And a little bit out of order.
Because telling it from start to finish would be too predictable.
And my life, more specifically, the growth process from which I have embraced my life, is far too complex to be represented in a way that is anything but erratically full of surprises.
I had just arrived in Cape Town, South Africa after over 30 hours of traveling. Planes, trains, and automobiles, literally, for 30-something hours. I hadn't gotten any sleep. I hadn't had enough to eat or drink. I didn't really know anyone. It was my first day living 10,000 miles away from home, on the other side of the world. Everything was new, even my shoes. I was learning for the first time that jet-lag was a real disease. And on top of that physical inconvenience, I was completely out of my comfort zone.
I was walking through a tour of the city with the staff and all of the other students. Obviously, exhausted, zombie-like, and a little uneasy, I had difficulty paying attention to the tour guides. That being said, for some odd reason, I happened to look up and notice a little heart on the corner of a wall. Just a heart, nothing that special about it. I turned and showed it to one of the interns, Kelsey. "Isn't it sweet?" I then realized I was at the very back of the group at this point; no one else but me stopped to acknowledge this little heart. I snapped a picture with my big, new camera around my neck, yet another thing I was trying to get acquainted with, and I scurried along to catch up with the group. Little did I know, that heart would come back into my life later on in the trip...and it would never leave.
Fast forward a few weeks.
I started to notice I was changing as a person. There were areas in my life in which I was growing and making progress...there were new people in my life who had gotten me to open up nearly my entire soul, and lay it out for them as if it were pages of a story, available for them to read at their leisure...except I was the one volunteering to read it out loud to them as they gathered around and listened attentively. I was 100% comfortable being myself around these people who, a few weeks prior, were merely strangers on the airplane. I was bold enough to take risks, such as jumping off of the tallest bridge in the world, jumping out of an airplane, and diving into the freezing cold Indian Ocean to be just centimeters away from some of the world's most tenacious predators: great white sharks. I was honest with myself when answering questions like "how will you use your strengths to develop in your interpersonal skills and career path?" and "how will you stay true to your values when you return home, now that you've had time to reflect on them and solidify them?" I was brave enough to endure things that were difficult both physically and emotionally, to be content in my own solitude, to be resourceful in making connections that would be beneficial to the rest of my life. I explored my emotional capacities, tested my physical limits, and broadened my mental perspectives. My mind was spinning, and I realized I was able to connect all of the personal development back to one central element.
Rewind a few weeks.
During class one morning, the staff gave their weekly prize to a student who they felt had been a stand-out. Usually the prize was a gift-card, a dinner reservation, something along those lines. This time, the gift was a couple of stickers -- heart shaped stickers. We were informed that the stickers were part of a movement called the "Secret Love Project" -- started by an Capetonian artist named Michael Elion as a mission to spread love, positivity, and good vibes around the city.
"I've seen one of these! I saw one on the city tour!" My fellow students looked at me like I had 10 heads when I jumped up and down all excited about a sticker. I didn't even win the prize, someone else did. Who really cares?
It was more than a coincidence that the very first day I arrived in Cape Town, on my journey of self-discovery, that I had seen the very representation of what would grow me and shape me into the adventurous, intellectually-conscious, and idealistic woman that I am. That heart sticker was placed in the corner of that wall so that someone, no, not just someone...someone who was apprehensive, lethargic, and needed a kick in the butt from this thing we call "life" ...would feel energized enough to accept all that life has to offer, and meet it head on.
You may have heard the saying "we leave a piece of our hearts in every place that we go" or "once you visit a place, you never really leave it." What does that mean, exactly? How can you emotionally leave yourself somewhere?
I can answer this question. I can show you.
1. We can continuously credit our personal improvements back home to the epiphanies that sparked those improvements while abroad.
I made some incredibly personal changes when I got home from Cape Town. Being abroad, I had so much time to reflect and think about where I was in life, where I'd been, and where I was headed, short-term and long-term. I didn't like a few things about myself, and I decided that those self-deprecating habits were going to stop now. I made the conscious decision to discontinue what I was doing and point myself in a different direction, and I have stayed true to it. Whenever someone asks me why my stance is what it is (on the subject, which I won't name), or whenever I ask myself why my stance is what it is -- I credit Cape Town. The part of my heart that represents self-respect and self-love will forever live in the streets of that city...loud, tall, bright, but with so much opportunity (for change). It taught me how to be a woman who respects herself, and since then, I have grown leaps and bounds in ways that my old habits were holding me back from doing. I'm free from that now, and I like where I'm going. I've realized that what I'm doing now is what I've valued all along. I just lost sight of that for a while, and it took a life-changing trip like Cape Town to offer me the peace and serenity in my own mind to sort through my thoughts and get back on track. Because of my new decisions, I respect myself, and others respect me. I love myself, and others love me.
