“Last night while I lay thinking here, some WHAT IFS crawled inside my ear and pranced and partied all night long and sang their same old WHAT IF song: WHAT IF I’m dumb in school? WHAT IF they’ve closed the swimming pool? WHAT IF I get beat up? WHAT IF there’s poison in my cup? WHAT IF I start to cry? WHAT IF I get sick and die? WHAT IF I flunk that test? WHAT IF green hair grows on my chest? WHAT IF nobody likes me? WHAT IF a bolt of lightning strikes me? WHAT IF I don’t grow talle? WHAT IF my head starts getting smaller? WHAT IF the fish won’t bite? WHAT IF the wind tears up my kite? WHAT IF they start a war? WHAT IF my parents get divorced? WHAT IF the bus is late? WHAT IF my teeth don’t grow in straight? WHAT IF I tear my pants? WHAT IF I never learn to dance?
Everything seems well, and then the nighttime WHAT IFS strike again!”
–Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends
My sister and I read this poem over and over again when we were little. Although at the time we felt it acknowledged some of the fears with which an eight and twelve year old might struggle, it seems to have a greater meaning than at first I thought. What if we don’t have enough money? What if we get rid of the apartment? What if we can’t find a storage unit? What if, what if, what if? No matter the age or stage in life, the ‘What Ifs’ have a way of striking. How do you quiet the whispers?
We’ve thought about and heard it all before-when is the right time to have kids, to get married, to change jobs? Seems most of us don’t have an exact date or time and often, the best answer is – ‘it’s never the right time’. The minute you buy a house, you’re offered a job transfer in a new city that you can’t pass up. Wait to take that much-desired journey to a far off land and there’s bound to be a travel warning to the exact place you planned on going. Trying to know when the ‘right’ time is to make that life change is never easy. Do you cannonball into the deep end or wade with trepidation at the top step in the shallow part of the pool? How on earth are any of us supposed to know when the time is just right?
After countless hours of negotiation with the voices both inside and out of my head, I can honestly say I have no idea when the time is right. But, I do think that when it is at the closest level of right for you, you’ll know. One of my best friends jumps into life. When she wanted to try life on a new coast it took her less than a day to make the decision. When that coast didn’t work out and an overseas offer arrived, she was gone within a week. She knew the instant she met her husband and married shortly after and has tackled other life decisions with continued intensity. Me, I’m the opposite. It took me till twenty-five to finally buy the gift my parents wanted to give me at twenty-one. I cried when I went off to university and although immensely excited, struggled with the idea of moving overseas. There were things I ‘needed’ to be able to make the leap, but after leaping once, twice and a third time my comfort zone has been blown open and the needs seem less and less. Everyone has his or her own process. Sometimes you’ll know deep in your toes that it’s right and other times ‘the right choice’ apprehensively knocks on your door and it takes quite awhile to hear it, answer it and let it in.
The process, decisions and choices are yours. Although, sometimes, life makes a few of those decisions for you but for those that are left to your own accord, listen to the message the world is sharing with you and leap when you’re as close to ready as you’ll ever get. John Lennon said, ‘life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans’. Time doesn’t stand still and there are only so many do-overs in a lifetime. Find your do-over and take the plunge. Just because we don’t all openly embrace change, doesn’t mean it’s bad. When the signs of the universe finally become clear or as un-fuzzy as they can to you, do it…..the time is right.
For more of Stacey’s travel musings, check out her blog.
Age: 39 and 40
Hometown: Ridderkerk, The Netherlands (small town near Rotterdam)
Quote: “Live the life you love, love the life you live!”
“Stay hungry, stay foolish.” – Steve Jobs
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” -
Most travelers consider volunteering at some point. We see a need and we know that we have the time, energy, or money to be able to lend a hand and be a part of creating change. Helping people feels good. Working on environmental issues and seeing results is exciting. We don’t just want to talk about problems, we want to do something about them.
Most travelers also know that there is a strong push within the traveling community not to volunteer while abroad- ever. Volunteers often do more harm than good. Children get attached to a revolving door of volunteers and develop attachment issues. Foreigners create environmental systems and forget to train locals so that when they leave, it all falls apart. And then there is the endless discussion about the harm that comes from middle and upper class Westerners descending upon a developing nation to “save” or “empower” the people there.
