Reflections-6 months On Pt. 2

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Sometimes, if the timing works out, I’ll catch one of my colleagues or former students on Facebook. Now that I am no longer at the school I have accepted their friend requests. Obviously, limited access to the Internet and the unavailability of computers in many areas makes these contacts infrequent from even the girls who are lucky enough to even have the opportunity to deal in social media.. But I am always happy to hear from them. Although with more than 150 of them in total, it is hard when a name pops up to identify them right away. It doesn’t help that half of them on Facebook use pictures of Rihanna and Nicki Minaj as their profile photo.  We chat for a bit. They ask about my job, my family, my marriage, and whether I have any plans for children…in their way. I ask about theirs in turn. Their English is of varying degrees but any of it is better than my Kinyarwanda ever was and much better than my French. There have been births, deaths, marriages, engagements, and job transfers since I left. Some of my fellow Ed 3 Rwanda 6 PCV’ have returned back to the States. As I write this my group is down about 1/3 of our beginning number. Rwanda is one of the hardest countries to serve in, they say. I know it to be true. The PCV’s who remain are still going hard at it, starting Secondary projects, running existent ones, traveling in their free time, and continuing to win “Hearts and Minds” through their wonderful efforts. Relationship building is a process and community-building is a commitment. They are very committed of that I have no doubt, in their own unique ways. I have no doubt they will finish out their time having given more than what was expected of them. In Kigali, the Country Director has changed. Some other positions have been shook up a bit. The “Cas” has closed. One of my most pleasant surprises came on Facebook a short time ago. Esperance friended me on Facebook. Apparently she had gotten  a good job soon after I left the country and it enabled her to buy a nice mobile phone with wifi capabilities. She told me all of the news: Electricity is coming to the parts of Kamonyi that don’t have it. She has a new boyfriend who goes to university in Kigali and who just loves Fiella. Once Papa Bertrand finishes university in a year, Mama Bertrand will start. Then maybe Esperance will go when Mama Bertrand finishes. They are all working hard in the meantime. Louise went to work for a family in Kigali and they weren’t happy so they sent her back to her previous family. Some of the Sisters have been transferred to another convent and they are no longer in Musanze. The Secretary has been forced into retirement by changes in the educational system. She continues to suffer from blood pressure issues. Clementine was very grateful for the clothes and told the Secretary to tell me that Clementine prays for me often and the girls ask when I am coming back. A lot of the teachers I worked with in Musanze have left for other schools.  One has gotten married, one has had another baby. Two PC staff members have gotten married. My school finally received the donation that was to go towards the new computers. I would like to say I was able to follow their progress towards buying and installing them but after the money was distributed, I never got another update nor did the company who made the donation get any acknowledgement. I did prepare a gift from the school to the benefactor, and I hope that made a positive difference in the way things turned out. Another example of how I’ll never understand how things go along from a Rwandan perspective.

On the home front, a lot has changed in the past six months. My little sister moved back to Chicago from New York City. Both my grandmother’s passed away. They were both in their eighties and had gone into decline since before I went to Africa. I knew there was a chance when I left that they would not last until I returned. Coming home early gave me that time. I was able to be at their funerals alongside my family. I gave the eulogy at one and was proud to do it. My youngest brother got married while I was in Rwanda. I got to fly out to California to see his first baby. I danced with Matt at his younger brother’s wedding. I was able to share in the day when my older sister spontaneously married the love of her life. Most importantly, I was able to be there when my concerns for my Father’s health became a frightening reality. Days after my wedding, my Dad was disoriented driving my sister to the airport. He laid down for a nap and when my mother went to wake him, he wouldn’t wake up. He had had an arterial tear that led to a brain bleed. It turned into a clot. The stroke or heart attack I feared came to life and ruled our lives over the course of the next six weeks. My siblings, Mother, and extended family and friends took turns watching over my father as he went from those first tenuous days all the way to recovery. Never left alone, even overnight we ate, slept, and badgered medical personnel on his behalf. We fought like lions, the way we knew he would have fought for us. “I don’t know”, “Maybe”, “We’ll see”, none of those answers were good enough for the Superhero of our childhood. We slept by his side and held his hand, we exercised his legs, moisturized his lips, talked to him, and made sure he was changed frequently. He got a nosocomial infection and I thought I was going to lose my mind if they didn’t figure out how to stop the diarrhea and fever that ensued. He was given anointing of the sick by our parish priest and we all prayed in our own way that our last happy moments together as a family would not have been the day of my wedding. It could have gone either way so many times. The medical staff was amazed at his strength and remarked once he was out of danger, privately, that they had thought he was a goner for sure when he first came in. He didn’t go anywhere but from the ICU to the VA hospital to recover and then home. Minimal damage. His speech was a bit muddled, his memory for language not as quick, but therapy would take care of that. The staff at Rush Presbyterian St Luke’s Hospital, our constant care, the vagaries of the Universe, and my Father’s own bear-like USMC and police officer strength powered him through to recovery.  I don’t know how I would have managed had I not been in Chicago when that nightmare began.

Matt and I have spent the past months since my homecoming getting to know one another again. Matt has been my rock through everything’s that’s happened. When I can, I’m enjoying making the family times I spent in my head in Rwanda come true in real life. The tail end of Summer, the crisp Fall, the frigid Winter in the city I love best. The Holidays were even sweeter after having spent time away.  I got a job within 5 weeks of coming home due to some great experience and some even better connections. Barkley the wiener dog is still lovable and still un-trainable. In our free time, Matt and I do the things we always did. Only more in love now, more convinced that we (and I) have made the right choices regarding so many decisions. We enjoyed the process of planning our wedding even with all the craziness. We planned to go all out. The ceremony was at my parents’ parish on the SW side of Chicago. The reception took place at Matt’s family banquet hall on the NW side. Two huge families-Mexican, Polish, and Italian-coming together for one hell of an expensive drinking party. A Crosstown Classic if there ever was one. A made-to-order day in February, blue sky, sunshine…it was the best day of my life. Matt and I are talking about starting a family. I’m thinking about volunteering more. And of course, how I would go about getting my blogs published.

How do I feel now that I’ve been home for awhile? I feel older. I feel settled. I feel tired. Just a bit on all 3. I find myself forgetting so much. The sound of the birds, the smells in the air….my Kinya is almost entirely gone. Not that it was ever that great. But still. My umushanana is packed away, who knows if I will ever wear it again. I email my friends in Rwanda. We chat sometimes. Even though it’s only been months, we both know we live on different planets now. You would think since I’ve published this blog, put my experiences in the PC and Rwanda up for the whole world to see, I wouldn’t balk at telling a story or two, answering questions, breaking out the photo albums. Funnily, the idea of telling someone in person doesn’t interest me. In other words, I don’t bother to tell Rwanda stories unless someone asks. I don’t show pictures around unless someone asks to see them. They tell you in PC that you’ll want to “tell your story” once you go home. I haven’t felt that need, really. It’s my story. It’s my experience. My memories, my images. Mine and the people I met there. I don’t care much if I don’t share it. Makes it more special to keep it to myself.

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Reflections-6 months On Pt.1