2. When we return to a place that has helped us grow, the initial feeling of discomfort is instantly replaced by a nostalgic feeling of familiarity.
The feeling we felt when we arrived in that place for the first time, the anticipation, the confusion, the awkwardness...it's outweighed by the good memories, the lasting positive life changes, all of the excitement and curiosity. When I finally return to Cape Town, I won't be lethargically sleeping off my jet-lag for a week, holding back my odd sense of humor, wondering where I should go for dinner. I'll be completely comfortable having the energy to embrace every waking moment, be 100% myself, and revisit all of my favorite spots. Of course, those feelings will always arise in a new place, and those feelings are good and natural. The unknown is exhilarating. But the familiar -- the familiar means that you've conquered the unknown. And that takes confidence. The part of my heart that represents the self-love of growth in confidence, and the ability to submerge myself in something brand new until it becomes something that I love so much that it can help me show the world sides of me that I don't always show, will forever wash on the shore of the beaches in that city. Just as I watched couples in love sit on the rocks and let the ocean splash them, laughing and holding each other with blankets and a bottle of wine, the city has wrapped its arms around me with its unfailing reminder of comfort. When I return to my favorite beach, Camps Bay, I can imagine sitting on the sand and letting the waves touch my toes. It's as if they say to me: You've been here. You're familiar with this place. Because you conquered it. Because you love yourself enough to embrace your confidence. Keep doing it.
3. We visualize this place, and all future travels, with such a vivid imagination, that it translates to our sense of wonder in just about everything we do.
I can't just think about the mountain now. When I think about it, I think about the challenges it presented to me -- the physical endurance that I used to climb it and the opportunity to make new friends out of supporters. I think about the overwhelmingly stunning view that it provided during the climb and at the top. I think about how small I felt when I was hiking, but how big I felt when I made it to the top. I can't just think about animals now. I think about the sense of apprehension I had when petting a cheetah, hoping to God it wouldn't turn on me. I think about how the blood-thirsty teeth of a great white shark were opened in front of my face, when I learned that it is possible to scream under water. I think about whimpering to my safari guide, asking him to drive faster when a lion was chasing our Land Rover. I think about the thrill. I can't imagine this place now the way I imagined it before I visited it. I once saw it as a place; now I see it as an experience. Something that holds beauty and challenges and thrills. And I spend my time trying to imagine other places I have yet to visit in this same mindset. The part of my heart that represents drive for a sense of belonging, the desire to experience everything so fully that I cannot ever return to imagining it in the ways that I did before, and the love that results from the change...will forever live along the winding roads of Cape Town's countryside, presenting new opportunities, twists and turns, one after the other.
So, in a literal sense, what is it that we're leaving in these places? We're leaving our old habits, our old mindsets, and our old problems. We're leaving our unfamiliarity, our discomfort, our insecurities. We're leaving our expectations, our dull imaginations, our initial basic thoughts. We're taking the good stuff, the love, with us wherever we go. People have it all wrong -- you don't leave the good stuff. If you left it, how could you ever use it everywhere you are? It stays with you forever. When we go somewhere that changes us, we leave it with the parts of us that it was able to change, grow, and adapt. The love that we learned from it -- that is our gift from the place to us. We don't ever give that away. We don't ever leave it anywhere.
A place does not change you unless you become different. That's what change means...to become different. When someone tells you that a trip "changed their life," always ask how. They might not even know how to answer it yet, and you'll certainly be enlightened. Answering this question is the first step in opening your heart to a world of positive difference. Step 1: Pinpoint the change. Step 2: Live it out...forever...without fail.
Although I did leave some physical things in Cape Town...like the headband I lost when I bungee jumped, the signature I wrote with Sharpie on the rock on Table Mountain, and probably a lot of missing T-shirts in my apartment of 4 girls that I never even realized I came home without ... it was the part of my soul, my being, that will impact me eternally. The physical things are just things. But love -- love is indescribable. Love is the answer to everything.
So, Cape Town, I love you. But you don't have my whole heart...you enriched my whole heart. And for that, I thank you.