Today you go to Nairobi National Park. You have too many highlights to count.
First, the facts. Nairobi National Park is 117 square kilometers, and home to 100 animal species and 400 migratory and endemic bird species. It’s only 7 kilometers from the center of Nairobi, which is quite hard to believe considering how calm it is compared to the center of Nairobi. It is the only national safari park that has a cityscape background. Before going, you thought it would be strange (and maybe not genuine?) to see animals and skyscrapers in the same view. Once there, you realized that the animals have lots of space, and seeing Nairobi in the background adds to the scenery instead of takes away from it. You would absolutely recommend the park to visitors. In three hours, you saw lions, ostriches, buffalo, hartebeests, elands, impalas, giraffes, grey crowned cranes, ibises, a vulture, and rhinos. The entry fee for foreign nationals is $43 USD for adults and $22 USD for kids (but less than $5 and $3 for Kenyan citizens). Since there were 7 of you sharing a $100 vehicle and driver, the one-hour transportation to the park, three hours in the park, and transportation back from the park cost $14. Compared to expensive safaris that cost from $120-$200 per day, this game drive had a reasonable price at $57.
You see a lion and a lion cub in the distance. When they lie down, they’re completely invisible due to the grass cover. It’s wild. Although you’d love to be able to get out of the safari vehicle to walk closer, you know they could easily kill you, so you wait for their ears to pop up every now and then. The mom walks a few steps, and crouches back into the grass, and then the little cub walks a few steps, and crouches back into the grass. Awh.
You see a male and a female ostrich approach you from afar, and decide they’re the strangest animals you’ve ever seen. Basically, they’re oversized puff-balls who bob their heads erratically when they walk. When they sit down, you’re *shook* because they bend their knees the wrong way—backwards instead of forwards like how your knees bend. When the female runs, you can’t believe it can move so fast. You decide ostriches are admirably awkward creatures that can teach every self-conscious elementary school kid to fully embrace their uniqueness.
You see herds of buffalo. When you see buffalo, you can’t help but think that their horns are actually toupees. Although these buffalo are objectively stocky and arguably ugly, the babies are still cute because babies in any species are cute. You also see herds of hartebeests, which are in the same family as wildebeests, and actually part of the antelope family. Hartebeests have long faces and look so serious all the time. They’re the most serious animals you see at the park. Finally, you see the most muscular breed of antelopes, called elands, that look like they throw back steroids on the daily. They remind you of mythical creatures, like centaurs, but instead of a human-horse mix, these are cow-moose mixes with goat faces. You would put them front and center in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Although buffalo, hartebeests, and antelopes are cool, your favorite herds are the impalas. They are so graceful, and their patterns are painted onto their bodies. Their bodies are shiny and they move so easily. Their horns seem like they’ve been carved into place by the wind.
At one point, Tori recommends going to the King Fisher picnic stop to walk around. You’re more than glad she does. On the way, you see four rhinos in the distance! If that weren’t enough, you also see three giraffes—up close and personal—maybe three meters from your vehicle.
In your three hours in the park, you barely scratch the surface. There is so much area left to explore, and so many animals left to see. It’s neat that you could have seen elephants, cheetahs, and leopards, and zebras. On your way out, you pass by a little pond and somebody thinks they see a hippo, but it could have been an alligator.
The grey crowned cranes deserve their own paragraph because they are zany. You don’t even know how to use zany in a sentence, but these colorful birds with gold mohawks sure fit the description for what you’d consider zany.
You turn out of the park and see some baboons inflicting terror on a preschool group. Lol. Two of the little kids, who are wearing matching green track suits, start crying when the baboons get too close. You can understand, as they’re almost the same size! The kids seem to prefer giggling at the warthogs. The warthogs don’t get too close.
Realistically, you had nothing to do with the planning of this trip. Justin, who is a PhD student from McGill doing work in Tanzania, was at the conference in Nairobi and wanted to explore. You decided to join him while you were eating breakfast. As is often the case, hopping on the bandwagon for this impromptu plan led to a fun day. It also led to a new appreciation for ostriches.
The most phenomenal part of the hike is seeing lake Naivasha on your right side, from where you came, and seeing the volcano crater expanding out on your left. It’s like you’re on a tightrope between two magnificent views, and you often can’t choose which way to look.