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Rwanda. Was I ever really there? I wonder this from time to time. I haven’t made any decision as of yet. The most I have been able to come up with in regards to an answer is: Yes. And also, No. I was there though, wasn’t I? Or was I? What can we ever know about a place in the short space of a single year? I joined the Peace Corps. I accepted a position teaching English in Rwanda. My body flew on a jet plane, my body lived in a house with a Rwandan family, eating their food, learning their language. I became Rwandan in the sense of knowing what I had to learn to do to make my way as a PCV. The physical aspects of it. Cooking, cleaning, going to market. All of them became “muscle memory”, ingrained in my movements as I repeated the actions day by day and week by week. But my mind was never Rwandan. My memory was not Rwandan. My pocketbook was never Rwandan. My future wasn’t a Rwandan future. I lived each day knowing that out there, a 45 minute moto ride to Musanze, a 3 hour bus ride to the capitol city of Kigali, a four hour plane ride to Europe, a further 8 hours onwards on a different flight….out there was America. Our there was Chicago, my family, my friends. If I could have bent the laws of time and space I could have been with them instantly. Matt and our cozy apartment, Barkley the wiener dog, a new job if I was lucky right away, further education if I chose it. They were all just a wormhole away. In my fantasies I would find myself come upon one as I walked down the mountain, and I would slip into it, like Alice down the rabbit hole….and would come out the other side. The other side was Home. The other side was all things familiar. Free from disease, poverty, danger, hunger, ignorance, political uproar that threatened my everything. My “other side” was something I never gave up. In my mind, when things were bad in Rwanda, I would think about my other side. I would think about Home. I would know that once I got through this, I would be able to go back there. There being a life where I was me and that was enough.  Like a blind person in a dark room, Rwanda-me was always feeling around, fumbling for words, for knowledge, for cues. There were no shared memories to draw on alongside others, no commonality of life’s hardships. Not really. Even when you sit in darkness, it’s good to have someone’s hand to squeeze. I didn’t have that in Rwanda. Maybe I never could. Chicago-me was fully sighted and lived in a solarium where I sat around with people who had shared  my life and knew my heart. People whose culture and understanding stood shoulder to shoulder with my own.  People, who like me, have never known so many things that we have no idea we don’t know them. Warm and happy in the sunshine we sit and smile, if only  in our most offhand comments and body language, congratulating ourselves on our lives, how worldly we are, how lucky we are. Do we really know what any of those words mean? Luck? Success? Happiness? I have come to the conclusion that Rwanda and I existed in a duality. I was Sam in Quantum Leap. There but not present. Present but ephemeral. Real  and unreal, I always felt a tiny bit ghost-like as I went about my life there. People stared at me the same way you would a spirit. So I suppose it wasn’t such a bizarre comparison.

Now, I am home. I have been for some time. And like slipping into a hot bath, I have found being home a relief to both body and mind. Somewhat jarring, the new-ness of the developed world on my skin has been something I have had to ease back into. The “L” is so loud-was it always this loud? I don’t remember but Matt said it was.  Everyone walks so fast. There is a screen door on my back door now. So that’s a nice development. I smile every time I turn on the sink or the bathtub and water rushes out-hot OR cold! I can’t even talk about the toilet. It overwhelms me. The laptop works crazy fast. The lights in every store or home are bright, bright, bright. Doing laundry, doing dishes is so unbelievably simple. I never realized how easy either of those chores really were. I never cared for air-conditioning before I went to Rwanda so having access to it here now doesn’t affect me much. You can use your phone to pay for things now. I find myself not putting my glasses on anymore. I only needed them for close reading but they didn’t help much indoors in Rwanda due to the insufficient light. When I was teaching they would get covered in chalk dust. Being home, wearing sunglasses escapes me- even when I find myself needing them I tend to squint and use my hand as a sunshade. I stopped wearing them in Rwanda because they were an outward sign of wealth. I do need them however and should start wearing them again now that I’m home.  Along with deodorant and makeup, which I would only wear when around other Westerners in Rwanda. I forget to put it on in the morning some days now that I’m home. And I have to remind myself to shave every few days as well. Then, there are these things called “hashtags” and “Pinterest” that have become popular. Not sure how much I’ll be using either of them. Also the saying “YOLO” which I just think is stupid beyond belief and refuse to say. My landlord, my drycleaner, the bartender at my local…they were all excited to see me. Is this what it felt like to be a sailor in the old days? You leave for long periods of time. Everyone knows you’ve gone. They go about their lives with the thought of you being something that flits through their minds infrequently…until they see you again. Only then do you become real.

If I said I thought of Rwanda every day I would be lying. The world I lived in there is, in so many ways, just not able to exist in a brain thats re-adjusted to life back home in the U.S. But there are times when my time there washes over me in a wave of déjà vu-lighting a match, chopping vegetables, washing the floor. I will be present and yet the cutting board underneath my hands becomes wood and not plastic. I look towards the door of the kitchen half expecting it to be open, sunlight streaming in, and Kevina peeking around the corner. The sound the wooden stick and sulphurous head made when I scratched it against the side of the box, the sound of water slapping the sides of a bucket. All of them took me back. And there are other things. I saw a video made by the Rwandan Tourist Board. It was beautiful, filled with towering landscapes, native flora and fauna, little children smiling, dancing, and laughing. No shots of hollow-cheeked men sitting on benches drinking banana beer, their lifeless eyes staring into yours. No shots of mudslides that buried villages. Of course, there wouldn’t be. I go about my day, outside. I see people with black skin. I unconsciously expect them to stare, to say something to me in Kinya, French, or accented English. When they don’t, when they just walk by me, I have to remember they are Americans and not Rwandan. They don’t care that I am there, I am of no interest to them whatsoever. Matt took me to see “The Book of Mormon” one night. It was what I call “pee your pants funny”. Part of the show deals with a parody of Western culture going to a country in Africa in part to “save” it from itself. Sitting there in the dark theatre with Matt beside me, I heard the lead female characters solo. It was meant to be sardonic, even funny. Instead, my eyes welled up with tears thinking that this was similar to the way people in Rwanda would talk about the United States. Not using the overblown, comedic language of the Broadway Musical but the sentiment was the same. A land where the most basic needs were met always. Where they could be safe and free from the things that were ever day fears for them: political instability, hunger, diseases there were cures for, access to even rudimentary medical care, and a chance for education and a way out of poverty by a route, any route….just a way. Just a chance. Any chance to make it out.

I can imagine what it must be like
This perfect, happy place
I’ll bet the goat-meat there is plentiful
And they have vitamin injections by the case
The war-lords there are friendly
They help you cross the street
And there’s a Red Cross on every corner
With all the flour you can eat!

Sal Tlay Ka Siti
The most perfect place on Earth
Where flies don’t bite your eyeballs
And human life has worth
It isn’t a place of fairytales
Its as real as it can be
A land where evil doesn’t exist
Sal Tlay Ka Siti

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Coming Home Pt.2

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One of the first hurdles I encountered, after the lack of cash, was the lack of keys. I had left my keys with Matt a year ago. Matt didn’t know I was coming home. So, no keys. But I am nothing if not resourceful. Two options: I could wait for someone to come out of the back of the building where the balconies were and slip in before the gate closed. Once I got inside the rear area, I could cross my fingers that Matt had left our back door open. It was a possibility. Failing that, I could even cut the screen with my Swiss Army knife if he’d left a back window open by chance. We lived on the first floor, after all. Option two: I buzz up to the building caretaker’s apartment, hope he’s home, and then make him let me into my apartment. Option Two ended up working out quite nicely. Nick was just as surprised to see me as I’d hoped Matt would be and was more than happy to help me give Matt the shock of his life. He came down and opened the security door for me and as we walked up the stairs he asked me what I’d been up to the past year. He was speechless when I told him I’d been doing service work in Africa. So I guess it’s true what they say in PC. About the social cache PC brings you. As Nick opened the door, the dog began to bark. Good watch dog. Needless to say, Barkley the weiner dog was more than a little confused to see his other owner walk in the back door. He stared at me quizzicly with a cocked head.  I said encouragingly, “Barkley…it’s me! It’s me!” If a dog could burst into tears, that’s what would have happened. Instead, and with a cry of joy, Barkley peed all over the floor. We spent a good ten minutes in joyous stomach-scratching reunion before I realized I needed to take him out to get rid of whatever else was inside Mister B. To do that though, I needed keys. As I’ve said in previous posts, Matt and I are in each other’s heads far too much. I opened his top drawer-my keys were there. Score! Looking at the time, I knew I had just enough time to take the dog out before Matt would be home from work. Unfortunately, the shower, shave, and full body makeover would have to wait until later. There just wasn’t enough time.

