Pale blue t shirt on a hanger

In late 2017, I volunteered at a wildlife centre in Malawi.

The small southern African nation hosted me as I volunteered with yellow baboons, scops owls, and servals. However, the thing that will always stick with me, the thing that always sticks with me when I travel, is the people.

I was lucky enough to meet some incredible people in Malawi, it was really a United Nations of volunteers hosted by friendly and enthusiastic Malawians.

That’s the amazing thing about volunteering with animals, you meet some equally amazing people.

When I was leaving the wildlife centre in Lilongwe and saying goodbye to everyone, Alice said one of the nicest things anyone has said to me – I, of course, spoiled it by running away (to be explained).

Earlier in the week, I realised my perfect lightweight merino wool shirt was not long for this world. After being in 18 countries it was ripped, smelly, sun-bleached and stained. I loved this shirt and it was, in fact, my most favourite shirt. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it/without it.

Enter Alice… literally.

She came into the volunteer sitting room chatting about how hot it was and how finding a breathable and lightweight shirt is quite difficult. Alice is a cool ass woman. She is a wildlife veterinarian from France who rides a motorcycle to work in Malawi. She plays a whole whack of sports, dances salsa and always looks chic AF. Positive and hilarious, she is so cool, she barely seems real. But she is real. It’s not hyperbole that I wanted to give her the shirt off my back.

On the day that I was leaving the centre I hung up my favourite shirt on the clothesline with a note to her, saying that “While it was a bit ripped it would be a perfect shirt to stay in Malawi for someone who would use it for savin’ animals, runnin’ through the forest, and playin’ frisbee."

In the note I explained how incredibly rad she was an how I wanted to give her something that I really loved so she could feel how much love I had in my heart for her. I poetically explained that she was a badass and while she deserved a new shirt I selfishly wanted to believe someone as inspiring as her would be wearing my shirt while she lived her best life, out loud...

Lies. I just wrote: "Sorry this is ripped but maybe you could run in it?"

When it was time for me to walk to the front gate to get a ride to the airport, Alice came over, gave me a hug, and thanked me for the shirt and she told that me that she saw me.

She saw who I was in this kind gesture and this kind gesture was who I was.

Someone who tried to make things better and tried to make people happy. At that moment I realised I forgot an envelope of notes from other volunteers and my water bottle inside the living room. I also realised that if I didn’t run to get them, I would forget them. So I ran away, ruined the moment, and came back to try and tell her how much those words sincerely touched me.

I did tell her how special that moment was and how much her words sincerely touched me. I told her how I had a really rough year and her words meant so much coming from a strong badass woman, as this was a year I had lost one of the best badass women I knew. I told her how I appreciated all she did for the animals and volunteers. I also told her I thought her living her life as a badass was so incredible because it was giving other women to live their lives like total badasses.

Lies. I snotted myself while I cried behind my sunglasses and I said, thank you.

It may seem like nothing, she just said that I was a nice person. But in that moment it meant so much more. That whole year, I felt like I was that t-shirt: ripped and faded, old and tired. She looked at the t-shirt and at me like we were brand new. She said she saw me – the real me —and I wasn’t ripped or tired or broken or sad. I was someone who wanted to make the places I went better and she thought I was doing that.

Sometimes travelling is hard. Sometimes emotions are hard. Sometimes gifts are hard. But sometimes they all come together and you find yourself seeing you in an old t-shirt, making the world a little better for someone you admire. And the cool thing about that is they see you, too.

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About The Author

Nora Livingstone's picture

Nora Livingstone is the Co-Founder and CEO of Animal Experience International, a B Corp that matches animal lovers with beneficial and adventurous volunteer experiences around the world. She has volunteered with animals in more than 25 countries, including Croatia, Mongolia, Sierra Leone, and Guatemala. Nora holds a double major from Trent University in Environmental Studies and Cultural Anthropology and holds internationally recognized certifications for guiding, leadership, crisis intervention, and deployment during natural disasters. She carries a tiny plastic horse and stuffed mouse with her every time she travels.

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