I write this post to you, because I’m so deeply appreciative of all of your support.
Throughout my trip, I’ve received messages, lots even, where I’m constantly told–urged to understand–that what I’m doing is unequivocal, and special beyond measure. They tell me–and it’s usually very to-the-point–that what I’m doing inspires them, asks them to dream, and even, for some, makes them believe. From the bottom of my heart, I want you to know that these messages are remarkable–an infallible pick-up when I’m low, and a bottomless well of drive to keep it all going. So, for this post, if you’re one of these people, I’m speaking to you, directly. Also, if you can read this on your own, just before bed and without many distractions, some soft music playing, maybe a candle lit, and certainly no one yelling, that’s what I’d ask you to do. I think it’ll mean a bit more in a setting like that.
I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while–a personal reflection after a year on the road. I also wanted to wait, though, for the right time to start, a time when I was really “full of it,” that profound feeling of transition, that deep appreciation, clarity, and overpowering love for the present, that not-so-fleeting moment when the reality of what I’m doing–my trip–is fully apparent and there in front of me, and when, try as you might, you simply couldn’t get rid of even the smallest part, of that warm, invincible smile I have on my face.
I wanted to wait for a time like this, because I want to tell you, my Reader, mostly truly and directly as I can, what my trip has meant to me so far. I want my thoughts to flow very freely–I don’t want to miss a thing. It’s 7pm on a Sunday, alone in a darkened bedroom, with Sigur Rós’ “Varúð” playing, and right now, I really do think I got it.
So, as best I can, to you, here goes: a personal reflection, after a year on the road.
I left for my trip on January 3rd, 2012, a kid with a backpack in the Philadelphia airport. I remember it well, of course–graduating just two weeks before, toasting a scotch to the things to come, the lunch I had the morning of my flight, and my Mom feeling like she was “sending me off to war.” I thought I’d be gone just 12 months–that’s what I told everyone. It seemed like forever too, back then, an insurmountable number, an immense, never-ending tunnel, one from which I’d sooner turn back in the middle, than reach the light at the other end. And hey. Here I sit, 13 months later, in a darkened bedroom in West Africa, not even half way done my trip, reflecting on all that’s been.
The craziest part is looking back to the start–a Tusker on the train to Mombasa, a sunset swim in the Indian Ocean, staring out over Lake Bunyoni–and thinking, “man, all that stuff happened on this very same trip.” Overall, I think it’s gone quickly, especially considering that, if I stuck to the original plan, I’d already be finished. However, when I think to those moments, the beginning of a story that has yet to end, it all feels like an eternity to me.
This past year has been filled with so much life, that words could hardly do it justice. I’ve laughed, I’ve danced, I’ve sang, and I’ve cried. I’ve made a pitiable fool out of myself more times than I could count. I’ve fallen for girls, taken new chances, and put caution far into the wind just to see where I’d land. I’ve eaten new foods, seen new landscapes, and had the incredible privilege to meet some people that I simply won’t ever forget. There’s this moment, this recurring tune, that probably best sums it all up, this life–my life–where I’m on a bus, headphones on, watching it all pass by, and there’s something that catches my eye, maybe a person, a tree, or a sunset, and all that life, all that I just described, channels itself into this smile that meets my face, this unbeatable smile with slightly watery eyes, this full-body understanding of what the words happiness and fulfillment might really mean–the insane, and insanely unlikely, privilege of life. It is, and has been, a truly beautiful thing.
People often ask me if I get lonely out here, and usually, I say yes. It doesn’t happen often, but like everyone, I do have my lonelier moments, I say.
Lately, though, I’ve been rethinking it. Lately, as I’m planning the next phase of the trip (I can’t wait to tell you guys about this one), I’ve had these moments, and I’ve even made some notes during these moments, that go something like this:
“I am so excited about my life that I can barely sit still.”
There’s these moments, and they only happen when I’m alone, where, with the right music on, I unstoppably pace around the room–dancing, too, even–staring at maps, pondering visas, thinking, planning, and dreaming bigger than before. And in those moments, like I said, I just cannot be stopped. So, with energy like that stored up inside, I ask you: how could I ever really be lonely?
Next, I want to tell you about my faith in the world. I suppose I’ve always been a trusting guy, having grown up surrounded by good people, a childhood absent of any particular trauma or distress. I come from a good area, too, and your average neighbor is a warm-hearted individual. But that’s just Lower Merion, ya know?
In my 13 months on the road, I’ve been leant a helping hand more times than I could ever count. I’ve been invited into more homes, to more tea, to more parties, and to more dinner than even the smallest trace of doubt would allow you to believe. It almost seems wrong, too, to be out here on my own, being showered with kindness, direction and genuine friendship everywhere I go, and wearily accepting it all, time and time again. But the thing is, you know, they want to help–they want to be a part of my story. Most people are quite literally just as excited to show me their country as a local, as I am to be exploring it as a foreigner. There’s the biker that stops, and tells me where it’s safe to hitchhike, inviting me to stay with him if it all falls through; the mother that didn’t want me to leave her house, so she could continue, every night, to spoil me with her very best cooking; the girl that left her shop counter, and walked me twenty minutes to the only vegetarian restaurant in town, when I simply asked for directions. There’s been over thirty people–friends, families, and CouchSurfing hosts, most of whom I’d met only recently, or never at all–who told me, with real honesty, that I could stay as long as I needed to. This isn’t even just me, either–this is what happens to all who really travel. So, I want you to know, that I simply don’t think you’d ever be remiss to put your full, blind, yet good-conscienced faith in the strangers of the world. Most people want nothing more than to lend a helping hand.
