A few summers ago, my family took a trip to Africa. We kissed giraffes in Kenya, hiked into Rwanda's dense rainforest to see the mountain gorillas, and followed the migration through Tanzania's Serengeti. In those seventeen days, I fell in love with Africa, both the areas populated by wildlife and by humans. I have never stopped searching for ways to return.
Just as we took off on our flight home from Tanzania, the final stop on our three-nation journey, our captain's voice came over the loudspeaker: "Ladies and gentleman, this is your captain speaking, if you look out your window to your right you will see the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro."
I happened to be in a window seat, and when I turned my head, a colossal mountaintop erupted from a thick bed of clouds, her peak almost level with my high-flying eyes. Her body was invisible, shrouded in white fluff, but that peak stood so tall and vast as to be beyond comparison to any image of a natural or manmade object I can conjure. Reigning alone over the clouds, surrounded by no other mountains, her immensity was even more prominent. That was the first time I truly understood why people call mountains majestic.
I turned to my dad, the fellow adventurer in the family, who was leaning over me to see. "We're climbing that," I told him, and two years later, I am packing up my duffel to head back and make the climb.
I have traveled to so many places in so many forms -- whether I am backpacking abroad with friends for a few weeks, with my family for winter vacation, or studying in a different country for a few months. Sometimes, I travel to see things, and sometimes I travel to do things. But I always travel to learn. For me, travel is not only about experiencing other cultures, it is about experiencing one's self in an entirely new context. In a new world, surrounded by unfamiliar people and customs, I always discover strengths and weaknesses I never new I had.
The more I interact with those who don't speak my language -- whether that is the language of my tongue or the language of my actions -- the less I fear doing so. Traveling has shown me how much every single person in this world has to offer every single other person. Everyone has a story and a set of valuable skills. Listening to any person's unique life path will undoubtedly add something to yours. Through travel I have learned to be open to discovering what lies behind people's facades, whether I am speaking with a coworker or classmate or I am sitting on a crowded bus in Quito.
As a traveler, I have learned to never make the mistake of thinking that I have "integrated" into a new culture. I can never claim that, after a few days or weeks or months in a foreign place, I now "understand" its people. In fact, I claim the contrary. More than anything, travel has taught me how much about this world I do not understand. Knowledge of my own ignorance keeps me open and curious. It prevents me from drawing conclusions and creating generalizations.
Traveling throughout my youth has taught me responsibility, problem solving, and flexibility in a way nothing else could. There is nothing that will help you grow up quite like scouring Madrid for a friend's lost wallet or sleeping in an Ecuadorian bus station or wandering the alleyways of Marrakech attempting to find a hostel that is both safe and free of bed bugs as your friend spends the day scratching the little red bumps ornamenting his arms.
Tackling challenges in a foreign country forces you to be stronger than you'd have to be at home because with the barriers of language and custom, everything is that much harder. It helps you form that gut instinct. The tensing in my stomach I feel when I sense a person is not trustworthy came, unfortunately, from trusting the wrong people. But I am grateful even for my wrong decisions because from them I have learned to make right ones.
I travel to see the world, but I also travel to see myself, to try and decipher where I fall in the broader framework of humanity. I travel to figure out what is truly important, and I travel to appreciate home. As much as I love to leave, I equally love returning to my comfort zones. Repeatedly leaving always makes me realize how much I love being home.
Now, I will return to Tanzania to climb to the roof of Africa. It is not a journey, I imagine, during which I will meet many people, save those guiding my trip, and it is not a journey during which I will experience the true Tanzanian culture.
This, more than anything, will be an inner journey, a battle between my physical and emotional strengths. Mt. Kilimanjaro is 19,341 feet tall -- just over thirteen Sears Towers stacked on top of each other. After fifteen thousand feet, every pound that clings to my body -- whether it's that extra layer of fat I can't seem to shake or the backpack on my back -- will feel like ten. I will feel nauseous, achy, and short of breath. I will have no appetite and yet my guide will require me to consume thousands of calories. The days will be sweltering and the nights will be frozen, and on summit day we will hike for over thirteen hours.
I don't yet know what I will learn from this experience. I know there will be new pieces of myself I bring home and other pieces that I leave behind. I could make predictions, but I tend to be wrong about these things. I find it's best not to have the experience already played out in my head, but rather to let the experience sweep me away, to throw myself completely into it and let it push me down and toss me from side to side.
When I tell people about the grueling mental and physical demands this trip will throw at me, they always ask me why. Why would I possibly want to put my body through that? What is the draw of standing up there?
For a while I couldn't think of way to explain, and then I thought about training for a marathon, working long hours for a promotion, writing a novel, or even having a child. Anything worth doing is accompanied by pain, isn't it? The things we want are almost always accompanied by either physical or emotional difficulties, and it is often that pain that makes the joy so joyous in the end.
Now, if you bring up this wildly cliched and idealistic viewpoint of mine when I'm at 17,000 feet, alternating between shivering and sweating, panting like dog, dripping with mud and more or less crawling up the trail, I'll probably conjure the small amount of oxygen I have left in my lungs to shout some sort of profanity in your face. It's easy for me to sit down here at sea level and talk about how much the pain will be worth it. But one thing is for sure: even if I am miserable, even if I am crawling across icy ridges at a snail's pace, I will keep going.
But to be truly honest, I don't really know what draws me to that mountain. Sure, anything worth doing has pain, but why is making it to the top worth doing? I can't explain why I saw the floating peak in the sky and knew I had to climb to it. What I do know is that the resilience I have learned from my travels will help me reach the top. Now, when people ask me why I am so drawn to make the climb, all I can think to say is: "well, it's there, so how can I not?"