This isn’t how it was supposed to be – my life, that is. I was meant to follow the example of generations before me: Grow up in my homogenous “safe” community, earn good grades in school, make friends, play outside, and graduate from high school. Then I would dash off to a reputable university to obtain a degree—and that coveted Mrs. degree with the man of my dreams. Then, I would settle down in my small safe hometown and push the refresh and repeat button for my own child. I am literally on the other side of the world from those initial 22 years of aspirations. When I graduated with only a degree in communication I started facing the raw disappointment that my life would not follow the plan handed down from most of my family and female role models. I still desire pieces of that carefully preconceived notion about life’s path. But, I can see that every sentence of my story is woven like a thread into a fantastically intricate tapestry of experiences. None of my moments are worth returning for what life is supposed to be.
I loved growing up in the northwest corner of Washington State – tucked up against the border of Canada, where I was born. I played outside with siblings and neighbors who dabbled in imagination: We made trees our forest homes; dug to China in our sandbox; and sped bicycles like cops and robbers around our lazy neighborhood road. When I was nine, my dad took a job 90 minutes south, near Seattle. It was the first in several events that diverted my presumed path. I made myself an undesireable classmate to a group of fourth graders who quickly grew tired of hearing about my former school that I missed…a lot.
I began writing letters to the friends I missed…loads of letters. It was a way of connecting back with people and making them feel special. Letterwriting also made me feel valued when I received a treasured piece of mail in return. I still write letters, postcards, and design elaborate Christmas cards each year for others and myself. Selfishly, I don’t want anyone to forget me.
Of course, I survived the move. After two years, I moved into the larger Christian school where I spent six years floating through classes; encouraged by excellent teachers, coaches, and mentors. I sang in choir, captained the volleyball team, and took up javelin throwing. I wasn’t popular or unpopular. I had a core group of nice friends who often forgot to invite me to birthday parties or include me in their shopping trips. This only bothered me to the point that it encouraged me to connect with nearly everyone. By my senior year, I slipped into seats at nearly any clique’s lunch table and felt comfortable joining the conversation.
Following what I assumed was a traditional path, I went to a church-affiliated Christian college in Michigan where I began to resent cold winters and hot summers of the Midwestern United States. This collegiate career was more-or-less defined by the track and field program and the tight-knit group of friends I found there. They might not know this, but I still love them nearly like family. As my volleyball skills were muted by other talent from around the country, my undistinguished javelin throwing ability became a desired commodity for a region where high school javelin throwing was not practiced. Under careful coaching, my nominal high school career flourished. By graduation, I tossed the spear 41.8 meters and became a NCAA Division III All American athlete at the national competition. Given that the NCAA has two bigger divisions, this was a humble accompishment, but something I worked hard to earn.
My degree in communication was a brilliant decision. I had excellent professors who mentored me and encouraged my gifts and interests. However, my broad education left me with such a wide selection of career choices that I could scarcely determine what path to follow. As it turned out, the economy made some choices for me. I ended up spending five years in the Chicago area working in the customer service and purchasing department at a food commodity distributor. The company was good to me, but the work was uninspiring, and I felt geographically miserable – stuck in the Midwest.
During this time, I found out from my dad’s geneology research that my 4th great grandfather had immigrated to the United States on a journey around the world. Instead of circumnavigating the globe, he stopped on the Pacific Coast of the United States. Perhaps inspired by his explorative spirit, I drained my meager bank account and booked my first trip away from North America to visit my brother who worked with the Peace Corp in Cameroon. The trip was eye opening and turned my understanding about human life upside down. My brother patiently walked me through daily life in Big Bekondo Village, to the resort town of Limbe, to other voluteers’ villages and homes, and then back to Douala for my return to Chicago.
This trip gave me an insatiable desire for travel – to explore and understand people, culture, and our human interconnectedness. Having always clung to my geography, I found that exploring through travel enticed me to uncover our human similarities in our different spaces; along with our common needs rather than identifying our divisions.
After Cameroon, and five years after I moved to Illinois, I found my way out of the state. I reluctantly left the beautiful people I love there and followed my sister’s lead; joining her for an austral summer contract, working for the United States Antarctic Program in McMurdo Station, Antarctica.
The experience of living on the “Ice” is not worthy of words. I cannot share the feel of -90F windchill, or fingerprint-cracking dry air, or the smell of nothingness, or the scope of scenery with photographs. Even those who visit on cruise ships miss the emotional and mental complexity of losing a tether to the inhabited world in a hurricane-force storm or the depths of a black winter.
I spent two summers and one winter at McMurdo Station where I drove Ivan the Terra Bus, the largest bus in the world; I camped outside; maneuvered a snow mobile up the side of the active volcano, Mount Erebus, and glissaded freely down her powdered ridges; I spent time sifting through the stars – realizing that even in the darkest night, our world still sees light by stars, moon, aurora australis, and nacreous clouds; and I met amazing people who overcame my understanding about how lives should be – and who gave me more courage to be a traveller.
From Antarctica, I found my way into a “day job,” marketing for an engineering firm that eventually moved me from Seattle to Hawaii. This was followed by a venture on “sabatical” to try out my own business, volunteer after a typhoon in the Philippines, and regain my sense of purpose.
All that, along with thousands of memories, plenty of difficult times, and some influential people, brought me to the place I am now: Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. It is here where I continue to explore while sharing my experiences about life in the Middle East; and places and people who I visit. Going places gifts me with an unprecedented education, a diverse cultural dialogue, and a multitude of friends. In my small voice, I hope my experiences give others a snapshot of my life and travels while opening their minds to some of our Earth’s interesting geography, culture, and people.
Far from the life I presumed I would have, I still wish to find my Mr. However, the search has changed from finding one who I can settle down with, to finding a man who will explore with me. It’s no longer just seeking someone’s hand to hold, but finding someone who I trust to love me when we let go and express our individuality – even if we occasionally travel independently. I am no longer looking for someone to change my life; I seek someone who will adapt with me as we grow, change, encourage and challenge each other to pursue our dreams.
Rather than planning for the family I anticipated, I plan for new travels. Perhaps by visiting every continent, I have fulfilled the mission of my great grandfather when he set off from the Netherlands to travel around the world. I still feel most at home when I fly into the Seattle or Vancouver area where he put his feet down and raised his family. However, in the last ten years, my sense of place, comfort, and familiarity has evolved to geographically include Hawaii, Antarctica, and Abu Dhabi. This isn’t how my life was supposed to be – given it's ups and downs, it’s still a far better adventure than I could have asked for, planned, or imagined.
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© 2017 Andrea Rip | The Earth Ink. All Rights Reserved.
Originally published on 13 May 2017