As social distancing becomes a reality, Eliza Harris looks at how travel can be an expression of the human spirit and why the stories we tell matter more than ever.
It seems a particularly cruel twist of fate that we had to give up both hugs and travel, two of the greatest joys in life, in the same week. Exactly when social distancing became critical and elbow bumps the new norm, one by one countries started heavily restricting their international borders. This left us at Indagare wondering: at a moment when there is a moral imperative to stop traveling, what role can a travel company possibly play? To us, travel is a vehicle for creating human connections across oceans and borders. We travel to feel, to see, to understand, to seek out and celebrate different creative expressions of the human spirit. That need for connection is still there—perhaps even more so—in times of social distancing.
I have had good preparation for social distancing. When I was a child, my family had a country house in the mountains where we spent weekends. It was a blast in the summer, when there were lots of kids around and things to do, but in the off-season, it could get quite bleak and isolated. There were no other kids nearby and we didn’t have a television. I had my two siblings, the woods and my books. It was lonely and on days when it was cold, rainy and gray, my world seemed very small. But books changed everything. They were like a magic carpet ride. I got to go everywhere: to Narnia, to Camelot, to the English moors. They brought me a tapestry of color and adventure and a peek into lives so different from my own. Once I got older, that passion for exploration moved to actual travel. I didn’t have to read about distant places (though I still did); I got to go see them first hand.
Today, all of us travelers find ourselves just as curious, just as eager to explore as ever, but for a terrible moment, standing still. The truth is, we can still create those connections across oceans and borders, we will just have to do it through our stories. One of our traditions with the team at Indagare is an internal Friday exchange called Food for Thought, where we share our stories with our colleagues—the real stories that get beneath the surface of our lives. Today, we want to share one with you from our former colleague A.M. talking about a trip to Rwanda and a crisis that changed her. It is a story about getting sick and, while it does contain hugs, which I know are now off-limits, it is really about the human drive for compassion.
Albert Camus once wrote: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there is something stronger—something better, pushing right back.” This is a story about the invincible summer in all of us. While we go through this dark time, we will keep each other company through our stories. We will use them to celebrate all the things that travel is about. And then when our borders open up again, we will travel with joy in our hearts and an increased knowledge of just how precious this gift is. Walk with us. Tell us your stories. Let us all pay homage to the invincible summer.
Here is A.M.’s story:
“In my teenage years, I was just starting to get a taste of what it was like to travel without my family and it felt as though the entire world was waiting to be explored. So, when the opportunity to volunteer in Rwanda for the summer came up, it was a no-brainer. The hubris and naïveté of my 16-year-old self believed that I was going to change lives, when in reality (and as it so often goes with these things) the people who I met there changed mine.
Less than two weeks into the trip, I was in Nyamata, a small town in the southeast of the country. I was volunteering at an orphanage a few miles from town that I would walk to each morning, usually escorted by a group of children who ranged from insanely excited to downright terrified of me. After a few days, I was settling into my routine and getting used to my new nickname “Umuzungu” (white person) until I woke up one morning and something felt off. I brushed it off, geared up for the day and tried to ignore the intensifying pain in my stomach. What happened next was a blur (I only have a few snapshots of memories), but when I came to I found myself lying on a cot in a small, dark room with a dirt floor. There was a sleeping man lying on a cot next to me and a woman sitting on the ground next to him weaving a basket.
Feeling terrified and completely alone, I started to cry. The noise caused the woman to look up at me. Without a word, she put her basket down and approached me. She held my hand in an effort to comfort me, but when I continued to cry, she started to hug me tightly. Her empathy and compassion transcended all of our obvious differences and she stepped in without hesitation—an act of true kindness that I will never forget. We never spoke, but wrapped in her embrace I eventually drifted off to sleep. When I woke up, there was an IV in my arm and a member of my group was asleep in a chair next to me, but the man in the cot and the woman weaving her basket were gone. I think of the woman in my room often; how badly I wish I could see her again to thank her and to explain the profound impact she has had in my life.
I stayed in the hospital for two days and there was a constant flow of visitors in my room—it seemed as though anyone I had even waved to on the street came to check on me. When I heard “Umuzungu?” outside my room, I knew to expect another well-wisher. Not only was I amazed by their visits, but I was even more astonished when I was presented with containers of rice, picked flowers, sheets of paper, urwagwa (fermented banana juice) and other tokens. I knew that food and time were both incredibly precious, and I couldn’t believe that members of the community chose to share both with me. We spoke in a jumbled mess of French, English and Kinyarwanda, but words would have failed me anyway. Somehow, sitting in a dirt-floor hospital in a small rural town in Africa and surrounded by strangers, I felt safe.
In many ways, this set the tone for the rest of my trip. I left the hospital eager to learn and experience as much as I could. As I traveled around the country over the following weeks, I had the opportunity to explore the complex history of the country —a dichotomy of the worst and most horrendous side of humanity, but also one of resilience and forgiveness. It was truly remarkable to get a glimpse of the ways the country and its people were working together to rebuild and I often lean on these memories for perspective and strength.
Though my expectations for this trip couldn’t have been farther off, the reality blew them out of the water. I could go on about everything that I learned and have come to believe, but here are just a few. I believe that deeply meaningful experiences can come when you least expect them. I believe that when you are open to new people, places and cultures, they have an immense power to change you. We are shaped by our journeys.”