SEVEN YEAR AGO, this spring, I was on a 22-hour flight back to New York City. I’d spent the majority of the winter living in M’Sangani, Tanzania, where I was the only white person for miles, only a few people spoke English, and I lived completely off the grid. Now, in my thirtieth year of life, now a mother, a wife and a settled homeowner, I find myself thinking a lot about M’Sangani.
How is it possible that I, who just flinched as a fat bee buzzed through my open window, could have met someone online, flew to a country I knew nothing about, and followed that someone three hours away from anything that even remotely resembled my home culture? It was possible and I did that.
I fell asleep alone under the protection of a flimsy mosquito net after seeing a fat, 8-foot-long cobra slide through my dooryard. I sardined myself into the backseat of a minivan with probably 15 other people and went barreling down the Tanzanian “highway” even after seeing a news headline about one of the same minivans being flattened like a pancake by a bus on the very same road hours before. I walked the mile-long path home through the village, by myself in the dark, after forgetting my flashlight at home, suspecting I was toeing baby scorpions out of the way.
Highway death and scorpions aside, had I been an idiot for trusting a Couchsurfer with whom I had exchanged only a few months’ worth of emails? Even after weeks of getting to know him online, I still hadn’t trusted him completely. I had often caught him in small lies. Now I wonder if I unknowingly had put myself in range of any narrow misses with disaster?
I recently discovered a book, A House in the Sky, written collaboratively by Sara Corbett and Amanda Lindhout, which tells the story of Lindhout’s abduction while traveling in Somalia. A House in the Sky tells the details of how Lindhout and her traveling companion were held hostage for fifteen months after making the decision to adventure into the war-torn country for the sake of journalism.
“I figured I could make a short visit and report from the edges of disaster. I’d do stories that mattered, that moved people — stories that would sell to the big networks. Then I’d move on to even bigger things. Somalia, I thought, could be my hurricane,” Lindhout recalls, referring to Dan Rather’s daring entry into the world of reporting by standing throughout a Texas hurricane which convinced thousands of viewers to evacuate.
Lindhout was not an idiot. By the time she decided on Somalia she had years of experience of traveling through “dangerous” parts of the world. She had reported in war zones, been detained by Iraqi soldiers, and had seen first-hand the death and destruction caused by conflicts.
However, she was still a relative newbie, and it’s almost painful reading just how aware she was of the potential dangers. No other reporters, regardless of experience, would go there. Even aid groups did not enter the country because of the violence.
I read A House in the Sky while waiting for my bread to rise. I read while rocking my ten-month old to sleep. I read it in the backyard with my feet up and a gin and tonic in my hand.And again and again, I wonder: Where do we draw the line between ‘traveling fearlessly’ and listening to our guts? I reflect on my own courage, fear, and instincts, all while being as far from any hurricane as I could possibly be. My storm was just enough for me at that time in my life. It pushed me to grow, to be bold, to shed my insecurities. At the same time, it left me freshly courageous and ready to push back against the world.
But ask me to do the same trip now as an almost 31-year-old, and I would probably hesitate. I would at least want to know that someone was watching my back. Nobody was watching my back in M’Sangani, and while the experience was a positive one, I wonder at how naïve I was.
Fear and travel go hand in hand. “Fear can be the underlying catalyst for tapping into something great,” Matador Network contributing author Sahaj Kohli had written. But, what amount of fear is the right amount? Too much and we risk spending our lives trapped among blankets and couch cushions, the comfort of our homes making us soft. But when fear becomes a small, unrecognized thing buried deep within us, we risk getting ourselves into waters too deep. This is what I imagine Lindhout’s situation started out as. I imagine she was so accustomed to feeling those butterflies of nerves and the zap of electric excitement that comes with new territory, that she didn’t recognize the message her bones were whispering.
“We waited for some sort of announcement,” Lindhout recalls, seated on the delayed plane that would bring her to Mogadishu. “The blood seemed to be pumping with extra force through my veins. For a second, I allowed myself to feel relieved by the prospect of being ordered off the plane and back into the Nairobi airport, to have the matter taken entirely out of our hands.”
This is one of the only fleeting moments of nerves Lindhout recalls experiencing. She boldly took the lead for her traveling companion. She stepped up to offer courage as he sat gray-faced and scared, drawing from her spring of similar experiences. Maybe it had something to do with the pangs of guilt she began feeling for asking him to make the journey with her. Regardless, she beefed up her courage to feed two instead of one — recognizing that there was no more room on that flight for fear.
As A House in the Sky careens forward, and the situation becomes darker, hungrier, and more painful, Lindhout begins to feel the fear she previously lacked. Corbett describes Lindhout’s memories of fear as being a “hot explosion of terror.”
She, again and again, reigned in the terror she felt and took control of her emotions, not allowing herself to go crazy despite all odds, including being tortured. “Some little compartment had hinged open in my mind, like a perch. If I steadied myself enough, I could rest there. I could observe the pain more calmly. I still felt it, but I could feel it without needing to thrash, the time floated by a little more easily,” Corbett recounts.
“I’d like to say that I hesitated before heading into Somalia, but I didn’t,” Lindhout recalls.” If anything, my experiences had taught me that while terror and strife hogged the international headlines, there was always — really, truly always — something more hopeful and humane running alongside it…In every country, in every city, on every block, you’d find parents who loved their kids, neighbors who looked after one another, children ready to play.”
I couldn’t help but find myself inspired as I read A House in the Sky. I felt tense and disgusted at points, but inspired nonetheless by the overarching themes: The extraordinary, utterly female resilience, love, forgiveness and courage that Lindhout sustains throughout those fifteen months and after.
“A ship in harbor is safe — but that is not what ships are built for.” -John A. Shedd.