This blog is intended only to recount my personal experiences with the Peace Corps; it is not intended to reflect the Peace Corps' official stance or the opinions of other volunteers.
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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Adventures in Readjustment: A Trip to the Supermarket

A reflection on grocery stores in Zambia and the US that I started a few months ago, and just got around to finishing:

What gets my attention about being home isn’t the milk aisle.  You know, that old stereotype of encountering 10 brands of milk in 14 sizes and 23 flavors with something like 47 different percentages of milkfat, comparing it to that glorified mythical third-world country you used to live in, where you just bought “milk” and things made sense and nothing was ever wrong, and then having a breakdown right there on the tile floor you never even noticed the color of before under florescent lights and then oh look, it’s that girl who used to bully you in high school, and you swore you’d come back from Africa and, amongst other things, impress all the hometowners with your international poise and experience, but clearly that’s not going to happen because “Jenny” the grocery stock girl who used to throw spit-balls at you is now watching you hyperventilate on the floor because you held the fridge door open too long staring at milk labels and now you’re worried about wasting the electricity and making the power go out as the cold air rushes out into your face and then you remember that this is America the power doesn’t usually randomly go out in the grocery store like it did back home and good GOD is that air cold—

No, that hasn’t happened yet.  Mostly because I haven’t bought any milk yet.

These days I’m more of a yogurt person.

So I went to the Hannaford supermarket the other day, to buy the food my mother didn’t know to buy for me because she hasn’t been in any way responsible for feeding me for a couple of years now, because I’ve been in Africa.  It’s the same Hannaford supermarket, minus a few renovations and re-organizations and name-changes, that I’ve been going to since I was 10.  The fruit section hit me first with a cold wet blast, like always, fresh Maine apples shoved in your face in front of the dwindling last dregs of the slightly unfresh summer berries.  The vegetables were shoved against the wall where they couldn’t offend anybody, and the more pricey fruits were brightly lit on tables in the center, so that you could still feel confident that you were shopping in the “healthy” section when it suddenly turned into the bakery, cheese, and precooked meals area.  Yes, I’m sure these donuts are better for you, because they’re fresh and next to the pineapples.  The tempura sushi, rotisserie chickens, and mozzarella sticks are all in line with the bananas, which are all green and bizarrely huge, because they are easy foods to prepare, or not prepare, compared to the spinach which I eventually found huddled in the corner next to the kale and “organic” basil.  As I would later remember, no one wants to buy food they have to cook.

But none of this got to me, because it’s all stuff I remember from my childhood, even if it is a bit strange and tilted now from this angle.  What got to me was this:

None of this stuff was outside.

I mean, yes, Africa has an indoor supermarket, sometimes, and sometimes even more than one.  Not so much in the Zambian villages where you’re lucky to find food if you actually go to a village tuck shop (like a city newspaper kiosk, except made of grass or mud-brick and mostly selling sweets, biscuits, cell phone minutes (called “talktime”), and little plastic bags of sugar to put in your opaque local beer), but in the towns there were general stores and butcher shops that occasionally had meat and cheese, and “specialty” general stores that sometimes had tuna or Pringles or, on one memorable occasion, olive oil.  In towns with more than one paved road and a stoplight (like Kasama, where I spent my 3rd-year assignment) they actually have SHOPRITE, a South-African grocery store chain built in the style of any large chain supermarket anywhere in the world, and, like in America, these stores were very much inside.

Sure, the Kasama supermarket maybe wasn’t the grand amusement park of all supermarkets, it wasn’t a Wholefoods knockoff (you had to go to Lusaka for that) and it didn’t sell novelty items like nutella or Doritos (again, Lusaka), the milk was often sour when you bought it, the freezer section rarely sold anything but frozen whole fish, favorite items like icing sugar or olive oil or sweet chili sauce would suddenly and randomly be out of stock just when you needed them, and worst of all there were “novelty items,” things like feta cheese that would show up quite by accident through a delivery error and you’d be excited but no one else would know what to make of it so when the cheese ran out or expired it would never show up again and all your dreams of happiness would be dashed to smithereens…but it was still a supermarket.  It still had aisles and carts and cash registers, and a donut section and those same little fruit islands cooling the entrance, and even florescent lighting when the electricity was working.

But the point is, in Zambia, in addition to the regular globalized supermarket model, there would be a more traditional market sprawling from the entrance out into the parking lot and down the paved streets.  The brick outer walls would be lined with tables selling watches and second-hand shoes knock-off cell phones.  Women with plastic baskets on their heads would hustle between the eager crowd of smiling taxi drivers loitering at the store entrance to show you their supply of carrots and avocados.  Women would sit on mats and tables at the parking lot gates selling tomatoes, onions, potatoes, cabbage.  There were bananas inside the supermarket, green and absurdly large on those familiar universal fruit islands, but there were also small local-variety bananas in bunches on the side of the road.  There was a bakery at the back of the supermarket that never had any bread, because early every morning bread-sellers would swarm the supermarket, buy everything they had, and spend all day outside the supermarket door re-selling that same bread for 50 cents more.  The supermarket was indoors, sure, but the food, the world, the people, the culture, was all swarmed around the outside, waiting for you when you got outside.

The difference isn’t that American has supermarkets and the African continent does not.  The difference isn’t even that the supermarkets are that different—walk into a supermarket in Lusaka and you will not know what country you are in, it could be anywhere in the whole world.  The difference is that, in America, supermarkets generally tend to stay inside the supermarket.  In Zambia, the market stretches out the door, into a crowd of eager taxi drivers who hustle every emerging shopper into their dilapidated cars, women carrying small local bananas in baskets on their heads, teenagers selling cell phones from their coat pockets, fresh enormous avocados and smiling faces and bootleg copies of the latest films.  In Zambia, there are people outside the supermarket; in Zambia, when you finish buying your food, the world is out there waiting for you.

I didn’t freak out in the supermarket.  I didn’t do more than roll my eyes at the lengthy and illegible ingredients list (how many cranberry juices actually have cranberries in them?), was only slowed down marginally by the inundation of brands and choices (when did Wheat Thins start carrying so many different flavors?  What is that about?), laughed at the familiar 5 brands of milk and scoffed at the 20 overpriced types of yogurt, cooed a little at the familiar characters on the breakfast cereals and actually danced up and down a little in the potato chip aisle, and almost forgot to pay because I was so busy gaping at the absurd headlines on the tabloids, and all in all my first trip inside an American grocery store went off without a hitch.  It was actually very nice to be in this familiar place again, with my familiar poptarts and Ben&Jerry’s ice cream.  And unlike in my Zambian supermarket, I knew here that I’d be able to find what I was looking for, that there would be no empty space on the shelves where the olive oil should be, that there was no need to walk into a grocery store anxious that something would be missing or out of stock.  At least here I knew I’d be able to find what I was looking for inside the grocery store.

