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May 27th, 2018

Hold on or free up?

Do you know how hard it is to give up a receipt? More correctly, an envelope of receipts. Actually, six envelopes of receipts, each a specific category of expense I’m tracking.

For six weeks now I’ve been diligently requesting and filing each slip for each expense I’ve incurred. Short, wide handwritten ones for each national park in Zimbabwe. Identical thermal prints for each road toll. ZIMRA-formatted ones for each grocery shop; exactly how the Zim tax authority dictates they should be. Customs receipts; as varied in shape, font, invented fee-type and amount as each border experience has been. Carbon-paper imprinted copies for everything in Malawi—they love their carbon paper here.

Diesel refuels, lodge folios, museum entrances. Airtime purchases, supply restocks, ferry crossings. Camp site tokens, bar drinks, fresh produce purchases. Each on its own piece of paper. First tucked into a specific zipped pocket of my shoulder bag and then, daily, weekly or whenever I remember, joining their national and international relatives in the appropriately labeled brown, A5-sized envelope tucked deeper in my car’s cargo.

After leaving Zimbabwe I spent an hour at dusk in Tete, watching the sunset over the Zambezi as it flowed through the Mozambican town, sorting through each brown envelope and paperclipping all of Zim’s expenses into neat, date-ordered bundles. Next week after leaving Malawi, I should be doing the same.  

To many, I’m sure that this sounds like an excruciating process to have to endure. For order-junkies like me, I’ve found it compelling and interesting, maybe even fun. A feeling of structure—and therefore even a certain freedom—in recounting, recollecting, relating and restoring the three glorious weeks of brand new experiences just had.

That, however, is not where the process will stop; the “ordering” is not the point. Neither, you’ll be very surprised to know, is seeing whether I’m keeping to my loosely formed budget. I’m not that much of an accountant. (Although, spoiler-alert, the budget is blown!). The main plan is to be able to share the relative cost of things with future adventurers. To be able to post here how much things cost in each of the countries I’m living through. Travellers before me have done the same and I’d found it very helpful. I want to pay it forward in the same way.

A desire to be useful. (Or was it just to be recognised?)

It’s getting a bit tiresome though, these rituals of collection and categorisation. Even to me. And a few days ago, that gentle voice from deep within made a few quiet suggestions: Just stop. Burn those brown envelopes. Don’t gather any more paper. Free up that slice of space in the car. And that larger slice of space in your mind.

I’m torn though. Torn in that same way that much bigger and more important life decisions—to move cities, for example—can keep me right in the middle of the pendulum swing. Being tugged, in one direction of thinking, towards “Yes, I will” and then thinking about it from a changed vantage and swinging, equally convinced, to “No, I won’t.”

On one hand, these receipts are documented evidence of my experience so far. Proof positive of the places I’ve been to; who accompanied me; when I checked out; how much life’s necessities cost. Those data points trigger deeper memories, like the first sighting of Lake Malawi resonating throughout my entire being at Monkey Bay; George Kingsley taking me to Devil Street in Lilongwe; the very comfortable mattresses at Aqua Africa in Nkhata Bay (and conversely, the awful ones at one or two other places); and how much my habit of inadvertently leaving towels behind (one in each country so far, and counting) costs my fiscus. The spreadsheets in my future are therefore not just handy for the next wave of seekers… They are handy to me.

Because I forget things.

Quickly and constantly.

I forget yesterday’s order of events. And not actually yesterday. Any day. I forget Very Memorable Moments, conversations about Really Deep Stuff, details of Things To Come, important Decisions We Made, aspects of the Lives of Others, virtually every Name I’m Told.

How will I remember the dizzying afternoon I spent with Never, my guide at the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, if I don’t have that silky, fibrous receipt with its purple dot-matrix printing. I don’t particularly need to recall that it was the 23rd of April or that his time cost $6.00 on top of my $15.00 entry fee. Useful, yes. Essential, no.

But the feeling of that primitive, government-issued paper—rough and imperfect—between my fingers, is the magic dust that teleports me back to that experience in a way that nothing else seems to have  the ability to. Seeing the quarter-folds in it because the till was out of paper when I arrived and so my receipt was printed by another official in a distant office and folded into his pocket for safe-keeping until my exit.

That. That. Seeing and feeling that, snaps me back in place and time to my spiritual afternoon among the crumbling white rock blocks of a civilisation, active and sophisticated, that walked those same corridors a thousand years before.

Will I forever be able to conjure those strong memory associations, evoke not just the visuals but the emotionals? The feelings along with the seeings? My photos do some of that for me—bring up more than just pixel-captures of a scene. But they’re not able to deliver as full a story. An entire compartment of the memory might go missing without those handfelt things.

I have learnt enough—even just on this trip—to know I need to trust that gentle, deep-set voice though. It, after all, whispered—loud and clear—the Original Instruction that I needed to take this trip. So, I know they’re suggestions worth heeding. I also know that I will heed them. And I know that the path of getting to that proposed action is where it can become rocky and repelling but it’s also where growing lies.

I’m writing all of this from Likoma Island. A glorious dot of an island far removed from its Malawian mainland. I deliberately left all of my communications devices, laptops and other technology contraptions—distractions—with my car at Nkhata Bay. Deliberately seeking a freedom from things I cannot help but tether myself to when they’re at hand. The freedom in these four days, on a piece of paradise, has been revolutionary. I feel like I’m having a holiday inside a holiday. A real break (from myself?).

Yesterday it didn’t even cross my mind once to ask for document proof of the cheap, somewhat sinewy chicken with rice, beans and a delicious tomato relish at a restaurant that Annemiek, Laurens, Annabel, Chris and I nearly didn’t find. (Every other “restaurant” in two of the island towns we explored was either closed—at 1pm on a Thursday—or “Yes, we’re open but we’ve run out of food.”)

In a week or a month will I forget the kilometres-long hike, first along the lake’s shore and then over the spine of a surprisingly hilly Likoma, only to nearly not reward the effort with a meal? Will the one photograph taken of all of us, sitting in cracked garden furniture on Aunt Patel’s be enough to conjure all of the sensations I will want it to without an Aunt Patel’s receipt? Is it even important to reconjure? What about just focusing on the conjuring happening in the moment and for the rest of my days lean into the belief that that experience lies like a layer of beautiful sediment on my soul and psyche. That the delicious and grateful sensations I had then will remain sandwiched between thousands of other, equally special layers. The archaeologist in me doesn’t need to mine them at some future date in order to remember that they happened to me, does he?

I actually still believe that he does. That I will need to. That in the future, as often as I want to, I should actively bring to mind everything I’m doing now. That memories aren’t to be treated like unseen strata of fossilised soil of the soul; should not be left deliberately un-rediscovered. Years from now I want to remember the today I spent snorkelling and kayaking with the same 3D, 4k, 5 senses brilliance in which they just happened. I am frightfully sentimental, after all. Frightfully. Sentimental. 

No, the lesson I don’t think is about letting go of remembering.

The lesson might be in believing that I don’t need to horde papers to be capable of authentic, affecting memory in the first place. I don’t need to cling onto the physical because of a lack in trusting the invisible. That, even without a silky, fibrous slip of paper, I can bring to mind how powerful my afternoon among tumbled rock in Zimbabwe was. It will no doubt be a different experience of memory, without the touch of that paper or the seeing of its folds. But it will be valid. And, I need to believe, it will be just as meaningful.

Still, and even more importantly now: How do I give up my receipts?

Then again, this isn’t really about receipts or memory is it?  

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