Tag Archives: friends

life is good.

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diva

just hanging, on the nile river, of course.

two of the coolest people ever : Oliva and Suz.

two of the coolest people ever : Oliva and Suz.

exercise

leading a zumba/insanity/strength training/yoga session during the kigali marathon weekend.

glowgirls

the glow girls (divine, yazina, josiane, zahara, eugenie, clemantine, and maisara): some of my favorite people in the world.

jump

ruramira secondary representing at the kigali marathon.

maisara

maisara and I.

mamapapa

taylor and I during my last visit to my host family.

marathon

kigali marathon folks at amahoro stadium in kigali.

oliva

OIiva, a girl after my own heart. She knows how to work the camera, no doubt.

rafting

white water rafting in uganda. this is pretty much how it went down.

slide

leading Divine down the slide – her first time on such a thing! So fun.

uganda

happy vacation.

having a photoshoot during our life skills session for the kigali marathon.

having a photoshoot during our life skills session for the kigali marathon.

Photo Credits to fellow Peace Corps Volunteers : Mike, Pre, and Suzi

I have been unable to post recent photographs that I have taken because my memory cards are infected with a lovely virus and so I thought I would post a few of my favorites that have been taken by other volunteers the past couple of months. In summary, life is good. Enjoy.

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my kind of weekend.

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this succinctly captures my feelings on this last weekend.

this succinctly captures my feelings on this last weekend.

I’ve been racking my brain, having too many failed attempts to put pen with paper, and sitting iddly for a bit too long as I’ve tried to figure out how to best explain and describe this past weekend. Then, at 5:37 am on a Tuesday morning I just thought, well, perhaps I should just start from the beginning.
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Old Woman Heather
Fridays are one of my two days off this school year (the other being Tuesday) but outside of sleeping in until 7:00 it’s hardly a day off. I typically wake up, run, write, and go to school by mid-morning. Why? Because it’s library day. This consists of me stifling the chaos of hundreds of primary students trying to get their hands on a book. Crazy doesn’t begin to adequately paint the picture. It takes four of my students working the desk and teachers roaming around with sticks in hand to control book check-out. I swear, the next time I enter a quiet and peaceful library, I will thank my lucky stars because while the demand in Ruramira is fantastic, the peaceful demeanor of library etiquiette and culture is coming along much like teaching a puppy to pee outside. Slow.

Anyway, on this particular Friday, I did almost nothing after we closed the library around 2:00. Usually, I’m ready to go and visit some students or teach a GLOW lesson, but I was wiped. I went home, took a nap, and sat on my porch with tea and slippers and watched the sun slowly trickle away from the sky.

Best Day. Ever.
And so Saturday came. I woke up early in order to my run in and prepare for A LOT of things: we had two volleyball matches, two football matches (one for the girls and one for the boys), I had visitors coming (Sara, Suzi, and 3 of her friends visiting from America), and a GLOW leaders party to host (complete with a full meal and two rounds of Fanta; a serious party, y’all). I anticipated it would be a busy but rewarding day. And it was. It was so great it ended up being one of my favorite days at site: it was a combination of all things good in my life here. I went from coaching duties (do we have money to buy water? Do they have their shoes? Is the line-up ready to go?) to being a fan (cheering like a madwoman) to showing the visitors the ins and outs of my village. It’s important to note that our girls and boys won in football with Maisara and Zahara, resident GLOW girls and sisters, scoring a goal each for our girls’ victory. But, winning our match, watching the fans dance to drums (along with a spear that had a rabbit skull on top?), and basking in good ole sports pride didn’t carry the stick for the best part of the day.

That part came here.

After playing, at around 3:00, 7 of my GLOW gleaders, me, and the guests had a party at school. Alphonsine, the woman who helps me around my house, cooked for 15 people, bless her. We ate and then began our party. The purpose? To show our visitors good Rwandan culture and to celebrate the wonderful leadership of our girls. It was Suzi’s idea and I commend her profusely for wanting to make this day special for my girls. She just gets it, and I love that. I took a step back and watched as the girls sang songs, introduced themselves, and demonstrated how incredible they are. I realized it then – I will never be able to capture how inspiring they are in words alone. You see it best in their presence and I couldn’t have been prouder. Time and time again, it’s these girls that give my time here so much meaning. They are the ones that have evolved this from being a “job” to it becoming just a piece of my life. I’m forever indebted. I briefed them on the concept of diversity and explained it further by giving them the meanings of their names to show how they are special as individuals and that they are good leaders because they put their gifts together to make unity. And so naturally, we then tye-dyed shirts to demonstrate colors (like our individual special gifts) coming together to make something beautiful. They loved it. And, their shirts turned out great.

That night we cooked pancakes that we coated in Nutella and peanut butter and crowded in my 2 rooms to sleep 6 of us. And that’s where the weekend gets a little complicated. No, not the guests cramming together, but the arrival of Sunday.

‘The Bread of God’
After the guests headed out for the National Park nearby for a safari, Sara and I decided to tye-dye the extra shirts we had. Great life decision, by the way. Tye-dye is a fun way to spend a weekend morning! Sara went back to her site around 11:00 and as she said farewell, Divine stopped by to give me the “bread of God”. That is, the particular lesson that was preached about. Whenever I miss mass Divine is sure to write and remember the scripture so that I can “be satisfied” from God even if I didn’t go to church. Yes, that is my best friend. She was a hit, by the way, with the visitors. I think everyone recognized how hilarious she is; she is certainly one of the most ALIVE people that I know.

I unexpectedly visited her for like three hours (this frequently happens; I leave my house to accompany her like a good Rwandan, but somehow end up at her home and we continue to talk for a really long time). She already knew, but her suspicions of how crazy I am were confirmed when she found my planner and read every single page. She didn’t know how much of a planner I am (and how I have to write down everything or I will forget) and she was totally amused by this. Planning is a trivial concept here, at least where I am living, and so I think for her to see a major compilation of to-do lists, lesson plan ideas, people to visit, things to buy, places to go, and people to email, she was just like, what?

Anyway, by the afternoon it was time for a wedding I was invited to. This wasn’t the “real” wedding – just a delivery of the cow for the bride’s family followed by a family meeting to discuss the logistics and plan for the actual ceremony. This is where the weekend got a little…um, fragile? Confusing? Weird?

Bear with me.

Family Drama
This “wedding” was for Maisara and Zahara’s aunt. It was at the house for Maisara and Zahara’s father. However, Maisara and Zahara no longer live there. Why? Because their father is a terrible man. A lying, abusive man. A year ago, them and their mother moved in with their grandmother. Last week though, the mother moved back. Temporarily, she claims, as to help prep for the wedding nupitals, but I’m skeptical. This has left the girls to make their own decision: they don’t want to go back. And no one in their family understands or supports this decision. They are afraid but people in their family just see their action as a denial of their family obligation.

Confused yet?

So there was this family wedding.

And I’m going. But the girls tell me they can’t do it – they can’t go in that house. It’s okay, I tell them, they have the right to choose where they feel comfortable to be. I go with the aunt and the cow and I sit in a dimly lit room with their entire family. I sit with a lot of secrets too. I know what their father has done and their uncle (Yazina’s father), well, I know what he’s done too, but that’s another story. He leads the prayer and I want to vomit.

We drink fanta. Eat food. And that’s really as far as I get. By 6:30 it’s dark and I want to go. The girls arrive and when they do, their father calls them to come. They refuse. For me, I say my goodbyes and say I need to get home to plan for teaching the following day. I make a quick exit but not before Maisara and Zahara’s mother follows me outside, grabs me, and starts complaining about why her girls won’t be a part of the gathering. She’s embarassed, and I can sense that, but I’m quick to defend the girls. I know I should have stayed neutral but the whole things seemed ridiculous. Quite literally, I was being pulled into two directions – the girls insisted we leave and the mother wanted to continue to explain her side of the story. I was standing between Maisara and her mother with my hands pushing both back, trying to keep the peace. Again, I wanted to vomit.

The girls walked me all the way home. 45 entire minutes, one way. We held hands the whole way and I hugged Zahara when she cried. Their family is separating again, and her pain is raw. I am heartbroken for them. My family split under different circumstances, but somehow I could sense a small piece of what the heart feels like when that happens. Right now, they are living away from their mother, left to cook and support themselves after studying and playing football each day. They just tell me how they can’t stop studying. They tell me they can’t give up on their future and that their father threatens that. I’m speechless and can only muster to say I love you. I commend them for the decision they have had to make. I don’t support or encourage family disagreements but how can I not support their courage to fight for what they believe in? These are the kind of girls that score goals, ace exams, help others, and live life well. They excel in GLOW because they believe in what they can do. But what happens when the “support system” around them doesn’t?
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This was my weekend.
As usual, there are no words to describe the completely beautiful moments or find the easy answers (or answers AT ALL) to the complicated tangled web of problems here. I’m not discouraged, though.

Divine regularly lectures me (among other things) on the importance of kwihangane and kwitonda, that is, essentially being patient and not freaking out about something. She says that to succeed in Rwanda you have to have these two things. True. But what’s awesome, is that in return, I lecture her on the importance of being honest, of speaking truth, and not being afraid to express what is in your mind. She integrates these two cultural values – much like the rest of my girls – and creates a mixture that is uniquely them. And so, while I do worry, fret, and feel very real heartache when the girls are going through problems, I know they are as equipped as anybody to handle them. Not because of me, but because of them. They’ve had the skills all along. And so, it’s just a matter of hoping that they use them when the time calls for it.