You don’t know how many times you said, “This is unreal” today, but definitely higher than the average day. In fact, out of the past two weeks, today was filled with more “What is this life” moments than any other day. You were not expecting to see zebras or giraffes or insanely beautiful views of an expansive valley, but today all three of these things happen and it’s incredible.
You wake at 7 in your comfortable (lol but far from luxurious) Airbnb and help yourself to some communal instant coffee in the kitchen. You greet the whole crew as they wake up, one by one, before sharing some yogurt-muesli breakfast. The crew is comprised of 7 others from McGill who are dispersed all over Kenya doing internships. You all met this weekend for a rockin' time in Naivasha province. Somebody calls Morris (the gatekeeper/hero) to help arrange a taxi to bring you to Hell’s Gate National Park, and one hour later you’re riding in the back of a matatu, which is a packed van-bus. Morris somehow convinced the matatu driver to bring you 8 keeners to the park. Thanks Morris.
As if the views weren’t already phenomenal from the house on the hill, the beauty is somehow accentuated riding in the third row of this van along Lake Naivasha. You particularly enjoy seeing the fog lifting from the blue mountains in the distance, foregrounded by tall grass and acacia trees. You love the cactus trees. At one point, your matatu turns off the main road and into in a field of yellow flowers as a shortcut. You think about how most North Americans imagine poor slums when they think of Kenya, yet this is the farthest image from poverty you can imagine. The land is rich, the views are rich, the conversations with everyone you meet are rich, and life is as full here as it is anywhere.
After a bumpy 40-minute ride to the entrance road leading to the main gate of Hell’s Gate National Park, your matatu stops and asks if you want to rent bicycles for the day or if you’d rather drive through the park. Duh. Bikes. You all rent some clunky bicycles, helmets nowhere in sight, and you love every moment of the short 2-kilometer ride towards the gates. The guy at the bike shack agrees to let me take a photo. He's a goof.
When you see baboons, you stop your bike. You’ve seen them before in Cambodia, but they are fun this time too. The best part is seeing a baby clinging to its mother’s chest upside down as it walks across the dusty road in front of you. The baboons stop, and you see one picking bugs off the back of the other. The baby starts drinking its mother’s milk, and the human-like expressions on their faces is crazy to see. Their hands are like yours. You remember learning from a National Geographic magazine that your DNA is 99% the same as a chimp. These aren’t chimps, but the similarities are there nonetheless.
You pay your entrance fee and soon the movie set for “The Land Before Time” unfolds in front of you. Then, as if on cue, you see three zebras in the distance. The smile already on your face breaks out into laughter as you shuffle through your backpack for your camera. They look like painted donkeys and there are three of them just wandering around about 500 meters to your right. What is this life?
Over the next hour, you see antelope, gazelle, and warthogs. The grass is green and looks fairly lush. You see another three zebras. At this point the sun is out and it’s getting warm, so one of them rolls on its back in a pile of dust to cool off. You take many, many pictures, but these pictures don’t capture the indescribable feeling of biking alongside wild zebras. You weren’t even expecting to see any animals today. Anoushka, one of the McGilligans, told you last night that she had been here before and not seen anything. You feel like a little kid waking up to find out it’s your birthday, and then mom lets you eat chocolate cake for breakfast. It’s unthinkable.
The giraffes come into view as you pedal farther. Forget chocolate cake. You just got a chocolate fountain, and your family threw you a surprise birthday party. You don’t just see one giraffe, but three of them. One is fully grown, the second is maybe a teenager, and there is a tiny baby (well, still bigger than you) who just recently got out of the stage where walking was difficult on such wobbly long legs. You don’t believe in heaven, but you hear yourself utter that that’s where you are. You throw your bike to the ground and watch them for 15 minutes before the others drag you to continue pedaling. You could sit there for hours.
The whole crew comes together to eat lunch at a rest area for the second main attraction, the Hell’s Gate Gorge. A monkey scrambles closer and closer to your table, and everyone reaches instinctively for their sunglasses and their phones. The monkey hops on the picnic table faster than you’d believe and runs away with two green apples in hand. You were going to eat those apples!
You figured that you had seen all the beauty you were going to see today, but you’re happy to know you’re mistaken. With a Maasai tour guide, whose English name is Dennis, the eight of you descend into the gorge. You have no clue what to expect, because as is common with you, you didn’t know what the plan was until you woke up this morning.
