After 6 months abroad, here’s what I’ve learned

On May 25, 2016, I boarded United Flight 932 en route to Lilongwe, Malawi, the previous two weeks flashing before my eyes: surviving final exams, packing up my apartment, saying goodbye to friends, and walking across the stage in a cap and gown. I carried a small red suitcase and my black Sierra backpack, all my earthly possessions dwindled down to 30 lbs. I was excited. I was nervous. I was scared out my mind. My comfy college bubble had finally burst, and I was on my own. (I had graduated from the University of Maryland a mere four days before.)

Now fast-forward six months to December 9, 2016. Since boarding United Flight 932, I’ve lived in three different cities on three different continents. I’ve flown over 60,000 miles (that’s twice the circumference of the earth!), ridden bumpy safari cars, sailed the third-largest lake in Africa, bought my own motorbike, and nearly crashed in a rickety bus in Indonesia. I’ve sighted nearly 100 elephants, learned there’s 91 species of antelope, gotten my head super-glued together (in lieu of stitches), climbed a volcano, tasted civet coffee, and taught over 350 high school students.

In many ways, I’ve remained unchanged these past six months: still overly idealistic and a recovering workaholic. But, in other ways, I’m different. Time and place teach and change people. I’ve been shaped by what I’ve learned.

Lilongwe taught me globalization is complex.

I describe my time in Malawi as been stuck between worlds. One moment everything felt familiar: the English language, the chicken wraps, the Hollywood movies, the plush blue carpets of the U.S. Embassy. The next moment, I was on a different planet. People chattered in Chichewa. Women walked up to me peddling fresh oranges balanced on their heads. The lack of rain left the city with no water and my pipes dry. The sweltering sun set every night coated in a blood-red tint, looking so large that I thought there was no way it was the same sun I saw in Maryland, USA.

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A boy paddling a dugout canoe on Lake Malawi

But my conflicted thoughts reached far beyond my superficial exchange with the environment. In college, I spent four years dissecting foreign policy and international development. I learned theories and did case studies and wrote mock grant proposals. In the confines of my plush educational sphere, the world was simple, problems were solvable.

But in the Sub-Saharan African heat, I saw clearly that global issues are vastly complicated. International problems are not solved overnight. In a region plagued by drought, in a country receiving trillions of dollars in international aid, in a city filled with wealthy, foreign faces, I struggled to find answers. Where was all the money going? What aims were the thousands of volunteers achieving? How could I, a 21-year-old from the suburbs of DC, ever hope to chip away at institutional and worldwide injustice?

I saw class divisions as clearly in Malawi as I did in the United States. Brexit came, and my African, European, and American friends wept. The U.S. presidential race dominated local newspapers: how would it affect African politics? BBC News ran an international headline on sexual cleansing in Malawi, and the president cracked down. The world was watching the U.S. The world was watching Malawi. Nothing occurred in isolation.

South Luangwa taught me to value nature.

I climbed out my mosquito-netted bed at 5:30am on July 3, just as the horizon turned baby blue and the stars began to close their eyes. The roars of hippos and whimpers of monkeys awakened my senses. I walked outside and came face-to-face with a lone elephant trying to steal food from a neighboring campsite.

Forty minutes later, I was bustling along in a 4×4 safari jeep. The crisp morning air stung my exposed ears, and I clung to the thin blanket I’d taken from my bed. My guide, Rose, with a strong and firm voice, explained South Luangwa Park is home to 60 animal species and 400 bird species. She was the only female tour guide working in an industry dominated by men.

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Reveling in the beauty of South Luangwa National Park

A small leopard jumped in front of our jeep just as we entered the park: stalking far-off prey as it scampered into the bush. I didn’t realize how elusive leopards were at that point. We later spent hours looking for another.

Five minutes later, and we came across a sea of impala (a type of antelope), their gold fur glistening in the morning sunlight. Their thin, majestic horns and graceful prance entranced me.

Over the next four days, I spotted elephants, giraffes, zebras, wild dogs, hyenas, warthogs, water buffalo, wildebeests, guinea fowl, waterbuck, kudu, saddle bill stork, kingfishers, herons, and more. I witnessed three wild dogs fall into formation as they scouted for prey. A pack of elephants chased away two hyenas as they moved across an open field. And a single leopard hid evasively in the treeline, stalking a herd of impala.

I was in love.

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A family of Thornicroft Giraffes

I’d never seen such breathtaking diversity. I studied biology and watched NatGeo, but seeing these majestic animals in person was life-changing.

As I watched a baby hippo flounder in the dried-up stream, my tour guide looked at me, “Many animals will die this year. There isn’t enough rain.” Why aren’t we better protecting the natural wonders of our world? When will we recognize climate fluctuations have a global impact?

Bandar Lampung gave me the gift of language.

I stood in front of 40 teenagers on September 30, my mind blank. I was there to teach English. But how could I do that without first introducing topics in their native language, Bahasa Indonesia?

I lived in Bandar Lampung, the “gateway to Sumatra.” Relocation incentives brought waves of people from nearby Java island decades ago. Now, the city is a blend of the people, language, and culture of Java and Lampung. Everyone speaks Bahasa Indonesia: the national language borrowed from Malaysian traders and born out a desperate need for national unity. But many of students also speak Bahasa Jawa (if their ancestry is rooted on Java Island) or Bahasa Lampung (on the southern part of Sumatra Island).

But, as a country comprised of over 900 inhabited islands, Indonesia boasts over 300 native languages. I’m just trying to learn one.

I felt my Bahasa Indonesia skills growing. After a few weeks, I was able to converse with people at ease. Strange syllables and sounds spilled from my lips without much thought. I even dreamed in Bahasa Indonesia.

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Sampling coffee at Lampung’s Coffee Festival

But what I thought was most fascinating was my changing interpretation of English. I found myself adopting Indo-English phrases: direct translations of Indonesian and make almost no sense to native English speakers. The traditional greeting, Mau ke mana? is translated to “Where you go?” and asked off-hand when seeing someone. The words “condition,” “situation,” and “success” filled my everyday sentences. Instead of saying, “Have you visited Bali?” students asked me, “You already ever to Bali?” to mirror the Indonesian phrase Kamu sudah pernah ke Bali? 

I found myself not only learning a new language, but also adapting the ones I already knew.

Maryland taught me to love home.

Between Malawi and Indonesia, I spent 10 precious days in Maryland, USA. In mid-November, I returned for four days. Both visits were filled with friends, family, and love. My sisters never looked so beautiful. My grandma’s cooking was never so good. My friends smiles were never so infectious. The love, strength, and depth of my relationships at home rejuvenated me.

And I’ve realized that I’ve taken a lot of home with me around the world. Minute cultural values that I never recognized before seem so salient now: independence, (over)valuation of time, and direct communication just to name a few. These attributes are drilled into my soul. I can suppress or manipulate them, but they will always be there to guide my reactions and my decisions. When I’m in the States, these things are taken for granted, they’re not strange or foreign. There’s an eerie sense of comfort about it.

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Kayaking in Shenandoah with the family

Looking forward, I know “home” will be defined many ways as I explore the world outside my college bubble. Sometimes home will be where I rest my head: Lilongwe, Malawi. Sometimes it will be where I find happiness: South Luangwa, Zambia. Sometimes it will be where I form friendships: Bandar Lampung, Indonesia. But now, more than ever, I realize that I will always think of Maryland as home. I will always smile when I think of the traffic on Route 270, Mckeldin Mall at UMD, and the forests of Rock Creek Park.

Because, after traveling the world for six months, I’ve found myself right back where I had begun.

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