By Jonathan Coleman
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
Sipping an almost cold beverage in an open air bar along the White Nile–which eventually merges with the Blue Nile further north in Khartoum to create the famous river of the pharaohs and biblical plagues–I was, unusually, in a pensive mood..
The bar in which I was seated, “bar” being a generous use of the term, was an odd, but perfectly compatible location for such ruminations. It was haphazardly placed along the riverside in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Furnished with cheap plastic tables, and buzzing with mosquitos, it served Kenyan beers and filled the air with the palate-tingling aroma of Indian-inspired tandori chicken grilling inside a 50-gallon metal drum next to the shipping container-turned kitchen. The bar was part of a hotel complex–”hotel” being another generous use of the term–which consisted of rows of metal, prefabricated sheds interspersed on dirt paths next to the river, under a smattering of old-growth trees. Each shed was outfitted with a bed, bathroom, and an air conditioning unit wedged into the window, and went for $250 dollars a night (clean-ish, safe-ish digs in an almost war zone are priced at a premium). They were occupied primarily by aid workers from all around the world, representing the agencies most of us have heard about on TV. The agencies of “sponsor the starving child” campaigns or political blustering about the sinister apocalypse-inducing intent of global institutions – United Nations, Save the Children, African Union, Samaritan’s Purse, World Bank, World Vision, USAID, etc.
I myself was an aid worker, of sorts, but employed by one of the “little guys,” a small outfit that supported educational and residential programs for kids who had lost parents due to the wars and ongoing conflicts, and found themselves living in the streets. A passionate do-gooder and struggling to leave a positive mark on the world, I was, at that time, growing into adulthood and just beginning to understand the nuances of life and the world that often elude young minds.
As one might suspect, having set upon a life’s journey in such a way that led me to the dusty capital of a recently-out-of-civil-war quasi country that had not yet gained its full independence, I was not one to dwell upon the impacts, positive or negative, of decisions made in the past. I tended to seek the logical solution for my next step, one that best combined my evangelical zeal to make a positive difference in the world with my desire for adventure and new experiences. Once a decision was made, my natural instinct was to look forward, not back. In this moment, however, I found myself considering the path that had brought me to this bottle of Tusker along the banks of this ancient, muddy river.
“How the hell did I end up here?”
I was not raised in a cosmopolitan community or family. We didn’t travel much, because we didn’t have the money, nor, if I’m being honest, the desire for it. The “world” just wasn’t much thought about. When we did travel, it usually consisted of loading up the Dodge Caravan with a faux wood strip down the side, to head to grandma’s house in Dallas. My first time on an airplane was at 21, on my way to a summer internship that doubled as my first visit to a foreign country. This experience was the beginning lifetime of exploration and discovery, both of the traditional kind (experiencing a new place) and the internal, soul-searching variety.
A childhood in small-town America, followed by a college experience in smaller-town America, is not the usual upbringing for someone who finds themself in the environment that I was currently inhabiting. But that eye-opening internship on a Caribbean island at age 21 inspired the confidence to enter a study abroad semester in Jerusalem. This turned into a first job back in the Caribbean and three years later to the war-torn, but lively and endearingly hospitable country of Sudan. Throw in a multi-month stopover in Lebanon and (pre-war) Syria for good measure.
“How the hell did I end up here? And, where do I go from here?”
This is what occupied my swirling thoughts while waiting for my expertly-prepared indian dinner deep in the heart of Africa. I was sad and homesick, but equally happy and fulfilled. I was nervous about safety and simultaneously invigorated by discovering the unknown. I was filled with passion to help these stately, proud people who had suffered so much and welcomed me so openly, while also becoming increasingly aware of my inability to actually make a meaningful difference.
I didn’t have answers. Ten years later, I still don’t, mostly. The few answers that I do have come from these rare moments of reflection, and from the challenges of friends and colleagues who pushed me to move beyond good intentions to real impact. To accept that my white skin and western education don’t make me the source of all solutions. To stop and listen. To engage with those who come from different backgrounds, different religions, different skin tones, and to learn from them.
Reflection does not come naturally to me, but I am grateful for the times that it appears in my brain, piquing memories tinged with both pride and shame, and providing inspiration for life’s next great adventure and opportunity to grow. The path that led me to that bar along the White Nile was winding and the path afterwards windier still, but I am better for having experienced the journey.
That’s the thing about travel, about embedding oneself in an unknown land–whether for a year or only a few days–with strange and wonderful people living their lives in ways that are so different, yet always surprisingly familiar. Discovering a new place and gaining an understanding of its culture leads unwittingly to introspection. It requires it. With introspection comes awareness and, eventually, improvement. This, I believe, is the great personal and collective benefit of travel.
Here’s to 2021! May it be a year of travel, enlightenment, reflection, and shared humanity.
“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody. Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.”
Jonathan Coleman is the Co-CEO of the Untours Foundation, which owns and operates the travel company, Untours, and invests its profits into businesses and initiatives that make the world a better place. He is also the Co-Founder (along with his wife, Kate) of another social enterprise travel company, Intentional Tours. He has built his career around the work of supporting equitable entrepreneurship ecosystems and integrating the concepts of impact and social good into business operations. In pursuit of these goals, he has lived and worked in the USA, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. Jonathan holds an MBA in International Economic Development from Eastern University.