(Just a heads-up: this is a navel-gazing sort of post. )
Sometime in March last year, I told my mom over Skype that I wanted to travel to Scandinavia alone. I told her that the “alone” part wasn’t particularly intentional—I just couldn’t find anyone who was interested in going. I’d seen pictures of Norwegian fjords and Swedish archipelagoes that took my breath away and set my heart racing with excitement, and I’d made up my mind that I was going to see these beauties, whether or not it meant going alone.
My mom, predictably, wasn’t as excited as I was about my plan. The world is no place for a girl to walk about solo.
A month later, I called home again, this time to tell her that I was applying to a school grant for a summer internship in Ghana. I could actually hear her tensing up, could picture the furrowing of the brow, could feel the straining of her mind for reasons why it was rationally, sensibly, logically, a very bad idea.
And then, she said, “You know, of all my children, you make me worry the most. You and all your strange, unconventional ideas!”
All that took place in France, where I was studying abroad, instead of Senegal, where I’d initially wanted to study abroad.
My mom gave me a hundred reasons that France is a more rational, sensible, logical choice than Senegal. She needn’t have done that, for I, also, could come up with a hundred reasons for going to France. But I could also come up with a hundred-and-one reasons for going to Senegal, too.
My mother calls my excitement for staying a week with the Amish “weird”. Why would I want to spend a week with a community so intently stuck on living a seemingly preindustrial life? No electricity, no electronics? Gas lamps? Near identical clothing that covered you from the neck down? Horses and buggies? But… why?
At the risk of sounding ridiculously corny, my response to this constantly-asked question is, “Why not?”
I’ve thought about all this for quite a bit, I’ve wondered what makes all this so incredibly exciting to me. And I’m pretty sure I’ve got it.
It’s the unknown, the unfamiliarity, the feeling of knowing that every turn of path, every bend of the road, reveals something completely new. And I mean this quite literally—if you don’t know the road, don’t know where it leads, it could bring you to anything.
I guess people dislike change. A lot of people desire certainty, for they crave the security it brings. Friends of mine worry when they don’t have a path figured out, whereas I find great thrill in the uncertainty, for it means anything is still possible.
I crave change; I get stir-crazy when life starts to become too routine, too predictable. And I think, from this enthusiasm for the unknown is where all these “strange, unconventional ideas” are birthed.
It dictates my philosophy of traveling. I don’t see traveling as a vacation, an away-time from the hustles of daily life, a time to relax. Rather, I see it as an opportunity to be faced with the new, a chance to experience the exhilaration of coming up against the unknown.
When I tell my tuk-tuk driver to take me to a landmark, when I heed a map that tells me to turn left down a street 4 blocks away, I don’t know what to sight to expect. When I order reindeer stew, or agree to try banku with palm oil stew, I don’t know if I’d find it delicious, or if it’d kick up a storm in my tummy. And that’s what makes traveling to distant, foreign places so intensely exciting.
A reason why I love traveling alone (my best travel experiences were done solo) is that the less I have the presence of someone familiar to depend on, the more thrilling the experience.
The unfamiliar and the unexplored don’t only come from traveling to foreign places. I remember times in Grinnell when I’d go, “Let’s have an adventure!”, and we’d figure out things to do that we’ve never done before, and would probably not think of doing if it weren’t for the pretext of “having an adventure”. Like taking the long walk to the cornfields in the dead of night and observing the stars. Like going high on the swings in some stranger’s backyard in the middle of a snowstorm, singing Bohemian Rhapsody against the whistling winds. Like going to one seedy bar in Grinnell after another, having conversations with colorful characters as we make our way through cheap beer and even cheaper shots.
No surprise then, that my favorite word, and the word that my friends often quote me on, is “Adventure”. It encompasses everything that I’m trying to convey in this post—coming face to face with the unknown, braving the unexplored, the foreign.
I would be lying if I said the unknown doesn’t scare me; on the contrary, sometimes it scares me shitless. Flying alone to a land halfway round the world, not knowing what it’d be like, but knowing it’d have to be home for the next 4 years, that was scary as fuck. I’ve probably said this a thousand times, but I’ll say it again—that scary decision was the best I’ve ever made.
The night before I was to fly to Ghana, I started panicking. Suddenly all those warnings of malaria and hepatitis and poor people who’d rob you of your money and the unthinkable sanitary conditions and the violence of people desperate to find a means to live, they began to hit me like a tsunami. All that, coupled with my imaginations of loneliness, of being sick from bad food, of being confused by the local language, of homesickness, of committing endless social faux pas… all of these worries swarmed my mind, making me feel more than a little nauseous. But none of these worries came true, and I had an incredible time in Ghana.
Interestingly enough, I didn’t worry before going to France. I’d been there before, and prior to that, I’d spent a month in London, which, language aside, isn’t too different from France. I said “interestingly enough”, because while I had a good time in France, it ended up falling short of the exhilarating experience I was hoping for, mostly because I felt like I wasn’t being challenged.
This really points to one conclusion—that comfortableness is not necessarily good, and fear is not necessarily bad. Fear is an indication that you’re heading into unchartered ground, that you’re exploring the unexplored.
I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that Grinnell has made me become aware of so many more life opportunities, possibilities that I’ve closed myself off to before this. In fact, I should have said, my Grinnell education, both in and out of classroom, has built me up to be braver in facing the fear of the unknown, so that strange, previously untraveled paths have now become an option. It has helped me grow to not only be able to confront the new, the strange, the foreign, but to revel in them, to seek them out, to pursue them, knowing full well that if I don’t stretch beyond the comfortable and familiar, I won’t grow, won’t flourish.
Sometimes, you have to confront your fears, take a free-fall of faith…
… and land wherever the wind takes you.
As one of my favorite bands, the Polyphonic Spree, puts it:
The unknown, while uncomfortable at times, provides us with the most satisfying rewards after the day is done.
I feel like I just babbled my way through an entire post.
Before all this, I’d really wanted to say, I found a job opening for a high school teaching position in Somaliland. Somaliland! Horn of Africa! A country who proclaims itself an independent state, but no other country recognizes its independence. As a foreigner, you have to be accompanied by armed escorts if you want to travel outside the capital.
It would give my mom a heart-attack if I so much as hinted that I think it sounds like an interesting opportunity.
Should I propose an application to the position then, just for shits?