Part 1 of this story can be found here.
The seed of energy motivating this trip was planted in the summer after tenth grade when my mother sent me to France for two weeks for a language-immersion program. There, for the first time, was I really surrounded by people from all over the world (or so it felt; in hindsight, it might have just been Europeans). And for whatever reason, I truly felt alive. I felt like my mundane answers to the questions I was asked—where I was from, what I liked to do, what excited me about the French language—were actually interesting to my peers. I felt, for perhaps the first time, that I was an individual, a baseball card with value in a stack of other baseball cards with value, where all players are from different teams with different jerseys, positions, and strengths, as opposed to previously, where I felt more like a member of a deck where, though all cards were different, the player was always the same. This was the first time where I felt like my own person, and that the things about my person were worth sharing publicly, worth being proud of privately, worth trying to find in others as points of connection and potential friendship.
And so it was. And so I wanted more.
During my junior year of college, while studying abroad in Australia, I met countless European high-school grads taking a year off to travel in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific before beginning University. There was my example.
And finally, there was poker: from age 15 to 20, I was, what I now proudly call, a “semi-professional internet poker player.” More so than providing the financial resources for this trip, poker instilled in me a few foundational, priceless beliefs:
- You can become, roughly, the best in the world at what you do, from your bedroom, in your underwear. In this pursuit, or in any other pursuit in life, there is nothing stopping you.
- There is nothing immoral about “going big.” If you want to, and you can, do it. Start now, inspire others, go.
My final semester of college was filled with tepid career fairs advertising jobs I found so perversely suffocating and uninteresting that it left me genuinely confused, as if their sole mission was to look me in the eye, acknowledge my general creativity and desire to do great, technical work, then coldly pour a small dustbin’s worth of dark-grey dirt and glistening-brown worms on the whole party, and wait for me to succumb.
Fundamentally, I didn’t understand. I’m 21 years old. I want to move, to sweat, to be in the sun, to thump my head to rap music out the window of shoddy transport and below the 10th-and-onward palm trees I’d ever seen in my life.
And you want me to what? To wear a collared shirt and khakis, to sit behind a smudgy Lenovo laptop and make spreadsheets in Excel? Are my classmates feigning their own interest? Really, what is going on?
My mind was elsewhere. Reading blogs and maps. Preparing for this trip in the only way I know how to attack things that are important to me: thoroughly. I had a vision in mind of a mobile, photo-journalist-meets-writer-meets-lay-philosopher; my backpack needed to be perfectly packed, my plans needed to be maximally “pushing it.” I needed to be this person. When I liquidated investment funds to buy my first few flights, I remember thinking these small stacks of virtual money were soldiers I was moving into battle. This was me. This was something I cared about doing well, doing completely, doing my way. It was my beautiful project. I would not dare to leave a single stone unturned.
And this was just the beginning.
I remember when my mother drove off at the Philadelphia airport after a firm hug with watery eyes. It had started. That moment was one of being at the peak of a rollercoaster, having paid your fare, validated your height, waited in throngs of sweaty, mindless, errant theme-park-goers with tall sodas and soft-pretzels, then queued for this ride, arrived at the front, strapped myself in, negotiated a churning stomach and last-minute “Devil’s apathy” of “do I actually like rollercoasters as much as I think, or is this just some thought that I got carried away with, and haven’t actually stopped to think about since I began to prepare for its realization?” Now, all there was to do was show my passport, walk through the gate, and let the greatest ride of my life propel itself forward by its own inertia.
One part of my initial fantasy was being “in the middle” of this trip. Having time, and taking time. Staying somewhere for two weeks because I met nice people, or because I simply felt “tired.” I wanted to be living on the road! In those first few weeks, I would long for the fourth month, wherein I would have been “doing it for a while.” I craved that feeling of permanence in transition.
And so it began. Philadelphia to Newark. Newark to Zurich. Zurich to, wait, a man naked in the bathroom in the Zurich airport—the world is weird, and I can’t wait!—to Nairobi. And how cool was the Departures screen! Flying to Malaysia! And Abu Dhabi! And Johannesburg! And Kigali! And Delhi. But us—we’re going to Nairobi.
