Thawing My Heart in Jerusalem

I know many people who love the Holy Lands of Israel and the Palestinian Area Terrorities. Before I visited two years ago, people shared their powerful experiences walking the roads where Jesus traveled, exploring places that seemed so far away but familiar from years of Biblical readings and retellings of the Christmas story. When names like Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem fell from their lips, it was always with a sense of awe and reverence. So…when I visited with Bones during my winter break two years ago, I was sad that I didn’t feel moments of passion or revelation. Christmas tourists were everywhere…shuttled in and out of these familiar places during whirlwind tours. Security was very tight, which is understandable, but I felt an intensity that weighed on me. I spent four days getting on and off vans…and while it was a great overview of the area, I left telling myself that I would never return.

Flash forward two years and here I am back in Israel and PAT… walking the streets…meeting the people…and finding just what makes this area so special. When I arrived, Jason set me up with some email connections with friends he met while living here. From my first communications, it was an interesting mix of people there for diverse purposes.

One of the especially great things about this visit was that my hotel was within the walls of the Old City in Jerusalem…just minutes from the busy Damascus Gate. As I walked through the narrow streets…strolling along the Via Dolorosa where Jesus took his last steps, I felt a mix of comfort and awe…wrapped in a sense of easy peacefulness. After a few days, I had my baklava guy, my falafel shop, and a place to have tea while looking at beautiful scarves. It was a fun introduction to Jerusalem and my heart quickly thawed.

The first person I met was Harry. Seeing as my dad was named Harry, I had a special affection for him before we met. Harry and his wife have lived in Jerusalem for over 20 years and have a western cultural center in Ramallah where people come to take English language classes. We traveled together to Ramallah so I could see the center and meet a few people. When I get back to Jerusalem on a month, I am hoping to reconnect and possibly teach a future English class there. Spending time with Harry gave me insights into the area that were valuable and important to know. His work was inspiring.

The next day, I visited with Jonathan who showed me around the Christ Church Guest House…a place I had heard much about from people who volunteered there. It is just inside Jaffa Gate and is not only a guest house, but also a chapel, garden, and cafe. I have booked a room for four nights when I return. Jonathan shared funny stories and gave me lots of travel tips for the area.

I spent the weekend in Bethlehem with Nova, Ira, and their son Shalom. They are a young couple doing mission work in the area. They were so cool and fun. Their house is in Beit Sahour which is a prominently Christian area. Meeting their neighbors and friends offered additional insights into life in the West Bank. We visited with American neighbors Shannon and George who they met there and it seemed like they had known each other for life. We went to an international church service on Friday night and I learned more about the “house church” movement. One night, we hung out watching the big premiere of Arab Idol…we were not very good at judging the talent.

By this point, my mind was whirling with all that I was experiencing! In a way, it is hard to write it down, because the area is so complicated…politically, geographically, historically, culturally and in every other way. I have great friends whose opinions I value that are very different from each other, so as an outsider, I find myself listening, asking questions, and trying to learn more. I have met soldiers and prisoners on both sides of the conflicts and feel their passions for their homes. I believe there are many people who are currently wanting peace far more than are portrayed in the media.

On Sunday, I spent the morning at the House of Bread Church in Bethlehem…just down the road from the Church of the Holy Nativity. The members were mainly Palestinian Christians and the service was beautiful…being delivered in English and translated into Arabic. Pastor Al Zhougbi and his family invited me for a delicious lunch where I learned more about their ministry and church. On Monday, I realized that I forgot to leave their family with a gift I brought, so I popped back on the bus and enjoyed a few special moments with Mrs. Al Zhougbi. She gave me a few jars of homemade apricot jam that looked delicious!

My last moments in Israel were spent at Or’s house. I met Or when he was a couch surfer in Chicago. He visited last year and stayed with his family, but we met for dinner with another Couchsurfer. We have stayed in touch, so it was cool to meet up with him. My flight was scheduled to leave at 5:30 am so we had a great dinner of Sibich…a pita sandwich filled with hummus, boiled egg, fried eggplant and a mix of vegetables and sauces. I am dreaming about it as I write. Or was a great host and it was nice to end my time in Israel hanging out with a friend.

When I arrived at the airport, I was prepared for tight security because I experienced it during my last visit and also because my journey has been so extensive. What I didn’t think about it that my homemade jam may have looked pretty suspicious…at least enough to warrant a good check. The jam and suitcase review took about an hour with multiple scannings and reviews by many people. In the end, the team of two found two other women who took me on a back room to search me carefully including deep reviews of my clothing and seams. I loved when the guard asked the most logical of questions. After lifting my pant legs and seeing that I wore leggings underneath and multiple tshirts, she wanted to know why I wore so many clothes to protect myself from the cold while still wearing my open shoe flip flops. It was a good question and one I could only answer with a laugh.

I flew to Istanbul where I am spending a few days before heading to Erbil, Iraq. Kurdistan has a hard history but is a place where many exciting changes are taking place. I am thrilled by all of the chances I will have to learn about the area and people! Jason arrives on Friday for our two weeks of exploring together. It’s going to be great to have a travel partner with me.

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My Sweetest Adventure…in Nepal!

Throughout this journey, I have kept my heart open to possible volunteer opportunities. In most cases, although my total journey seems long, I have not been in places long enough to get connected. Nepal is famous for trekking, so I planned to do that, and also looked online for some volunteer opportunities. If asked, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to find, but I know that I feel compelled to develop new programs more than get involved in programs that are already highly functioning. Most of the more formal organizations required a two week commitment, but I corresponded with one man via email who agreed to meet at my hotel to discuss an orphanage where I could volunteer for the few days I had available. He looked at my $10 hotel…with no hot water and very simple conditions and told me that my time at the orphanage would not be as luxurious as this. I am pretty sure he thought I would cave quickly.