Barkley and I took a long walk. I relaxed in the familiarity of our time together. This was normal. This was good. We walked a long way. I noticed some changes to the neighborhood-not many but they were there. New houses going up, some new restaurants…I wonder what else had changed in Chicago. It was time to walk back to the apartment, Matt would be coming home any minute. There was always the chance he wouldn’t come straight home. There were a number of places he could have gone after work: the dry cleaners, the shoe repair store, the gym, the climbing wall. I crossed my fingers that today he would be too tired from his latest project to do anything but come home and crash. I turned a corner onto Campbell . As the dog and I made our way, the beginning of a Summer storm flickered in the distance. We crossed the street. And then I saw Matt. He was on his bike as per usual. He didn’t see me at first. Then he saw Barkley. I could see the wheels turning.  Our dog walker had sent a substitute…and she was really late…and she looked a little like his girlfriend from far away. He would wonder if his contacts were playing tricks on him or maybe he was hallucinating a little from lack of sleep. Barkley pulled me towards Matt as he brought the bike to a stop ten feet away from me. The expression of slight confusion gave way to a realization that this was happening-that what he was looking at was real. I saw his smile start in his eyes. It traveled down from there to the corners of his mouth like it always does. Then it reached his mouth and it became the smile I loved. The expression of pure joy on his face.   I can’t relate how it feels to be the cause of that reflection. To have someone like Matt smiling like that for me.  It is all at once humbling and spectacular. It’s always been that way with us. Neither of us can believe we found the other. Every day both of us feel lucky to be with the other. Each moment we’re together, every minute we spend together is an opportunity for giving in gratefulness for being chosen by the other. From early on in our relationship, I was sure of Matt. Here was a man who would no more hurt me than he would himself, who would put me before himself, someone who could always be depended upon and trusted .And I have never been wrong. Perfect Love truly does cast out all Fear. I walked towards him and he saw it was me. For some moments in life there are no words. This was one of those moments. If I had had any doubt, any microscopic bit of wonder if Matt was “The One” it was all gone the minute we saw each other. I knew from that moment, as I had never known anything before, never been so sure of anything before, that this was the man I wanted to come home to always. No matter where I was or what I was doing or how long I was gone. His was the face I wanted to see, his were the arms I wanted around me, his voice was the voice I wanted to hear first thing. I had thought I was Home when I saw the skyscrapers from my plane seat, when I sped through passport control, when I walked out into the cool air of the surprisingly cool August day at the airport. But all of that was so small compared to the big-ness of the feelings I felt hugging Matt at that moment. Home was now with Matt. Wherever he was, that was Home now. Nowhere else. And I knew that Home would always be where Matt was-always, always.

There were still few words. We walked inside. We spent some time together. I finally got my shower. It was a quick one. I didn’t want to be away from Matt for longer than I had to. In the next few days, I would unpack. The purple rucksack would get washed, becoming even more see-through in places than it already was. I would wash my clothes, what few there were. I would clean the apartment from top to bottom while Matt was at work. The kitchen sink was bad, the bathtub was a little worse, the fridge was my least favorite. I would take Matt’s shoes to be shined, drop off and pickup his dry cleaning, and map out our social calendar for the next week. I took time to restock the household items, cleaning supplies, and food we were low on. I would get a manicure, a pedicure, and an eyebrow wax. I would treat myself to a much needed facial, body treatment, and a massage. I would get my hair cut, deep conditioned, and hi-lited. I would go to a movie theatre, have lunch in my favorite café, and reacquaint myself with public transportation. I would shop for clothes to replace the ones I’d given away or ruined in Rwanda. I would apply to a million jobs, contact my contacts, and take care of a backlog of correspondence. I would spend time staring at Matt as he slept while I readjusted to the new time zone. I would find myself humming as I made dinner for Matt, looking forward to him coming home from work like some retro throwback. I would relish putting on my high heels, watching television , and listening to the radio, no static to mar my pleasure, going swimming, sunbathing, and riding in taxis. I would take in the weekend Matt and I spent watching movies and eating takeout like oxygen, breathing in every molecule of our time together like an astronaut deprived. In a few days I would try to make up for all the time we’d spent apart. The first few days would be full of us. We made a surprise brunch date to surprise our friends at a rooftop brewery. And of course, I would see my family. And Matt’s family. Our families.  Those first few days turned into weeks. I was so happy, we were so happy, I forgot Rwanda, I forgot everything but us.

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Coming Home Pt.1

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The plane took us to Entebbe, Uganda. We touched down and took on more passengers before taking off a mere 30 minutes later with no one from Rwanda leaving the plane. I tried to sleep but kept looking out the window as we passed over that bit of Africa before reaching the Mediterranean Sea. Small clusters of lights, so small, here and there. But mostly dark. I had felt that way a lot while serving my time in PC. Little moments of enlightenment followed by periods of large shadow while I learned my way through my service. It was night, so most of the plane slept. We touched down in Amsterdam very early in the morning. The entire plane ride I had felt caffeinated even though I hadn’t had a drop of tea or coffee in hours and hours. The adrenaline that had kept me moving through my leaving was still in my system. I almost flew off the plane once they opened the doors. My body propelled me down the gangplank and into the airport. I needed to get to the next gate, even though my plane didn’t leave for three hours. I needed to be physically close to the vehicle that would take me back to my Life. Once I made sure of the gate, only then could I let myself relax.

Outside the gate was a mall-type area. Alongside the usual tchotchke selling stores-Clog keychain anyone?-I found an area that had desks set up for Internet usage. I paid a small fee and got online. But before that, I went to McDonalds for breakfast and paid with my credit card. I don’t remember what I ate but it tasted awesome. I also took some time to browse through a bookshop. I bought nothing but marveled at everything.  I walked past a salon advertising massages, nail treatments, and the possibility of having your hair done as you waited for your flight. The prospect of eternal salvation could not have sounded better to me at that moment than the deep conditioning treatment they were advertising. I bought myself a cup of coffee (not that I needed it) and settled down into an uncomfortable hi-top chair at an equally awkward hi-top desk to soak up some wi-fi. I cleaned out my email inboxes, got back to more than a few people I had been meaning to get back to but never had sufficient internet connection to, and read a backlog of articles and news items from the preceding months. It felt great to be sitting out in the open, a woman, a Westerner. It felt great to be able to sit there without anyone staring at me or looking over my shoulder at what I was reading. I wanted to contact Matt so badly but I knew once I did I wasn’t sure I could trust myself not to let slip that I was on my way back. The last time Matt and I had talked was the day before and he wasn’t due to call me again until tomorrow. Which left me a whole day to travel back and surprise him. I remember not being able to think much. Not about anything really. I remember being exhausted. Mentally. Physically, I was a bundle of adrenalin, nerves. Finally, it was time to hop that last flight. The one that would take me home.

Waiting in line to board, I felt a little shabby. A little dirty even.  For the first time in a long time, I remember looking at myself in the mirror in the bathroom previous to entering the gate area. My skin felt dull. My nails were a joke. My hair, frizzy and dried out. Standing next to the other Westerners in the line, I felt like the walking stereotype of an “aid worker”-someone whose lived so long away from the Western world that none of that stuff-deodorant, nice clothes, makeup, hair products-none of it mattered anymore. Not even that so much as that being away from Westerners, you just cease to think about any of it and then you forget you’ve forgotten. Standing there in jeans and Converse, I was suddenly conscious of my tee-shirt, the sweat stains I’m sure existed hidden under my armpits, the work out neck from too many washings. The sweater I had on, hung in the wrong places and had a few faded spots where stains were scrubbed just a bit too hard by hand. Well, it couldn’t be helped. My Converse and jeans at least looked fine, I thought. And it didn’t really matter. I would never see these people again. It was my turn to hand over my boarding pass and passport. The stewardess balked for a second, checking something as she viewed the scanned documents briefly. Improbably and wholly unexpectedly, I had been bumped up to Business Class. Which on this flight was pretty much “First Class” no actual “First Class” being on this particular flight. Nice. Just when I’d been feeling better about my bedraggled-ness I suddenly had a reason to feel even more self-conscious.

Business class was everything I dreamed it would be, and more. First of all, I was seated next to an incredibly attractive Italian businessman named…get this…Fabrizio. Secondly, they couldn’t give me enough booze. Or food. Or other stuff. Within an hour of takeoff I was given a designer gift bag full of really great goodies. Then a hot towel whenever I asked for one. Then slippers and a blanket –both made of baby kittens. The seats were huge and reclined in ways I never knew airplane seats could recline-frontways, sideways,longways. They were like the elevator from “Willy Wonka”. The flight attendants gave me a ridiculous array of courses, snacks, and sweets. I shoved it all down and managed to keep it down with the aid of the generous pours of every type of drink known to mankind.My seatmate was highly entertaining. Fabrizio and I spent a good part of the flight waterboarding wine down our throats and talking about food. He was returning to Denver after a business trip. Married to an American wife for fifteen years, he bemoaned the options for Italian food. As someone deprived of the food of their choice in Rwanda for the past year, I sympathized greatly. I slept then. Too nervous even after all that was meant to settle me, I couldn’t concentrate on a movie, a newspaper, or other media. So I slept. The sleep of the restless and one who’s consumed her weight in port. Strange images flicked through my dreamscapes-Matt, Rwanda,Genocide,Children,Students, a Thousand Hills. It was all there.  I awoke an hour before landing and used the time to compose myself…for re-entry as it were. I went to the bathroom, brushed my teeth, checked my deodorant.  I saw the monoliths of my hometown rise up to meet us as we broke through the clouds on a rainy afternoon. My heart jumped as it always did at the sight. “Hello, you.”, my mind whispered as the Lake winked grey and green in the distance. I was home. Home. Home. We landed.

