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Illustration by Juliana Neufeld

In case you’re kicking yourself the next time you misplace your car keys, know that I was almost turned around from a dream trip to Northern Kenya for dropping my passport somewhere at Heathrow Airport. It’s the kind of hellish scenario that would fuel any traveller’s nightmares. I had my universal charger, travel visa, binoculars and a cute leopard print dress – totally impractical for the savanna – all visible in my luggage, but the vital document to get on the plane had vanished.

Yet, as I rifled through my bags in horror, watching helplessly as all the passengers boarded and my gate closed, my first thought was “This is direct karma for leaving your daughter behind and travelling for pleasure.”

This was the first time I was ever going to be away from my toddler – born at the height of the pandemic – for more than four hours. I was set to meet up with a friend who was writing about remote Samburu and Maasai cultures and tourism. She’d invited me along on the journey because she knew I’d dreamt of exploring rural Kenya with her. More than anything, though, I dreamt of travelling 10 metres without a diaper bag.

I tried to make the transition as easy as possible for her, explaining as best as I could with a toy plane and giraffe that “Mommy was going to see where the giraffes lived.” Yet, it was hard not to wonder if her father, or any father for that matter, would feel the same amount of culpability for wanting something for themselves.

This sentiment was only heightened while going back and forth through the airport, trying to figure out where I could have dropped my passport. It made me question whether I should have stayed home and waited until my kid was older and I had it together more. Fatigue and despair had me weeping uncontrollably as I washed down my daily malaria prevention pills with a latte and chocolate croissant, not knowing if I’d need them. When security told me, “We might have to send you back to Canada,” I felt my knees buckle in front of curious onlookers. By some minor miracle, a staff member found my passport right next to the seating area at my original departure gate. I hugged every airline representative within reach, many of whom seemed eager to escape the giddy “lost passport lady.” I finally boarded a red eye flight to Nairobi, which would set me en route to Kenya. The travel gods had decided not to forsake me.

I was prepared for awe-inspiring views of the savanna. Still, nothing can quite describe descending into the remote wilds of Northern Kenya and seeing nothing but verdant mountains and never-ending plains stretched out before you. After a five-year drought, recent rains transformed this dry landscape into an oasis filled with darting dik-diks (bite-sized antelopes), impalas, greater kudu, and, of course, reticulated giraffes. Despite not sleeping for around 36 hours, I mustered up the energy to settle into our lovely, community-run camp. I even managed to have my first gin and tonic sundowner with my feet planted in a riverbed while my Samburu companions and I toasted with the traditional Maa language greeting “Supai.”

Yet, the nattering mom guilt continued to be a dull whisper that accompanied me everywhere, reminding me that this bliss was too easily won to be long-lived, that I should be missing my daughter’s cuddles more. When would the other shoe, or more accurately, hiking boot, drop?

I got my answer halfway through my trip. By the time I sat down to dinner that day, I had started to shake uncontrollably.

“That’s it, I probably have malaria,” my anxious mind told me. I’d obviously die now without seeing my daughter or husband again. Somehow, I had this idea that even with a supportive network of people looking after my child, I would be eternally punished for simply wanting to experience life outside the four walls of our apartment.

It was only when I video-chatted with my daughter that I realized part of what I was feeling was a physical manifestation of my guilt mixed in with traveller’s stomach. The antidote wasn’t being airlifted to the nearest hospital but simply eating mush for the rest of my trip. At this point, I truly allowed myself to embrace the rest of my journey.

Despite the startling beauty of the Northern Kenyan landscape filled with herds of elephants, Grévy’s zebras, and cheeky hyrax, the sight that will stick in my mind forever is that of reticulated giraffes swaying their heads to nibble on acacia trees or stopping in their tracks to stare at us. In my mind, they were almost as surprised I made it to Kenya as I was. As a symbol of finally abolishing the last specks of my mom guilt, I picked up a hand-stitched giraffe for my daughter that I named “Twiga,” which means giraffe in Swahili. She’s my daughter’s best friend.

It took me a while, but I now realize that my adventures and misadventures in Kenya are also part of my daughter’s story. Hopefully, this will inspire her to seek adventure without questioning whether she’s worth it. That matters so much more than mom guilt.

Jenn Shenouda-Levine lives in Toronto.

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