a break

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helping with the move

One of my favorite people has moved out of state. She left with my sister (another favorite person) and her dad who has a new job. I met her the day she was born and thought we would live close to each other for a longer time. The move is good for this little one’s family and for our parents, who will be much closer to their grandchild. I really miss her laugh and giving her squishy hugs.

This winter has been stressful and tiring. My ‘interview suit’ has been to many funerals but no interviews…I have no energy to search for new opportunities.
In addition to my day job I now teach an English class on Monday nights. It takes me a ridiculous amount of time to prepare for class each week. The work is so rewarding though as my student expresses gratitude I have never experienced from my public school students. We both appreciate the friendship developing from our connection.
My husband has been away for work 49% of the time for the last five months. We are independent people and I love my space but even for me, that is too much.

The long, cold winter (which I love) is fading away and signs of spring are surfacing. One of my favorite signs of spring is a vacation to help push us through the month-long testing before more exams start to wrap up the school year.

Today, I am thankful for a long time to sit in quiet with nothing else to do.

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waiting in Frankfurt

july 26: liberia

One of the main reasons I started a blog is to document memories of the journeys I have already taken. So far, that has been very difficult. I will start with the trip and the people I still think of most often.

A year ago this month I took my first trip to the African continent and landed in Liberia.

90 mph in the rain

90 miles per hour in the rain

Before the trip I knew only that my country had helped contribute to many of the problems in Liberia (first, by sending free Americans to Liberia in the 1800’s and “giving” them already-occupied-land so the US could continue slavery with less of a fight, the subsequent colonization of Liberia by these people and more recently, in 1985 by allowing Charles Taylor to “escape” from a US jail and eventually return to Liberia…). I had seen Pray the Devil Back to Hell as it was shown on college campuses across the US. Generally, I knew very little about the country and people who live in Liberia. To help increase my understanding, I looked for books on Liberia and after beginning a few dry, dated ones written by westerners I found these three much more interesting and helpful:

andstill1 Helene Cooper_the house at sugar beach Leymah Gbowee_mighty be our powers

Our plane landed late afternoon on a breezy, grey, surprisingly cool day and the air smelled faintly of burning wood. We waited for a while to get through immigration. Officers looked stern and asked each person a series of questions after being greeted by friendly security who joked with people, asked where everyone was from and welcomed us one by one. I was starting to see that my arrival card which is always marked with “vacation” as the purpose of my travel is appreciated much more than those who state their purpose as “business” or “work”. A driver met us outside immigration, led us through a crowded and chaotic parking area, helped us load our bags into the office vehicle and whisked us away down a nearly empty highway. Many of the arrivals were taking a motorbike or walking to their next destination.

We arrived at the hotel which not only had running water and electricity but also wi-fi.
I had no idea yet how uncommon each of these things were. Just off our room was a common balcony where I watched the first downpour of our trip while listening to the music that projected through the heavy rain from the club across the street. That club would provide our evening soundtrack during the time we stayed in Monrovia.

We were in Monrovia to be present for the launch of a report on youth created by young Liberians and a few university students from the US. The presentation, which took place at the Ministry of Youth and Sports at Samuel Doe Stadium, was impressive, professional and showcased the large amount of evidence collected solely by young people. (The data from this report helped to highlight infrastructure and job needs in the country which in turn has resulted in thousands of new jobs for Liberians.)

Samuel K. Doe Stadium

Samuel K. Doe Stadium

mural of women leaders

After a few days of office work and meetings we were able to use our free time to travel around and see a bit more of Liberia. The best aspect of tagging along with my spouse for work-travel is that I get a more realistic view of each place by visiting with the people who live there. We are always welcomed more than I ever expect and I have found, like anywhere else, people really want visitors to see and understand their country. Here are some of the highlights of the trip which I continue to think about:

