When people hear I travel full-time, they often ask questions about how various cultures have grown me. I’m a people person and have always identified with other cultures — able to see myself in each person who appeared different from me on the outside.
But it’s not the cultures that have grown me the most through my travels — it’s the lands.
Each country I spend time in leaves me with a new imprinting. It teaches me something and leaves remnants of its innate truth in my heart for me to take with me. As I continue in my journey, I find myself forever changed by what each place gave me — not in tangible ways we perceive of culture or the beauty of a physical landscape, but in what it adds to my heart; how it teaches me to love in a new way that only that land knows.
The people of a country are shaped by the land; the land is shaped by the people.
I spent the last three weeks in Senegal. Immediately upon landing, during the few hours I spent at the airport cafe waiting for a friend, I experienced a peace that could be seen in the hearts of those I encountered.
Even through the numerous marriage proposals I received from men at the coffee shop (followed by one from my cab driver who admitted to my male friend that he already had three wives and wanted me to be his fourth), I could feel a peace. Sure, there was fear causing them to think that they were in love with a woman they’d just met (and all of the other women they inevitably thought the same thing about prior to me) — but there was also a sense of peace in them that I wasn’t yet able to put my finger on, but cherished from the moment I arrived.
Two days later, I went out for a run on the beach. Having spent time in a Muslim country that was more conservative than this one, I felt completely comfortable wearing just a tank top and shorts (desperate for some vitamin D after spending months in a cold climate). On my return home, I was confronted by two men in a car “You can’t do that!!!!” I thought they were talking about running on the road instead of the sidewalk, but soon realized they were talking about what I was wearing. And they were angry. I continued anyway and was greeted by two other men who insisted that I to not listen to them, that this country was about love and I could do anything I wanted. Those two men were followed by countless bystanders wanting to reassure me of the same thing. I felt so loved. Their desire to have me feeling held in the love I was starting to notice as part of this land was heartwarming.
Every interaction I had seemed to be filled with a sweetness. People on the street would stop to talk with me and walk me to where I was going without wanting anything in return — not to try to sell me something or hit on me.
I found my way into the salsa dancing community through a friend I’d met, and it gave me further insight into the land.
Though I hail from liberal parts of the United States, there is still a separation that is witnessed among race. Though it may have initially been caused by white people fearing those who weren’t “like them” and using their false sense of power to exclude those of other skin colors (and in some places still is), today there seems to be just as much exclusion of race by those who used to be the ones being excluded.
Fear begets fear, and it becomes instilled in a culture. But like I said, the culture shapes the land, and the land shapes the people.
What I noticed in the dance community in Senegal, was that though the predominant skin color was black, the diversity in Dakar felt different. It was an indescribable feeling of unity, of oneness, of “I trust you because you are me.”
And despite two primary languages being spoken there, songs from many other languages were just as popular on the dance floor.
Because the land hadn’t been shaped by the fear of invaders trying to overtake it (or at least not as much as many other countries in the world), the primary race wasn’t fearful of the other races. They held a confidence in themselves that is a true embodiment of “I am enough,” and through that, an openness to anyone that was different than them was felt — not as open to differences, but as, “ultimately, we’re all the same.”
The feeling was most palpable the days I would run by the busy street next to the ocean. The joy on the faces of the boys out playing happily, their open hearts leaping through their gleeful smiles as we met eyes each time. The happy comments from the street vendors selling to the cars who had nice things to say even before they got used to me running by. The homeless men who exuded as much happiness doing their thing as anyone else I ran by.
It wasn’t about race, it was about the heart that we all share. And yet, there was something in this land that found differences to be the same — something that in a way seemed to have nothing to do with race, and yet I couldn’t help but notice race being a part of. But this time, it was in a way where what I’d seen elsewhere in the world flipped itself inside out. This time, race created unity instead of separation.
As I left the land of Senegal and made my way to South Africa, it became even more obvious to me just how much the love I felt in Senegal did have something to do with our differences showing us we’re the same. Though I’m also in love with this land, there is an air of separation here felt from the days of apartheid that’s hard to put into words. (More on this in a future blog post!) At a mostly black bar in South Africa, I felt slightly judged. At a mostly black bar in Senegal, I felt like just me.
And then there’s fact that at the end of the day it has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with where we, as a planet, have created ways to fuel our fears of “not enough,” fighting fear with fear.
As much as I would have told you before entering Senegal that I saw only love in each new person I met, and as much as it was true, there is a new way of seeing love that infused itself into my heart during my short time there.
It happened not through what I was shown — no matter where we live, we’re shown new things all the time. It happened through the time I spent in the land, and how the love it was soaked in, and the love it soaks people in, has a way of sinking into your heart and changing its very imprinting.
And though I’m clear it was Senegal itself (as were the many other people from other lands I met who live there because of the same, mostly indescribable feeling), it has me wondering — what if that deeper imprinting of love in the heart that is possible in this land, were possible through every experience and interaction we have that’s different?
What if in every experience of different we have, we can both embrace the newness, and feel safe in the ultimate sameness?
It starts within ourselves — by knowing we are enough, by knowing just how very loved we are.