Tag Archives: travel

what I know for sure

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Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all.
The Lord is near.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with Thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4: 4 – 9  

with Divine and kiddos from my host family at my original training site.

with Divine and kiddos from my host family at my original training site.

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Divine’s mama, and one of many mamas for me who I will always love and remember. This was taken right before we said goodbye.

Our small prayer group leader read these words slowly and intentionally. He read in Kinyarwanda, of course, and so I sat resolutely on a small brown bench trying to understand. He read these words on behalf of our Tuesday prayer group; he read this scripture as a representation of God’s bread. He shared this verse for me. It was my final day to pray in Ruramira, my home for the past two years. When I read the verse later in English as Divine and I finished eating my favorite food (plantains) in my living room, tears and gratitude filled my heart. What wonderful words to encapsulate my life here. What a beautiful piece of the Bible to send me off with. When we finished our prayers that last Tuesday, the old mamas huddles around me. Their old skin touched me as they set their walking sticks aside and they let out soft sounds of sadness.

“Uzagaruka ryari?” (When will you come back?)
“Simbizi.” (I don’t know.)
“Eh baba we. Imana yanjye! Turababaye pe.” (Oh my God, we are so very sad.)
“Ariko niba Imana ashobora kwerekana inzira, nzagaruka.” (But, if God shows me the way, I will return.)

I muttered something about these women being wonderful abakekurus (old women) but I completely lost words to speak when I saw one of these women grasping her mouth and holding back tears. Rwandans are stoic; never before had I seen an older Rwandan woman cry. Kinyarwanda, English….I don’t know. Finding the right words is impossible with goodbyes like this. Which is why that scripture means so much to me; where our words and understanding fails, God comes.

*

I’ve been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda somewhere around 820 days. For 27 months. The end always seemed like an idea formed in some intangible myth. We’d talk about America but it didn’t seem real. Of course I knew Rwanda would come to an end – eventually – but even now it feels impossible to look at my ticket and know it is really happening. To say I’m struggling to process all of this barely covers it, despite knowing from the very beginning that Peace Corps was never permanent. I remember in the first days of training how we always joked that “today is forever” because of the long days of Kinyarwanda lessons, cultural training, walks to our training site, and integration attempts with our families. I was convinced that if “real Peace Corps life” (that is, the time after training) was like that then there was no way I would survive two years in this country.

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“Real Peace Corps life” is not like that. If you approach the experience not as a job but wholly the life you have, then time moves, life happens, and sooner than you really understand, it’s over. My life for the last 820-ish days has been full. It’s been some of the best and worst days of my 24 years. In this time as a resident of Rwanda, I’ve had two birthdays, learnt a language, lost around 20 pounds, and was called “umuzungu” every single day. I found one of the best friends I will ever have, prayed regularly at the Catholic Church, was harassed, coached football, had rocks thrown at me by our village “crazy”, was lied to frequently, ate amazing home-made Rwandan food on student visits, helped establish a library, learned to use charcoal, somehow became a teacher, and lived in a village full of many people who had never seen an American before.

I became a friend, a family member, visited 4 other countries, went on 3 safaris, and showed my parents this beautiful country. I became a fan of waking up at 5:00am, read books, watched a lot of TV shows, and journaled almost every day. I have completed over 12 journals to prove it. Using a latrine became normal, I dealt with a nasty staph infection, and I was sick a few times. The most serious episode is now rumored to be an act of “poison” among my community members but I think I just ate a bad batch of meat. I drank banana beer in secret, wrote letters, and spent a lot of time on crowded buses. Once, I danced in front of 3,000 people at a church revival. Many times I prayed for over 5 hours on Sundays. I learnt far more about grace, love, and humility than I can even begin to say. I saw the good and bad of Rwandan culture and absorbed a lot of it in my own personality. My Peace Corps superlative at our going-away party was “most likely to return and live in Rwanda” and in a letter from Yazina, she commended the “miracle” it was to see an American woman also become a Rwandan woman. The lines certainly are blurred for me.

I have only told a few people this, but last year I heard voices in my house when I tried to sleep. I called out my grandmother’s name and I felt something on my back and neck. This all happened for a span of about a week in early 2012. I never knew what it was for sure, but I lost several nights of sleep before going to Kigali to see the doctor. Was I going crazy? Our doctor drained my ears and I only heard the voices once more after and so who knows.

