31 May 2009

get it

A few people get it. Every now and again I'm sitting on a patio with a friend of a friend, or riding in the back seat of a car, or outside of a pub, and someone gets it. We exchange stories about places we have lived, and we talk about the journey. It's lovely and fleeting, the feeling of understanding and being understood.


Also lovely, in a whole different way, is a day spent lounging by the pool. The water is suddenly warm enough to swim without involuntary shrieks when you get in the water. I have a book, and the sun is hot.

I am getting spoiled by this, by flipflops and not bringing a coat along, by sunglasses and sitting in a lounge chair. It is so wonderful. Some people live this way all the time. I lived this way for two years. I am sure I did not appreciate it enough, even though I know that I did appreciate it. Just maybe not as much as I would now after five (five!) more winters in the northern United States of America.


I had sworn off chocolate for a while, but this weekend has wrecked that plan. Wrecked.

30 May 2009

these days

These days, I can remember why I love living here. I can sit in the park again at lunch time, looking up at a sky so deep blue it looks hollow. I can see space out there.

27 May 2009


The May 4 issue of the New Yorker had an article about Rwanda. When I heard about it, since I can't log in to the New Yorker site, I got a copy from a friend, and I have been reading the article in little chunks at the bus stop. It isn't that I couldn't read it all at once. I could. It's just that I don't want to be done reading it, done nodding at points to say, "Oh, yes. That was in 2003. I remember that." Today I found myself flipping back through, staring at the first photo, which is of a man in a bubblegum pink prison uniform, a genocidaire, gesturing in front of a table of gacaca judges, with a crowd around the fringe of the photo. I was staring at the crowd, at faces that are so familiar to me, poses that I know so well.

It's not true, the way they talk about AFF-rica as if it is one big uniform place. You know that; I know you know. Staring at that photo, I knew that what I was seeing was unmistakeably Rwanda, the way I sometimes see a person on the street and know that he's from Uganda, or just across the border in Kenya, the way I sometimes want to greet a man on the bus in Nuer, because I know he's from Southern Sudan. Even the expressions are Rwandese, in a way that I cannot explain but I can see. I have seen those same expressions a hundred, a thousand times in Rwanda, and nowhere else.

Soon after I arrived in Rwanda, maybe in early 2003, I was driving through Kibuye with a colleague, past the old prison in the center of town, as a group of prisoners left for their day of work. There were 25 or 30 of them, with woman trailing behind in an army uniform. "Look at that," my colleague scoffed. "There's no security. Just one little woman with a Kalashnikov. There's no security at all." (She was, in fact, not a very tall woman.)

Every now and again, that phrase runs back through my head. "Just one little woman with a Kalashnikov."

Unrelated photo:
Budaha, Rwanda - 2004

(These are women but, obviously, without guns. I never did get a picture of that woman with the Kalashnikov.)

23 May 2009


Some people need beauty to believe in God. Me? I need beauty to believe in possibility.

As I was walking up the hill one day, fretting and sad, I passed these flowers in front of a house. I stood for a long time, feeling the soft petals between my fingers, letting the beauty fill me up and give me hope.

I picked one of the flowers to take home with me, but after a few days pressed between the pages of a thick book, the color had all washed out, and the brilliant orange crushed silk had turned to light pink. I didn't mind. Some things you can't keep.

21 May 2009


One morning a few weeks ago, I walked out to the bus stop, past the trees all a-blossom, and realized that I have seen a full cycle of seasons at that bus stop. When, a year ago, I started the job I'm doing now, the trees were just beginning to flower. I walked to the bus, or ran for it sometimes, over a gentle layer of petals. In the fall, I walked through brown leaves, crunchy under my feet, and then damp and plastered against the sidewalk.

The branches are heavy now with rich green leaves, the sun glowing on them as it rises above the nearest tall building. I realized this morning, standing out in that eager sunshine, how comparably few beautiful days I have stood out there, and how many, many mornings I have waited under the clouds, in the rain. But now the best time of the year is coming, the three months of almost constant sunshine, of warm days and cool nights, of everyone sitting outside at restaurants, of hiking on the weekends, of far more sunlight than night. I'm glad to be here for it.