And then I went outside, where in the huge paved arena the honking chrome reigned supreme, and watched the people rushing between headlights and yellow lines with their purchases, felt the heavy silence as a black SUV communed in hand signals with a woman hurrying past with her daughter, saw the absence of smiling faces and thought of the oversized bananas and tiny avocados in my bag, looked at the American Supermarket Outdoors and felt all that was missing.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Some thoughts on forgetting (or, why this year I am thankful for journals and snow)

Snow makes an odd crunching sound when you step on it.  It’s weird the things you forget after 3½ years.  It’s like something breaking under your foot, a crunch or a slipping noise, like water splashing in slow motion, like slush slowed down.  The snow on Kilimanjaro was glacial, slippery and hard, shiny when the sun rose, dry and brittle with age where it struck out thin and jagged over tourist-warn sandy paths along the ridge.  But the snow today was soft, too wet and squishy to last more than a day or so, and its wet crunching was surprisingly reminiscent of the drier crunch of ice at 5,895 meters.  I remember seeing the snow up there that morning and thinking it looked different; what I didn’t know until today was that snow is the same here or there, it’s just my memory that has worn down.

I forgot about snow like I forgot about this skirt I found in my closet, because a snow day is a good day to throw your clothes away, to lay the shoes all out on the floor, try them on and think “why did I ever wear these?” or “wow these make me feel tall.”  I was wandering between the shoes on the floor and the shirts on the bed and the closet hung with dresses and scarves and the cardboard box mixed with summer clothes and winter hats and legwarmers, and suddenly like a blast from the past I reached in to blindly grab a hanger and came out with that skirt.

You know the one.  The one you bought and always swore you’d wear but you didn’t, the one you thought you might aspire to fit into, the one you were going to build your new wardrobe around when you grew up and your style changed, the one that was going to be perfect for you someday when you were somebody else.  It’s like the pair of jeans a size too small that you never throw away, the too-high heels you roll your eyes at vaguely when reaching for your sneakers in the morning, the impractical lace-up boots you can’t be bothered with, the absurdly fancy dress you bought abroad and will never wear anywhere, the stiff cotton dress you had tailor-made for you in Zambia out of cloth patterned in drums and water-carrying women and masks, which doesn’t quite fit you right and where would you wear it anyway but oh god you can’t throw that away what if you NEED it later?

This was that skirt.  In my case, an insanely royal purple skirt with stripes of gentle floral linen and thick velvet and shiny satin, a hodgepodge of textured lines patterning down past the knees; something I bought to wear someday on my hypothetical future bohemian days when I would hypothetically own hippie-chic clothes and hypothetically wear them with scarves and boots and bangles; something that, of course, ultimately sat unused in my closet for years, waiting patiently for some cold Halloween when I would begrudgingly dig it out and wear it as part of a hastily-assembled gypsy-pirate costume.  But I still kept it, because I was going to be the type of bohemian girl who might wear flowy floral purple skirts of various materials, one day.  Or so I used to tell myself.

And there it was, four years later, some forgotten idea left skeletal and cold in the back of my closet.

It’s funny the things you forget about.  Like:

Some clothes are dry-clean only.  That means you don’t dump them in a plastic bucket and slosh them around in sticky blue soap and too-cold water until they are stretched beyond all recognition and then hang them on the clothesline to dry and fade in the sun, like you might do with your other clothes.  Actually, you don’t do that with any of your clothes, here.  Too cold, for one thing, and there isn’t the space for it—no sunlit outdoor clearing to do your laundry in, just closed-in insulated rooms where doing the washing by hand means a mess on the wood or tile floors.  But the clothes that say “dry clean only” on the tags?  Those you have to watch for—you have to actually read the care tags, rather then shoving them all in the bucket willy-nilly—and then you have to take them to this store where they wash them without water using chemicals or something, I don’t really understand it, but the point is it exists and it’s expensive and environmentally horrifying and completely (or mostly) necessary in order to successfully wear the clothes in public.  I’m used to a world where you can wear what you want, sometimes two days in a row, and not worry about the state of wear of the fabric or how difficult it will be to keep clean, not worry if it pills or fades or stretches, not worry about the fashion or the weather-appropriate status of the garment; that world does not exist here.

People generally shower everyday, here.  Not just the clean-freak ones with the wet wipes in their purses, not just the ones who work hard and need to shower often, but everyone, even the ones who don’t have anywhere in particular to be today, they’re still probably going to shower today.  Possibly twice.  And there’s no need to rush, either—there’s no real danger that the water is going to suddenly run out or turn cold, you can take a moment to just feel the hot water pour down and though you may feel slightly guilty and wasteful, you won’t actually make so much of a difference that you deprive someone else in the household of their cleanliness.  And if you do rush—or if you shower for what you have come to see as a “normal” length of time—others will blink at you and say, “wow, that was fast.”  Because daily showers can take a whole ten minutes here, and that is somehow normal.

New England is cold.  You think you know cold when you’re sitting in your un-insulated mud hut during a thunderstorm huddled around a lit brazier that you probably shouldn’t have inside because of carbon monoxide but oh well it’s so windy through the windows the fumes will blow right out, but no, actually, that cold only felt cold because you were wearing sandals and linen pants.  In fact, cold is biting, cold is red-faced and harsh, cold is slippery-white-salty ground and wet grass and dry air, cold is aching and pinching and awful.  Cold is more than I remembered.

The American supermarket has approximately 80,000 different brands, sizes, flavors, and types of yogurt.  The milk section has a minimum of four brands, plus at least two organic brands, and comes in skim ½% 1% 1½% 2% full cream, and then there’s rice milk and soymilk and creamers and whipping creams and sour creams and shaving creams and also, sometimes eggs are bleached a disturbing white color and come in white Styrofoam.  The vegetables are all inside the store, the greens water-dusted in the corner, the fruits set up like altarpieces on pedestals, way too many types of berries and only one kind of banana.  The avocados here are tiny; the apples here are huge.

The top drawer of the dresser in my room is a little off-sized and gets stuck in the edges when you pull it out or push it in one-handed; you have to use both hands and push/pull it straight or it will stick to the side and no amount of one-handed tugging will jar it loose.  This has been the case for as long as I’ve had this dresser, which predates my own existence and for all I know was in my room waiting for me the first time my parents brought me home from the hospital, and yet somehow, miraculously, I forgot that the drawer sticks.  It took me about four tries of opening it one-handed to realize that the drawer requires both hands and my complete attention and is too proud to be opened one-handed and carelessly while I’m getting dressed in the morning; it took me another seven tries to remember that this has always been the case.  Somehow the muscle memory of always-opening-this-drawer-with-both-hands-no-matter-what had gotten lost, forgotten somewhere.