In one of the most defining moments of my life, Rwanda served as the place I first heard the voice of God. I’ll never forget it. I was in a motorcycle accident one spring evening, around 6:00 at night. My motorcycle driver had come to take me, while another driver took Yazina and Divine from a restaurant we were visiting. It was dark, rainy, and not a good time to be in the road on a motorcycle. My motorcycle collided head-on with an old man and his bicycle as the road veered slightly to the left. Time stood completely still as my driver braked harshly and I was ejected forward from the back. I wore a measily helmet but it managed to stay on as I met the road with the back of my head and body and rolled once into a ditch. However, it’s what I heard when I spent milliseconds in the air, completely free in the body, that has changed my life. My legs dangled and I heard nothing but complete silence. I was screaming, but I didn’t hear it. The screeching of the brakes didn’t enter my ears. All I heard was,

BE STILL AND KNOW I AM GOD.

I processed be still and was sure to keep my body strong so I could absorb the impact on the pavement safely. Bruises, a cut lip, and shock aside, I was fine. In the next few minutes, I called Suzi completely panicked, and then was able to call the girls to come back. I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I saw Divine on the other side of the road waiting for me, arms wide open. It was raining heavily at this point, and all I could do was sob. She held me tight, repeating that God loves you over and over. In light of all of these events, I know that was God. I know it.

*

So you can perhaps see the difficulty in understanding how this is over. Somewhere along the way it became a reality (for good and bad) and life continued. I learnt a lot of things in these months of residing in a small village surrounded by forests and banana trees. I learned how to communicate using multiple languages and many times, using the body as well. I learned the difference between being a “good” teacher and a “fun” teacher – because you can be both. I learned how to cook – a skill I’m very excited about.

I learned things I never imagined I would need; things like, using oil on the outside of a pot to prevent smoke leaving black stains, the best way to run when 5 children desperately want to hold onto you, how to kill a snake with a mop, and how to overcome fear with a woman who is insane and trying to remove all of her clothes in front of you.

Yeah, my life was strange here.

Of everything though, the one constant, transcending life lesson that was evident during my time in Rwanda was this:

GOD NEVER LEAVES US.

That alone, is what I know for sure.

Oprah Winfrey always ends her issues of O! Magazine with a few inspiring paragraphs about her most recent life insights. What I Know For Sure, is what she calls them.

Well for me, I can only spend endless paragraphs trying to adequately describe a truth I can barely fathom. God. Never. Leaves. Us.

It’s the only sentiment that explains the relationships I have made. And it’s the truth that held me together on the more challenging and trying days here.

What I know for sure is that God is the reason I was able to move my life, to leave my family, and to find pure, untainted joy in a place that like anywhere else has a plethora of issues.

Rwanda has not always been kind to me.

But in the midst of dark times, there was always light.

When my grandmother died, I had my host family to console me.
When I saw students beat others, there was a belief that things could change.
When I was lonely, someone always appeared or called. Or, I had Velveeta cheese from dad tucked away somewhere.
When I felt like a failure, GLOW club shined.
When I was afraid, living in my house without power, I found contentment in going to sleep early and peacefully in the night.
When I ran on these rural roads and people sometimes mocked me, I was able to run faster.

I’m a very lucky woman though. Most of the time, I loved Rwanda. Deeply, intensely – I loved it here.

And it isn’t very hard to figure out why. This last weekend, on a final visit to my host family, we gathered around the table after a delicious meal of meat, fries, rice, and fanta to pray. Divine had come with me and my family was so happy to meet her. Mama started to pray and she prayed long and hard. For 10 minutes she spoke to God. For 10 minutes she also struggled to find the words to speak – tears were stuck in her throat as she prayed for my journey, for the continued strength in my relationships, and for the time I had in Rwanda. When she finished the only thing I could tell her was that I believe that their family and Divine are direct blessings from God. God is the reason I was able to love this place like I do. His hand was in everything.

*

My last month here was one long goodbye. First to school, then to my students, then to teachers, then to my community, then to families, then to my students, then to my friends, then to my host family, and my last goodbye – in a sense, my goodbye to Rwanda – to Divine.

