There Must Be Something You Can Say

The restrictions on international travel have me thinking about my first time outside the US of A.

Fifteen years ago I was preparing to visit Tanzania. This Eastern African country, along with Kenya, provides a home for the Serengeti Plain. Pretty much all of the wildlife I had ever dreamed of seeing ever since I was eight years old also lives there.

I thought that I had covered all of my preparation bases. I had gone to a clinic where I received all my required vaccinations, prophylactic medications, keep-on-hand medications, and information about how to avoid getting sick.  I had spent some time in Barnes & Noble actually purchasing books that I then actually read (both unusual activities for my window-shopping ways) about cultures and animals and travel tips for the country and region that I would be visiting.

I had skipped the chapter on safe sexual practices, but as it turned out, I still got to give my spiel to another traveler. He didn’t believe my future husband and I could enjoy a marriage where we started as virgins. When he invited me (and my friends) to come see him in Australia for our next wild animal tour, I may have taken his business card “just in case,” but inexperienced as I was, I knew invitations like that came with strings attached. And my strings were already spoken for, whether I’d met my future husband or not.

The protective measures I’d taken as I prepared for this trip had not covered the poverty I would encounter. I never saw a chapter for, “How to Ignore Human Suffering.” I had not planned to look another human in the face and say, “I may be one of the richest people you’ve ever met, but I have nothing to give you.”

Oh, my travel buddy’s coworkers had given her a bunch of company pen lights and ball point pens to give out as tiny treasures to children we might meet. We’d given them all away in a day to bright-eyed, chattering children. But those children had a community and food and shelter already. There was room for fun.

It was the children whose community consisted of competition for scant resources; it was those kids, with want in their faces, for whom I was not prepared. I gave away my granola bar at our first stop, and suddenly I was Father Christmas except my pack was already empty. The children swarmed toward me, putting hands to their mouths and rubbing their swollen bellies to indicate hunger.

I looked around helplessly. They had no idea what it had cost me to get there, that if not for the kindness of a dear relative, I would have been short on my first car payment after paying for this trip. I knew I was blessed beyond measure, but I also knew it was up to me to use my resources well.

When I set out on my dream to write for an audience larger than my descendants, I hadn’t considered how it would feel to have so many ideas clamoring for my attention that out of sheer overwhelm, I would turn my face and pretend not to see them. Instead I just board my bus and close the visor on my window. My way of saying, “This Business is Closed for the Day” leaves my heart shrunken and cold. I feel the same way for having gone back to sleep this morning instead of writing.

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