After a 5 hour midnight flight from Addis to Frankfurt, I stumble (sleep-deprived, silent and shocked) through the shades of early-morning airport-gray. I try to keep up with the sterile, fast-moving, screaming, electric world around me, but fail.
I fall into my middle seat in the back of a brutal, excessively long non-stop flight to Seattle. I instantly fall asleep.
When I nod awake, I pull out my laptop and try to keep my elbows from nudging my neighbors as I delete one bad photo after another photo. There are a lot of bad photos. Chaotic, busy…and not in a good, artistic way.
Even with my memory freshly imprinted with the stories, with my love of the place and people — I can’t stop seeing the reasons and ways they are all wrong. How they failed to capture the magic that was there, that I felt in person.
Tired shoulders sag as I slump forward in my seat. Stomach churning. I feel like I failed.
I flew all the way to Africa, my very first time, in the place I have dreamed of, for years. (After only settling upon Ethiopia as a starting point because of a photo I once saw, while hammering together a photo show of my own…) And looking at the photos I worked so hard to collect, that I’d hoped would capture the amazing, magic of it all…
Instead all I feel is a disappointment so personal and intense, I can feel it burning its way up from the core of my heart to my blood-shot eyes as I fight back bursting into tears. I take a deep breath.
Are you a National Geographic photographer, then? the passenger to my right asks me. His English is accented with German.
Um, me? No… Weak smile, he must be trying to be nice. But thank you. That’s generous of you to say….
Your photos are really very amazing. The sincerity, the timing — it stops me. What are they for? he asks.
And so I tell him, the elderly man in 28F, about my month in Ethiopia. But it leads to more questions. So then I tell him more. I tell him that I quit my corporate job a few years ago, I started freelancing and traveling (working my way around the world, one amazing place at a time) building a business, in the meantime. When he asks, I tell him I’ve been traveling for 5 months now, ending in Ethiopia, finally making it to Africa. He’s impressed.
And the man in 28E, on the other side of me starts to listen in. Then chimes in. He’d lived in Addis Ababa, years ago, as an archaeologist before the famine, before the Derg fell from power. We compare notes and stories. And then, over a horrible-over-mircrowaved airplane egg breakfast I’m telling the stories of arriving on Ethiopian New Years, of coffee ceremonies, of dancing, of learning Amharic, of traveling to the stone churches of Lalibela, massive crumbling castles, of smoking crosses at Meskel and being hoisted on the shoulders of men as hundreds of thousands chant with me abeba, abeba, abeba... of working through power-outages, internet-outages, ATM-outages, of sipping avocado shakes and rich, blueberry-cherry coffee and listening to the boisterous, chaotic, pentatonic sounds of life in Ethiopia…
When I catch my breath, even in my everything-in-me-screams-with-beyond-tired-pain in between spasms of an overwhelming sadness for the place and people I’m leaving further and further behind, I am overwhelmed with waves of amazement. Incredible gratitude to have just experienced. This just happened. This is my life...
Maybe I didn’t get it perfect. Maybe I won’t have just the right shot. But this was never the point.
Neither can get over that I went it alone. That in and of itself is pretty amazing. Incredible. You realize that?
I shake my head, and smile. How will I ever adjust living in Seattle again, blends-in-the-crowd, not-so-perfect Joya, now? How will I ever be able to sit through an average day again? What is the next thing, where is the next place? Will I ever want to stop? How do I keep this going…
Will you go back? They both want to know.
I’ll do a few things differently, I’ve learned a lot. I failed a lot, too. I suppose it’s all part of the process, part of life. And so I don’t hesitate, Yes.