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Traveling as Taking a Stand: Darren Berger’s Life-changing Trip

Luke Armstrong | Feb 9, 2019


“Everyone struggles with things in life,” says Darren Berger. “Some people struggle with things on the outside, others on the inside — my  struggles have always been the inside sort.”

Darren Berger was the first friend I made on my first day of college at North Dakota State University. In the lottery of roommate assignments, we were selected to share a dorm room.

Darren was a sophomore — a tall, thick guy studying computer science. He was quiet, polite and so socially awkward that he had somehow managed to slip through the social cracks of his first year of college . That changed when we welcomed him to play a game of basketball with some other guys from the dorm.

From that day, Darren became part of our ranks. He was a quiet guy, but truly caring — he looked out for people.

After college, our paths drifted. I moved to South America to finish college abroad and Darren worked to finish college — taking a brief break due to mental health issues.

A Friendship Through Facebook

Darren and I didn’t see much of each other for the next decade, except online.

“Basically, the only reason I kept my Facebook account was to stay in touch with you and follow your travels,” Darren told me once. “I don’t think I’ll ever travel like that, so I’ll just have to live vicariously through you.”

I told him the same thing I tell everyone who tells me that, “Hey man, the planes I board are public!”

“It’s not that I couldn’t afford to travel,” Darren explained. “It’s just that these anxious voices turn up their volume at the thought of leaving home and being somewhere where I don’t understand even the language.”

But a seed was planted. Through his own dedication to his wellness, he continued to strive toward a more confident version of himself.

Whenever he mentioned his desire to travel in our chats, I always extended an open invitation to come visit me in Guatemala. “One day, I’ll get there” he would tell me.

Darren took the Dive

Late 2017 Darren wrote to me, saying “I’m thinking I’d like to come to Guatemala to visit you.”

Of all the people I’d extended an offer to visit, I hadn’t expected Darren to actually take me up on it! He was taking a big step and I was grateful to get to be part of it.

When he arrived at my house on the shores of Lake Atitlan, Darren couldn’t stop smiling.. I knew what that smile meant — he had made it. He became first member of his family to travel to a non-English-speaking country.

I could tell you the mundane details of the trip. I could tell you about our time on the shores of Lake Atitlan. I could describe the times Darren went out of his comfort zone without letting his anxiety take over. I could even tell you about all of the conversations he struck up conversations with his limited Spanish, laughing when he didn’t understand.  

There was one moment I will tell you about. It’s one will always encapsulate the trip for me. In 2015, I co-founded Integral Heart Family, an education center for 80 impoverished children in Guatemala. Darren was one of our first monthly sponsors and now he was getting the chance to visit the center.

It was a fresh morning in Antigua, Guatemala. A few plumes of smoke escaped from the volcano Fuego and dissipated into the bright blue sky. We opened the front door. A gaggle of kids rushed us, crowding on all sides. Darren’s kind spirit came alive without any fear or hesitation.

After eating lunch with the staff and showing him the center, I left him to do some work in the office. When I returned, there was Darren, built like a linebacker with a line of kids waiting for their turn for him to lift them like they were flying through the air. He laughed with the kids. They grabbed his beard and begged for more plane rides. Beads of sweat mixed with tears of joy. This was the sort of moment we live our lives for, a moment of sparkling elation.

Laughing Darren continued to lift them until his muscles could take it no more. I watched all this from a distance, a smile growing in my heart.

You see, I had known some of these kids when they were child labor victims scavenging a garbage dump. I had met some when they had no one to take care of them. I’d watched many of them take one difficult step at a time to get to where they were today — getting a great education that would aid them in breaking out of generational poverty.

I had also known Darren for half my life. I was privy to his struggles with mental health and watched as he bravely confronted then. He never gave up on himself.

Seeing Darren in Guatemala laughing with the kids was a testament to how far he’d come, just as the kids’ laughter and smiles were a testament of how far they’d come.

When I asked him how his trip changed him, he said, “It made me more confident. I took the trip to spite my anxiety. There were all these voices of fear telling me not to, but finally I just had to say, ‘enough of that.’ So, I decided I was going and that was all there was. Today when the voices of fear pipe in, I can remember that if I’d listened to them, I never would have traveled anywhere!”

Darren doesn’t plan to make Guatemala his only stamp on his new passport. He’s already planning his next trip. He wants to take his brother on a trip to Ireland. Now Darren is taking the lead and opening the doors of the world for someone else.

About the Author

luke armstrong

Luke Maguire Armstrong is the author of "The Nomad's Nomad." He has spent the last decade traveling, writing and designing, and funding philanthropic programs around the world.

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