He picked me on Monday morning and we drove to a house about thirty minutes from downtown Kathmandu. The house is a simple white brick building surrounded by larger, colorful houses and beautiful mountain views. I met Sapana, the mother of the children, and, although her English is limited, we immediately became friends after a few minutes in the kitchen. She had me cutting vegetables with a kitchen tool that requires some skill. It was a sharp knife standing vertically from a base and you just needed to push the veggies across to cut them in small pieces. She made it look so easy that I was sure I was up to the task. Her sample potatoes were perfectly uniform in size, while mine varied between 1/8″ and 2 inches thick. This made us laugh!

Sapana has one son. Her husband left her when her son was only one year old and she was unsure of where to turn. She told me that she is a Christian and she prayed very hard for help and wisdom. She began to meet other children whose circumstances were much harder than hers and felt compelled to take them in. Soon, she had nine orphans in her care. Their stories range from parents who died, to total poverty, to abandonment. The children were at school when I arrived, so Sapana and I spent the day chatting and getting to know one another. She is a wonderful cook and it was a pleasure to enjoy her noodle dish and milk tea. She helped me to learn the children’s names and write them down so I could take pictures of each child with their name card…sort of like flash cards for practicing their names. I was only the second volunteer they had…the first being months ago, so it was exciting for me to be involved in something that was so new for Sapana and her kids.

The house has two bedrooms and a living room space. One bedroom is for Sapana and the other for me. The living room space is filled with five bunk beds holding a drawer with each child’s name. There is no running water, but there is a squat toilet that can be cleaned with a nearby bucket. The shower is in the same area…a few buckets of cold water from a nearby well. The kitchen has a small stove connected to a tank of gas. The vegetables and a large bag of rice lay on mats on the floor. One thing I really like about Nepal…I have yet to see a bug anywhere, even with food on the floor.

At 4:15, we anxiously waited for the kids to return from their day at school. Sapana told me that there were five boys and five girls, but when the row of children walked up the road in their school uniforms, it was hard to tell the difference because everyone had the same pants and sweater outfit and very short hair. We did introductions and took name pictures so I could start getting to know them. In the first minutes, the kids started to distinguish themselves with their different personalities, so it was easy to get to remember who they were. Nikhill is the youngest at four years old. He was very serious at first and I could see it would take some work to warm him up, but it was worth the effort. Sudarsan and Niruta are the oldest and thrive on being in charge. They have gently bossy ways with the others and everyone knows they will jump in and help when needed…and even sometimes when it’s not needed. Sudip is the second boy as ages go, and plays that role well. He works hard for attention by being especially funny and loving. Udesh is a boy somewhere in the middle and sits as a quiet observer in the background. You have to make a special effort to notice him, and when you do, it is greatly appreciated with warm smiles. Suman had a bandage on his arm and as he hopped from top bunk to bunk, I could see that he was the resident daredevil. Bimala is the quiet mother to everyone. She picked up my dish before I even noticed and had it washed and returned to its proper place. She gathers toothbrushes for others, makes sure people wash their hands before they eat, and never misses a chance to remind others of their daily responsibilities. Sugita is the organizer. Her drawer is perfectly filled with folded clothes and she sweeps up after others when they forget. She is proud to do her homework and share all that she has learned. Pabina is sweetly filled with a need to give and receive love. She wants to be sure that you are sitting close to her and seems to get hurt when you aren’t. She is sensitive like that and you always want to keep an eye on her to be sure she doesn’t feel left out. Binita is the whole package…giving, loving, and fitting in wherever there is a gap. If you need to get things moving…just ask her and she’ll get right to it. If someone is alone or looks sad, she is sure to go and make them smile. After watching me tug at my shirt to keep my lower back covered when we did morning stretches, she quickly decided to stand nearby so she could grab it before I needed to. All of these personalities blended beautifully together to be sure that every household need was met.

The Spirit in the house is very powerful and there was one lesson that will stick with me when I get back to the classroom…kids will live up to ANY expectation you have for them. In this home, the expectation is collaboration, teamwork, prayer, respect, love, and responsibility…and every single one of the kids…every single one…lives up to those expectations and routines in a deeply gleeful way. They see their life conditions as blessings…because they are. They show deep gratitude and support each other in beautiful ways.

Each day begins with all ten getting ready for school while Sapana makes a big breakfast of rice and vegetables. The kids make their beds, fold their clothes, and make sure that their homework is in their backpacks. They gently guide each other to be sure that they go outside to visit the front lawn area to brush teeth and wash faces. Breakfast is served with everyone sitting around the walls of the kitchen. Sapana distributes food and nobody eats until they individually say their prayers of gratitude (which are beautiful to watch). The food is delicious and I am always surprised at the large amounts of rice they can eat twice a day…not counting whatever they have for lunch at school. The food is simple, but abundant and delicious. After breakfast, everyone goes outside to use the buckets to wash their dishes. On most mornings, we had time to play for an hour and I did my best to dig deep into my kindergarten memory bank to remember songs and games to keep everyone involved. By our fourth day together we had a routine that included some singing, morning stretches, and a few games.

At 8:30, their living space starts bustling with everyone looking for the components of school uniforms…pants, shirts, ties, socks, ID tags…everything must be located so they can head out the door. Big kids help little ones with everyone searching for the daily pair of pants or tie that has gone missing. The last step is a quick oiling of hair and faces to make everyone glow as they walk out the door…the whole row walking down the street and heading to school as they shout “Bye, mommy! Bye, sister.” It is so so sweet…enough to make my heart melt each morning as they look back and smile until they are out of sight.

