“RB!” I hear, as I fist pump a new friend and hug another.
A week into our trip in Liberia and I already have a nickname that has stuck.
The name is catchy, and I soon stop introducing myself as “Rebecca” and instead begin with, “My name is “Auro-bee.” It seems to always break the ice and is welcomed with a grin by everyone I meet. Even when being introduced to those I don’t know, the locals are quick to say, “This is RB,” as if the mere fact that this is my name makes me cool and accepted.
Liberia is a humid place, and as soon as I leave my room and enter the kitchen, I’m sweating. I down about nine bottles of water a day and never seem to have to use the restroom. I sweat so much that it looks like I’ve been walking in the rain. By the way I sweat, it’s obvious that I was born in a cool climate.
Throughout the week, we travel to various places to interview local adults who in some way impact the lives of adolescents. We are interested in understanding what adults feel contribute to positive youth development in the Liberian context and hope that by interviewing those who work with youth that we can begin to understand what may support their flourishing.
One of our interviews is in a place located near the Sierra Leone border. For four hours, we travel down a muddy road with potholes that we hit every few seconds with a big thunk. I didn’t think it would be too bad to travel this road until 10 minutes in and my bum begins to hurt. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. We ride this way for four long hours, and when we finally get to our destination, I am grateful to walk and not looking forward to our drive back.
After my last interview, I head back to join the other research assistants and to down some more water. I reach for some sweet plantain chips and join everyone on the steps outside our interview location. A red ant soon bites my big toe and my friend reaches down to get it off me as I inhale a deep breath, trying to manage the pain. My toe is hot and irritated, and I soon realize why we are always looking for a place to sit away from the ants. I now understand why I was encouraged to wear close-toed shoes.
While I have only been in Liberia for a little over a week, I’m already feeling at home, eagerly trying to learn Koloqua and sporting pink braids that my friend did for me. As I speak, I drop the “s” on the end of words that in Standard American English forms the plural, and I do my best to cut out prepositions and articles while my new friends laugh at my attempt to speak as they do. The locals embrace me with open arms, and for the first time in a long time, my heart feels full.
There’s something about travel for me that is the best medicine. I think it’s the chance to create new friends and be embraced by another community. Family is what I long for most, and creating them abroad helps me not feel so untethered in life. I always feel welcomed by communities outside of the United States in a way I rarely feel welcomed at home. I’m not sure why this is, but it’s one reason I always want to go abroad.
If you had asked me what I wanted from this trip, I wouldn’t have said it was to conduct research or to take a break from school and work. While all of this sounds nice, the truth is that what I wanted most was to feel connected to the earth beneath my feet and those who walk on it.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve felt so untethered from life that leaving my bedroom has been difficult. While I have a long way to go in healing, my trip in Liberia broke my heart wide open, and for the first time in a long time, I started to embrace my life again. For the first time in a long time, I started to smile. For the first time in a long time, I want to make friends.
And I did just this.