It was one of my favorite months here. I traveled around freely – to around 5 different districts – and to prevent being alone in my house while in my village, Divine moved in with me to support me for my last weeks. We spent our days truly enjoying each other’s company. She taught me how to properly wash clothes, I taught her how to use “home row” while using a computer. We even made her a facebook and email on a trip into town. We cooked. We listened to the radio. We took naps. We just lived life.

In one of my final days in Rwanda, we, along with 3 other of my girls, enjoyed a trip to Akagera National Park so they could experience a safari and see incredible animals and physical scenery. They loved it. They squealed at the sight of giraffes and upon seeing a large elephant in the road just 15 feet away, believed the elephant would come to eat us. Our 6 hour game park drive thrilled them and they repeatedly acknowledged how unbelievable it all was. I sat next to a quiet Divine on the way home. But our friendship is so comfortable that silences don’t bother me – a testament to our closeness because I love chatting! Finally she looked at me and spoke with conviction and clarity.

“Heather, the reason I am quiet is because I just feel this action you have made is so uncountable. It’s above my head – I don’t have words to say. It’s just amazing.”

I told her, “no problem Shu, there is no problem. I am just so happy you could see that place.”

“Thank you so much. But Heather. It’s more than this action of today. It’s all actions you have shown for me and others in the 2 years to share life. You are the first person in my life to speaking something and shoe the action – always. I have friends and family to support me, but what you have done for me…I don’t understand. Birarenze (to be at a loss for words)…I don’t have the words. All of this, it comes from God, and…wow. I don’t understand.”

Divine and I have had a slow goodbye and so we have had many conversations that try to pinpoint how we can have the friendship we do, but it always comes back to our lack of understanding – namely that it comes from God and how can we begin to grasp the intricacies of friendship that he works within?

I sigh and quickly code these words from Divine into my memory. I don’t want to forget. Her words soothe my soul and it’s in that moment that despite the pain in moving on, I can do it – one, because I have humbly succeeded in what I set out to do (help the world just a little bit) and two, God’s given me an incredible friend who has taught me about life in ways only explainable by God’s divine touch.

Her English is a second language and yet I know her heart more deeply than people I have known for years. Her love for God is unchanging in all things – she showed me what it means to be a strong Christian woman.

We laughed everyday, shared meals, went on walks, studied, explained our histories, and did it all from two very different walks of life.

What I know for sure is that God never leaves us because in the time I needed friendship He gave me one of His most devoted followers.

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Today is just like every other day. The Kigali sun is starting to reach the peak in the sky, birds are bustling around in the trees, and I’m ready for a buzz of caffeine from a cup of coffee. It’s just like any other day, except that it’s my last day in Rwanda and that in just 9 short hours, I will be on a plane headed for America. Headed for home.

I left my village on a moto, tears streaming down my face, as a group of my closest friends waved goodbye. They had come early in the morning to give letters, hug me, sip coffee, and say some parting words. Some of the congregation at the Catholic church were working the fields as my motorcycle zoomed past and I wistfully placed my hands in the air to wish them peace. I was leaving. Leaving. I remember the first time I came to Ruramira, by way of motorcycle, and I was leaving much in the same way. Only this time, there were kids screaming “Impano! Impano!” and I could look around, knowing where most of the paths lead. The difference was that I was leaving a home.

I went back to the very place I started – my host family – so I could give them final hugs. The goodbye was prayerful, full of gifts, and amazing, inspiring words. I told them what Divine has done for me in my time as a volunteer, and they commended her greatly, wishing her to come back and visit. They repeatedly told me how much appreciation they have for the work I have done and even more so, my attempts to live and work within Rwandan culture. Mama could barely believe the things I have learned to cook (cassava bread, bananas, and good sauce) and when she heard some of the new Kinyarwanda phrases I have acquired she stood back in shock. Somehow you have become Rwandan, she told me. From a strong Rwandan woman, that’s about the biggest compliment you could ask for.

