“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.” J.R.R. Tolkien
I first discovered my addiction to travel on a six-month trip when I was 23 and a recent college graduate. I hadn't gone anywhere outside the USA before that time since I was 6 years old. And of course, then I traveled with my parents. I had literally no idea what I was doing. But I guess I thought someone would tell me if it was a horrible idea.
Looking back, I'm glad the first person who told me I had no business in West Africa was the ticketing man at the airport for my flight. I'm glad I didn't hear it sooner, or I might not have gone. And everything would be different.
There I stood, my luggage all wrapped in saran wrap, blinking at the man behind the British Airways counter, ready to receive my boarding pass from him so I could depart for four flights and about 40 hours of travel to reach a destination I knew painfully little about.
It was 2007. There were only two articles on the Internet about my intended destination. And now here stood the pilot who for the trans-Atlantic leg of my trip, telling my father how there was no way he'd let me on the plane if I didn't change my final destination. For emphasis, he looked straight at my dad and told him there was no way he'd ever let his daughter go to "a place like that." I was flying into Senegal and then taking a hopper flight down to Bissau, Guinea-Bissau. It was that final leg of my journey that he wasn't willing to accept. Apparently with a total lack of US presence in Guinea-Bissau, the personnel in charge of the plane weren't allowed to accept that as my final destination.
I melted into tears, my dad helped me change my final destination, and I walked through security bawling my eyes out. I imagine that was fairly disconcerting for my parents and friends who'd come to see me off. It's never ideal for your most recent memory of someone to be of that person in absolute hysterics and headed to someplace far away. But that's how it went down.
When I landed in London, things just got more interesting. My flight had been delayed in Denver because of ice on the plane or something like that, and so by the time we took off in Denver, I'd essentially already missed my connecting flight from Heathrow to Dakar, Senegal. I landed, went to the desk to alert someone that I'd already missed my flight, and I was given another flight that was just under an hour from the time I stood at that kiosk. I called my dad to let him know I was okay and he gave me instructions for how to find a hotel in Senegal. I told my dad I'd been transferred to a new flight because of my delay. Then I hauled myself and my mountainous backpack through the airport until I hit security. I waited in the security line for an agonizing 30 minutes of the precious 45 I had available, then finally I began to hear my name over the loudspeakers. I told someone in the security line and was pushed through immediately. From there, I began running and didn't slow down. I ran straight at signs trying to read them as I decided which way to go from the information on them. Often I was able to read the signs just as I darted under them, causing me to run in an erratic, crazed pattern. I don't think there's a person who was at Heathrow that day who I didn't bump into. I was so new to everything, I had no idea what a gate was, what a concourse was, or anything. So I just ran blindly at a full sprint.
My flip flops slapped the ground and my backpack weighed more than I remembered in Denver as I bolted through the airport. I made it to my flight just before they closed the doors for good. And it was then that I realized I was bound for Morocco. For someone who was entirely green to travel, this was an all or nothing kind of journey.
I finally took a moment to breathe and really look at my itinerary. I had a layover in Morocco for just a couple hours and then a quick flight to Milan (or it might have been in the opposite order, it's such a blur, I don't remember exactly). Then it was on to Dakar, Senegal where I would get what information I needed to board a plane to Bissau.
Can you say deer in the headlights much?
Yeah. It was a travel anomaly happening to a travel novice. I wasn't aware what a mess it was. And I think that's a good thing.
Aside from being yelled at for showing my passport when they asked for my boarding pass in Morocco, the rest of the day went as well as could be expected. Then I landed in Senegal in the middle of the night instead of my nice, friendly daytime arrival that was planned before my flight was changed. I was sitting on the plane beside a girl about my age. She was a million times more travel savvy than me as she was returning to Senegal to meet her boyfriend whom she'd met during a Peace Corps stint in Senegal. She promised to help me find my way to where I was going.
We got outside the airport and I immediately felt a total lack of air around me. There were people everywhere asking for money...even though it was the middle of the night. And nothing felt remotely clear. I had no idea what I was doing. The girl I'd met on the plane reunited with her boyfriend who'd found an unmarked car for us to ride in. I got all my stuff into the car, then told the driver where I wanted to go and he had no idea what I was talking about. I got uneasy and put up such a stink that my things were removed from the car and the girl and her boyfriend went with me to a marked taxi where we found our way around town.
I found my hotel and went to my room. It was a beautiful room with two levels and a very nice bed, but it smelled like foreign and felt so unfamiliar. I spent the entire night unsure what I'd gotten myself into and not sure how to get back to the things that seemed safe and familiar. The following morning, I walked on the beach a little and then caught my flight to Bissau. For me, it's usually at night that I find myself facing the dread that I keep at bay while I'm making decisions during the day. Nighttime, I've begun to learn, is not a good time for me to arrive strange places, but I'll get used to it.
The next day was a blur of a small walk along the ocean outside my hotel and a frenzied cab ride back to the airport. I recall distinctly wondering at one point whether I could simple hole up in the hotel and not go out into that city again. I played out the entire scenario in my head culminating in headlines about a scared American girl dying from lack of food and water because she refused to leave her hotel room. I couldn't do that to my family, so I left the hotel room.
As soon as I arrived in Bissau, the swimmy feeling I'd had in Senegal vanished. I was picked up at the airport by Polly and Fernando, two people who would play very different and very important roles in my life. Fernando would become a lifelong friend and Polly would speak into my life for a time.
I arrived on the compound and was shown to a supply closet with a bed (nope, not an exaggeration, that's all that was available). I ate dinner with Polly and her husband, Jack, and their kids, I think. I honestly don't remember much of the first day except feeling better when we arrived at the compound, and confused when Polly pointed things out to me along the way in town. I had literally no grid for where I was and what that meant in comparison to anything else.
All I knew was that I had arrived.
I spent six months there, and had a variety of experiences from accidentally propositioning everyone I spoke to for several months to eating bad canned food because I couldn't figure out the market. Then again, I'm the dunce that considered holing up in a hotel room because I was scared. I exited that trip with a whole new perspective on travel. It had gotten into my skin. I no longer feared the market, in fact, at one point, I took a group of Western girls through the market and translated for them when they purchased items.
But it took lots of nights of telling myself to breathe.
This is the official beginning of my travel history.