I couldn’t get off the plane fast enough. I fairly ran to passport control and nervously crossed my arms, my eyes boring into the back of the many people in front of me as I willed them to move faster. Finally through, I whipped through to baggage claim and prayed silently that my bags would be up by the time I got there. They were and it took me three minutes to grab my dirty purple rucksack and vault through customs. Nothing to declare except my wish to get to a certain 1st floor apartment on Campbell Ave, thank you very much.  I took the first cab in the line and when he asked me which way I wanted to go to get to Bucktown, I said, “The quickest way!” In 20 minutes we turned off the Kennedy Expressway .  I gave directions that took us around the “one-ways”-left on Western, right on Palmer, left on Campbell, stop here, just here on the corner. Thanks.” I fumbled  for my credit card. I had no cash to pay the driver and hadn’t stopped for any in my haste. The weight of Rwandan and Czech paper crackled in the bottom of my pocket.I hefted my rucksack onto my right arm and slammed the cab door. He pulled away. I turned around to look at the apartment I had left a year before. It looked the same. I had made it. And it had waited for me to get here. Waiting, brick and mortar, unchanged, containing all my things. Like a battered cigar box on a dusty basement shelf, I wasn’t sure I would recognize the contents inside. Would they be strange to me? What mattered to me most?  Did I even know what that meant anymore?

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Leaving Rwanda Pt.2

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I took my last moto ride down the mountain the next morning early. An hour earlier, I locked my little house, after making sure everything was clean and well ordered. I took a drawing one of the girls had made for me, it had my name on it, down from the window grate where I’d put it. I swung my metal door shut on the little house, wishing all the time that things were different. Would I ever understand my life? I hoisted my pack, and went up the hill to the convent to say a final farewell and return my keys to the Sisters. My last walk up the hill, I stopped at the halfway point like I always did. Most likely, I would never return here. It was a cloudy day and the volcanoes hid behind the haze, obscuring their peaks, refusing to wish me goodbye.  Women hunched over their hoes on the hillsides. I could see cows in the distance, and several men cutting the long grass. At this early hour none of this was unusual. It was a normal day for everyone but me. I turned away and went up the hill. The last walk up the hill, the last prayers I would hear echo down the hillside, the last time I would hear that particular bell ringing the hour. The Sisters were waiting for me. Our goodbyes were perfunctory. All of us were used to them at our ages. Everyone leaves. Very few people stay forever. Every relationship ends in heartbreak or Death, as the old saying goes. We hugged. They wished me good journey, peace, blessings in my future life. I gave them my keys, my paperwork, my contact information. I told them what gifts were for who and I thanked them for treating me as one. I couldn’t have expected such hospitality from strangers and yet I was blessed to receive it when I needed it most. Alexei waited for me outside the gates. I tried to remain unemotional, scared if I got too upset I would freeze and then I would have gone through all of this for nothing. It was time to leave. I looked back at the school as we drove away. Would the donation money come through? Would they get the computers? Would the students remember me? Would me leaving affect their next term negatively?  I would have to be okay with the fact that maybe none of these questions had answers.

Alexei drove me to the bus station and seemed confused when I told him I would not be back. He hugged me and I thanked him for all his good driving, for keeping my safety in mind all this time. We exchanged contact info. Two tears slipped down both of our cheeks. I don’t know why he was crying. Does it matter?  The bus trip was like time-travel. I arrived in Kigali and went straight to PC Headquarters. They were expecting me. The next two days were tortuous. I had to fill out a mountain of paperwork, signing my name again and again releasing the government of things, picking up my personal documents I had left in the office including my passport. I signed and signed,, assuring the powers that be that I understood what was happening, verifying I had returned all government property. I had to visit the Med Unit and get checked out. There were other PCV’s at the Cas. I was vague about why I was there, not wanting to admit it to myself let alone anyone else. Eventually, I told some fellow PCV’s I trusted and asked them not to share with the larger group. They were very supportive of my choice and that made me feel a little less conflicted. Everyone at Admin was really nice, business-like, efficient. I shook hands with the people Rwandan and American and French who had helped me more than I could ever thank them. There truly are good people everywhere. If you look, you will always find them.

Finally, I had my exit interview with the CD. A nice man with a thoughtful face, he brought out the reasons behind my leaving. It was not a revelation for both of us that the stress of living in a post-conflict country had a profound effect on the psyche of the PCV serving there. Coupled with workplace issues and Stateside concerns, it was obvious from an outsider’s perspective that I was done. The CD shared his experience, his advice, asking probing questions. He gently prodded  me for answers yet he listened intently, not interrupting while I cried out my failure and frustration to him. The truth was: I wanted to go on so much but for so many reasons I knew it would be the worst thing for me. I couldn’t do it anymore and still be me. Something would have to give and I was afraid of what that would be. Or something would happen and then the choice would be out of my hands. Certain things, ideas, events, and impressions would remain buried in the heart. Going into the exit interview I hadn’t known what to expect, but he made me feel better about leaving. I had so much help, much needed in my confusion. The drivers took me to the bank to close my account(I accidentally jumped the line and upset everyone), to the dentist to have my teeth done(he was astounded at how much tartar I had), and back again to the Cas. One of the PCV’s I trusted even went to the market to pick up some souvenirs I’d forgotten to pick up, I was in such a flutter. She also loaned me a tote bag for the journey which I promised to send her back in a care package. The others I had confided in hugged me and emotionally supported me as I went through my flight details and organized my paperwork and packing. My head felt like it was full of cotton balls. In my heart I felt I was abandoning my students and foreswearing a commitment I had made. In my head I knew this was the right choice. Then it would flip and I would feel the opposite.  I wish I could have made peace between the two.

I talked to Matt on the phone and didn’t tell him I was coming home. I wanted it to be a surprise. Don’t ask me why. I called my bank and reactivated things from a financial angle. I emailed my itinerary to my one family member I told for security reasons. She lived out of state so I knew there was no risk she would tell anyone. And then I was able to meet my Kamonyi family for lunch at Simba. I gave them gifts as another Thank You for everything they’d done for me.  My Kinya had regressed and it was hard to explain the difficult concepts I wanted to make clear. My mind and heart were all over the place. I was lucky to have the PCV friends I had made nearby.

I left the next evening. The driver told me it had been good to know me. I said likewise. I was early for my flight and I did my best to keep busy with the small offerings: a Bourbon coffee, a small store. All that the small airport offered in the way of entertainment. I just wanted to be gone. And then I saw a couple of PCV’s. That was all I needed. Questions. My head was about to explode. I’m afraid I was curt with them. I just couldn’t deal. I didn’t want to share my inner agony. I didn’t want to lie. But I felt like our PCV experience demanded honesty to an extent. I’m afraid I danced around their questions and probably gave them a bad final impression of me. Luckily, they were from another Ed group so we weren’t very close or anything and they soon drifted away. I couldn’t seem to collect my head. Not even when I walked across the tarmac and onto the plane. I found my seat and waited for takeoff. I still had my cell phone. I sent some texts thanking again the PCV’s who had become friends, who understood me, and who’d been supportive of me over the time I’d spent in Rwanda. I don’t know what I would’ve done without them. The plane did cross-check. I was already buckled in. I sent texts until my phone ran out of money. The crew welcomed us to our flight: Kigali to Amsterdam via Uganda. The plane took off. It was dark so I saw nothing once the lights of Kigali receded. Central Africa is the darkest place I have ever viewed from the height of an airplane window. No light. I couldn’t wait to get away.

