Before I began this three-year stint in Africa, my friend Jeremy, a traveled body and soul, wrote me an email about wandering and some of the lessons he has learned a long the way.
He told me that possessions become your home. The things you have carried across the ocean or purchased a long the way become your identity. They are what you cling to for comfort and what help you feel normal when everything else says you are not. Cherish them like friends and family, he said.
However, vagabonding can be bumpy. Things break or get caught on sticky fingers. That’s life. Hold on to those things but be able to let go, he said. Say goodbye and move on.
I’ve thought about this a lot, in both Niger and Lesotho. These years mark a big transition in my life and I’ve tried to find the new me while keeping the old one, which comes with a lot of internal pain. Items, I discovered, become a way for me to block out the hurt and frustration. They also become a link to a life that seems normal, so I cling to remind myself that I am normal. My favorite scarf or a pair of comfy sweatpants. A device playing episodes of “This American Life” or magazine cutouts, arranged together to indicate the life I want post-Africa. These things define my world, one that I rarely comprehend, and so I become attached to them as if they understand me in a way no one else does.
About this time last year, my hard drive broke. I used to come home at night and shake off a frustrating day of school with a rom-com or episodes of “How I Met Your Mother” that I had seen dozens of times. I threw myself on to those sets to feel a piece of home, something more familiar than goats and endless Sesotho. When it broke, I was upset, mostly at my stupidity, but saw it as an opportunity to read more.
Books were my new escape. A woman hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, a famed author on multiple trips across the country via hitch hikes and road trips with a demented pal, a young girl chosen to save her people from the horrid Capitol. These real and fictitious worlds drove me away from my own and, in those clicks of pages on my e-reader, I didn’t have to be me.
However, shortly before I left for Cape Town, during the stress of a hectic week and preparing for the marathon, I nearly ended my service when I woke up to find horizontal lines interrupting my Kindle screen (I’ve been a bit over dramatic lately). It would be OK. Although I was devastated because it was a gift, I could buy a used one off of a family friend. And, I still have plenty of paperbacks to tide me over until the new one arrives.
Next, in the midst of getting caught in South Africa a day after my visa expired and not being able to get a ride back to the west part of the country, a leaky water bottle wreaked havoc on my very nice camera. Thankfully, I reassured myself, my iPod – the device I most often credit to my sanity – was spared.
A week later, I was on my way home from a movie and lunch with a friend in Maseru and escaping into the sounds of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. I kept the tunes flowing until I walked into my house and turned off my iPod. I set it down on a table, changed and crashed into the couch with a magazine. I didn’t step foot outside my house until the next morning to use the toilet and, when I searched for my iPod an hour or so later, it was gone. In that short time I was at the latrine, someone snuck in and grabbed it.
The very next morning, my computer refused to charge. It finally did but other volunteers with a similar problem – Lesotho’s varying current destroys chargers – told me that one day it wouldn’t. Another dip into my travel and re-setup post-Peace Corps allowance.
The Kindle, camera, iPod and computer charger happened with in weeks of each other. I was distraught. I already live without so much here in Lesotho, why must the things that help me feel me be taken?
I cried hard for the Kindle, a bit for the camera and nearly not at all for the iPod and then was just plain angry about the charger. At this point, it was time for me to learn whatever lesson was being thrown in my face.
Maybe I idolize things too much. Or maybe I need to get out from behind screens and enjoy this world in front of me before it is gone. Or maybe I am meant to learn a deeper sense of living without.
Yes, the things I considered home are gone, but it doesn’t mean I have nothing. Pictures of my family and friends still hang from my ceiling. The necklace I bought after the news of our evacuation still drapes around my neck. (Note: I have to revise this post a few times with each fallen electronic. I did keep putting a phrase that said, “at least I have …”. Not this time.)
And these are just things. I was not in the house when the intruder came, the possibility of which brings numerous awful scenarios to mind. I am healthy. My family is healthy. I can still run. I can still write. I live in Africa.
When I get back to the United States, I will have everything I want but, for now, I need to go without these things. There is something so Henry David Thoreau about that that I can’t help but find it endearing.
My belongings may physically make up my home, but my real home is wherever I put my heart. I will always lose or break things and sometimes they will get stolen, but I am still me without them. I still have the important things – my health, my safety, friends and family who inspire and support me – so then I have everything I need, no matter where I am.