If nothing else, I find myself inspired this Tuesday morning, really just wishing that the people I love the most back home could know these girls like I do. They change lives and they are changing mine.

“change like seasons”

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the girls football team ready to play in a match right before we began the school holiday.

the girls football team ready to play in a match right before we began the school holiday.

“It is always the simple things that change our lives. And these things never happen when you are looking for them to happen. Life will reveal answers at the pace life wishes to do so. You feel like running, but life is on a stroll. This is how God does things.”

-Donald Miller

beautiful rwanda & football = a great combination.

beautiful rwanda & football = a great combination.

I’ve been on a journey/travel/holiday/break/adventure/whatever you want to call it for over 2 weeks now. Maybe it’s three? I’m not really sure anymore.

The day I left Rwanda I attended a wedding (typical; because that’s what I do) and I was fresh off a motorcycle accident that left my body with too many aches and bruises to count. I had also finished my 4th term of teaching in Rwanda. And with all of the happiness and joy that I have felt while living and working in Rwanda, I was completely and utterly burnt out. I was tired. I was ready for a break.

My holiday started in Rwanda, actually. The day before I even left for Uganda. Two of my friends (Divine and Yazina) and I traveled to a nearby lake for some relaxation, good food, and a photo shoot. It was there first trip there and they loved it far more than I think they thought they would. I was sad to not be seeing them for several weeks and so I wanted them to have a chance to celebrate our time together.

After our photoshoots, food, and playing on swings came to an end, I packed up and left. I was Uganda bound, and after a few days there, I would be leaving the African continent for the first time in 19 months (or something like that).

Crazy, right?

I’m still processing everything I’ve been doing, seeing, and above all, eating.

Y’all. I have been eating so much food. It’s glorious.

I have ventured out of Uganda (with an experience of seeing the Nile and bungee jumping!) and onto England to stay with Michelle for a couple of weeks. My time here is about half-done and we’ve been to Paris and back, visited Oxford, have walked around her village, had a tea party, viewed a showing of ‘Lincoln’, and my favorite part, have just spent time together catching up.

Like I said, I’m still soaking up the Western world in all its glory and so really, I’m just enjoying myself. It’s good for me. Sometimes, I think I think about things too much, so for now, I’m just taking each day as an opportunity to be with a really important friend in my life, get a better grasp of her own life, and take a break from the life that I will be going back to next week. I think I’ll be ready. Maybe more earnestly, I hope that I will be ready. Describing Rwanda is proving difficult, but no matter what, it’s my life and it’s thoroughly important to own your life and be proud for what it is. And I am. Here’s some pictures from the last couple of weeks that hopefully paint a good picture of what I have been up to. Cheers, y’all.

divine and yazina at a nearby lake in the eastern province. we went  for some R&R before i left for vacation.

divine and yazina at a nearby lake in the eastern province. we went for some R&R before i left for vacation.

yazina photoshoot. gorgeous girl!

yazina photoshoot. gorgeous girl!

playing on the swings. being a kid. this is normal.

playing on the swings. being a kid. this is normal.

the nile river - uganda.

the nile river – uganda.

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bungee jumping over the nile. crazy/cool/weird experience.

my first meal outside of africa in a SUPER long time. michelle spoiled me with a hamburger, fries, and a coke. americans rock.

my first meal outside of africa in a SUPER long time. michelle spoiled me with a hamburger, fries, and a coke. americans rock.

so. the newell's (john and ashley) surprised us with a trip to PARIS!

so. the newell’s (john and ashley) surprised us with a trip to PARIS!

cheese market. enough said.

cheese market. enough said.

um. so this place is gorgeous. this is the seine river near the notre dame area.

um. so this place is gorgeous. this is the seine river near the notre dame area.

notre dame; and hey! here the sun was out! during our two-day stay it was raining most of the time. but don't worry, this did not keep us down!

notre dame; and hey! here the sun was out! during our two-day stay it was raining most of the time. but don’t worry, this did not keep us down!

love this picture! totally represents the amount of times we got lost (a lot)!

love this picture! totally represents the amount of times we got lost (a lot)!

michelle and our dear friend the eiffel tower. we had more than our fair share of photo shoots!

michelle and our dear friend the eiffel tower. we had more than our fair share of photo shoots!

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it’s pretty common knowledge i love trees. and so, this just seemed entirely necessary outside a couple of historic museums in paris. when in paris, right?

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a pretty amazing feeling to be in such a invigorating place with a extraordinary friend. feeling pretty blessed.

paris at night. trying to be marilyn monroe. this was after a DELICIOUS dinner near the palais royal.

paris at night. trying to be marilyn monroe. this was after a DELICIOUS dinner near the palais royal.

our hotel was so cool! we stayed near the orsay museum in a really neat part of town. the rooms are finely decorated and i took one of the best hot baths. ever.

our hotel was so cool! we stayed near the orsay museum in a really neat part of town. the rooms are finely decorated and i took one of the best hot baths. ever.

breakfast in bed.

breakfast in bed.

...and wrote letters to home at a little cafe.

…and wrote letters to home at a little cafe.

after our return to england we visited oxford--about an hour away from michelle's house.

after our return to england we visited oxford–about an hour away from michelle’s house.

at the oxford university press bookstore. reading the dictionary. i knew this had to happen, of course.

at the oxford university press bookstore. reading the dictionary. i knew this had to happen, of course.

classic.

classic.

oxford is incredibly beautiful.

oxford is incredibly beautiful.

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michelle also hosted a sophisticated, fun, and super adorable tea party–british style, of course! we had victoria sponge cake, cookies, tea (all sorts of flavors), and sandwiches. michelle had 3 of her girlfriends over and it was a lovely way to experience a very important british tradition.

Nile Adventures: UGANDA

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Sit. Sip. Relax.
Except, not quite yet because I’m thirty minutes early to a local coffee shop (Anna’s Corner) in Entebbe, Uganda–about 40 km outside Kampala, Uganda’s largest city.

Like any young woman traveling alone should do, I went with my insticts.
Today, that was simple:
FIND COFFEE.

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best coffee place in entebbe. so. good.

After all, it’s after 7:00am and my body is waiting for some java. I boarded a small bus this morning (at some ungodly hour; around like 6:00am) from Kampala after all my travel partners and friends exchanged their tickets for a seat on the big red Jaguar bus headed back home to Kigali. They’ll be turning in their Ugandan Shillings and getting back to the good ole Rwandan Franc.

I bid farewell while it was still dark, found a seat of my own, and coasted on into Entebbe. I’m here–not back in Rwanda–because I’m moving my travels up and out of Africa (my first journey outside the continent in say, 19 months) into London. I’m already practicing my accent. And, the roads in Uganda operate in the same confusing way as the UK (driving on the “wrong” side of the road) and so perhaps it will be slightly less trippy to experience after my few days of practice in Uganda.

It’s weird being alone after backpacking for the past week with five other people (Sarah, Ella, Justin, Demetrea, Lyla, and Mike).

Travel partners sure do help. They can give assistance when crossing congested city roads (I never was good at that) or shooing away pushy motorcycle drivers. Luckily, I have my “wolverine scars” (as I’ve been strangely calling them) from my motorcycle accident last week to repel drivers away. I simply lift both arms in unison and voila! Those guys apologetically motor on away to their next unsuspecting customer.

I had really great travel companions this trip and we did so much in such a short amount of time.

This last week, I went from being bruised and banged up, moaning from any movement in my bed in the village, to driving 10 hours to the country to the North, eating Thai, American, Chinese, and Indian food, drinking one too many Nile Specials (the local Ugandan beer), bungee jumping 44 meters, white water rafting the Nile River, perusing the chaotic streets of Kampala at night, and catching up on some much needed sleep. We met some really nice people along the way too. Many Ugandans speak English (and GOOD English to boot), are much more used to seeing foreigners (at least in the cities), and seem to be a bit more open than a lot of Rwandans I know. And no, this doesn’t mean Rwandans aren’t friendly, it’s just that Uganda operates under a very different set of cultural norms and the fact that Kinyarwanda isn’t a barrier for once, well, it does make things easier. As my group of nomads and I walked around, few people stared and really, few people cared. A welcome change, believe me.

I also (still) can’t believe we bungee jumped.

Originally, I was not going to do it. I was going to act simply as a source of moral support and comfort. That’s it, I told myself. However, as I photographed the jumps of my friends and cheered them on as they took the dive, more and more I just knew I had to do it. Sometimes you have to do uncomfortable things to get the most out of an experience, you know? And also, WHY NOT?

And so I did it, though you can imagine that it was quite the dramatic display. While some friends hopped up to the drop off point and went for it following the countdown of the guides (essentially making the entire process appear completely seamless), I stalled a bit more.

You sit in this throne-like chair before you go to jump (it’s here they put on all the safety equipment) and I was thinking I was a big shot.

this is the chair you sit in before you jump. this isn't me; real-time pictures of us to come soon!

this is the chair you sit in before you jump. this isn’t me; real-time pictures of us to come soon!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“It ain’t nothin’ but a thing!”
“Yes I can!”
“Nta kibazo!”

…..