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Leaving Rwanda Pt.1

A girl poses for a photographer at her vegetable stall in Tsangano

Once you make the decision to leave or you have to leave for some reason, the PC acts fast. You are to come to Kigali as soon as possible. Like, that day or at the very latest the next day. They ask you to inform your Headmistress or Headmaster. My Headmistress was unfortunately, at a conference in Europe. So I informed the Sister who was in charge in her stead. She was a little confused at first. I told her I was leaving and why. The factors that fed into my leaving were many and I went into as much of it as I could. She sat patiently as I explained myself. She asked me if there was any way she could change the situation, remarking that I was an excellent teacher and the students enjoyed my being there at the school. I started to cry and told her that the factors I had mentioned were just too overwhelming and that I did not see a way I could continue on at the school and be effective in my role. I told her I was sorry to leave the students but I would make every provision for their next term so that there would be as little inconvenience as possible to the other staff. She took a deep breath, then a moment to wipe her glasses. She said it was going to be difficult but that if  I had to go, then so be it. Then she asked me to fulfill my duties regarding the nuts and bolts of my experience at the school (returning teaching materials, cleaning out my house, etc.). Since I would be leaving the next day, I told her I would be by to see her and the other Sisters before I left. She left me with a feeling of inevitability and impending closure. Again, that feeling of Life being always about saying goodbye. I wanted to walk after her, to tell her I would stay. That I had changed my mind and I wasn’t yet another Westerner who couldn’t deal with Rwanda. But I knew as much as I ached to say those words, as much as I loved my students, and liked the administration…staying was not a good choice for me at this time. Leaving was what I needed to do, for my future, for my health, for my safety. It was the best choice for me. Then the Secretary came by and we said our goodbyes. She’d been the nicest to me besides the Sisters. She had gone out of her way to make a stranger in a strange land feel welcome, wanted, even loved. I knew I would have truly felt lonely had she not been at the school . What a miraculous thing is kindness, how little it costs us and yet what a change it makes to those around us. More questions, concerns, more tears, more promises to keep in contact .I doubted I would see anyone from Rwanda again outside of Facebook or email if that was even a possibility. No one besides the Sisters was at the school since it was the Break so there was no one else to say goodbye to.  The day wore on and I was on autopilot.I packed in peace and silence, determined to not stop until I was too sleepy to go on. Only then did I feel I would be able to get any sleep that night. I returned my library books. I made sure all my teaching materials were left with Sister. I packed far into the night. I made several trips to the trash pile with paperwork, glass jars I’d been saving, and things that had broken-an old radio, a strainer- knowing the items would be most likely, taken away by someone and used for toilet paper, storing honey, and a myriad of other uses that people create out of necessity.

Before dark I’d cleaned my entire house-it was always pretty spotless so there wasn’t much to do in the end. I double and triple checked my kitchen and latrine to make sure I’d left them as I’d come upon them. I put all the PC items to be returned in the large metal trunk they’d provided for me.  In the end, there was just too much. Too many things to take and nothing to carry or transport them with. Mostly clothes. And then there was all the food I had left. I had to take my souvenirs. That was a given. What to do? I ended up dividing most of my things between the Sisters (coffee, herbal tea, Ribena syrup, and condiments I knew they enjoyed), The Minnesotan (spices, dried peppers, bottled sauces, and mixed drink powders) and Clementine(everything else). My clothes all went in a large laundry bag-everything except what I needed for the two days I would spend in Kigali and a few extra special  items-like my cowboy boots-went in. I thought about it this way: I could buy more clothes, hell…I had more clothes in the U.S. Clementine dressed in rags and would never have money to buy anything as nice as the secondhand clothing I would give her. It made me sad to think about it. Being grateful for secondhand clothes is not a feeling I am familiar with. But the stigma of wearing secondhand clothes didn’t exist in Rwanda, I reminded myself. So I gave myself the green light, knowing that she would even be able to cut up the things she couldn’t wear to make clothing for Devina and Kevina. I ended up leaving her 3 skirts, 3 dresses, 4 pairs of pants, a pair of jeans, 5 tee-shirts, 5 dress shirts, a pair of exercise pants, 2 sweaters, and 3 pairs of shoes. I didn’t know if they’d fit her but maybe she could sell them. I drew the line at undergarments. I took a large plastic shopping bag and filled it with everything I had that I thought a Rwandan country woman would like: flour, sugar, rice, beans, candy, dried milk, nuts, black tea, salt, and oil all went into the bag. I added all my soap, my comb, my hand mirror, toothbrushes, toothpaste, lotion, and Vaseline. All products Clementine would be familiar with. Then all the toys went in to another bag. All the colored chalk, crayons, and coloring books. A blanket, a set of sheets, two towels, a rug, and a sewing kit followed in yet another bag. I felt like that was enough. I didn’t know what else to do. Clementine would be here always. So would the girls. I wanted to do something, anything to ease the burden of their life. Even something that would be, ultimately, shallow and transitory.

The next 24 hours was a blur. I felt torn. Part of me so wanted to stay but the other wanted to leave. In some ways I felt I had given all I could to Rwanda. I felt at a loss to even be able to describe to myself my true feelings. There is a saying Rwandans use to describe Life events that cannot be helped and obstacles that prevent one from being able to do anything about it, “A servant can never bury his father”. It does seem like that sometimes, doesn’t it? We want to be there for each other, we want to do what we can. We have the best intentions for ourselves, for other people. But it doesn’t always work out that way. And when all is said and done, there isn’t much we can do to change the direction of the current of our lives, try as we might. Up until this year I firmly believed in the power of my own ability to determine the course of my own existence. Rwanda has taught me the reverse can also be true. It was a good and necessary lesson. It is not defeatist to take to heart the knowledge that the world is a place of deep contrast and vagaries filled with people and things that may alter our life’s course at any time. Who or what can always rise after a Rwandan rainstorm…how many times before they learn to lie down every second evening when they come? I am sorry I had not learned it sooner. I will always hear Rwanda in my memory if not in my conscious mind. The sounds of my good intentions will be an echo of girls singing in the evening, of cows coming home, and the shouts of children playing on their way to school. The ignorance of my own limitations would have a soundtrack of lizards scrabbling on the roof, the roar of a downshifting moto, and rain…so much rain on a tin roof. Rwanda would live in the smell of charcoal fires, eucalyptus, and pineapple left a day too long on the counter. I would see her, The Land of a Thousand Hills, in my mind’s eye in the midst of my daydreams and in that short period the second before I fall asleep.

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Nadamenya Pt. 2

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I was 18 when I left home for the first time, 19 when I lived abroad for the first time. I have never stopped traveling. 15 years of dreaming, planning, rucksacks, plane tickets, jobs to earn enough money for the next trip, souvenirs, pictures, scrapbooks, storytelling, and trans-oceanic communication. The excitement of travel, the meeting of new friends, the crazy tales that come from those meetings and those travels. Those were mine to keep, to store, to store in my heart and bring out when I wanted. My urge to travel has been with me from my earliest memories. I never wanted to stay home. I loved everything foreign-food, films, coins, music…I read magazines and books  and watched movies about other lands and imagined myself-the intrepid explorer  I would be once I shook the dust of the Southwest side off my feet and set out into the wide world. And once I started at 18 I couldn’t stop. There was always another place to go to, something else to find out, to embrace. I must have spent a fortune sending postcards home: “See where I was? Look at what I did? See? See? I did it!” might as well have been on the backs of each and every one. My family has never really understood why I have this compulsion. I have labored in vain to explain to them.

I had always wanted to join the Peace Corps but it had never been the right time. Suddenly, it became the right time…in truth…maybe it was the only time. The only time, the last time I would have to do it before Life threw me a curveball that would prevent me from trying again for this…kids, marriage, sickness, who knew? My brain told me I might never have another chance, unfettered, to do this….maybe a part of my brain knew, definitely, that this would be the “last solo adventure”. So I went for it. And now I am here. In Rwanda,  a Peace Corps Volunteer coming up on my 1 year anniversary of being in-country. I have achieved my goal and I am happy here in-country.  I have coordinated funding for a bank of new computers at my school, I have been a competent and successful English Teacher, I have made friends and established good working relationships. I have a good school, good colleagues, a cute little house… I have good days here in Rwanda…many good days and few bad ones. My community has been nothing but kind to me. So then why, when I look out my front door, do I long for the skyline of Chicago? Why can’t I feel “fully present” in anything I do in Rwanda these past few months? Why, when I have a good day, is it not enough anymore to call another PCV to share the news? Why am I so miserable to hear of baptisms, birthday parties, and barbecues that go on without me? Things that will only happen once, things that will happen only once more with certain people…old and dying, sick, and full of stories yet to share with me? Why now? After so many years of doing this very thing? Of being away? Why is the only adventure I want now involve people that regularly drive me crazy?

