You still are and you still can

I am a world traveler. An explorer. An adventurer.

Salty wind on a gloomy Scottish coast, with an order of fish and chips. Diesel smell from the red double-decker buses.

Giant red Maple leaves painted on the airplanes, a little memory to remind me that I had technically been to Canada, even if it was more through. Little me still wants it to count.

The palpable rush of confidence and swagger as sheltered teen me navigated the Heartfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and caught the MARTA, all by myself, to see my adopted family. Atlanta and its suburbs that, after a few trips, was my emotional stomping grounds, my “real home.”

Restaurants on piers in San Diego, with the loud sound of crashing waves. “Red and white,” a cryptic inside joke that out-of-place teen me and all my fellow travelers in San Deigo laughed and laughed at, though I never actually got it.

Homemade black-bean breakfast burritos at dawn on the road in Arizona with my big sister, and the jaw-dropping, don’t-know-what-to-do-with-it massiveness of the Grand Canyon when I first walked up to its edge.

The carefully-choreographed nonchalance with which I’d swing my backpack over one shoulder (only once accidentally smacking a fellow traveler in the face with the cool maneuver). The “oh yeah, this is my every-day, I’ve got this” demeanor I adopted whenever I had traveling companions, just to prove that yes, I’m a seasoned world traveler at seventeen.

Traveling by greyhound bus. Telling people I traveled by greyhound bus. Cred.

A long, long, long flight to . . . Amsterdam? And then to Frankfurt, where I logged onto an internet kiosk to send a quick love-note and discovered that German keyboards switch the Y and the Z. Struggling to keep my eyelids open so as not to miss my connection to Africa.

And then there was Ethiopia. Addis Ababa. I could write and write and write. The collapsed, seat-belt-less back seat of the taxi with the door that would swing wide open around curves. Ululating funeral processions. Wedding feasts. The way Amharic speakers gasp and raise their eyebrows to denote that they’re still listening. The beautiful Ge’ez script that doubled as code for my secret love letters. Morning prayers over loud-speaker. Blue and white taxis with boys hanging out the door yelling their destinations, and chaotic traffic like you’ve never seen (though YouTubing “Meskel Square” may give you a sense). Outrunning a bull down an alleyway. Beautiful old cathedrals. Getting lost at dusk in a corner of the city I’d never seen. Key Wat. And the streets of Addis Ababa coming alive with runners at 5am.

And Uganda. Kawunga ne ebijanjalo for lunch every day. The dancing, the rhythm. The elephants and giraffes as I rode a massive bus from one corner of Uganda to another. The beautiful landscape. The “oh-yeah-this-is-normal” feel of wildfires in the hot Savannah. The warm, generous welcomes in remote villages from the poorest of people. The python I suddenly notice slithering through the grass two feet away. Jack Fruit fresh off the tree. Roaring waterfalls, rivers with hippos and crocodiles. The several-story shopping malls and glamorous houses that told me that I’d learned only a tiny little version of the truth about Africa.

A dreamlike week in Mezzegra on Lake Como in northern Italy. All the pizza, all the wine, and fresh food from the little shop on the corner, where the deli attendant didn’t wash hands after using them bare to wrap our raw chicken, but like in a this-is-normal way. All the little restaurants serving food fresh from their home gardens. Showing up at the local super market fifteen minutes before the hour, only to see the doors shut and someone explain that they weren’t busy so they went ahead and closed early. Beautiful mountains and towers and villages and trails. An intimate elopement at the Villa del Balbianello with just my adventure buddy, our photographer couple, and the reckless driver of our wooden boat. And gelato, of course. Il dolce far niente.

And most recently, a few years of flying or driving or taking a train or doing whatever it takes to get to any and every gorgeous piece of America (or Canada) we can–from Big Bend to Glacier to the Rockies to the Smokies to Zion. And a weekend wandering Santa Barbara, driving its mountain roads, splashing in its waves, eating authentic tacos, and wishing Shawn Spencer and Burton Guster really lived there.

World-traveler.

That’s me.

That was me.

People still say I travel a lot. I guess I do, when we’re not hunkered down waiting out the coronavirus. But like . . . sort of traveling. I don’t fly on airplanes very much anymore, mostly shockingly long drives (think sixteen hours in one day), and pretty much just in the United States. But I didn’t mean to be a United-States-traveler, I meant to be a World-traveler.

When I left my home country for Africa, I discovered that a big portion of my heart belongs to exploring countries and cultures all around the world.