Divine and I came back to Kigali following our visit to the host family to enjoy one more night together. We had tea and bread and we listened to the Catholic radio station. We talked. A lot. And we cried, a lot. When morning came, after few hours of sleep, we prayed together. Tears fell fast, quickly, and fiercly. How had this day finally arrived? How is it possible that I will not see this girl every day? Divine prayed so beautifully, asking God to protect our journeys, and praising Him over and over for the way He has worked in our lives. She asked for God to help us “have no fear” in separation and to keep us strong. I accompanied her to the bus station and helped her find a bus to go back home. It will be her first time to back at home in quite some time as she spent the last month living with me. I think her family will be happy to have her back. I hugged her once more, shook her hand and watched her sit in the bus. Immediately, she buried her face in her lap. She later told me she stayed like that for the entire journey. I went to the office for Peace Corps, found a quiet place in the garden and cried holding my Bible for 30 minutes. It was one of the saddest days I have had in my life. To say goodbye is already difficult, but when there is no certainty about the time you will see that person again, your heart hurts. And hurts a lot. I know Divine will be in my life forever. And I know I’ll see her again. It’s just a matter of accepting where life has taken us now. Our connection is one of the strongest I have felt in another human being. She’s a young, Rwandan student who comes from a poor village in East Africa. I’m a young wanna-be American teacher from a country and family where all of my needs have been met on a consistent basis. And yet, our conversations were perceptive, deep, and open. I know this girl. And she knows me. To walk away from Peace Corps with that kind of relationship is a resounding success.

*

God never leaves us.

Of everything I have learned, this is the most important.

There’s so much I could say and so much I want to try to explain; and yet, I’m losing the words.

I have an inexpressible amount of gratitude for my friends and family back home. Thank you for reading this blog. Thank you for sending letters. Thank you for sending American food. Thank you for your encouragement. I like to think of this blog as some sort of time capsule and so I’ll be starting a new blog once I get back stateside. In case you haven’t noticed, I love blogging, and so I look forward to writing about the next phase of my life back home. This blog will forever be the pieces of writing and experiences about Rwanda and I appreciate everybody who took the time to read and try to understand some of the things I experienced while working in this country.

A special thank you to my parents. Each and every time I want to do something, you are the first people to figure out HOW to make it happen. When I wanted to come to do Peace Corps you didn‘t think I was crazy. Too crazy, anyway. And when I found out it was Rwanda, you started planning the time you were going to come to visit – and you came. I want you to know how much that meant to me – and what that meant to my friends in Rwanda. The most important thing I have wanted to show in Rwanda is that love is far more than words (it’s an action) and you, my parents, have demonstrated that beautifully.

I’m indebted forever to the kind people in Ruramira. The reason I was able to have a positive and successful experience was because my community was welcoming, kind, and ready. They were open to have conversations, willing to take me in their home, and waved at me when I passed through on my daily runs. I will love that village forever. And a piece of me will always be there.

*

Today when my plane finally takes off, I’m not sure what will be running through my mind. I imagine I’ll be consumed with what it’s going to feel like to finally be home but also I’ll reflect on the people and places that have worked within my life for the last couple of years. I’ll remember Godriva, an old mama who gave me a couple of dollars as a going away gift, and I’ll remember Divine’s mother who frequently would break out into dancing just for the hell of it. I’ll remember the life I had there – even if for a short while – and know that no matter where life takes me, I’ll always have that.

I’ll think to myself that the most amazing thing of all is that though the Peace Corps experience is deeply personal, it’s also so much more than about yourself. It’s about the community you worked, the friends you make, and the people back home that are waiting to hear and understand all of the stories. My life is profoundly changed forever. And for that, I give all thanks to God.

*

my village and home, Ruramira.

my village and home, Ruramira.

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kubera imana

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Divine sparked my interest in visiting Kibeho, Rwanda a few weeks back when she translated the church announcement that our congregation would bring a group there for an annual and ridiculously large Catholic gathering.

What’s Kibeho?

Well, it turns out it’s incredibly important, especially in the Catholic world. Not just in Rwanda, I repeat, the world.

Kibeho is in the Southern Province and is located in the Nyaraguru District. From where I live, it takes about 6 or 7 hours to get there one way by car. This small Rwandan town is known primarily from historical incidents that took place in November of 1981. According to everything I could find from a simple “google” search, Mary (as in the Virgin Mary) appeared to a group of students that year. This appearance is accepted as truth and “official” by the Pope and the church and so it’s a major deal. The sighting happened on this large, beautiful, green mountain and not only did Mary allegedly come and appear before this group of young students, but the sighting was accompanied by visions of intense fighting and death. Specifically, these Rwandans saw bloody bodies all over. This was well before the concentrated, high-intensity killings during the 1994 Genocide, and so many interpret these visions of religious relevance as precursors and warnings to Rwanda and its people.