Coming home has been a long list of remembering things I have forgotten.  Opening drawers and boxes that I packed in 2010 and thinking “oh, yeah, I remember that bowl” or “oh, so that’s where that umbrella went” or “hey, since when do I own so many winter hats?”  Going out to dinner with my family and hearing names dropped and having to stop the conversation to go “wait, which work friend is this?” or “wait, have I met this person?” or “when did that happen?”  It’s not just stories I’ve missed being gone; it’s people and places and events I’ve forgotten, how old someone’s son was when I left or where someone’s boyfriend is from, where the movie theater is or which exit I should take to get downtown.

This past week some relatives of mine had a pre-thanksgiving thanksgiving meal, since we would not be together for the actual holiday.  I was bombarded with questions, as was to be expected, because this is what happens when you return from living in a mudhut in Africa, people want to know what it was like, they want to know what you did, what you saw, what it felt like to sit in a mudhut during a rainstorm.  Peace Corps actually provides a few sessions toward the end of your service (in between bouts of end-of-service paperwork) about readjusting to life in America, about the disorientation of returning to a life that doesn’t quite fit the same way anymore, about freaking out a little every time you see how many types of milk there are at a grocery store, about the strange and sometimes awesome and often repetitive questions people would ask (like, “do they speak African there?”), and about the surprising number of people who actually wouldn’t be all that interested.

I have been very lucky; I have plenty of family and friends who are genuinely interested in what I’ve been through these past few years.  And when they asked me specific questions—how long were you there, where did you go to the bathroom, were there spiders or snakes?—I was happy to answer, to ramble for as long as was socially appropriate about black mambas and pit latrines and the time my cat tried to take on a tarantula.  I had no trouble bringing up these memories when prompted.

But some of the questions—the general questions, which of course were the most common questions, because who knows what to ask someone who’s been in the Peace Corps for three years?  How can someone be expected to know where to start?—some of those more general questions left me stumped, left me tongue-tied and a little bit panicked, because in those moments I would get a chill up my back and think: I don’t remember.

Memory is a funny thing.  It doesn’t always work the way you expect it to, and it isn’t some well-organized filing cabinet you can open at whim and comb through by file name or category.  Things get lost in there, things burst forth into your consciousness unexpectedly and without reason, and the strangest moments can bring back a memory you didn’t even remember you’d forgotten.  As I understand it, our brain stores memories in synapses connected by electric currents, and those currents wear down over time until the memory gets isolated and abandoned, so that the memory is still there but unreachable, which is why sometimes you can’t remember something no matter how hard you focus on it, and then if you think about something else for awhile the memory will come to you—your brain is finding a new way to the memory, because the old path is in disrepair.  You might know vaguely your destination, but when you don’t care for the roads, don’t watch them or tend to them regularly, they become potholed and tree-fallen and steadily more difficult to drive on.

So it’s not that I don’t remember what Zambia was like, the taste and texture of nshima or the angle of the sun over my kitchen hut in the morning—it’s just that those memories are becoming more and more unused the further away they get, and like the forgotten dresser drawer the less I think about it the more likely I am to forget it entirely.  When specifically prompted, I can describe the bamboo mat on my kitchen floor, the folds of the mosquito net over my bed, the patterns on my hand-sewn couch cushions, the black spots on my cat, because those memories are still there, but since I’m not accessing them regularly I forget the way back there, forget to even try.  Sitting around the table this weekend fielding questions from earnest and interested family members, I was thrown by the number of questions I had to struggle to answer, the memory muscles I hadn’t stretched lately.

I am lucky that I kept a daily journal for the majority of my years abroad—that I wrote down what training was like, what my community was like, anecdotes about chameleons and falls from my bike, the day the cat stole my dinner while an inebriated neighbor was distracting me, the peanut butter and honey sandwich I ate that first night by candlelight.  We think when we’re living something that we’ll remember it; that if it is important it will stick, or as my mother used to say, “if you can’t remember it then it can’t have been all that important.”

And maybe some of it isn’t that important, like that skirt, some remnant of someone I thought I was going to be, which is now sitting in a bag ready to be donated and forgotten once again.  But there are other things I want to write down because I know I will forget them, like a little girl’s smile or the early lettuce shoots in my garden or the way snow sweet-crunches underfoot.  Because the next day, like today, the weather may change, the rain may pour and the snow may wash away as if it were never there in the first place.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

7 things I didn’t think I’d be/do/have done by 27

My 27th birthday was on Tuesday, and as I was nearly freezing to death on my mid-morning wake-up run, I reflected on how unlikely this activity-- on my birthday, no less-- would have been 10 years ago.  And so this post was born...

1.     Go for a run in the morning when it’s below freezing, and consider it fun

I never thought, when I was that out-of-shape kid walking, not because I didn’t want to run but because I couldn’t, with the outcasts in the back during run-a-mile day in gym class, that I would find myself out here, on my 27th birthday, running in freezing temperatures for over an hour, my arms numb and my nose tingling, not out of loyalty to an exercise regimen or because someone had forced me into it, but because I wanted to.  Out there on Keene’s green pedestrian bike trail, I could feel the leaves frosted and crashing about my feet, the wind harsh on my forehead, the sun dropping hints of warmth through dappled pines.  In the pauses between songs I heard the trash of leaves and feet, my heavy breathing, and not much else.  The occasional dog or biker or jogger, the occasional thrum of a car nearby, empty off-season golf courses and post-migration empty nests.  No one needed to tell my younger self that there is magic in the world, or that a walk outside can reveal it to you, let loose the thoughts in your head into words and ideas to spew desperately on paper back inside the house before they drift away on the wind.  But you could not have convinced that younger girl that running, that pounding the knees and reddening the cheeks, that panting on frozen breaths and feeling hot and cold and dizzy at the same time, would be a positive addition to the equation.

Back when I was the young bookish introvert reading Harry Potter in the corner of the library, back then when I was a few pounds over-weight and under-confident, I viewed exercise with equal parts envy and disdain, an activity for over-competitive jocks and shallow body-conscious fools.  A fit body was something I wanted but couldn’t have, not when my lack of coordination and inability to psych myself up for something I knew was just a game made me an unpopular and unenthusiastic teammate in any sport, not when a 90-second jog on the treadmill left me breathless and unable to go on.  I was the kid who pretended sports were un-cool because I didn’t get them, wasn’t fast enough to follow the rules or competitive enough to care.

