Nearly every day of our three-week, five country trek through southern Africa offered up at least one made-for-National-Geographic moment. On our first full day on the Chobe River which divides Namibia from Botswana, we watched for 45 minutes as crocodiles destroyed an elephant carcass. I was sad because I figured that we had 18 days left and there was no way that we’d top that moment. Then we topped it, or at least matched it, again and again and again.
In Zimbabwe we saw a lion defending a freshly-killed buffalo from vultures and jackals. Meanwhile, the seven lion cubs in the pride needed shade, and they found it 15 feet from us, under another safari vehicle. In Zambia, we saw four leopards, including one that had dragged an impala into a tree, with a lion below trying to figure out a way to get in on the spoils. A few days later, we set off in search of wild (aka “painted” dogs), of which there are supposed to be only a few thousand left, and found a group of six frolicking, eating and then resting.
Over the course of three weeks, we went from delighting at every warthog, every baboon, and every elephant, to taking them all in stride. The first 3,000 hippos were interesting, and the next 3,000 were too if I’m being honest, but by week two we were a little jaded and more than a little spoiled. Fortunately, there was something new to delight us every day. I’ve never seen that much wildlife anywhere else, but that doesn’t mean my other experiences haven’t been as valuable. I’ve now been to nearly 30 countries, which is more than many of you and far less than some of you. Each time, I’ve gained a little bit of a window into how big the increasingly-shrinking world remains, and how truly provincial I am. We met people from all over the world – Africa, Europe, Australia – on this trip, and most of them travel with much more ease than I do. I don’t know for certain that I represent most Americans in that respect, but I fear that I do.
I’ve always envied people who have their own happy place, friends who say “I could only live at Guntersville” or “I could only live on Park Avenue.” I have a little bit too much wanderlust, and I’m a little bit too geographically unfaithful, to ever express that much certainty. But the friends who I envy even more are those with full passports. Every time I go abroad, I gain a little bit more insight into what I don’t know, and into what I need to learn to become a better person. I’ve known that Africa existed for nearly all of my 46 years, but until I went there it was at most a concept in my mind. Now it’s something real that I can taste and smell and remember and contextualize. There are many more empty pages in my passport and more places I haven’t been than places I’ve seen up close.
Even if you can’t afford it or for some other reason can’t bring yourself to go abroad, I highly recommend putting yourself in unfamiliar situations. If you live in a rural area, go to the big city. If you live in a metropolis, seek out some solitude. Spend time among people who don’t think the way you do – it may cause you to change your mind, or it might make you firmer in your beliefs. The older I get, the more an unexamined, provincial life seems less worth living. I’m already planning my next uncomfortable situation.