Believe what you will, but no matter what, the importance of a place like this in Rwanda is absolutely undeniable. Consider the history and also consider the fact that an extraordinary amount of Rwandans identify as Catholic. And they sure do love the Virgin Mary.

All that to say, I was happy Divine and I signed on to take part in our church group’s pilgrimage to visit this place.

We left my village on a Saturday afternoon at 2:00 (two hours late and therefore right on time for Rwanda). We crammed into two small white and green “tweges” which are small vans that fit 18 people each and are the most common form of transport around here. We traveled with all older people; Divine and I were the only ones under the age of 50. But no matter, they were all a joy to journey with as they sang old Catholic Kinyarwanda hymns which matched the hum and rhythm of our car as it drove against the force of rocky, dirt roads. Plus, any time I made a small comment in Kinyarwanda they would cackle with delight and when they watched Divine and I speak comfortably in English, they were in awe of her communication ability. They called me “ntwari” for making the journey with them. That means hero, y’all. I love old people.

It was my first time to this particular district and it’s a mountain heavy district. The steep mountains were a far cry from our smaller hills out East. We arrived at 9:00pm. Hungry, sore, and tired. Awaiting us was Kibeho Church property and what I saw as I exited the vehicle caused my eyes to widen. Thousands of men and women covered in their individual African fabrics (igitenge) were loitering in and out of the Cathedral, singing on the vast green lawns, and fighting for a place to settle down for the night. The actual program that all of us were visiting for wouldn’t begin until the next day and so it was mostly a matter of finding a comfortable place to relax. And comfortable isn’t even an apt word. Comfort went completely out the window. For a short time after our arrival, Divine and I managed to get a place to sit in the church sanctuary but it was stuffy and there was no room to lay down – sitting room only, quite literally. After 45 minutes of feeling claustrophobic and needing to pee, we headed outside. We didn’t sleep that night.

What did we do, exactly?

Well. For starters, at around 2:00 in the morning, we fetched holy water. This process is completed by walking 20 minutes down into a valley at a source that is considered “holy” by the church. On a normal day it might take only 5 minutes to take water from the well, but as we were fetching alongside hundreds of others, it took nearly an hour. Divine made her way through the crowds, for-going any sense of a line, and managed to get the holy water in a 1-liter water bottle I had brought along to stay hydrated. This was an important process to do before the Sunday program because it would be officially blessed by the priest. More on that later.

After fetching this water, Divine and I walked around for a bit until our legs were tired. We then found a small slab of cold concrete to sit as we waited for morning. My head rested on her shoulder and we listened to my IPOD and tried to stay warm while outside in the windy wee hours of the morning. People only realized I was a young white girl when night finished. It had been easy to hide in the night because I had wrapped most of my body in any piece of clothing that Divine and I could find. Now it was quite obvious that I was the one umuzungu who had come to this gathering. Lord, help me.

Noooo! My secret is out!” I lamented as I opened my eyes to a group of small children staring at me. She laughed and slapped my arm lightly.

The church has running water so Divine and I took part in one of the most important Rwandan rituals: washing our feet. Before finding a place to eat amandazi (doughnuts) and tea, she bought a few souvenirs from a couple of vendors: rosaries and a large poster of Jesus and Pope Paul Francis. Our early morning was spent visiting the site of Mary’s sighting and a museum of sorts that highlights the Pope’s visit to Rwanda in 1990. Finally, around 11:00am it was time for the church service. It followed the protocol for just about every other Catholic service I have attended in Rwanda (the Catholic church is one of the most organized institutions I have ever witnessed) and despite feeling light-headed (I hadn’t eaten a real meal in over 24 hours) I could follow along relatively well. It was tangibly weird being the only white girl. While my village is used to random white girl walking around, most of these attendants are not. I was gawked at, laughed at, stared at, and consistently heard whispers about theories about why I was there. People always find it impossible to believe that Divine and I could be such good friends; and it’s amusing for us to watch people, especially other students, to see how comfortable we are around each other. Seeing a white and black person interact the way we do just doesn’t happen often. Luckily, when it came to the service I didn’t draw extra attention to myself because I knew when to kneel and when to bow and I was happy that all my time praying in small group every Tuesday prepped me well for this big outing.