I want my family. I want to be with them, in the city that knows me best with the people who know me best. I want to go home. To share their lives fully and not remotely. I don’t want to miss anything more. Not one more thing. Not one stupid, every day, mundane, little thing. I want to help my niece with her homework and trade smartass barbs with my brothers. I want to listen to my nephew drone on and on about his latest superhero obsession. I want to go out for breakfast with my Dad at 630am and help my sister-in-law potty train her kids. I want to sit around and eat junk food with my sisters and watch trash television. I want to go grocery shopping with my Mom and help Matt’s family prepare for his brother’s wedding in September. And I want to be with Matt. I want to be home to share all the idiosyncrasies that make him who he is…all the things that make “us”, “us”. What we had before I left was a great Love. It is a great Love that would have waited another year. But I don’t want to wait anymore. A year ago, I left this wonderful man on a shelf…like a stack full of savings bonds in a bank vault. Of course, he went willingly. But still…. I left him up there saying, ‘I’ll be back in two years!” and went to Africa. He would never have told me not to go and even if he had told me I would not have stayed. A year later, there has not been a word from him, same as with my family…not a word from him, not a whimper, not a doubtful pause that would lead me to believe he wanted me to come home. He would never want me to give up my dream for him. But dreams change…they expand, they contract, they shift and swirl. Peace Corps was a big dream of mine. But now being home, with Matt, with my family…that’s a bigger dream. The demands of family, the pull the ones we love have on our heartstrings, the demands they can make on our time… It’s a concrete thing I’ve always known I would have to answer to and I’ve resented until now.  Now I understand and all the resentment I thought I would feel is nowhere to be found. I want to go home, I want those demands on my time and my person. Because those demands are what make my family who they are. They are a  part of what ties me to them and makes me like them…a part of what makes me…me.

Time is precious. None of us know how long we have. I could wait another year and return then…but a year can be so long…especially when illness, age, and the expectations of those we love are concerned. I want to go home now. I want to spend what time my family, each and every one of them has…together, telling them every day through words and actions, what they mean to me, what it is they have done for me by allowing me to go away for so long because it was what I needed to do. I thought Peace Corps was right for me. And it was, for a year. I could have made no other choice at the time. I came and I did what I set out to do. But the lesson I tried to teach myself by coming here….it was not the one the Universe had in mind for me to learn. Would my feelings be different if I was ten years younger? If my parents were younger? If I hadn’t met Matt? If my siblings hadn’t started their families?  Maybe. I don’t know. We can only learn our life by living it. I could continue in Peace Corps and my family would understand and continue to wait. My boyfriend would continue to be patient and supportive.  But I don’t feel I’m meant to stay. There are people at home in Chicago. People who “get me”, who need me to be physically present, who have waited a long time for me to appreciate them and what they have to offer me. I have been so blind. And still they have waited for me, patiently, knowing I would understand and come home for good, one day… because they love me.  I have always been a ship, seeking to go out onto the wide ocean…it’s what ships are built for after all. But there comes a time when a ship realizes that the wide ocean might not be the best place for it anymore…except maybe a  series of small day cruises.  Maybe it’s time for a series of day cruises on an inland sea, a lake in fact. This ship has always been a ship with a crew of one. I’d like to expand that crew…see what it’s like. Take on a different role, embrace the bigger duties, adapt to the greater responsibility. This is not the end of my traveling. I will never not be a ship. But I think it is the end of my solo adventures. And I am okay with that.

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Ndamenya Pt. 1

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I have decided to go home.  It is difficult for me to write this…to write these words especially. I’m going home.. Knowing that those who are reading this can easily go back to when this adventure started and read how committed I was, a part of me feels like a hypocrite writing this now. But I am going home. There are things that have happened, words spoken, things done, that lead me to know it is time. I have been mulling it over for some time now, hoping it would go away, that voice in the back of my head, that voice in my heart. But it didn’t. I kept pushing it down. I kept ignoring it and covering it up with side-adventures, new plans for my time here, and new experiences yet to be um…well, experienced. It wouldn’t be silenced and it wouldn’t be pushed down. So one day I woke up…and I decided to listen to it. To give it a chance to speak and breathe and to tell me what I hadn’t wanted to hear. And what did that voice tell me then? This voice, quietly, calmly, told me my time here in Rwanda is at an end. It told me that I had come to Rwanda to prove something to myself, to be the Peace Corps Volunteer I had always dreamed of being, to make a life far away from everyone and everything familiar…time for the greatest adventure, the cap on all of my previous travels. It told me that I had done that. And now it was time to go.  I’ll admit I was initially shocked at this voice’s laissez-faire attitude when it came to giving me advice. Wasn’t this the same voice who told me I had to join Peace Corps in the first place? So, why go back on that now? The voice informed me that the reasons I, personally, had come here were good ones. That I had achieved in the year I was in Rwanda, a great deal, all of my goals for coming here, in fact. But now I had other commitments to honor, bigger, more pressing commitments. Commitments that were bound not by a need to “prove” something but a need to affirm something.

My second reaction to this new knowledge was confusion. I didn’t doubt the voice was right…I trusted it…it had helped me a great deal in my life choices…but I wanted clarification before I could take anything said more seriously. Keep in mind this is the same voice that told me to leave a terrible relationship(I ignored it for years), that told me on my first visit to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that UIUC was the place for me(I listened). And now this same voice was doing this insistent, pulling, tugging thing to me…to my heart, to my thoughts…this voice was turning me home and away from Rwanda. Now again, this was the same voice that had told me to join the Peace Corps. It was correct. My time in Peace Corps has been amazing. It has been the greatest adventure of my life. I am so happy I came. I am so happy I got to live my twenty-year old dream. My time here in Rwanda has taught me more than I ever expected to learn about the world, the people in it, and myself. But I think it’s time to go. I have a family back home who need me. They would never tell me they needed me home. They would never want me to give up my dream of being a PCV. They have been nothing but supportive of my time here. But they need me…and if I am totally honest with myself, I need them. Here in Rwanda, I am doing good things. But there is no one to share it with. There is no one to celebrate my successes, console me in my failures, encourage me in my struggles. Except through the cold lines of cell phone and Internet.  And that’s not enough. My fellow PCV’s are good people and I am so lucky for having had the chance to meet them. They have been good colleagues and good friends. But I miss the ministrations of the people that know me. That truly know me. The words and the touch of the people that remember when. Remember me when. The ones who can call upon my previous life moments and use them to give me strength and solace in the down times or to make me smile and laugh with me during the happy moments. There is no one like that here. You know that feeling you can have with someone who knows you well? That feeling of being able to sit next to them in this perfect companiable silence, not talking, maybe with a beer or a cup of coffee close by…maybe the two of you are outside on the porch or sitting around the kitchen table….not talking, just sitting? I have that at home. I miss that here. I miss it viscerally and being here in Rwanda cannot make up for that feeling of being apart.

When I was younger I could go away for months, years even, and be fine. Away from them, away from the oppression of a tight, closely knit ethnic, blue-collar, collective with all their expectations and judgements, and advice. I relished the time away from them, from their head nods and finger wags and uplifted eyebrows. I wanted a life apart. I wanted to ‘do my own thing” and be out on my own…to be out in the world…a world of my own choosing. A world where no one reprimanded me for choices they didn’t understand or pressured me to assume duties and responsibilities I would rather not. Places…London, Prague, Budapest, Athens, Dublin, Siena, Rwanda…where no one knew me well enough to have expectations. Places where I could march to my own drummer and if someone didn’t like it I could tell them to “f” off and not feel bad about it the next day. It was awesome to spend so much of my time living so freely. But what I didn’t realize in those “Sarah sans Someone” trips was that when you take the freedom of a life without judgements, responsibilities, duties and such…you are also choosing, many times, a life free from those relationships that run deep and that feeling of companiableness….there is no one to sit in the sunset with… no one to take a pleasant walk with…new friends, yes. But no one who knew you when. You are perpetually a stranger…always traveling through strange lands. A ship that belongs to no harbor. My traveling companions were many. I have forgotten most things about them, their names only a FB update…or a quick recall of where I met them and what part they played in my life as I page through my albums and scrapbooks.

