30 September 2009

on the eve of thirty

I'm cheating. I have been calling myself 30 for months, and now I am announcing my birthday a day early. (In my own defense, I was born at 1:06 am EST, which is 10:06 pm here, which is not so far away, now, after all.)

I have been so eager to get to thirty, but just yesterday I found myself nostalgic. Oh, it's not that I'm worried about getting older. I am happy to get older. I know myself better now than ever before, and I like myself more. I am delighted to be 30.

It's more that I started thinking of all the things I have done in the last ten years, and all the emotions I've experienced, and I realized that this has been quite an incredible decade.

Ten years ago, I had not been back to Liberia since we evacuated in 1990. Now I have been back twice, in 2000 and 2006.

Ten years ago, I had never moved on my own, without family and not for school. Now I have moved, alone, to Rwanda, New York, Tanzania, Liberia, Southern Sudan, and Gone West.

Ten years ago, I could not reconcile the Liberia and US parts of myself. Now, although I miss the place I am not, whenever I'm not there, I no longer have to scrabble frantically to hang on to the missing place. The two coexist much more happily.

Ten years ago, I had not even thought of law school. Now I'm through it, somehow, and licensed to practice law.

Ten years ago, I had never driven a car in a country other than the US, or been in charge of a project, or stumbled my way through accounting, or been in a courtroom, or made an impossible decision about where in the world to live.

The only thing I remember about my 20th birthday is the moment when my dad told me that we had gotten funding to go back to Liberia the next summer. We were standing on the soccer fields where my sister played soccer, on a Saturday morning (it may have been Oct. 2, actually, after I drove down from school). I didn't cry much back before the mid-twenties hormones kicked in, but I cried then.

It's been a long decade. I have stood on hillsides across Africa, stunned by the beauty before me. I have wept into my pillow more nights than I want to count. I have made friends and lost some of them and found some new ones. I have learned when to give up on people. I have begun to be gentler toward myself. I have begun to learn how to be happy and maybe, even, as they say, how to choose happiness.

Two years ago, in Southern Sudan, I had to decide whether or not to pursue the final stages of an application for a job in Ethiopia. I decided against it, mostly because I was thinking of this day: my thirtieth birthday. I didn't want to spend it alone in a remote place, with only a few friends who were friends of convenience because they were also stuck out there.

I am so glad I'm here in Gone West. Some people learn the most about themselves in isolation or danger. I have learned more about myself, and how to be my best self, here in this far western city than I ever did in isolated Rwanda or Sudan. I am happy here, and I am growing. I am excited to see what happens in my fourth decade.

28 September 2009

i feel old

Standing up is a delicate task right now. It requires forethought, and very careful movement. My legs don't really work on their own at the moment, you see, not in the standing-up phase of changing positions. They need assistance from the arms, which also hurt. So that's not going so well. It's better just to stay still. Except then I get all stiff, as if I have arthritis.

I am still riding my bike to work, which hurts when you have just climbed a mountain for which you were not at all in shape. I am determined to ride it as long as the weather allows, meaning as long as the weather is sunny because I cannot afford the requisite rain gear to ride it in the winter. I mean, I suppose, that I will not prioritize the rain gear. But seriously. A pair of waterproof cycling gloves is $60? In what world is this okay? And I'll still be wet and cold when I get to work, and wet and cold means miserable. Also, wet and cold means not very professional-looking. So I'm still riding my bike as long as I can look out the window in the morning and see clear sky. The day I see rain, I'm taking the train.

27 September 2009


At some point, I stopped caring whether or not I made it to the top of the mountain. I kept climbing, plodding really, because there seemed to be nothing else to do. There was nothing left in the world but the red dust and the steep slope and the struggle to breathe and the harsh pounding of my heart. I tried to think of something else, to distract myself from the struggle of lifting my feet and finding a place for them among the slippery pebbles, but nothing else seemed possible, not even worry. My brain didn't have enough oxygen, or maybe it was short on sugar, but it could not focus on anything. I counted my steps. I tried to get to fifty before I stopped for another rest. Sometimes I made it to 75, but sometimes only to 40.

