I was steaming mad. Well, probably more exhausted than anything, but symptomatically I was presenting as pretty darn perturbed.
Lori and I found ourselves on this sweltering mid-December afternoon in 2014, in all places, at a primate reserve somewhere in Western Uganda. It was our last full day of a 6,000 mile independent overland backpacking journey from Cape Town to Kampala (with a side trip to see the monkeys).
I didn’t want to see any more monkeys. I was tired of doing “cross-cultural experiences,” trying “something new,” having an “adventurous-spirit,” and all the other cliches that the backpacking/travel industry uses to peddle guidebooks, tours and gear. Things we had generally brushed off in the past — delays, lack of access to basics, overly-friendly locals (i.e. touts, swindlers and cons) — were now cause for tiny tantrums. It was clear that the road was wearing on me. But the river ran deeper than the everyday annoyances of our surroundings.
The previous five years had been the happiest and most satisfying so far, but the frenetic pace had begun to take its toll on the two of us — I, for one, was wiped: Graduate school, an engagement and wedding, work and travel for the World Bank, six transcontinental and transnational moves, living and working in rural Southern Belize for a year — and on top of it all: a combined 14 months of overland budget backpacking across 20 developing countries over five continents.
By late 2014, I had worked on projects in seven African countries, having devoted the majority of the past decade to the continent, including a combined three years of field work in Africa. I had a masters degree in International Development with a focus on rural communities and conflict transition. I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mozambique. Most of the time, I truly enjoyed the work. So, for all intents and purposes I should have felt completely at home and in my element sitting on the porch in that rural village in Western Uganda (in the photo above). But I didn’t.
Our entire four months backpacking up through Africa had, in fact, been characterized by an inescapable tension between cutting the trip short and continuing on. Our first stop — a layover between Belize/DC and Cape Town — surprised us beyond measure. Initially, we had planned on a few hours in Istanbul, then a few days, which quickly became a week. I would have extended it to a month if it hadn’t been for Lori’s persistence to get to South Africa. After all, this was her first time visiting Africa.
It was my fifth trip to the continent, however, and, honestly, I was finding it hard to get excited about returning. For one, I knew it would be hard work. I knew how physically and mentally demanding it was to independently travel through East Africa, in particular. My excitement about returning to Mozambique after eight years was tempered by recent conflict and instability. I didn’t know if I was up for the challenge. Five years of Lori and I being on the same page about everything and it was apparent the streak was over.
We finally tackled our differences head on over one very late night in Zanzibar’s Stone Town, following Lori’s final interview for her dream position with Handicap International. The universe was carrying us along to the next step, the momentum was roaring. If Lori got the job in Laos, it was wheels down in Vientiane by Christmas (about six weeks away). A 12-month contract meant we’d almost immediately be tasked with looking for the next opportunity after that. A week back in the States for a quick breather before another big move. No doubt, we wanted to go back to Laos. Of all the countries we had visited to that point, Laos was tops. But what about spending more than a few days with family and friends in the States? What about a proper vacation? What about starting a family? We’d make it work somehow. We always figure things out.
We had had so many memorable and enriching experiences, but we rarely allowed ourselves any time to reflect on a single one, and people and places were getting harder to recall. Maintaining this blog, then became critical in making sure this time in our lives didn’t just sink into oblivion. A lot of travelers complain that blogging/journaling takes away from making new experiences and memories, but the trade-off was worth it to me. Those moments of stillness and reflection were absolutely necessary for replenishing the energy needed to move forward to the next day’s adventure.
Ultimately, we agreed that the job decision wasn’t in our hands, the wheels were in motion, and all we could do at that point was wait.
And then, the strangest thing happened. We arrived on a gorgeous stretch of beach on the eastern portion of Zanzibar island and the crazy train came to a sudden and unexpected halt. Lori came down with a fever and we found ourselves waylaid in a most idyllic paradise for ten days.
About a week into our stay, I was sitting, enjoying the shade of the evening, sipping a local beer and watching the sun’s last rays paint the Indian Ocean a million pastel hues when I received an email in Lori’s account. She was on the mend, but still hut-bound a hundred meters down the beach and outside of wifi access. Like the three evenings prior, I had gone up to the dining area to check her email for news. I relayed the news to Lori that she had not been chosen for the position in Laos, essentially marking the beginning of an unintended and unforeseen two-year hiatus from international work and travel.
Lori and I are fully aware how enigmatic we must seem to others. Some people characterize us as nomads. But nomads generally roam without purpose, objective or destination in mind. Others use the word “travelers,” which also misses the mark. The two of us have struggled over the years to explain ourselves to others or define ourselves within the context of mainstream culture, because our lifestyle, values and aspirations don’t neatly fit into a tidy and neatly-labeled box. One of the very things, in fact, that drew the two of us together was that we’ve never had to explain ourselves to each other — we’ve always just understood. Our individual perspectives on the world were one in the same and spending more time together only reinforced that.
Largely owing to this deep mutual understanding and the shared values, ideals and priorities that accompanied it, we’ve been able to accomplish a lot of very memorable and deeply satisfying things together. Since the time Lori and I reconnected in July of 2009, our lives took on a fierce momentum. Though full of uncertainty, risk, and challenges, the universe seemed to carry us along to where we needed to be, and we were rewarded for every attempt to trade the comforts, convenience and security of mainstream American life for something feeling more substantive, satisfying and rewarding to us.
On that day at the monkey reserve in Uganda, you couldn’t have paid me enough to take another overseas assignment. Yet, a few short months back in the U.S. and both of us were rearing to get going again. All we needed was some time to catch our breath. In no time, I was actively pursuing overseas opportunities again. Lori was happy with the work that she had found in Portland, for the time being, but continuing on to the next step was not far from her mind either.
First, of course, we were certain it would include a move to Laos.
Then last summer, it appeared to be Northern Thailand or Uganda, where I was offered positions that I didn’t end up accepting due to lack of proper support for starting a family.
In November, we geared up to move to Nepal when Lori landed a job with Handicap International, before having to ultimately pass on the position because the demands of the position and the post-crisis environment didn’t align with our new life circumstances. She was pregnant!
We committed to another eight months in Portland and vowed to put off looking for overseas work until Lori was closer to the due date — until, of course, we stumbled upon a really great foundation in China that was looking for someone with Lori’s profile to help launch their new 150-bed rehabilitation hospital in the capital of Yunnan Province, our favorite part of China that we visited in 2012.
In early March, the papers were signed, sealed, and delivered. Done deal. We were moving to China.
Then, in mid-May, with Lori 35-weeks-pregnant and amassing an admirable collection of China-themed children’s books, something very interesting and not entirely unexpected happened…
“Hey honey…do you remember what I was actually miffed about that day at the monkey reserve in Uganda?”
To Be Continued…