The mouth of the gorge opens up into a wider expanse, and soon you’re seeing walls of 30 meters climbing on either side of you. At some points, the spaces close until you’re walking in single file climbing over mini-waterfalls, and it seems less colorful but longer and taller version of Antelope Canyon. You enjoy seeing the obsidian rock fragments shining, naturally polished, on the ground.
The gorge fills up during the wet season, and you can imagine how powerful the current must be. Dennis shows you some natural hot springs, which the others really enjoy, but you’re a snob and saw geysers in Iceland so you’re not as impressed as them. You are, however, impressed with the magnificent view which comes next. You all climb out of the gorge and walk to the “viewpoint’ which inspired the creators of the Disney movie “The Lion King.” Although you enjoy the artistry behind Disney Animations, the creators absolutely did not live up to the magnificence of the natural beauty before your eyes. Wow. You try to take a panoramic to capture the view, but very few camera settings can depict the true vastness of such scenery.
You walk through a jewelry market. You ask a woman selling jewelry if you can take a picture of her. She says that if you buy something, you can have a picture. You decide it's a fair trade. Like a sailor lured by sirens, you cave in and buy a beautiful beaded bracelet. You see Dennis take a cell phone out of his traditional outfit and wonder if he only wears it for tourists, or if he wears it all the time. Regardless, he's a bro. You buy a cold water bottle and immediately feel refreshed.
It’s about 4 PM at this point, so you and your seven pals take a matatu to Camp Carnelley, a campground next to Lake Naivasha. It’s one of the nicest campgrounds you’ve seen, considering the tall bonsai-like trees providing a comfortable canopy of shade for the tents below. The view of the lake is gorgeous, but strangely all too familiar. With kayaks as the foreground to a blue lake with blue mountains in the distance, you could easily be in Vermont or Ontario. You let the others continue to the campground’s restaurant as you sit on a tree trunk and write a poem about how time is temporal, and so are experiences. Whoa, Laurence. That's deep.
The sounds of the waves lapping the shore of the lake bring you peace of mind. You hop up from the tree trunk and admire an egret before joining the others.
The restaurant is way too nice to be in a campground, probably because the area is next to a boat launch, attracting both international campers and local Kenyans. When you get to the table, you chuckle to yourself when you see everyone has ordered some kind of mixed drink to celebrate the day. It’s even funnier when you see the menu, and the drinks are under the subtitle heading, “Sexy Gin & Tonic.”
The ride back to the little house on the hill is dark and bumpy. Everyone is tired, yourself included. You type as many words as you can on your dad’s itty bitty keyboard attached to his iPad your mom encouraged you to bring. You’re glad you brought it. It has allowed you to document the whole weekend. Your parents are actually the best. When you get to the house, you boil some water, take a bucket shower, and enjoying every second of scrubbing the dust off your skin. You grab your phone and see three bars. Gold. You call mom and dad, and tell them you saw a baby giraffe. The call only breaks a few times. You head to bed, as tomorrow you have to wake up at 5:00 AM to hike Mount Longonot. Another adventure awaits.
We (Sasha and I) arrived in Nanyuki, Kenya a little over a week ago. Nanyuki is a 3.5 hour ride to the north of Nairobi, in Laikipia Province. Here are some crazy new things we've experienced in just a few short days. It's been a whirlwind, filled with lots of laughter to ease the ridiculousness.
1. Started an Internship with IMPACT
2. Overcome living with Goats
Before coming here, neither one of us could have said we had lived amongst chickens or goats or cows, but now we can. We are living in the guest house of a host family with three kids, ages 5, 8, and 12. So far, my favorite Kenyan friend is Florence, who is the nanny for the family and all around champion cook in the house. She's makes the best goat milk tea. Sasha and I have learned to cook a few things with her.
Our little cabin has no bathroom door, which has made us closer than ever. (Lol. Sorry Sasha.) But after one week here our cabin feels cozy and warm. We feel grateful to have running water, and we even have a gas stove to make meals. Although we kind-of live amongst creatures including shower spiders and mice in the rafters, the company doesn't bother us. Well, except for the morning rooster.
3. Accepted our identities as mzungus on the walk to work
Mzungu is "white person" in Swahili. From kids on the street yelling "mzungu mzungu mzungu!" to groups of guys trying to intimidate us to buy something at their shop with a chorus of "mzungu come!"s, we can't really get away from the fact we're not black. As one person told me, "You have no melanin." Thanks.
