One of the greatest lessons my partner’s mother Sharyn taught me is that family is more than the people bound to you by blood – it’s the people you choose to make yours. She was a collector of people – selective and keen. Her son shares that trait. Gabe’s circle of friends is a veritable United Nations of brilliant, colourful, interesting people who love him with a passion as deep as mine. He chose his travel circle as carefully and keenly as he planned our itinerary, but I’m not sure even he could have foreseen what happened on a journey that simply can’t be called something as mundane and pedestrian as a trip.
Eight intrepid travellers were brought together and to Ethiopia to fulfill a living legacy – something higher purpose, life changing, and life affirming. Going in, my expectation was that the inauguration of the school Sharyn funded would be the pinnacle of our journey. It was everything I hoped it would be and more; and still it wasn’t the biggest thing I will take away from the experience.
Something deeper had taken root in all of us before we even got to that day. Africa awakened something in us – something intangible, indefinable, and infinite. We could feel it in every cell of our beings – like a primitive drumbeat calling us home. Somewhere along the way, we stopped being a collection of people with a connection to Sharyn and Gabe and became something more. We became a tribe with an unbreakable bond.
I’m not sure how or why it happened – only that it did. Maybe it was the connective tissue generated through sharing that higher purpose, and the experiences around it. It could have been the endless hours we spent squeezed into Land Rovers careening wildly over some of the most unforgiving, contrasting and spectacular terrain we’d ever travelled. Or sleeping tribal style in the middle of the desert under a starlit sky, with wind as smotheringly hot as a turbine-powered blowdryer keeping us wakeful and hyper-aware of one another. Or the heart-pounding thrill and terror of hiking to the mouth of an active volcano – in the dark of night – in a region where tourists have been kidnapped or killed, with a member of our group throwing up the whole way. Whatever the root, it doesn’t need to be defined, simply experienced – the transformative power of travel.
Before I share the highlights of our adventure with you in future posts, allow me to introduce you to my tribe:
Meet Gabe, love of my life, and chieftain of our tribe. He’s wicked smart, witty, cultured, and well travelled – a man who speaks his mind, and is unwaveringly, uniquely, authentically, and unapologetically Gabe. At times moody and mercurial, he is his best and brightest self while travelling. Our African odyssey was testament to his magnetic and connective power in this world. He has a razor-sharp knack for attracting just the right people, fostering those relationships beyond imagination, and then throwing in challenges along the way to test those people and relationships and bring them to another level.
Meet Gabe’s older brother Mike, who joined us for a handful of days around the inauguration of his mother’s school, but enhanced our experience immeasurably with his affable nature, open heart, and quick wit. He attacks everything thrown at him with quiet strength and spirit, like the triathlete he is. When Gabe was too emotional and camera-shy to field his portion of a taped interview with Imagine1Day – the charity we worked with to build the school – Mike stepped up, bravely fighting his way through raw emotion to deliver some of the most powerful sound bites I’ve ever heard. He’s the gentlest and most brilliant of giants.
Meet Hope, the daughter of Sharyn’s heart. One of Gabe’s first loves, she’s been part of his life and family for 25 years. She’s equal parts Earth Mother and trailblazer, and fervently believes most of life’s minor ailments can be cured with a few drops of Oregano Oil. Hope is a self-described fajondilizer. Her definition of the made-up word: One who rolls up their sleeves and plunges into life, acting now and asking questions later. A fajondilizer is not afraid of getting their hands dirty. They don’t flinch at taking risks. She may have flinched a little while staring into the cavernous mouth of a volcano as bright orange sparks of molten lava floated dangerously close to where we stood, but she fajondilized (yes, it’s also a verb) at every step of our journey. Already a friend long before this adventure, she became one of the sisters of my heart through the shared experience of it.
Meet Bryan, Gabe and Mike’s uncle and Sharyn’s baby brother. There’s a lot of dynamism running through that family tree – Sharyn herself had a larger-than-life personality – but in Bryan it takes on the softer, more artistic tone of a born musician and lover of life. The ‘elder’ of our tribe, Bryan has the most youthful spirit of us all. Athletic – and as playful as Shakespeare’s Puck – he inspired military men, tribal chieftains, and village children alike to try their hand at Frisbee, with uproarious results. Hope aptly describes him as love on wheels.
Meet Rebecca, Bryan’s lady love and proof that still waters run deep. Brimming with quiet and steely determination, Rebecca didn’t let a little nausea and vomiting (okay, a lot of nausea and vomiting) stop her from scaling Erta Ale with the rest of us – even when a camel had to carry her up the last 10 minutes of our four-hour hike. She’s the perfect contrast and complement to Bryan. The two go together like shiro and injera.
Meet Ryan, a wanderluster who crossed paths with Gabe while they were both travelling in Syria years ago, and became a long-time travel buddy. The seeds of my kinship with him were sown in 2012, when the three of us explored the culinary and cultural delights of Beijing, China, and hiked the Great Wall together. Those seeds burst into technicolour full bloom in Africa. A cultural chameleon, Ryan easily connected and blended with the locals in Ethiopia despite physically standing out with his blonde hair and blue eyes. The two of us literally danced our way across the country, picking up the rhythm of the hypnotic local sound. He’s class and calm personified.
Meet Chance, who Gabe befriended while living and running a bar in Laos. He is one of those rare, beautiful spirits that is instantly and universally loved by all. Now a Northern California boy, Chance lived a nomadic childhood in Egypt, Kenya, Thailand, and Saudi Arabia with his teacher parents. He absorbed the best of each of those cultures, and – a born storyteller – amassed a suitcase full of rich, colourful tales that beg to be collected into an anthology. He was the light of our tribe, eyes sparkling with humour and mischief, his mega-watt smile answered in kind by everyone we encountered on our journey.
Together, we took the road less travelled by in Ethiopia. And that has made all the difference.
Stay tuned for the next instalment in my Eyes on Ethiopia series: The Danakil Depression.