alex jeffries

Cannonballing into Another Life

Published (updated: ) in letters from near and far, rwanda.

I’ve been back for two days, and I haven’t had any epiphanies about the significance of How I Spent My Summer Vacation. I had hoped to think more about the trip on the 37-hour return journey home, but I watched Isle of Dogs, Early Man, and slept. I had hoped to think about how to condense the trip into a pithy sentence, so when people ask, “How was it?” I would have refined insight into 60 days abroad, but before I knew it, I was at a wedding surrounded by friends asking, “How was it?” and I stammered out a not-so-thoughtful response.

It feels like I cannonballed into another life. Rather than dipping my toes one at a time into the waters of a different industry, city, culture, or family, I flopped bellyfirst into helping develop a tour company in East Africa during the day, while falling into the routines of two families in the evenings.

I look through the photos. Here we all are together. Last-minute photos from the car full of guys escorting me to the airport. Matching kitenge-accented blazers in the lounge. Peeling bananas to make banana beer. A smiling happy family photo from the back seat of a Land Cruiser.

I wake up to video calls at 5 in the morning. They forget about the time difference; they just want to talk, to show me the office or the outfit they’re wearing.

“When are you coming back?

I set out for Rwanda with openness and without a checklist. Sometimes when I travel I give myself a list of books to read, or things to see, or places to run. Before this trip, I imagined a daily schedule that would include baking in the morning and marketing in the afternoon, but that went by the wayside when I realized how I might actually be helpful for the hotel and their new project, versus my own self-centered ideals of what I wanted to get out of my summer. With all that, it is difficult to quantify the time I spent there because there is no real baseline, but is it really that important to? Do I need to know the distance for every run I’ve been on, or is it okay to leave the running watch at home once in a while?

What I set out for — to live in another city, to play around with languages, to work with interesting and interested people — I got to do, and even though the specifics are different than I imagined, that I was able to be in those environments at all is something I am grateful for, appreciative of, and I’m realizing that hanging onto the feelings of gratitude and appreciation, rather than forcing some personal excavation in search of some vague deeper truth might just be the best approach.

“When are you coming

Back”

Since I’ve been back, I’ve run and run errands, hiked and hung out. The rhythms I escaped by living in a different city waited for me to come back; it is easy to fall back into the slipstream of regular life. Dinners are arranged for the weeks and weekends to come. I walked to get my car from the parking garage at work, and grabbed an ice cream cone on the way, paying more for it than I paid for most dinners over the last two months. People smiled at me as I walked with my ice cream cone. My car’s battery died, and I called AAA and within 20 minutes a technician had arrived and everything was back to normal.

Everything is back to normal. Ice cream and car batteries and dinners and parking garages and abundant data plans and paved roads and neighborhood horses.

“U told him u coming next year in june?”

I spent the summer launching a tour company instead of a television show. In Rwanda, it’s a six-day workweek. When you live at the hotel you work at, there isn’t much to keep it from becoming a seven-day workweek. Still, the work was enjoyable, and the people even more so. But as much as I try to keep professional distances between the people I work with and the people I spend time with (a philosophy I’ve been challenging more of late…) outside of work, the closeness bred fondness.

To get to know people in their homes creates an intimacy. Over the course of dinner parties, road trips, and weekends away, I became a babysitter and a sous chef and a friend and a confidant. So when she wrote her letter of resignation on my last day, it was personal. Why should I be included in this process? What right do I have to be brought along the highs and lows of an expat working abroad, living and raising a family abroad, with the painful isolation and lack of understanding this life entails? And yet, whether for lack of better company or some actual redeeming quality, she entrusted me with the weight of it all.

I’m not much of an advice-giver, because I believe people already know what they want to do. I’ve made a mistake or ten over the past year, and I’m happy enough to describe them, but I’m reluctant to make any claims to wisdom from what I’ve gone through. But I will listen, and I did.

Fast friendships are common while traveling. We bond together over a long walk home from the market. We talk about our relationships over Ethiopian food. We gather together and run away for the weekend and see gorillas, and then don’t see each other again. We send emojis on WhatsApp over days and weeks to check-in. But to reach something deeper than that is rare, and it is not a bond I will soon forget.

“I hope so..U will get busy in ur life n will forget us”

I compartmentalize a lot in my life, from projects and relationships to friends old and new. Slowly, I’m beginning to see the beauty of continuity and throughlines, of friendships far, wide, shallow and deep, but it is a process, and with work, and family, and a person, and interests here, I will get busy, but so will she, and so will they. We’ll do what we can, through video calls and WhatsApp emojis, to stay in touch, but I recognize I have a hard enough time with friendships here in the city I live in to make lofty promises about keeping up friendships a world apart.

I don’t yet know if I will go back, whether in March or June or at all. The country is compelling and tricky and growing, but the world is big. The people I met are altogether decent. For now, I know that I am grateful and appreciative of this summer, I am hopeful for where it could lead, and I won’t forget.