It was after the main service that I had just about the weirdest and most interesting Catholic-related experience to date.

We all moved outside and listened patiently as all 10 priests, from all over the country, said a prayer for all of us and officially blessed the water that was fetched by people the night before. Using a soft broom, he dipped the water along the bristles and then flicked the ends into the throngs of people so that drops of the blessed water would touch everybody. People raised their rosaries, hands, and just about anything they had in possession so it could make contact with the water. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. I held Divine’s rosary and her Bible and waited for the holy water to touch my skin and these items. When it finally did I just smiled at Divine and said “warakoze Imana!” (thanks, God!)

On our 7-hour ride home, Divine and I drank our fanta of choice, Coke, as the driver had purchased a crate of 24 bottles for all of our group. The sugar and sweet taste of one of the world’s greatest drinks satisfied my thirst, and I was just so happy to be where I was, in that moment in time, in that place. I love when life feels like that.

Divine told me how grateful she was to have made this journey. It was a beautiful thing to see someone so committed to their beliefs to have such a powerful religious experience. She then tried expressing how important our friendship has been for her. She commented that while the love her family as for her is very real and very strong, I am the first person in her life who has been able to provide for these kinds of opportunities. I’m the first person who has opened the door for some new ideas, ways of thinking, and a broader understanding of her country. I was humbled deeply in that moment. I have helped Divine go on several church trips and the reason is this: if you are able to visit new places, meet new people, and share new things, your ability to process life on a larger level is far easier and much more possible. If I can come to Rwanda and broaden my own perspective, I think it is important that other people have similar chances.

I simply said, “somehow we have had this time together and I do these things because I love you and also because God gives me the ability.

She broke into a smile and asked the rhetorical question she asks at least 10 times a day, “kubera iki?” (why?).

I grin because I know the answer, as I’m the one who answers this at least 10 times a day, “kubera Imana” (because of God).

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.

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.

when worlds collide

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Here’s a staggering fact for you.

Take the 5 girls I took to the Eastern Region GLOW Camp last summer in late July and August.

Joyce.

Divine.

Joselyne.

Maisara.

Yvonne.

5 girls.

Out of 5, 0 have a father in their life.

Joyce’s father died a long time ago. I’m not sure why. I was never really provided with the details and it wasn’t something I tried to push. She lives with her extended family and I’m pretty sure she is an orphan.

Divine’s father died in December of 2011. How? Well, again, I’m not really sure. We just talked about this last week, and I could tell it was a very sensitive thing to be talking about. Yet, she’s a brave girl, and she explained in broken English as best as she could.

Joselyne’s father died a few years ago because of food poisoning. Yes, you may have had to read that twice, but indeed, he died of food poisoning. This kind of thing really happens in Rwanda. At first, I chalked all this talk of food poisoning up to a myth that was used when they couldn’t really explain other reasons for death, like old age, undetected diseases, and what have you. But no, Joselyne insists that is how her father died. He visited Gisenyi, up North, and received a special invitation to a party and never made it home. He died immediately after being served beer—evidently, a poison loaded batch. Poison is more common in rural, more isolated parts of Rwanda and is often used as a way to make someone sick because of “jealousy”. I’m told that often, the person trying to harm someone doesn’t want to kill them, but to make them sick so they have some sort of temporary disadvantage. Still, people die.

Maisara’s dad is terrible. Awful. A bad man, as she tells me. Maisara recently (within the last year) relocated with her mother and sister, Zahara, to live with their grandmother in a small, three-room house. They moved because their father’s beatings were getting out of control and the mother made a decision that they had to leave. Getting the safety they needed was obviously of the upmost importance and I cannot even begin to describe the kind of strength their mother has. I don’t think it is necessarily common here for women to make that kind of decision—to defy the man—and so since day one, I’ve respected this woman to an infinite degree. Now, they’re safer (they still have a major problem with him coming by the house and threatening to harm, hurt, or kill people), but without the financial support of their father (he refuses to give any money for school) they struggle to get by. It’s not fair. I hate that the right decision can also lead to so much hardship. I met the father, once, on accident, in the road. Another student of mine explained who he was, and I made no false impression—I shook his hand, barely uttered a greeting, and simply looked at him with a look of disdain. How do you live with yourself?