ESSENTIALLY we're an easy target for all things non-local. We can't exactly fit in inconspicuously. That means we hear LOTS of cat-calling on the way to work. (I'm writing a blog post about that soon. Cat-calling is shitty. Don't do it.) HOWEVER since people now recognize us, they've stopped bothering us so much on our 50 minute morning stroll since we're so good at pretending we don't hear them. We also get charged mzungu prices. But like, 60 cents for an avocado the size of my face is still a bargain so no complaints (avocados are actually the size of my face).
Our walks to work have been quite exciting. We start off with a rockin' view of Mt. Kenya in the distance, always passing herds of goats and sheep. We walk on uneven dirt/rock paths next to the main road, passing a billion kinyuzis (barber shops), street vendors selling fruit and clothing, and a man-powered car wash complete with large sponges. And of course little kids going to school. No pictures of them yet, but coming eventually.
Check it out^^^^^ It's Mount Kenya in the distance and we're going to climb it sometime next month YAY. Also, those are herds of goats. There are goats everywhere. I had soup today and there was probably goat in it. Who knows.
Also we realized quickly that the word "hotel" doesn't mean a place to sleep. We're not sure what it means. But a milk hotel sounds legit.
4. Rode a boda-boda and a tuk-tuk
The traffic in the streets is WILD. I have my international driver's license and I'm never going to use it here because people drive on the left side of the road, and also motorcycles weave in and out of cars like water dripping through rocks.
I'lI have to grab a photo of a tuk-tuk right away.
5. Tried FUN new foods
6. Mastered the Bucket-Shower
The trick for a shower spa day is to boil some hot water and mix it with the lukewarm water from the tap for a bucket of perfect temperature. Toilet seat not included.
7. Went to a 4 hour church service
It was a pentecostal service and people had the holy ghost in them and it was wild and loud. The collective energy was impressive. It felt like I was in a soccer stadium with people supporting their favorite sports team after a winning goal. Instead, I was in GCC Congregation in Nanyuki, Kenya, and the sports team was God, and the winning goal lasted over thirty minutes. And I was the only white person in sight.
FINAL NOTE: I went on the back of a motorcycle to get there. We sped through dirt streets winding around tin houses and a field of kale.
10/10 would recommend.
8. Became a bargain shopper
I needed a new shirt for work because my white ones are not withstanding the orange dust baths they get every day. I got one for $1 and the purple stripes are my groove. Sasha got a black shirt for $1.70 because she's bougie. No photos of the shirts, or the clothing stalls for that matter, but here's a veggie market we walked through and bought a palm sized piece of ginger and 3 carrots.
9. Got lost (multiple times)
10. Visited a hype organization for street kids
I have a tendency to think white expats always mess things up for locals. A few days ago I was proven wrong when we met this incredible guy who has lived here for the past 10 years creating a grassroots homeless shelter for street kids, and finding ways to get them into school. The first kid he sponsored ten years ago made it to the top of his class from the streets. The second kid did the same thing. The third kid too! So instead of returning home from his volunteering trip, he stayed in town for another decade creating this valuable organization. The organization has helped over 135 street kids make it through primary school. We visited the transition house, where some of the former orphans live. It was one of the most moving testaments to hopeful and collective action against suffering, yet also one of the sharpest reminders of ongoing real-world struggles.
11. Seen a camel on the street and a giant crab in the fridge
Seeing as we are surrounded by wildlife conservancies on all sides, with lions and zebras and giraffes, it's bizarre that we saw a camel. One day it was walking down the street. Maybe it's from Somalia? Who knows.
We also have a frozen giant crab in our freezer, stuck to the back of the freezer. We can't remove him, so we've decided to call him Marcus.
Unfortunately, no photos of the camel or of Marcus, but I do have a photo of a nice pub and a place for millionaire investors.
12. Was adopted by a dog
For clarity, we didn't adopt a dog, but it adopted us. His name is Survivor and we live in the cabin where some Norwegian visitor essentially mothered him for 6 months. So this dog automatically follows around any white people who stay in this cabin. Sasha loves him. I'm more ambivalent because I don't want fleas, but he's growing on me. He sleeps outside our door when we sleep.
13. Learned some Swahili
Obviously imma learn some kiswahili while we're here.
14. Went to the Equator
On our way into Nanyuki, our taxi driver let us stop at the equator which was BOMB because I lived in Ecuador and visited the equator in South America.
