I wrote this about my daughter Lauren after she returned from a 9-month trip traveling on her own through East and South Africa.
Lauren didn’t learn to ride a bicycle until she was six years old, the same year she learned how to read. She had watched the other kids in the neighborhood ride past our house on their bikes for months but was hesitant to hop on hers to give it a whirl. She was content to watch. Then one afternoon while I was talking to the neighbors out front Lauren announced, “I want to ride my bike today.” She had brought out her little pink bike with the white basket from the garage. “Give me a push,” she demanded confidently. I excused myself from the conversation and stood next to the bike while Lauren climbed on. “Okay, I’m ready.” I wasn’t as certain as she was and I stood holding the handlebars with one hand and the plastic seat with my other thinking I was going to walk along side the bike until she got the feel of it. “Let go, Mom, I know what to do.” How can she be ready, I thought, she hasn’t been on this thing before.
“Okay, but I’ll run right beside you“. I gave her a gentle push and the bike wobbled for several seconds but instead of falling over like I anticipated she pedaled hard and took off down the street, the bike and her sailing smoothly away faster than I could keep up with. I was stunned. Where had she been practicing this? How could she know how to a ride the very first time she tried?
Lauren is about to ride away again but this time to East Africa and not down the street. It’s not her first time to travel on her own, she has a lot of experience in this area;
a college semester studying in London, a six week trip to Santiago to visit relatives, and a month volunteering at a women’s shelter in Capetown. It’s not the travel itself that is disconcerting to me it’s that this time she will fly to Tanzania on a one-way ticket, with only a backpack and without an itinerary, and with the intention of exploring East Africa for a year. She calls herself a vagabond. I hadn’t seen this coming from a cautious child afraid of the dark. There aren’t handlebars and a bicycle seat for me to hold on to this time. Not much has really changed.
A friend warns me that I shouldn’t let her go because it’s too dangerous way over there in Africa for a single, white woman to roam.
“She’s 23,” I reply. “She’s worked hard for two years saving up for this trip. It’s her dream. She’s old enough to know what she wants in her life.”
“You should at least discourage her then, warn her she could get raped, mugged, kidnapped, even killed. I read about it all the time.”
“All these things could happen here,” I say, “if she’s not careful. She’s entitled to her dream.”
“But it’s insane, it’s too dangerous. I have a client whose family is over there and one of them got mugged. I mean recently. If she were my daughter . . .”
I interrupt her before she can finish. “Fear kills too many dreams”. I can’t help but begin to worry though. Maybe there’s something I don’t see. Perhaps I’m being irresponsible encouraging her to go alone to Africa without a detailed plan. I begin to second guess myself. Just a little.
“Some people, although I’m sure are well meaning, are afraid for you because they’d be afraid to go themselves,” I suggest to my daughter when she repeats a friend‘s mother’s cautions. “Maybe it’s best not to tell everyone of your plans unless you know in advance they can be supportive,” I finally advise.
I’ve been keeping my own worries about her trip to myself because I want her to ride life’s bicycles even though I know she’ll fall off and scrape her knees at times. Her responsible, cautious and prudent behavior in the past reassures me. I trust her good judgment. Then out of the blue she calmly tells be about a woman who’s recently died from cerebral malaria while traveling alone in West Africa. I freeze. But this doesn’t deter her as she delves deeper into her research of what vaccinations and visas are needed and where the best hostels are located. I get that sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach that something could happen to her, that same feeling I’ve had since she was born. Of course I don’t tell her this. I want her to travel to Africa even though I can’t keep her safe there. I can’t keep her safe here. She’s in the City every weekend dancing at Clubs until 2 am. Once her car was broken into. I wasn’t there. I won’t be there following her around in Tanzania, or Kenya. I won’t be trailing her up Mt. Kilimanjaro. She‘d leave me in the dust if I even tried.
Lauren currently lives in Vitoria-Gastiez, Spain teaching English to high school students. Follow her travels throughout Spain and Europe by visiting her blog roamingtheworld.wordpress.com. I will be visiting her in a couple of weeks and this will be my first trip joining her while she is in a foreign land. I’m counting on her to teach me how to “ride” while I’m there.