So what is a traveler to do? Put their money where there mouth is and actually do something about the problems they see or stay away from the volunteer complex for fear of being labeled as one of “those people” who doesn’t recognize the harm volunteering can do?
I will be the first to admit that even the most well-researched volunteer opportunity can dissolve into a lesson on why so many people are against volunteering. Not too long ago, my husband and I found ourselves pulling away from a volunteer opportunity working with sea turtles when it became apparent that the founder and his assistant had very little respect for the local community. No amount of research into their organization, practices, or beliefs could have prepared us for their level of distaste for the local population or for some other unethical practices going on that had nothing to do with sea turtles or the environment.
I could use this experience to highlight exactly why no one should ever volunteer abroad. I could, but I don’t. That’s because I believe that the potential pitfalls are not enough to outweigh the potential benefits. I also do not think for one minute that any amount of negative exposure on the volunteer industry is enough to make everyone stop volunteering. The drive to do something positive, the belief that things can change, and the need to feel connected in meaningful ways to other people is not going away any time soon. Unfortunately, neither is the “savior complex” that too many volunteers root themselves in. Instead of debating whether volunteering is “good” or “bad” as a whole, a better use of our efforts might be in facilitating real conversation, especially with new volunteers, about how to best research opportunities and combat the “savior complex”.
Before making the decision to volunteer there are three huge questions I think volunteers should be asking.
1) Does tho volunteer opportunity perpetuate the need for more volunteers or does it foster local, sustainable growth with the aim of eliminating the need for outside volunteers? An organization that has plans to utilize foreign volunteers for the length of its existence is a red flag because it means the organization is either choosing to not training community members to do those same jobs or it has a belief that community members can’t do those same jobs. Either way, red flag. Your skill set or knowledge should directly relate to a need and, ideally, you should be sharing your knowledge with a local or locals who want to be able to carry on the work when you leave.
2) Is the organization working in meaningful ways with- not for- the local community? Working to strengthen a community and get to the root of a problem involves working with community members, not doing things for them because the organization “knows better”. This requires mutual respect and open dialogue.
3) Have cultural and community needs been taken into account and does the work reflect this? An organization that invites foreign volunteers but does not educate them on cultural norms, needs, and beliefs is an organization that is asking for conflict and resistance from the community. It’s also a sure sign of an organization that has at least a bit of a savior complex.
There are many other valid considerations as well but these are the three that I think get overlooked the most. Look at the language on the website or paperwork of the organization. How do they talk about the local population? What words do they use to describe the culture? Do they have a clear plan for working with community members? Red flags are not always in plain view, sometimes you have to be a bit of a detective to figure out what’s really going on. Even then, as in our experience, sometimes the evidence just isn’t there until you are on the ground. Don’t be afraid to walk away and don’t be afraid to share your experience with others.
As a final thought, it’s also very important that volunteers, as well as those who choose not to volunteer, hold ourselves accountable to the words we use to describe our experiences. We are not “saving” anyone. “If it weren’t for us” should be followed up with “someone else would fill the role”. And, I know this may seem radical, but the words “poor”, “uneducated”, “simple”, or “backwards” need not be employed to evoke pity for the communities volunteers work in. Treating the recipients of our volunteer hours as human equals goes a long way in avoiding the perpetuation of that “savior complex”.
There are very real concerns when it comes to volunteering abroad. There is also no doubt that changes need to be made in the way we view volunteering and how we go about it. However, there are many small, locally focused organizations in true need of foreign volunteers to get the ball rolling, get a specific project off the ground, or to share specific skills and knowledge with the locals ultimately running the program. Connecting with people and lending a helping hand does not need to be viewed as a vice when partnered with the word “volunteering” nor should we be glorifying any and all things volunteer related. There is a very real balance to be achieved when it comes to volunteering, no doubt about it. The question for everyone is, how do we do that?
