This is the story about how I caught the travel bug. It was not the first trip I had been on. It was not the first time I boarded a flight. It was a life changing, extraordinary adventure that continues to impact myself and my decisions daily. This is the story about how I became the person I am today. I was 16 years old. I had just graduated grade 11. I was at a stage in my life where I didn’t know who I was, or where I was going and that was alright. Thanks to the loving and generous support of my parents, I would be heading to Mwangaza, Kenya on a Me to We trip. I would be spending just over three weeks living in a village in the Masai Mara, building a school in a community and partaking in leadership training.
I wasn’t all that nervous, as most 16 year olds would be travelling to Africa without their family or friends. I was excited. It was invigorating. I would have no electricity, no running water, and best of all no technology. I wouldn’t be talking to my family or friends from the moment I boarding my plane until the day I returned. I knew I was going to have an incredible experience, I didn’t however understand the impact it would have on the direction of the rest of my life. After barely sleeping a wink, I woke up at the crack of dawn for my first African adventure. I met up with my group in Montreal and we all flew together to Nairobi. Arriving in Nairobi, we were properly excited and equally exhausted. We spent one short night there, before getting on a lori that would take us 6 hours to (literally) the middle of nowhere.
We unpacked our bags, and made ourselves at home. It really did feel like home. We would wake up when the sun rose, and go to bed shortly after it set. We would shower using buckets, go to the washroom in a hole in the ground covered by a toilet seat, and we would eat the most delicious and freshest foods I have ever been so lucky to have.
When we would sleep, we would cover our beds with a bug net. It was a true, wonderful, incredible, amazing, adventure.
When the sun would set, and the stars came out, you wouldn’t be able to see anything for miles. There were no street lamps, candles, or lights in houses. It was absolute peaceful darkness with nothing but the sounds of animals in the background. Most of the days we would spend building. We worked hard and were able to almost completely finish off one school whilst also starting another.
Before our school was built, the kids were studying in a facility built by the local community. They had all worked together and put pieces of tin, wood, and clay to create a space of learning for these kids so that they no longer had to study outside. Imagine for a second what it must have been like to study outside. I think it’s hard to study comfortably at my desk, with all the distractions around me like Instagram, Netflix or Facebook. I couldn’t possible imagine what it must have been like studying and trying to learn in the heat of the Kenyan sun. With bugs and flies everywhere. Noises everywhere. Kenya is known for it’s long rains between late April and early June. What would happen then?
Other days, we would go on excursions. We visited a high school a few hours away, we got to hear Robin Wiszowaty and Spencer West speak and we even got the chance to go on a safari where I saw the most beautiful animals in the wild. A few of the days, during recess, we would get to play games or sports with the kids. I got to know one girl in particular. Her name is Chelagnat. Without even realizing it, she has changed my whole life. Her laughter, positivity and radiant smile will forever hold the most treasured part of my heart. A year before going to Kenya, I had tried to commit suicide. I suffer from depression and that point in my life was particularly challenging for me. Chelagnat and I did not speak the same language. We would communicate through smiles, laughter and gestures. Without even using words, this beautiful 9 year old girl taught me the meaning of happiness. She taught me that life will never be close to perfect but that it is what you do with your struggles and how you react to them that will change your life in the most positive way. This joyful and spirited little girl had lived in poverty her whole life. I never saw her frown once. Her smile was so genuine and grateful. I think of her every time I am having a difficult time. She is so strong, happy, and positive. She is the person who gets me out of bed every morning with a smile on my face (looking for that cup of coffee), to take advantage of all the wonderful privileges I have been given. I am so damn grateful to have been given this life. And Chelagnat taught me that.
This might be the most challenging post I have ever written. Still five years later, it is difficult to put into words my experience in Kenya. I remember how I felt coming home more than anything. I remember yelling at my mom to turn off the faucet, or being speechless as I lifeguarded kids swimming in a pool. I remember having no one to talk to who understood my experience, and feeling empowered and alone all at the same time. I remember not understanding why I was given all this privilege and opportunity while others struggle ever day for the necessities of life. I remember feeling so guilty for ever skipping class when so many people don’t even get the opportunity to go to school. I remember being angry. I remember questioning why our society is so focused on having more and being so materialistic. Slowly, over time, these questions take up less of my thought. But they still ring loudly and I still don’t have answers for them. Instead, this is what I tell myself: I didn’t chose where I was born. I didn’t chose my sex. I didn’t chose my race. I didn’t chose my family. I didn’t chose my social class. I am who I am. I am a white woman, born into a middle-class family. My life has been a string of constant privilege. I have nothing but opportunities at my door. I have had a free education up until the 12th grade. I have free healthcare. I have a loving family. I have incredible friends. I have a roof over my head, a blanket over my body and food on my plate. I am so unbelievably privileged. I can be happy about this privilege or I can be angry about it. But the fact is this is the life that I was given, and if life is a lottery, then I won. Now I for one, do not plan on wasting any of my winnings. I plan on seeing the world, being humble, and minimilistic. Studying hard, and appreciating everthing. I plan on being kind, generous, and thoughtful. I plan on taking advantage of every single opportunity that I have been given because very few people have the same chances. I will spend the rest of my life doing my damnedest to ensure that more people around the world have the same opportunities and privileges I have had.
When I travel, I’m not doing it to check it off a list or to have cool pictures for Facebook (although let’s be honest, my Insta feed is hella’ cooooool). Quite frankly though, I travel because I love the world. I love cultures. I love people. I love seeing things, and doing things, and being a part of something. Kenya gave me the biggest travel bug. It taught me that I know absolutely nothing at all and the more I travel, the more I realize this to be true. I will never stop going places, and learning, and loving. Kenya believe it?