Africa, Travel Stories

Confessions of an addict

I slip out the front door with a casual lie to say I’m going for a walk to cool off. What I really need is a cigarette. As I look up at the smoky night sky, I have to admit the truth to myself: I am an addict. I’m not talking about smoking necessarily, (this is my first cigarette in a week); I’m talking about something less tangible that I’ve been craving: Comfort. Routine. Stability. Unfortunately, these things are all pretty scarce on the road, so I’ve learned to seek them in unconventional ways.
I miss Boulangeries and eating French baguettes every day! 

Maybe it’s a coping mechanism I’ve developed, but I’ve realized there are certain habits I’ll pick up and adapt to each new surrounding. They are semblances of temporary consistency and stability in my not-so-stable life. Some of these habits are harmless, others harder to break.

I actually started smoking in France when I needed relief from the stress of trying to find last minute accommodations and winding up homeless. What began as a way to relieve anxiety soon became a daily treat. I smoked my first cigarette every day waiting for the bus (wherever I am there’s always a bus to wait on). I smoked my second one while sitting outside at the local Tabac store, drinking the first coffee of the day and practicing my French lessons. My third I smoked during aperitif time while analyzing the conversations of friends and couples drinking their tall glasses of beer and enjoying a cigarette, just like me. My fourth and final cigarette I smoked while waiting for the last bus home. Smoking was a way for me to mark the passage of time, to blend in with the locals, to pretend I casually waited every day at the same bus stop along with everyone else commuting to and from work.
TheBarefootBeatI don’t look like a tourist, right?

It’s hard to find constants on the road. Time zones and seasons all blend together drastically and dramatically until I’m suddenly forgetting my Dad’s birthday and looking at Christmas decorations in confusion while sweat pours down my neck. Two weeks ago I was eating Moroccan pastries and listening to the mosques broadcast the daily call to prayer with a smile. Three weeks ago I was in Spain exchanging raised eyebrows with my waiter and ordering tapas to go with my glass of vino tinto. Tonight I’m in Ghana learning Twi from my two year old host sister as she asks me over and over, “How are you?” and “What is your name?” I practice saying “I am fine, how are you?” again and again as I watch her mother prepare a heap of rice over a bed of coals that serves as the only stove. Sometimes it’s a little hard to keep up and catch up. My own emotions and feelings are in perpetual motion, still trying to process languages and cultures I’ve already left behind. 
TheBarefootBeatIs it okay to admit I still miss this place even if I’m happy in Ghana?

Smoking has been one of the only constants I can control. It’s a way for me to take in a new place, to sit still and observe my surroundings in silence. My life has never been more full but I’m running out of room for new experiences by holding on so tightly to the old. I need a way to exhale the left over baggage from previous experiences before slowly beginning to inhale all of the sights and sounds of a new home. I can try to delay the transition and avoid assimilation as long as possible, but eventually I find myself adjusting and adapting all over again. You see, this is all part of the process. Letting go and letting in. 

My lighter flickers and I take a deep breath. I scan the dimly lit surroundings and inhale the sounds of baby goats crying and crickets singing. I inhale the light of the full moon and find comfort in the shadows it casts on the mounds of red African soil. I inhale the scent of fried plantains and make room for a new family’s laughter. 
Africa is already beginning to feel like a place I can call home, one of many.

I take another breath and slowly exhale the memory of summer bonfires with my cousins, lying on our backs staring at the stars and sharing family secrets. I exhale the memory of having a warm body to share my bed; I temporarily will myself to forget the look on his face when I left and the taste of mint tea.

I know I’ll eventually form habits that will bring me comfort here. I’ll learn to love the crackling urgency of the Sunday morning pastor’s voice as it’s transmitted through old speakers. I’ll begin walking the same dirt path to and from school and I’ll greet familiar faces with a smile. I’ll develop a routine and pretend it has permanence. I’ll allow myself to fall in love with a place and a people I only have a short-term contract with. I’ll tell myself and them that I will be back some day, and we’ll both allow ourselves to believe it might be true.
My friend Elisavet and I have a long-standing dinner date waiting for our next reunion! 

I put out my cigarette with a sigh and head back inside. Some day this will all get easier and I’ll learn to stop craving routine and permanence. I’ll find more comfort in the transience and the things beyond my control. I’ll accept life’s constant motion and learn to go with the flow instead of kicking and screaming. For now I’m allowing myself a small stolen moment to take it all in and let it all go.

