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.