I loved my family at 19 and 22 and 25 and 27…but I didn’t realize as they patiently waited at home, in Chicago, for me to “find myself” through all this “traveling nonsense” that they weren’t just sitting there. They were busy weaving. Weaving strong, silken filaments that would bind me to them even more fully than I had been in childhood. Maybe I had a hint of the weaving process, but I brushed off the fibers they tried to tie around me. I had places to be. They kept weaving with cards, letters, phone calls, emails, packages…and when I was home for any length of time there was always the family parties, the dinners, the sunset beers…and there was the Time. Every time I came home, home was there. I never dreamed it wouldn’t be…maybe in my head I knew it would not always be so…but in my heart I fooled myself into believing that my family, my home, would always wait for me. Would wait for me to be ready for them. For their oppressive Love that I hated so, the way it chafed at me and guilted me into feeling less than free.  They never did it on purpose, but they could not be any other way. And then my beloved Grandmother died and suddenly there was this tiny scrap of “knowing”..that maybe Home wasn’t a static thing. That maybe people were getting old, getting sick, needing help with all the things that made my world as a child…children, babies, rites of passage and celebration, cooking, cleaning garages and basements, help with the family businesses, running errands…the world I thought would never truly change. Something had changed with her passing. My brothers and sisters had children and something changed further. I met someone. Another change. But I fought against it…so hard, I fought. Traveling was my thing. It was who I was, what I did. I was the one who went off into the great beyond and reported back. I was the one people worried about when I was gone and gathered around to hear my stories when I returned. I have spent most of my adult life traveling. I have experienced the world so much more fully, so differently than so many people even dream about. I have done more in my 33 years that many people do in a lifetime.

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Bridges Pt.5

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The first stage of entry into Kafka’s world-the first floor-, is meant to be existential. You are meant to see how a city can shape a writer, how it shapes his life, what it leaves behind. The museum attempts to put us inside Kafka’s head, to see things spatially the way he would have experienced them internally. Kafka’s Prague becomes “spatially narrow as it steadily dispenses its secrets”. Prague brings the myth, the dark magic, and the beautiful architecture of itself  to the surface, yet it hates what is obvious. And that’s just what Kafka captures in his writing and what the Museum tries to capture in its visuals. Kafka’s city -the city of his writings-is described as  a nut with claws,it  is endowed with the past more than the present,it is protected by its charm, but also raises a giant, constantly threatening fist. In diaries and correspondence with family members, friends, fiancee and publishers we see evidence of this effect. Exclusively biographical or merely a chronological approach would be insufficient to show how deeply Kafka was held in his city’s embrace -lovingly yet he felt crushed by it. As Kafka himself said, “Everything is permitted except indifference”. The Museums’ visuals are stark and made me feel alternately watched and neglected as I wandered around the glass cases full of letters, file cabinets meant to pull out so you could view his bureaucratic writings, and spotlights shown on his love letters that speak of torture and passion.The second part of the Museum, its “Imaginary topography” requires even more suspension of disbelief.  In his novels and short stories Kafka, with few exceptions, does not name the place he describes. The city recedes into the background, it ceases to be recognizable by its buildings, bridges and monuments. Kafka uses architecture, landmarks not just for what they are but for what they represent. Things are substantial but no longer certain. Offices, schools, institutes, universities, churches, prisons or castles, are most powerful in his writings by what they reveal. Not acting so much as real places and edifices but acting as topological metaphors or allegorical place. His characters are place holders for the real idea, his stories meant to convey fuller ideas. Kafka asks us to peer beneath the surface of things, to question, to always seek for truth under what we are told is truth and find it for ourselves. I got through almost all of the museum before I started to feel panic. I don’t know what tripped the trigger, whether it was a hangover from the Communism Museum or it was the claustrophobia of the museum itself but I couldn’t breathe again. The Museum had displayed letters, notes, pictures, correspondence…so much of it telling Kafka not to ask, not to search, not to question. Just to be, to live, to do. Like everyone else. just do your job, be like us, do what everyone else does, and everything will be fine. What none of the writers seemed to understand was that in order to be, to do, to live one must be free. Kafka was not free except when he was writing. When he wasn’t he was dying by inches. Not once in his whole life was he really able to breathe unless he was writing. Only twice was he ever alive-his moments of creativity when he was free to write…and when he died. I tried to stem the panic rising in my chest: What was wrong with me?

Matt suggested we leave. We walked along the banks of the river and talked about what may have caused such a reaction. What it came down to was this: the things that were going on in the school were just a microcosm it seemed of Rwanda as a whole. The secrets, the things I was supposed to know and didn’t, the shared history I didn’t share, even the shared blame, the shared guilt. The air in Rwanda felt heavy with so many stories untold. They lived in the in-between spaces and invaded my dreams. The words that remained unsaid flitted between the speakers and laid down in the road bridging the gaps between houses, villages, and fields with mournful equanimity. The suspicions, the accusations, the old hurts fell over the corridors of my school during midday, fogged up the evening light, and cast a pall over the sweetest mornings. The language of Rwanda post-war, post-genocide was one indecipherable to me. I didn’t want it to be so. It was hard to admit. But it was so. Everyday, it wasn’t my interactions that were causing me stress, it was the spaces in between. Trying to understand the space between…it was like trying to put a puzzle together with only half the pieces. I couldn’t do it. Rwanda was the puzzle. They had the pieces and I didn’t. I never would. We went home, my thoughts pouring out of me as we walked. We visited a cafe. I ordered a whiskey to calm down.

Matt and I knew we would get married. Don’t ask me how. Everyone always wants to hear “the proposal story”. Well, I don’t have one. Not really. How do you tell only part of a story and treat it as if its the whole thing? Matt and I were a part of each other. We knew that soon into the relationship. And after a couple of years, even before I left for the Peace Corps, we knew we would be married someday. People ask me, “How did he do it?”, “What did he say?”. I don’t remember. Really, I don’t. One day during our time in Prague we were sitting on a  bench together holding hands. We were talking about getting married someday.Our future lives, children, where we might live. When it might make sense to get officially engaged. And we just decided we would. And Matt took me to an antique store to buy a diamond ring. We looked at five rings of varying size and quality. the ring we chose spoke to both of us. White gold, round cut, 1.5 carats. the antique store owner toasted us with white wine, we kissed, and Matt paid for it with his AmEx card. Matt told me later he had planned to propose at Christmas but this…this being in Prague felt right. So he went with it. He put the ring in his pocket. It felt just like any other day with Matt. Wonderful, secure.safe. Prague was a jumble of tourists, artists, performers, and living art. We got Prague’s version of funnel cake and ice cream. We watched the children dance to the giant clock tower with the dancing figures in the town square. We looked at the art for sale on the bridge and debated the purchase of small paintings as souvenirs. We walked the length and breadth of the town it seemed and when the sun went down we decided it was late and we should go back home. We started to walk over the iconic Charles bridge but it was so crowded. At the last minute I said, “Let’s not walk across the Charles, there’s so many people. Lets’ go across the next bridge down.” So we did. And in the middle of the bridge, Matt proposed. Officially. He was terribly embarrassed and I was embarrassed for him, poor man. A car honked but thank goodness there were few people walking across the bridge. Matt didn’t know whether he should kneel or not. I told him to just stand up. So he did. And I can’t remember what he said. Not really. Something about the past three years being the happiest of his life and wanting that to continue. It didn’t matter, really. Why would it? All I remember was the feeling. It was a nice feeling. He said the words, I accepted. No questions.No doubts.  I had always known there wouldn’t be any. He slipped the ring on my finger. It was too big. It shone beautiful in the lights of the bridge and the city illuminated in front of us. We kissed. It started to rain. We walked home. The Belarussian and his wife were the first to find out. They opened two bottles of wine and we celebrated with wine, cheese, sausage, and bread. They entertained us far into the night with stories of their own courtship-it involved Math puzzles-and asked questions about our future plans. We called our parents and told them the news. Matt put the ring back in the box for safekeeping while I was in Rwanda. He would leave with the ring but not the girl who would wear it. The ring, the promise and acceptance of a new life together-he would carry that in his pocket but the person who made those promises would be a continent away. I thought to myself how odd that sounded in my ears.

