Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Central Africa

I got back about 10 days ago from a trip to central Africa, my fist time in that region. It was amazingly beautiful. I flew into Kigali, and spent the next 2 weeks traveling around Lake Kivu - first to Goma, then Bukavu, then back to Kigali via a retreat center called Kibogora.

Leaving Kigali
My experience of Rwanda, and what I heard from most other expats living there, is of a very orderly, clean place. Plastic bags are totally banned, so people either bring their own cloth bags or use paper. On the first Saturday of every month, one person from every family goes out for a neighborhood clean-up day. There are wide new boulevards throughout the city. Security going into any big building was like going into an airport - metal detectors and bags x-rayed - but the mood on the street was relaxed and felt very safe. 

Ginger!
Entering Goma
We ate out a lot, I had some really amazing Indian food one night; I only got sick because I foolishly used tap water for brushing my teeth - rookie mistake. I was really ill for about 2 days and then slowly got better.

We had a lovely 3-hour boat ride across this lake
If I had to be sick though, this view more than made up for it:
Yes, this lake - now seen from Bukavu

I'm leaving out photos of the many interviews and meetings, but I just could not get over the beauty of this spot specifically (below) - there was something so perfect about the precise temperature and humidity of the air that just felt delicious on the skin. Although I recognized most of the ornamental garden flowers and plants I saw, the birds were something else - I'm not a birder but even in my ignorance I could tell I had never seen or heard these particular species before.

Retreat center in Kibogora
Such a blessing and privilege to be able to travel to this area.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Warm October

I've been back from DR Congo for a couple of weeks now, and after a brief cold spell October has turned warm again which has been great for weekend family outings. 
Catch the rainbow!
The artificial lake and big park in the city are as much a bucolic haven as they ever were, with some cafes and restaurants much built up and improved, and the addition of a huge play area for kids of all ages - including a climbing wall! 


 The national park on Mt. Dajti is still a fun excursion, if Val had her way we would go every Sunday after church (we have been attending the International Protestant Assembly for the English-language Sunday School, and have also run into several friends there). They still have horse rides although they are shorter and more expensive than I remember, and have added new playground equipment and a bounce house (which is free). And instead of chickens in this hutch there are now rabbits! I'm not sure what they are fed because they went wild for the dandelion leaves we fed them:


Taking the cable car down the mountain
From the cable car, we can easily see how low the water levels are in ponds and reservoirs along this are. Apparently Tirana had a very dry summer - three or four months with zero rain - and even as we move into autumn there isn't as much rain as I remember from before.

But the days are just beautiful. Sunny and clear, with the lower angle of the sun lighting up the city so beautifully.

We are still staying at the flat we organized temporarily, while we decide whether or not to go back to the (more expensive but closer to school) apartment we lived in last time. This place is really nice too, it's just a full mile from school and the kids get tired of walking back and forth. It's probably good for them, I just get tired of hearing the complaining. They are enjoying school though. Writing and spelling in English is a new challenge now, but they really like their teachers. So far so good!
Arriving home from school

Friday, September 15, 2017

How our days go

A view from our balcony
We have begun to fall into a predictable daily routine and rhythm of life. The first two days of school, the kids were still jet lagged and extremely unhappy about being woken up. So after that they were much more motivated to go to bed early and we've been doing much better. Usually we wake up around 6:00 when it starts to get light, and read Calvin & Hobbes (or something, but that's the current favorite) until breakfast - cereal, fruit, and scrambled eggs. There is tons of amazing fruit all around, especially stone fruits are ripe and in season just now.

Pazari i Ri, recently renovated - yellow building at right is Stephen Center, where we stayed one summer

We leave the house around 7:20 for the 1-mile walk to school. It's a gentle downhill to the canal/river, then a few more blocks uphill, and our best time so far has been 28 minutes! The time passes faster with stories, questions, or verbal games. The kids are complaining a lot less now than they did last week!

After I drop them at school (Terry usually walks with us too), Terry and I grab a quick coffee before he heads to his office and head back home. It's a nice time to catch up with each other. On the way home I usually do the grocery shopping, then at the house putter around with whatever I have on my to-do list for the day.

Our hosts' grapevine
At 3:00 or so I head out to pick up the kids again. The walk home is leisurely and can take almost an hour, with stops for a snack or if we need to use a bathroom at a coffeeshop on the way.

Pazari i Ri, on the way home
Eventually they'll be wearing uniforms with the school colors and logo, but at the moment they just wear their own clothes. Shorts on the days they have P.E.

