You know how when you're a kid, waiting for Christmas or your birthday or whatever to come is absolute torture? And when it finally does come, no matter how awesome it is and how much icecream cake you eat, you're always left feeling just a little let down? Well, today was nothing like that. Leaving my office at five o'clock with no plans to return feels like what I'd been waiting my whole life to do. The walk home was one big choreographed dance party.
(Full disclosure: I left at 2, took the bus and didn't technically see any animated birds,
but everything else you see here is a pretty accurate depiction of my experience.)
I was thinking about writing a post about all the things I am thankful for regarding this job, lessons I have learned over the past 16 months toiling in an office, pretending to be genuinely thrilled by the very act of showing up to work in pantyhose every day. But then I remembered who I am (a cynical ex-office worker) and that plan clearly went up in smoke.
Then I began writing a list of petty, small annoyances about this place that I won’t miss (the sound of the photocopier jamming, the awkward elevator rides, the curt tone of one person in particular) but then I decided to live and let live. It's over. And no matter how much I want to pour bleach in the coffee maker or pay tribute to the Office Space printer smash scene, I've decided to keep my dignity intact. I am moving on and up and all of those platitudes.
I am going to Africa. Holy [long chain of expletives redacted for the protection of innocent eyes and ears everywhere]. It's been in the works for months (years?) and with just twelve days to go, my mind is beginning to panic. In a good way -- I am positively panicking. The Africa that has eluded me for so long is finally within striking distance and I could not be happier.
It is often suggested (by people more poetic than I) that Africa gets under your skin and into your blood. Which is to say that once infected (choice words, my dear) with the beauty of the land and the affection of its people, it is difficult to distance yourself from it -- literally or figratively.
Although this trip will be my first experience of Africa, already I am enraptured by this amazing and utterly unique continent. The excitement, the uncertainty, the element of risk -- it fascinates me. It represents so much freedom from the conformity and monotony of life as I know it. It represents freedom from plodding to work in the drizzling rain to sit around and watch the time tick by, day after day after day after day.
But I must remind myself that I am romanticizing it too much. At the mere mention of Africa, my eyes brighten, then glaze over as I look longingly into the distance (invariably east), thinking only of sweeping savannas and uninterrupted blue skies. Worried voices mention something about corruption, violence, disease, but I need look no further than photos of African children laughing and chasing cars, to convince myself that they have been deceived, that this is a wonderful, euphoric place. At my core, I know that their concern is warranted -- there is greed and suffering and poverty here too, just as there is anywhere in the world.
I've been thinking a lot about what I want from this trip, a justification for a year's worth of obsessive budgeting and planning and eager anticipation. Do I want an "authentic" African experience? What does that even mean? Is it the life experience of a typical black African, something I could never have, something I wouldn't even want if I could? I suppose that is about as authentic as you can get: a rather miserable experience that international aid organizations, doctors, politicians and volunteers are working hard and spending billions of dollars annually to improve.
Whether it's what I want or not, it's not something I'll ever get. The closest I'll get is an experience manufactured to keep me within a safe viewing distance of the authenticity I'm after. Because I'm white. Because I can afford bottled water, and malaria tablets, and a flight out of there when things turn ugly. Like it or not, mzungu, you've got it made.
We are all visitors, whether we're there for three weeks or three generations, and we're all asking ourselves whether we're doing the right thing, or the wrong thing, or the right thing in the wrong way, and finally we settle -- albeit uncomfortably -- on "our intentions are good". We mean well, and though it might not always seem like enough, it's all we can do.
In the end, I know that we will return home affected -- changed by what we've seen, struggling to describe our experiences to ourselves and to others. Right now, I tell people that I am travelling to Africa to experience it -- to run with shoeless children, to bear witness to incomprehensible poverty and injustice, to hear the stories that break hearts and then heal them. But I know that it won't take long for me to want to change it. And bleak and preemptive as it may be, I think that the ultimate discovery of this trip might be that I cannot change very much.
But who knows what we'll see, and what sense (if any) we'll make of it. These are just thoughts rattling around in my skull as I try to anticipate the upcoming changes in my circumstances and perspective. For now I'm happy to be officially unemployed and about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. Tomorrow (figuratively, for now) is another country.