Whether it was middle-school softball or gym class, it was immensely clear that sports just were not made for me, that exercise and I simply didn’t fit.  College only proved my point: halfway through a semester-long rock climbing class, I fell from a very low height and, in a freak accident, snapped two bones in my right leg.  I wasn’t just too lazy to get into shape; for every instance of laziness there were more examples of me trying and failing due to my own physical inadequacy, as if fate herself was telling me not to bother.  As I slowly worked my way up to sprinting and fast walking on the college treadmill again, I came to accept that exercise would always be a chore, and one to which I was ill-suited.  I learned to respect fitness, to love yoga and fast walking and even dance (that’s a sport.  Trust me), but could find nothing fun nor un-embarrassing enough to hold my attention long enough to start me up the mountain toward healthy living.

Sometimes when you refuse to go to the Mountain, the Mountain comes to you.  My Mountain was a bicycle.  It was a heavy thick-tired trek something-or-other, black and a little on the large side, given to me by the Peace Corps upon my arrival in Zambia along with a shiny red helmet, which other seasoned bike riders (read: just about everyone) disdained but accepted as a useless precaution required by a liability-conscious US government.  I clung to my helmet, wished for helmets on my knees, my elbows, my flip-flop-wearing toes.  Other volunteers lived close enough to the training building to walk there, but I was staying with a host family a couple of kilometers away, up and over dirt-road hills and through patches of sand that turned to mud after the daily rains.  There wasn’t an option here—no stomachache to fake, no lower setting on the treadmill, just me and the Mountain and an obligation to meet, classes to go to and no option of going slower.  The heart rate would rise and my face would turn red and I would not stop to rest and that was the end of it.  Every day, there and back again, a half hour that slowly turned into 20 minutes, a waistline that slowly shrunk.

I didn’t climb the Mountain because I wanted to.  I had given up on dreams of fit and thin, long abandoned any interest in sports and games, resigned myself to weak muscles and yoga or pilates to keep me from sinking into a puddle of nothing.  I wasn’t trying to lose weight or build muscle or teach my body endurance.  I was just trying to get to class every day.  I was trying to prove to myself that I could survive here.  Surviving Peace Corps Zambia was the Mountain I aimed for; physical fitness and mad skillz on a bicycle was a Mountain I climbed by accident, anecdotally.

So here I am 3 hears later, sweaty and cold from a run, my muscles frozen but my brain clear and active, just like it was all though years ago when I would “exercise” by walking around the block.  I still don’t run marathons, I’m lucky to run 20 minutes without needing to walk for a second and get my breath back, but I do run now.  I still don’t like sports, but I haven’t forgotten the day I gave into peer pressure and joined some of my fellow volunteers for a game of volleyball—still not my favorite pastime, but I was as shocked as anyone to discover I wasn’t as horrible at it as I was in high school gym, that I wasn’t as hopeless as I had thought, and boy did it feel good to be in a group, even if they did all seem bizarrely intent on winning.  I’m not ashamed of myself for tripping over air, or embarrassed to be uncoordinated and clumsy or red-faced and sweaty.  And I still fall off my bike, just like I did in a patch of mud on that very first day.  But I’m not afraid of it anymore.

2.     Speak a foreign language almost no one else speaks, and do it well

I was never all that good at languages.  I wasn’t awful at high school Spanish and made a passing attempt at classical Greek when I thought I might be a classics major, but my attempts to learn French for Peace Corps (back when they thought they’d send me to West Africa instead of Southern) were an abject failure, and despite my belief that other people should not be required to learn English—that we should all make an effort to learn each other’s languages in basic form, and that it isn’t fair to go into someone else’s country and expect them to speak your language—I found it easier to talk the talk (or not) than walk the walk, and relied on the ESL population to carry me through my own linguistic ignorance.

So when I sat down in my 3-person Bemba-language-group class for the first time in February 2010, I did not believe with any confidence that I could become fluent in this Zambian tribal language only spoken by a couple thousand people.  I expected to learn a few basics, hello and thank you just for the sake of courtesy, and then have to rely on others to struggle through their basic-level English in order for us to communicate or accomplish anything over the next 27 months.

Imagine my surprise when I did well in that class, to the point where I was offering study hints and pneumonic devices to my classmates, to the point where my teacher was nominating me to give a speech in Bemba at our swearing-in ceremony.  My friends from Peace Corps might think it absurd that I ever doubted my ability to learn a foreign language.  It was an ability I didn’t know I had, something for which I was sure I lacked the attention-span and the dedication.

And it turned out to be one of the greatest gifts I received in my time in Zambia.  There were plenty of moments where I was befuddled by language, that I sat in a circle of happily babbling ladies around a reed mat shelling maize and completely failed to comprehend what they were saying, that I had to lean over to my counterpart to have them translate a meeting for me (and I never led a meeting without a counterpart there), that I confused the word for bag with the word for frog, or the word for hair with the word for dirt.  But some of the best moments I had in Zambia came from this local dialect being slowly edged out by the English-language globalization initiative.  Like the times a Zambian woman would address a question about me to my host mother, and I would jump in to answer myself, or the times I would sit in a meeting and realize with a small smile that I was following every word of it.  There was the time I argued indignantly in rapid-fire Bemba with a man overcharging for the local bus fare, or the time my translator couldn’t think how to translate “harvest a beehive” into Bemba and I did it for him.  I could ramble in Bemba, explain nuances of Bemba grammar and translation to my fellow volunteers (not that they necessarily wanted to listen to it), and even kept lists of Bemba words that sounded similar, for my own curiosity.  And through all of it, I never stopped being pleasantly surprised that I actually understood this, that this was a part of my mental processes now.

And maybe I should have known better, should have realized that an English major with a musical background—someone who has grown accustomed to picking up the rhythms and patterns of language, who navigates grammar on instinct and memorizes lyrics through habit—would take to a foreign language relatively easily, once forced into it.  But it honestly wasn’t something I ever expected to be good at—speaking one language eloquently is hard enough!

This past summer I backpacked through a large portion of Eastern and Southern Europe.  I didn’t learn all the languages of all the people I visited, but I did make a point of at least learning to say hello and thank you wherever I went—I had always believed that it was only polite to learn a few key phrases in the language of any country you are visiting, as a sign of good will toward your hosts, and now I knew I could actually walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

3.     Walk across the rim of Victoria Falls with only hands to hold me

You don’t always know you’re going to do something crazy until you do it.

Sometimes you have a vague idea that you might do it, someday.  This happened with Peace Corps—a vague whispering in the back of my head that drew me to an information session my freshman year, and an application 3 years later.  And there’s stuff you always knew you would do, but never expected to actually happen.  Like riding an elephant.  Or petting a cheetah.  Or singing the lead in your favorite musical on stage.