There is no we in climbing a mountain. We can hike through dappled forests and up through the first slipping, sliding rocky field. We can scramble up another half mile, another thousand feet of elevation, pacing one another. In the end, though, in the last determined (stubborn) push to fight the gravity that tries to send you tumbling down the whole mountain in an avalanche of those uncertain stones beneath your feet, in the last 1000 feet of elevation gain, no one can help. No one can even talk. The only thing to do is move, and that slowly.

When I got to the top, I was probably incoherent. I could not concentrate enough to tell myself to stop and eat. I just kept walking, nearly blind, around the edge of the crater. "It's so beautiful," people around me kept saying. "It's so worth it." I barely remember the view from the top.

On the way down, I fell more times than I can count, slipping backwards on the scree and landing sitting down. ("Can I call this scree?" I asked, in the middle of a huge rocky field in which we had lost the path. "Is this scree?" The three people lost with me had no idea.) We were dirty and hurting. I dared not stop walking. When I did, I could feel my calf muscle shaking. I was bleeding on my hands from the stones, but I didn't even see that until later. I fell again on a huge rock, catching my foot back underneath me. "Are you okay?" J. asked, and I sat for a few minutes, waiting for the stabbing pain in my leg to fade before I answered her.

We went down faster and faster, wanting only to be done. Every turn, revealing more trail ahead, seemed like a betrayal. By the end, I could no longer step down over a tree root. My legs might have given out.


It isn't that it was fun, exactly, and my every limb muscle hurts today, even in my arms, but it is exhilarating to challenge your body and to prove that you can do more than you thought you could.


Two weeks ago, I opened my mailbox to find a small, slightly mashed box. I wasn't expecting a package, but when I opened it up, I smiled. My Aunt Lisa sent me Ziplocs! When I packed for camping and climbing a mountain, I put peanut-butter pretzels and cinnamon almonds and oat-wheat swirl cereal and a sandwich all in their own little ziplocs. I feel positively profligate with the ziplocs. It is so lovely to just use a fresh ziploc when I need it.


On the way home, I stayed awake to keep the driver awake. The state of Gone West flashed by in the dark. I started drifting. I was no longer sure if I was responding with actual words when he spoke. I looked at the clock, and then immediately looked again, and the time had changed by several minutes. "I'm losing minutes," I said.

23 September 2009


When the swine flu hits these parts in force, I expect I will contract it immediately. Not because I am particularly susceptible to illnesses (I don't think I've taken a sick day since my freshman year of high school, although I have certainly whined about being sick while going about my life many times since then), but because I am incapable of that whole hand-washing/nose-covering/non-face-touching thing. Of course I wash my hands after I visit the toilet. I'm talking about the rest of the time: after shaking hands, after touching doorknobs, after holding on to the pole in the train, while in airplanes.

I just can't get worked up about that stuff. I can't even get worked up about it when the person whose hand I shake just came from school or jail, two hotbeds of flu transmission. I can't get worked up about it here. I can't get worked up about it in Africa. Our immune systems need a little bit of excitement now and then, right?

My one and only little concern, and the reason why I will be leaping at the opportunity to get a swine flu vaccine, should they offer me one, is that I will be flying through Tokyo in November (yes! Tokyo! - and this trip isn't going to get canceled). The last thing I need in the world is to be quarantined somewhere on my way to Vietnam. I do not intend to spend my vacation in a Japanese hospital. Or a Vietnamese hospital for that matter. (Unless I crack my head open attempting to surf. That would be totally worth it.)

Anyway, though, having been exposed to various colds and flues on three continents, I feel like I should have some immunity to this sucker already. Right? Right? Hmph.

22 September 2009


I was supposed to be at the airport right now, checking in for a flight to Colombia. I'm not. I am in my apartment, getting ready for bed.

You know how, sometimes, you make a decision that seems absolutely antithetical to everything you've ever wanted, but it's somehow exactly right for you?