15. Enjoyed some interesting music choices
Can somebody please explain to me why Kenyans like country music? Sasha and I rode a taxi back home from the supermarket and this badass dude, who we thought would play hardrock, blasted country music with the most ridiculous bass I've ever heard. It was bumpin'.
Apart from the gospel heard in the church, Sasha and I also heard the most phenomenal impromptu concert at our gym. There was a man in a bright green t-shirt hyping up the dance moves and I think Sasha fell in love with his frog-like enthusiasm.
FINALLY we listened to Swahili happy birthday for Mac, our now 5 year old host bro.
SOOOOOO turns out it is illegal to take photos of things in Kenya. I don't know exactly what the reasoning is (probably against spying?) but even in malls and grocery stores taking pictures is often not allowed. It is strictly forbidden to take pictures of embassies. Like, illegal. I did not know that. I took a photo of the Canadian embassy out of a taxi window as we were driving by. Call me a criminal.
Some back story is probably necessary. In the past few years, a jihadist fundamentalist militant group called al-Shabaab, based in Somalia, has caused some ruckus in Kenya. The majority of violence has taken place outside of Kenya, but there have been sporadic attacks, which caused Canada to officially list al-Shabaab as a terrorist organization In 2010. In 2010, the group pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda. Here's the good ol' Wikipedia page if you want more info. The most recent attack attributed to al-Shabaab was on a hotel in Nairobi on January 15, 2019 which had 15 casualties. (I heard all about it from my parents who read about it shortly after I was accepted to take on this internship.)
Just after a few days here, I am amazed by the security everywhere. Like, everywhere. There is a security guard at the entrance of every hotel, many with those airport scanner things you walk through. There are frequent, frequent, frequent police stops on the roads. Every apartment complex we saw had a private guard, and they ask for ID before they let drivers through. In fact, it is illegal not to have your ID with you at all times. All of this security has made me feel quite safe.
Apparently everyone knows you are not allowed to take pictures of consulates or embassies. Everyone except me, that is.
Here's how it went down. After spending a lovely afternoon at the Nairobi National Museum and listening to an impromptu poetry slam, the 4 other girls from McGill and I were off to a restaurant to grab dinner. We called an Uber. From insanely crowded streets with loud honking and lots of traffic, all of a sudden we were seeing manicured lawns on both sides of the road with landscaped greenery. I saw a sign for "Ghana embassy" and then one for "Saudi Arabia embassy" and eventually a Canadian flag. I snapped a few pictures for the memories. We continued another 3 minutes and a barrage of 3 security guards blocked the road until the Uber driver was forced to pull over. Then, 3 security guards quickly became around 7. One guy asked for the three phones from the three white chicks in the Uber, aka me and two of the other McGill interns. They took our passports and my debit card.
One guy demanded to know who took a photo, and I said I did. He demanded to know why. I said I was taking a picture for my grandmother to show her I wasn't that far from home. The guy with the overwhelmingly large gun didn't seem to think that was a good enough reason. Even when they learned two of us were Canadian they weren't any less aggressive. Four of them took turns copying the details of our IDs vigorously in a notebook, and asked for my address in Montreal, my phone number, and my passport number (which thanks to Peruvian hostels I memorized back in 2016).
They said not to worry.
Can I ask a question? How is it possible NOT TO WORRY?
Throughout the encounter, I must have said 5 times "I can just delete the photos as I apologize I did not know it was against the rules." But, there was no rushing the process. One guy asked me to get out of the vehicle. That scared the heeby-jeebies out of me. My knees were wobbly as I stepped into 7+ security guards / soldiers / armed men. One guy said to go look at the sign that said "no pictures." I can honestly say I did not see that sign. He didn't believe me. Maybe I shouldn't have said "it's a small sign" but I did because this was getting ridiculous and by this point I was annoyed.
I sat in the car again. Once they rang our info to the person sitting inside the consulate who verified we weren't registered terrorists, I deleted the photos from my phone and they let us go. That was after 30-40 minutes of intimidation tactics.
3 main takeaways:
1. Read about where you can and cannot take pictures before going to Kenya.
2. Be honest always.
3. Know when to give your Uber driver a generous tip.
We got to the restaurant 5 minutes later and ordered a pitcher of sangria. My Kenyan friend said it was good I miraculously acted chill (the other girls confirmed I only turned white after the car started moving again). She also said I was lucky I wasn't charged a major fee. I guess that means I'm lucky. Cheers.