That last one never happened.  Sometimes dreams don’t.  I think sometimes life isn’t always about fulfilling dreams—some dreams, like being a broadway singer, you hang on to until you get older and discover better dreams to reach for, like finding the courage to sing and play guitar in a circle of friends around a campfire.  But some of those never-dreams happen, like visiting an elephant orphanage and gently petting an extremely young baby elephant.  Crazy dreams aren’t impossible dreams.

But then there are the crazy not-dreams, the things you never planned on doing, never dreamed of doing, until suddenly there you are shuffling along a small cement waterfall lip in a line, holding hands with friends and acquaintances while stumbling through rocky pools, all the time feeling the ominously innocent pull of a current feet away from the drop of the largest waterfall in the world.  There was no planning, here.  I didn’t wake up that morning and say “well, it’s new years, time to climb across the top of a waterfall.”  But it wasn’t a matter of “all my friends are doing it,” either.  I think I went along with it because I didn’t want to look back on that moment and think “this was the time I could have done something amazing and crazy, but instead I stayed in the tourist trap parking lot outside the greatest waterfall in the world, getting propositioned by men selling tourist trinkets at tourist kiosks.”  I made a split-second decision that that wasn’t what I wanted my life to be.  Just like you can let go of some dreams, you can suddenly discover unexpected ones, too.

And when we reached that pool, others diving in while I waded and swam gently, almost reverently, across to the outcropping on the rim, I looked over the rim of the falls and across the falling mist to where the tourists stood in the safe part of the park and thought yes, this was worth it.

I’m not an adventurous person.  I’m probably never going to jump out of an airplane or go parasailing, and while one can never really say never, I can say with certainty that I will never be the type to love an adrenaline rush so intently that I go bungee jumping on a regular basis just to chase that feeling.  An adventure for me will always be an anomaly, something I do once just to know that I could.

Of course, one could argue that sitting somewhere watching the clouds go by is its own sort of adventure, in the right context.

4.     Wear a skirt. Swear.  Get drunk.  Eat spinach.

I know, this is small and a little bit silly, but did you ever wake up one morning and suddenly decide that your whole outlook had changed?  Like you used to love brussel sprouts and now you hate them, or you hated spinach and now you love it (Has anyone actually tried spinach lately?  Sautee it for about a minute in garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice, and you have instant awesome green on your plate.  Why did no one ever tell me this healthy thing was actually kinda easy?)?

Or when you’re seven you just decide tomboy jeans are so much cooler than that puffy pink dress your grandmother made, and you change your wardrobe and never look back unless absolutely necessary.  And then one day you’re 24 and browsing through the second-hand racks at a consignment shop and you see this beautiful old-fashioned skirt, and then another one at a thrift shop, and another and another and suddenly you’re really into stockings and skirts and knee-high boots?  Sometimes these things just happen, ok?

The point is, there’s a lot of stuff in the world and you never know what’s going to appeal to you or when.  Forming an opinion on something trivial and clinging to it can only limit you.  I can’t imagine what my stubborn seven-year-old self would say if she saw the way I dress, the food I eat, the shows I watch, the books I read (well, maybe she’d approve of that last one).  I’ve made it a habit too often in life deciding I did or didn’t like something and staunchly announcing this opinion for the world, only just as genuinely to change my mind 5 years later.  I never thought I’d come to regret some of my more obstinate moments (but not all of them) and strive for a more open mind.  You never know how volleyball, or wine, or spinach, or skirts, are going to look to you in a decade; I “knew” a lot when I was little, but I never knew how much and how often I would come to change my mind.

I've changed my mind about words.  I used to think words were significant for their meaning alone, that for every statement there was a proper wording and grammatical structure, and that slang, swears, and good heavens conjugations had no place there.  People who used words incorrectly, who followed the connotation or the tone instead of the dictionary definition, who called their friends names and meant it in a positive, affirming way, who said one thing and meant another or said nothing and asked you to read their face, who treated "LOL" as a word that could be used in conversation or said "like" without the accompanying simile, were fools and grammatical heathens.  I used to think swears were always bad, and compliments always good.

These days I cuss freely, mix GRE words with "like" and "totally" and "kinda," spit out terms like "desire lines" and "champagne rain" just for the nonsensical way they fit the mood, not because I've gotten loose or forgotten my English-language training, but because I've learned language isn't what we write down in dictionaries.  Language is fluid, not a lawbook but an oral tradition, something that evolves and changes as we do.  Each word and sorta-word, from "kinda" to "ROTFLMAO" to "@#%&#$%," has it's place in the universe, it's own sort of conversation.  And while I continue to be of the belief that LOL should be left in the cyber-conversation where it belongs, and that "like" should be an occasional conversational filler for poetic flow and not a nervous verbal tick, I also believe in the split infinitive, the fragment, and the well-timed curse.  Because language is an art form, and like all art it changes with the time, the culture, the person, the situation.  It is more than its rule-book.

And sometimes swearing just feels so damn good.

And then there’s alcohol.  I still can’t say I’m as fond of the stuff as some people.  Some of it still tastes like cough syrup, and I’ve spent more time drinking to be a part of the party than out of any great love for the taste or its effects.  But like a curse word at the right moment, sometimes a good beer or a glass of wine is the best thing at the end of a long day.  Now how do I explain that to my 5-year-old self?

5.     Climb Mount Kilimanjaro

The Lion King was my favorite film as a child.  I was young enough then that going to see the same Disney cartoon in theaters 6 times in a row didn’t turn any heads—this is what is expected of young kids.  Ask my parents for my greatest hits, and they will likely come out with Star Wars or Harry Potter, or if they’re confusing me with my sister then The Sound of Music.  But my first love wasn’t fantasy or sci-fi or musicals or even Disney.  My first love was lions on an African plain.

This is the thought I reached back to when standing in the desolate desert of Kilimanjaro’s fire-hill plains below the summit, searching around scrub brush and red red boulders for a safe place to crouch and piss.  Behind me as I stumbled around I could see the glacial summit pouring through the crystal clouds, a place I’d climbed to the very top of and back down to here again in 24 hours.  My feet were numb and my legs were rubber, my neck was sunburned and my face was red, I had dust all over my clothes and in my pores.  But there was that cloud-circled summit, those opening bars of my favorite childhood film painted in front of me real and present and stuck to the bottoms of my boots.  What had just been a childhood dream was real and in front of me, wonderful and unexpected.

It’s strange how you can not know how much or how long you’ve wanted something until it’s there.  I certainly didn’t sit in the audience of The Lion King on stage and think “I want to climb Kilimanjaro,” or “I want to ride an elephant,” or “I want to go live in rural Africa for 2 years.”  But it sure felt surprising and good to get there.

