My journey abroad started a little more than two years ago…
There I am, graduating from University and like most of classmates, I have no idea what to do next. Should I use my major to work in the energy sector or should I follow my dream of working abroad in international development? I find that doing both would take a foundation I don’t have and am not interested in taking the time to develop. After a few pensive months, I decide to take a position running an after school program in Ghana, West Africa. Although I have great respect for educators, this field of work is far from my passion. However, it is the tool that will allow me to strike at the heart of where I know, deep down, I need to go next.
Through this position, I reconnect with a dear family friend, who happened to have grown up in Ghana. He sets me up to stay with his family for a week in Accra, the capital of Ghana, before traveling up north to Kumasi, where I will ultimately be working. From my new Ghanaian family to my new work colleagues, I’m feeling the love right from the start. This is a picture perfect way to start my experience living abroad.
Then, the real challenge starts. I’m left on my own in a small town out side of Kumasi, called Antoa, which will be my home for the next 10 months and the foundation of the big lessons I will gain from my time in Ghana. I’m the only white person in town, I have to fetch water everyday, clean my clothes by hand, immerse myself in a new language and culture, and figure out the best way to navigate my new position.
At first, I feel rigid and like I made a big mistake coming here. It’s not just a doubt that distracts my thoughts. I literally feel physically ill, sitting in my room, frozen with terror of the unknown lurking just outside of my door.
After a few hours of the agony, I let go of my hesitation completely and with great stubbornness and a sprinkle of courage, I head out my front door to confront my fear head on. I decide that one of us is going to be defeated out here and I’m not going to let it bring me down without a fight. That decision changes everything for me.
I relearn a lesson from my early days playing baseball. I was in my second year of middle school when I decided to give baseball a try for the first time. I felt overwhelmed playing second base, not able to field a ground ball, as everyone around me easily played through their routines they had known since their early toddler years. Both of my coaches planned together to agitate me to the breaking point. As they became successful, I didn’t know if I wanted to cry or scream. I just dropped all of my resistance and only held the courage to prove them wrong. I charged at the ball, as if it were my last act in life, fielded it, and then threw it as hard as I could right to the chest of the first baseman. Both coaches stopped and just stared at me with their smart-ass grins. They broke through my resistance and showed me what I am capable of if I have the courage to go out and take a hold of life. It’s funny to me how some of these lessons that didn’t seem like such a big deal at the time, can come back and have such a profound effect on my life.
The rest of my time in Ghana is filled with adventure, sickness, dear friends, failures, successes, and overall, just learning how to ‘figure it out’. This experience was exactly what I needed to itch my international development scratch. However, something I had been interested in since my last year of college is coming back to the surface of my life compass. I decide to leave Ghana and the opportunity to be an integral leader in a fast growing non-profit, in order to explore something much less tangible. But first, it’s time to go back home and spend time with family for a few months.
I know in my heart it’s time to travel to South East Asia and explore spirituality. I’ve been drawn to Theravada Buddhism, specifically to the austere tradition in the forests of North East Thailand. I set my sights on buying a one-way plane ticket to Thailand and staying in an international monastery to become a monk. Then, my dear friend in Ghana suggests I apply for a position with her company. The position would land me in Laos. Okay, not Thailand, but pretty damn close. I learn that the languages and cultures are very similar, so I plan to use my time in Laos building transferrable skills that will open up my opportunities when I finally do get to Thailand. Before I can blink, I’m in Luang Prabang, Laos for a 6-month internship with a wonderfully inspirational organization. I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend time getting to really know the culture before I make any big commitments.
Laos turns out to be a very different atmosphere than Ghana. I have most of the amenities I could ever want and instead of traveling all over, covered in sweat from myself and who knows how many other people, I spend most of my time in an office. This also being my first full-time office job, presents new challenges for me. I had jobs and internships in college, but they were always mixed in with school and running from place to place throughout the day. This would be the first time I would be in one place, the whole day. Through amazing support from both my bosses and colleagues, I’m quickly able to find success. I learn the local language and culture at a speed and depth unlike my experience in Ghana. Instead of starting off at a crawl, like in Ghana, I’m able to start off at a confident, upright pace. A passion burns inside of me to learn not only for my immediate success with my position, but also as my key to explore monasteries in Thailand after I finish my contract here in Laos.
After three months, I decide to extend my contract to one year. Even though my heart is set on the monastery, I also discover a new love with my life in Laos. Luckily, I get 20 vacation days total for the whole year. I use half of those days for family. The rest I set aside to explore Buddhism.
I time my vacation with the week long national new year and decide to spend a little over two weeks in the international monastery I was set to travel to from the beginning.
Those two weeks are more than enough to solidify my plans for the future. A future, that won’t be inside of the secluded walls of a monastery. I get some time to really listen to my intuition and understand that I’m meant for something where I can interact, share, and most of all learn from others. I decide to shift toward a broader scope with my spiritual exploration.
Eventually, I spend the rest of my vacation days at a Buddhist meditation center in the capital of Laos. That time only strengthens my conviction to continue my meditation practice and stay far away from joining any organized religion. Those conventions can be beautiful things, with the potential to help many people, but aren’t meant for me.
My next stop… China. My goal will be to live there for an extended period of time, jobless. I will volunteer in order to get accommodation and food, but other than that will spend little and seek the adventure my soul has been yearning for. I will pick up and move often and everywhere I go will be fueled by the generosity of others and my, soon to be honed, hitchhiking skills. I have plenty of tangible goals to keep the logical-planning part of my brain satisfied, but I can’t fool myself that I’m really after something much bigger. Something that has always been within me and relates everyone and everything together in one shared and interconnected experience we ultimately call life. I’m not sure I can put it into a more solid idea and I think if I tried, it would dilute my calling, which hasn’t even been revealed to me yet.
Those experiences in Ghana and Laos were necessary steps along my journey. It’s taken a lot for me to realize that there have been enough steps already. It’s now time to take the dive, lose my sense of security from the outside, and find that inner piece of the puzzle that is ultimately what I’m looking for, but the scariest and most difficult thing I’ve ever searched for.