30 October 2009

ready early

This has never before happened in the history of being me: I am ready to go. I could be out of this apartment and on the train to the airport in five minutes. My flight, however, is not until tomorrow. Which is a bit of a problem, actually. One would think that being ready in advance would be terribly convenient, but in fact it's annoying. I would rather be scrambling right up until I'm late to the airport. It gives me less time to think.

I have so little sense of what Vietnam will be like that I have trouble believing that I will actually get there. I felt this same way about Kenya, almost ten years ago. I just could not imagine what Kenya might be like. I could not picture myself there. Now it is Vietnam, but ten years on I am slightly more accustomed to plopping down in utterly new places. I am almost more accustomed to being on my own in a new country than I am at being picked up at the airport. Mostly in Africa and Central America, of course, but surely the self-sufficiency is translatable.

I still can't imagine it, even though it will be real in 36 hours.

Meanwhile, I sit here twiddling my thumbs, worrying, fretting. I could make some effort to get out of the apartment - I sent off one text message that has not resulted in plans - but it's hard to imagine what I might do 14 hours before I'm due at the airport. I have already all-but-fully packed. I have cleaned. I have made the phone calls I've been putting off. I have answered the emails. I have downloaded the pictures. I have charged the electronics. What more is there?

Remind me never to be ready for a trip early ever again. It's not worth it. It's just a license for nerves.

28 October 2009


I had forgotten about this, how beyond the months of summer sunshine lie even more months of dark and cold, how everything is fine until the day when the darkness and rain and cold suddenly matter, how the gloom makes everything wrong all in a moment. I had forgotten how I have to stay ahead of it, how I should be using the happy light long before the moment when I am overwhelmed.

I should have known it was coming when I looked for a last-minute plane ticket to Michigan and had to wait a day because I was overwhelmed. I should have known when the hotel reservations in Vietnam overwhelmed me. I should have known when I tried to plan one outing this week before I leave for Vietnam and was, yes, overwhelmed. I thought I could get through, though, until Vietnam, where the sun and warmth will restore my energy. I was wrong. You have to catch these things before they take over, and I did not.

I was fine in Michigan last weekend. I flew over the Rockies as the sun rose, and showed up at my sister's work in the middle of her shift. She was so surprised at my presence on the wrong side of the country that she was almost angry. She pushed my parents and I out the door so she could work. We meandered over to a coffee shop on campus, the campus where they attended university and so did I, and we stared out at the rain, exclaiming again and again over the fact that I was in Michigan. I was there, really, for my Oma's birthday party, and I surprised her, too. I held my little niece for the first time, and propped her on the table between Oma and me, three of four generations all in a bundle.

"I go on Friday," I caught myself saying, last week, "and I come home on Tuesday." Home, it seems, is now Gone West.

It's hard to live in one place when so many of the people you love are in another. Sometimes it feels all wrong to leave them, but it also feels, arriving here in Gone West, like I'm coming home.

22 October 2009

just a moment

I pretend to be this worldly world traveler, but the truth is that I keep going back to the places I know and love: Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, Northern Europe. There are entire swaths of the world - Southeast Asia, the former Soviet Republics, any Pacific Islands, to which I have never been and which, to be quite truthful, are so unfamiliar to me that I am a little afraid to try them. I only seem intrepid to ya'll because Africa feels like home.

I have a departure for Vietnam and Cambodia scheduled for a week from Saturday, and I didn't realize exactly how paralyzing the whole new continent concept was until S. and I started talking about hotels and I had to turn it over to her to figure out. If it were Africa or Latin America, I would have no hesitation about my ability to choose a decent hotel out of a guidebook or off a website. I just have no confidence in my ability to choose a place in Vietnam. I looked at the photos and panicked because help this does not look like an African hotel I would choose at all, do we have to pick this one? (Answer: no. There are plenty of other hotels from which to choose. Only the variety overwhelmed me, too.) Fortunately, S. has it handled. She is the one who actually has possession of the guidebook, actually. And I did all the work for the visas, so I don't feel too bad about hyperventilating/procrastinating until she took over the hotel reservations for the first two nights.

Nine days it is.

21 October 2009

days of fall

On sunny days, the little golden leaves in the park twinkle as they flutter down like weightless golden coins.

On rainy days, the rain pounds the sodden yellow maple leaves into the pavement, so they are never crisp underfoot as autumn leaves should be.

The sun rises later and sets earlier, but now that I feel safe in this city, it doesn't matter quite as much. I can drag myself out, fearlessly, into the night. I still have energy enough, unlike last November. I am counting on this trip to Vietnam and Cambodia to provide me with sunshine to last the winter. I am going to sit back with my face to the sun as much as I can, storing it up.