Hometown: Apeldoorn, the Netherlands
Quote: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” ~Lewis Caroll
It seems the nature of humanity to freeze a moment in time.
We remember a person, a place, an experience, as it was when we were last present with it. It is frozen, forever, in our minds; like the fading koda-chrome slides my parents took across the north of Africa forty odd years ago. We return to these places often, in our memories; the tastes, the smells, the sensations in our bodies as real as they were years ago. The characters remain eternally young. The buildings never deteriorate. The music in our minds never changes. Until, we return.
It’s a funny trick our minds play, allowing ourselves to remain fluid, to move forward, to constantly evolve, and yet expecting, somehow, that the places and people of our past experience remain the same. It takes a great deal of presence as a traveler, to remain conscious of this ongoing illusion, this magic trick that we play on ourselves. Returning is dangerous business.
There is a witchcraft in some places that weaves a web that continues to draw us back. When we return the spell is often broken and we find ourselves living in the past, wishing for people, or experiences, or a particular vibe that has come and gone. I’ll admit that there are place to which I refuse to return, simply because I love my illusion too much. The memories made on the first pass are so powerful that I wish to preserve them just as they are.
When we do choose to return, we must do so with an open hand, not grasping at what was past, an open heart, ready to receive what is new, and with open minds, allowing for the growth that has occurred in our absence. It isn’t fair, to a people, or a place, to expect it to remain locked in some eternal nostalgia that we’ve created around it. Of course it’s not the same; progress is the nature of things. Roads will replace foot paths, cell phones will be tucked inside native dresses. Nikes will replace woven sandals, electric lights crowd out the daily use of candles. It would be usurious of us to expect a place to exist at a lesser stage of technological development because it fills a particular emotional need or provides us with a sense of the exotic, or an escape from our real world.
The world changes, so do we. Just as a place will change in our absence, so does the person we bring back to the location. The eyes with which we see now are not the same as the lenses we experienced the spot the first time, or the last time, we attended it. It’s worth considering that for a while as we prepare to return.
My Dad and I had this chat four years ago, as we were settling into our favourite little spot on Lago de Atitlan, in Guatemala for the winter. We were returning for the first time, following a 10 month absence. He was returning for the first time after a 36 year absence.
“You can come, Dad,” I said across the crappy phone connection between ends of the continent, “But you can’t complain about how much it’s changed. It won’t be the same, but remember that for the children this is all it’s ever been, and they get to experience it in their own way, without our biases.”
I could hear him nodding his head in his office in our log home at the edge of the fall snow in Canada. And so, they came, the people who brought me to this lake for the first time in-utero just as the country was beginning to descend into a decades long civil war. It was as much of a joy to watch my parents rediscover the lago they’d long loved as it was to watch my children come alive to the Mayan culture for the first time.
This winter we’re back, all three generations of us. The lake has changed. The people have changed. The village we love the most has changed. We have changed. And yet, the magic remains, so long as we allow the world, and ourselves, to be as we really are.
“This is a truth about leaving the culture that raised you and crossing into another: We leave home with an arsenal of things we know about the place we’re going. There is no disarming all of what we know, no matter how much touching and kneading and feeling we do, no matter how much we think we’re trying. What makes us blind is that we think we see.”
–Alden Jones, The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia (2013)
The fluidity of travel is a double-edged blade. It’s one of the things I love most about it – that each day is different and you don’t know what to expect. It pulls you into the present, encouraging you to pay attention to everything going on around you, rather than going into auto-pilot mode.
We are beings of habit, though. Our brains are wired to develop patterns of behavior, so that we’re not constantly making decisions. It uses less energy and frees up our mental resources. So when I’m traveling for extended periods of time, I begin to miss the structured days, the habits, the rituals. I do take some of these with me on the road, just to make my life a little bit easier. For instance, I usually travel with protein powder and oatmeal, so that I can have a consistent meal to start off the day. It gives me a bit of respite – being able to wake up and not having to worry about what I’m going to eat for breakfast. Get centered into the day before I have to start make decisions. Then, after that – I take the day as it comes.
