I’m one of those people who is skeptical about group travel. Group anything, really because I’m usually more comfortable being alone. Whether it’s dinner, a movie, a day, a weekend, I’m very happy to spend it in the company of me, myself and I.
When I decided to join 26 other people on a trip to Kenya, I was apprehensive about the group aspect. Kenya was a bucket list destination and required a significant investment of time and money. The trip was also coming at a time in my life when I was really craving a mental break. For all these reasons it was important that everything be perfect. Not perfect as in on-time flights and free wifi, perfect as in free of things that often define group travel situations, like aqua fit at an all-inclusive or waiting for Marge from Minnesota to find her camera so the bus could depart for the excursion. To be frank, I was afraid the vacation would be spoiled by other humans.
Before you write me off as a total asshole, let me explain. I am an introvert. I spend a LOT of time in my head. Socializing and being “on” around people I don’t know exhausts me. Small talk stresses me out and drains my energy. Networking events, cocktail parties and similar group situations are my worst nightmare.
I like people, I really do, but it’s difficult for me to get to know them. I thrive on deep, meaningful conversations that stimulate my brain and heart, but it’s difficult to get to that stage without the requisite small talk first. So around and around we go.
Even when I’m out with friends I’m usually the first one to leave and go to bed because by 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. my brain is screaming that it needs to lie in the dark and recharge. The only time I suffer from FOMO is when I’m on the dance floor thinking about the book tucked under pillow.
Because of all this, I often come across as being aloof. I look like someone who’d rather sit alone or with the people she knows, someone who can’t be bothered to socialize or make new friends, which is funny because what I’m really thinking is some version of “holy shit, how do I disappear before my head explodes and everyone finds out I’m the most boring person here?”
Not surprisingly, this cycle of social incompetence does not make for successful human interactions, especially in groups.
But I went.
I went because it was Kenya, and because there would be safaris. I went because I’d be traveling with a handful of good friends. I went because I would never be able to arrange such a culturally immersive experience on my own. I went because comfort zones are made to be broken.
And I went because I remember from travelling around Europe (alone, of course) that there is great benefit in shared experience. Even I can admit that watching an incredible sunset in Greece or standing atop the Eiffel Tower for the first time is much more fun when you can turn to someone you know and share that moment with them.
On safari, when we came around the corner and spotted a female lion playing in the sun with her cubs less than 5 metres from our truck, that moment was even more special because there were a dozen other people gaping, gasping and losing their freakin’ minds right alongside me.
I’m usually more content to watch, listen and observe, leaving others to do the jumping in. I will NEVER raise my hand when someone says “we need a volunteer!” and I die a thousand deaths whenever I win a raffle prize because I hate being singled out, even for a good reason.
So for the first few days of the trip, I stuck to my usual ways. I was there and I was present. I was moved and I was joyful, but I wasn’t immersed.
But nothing pulls you off the sidelines faster than 600 primary school children, wearing nothing more than threadbare uniforms and huge toothy smiles, singing you into their village.
When a village “mama” who has never spent a night outside her mud hut and never fetched water from anything but a brown river stands before 30 white, English-speaking tourists and confidently tells you her life’s story, you actively engage with her. You drop your own insecurities and hang-ups and fall over backwards to show her how much her hospitality has meant to you even if that’s not your “thing.”
When a 13-year old girl from the local high school tells you she studies from 4:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. six days a week and that she wears her hair shorn to the scalp because she doesn’t have time for vanity, you talk to her one-on-one for as long as you possibly can. You wade though the discomfort of small talk and language barriers and you ask her about her favourite subject, what she wants to be when she grows up and whether or not she likes Justin Bieber (she does) because that’s what she deserves.
To my great relief, the Kenya travel experience even gave me plenty of time to retreat inside my head.
As I cut rebar and bent steel ties on the build site; as I watched a herd of elephants emerge from the trees on safari, as I bounced along dusty, uneven dirt roads on long bus rides to and from camp I found plenty of time to nourish and check in with myself, to contemplate the things that needed to be contemplated and to recharge.
In Kenya, for the first time in a long time, I collected energy from people instead of feeling depleted by them. I grew stronger and more present the more I opened up, the more I shared, the more I engaged.
In Kenya I pushed myself outside my introvert comfort zone simply because the country deserved to be appreciated and gushed over. Her people deserved to know they’d been seen and heard, and that they were changing my life much more than I was changing theirs.
I learned quickly that sitting on the sidelines and watching was not what Kenya was about. Kenya made me want to shout from the rooftops about everything I was learning and experiencing; she made me want to jump in with both feet, to immerse myself in everything she had to offer, to test and then demolish self-imposed boundaries, all in the name of love for a country whose motto might as well be “love first, ask questions later.”
And you barely have to make this choice, this decision towards extroversion, because Kenya makes it for you. Kenya makes it impossible for you to do anything but peel off your reservations and insecurities and leave them in the dirt as you dance and shout with the village elders, hold children on your lap and revel in the omnipresent spirit of joy and the power of community.
For two weeks, Kenya and its people, made me forget that I prefer my own company to that of strangers. Together they made me forget that I’m rubbish at small talk and insecure around new people. Kenya and her people inspired me to open my eyes a little wider and embrace not only what was completely foreign but that which should be familiar: human connection.