That just is me.

“But,” I haven’t left the country in five years. When I was twenty, I envisioned this World-traveler me flying off to a new land to explore at least once or twice a year. I knew how to, I learned all about it . . . this was what my life was going to be about, in a big way.

In the ten years since, I’ve flown across the ocean only once. Been to Italy and Canada. In ten years. Not what I envisioned. So . . . am I a World-traveler?

 

What is something like that for you? Something that is a huge part of daydream-you? Maybe a thing you used to experience, do a lot of, love, dream about, envision as one of the main threads in your life?

Maybe something you haven’t gotten to keep doing quite like you envisioned it?

Traveling? . . . Running? . . . Writing? . . . Drawing? . . . Volunteering? . . . Journaling? . . . Singing? . . . Playing sports? . . . Being romantic? . . . Adopting fur-children? . . .

Have you felt like you’ve had to give it up? Like you shouldn’t claim that title for yourself anymore, because it’s not accurate?

Maybe you used to be a runner, but not really anymore now that you’ve had kids. 13.1 used to be your jam, but now a slow 1 or 2 miles is a major accomplishment, when you even get the time for it.

And you still love “running.” You want it. You remember it. You know it. You miss it. You have your old medals, photos, miles logged on your running app, memories of worn down pair after pair of shoes. You occasionally look at your old race bibs and get very opposite feelings at the same time–happy and sad. . . .

Are you even a runner anymore?

 

Whatever your big thing is–and maybe you have a few of them–I wonder . . .

. . . why does time matter so much in your identity?

. . . and why can’t you still have it, even if in a more these-days version?

 

Why do we get so wrapped up in the passing of time when it comes to our identity?

You will always, always, always have the miles you’ve run. You’ll always have the countries you’ve visited. You’ll always have the people you’ve loved. You’ll always have the dances you’ve danced, the songs you’ve sung, the books you’ve read, the letters you’ve written, the rock walls you’ve climbed, the parties you’ve thrown, the puppies you’ve snuggled, and the accomplishments you’ve accomplished.

Why do they count less ten years later?

One day, it will be one hundred years later. And then, which will count as you? The one-hundred-years-ago you or the ninety-years-ago-you? At your funeral, who will be remembered? Only the you of the final couple years? Or the you that has lived a long and vibrant life of twists and turns and adventures and accomplishments and passions and stories and favorites?

Your memories and photographs of 10-year-old dancing you, 20-year-old dating you, 30-year-old running you, and 40-year-old parent you . . . they’re no less real or important or wonderful or YOU than they were 10, 20, 30, and 40 years ago.

Why do we judge ourselves by arbitrary measurements of time when we tell ourselves and others of our identity–of what makes us us? Why don’t we just access our deep down selves, even if our deep down selves haven’t had the chance for many years to show up the way they love to? The love for the thing is still there. The memories are still there. The reality is still there. The identity is still there.

You don’t have to throw back-then-you away. Now-you will also one day be a back-then-you. They all count. Let go of time a little when you know and share yourself. Let you still be you.

 

And why can’t you still do that thing you once loved and still love? Is it not normal for this stage of life? No problem, be abnormal. Are you not as physically capable of it as you used to be? No problem, do it slower/lighter/easier. Is it too expensive to do as much as you used to? No problem, find (or make up) a cheaper version of it, no matter how unique.

What would happen if we still just did that thing we loved–still love? What would it take?

Among other things, it would take just letting go of the need to be “the best at” or even “good at.” Can we let go of that? If we can, there’s a lot of epic life to be lived.

It would also take accepting the fact that the experience will just be different now. When I was sixteen, I could eat a lot more pizza in one sitting than I can now. And I don’t feel as great the next day as I used to. Okay. . . . That’s okay. And before my concussion, I could run a lot harder than I’ve been able to since. Okay. . . . That’s okay. And exploring and traveling for me looks a little different now than it did when I was nineteen. Now, instead of living on the other side of the globe for the better part of a year, I sneak in a couple quick hiking days into a long weekend bookended by long drives. A little less glamorous. Okay. . . . That’s okay.

 

So that big thing of yours . . . that thing that holds so much of your identity, but that you feel you’ve lost . . . are you sure you’ve lost it? Won’t it always be a part of you? And could you still find a way to live it and celebrate it some more?

 

I’m still a World-traveler.

