“No more caffeine!” said the email from my husband at mid-morning. I’d been up since 5 a.m., gulping coffee and fretting. It’s always this way before I take a trip. Would my visa come on time? Would I remember to take the malaria medicine? Where was my yellow card? Was the Ciprofloxacin—the stomach-bug-cure-all—still good? Would I need that water bottle with the filter and iodine tablets?
I’ve traveled extensively for Oxfam in the four and a half years I’ve been here—usually to places where conflict or disaster has made living conditions close to intolerable for the people forced to endure them: scant food, little clean water, hovels for homes. Each time, I like to think I get better at these journeys into other people’s lives—wiser, more attune to the subtleties of different cultures. There’s comfort in experience, I think.
But still, at 3 a.m., at 3:12 and 3:38 and 4, until finally the alarm goes off at 4:45, experience counts for little in the dark when I can’t sleep. Snippets of past conversations—warnings—echo there: “You never know what to expect when you live under a dictatorship. Rules don’t apply.” Hovering at the edge of my consciousness is the proud face of a young boy in Ethiopia. He’s holding his goat by a bit of twine—the goat he’s about to sell to get money to help feed his family. Headlines about an army of heavily armed police fanning out through a troubled capital city nudge the boy aside. Then come images of a bleak landscape, gray, dry, and rugged, a place where mothers give birth without any medical help at all—and many die. I realize it’s Afghanistan, a place I’ve never been but have been thinking about a lot lately.
“Birdie,” says my husband. “You’re as nervous as one.”
Nerves open my antennae. I’m getting ready. It’s always this way.