I sat in the stairwell of the hostel, listening to my sister cry on the other end of the telephone.
“Why don’t you want to be with me?” she asked. “Do you know how shitty that feels?”
It was December 2017. I was in Chefchaouen, Morocco, nestled in the Rif mountains. The bite of winter was encroaching. I was cold, and filled with self-loathing.
“There is some part of me that feels like it really needs to go see about this woman,” I said. “I can’t stop thinking about her.”
Five years of planning, interminable delays, and the trip my sister and I had planned to take together around Africa would never occur.
I had fallen in love.
The phone call ended without resolution.
She needed to do something, or I did. I sat on the stairs and felt a blackness in my heart. I was blazing a selfish path of destruction, I knew. I had burnt a hole in the middle of my oldest, strongest relationship — to go see about a person I’d known for only three days. Que romantico. ¿No?
I shot a message to a friend back home: I contribute nothing, M. My lifestyle is so selfish. I only hurt people. What’s wrong with me?
I felt lower than I had in a very long time, But I couldn’t stop. One has to follow one’s heart. No matter the risk, no matter the damage — love is the only force of meaning in this world.
Or so I thought.
This is youth, after all.
This story begins six years ago, in 2012.
I was twenty years old, a second-year university student. I had never left the U.S., save a family vacation to Mexico when I was maybe 14. A quiet, shy and nerdy kid, I had lived in the pages of books, and the pixels of the PlayStation.
My older sister Christina had always been the adventurous one in the family. In high school, she’d been to Costa Rica on a service project. In university, while her colleagues went to Paris and Rome and Barcelona, she went to Kampala, Uganda, a place most Americans couldn’t even place on a map. And after college, she joined the Peace Corps, and was placed into the tiny West African nation of Benin.
In these far-back days of the early 2010s, Internet had not yet penetrated this part of Africa. My sister was basically gone. Dropped off the face of the Earth, for all intents and purposes, in a way that is hard to imagine today. But, where computers failed, the old institutions still existed.
We had the post.
Over the course of her two years of community health service in Benin, Christina and I stayed in touch with letters. Physical letters, stamped and shipped across the Atlantic. Sometimes your letter would get there in just a few weeks; sometimes a month; sometimes they never showed up at all.
Christina told me of her life: quiet days spent sitting under mango trees, the scorching heat of the dry season, the noises of the market and the struggles of trying to educate rural communities about the benefits of vaccinating children. In endless paragraphs, written longhand in the back of lectures, or during stretches of free time at my job washing dishes in the university catering kitchen, I told her of my life at university: making friends, falling in love, expanding my horizons.
A common theme in Christina’s letters was her desire for me to travel. She urged me to come see the world, tried to convince me that Africa isn’t as scary as the American news makes it seem. It’s a wonderful place, her letters tried to say. Safe and welcoming and pure-hearted. Come visit me, she wrote. You’ll see.
I still had never been outside of the U.S., and heading straight to West Africa seemed a big jump. But by this point in my life, I’d made a few big jumps already, and I’d noticed that they generally turned out great. For every huge risk I’d taken in university, I had been rewarded with success or validation or friendship in equal proportion to the amount of fear I had to overcome.
So. I agreed. We made a plan. I was ahead on my credits; I would take a leave of absence during my first semester of senior year, the tail end of 2013. I would fly to Benin, meet Christina at the conclusion of her Peace Corps service, and from there, we would see Africa.
That didn’t happen.
Christina decided she wanted to extend her service in Benin for an extra year; an option the Peace Corps affords to volunteers. I said I understood. I secured a job for the next year at university, and enrolled in classes. Then, some things shifted in her village, and staying another year didn’t seem like a viable option. So Christina came home. She got a job. I went to school. But we never gave up the dream of the trip.
In the beginning of 2014, I ruptured my spleen, a serious injury. I came the closest to death I’d ever been. Most normal people would take the semester off after an injury like that, Christina said to me. Nonetheless, three months later, I graduated university. I had the world in front of me; a burning desire to travel; a sizable amount of money; a serious girlfriend who had none; and a spleen that still hurt quite a bit on the bad days.
It’s just not the time for me to go, I told Christina, summer 2014. She nodded with resigned acceptance. It’s not.
My girlfriend and I went to the mountains, where we moved in together. We spent a year in the ski town of Vail, Colorado. In recollection, this year seems like it passed in the blink of an eye. While my girlfriend and I drifted apart in the dark days in the mountains, Christina got an apartment; a cat; a life.
In a last-ditch effort to save the relationship, my girlfriend and I left the U.S. to travel in Asia. My first time leaving the country, I had a pit of tension in my stomach the entire 19-hour flight across the Pacific. I barely said a word to my partner. Our inability to communicate showed itself early in the trip, and the trust between us collapsed in a spectacular fashion.
In the early months of 2016, as the pair of us stumbled through Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Nepal, I began reaching out to Christina. I had been working and traveling as a digital nomad, and I had quite a bit of money. I proposed a plan: I’d return from Asia, spend a month or two recalibrating at home and saying hey to the old gang, and then we’d head to Africa.
What about your girlfriend? Christina texted. Won’t she be sad?
I don’t think her and I are going to be together at that point, I texted back.
She sat next to me, absorbed in her own phone, surely texting similar things to her loved ones back home.
I was right, and in March 2016, I returned home, alone and blown apart.
I would have welcomed a distraction.
But while I’d been coming apart in Asia, Christina had been building something: a regular life; a good job with a nonprofit that helped the homeless; meaningful work and people that depended on her. Exactly the type of do-goodery that my sister feeds on. She didn’t want to give it up; not quite yet.
That’s ok, I said. You keep people alive; you change lives. It would be pretty selfish for me to get in the way of that. There will be more time, we assured each other.
Having already felt the inertia of an adult life gathering around me once before, I knew we would never go to Africa if I also settled in. So I waited.
In the meantime, I went to Hungary to visit my friend Shawn; he’d just fallen in love on the road, and I wanted to hear his story. Shawn had spent one month traveling Vietnam with this girl, caught feelings, and followed her to Budapest. He lived in her flat. He didn’t speak the language, had no job, and was dangerously low on funds.
I gotta get over there and take advantage of having a friend in Budapest before they break up, I’d told everyone back home. It all sounded so crazy. Nothing against Shawn, who was a good friend, but how could it work?
I came back home. It still wasn’t time. I left again, came home, left again… each time hoping to go. Each time, with one thing or another, life got in our way.
You know we can’t miss grandma’s 100th birthday, Christina said, when I returned from Colombia, ready for Africa. A bit tired after four years of delays, here, I instigated a bit of a spat with her. But in the end, she was right, we couldn’t miss our grandma’s 100th.
We waited a bit more.
So, on September 8th, 2017 my grandma turned 100. On September 24, my childhood friend J got married, I stood next to him in his wedding. He handed me a Yeti thermos as a gift; something I would take around the world. The day after, I celebrated my 25th birthday. And the day after that, amid thoughts of age, risk, relationships and dreams, Christina and I boarded a plane, finally bound for Africa.
Five years after it was first proposed, our grand trip along the West African coastline was finally beginning. We’d start in Tanger, the northern tip of Morocco, and work our way south, overland. We hoped to end in Benin.
Of course, if you’ve learned anything from this story so far, it’s that things rarely go according to plan.
After five years of planning, endless cancellations and delays on both sides, I wouldn’t end up penetrating very deep into Africa at all.
What is this??
Just me, catching you all up on where I’ve been. You could call it a travel blog. You could call it a narrative. You could call it a coping mechanism. I’ll simply say it’s a love story.
A love story in places.