I hope to do lots more actually physically visiting other countries in my lifetime. I’d love someday to do it very regularly. But for now, I take hiking road trips in North America, study languages from places I want to adventure, learn about other cultures through documentaries, and explore those places on Google Maps for hours at a time.

I always will be a Word-traveler. Even when I’m stuck at home for a season.

It’s who I have been. It’s who I will be. And both of those make it who I am.

 

Who are YOU, “even though” . . . ?

 

Waking Up in Addis Ababa

I climbed down the stairs out of the plane and walked across a big runway and in through a little door into a big warehouse-like building. Mobs of people crowded the little airport, all speaking languages I didn’t understand. I had arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Scanning the crowds, I finally found my host. Accompanying him was a young Ethiopian man who kept laughing nervously. I got a weird vibe. We found my luggage and left the airport, walking down the long ramp to the parking lot, where Giovanni’s big brother the Taxi Driver was waiting to give us a ride.

Suddenly I heard a sound behind me I’d never heard in my life: Ear-piercing, high-pitched, “Le le le le le le le le!” Like a siren. I turned around to see women with their faces covered, wailing alongside a coffin that had been carried out of the airplane. Others were sobbing or even screaming. I later learned the sound I’d heard is a very common ritualistic song of sorts called “ululation.”

Everything was dark, and everyone was beautiful. I was in the most foreign place I’d ever been.

I hopped into the little blue and white taxi and felt like I fell straight through to the concrete below. The entire back bench was caved in. I reached up to buckle my seat belt, but who was I kidding, there were no seat belts. Off we went, careening at an uncomfortable speed up and down windy roads, through a dark Ethiopian night. Coming around one bend, my door flew wide open and I held onto the seat in front of me for dear life.

I could see very little in this darkness—there were no lights like you see in the night here. I could make out the occasional shack or shed we passed and saw a few wild dogs. Eventually we turned down a dark dirt alleyway and arrived at my new home, a little house on a compound with high walls. We barred the iron gates behind us and I was shown up to my bedroom to sleep after the longest journey I’d ever taken. I was in a very different place. Very new.

 

Let me pause my story to tell you about what I knew of Africa. You see, I’m from America, and I had grown up in a home where I learned only very specific things about Africa: That everyone was poor and uneducated. That everyone was sick and desperately in need of help. That I was on my way to save them.

 

Back to my story. They warn you about jet lag, but you have to live it to really understand. The next morning I tossed and turned, barely waking up only to fall back into restless sleep. I dreamed dreams that you would only dream if you were waking up for the first time to the beautiful and enchanting sounds of Muslim prayers being chanted over a loud speaker from a nearby mosque. I kept gasping for breath as I adjusted to the high altitude of Addis Ababa.

Suddenly I woke all the way up. Something wasn’t right. I was hearing a sound that didn’t fit. The American pop-rock band Train has a song called “Hey Soul Sister” that was all the rage in America ten years ago, and it was now being broadcast on loudspeaker all across Mekanisa, Addis Ababa. Maybe Ethiopia wasn’t quite as far back in the dark ages as I thought. I went to the window and looked out to see very normal people doing very normal things outside a nearby apartment complex.

I went downstairs for breakfast and chatted with Kidane, the kid that made me nervous the night before. Turns out he was just a cool guy. The coolest! Very “normal” and just the greatest person! We talked about normal stuff, like music, relationships, and favorites.

My host sent me with Kidane to explore my new town. Sure, there was stuff I’d never seen—like a freshly severed cow head laying on the road. And yes, Kidane had a sad, scary story that included being beaten and robbed in Nairobi, Kenya. But there was more to Africa. There were skyscrapers and advertisements. People dressed in clothes far more stylish than mine, listening to their iPods, playing on their smartphones. Kidane introduced me to a local business owner in a fancy suit. We stopped at an internet café, crowded with young Ethiopian adults, browsing Facebook, looking at pictures of them and their friends partying.

It was not what I expected to see. At all. Here’s the thing, guys. The west is rich, though we have our homeless. And Africa is poor, but it has wealth, education, and progress the TV doesn’t always show you.

Don’t trust clichés and stereotypes.

 

I love traveling and exploring new cultures more than almost anything else in the world. Reflecting on my first big cross-cultural experience the other day, I found this summary from a blog post I wrote about my first day waking up in Addis Ababa:

“I can’t really explain it, but it was like my mind stood up, stepped straight out of my inexperienced head, and said, ‘You are finally beginning to understand the world. Never put me back in that narrow mind again.'”

Ethiopia 2