That's how I feel about my decision not to go to Colombia. It was such a relief when I decided. Everything in the world suddenly looked right-side up again. I want to go to Colombia ever so much, but this was not the right situation. So after a long weekend of debate, I am, well, still in the Usa.

I felt the same way when I moved to Gone West. I made the decision to move here a whole two days before I left for Southern Sudan. One day I was all geared up to go back to Africa and the next day, just like that, I knew absolutely that I needed to be here in Gone West. And I'd never even been to Gone West. And I didn't think I knew anyone here (I later remembered S., which was lucky, because she has introduced me to so much of the state). And Gone West was the opposite of what I'd always wanted, which was a career in Africa.

Sometimes, it seems, the best thing for me is the opposite of what I thought I wanted. I thought I wanted to travel this week. I thought I needed some travel to stay sane. But I am so very happy to be here, now. I thought I wanted to work in Africa, and I still do, long-term. But I have grown and learned more here than I ever thought possible in a boring Usa city. I am, dare I say it, happy.

This leads me to a side note on happiness. Somehow, in the course of growing up super-Christian, I developed the idea that one was not allowed to be happy. Happiness seemed superficial, somehow. It was all about joy, not happiness. Joy implies that the world may suck, but one is determined to be cheery about it, and so one is. One is joyful, dang-nabbit, because one must be joyful.

I never realized how delightful it could be just to be happy. Not to fight for it, not to be determined about it, but just to be, and the being is happy. I am happy right now. Oh, some days I am sad, some days lonely, some days angry. But overall, I am happy. I like my friends, I like my job, I like my city, I like my life.

I had a drink with a friend a few days ago. This friend had challenged me, a year ago, to go through an entire evening without saying anything negative. This weekend, he told me I was completely different. The word "bubbly" might have even come up. "Wait," I said. "Bubbly? For real? I am not a bubbly person."

"Okay," he said, "maybe just more... effusive."

"I'm just happier," I said. "I'm happy here."

And as it turns out, happy is a really nice thing to be.

17 September 2009

more on visas

Speaking of visas, is it just me or do fewer and fewer countries require visas these days? It' seems like it is becoming a rarity that you actually have to send your passport off for one. Even countries that do require them often let you buy them at the border.

I like sending my passport away, though. I am not naturally a plan-everything sort of person, but I do like having my little visas lined up in my passport to admire for a while before I leave on a trip. Plus I have a slight horror of being visa-less in a country that requires them. Which is, come to think of it, also odd, because I am quite laid-back about everything else do do with travel. I never bother owning the right traveling equipment, for example, or knowing what time my flight leaves. (What? I always know what DAY it leaves, and the general, you know, portion of the day. Like morning. Or evening. So far I've made it on every flight.)

The Samuel Doe years might have affected me a bit, there in the paperwork department. Woe betide the person who did not have the correct paperwork going into or out of Liberia in the 1980s, or so it seemed to me as a kid standing eye level with the counter and repeatedly told, "DO NOT say anything when we are at the counter. Just be completely quiet and let Mom and Dad do the talking." It seemed like my parents had a much harder time with immigration and customs back then than my experiences in adult life have been. I mean, I once talked my way into Tanzania for the third time on a single entry visa, thanks to a very nice immigration officer who had sympathy for the fact that I was a broke student just looking to catch my flight out the next morning. (No, literally. I did not have the cash for that visa. I would have been permanently stuck at the Kenya-Tanzania border if he had not taken pity on me.)

15 September 2009

one lonely sticker

I sent my passport off to the Embassy of Vietnam with some trepidation, mostly because I wasn't sure I had left enough time for the visa to come through before I leave for Colombia. I was cutting it close, I thought. There were 18 days, including seven days of weekend/holiday, and I just could not bear to pay four times as much to send it overnight mail.

I got it back in 9, with its first full page (poor little new passport, so empty). That means that I will make it on my flight to Colombia, a week from today.

