In late 2017, I volunteered at a wildlife centre in Malawi.
The small southern African nation hosted me as I volunteered with yellow baboons, scops owls, and servals. However, the thing that will always stick with me, the thing that always sticks with me when I travel, is the people.
I was lucky enough to meet some incredible people in Malawi, it was really a United Nations of volunteers hosted by friendly and enthusiastic Malawians.
That’s the amazing thing about volunteering with animals, you meet some equally amazing people.
When I was leaving the wildlife centre in Lilongwe and saying goodbye to everyone, Alice said one of the nicest things anyone has said to me – I, of course, spoiled it by running away (to be explained).
Earlier in the week, I realised my perfect lightweight merino wool shirt was not long for this world. After being in 18 countries it was ripped, smelly, sun-bleached and stained. I loved this shirt and it was, in fact, my most favourite shirt. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it/without it.
Enter Alice… literally.
She came into the volunteer sitting room chatting about how hot it was and how finding a breathable and lightweight shirt is quite difficult. Alice is a cool ass woman. She is a wildlife veterinarian from France who rides a motorcycle to work in Malawi. She plays a whole whack of sports, dances salsa and always looks chic AF. Positive and hilarious, she is so cool, she barely seems real. But she is real. It’s not hyperbole that I wanted to give her the shirt off my back.
On the day that I was leaving the centre I hung up my favourite shirt on the clothesline with a note to her, saying that “While it was a bit ripped it would be a perfect shirt to stay in Malawi for someone who would use it for savin’ animals, runnin’ through the forest, and playin’ frisbee."
In the note I explained how incredibly rad she was an how I wanted to give her something that I really loved so she could feel how much love I had in my heart for her. I poetically explained that she was a badass and while she deserved a new shirt I selfishly wanted to believe someone as inspiring as her would be wearing my shirt while she lived her best life, out loud...
Lies. I just wrote: "Sorry this is ripped but maybe you could run in it?"
When it was time for me to walk to the front gate to get a ride to the airport, Alice came over, gave me a hug, and thanked me for the shirt and she told that me that she saw me.
She saw who I was in this kind gesture and this kind gesture was who I was.
Someone who tried to make things better and tried to make people happy. At that moment I realised I forgot an envelope of notes from other volunteers and my water bottle inside the living room. I also realised that if I didn’t run to get them, I would forget them. So I ran away, ruined the moment, and came back to try and tell her how much those words sincerely touched me.
I did tell her how special that moment was and how much her words sincerely touched me. I told her how I had a really rough year and her words meant so much coming from a strong badass woman, as this was a year I had lost one of the best badass women I knew. I told her how I appreciated all she did for the animals and volunteers. I also told her I thought her living her life as a badass was so incredible because it was giving other women to live their lives like total badasses.
Lies. I snotted myself while I cried behind my sunglasses and I said, thank you.
It may seem like nothing, she just said that I was a nice person. But in that moment it meant so much more. That whole year, I felt like I was that t-shirt: ripped and faded, old and tired. She looked at the t-shirt and at me like we were brand new. She said she saw me – the real me —and I wasn’t ripped or tired or broken or sad. I was someone who wanted to make the places I went better and she thought I was doing that.
Sometimes travelling is hard. Sometimes emotions are hard. Sometimes gifts are hard. But sometimes they all come together and you find yourself seeing you in an old t-shirt, making the world a little better for someone you admire. And the cool thing about that is they see you, too.