20 May 2009

balancing on the verge

There is a man downtown who always carries a stuffed snowman. The snowman is almost two feet tall, and he has it wrapped in clothes, with a striped beanie on its head. I have seen this man with the snowman many, many times, and still, every time I see him, I think he is carrying a baby, and still, every time I see him, it startles me. "Is that... Oh. Right. The snowman."


At lunch today, A. and I sat outside, talking, as we do, about how we feel like we are on the edge of something. Something is about to change, but we don't know what.

"A woman from my church was telling me that she feels the same way," A. said, "And I told her that my friends and I have all been talking about that feeling."

"Uh oh," I said, "I hope she hasn't been feeling that way for 40 years or something."

"Yeah, that's the problem," she said.

So we sat there, munching our favorite meal of the week, a cheap, road-side food tradition that we've been trading off paying for (which I can very nearly afford now that my law school loan situation has been resolved - avoid law school, folks!), and thinking about a country that we both miss.

I've been feeling this way for a while, like anything could happen, like I could wake up tomorrow and find that I'm living a different life. It scares me and exhilarates me and yet sometimes I wonder if this is how people get stuck: they think that life could change at any moment, without them doing anything, and so they don't change anything themselves. They just wait for it.

I'm not ready for change, not quite yet, but I also know how these things go. I can't wake up in late October as the days are getting miserably short and suddenly decide to move someplace warmer. And so I'm doing the work now, hoping that something comes through at just the right time to spare me from another long, hermit-like winter further north than humans were ever intended to live.

17 May 2009


Today I wore a skirt that I have owned for over two years, but rarely wear. I rarely wear it because it has a weird waistband, and it looks weird. When I put it on today, I realized that it is actually intended to be a fold-over waistband, like on some yoga pants, and I put it on that way and it looked great. So I've just been an idiot for two years.

It's also, once the waistband is folded over as it was CLEARLY INTENDED TO BE, shorter than my normal skirt-length. Two-and-a-half years in Africa since 2002 has messed up my perception of acceptable skirt lengths. Folded over, the skirt falls just at the top of my knees, and, as we know, this is practically scandalous in much of Africa, especially on a white girl showing white legs. (In Elsewhere, in Southern Sudan, I once wore a skirt I have that falls just below my knees - a skirt that would have been fine in many places I have lived, but I would not have considered wearing it in Tiny Little Town. On a break, one of my (more distant) colleagues sidled up to me and said, lecherously, "I really like that short skirt you are wearing." So much for that skirt.)

But just below the knee is practically overly modest here in the US. I saw a girl today wearing a skirt so short I could almost see her butt cheeks. And no, she was not 15. She was a normal adult age going out to a nice restaurant for dinner. It says something about how I've acclimated to the US that I can almost feel comfortable wearing this skirt. (I think it also might say something about how old I am getting that I consider 25-35 a "normal adult age.")

I am so all-American now. Until, you know, I leave again, and it takes another 1.5 years upon return to get back to wearing knee-length skirts.

13 May 2009


We sat across the table from each other, across a world from the little pizza place in Lalibela, Ethiopia where she and her two friends were sitting when I walked in. I met them by accident. I would have chosen a table and sat alone, but the server took one look at me and motioned around the corner to their table. "Here are the people who match you," she seemed to be saying., although we didn't share a language. "Sit with them."

So I sat with them, and we ate pizza, and found that we had, as usual, only two degrees of separation. I knew someone who knew one of them. N.'s family took me in when I got back to Addis Ababa, and I slept in a narrow little bed in a tiled house full of an expatriate family and the friends they've picked up and invited in. It was so familiar, even in a whole new country, that I felt a physical ache in my stomach and my chest from my desire to stay in Africa. L. and N. and I stayed up late one night, talking about everything in the world: politics and religion and love and travel.

Fourteen months and three continents later, I dropped everything to meet N. for coffee on a few hours notice. We sat in this coffeeshop, here, in my boring new life. We talked the way global nomads talk, with all the immediate intensity you can share when you have an unusual shared experience. We talked about why we left, and what we miss, and what we don't.

"You need people here who you can talk to about these things," she told me. "You have to find some friends who understand when you talk about not making eye contact, or about never being anonymous. Otherwise, you start to feel like you are crazy."

She's right. I do.

