After an eight hour bus ride on the Greyhound-like TransLux, I’m at my hostel in Johannesburg. It has a courtyard and pool, bamboo-lined pathways and two dogs. I sprung the extra $6 for a private room but I’m hanging out in the lounge where a man is watching a TV show subtitled in English and acted in a combination of English and Zulu. They switch languages every few lines without any break in the flow, something I’ve only previously heard done in New York City with Spanglish.
I chose a hostel because a hotel can be boring and lonely, especially after my past few weeks on a metaphorical island with 15 other volunteers and staff. I was at a baboon rehab center located on a nature reserve in South Africa, a hour from the nearest town, separated by large swaths of game and predator habitat. We had only two showers in the house (not nearly the same logistical issue as were the two toilets in the morning,) three people to a room and communal dinners. Plenty of times there was no cold milk for cereal because someone finished the carton and forgot to put a new one in the fridge. I learned to check for toilet paper on the roll before proceeding into the bathroom. Even though I’m introverted and sharing can be chaos, I was happy they were there to share the experience.
At home I get my full of people through yoga classes, dance classes and traffic. When there’s not the structure of enjoying a shared hobby, I tend to retreat into alone time (with animals of course.) I liked the structure that the monkey rehab center required. We worked in teams to clean enclosures, gather elephant poop (baboons love it,) and play with the baby orphans. When the work projects and dinner were done for the day, I would find my book and play/sit with the dogs. Sitting around a table chatting for an hour has always felt like a waste of time (this could be the New Yorker in me); If we’re gonna talk, I’d rather do it while chopping veggies or making enrichment (puzzles and games) for the baboons. I enjoyed the after-dinner hours when the weather was cool, dishes were done and people were trickling off to bed. It felt safe and comfortable to share a space, even if we were all reading books in different languages and perched at different heights around the room. Because we had already spent 8-12 hours working and talking with each other, there was no pressure to keep up conversations at night.
Traveling makes us vulnerable and more open to new people. But extended traveling (I’m away for two months) also means finding sustainability and being true to yourself.