Whenever I meet people and the topic of traveling comes up, they often assume that I have very wealthy parents and that I must have taken lots of trips with my family growing up. Neither is true. I am not from a poor background, but my family has sure had its fair share of money struggles. We have taken two trips together, and then some weekend escapes to nearby locations. Not that I am complaining in any way! I did go to countless rugby camps and joined my friends’ families on their travels, so I did get out quite a lot. But there is one person in particular who instilled the desire to travel and explore in me like no other.
Her name was Kati (a nickname only me and my sister used for her) and she was my grandmother’s best friend. To me, she was my aunt. A family isn’t just defined by being related by blood, and Kati was the best example for this. Kati took care of my sister and me in many ways that her mother cared for my mom when she was growing up.
When you’re little, you often don’t think about an older person’s past. I never really talked to Kati about her pre-retirement life or about how she grew up. To me, she was the great-aunt who always traveled. I remember coming into her living room and looking at her souvenirs and photo albums from past journeys. Every year she had about two bigger trips planned. Snorkeling in the Maldives, safaris in Botswana, trips to Guatemala, and even a tour to Antarctica – she got to see quite a lot of the world. Her entire apartment was filled with large photographs of animals and landscapes. She also had a large map of southern Africa that she stuck her own pictures on. Her Africa necklace was always around her neck.
When I was about four (and I only know this story from her retellings), I saw a photo she took of a pack of lions and exclaimed that I also wanted to go see those animals in the wild. Kati responded that when I was old enough, we would go see the lions. So when I turned 12, she surprised me with a trip to Namibia. I had never traveled that far before, let alone dreamt of going to Southern Africa. For two weeks, Kati, my grandma and I traveled through Namibia, experiencing savannahs, deserts, cities, and safaris.
This trip lit a fire in me. I had seen a completely different culture, tasted new foods, and seen landscapes I had never dreamt of. In short, I had gotten a glimpse of what else what was out there and I wanted to see all of it. It led to me going on an exchange year in Costa Rica, studying at an international university, and doing internships in Ecuador and the US, completing my MA in the UK and then moving to Zambia, Guatemala, and Australia. Through it all, my family has been incredibly supportive and encouraging. Not once have I heard my parents complain about me being gone for too long or missing family events.
Kati kept on traveling for quite a while. She visited places that other people her age would never even consider going to. She skied through the Alps, dove in Egypt and explored the caves of Belize. Until fate took an unjust turn and she got dementia. Suddenly, many memories started to fade. They stayed alive in scrapbooks, photographs, and maps.
When she died, I realized I never truly thanked her for inspiring me. I never told her I admired her adventurous spirit so much. I can’t do that anymore but I hope she knew how much we love her.
When I am older, I hope I can help someone else to go out on their own adventure. I hope that I, too, can open someone’s eyes to a world they didn’t know existed and ignite that spark of curiosity in them. Because once it’s there, it never dies, and that is one of the greatest gift you can possibly give.
All the pathos and irony of leaving one’s youth behind is thus implicit in every joyous moment of travel: one knows that the first joy can never be recovered, and the wise traveller learns not to repeat successes but tries new places all the time.
Who inspires you to travel?