Sapana and I spent some of our time doing something I think she really enjoyed…a bit of girl time. After the kids left for school, she would make us a large breakfast of rice and vegetables that we enjoyed sitting in the sun on the rooftop. One day, she made us homemade face masks using juices and spices. She massages it onto my face and said…”no smiling for ten minutes.” On another day, she brought and shared a collection of bangle bracelets that are now jingling up my arms. She gave herself a pedicure while I read. I had to use my best body language to tell her that after months of walking in flip flops, I just couldn’t pain her with the task of touching my feet. I can think of hundreds of examples from this week where my new friends who had so little by modern standards gave so much. Sapana’s nephew Sujan was very helpful and I had a lovely dinner with her sister’s family. The kids loaded me up with their stuffed toys so I would not be sad sleeping alone. When they received two pieces of candy from a neighbor, many tried to share one with me. When I grabbed soap at night to wash my face in the dark, two boys followed me outside-one to hold my iPhone flashlight and another to hold the bucket and pour clean water on my hands for rinsing. Not a need was unmet in this giving home.

At four o’clock, the group runs down the road and quickly does reverse order of the uniform routine. Comfy clothes, cookies, homework, and time to play before dinner. The power is limited to a few hours a day in Nepal and on most nights the house is dark by 7:00 or 8:00, so everyone gets in bed early. Sapana ends each night praying and singing Nepali songs with the kids who are still awake. What fun to join in and share those special moments with them.

Time spent volunteering reminds me of how weak and selfish I am. Helping Sapana around the house, without the modern conveniences like a washing machine, made me likely more of a nuisance than a help. She used a system with two buckets for multiple washings and rinses for each item. The thought of showering with that cold bucket of water made me cringe every time and check to see just how bad I really smelled! In moments of pride, I consider myself to be fairly flexible and not overly focused on material luxuries…that is, until all of the things I rely on our not here. If I imagine a future that includes some type of international humanitarian work, I have a lot to do to ween myself from so many “things” I take for granted.

Nepal has been a whirlwind, but so interesting and fun! I feel focused on the future and am enjoying powerful opportunities to grow. I will finish my time here on Friday and think I will consider one day of trekking and the other of hanging out before heading to Israel.

I have great dreams for my next eight weeks. I will be in Israel for a week before heading to Turkey with most of the week spent in Jerusalem. Jason is going to meet me in Istanbul where we will divide our time between Turkey and Kurdistan with the highlight being time in Erbil, Iraq. Jason heads home at the end of March and Bones joins me for two more weeks exploring different locations in Turkey. In mid-April, I head back to Israel to explore destinations and meet friends outside of Jerusalem. I want the time to go really slowly so I can savor each moment, but I can’t wait for each bit of the special time.

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Loving Nepal!

Warning…my time in Nepal has been filled with a spectacular airplane ride around Mount Everest, the shallowness of dress and massage searches, a possible scam, a yoga weekend that was a stretch…but not in ways you might expect, and a few sweet, life-changing heart moments. Luckily, my good friends just agree to ride the roller coaster of life with me…and during this week, we were all strapped in pretty tightly.

The car ride from the airport to my Kathmandu hotel sealed what I already knew in my heart. I love Nepal! There were cars, motorbikes, and people volleying for spots on the rocky roads and horns blaring incessantly giving people just enough time to get out of their way. Small shops overflowed with bright and beautiful wool and silk scarves and fruit vendors sold a colorful selection from the backs of their bicycles. It was loud and fast and there was something to see around every rapid turn…it felt good to be traveling again.

My room was surprisingly lush for $10 a night, but as the sun sank, I quickly learned there was no heat. I wrapped myself up in a furry blanket – burrito style- and piled a few extras on top to make it through the night. The next morning, I asked if there was a portable heater and was informed that heat cost an extra $10 per night. That made me laugh, but seemed worth the cost.

THE SPECTACULAR…
Bones told me a story about flying around Mount Everest when she visited Nepal years ago. It’s always fun to try new things, and I especially like sharing experiences with people I love…even when separated by years in between, so I was excited about this prospect. I booked the flight and it was spectacular to see the great mountain from such an outstanding point of view. The plane held about fifteen people and allowed you to get a view from the cockpit for a few minutes. I never dreamed of trekking a high altitude mountain and seeing the view up close confirmed That this would be my only view of Mount Everest. It was so high and looked so cold!!! After the flight, I waited in the airport parking lot for my ride, surrounded by taxi drivers. I quickly learned that REALLY LOUD AND DEEP spitting is common in Nepal. Everywhere I turned, I was accosted by guttural hocking sounds followed by flying saliva. It’s a cultural norm I have encountered in a few Asian countries, so much so, that there are often “no spitting” signs hung all over the place. I guess I can’t be the only one who has been splattered with unintentionally rogue spit.

THE SHALLOW…
For my fellow shoppers and massage enthusiasts…come to Nepal!!! Right now! On my first evening in Kathmandu, I found a massage place near my hotel with two hour massages for about $25. I imagine I could have found an even less expensive option away from the city center, but when I walked in, it was impossible to consider walking out. I have returned once since and hope for another visit before I leave. Their menu of massage options has me testing out all kinds of new techniques. On a side note, I wonder this. If asked, do women generally prefer to have women as masseuses? To me, it doesn’t really matter and I say I have no preference when asked, and do not feel uncomfortable with a male masseuse, but then again, I have been called “unintentionally hinky” so I wonder what others think.

