North of Mombasa, Self Direction
Orange butterflies dance through the palms above the pool. On the beach, sellers outnumber tourists. Pink-skinned resort dwellers stutter through the swirl of people, pausing to nibble the bait.
I’m a resort dweller myself for our last few days on the coast. It’s lovely to not think about food and lodging– it all comes with, here. But it’s odd to be served, greeted with the friendliness of people who are paid to be likable.
It’s a break. It’s meant as one, and it feels like one. We eat like foreigners, sleep soundly, enjoy the litter-free landscape inside the walls. Eileen, sick, recovers.
“At what point were you ready for the trip to be over?” I ask Eileen on Mother’s Day morning.
She was done, she says, after crossing Mount Elgon. More than a month ago. I’ve been done a while too, since we reached the coast.
It’s been a harder trip for Eileen than for me. At fifty-eight (mother’s day is also her birthday) she is entitled to feel differently than I do about sleeping in a tent, trekking for hours, carrying a pack. In much the same way, you’d expect my tighter budget, restless energy, constant need to eat.
We also have different tolerances: I’ll eat anything, walk any distance, but have no patience for short strides or persistent sellers. She’s pickier about sound, food, sleep, lets me lead most choices, maintains more consistent mood. When we tire, she gets more talkative and I go silent. We take turns having patience; we don’t fight.
Long travel is familiar to both of us. Though I don’t think we’ve done a long trip as a pair before, it doesn’t feel new. We know our sticking points.
I decide I’m back in training. I start treading water in the pool in interval sets, crunching push ups on the stiff hotel bed. I read my books in rotation: nonfiction, challenging fiction, something fluffy, and around again. It’s slow progress, which feels like a holding pattern.
It has been more than two years since I abdicated traditional life. I shun stability and ask myself daily: what’s important?
There is no constant answer. The question is at base an expression of hope, but to pursue it obsessively is to sow your own discontent.
Traveling for the long term, you must measure your pace. Too much activity and you’ll burn out. If days drag on unplanned, you feel stagnant. You have to be careful to feel useful, to live where you are. There’s a feeling that creeps in and whispers: you’ve put your life on hold– even if you’re not sure what it is you’re holding.
Life outside the norm is uncomfortable. You miss social support, measurable work, the steady affirmation of incoming money. Quitting your job buys you time, but time remains finite. Project progress is slower than you’d hope. After a year, employment looks tempting. It’s structured, it’s relatable, it looks like success. I own all of my time, but the books I’ve yet to read stack up, writing projects stretch, I still don’t have time to learn, do, try everything I want to.
I love my freedom, and I’m planning to keep it. I can be anywhere, anytime. But without the earmarks of success, slow progress is apt to feel like screaming into the void. Does my effort have meaning? Can I believe that there’s a goal where I’m going?
These questions of meaning and progress apply to everyone. But if you allow yourself no normalcy, you ask them constantly. There’s nothing holding you back.
I center these questions. I seek. I rail against myself when I’m not enough, because all power and blame is mine. I’m my own harsh yardstick, and often, I let myself down.
I must also be the one to hold myself up. I cling tenaciously: I’m learning! I’m building! I force myself to believe, because who else will? I write it down, sometimes: what have I touched, changed, made valuable? My resume is made of things I’ve chosen and made time to do.
We’re going home, finally. It has been nearly three months, and travel has performed its reliable transubstantiation from idea to tangible memory. I’m glad for the trip, but I must ask: was there a purpose? A trip this long must be something other than vacation. You hope at least to feel new in your old place.
Life is where you are. Nothing waits. Relationships change with distance, but don’t revert with renewed proximity: leaving is itself a change.
Where am I now? Stronger than when I left. More a writer, and more resolved to be one. I’m happier, traveling often. I am asking: do I mean anything? What is a life lived well? I don’t answer; I make a question of myself. I strive, change, try, live in pursuit.
At the end of a trip, I feel tired. I am inspired to be in one place: build communities, interact deeply with people, work a garden I might see to fruit. I’m craving change, something other than travel, because there’s no such thing as satisfaction. Craving home is a kind of renewal. Being home will inspire me again to go.