Monday, June 30, 2014

“Traveling Abroad Changed My Life” and the Other Lies We Tell Ourselves

Week 6
Jodi-Ann Burey
Lilongwe, Malawi

When I graduated from undergrad in 2008 and entered the workforce bright eyed and bushy tailed, I developed a list of principles to live by to guide myself through my next phase of adulthood. Rule #1: Never lie to yourself. Throughout life, there will be people lined up down the street and wrapped around corners who will lie to my face and engage with me dishonestly. I do not need to be first. If I say I’m going to run marathons, I will run marathons (I’ve completed two). If I say I’m going to go to graduate school, I’m going to graduate school (here I am!). If I’m not sure about something, I will confidently state that I am not sure. I’ve created new qualifiers for statements like, “To the best of my knowledge, I believe that…” or “Based on who I am today, I want to…”, “With all the information that I have now, I think that…” to give me some flexibility to make plans or develop opinions, but still knowing that it may change (and that changing my mind is okay). I try my best everyday to be a woman of my word, one who makes thoughtful plans and promises myself and others only what I know I can keep. 

This past week, I told myself a lie.

In Balaka, the rural district where I have been spending most of my time in Malawi, bucket baths are the norm. You go into someone’s house, there’s a small room with a toilet and a water drain in front of it. Next to that drain you’ll find a bucket, maybe two. One is filled with scalding hot water and the other with cold. Welcome to your bucket bath. 

For the record, I love bucket baths. Two weeks ago, I began writing an unpublished post titled “In Defense of Bucket Baths” where I discuss freshwater security, sustainability, body image issues and all the other benefits associated with bucket bathing. In short, it uses far less water than showers or regular baths. It’s also an intimate and unique way to engage with one’s body, which I feel could add some diversity in the way women are taught to see and treat their bodies— without judgement or objectification. I told myself that when I returned to Ann Arbor, I would start taking bucket baths at least once a week. 

That was a lie. 

I am back in the capital this week for a number of reasons: a bit of volleyball action with the expats at Kumbali, extending my visa, and implementation planning with my supervisor. After the three hour drive from Balaka to Lilongwe, I flipped on the hot water switch as soon as I got to the lodge, turned the knobs and let that glorious steaming shower water run and run and run and run. I think I took the longest shower that I have ever taken in my entire life. The amount of water I used, I am ashamed to say, would probably fill about 12 of those buckets, if not more. 

This caused me to question the anticipation that people, myself included, often have when traveling abroad. That the experience will change our lives or make some big impact on our perspectives or how we navigate ourselves in the world. So much pressure and so much expectation gets piled on top of one international trip. “You’re going to Malawi,” friends would exclaim. “Oh, it will change your life,” is often the statement that follows. 

Challenging oneself. Pushing boundaries. Learning outside of comfort zones. These are no doubt essential elements to having a life changing experience. I question though whether it “still works” when we are hyperaware of the magnitude of our experiences as we experience them. Traveling abroad can most certainly change one’s life, but that to me seems like a realization to be had in hindsight. 

I cannot confidently say that my time here has changed my life. I haven’t even left yet. I’m only half way through my internship. I haven’t even lived a life beyond my experiences here, so how could I know? Maybe in a few years, I’ll know. Maybe I’ll never know and when my kids read my journals or blog post archives, they’ll know. Either way, I don’t think I can, or should, know the impact of my experiences here any time soon. 

Perhaps we spend too much time searching for experiences that can teach us something and not enough time focusing on actually learning. Sometimes we think we’ve learned something, but haven’t had the time to apply that knowledge to say for sure. 

Most of what I experience in Malawi, I will forget. With the passing of time, details that are so clear to me now, I will struggle to recall. This may end up being a defining moment in my personal or professional trajectory, or it could just be that thing I did in 2014. I won’t know and unfortunately, I don’t think there’s anything I can do to influence the impact it will make. All I can do is be observant. Be present in my experiences in the moment. Trust that what I’ll need to stick, will just stick. Embrace the journey. 

Based on all the information I have right now, based on who I am today, this is the best advice I can give. 

And that's the truth.

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