It’s two days before I have to leave on a months long trip. I’m a nomad, don’t even have a home, really, but I’ve been based in Seattle for quite a few months now, and the idea of leaving it with no base to come back to has me all worked up. Things came up at work though, and I have to travel some more.
I put things into a small storage locker. It’s the smallest locker I could get, but there’s still mountains of room inside for other stuff. I only have a bicycle, a couple of boxes of books, a bag of winter clothes, and a few bags of blankets, pillows and linens. I’ve been collecting things like someone who thought they were going to have a place to put those things. I could have put everything into the locker in one trip, but I’m fussing over what to keep and what to give away.
It’s the day before hopping on a plane I am wound up tight as can be. I can’t think straight. My breath is shallow. I feel fragile and cracked.
As I drive the tiny rental car between the place where I’ve been staying and the storage locker, a thought hits me right between my eyes.
I am one of the luckiest people there is, and yet here I am stressed out over the very thing that makes me lucky.
Here I am, working a job that other people wish that they could have, traveling to places that other people wish that they could see, and all I can think is that I want an address where I know I’ll sleep when I come back. It’s kind of absurd.
I take a deep breath. I move forward.
I am in the San Francisco Bay Area. For days now, strange things have been happening. A series of synchronicities affect my life. It seems that the whole Universe is bending itself to make sure that things happen in a certain way.
Now I’m late to a meeting. I send a text message to the person to let them know my new ETA, and then I let go of the worry. He’ll be there when I arrive.
Two blocks from my meeting, crossing a busy street in Downtown San Francisco, I hear my name called. I hear it again. I look around. It’s a friend I haven’t seen in 4 years. We agree to have lunch the next day. Turns out, we’ll be at the airport at the same time the day after that. We each have flights at the same hour going to different locations…
Four years of just Facebook contact and now this? Something important must have been said during our conversation. These things don’t happen for nothing.
I am on a plane. I try to be friendly to the couple sitting next to me in the row, but they look annoyed. I get the picture quickly, put headphones on, and watch movies on the small seat-back screen in front of me. Only, I’m very uncomfortable, and this flight is turning into torture.
My butt is too big for the seat. (Did I gain weight between the flight to San Jose and the one to Amsterdam?) The buttons in the armrests poke into my thighs and give me bruises. I can’t sleep. I start to get restless leg syndrome, and I can’t stop the little tremors that start in my knees and go down to my toes. Over 9 hours I fidget in my seat.
Sometimes I get up. I stand in the open space near the toilets. People think I’m in line, but I wave them ahead. I’m just trying to move around and not sit in that horrible chair.
Once again, a thought hits me.
This, too, is part of the experience. What is here? What are you experiencing? Acknowledge it. You can’t stop the discomfort, but you can change how you interact with it.
Why am I here?
I am on another plane. This time my seatmate recognizes that the chairs are uncomfortable for me, and without making me feel bad about it or anything, lifts the armrest between us and says, “You can leave it there if you like.”
Thank Gods! No more buttons poking into my thighs. This 9 hours is already going to be much more comfortable than the last nine.
We begin to talk. We work in related fields. We talk shop for 3 hours. I sleep for 4. I read a bit. By the time we arrive at our destination, I am alert and I’ve made a new friend.
As we step off the plane, I feel the warm, humid air enter the passenger bridge around the edges and through a door that leads down to the tarmac. The smell of wood fires hangs there. It reminds me of long ago trips to El Salvador. I remind myself, yet again, that this is a new place, and I have many new things to learn.
I am in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. There was little to see at night as we drove from the airport to the home of my local host. Many roads had streetlamps but no light. It took about a half an hour to get to the house, and I couldn’t tell you any more about the place after the drive than I could before it.
I reach out with my heart, trying to feel this place. I don’t want to misread anything based on past experiences or preconceived notions. The preparatory study I have done in the last few months should not override reality. The Place and the People right here and now are what matter most of all.
My host has been an aid worker for nearly 30 years, and in Tanzania for 27 of those. I ask her questions. She fills the air with insights that the books could not give me. When we say goodnight, I still don’t feel that I could tell you any more about this place than I could before.
I’m still reaching. I’m still waiting for acquaintance with the place to become knowledge. This will not come overnight.
I wake up in a strange bed. I don’t know if I even opened my eyes, or if I just smelled the air and listened to the sound of the fan overhead. It takes a moment to register what’s happening. This is not where I was in my dream. I knew that place, I don’t know this one. This is Africa.
I’ve never been here before.
A quiet voice from the Earth whispers “Karibu” — Welcome — and I know where I am.