I quit my job. Everyone looks for a reason. Of course, it makes no sense. After twenty years of climbing up the career ladder in my community, and finally reaching a top rung - the pinnacle of local celebrity status - I jump off. In the middle of a terrible recession, while the rest of rational society worries about remaining employed, I choose to leave my secure and high profile position with no definite plan or safety net.
The melodrama of a small town ensues. There are theories of conspiracy, acts of intimidation, and total organizational meltdown. The truth is much simpler, less interesting, and much more personal.
I quit because I yearn for an experience beyond my thirty-mile commute. I quit because I am tired of simply talking about globalization and diversity as theoretical academic exercises. I quit because I believe that somehow I must leave home in order to continue to make a difference in my community. I quit so that I, a local economic developer of a small South Carolina town, may decompress from all the daily gunk, be still long enough to hear my inner voice, and make room to expand my experience of this world. After the carefully phrased mass emails are sent out, the brief article runs in the local paper, and the questions somewhat subside at the usual after-hour business events, I settle into my sabbatical and my quest to become a citizen of the world.
Interestingly, in this one unexplainable act of following my heart, I defy all that is stable, appropriate, and understandable to both me and my collective identity. Conversations with my colleagues become awkward and dinners with my friends strained. No one, including me, is quite sure who I am now. We no longer have similar daily experiences. Others talk about the stresses of the office, the limitations of time, and the worries of the economy. I hesitantly share my new blog, photographs of my garden, and an esoteric goal of creating my life as a wagon wheel, with my home as the hub, always the core and the source of strength, and me as the energy traveling along the spokes to other parts of the world yet always returning home. My comments simultaneously both frighten and impress. Mostly my friends wait for me to regain my sanity, rejoin the gainfully employed, and most importantly, reclaim that old familiar identity.
Meanwhile, I search for ways to see the world, with no budget and no international experience. I read books about missionaries in the Congo, Peace Corps work in South Africa, and building schools for girls in Pakistan. I subscribe to online international magazines and newspapers, and exchange my usual nighttime sitcoms with travel and educational television. I join multi-cultural organizations and attend free international events at the local university. I spend an exorbitant amount of time on the Internet, learning the names of small countries in Africa, discovering the impact of empowering women in India, and perusing international websites for contract positions that might fit my résumé. A strange twist of fate, a video chat with my sister, and an online promotional contest, wins me a trip to Africa.
I meet Banaki my first night in Botswana. On the surface, we are different. She is as dark as I am light, and physically half my size. She speaks English, one of six languages in her repertoire, with a quiet British accent, while I speak my one fluent language with a loud southern American twang. In contrast to my wagon wheel, she lives where she works and visits her home. While I choose not to raise a family, Banaki is responsible for two children obligatorily taken in after the death of family members from the AIDS virus. While, the worldwide web brought me to Africa, Banaki has very limited access to such modern technologies.
We are two strangers living on opposite ends of the globe. Yet, over an evening meal we come to understand we are more similar than different. As site manager of the Southern African bush camp, Banaki functions as a gracious, yet proficient, host at the head of the table. I recognize the professional in her as she skillfully engages everyone in conversation, while subtly directing her staff to ensure a special experience for her guests. Most interestingly, like me, Banaki has limited travel experience, dreams of exploring the world, and aspires for new meaningful ways to make a living.
The New Oxford American Dictionary on my computer defines a Citizen of the World as "a person who is at home in any country." Sharing a meal with Banaki, her colleagues, and her guests that evening from four different continents, I realize that although she has never traveled outside of her home country, Banaki truly is a citizen of the world. While many of us get our information from the contemporary interpretations of various media, Banaki receives her information from the real people sitting at her table. Passing plates, sharing stories, and bantering over shared humor, I feel more part of a community in those two hours than I have in the past year.
I return home a different person. I remain ever grateful for the past amazing year, as I continue to explore new ways to incorporate a global experience into my life. I reflect on a conversation with a fellow traveler from Norway and hope I slightly modified her impression of Americans garnered from the tabloid talk shows broadcast in her country. I become more comfortable not knowing who I am, comfortable in knowing my personal definition of community is expanded. And, without any doubt, I look forward to the opportunity to travel with Banaki and continue our conversation at the dinner table.
Julie Orr Franklin is an economic developer living in Greenville, South Carolina. Her publication debut, "Leap of Faith," comes at the end of an amazing one-year sabbatical, exploring her passion for writing, photography and international work. In November 2009, Julie traveled to Botswana after winning a photographic safari trip in HBO's "Who's Your No.1 Lady?" national essay contest. She is a 1988 UGA graduate and holds a MCRP degree from Clemson University.