Only then, you have to walk a couple of feet to the edge, just so you can curl your toes over the metal and spread your arms to prepare to take the plunge. It was here I started screaming, feeling tears in my eyes, and shouting, “OH MY GOD!!!”

But I knew I was doing it–and I told the guides so–I just needed to go at my own pace. After around 20 seconds of heavy breathing, looking down, praying, and questioning my sanity, the guides counted down. 5…4…3…2…1………..and I leapt. It felt like nothing and everything at the same time. I was gliding but only for a second as the rope jolted me back up and down again. Physics at its finest. The Nile, trees, and nearby bar all faded into one and when I looked up at the clouds (and the point at which I jumped off) I couldn’t stop smiling. That wasn’t so bad, right?

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see that tower place? we bungee’d from that. yeah.

Though I’ll probably never do it again, I’m glad I did it at least once. And, hey, it was on the Nile so I feel like that’s got to have some pretty cool Cleopatra vibe or something.

Like I said, today (and until tomorrow around 6:30pm) I’m a solo traveler with nothing but time. Once I get my much needed coffee, I’ll hopefully get internet access so I can check my email and get the name of the hotel I booked for myself. I did just get the menu to this coffee house and not only does it provide the legend and story behind ‘qahwah‘ (the Arabic term for coffee) but it also has a seemingly endless array of choices (case and point: iced coffees, regular coffee from all of the surronding coffee-rich countries, different flavors like maple, vanilla, hazelnut, or chocolate, liquor-infused coffees, coffee with ice cream…). I might be here awhile.

I need the hotel name because in classic Heather form I forgot the name after I made the reservation online a couple of days ago. I did book something nicer ($45 y’all, that’s big money in my little Peace Corps world) but I figured this would be best since I’ll be alone during my stay in Entebbe.

during our galvant in uganda, i was in kampala, jinja, and entebbe.

during our galvant in uganda, i was in kampala, jinja, and entebbe.

It seems that there is much coffee to be had and maybe even some scenic walks to take (I can see Lake Victoria!) and a first world journey to prepare for. Last week, when I left Rwanda, I was emotionally fragile, scared after the accident, and operating at pretty high stress levels. Already, I’m feeling better (and maybe even missing Rwanda a bit already? Really?). Maybe, after all, I just needed a break. Knowing I’ll have nearly two weeks in London with Michelle, I can just imagine that the girl descending back upon Rwanda after these adventures will be refreshed, ready, and renewed.

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ready to see this girl again. IN SNOW, perhaps!

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not sure we’ll be having anything to do with the CAMO boots, but I am ready for Michelle-Heather antics to continue after a long hiatus.

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REUNION READY.

ROAD TRIP: Tanzania

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ZANZIBAR: THE BEACH

The sheets at Baby Blue Lodge are white crisp, thin, and mold perfectly to the grooves and lines of my body. I’m sharing a king sized bed with Catie and Suzi and even with the three of us, I slept between the comfort of our sheets and the blue-lined mosquito net without any problem. I woke to the sounds of the ocean and Africa mixed together—seagulls crying desperately in sync with chickens calling for their loved ones on the ground. My feet touched the sandy colored dirt hollow floor and I smiled. We are here. We made it to Zanzibar.

***

Before we met the Indian Ocean, far before I could relax with a Safari Lager (a Tanzanian brew), and pre-bathing suit, we started our journey from the Peace Corps office in Kigali. I had come in on a Monday afternoon after I was able to submit my final grades for my students in the second term. I came into town dismayed to find that the burrito place is closed for some reason on Mondays, but no matter, we continued to set about for our departure—arriving for our 5:10am bus at 4:00am at the Nybagogo bus park. I decided to forgo sleeping the night before and so I was rather loony (more so than usual) as we boarded our green “pimped out” Taqua bus. We all got assigned seats together and moved slowly as we prepared our home for the next two-ish days. The bus wasn’t all that bad actually. I mean, would I choose it for a dream home? Heck no. But it was a neat experience to drive (especially for only 50 bucks) across the entire country of Tanzania; we cruised by rural villages—desolate, dry, and full of secluded mud huts with small pockets of people. The densely populated greenery of Rwanda felt like another world.

We had one major stop in Dodoma (at an African version of a rest stop) of about 4 hours so the drivers could have an extended rest. Dimly lit shops offered meat, eggs, chips (fried potatoes, French fries if you will), tea, and bread among other things. In the pitch black of darkness, Sara and I shared a delicious ginger infused East African Tea, with some doughnuts. We passed the hours talking to a lovely and kind Tanzanian woman, Hilda, and using whatever light we could find to read our respective books (I was reading Running the Rift, an incredibly written story of fiction based on the history of Rwanda—a young Olympic hopeful runner has to navigate his dreams as the Genocide becomes more of a reality in the mid-90’s in Rwanda). After sunlight broke through in early morning and the sky settled into its morning routine, we arrived in Dar es Salaam—the next point in getting closer to Zanzibar, a large island off the coast.

We found our way to the ferry with bags underneath our eyes and arms, bought our second class tickets (we are PCVs after all) and braved the crowded cluster of people: tourists, Zanzibarians, workers, and everyone in between (crowds were extra high—of course it’s sweet summer time, but also because a lot of Tanzanians like to go to Zanzibar during Ramadan). I didn’t think twice about our safety on our catalina-esque boat. I had expected something of a huge barge—like the one you take to Staten Island in New York, and instead we got the Kilimanjaro III, a big speedboat machine. Classy. Sara and I joked about hitting a ‘sandburg’ as if we were on an African version of the Titanic or something, but this joke was silenced and shamed when people next to us on the top deck began to freak out. Rapid pointing and rushed voices made us suspicious. Dolphins? No. Try a sinking ferry. My glasses were buried beneath an assortment of fruit, books, and notebooks in my bag so I didn’t get a direct look as the ship went under. But, when we docked in Stonetown (the main town of Zanzibar), the staff all but threw us off the boat—our ferry was becoming the rescue boat to try and save what we heard was over 200 people on a ferry that was just 200 feet away from us.

***

Later, when we nuzzled on indescribably comfortable couches and pillows, we processed what happened out there. Peace Corps called checking in. BBC highlighted the news. Wow. What a close call. Life sure is weird.

After the ferry craziness, we met Stonetown, Zanzibar, embracing the old washed over buildings, the fishing boats tumbling over the water, and a hellish amount of money hungry taxi drivers. We spent the first hour or two in what felt like a time portal where we lost time doing nothing. We hired a taxi who drove us in circles to an ATM and then switched us into a mini-van like you would find back in the Burbs. Whatever, I thought. Let’s just get on our way. In efforts to save money (no surprise, our visas were double what they thought they would be and the price of the ferry was a big chunk of change) I had a mixed salad for dinner. It was extraordinarily underwhelming (as a mix of cabbage, peppers, and carrots could be) but our free breakfast every day (mango, passion fruit, chapatti, nutella, egg, and watermelon) redeemed the food question in full. Plus, Baby Bush Lodge left tea and coffee out all day. FOR FREE. Heaven? Yes. We’re barefoot. And I’m a tourist…which is pretty awesome. Never thought I would be so happy about that.

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It would be only a couple of days later when I received the news about the shooting at the movie theatre in my hometown, Aurora, Colorado. Relieved that my family was unharmed but deeply disturbed by the pain that many community members were dealing with, I felt adrift, sad, and somehow, in world of paradise, homesick.

***

Pure light surrounded me—above, below, between. The white pearlish sand snug tight in the crevices of my sneakers, the sun baiting on my pasty white skin lined with sweat and sunscreen. Low tide. The water—green, blue, navy, and teal—watched us run by waiting for wind to bring it to shore. Catie, a Boulder granola crunching athlete ran yards ahead of me. Seaweed squished beneath me with every other step. For months, I’ve ran on the dusty village roads. Here, it was me, the sand, the water, and light. Tears brimmed my eyes. The weight of worry, anxiety, and looming decisions bounced off my heart like a toddler on a trampoline. Music from Relient K strung along and everything lifted with the light. No matter what happens, I’m okay.

ZANZIBAR: STONETOWN

I’ve slept about 8 hours over the last couple of days. Typically, vacations are for sleep and relaxation. But, we travel a bit differently I suppose. After a few serene days at the beach, we altered out travel plans just a bit (turns out later, this would cause all kinds of disruptions and changes in our trip) so that we could stay a night in Stonetown. We tasted Stonetown one of the nights we were exploring outside of our beach area, and we loved it. Stonetown has this lively, delicious, yummy (did I mention DELCIOUS!) night market. On the menu at a variety of stands to choose from, you can have Zanzibar Pizza (including one with banana and nutella), a sugarcane juice drink, falafel, and meat kabobs. Rwanda doesn’t have street food (its bad culture to eat in public) so this was like the mecca of food for us. We were beyond excited.

Our night peaked well before the night market though, as we walked around exploring, and stumbled upon a place with happy hour. Not only did they have happy hour, but hello, mojitos and daiquiris were on the menu. Moreover, the place that hosted this delightful happy hour was on the rooftop of a hotel/restaurant that made you feel like you could have been in the Caribbean, in Morocco, or in an old European city all at once. We referred to this place as heaven. Believe me, it’s about as close as you could get.