While unforgettable experiences have been numerous, there is of course a down-side: you end up leaving pieces of your heart in too many places to recollect. There’s people from my trip I will see again, and places to which I will return, but the unfortunate reality is that there are many things I’ll never get the chance to revisit. And you know, even if I do, it just won’t be the same as it was. The same people won’t be there, and the same things won’t be in place. And this is OK, of course–this is how it’s supposed to go. But on a late, rainy night, in an apartment bedroom somewhere in the world and 5 years from now, I’ll sit there by myself, music playing softly, maybe a candle lit and certainly no one yelling, thinking back to all of that life in all of those far-off places, and I’ll simply have no choice but to cry. I guess it’s part of the job.
Before looking ahead to the second half of the trip, I just want to tell you once more how perfect it’s been. It’s the imperfection that makes it perfect, of course: I’m sitting in a country I hardly knew existed when I left home, half-way done what I thought would be a 12-month journey, at the end of month 13. In this regard, it’s actually gone exactly as planned. You’ll find it in this blog, on the first post detailing my trip plans: “the only thing certain about the above is nothing–it will all change as I go.”
With regards to what lies ahead, I want to talk about the elusive notion of “appreciation.” When it all began, my trip, a kid with a backpack in the Philadelphia airport, I was that college freshman, stepping first foot into my first dorm and thinking: “4 years is forever–this will never end.” However, on some lonely, senseless Sunday morning, it all does eventually end–I just graduated last winter myself.
At this point in my trip, almost exactly half-way done, I’m beginning to grasp the fact that this, like college, will end too–that one day, a day not so far from now, I’ll be sitting next to my backpack in an airport, maybe Tokyo’s, waiting to board a flight–weak, lukewarm, and vulnerable–full of confusion, contrived indifference, and deep, genuine sadness, on the very last hour of one of the greatest experiences of my life. The day will come–I promise you it must–and at this point, I can actually see it approaching. Yesterday was Saturday, today is Sunday, and surely enough, in a few short hours, Monday will arrive. I can see my time slipping away, and I wonder: have I duly appreciated all that’s been, as well as the privilege of still having so much more to go?
Appreciation is an interesting thing, you know, and for a lot of people, I think it primarily serves to make them feel guilty about something they should not. We have these privileges–especially those from my area–and we think, unnecessarily, “am I truly appreciative of all that I’ve been given?” And really, in my opinion, this line of self-questioning is completely futile, as we can always convince ourselves that we aren’t quite there. To some, a trip to Italy would fulfill a lifelong dream, and for those, be certain, it would be “appreciated” as such. I went to Italy once myself–the Coliseum in Rome, the markets of Florence, a football match in Milan–and really, I didn’t much like the place. Am I villainous, therefore? Am I shallow and misguided?
On the road, I have ample time to think about this stuff (especially in Africa), and on the notion of appreciation, oh how elusive it is, I’ve come to the following conclusion: acknowledging that life, this grand opportunity we’ve been gifted, is ephemeral, and my god, treating it as such, is what being “appreciative” really means. Spinning your conscience in circles over being “thankful enough” is simply a losing battle; instead, focus your efforts not on being sufficiently “aware,” in-perspective, or forcibly sentimental, but on making the most of the time you have left. Learn something every day, challenge yourself, and from this thing we call life, squeeze out every bit you can. That is acknowledging what you’ve been given, and furthermore, that is your categorical responsibility as a human being. No days off: that’s what being “appreciative” is all about.
Next, I’d like to talk about “living in the moment.” It’s an idea you’ve heard, and if I could guess, you’ve probably devoted a concerted effort to its mastery. To me, it’s another head-spinner–another futile, and counterproductive, “am I living this right?”
We have experiences, compacted into fleeting moments, and from then on, we have our memories. Which lasts longer, do you think?
Me, well I’d say the memories–I think it’s rather straightforward. To this effect, which “mode of experience”–the fleeting or the forever–should we put more effort into cherishing?
Iceland and Colombia have been two of my favorite countries, so far: I met someone in each that I really did like. Looking back, my time in these places was so perfect–so unlikely–so effortless, and so unforgettable. I knew it at the time, too, how special it was, but now, as the more common moments dissipate and the high points are all that remain, the perfection becomes a whole lot clearer.
My question, to you, is this: how do we know that perfection as it’s taking place? Can we? Can that beauty really be grabbed as it’s unfolding, or is it really just the memory, and the memory alone, that lives forever in that moment, better than I, or you, ever could?