I kept flipping my passport open all weekend to gaze fondly on the sole yellow visa sticker it now contains. Today, in my extreme over-excitement, I showed it to a friend, who looked at it and said, "Now, what is a visa, exactly?"

I was flabbergasted. What...? How...? HOW? Visas are so familiar to me that I can't even explain them. They have been a part of my life since before I can remember, as have entry permits and exit permits and boarding passes. They just are. A visa is... a visa. What else could it be?

(Bonus additional story about boarding passes: the first time I flew alone, when I was 20, I utterly panicked in the Pittsburgh airport because I did not have a boarding pass. Former childhood traveler: welcome to the world of electronic tickets.)

14 September 2009

This Child Will Be Great

I waited for months for my turn to read President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's book This Child Will Be Great. There were dozens of holds in front of me at the library. And now I have it, and I find myself unable to read it. Oh, I can read the words. I have been reading words for over 25 years, and with a few exceptions, one word is pretty much the same as another, for difficulty-of-comprehension purposes. The words are not the problem.

The first night after I picked the book up from the library, I sat down with it and read. I read about the President's childhood, and marriage, and early career. I read about the early 1980s. And then it was bedtime, so I laid down.

I didn't sleep. I laid there, anxious, unable to sleep, and it didn't occur to me until the next morning that the reason I could not sleep is because the early 1980s in Liberia is too close.

The last time I was in Liberia, in 2006, I spent some time reading cover letters and CVs for an open position. When you advertise for a job opening in a country that values education and has very high unemployment, you get an overwhelming number of applications, many from vastly over-qualified people. I spent much of my day holding back tears, because I saw so much hope in the things people had been doing in the 1970s and 1980s: they had been going to school, and working, and trying to build a life. And they didn't know what was coming. I wanted to weep for a time when education gave a person hope for finding a job and taking care of her family and doing valuable, enjoyable work. For 24 years, there were very few such opportunities.

I was doing the same thing during those years. I was a little girl in a home that I loved. I went to school, and I played, and I loved people, and yes, I was a brat sometimes. And I didn't know what was coming, either. I had it easiest of all. I had a US passport, and money, and on the day the US Embassy told us to leave, we did.

So very many people could not leave. So very many people were trying to make the best life they could, but war was inevitably coming. They just couldn't see it yet, how it would destroy everything they had been building: the kids who sang the spider song with me as we patted sand over our feet, my dad's coworkers who fed us fufu and palm butter when we came to their houses for dinner, the girls who taught me to cook rice begged from our moms in a tin can on a kid-sized fire, the boys who swung upside down from the treehouse with R.

The book has been sitting in my apartment for nearly three weeks now. It's due back at the library in three days, and I've just today picked it up again and tried to read, but only during the day. I'm not sure I'll make it through. I don't have this problem with books about war in Rwanda or Sudan, even though I've lived in those places. It is only Liberia, because I lived in Liberia before. I saw Liberia before, and I saw what war did. I can't read about the 1980s in Liberia because we were all there, living, and the war was coming.


I've been trying for three days to write this, and today I found this post from Scarlett Lion about the six-year-olds in Liberia who are starting first grade this fall. They are too young to know war. They were not even born when the war ended in 2003. Can you imagine? There are school-aged children in Liberia who are too young to know war. That has not happened in two decades, maybe three, depending on what counts as war. I feel like I could almost read the President's book now, knowing that in the end, in 2009, there will be children in Liberia getting up, going to school, who do not know war. There is hope, at the end.

I just won't read it right before bed. I still don't think I would sleep.

(Non-internet savvy people: click on the word POST. Yes, that one in all caps that you just passed. Go back and click on it.)

(Did you click on it?)

12 September 2009

they should not allow me to have nice things

I have long coveted a headlamp. A colleague who worked in a more developed location lent me a headlamp in Sudan, and it was very likely the only thing that gave me the courage to go out to the pit latrine at any time after dark, let alone in the middle of the night (although, as we all know from reading this post, going to the pit latrine in the middle of the night was a mistake). It was so bright, and so stable, and it stayed right there on my head while I used the squatty-potty. I looked at them online while I was there, but they were around 90 euros for the kind my colleague had lent me, so I gave up on them completely.