10 May 2009

multiple white people terms

So, I was walking along merrily, thinking about nothing in particular, and suddenly I realized that I ascribed the term "ferengi" to kids in Sudan, when it is actually the weird-whitey term in Ethiopia, not Sudan. Sudan is kawadja. Oops.

Multiple choice - this mistake means that:
A. I have lived in too many countries.
B. I have been away from Africa for too long.
C. I am losing my mind.
D. All of the above.

You decide.

broken glass

I was washing one of my double-walled cups this morning, and I dropped it in the sink. It broke into about 14 pieces, which, after a moment of staring and a little pang of sadness - I love those cups - I collected and threw away.

A long time ago, when we still lived in our old house in Michigan, I remember my mom telling me a story. Two little girls from our church were over, and one of them dropped a glass on the floor. It broke. The little girl looked up in terror, clearly expecting anger. My mom, in classic practical Dutch fashion, said, "Let's clean that up."

I am grateful that I've never had to be afraid when I broke a cup. In fact, when we cleared the table when we were little, my brother and I used to balance the Corelle plates on our heads while we walked across the cement floors. (That might not have been the smartest move ever.) The point is: we didn't have to be afraid of the consequences if we accidentally dropped them.

09 May 2009

out and about

I rode my bike for a long time along the water this afternoon, and as I rode between the deep green trees, between the river and the highway, I wondered to myself, "What part of this could I not do in Africa?" Because I think like that sometimes. Sometimes I wonder what it is that keeps me here, when I could be there, and what draws me there, when I could be here.

I could have bought a bike, I thought, and I could have ridden it. I could have ridden it down the road to Rusenyi along Lake Kivu in Rwanda. I could have ridden it on the airfield and into town in Sudan.

I couldn't have done it quietly, though. Today, the only things I heard were the distant rush of traffic and the voices saying, "On the left" as they passed me. In Rwanda, I would have heard, "muzungu!" from the hillsides, and, down in Rusenyi, "biscuit! muzungu, donnez-moi un biscuit!" (To which the appropriate response, in your head at least, is to curse the French peacekeepers who, according to the lore, threw cookies out the windows of their vehicles to children TEN YEARS EARLIER. The memory of a free cookie never dies among kids, even when the current promoters of the memory are too young to have received said free cookie.) In Sudan, the football game on the airstrip would have been interrupted with calls of "ferengi! ferengi!" and any remotely bicycle-riding appropriate gear would, I'm sure, have been in violation of the county no-trousers rule that I utterly ignored.

One of the things that keeps me here is the ability, when I choose, to be anonymous, to walk around without saying over and over to small children holding my hand, "Si ni twa muzungu. Ni twa M___," to ride a bike without attracting a small crowd of onlookers. Attention is the price you pay for being white - read: weird - in a remote place. I have never particularly minded it. I grew up, after all, shrugging off the hands of all the people who wanted to touch my blond hair just to see what it was really like. But sometimes, when I think of it, it's nice to be able to go about my life without stares and pointing and the occasional child screaming in fear and running away from the color of my skin. (Don't you know? Only ghosts are this pale.)


Something I read today led to the googling of the phrase "yekepa liberia pool photos" because it was either that or try to describe this pool:

What I wanted to try to describe was that middle section, the part that you see the little blond kid walking over between the two rectangular parts of the pool, and how it was more of a bridge than an actual divider - you could swim under that part, and there was just enough air under there to breath if you stuck your nose straight up.

For some reason, I remember being able to see Guinea from near the pool, from the end where the camera is. I have a picture in my head of a hill descending to flat grass-land and a lonely triangular road-block in the middle of it. But when the camera pans over to the left, where I think I should be able to see Guinea, there is only more landscaped grass. Maybe if you walk further? Or have I mixed up two parts of Yekepa in my head?

My other thought about this video: would someone please, PLEASE, tell the Scandinavians that those tiny tight shorts are just... ugh, I can't even deal with them, even 25 years outdated.

07 May 2009


I left this place in spring and came back to summer. Well, the trees think it's summer. There is that rich, dense shade of summer green leaves. The air temperature has not caught up. This frustrates me. I open my blinds in the morning to stunning blue sky, and I dress accordingly. Then I step out the door into biting wind. And then it's pouring rain at lunch. And then it's crisp air and blue sky by 5 p.m. The weather needs to make up its mind. I have. In my mind, it is summer.