18 October 2009

dead pumkins

When I was three, while we were in the US waiting for my baby brother to be born, we had pumpkins carved for Halloween out on the porch. Some bigger boys in the neighborhood came by and smashed them on the road. I was terrified of the dead pumpkins in the road. I could barely stand to drive past them, let alone walk anywhere near them. I remember the horror I felt back then, because I knew that the pumpkins had been alive, with thoughts and feelings, and now they were dead and broken. Even long after the pieces of the pumpkin were gone, I could feel their presence in the middle of the road.

I don't remember when I stopped believing that pumpkins were alive, or that my stuffed animals had feelings and would be hurt if I didn't sleep with every one of them on my bed, taking turns snuggling each one. Somewhere along the way, though, in the last 27 years, I did stop. Inanimate objects are just objects now, and now, when I see the broken pieces of a pumpkin on the road, it is just orange rind, not the remains of a dear friend.

17 October 2009


One of my screensaver pictures froze for a minute as I tried to go back to my rambling about the internet. It was a photo of my tent, with the flaps open, in Rumbek, in Southern Sudan, as I was on my way out of the country. I took that photo out of sheer relief at being in a place with 24-hour electricity and an en-suite bathroom. My suitcases are on the floor, and there is a round-frame mosquito net hanging from the ceiling.

I really prefer mosquito nets that come sewn in rectangles. Beds, after all, are rectangular, and when you have a circular mosquito net, it's always stretched at an angle to reach the edges of the bed and your face is pressed up against the netting because it comes so low by that point. A rectangular mosquito net can just fall straight around the edges of the bed. But I think the circular ones use less fabric, and thus are cheaper.

Looking at that picture, though, I suddenly remembered how at night, lying in the dark all cozy in that tent, I kept hearing these strange noises. Clicking noises, almost. I finally turned on the light (24-hour electricity!) to investigate, and found the tent full of crickets, hopping vigorously to and fro. Toing and froing, they were. Dozens of them. Maybe hundreds. I know not where they came from or what they were doing, but my tent was full of crickets hopping in the dark.

16 October 2009

another home

If you have lived in the same place your entire life, I imagine that things just feel familiar: the cool fall air, the hot summer breeze, the smell after the rain. I have moved around so much, maybe too much, that all those things feel familiar, yes, but they feel familiar some place else. I stand on the street corner and feel a breeze that feels just like Nairobi. The crisp smell of a morning will always feel like the Netherlands to me. The light smokey hint of a wood fire in the evening feels like every place that cooks on fires: Liberia, and Rwanda, and Honduras, and Sudan. Sometimes I feel like I walk around in a swirl of all the places I've ever been.

I've been thinking a lot lately about when I first moved to Gone West. As I walked to the store in the dark last night, I thought about my cautiousness when I first moved here. Back then, I would never have walked to that store after dark, because I didn't like the bus stop there. The groups of teenagers made me nervous. Now I smile at the way they pummel one another as they wait for the bus. Nothing has changed about them, of course. It is only me. I felt new and uncertain here, 20 months ago, and now I feel at home.

It was the night air, last night, that felt like East Africa, as I stood on that corner waiting for the light to change. It was the temperature, or the smell, or the texture of it.

For so long, I moved because that is who I was. I don't think I even realized that I had a choice. I wanted to go home, to the other half of my life, and that's how I could get there. My stomach used to sink, in college and law school, at the thought of staying in Michigan or in New York. (What effect the being in school had on that, I cannot say.) The first place that felt like home to me after we left Liberia in 1990 was Rwanda. It was the first place where I did not find myself thinking, "I wish I could go home." I was home. I didn't even look up at jet trails, hoping to travel. I was content to stay.

I'm approaching my third winter here in Gone West and the thought of moving is almost repellent. Apparently I am a nester, when given the chance. I miss the places I've lived before. I miss them in my senses and my soul, but right now I'm so relieved every day to come home to my tiny little space. I find comfort in walking to the tea place on weekend afternoons. I crave the coffee shop where they know me by name and know which drink I want in hot weather and cold. I like my walk on the street with the beautiful houses. It feel comfortable here, and familiar.

Now it's the thought of moving that makes my stomach sink. Not even the twirling leaves emptying the trees or the prospect of another long dark winter can drive me away. If I'm willing to put up with cold rain wind dark for the sake of a place, if I'm even willing to ignore the blasts of memory and the longing for those other wonderful places, then it must be true love. I must be home.