Close to the school
They are fascinated by the few stray dogs we see around, which all have ear tags and look pretty well-fed. We speculated that people at the restaurants give them scraps of food and water. I told them about stray dogs I've seen in other places that are skinny and dirty, and Gabe asked me why I never took them to a vet, because wouldn't that be a good thing to do? Too true...

He also asked about an elderly man we've seen sitting and begging near the new mosque, and wanted to know how much food the man could buy if we gave him five bucks. We looked at posted menus nearby and saw that he could buy 10 pieces of pizza, or five loaves of bread. G also wondered if the man could maybe collect scrap metal and make it into things that he could sell. We haven't seen him for a few days now though so I'm not sure if the $5 plan will go into effect or not.

Val loves being in school, even though it seems like she gets hit on the head with a basketball just about every day at recess, but she reports that she's getting lots of education and can't WAIT to be given homework! These first 2 weeks have been mostly getting settled in and learning about each other, some assessment (testing) and figuring out the routines of the school.

Today our host downstairs was harvesting the very ripe grapes from his vine, and I wonder if he's planning to make raki (grape brandy)? It's very traditional here. It's been a bit torturous walking past those grapes multiple times a day, not so much because of the wasps that hang around them all the time, but because they look so delicious! Our hosts gave us two bunches on the first day and they were so good.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

The Familiar Strange


There is a saying that anthropologists like to repeat, but which I now find has been attributed to sociologists, poets, and artists as well - that our work is meant to render the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. In fact this was the theme of the American Anthropological Association meetings in Denver two years ago.

This arrival in Albania has been strangely familiar. But also familiarly strange. In contrast to our arrival in 2010, when Gabriel was a wee baby and Valerie a not-quite-verbal toddler, it has been so, so easy. Having the kids in school but no steady job leaves me with loads of unstructured time at home. We have a lot of friends here already, and we know where to buy food.

On Monday after dropping the kids off at school I wandered around the center of the city for another two hours or so until my feet and legs ached, visiting many old haunts - streets and parks and bridges that hold so many memories. But without a stroller in front and a baby strapped to my chest the distances seem so much shorter! I walked by the store where I first went grocery shopping seven years ago, when I didn't even know the word for eggs (vezë). It looks the same.

A lot of things have changed. The city is far, far cleaner than I remember and I remember hearing about an anti-litter campaign a couple years ago when we came for vacation. There are new buildings completed and others going up; the walking mall in Skenderbeg square has been completely remodeled. An enormous mosque is under construction near the parliament buildings. Near where we are staying, the Pazari i Ri (New Market) has also been completely remodeled, with whimsical sculptures of storks made out of twigs at every entrance, and the only rose-sculpted ice cream in the city available there (this is a thing, apparently).

On the weekend we took the kids to the municipal swimming pool, which has some new water slides for the kids' pool - which I remember as being as deep and scary as the Mariana Trench, but is actually hardly more than knee-deep to an adult (things look different after your kids learn to swim!) We also went to the big park by the lake, where new playground equipment has been added, wonderful wooden and rope climbing areas and obstacle courses.

There has been a LOT of fussing from the single-digit-age set about how much walking we have been doing but we figure it will build character :-) We did take a taxi home from the lakeside area, and the route took us past our old neighborhood and my breath caught, I remember being so happy there. And I now it wasn't all sunshine and roses, but this is the primary emotion I associate with these places.

I know that V. and G. don't have all the same associations, or any of my memories; they're already bored by our constant recitations "oh, I remember coming here when you were a baby" - I hope they will make great memories this year. And if they don't, that's ok too.

Friday, September 01, 2017

We Are Here

Albania - Shqiperia - when we had the chance to go pretty much anywhere in the world this year, we chose this place. I don't think I ever quite got over leaving in 2012. I have to keep reminding myself that this isn't re-living those years, this is a new chapter. But I am so happy to be back.

We are staying in a third-floor flat in an old villa, in an old neighborhood of twisting rrugicës and tiled roofs. It is a quiet neighborhood, especially since the school across the street is not yet in session and the heat of summer rises all day long. The pattern of sounds: a rooster, a dog barking, voices talking in the rhythmic, emphatic rise and fall of Albanian - Shqip, the odd motorcycle passing by. The Muslim call to prayer, but even closer to this house Catholic church bells in the morning and evening. A doppler-ized Despacito from a passing car.