I loved that it was Nairobi, not Cancun. I loved the writing on my visa. I loved how I carried my backpack on the plane, and checked only my pocket knife in a small cardboard box, as if it were at all difficult to buy a pocket knife for cutting fruit anywhere in the world.
I remember arriving, hungry. I stopped somewhere for a chicken sandwich. I asked for water, and chose the small bottle instead of the large, a whole 50 cents cheaper, and how excited I was about finally beginning this journey of opposing forces of asceticism and extreme indulgence, which means constant spending, acquisition, activity, and “yes!”, yet realized in the most aggressively lean and economical manner practical, to the point of bumping heads with basic rationality, and obstinance for its own sake. I couldn’t wait to drink it in. I was excited by opting for that small water bottle, thinking “I’ve got to budget for the rest of this trip.”
In my first accommodation, I stayed at a guesthouse run by the company with which I was to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in the following weeks. It was me, and a kid from Colorado my age. My first friend from the road. “I bet he’s cool!”, I thought. He has to be. Nay, he already is—he’s out here, and he’s the first character in my story.
I remember eating ugali with my hands. The world is weird, I thought. I’ve never done this before. But I’ll do it in a way that seems normal, that I whole-heartedly intend to let become normal, as one proverbial piece of one pie in one bakery in one corner of the world, and my tongue is hanging out of the side of my mouth, and I am starving.
I remember my first day walking around Nairobi. I left my camera at the homestay because I was told it might be snatched from my hands. I listened. Eva, a woman that worked for the company that owned the guesthouse, took me into town. Nairobi wasn’t that pretty. But I was out there, doing what I so desperately wanted to do. Deeply relaxed in every moment, with the intention of allowing this life to become my life for the seemingly-interminable future, and at the same time almost squeezing my spirit harder, prying my eyes open ever-wider, so as to notice more, intuit more, learn more, make friends, be happy, get lost, be me, outside, in shorts and dirty boots, in January, doing what I wanted to be doing, and only that, in places that lit my imagination on fire, because they weren’t home, they weren’t close, they weren’t commonplace; because they reminded me that I am me, different, and I must do this as beautifully as I can.
And so it continued. And good things happened! On a train to Mombasa, in the dining car, I met a family—Rich, Nina, and Ale, as well as their friends, Lydia and Steve. Ale was my age, and warm, and beautiful. Rich had lived in Kenya and his stories and spirit fascinated me. I drank a tall beer and dined at a rickety metal table sitting atop torn red and white leather cushions as the Kenyan countryside flew by in the warm night. Oh, how cool.
I had a sleeper bunk to myself. After dinner, I slept to the sounds of this feeble train, and the sweet aura and lightness of a group of people excited to be in movement and open to interaction, and acts of camaraderie. I refer here to the mostly-Western travelers in the dining car, yes. But also the Kenyans, who, like most people not from the West, had a way about them opposite of the Western way, which is to say the opposite of “we’re all on this train together, but let’s pretend like we’re all on this train on our own,” and “don’t touch me,” and “try not to look at me,” and “I can’t wait to get out of this vehicle, so yes, I’m grumpy.”
I arrived in Mombasa, and Ale’s family invited me to stay at their house. Free accommodation! Local experiences. How. Cool. See, travel doesn’t have to be expensive nor solitary. I want to go deeper. To do this beautifully, thoroughly, my way.
Truth be told, I was excited to leave that house, because I wanted to start the Hostel Experience. To be with other travelers. To have the normalcies of that life—earplugs in dorms, negotiating discounts for extended stays, small bottles of whiskey around a fire or pool, people to meet and travel with, girls to fall for, stories to listen to and to let seep into my veins as things that I should do myself—to become the normalcies of my life. I spent the following day physically searching for that hostel. This one too expensive, that one booked out, and me walking up and down a highway road near the beach, sweating, with my backpack on my back and my meticulously-researched daypack on my chest, drunk with the activity at hand. This is all I wanted. Every interaction was joyous. Every move a new shade of paint on a grand canvas I kept nailed to a vast basement wall in my subconscious. I was doing it. Finally.
