Today is International Day of the Girl Child established by the UN with the mission “to help galvanize worldwide enthusiasm for goals to better girls’ lives, providing an opportunity for them to show leadership and reach their full potential.” Although disparities certainly exist between and within countries and contexts, the need to empower women and girls to value their own worth exists everywhere. Personally, it took me a long time to value myself (and oftentimes it’s still a struggle), but with each travel experience, a sense of purpose, and with it, a sense of worth, came from that. Thus, inspired by Gadling who asked 5 female travel writers to write a letter to their young selves, I wrote one to little me.
Right now you’re working out alongside Jane Fonda in your pink workout outfit or eating sand on the beach. You have no idea that someday you’ll be living in Africa or even on the East Coast of the United States. Your life is Spokane, Washington and fancy vacations are to Seattle and Portland.
You love your life in Spokane. You spend all your out-of-school time playing in Manito Park (all you need to do is walk across the street to go sledding in the winter). You embrace coffee early like any good Northwesterner. You spend weekends skiing at Mt. Spokane or Schweitzer and summers at the best camp in the world, Camp Reed (a place by the way you will always plan to send your children no matter where you live). You spend your junior high years troubling over being “cool” and feeling incredibly inadequate – a feeling that sticks with you throughout most of your life despite your successes and the unconditional love you get from your family. Most of all, you dream of something farther outside of where you live now. You used to scour the Hawaii section of your encyclopedia set because that was the most exotic place you could imagine.
Because Mom and Dad also want you to see the world and experience new things, they take you to Chile when you’re 15 – your first trip out of the country (Canada doesn’t count when you grow up in WA). This is a milestone not just for you, but for your parents as well. International travel wasn’t a part of their lives as much, but they wanted that for you. So, they made a deal, you take high school Spanish and you can go to Chile with them to tag along on mom’s business trip. You loved everything about the trip! Your Spanish didn’t really help so well because classroom language learning just isn’t your thing, but you tried to speak it. What you really loved was how different it was from anything that you know. You vowed to go back and study abroad there someday.
You didn’t bother looking into schools on the other side of the country or even in California because you wanted to be close enough to family that you could go home for the minor holidays. But you knew you’d study abroad, and you do. You spend a year in South America, one semester in Ecuador with the most amazing host family and finally learning Spanish after struggling for years in high school and college classes, and then back to Chile where you have to re-learn Spanish in the local dialect. You’ll find out that you can bargain in fluent Spanish like a badass and navigate third world public transportation like a local.
You eventually find out there’s a country called Malawi not long before you’re placed there for Peace Corps. Peace Corps was not even on your radar until around the time you applied. You’ll find that eating that sand early on likely did you some good because you never got sick – like stomach, diarrhea, giardia, dysentery sick – when every other PCV you knew did. This strong immune system (because the sand maybe?) will always be a point of pride for you.
Above all, travel will become your defining characteristic and your guiding sense of purpose. Forcing yourself (because you had no choice) to do the scary things like board that rickety minibus for the first time in Malawi gave you confidence. Witnessing the vast disparities in the world gave you humility and the ability to acknowledge your whitness, your western-ness, your middle-class-ness, and your privilege because of those things. Living overseas made you both idealistic and cynical, and then you worked to find a way to coalesce those in your work in a positive way. You learned the meaning of social justice and realized that you wanted to work for the greater good.
All of this happened because you had parents that encouraged you to step outside your comfort zone and the courage to do that yourself. You’ll worry about money (and frankly, a lot of things because you’re a worrier) in the future, but know that travel and cultural exchange are always a priority and you can always find time to prioritize them. Make them a part of you, make them a part of who you are. I know you will.
So keep on dancing (and btw Jane Fonda is still as awesome as she was – maybe moreso – when you danced to her early workout tapes), keep eating that sand (metaphorically speaking?), and keep venturing outside your comfort zone. And someday, do the same for your kids that your parents did for you.