We sat around our dinner table with the hum of chatter that made it clear this group was enlivened with interest…and not just in the wonderful experiences we had ‘up-close and personal’ with some of the most amazing animals on the planet!
No, this was different. It was interest in one another…our travel companions…and the lives and tales that made them the most interesting species on our journey together.
And though I didn’t know it in the moment, the feeling of peace, pleasure and joy was growing among us, reflecting a connection that was happening because of one simple difference in our group that unfolded at this turning point in our travels…
This year marks the 10-year anniversary of my first journey to Africa, a 2-week volunteer trip that turned into a three-month adventure through Eastern Africa. What can I say about Africa? It is a continent my heart knew about years before my feet every touched her soil.
I returned again to our Africa in June 2018. Once again, I came face to face with the lessons of a Balanced Living approach to food and life.
Lesson One: Finding balance in Africa meant letting go of the need for social media connection outside in order to and build connection with those closest to us…in the here and now.
There were 10 people on the Safari and by day four we had no Wi-Fi.
Oh no! I honestly had a moment of panic. No cell service!
I took a breath…
Wait, this was actually an “oh, yes!” This is the day we started to ‘connect’ as a group, rather than relying on our ‘connection’ with the world outside us and the technology that captured our eyes, fingers and, well, our ‘selves.’
It’s amazing how that one little detail – of putting away our phones at the dinner table – changed the kind of experience we were having from separateness to actually becoming friends – fellow travelers on a shared journey, sharing stories and experiences that bound us together in ways I’d not anticipated.
For the rest of the trip we’d adopted our own rule: no phones at the table.
Every night we had the opportunity for a ‘sundowner,’ the well-known Safari term for enjoying a beverage and watching the amazing, fire-like African sunsets. Those magical evenings also involved nearly unlimited safari snacks and wine.
Sounds great, right? Not for a former sugar addict. This created a different kind of challenge for me. How could I find a balance between guilt-free indulgence and more meaningful ways to ‘fuel’ my happiness?
Lesson Two: We can maintain our commitment to health and well-being – what we eat, how much and when – while maintaining our experience of respecting other’s culture, traditions and lifestyles; and we can do that without preaching, teaching or imposing.
I re-confirmed this notion of balance both times I traveled to Africa. The first, after I’d competed in my first figure show. I was used to very regimented eating – specific foods at specific times. Eating homemade meals in mud huts with the last of our hosts garden vegetables showed me it wasn’t about eating three precise meals a day and having things the way I wanted it. This was about eating whatever is available and doing so with a grateful heart and spirit.
This time, in the Safari environment, we were offered way more than three meals a day. I had to find balance for myself with all that food available to me. The chefs and people who served us don’t usually have access to this much food where they live. Sadly, the reason so much food is given on the Safari is because they think of people from the United States as people who need to eat all the time. They make this food and offer it from a place of pure heart.
So, when they brought me gluten-free bread at every meal, I felt obliged to eat it! With balance, it’s also about saying “enough is enough.” I can appreciate and respect the food they’re offering to me while still saying to myself “no, I’m not going to have a muffin for breakfast every morning, even if it is gluten-free.” Or “I’m not going to have unlimited amounts of wine every night just because it’s there.”
I had to look for other ways to enjoy the offerings that felt best for my mind and my body. “Wow, I’m on this amazing trip!” I thought, let me find the beauty and the indulgence in that and not feel the need to have to consume food. There can be balance… even while on vacation.
It’s also a real awakening of the value of food. As folks from the U.S., the land of abundance, we tend to over-consume and waste. My first visit to Africa was an eye-opening experience that no food is wasted. When it comes to the animal, you eat it ALL! Out of respect to my host and to the animal, I had to basically eat my fears! So this time around, eating wild game, like Oryx was no big deal. Still facing my fears… I had to stop at Zebra. Sorry, still a zoo animal to me!
One thing I love about Africa is that food is a celebration! It’s amazing when you can see that the food you’re eating came from a source that you know, and from someone who loved, cared for and respected that source of food. In certain countries, like Namibia, if you eat animal protein, you can trust that it’s grass-fed and pasture-raised. Each animal is cared for with respect by the farmer. It’s their livelihood. They take it seriously with compassionate ownership.
Yet, in more populated countries, like South Africa, in a big city like Cape Town, intensive animal farming is more normal. Overpopulation and unethical farming can destroy our ability to stay connected to the source. With little to no regard for the environment, animal welfare, soil and water quality, or food safety. These issues are another reminder of balance. Not just in Africa, but in every country. We can promote sustainable and ethical farming.
Tech-free and Temptation-free
This time around, I understood that I needed to create more balance work-wise. Being able to disconnect from the internet, not having my computer attached to me. Remembering what it’s like to participate in conversations that are not just on social media. And really being connected to people for a very long period of time.
Just how important it is that we gain a sense of what balance means for each of us. It’s going to be different for everyone.
I recognized that there is a way to find balance. In food and enjoyment as well as in work and play.
Being able to be tech-free for that period of time; grounding myself in what (and who!) matters and bringing that sense back into my life and my work now that I’m home.
It’s possible to notice and nurture a healthy relationship with food and practice Balanced Living no matter where you are.
Africa, thank you for the treasures uncovered, the truths I found, and the knowledge gained from being in your simplicity and vastness. It is a place where any exterior shell comes off and you are reminded what it is to be human. Until next time. ~ Heather