How? Part II

Writing from 3.387° S, 36.683° E

Moving to Tanzania is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The move itself — along with all the adjustment and culture shock that comes with it — has been difficult, of course (more on that later). What I mean, though, is the preparation: the logistics, the research, the saving, the goodbyes. The past year of prep has been far and away more difficult, stressful, and emotionally exhausting than any other event or exam or hardship I’ve faced in my life. Was it worth it? We’ll find out!

In my last post, I started talking about the loaded question I’ve received repeatedly this year: how? To be honest, I’m not even sure how I got to this point. As I sit writing this outside my house in Arusha under the shade of countless banana trees (yes, I’m serious), I’m still in shock that I finally made it.


Our backyard in Arusha

The most obvious barrier to volunteering and long-term travel straight out of college is money. Believe me, I know this. The path I’m trying to pursue would clearly be much simpler if I had a trust fund or years of savings from a full-time job or a gig as a travel writer for National Geographic where all expenses were paid (still crossing my fingers on that one — maybe someday). The thing is, I don’t have any of that, and contrary to popular belief, I also don’t have parents who have offered to bankroll my travels. A surprising number of people in my life have assumed that my parents pay for everything, which makes me laugh (loudly) every time because 1) there is no scenario on earth where that would happen, and 2) even if they offered, I wouldn’t want them to. I am an adult with a degree and if this is my dream, then I will figure out how to make it happen for myself — all on my own.

So here’s how I did it: I worked my ass off.

As soon as I decided that yes, I was doing this, and no, I wasn’t going to back out, I got a job. And then another one. And another. Over the past year, I have looked everywhere I could think of for ways to make money and save money, and it worked. I asked around and wore many hats: the executive assistant in the sales center at my business school, a freelance writer for a company called Parker Dewey (here’s my article!), the director of marketing for my stepmom’s real estate development company, a contractor for my aunt’s marketing firm, an online English teacher for Chinese kids (4am wakeup calls are brutal), a 24/7 live-in nanny for my cousin while my aunt and uncle went to Scotland, a social media consultant for my mom’s new book. Not all of the gigs were big, but over time, they added up.

It’s also helpful that I’m extremely good at lying to myself. I’ve told myself that I was broke even when I wasn’t, and it made me spend less and seek savings anywhere I could find. Coupons, student discounts, buying things secondhand instead of new — I figured all the sacrifices would be worth it if I could just get to Africa and wing it from there.

So, I had an income, albeit a quite randomly-sourced one. As for budget, I have bad news.

Volunteering isn’t free.

Actually, it’s pretty expensive.

After adding up my flights, room & board fees, visas, vaccines, and supplies, I had dropped around $7,000 before ever stepping foot out my door. Am I complaining? Absolutely not. Did the cost ever make me not want to come? Never. If nothing else, it’s taught me how to budget far better than any finance or accounting class ever did.

Okay, so I had done all my planning and shopping and packing and vaccinating and paying bills, but that left one very important and very hard part left: saying goodbye to everyone I wouldn’t see for a while.

Here’s the problem. My friends and family are a bit spread out. (That’s a lie. They’re everywhere.) On my pre-Africa-saving-every-penny budget, there was no way I would be able to pay for flights to visit them all. So, I didn’t!

Have I mentioned how much I love free stuff?

There is nothing more satisfying than taking a flight for free. I am a firm believer that it is a far better high than any drug anyone has ever tried, ever. Last January, I got the Chase Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Credit Card and all my dreams came true. I started off on my “goodbye tour” across the US and didn’t spend a cent on flights. I even have some left over for the next time I come home!

This year has been hard, and doing all the preparation alone added a whole new level of loneliness that I haven’t had to deal with before. Luckily, I have wonderful family and friends (who have more than earned the right to stay with me if they visit) that make up a great support system, no matter how far away I end up going.


Up next: Pole Pole – What’s Tanzania like, anyway?

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