Today, I spent an hour looking for soap.
Not just any soap (those who know me will know how picky I am about my soap… shampoo, lotion and face wash too!), but a soap without chemicals, fragrance, glycerin or dye.
As I walked down the uneven dirt road from the beach to the village—slick with mud from the rains that won’t stop this year—I thought about three things:
First, I wondered if my skin would be red later from the inescapable equatorial sun, still hot-hot at three in the afternoon. Second, I considered the fact that a less stubborn person would have long ago sucked it up and bought any of the ten brands of Imperial Leather impersonators—all rich with the aromas of chemical fragrance and a lingering colonial stench. And last, I recalled countless similar hunts from this trip and others past, and I wondered why they were so important to me.
I love a good quest.
A walk through a crowded market becomes a treasure hunt when I am looking for an uncommon fruit, or a rare blend of spices. The simplest of goals—acquiring a cup of chai, the perfect gift, stamps or fish sandwiches; finding a historical monument; the beach; the highest outlook or the bus onward—transmutes the everyday into something vital and full of purpose.
When I am looking for something, no matter how trivial, every interaction suddenly has a point. Intensity. Urgency. Meaning. Senseless conversation finds itself replaced by words imbued with the strongest magic: A reason for existing.
I am not merely walking; I am searching. And a search is an adventure.
Now, I will be the first to champion aimless wandering for the sake of wandering—searching not for,but because. A search for nothing is far preferable to no search at all. But a search for something—anything—well, that is the best of all.
As I stride from supermarket—proffering Dettol, Imperial Leather, medicated soap, skin lightening crap and a host of other pastel-hued and plastic-scented delights–to gift shop stocked floor to ceiling with everything but soap, I exchange the now familiar greetings and then ask for soap (sabuni ya kuoga). I explain in a mish-mosh of Swahili and English that I don’t want chemicals, and people are helpful, understanding, and repeatedly direct me onward, toward the village.
Stepping into a shop selling only soap and flip flops, I am presented with more options. An unmarked, waxy pink bar, which I don’t trust because it is the color of pepto bismal. A new and equally off-putting brand of skin-lightening bullshit. And a bar of clove soap marked “herbal” and “home-made” on the box, on which the lack of ingredients at least allows for the possibility that it is actually chemical-free.
I buy it and return home. My quest is complete.
A search for soap—or chai, or the beach, or any number of things—is, on the one hand, silly and hardly worth thinking about. And yet, a quest is a quest, no matter how small. Those who have experienced the alchemical change that occurs when purpose is added to their day’s equation will understand that it is not the depth, but rather the presence of an objective that counts.
Today, it was soap. Tomorrow perhaps it will be a decent cappuccino, gifts for my family or an empty stretch of shoreline. I won’t know until the next whim or need grips me and I set off again in pursuit of something, someplace or even someone (I may hate waiting, but it is another kind of purpose, after all).
There is joy in wandering, and there is joy in searching simply because, but the single-mindedness of quest is a different, and I think necessary, component of travel and life.