I spent much of the day with my friend J., who was visiting from Luanda, Angola, for a week of development training. We had brunch at his friend’s house who works for NPR — pancakes, eggs, orange juice and coffee — and then I drove him to the Dulles airport with the handy dandy Zipcar.

Listening to his world for the last year and a half captivates me.

His rent there is $2,500 for a small one bedroom without heat and occasional water — he says it’s the third most expensive city in the world behind Tokyo and Oslo (I found a 2007 study that says it’s the most expensive for expats). J. manages an office of 35 people for an organization that tries to help solve the HIV and AIDS epidemic by teaching ABC: abstinence, be faithful and correct and consistent condom use. He says the challenge is the “be faithful” piece, because monogamy isn’t the culture. J. says he has never met a married man who hasn’t had an affair. He also says the women are the most beautiful he’s ever seen.

I’ve known J. since I met him in Germany more than 10 years ago and we’ve always stayed in touch. He was in college in New Mexico, I was in college in Michigan. We visited each other over breaks. After I graduated, I moved to London. He went into the Peace Corps in Armenia. I went to Hong Kong. He went to Guatemala and Italy.

Now he’s living a life in Africa, a place I can’t even visualize, including the slums that sprawl out from the city center. I can’t help but be a bit envious about his adventures (including three weeks in Brazil for the holidays). He’s learning how to run an organization, is fluent in Portuguese and he’s banking thousands of dollars in savings because he gets a hardship bonus and doesn’t pay rent or taxes. Though, thinking about doing something like that myself feels terrifying and lonely.

Don’t get me wrong, I plan to get to Africa to travel and learn. For now, I’ll take J.’s visits every six months and live vicariously through the stories.


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