I am drafting posts in my head about two phrases commonly used about international work that grate and grate and grate on me, but I can't quite decide why. Both of them are often used by people I like and respect and who I think are often right. But I still don't like them.

I have clothes in the washer and rice on the stove and salad in my bowl and a cover letter open on my computer and a thousand million things I could-should-must be doing. I feel a bit scattered. My brain and my life seem to be going in opposite directions yet again.

Sometimes it doesn't matter if you sleep as long as you get done what you need to get done. I haven't felt that way in a while, but I think it might be true tonight. This is job for which I am applying is a job I would very much like to do.

04 May 2009

not yet

I am not a leaver. I am a goer, but I am not a leaver. I hate leaving. I even hate leaving when the only leaving I'm doing is crossing the country to a place where I am happier than I have been in my adult life.

And so I drive through this town, where my parents were born and where I learned to drive, and I think about this drive that used to be my way to school and this road that used to lead to my friend's house and this street that used to bring me to church, and I wonder if I could live here again. I watch the wannabe gangsters on the corner on the North Side and the guys in their big cars on the West Side and the mothers pushing strollers on the East Side and I wonder if I could live here again. A part of me thinks yes, this is where I come from, this is where my family is, even if the guy in the wifebeater is not quite my people, even if there are too many country stations and only two really good coffee shops in the whole town.

Another part of me says maybe, maybe someday, but not yet. Not yet...

There are two country stations programed into the radio in my sister's car, and when there are commercials or annoying songs on the good stations, I listen to the country singers who celebrate leaving behind heartbreak and the life they've been living, getting in a train or on a bus or in a car and heading west, changing themselves into someone who dances in the rain and laughs with strangers, but no one ever mentions that you have to fly four hours back to cuddle your nephew or to hug your momma.

Maybe. Maybe someday. But not yet. Not yet...

Come now, my sister says, and I think of packing and driving in the dark, of this headache that is pulsing behind my forehead, of not hugging my momma one more time in the morning, and I want to cry. Living here would be so much simpler.

My family is here, but my people are not. Who would be my friend? I wonder, and where would I find anyone who could understand how I long to travel?

Not yet.

02 May 2009


Sometimes it still surprises me that you can wake up in one place and after a train ride, two flights, and a drive, you go to sleep in a whole different home. And it's still the same day. I should be used to this by now, but I'm just not. It still surprises me.

I flew home through Minneapolis, and there were several people wearing masks, which seemed a little excessive to me (swine flu, swine flu, swine flu!). Even at the heart of the SARS situation I did not wear a mask while flying through Amsterdam. And then I sat down at my gate and started watching CNN and I remembered why I don't watch CNN: alarmist. Wolf Blitzer was sitting there saying dramatic things like, "imminent. this sounds very serious. they are saying a pandemic is imminent" and then I tuned him out. Listening to CNN can be exhausting. Everything is imminent to them.

So I'm home. Sans swine flu. Also, apparently, sans allergies. How can I be so allergic to spring in Gone West and just immune to spring in Michigan? When I whined about this last week in Gone West, a colleague said, "Do you know what the Native Americans used to call this place? THE VALLEY OF SICKNESS."

Hm. This post is going nowhere.

I spent 20 hours this weekend in the presence of university students from my alma mater who want to do international work. This reminded me of two things: 1. I need to get back out there, and 2. the people I met in university are still some of the most amazing people I know. I found myself saying this to the students: hold on to these people you are meeting now. In ten years, you will have met a lot of great people, but very few of them will be as truly worth knowing as the people you meet in these years. Few of them will share your history and your heart.

You may find yourself, six years after graduation, calling someone you haven't seen since graduation and saying, "Um, I'm moving to your city. Can I crash on your couch?" and they will take you in and become one of your closest friends.

You may also find yourself, eight years after graduation, meeting one of your closest friends from those years in a whole different city belonging to neither of you and wandering around a candy-sweet little downtown, admiring fair-trade products and daydreaming about the elusive "when we have money and we can buy these pretty little things to fill our pretty little houses" and then laughing about how you've been saying that for years and yet your broke lives are still pretty incredibly good.