6.     Live in a mud hut for 2 years without electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing, surrounded by people who don’t speak my language or understand my culture, with only a bicycle and the grocery

Ok, anyone else here tired of hearing me brag about the mud hut in Africa?  Yeah, I’m just gonna let this one speak for itself and move on…

7.     Still be friends with that girl from the other end of the cafeteria table 17 years ago

It’s strange to think about, being ten years old and meeting someone I would know for longer than I’d been alive yet.  If I told my younger self she wouldn’t be able to fathom knowing someone that long, wouldn’t be able to fathom even living that long.  It’s a long time, seventeen years, and knowing it’s less than the extent of my lifetime can only mean one thing:

I’m getting old.

This is what I thought a few weeks ago, sitting under one of those big white tents and watching a bride and groom sway across a grassy dance floor.  The bride had dried leaves clinging up the hem of her dress, and this was how I knew her for who she was.  This was the same girl who used to sleep on my living room floor, the same girl who I kept smacking from the driver’s seat on the way back from our midnight bookstore raid because she was getting a head start on the newest Harry Potter book when I couldn’t possibly catch up without crashing and killing us all and it just wasn’t fair.  Her hair was a different color then, her body shorter and her face younger and rounder, her whole self less solid without this man here to hold her as she danced, but I still know this woman was that girl.  No one else would look so fairy-graceful in a dress doubling as a rake the way that she does; that elf-in-the-garden dress wouldn’t ever suit anyone else but her.

It’s odd because you never know at the time what moments are going to define you, what people are going to stick to you and stick around.  There were other people I knew better then, people I still run into on facebook, people who will always be a part of my formation—there in my graduation pictures, there at school dances and school plays, there when I got my college acceptance letter, there to fight suddenly with me in the hallway and make up by lunchtime, there for late night strolls through target, for brownie day in the cafeteria.  People I’ll see at some high school reunion and wonder where the friendship goes when it’s gone.  And when I was ten years old and sitting at the cafeteria table I had no way of knowing that the only person at the table I would still know in 17 years the friend-of-a-friend over there whose name I couldn’t quite remember.  Life moves funny, sometimes.

And here I was 17 years later at her wedding.  Isn’t it weird when your facebook stalker-stream is suddenly littered with wedding photos, girls you know by a different last name, houses and babies?  Where did the time go?  It happens in real life too—showing up at a wedding, squinting at guests until there’s a moment of recognition and oh how they’ve grown, there are boyfriends and girlfriends and kids now, new jobs and new haircuts and we all look a little more alive, don’t we, on the other side of high school?

And I know that this is nothing—if 27 years would have seemed like an absurdly long time when I was ten, think how small 27 will look from 54.  I keep blinking, at weddings, at parties, standing on the lip of Victoria Falls looking down into the abyss, and wondering “gee, how on earth did I get here?”

I think of my own wedding, sometimes—a hypothetical wedding I’m not even sure I ever really want to have—and re-evaluating my side of the guest list.  The list grows longer, and sometimes a little shorter, and as I get older I count the number of people who might have a family of their own to bring along.  And then I think of the other side of the aisle—how many parents, siblings, cousins, friends?  There’s a person I haven’t met yet—actually, there are probably several people—who will mean a lot to me, who right now are nothing more to me than a little girl sitting at the other end of the cafeteria, some friend of a friend whose name I am struggling to remember.

A lot of people are afraid of getting old, but I’m not scared so much as I am bowled over by it; I look at where I’ve come in 27 years, in 17 years, in 5, and I can’t wait to see what’s next, and what unknown people will be there.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Searching for Viktor Krum: Bulgaria

My very last day in Greece was very very long.  I woke up at 5am to catch a 6am ride with a friend of the Monastery down from Anatoli to Larissa.  I spent a few hours walking around Larissa completing a few errands, such as checking my e-mail and buying sunglasses to replace the ones I stepped on in the garden.  I highly recommend Larissa if you're ever passing through-- it's a nice little town with lots of shops and stores, and on Tuesday they have an open-air market next to the train station.  I left my bag at Park Hotel, who generously allowed me to do this without charge, so I could wander the city for a couple hours.  I bought a sandwich at a bakery and ate it in a park by a fountain.  It was a lovely morning.

Thessaloniki I did not like as much, though to be fair I only covered the streets near the train station.  What I saw looked like every other city, concrete and pavement and shops; you'd think they'd put something nice like a park near the train station to lure tourists.  I stopped in a 1-euro shop and bought a hair clip just for fun, and then spent the rest of the evening at the train station's internet cafe.  I did find a nice cafe across from the train station, where the guy at the counter smiled and sold me a really good turkey sandwich and let me sit there until midnight when my bus left, so that was nice.

The bus from Thessaloniki, Greece, to Sofia, Bulgaria, left at midnight (well, 12:45) and reached Sofia around 5:30 in the morning.  So that's 24 hours of uninterrupted travel and intermittent napping.  I took a quick snooze in the bus station before walking down the road to Hostel Mostel, where I was immediately welcomed even though I probably looked and smelled rather bad at this point.  I recommend Hostel Mostel because the people there are very nice, they let me doze on their couch since my room wasn't ready at 7am, and they let me use the shower while basically living out of reception, and then they stored my luggage for me so I could go into town.

At their recommendation, I washed up after my nap and then walked to the Court House at 11am for a free 2.5-hour walking tour of Sofia.  It's a very smart way to show tourists around Sofia, especially since most of the sights are in the same part of the city.  We saw churches and mosques and parliament buildings, and our guide helpfully provided historical anecdotes (and some jokes) so that we actually knew what we were looking at. When the tour finished I was famished and walked off in search of some bulgarian food, but accidentally ended up in a nice sushi restaurant.  Oops, these things happen.

I spent the afternoon wandering around the archaelogy museum, looking at marble friezes and statues until I could barely stand up, because I'm a dork like that.  The artifacts there were nicer than some I've seen, and the place earns brownie points for being small-- nothing overwhelming, just a taste of history.  I had an intention of going on a hostel-led "free" pub crawl after dinner (Hostel Mostel provides free dinner with beer as well as breakfast (without beer), seriously I recommend it), but instead I fell asleep at like 8:30.  Oops these things happen.

Since I hadn't seen enough monasteries lately, on my 2nd day in Bulgaria I went on a day trip to Rila Monastery, 2 hours outside Sofia.  It was quite a lot bigger than the monastery I stayed at in Greece, but it didn't have an organic garden or baby cows, so...

Sofia is a nice city but a small one, and there isn't actually much to do, so on my 3rd day (at Hostel Mostel's recommendation.  Seriously, go here) I took a bus north to Veliko Tarnovo, the old capital of Bulgaria.  If I was going to find Durmstrang on this trip (Balkan Hogwarts), it would be here.  The place has an actual fortress, which these days doubles as a gigantic stone playground for tourists.  At night (not every night, but some) the fortress puts on a great big light show, red and blue and green, with laser beams from the tallest tower and flashes like paparazzi from the lower citadel.  I had a great day and evening just wandering around the old city, down cobblestone streets and into towers.