Yvonne’s dad also died. I saw a picture of him for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and she simply remarked, “that’s my father.” I knew he was not a part of her life (I have probably visited close to 10 times and not once has his presence come up) but after showing me the photo, she finally did reveal that he had passed away. Why? Again, I don’t know. It’s amazing that you can have these close relationships here with people, and yet still, know very little. Like I’ve noted before, if Rwandans want to build emotional walls, they do, and they build them quite nicely. You can get shut out in a matter of seconds, before you even realize that you are distinctly on the outside looking in.

Yeah, it just so happens that these 5 girls don’t have their own father in their lives, but it’s more than just these girls. It’s a lot of Rwandan families I’m seeing; so many are matriarch-dominated.

So, you can also imagine how big of a deal it was for many of my community members to see this 6-foot-tall, dark-haired, Hendrix orange hat-wearing man walking around our village. Moreover, it was my dad. Papa Impano. He had come to Rwanda; but even more moving for them was that he came here, to my little piece of the world, my village. Time and time again, when people would greet us, people would say at least one (if not more) of the following things:

  1. Ehhhhh babe we! Papa yawe! Uri umusore!  (Oh my father! Your father! He is a young, strong man!)
  2. Imana ishimwe! Barasa! (God bless you! You both look the same.)
  3. Amaye inka, papa yawe agukunda cyane pe. (Give me a cow! *an expression of surprise in Kinyarwanda* Your father loves you very much.)

People were very impressed. To travel all of this way, to pay that kind of money; all to see his daughter. It’s been about a month since dad’s visit and still people are talking about how beautiful it was to see him come all the way here because he loves me. It was inspiring, I think, for a lot of people. Even the other day, as I was explaining more intricate details of why and how my parents divorced to Divine, her main comment was that, “well, no matter, because you have good parents. Because your father has come and your mother will come. They love you so much.” It’s like, yeah, how in the world can I argue with that?

Our reunion was pretty epic, I would say. I was jittery from excitement, nerves, and coffee. But all of that dissipated when I saw dad. I was worried that I wouldn’t recognize him right away—maybe he would look a lot older or something—but that wasn’t a problem. Holding his large pea green roller suitcase, he was exiting the baggage area wearing his Hendrix field hockey hat. He looked just like I remembered. I shifted around other people and the gate so I could run right into his arms. It was emotional, and I just couldn’t believe I was hugging him. I couldn’t believe he was here. I couldn’t believe it had been so long. To say the least, it was rather surreal.

Dad’s first impression of Rwanda was that it was, “…really green, with lots of smiling people, and that Kigali was very clean.” Pretty accurate, I would say.

We did a lot in our days together. We traveled to a good portion of Rwanda—and it being the size of Maryland, I suppose it’s not hard to do, but we did so many different things that it was really quite impressive. We ventured around Kigali, eating pizza, playing blackjack, hanging out in the hotel room, dining at the Milles Collines (the hotel that provides the basis for the movie Hotel Rwanda), getting me coffee at Bourbon Coffee, and shopping at several convenience stores (which are always a special treat for me).

Outside of Kigali, we visited my site (ate AND slept here: props to my dad for being an awesome sport), took a pit stop at Lake Muhazi (a large lake out East), ate with my host family in the Southern Province, visited a deeply intense and emotional Genocide Memorial at a church, relaxed beachside in Gisenyi, and saw gorillas in the far North in Musanze.

We alternated between taking a private car and public transportation. Dad’s take on the bus station in three words? Surreal, hectic, and busy.

With all of this moving, visiting, and traveling, we also managed to eat a lot of food. For me, wow! How can I even begin? I was in heaven eating all that I wanted (and for free!) My favorite meal was without question, the meal we shared with my host family and the meal we shared with two of my girls, Maisara and Zahara. These meals contained peas, meat, rice, beans, and vegetables. Of course with Fanta thrown in on the side (it wouldn’t be a Rwandan celebration without it). As for food itself, I loved being able to soak up the pizza and burritos in Kigali. It was amazing at our Kigali hotel (called Top Tower; home of Rwanda’s only casino) that I could wake up in the morning and get FREE breakfast (including cereal). Dad had his own thoughts on food also,

“Even though I ate a lot of good food, the best food was the meat that your host family mom cooked. The worst food I ate was the Bacon Cheeseburger I ate on my second day at the Bourbon restaurant. Now remember, my knee was messed up, and I had some jet lag. However, it still grosses me out when I think of the slab of fat they served me calling it ‘bacon’. I should have complained.”