(For now, of course. For now.)

12 October 2009

random materialism

I live in a place where it rains more than half the year. I also have to dress up for work. I also cannot stand walking in heels. The combination of these factors is bad, very, very bad. I have nothing to wear when I walk to the library on my lunch hour. Sneakers look stupid with skirts, and also get soaked through easily. Flats turn into little pools of water in which your frigid feet reside. Rainboots, while ostensibly the best option, don't have a lot of in-shoe support, plus it doesn't necessarily rain all day every day, and so you risk looking stooopid wearing rainboots in the sunshine.

It hit me a few weeks ago that what I need is boots. Dress boots. The kind I can wear with a skirt at work and that will keep my legs warm. I think everyone else figured this out long ago, but I am slow that way. So, I set out looking for boots.

My normal method of looking for things to purchase is to spend several days frantically looking in every store I can find, then get annoyed and slow down, but keep going into new stores hoping to find the item, and then to give up if I haven't found it, with occasional reversions to frantic searching when I think of it. Along the way, I collect opinions about the perfect item for which I am searching. In this case, boots.

By the end of my search, I was categorically rejecting boots for high heels, clunkiness, no heels, slouchiness, looseness, cheapness, buckles, pointiness, uncomfortableness, expensiveness, and having rims around the edge. Let's just say: I had opinions.

I did the same thing with jeans a few weeks ago. My Aunt Lisa actually sent me a birthday card involving jeans, which totally cracked me up, because she clearly has an inkling of how ridiculous I can get about jeans. Suffice it to say that I very nearly threw a temper tantrum in the gap, where they have discontinued my reliable Essential style of jeans in favor of a whole set of LOW-RISE travesties and SKINNY-LEGGED absurdities. The staff alleged that they held WORKSHOPS to determine how the new jeans should be cut, and I can only say that apparently their WORKSHOPS were made up of EIGHTY-FIVE POUND THIRTEEN YEAR OLDS, because they are the only people who have the remotest chance of not having a muffin top in and being stuffed like a donut into those stupid, idiotic low-rise, painfully-tight jeans.

Not that I was bitter at all.

Unfortunately for the gap, though, the loss of any sense of decency (FABRIC) in their pants has made it unnecessary for me to ever enter their store again. Too bad!

I have a few opinions about jeans, too, I guess. Happily, I found the world's most perfect pair of jeans at @nthropologie and they lost a button so I got them a percentage off and sewed the button back on and they are perfect perfect perfect. And I got a pair of boots on sale at @erosoles, and they are comfortable and cozy and basically perfect perfect perfect as well.

So, now, um, anyone have any idea where I can find a black v-neck wrap sweater? I've been on a quest for one of those for quite some time.

11 October 2009

fall means baking

I have a possibly perilous disregard for expiration dates, except as they concern eggs, because I discovered in Liberia in 2006 that long-expired eggs taste metallic, and I find the metallic taste disturbing. (I should note that I seemed to be the only one who could taste it, but I tasted it even in, say, cake.) For pretty much everything else, though, I figure that if it doesn't smell actually bad, it's probably fine.

That is all provided as an explanation for how I came to make beer cheese bread this evening with beer that expired last February 23. I seem to recall having bought that beer during the snow last Christmas. I haven't had a need for it since then - I don't like beer and even beer-loving guests to my little abode have scorned the Bud. Apparently there is no desperation great enough to drive a Pacific N0rthwe$ter to drink Budwei$er (they will, however, drink PBR, if there is no alternative).

This beer smelled, well, beery, so I figured it was fine, but beer, as I found out in Rwanda, will go bad. Actually, I don't know if it will go bad under normal refrigerated or non-refrigerated circumstances. What happened in Rwanda was that I bought beer for any guests who might pop by and/or parties that I periodically had, and I put several bottles in the fridge. Electrogaz, the electricity company, was having what we might call issues, and the power was on-off-on-off-on-off every day for a few months. At the worst point, I had about 40 minutes of power a day. My fridge got cold-hot-cold-hot-cold-hot for weeks. Then, one day, while I was having a party, I reached into my fridge and took out a few bottles of Mutzig and set them on the ground in front of the fridge while I was grabbing some other sodas.

One of the bottles exploded the second it hit the ground. It was rather alarming. I can only conclude that the constantly changing temperature did... something... to the vacuum seal. Something detrimental.

The beer I put in the beer cheese bread mix tonight did not explode. It behaved perfectly normally, and the bread, which is almost done baking, smells amazing. I copied the sample lady from Trader Joe's and added sundried tomatoes and fake bacon. Can you imagine anything better than beer cheese bread with sundried tomatoes and fake bacon? At the store, I ate about six of the samples. I just kept going back. I think I took more than my share.