Had I unlimited time, my next detour might have been to a Bulgarian town on the Black Sea, but I have a schedule and Bucharest was calling me...

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

5 nuns walk into a barn...

Thessaloniki train station has one of the last internet cafes in existence, a colorfully painted little room blocked by drop-claw machines and palm readers and fortune teller booths ala Big and similar artifacts; this is perhaps the room where old and antiquated things go, and the computers that were dumped here just decided to plug themselves in and start charging access through coin slot machines, because they are smart and capitalist like that.  I found one other internet cafe on my short walk down the street today, and it wasn't working.  I hear rumors that there are others around, but I haven't seen any-- only wifi hotspots, which is the sort of gibberish my phone from Zambia doesn't quite comprehend.  I don't regret selling my laptop in Zambia, though-- it would have been a massive pain to carry (literally-- my poor back) and my co-worker was so glad to have it, so I'll just have to make the most of this computer while I have it (for 37 more minutes).

I decided in advance that leaving Africa would be slightly traumatic, and that I needed some sort of buffer or rest period before I started backpacking around Europe like some college student (apparently I am officially too old for this-- official travel discounts in Europe are for backpackers "under 26"-- what, like I turn 26 and it's time for me to settle down with a white picket fence and a dog?  Really?  But I digress...).  My very intelligent stepmother apparently decided the same thing, since she rallied the troops (which consisted of my father and my cousin Connie, who is having a fabulous time backpacking across Europe as well and actually is the proper age for it) and orchestrated a trip to Istanbul for which I had to do no planning beyond buying a plane ticket and deciding what to wear each morning, which was plenty of work for me.  We had an amazing week of tours through mosques and markets, hummus and stuffed grape leaves and fish by the sea (and baklava with ice cream at least once a day-- I am my father's daughter and he is his father's son), and a trip to Ephesus so I could bounce around ancient ruins like they were playgrounds, which is one of my very favorite things.  It was very hot and the days were bizarrely long-- I forgot what it's like to be this far away from the equator-- and there were plenty of rug salesmen handing out glasses of hot apple tea.  A fun and restful week of course ended with a long bus ride at night from Istanbul to Thessaly, and then a train from Thessaloniki to Larissa and a taxi to Anatoli in the mountains, so when I finally arrived at my destination 30 hours after saying good-bye to my family I promptly fell asleep without dinner and stayed asleep until 6 the next morning.

My own plan for a rest turned out to be more of a retreat than I realized-- I signed up online to WWOOF (world wide organization of organic farmers) in Greece, and the one place that wrote back was a monastery on Mount Ossa (or Mount Kissabos, depending on who you ask), on the outskirts of a mountain village called Anatoli, between Larissa and Mount Olympus and the Aegean Sea in Thessaly.  At over 1000 meters, with one (working) truck and one laptop and no wifi split amongst a community of 30 nuns, novices, and guests, I had found the quietest and most peaceful place around.  I had originally planned to stay for 2 weeks; in the end I stayed for 3.

The original Prodromus Monastery was originally built by St. Damian about 500 years ago.  You can still see the ruins of the old church next to the current monastery and church of St John the Foreigner (aka the Baptist), and a 40 minute walk through brambles will get you to the cave-church where St Damian lived several years in seclusion.  Today the Monastery is a work of art: beautiful rooms and patios with beautiful views of the mountains and Larissa below, extensive organic gardens free of chemicals and loaded with fruit trees and beehives, apple orchards and pastures and a farm laden with goats and sheep and cows and horses.  There is a quiet little church with a loft above, so volunteers like me could go observe service and enjoy the peaceful chanting of the nuns' prayers in the evenings if we wished (I went a few times-- it was very peaceful).  The kitchen was well-stocked with fresh fruit and homemade jams, cheese and milk and yogurt and honey straight from the farm, and fresh bread and lunch every afternoon.  It was one of the most relaxing places I have ever been, and though I was working on the farm every day (that's the deal:  free labor in exchange for room and board), I didn't feel exhausted by it, only energized.  Every day it was me in the garden with my ipod and my hands: just me, music, and nature, the perfect place for me.

It is my own personal opinion, which of course no one is obligated to share or even acknowledge, that the world is full of evil deeds, and that human-run institutions such as organized religions, regardless of any possible good intentions, often become fronts for insidious and inexcusable behavior.  However it is also my personal opinion that all things run in a balance, or a dichotomy, and that very few things in the universe are wholly good or bad.  When it comes to religions in general, often it is the cruelest participants who are the loudest, while the nicest and sweetest and best are, by the very nature of being good and unobtrusive and not knocking on our doors to shove their doctrines down our throats, quiet, unseen, and unheard.  It is reassuring and a relief to be reminded on occasion that, despite the outward appearances displayed by the loud and obnoxious, religion can also on occasion do something to make the world more beautiful.

Also?  Nuns on tractors, nuns driving like bats out of you-know-where down hairpin-turn-mountains, nuns popping their heads out of rows of bean plants?  Awesome.  Thank you super-nuns, for a fantastic 3 weeks.

Until next time...

I bless the rains down in Africa...

So here it is nearly August already, and as usual I am abysmally behind on my blogging.  This time I have a few semi-valid excuses, such as a dearth of internet cafes in most major cities (why didn't anyone tell me wifi had already driven internet cafes nearly to extinction?  I figured they were at least still in the cretaceous period...), a lack of internet connection of any kind at all (sorry mom) while farming on a mountain in Thessaly (that's in Greece) for 3 weeks, or my personal favorite:  "wishing to focus on enjoying the moment rather than capturing it," which is code for "I'm tired and my camera is out of batteries."

So to sum up how I spent the rest of June:

After I fell asleep in front of a hotel computer after my last blog post (you know, the one where I didn't have the energy to write about climbing Kilimanjaro because I'd just climbed Kilimanjaro?) I took a shuttle bus from Arusha to Nairobi, where I joined a tour group on a 2-week safari across Kenya and Northern Tanzania.  Places and activities I can now cross off my list:  Lake Nakuru and white rhinos (I'd seen one of the seven in Zambia, but in this fenced park there are actually more than seven!); walking with giraffes near Lake Naivasha; dancing with Maasai women in a cow pasture, and watching their men jump extremely high into the air; drinking a beer on the shores of Lake Victoria; endless driving through the Maasai Mara and Serengeti National Parks; visiting Kisii soapstone carving community and seeing how they make those little bowls and coasters and animal-shaped paperweights and candle-holders which I've been seeing strewn about from Nairobi to Livingstone for years without knowing what sort of material they were or where they came from; watching the sun rise as we descend into Ngorongoro crater, where the cloud blocks the sky like foggy icing on a cupcake; watched small groups of wildebeest give into their migratory instincts and RUN.

