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On Wanting to Stay & Knowing to Go

When I was a teenager, I was hiking down a rocky trail on a small mountain in northern Tanzania when I tripped and landed straight on a tangle of acacia thorns. When I put out my hand behind me to cushion the fall, the tip of a thorn pricked the palm of my right hand at such an angle that I couldn’t get it all out. Before I could get back to a city to buy a pair of tweezers to try to remove it, my hand heeled over the wound, and the tip of the acacia thorn settled into its permanent state: a small, gray mark on the palm of my hand.

I always think about it like this: I carry Africa with me. It’s often just a story or conversation starter when I’m with friends and we’re comparing scars — “you see that spot on my hand? well this one time when I was super clumsy in Tanzania…” — but I admit there’s a tiny, strange, sentimental value to it. During the times when I’m homesick for the savanna, I think about how I hold a bit of it to keep me grounded when I'm thousands of miles away. A small mark that I can run my finger over to remind myself that I’m never that far from home. I can always go. And when I leave, it's a reminder that I will always find a way to come back. I always do.

It’s been almost two months since I began my trip around the world, and as my last day in Africa comes to an end, I would be lying if I said I was ready to leave. In fact, for the past few days, I almost desperately wished I wasn’t.

From the glaciers of Peru, to the markets of Morocco, to the green hills of Ethiopia, in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but feel like I was biding my time until I made it back to the golden, sun-soaked savannas of subsaharan Africa.

So as the plane descended through the clouds and skimmed over the orange mountains of Namibia, I felt an odd sensation of relief wash over me; the kind of relief you get after you arrive home and see a familiar face waiting for you at the arrivals terminal.

The familiarity and comfort that these mountains and plains brings when I see them again is always intense. Since my first trip here, I wondered if over time its significance would fade, and if there would come a time when I’d visit and find that it’s not as hard to leave as it once was.

And yet, I find the opposite happening. With each visit, the reluctance that hits me when I’m getting ready to leave southern Africa has become more pronounced over time. The thought of the Johannesburg Departures terminal, of returning to paved roads and telephone poles after weeks of camping in the wilderness, of a room where I can’t hear the reed frogs and the elephants as I fall asleep at night, ties my stomach in knots. And now, I find myself at a cafe in a bustling town in Zambia, drinking an espresso that doesn’t taste nearly as decadent as the instant-coffee brewed over a campfire that I’ve lived off of for the past few weeks, wondering why I’m leaving. It’s almost painful to think about how happy I am here, and yet I decided to buy a plane ticket to Asia that leaves in less than 24 hours, and something in me wishes that this time, I would have decided to just stay. It’s as simple and bare-boned as that.

This visit in particular has been difficult to put into words, as whatever I muster up always fails to properly convey how wonderful this experience has been.

We began in Namibia, making our way from the capital city to the desert of Namib-Naukluft, where we drove down achingly dark roads in the middle of the night to climb the world's tallest sand dunes at sunrise. We hiked to white salt pans and found lakes of cracked, sunburnt earth sitting like potholes in an abyss of red sand, where ancient, crooked trees shaded herds of gemsbok.

From Namibia we watched the desert turn into meadows of sage then, slowly, into rolling plains decorated with villages and lazy zebra. We reached Botswana, making our way north until we ditched roads and towns in exchange for the savanna, camping alone with prides of lions and the company of each other.

Eventually we reached Zambia, where we were greeted by the thundering Victoria Falls, and traversed its edge as we were doused by clouds of water, loud enough that we could scream without anyone hearing, baboons watching from the canopies nearby. Every morning and evening felt rich with peace and adrenaline; constantly enamored by every passing moment. Part of why I love guiding these expeditions is to watch people who’ve never been to this corner of the world before see an elephant for the first time, or a giraffe, or a sunset from atop a dusty Land Cruiser.

On our final night all together, as we sat under a flowering tree listening to the hum of Livingstone beyond the garden's hedges, and we began talking about everything we’re going to miss. Like those lovely, long mornings doused with amber light, sipping a cup of coffee with a rusk under the crooked shadows of acacia trees. The smell of the riverfront as you cross the veld; the smell of sage, sun-warmed earth, sweet grass. The sun dapples on the navy-blue ponds that sable antelope and zebra linger by, pinpricked by white cranes and hippos. The electricity of the night air deep in the bush; of sitting by a simmering campfire in the evening, woodsmoke tangled in our hair and knotted into our sweaters. The stomach-flipping adrenaline-coursing dip of a bush plane as it careens towards a herd of elephants grazing beside the Delta at sunset. The way the acacia trees flicker red as they reflect the campfire flames. The fact that there was no road, no telephone pole, no bar of cell service for 100 miles. No possible way to be anywhere but there, in the heart of it.

It’s so hard to leave.

About three minutes ago, a British Airways flight took off from Livingstone to Johannesburg, carrying my final guests with it — people who’ve become good friends — and concluding my last photography expedition of the year.

Already talk of 2017 is floating through the air and my email inbox — essentially asking me where I want to lead next year. Even though nothing has been decided, already in the back of my mind I’m counting down the days until I land in Namibia again. But for the remainder of this round-the-world, I realize that from here on out it’s me on my own, as tomorrow I face Asia and wherever else and whomever else I’m on the trajectory to cross paths with. The unknown of that is part of what makes this kind of travel so rich, so rewarding, so endlessly inspiring, and why I will continue to revolve my life around it.

Life should be felt, should be about color, about the world. For me, that involves the road, and that involves being brave enough to trust in the unknown of Indonesia, to give up Africa for now because I know I will always find a way to come back. Maybe next year I'll spend a few months here; in the savanna with a tent, some instant coffee, and good company. Right now, though, it's time to go, and to trust in the possibility of something else.

This round-the-world has woken me up from the stiffness that a clockwork life drilled into me. It’s brought me an incredible amount of joy and opportunities and sincere, overwhelming happiness. And now, a plane tomorrow will carry me across the world to Indonesia, and I can’t help but feel this daunting, unshakeable sensation that while one chapter in this round-the-world is closing — especially mixed with the hesitation and sadness of leaving this part of Africa — I know that there is something massive and important waiting for me in Asia, and beyond, wherever I end up. I don’t know what it is yet, but I’m ready to face it head on, with that little bit of Africa in the palm of my hand.

Let's see what else is out there.

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