Second deal…I have a red dress that I bought in China that I wear all the time. If you have looked at my Facebook pictures, it sometimes looks like the only dress I have because it shows up in lots of places. It is about six years old and I have started to notice signs of wear. I passed a few custom tailors in town, and had the idea of bringing them my dress and asking if they could make a new one. Sure enough, for $20, I have an identical dress made with a silky red Chinese fabric…I mean identical down to the same piping around the sleeves and fabric waist belt. It only took two days to make, so I ordered a black one, too! Having a dress custom made makes me feel all girly. From someone who uses a stapler to hem my pants, I think being a tailor is a Divine talent that should be appreciated, so I get REALLY giddy and excited during the entire process.

Personally, while it might be a bit shallow, I would rather spend my money on massages and dresses than food and accommodations.

THE SCAM…
The first day in a new place…it can be hard not to look and act like a tourist. Plus, in places like Nepal, especially after the my days in the pristine city of Sydney, the poverty makes your heart bleed and inclined to give money to anyone who asks. So, as I wandered around the city on day one, I was especially vulnerable to new “friends” who wanted to scam me a bit. Shades of being scammed have happened to me a few times in my life…and always on my first day in a new location…before I am acclimated and appropriately on guard. By day two…I usually try to blend in by buying some local clothes…just enough-a shirt or something so I fit in without looking like I am overdoing it and people stop paying attention.

Warning…the following story did not seem ridiculous at the time because it was shared over the course of an hour or two, but when I relayed the sequence of events to Jason while video chatting, we both had to laugh about my gullibility. So, here goes…a man walked up to me and started chatting to “practice his English.” Of course, he “wanted no money from me” and just appreciated the opportunity to practice this important skill. Learning English was important because ever since he was a young man, and abandoned by his father, he had been responsible for caring for his ailing mom. He came to Nepal from India to be a shoe-shiner. He was doing well enough to get married and have two lovely children. When asked, his children were not able to attend school because they were just too poor to afford the fees and uniforms. His shoeshine box was stolen one day and because he was Indian and not from Nepal, he did not get much help from the police. So, he used his days to search for the man who stole his box. At this time, all he had was an old backpack and a small brush (which he showed me) that he could use to shine shoes and because he did not have a box, no one even knew he could clean their shoes. When he wasn’t wandering the streets, he was at home, trying to find scraps of plastic to build on the small plastic covering his family used as shelter. As we walked, he showed me around the city, but I was ready to be alone again, so started to talk in terms of an exit plan. As he sensed the end of our time together was near, he said he wouldn’t ask me for money and that I should never give people money. I needed to be concerned about my karma and if I gave people money, they might spend it on bad things like cigarettes and drinks. It is better to just buy people food and if I wanted I could help him in that way. So, we walked to the store of his choice where he asked for a bag of rice, a gallon of oil, and a box of powdered milk. As we waited, the shop owner made the exact same comment about my karma, which struck me as a bit odd. When the clerk presented the bill, it was for 3,000 rupees…about $34. That may not seem like a ton of money, but considering the average income and cost of other things in Nepal, there is no way a family is paying that much for food. I shelled it over with the growing sense that this was a bit of an embellished story. I said goodbye and slowly walked behind the man without making myself obvious…and watched him pull out his cell phone and look startled when our eyes met. He asked if I wanted to come to his house to meet his family….hmmmm…I just didn’t have a deep sense of trust, so I said no. In a way, I wanted to see if a family existed, but my internal red flag decided against it. After retelling the story, I was amused enough to Google “Nepal shoe scam” and find a blog post by another woman who was asked to buy a new shoe box and food for a man’s family. After refusing both, the man became angry until she gave him some money to compensate for the time he showed her around the city. So, what do you think? Scammed? I think the man and shop owner had to be friends taking advantage of a situation. I would like to think the food fed his family, but I also wonder if it was returned for half the cash. I will never know, but things like this are good opportunities to be tested a bit, so the cost of the lesson and short city tour was still not a bad price.

THE STRETCH
I love yoga. It makes me feel flexible, improves my shoddy balance, and connects my desire to work out and relax a bit. That said, I tend to like rigorous fitness yoga more than deeply, calm moments of meditation. I love the sweat of hot yoga and when others are ending their sessions in the calm of the laying pose of “shivasana,” I am often already warming up my car and heading to check the next task off of my list. I have heard good things about yoga in Nepal, so I set up a yoga weekend where I could stay overnight and, I imagined, participate in a variety of yoga clinics. I imagined a weekend that would stretch me physically and not one that would be such a spiritual stretch.

If you read “Eat Pray Love,” you will remember the Pray part of Liz Gilbert’s journey. To me, it was the most boring blah blah part of a book that I otherwise loved. I didn’t connect with her moments of enlightenment and affection for a guru. So, when I arrived at the center and saw a picture of a guru hanging everywhere, I was immediately a bit uncomfortable and clarified that I would like to do yoga, but was not interested in the spiritual teaching or practices associated with the center. They said that was fine and handed me a red robe to wear and the schedule of events. My first stop was the large meeting hall where people were sitting on mats. It looked good to me. And then, the man in front stood up and said we were going to do some healing dance to cleanse our impurities. Me…I felt pretty good already, so when people started jumping everywhere and screaming, I kind of closed my eyes, swayed my hips, and prayed. I didn’t stay for the entire dance or attend the afternoon session which was an introduction to the teachings of the guru, but went to dinner which was filled with amazing vegetarian options. The next morning, I went to my first yoga session which was sadly a videotape that kept stopping and starting…not so relaxing, but very distracting. I tried to leave before the next session, until the person who welcomed me to the center asked me and a few other new people to come to the front of the room for a short lesson on the upcoming dynamic meditation. This session was one hour of intense jumping and outward breathing and outward expressions of emotions that are pent up in your bodies where it was encouraged to cry, scream, and even hit things. Looking around, I was sad that people felt those ways inside. For some people, the weekend might nave been enlightening, but to me, the messages felt empty. I did enjoy the moments of practicing peacefulness and my own quiet times, but I didn’t stay much longer and left after lunch, sharing a taxi with a few guys I met from Lebanon who were Eastern Catholics who also shared a bit of discomfort at the spiritual elements of the weekend. In my own private way, the weekend was reflective and enlightening, but I won’t be going back to a meditation center anytime soon.

