In the middle to end of my 30’s I was a very ambitious American career woman. You’d recognize her, you’ve seen her on TV and in the movies. I wore 4-inch heels, Anne Taylor sheath dresses, had a pixie haircut, and carried a patent leather attaché case to the office. I was climbing the corporate ladder, thanks to two recent promotions, and honestly, probably because I had just lost almost 150 lbs. with gastric bypass surgery. My life was consumed by work.
My best local friend at the time was my boss and my benefactor. She had helped me to prepare and earn these promotions and had actually given me one of them. I owed her some level of loyalty and expressed that loyalty by being social outside of work. We talked about work all the time.
I travelled around the US 80-90% of my time. I had recently moved to Minneapolis because my work required so much travel. My goal was to have a real life in between the travel days, and I figured a big city was the place I could concentrate a whole life into a short weekend here or there. That wasn’t really working out for me either. If I wasn’t working, I was exercising or spending time with people from work.
Fast forward eight years (or so.)
I was sitting inside a fully equipped Safari camping truck with 10 other digital nomads/entrepreneurs, a guide and our driver. I’d been traveling with them for more than three weeks so far and the trip had already taken us to Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and now South Africa. I probably hadn’t showered in a few days, and I suspect at this point in the journey, I probably had on the same clothes (including under garments) as the day before; a tank top, tan cotton shorts, and flip flops. We had recently spent the night in the Tankwa Karoo desert where we supported the team of volunteers who were building the Tree of Life sculpture that would eventually be burned at the Afrika Burn Festival a few months hence. Late that afternoon, we arrived at our home for the next three days, the Platbos Forest, the southernmost forest on the continent of Africa. We were there for a music festival and tree planting initiative- GreenPop Reforest Festival.
Toto, the coordinator of my African adventure- the Nomad Convoy- is a free-spirited hippie type, who loves people and Mother Earth. His quiet soul calm was a sharp contrast to many of the Type A personalities he had recruited for this trip, (including myself) often providing a lesson for us all in interpersonal relationships. But this weekend? We were with his people now.
Our group was one of the first to arrive, so after setting up our tents in a prime spot close to a private shower and bathroom, (YAY!) we lined up our green canvas camp chairs, passed out the beer and wine, and watched people come into the forest. We made lines in the sand and insisted anyone who passed in front of our viewing area (that would be EVERYONE) had to take a dance break. Sometimes we even danced with them.
The spirit in the forest was incredible. Hippies everywhere; dread locked, barefoot, shabbily dressed, happy people. It was a bit contagious. As the evening passed, I found myself sitting around a campfire, glass of wine in hand, singing along with guitars, bongos and at least 50 other people. That’s when I met Dawn Penny, a friend of Toto’s. Something magical happened when we met. We knew each other at a soul level instantly. I don’t understand it, nor do I try to explain it. I’m just glad it happened. Sitting in the dark, under ancient trees, the fire casting it’s warm glow, I understood that I had just met a spirit who would forever stay with me on this journey, physically or otherwise. She felt the same way.
The next evening, after spending a hot sunny South African day planting thousands of trees with 500+ other people, I met Dawn Penny for a massage. She is a healer, an intuitive soul who can touch your spirit and heart through healing your body. After the massage, she gave me insight into my own inner world that was spot on. We cemented our instant connection and agreed to meet again once we all arrived in Cape Town.
Later that night, I went to a magical glittery canvas tent where another friend of Toto’s, Nikki, ran a Pop-Up Theater. We all lounged on pillows, looking up at a series of gorgeous travel images projected onto the canvas wall, while Nikki’s sensuous voice narrated a half-meditation, half- entertaining story. I wished I had some weed while I lay there and chilled under the spell of her voice. It was an experience I will never forget. Floating in her words, tired from physical labor, laying there entwined in heart with all these others who had been part of the reforestation glow all day. This felt new and different and I loved relaxing into these feelings and sensations.