We laughed over drinks about our nights on the beach with the Masai people (a pastoral group of Africans in Northern Tanzania and Kenya—look them up, they are pretty cool), about our ridiculous Peace Corps lives, and just how cool of a place Stonetown was. We also spent a majority of our night looking for a place to stay. Our situation…well it was somehow complicated. We had managed to book lodging, but with our numbers and shortage of money…that option fell through. So, I’ll just say we made it work. We managed to find a hotel room for an affordable price…and well here’s a little akabanga (secret). We had to leave the room at 5am (per the hotel manager; it was a part of our little bargain) and so we stumbled weakily (we were half way asleep) onto the beach right off of Stonetown and slept for 2 hours until daybreak came. That’s right, I can cross that little goal off the bucket list: to sleep on a beach. Done and done.

DAR ES SALAAM

Subway was once a fast food sandwich stop that was frequently the food of choice for our hockey team along the stretch of highways throughout Arkansas, Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee to name a few. Ellie, our coach, would reluctantly trudge down the narrow aisle of our coach bus, taking stock of our Disney themed blankets (growing up is so overrated) and would ask, “what about Subway?” Our choices were often limited mind you, and as college hockey players, a Big Mac before an 80 minute match wasn’t a sensible option. So, I don’t blame her. But for the past 5 years, well, I have cringed a little at the sound of a Subway foot long. Trust me, I ate a lot of those. Once, even a foot long and a Big Mac in the same day—but that’s another story, first date material, I’m sure.

***

Yesterday, after a rocky ride into Dar es Salaam on the ferry we found lodging (The Rainbow Hotel—no messing around with lodging this part of the trip!) and perused the vertical and horizontal blocks of the city. Indeed, a city it was! A local said Dar (the capital of the East African Community) is home to 4 million people. There are tall and large buildings everywhere, smog, people moving all over the place, and lots and lots of cars! Kigali too is a city, but this one is on a much larger scale, a little more worn in, and on top of everything else, it sits right on the ocean. We found a shopping center complete with jewelry shops, a supermarket, a pizza place…and a Subway! We opened the door to the extraordinarily small version of America’s popular chain and the fresh bread got me so excited that I jumped up and down. I got as close to a version Ali and I always go back on road trips (chipotle chicken) and my tummy was pretty happy as Southwest ranch dribbled all over my face. I do love Rwandan food and African food at large, but sometimes there’s nothing like eating something familiar to your taste buds—even if it is Subway.

***

It would be fun to say that our stay in Dar was full of intrigue, crazy nights, and spontaneity. But, truth be told, our exhaustion had set in, so following our shopping trip and Subway afternoon delight, we went back to our hotel room with cable and watched TV. And you know what? We had a marvelous time. Though I wanted to keep the channel on the field hockey sports channel (the hotel was Indian owned, and thus a lot of channels about popular Indian sports, like cricket and field hockey) I compromised and we spent a great deal of the night watching the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. We’re cool, we know. We tried to catch some sleep as well, because our next leg of the journey—on to Moshi (close to Mt. Kilimanjaro—would begin with yet another bus ride (this one would be about 8 hours) at 6:00am sharp. Traveling nomads? You bet.

MOSHI, ARUSHA, & HOME

Sweat, heat, frustration and exhaustion wraps itself around my body. It’s 1:00am. There’s screaming outside from men leaving the bar and their never-ending billiards game. Mosquitos and flies filter in and out of our holey white mosquito net. All five of us are sharing one queen sized bed. The end of our travels has brought us here. Stacked against each other, I have to move. I reposition myself at the end of the bed, curl up, and hope for sleep. We are leaving for Rwanda in the morning (from a place a couple hours from the border, called Kahama)—two days later—and sleeping on a bus with bumpy dirt roads at times proves fruitless.

***

A few days ago—was it three? Two? I’m not really sure anymore—we spent a couple of days in Moshi, Tanzania. Moshi, the greenest town in Tanzania, reminded me of an African version of Boulder, Colorado. It was much cleaner than other parts of Tanzania, the people were incredibly friendly (our customer service at the Twiga Hotel was some of the best I’ve ever received), and as a base to Mt. Kilimanjaro, it’s beautiful! We spent the majority of our time in Moshi (I just also love saying that name—reminds me of Yoshi from Mario Cart) outside exploring (we got to see rice fields, a forest, and a waterfall), at our hotel eating (the grilled cheeses were too good to be true, and they were showing Olympic replays from Beijing before London 2012 began), and at a local coffee shop that was just about the best place you could ever get coffee, smoothies, or delicious food from. The Coffee Shop (that’s what it’s called) is located in the middle of town and has the coolest vibe going for it. You can sit out back, among trees and the patio, and order everything from espresso, to a mango smoothie, to coffee cake, to waffles, to quiche. Inside, it has a huge board full of houses available to rent, yoga groups, cooperatives in Moshi for women, and travel trips to climb, hike, or camp in the mountainous areas. Like I said, it was a cool place. As a group, we loved Moshi, and I am definitely pushing for a reunion there in a few years. Only next time, we can actually climb the mountain (it’s expensive; thus our choice to do activities near the base of the mountain only)!

***

Because we wanted yet another extra day in Moshi (we loved it that much; and hey, why not extend our epic vacation?) and we realized we could not get transport from Moshi to Kigali, we had to wait another day and catch a bus to Arusha (about an hour away) and organize transport there. Arusha was less than impressive, in my opinion. It was somehow a big city, with a lot of things happening (and I noticed a heck of a lot of shoes for sell) but I wasn’t really sure how to navigate myself around there. I suppose I was just disoriented. That can definitely happen in African towns. We managed to buy overpriced tickets to Kigali (we would later find out that direct tickets wasn’t exactly true; the tickets took us to Kahama, about 2 hours from the border, but we would have to wait an extra day to continue the trip), get another shared room at a lovely establishment called 7-11 (I’m not kidding) and find some food for the evening. We went to a hole-in-the-wall place for some traditional dishes (I opted for some doughnuts and tea—actually quite satisfying) and to finish our meal, we bought corn on the cob with lime juice and salt. Quite tasty! After exploring Arusha as much as we really could (and felt up to doing) we finished our night together with a screening of Twilight on Catie’s laptop. Vacation rocks.

***

Like I said, our tickets didn’t take us home in one day like they were arranged on the front part of our vacation. So, we had one more day close to the border before we could finally get moving in the direction of crossing the border back into Rwanda. We had to keep Peace Corps informed on our whereabouts, and because we had no money, and also had no way to buy phone credit (we have a different company than Tanzania offers) our security officer sent us credit to get in touch with people in Rwanda to inform them about arriving late. We crossed into Rwanda about 10 days after we had started, and it sure was nice to speak Kinyarwanda again, to see those good ole banana trees, and just to feel at home.

Traveling is one of the best life experiences, but it’s also great because you always get to go back to where you started. I felt strangely exhausted and refreshed at the same time. I had a bit of everything while in Tanzania—we had beaches, we had the Obama Bar, we hung out with Masai men, we had cities, we had American and Tanzanian food, we had bus rides, boat rides, long walks, laughter, stress, heat, coldness, and we had one hell of a time. I got to do all of this with some great friends and it’s such a great opportunity to get to know Africa just a bit better. Africa has to be one of the coolest continents in the world. What a few weeks it has been: I went from all of this in Tanzania, to GLOW Camp, and now, finally, finally, I get to be home. It’s fun to tell my neighbors, students, and friends, all about my journeys. Sometimes, I can’t really even believe it myself.

***

weekend solace and the joy of coming home

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I was that girl on the rickety red bus coming up the hills outside Kigalil; I was of course the strangely dressed girl (I wore sport wear simply because I felt like it), as well as a weird white girl, but I was also a very obviously happy girl. I was en route to Suzi’s site, the sun was shining, and I sat next to a sparky old woman who-for once-seemed to actually understand why me (a young 23 year old woman living in Africa) wasn’t in the market for a husband. It’s a strange paradox I have found when it comes to age, marriage, and becoming a woman. While being 23 often incites audible gasps from people surprised to hear my young age, those gasps continue when they realize I am in fact, single. Apparently, in Rwanda, you are a “girl” until you take a husband, but after the age of 25, you are somehow considered a muchechuru, that is, an old woman. Go ahead and try and figure that all out. I’m still trying.

As we all bounced  simultaneously in some condensed-squished together rhythm, I literally could not stop smiling. It’s that feeling when joy fills your body and you are content in that moment because you can be—because you want to be. I was also just greatly anticipating the weekend ahead of me: a visit to Suzi’s site, a trip to the Southern Province to celebrate Alyssa’s birthday, and the prospect of coming back home at the end of all of it. Lately, being in my community—being home—it’s just working. I love it. As unbalanced as emotions, moods, and perspectives can be here, I feel as balanced as you could really expect. I’ve been staying busy; but not in the classic American way of filling to-do lists and moving from one thing to the next. Instead, I’ve been busy visiting. I have been visiting my students at their homes and believe it or not, it’s a pretty big time commitment. First of all, we have to walk there. Which, for many of my superstars (this is what I call my students these days—they love it) is quite far. Then, there is the photos…and the food…and the praying…and the talking. And so, it takes a long time. Yet, I love it, and it’s making me feel so much at home with my community, specifically with my students, and I actually think it’s paying off in the classroom.

