This story comes from our recent trip to Matungen, Kenya. We traveled with good friends – who else can you talk into a homestay in a village that has rarely hosted visitors – we were four adults, two 14-year-old girls, and one 17-year-old boy. To plan the trip, we partnered with Matungen local and celebrated distance runner Abraham Kosgi and nonprofits Global Pearls and Crooked Trails. Travel tips to recreate this kind of immersive experience for yourself at the end.
I trained for months to lose a running race to eighth graders.
Four days a week I opened the door as the sky just barely shifted from black to navy. My stiff new shoes plodded past dark houses. My heavy breathing boomed in the silence. I traveled only a half-mile at first. Then one. Then two. Then three. I suffered. I have always hated running. Despite my aversion I found myself back on the sidewalks chasing mediocrity day after day.
The day of the race, the school principal drew the border of our comfort zone in the dirt with his shoe. We stood ready to spring at the whistle but yearned to stay behind and just watch. Beija, Claire, Katie and me. Thirty gazelles in green and blue school uniforms. Silly and serious. Girls from Kenya’s Kalenjin tribe with impossibly strong legs and broad smiles. Our path perched at the top of an escarpment edging the Great Rift Valley.
Twee! We were off. Children stacked five high on the fence cheering and laughing as the girls’ first fifteen strides left us in the dust. Boys went next. Scott and Julian jump off the line.
Our hosts organized eighth graders from Matungen Primary School and Torok Primary School for the race. We knew what we were getting into. Kenyan runners, and those from the Kalenjin tribe specifically, have a bit of a reputation for handily winning long-distance races across the globe. We wanted to learn and celebrate what makes Matungen special. What better way than to run with the best?
So how did it go?
The local kids were stunning, but I only got to see them from the back. Their feet were winged as they quickly put yards and then kilometers between us. They shed their sweaters as they ran, tossing them to a friend who, weighed down, carried them to the finish. One of our hosts, Elvis, leaned against a fence flirting with a local girl and shouted out that I was almost finished. Emily, our host, saw me panting toward the finish and joined me, laughing in her narrow skirt and sensible heels to trot the last hundred meters. A wall of children laughing, clapping, and whooping closed in around us as I crossed the finish line.
The winners? Brenda Kipligat for the girls. Collins Kipligat for the boys. Two strong Matungen teens.
Did my training pay off? Absolutely. I am still running. Mostly because my dog loves it, but still running. Every day when I open the door to the mostly dark morning, feel the Seattle mist on my face, and dread the next hour I think of Brenda, Collins, Lydia, Sylvia, Evans, Matthew, and all the other Kalenjin gazelles. When I do my heart swells a little with their strength and the giggling joy of all the children who enthusiastically celebrated us coming in dead last.
Tourism is watching, observing from a safe and unemotional distance. But when you travel you become part of the action and reveling in the unique experiences that new places have to offer and exchanging parts of your life with your local hosts. This is especially great for kids. They really need tangible experiences with people to shift their perspectives. How do you do this on your next trip? Find out what your hosts take pride in – art, sport, cooking, dancing – and plan an event, take a class, or ask them to teach you. Then participate fully, side-by-side, in what makes them most proud of their culture and of themselves. Nonprofits working locally (choose carefully to avoid the white savior complex, friends) may be able to help you make the connections you need to turn a trip into a life shifting experience.