I also take a kettlebell around with me when I’m able. (Which usually means whenever I’m not traveling by plane.) Yes, I even carried one along for the 8,000 mile motorcycle trek that I took earlier this year. It was 25lbs of extra weight, but then I was also packing my podcast equipment – so I wasn’t traveling light. What I love about the kettlebell is that it’s versitile and allows me to keep fit when I’m on the road. Sure, there are a lot of body-weight exercises I could do, but just having that weight there with me is an extra bit of motivation. I can’t ignore it. Hell, if I’m going to lug it around, I *have* to put it to use.
While I’m traveling – that’s about all the ritual that I take with me. When I get home, though, I have deeper morning rituals that help me get the most out of the day. When I first get up, I take care of meditation, gratitude and meals. Meditation and gratitude are part of centering myself and taking a moment to recognize the things I should be grateful for. For meditation I’ve been testing out Headspace (an app) and for gratitude I’ve used the 5-minute Journal for over a year. After that I prepare my meals for the day (unless I’m going out). Admittedly, I’m a utilitarian eater – so I just don’t want to have to worry about those decisions when I’m hungry. I’ve also found that taking care of it at once means that I eat healthier, rather than just grabbing whatever is available.
I’ve been trying out a new framework for productivity and happiness each day. The morning ritual is a part, but only the first step. I’m going to stick with it for a few more weeks to see how it works out. If I find it useful, I’ll share.
So, out of curiosity, what morning rituals do you have?
Chris Plough writes and podcasts at oznog.com, where he shares stories and advice from his adventures and from the incredible people that he’s met along the way. You can also follow him on twitter: @chrisplough.
There are 2 significant expenses with Magnetic Island. The first is the ferry that takes you to the island which is $32 for an adult. The second is just as much a necessity as it is a luxury and that is the Mokes. For around $80 you can hire one of these miniature petrol cars to take you around the must see island. Food can be pricy also, but a picnic could see you through the day.
Describe a typical day
We boarded the passenger ferry in Townsville, a smooth but breezy cold ride took us to Magnetic Island. We first stocked up on water and sun cream at the local IGA supermarket. Then we made our way to hire a moke. Parting with $80 we had picked up the keys to our new ride. The car was nothing more than an oversized Barbie car. Pink and white and just enough room for the two of us. So we took off on a tour of the island. Magnetic Island is scenically beautifully.
We pulled our car up at several look outs. The luscious green foliage stretched down the rolling hills into the sea. Each point we took in was a pleasure and a treat for the eyes. We watched the wildlife of exotic bird and marsupials fluttering. hopping. crawling out of the many bushes and trees that stretched the steep roads.
Soon it was time to park the car on the shore line and start walking one of the many walking tracks that weave around the Island. We removed out shoes and dipped our feet in the sea. Boulders lay at the bottom of the cliff face immersed in water. Here is where a keen eye could spot much of the islands aquatic wildlife amongst the cracks and crevices. The track was beautiful and secluded. We were aloud our own private peace as we looked out to sea watching the wave’s crash against the shore
Our stomachs grumbled to let us know it was time for lunch. After a quick read of a local pamphlet that spelled out where to eat we decided to settle for a Mexican feed. With directions in hand and a small road map it still took us almost 45 mins to find the eatery. This however was wasted 45 minutes, the restaurant looked like a dilapidated unkempt old shack that was in dire need of a bulldozer. We imagined a buffet at a wake would have better ambience. So we gave up on Mexican and headed back to the dock to eat at Peppers. We sat on the veranda and took in the view. A rather over enthusiastic waitress took our orders and we sat and drank lemonade whilst talking over the mornings highlights. The food was great but with a substantial price tag to suit. I tucked into an Angus burger and chips with all the bacon and cheese I could want. My mouth is watering just at the thought of just how beautiful that meal was.
After lunch we decided it was time to relax on the beach so with a few essentials in hand we made our way to Magnetic Island’s paradise beach on Nelly Bay. We led out on the beautiful golden sands and took an occasional swim in the sea. It was quiet but we shared the beach with a couple of family’s holiday making. Before long it came time to hand back our miniature motors and climb aboard the ferry. A downside to Magnetic Island is the first and last ferry don’t run early or late enough, as this was a day trip we had to abide by those times. So we set off back across the water and back to Townsville for the night.
