the darker side of traveling/living abroad

Two thirds into my Fulbright experience, schools let out for winter break (in June, yes, cuz Southern hemisphere) and I seized the opportunity to visit home for 2 weeks. Actually, technically only 12 days, due to visa requirements and a day of travel time each way. Going back home was, to my mind, completely necessary—having already done the Zimbabwe-Botswana safari, bungee jumped off Victoria Falls at midnight during a full moon, and driven through all the game parks in the area—not to mention that long-distance relationships are hard and need nurturing, and I miss my family to an unbearable degree. I stopped in Cape Town to perform for Phoenix Festival of Fire and then I flew to the East Coast.

Going back home was, as I expected, both amazing and emotionally intense. It was cathartic to perform a fire piece for the Russian Roulette Variety Show with my brother at PEX Summer Fest—which was more or less about conquering your darkest fears, and using your fear as a catalyst for creative energy. Moving back to South Africa was, for me, everything to do with conquering my darkest fears…leaving all of my friends & family, moving to a city where I knew absolutely nobody, and taking on the challenge that is a Fulbright scholarship. What’s crazy now is that being in Port Elizabeth is my normal…and being back home was what made me feel like a stranger.

Driving on the left side of the road, buying my electricity at the gas station, conversations smattered with Afrikaans & Xhosa…that is my normal now. My life has been completely consumed by my love for my students, and everyday I spend with them is another day filled with undying gratitude that I have the privilege of even knowing them. By request, I taught them how to play Texas Hold ‘Em (with fake gambling chips, before anyone can accuse me of being a bad influence) and I watched them not only come alive learning how to bluff, read the other players, and strategize...they became poker champs in the matter of days. My students never fail to impress me with how quickly they master new things—(we are also rehearsing Romeo&Juliet as we speak…more on that later.)

But having now left (home?) to visit (home?) and now having returned (home?), and having experienced all of the crippling cycles of elation and depression associated with all of the journeys (home???), I feel like there is something I have to get off my chest about traveling/living abroad. Something I feel like is never, ever talked about…

…because there is an intense tendency to romanticize traveling/living abroad. People chalk traveling up to be this invaluable experience that money cannot buy, which I guess is true…to a degree.

I remember when I was getting tested for TB for my visa application, the doctor administering the test was asking me all sorts of questions about my upcoming journey. When I explained all the details, she couldn’t stop gushing—“wow, I wish I could do something like that…” which then became, “I should’ve done that when I was your age…but then I got married.”

All of a sudden, this woman was unburdening the regrets of her entire marriage onto me—basically explaining how it had kept her from fulfilling her highest potential and manifesting dreams of exploring the world. As I left her office, I remember her calling after me: “Have an amazing time—for me!”

While this interaction was ego-boosting in a way—this medical professional displaying admiration for my “adventurous spirit”—it was also deeply unsettling in a way I couldn’t have explained at the time. It was the same interaction I had with a lot of people before I left: friends and family claimed they would be using my journey to South Africa to “live vicariously through me,” and in doing so, make up for some general dissatisfaction in their lives. This came up the most when I was still in the decision-making process of accepting my Fulbright…people would encourage me to go, not necessarily for my own benefit, but because they were not in a place in their lives where they could the same, & the idea seemed exciting to them…the idea of moving across the world transported them from their own problems, which admittedly, was a fantasy I shared when applying in the first place.

Like I said, the idea of a “world-traveler” is romanticized to death. Inspirational quotes and images circulate social media that portray a traveler as a free spirit, an adventurer, someone who is simultaneously voracious for life yet lives free of all attachments…which again, I guess is true…to a degree.

^seriously, fuck everything about this. how does one "just make it work" without worrying about money??

I am not discouraging anyone from traveling—quite the contrary. I’ve now spent the majority of my adult life exploring unfamiliar places—having studied abroad in Cape Town, performed for psytrance parties across Europe, moved to Baltimore, New York City, DC, and now Port Elizabeth, South Africa (…all within the past 5 years). But I want to destroy that fucking stereotype of the carefree, unattached world-traveler. I want to destroy the notion that one can solve or escape their problems through travel, or that it is the ultimate answer to a life that is “boring” or generally unsatisfactory. There are two realizations I’ve had that I ultimately want to share:

  1. Yes, growth happens outside of comfort zone—this means that you will always be growing, and that you will always be uncomfortable.

  2. There are other eye&heart opening ways that you can “live life to the fullest” without moving across the world for a year.

^fuck everything about this too.

Yes, everything that people said would happen to me came true—I have learned loads about myself, & the interactions that I have with my students on a daily basis have now made me consider a full-time teaching career. I’ve discovered that I find no greater joy than seeing my students everyday and being the recipient of not only their poetry and their paintings—but also their trust. But I’ve also had to learn some things the really hard way.

Like how to navigate social services for child abuse and suicide risk in a foreign country. I’ve also learned how easy it is for something small to make my day, and how easy it is for something equally small to break me down. I will be glowing after an Art Night with my 4 Blind Mice friends, or on the rare day I get to explore the beach, or when buying some biltong for the man who begs for cash at the intersection. But on days that I have no hot water, or when my car breaks down yet again, or when a male student makes yet another inappropriate comment about having sex with me, or when I read about the never-ending positive feedback loop of shootings-fear-hatred-more shootings in my home country…these are days when I all I want to do is curl into a ball and be held by the people in my life who I love most.

And. I. Can’t.

I’m an ocean away. A six-hour time difference, a 24-hour journey by plane. I am far away. I am alone. Sure, I have friends here—amazing friends in fact, who I am completely indebted to for welcoming me into their worlds with open arms & open hearts. But sometimes you long for those connections that have taken years to develop. My boyfriend and I have been dating on and off now for 5 years…& he’s stuck with me through all my bullshit and wanderlust throughout. Now, I’m on the final leg of my journey, and the only thing I want to do is settle down, decorate our apartment together, and get a dog. And for all my people in the States who want to leave the country because of Donald Trump or the shootings or for any reason at all…all I can tell you is how helpless I feel not being close to my friends and family during this tumultuous time.

So one last nugget to end this rant, which is really the culmination of all of the crippling emotions I’ve endured during the past couple of weeks and a feeble attempt to derive meaning from it all: TRAVEL can be overrated, but sharing life with your loved ones is NEVER overrated.

Ndisafunda: I am still learning.

^THIS one got it right.