Woke up in our sweet airbnb, went to the grocery store, ate lunch, and headed out for the Nairobi National Museum at around 2 PM. I particularly enjoyed three of the exhibits. The first was about "life cycles" in Kenya, aka traditions in the 42 ethnic groups from birth to death, split up into infanthood, youth, adulthood, and elderhood. The second was about our ancestors and evolution, where I took a photo with my great great great great great uncle, probably a few times removed. The third was about some of the traditional knowledge holders or powerful figures in various ethnically-based stories. The entrance was the equivalent of $12 USD (they use Kenyan shillings here, which equals about 1,200 so easy math).
We stepped outside and stumbled upon an impromptu poetry slam. That was particularly cool. After a hella stressful Uber ride (click here to read "How I essentially got detained in Nairobi on day 2"), we made it to a restaurant to eat dinner. We got back to the Airbnb and I passed out.
We woke up this morning and Nairobi National Park was outside our window. WAIT IS THAT A GIRAFFE?! Yes. Yes it is. This is going to be a great 3 months.
We landed in Nairobi at 7 PM last night (1 PM back home), got through customs reeeal fast (turns out you don't actually have to do the visa ahead of time if you're pressed on time) and took a cab to the hotel my parents so generously paid for us in hotel points. We bought our SIM cards for our phones with data plans at the airport (TelKom cards) for 10 GB of data + 100 minutes + unlimited Whatsapp for $15 / month. What a relief! Now I can call my grandma from Kenya whenever I want.
This morning we woke up at 11 AM (that jet lag tho) and went to the gym before packing up our stuff and heading out to find our AirBnB. We took a 45 minute Uber and it cost $6. I had a very preliminary conversation with the cab driver, Agnes, in kiswahili! She was impressed I knew the word for avocado. Little does she know that's one of the first words Duolingo taught me. I'll never find out what the Duolingo algorithm is for introducing vocabulary but I'm a fan.
The VERY affordable apartment was beautiful. We went to a little quirky restaurant down the street called "Pots and Palms." It was cute and we watched people watching a soccer game on the screens. We went back to the AirBnb and I passed out for an hour.
Who is staying at the AirBnb? Good question! I'm doing my internship through McGill with 5 other interns also from McGill. I'll be with Sasha working at IMPACT (Indigenous Movement for Peace Advancement and Conflict Transformation--more info on that later) while Iris and Ottalia are working with ILEPA (Indigenous Livelihoods Enhancement Partner Association) and Victoria and Elizabeth are working with SORALO (South Rift Association of Landowners).
We're getting ready to go to a Masego concert tonight because life is wild and why not go to a concert in Nariobi after your first full day here?
I am currently sitting on a plane flying from Zurich to Nairobi, and have nothing but appreciation for the multi-cultural experiences I have learned from in the past 5 years of my short life. I have moved 12 times in the past 5 years (with a move constituting a period over 3 months) living in 5 different countries during those moves—Canada, Ecuador, France, USA, and (soon !!!) Kenya. Beyond these 5 countries, I have been fortunate enough to visit another 6 countries on backpacking trips between the moves, in total hopping 11 countries across 4 continents in 5 years. Here’s a list of the top 5 things I have learned.
1. People are *pretty much* the same everywhere.
Even though daily life can look extremely different from Chennai, India to a rural fishing village in Brittany, France, all people live their realities with certain common attributes. People build their lives around other people. Whether this is family, or friends, or even strangers, people plan their lives according to the people they strive to be around. From Cuzco to Montreal, all people want to be accepted, hence all people need other people to accept them. We all experience emotions, and we all can feel love and pain. From Cambodia to Iceland, people listen to music and have their favorite foods. Although that music and those foods might be different, the need for human connection through the enjoyment of these things is constant. All people laugh, all people cry, and all people need to be comforted sometimes.
2. Living with a host family (while learning the language) is the most enriching way to know a place and a culture.
Don’t get me wrong: I was shaking with nerves when I arrived in Ecuador without having ever taken a Spanish class and knowing I would be living with a Spanish-speaking host family for eight months. But turns out, my Ecuadorian host family experience was the most fulfilling and heartwarming travel experience I’ve ever had. Fast forward three years, and I have been back three times to see these people who quickly became so important in my life. By completely immersing myself in a family home, I understood Spanish in 2 months and could speak the language fairly fluently in 4. Yes, I was particularly lucky in the case of Ecuador, where my host family essentially adopted me, and made me feel like I belonged in every family birthday party, and every salsa-dancing and tequila-drinking outing. That being said, the host family / language experience in France was also what I remember most fondly about that experience, precisely because it is the human connections that make travel so invigoratingly beautiful. I imagine my Kenya experience will be that much more genuine for the same reasons.
