Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Trailhead

In a little over a month, I'm leaving for what will probably be one of the greatest adventures of my life: three months on the African continent.

"Every dreamer knows that it is entirely possible to be homesick for a place you've never been to; perhaps more homesick than for familiar ground." I cannot think of a better way to phrase my longing to travel to Africa, or a more perfect description of how anxious I am to go there. A childhood fascination for African wildlife has blossomed into an outright yearning to go to Africa and feel for myself the red dirt beneath my feet, watch herds of animals sweeping over the savanna, visit with Maasai, and climb to the top of Kilimanjaro, the Roof of Africa. It is hard to say how I was first inspired by the animals and people of Africa, but I feel, as strange as it is, that I have a passion for a place to which I have never been.

I'll first journey to South Africa on a month-long study abroad program through MSU, learning about conservation and biodiversity while traveling to some of the most beautiful places in the country, including Kruger National Park, Blyde River Canyon, Pilanesberg National Park, the Kalahari Desert, De Hoop Nature Reserve, and finally the Cape Town area.

Then, I'll head to Tanzania for another month, where I'll meet up with my mom and see Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti, visit the hospital for which I've been fundraising for the past few months, climb Mt. Kilimanjaro (Africa's highest mountain at 19,340 feet), and spend a while on the exotic island of Zanzibar. Even the names of these places - the Serengeti, Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar - conjure up such romantic, mystical connotations that it's amazing they actually exist - and that I'm going there.

Finally, I'll top off my journey with an overland trip from Victoria Falls to Cape Town. Traveling in a truck, converted to carry passengers, eating local foods, meeting local people, and camping out in the African bush every night, I'll get to white water raft down the Zambezi below Victoria Falls, visit several game parks, spend a few days in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, and see the amazing sand dunes of Namibia.

Altogether, I'll be in six countries - South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia - totaling 85 days in Africa. While it seems I've made a complete list of what I'll see and do, I hope spontaneity sweeps me off my feet and brings adventures both unexpected and unforeseeable. I chose to travel to Africa not only because I've always wanted to go there, but because I don't want a typical vacation. I don't want to stay at fancy resorts, eat in fancy restaurants, or experience yet another developed, Western civilization. I want to be uncomfortable - to see poverty on a daily basis, camp for weeks at a time, do things that scare me or things I've never done before. I want my eyes opened to new cultures and places, the harsh reality of inequality and what it means to be an "underdeveloped" country. As one of my new favorite quotes emphasizes, "A ship in the harbor is safe, but that's not what ships are built for." I know already that this will truly be a life-changing experience, even though I cannot yet predict exactly how.

I hope not just for the journey of a lifetime - that would suggest that this is the type of thing I'll never do again. I look forward to this trip as a catapult into a lifetime of journeys, as an experience that sets a precedent for positive, global action as well as adventure.

So, here's to a summer of exploration, revelation, and transformation.

Here's to Africa.