A few days later, we arrived in Cape Town and the Nomad Convoy was officially finished. But something special had happened in that forest and I kept these amazing souls in my life for the duration of my two weeks stay in their gorgeous city. There were brunches where we talked strategy for growing Nikki’s Happiness Project, and coffees with Dawn Penny where we talked for hours and just looked at each other with love.
There was a dinner one night. I can’t remember how many people gathered at their home, this big house where 9-10 people lived. I called it ‘The Commune,’ and Toto, Nikki, and Dawn Penny all lived there with various friends and partners. They made the most incredible vegetarian meal accompanied by delicious wine and wonderful heart felt conversations; mostly about saving the planet and loving the people in it. Theirs was a world full of love, joy, and purpose which they fully inhabited and I could barely imagine.
Late into the evening, when the chatter was winding down, the dishes were done and people were thinking about sleep, I started to order an Uber to go back to my Airbnb. They wouldn’t hear of it. They insisted I stay. There was an event in the morning, a discussion and planning session of people helping inner city youth, and there was sunrise on Table Mountain, didn’t I want to go too? Of course, I did. But I don’t do spontaneous like that. I didn’t have any make-up, deodorant, etc. How could I rely on other people? How could I just up and agree to this? Sleep in a stranger’s bed? Open myself up to the real hospitality of others?
They could sense my reluctance and both Toto and Dawn Penny put their arms around me in a giant bear hug and asked me to stay. How could I resist all this love? I couldn’t. They settled me into one of the bedrooms and Nikki came to me. She had a towel, toothbrush, and toothpaste. She showed me the shower and how to work it and handed me the toothbrush. This was not just any toothbrush, this was Nikki’s toothbrush. The sustainable bamboo handle worn thin and the plant-based bristles smooshed flat by use. Her eyes shown as she shared from her bounty these things to make my stay more comfortable.
In that moment, I knew love. Maybe the greatest love of all. This woman, these people, didn’t keep spare plastic toothbrushes in case of company. They didn’t have so many toiletries laying around that they could hand me new in the package things to wash with. But what they did have, they gladly and lovingly shared with everyone around them, with me. Nikki handed me that used toothbrush, HER toothbrush, and my heart melted. Something broke away, something old and unworthy, something not necessary on the new adventures I had embarked on. Huge blocks of the in-control person who didn’t need anyone or anything, broke off and fell away as I accepted that toothbrush and hugged Nikki goodnight.
The rest of those hard pieces sloughed gently away when I turned the water on, added toothpaste, and brushed my teeth. Tears falling from my eyes, I looked in the mirror and knew I was no longer that lean mean corporate woman who was overworked, stressed, ambitious and so very selfish. I was made new. This trip, this whole year, had been a gradual changing of the person I was inside, and this moment took not just a sliver but whole chunks of me that were finally free to be discarded, no longer needed, and they washed down the drain with each swish of the toothpaste leaving my mouth.
I slept like a baby that night, free of burdens I hadn’t even known I was carrying around and woke up before dawn to start my next adventure with these beautiful souls. Dawn Penny made me coffee, Nikki shared her make-up, lining my eyes with her fancy kohl eyeliner, and Toto handed me a warm sweater as we headed out into the dark cool morning. It felt as if that sunrise was a reflection of the dawn of a new me. Standing there with Toto at my side, watching as the golden light stretched across the valley and climbed up the side of Table Mountain, I felt the light in my heart soften too, a golden warm glow taking up residence inside of me. It is a memory I will always cherish.
Sometimes I still find myself feeling and acting like that corporate babe; unable to rely on other people, unable to be vulnerable or let people support me. It is still and always will be a process I suppose. But when I catch myself saying no to people who want to help me or trying to control the world around me too tightly, I pull out my memories and love for this incredible tribe of souls. I remember the lessons I learned from brushing my teeth with someone else’s toothbrush and I relax a little. I remember to go with the flow. I recall that my soul is now filled with the golden light of a Table Mountain Sunrise and I remember how I’ve changed.
**Feature photo credit: Liz Gillooly
This post is part of January JumpStart. Check out the link to see who else is getting their writing on!