Suzi’s site sits maybe a 15 minute walk off  the main road. I’ve visited several times now and I enjoy every time I come. Her home welcomes you with a plethora of colorful flowers and shrubbery; ‘the garden of Eden’ is how I like to lovingly (and aptly) refer to this place, and it’s pretty darn accurate. The compound she lives on is behind the all-encompassing Catholic church and right before the school grounds where she teaches English. The beauty of her site is always so warm and welcoming, and yet it is just a tip of the iceberg in terms of what makes her site so great.

Suz lives with nuns. Yes, nuns.

And, I might argue, some of the best nuns you’ll find. Not that I’ve met a lot of them in the world, but I think these ladies would be hard to beat.

Suz has infinitely more insight and wisdom into the lives and characters of these eccentric, kind-hearted, and gracious women, but I feel fortunate to even  have met them and visited them on a couple of occasions. They greet you like a long lost daughter, feed you like you haven’t eaten in days, and  make you feel like you are right at home. In my short visit last week, I heard the special song they made for Suzi, saw Sister Martha do the shopping cart dance, heard an impression of my laugh (which was strangely accurate), showed photos of my family and friends, and explained that I can, in fact, cut and prepare plantains, cook them on a charcoal stove, and feed myself. I wouldn’t trade my site for anything’ I’m comfortable here, and my community has fully embraced the sport obsessed, loud, and goofy woman that I am. However, herein lies the beauty of visiting friends in Peace Corps: you can experience a piece of their lives in Rwanda and better understand the roles they have in their communities and what they go through on a daily basis. I love visiting Suzi because I get to be around strong and undeniably hilarious nuns, share a meal like a family, and the hot milk and tea is a wonderfully fantastic bonus.

Moreover, I love visiting Suzi because I think an important part of friendship is spending time together and exchanging stories of love, small victories, frustrations, embarrassing moments, and everything in between. In a span of about 18 hours, we played volleyball and football with some of her students, went together to her adult education class, made macaroni and cheese, nearly cried after successfully baking funfetti cake, and talked till nearly 1:00 am (that’s about 4 hours past my normal bedtime!). I knew I had a good friend when I looked at her in the kitchen and asked if I had a bulk of cheese sauce on my face and we just laughed hysterically at what our lives have become. We’re goobers, as she might say.

We traveled together to a rather neat Rwandan town that holds quite a bit of historical significance. It is considered the first area of civilization in Rwanda, where kings ruled for years, and as a result, it has many museums and historical sites. Our trip took a bit longer than what should really be about an hour and a half; we rode largely uphill and we had to stop frequently as there was some cycling event in which we watched serious cyclists climb one hill at a time and cruise gratefully downhill when the opportunity presented itself. It reminded me of what it looked like to watch the Tour de France on TV with Mom and Randy…only this was in person! And in Rwanda! But hey, it was cycling, so that’s a start, right?

We arrived at a hotel pool to find our friends lounging around with food, coke, and beer. Ah yes, a beautiful way to spend a Saturday. I jumped recklessly in the greenish-seaweed color pool (sketchy. Yes. whatever) and felt the cool water strike my skin. It’s June. It’s only natural to be in a pool, right? It is summertime after all. That’s easy to forget about when there are only two true seasons here: rainy or dry. I was a sight for sore eyes: lots and lots of hair on my pasty pasty white legs, dirty feet from traveling, oh, and a huge pimple on my lip. I looked like your run of the mill volunteer from the village—what can you do? In celebration of Alyssa’s birthday, we had chickens cooked and prepared and then brought to the house many of us stayed at. Someone also brought BBQ sauce. Bless their heart. It was heavenly and reminiscent of an American summer celebration. We had lofty ambitions to go out and explore some live Congolese music…but no. The conversation, wine, dancing, and chickens got the best of us. We stayed in and had our own dance party. Pictures were taken. Curled up in a cozy brown and white blanket with red wine and Tracy Chapman’s Crossroads (one of my favorite albums) playing in the background talking about everything from family to Peace Corps to music and sports was a nice way to reconnect with fellow volunteers and friends.

I hugged and greeted children along the road as I carried my maroon flowery bag to Sunday market in the next village over. I was back home from  my quick weekend getaway, and when I checked my food supply, I realized I was in desperate need for some grub. I arrived at the market amidst old women farmers who sell their excess crops and greeted them enthusiastically. They are always so kind and friendly to me; and as far as I know, give me the prices for food and things that are the actual prices. No umuzungu prices for this girl here. I bought some basic vegetables, potatoes, and bananas. It was fun. And those same children that I greeted along the roadside took my hands and we walked together home. I would unpack, wish my dad a Happy Father’s Day, and catch up on the phone with Rachel.

It’s an amazing thing to go exploring in old and new places in Rwanda, but there’s also nothing quite like coming home. It’s somehow possible that the difficult times here actually plant the seeds for the good times to flourish. Now, I am finding a sense of solace in visiting, a bounce in my step when greeting, and a profound sense of pride in my small little rural community. It’s far from perfect. The bad days will continue to come, of course. But, in feeling a bit more at home and connected with the people that I am living with, it’s becoming familiar. Most of all, I find myself welcoming that feeling of Monday morning, which seems odd and at ends with how most people view Mondays anywhere in the world. But for me, it’s when I get to see my students again, when I get to hear about the weekends they had, and start the week all over again. It’s a fresh start. Thank goodness for those. 

10k

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As a recent running convert, I have never actually done any sort of “organized running” you might say. You know, 5K, 10K, and marathon races. However, there certainly is a first time for everything and why not raise the stakes when living in East Africa? Thus, I decided early on in my Peace Corps experience that I wanted to participate in the Kigali Peace Marathon.

The marathon itself draws a decent crowd, I would guess around 300ish runners—maybe even more? This year, 20 countries were represented (and shocking, Kenya dominated in all categories) and in the 8th edition of the race, the Ministry of Sports and Culture dubbed the theme as, “Sports as a tool to fight against youth drug use” (why it couldn’t simply have been “anti-drugs for youth” or something is beyond me). The course began and ended at the bright and bold green and yellow Amahoro (meaning ‘peace’) Stadium where football matches of high regard are often held. I have to say, in entering the stadium to get to the starting line, I let my imagination go a little wild, and felt a sliver of what it might feel like to enter the Olympic opening ceremony (that could also be a severe exaggeration). It was hard to not feel like a rock star, and I certainly wasn’t alone. Among me and my Peace Corps friends, we cheered for ourselves, pumped our fists, and did a little dancing. We’re weird. Nobody around barely turned a head (they were busy with the serious business of warming up) but hey, we were having fun. I really had to use the bathroom beforehand and I had to move quickly; the race was starting only 30 minutes after the scheduled start—that’s like being on time in this part of the world. Of course, toilet paper had yet to be provided in the stalls and well, let’s just say I had to improvise, Drastically. I found my way to the mass of adrenaline-induced runners with my small green IPOD shuffle in hand. It’s what I call a “special” IPOD because the part where I can change the song is broken and so though it still functions, I have to listen to whatever comes on the shuffle, whether it be Lady Gaga, the Dave Matthews Band, or a reggae inspired African jam. I wasn’t deterred; I was simply hopeful that I’d get some dynamite-pump up songs like My Time or Warrior as opposed to my inappropriately extensive Celine Dion collection. Celine is great…but not so much when trying to run miles and miles in the roads of Kigali among East African beast runners.

The muffled sound of the race MC was gargled and hard to understand, but as he counted down to 1, I realized that it was just about time to go! I fist-pumped with Nate, another Peace Corps Volunteer and we were off! My job was simple: I was the first runner of our four-man relay team. Our team consisted of me in the first spot, Jon, Sara, and finally, Meredith. I was hoping to set a good pace and a good time for my team to follow.

I started the race right around 7:23 am and came trotting back into the stadium, sleeves rolled up, banana stains on my hot pink shorts, sweat running down my face after close to an hour out on the trail. That brought my pace to about a 9:00 per mile pace—the best ever recorded? Hardly. But, pretty solid for my first official run.

Here’s what really happened out there:

7:23: depart Amahoro stadium in the first wave of runners. Run past the few camera-men. Smile. Grin. Keep good form—don’t appear too inexperienced. Have a couple second freak out: I am only spotting the numbers and colors coordinated with half and full marathoners. Did I leave with the wrong group? I am running with the relay, and I sure as hell am not running 20, 30, or 40 K!! ….have a sigh of relief when realizing that everybody runs the same course. The relayers run the course once. The half-marathoners run it twice, and the big winners of the day, the full-marathoners, run the same course four times. Phew.

7:24: not sure exactly when the second wave of runners was released but, my oh my, did I ever hear those runners coming. I heard the slap of foot and shoes meeting the cement as I simultaneously turned to see about a group of 30 elite Rwandan and Kenyan runners heading my way. I moved to the right side of the road instantly. I did not need (or want) to be trampled by some of the best runners I have ever seen.

7:25: note the time on my watch. Think for a couple minutes about why I continually wear my nice, turquoise watch that I purchased at the Tokyo airport a few years back, as opposed to a more sensible sports watch. Plan to buy sports watch/ask for one to be sent in the near future. Also realize quite instantly, how alone running is. I’ve loved that about the sport during the past few months, but even though I was running on a TEAM today, the actual sport itself comes down to you, and you alone. It’s you, your legs, and your mind.

7:30: feeling pretty good about form and running on the pavement. Was a bit worried about running on asphalt after training for the past few months on the dirt roads in my village…but so far, so good.

