We were walking down a hot, dirt road in Texas. The road was lined with hoards of people; packed as if it were a Fourth of July parade. Except it wasn’t a parade. It was just my brother and I wearing puffy snowsuits walking down the street. People were jeering at us, and it was desperately hot. Before I could figure out how we got to this godforsaken town, or why we were walking down this dirt road, or why we were in snowsuits, of all things, I would always wake up. It was just a snippet; a recurring dream that I had as a child.
And then it came to life. In part.
Summer 2003, I was seventeen. My dad was going to Kenya that summer to perform surgery in a hospital outside of Nairobi. The local doctor always had more cases than one person could handle, and had no time for professional development, so my dad was lending an extra set of hands as well as training in new techniques. My mom and I were along for the ride. The hospital was funded in part by a mission group based in the US, and my dad had first learned of the hospital from one of the nurses he worked with who was connected to the Kenyan hospital through her church. We (my mom, dad, and I) were not affiliated with the church or the mission, and ideologically we were all opposed to the practice of conversion. The idea of providing a real service (which my dad could do) did appeal however, and so we set the misgivings aside and planned our trip.
Our flight path took us through Europe, so we decided to stay over in Amsterdam for a few days before continuing onto Nairobi. Amsterdam was a lovely web of cobbled streets and canals and Dutchmen and women biking everywhere. We decided to rent paddle boats one day to explore the canals, and liked it so much that we went right back the next day for another spin. Our second foray into paddle boating was fraught from the start. Our rudder was woefully out of line, and steering involved more divination than skill. My mom and I were at the helm peddling away, and my dad was in the back relaxing, very much enjoying our dysfunctional zigzag traverse through the canals. Our main objective was to avoid getting in the way of the motorized tour boats, so when one came near, I suggested we turn into a side canal to avoid its wake. As we rounded the bend, it became clear that the side canal, was in fact a main channel, and moreover, the canals were lined with people; packed as if it were a Fourth of July parade. Except it was August, and this was Amsterdam.
“Americans!” some people called out in delight and others with total scorn. We were, to my great chagrin, clearly living up to our international reputation of buffoonery. As my mom and I furiously peddled our defunct vessel hoping to find a different side canal to escape down, my dad perked up in the back and starting waving to the crowds like the Queen of England. Chagrin bloomed into full-scale humiliation, and as I glanced over my shoulder, and saw a large motorized boat gaining on us with plumes and sparklers coming off the sides, I realized with growing horror that we had somehow become the grand marshal of a major floating parade. There was no side canal in sight, and no way to go but forward, as the motorized boat had already cut off the side canal behind us. So on we went in our ragged zigzag until some kindly Dutch person waved us in, and helped us tie our paddleboat off next to a few other small boats lining the edge of the canal. Moments later, the first parade boat came streaming past with a crew full of glistening men wearing firemen’s helmets, gyrating in sparkling loin cloths, and sending a gush of confetti out of their faux hoses. The Pride Parade was spectacular, and we had enviable front row seats. It was so good in fact that even my very American, and very teenage, brain that was so frequently mired in my own limited vantage, began to relax and let the embarrassment fade into humor.
Less than 24 hours later, we touched down in Nairobi. The nurse who connected my dad to the Kenyan hospital joined us. She was there in part to help in the hospital, and in part to celebrate the opening of a new church out in Maasailand—another mission-funded initiative. We went straight from the plane to jeeps, and began a long bumpy ride out to this new church, where a grand opening celebration was underway. And so it happened that for a second time, in a context far different, I found myself the center of attention. Though my family and I had nothing to do with this church, our involvement, I suppose, was presumed, and though we tried to deflect attention towards the nurse, we were quickly ushered up to the front of the church, to sit in a place of honor, on display for the rest of the congregation. The church was hours outside of the city, down bumpy dirt paths that only a rugged jeep and a skilled driver could handle. It was a corrugated metal affair; fairly unsightly in the otherwise earthen landscape, and clearly the most substantial structure as far as the eye could see. Much of the ceremony was lost on me, but after the ceremony, standing outside, a group of girls who looked to be my age flocked around me, and the translator who accompanied us said: “They want to know how old you are.” “Seventeen,” I replied. “They want to know if you are married.” “No,” I answered. This reply elicited soft giggles and downturned glances. “They want you to know you are still worth a few goats.” A washed up old maid at seventeen, and still my Maasai counterparts were gracious with my misfortune.
It is rare to actually be the center of attention. Most of our lives, we think people are paying more attention to us and thinking more about us than they actually are. It’s only when we are doing some spectacularly wrong, or right, or out of the ordinary that for a brief moment we hold center stage. Travel has been my best education in the reality that there are so many worlds that make up the world we all share, and that the world I presumed to be universal as a child is in fact, just one of many possibilities. And moreover, travel has taught me that no particular way of being and doing is inherently better than another. Travel gives oxygen to this breadth of understanding, but it is a tool that is largely only available to the most economically privileged sector of society. And even with economic privilege, you most possess the desire to really see what there is to see. It is easy enough to gloss over the nooks and crannies—to just go to the museums, and the highly rated attractions and restaurants—but then you miss the magic. I’ve found that the magic is in the unexpected...at the wrong turn or at the end of a bumpy road.