The last night we spent together we talked long into the night. Matt told me how much he’s missed me, how much he needed me. Truly needed me. It was never easy for Matt to articulate his feelings. It took a lot out of him to be able to form the correct words to express his emotions and make himself understood. I treasured that effort. I thought about my school, my students, and the events of the past month. The events of the past year. I thought about all that the time I’d spent in Rwanda  and how I had changed. I thought about home, my family, and the new family I wanted with Matt. As I boarded the plane that would take me over the minarets of Istanbul and then to Rwanda  via Entebbe,I knew I had a lot to think about.

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Bridges Pt.4

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It took about 2 weeks for the nation’s media to begin broadcasting reports of what was really going on in Prague, and in the interim students travelled to cities and villages in the countryside to rally support outside the capital.The leaders of the Communist regime were totally unprepared to deal with the popular unrest, even though communist regimes throughout the region had been wobbling and toppling around them for some time. As the mass demonstrations continued – and more and more Czechoslovaks supported the general strikes that were called – an extraordinary session of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Central Committee was called. The Presidium of the Communist Party resigned, and a relatively unknown Party member, Karel Urbanek, was elected as the new Communist Party leader. The public rejected these cosmetic changes, which were intended to give the impression that the Communist Party was being reformed from within as it had been in 1968. The people’s dissatisfaction increased. Massive demonstrations of almost 750,000 people at Letna Park in Prague on November 25 and 26, and the general strike on the 27th were devastating for the communist regime. Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec was forced to hold talks with the Civic Forum, which was led by still- dissident (soon to be President) Vaclav Havel. The Civic Forum presented a list of political demands at their second meeting with Adamec, who agreed to form a new coalition government, and to delete three articles – guaranteeing a leading role in political life for the Czechoslovak Communist Party and for the National Front, and mandating Marxist-Leninist education – from the Constitution. These amendments were unanimously approved by the communist parliament the next day, on November 29, 1989. It just wasn’t enough. The communist capitulation led to increased demands on the part of the demonstrators. A new government was formed by Marian Calfa; it included just nine members of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (several of whom actively cooperated with the Civic Forum); two members of the Czechoslovak Socialist Party; two members of the Czechoslovak People’s Party; and seven ministers with no party affiliation – all of latter were Civic Forum or Public Against Violence activists.This new government was named by Czechoslovak President Gustav Husak on December 10. The same evening, he went on television to announce his resignation, and the Civic Forum cancelled a general strike which had been scheduled for the next day. At the 19th joint session of the two houses of the Federal Assembly, Alexandr Dubcek – who had led the ill-fated Prague Spring movement in the 1960′s – was elected Speaker of the Federal Assembly. One day later, the parliament elected the Civic Forum’s leader, Vaclav Havel, President of Czechoslovakia. Despite their many shortcomings – not the least of which were political inexperience and serious time pressures – the new government and parliament were able to fill in many of the most gaping gaps in the Czechoslovak legal framework – concentrating in particular on the areas of human rights and freedoms, private ownership, and business law. They were also able to lay the framework for the first free elections to be held in Czechoslovakia in more than 40 years. The results of the 1990 local and parliamentary elections in Czechoslovakia, which were likened at the time to a referendum which posed the question “Communism, yes or no?” showed a sweeping victory for the soon to be extinct Civic Forum (OF) in the Czech Republic, and for the Public Against Violence (VPN) in Slovakia. In other words, “Communism, no thanks.” The turnout for the local elections was more than 73 percent, and for Parliamentary elections more than 96 percent of the population went to the polls! Czech Petr Pithart of the Civic Forum was elected as Czech Premier, Slovaks Vladimir Meciar and Marian Calfa, both of the Public Against Violence (VPN), were elected Slovak and Federal Premier, respectively. Vaclav Havel was re-elected as the Czechoslovak President on July 5, 1990. And that was that. Fifty years of Communist occupation in the Czech Republic was over. Thousands of people just deciding over a period of time that the system wasn’t working for them and that they deserved better.

I couldn’t help but get emotional watching the footage of the demonstrations, the strikes, the thousands of people packed into Wenceslas Square jingling their keys as a symbol of freedom, demanding a change in government. The Belarussian’s wife,a native Czech, said she remembered the protests, her parents leaving her to go out and stand up for a change, for a new government. They were angry she said, and frustrated. No one was listening to them and they were tired of not being heard. A spark that became a flame that lit 50 years of dormant gunpowder. What we can achieve together is more than we can imagine. It gave me hope for Rwanda.

Is that all it took, I remember thinking? Is it just the will of the people? Or does it have to be the right time, the right people even? What was the difference between a country that let itself be occupied and a country who didn’t? Was there a difference in the population or the mindset of a people who would commit these acts or even allow the idea of genocide to occur? Was there even such a thing? Or did these things happen in a kind of double vacuum? Just as events can come together to make something good happen, the opposite was also true. When the Czech Republic was taken over by the Soviets after the Second World War, was it a different people? Both those who took over and those who were taken? Different attitudes, education, opportunity… I didn’t know the answers. Was Rwanda in that situation now? Had it always been? And could there be a future for Rwanda, one led by the generation born after the genocide, after the civil war. A good one, progressive, hopeful, with opportunities for all. One that would not be scarred by the events of the 90′s and before. One that would not be marked by the hatred and divisions of their forefathers. was this the time for Rwanda? Their time to move forward with Paul Kagame as leader? I didn’t know. I couldn’t know. Maybe Rwandans didn’t know either. What changes a people for good or for bad? Maybe no one knows.

I went out onto the terrace of the Museum for some air. I wish I hadn’t. What I saw triggered something in me. There was an exhibit out on the terrace. An exhibit on North Korea. It showed human rights abuses, things done to N. Koreans who tried to escape the regime. It detailed ways people tried to escape and the hardships they went through to get out of the country. Pictures of what happened to those caught after they escaped or in the act of escaping and sent back to N. Korea. Horrible pictures of starvation, beatings, torture. I retched and turned around to sit, grabbing my knees and putting my head down. I was glad Matt hadn’t seen me go out there. In that moment I felt like I understood. What would people go through to live freely? What would they endure to be able to say anything they wanted without fear? What would they put themselves through to be able to breathe out.? Rwanda was not N. Korea by any means. But I did feel restricted there. There were so many things one couldn’t say there, you couldn’t think, you couldn’t act on. As a Westerner I had more freedom but I suddenly knew what it must be like for those Rwandans who lived in fear of dissent. The ones who spoke in whispers and checked to see if anyone was outside before they closed the doors and talked to me of certain subjects.  Things never said, just alluded to. Things implied, things unsaid…the spaces between the words, the stories left untold, the words left unspoken. It made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. Fear of other’s opinions and beliefs. Fear of retribution and revenge for past wrongs. Fear of another war, another genocide brought on by too many contrary opinions, too many independent voices good or bad. Fear. Matt found me out on the terrace sitting there on a bench. He said I didn’t look so good. I told him I wasn’t feeling well. In truth, I don’t think I’d been feeling well since September 2011.

The next place that jarred me unexpectedly was the Franz Kafka Museum.The Kafka Museum, opened in 2005 as a permanent installation after traveling the world as an exhibit, is dedicated to Kafka’s life in Prague and his work., This Museum was another exercise in WTF. I am a fan of Kafka, less for his bizarre subject matter and more for the way he turns a phrase and paints a picture with words than anything else.  He was a misfit and Prague was the city he wrote of the most. I have felt like a literal “mis-fit” for most of my life and I love Prague, so Kafka and I, we are sympatico.  Franz Kafka was born in Prague in  July 1883 and died in an Austrian sanatorium in  June 1924. He was buried in the New Jewish Cemetery-him being jewish is an important poitn since his identity as a Jewish person informed a lot of his writing. The Museum is on the banks of the Vlatav River and has a statue of two figures-statues-standing out in the courtyard. The statues are urinating near each other, almost crossing streams even. The installation is especially interesting because the statues move from side to side. its really weird and of course, Matt had to use his phone to film a minute of their dual golden shower play. We entered the Museum and after refusing the audio tour, entered into the Museum’s dark space where shadow and light played against each other.

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