Backpack borrowed from your aunt Patricia. Bar of Sunlight soap for handwashing underwear in hostel bathrooms. Box of granola bars, flattened, still good. Heartbreak not so fresh as to be debilitating.
Consume and walk a lot and misbehave a little. Dance in a Parisian nightclub with a man named Francois. Daydream on a train as it switchbacks through the Alps. Wonder, in Amsterdam, whether hash can make you hallucinate, or are there actually tiny men in bubbles on the ceiling? Eat everything: cheese, gelato, Swiss chocolate, large salty pretzels, cheap egg sandwiches from Tesco.
On the terrace of your homestay on the Italian Riveria, drink with a pack of American men—no, boys—and notice the cutest one, who isn’t even that cute. Hear him point out how drunk you are to your best friend. When everyone else goes to bed and a cot appears indiscreetly on the terrace, realize you are making a choice, and you won’t even remember his name tomorrow. See the leaning tower of Pisa with the worst hangover of your life.
Don’t feel guilty about burning through nearly $5,000 in two months because you have bigger problems, like where, exactly, is your period?
Cry on the streets of Copenhagen. Fail to notice the city’s romantic splendor. Take a pregnancy test in your best friend’s Danish grandmother’s bathroom, wrap the box in the pharmacy bag before throwing it out. Learn that the body can be confused by naiveté, by hunger.
Go alone, because you can. Surprise yourself by blending in with your long dark hair and intentional stride. When people ask for directions, say “Lo siento, no se,” and feel a small sense of accomplishment. When people give you directions, say “gracias” and wander in the general direction they point, because your Spanish comprehension is limited, and Havana is not that big.
Stay in a cheap hotel frequented by hookers and gigolos because you booked online and didn’t know. Meet a Cuban poet on the steps of the El Capitolio building and walk with him past fading colonial beauties, a sculpture of a flamenco dancer, a hotel bar haunted by Hemingway. Listen to the poet’s stories of international Facebook friends and a growing blog readership and know that he is lying, because Internet access is shoddy and prohibitively expensive; you haven’t even checked your email. Understand his claustrophobia, that he is lost along a spectrum of love and hate for Fidel Castro, and that talking to you is as close as he’ll ever get to seeing the world. Wince when he asks you to buy him a blue striped tunic from the market. Realize he’s a gigolo. Switch hotels.
Feel lonely. Feel lonelier than you have ever felt before. Wonder what you are trying to prove, out here in the world. Wonder about the value of a beautiful photograph. Decide to stop traveling alone, without purpose.
Don’t use your left hand or wear flip-flops in public or show the bottom of your feet to a village elder. Remember the iceberg diagram from training, designed to help you navigate cultural shock? It can’t help you now, you live in a slum.
Also, don’t sleep. The bass of the neighbourhood speaker stacks won’t let you. Go to work anyway, where the students are wary, then cautiously engaged, and then everything. Ishmael wants to be a writer and Joy wants to be the first female president of a student club and Samuel wants to be famous on the radio. Believe these things are possible, because they do.
Realize education is the only useful thing, and even it is not pure: despite his megawatt smile, the Nigerian professor hates you and your white skin and your “curriculum,” and you understand. You’ve been to the slave forts in Cape Coast, you know your ancestors were assholes.
Let the world stop when Samuel tells you, I’m going back to my village for a week because I’m hungry. Notice how thin he has become behind his carefully press collared shirts and professional swagger; hate yourself for not noticing earlier.
The night you’re scheduled to fly back to Canada, accept gifts the students bring to your home: a wooden necklace and a cut-out of a Ghanaian woman with a sign that says “Akwaaba,” or welcome. Ali Baba will be distant, one earbud in his ear, the other dangling around his neck. Laetitia will cry. When Samuel asks you to quickly record an intro for his new radio show, say okay, though you wish your voice didn’t sound like money.
Sob in the taxi on the way to the airport. You’re unlikely to see them again. They’ll scatter like seeds in the wind, back to the north of Ghana, back to Chad and Burkina Faso and Cameroon. Almost miss your flight, because you’re on Africa time now, for one more moment.
Eat with your hands. Swim on a Goan beach. Wear a sari. Wear an air pollution mask. Get food poisoning. Keep going. Make new friends. Watch your ass expand so it more closely resembles an Indian auntie’s. Learn the names of new trees. Gulmohar, amaltas, silk cotton. Learn the quintessential Indian head wobble. Teach English words to teenagers in a slum. Administration, shelter, certainly. Live in a palace. Try every mango. Langra, safeda, alphonso. Lean over the sink and let the juice run down your arms.
Climb into bed beside your guy. Ask, childlike: Are we having a sleepover? A line you have been using with each other for years. Insert earplugs, as he will, because your room is a humming symphony: an air purifier, an ancient air conditioner, a fan. Laugh in the dark when he speaks, and you speak, and you can’t hear each other. What?
Trust that fifty years from now your life will be like this, and where you are won’t matter at all.