When packing for my pilgrimage to Africa, I must have checked my list a dozen times. There were countless things to remember-or forget depending on how you look at it. Passport, visa, vaccination records, camera, phone, chargers, adapters, SD cards, cash, sunglasses, extra pair of sunglasses, hat, extra hat, sunscreen, bug spray, over the counter meds, prescription meds, (so many meds! I didn't need most of them but my doctor armed me with every possible medication for any possible worst case scenario). But packing was a great distraction: if I could just focus on fitting an arsenal of supplies into my carry on, and a week's worth of casual-appropriate for poverty outfits that still made me feel like me (?) into my suitcase, then I could ignore the fact that I was about to face every single one of my fears all by myself. Where's my shower cap?!?!
Eventually my suitcase was packed and my family drove away from Newark Airport and it was just me. And God. And a long ass flight to Uganda.
I've always been a nervous flyer. But two years ago my flight "nerves" upgraded to full fledged fear when my NYC bound flight hit a Mid West tornado and had to rise above it to make it through. I'll just let that sink in for a moment. HIT A TORNADO. AND HAD TO RISE ABOVE IT. TO MAKE IT THROUGH. It felt exactly how you think it would, but the sky was green which you may not have imagined. Hellish. Terrifying. Life Changing. Obviously, we landed safely in New York, but not without lots of vomit and tears. Grown men called their mothers upon landing! I kissed the ground, thanked the Lord and demanded my husband meet me at a bar. Though I didn't know it then, that nightmare flight would be the first step in a series of mis-steps that would eventually lead me to Uganda + Rwanda. So I settled in for a long flight knowing I was meant to be on this trip which dissipated any natural fear of the unknown.
Nearly 24 hours later, I finally set foot in Africa; Entebbe Airport, Uganda, more precisely. It was excruciatingly hot and as I exited the plane I was desperate for a reminder of why I had come here and I tried to catch a glimpse of African skies for the first time. But I couldn't. The glass corridor was covered in mosquitoes and their buzzing was all I could hear and it was then that I truly panicked for the first time. What have I done? Where am I? How quickly can you contract malaria? The ONLY thing that kept my feet moving further into the airport was knowing I would have to endure all those flights again to get home and that was equally unappealing. So I looked around for my team—my fellow pilgrims. Two of whom I knew (not well, but enough to trust them to guide me on this journey!) and the others—complete strangers. Upon seeing them, we quickly introduced ourselves and mobilized to meet the two Ugandan folks that would be joining our team who were en route to pick us up.
The ride to our guest house was a blur. Between the anxiety of flying, 24 hours of travel, jet lag, and I don't know—the fact that yesterday I was in Queens and tonight I was in UGANDA—basically made me catatonic. I literally could not process the unfamiliar sights and sounds around me. But I was able to take in one fact and that was that the young man on our team—this bearded musician from Colorado, looked just like my brother. My brother who hasn't spoken to me in almost two years. I decided not to tell him this because second to my fear of flying, was my fear of not fitting in on this trip. Also, leading with "Nice to meet you too—you look JUST like my big brother from whom I'm estranged!" might make everyone uncomfortable. So I pondered it on my own and thought more about my brother during my two weeks in Africa than I had in months back home. Towards the end of our trip, our guide asked 'What followed you on pilgrimage that you didn't expect?' I almost laughed out loud. Of all the many things I imagined working through and reconciling in Africa, never in a million years did I think my brother would be one of them. I thought I had accepted our severed relationship as a new reality—albeit one I didn't choose, but what can you do if someone won't talk to you? I took his question as my cue to fess up. We had been through a lot together by this point and I truly trusted all of them. So I weirded out my new friend by telling him he is my brother's doppleganger and it was pretty epic. Especially when I showed everyone pictures of my brother on my iPhone.
It was a relief having that out in the open. I no longer had to hide this deep affinity I felt for my new friend. He really embodies the best parts of my brother. His spot on sense of humor, intimidating intelligence and infectious smile helped me remember the things I love most about my brother.
Pack lightly. Leave room for the unexpected, and never forget that the real baggage you carry is inside of you and will always exceed the TSA guidelines. And seriously—don't forget your passport. That's the worst.