Other things I can now cross off my list: living with 22 people on a bus for 2 weeks; driving through a game park packed into a massive truck like cattle; watching the driver replace tires on said truck, twice; putting up an unnecessarily tough and heavy tent every day; watching tourists lean out their gas-guzzling lane-hogging windows to take pictures of normal people going about their normal lives as if they were exhibits in a zoo (Maasai people going about their Maasai lives, but still); being dragged in a broken-down minibus by another minibus; not being able to use the bathroom because a couple of buffalo are standing between the campsite and the outhouse; sitting in a room of 25 people at dinner and being the only one eating my nshima properly, which is to say with my hands (even the 3 Kenyan crew members ate with forks...they called it "civilized," I call it poor ettiquette-- Miss Manners says: always eat a dish with the proper and intended utensil!).  While I was very happy to see new parts of Africa and have new experiences, this safari doesn't really compare to the smaller groups in jeeps, the night drives, walks with cheetahs, elephant rides, horseback rides, etc. that I had in Zambia.  Still, I can't complain (or, rather, I can and should-- roughing it in Africa and complaining about it is the best part--it's where all the stories come from).  At least I didn't get attacked by a baboon (we kept stopping in the parks to look at the baboons...I'm just not that into it).

When the 22 of us stumbled off the bus in Nairobi 14 days later, tired and dirty etc etc etc, I quickly found a lovely hostel so I could rest for a few days before my flight out of Africa.  The hostel I stayed at is called Manyatta and it is a lovely little place with cheerfully painted walls (giraffes, sunsets, etc.), a friendly crew, and a bar/restaurant.  When I get a chance I'll be writing them a very good review.  I did my laundry, ate a cheeseburger, took a nap (I came here for a night between Kilimanjaro and my safari too, and it was the perfect place for a rest!), ran some errands in town (Nairobi is much nicer (and safer) than its reputation-- always be cautious, but don't let fear keep you away!) and paid a visit to the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage.  Yes you read that right: BABY ELEPHANTS!  Some of them were so young their skin was still brown and fuzzy, and the bigger ones guzzled water and milk from bottles eagerly, and the keepers walked them all around the feeding paddock so we could photograph them and even TOUCH them.  It was so cool!  They were so sweet and so beautiful and so sad, and the people who killed their parents are just so heartless and foolish-- ivory just isn't worth this price.  Someday when I have a job and stuff I'm going to "adopt" a baby elephant, which just means making a donation; for now I had to be satisfied with a little stuffed elephant ornament.  I love elephants.

Seeing baby elephants may have been the perfect final activity for my extended stay in Africa; while I have every intention of returning someday in the vague and undefined future, I also know that life works out in strange and surprising ways, and if this does turn out to be my last visit to Africa, I'm glad it was spent here.

My flight out of Africa departed July 1st.  I spent the last of my shillings on chocolate and postcards, checked my e-mail on my phone one last time (I tried to hook it up to the internet in Greece this morning, but after nearly an hour of valiant attempts the nice people at the Vodaphone store admitted defeat, so while I can make calls in Europe I apparently will not be using this phone to get online again anytime soon), and boarded the plane.  I had an 8-hour layover in Dubai, where I thought about going into the city for a bit but ultimately decided to just take a nap in the lounge chairs at the Dubai airport and browse the airport bookstore-- Dubai must be pretty cool, considering how impressively nice the airport was-- and then another flight to Istanbul to meet my father, my stepmother, and my cousin for a week in Turkey.  I spent most of the flight watching free episodes of Downton Abbey season 3-- omg when did that show get so sad???


Thursday, June 13, 2013

The horribleness of the morning after (but it ain't no walk of shame!)

I would really dearly love to write you all a blog post about the past 6 days, which I spent climbing up (and down) Mt. Kilimanjaro, but it is now 7pm, 8 hours after I finally exited Marangu Gate, and I have to face the reality that it isn't going to happen tonight.  The problem is that my hands are shaking from either exhaustion or cold and my eyes are drooping.  The problem is that it hurts to lean over, stand up, walk, or generally move.  The problem is that the keyboard at this hotel-internet-cafe-computer has several stuck letters including the shift key and also the letter I, which would probably show up several times in a blog post about me and Kilimanjaro and give me carpel tunnel.  The problem is I think that mountain gave me a cold.

The climbing of that mountain is currently feuding with 2 years in a mud-hut in Africa for the enviable position of Most Difficult Thing I Have Ever Done (that took 60 seconds to type, damn shift key), and in some ways the two experiences are remarkably similar: both take guts, both have the entrance requirement of being crazy and willing to become moreso, both involve crash-courses in local African languages ( guide and I needed something to talk about during those 6 days of walking...), both require a combination of endurance, patience, determination, and flexibility, and both are accomplished not in the way the hare takes on the racetrack but in the way the tortoise wins the race: panono panono, pole pole, slowly slowly, one aching impossible step at a time.  The terrain may be slippery, may be rocky, may be coated in ice-frozen snow or so much sand you think you could fall straight through to the bottom of the mountain; you may have to wrap your toes in tissue under your socks to prevent blisters, may have to pop advil to get your legs to move, may have to wear all your clothes to bed, and you may at some point desperately have to pee when there are no outhouses or trees or even large enough rocks in sight; but you take another step, say hakuna matata, hakuna shida, tapali bwafya, no problem until you start to mean it, accept the world and move forward within it.

And there's one more thing that climbing Kilimanjaro and living in a mud-hut for 2 years have in common: both breeze through you, quicker and harder than expected, and leave you changed and a bit confused at the end, trying to process that something big has come, happened, and ended.  The morning after life's best and worst experiences is not something you can really write about; it is something that has to be lived.

So I won't be writing about my adventures on Kilimanjaro today.  Maybe someday soon I will-- I certainly hope so.  For now I'm going to relax, repack (leaving for Nairobi in the morning), eat food drink water read a book, and attempt to process this sledgehammer hit my life has taken.  When I have, I'll let you know.

For now, I'll leave you with the following quotes, inspiring words of my fellow climbers, graffitied on the walls of dorm room 5 at Kibo Hut, elevation 4700 meters:

"We made it to the summit.  If we can you can too"
"We did not make it to the summit, but we sure had a fun time trying"
"Once more into the breach, my friends, once more..."
"I am smelly sweaty gross, but now I know the way...{words blocked off}"
"...Has anyone smelled the bathrooms?"