3. People will flow into and out of your life, and you must put effort into keeping the friendships that matter most.
You can learn something from every person you meet, which is why I enjoy meeting people wherever I go. One time in Porto, I was backpacking with a friend and we met a great group of interesting people at the hostel we were staying, which led to fun shenanigans we still laugh about. The point of this story? The people we met made the experience what it was. Especially during solo journeys, meeting temporary friends can make experiences more memorable. When I hiked Rainbow Mountain in Peru—the most beautiful place I’ve ever been—I shared the adventure with strangers from New Zealand, Thailand, and Paraguay. I never saw them again, but the moments were more meaningful because they were shared. All of this to say: It’s okay that people flow into and out of your life. This being said, even the craziest globe-hoppers need some kind of stability, and it can be challenging knowing friendships can be temporary. The tricky balance is knowing which friendships to let go of, and which friendships are worth maintaining. Often, this happens naturally. Over the past few years, I have learned that apart from my family, I can count my best friends on one hand. Even though they live across multiple continents, and although it might not always be practical or easy, I have decided these friendships matter to me, and it has been worth putting in the time and effort to making sure they continue.
4. “Normal” doesn’t exist.
Human beings have an incredible ability to adapt to new situations. I am always amazed by how quickly routines can change when living in different places. The “new normal” eclipses the old one faster than I believe it can. I’ll give you an example to clarify what I mean. Before going to live in the Amazon Rainforest, I would have never imagined that it would become routine to take a canoe across the river to get to the bus. But like every routine, repetition breeds habit, and within two weeks I didn’t think anything of it. Although adaptation periods vary, I find that routines can sometimes take root in just a few days. Have you ever been in a hotel for a week-long vacation, and accidently said “we can do that when we get home” referring to the hotel room as home, and not your house back home? Humans adapt quickly. Taking baths in the Aguarico River was once part of my daily Amazonian routine, just as in Montreal it is part of my routine to get to my classes 30 seconds before they start. Reality changes so quickly from place to place that one "normal" can be incredibly abnormal for somebody else. It’s fascinating to be able to question what normalcy is, especially after seeing that different realities can all appear normal after a few months.
5. Travel refines your sense of self.
I used to think my identity was tied to my habits, and who I surrounded myself with, and, perhaps most dangerously, my achievements. Over the past 5 years, I have learned that no matter where I go, or who I am with, or what qualifications I have, the truest form of my identity does not change. In other words, the essence of who I am is constant, and travel has allowed me to understand that better. In other words, the more I travel, the more I have learn that my unique character as a human being is the only real version of me. Although I can have different social circles from one city to the next, that should not change my sense of self. I suppose I believe that only by striving to be myself in every capacity of who I am can I fully embrace my identity in the most wholesome manner possible. Today, I know who I am better than I ever have.
*It may not have been possible for me to learn any of these lessons if it were not for the undying emotional support of my family, who accepts me exactly for who I am, and encourages me to achieve what I set out to achieve. Thanks mom and dad.
WHERE I HAVE LIVED:
Sept 2014 - April 2015: Kingston (Canada)
April 2015 - April 2016: Quito (Ecuador)
1 month backpacking in Peru & Bolivia
June 2016 - August 2016: Burlington (USA)
September 2016 - April 2017: Peterborough (Canada)
1 month in Ecuador to visit host family
May 2017 - June 2017: Sherbrooke (Canada)
June 2017 - July 2017: Grenoble (France)
August 2017 - December 2017: Trebeurden (France)
2 months teaching skiing lessons in Burke, USA
March 2018 - June 2018: Quito (USA)
June 2018 - August 2018: Saint Johnsbury (USA)
3 week backpacking Sweden, Denmark, Iceland
2 week family trip to Cheticamp, Canada
September 2018 - April 2019: Montreal (Canada)
2 week family trip to Cancun, Mexico
1 week family trip to Arizona, USA
May 2019 - August 2019: Nanyuki (Kenya)
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