Those days first days were special, but the second half of my trip was even better. Going to settle in now with a cup of tea to share that story for my next post.

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It’s Me…Being Boring in Sydney

Ahhhh..I am heading to Nepal tonight and I couldn’t be happier.

My last blog post ended in New Zealand. If there was an award for the most beautiful place in the world, NZ would get my vote. Fresh, clean, bright, and beautiful are just a few words that come to mind when thinking about the sights I saw and places I visited. A short flight from Queenstown to Wellington took me to the South Island for a day visiting some Lord of the Rings sights. I am not a big fan…in fact, I only saw the movie because my friend Holly requested it as her birthday outing years ago. But, after spending a month with Josiah…a film buff who lists the trilogy as his top movie picks, I felt I had to go check it out. Plus, the movie locations are such amazing places in NZ that it was worth every minute. Personally, I just loved the cute little Hobbiton houses! I hopped from place to place in the South Island including Wellington, Taupo, Rotorua, and Auckland. I was breezing through each spot wishing I had more weeks to explore NZ because I likely won’t be back because it is sooo far and soooooooo expensive.

In Auckland, I had the special opportunity to meet with Luke and Drake. I taught Luke when he was in kindergarten and now he is about a foot taller than me and is getting ready to wander around New Zealand. Facebook is cool like that…his mom saw where I was and made the connection for us. For me, the weirdest part was knowing that I taught a five year old who is now old enough to drink beer. Ouch!

I spent the last few days in Sydney and while it is a lovely city, I am ready I leave. My first views and city experiences were amazing, I enjoyed a trip to the opera house…well I am not so cultured, so it is better to say I survived my trip to the Opera House, but I am so glad I went. I had lots of time walking around the harbor and city center. I saw a few movies. I just generally got ready for my next
eight weeks because they are going to be busy ones, before I head to Italy…my final destination…on May 1. I wouldn’t say that Sydney bored me…it didn’t…it was just so close to being home-like that I found myself longing more for time with family and friends…doing those things that are fun to do at home. I don’t think much about being alone. I know some people would dread the thought of eating alone in restaurants, hanging out at airports, and traveling on overnight buses without a partner..for me, I rarely think about it. BUT, going to movies solo and watching all of the hand holding couples is not my idea of a party! However, in this case, I saw Lincoln and Silver Lining Playbook and really enjoyed both of them!

I don’t think Sydney was boring…I think I was!! Even though there are once in a lifetime opportunities there, I just couldn’t bring myself to spend big bucks on things after looking at my over budget for the past month. I took the time to hang out, catch up on email, and wander. My AirBNB place was across the Sydney bridge so it was especially cool to walk across that every day with a beautiful view of the harbor and opera house.

I can already feel it! The new adventure begins today! I am at the airport in Abu Dhabi and I already have that internal intrigue back in my heart! Yeah!!

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Fantasy Islands…New Zealand Style

When I was in elementary school, I went through an Australia phase where I loved reading about far-away country and dreamed of moving there one day. As time passed, I moved on to different dreams and Oz faded into the background replaced by closer and less expensive destinations.

As I considered my “round the world” itinerary, I wanted to have a “year of summer” and knew that this would likely be the only time in my life when I could travel great distances in the months of December through March…so it was time for the long-faded Australian dream to come true. I was going to see the Sydney Opera House, explore the harbor, and walk around saying things like “G’Day Mate!”

After spending a few days enjoying Melbourne with my friends Tom and David, I was back on my own on a bus to Sydney where I was scheduled to stay at an AirBNB apartment in the Redfern area just a short walk from the city center. AirBNB is a great resource for finding accommodations in big cities because you are able to rent rooms in centrally located spots for much cheaper rates than hotels.

Speaking of rooms…my blog makes it sound like it is really easy to find accommodations. That’s because-for me-it is…because I am not doing it. My aunt at Bones’ Travel Agency (which only has one non-paying customer-me) has taken on this huge task for my entire journey. While she uses a bunch of different resources to find me rooms at my next destination, I get to spend every waking moment enjoying new people and places. Because I like to have total flexibility in my schedule, she stays only a few days ahead of my plans, and I know I can drive her crazy with my desire to go with the flow and make changes as I go. I get to be very focused on fun while she does all this behind the scenes work. My Gram would always say that I was a “lucky, lucky, lucky” girl and she was right. The cool thing about not choosing rooms on my own is that every time I get somewhere new, it is like opening a gift…an unexpected surprise. Like sometimes a room has a bath tub, or free breakfast, or a nice view…and since I don’t know in advance, I get all excited when I find those things like it is Christmas morning.

I visit Sydney twice on this trip, at the beginning and end of my stay in Australia. For the first part, I just wandered around for a few days exploring the downtown area. I have bigger plans when I return…going to see La Boheme at the famous opera house (thanks for the idea, Mr. Fiala), climbing the Sydney bridge, and spending a day at Bondi Beach.

I left Australia and traveled to Christchurch, New Zealand. When I walked out of the airport, I felt an immediate desire to take a deep breath because the air seemed so crisp and clean. My first impression of NZ was that everyone I met was not only friendly, but very outgoing and polite. I wondered if this is what clean living does for you. The bus to my hotel was spotless and the driver chatted nicely with every rider.