About a week ago, I finished Viktor Frankl’s “A Man’s Search For Meaning,” which I think contains strong commentary on the issue. The author agrees, like most of us would, that we live in a society that values, as well as envies, youth–the generation of possibilities. It’s logical, too: the unknown and unsolved is enchanting to us all. It certainly works that way for me.
On the contrary, however, Frankl also posits that, just maybe, it’s the young that should be jealous of the old, since the old have, in many cases, lived–a life full of life, full of experience, that will always be theirs, alive in memory. That is the end game after all, right? We live, we laugh, and we love, until one day, when it’s almost all over, we are, in theory, full of more life than ever before.
As the days continue to escape, I won’t forget what Mr. Frankl said. I have done some truly cool things in the last 13 months on the road, and in the 13 that follow, I fully intend to do more of the same. So, when it is all over, maybe sitting in an office somewhere, I’ll be “living in the moments,” those gorgeous, immovable memories, more than I currently ever could. Maybe this is what “living in the moment” really means?
With certainty, what I can say is this: for the rest of my life, when I look at a world map, I’ll never stop smiling about what I did. I’ll know that, as best I could, I really did leave my mark this time around.
Lastly, I want to tell you what a privilege this all is, and what my duty is to you.
My trip all started, really, when I was 15 years old. I deposited $50 onto Full Tilt Poker, and I began to work. I worked hard–as all of my friends would tell you–and was fortunate enough to build that $50 into something substantial. I went to France when I was 16, backpacked Western Europe when I was 18, spent my Junior spring in Australia, and from then on, all I wanted to do was travel. Two weeks after graduating, I was able to hop on an airplane and begin my story–my trip–with online poker paying for the whole thing.
Since that day, January 3rd, 2012, I’ve had the opportunity–the privilege–to meet all types of people, from all walks of life. I met a kid who rode his bicycle, from Portland to Ushuaia. I met a guy who grew up in Greenland, as his parents were missionaries. I met a shaman from Malta, an oil engineer who works on Antarctica, and a lady who used to be close friends with Pablo Escobar. I’ve met people who speak one language, and people who speak eight. I’ve met environmental activists, documentary film makers, NGO workers, fantasy novelists, un-bathed hitchhikers, hip-hop journalists, professional rock climbers, and a girl whose father races pigeons for sport. I’ve met children from the Kibera Slum in Nairobi, and children from the palatial apartments of Buenos Aires. I’ve met people like myself, and people with whom I shared nothing in common. The tall and short, rich and poor, driven and lazy, I’ve had the opportunity to meet.
I’ve had the privilege to discuss as well. I’ve discussed rice production in Senegal, socialism in Scandinavia, whale-hunting in Iceland, maté culture in Argentina, the impact of tourism in Tanzania, police violence in Brazil, Soviet influence in Estonia, guerrilla politics in Colombia, genocide in Rwanda and Burundi, the Israel-Palestine conflict (from the Palestinian side), the corruption hindering resource-rich Guinea, and why New York just may be the best city on the planet, with those who have never been. I’ve had more constructive and insightful conservations than I could ever remember. I’ve had the privilege to be in these places, and to learn about their issues, not from a book nor computer, but from those who actually live there.
A few months ago, I stayed with this girl in Cali, Colombia, who, at the time, was having a rough weekend. She lost of bit of cash, had a small incident with her car, and one night, after her ATM card refused to work, was fresh out of money as we went to find dinner.
I loaned her the money, of course, and afterwards, she swore she’d pay me back. However, having been on the road for roughly 9 months myself, and having had a strong taste of the unrelenting kindness it continues to bring (hers included), it was not an offer I could reasonably accept.
Instead, I told her:
“I won’t take your money, but I would like to be repaid. So, the next person that needs a favor–be it dinner, a lift to school, or some money for dinner–you’ll help them. And only then, my friend, will you have repaid me.”
This may seem like contrived, my Reader–it may seem forced. It may seem like I butter this up, and make it shinier than it needs to be. But the road does this to you, I think–it makes you “full of it.” The road makes you understand how much kindness there is in the world, and how, in order to keep it alive, it must be passed forward.
So, with the immense privilege of this trip–the opportunity to see, if only just a bit, of what this world is really like–I feel it my responsibility, like the friend I bought dinner, to pass the favor forward. Be it in this blog through my writing, a lengthy email to a distant acquaintance, or a Skype call to someone I barely know–I want, oh so badly, to inspire others to explore their world as well. I feel like–after what the road has given me–it’s what I’m supposed to do.
Before I finish, I’d like to briefly mention what a treat it is to be back in Africa, where, generally, you just don’t have to think about much. When the sun sets and when it rises, which roads have the fewest motorbikes, who makes the best beef skewers and where the girl selling water sacks has wandered off to, are the biggest concerns of the day. Life moves, officially, much slower around here. It’s not better than home, and it’s certainly not worse: it’s just one piece of a large puzzle, just as important as the next.
Once more, I do want to thank you for your support. It really means the world to me.
The luckiest kid on the planet,