By Birgit Mohrmann
AT THE START OF 2015, I was in a very vulnerable stage in my life. I had just left a major tourism company that mentored and trained me for nearly two decades, where my personal career ambitions flourished, which paid well and whose original company philosophy I passionately bought into. But after all these years I had to leave them when I risked burn out and felt that the direction that the new leadership chose to go wasn't quite the path I could follow myself. After much deliberation, hesitation and terse job negotiations, I joined a small, but expanding, maverick tour company which involved more risk but which would challenge me to the next level in my career. Both the company and I had high expectations of this new position that was created specifically for me and despite knowing my worth and talents, I was still slightly intimated when I joined them.
Not only did I have to figure out how I could contribute to the company with this new role and what my strengths and skills were, but I also had to face an acrimonious team who were quite factious in their attitude towards me - was I really the hot stuff I claim to be? I had no doubts about the choice I made, as my values resonated with the company vision, but it was painful that I had to rediscover where my place is, not just career wise, but within myself and my relationships personally and professionally. I was not feeling particularly confident for the first few months as I had to learn so much, made some costly mistakes and tried to prove myself to everybody as I earnestly tried earn their respect.
When I was tasked to host important clients on a familiarization trip in April 2015, I had my trepidation about whether I would be up to the task. Even though I have hosted these kind of trips many times before and we visited places that I knew very well, I didn't feel on top of my game and quite insecure. My immune system was impacted by my emotional turmoil and I got ill a few days before the trip started, losing my voice completely and spending the better part of the trip with a croak and an awkward sounding cough - not the best condition to be in when hosting people.
Maybe this vulnerability and compromised health condition opened my mind to be receptive and welcome the extraordinary; what else could I possible lose, surely I couldn't feel any worse?!
And thus I as I lost my voice, I discovered my inner voice in a place I knew well, the Damaraland region of Namibia.
I first visited the Damaraland in the late 1990's. I was in my early 20's and more preoccupied about having fun at parties than spend a weekend exploring some barren, rocky mountain desert. Unbeknownst to me, this trip would forever change my view on how I would perceive my home country. The Damaraland is home to forward thinking Joint Venture tourism initiatives, managed by the government, NGO's and passionate conservationists, who formulated contracts with private lodge investors to empower local communities, most of them poor subsistence farmers, to benefit from preserving nature, the land and it's wildlife, reaping rewards most notably from eco-tourists visiting this ancient land.
Visiting the Damaraland is uncomfortable. The days were too hot, and the nights unexpectedly freezing. The roads are bumpy, dusty and long. The landscape too parched - my lips crack, my skin gets burned, the glaring sun hurts my eyes. Yet the soothing stillness that you experience in the solitude of the Mars-like wilderness is otherworldly and engulfs you in a reassuring blanket (a very warm blanket, for sure). As I viewed the ancient landscape, in kaleidoscopic hues of purple, red and orange, I was dumbstruck in awe.
Something inexplicable happened on that first trip that made me see things differently and my worries about missing parties seemed now so irrelevant. Not only because I encountered large herds of elephants, who after decades of being slaughtered by poachers and farmers eking out a survival, made a return to share what sparse pasture there was with goats, donkeys and humans - it wasn't the realization that I am in a place that was once connected to South America millennia ago - it wasn't just the humble communities, who despite their living conditions, were just like me, had their dreams, hopes, worries and love to laugh, really loud.
It was larger than me, older than me. So much space, as large as the universe itself- stars flickering so bright I felt I could touch them with my outstretched hands. My own petty concerns were so insignificant, and yet, the tiniest things mattered here; it was a daily struggle for life and death and yet, there was infinite hope everywhere I looked.
Since then I have returned to the Damaraland many times and each time I am overcome by it. Even as I got to explore so many other beautiful places in Africa and beyond, nothing ever touched me like the Damaraland. Yes, I was moved, inspired and maybe some transformation has started on that first trip, but I was so young and I had to wait nearly two decades for my true understanding of Transformational Travel to manifest itself.
It is thus serendipitous that my transformation was alighted by meeting kindred spirits in the Damaraland. We were a motley and very diverse group of travelers; a Kenyan, a South African, two Chinese, two Namibians and three Americans, traveling together for a week covering hundreds of miles in our safari vehicle as we watched the desolate landscape pass us by. Strangers one moment, and then suddenly a kin of kindred spirits, so quickly intimately connected out there in the wildness.
There is something unfeigned about sitting around a camp fire, smelling of its smoke, as we reflected on the morning we just spent tracking an endangered black rhino and her calf in their natural wilderness. Fantastic ideas were exchanged, life philosophies shared, book recommendations made, deep lifelong connections forged, strange drinks from different cultures consumed and midnight jumps into icy pools dared.
The Damaraland gave me back my confidence and I realized there was no need to be insecure in my new job; I got this!
When I returned home, I was truly on a path of transformation. I regained my sense of optimism, courage and intuition that lay dormant for such a long time. What made my learnings stick this time was that shortly after I returned home, I read a excerpt from Gregg Levoy's book Callings (one of the book recommendations given), where in particular the anecdote of Ann Linnea kayak trip around Lake Superior resonated with me. I did not endure an arduous kayak expedition around a giant lake; my Transformational Travel experience was a very comfortable tour even though we explored a harsh landscape.
But it was her story of her homecoming, and struggling with reintegration that reminded me of my own difficulties returning home. All these wisdoms I acquired on each my travels when I experienced Mother Earth in HD, always seem to be dulled and faded again when I was back in the daily routine of life, just languishing as a frivolous fond memory. Not this time - I realized that this particular trip was important and I better focus on not forgetting those moments of clarity I experienced in the Damaraland. And thus started the difficult, wonderful journey of my transformation and two years later, I live a deeper, more meaningful life that I could only dream of before. It came with some really painful sacrifices, but I while I am lighter in belongings and attachments, I am fuller in soul.
I now try to follow the Transformational Travel principles on every trip I take, even on short local weekend getaways. My mind open, my heart fearless, my soul engaged, embracing the learnings that I am bound to have, to enjoy the NOW and accepting that despite meticulous planning and organization, I really am not in control but to trust in the flow. Curious and active, always physically and mentally stretching myself, I have all my senses lit up and travel with intention. On this trip my lights were switched on, and I will make sure that they are never dimmed, never extinguished ever again.
I quoted my favorite travel motto to my fellow travelers around the camp fire, and now recognize how aptly the philosophies of Transformational Travel apply to a quote I loved for over 16 years now. It is from the movie The Beach and is a mantra I recite every time I embark on a journey.
"For mine is a generation that circles the globe and searches for something we haven't tried before. So never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite and never outstay the welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience. And if it hurts, you know what? It's probably worth it."