Christchurch is facing unfortunate times because the city is still recovering from a devastating 2011 earthquake. I wandered around a relatively deserted downtown area with construction around every turn. Entire streets were cordoned off with buildings still waiting to be demolished. It was a bit eery to imagine what it must have looked like months ago. There were also signs of trauma with ads for free family stress counseling and many houses with broken down areas. Visiting places like this make life seem so fragile…one day the town is enjoying care free days and the next facing years of stress, financial crisis and rebuilding.

I spent a week on the South Island of New Zealand visiting Christchurch, Dunedin, and Queenstown. Dunedin was a pleasant town with an octagon shaped city center that was perfect for browsing. Things in Australia and NZ close very early…great for families but kind of quiet for visitors. In both places, shops close each evening at 6:00 and many stay closed on Sundays. On some nights, my best option was to go to a movie or hang out reading. The highlight of my time on the South Island was a day trip to Milford Sound.

I took an early morning bus…and was worried because it was so cold and MS is known for having almost 300 days of rain a year. I don’t have a collection of warm clothes in my suitcase so no matter what the temps are, I have to wear my flip flops and just later up. When the bus made a rest stop, I browsed at post cards and met a sweet older man who insisted I meet his wife. They were immediately worried about my cold feet as I rushed to get back to my bus on time. It must have been on their mind because the next time my bus stopped at a rest area, theirs was not far behind and the man came to find me to deliver a fresh pair of socks for me to keep…people are so nice!

Milford Sound is amazing and worth the four hour trip from Queenstown. Along the way, we passed mountains, rainbows, lakes so clear that they reflected the sky like mirrors, rivers fresh enough to drink from, and so many different kinds of plants and trees. We took a boat ride through MS and were surrounded by mountains, surprise blue skies, and waterfalls.

The “elephant in the room” about both places is that they are sooo expensive. I continue to be shocked by the cost of basics here in NZ. While it is really beautiful and I’m glad I came, I don’t imagine visiting again, so I am taking great pleasure in every day.

I am flying to the North Island today. I would have liked more time to explore the glacier areas on the West coast, but time is moving so quickly. I will have to settle for a Google search on Fox Glacier as my chance to check it out.

No worries, Luvs! I haven’t really told anyone “G’Day, Mate” yet, but I am picking up the whole calling everyone “Luv” thing! So, don’t be surprised when I get home and say “Good on you, Luv!”

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Out of Africa and Into Melbourne

Returning home from poverty-stricken areas usually leads to disruptive and reflective emotional moments. I return to the comforts of my home with a sense of guilt about all I have and a general feeling of disdain for all of the waste and wealth that surrounds me. For a few days, things like lines in expensive coffee shops and huge platters of disregarded food leave me wondering why we waste so much when there are people with so little. Mixing these feelings with the exhaustion caused by navigating less developed areas makes for an interesting mix of feelings that I can best describe as unsettled. Then, sad to say, I get pulled back into my home comforts and life gets back to “normal” with just a few remnants of guilt and a returned focus on the busy world of home. It is not something I am proud of, but it happens.

Well, after leaving Nairobi, I did not go home, instead I flew to Melbourne, Australia which has been voted…”the most livable city in the world.” So, instead of my home city of Chicago taking the brunt of my ridicule for all things “first world,” I lobbed them onto this unsuspecting city.

Melbourne was hosting the Australian Open tennis competition during my stay, so hotels were expensive and hard to find. I stayed with a gracious AirBNB host named Louise who is an artist in the community. She lives across from the Royal Botanical Gardens and is just a short walk from the city center. Instead of appreciating the beautiful walk on my first morning, I missed the chaos of Africa. Crossing the street in Melbourne meant waiting for the light to change and crossing politely with all the others. I missed the excitement of crossing between people, cars, and animals while everyone struggled to share the road. Even when no one walked near me in Melbourne, I still intensely scanned my surroundings and held my bag tightly with the expectation of being robbed or attacked. Everyone seemed so civilized and to be honest, it made me cranky and bored during the first few hours of transitioning to these things.

I had heard that Australia would be expensive, but I was still sticker shocked by the prices of things. A cheap lunch ranged from $15-$20 and simple every day items like water and fruit cost at least 40% more than I would expect at home. Going to the movies cost almost $20 and don’t get me started on simple haircuts that started at $100. I wandered through the day watching money escape from my wallet with little to show for my purchases.

I went to bed that night wishing I had stayed in Africa longer and wondering how I would occupy my time here. Then, like often happens after a good night of sleep, I woke up, and saw the city differently because I made the mental transition. On day two, I appreciated the garden as I strolled through on my way to the city center. The free wifi everywhere and working infrastructure eased my day and seemed like less of a luxury than an obvious societal perk. The general anxiety of watching over my shoulder quickly faded and I was able to walk home alone late into the night. A cup of tea at Starbucks would be okay…right? This is a beautiful city…with a well developed culture…with infrastructure that works…and public art and architecture as beautiful as I have seen….and people who follow rules and basic community expectations…and organic everything, everywhere. I guess this is what we are all aspiring to…so instead of settling into an aversion with all they have, I decided to take in the opportunity and spent no more time in my first world transition. It is not gone forever…the Africa seed has been planted in my mind, but my journey must go on…thinking about today. The phrase in my mind is a bit Scarlet O’Hara. You know…something like…I will think about Africa later…after all, tomorrow is another day.

