Monday, July 5, 2010

Mountains and Oceans after a Year’s Travel

I recently gave up a chance to hike Kilimanjaro. I have the money and I was only a bus ride away. Tight timing and friends in Ghana were the deciding factors, but I could have still probably worked it out. What I’ve come to accept – as if to steal a hackneyed adage from “Into the Wild” – is that happiness is only real when shared. For me, enjoyment comes best when an experience is shared with someone. Kilimanjaro will wait.

But, traveling alone does have one huge benefit – it allows you to learn for yourself. For me, it has allowed me to – as I explained before – better understand myself and, as naïve as this sounds, the meaning of this whole life thing. I don’t claim to completely understand either, but I know I’m closer than when I started.

I suppose that it’s somewhat odd that I’m talking about life on the one-year anniversary of launching off first class to Bangladesh, since my project is on poverty and development. Take a look at my proposal and you’ll find nothing about fluffy things like self-realization or the meaning of life. That’s not to say I’m not fulfilling my goals set forth in my proposal – I’ve done amazing things and have learned more about development and the challenges to overcoming poverty than I imagined. But I think when the wonderful people at Vanderbilt set up this fellowship, they probably had an idea that there would be this added benefit.

During the past year I’ve experienced extraordinary highs (none drug-related, just to be clear) – an early run through the crisp mist of rural China; meeting some of the leaders in social business arena; sleeping in one of the oldest slums in South Africa; getting one final rickshaw ride from Anis; poking around Zimbabwe to get information about the brutality toward farmers and their workers, without getting the government’s wrath myself.

And I’ve experienced extreme lows – lonely, depressing nights in the hotel room; occasional feelings that I’m not achieving my objectives; getting robbed $2,000 shortly before tripping and injuring myself on a run (stupid potholes Zimbabwe government never fixes…); two plus days in the non-air conditioned Lagos, Nigeria airport where by the end of it, my hair was so greasy I could sculpt it; wondering if without deadlines, I really have lost all my discipline.

One of the most depressing things has also been one of the most important – something I can’t get out of my head. Everywhere I go I see people going through the motions: 9-5 job working for someone, make enough money to pay the bills, have a few kids, relax on the weekend, repeat ad nauseum for years, then retire and die, usually pretty close to where they were born. Nothing very extraordinary, so it seems. I see it in every country I go to. Two things come out of this for me. First, I’m not trying to be condescending. Extraordinary, I think, is a self-defined word in the sense that I'm talking about it. Rather, I’m concerned that a life which falls below my personal expectations could happen to me. An average life scares me, and it seems like it can happen so easily.

The second thing is that logically, there seems like there has to be something more than this routine the majority of us are boxed into. I’ve spent a lot of time with Christian farmers, and so you know how their perspective goes (our time here on earth is a testing ground). I hope and plan to spend some substantial time thinking, talking, and reading about this issue.

As I move into the second year of my fellowship – no, I don’t know when I’m coming home – I already have things I want to explore upon my return, many new friends to reunite with in the States and abroad, and plenty more experiences on deck for the rest of Africa and South America.

1 comment:

  1. Good luck! Looking forward to reading the rest of your trip and thoughts on life.