“How was Ethiopia?” people ask as I scramble out from the soggy weighted-blanket feeling of jet lag.
“Really good…I filmed lots of content for work, didn’t see much of the country. But it was good.”
And then I’m not sure what exactly to say. This trip didn’t leave much of a fossil record—no photos of wonders, stacks of postcards, or trinkets. It’s unusual because I am a bucket-list sort of person, a dogged collector of experiences. (On my way to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I mapped out a grueling itinerary for my eleven-hour layover in London, squeezing in two museums and a lap around Westminster Abbey.)
But I arrived in Ethiopia exhausted and filthy and got almost immediately to work.
The itinerary of the conference I was attending included two free evenings when we were encouraged to leave the hotel and have dinner in small groups. I was intimidated by the prospect of searching out a restaurant in the dark but still loud and bustling tangle of unfamiliar streets, so I began asking my fellow attendees what their plans for the evening were. Everyone pointed to Sunday.
Sunday leads a ministry team in Benin. He has a powerful singing voice matched by a powerful ability to connect people and make things happen. At Sunday’s invitation, we amassed on the wide steps of the hotel entrance—five of us, then ten, then far too many to fit in a single vehicle. Sunday bustled between us and the hotel desk, negotiating some sort of transportation, switching seamlessly from English to French. It feels as though Sunday speaks everyone’s language; he’s fluent in hospitality, even in a country that is foreign to most of us. A few elderly vans eventually labor up the steep drive and we all pile in.
We enter the restaurant late, from a peaceful alley. The cement floor was covered in faded green straw, I’m still not sure why. A gray cat bolts through the dining room and disappears. The decor is simple and, like many truly excellent dining establishments, there is one thing on the menu. In this case, it’s fish, battered crispy, fins and tail included, scorching hot from the fryer. The (thankfully) empty eye sockets look at us, seemingly aghast, from the plate. We tease and goad each other into sampling a bright green dipping sauce that ends up being tear-inducing wasabi. We pass around communal plates of rice in a vain attempt to dilute the heat. We talk about home—London, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the mountains of Colorado. We share pictures of pets and children. And though I received specific instructions from our social media coordinator to take clips of moments like these, I forget.
The overloaded stick-shift vans fail to make the climb up the steep hotel driveway, and we beg the driver to just let us out here instead of backing up into a loudly protesting stream of traffic for a third time.
Several of us linger in the bright lobby of the hotel. Playful arguments break out about the superiority of fish from different African regions, and strategies are discussed (only half-serious) to marry off various singles among us. Africa is a vast and diverse continent, but a uniting feature, at least among the Africans I know, is an all-surpassing love for food and family. To share life, it seems, is to them the whole point.
Someone calls Sunday “the International Fishmonger.” Apparently, Sunday’s pilgrimage in search of fish is a tradition at these annual conferences. And the title implies less that he is hawking fish and more that he is enthusiastically peddling fellowship. Waves of laughter break like surf on the marble floors. The prim hotel staff frown.
I wonder if it’s an American thing—the tendency to travel somewhat rigidly “in our own lane.” We have so many tools and tricks that help us wall ourselves off from those around us when we travel—from noise-canceling headphones that shout “don’t talk to me!” to GPS always in our pocket so we don’t need to ask for directions. These things keep us safe and sane, but they also make it easy—too easy—to avoid the only truly unique experience travel offers: human connection with people who share nothing obvious with us except a moment in time. It’s not something TripAdvisor ranks.
The more I think about it, the more memories I recall.
There was the French woman who patiently let me stumble through a fragmented breakfast conversation in the chilly dining room of a monastery in Florence while we peeled tiny, tart oranges from the courtyard trees.
There was the dashing competitive church-bell ringer, working his day job as an antique shop clerk in the Shambles of York, England, who happily showed me videos of his fellow ringers and their preferred bells on his phone.
There was the Colombian coffee merchant standing just ahead of me in line to ride the elevator to the view at the top of a building in Warsaw who recommended an amazing coffee shop just a few blocks from my hotel and kindly offered to take my picture as the sun set radiantly over the piecemeal city.
There was the woman seated next to me on the plane to Addis who asked what I did for a living and told me that the clothes I’d been wearing for last three days—a rumpled white button-up and a wad of red curls clamped at the nape of my neck—made me look like an archeologist.
There have been countless unofficial, self-appointed tour guides who have stopped along the road to tell me about a place they love.
I think Road to El Dorado may have had it right: the true treasure is the friends we make along the way.
Emily Stroble is a writer of bits and pieces and is distractedly pursuing lots of novel ideas and nonfiction projects as inspiration strikes. As an editorial assistant at Zondervan, she helps put the pieces of children’s books and Bibles together. A lover of the ridiculous, inexplicable, and wondrous as well as stories of all kinds, Emily enjoys getting lost in museums, movies old and new, making art, the mountains of Colorado, and the unsalted oceans near Grand Rapids. Her movie reviews also appear in the Mixed Media section of The Banner and her strange little stories of the fantastic are on the Calvin alumni fiction blog Presticogitation. Her big dream is to dig her hands deep into the soil of making children’s books as an editor…and to finally finish her children’s novel.