Two big things happened in Melbourne! I had to part ways with my favorite orange suitcase. If you read my blog post from last year called “In a Relationship,” you know that this was a serious break up for me as I loved that bag. Unfortunately, the wear and tear of bus rides has been brutal and the zipper is irreparably separately from the bag. Also, for future travel requirements, I needed to have a “carry on” bag only. Choosing a new bag was a big deal that I have likened to choosing a mate, so I have been doing research into the latest and greatest options and found the perfect style…a carry on bag with a detachable backpack that can be used for single trip outings. It is light, spacious, and comfortable… and hard to find. For two days, I searched at every luggage shop I passed and had no luck! I also wasn’t sure how I would dispose of the orange bag…a trip to a foreign dumpster seemed so callous after our years together. This is where my friend Tom saved the day.

A few months ago, Tom and I had lunch in New York and we realized that we would be on the same side of the globe at the same time of year. I have taught for almost twenty years and some of my favorite moments were shared with Tom who was not only the principal of Manning School, but also my partner in planning New Teacher Orientation and professional development for our schools. In all the time I worked with Tom, he was calm, fun, professional, caring, and dedicated…and a lovely friend who I admired and enjoyed. As we worked, we often dreamed of future travels, so our meeting seemed like the culmination of these dreams.

We agreed to meet in Melbourne after he and Dave spent a few weeks in Asia. I watched anxiously as Tom posted pictures on Instagram and couldn’t wait to meet up with them. I was also anxious to meet David. At first, I wondered if it would be weird for me to insinuate myself into their travel adventure, but from the minute we met on Friday morning for coffee, I knew that it would be a comfortable and good fit. I felt so happy to see Tom and spend time just hanging out and exploring the city together. We wandered into the Queen’s Market, shopped in the city center, enjoyed watching a big band and swing dancing on Australia Day, had a few good meals, and caught up on life and travels. It was so nice to be with them and enjoy their stories and company.

On Sunday, we rented a car and David was our chauffeur as we drove along the Great Ocean Road…a winding, cliffy coastline area with pure blue beaches. Tom was the official photographer and we both served as encouragers for David as he drove on the opposite side of the road. He was such a good driver…and we were all so relaxed as we stopped for town visits, food, a trampoline jump, and ice cream. This summer in January thing is really nice. It was nice to catch up, but also nice to be able to enjoy just hanging out and enjoying the quietness of being with someone familiar. There are some people who are great friends….and some people who are great travel companions… but it is rare to have people who are both…and in Melbourne, I felt like we found that special blend. I was sad to say goodbye to Tom and David, but hope we will meet again somewhere in this great big world!

Back to my suitcase hunt, well, Tom, David, and I met for coffee on our first morning at a place they found online, which happened to be right across from an outdoor shop that had luggage….the exact kind I wanted…and it was ON SALE!!! In the short moments I waited for them to arrive, I had picked out the new green bag that I have affectionately named Sweet Pea…I know naming it is odd…just move on, please. This in no ordinary suitcase. It has wheels and is a backpack. It is lighter than you can imagine and that detachable backpack is genius. I am in love! And, even better, Tom took my orange bag to carry his extra stuff home and instead of leaving it on the side of a foreign dumpster, I can imagine the old orange suitcase moving to glamorous New York and Tom can take care of its’ final days. A new suitcase relationship with no guilt about the one I left behind….just dreamy! I wish all my relationships ended so easily!

Next stop?? On a bus to Sydney now! I think it will be interesting….more to share about that later!

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Nairobi…a State Department Travel Warning Can’t Be a Good Thing, Right?

By all accounts I have read and heard, I knew Nairobi would be interesting…and a stretch. With over three million people, it is one of the biggest cities in Africa. Recent history has been turbulent with over 1,000 deaths and 600,000 displacements in 2007 due to post-election violence and many travel blogs offer warnings about petty crime. So, I arrived feeling cautious and became even more cautious when I learned that on my third day there, the first election nomination elections since the 2007 uprising were being held.

Many people use Nairobi as a gateway to safaris and do not spend much time exploring the city on their own. I had six days scheduled here so that I could go to Masai Mara for another safari, but when I arrived, I wasn’t inclined to spend the money or more time in a car and decided I would use the days to see other things and also just hang out a bit…feeling the pleasure of not being on the run.

My hotel, Khweza, is a small place where people really take the time to know you. They serve a custom ordered breakfast in your room and the whole place is decorated with interesting African touches. I probably got a bit too comfortable here because by the end of the week, I was also ordering dinner in my room and was burrowing in bed for amazing afternoon naps.

There is one thing I have learned about Africa…it makes you throw out all of your expectations about things. In most cases, I immediately feel at ease in a city. In Nairobi, my first day was filled with a subtle tension and I felt a bit off kilter. When working at the high school, there were days when you walked in the building and there was a certain buzz in the air…like something was going to happen that day…without being able to explain why, you just knew that before the end of the day, there was going to be a bit of drama or an altercation between students that would suddenly reset that negative vibe.

As you spend time in a city, you learn where to go and where not to go. On my first day, I passed areas with assertive salespeople who tried to pull me into their shops…areas I would avoid on future outings. The hotel told me to be careful of “Somalian areas,” but I was not sure how to tell what those were, so my high alert attitude was on all day. I was walking, but clearly missing the main area. I was in a small clothing store where Swahili music was blaring and all of a sudden, the music stopped and a clear, loud voice noted that the US State department had issued a travel warning to Kenya encouraging people to take extreme caution in the wake of terrorist threats. I kind of looked around to see if anyone else was listening, but then had one of those moments where I felt like the message was just for me. My unusual bit of internal discomfort and the well-timed message were enough to convince me that I would just enjoy an afternoon at the hotel…which I did.

