This is the last post I will write from Africa.

This is the last post I will write from Africa. On Saturday, I leave Côte d’Ivoire. I have a brief two day layover in Yaoundé, Cameroon (where I studied abroad last semester). Then it’s back to the USA – first Washington, DC, and then finally, finally home.

I’ve been in Africa for six and a half months. Time has been a strange thing – days feel like weeks but somehow the weeks accumulate quickly. Now that I have only days left, hours are slowing. I’m excited to get home to my friends and family. I have been anticipating having a wide array of culinary options for months (I am especially looking forward to salad, sushi, and frozen yogurt). And I ran out of hair product a long time ago (oh, John Freida, how I have missed you).

I’ve had a very love/hate relationship with my travel experiences. I think that’s normal when you’re this far out of your comfort zone. Some days I am just so blown away by the enormity of the landscape that there isn’t much room for anything but awe. Other days I feel like my skin is a neon sign, and even venturing to the corner market feels overwhelming. When I first arrived, I thought that I’d eventually get used to certain things – how sharply I stick out, constant cat calling, street side beggars. But I never stopped feeling like a permanent outsider. Even though I stopped responding months ago, I still feel a jolt of anger every time a strange man insists he wants to be my husband. And I don’t think there is a way to strike a balance in daily confrontations with immense, inescapable poverty (or at least I don’t want to accept that that’s the sort of thing we should be content to compromise about).

But I don’t have to reflect long to know that there will be things I miss here. Although there have been times when I would have given a lot for a moment or two of silence, the sounds and colors of this place are going to stay with me for a long time. I’ve gotten used to measuring my day by the call to prayer, the sound of taxis beeping in Abidjan helps me to sleep, and wherever I go there is always music. All I have to do is think of the flurry of activity that awaits once the school year starts and I cling a little tighter to all the time I have here to read and reflect.

I’ve spent most of my last few weeks here researching land conflict in Côte d’Ivoire. One of my co-workers teasingly calls me an expert. “You should put it on your resume,” he says, “like other Americans, always an expert in something.” I have to laugh because it’s true. Competitive is the first adjective that comes to mind when I think about my fellow university students. Although I value being challenged by my peers, a healthy level of competition often devolves into a constant need to one-up each other – to prove that you know more than others, you work harder, you are better. Sometimes, it can become truly ridiculous. Once, during finals, I mentioned to an acquaintance in line for coffee that I hadn’t slept in over 24 hours. “Oh yeah?” she said, “I haven’t slept in over 48 hours. And I have two finals tomorrow. And my cat just died.”

One of the reasons I decided to come to Africa in the first place was because I could feel myself becoming sucked into that whole toxic mentality. I was finding it harder and harder to just be happy with my own decisions, to applaud the achievements of others. I was starting to weigh more and more of my actions based on how they would impact my future (even if I didn’t know what I wanted that to look like). I wanted to change things up completely, to go someplace so far away from everything I knew I’d be forced to figure out who I was when all of the activities, classes, and jobs I fill my life with weren’t there.

Looking back, it’s obvious that I idealized what this trip would be like. My life didn’t automatically snap into focus when I touched down. People have their baggage here just like anywhere else. But it’s hard to travel this far away from where you come from and not gain a little perspective. Although I haven’t reached any conclusions about “the rest of my life” from my trip, I’ve made some important realizations:

Eight hours of sleep makes caffeine unnecessary.

The most interesting people I know all took time to wander.

There is really never a good reason for wearing a safari vest.

There is always room for one more (in taxis, when cramming souveniers into my luggage).

I am most definitely not an expert in land conflict in Côte d’Ivoire (or really anything).

But that’s really o.k. because I’m a student.

And right now it’s my job to learn, to get myself ready for who I’m going to be.

The world is big and beautiful, whatever I do.

I want to explore more of it.

Sarah Gardiner is an MA candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy. She graduated from Georgetown University last May where she studied Culture and Politics. Previous international adventures include a semester in Yaounde, Cameroon and a summer interning in Cote d'Ivoire. Things she gets nerdy about includes cross-cultural communication, media for social justice, international hip hop, feminism, and coffee.

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