Our hostess/landlady brought us a dish full of fresh figs the day we arrived, and her grown son cut us two bunches of small, sweet seedless green grapes from the vine that curls around the bannister of the outside staircase and up over our balcony above it. Huge wasps linger over the sweet juice, especially at mid-day, so Valerie makes me walk in front of her up and down to the patio below where arugula and parsley grow alongside the walk out to the street.

We hauled seven suitcases and five carry-on bags up two flights of stairs on Tuesday afternoon, and just as Terry brought up the last two, heavy drops of rain began to splatter by our feet. For the next two hours it poured rain, mixed with hail. The cool air felt so fresh after 18 hours of travel and the hot truck ride from the airport when Valerie fell asleep on my shoulder.

~::~

Yesterday was a long day, and the kids were done, and done in, by evening. We walked 1.7 km to their new school and took care of business there, then walked back to the house in the midday heat. We had ice cream and then went to see Shpresa, their former nanny, in the same small house she has lived in for thirty years. After two hours of snacking on popcorn and çibuk, playing with the dogs, and listening to me talk with Shpresa and her husband Berti in Shqip, they were exhausted. We had one more agenda item, dinner with Terry's colleagues from before (they still call themselves "the family" even though most of the original team have moved on to jobs in other countries or other NGOs) - they brought a bunch of helium balloons for the kids! Gabriel lasted longer than Val did; it was just too much for my introverted girl. We took the pizza home and ate in total silence while she read Calvin & Hobbes comics.

~::~

School starts on Monday. Terry has already been working on various projects for his various affiliations since before we left the US; I am eager, so eager for this new chapter to start in my life too. I am so thankful.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Tentatively

There is a mythology of the expat aid worker, it’s sort of an inverted nationalism or perhaps a metaphor for marriage, in which you leave home and fall in love with another land. Once you’re as jaded as I am you come to realize that this is by no means the norm, but it somehow becomes a kind of holy calling, an ideal, a moral high ground – as long as you stay just short of actually “going native” this love for an adopted country is often worn as a badge of honor.

That hasn’t happened for us here in Colombia, and I’ve always felt terribly guilty about that. I don’t think this is the worst place on earth, but neither is it paradise. It’s just a place that I have failed to form any strong sense of attachment or connection to. And for this reason I have lost count of the times I've wondered whether coming here wasn't the hugest mistake. 

Last night though I was thinking about that emotional burden that I’ve placed on myself and began to consider alternative ways to look at the situation. For most of our time here I’ve believed that my lack of love for this place or its people has lowered the quality of my work, and that has been a source of shame for me. But then I began to wonder, what just is my motivation, if it isn’t love – and why am I ashamed? Maybe it’s actually more admirable, in a way, to do the work and strive to do it well even without love. They say that in marriage love is a choice you make; I think there is a parallel here because we’re talking about commitment. We made a commitment to living and working here because of something we believe in – service in the name of Christ, if you will (that’s our organization’s tagline) – and we’ve stuck it out. And I think that, overall, we’ve done a pretty good job of it.

I know I have grown tremendously, personally and professionally - and that we achieved what we came here for in the first place: living closer to family, our children learning Spanish. It hasn't been without a cost, but I'm beginning to feel that it might be possible that it has been, perhaps, worth it (have I added enough qualifiers there???)


We’ve begun the process of leaving, spending some time at the team retreat last weekend beginning to say our goodbyes. For the first time, it feels possible to actually leave well.

O Zemër

I guess it's no big secret that Terry and I really miss Albania a lot. I think I spent the first year and a half here actively grieving. I didn't realize before we left how much I had fallen in love with the place, the people. I had gotten a little bored and thought I needed a change of scenery... I wanted to be closer to family, and I wanted my kids to learn Spanish.

For me at least, my attachment to the place is inextricably connected to that phase of life with the kids. I look at pictures now and goggle at how small they were then!


But at least now I can look at those photos without my heart aching so much. I think our last visit in January last year was something I very much needed to do, in order to truly say goodbye.


I can make myself a cup of coffee in the mid-afternoon without crying. I don't feel so guilty about leaving Shpresa.




I still think it is one of the most beautiful and fascinating places I have ever been to. And that has at least a little bit to do with how we felt there among our Albanian and expat friends - wanted, appreciated, loved. 
 
 

I have found friends here; over the last year I think I finally accepted that it was ok that my closes friends are all people I work with, in most cases supervise. It doesn't seem to be an issue for the Colombian women on my team so I decided it's not an issue for me, and I've been much more content since I made that shift.

We are still uncertain about what our next steps will be. Albania could be in our future again, not only in the past. I have more thoughts about leaving that I will leave for another post - just processing in these last few months here.