This evening, I was in r.e.i. with a friend who was on a mission, and, having nothing I particularly need and two trips planned to non-U.S.-type places, I meandered over to the headlamps. I do this often. I look at them, and admire them, and then fail to buy them, even though they are much cheaper and more varied here than on the 90 euro website. Today, though, a salesperson came over and pointed out that last year's model was on sale. And then I found out that I had store points, making said headlamp very affordable. I bought it.

I had ridden my bike over to my friend's house, so on the way home I looped my new headlamp around my helmet and took off. I have a light that blinks on the front of my bike, but it doesn't really illuminate the road. It is more intended to alert cars to the fact that I am there, so that they do not kill me. Thus, it is pointed in a more, I guess, forward direction rather than down at the road. The headlamp, however, lit the street in front of me quite perfectly.

When I got back to an area with streetlights, I turned off the headlamp, and then, adjusting it while stopped at a stoplight, I flipped it right off my head and onto the road, breaking off the clear plastic piece that covers the lights.

This is the story of my life. I break things. I break things that I just bought. I break everything, it seems sometimes. Clumsy.

So I parked my bike on the sidewalk and scoured the road with the headlamp, over and over. Nothing. A bus stopped for me, although I was not at a bus stop, but I waved the driver on and kept looking. Nothing. (At least I did not hear crunching as the bus passed.) I wanted to cry, the way one does when a shiny new thing breaks, a shiny new thing that you value far more than you ought, just because it is new and shiny and you have wanted it for almost two years.

At long last, a possibly-drunk older man came by. I could tell from his demeanor a block away that he was going to offer to help, the way you sometimes can. Anyway, he did not smell of alcohol even if he was drunk, and he was not scary, and so I accepted his help, and it took him all of 30 seconds to find the little plastic bit. It was in the second place he looked.

I snapped it back on and the headlamp was good as new, save for the little nick in the top that I choose to regard merely as proof that it is used and useful.

Seriously, though. They should not allow me to have nice things. It should be forbidden.

10 September 2009


At the home of my Dutch great-aunt and great-uncle, on the canal north of Utrecht, there is tea between meals and vla after dinner and in the evening, before bed, there are little snacks called knubletjes. As far as I can tell, although I could be wrong, knubletjes (sp?) means something like "little things to nibble on." That's what it sounds like, anyway. Sometimes knubletjes are Bugles, which are a familiar salty snack to North Americans, but sometimes they are more interesting things, little curls with less salt, a concept that has never occurred to a US American. At least, I thought it hadn't. On a whim and needing snack food at Trader Joe's this week, I picked up a bag of potato and lentil curls (high protein! high fiber! delicious and nutritious!). I was feeling munchy tonight and I pulled them out. Hm. Not so salty. Hm. Crunchy. Hm. Full of flavor. Hm. Lo and behold, I have found knubletjes.

09 September 2009

many places, a little

I generally consider growing up in Liberia to have been the Best Childhood Ever. The ending wasn't so great (see: April/May 1990, Location of NPFL* in), but when people ask the ever-simplistic question, "What was it like growing up in Africa?" I generally have a positive response. (I don't say, although I am tempted to, "I DON'T KNOW, CRAZY PERSON. I DIDN'T GROW UP IN YOUR NEBULOUS AFRICA." Random story: when my friend S. came to Rwanda, she would hiss the first syllable: "Afffffff-riCA!" as a way of mocking all the people who kept saying, "Oh, man, you are going to Afff-riCA? You are so brave!" End random story. I, as it turns out, I grew up in Buchanan, Liberia, thankyouverymuch.)

