After years of yearning to live outside the U.S., and occasionally quenching the thirst with a backpacking trip abroad (which only brought her home yearning even more), Anena Hansen finally took the plunge, went to Africa for two weeks, and never came back. She now calls Kenya home, where she works in advertising and runs a football program for disadvantaged girls. She still gets her ass handed to her by Africa on a regular basis. She’s still glad every single day to live there. When she can grab some spare moments she is finishing a YA novel about a girl who discovers what she is really capable of! Anena writes about her expat-in-Africa experiences on her website, www.anenahansen.com
Is there something you always do, whenever you’re on a trip?
I have a playlist on my iPod called “Independence Day,” made up of songs I associate with freedom, adventure, and exploration. Every time I leave for a new country, as soon as I’ve cleared customs, I put it on. It gets me excited for my next destination while creating continuity between all the places I have traveled over the years. The first song is “Scatman,” and anytime I hear that song I have powerful associations with the thrill of travel (and the relief of clearing customs!).
What’s one important lesson you’ve learned from your travels?
Never throw away a napkin. Any place-a coffee shop, a fast food stand-that gives you a paper napkin, always pocket it. Stash it in the bottom of your bag like a hidden treasure. There’s guaranteed to be a corresponding toilet that has no tissue somewhere further down the road - and that napkin will seem like a treasure then.
In what ways does writing inform your relationship with travel? Do you keep a journal? Conduct interviews? Write on location?
I’d never been a Hemingway fan. Then I came to Kenya and discovered that Hemingway traveled and wrote extensively here, so I finally gave him a fair try. Turns out he’s a hell of a writer. I was so inspired, I figured I’d give his writing-and-drinking lifestyle a try as well. He had it right that way too: writing with a buzz can be fantastic! A couple cold beers and I relax and tap into my creativity in a whole new way. Who knew! Now, every few months, I treat myself to a getaway on the tropical Kenyan coast where Hemingway used to visit. I sit by the ocean, drink beer, and write all day. And I do it in the name of literature. If there’s a better way to marry traveling and writing, I haven’t found it yet.
In the last year or so, since I’ve begun traveling for business rather than just pleasure, I’ve found that being a woman strongly impacts my travel style-most significantly the way I dress. I was always a classic backpacker kicking back on the airplane in my nylon cargo pants and flip-flops. Nowadays, I don’t even consider flying in trousers-as a woman in the developing world, I am universally better perceived when I travel in a feminine outfit. Sometimes it means putting up with patriarchal men who deem me a poor little female in need of protection or condescension, but it also means I am treated with respect and consideration when I end up lost in some new country.
It took me a bit to learn the rules of looking put-together when I travel. For instance: no eye makeup, so I don’t end up with raccoon eyes when I reach my destination. And no high heels-I learned that one when I almost missed a flight because I was late but I couldn’t run! Cargo pants and flip-flops were a hell of a lot easier, but when I step off a plane in a nice dress, I secretly feel kind of glamorous, and that gives me confidence as I bumble around trying to figure out where the hell to collect my baggage.
Through travel, have you overcome any fears or obstacles?
Traveling has been one of the most empowering experiences of my life. I grew up in a very sheltered religious environment where women were not meant to do much of anything outside the home, let alone travel, let alone travel solo. Each trip I take alone terrifies me - and my self-confidence skyrockets. only through traveling did I discover how capable I was, how brave.
How do you balance your home and travel life? How do you make it work to travel?
Very simple: I moved abroad. My daily life is the travel and the cultural exploration I cannot live without. It’s perfect! The only downside is being far from my family in the U.S.-to which I can only say, thank God I live in the era of video Skype.
What advice can you give to women who want to start traveling?
There will always be a reason not to go. You can let the reasons stop you-or you can just go anyway.
In your opinion, what is the greatest reward of traveling?
Self-discovery. Nothing shows you who you really are like finding yourself on a deserted street, with all your luggage, in the middle of the night, in a country where you don’t speak the language, with no money left, waiting for someone to mug you or worse-and then finding a solution. Discovering strength inside myself that I never knew I had-and courage, and adaptability-makes travel most fulfilling for me. Well, that and the food. Paying pennies for street food that’s as heavenly as any cuisine in a high-end restaurant is my favorite thing. I always feel like I outsmarted the system somehow!