Friday, September 30, 2011

My Personal Safari

It was against a backdrop of white sand beaches and the Indian Ocean that I spent most of my summer. What was originally planned as an amazing African adventure that would take me through many countries in eastern and southern Africa ended up being a journey of a much more personal nature, one that started a long time ago.

The first few weeks were spent on a road trip which took my friends and I to the mountains of Lushoto, where we hiked through coffee and banana plantations and then onto Marangu, located on a slope of Mount Kilimanjaro where we hiked up through dense and lush forest to the first base camp, one thousand meters higher than our starting point. After Marangu we entered Kenya and spent a few days in Voi, at a wildlife lodge and went on a few safari drives during which we saw many elephants, a few lions, lots of giraffes and scores of other animals. After Voi, we spent a week on the beach just outside Mombasa and then headed back to Dar es Salaam, but not before stopping for a night in gorgeous Pangani, a tiny beach village on the northern coast of Tanzania.

During the trip I found myself spending more and more time by myself. When we would hike, I would lag behind. At the beach, I would go on walks by myself and just be quiet and listen to the sounds around me, breathing the smells in as deep as I could. I could feel a shift happening, like something inside of me was coming to the surface, but I wasn’t quite ready to let it out. Not just yet.

A few weeks after we arrived back in Dar, Ulco left for his annual holiday and I was alone. His house is located just a couple hundred meters from a beautiful beach, and I soon got into the habit of walking to the ocean and then strolling up the beach to a palm thatched cafĂ© known as Coco Beach. I would sit, have a few drinks and just look out at the ocean, watching the sunlight dance on the water and the tide slowly come in or go out. No talking, no reading, no camera. Not having my camera with me was a new experience and I left it at home due to the fact that theft is rampant there. I had heard so many stories I was scared to take anything of value with me when I left the house alone. I had heard stories of people being robbed at knife point – and when I say knife, I mean machete. In some stories they had been robbed of everything, including undergarments. At first I found it annoying. How could I go anywhere without my phone or camera? But soon I realized I needed that. I needed to leave that behind, even if only for a few hours a day.

In the beginning, I felt naked without my camera and phone and ipod, but soon I felt free. Instead of listening to music as I usually do when I am walking, I listened to the ocean and the wind. The wind smelled so clean and the rhythm of the waves was hypnotic and created a sense of peace. It was relaxing and safe and suddenly I found myself looking back over my life.

I spent most of my adult life like a lot of people, working hard and collecting the rewards of that hard work. I had the expensive clothes, ate at fantastic restaurants, traveled and made sure everyone was aware of how fantastic and wonderful my life was. But the truth is, I felt empty. And the more stuff I got, the more places I went, the emptier I felt. Just ten years ago, on the outside, my life was perfect. I had a great career, a wonderful marriage, fantastic friends and an enviable life. But, it was all a lie. I was dead inside. I didn’t feel anything. Well, I did feel something, I felt a panic that one day it was all going to come crashing down around me. I was terrified. Without my clothes and house and lifestyle, I had no idea who I was. More importantly, I didn’t want to know. I was scared and couldn’t say anything to anyone, not even my closest friends. Even in this blog, I hid the truth. I talked about how fantastic everything was and how fabulous my life was going. Truth is, I didn’t mean a word of it. It was just important that other people believed it.

Just when I thought things would bottom-out in Amsterdam, I got a call from my office to go to India. I jumped on the opportunity. A new chance to create a new life. But when I got there, I didn’t create a new life, I recreated my old life. Clothes, restaurants and a lifestyle people envied. I would hear how lucky I was from people, how they wished they could live the way I did. And each time I heard that, I would cringe inside. They had no idea what they were saying. I was emptier than ever and desperate for things to change but terrified they would.

And then one day in November 2008, my house of cards started crashing down. At first, I lost my job, but I wasn’t worried. I had an incredible CV with only the top companies in the world on it. But there was a problem, the recession. I went from getting calls from head hunters to not even getting a response from solicitations. After almost half a year, I ran out of money. My savings were gone and I still had no job. I managed to do some freelance work here and there and a few consulting projects on the side, but nothing substantial. I moved from my nice house into a tiny little place that was not too far removed from a slum. In the world I was from, that is exactly what it was, but in India, it was still a step or two above.

Things went downhill from there. I sold everything I owned just to have money for food, money which quickly ran out. All around me, people would say “things happen for a reason” and I wanted to punch them. Others would go one step further and say “it’ll get better” and each time I heard that, I resisted the urge the tell them to go fuck themselves. I have seen enough of the world and life to understand that it doesn’t always get better. For many people, it not only doesn’t get better, it gets worse. I felt embarrassed and ashamed and didn’t tell anyone what was really going on. Some people knew I was having a hard time, but nobody knew what was really happening. I wanted to ask for help, but asking for help would mean to show I was weak and needed people and that was something I just could not let myself do.

Then, one day in January 2010, I decided I had had enough. I hadn’t been out of bed for over a week. I hadn’t showered. I hadn’t eaten anything. I kept my phone off and shut myself away from everyone. Then I woke up one morning and decided that I was going to put a stop to it. I didn’t want to live anymore. I wasn’t living, I was existing, and barely that, but I just didn’t want it anymore. Even the simple act of breathing started to seem an impossible chore. And then three friends intervened and even though I was desperate for their help, I still resisted it. I had my pride to protect. I decided to wait a day or so. I realized I could end things any day, so there wasn’t really a rush. Several days later, Ulco flew me to Dubai for a week and I was on an emotional rollercoaster. I would laugh and then start crying for no reason. I had existed on so little food that when we would eat, I would feel ill and often get sick afterwards. I still wanted to end things. I wanted that horrible feeling to go away. I didn’t really want to die, I just didn’t want to live anymore.

About six months later I moved to Istanbul, new city, new job, new beginning, but it was all the same. Inside I was still numb. I could put on a good show, make people laugh and think my life was so together and so fantastically amazing, but I knew it was all crap. I decided I would go to Africa on holiday and lose myself there amid the safaris and nature and beaches. I needed to get away from my life and Africa seemed the perfect destination.

While I did do a few wildlife safaris, the biggest safari was traveling back through the years and everything that had happened to bring me to that point. I realized things about myself I never had before. One of those realizations was that fact that on that day in India, I decided I would not kill myself, but I didn’t make the decision to live. I didn’t know then that there was a difference. Sitting on the beach, watching the light play on the ocean and forcing myself to stay completely present and in the moment, I discovered I still hadn’t made the decision to live. I was existing. And then I asked myself a question; Did I really, truly, want to live? I wasn’t thinking about killing myself or doing any harm, but suddenly there was a shift and I saw that living is a choice.

It is a decision I am still working through. I know it may seem that the obvious answer to the question is “Yes”, but it was something I thought and still think about. And if the answer is “yes”, then what does that mean? For me, it means being honest with myself and truth be told, I am a fantastic liar. So each day, little by little, I look at things. I look at where my life is going and wonder if I am actively going there or just being carried along. And more important, do I want to go where I seem to be headed or do I want to change direction? It also requires I ask the question “Who am I?” and for now, I am not sure what the answer is. But I am looking into it, and that is a really big step for me.