7:40: pass the Peace Corps office. The guards in their recognizable bright blue security outfits, are outside the ominous white gate with the Peace Corps insignia, cheering any PCVs they see. They wave at me, shouting “Komera!” (my most favorite Kinyarwanda phrase—meaning be strong) while smiling fully and warmly. Love them.

7:44: loop back around, passing Bourbon Coffee (really wishing I could have a coffee to go) and the Peace Corps office once again. At this point, tables have been set up full of bananas (and of the crack banana variety—what I call the small, sugary, best bananas in the world that Rwanda has all over the country). A race volunteer scrambles and hands me four bananas. Yummy. I rip each banana open recklessly and without any regard for manners, and chew on these bananas like I am some kind of cave woman. Suddenly, my four bananas are gone and I am empty-handed. Dangit, I think. I might just pay for that later in the race.

7:50: head back in the direction of the stadium along one of the main roads in the city. People are watching as we pass. Some cheer. Some stare. Some laugh. It certainly is Rwanda, isn’t it?

7:53: hit halfway point; 5K finished. Cruising and genuinely enjoying myself.

7:54: run along stations that are in charge of providing squeezy foamy concoctions to each runner so that they stay cool. I would learn this about 2 seconds too late, as I initially tried to squeeze the foam in such a way so that I could actually drink the water. Oops. The men and women at the station gawked and gasped. It was then I realized that this water was for my outer skin to be cool from the raging Rwanda sun…oh well. What can you do?

7:55: continue the run towards the eastern part of the city. This includes passing by the stadium…I suppose I thought I was faster than I really was at this point? Because, I somehow thought the race was ending soon because we had come by the stadium. But no. Oh no. We ran along the stadium gates, continued by UN Kigali offices, and headed toward the part of town known as Remera. I am familiar with this part of town especially, because Remera has the bus station that is my destination anytime I am coming from out East into Kigali.

8:00: consume two more bananas.

8:01: begin to regret all of the banana consumption.

8:02: major stomach cramp takes over. Refuse to stop no matter what. Begin to run at a snail pace. Some European man eggs and cheers me on as he runs with his bright blue camelback; after passing me, he proceeds to do a little crowd pleaser by dancing as he runs on by. I don’t have the kind of energy or strength for that. I can barely breathe with these intense stomach pains!

8:05: begin to wonder when I will see the stadium again and descend upon the end of this rather long run.

8:10: cramps subside; feeling better and stronger. Wanting to finish strong and complete the 10K with a smile on my face.

8:12: arrive on the grounds of the stadium. Miss Independent (my former favorite “African song” from Ghana…until I realized it was a classic hit from the AMERICAN, Ne-Yo…oops) is playing loudly on the speakers. Feeling my own independence and strength, I run faster.

8:15: the trail continues in a complete circle around the stadium. Really, I mean, really?

 8:20: enter the stadium for one final lap to the finish line. My team and other Peace Corps participants are there to cheer me on. “You got it Heather! Yay!” They are awesome.

8:22: cross the finish line. (!!!!!) realize that I must slap Jon’s hand for him to get going. Hastily grab his hand for him to get going.

8:22 (cont.): realize just how much my legs hurt. And my stomach. Damn bananas.

We waited around for the next few hours as our relay teams finished and some of our friends even did the full and half marathons. Our relay team, bless their heart, finished last (or maybe it was second to last) among relay teams. However, to be fair, our last runner, Meredith, had to deal with a torrential downpour during her run. She has the best attitude though, and only worried about finishing and bringing our team home. We rocked it.

As we waited for our teams to finish, World Vision (the main sponsor of the event) workers announced alongside with representatives of the Ministry, the main winners of the day. As already mentioned, the Kenyans dominated. Completely. With the exception of one Rwandan woman who finished in the top 3 for the full-marathon women, all winners were Kenyan.

Two of the best moments after my run were this:

  • We watched as one man, who only has one leg, and thus uses crutches for support, finished the half-marathon before many other people. He got probably one of the loudest cheers of the day.
  • Some of the Peace Corps Volunteers received a grant to take some of their students to the marathon to compete in the relays. One student in particular, was glowing upon reaching the finish line. He’s a short little guy, shorter than me even, but he ran hard and his teammates were so happy for him, and for each other. About 20 PCV Rwandan students ran in the marathon, and for them, was an opportunity to learn about nutrition, about sport, but more than anything, an opportunity to do something pretty awesome. That was a great thing to see, and I’m hoping to get involved with that grant next year so some of my kids can come and run!

After the rain passed and we made it back to the Peace Corps hostel to clean up, a few of us grabbed a heck of a lot of Chinese food. We ate. A lot. I headed back home that evening, exhausted, but also thrilled that I participated in such an event.

Running, as painful, challenging, and difficult as it can be, also opens these doors to clarity, peace, and self-fulfillment. I’m addicted. I want to run another race already (next year, I’m gunning for the half, and have already set my eyes on participating in the Princess Marathon at Disney World upon return from Peace Corps). Running is meditative,..and on top of everything else, great for your health. I’ve lost about 30 pounds—the healthy way—and I think I’ve survived the tougher days when I’ve been out on the trail. I’m not especially good at it, but maybe that’s what makes it so great. You don’t have to be. You do it for your reasons, and support the people around you who are doing the very same thing, even if their reasons are entirely different.

10K? Check. 

1 year later

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Isabella and Apolloknee (I am quite sure this is not how you spell her name, but it’s how I see it in my head, like Apollo—the space shuttle, and knee—a body part) arrived at my house earlier this week for dinner. I had just returned back from the boutique to buy a couple of rounds (no, not of beer, no way would I drink out here in the village) of Fanta and had just put the warm food in my heart themed serving set. On the menu were buttered noodles, brown-asian sautéed rice, and boiled vegetables. Nothing particularly special, but tasty enough to satisfy my guests. Both of these women are nurses at the nearby health center (where I’ll soon be teaching English) and to get a taste of their personalities, I can tell you that it was Isabella, when I first visited her home and asked if she had a boyfriend, who told me straight-faced (before laughing loud and unreservedly) that she did. She has three.

While I finished gathering utensils and checking on the boiling water to serve coffee (using my handy-dandy French press!) I threw my rather obnoxiously large red photo album on the table to keep them occupied. In Rwandan culture, photos are gold. You can’t go wrong.

When I came back to my dining room table (which is actually multi-purpose; I also use the dinky, wobbly table as a coffee table, sometimes as a desk, and always as a place to eat—it is in fact my only table and is courtesy of my school) they were gazing at one photo in particular.

I figured it was probably my favorite photograph of Cinderella’s castle at Disney World (I often have to tell people that no, I certainly do not live there) but instead it was a photo from Hendrix—my sophomore year—and it was one from Ali’s birthday. Jane, a former field hockey player, and I were holding Ali—one at each end—bracing to throw her in the fountain as per Hendrix birthday tradition. It’s the perfect picture to capture that Hendrix spirit: we each look perfectly poised to run as soon as we let Ali go (which we did) and Ali is wearing her Yankees navy blue t-shirt (an Ali classic) and even better, is wearing those questionable bright orange mesh hockey shorts that we were given our freshman year, the first year of the program. Everything about this photo screams Hendrix, and as I attempted to explain this college tradition to my friends with Kinyarwanda and dramatic hand gestures (using mostly gestures, I will admit) I nostalgically grasped that it had been just about a year since we graduated. We are now 1 year alumni.

Graduation Day 2011.

I woke up to my phone alarm (not to an annoying song ringtone like ‘Tattoo’ that I was famous for earlier in my college days), surrounded by boxes, clothes, and items strewn across my floor. I played “Wagon Wheel” (a Hendrix fave) as I started to get ready. Four years had come down to this? My eyes were puffy. Silly me, I read a beautiful letter from Jordana as I feel to sleep the night before and it brought me to tears (lots of them). I would like to look back on that day and say that I was feeling utterly invincible and completely, 100% happy—and at times I was—but in the way that it was a liberating and celebratory day with all of my loved ones having traveled from so far, it was also a major marker of the huge fork (as Robert Frost might say) in the road before us. I worked hard to feel the zest and pomp and circumstance. But, it was hard. I kept thinking about the goodbyes—oh! the dreaded goodbyes—and it was difficult to fathom what was happening. The ceremony was a blur, as huge life events can sometimes be, but I remember the cheers of the cafeteria ladies (especially from Ms. Debra. My god, that woman is loud), the contrast of the dimness of the room in Grove Gym and the look of brightness on professors’ faces as we boldly entered into our commencement ceremony, and mostly, I remember how proud I was not just when I stepped on that overbearing stage to accept my diploma, but more so when I looked on and smiled as my dear friends (well, most of them, Lauren is a 2012 graduate) did the same thing. We did it.

On that day some of us knew the directions ahead of us; certainly some more than others. I had a strong feeling that I’d end up here, in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but I had also had the fun opportunity to have my life hang in balance as Peace Corps debated (for an entire year) if I was qualified for service. More would come that summer, I would soon discover, as I was finally invited into the Rwandan program mid-July, days after being told that the program I was nominated for had closed and I should expect to not be a volunteer in the near future. I found out just before an incredibly fun and jam-packed vacation to Disney World with Rachel, right before Michelle’s astoundingly beautiful wedding in the great metropolis of Moscow, Tennessee, and also right as I finished these two aforementioned events with one last visit to Hendrix to see Lauren and Ali. It was fitting to spend my last weeks in America with them, and then finally, my supportive and wonderful family. When it was time to go, I made my way through Philly, New York, Brussels, and finally, Kigali, Rwanda. It’s funny. Leaving for this felt surprisingly like it did to leave home for college in the first place, four years prior.