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  • Reply Taylor March 2, 2014 at 7:53 pm


    You have a beautiful writing style but there’s nothing wrong with wanting some stability or routine when traveling. I did the constant change and moving thing for a while, but the best times were always when I found some good people and stayed put for a month or so. Traveling is about seeing new places, this is true, but I think it’s almost more so about the people you meet and the connections you make. Right now I’m happy to have a little routine and stability in Korea. Still excited to travel more, but I think a balance is always best. Keep up the good work, please!
    Taylor recently posted…On Settling In, But Not DownMy Profile

    • Reply Mariah March 3, 2014 at 2:16 am

      You are absolutely right. For me it’s been about finding a balance between slow travel and scratching the itch of wanderlust. I’ve been in Ghana for 5 months now, the longest I’ve stayed in one place since beginning this journey. It felt good to establish a routine, to have a constant. Now I’m ready to move on, to travel again, but to also see some old friends I’ve met along the way. I’m still finding the happy medium! Glad you’ve found a special place in Korea. I’m thinking of trying to get a teaching job there, too! We will see what the future holds 🙂

  • Reply Sarah Somewhere November 10, 2013 at 5:49 pm

    Love this! You are a brilliant writer. I am fascinated by Africa, particularly Ghana, and you are drawing me in with your mesmerising posts!

    • Reply Mariah November 10, 2013 at 6:40 pm

      It’s easy to write about such an amazing place. Africa has held my heart captive for a long time, glad I can share its mystery and beauty with others. Thanks for the comment Sarah!

  • Reply Patrick Collins October 24, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    You’re a gifted writer, Mariah. I usually don’t read facebook friends’ travel blogs, let alone those from people I met only once years ago. One of the most difficult things I dealt with during my stay in Ghana was figuring out how to articulate and emotionally process what I was experiencing. That time we met at Starbucks was the height of this difficulty as I had just arrived back in the states and the reverse culture shock was much greater than I had anticipated. You capture the experience of a Westerner in Ghana so beautifully.

    “…looking at Christmas decorations in confusion while sweat pours down my neck.”

    For a long time I have tried to put that dynamic into words, but my attempts never came close to how you phrase it.

    “My lighter flickers and I take a deep breath. I scan the dimly lit surroundings and inhale the sounds of baby goats crying and crickets singing. I inhale the light of the full moon and find comfort in the shadows it casts on the mounds of red African soil. I inhale the scent of fried plantains and make room for a new family’s laughter.”

    As a smoker (and an intense smoker while in Ghana–cigarettes were $.75 a pack!), this is so perfect. For me, smoking was a way to take a step back and absorb the foreignness that surrounded me.

    I look forward to your next post!

    • Reply Patrick Collins October 24, 2013 at 1:41 pm

      Also, if you can get your hands on a copy of The Poisonwood Bible, you should definitely read it while you’re there. It’s a life changing read.

      • Reply Mariah October 24, 2013 at 2:08 pm

        P.S. I’ve already read and love the Poisonwood Bible. Barbara Kingsolver is one of my all-time favorite authors, if you haven’t read any of her other books, I highly suggest you start now!

    • Reply Mariah October 24, 2013 at 1:48 pm

      Thanks so much Patrick! Ghana has been a weird force in my life. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I’m doing here. I had no idea when we met that I’d be traveling to Ghana some day. Last year I met a girl while traveling in Ecuador who invited me to visit and I had no intention of doing so. Yet, here I am! Thank you for your kind words, I’m glad I can express something you relate to. I find it interesting the way we cope with constant change and new surroundings. Unfortunately, for me smoking has brought me great comfort during my travels as even the close friends I make and the beautiful landscapes I see are always changing. So I inhale and keep exhaling.

  • Reply Britany October 23, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    I know a lot of people who smoke when they travel, even though they don’t typically light up at home. I think there’s a level of anxiety that comes inherent with constantly moving, and whether its to blend in with the locals or just calm your nerves, smoking helps for a lot of people. I’m sure you’ll find your healthier comforts in your present surroundings soon though!
    Britany recently posted…Looking for the Love in WilliamsburgMy Profile

    • Reply Mariah October 23, 2013 at 3:38 pm

      I hope so! I think we’re fooling ourselves to think we don’t need some form of consistency and comfort, even on the road. I think human beings are programmed to look for patterns and habits that ground us, it’ part of our nature. I’d much rather be practicing yoga every day than smoking, that’s for sure! Thanks for commenting Britany!

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