UNLIKE MANY INDEPENDENT AND “FREE-SPIRITED” YOUNG WOMEN, I NEVER HAD A DESIRE TO GET A TATTOO.

EVER.

Call me a prude or a commitment-phobe, but the idea of branding my skin in order to commemorate or celebrate an idea, event or person does not appeal to me. A tattoo is something you’re stuck with. It’s cutting bangs that will never grow out.

I was shocked when one of my fellow volunteers in Kenya proudly displayed the fresh ink she’d received from a tattoo parlor in Nairobi. It was an (incredibly infected) outline of Africa with Kenya shaded in red. While I understood the significance of the design, I could not wrap my head around the decision to make it a part of her person. Now, several years later, I’m sure her tattoo has healed and evokes plenty of questions about her time abroad. Maybe that was the point – to have a conversation piece wherever she goes.

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At the end of my second volunteer stint in Kenya, I set out to climb Kilimanjaro. Like the thousands of other trekkers who summit the mountain each year, I felt pretty good about myself when I reached the top. So good, in fact, that I had become completely oblivious to the DSLR battery tucked inside my bra. I was keeping it there as per the advice of a past trekker, who recommended that I keep it warm with heat from my body. Climbing Kilimanjaro is a one-in-a-lifetime experience; I didn’t want to risk summiting with a frozen battery in my camera.

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As I stood at Uhuru Peak, I felt completely overjoyed and in awe of the moment. I had made it – the roof of Africa! It was so cold that my water had frozen and my hair had become two braided icicles, one over each shoulder. Miraculously, though, my camera’s original battery continued to function. There was never any reason to disrobe in the cold to retrieve my unneeded spare.

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As we trekked back to base camp, dripping in sweat and shedding layers of clothing, I remembered and removed the spare battery from my bra. There was discoloration near the chargers and while I was angry that I’d ruined a rather expensive battery, I thought little else of it. That is, until, I was changing into dry clothes and my friend, Katie, pointed out what I couldn’t feel: a battery acid burn on the inside of my left breast.

I wasn’t sure what it was at first – a light teal-colored substance, raised a few centimeters from my skin. In my high-altitude delirium I thought it was gum or, perhaps, one of those puffy stickers. It was Katie who solved the mystery: acid had leaked out of my camera battery and the nerve damage that it caused prevented me from feeling any of it.

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Three days later, back in Chicago, I nervously lay on the examination table at my dermatologist’s office. She examined what had then become a hard black burn and assured me that I would have a scar but “a hell of a good story” to accompany it. A story indeed, but busty girls don’t need any help attracting attention to their chests. Suddenly, mine was stamped with a permanent conversation piece.

Though it took a while before I was comfortable wearing a bathing suit with my scar peeking out, now, nearly five years later, I have grown to love the mark. About the size of a quarter, it serves as a constant reminder of my strength, endurance and determination. It is an homage to my time spent in East Africa and to the impact those months had on my life.

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Though I do still try to deemphasize its existence, I haven’t yet tired of telling its story. It is my favorite travel souvenir: entirely unique and always fashionable. It was created from an object that represents my passion turned profession—a career change that my time in Kenya inspired me to pursue. It is mine and mine alone, and while it has faded a bit, it will never disappear. It is subtle and unintentional. It is, indeed, the perfect tattoo.

Of course, the scar also represents all of the inspiring, spirited Kenyans I met and volunteered with along my journey, all of the stunning landscapes that left me speechless, and all of the challenges I’ve had the courage to face. It constantly reminds me that I am physically and mentally capable of far more than I think I am. It inspires me to try new things and pursue my next adventure.

And that’s just what tattoos are supposed to do, aren’t they? Be a permanent reminder of something so special and significant that transformed us. Each trip I take, I return a smarter, stronger and more aware woman. Travel, in and of itself, shapes who I am. It adds to me; it improves me; it challenges me. And, without fail, it leaves me hungry for more.

My unexpected travel tattoo reminds me of how far I’ve come and how much I’ve grown, and pushes me toward each summit I face.

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Jenn Winter
While she may call Chicago home, writer/photographer Jenn Winter is happiest when living out of her suitcase. A self-proclaimed adventurer, Jenn is in constant search of new faces to photograph, new mountains to climb and new stories to tell. In between travels, she and her rescue dog, Essie, run J. Winter Photography (http://jwinterphoto.com) out of their Chicago apartment.