Fall 2007.

The green Subaru moved further and further in the distance, away from the girls’ dorms and away from me! They left me. In Arkansas. What. WHAT. What was I doing? I grudgingly walked (as slow as I could) to the now old cafeteria—the Burrow to be precise—to meet the field hockey girls for the first time. I passed the immensely large trees and trudged my way through the grimy Southern heat (you know, around 108 degrees, no big deal) thinking that mom, Randy, and grandma couldn’t make it that far in one day back to Colorado. Maybe they could come back for me?

This would be the year of a now inexplicable and embarrassing High School Musical obsession, Chick-fil-A every Saturday night for dinner, a winless hockey season, an accident involving gold spray paint and shoes in the Veasey Hall bathtub, a regrettable boy crush, and lots and lots of weight gain courtesy of the ever present cafeteria food (Chicken a-la King, despite what the haters say, still rocks). More than all of this, my friendships began here. Crazy (and weird) do-it-yourself music videos, mission trips, Apples to Apples, “study” sessions, photo shoots (sometimes as late as 3 am?), and explorations onto the social scene (or lack thereof).

I didn’t know all of this, and so I was scared. I was hesitant; would I make any friends? I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. Somehow, everything usually does happen for a reason, we end up places and with people because we need them. I, honest-to-God, believe that.

It’s interesting how with time, you grow not only into yourself, but along with other people if you so let it. After leaving my host family this past December to brave the new life of a volunteer in a rural Rwandan village, I realized that to get through this—better yet, to thrive in this—I needed support. I’ve come to heavily rely on Peace Corps friends. Despite our own situations and site differences, it’s pretty uncanny in that when I’m having a bad day, usually Meredith, Suzi, Alyssa, or Sara are having one too. It’s like we’re on the same wavelength or something. We’re together and it’s comforting to have people who get at least some of this experience; if nothing else, they understand what it feels like to be outside of a culture 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I’m American. I can try to be Rwandan. I can get close. But, I can’t (nor will I) change entirely. I’m learning a lot about who I am—especially in regards to my own limitations—and my friends are doing the same. We’re leading a weird life, we know that, but it’s a meaningful one and so we do the best we can.

August 2010.

It was time to return.

I could not have been happier to cross the Arkansas state line coming through Oklahoma—senior year, baby! I had been in Ghana with Rachel the previous semester and so I hadn’t seen most of my friends in months, far too long at this point in our lives.

By this point, our group, the Hey Girl Hey Girls as some would say, were well established. They were the ones who were there when my heart was breaking hearing about my brothers’ struggles back home, who encouraged me to pursue a lovely liberal arts degree called American Studies, had been closely involved with the field hockey team (getting better each year, by the way), had come each week to our girls’ bible study, had been together as a group when Obama became the first black President, and would engage in deep ‘what is life?’ talks just for the hell of it, even if a huge paper was due the next day (these talks certainly encompass everything from what is time? to things like scouring wedding blogs and discussing the state of our world). Moreover, we had a lot to talk about as we each arrived back on campus that fall. Michelle had been in England; Ali, Jessica, and Lauren at Hendrix; Rachel and I in Ghana; Jordana in Belgium; Paige in Scotland; Angela in Finland; and Alison in Latin America for a full year abroad.

Ghana was a profound life experience in every way it could be. I found a passion to help, a need to see the world, an addiction to Coca-Cola, an exposure to issues in poverty and education on a global level, and the deep friendship I already had with Rachel grew leaps and bounds in those 4ish months abroad. I came back to the US a changed woman that summer after Ghana.

Senior year would be the year of grown up apartment living (kind of ) with Michelle and Ali, thesis writing on the relationship of recreational space and socio-economics in New Orleans (culminating in park research and other fun times in NOLA for Spring Break), our very own March Madness, Michelle’s engagement, live band karaoke with Rachel, singing ‘Super Freak’, major and important field hockey wins for my last season, Harry Potter marathons, snow days, grocery shopping and cooking (usually with me in the kitchen it was enchiladas), and towards the end, lots and lots of Yahtzee.

It was a fantastically fun year, but a hard one—on the brink of change and moving forward. Senior year of college stands as a crossroad for where I am now, because it was at that time where I realized my potential and ability to be here, teaching and integrating on a daily basis. Hendrix, like many other life experiences outside it, helped me grow as a woman and realize—fully realize—who I was and wanted to be. Hendrix helped me question and then recognize that that was entirely okay. It was there where I lost and found God again, where I got a full view of poverty in different places around the world, and understood better that though small, yes, one person can make a difference.

I learnt a lot, all four years, in and out of the classroom (maybe the exception being Robotics—Lauren can sympathize with me here). Looking back, all that I needed was there. Hendrix wasn’t the only thing that pushed me to pursue a life of service (my home and family did a large chunk of that), but it was a big part.

Michelle always has loved benedictions. So, as this reflection of time and seasons and life 1 year after Hendrix ends, I’ll close with what I hope makes her proud:

All of us, we are bits and pieces of what we were before, slowly letting room in for change, ideas, people, and experiences.

We have no choice but to embrace where we go. We long, we miss, we remember. It’s important to do so. But because life is a continuum, nothing really stays the same, does it?

Even as I’m here, writing by candlelight in Rwanda, tomorrow will not be today.

And so, take the past and the future, but live now.

Maybe it’s thousands of miles away like my family, like my friends, like my old college days, but it’s there because as for me, I’ve been changed because of where I’ve been. What matters tends to stick around. Maybe not in the ways we want or think it will, but if nothing else, we have beautifully poignant memories that remind us the power of relationships and people (and places) in our lives. I know, for example, that having all of the people I love in one place is nearly impossible. But, that’s okay too. Because they will come and they will go, but the people you love never really leave entirely.

I’m a year out from graduation, and I remember so many things about those wonderful (and at times, very difficult) four years of my life. More than anything, I am grateful for my friends there because without them, I wouldn’t be the person I am and am becoming. The best part is that I have them for life, and if that’s what you walk away with after the ending of some life experience, well, consider yourself immensely blessed.

I showed a few more photos to Isabella and Apolloknee before we got to the prayer and stuffing our faces part of our meal. They enjoyed my stories and the pictures that went with them. I explained my large family, my dogs, and my high school friends too. And when I say that after dinner, that very evening, I’ll talk to both dad and a friend from back home in America, they seem happy because they can see too, that what God generously provided, still remains.

 

 

 

happy (spring) holidays

Standard

For the record. I love Michael Jackson. But not for reasons you might think. 

Uber talented? Yes. Revolutionary in the limitations (and stretching those limitations) of music? Of course. Singer of the Free Willy hit “Will You Be There”? YES. That’s when I fell for MJ’s music.

I remember as a young girl–maybe 10, 11, 16–I would dig for this old rickety black tape we had thrown aside in some household dresser. On it contained two landmark films from the 90’s (or was it 80’s?): Homeward Bound  and yes, Free Willy. I often watched these movies on repeat, back to back, totally taken by the animals’ plights in each respective film. Free Willy, especially, was my favorite. That scene where the large whale is doing some neat flip in the air and going back home to the ocean, simultaneously to “Will You Be There” is pretty emotional. Don’t believe me? Watch it again! I tell you, you might surprise yourself. Anyway, it’s the song that makes that scene so utterly fantastic, and since then, have a special place in my heart for that song. 

So, it was fitting that at the start of our school holiday I found myself running the back roads of Nyaraturama in Kigali (by the Peace Corps office and hostel) when three Michael Jackson songs came on in a row (I have an IPOD shuffle so it stands to be a strange occurrence with 400 total songs available to choose from). Michael jams always just makes you feel good, you know? I was in an upbeat, light mood and jammin’ to the beat as my feet hit the pavement through Kigali roads (the songs were “Bad”, “The Way You Make Me Feel”, and the mecca of Jackson, “Will You Be There”). I had finished visiting my headmaster at his Kigali home the day before (he commutes as a headmaster for my school but also as a pastor at a Kigali Christian church) and was about to head out to Western Rwanda—to a lake town called Kibuye—with my friend Sara to visit another friend, Saara (we were all together in our Kinyarwanda language groups back in training). Of course, I wanted to squeeze in a quick run before vacation; no matter where you are in the world, somehow, vacations always bring out unlimited refills of Coke, a gorging in delicious food, and a carefree attitude—which is great!

Strangely enough, these back roads I ran before leaving for the bus station were lined with homes that could have come out of a blended mix of posh San Diego and uppity Aspen. I ran open-mouthed as I saw seemingly Southern inspired columns forming massive archways and perfectly manicured lawns every which direction. These were very wealthy homes (the Real Houswives of Kigali, anyone?) and formed a vision a far cry from my rural village just an hour and a half away. I could not have been more self-aware—of who I was and where—nearby, clustered pockets of poverty sat on the outskirts. Against the backdrop of immense wealth, I saw thatches for homes, compounds squished together, and I was reminded that like many parts of the world, visual reminders of both extreme wealth and poverty sometimes become compounded together and gaining a real picture of what society is like can prove difficult. Immediately, I thought to myself how Rwandans would see me running and associate me with this image of money; they would see me as a person that belonged in this kind of neighborhood. I mean, what else would I be doing there running around? I ran faster, afraid of such an implication. I realized in that moment that my notions of wealth and perception of the role I (and all of us) play in the dynamics of society’s rich and poor has been irrevocably changed (and I’m not really sure how yet). In a year and a half down the road, when I come home as a RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer), well, America certainly will be interesting.