As I walked back, I passed vans spreading political messages and saw a city COVERED with political posters….like nothing I have seen before. There is one poster than is especially interesting where the candidate in wearing gold rings on every finger and a has a neck covered in gold, too. It seems obtusely eccentric in a country with such poverty and I couldn’t imagine why anyone would put on this kind of political display. I asked around and according to my sources, the man is not only a former small time con-man, but also someone who publicly married the daughter of a known drug dealer. I was told that these opulent pictures are an example of how corruption is rampant and how some candidates don’t even try to hide it. I am not sure if that is fact or opinion, but I do know those posters were something to see.

My reading afternoon was leisurely and relaxed. I am enjoying a book called “Kisses from Katie” about a young girl who moves to Uganda where she opens a school and adopts loads of children…all before she is 25 years old. Her story is heartwarming, inspiring, and unsettling when you read accounts of the poverty she faces every day…children abandoned by death of parents, people left in hospitals with no care because they cannot pay small fees, starvation, illnesses…the list goes on, and Katie is in the middle of it all. As I read the first six chapters I felt like, “I could do that.” And…as I read the first six chapters I also felt like, “I could NEVER do that.” She is a strong, selfless, and faith-filled young woman and I can’t wait to read more.

The next day, election nominations were held. I decided to hire out the hotel car and driver….more money than I would usually spend when opting for the pleasure of public transportation. On this day, I just felt more comfortable outside of the city and in my own car. Muhammad was the driver and he made the rode to Hell’s Gate especially lovely by sharing stories about his family, picking up a special necklace for me when we made a rest stop, and sharing warm greetings with everyone we met along the way.

I was excited about Hell’s Gate because instead of visiting in a car, I could rent a bike and also hike low into the gorge area. Willis, who rented the bike to me, also came along as the guide that is recommended for the gorge hike. I was glad he was there because the area is not well marked and I am sure I would have been lost without him. We biked for a total of 20 kilometers through fields of zebras, gazelles, giraffes, and warthogs and hiked for 5K. There were so many zebras…I loved that. Honestly, it was my favorite way to enjoy the parks here.

Last year, my cousin Maria did a mission trip to work in a school in Nairobi. She put me in touch with someone working there now, so I could stop in for a visit. I spent Friday morning hanging out at the school and doing a tiny bit of teaching. The kids were sweet and open and full of love…but also serious about their work and anxious to learn. While they did not have many resources, and likely were facing things far beyond my imagination, the open engagement with life was powerful. Ben, who is volunteering from the US, did a great job of organizing the school day and connecting with the kids. Cool for me…he is living in Westmont and we will try to find ways to connect my future students with this school to build relationships and support systems. That will be so cool! I love when new doors open!

On Saturday, I ventured back into downtown and it was amazing! All of the buzzy anxiousness of the other day had passed. No more politician mobiles blaring. The streets felt positive. I was in my city element again…happily visiting the market and doing my first real shopping of the entire trip….and it was a bit ridiculous. I think I got swept up into the fun of bargaining and always get excited about buying gifts for others, but my suitcase and extra carry-on are stuffed to capacity now. I am shipping myself a box from Australia so I think that gave me a mental carte blanche to make purchases that I would never otherwise want to carry. It was a great day and I was happy that my perception of Nairobi turned around.

On Sunday, I was not traveling, so I went to church. Being raised Catholic, I spent years practicing being quiet in church, so places of worship with rousing outward expressions of faith are a work in progress for me, but I like them, but I am not always 100% comfortable…which I like, too! Being in Africa has given me a view of being a minority in a new way. In most places, because of my olive skin color, I can fit in. I have been mistaken for Spanish, Latin American, Egyptian, Indian, and find that the only usual surprise for people is when I try to convince them that I really am half Polish. In many places in Africa, I am the only white face in the crowd, and that was the case at church today. I am very comfortable, but is just harder to blend in and be invisible.

The service was powerful with people actively worshiping and revealing some of their addiction issues. The pastor called people to move toward the front of the church, and while I tried to stay in my seat in the back, a woman came and encouraged me to move forward. She didn’t just encourage…I think she wasn’t moving until I did. People were praying, falling to the ground, screaming…experiencing spiritual moments I had never witnessed before…calling out their battles with prostitution, drugs and alcohol for public prayer. While parts of the service were so different, I really appreciated the transparency of the people. I thought about how many of us sit in churches with much smaller issues that we would be too embarrassed to bring forward like that…for fear of being judged. Here…there were women and men who shared the most private parts of their lives…without fear and with the support of their church community.

I wanted to stay for the entire service, but after two hours and 18 minutes…the exact moment when I looked at my clock and realized I couldn’t sit anymore, I tried to slide out-with the full knowledge that it would not be easy. As I walked out the door, a woman followed after me to tell me that I was welcome to come back and ask if she could pray for me. We shared a nice moment as I listened to the congregation start to walk out of the service that ended after two hours and 20 minutes.

Tomorrow…I am traveling to Melbourne, Australia. Honestly, I can’t believe it. I am sad to leave Africa. It has been the hardest travel of my life, but the effort needed makes it feel gritty cool! I am captivated by the people…their culture, their faith, their lives. At the same time, there are things that make me feel sad and guilty for having so much while some people don’t. The opportunities and open doors before us in the States are never far from my thoughts and not a day goes by when someone isn’t telling me of their dream to visit America (or as Kenyans call it… “Obama-land”) someday.

I am a bit refreshed after Nairobi nap times. In fact, I napped so hard today that I Googled symptoms of sleeping disease caused by Tsetse fly bites…just in case. Luckily, I don’t have all the other symptoms…just a relaxed state of mind, I guess!

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Posted in Africa, Kenya, Travel | Tagged , , | 4 Comments