Anyway, when people ask, I usually say good things, because I think that growing up in a culture other than your parents' is one of the most interesting ways to live on this earth. You can learn to slip easily between cultures as an adult, but it's never as instinctive as the cultures you learn as a child. That and the fact that my friends and my brother and I had so much fun dangling from trees and sharing bikes and building fires and generally raising all the havoc there was to be raised on Upper Buchanan Road. (Kidding. Obviously. I have been a rule-follower all my life. I was 28 before I even thought about rebelling. It took Gone West + vodka to teach me how. Circa 2008.)

This weekend, though, driving through huge trees in National Forests that seem to stretch forever, listening to S. and N. talk about camping there and hiking there and climbing that mountain over there, I started to see the allure of knowing one place well. I can't say I know any place well, not outside and in. I know Liberia, a little, and Michigan, a little, and Rwanda, a little, and New York, a little, and Gone West, a little, and Tanzania-Uganda-Kenya-Sudan-Honduras-the Netherlands-England even littler, and that's not even counting vacations. It would be lovely, I think sometimes, to be surrounded by things that have been familiar since childhood, but my childhood is across a continent and then an ocean, and I can't afford to go there right now.

So when I looked up at those beautiful mountains, and heard tell of childhoods lived with them nearby, constant, something constant in this world, well, I could see why people find a place and make a home.

* You don't know what the NPFL is? Peoples. Read up on your Liberian history. Liberian History 101 is a pre-requisite for reading anything I write.

08 September 2009


It is morning in the Cascades, and the air is just cool enough for a sweatshirt in the sun. It smells of wood fires. The light is filtered through a thousand and one needles.

("Pine-like," I say.

"No, those are hawthorns," S. says.

"Right, pine-like."

"No, pines have needles in clumps," S. corrects me. "These have individual needles."

"Spruces have individual needles," I say, "and they are pine-like."

"They are conifers, but they are not pines. They are more fir-like."

"Firs are pine-like to me, too. They are all pine-like to me," I conclude. I will never a botanist make.)

There is a river burbling by, and I sit by it for a long time, mesmerized by one single little eddy in all its constant changes, until I lose the sun. I move to a huge log crossing the river and lie back on it, face to the sun, hearing the river flow beneath my back. The log is so big that I cannot feel the rushing water at all.

"I want this river in my backyard," I say.

The sky above the lake is crisscrossed with jet trails grown broad and lacy as the breeze slowly dissipates them. The lake, now far below after a panting climb (panting for me; S. and N. are unfairly in shape) up 700 feet in 0.7 miles starting at 7300 feet, is a multi-faceted aquamarine, like a sprawling piece of jewelry. "That's it." I think. "That's the color I want to keep with me forever." I take a million pictures of the same three scenes (right, left, center), over and over, but at last I give up and simply stare.

"I want this lake in my backyard," I say, or maybe it's S. or N., now, but we are all thinking it. None of us want to give up the moment. I could stay here, looking at this water, forever. It almost hurts to get back in the car and drive, and drive, and drive, back to freeway exits and alarm clocks.

03 September 2009


When I woke up this morning, I had a sinking feeling that I remember well from college, the feeling that I will never again get a full night of sleep. And so far, that seems to be holding true. I will not get a full night of sleep tonight, and for the next three nights I'll be camping. Camping = hard ground = not a good night of sleep, however you try.

It's worth it, though. I need camping right now. I need the sound of a stream instead of the sound of cars, and a view of a mountainside instead of a view of a building.

I own no camping gear whatsoever. I am fortunate to have friends with a full supply of camping equipment; I just show up. I show up and curl up in a 0 degree sleeping bag in 50 degree weather. I find it perfect. I have no idea what kind of serious sleeping bag I would require to sleep in actual cold weather when I use a cold weather bag in the middle of the summer. Perhaps for winter camping I would have to invest in an Arctic expedition-type sleeping bag. Er, not that so far I have invested in any sleeping bag. A sleeping bag is the sort of thing that I've wanted to own since the cool kids owned them in college and have never ever gotten around to buying. I just borrow, and borrow, and borrow again.

So, I'm off. Again. I am a traveling maniac.