Sara and I guzzled down some liquids on the bus (her a bottle of water, for me, passion fruit juice) along with some chocolate biscuits in preparation for the 3ish hour bus ride to the West. Eating in public is generally taboo in Rwanda, but bus stations and buses seem to get a free pass as I see Rwandans eating in the realm of public transport all the time. The ride was relatively uneventful; however, the views were mesmerizing. I told Rachel over the phone that where I live (also very beautiful—Rwanda doesn’t have a bad spot in the country) would be like living in the Appalachians back home. The West in Rwanda, by comparison, is like seeing the Rocky Mountains thrown in with a little Hawaii for good measure—completely consuming in terrain and full of stunning colors and depth. I was thrilled to be starting the holiday in such a gorgeous place. We spent about three full days exploring the Karongi District. We stayed at Saara’s (we shared a mattress in true Peace Corps-roughin’ it style), and one of the neatest things about being a volunteer here is seeing first hand other Rwandan communities and living situations for other volunteers. Each of us have something different; and each of us is having our very own, unique experience. Place matters that much. Saara has running water and electricity and even has “sitemates” (other PCVs or NGO workers) and yet with all of this comes different sets of challenges. For example, Saara lives near the District center, and while that brings amenities, it certainly can be harder to meet people and find a smaller, close knit community.

On our trip we ate pizza and salads lakeside, drank cold cokes and beers, watched Bridesmaids, made our own macaroni and cheese, and shared some of our experiences at site. After spending a good amount of time in Kigali, I came to realize that this was the epitome of a holiday. Kigali is nice because you can find that American niche relatively easily, but there is something much more special about being with new friends, exploring those friendships, and being in a beautiful place to boot. It always feels nice to be away from the hustle and bustle and focus on reflection, and more than anything, finding good, hard laughter. Don’t get me wrong, I laugh at home plenty. It’s often those moments where nobody is around that are the most hilarious (take for example, once when a mouse peed in my eye. This is, in fact, a true story…for another time of course…) but laughter is just so much better as a shared experience. I even saw Happy Feet for the first time which has to be one of the most adorable movies, and we shared many laughs over that and many other things.

It’s rainy season and so my 6 hour journey home was mostly in just that—lots and lots of rain. But, it felt good to be coming back to site—to home—and I was looking forward to settling in after staying busy the past few weeks with an assortment of obligations. I dumped by stuff at home and raced to market (Thursday is my only market day of the week!) so I could get there and back before dark. I bought cabbage, carrots, bananas, and onions to name a few and when I finally reached my large floor mat to do a short ab workout before bed, I thought the night would end without anything to crazy.

I was wrong.

As I turned my IPOD on, I heard a knock on my metal door gate that sits about 12 feet or so my front porch, with a yard in between. I asked who it was, and with the combination of my bad hearing and Rwandans tendency to speak far too softly, I heard nothing. Turns out, it was a woman from Kigali with her baby in tow. I thought she was here to visit Louise, my roommate, and so I had her come in through my door to take her back to the room that Louise and I share, as Louise was busy cooking her dinner. However, once Louise conversed with her in rapid fire Kinyarwanda and translated it back to me, well, this is what I got:

This woman says that Isamily—a seller at a Kigali market—told her to come here to our sector to get help with her baby. Her baby is poisoned. She says that she was told that you could help her find a place to stay and that you know this “doctor.” She even had your phone number but her phone was stolen on her bus ride here today.

Umm….? I sat there blankly and couldn’t help but gasp in frustration; who would tell her that? I don’t even know this person! What was I supposed to do? How in the world could I help this situation? In my head all I could think was, what.is.going.on.??? Luckily, Louise handled the situation like a rockstar, finding her a room to stay in that normally another teacher occupies, and got her settled with some food. In the midst of all of this, Suzi, one of my best friends here, called to tell me that with all the rain, her room at the convent (where she lives) had flooded and ruined many things. Oh Wanda.

Of course, the woman came back a couple days later after seeing the “poison doctor” (whatever that means) and requested to LIVE with me. Like, as in, stay here. I didn’t really fully understand her request and had called my headmaster for a translation. He gave a resounding ‘no’ which makes sense; I have two rooms only and certainly no space to house a mother and child. I just felt bad though; she said she didn’t want to go back to her “crazy and bad husband” who was apparently responsible for the poisoning of the child? I’m not really sure about the details, but it was obviously a bad home situation for her. But, ultimately, I couldn’t help her in that way, so I gave her a small amount of money for transportation and bid farewell. I don’t know if I’ll really ever know how she got my information, why she came to this small village, or exactly what her story was. Weird.

Anyway, soon after the whole situation with the woman had calmed a bit that night, I was intending to get back to my workout. Yet, just as quickly, there was another knock on my gate. This time, it was my friend Aline (a Kigali-chique 20 something year old) and her crew including her mother and some friends with a big Simba Supermarket bag for me—with a cat inside. Scratch that—not cat—kitten! I couldn’t be older than a week—it’s able to fit in my hand and can barely walk. It was a gift for me, and though I was excited, I was incredibly overwhelmed. I had no time to refuse; they practically ran out my door after delivering the ‘ipusi’ (cat in Kinyarwanda). While the kitten and I had a couple of nice days together, I gave it away to a friend of mine and her two young girls who live in Kigali at an Easter party I went to. They happened to be looking for one, and I could definitely fill the need. Though the cat seemed appealing at first, in terms of company as well as a way to catch mice, I just don’t have the energy to have a pet right now, and the kitten cried so much the first couple of days that I really didn’t sleep. Plus, I’m a bit allergic and Louise was mortified when she saw the kitten. I think it’s in better hands now, but I will miss that little guy (kind of). I also just think I’m more of a dog person, anyway.

With all of this and that of the holiday, it’s good I am here in my village as I’ll be witnessing some extremely important things the next few days and weeks. Genocide Memorial Week is here. Clearly, I’ll be on the outside looking in, but as a PCV in Rwanda, it couldn’t be more important in trying to understand what happened in community during the 1994 Genocide. Already, I’ve lain in the grass under an expansive avocado tree as I listened along with my entire community to President Paul Kagame telling the country that Rwanda will continue to grow and learn from the past. Each day during the memorial week, there is a mandatory conversation that the whole village must attend. My headmaster is speaking one day; and the purpose is for a message to be given, but for people to reflect and remember as well.

So far, it hasn’t been as emotionally charged in an outward way that I was expecting, but I have been able to sense the very real emotion in the air. Even after 18 years of peace in Rwanda, I can’t even begin to imagine the memories that Rwandans harbor and how the terror that erupted in this country has forever changed the paths and direction of people’s lives. Yet, hope is a very real thing. I left one of these dialogues that I described today hand in hand with my good friend Jacqueline, and even though she was suffering from a headache, had just left a discussion on the Genocide, she just smiled as she always does, wished me a Happy Easter, and exuded a true sense of optimism. In many ways, this holiday will be challenging: how do I take part in the remembrance of something I had no part in? How do I even begin to sympathize? And still, how do I show that I care in the most appropriate and culturally sensitive way?

Still, because I have nearly 4 months of living here in my site, I am as prepared as I could be. I have good friends, a good community, and so I’m grateful to just be here. I was reading through the last few chapters of John from the Bible in church today (as it was Easter and I tend to only understand about 10% of the service, I thought it might be good to have some reflection about Jesus’ resurrection) when one of the pastors, Emmanuel, addressed me and wanted to make sure I was understanding the message and provided me with the appropriate scripture that he was discussing. After church, many of the community members wished me a blessed Easter and said Yesu, ashimye (God Bless You) countless times. And at the Easter party I attended at my friend Silas’ house (the same person who also had me come to his family Christmas party), his aunt, who I call Sole (meaning ‘sun’), talked at length about the importance of education and her work as an NGO worker with an Italian organization to help Congolese refugees.

These are just genuinely good people.

Towards the end of John, Jesus addresses his disciples (many times, actually, as He knows full what will soon happen to Him) and reminds them that the grief that they will feel when He returns to the Father (God) will turn to joy. He tells them: ‘You believe at last!’ Jesus answered. ‘But a time is coming, and has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet, I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (John 16: 31-33)

Admittedly, I have felt alone here at times. Many times, even. But I’m realizing that its God’s heart in many of the people that I’ve met that has been the comfort, the support, and the answer to this isolation and loneliness that comes every now and then. I am scattered—in ways, all of us are—but Jesus overcame the world and in doing so, overcame all that was bad.

I’m scattered, yes, but I’m not alone. I have a community, I have friends and family (here and all over the place), and I have a sustaining, growing, and reaffirmed faith in God. That’s a really good thing to realize, particularly on a day like Easter. Here’s to the spring holiday: astoundingly beautiful places, good communities, remembrance, reflection, and a reminder of what’s good in—and out—of the world.