Long before we met each other, my husband, Brian, and I were each discovering adventure on our own. I did some study abroad and had an urban adventure in New York City in my early twenties. We were both Peace Corps volunteers—Brian in Mauritania (a place that he swears is halfway between the Old Testament and the moon) and me in rural Cote d’Ivoire (in a village where sacred masks still dance).
After Peace Corps, before we knew each other, we both spent fascinating and difficult years working in West Africa. I was evacuated from two countries because of widespread violence and war. Brian was once almost killed when a tiny donkey tried to throw him in a well he was digging with a village. We both know all too well what a gamble a fart can be after a certain kind of snack bought from a certain kind of vendor on the side of the road. We have both lost that gamble and are card-carrying members of the I Shat My Pants club (thankfully, not together…at least not yet, but we have yet to visit India). We both have stories we can’t even tell here because our mothers will read this post. And let’s not forget I’m that wedding graduate whose finger got bitten by an elephant two days before the wedding.
There was a time where I was pretty sure that my unconventional career choice in international health and development—and the eccentricities that I have developed because the aforementioned experiences—would prevent me from finding someone I was truly compatible with. I was pretty sure my adventurous life would leave me well travelled, world-weary, and alone.
Then, when I least expected it, I met Brian. When Brian and I started dating, the force that pulled us together was industrial-strength. Because we had so much shared context in our explorations, our relationship felt very easy. My work and my passion for Africa are consuming and defining and central to my identity. So, I almost died when I found out that in addition to being totally hot, Brian speaks the same West African tribal language as me (!?!). Some people think our off-the-beaten-path choices are cool, but I know that they have made both of us a little odd—luckily in all the same ways. We get ants in our pants and a hankering to move every few years. We have similar beliefs about wealth and what constitutes a true problem. We know firsthand how hard life is for most people on the planet, and therefore cultivate a deep sense of gratitude—every. single. day. We are strict with our children: we expect them to respect both authority and their elders. When we come to The States we feel a little bit like strangers in a strange land, yet we are both deeply patriotic.
I mean, how could we NOT tumble into love? I guess you could say he had me at O ka kenen wa.
When people hear we live and work in Africa (Kenya now) they conjure up visions of how exciting our days must be. But the truth is it is not nearly as exciting as it sounds, and it is certainly no better than any other life. These days we both work in offices in front of computers. We do the stuff most American professionals do—go to meetings, keep up with email, pack lunches, go to parent-teacher conferences, go out to dinner with friends, drag our weary asses to the gym. Brian’s oft-taken trips to “exotic” destinations feel like business trips to me—except they suck more because the connectivity is crap, and if he’s gone somewhere where the connectivity is good, then the time difference is crap. We bitch about Nairobi traffic (epic during the rainy season) and pick up the occasional bucket of chicken at KFC.
But while our life isn’t anything like the Amazing Race, overall, it really is pretty amazing. The thing about living in a developing country is that things are unpredictable. That means that running through the banalities of the everyday is an ever-present possibility of discovery, surprise, and wonder. Often amazing translates to acutely uncomfortable. Sometimes that current shocks us in ways that are electrifying and illuminating and hilarious. Other times they sear us, humble us, and leave us aching—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. All of it is good—it awakens deep inner parts of us that might go untouched in more predictable circumstances.
Adventure living is kind of like working out with an emotional BOSU ball for years on end. You are never completely stable and you must learn to maintain your center of gravity over a platform that is constantly changing. As you move, you shift in and out of balance. You have to use thousands of little reflexes and muscles you never even knew existed, just to stay standing. You crash. You hurt. At first, you are not as strong as you thought. But in the end, you become more aware of yourself, more confident moving in the world. And you gain a new strength. Core strength. And ultimately, you grow stronger than you ever imagined possible. Come to think of it, marriage is like this too.
But ultimately, I don’t believe that you have to live somewhere between the Old Testament and the moon to have an adventurous life. I think that adventure living is less about going to a physical place and more about inhabiting a psychological, emotional, and spiritual one. It’s about immersing yourself in learning fully from whatever place you are in.
Want to be an adventurer? I don’t believe that you have to do anything extreme. Lose the inhibition. Pour your heart into the stuff and people around you—particularly those who are different from you. Look for the whimsical and allow yourself to be shocked and moved and delighted. Don’t avoid what is hard—look it in the face and consciously grapple with what you are going to believe and do about it. Act like an anthropologist observing mysterious people in a foreign land. Stop clinging to the belief that things should be some certain way and get curious about all the ways that they ARE. Seek to understand. Abandon the (futile) quest to be “normal.” These attitudes can be easier to adopt when the environment is more exotic, but if you can find a way to do them, then every trip to the grocery store contains the possibility of becoming an epic journey.
Somehow these principles seem to be relevant to marriage too. Building a life with another person is nothing if not an exploration of and journey through a most intimate geography. Why not choose to make every day an adventure?
And a final word: Avoid tiny donkeys at all costs.