Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Hakuna Matata

I recently spent almost two weeks in Kenya and Tanzania. I travel often, and this wasn't my first trip to Africa, but it was certainly the most ambitious trip I've taken - there or anywhere. Now don't get me wrong - I wasn't camping out among the elements.  My "tented camps" were luxury five-star, complete with king sized beds and state of the art private bathrooms/showers, plus basically personal waiter service at every meal - in the five-star restaurant on site. Plus we had a private guide each day who knew exactly where to go and what to do.  We weren't roughing it. But still, there were a lot of (literal) moving pieces, and a lot that could have gone wrong - travel wise and health wise.

First, I had to take antimalarial medication. One of the warnings of this medication is that it can cause some depression. I've taken it before without issue, but considering I already battle depression, each time I take it is a little nerve wracking. That said, I'm unfortunately familiar with depression and figured that I could get through it for the trip. I do not want to also be familiar with malaria, so I took my chances. Secondly, there were a lot of potentially anxiety-producing pieces. Such as long plane rides (I don't like flying, ironically). And short plane rides on 12-seat planes. Which I found out by unfortunate experience, are not pressurized and cause altitude sickness. Did I mention I get migraines with altitude? And suffer from vertigo and motion sickness? I vomited my way through the 45 minutes between Nairobi and the Mara and it took most of the afternoon to recover fully. It was quite possibly the longest 45 minutes I've ever spent. In addition to the health stuff, both countries required a visa, one of which (Kenya) we got before hand, but the other (Tanzania) which we had to get at the border. So while it was unlikely, there was always the slight possibility that they could not let us in. That kind of thing makes me anxious. Not just while I'm going through it, but days, weeks, in advance. It's an unknown, and I don't like unknowns. There were other pieces too. We were told that our local tour operators would meet us on the ground with all the vouchers for the flights, accommodations, tours, once in Nairobi. So we literally flew over with just our overseas flight details and an itinerary saying that we'd be met with the rest of our documents for the entire trip. Again, unknowns. I had to just bank on everyone being where they were supposed to and having what they were supposed to every step of the way.

When we got there, everything changed. I found (minus the whole vomiting through an entire flight) I felt better than usual. In part, this was due to everyone being where they were supposed to be, and having the documents they were supposed to, and just being wonderful overall. But more than that, it was the attitude of the people. They have a saying there, you might have heard of it:  Hakuna Matata. If, like me, you thought this was a fun phrase created for the Lion King, you are mistaken. I noticed it particularly in Kenya, but in Tanzania some too. Basically, it means (very loosely translated) 'Everything is fine." Or perhaps "Everything will work out". And they mean it. It's not a brush off. It's not the "calm down, relax" that us with anxiety get thrown at us so often. It's truly their outlook. If there was a concern or a mix up or a confusion, they took care of it. If you weren't feeling well, they took care of you as best they could. If you had a question, they answered it. If you needed something, they helped.  And more off, you knew they would. For someone that battles crippling anticipatory anxiety (i.e. worrying about what could or might happen), this made a world of difference. I didn't feel like I was out there struggling on my own, hoping for the best option but knowing that achieving it would take it's toll on my health, leaving me exhausted and drained at best. A while back, I wrote a blog in which I asked people to stop telling me it would be ok, when they couldn't actually do anything to guarantee that it would be ok.  But here, they actually did make it OK. They could do something about it.  I could actually relax. And it felt magical.

When you're out there in the expanses of the plains, among the animals, something incredible happens - you realize how small you are. You watch these creatures who instinctively know how to live their whole lives and you think, "Wow, I really don't have my shit together." This little gazelle is sitting ten feet from a lion - it's greatest predator - but knows that because it's the wet season it can easily outrun the lion, who does better in the dry plains. The lion knows this too, and for that reason, knows there's no point in him going after the gazelle. So there they sit nearby harmoniously. These animals know exactly how other animals will react at exactly the time of year, and I can't figure out which new back splash will best match my new cabinets in my condo. It makes you want to get your shit together. It makes you want to be part of that something bigger. Not the life cycles of animals on the Serengeti, per se, but just to be doing something that truly makes a difference, that matters on a bigger scale. I'm not sure how that all connects, but it seems to, at least in my brain. The expanses of the planes and the animals somehow get into your blood (not literally, hopefully!) and you want your life to feel more expansive too. At least I do.

So I came back with some affirmation of my efforts in mental health and chronic illness advocacy. It helped me to feel that my goals in this arena are well founded, and it motivated me to push forward, even when I doubt myself. And of course, as it goes with chronic illness and mental health, some days are drastically different than others. But at least it's a start. And it was a hell of a great way to get there. 

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