It’s so comforting to know that on the other side of the ocean I’m going to have someone that in some way, gets it. No, my dad can’t speak Kinyarwanda, or pick up on every single cultural clue (I can’t do that either), but he got a feel for what Rwanda is about, and that’s what matters. It means (and will mean) everything to me that he put himself outside his comfort zone to come here, see what this place is all about, and embrace what Rwanda has to offer. There were difficult times, too. Because at the end of the day, when you are away from someone for a long time you forget about their flaws (this of course goes both ways) but on the flip side, you remember even more strongly about what makes them great. I love that Dad always wants to know as much as he can about something, I love his open attitude (like that he’ll take a video on his IPAD while on a moving moto), and that he is always willing to talk to anybody. I love that he’ll do anything for his family, and maybe more than anything, I love how seriously he takes being a good dad. A lot of dads wouldn’t do what he did. And heck, this isn’t the first time he came to Africa—this is trip number TWO. But like I told him when he was here, if he says something, I believe it. If he says he’ll visit Rwanda, then by jolly, he will visit Rwanda. He told me that the best part of the trip was that, “…I really came to appreciate your home and village. You are a community star and teacher who is making a difference. I also had a great time doing nothing at the beach resort, and being driven around by Claude. The best thing was spending time with you, and seeing you Rwanda style.”

It’s so weird (and awesome) when worlds collide. It can be stressful; you become consumed with stress because you want each part of your life to accept, like, and feel comfortable with each other. But, it can also be incredibly moving; here’s an opportunity to take two experiences, two “yous” and share them. Because ultimately, I am not the same person I was before I left, and to show someone, especially of such importance like my dad, the place where I have put so much of myself, well it’s an honor, really. It’s a meeting, a joining, of someone who has had a profound impact on who I am with a place that’s currently giving some of the greatest joy that I have known. 

There can be confusion—I remember dad asking me in village, upon being visited and greeted seemingly a million times, why do we have to greet every single person?

There can be times of profound amazement—um. Hello. Standing less than a foot from a wild gorilla will do that for you.

There can be times of unrivaled emotion—hearing an old woman explain the history of her family during the Genocide in a small, African home in the middle of a rural village.

And even sometimes, there can be experiences that feel exactly normal, like nothing has changed at all—dad and I spent a good chunk of our dinners and walks discussing politics, the Broncos, and family. We could quite literally, pick up where we left off, even if it has been many days and separation by way of many countries and oceans.

I was just so proud to show my dad this place, and to show this place my dad. When finishing up a long day of home visits on one of the days in my village, my dad remarked about how he had moved from being pretty shocked by my home (he initially thought I was living on “ground zero” in poverty, but by comparison to my neighbors, I actually have a pretty nice home) to starting to really see how a place like this could grow on a person. I just nodded and smile. Good, I thought. He sees it too.

And luckily, overall, dad got to see the best that Rwanda has to offer; in terms of sights, but also in terms of people. Dad was impressed with Rwandans saying that their future is optimistic, with better days ahead, especially with people that are so “genuine and friendly.”

It was hard to see my dad go after 16 days. We arrived at the airport and I could feel the fogginess of my emotion permeating my brain. I just didn’t really want to face the goodbye, and yet, I knew it was inevitable. But something amazing happened right as he put his bag in the security check point; I felt a rush of relief and gratitude. In a matter of seconds, I realized how special our trip was, how important it was for our relationship, and that dad was really right (he had previously repeated better to have love and lost than to have never loved at all—yeah, that’s my dad for you). It was okay. Because he came here (for Christmas, no less), he saw this place, and we shared a lot of new memories. It wasn’t that it was perfect, but that instead, it was a time for family, love, and being together. Ultimately, whether it’s Ghana, Rwanda…or any place in the world, distance doesn’t have to break or degrade a relationship. It gets a chance to grow in a new way, and I walk away from my dad’s trip with the conviction that no matter how many days pass between seeing a person that you love, that love is strong enough to thrive.

Somehow, the world’s lottery (as dad refers to it as) gave me the dad I got, and honest-to-God, I’m so pleased with my winnings. 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)!

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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.

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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.

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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.