Hot, buggy, humid, primitive, and amazing. That is how I describe my latest trip abroad.
I was working in Sierra Leone west Africa earlier this summer. An absolutely beautiful country and culture. Despite many days of difficult travel, lost bags, and jet lag and even though I had to risk poisonous snakes, malaria, persistent mango flies, and other unpleasantries, it was a great experience.
Summer is my busy travel season. For years I’ve traveled both domestically and abroad. I’ve been on every continent except Antarctica and I’ve been to more than 35 countries. I’ve enjoyed them all, but even in regard to Chile, my adopted second home, I am always happy to be back in the United States.
During this most recent trip I was working with the staff of an orphanage as well as with several NGOs [non-governmental organizations]. I saw a lot of the country and met a lot of her people. It was an amazing experience, but I always come home thinking how lucky I am to have been born in the U.S.
I’m not condescending to the beautiful people of Sierra Leone. They are loving and delightful people with a rich heritage and culture, but I also know that they face many risks I don’t even have to think about. Limited access to clean water, proper sewage, and the devastating effects of disease and malnutrition are never far from a parent’s mind.
It would be easy to arrogantly suppose our life in the States is superior. I’m not suggesting that at all. In fact, most of the adults that I met in large cities, couldn’t wait to spend time at home in their jungle villages when time allowed.
They love the grass huts and slow lives there just like we love our own. Happy children play, just like here. A slogan in the orphanage in the local language — Themne — translates something like “better to be an orphan in the orphanage than to be in the jungle alone.”
But one cannot escape a single word — opportunities. My children were raised with almost endless opportunities for travel, education, healthcare, and financial success. As the children of every village I visited swarmed me, the only white man some of them had ever seen, I realized that none of those expectations applied to them.
I didn’t see a newspaper, television, or read the news on the internet for the entirety of my trip, and even though I love to keep abreast of politics and the news, I didn’t miss it.
But I did miss air conditioning and sleeping without a mosquito net. I missed being able to walk at night without carefully watching for cobras and I missed meals that didn’t include rice.
When people ask about American food, I say we have some originals — BBQ, chili, and hamburgers. But almost anywhere you go in the States, we also have the best of the rest of the world. Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Lebanese, Persian, Indian, French, Italian, and Mexican, just to name a few.
Even in the smallest town, one can find food of at least two or three national origins. That, my friends, is distinctly American.
I’ve eaten many things that sound unpalatable to American ears — rodents, snakes, monkey, and parts of animals that most Americans would throw out. I don’t always like what I’m served, but more often I do.
But I’m always happy to be home where I can face the tyranny of choice in the grocery store or the rows of restaurants that litter our communities.
I watched a parent inspect a child for the potential presence of a sub-coetaneous bot fly larva and yet another checking for dreaded yellow fever. Even another had to place a screen over her child’s crib to ensure rats wouldn’t slip in and nibble on her infant at night. I saw some of these rats and they were huge. These are not problems I ever had to worry about.
In America we have the luxury of complaining about bad calls in a youth athletic game or slow internet connections. We have frustrations with one or two of the many teachers in our children’s school.
But in many countries like Sierra Leone, there may only be one teacher for several communities. Lucky us.
You don’t have to travel to be grateful. You just have to open your eyes and look around you. We live in the greatest country in the history of the world and at the easiest time in all of history as well.
I was in Africa on July 4 and missed the celebration of our independence, but I promise you that I never take it for granted.
[Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D., is a college professor, published author, licensed counselor, certified professional counselor supervisor, newspaper columnist and public speaker. His website is gregmoffatt.com.]