Describe an interesting conversation you had:
There wasn’t really a chance to get to talk to the locals but along the way we did pick up some interesting information. Magnetic Island got its name from exactly that a Magnetic force, which probably doesn’t come as a big surprise. The interesting element is that it was the only island around the area and further down the coast that would put the old ships off course as it would interfere with the ships compasses, and hence the reason it took the name Magnetic Island.
What did you like? Dislike?
I loved the Island and there is a great element of fun in driving the mokes around to explore. My dislike is the ferry times, they no doubt accommodate for the 9-5 workers who work on or off the island, and it felt we couldn’t cram in enough in such a short span of time. The island has so much more to explore and provides a huge amount of entertainment all year round. Next time around I think I would book in to stay at a hotel and give more time to exploring more of the beautiful island
Where Next? Robe!!!!!
“What raises travel writing to literature is not what the writer brings to a place, but what a place brings out of the writer.”
–William Zinsser, in They Went: The Art and Craft of Travel Writing (1991)
“We need HOW many shots?” Six immunizations, a signed yellow fever card and two prescriptions later we left the doctor’s office. It was going to be worth it, we just knew it! Five years and a few extra booster shots later and we were right. Our time on the African continent yields some of my most favourite travel memories and life-changing experiences. “Africa gets into your soul and stays there”. This is my answer to most questions about my time in Africa. With a smile, I remember the moments that would not have been possible anywhere else. If you’re even a bit curious-Go, you’ll never be the same again.
We’ve traveled to Africa three times and each has been more different than the time before it. There was Egypt in the north, South Africa and its surrounds in the south and Tanzania and Kenya in the east.
Egypt is filled with history, culture, religion and life on the Nile. We slept on a felucca, rode camels in the Sahara, translated hieroglyphics, awed at the pyramids and sphinx and ate our weight in falafel. Egypt’s appeal was the intertwining of religion and life amidst an ever-changing landscape. It seemed that there’s a part of Egypt ruled by the river and a separate part away from it all. Markets clamored with vendors selling their wares and religion was heard all around – most especially as the sound of the muezzin floated through the air calling worshippers to prayer. Perfumes, hookah pipes, cartouches and papyrus were readily sold to travelers as take home items and history was captured on cave walls.
Southern and western Africa is still my favourite of parts we’ve visited so far. We spent three weeks through parts of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Hanging with penguins at Boulder Beach, glimpsing the southernmost tip and feeling like the true king of the world atop Table Mountain are special. Bush camping in the Okavango Delta was more than memorable since a raging hippo chased our mokorros and we lived to tell the tale. And let’s not even talk about the jump into Devil’s Pool-this is truly the definition of living on the edge! My favourite beyond a shadow of a doubt was Namibia. Etosha National Park’s watering hole is Discovery Channel in living colour as silent onlookers sit for hours waiting for animals to visit for a drink. Soussevlei is a sand lover’s paradise and hiking Dune 45’s bright, brilliant sand dunes make you feel like a cherry seated atop nature’s sundae. After visiting Namibia, it’s become one of my most treasured memories.
And then there’s the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. Masai warriors live their lives off of the land and teach their children to do the same. Dotted through the plains you see Masai houses and schools left standing for the next group to come through as the nomads move to a new location. Dry season floods the view in colours of beige, red, brown, orange and yellow showing the effects of nature on the landscape. Pockets of bright green pop where rivers flow with life in the wet season. Dust mixed with gravel and the omnipresent red dirt kicks up as the 4x4s journey the open roads in search of sightings. As trucks pass on the narrow lanes camera lenses and binoculars pass each other as their owners pop the tops of trucks to feel the wind and come face to face with a neighboring giraffe.
Africa is different. Africa is beautiful. Africa is a blending of thousands of cultures amidst a backdrop of animals and a landscape controlled by nature. Africa leaves you wanting to return and teaches lessons you may not have known you needed to learn. Africa gets into your soul and stays there.
For more of Stacey’s travel musings check out her website.