhat inexplicably, crying. My mom had sent me with a "Fearless" chocolate bar and a lovely note referencing my own fearlessness. But at that moment, I didn't feel fearless. I felt terrified. I was scared to go out and explore and ashamed to feel that way, because just six months before I had traveled around the world, and I'd spent plenty of times in Middle Eastern countries before, and shouldn't I be an expert at this by now and ready to plunge into life in Tunis?
In Bangladesh, where I traveled for an internship in 2018, I arrived in the middle of a downpour and was struck with an overwhelming sense of "what on earth am I doing here, in a country where I know literally no one?" I got to my guesthouse and slept on and off for hours and hours – partly because I was exhausted from travel and partly because I was disoriented and couldn’t imagine a time when I wouldn’t be. In my grey semi-wakefulness, I read the news about Anthony Bourdain and cried. In a weird way, I felt blessed that his death surfaced so much online writing about his life – about the enthusiasm he brought to the places he traveled and the food he ate – right at the beginning of my own travels. It felt like he was a guardian angel of my adventure, and I offered up a silent prayer to him when, two weeks later, I spent Ramadan in a rural village and ate cow brain at a baby blessing ceremony and knew this adventure would be a good one.
This time, arriving in Liberia, I reminded myself to be patient. By now I’ve learned that just because I've done it before doesn't make entering a new place, even one ostensibly similar to other places I've traveled, any easier. (And of course, now I’m in a place unlike anywhere I’ve been before.) This time I’m blessed with plenty of time to move slowly and ease my way in, to trust that I don’t need to master Monrovia immediately, to know I’m not a failure if I’m not out exploring every minute of every day. What a gift it will be to watch this new country slowly unfurl itself in front of me.
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