Monday, September 21, 2015

Maze Meanderer: The Kenyan Trials

I made my way to the mall in Nairobi that was showing Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials a few days ago. An hour and a half after leaving the house, I finally arrived at the mall exhausted, parched, and ready to sit in the rarity that is air conditioning. My heart beat faster as I walked up to the ticket counter. After purchasing the ticket, I started to turn around and walk away. I hesitated, reconsidered, and then turned back to the guy behind the glass that had sold me the ticket. He could quite possibly be the only person I could celebrate the news with face to face.

I fought back tears as I blurted out, "MY BROTHER IS IN THIS MOVIE!!!" He said, "Really?" I nodded. The guy's face lit up as he elbowed the woman at the next ticket counter, relating the news to her in Swahili. I told them I was so excited to see the movie, especially since I didn't think I'd get the chance to all the way over here. They congratulated me, but I didn't need encouragement to be any more the proud sister that I was.

I wandered around the lobby looking at the other movie posters, catching up on what the latest film hits were destined to be. I love movies and I miss being able to catch one easily and frequently. My heart felt rested and filled as I stared at the giant Maze Runner poster. The excitement that I was about to see my brother in a major Hollywood blockbuster was almost more than I could handle, but I was also just excited to get a glimpse of my brother while I was all the way on the other side of the world.

I turned around and spotted a poster for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which was filmed in the house across the street from Ann & Cody's house in Pittsburgh. I spent my last two weeks in the States with Ann & Cody and we walked past that house almost every day. I thought it was odd that a mall in the middle of Kenya would be showing such an obscure film, but I was grateful for the familiarity that these two movie posters provided in that moment. All the way in Africa, I was surrounded by a symbolic embrace that reminded me that friends and family are never really that far away.

When I recognized him on screen, I teared up again and grabbed my face with my hands to prevent them from shooting up into the air. I love the idea that somewhere, in an alternate universe, my brother made it out of the maze. He was one of the few that fought and bled and sweat for his freedom and made it.  He was among the elite, the strong, and the immune (and based on his posture and smirk, he had the ego to support it). I forced myself not to stand up and announce to the nearly empty theater that the tall blonde guy in the background was my brother, that he's obviously the most amazing one in the whole movie, that we came from the same flesh and blood, and that I was so fucking proud of him.

After sitting through the credits searching for his name that wasn't there (but I did find a Hollis! It was as a last name, but it still counts!), I stopped at a coffee shop to refuel on tea before making the hour and a half dusty sweaty public transportation trek back home. It was there, sitting alone, that it hit me: the loneliness.

I had expected it to creep in and take over at some point soon since most travelers encounter it after a few months of being on the road, but it still didn't make the load any lighter. For the third time that day, I blinked back tears as I ordered an almond croissant that I didn't really want, but that my waistline convinced me would make me feel better.

Part of the reason it hit was the comedown after so much excitement over seeing a glimpse of my brother. After the movie, elation slipped through my fingers as I realized that the warmth and familiarity I had felt just a few hours earlier was really nothing more than a fuzzy image on a screen that lasted for just a few seconds. It was temporal and ethereal.  

I also was forced to admit to myself that I really don't like Nairobi. This was the first movie I had been to since I started traveling, and it was the first time I had been able to escape my own reality for a solid 90 minutes of air conditioned bliss. When the lights came on and I remembered where I was, I sighed with dread at the commute I would soon have to face again, at all the people I would try not to make eye contact with, at how I would have to keep an eye on my back to make sure no one was following me (which happened the other day--I acted like I was taking a water break by a security guard and maintained heavy eye contact with the offender, giving him the message I knew what he was doing and it wasn't going to work. He kept nervously glancing back at me as he was forced to keep walking away until disappearing into the crowd). Nairobi is just a fort on my Oregon Trail: once I've shaken a few hands, restocked some supplies, and caught up on some rest and work, I'll load up my wagon train and set the pace to "grueling" again.

The loneliness also hit because I'm traveling alone again after more than two months of living and traveling with other volunteers. I'm so glad to be on my own and be independent again, but it also highlights that I'm an outsider peering into another culture that's not and never will be my own. And I think that's what scares me the most: that I'll never feel like I'll belong anywhere, that I'll always be an outsider. Even when/if I come back to the States, I won't be the same person I was when I left, and I'll always feel a pull coming from overseas that is often hard to relate and share with other people. I'll always be an outsider when I travel, but the longer I stay on the road, the more I'll feel like an outsider when I come home.

I know the feeling will pass and I know that I'm exactly where God wants me to be right now, even if my tiny little eyes will never see the bigger plan. And I know I'd rather be here than anywhere else; as someone that's addicted to problem solving, I'm sure getting a lot of practice right now. 


The little things that make this trip worth it are things that I'll probably never tell you about. Like how although I get bothered a lot by being a solo white woman, more often than not, individual people or groups of people will get protective of me if someone else is ripping me off or giving me a hard time.  Or when local women come up to me just to make a joke and give me a high five. Or when I meet other travelers in hostels for a few nights and we lie awake late in our own beds, talking across the dark room about our families and personal struggles, bearing our souls to each other more than I have with other people I've known for years.

These things are my own little gems to keep. I don't believe in broadcasting much about all the cool things I've done or the awesome people I've met; there are plenty of other travel blogs you can read if you're looking for that. And sometimes those experiences lose value for me the more I share them, as they transform into an anecdote and cease to hold personal value and emotion. These are tiny slices of time I've shared with other people, with the earth, and with God, and I like thinking that these moments are just for me.  Instagram doesn't need another photo of a sunset, anyway.

That's another thing I've learned since I started traveling: I'm much more intentional with people, regardless of what I think I'm going to get out of the interaction. And more than anything, I'm increasingly grateful and indebted to those people back home that have made an effort to keep in touch. Even if it feels like just a few fuzzy second on a movie screen, I don't know what I'd do without your love and support, and I don't say thank you enough.


  1. Why do every one of your posts bring tears to my eyes? I love you. I miss you.

  2. Hollis! Rest assure you will never be an outsider among the other outsiders :)
    travelers, volunteers, wonderers and wanderers... many of us who have gone to those lonely places, come back, and dove in again... we are your home!

    Sometimes its the very things that changed everything that nobody can really understand, and in the end, it's the love we need more than understanding anyway.

    1. Well aren't we just a merry band of misfits? Thank you for being my guru and guide through all of this, it's so good to know you've already done this ahead of me and have come out stronger because of it. And thank you for the love AND understanding, even when I feel inarticulate.

  3. Hi Hollis, somehow I miss these posts as they happen though I'm subscribed. LE SIGH. Well, I'm blessed to know we can reach out to you (when we don't even know it) through things that trigger your memories of we that love you! Thinking about you each day ;)

  4. Everywhere I go, there are constantly little gems that remind me of you!