Postscript: Upon ridiculous amounts of taste-testing, I will leave out the sundried tomatoes next time. They add an odd sweetness. Plus, they are a vegetable, er, fruit. Too much healthiness for beer cheese fake-bacon bread.

09 October 2009

fall arrives

And so comes the fall. It seemed to switch over just on my birthday. My last day of 29 was summer, and my first day of 30 was fall, very nearly. I'm starting to see red peeking out on trees, and the angle of the sun has changed so that I can no longer sit in the sun in the park. Now, on my lunch hour, the park is in the shade. I'm starting to try to store up the sunlight. When I see the sun come out, I want to rush out to bask in it, hoping to collect enough golden light to take me through the winter.

I could do without autumn completely. I would be perfectly happy with eternal summer, despite the man at my favorite coffee place who said Wednesday, "But then things wouldn't be green!" because it so seldom rains in Gone West in the summer, and I sighed wistfully and said, "I used to live in Rwanda, where it's always like a [Gone West] summer, except that it rains about an hour a day and it's always green. I never got sick of it. My mom would tell me about the rain and the snow and the wind in Michigan, and I was always happy to be in Rwanda's perfect weather."

I'm trying to tell myself, this year, that autumn is part of the natural cycle of things, of death and rebirth in nature. That might work better if I were not a person who has spent 13 years in Africa. I know the tropics, you see. I have spent Thanksgiving eating under starlight in warm air. I have spent Christmas sweating in a revival tent. The thing about the tropics is that there is no winter, and things are just fine. So I can tell myself that winter is a necessary time for the plants and the animals, but I know that it doesn't have to be that way.

The only thing to do, when the light and colors begin to fail you, is to soak up the light and color that remains. The sunlight is more precious when you catch only a few minutes of it, sitting in a different park. The flowers are more valuable when they are the last remaining few. For now, there are colorful leaves. The sky is still blue more often than not. I'm trying not to panic about winter. Yet.

07 October 2009

over the piney woods

I drove over the mountains, through the green and the blue, and onto the flat lands beyond. The trees are evergreens, but the brush beneath them is changing color up there in the hills. Yellow and orange shown out from under the trees. It's the first time I've followed that road in daylight, and I was alone. One curve was so exactly like a curve in Rwanda that in both directions I thought, "They are reusing the scenery again," but then I passed around it and found myself facing more piney woods instead of the first glimpses of Lake Kivu between the hills.

I drive a car so rarely that I'm beginning to be nervous behind the wheel. I, who used to know my Prado inside and out, and feel so confident behind the wheel that I would pass on blind corners (okay, everyone does that in Rwanda) and dart through little spaces (okay, that, too). I forget about speed limits, now, and the need to check mirrors all the time. I used to love driving: the steering, the passing, the speed. Now I just want to get there and to get out.

S.'s car is old, and it has no power steering. After seven hours driving it, almost seven hours continuously, my shoulders ached, and my golf-elbows are still screaming. My right foot hurts. I really do not want to go back to owning a car, I decided, as I paid another $22 to fill up the gas tank. I was delighted, this morning, to get on the bus and sit down and daydream as we crossed the bridge in the morning light.

03 October 2009

surreal moment of the day: check

I wandered up to the tea shop today, as I so often do on weekends, and as I walked home, shivering in the suddenly cold air, a bicycle rode past me with a trailer on the back. On the trailer was a big dog cage, the sort that you picture in the back of an SUV for a German shepherd. "Hm," I thought, "that is an interesting way to carry a dog around, but I guess if you don't have a car, that's what you have to do." Then the bike passed me and I saw that the cage did not hold a dog but a little white goat, peering out at me.

It's been a long time since I saw a goat transported by bicycle, and never in this country.

02 October 2009


We had cupcakes after work, some friends and I, in honor of my birthday, and ordered one of every flavor of the mini ones. They came on a little glass tray, and my friends stuck a candle in the center one, and the three of us cut them into thirds and tried each one. Later, with a shifted crowd, we sat around a single great tray of Ethiopian food. "Do you want to eat like family or like friends?" the proprietor, B., asked us. "Friends don't know each other well enough to eat off the same plate." We ate like family, and ate it all. The flowers on the metal platter began to appear as we finished the food. It was a classically African platter, the same one on which I have been served chai in Kenya and brochettes in Rwanda and fuul in Southern Sudan. It made me smile.