I suppose it was there in Kenya that I realized that places I previously knew nothing about can have nice things. It’s tricky to express, but I feel as if I was conditioned as an American to believe that there is America, and then other things. That America does it best, safest, to standard. The rest are countries of which some pack “wonders of the world” and things to see, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. And still others that, instead of those things, are defined by their imperfections. That Kenya is Al-Shabaab attacks on resorts, economic disparity and malaria. And that’s it!
My point is not the trivial point of: a country is more than the Western media will lead you to believe. Instead, my point is simply that: beaches are nice, and Kenya has nice beaches! You can go to Kenya for the beaches, or for the food. It doesn’t have to be for a humanitarian mission. It doesn’t have to be with a group. The world is full of people who go on vacation in their home country. It’s full of people who like to relax and enjoy nature. And you can find these things everywhere. You can intuit them and enjoy them through the eyes of their locals. This imaginary moral and geopolitical hierarchy of propriety and place is made up. At least from the perspective of a curious, carefree, individual on vacation.
In other words: in Kenya, I learned to think about the world not as a US-at-the-top, top-down pyramid, but instead as a broad, barely inclined dreamscape of people, the places they were born, the things they like to do, the climate in which they live, the choices that they make, and the places they go to relax and have fun.
Life continued. I road my first few African buses, and delighted in how the entire bus would cackle uproariously when I got off to urinate. I was diligent about catching sunrises. Every day was deliberate, began with a light thump in my chest and the simple awareness that I was making the “weird” my “normal,” and against the recent backdrop of those nauseatingly-dull career fairs, how liberating and invigorating it all was.
I climbed Kilimanjaro—the only activity I had pre-planned. I then went to Zanzibar where I spent, for the first time ever, 3 consecutive nights in a hostel. I met people who had spent more, and yes, oh, how I wanted to be like them.
From there, Rwanda. Rwanda was the first country I went to that I had not previously planned to visit. (Of course, this was to become a theme throughout the rest of the trip.) Oh, Rwanda! Even the name! I delighted in the feeling of being somewhere I had previously thought of as “random.” I delighted in my newfound maturity of assessing this country judiciously as a traveler, which is to say that I acknowledged that the roads were paved, and the motorbike-taxis gave me a helmet to wear, and the lakes were beautiful, and the mountains were numerous and lush green, and that made Rwanda a great place to travel.
Arriving back in Nairobi after a whirlwind 6 weeks, I felt great about what I’d done. I remember sitting on an armchair outside of the guesthouse around 7:00am, as I had arrived early on an overnight bus, and the owners and guests were all still sleeping, and, still having the WiFi password in my computer, I was able to chat with friends back at University with a small bottle of whiskey in my hand, and revel in my adventure in their company, while at the same time trying to involve, if only emotionally, these friends in my journey. This spirit, and the possibility of my friends replicating my experience themselves one day, had to be shared.
Leaving Kenya, I had a 4-day layover in Dubai, where my sense of globe-galavanting-grandeur was reignited. Dubai! Then a direct flight to Rio de Janeiro. The world needs to be seen!
It’s not just fun, not just an opportunity, not just a privilege, but a fundamental imperative to see these places, to walk around, to know the names of the main streets, to have a surface-level understanding of their politics, to be able to discuss their, well, anything, something, with some level of agency. To know how to get there, which is to say what airlines fly there, and where those airlines are based, and roughly how much those flights costs, and which airlines are nicest, and the types of people you meet on those planes. Are they only from the destination country? Are they on layovers? Are there Kenyans traveling to Dubai? Why? Is anyone else going to Brazil? Will you join me on this adventure? The world is small, I tell you! We can ride planes around and around.
This post covers my travels through the following countries. To see what I’ve previously written about each, kindly click on the shaded regions.
Reflecting back (Part 2)