  • The first day my Liberian English was tested by the young adults who created the report. I failed their test miserably but was able to answer a few of the questions directly, which impressed a few, and caused a lot of laughter for everyone.
  • There were multiple attempts to teach me the Liberian handshake. I made many happy in my attempts (so happy they could not stop laughing…).
  • I was so impressed everyone was able to identify where I was from as, “Hey, American!!” was yelled as a direct greeting. Then it was explained that this greeting was synonymous with ‘Hey, there’s a white person!”. I bet all the European workers are thrilled about that.
  • I read through anonymous surveys the young people had collected and one question was, “In the last three months…how many times have you or your family gone without food?” Almost everyone responded: Never. The next question asked, “How many meals do you have a day?” and most responded: One.
  • One smile could break the most stern-faced person into a grin. Liberians are resilient and some of the toughest people I have ever met but a simple question or a smile seemed to soften almost everyone. During our first walk to the coast in Monrovia we found the beach access blocked by a large group of young men. Being a teacher, a large group of young people rarely causes concern but I was a bit nervous (I had read too many exaggerated travel warnings). We asked if we could get access to the beach, they said sure, we started talking and one of the men escorted us to the beach. He pointed out things of interest (most importantly, ways to get past the seemingly endless wall blocking the beach from the community as the tide quickly came in) and asked where we were from. We received handshakes and laughter after he suggested a well-known ex-pat bar for dinner and we asked for something more Liberian. As we exited the beach the same way we came the rest of the group shook our hands as we walked by.
  • There is an Ivorian restaurant in Sinkor that makes great fried fish but I have talked plenty about food here. During an earlier trip, my husband (promising to eat healthy meals) visited so often that the waitresses joyfully remembered him and began to joke with him… immediately dispelling the myth that he ate there, “only once or twice”. His cover had been blown.

    palm butter

    palm butter

One of the office workers sacrificed time (paid, of course) away from his family when he offered to take us around to places we wanted to see. He drove us through the Firestone Plantation past Gbarnga, to Phebe Hospital area, almost back to Monrovia, to Robertsport and back again. He was our companion, guide and our negotiator for days. He spoke of the country’s history and his own (very few do), plans for the future and pointed out places of interest all along the way.

road through village to Kpatawee

road through village to Kpatawee

Kpatawee ecotourism site
(waterfalls are here)

Red Light district

Red Light Market district

a home outside of Monrovia

a home outside of Monrovia

Firestone Plantation

Firestone Plantation

Firestone Plantation

Go to School!

Go to School!

  • Our enthusiasm over the beauty of the lush, green landscape during the rainy season was contrasted against everyone else’s worry of the sanitation and disease issues that come along with too much water.
  • Outside Monrovia, hotel rooms were more expensive and did not have electricity or running water. The extra cost covered all the gas used to run the generator from 9pm-2am and hopefully gave a little extra to the young men who moved a large, full trash can of water from a well to our bathroom each day.

    collected water for bathing & flushing

    collected water for bathing & flushing

  • The town of Robertsport (where Lake Piso and the Atlantic Ocean join) is unforgettable because of its stunning, natural beauty and the surprise of seeing so many old buildings. Many houses are modeled in similar fashion to those in the deep south of the US. So many structures had been simply abandoned and it was fascinating but heartbreaking to see the decay and wonder what had happened to the people there.

    Meeting an old man and possibly his grandson outside of the Pure Bar and Restaurant. Both were clearly very sick and very friendly and both reached to shake our hands and welcome us to town. After we shook hands and exchanged greetings the old man thanked us and quickly disappeared but the boy ran back and forth on the porch, flashing a grin and exchanging funny faces with us each time he passed the door, as we sat down for our meal of the day.

  • Seeing evidence that remained after the war was incredible. I was unprepared. Nine years after the last civil war ended not only had all the electrical wires been removed in most areas, so had all the electrical poles. Only some evidence of electricity was seen in Monrovia and most of that was the loud hum of generators in the areas of town that could afford the luxury. Evidence of battle is still easy to see on many of the buildings. Many animals that fled have not returned; we saw only a few birds and lizards. There are so many abandoned homes and so many who need housing. When asked why someone doesn’t move in to an empty house we were told simply, “That is not their home. They know it does not belong to them.
  • Walking into the YMCA to see the summer camp that was taking place transported all of us back to our own YMCA days. We watched kids playing basketball, working in the computer labs, settling in to view a movie, a few were picking up something to eat from the snack station and many were just ‘hanging out’. We agreed that the Y doesn’t seem to change much no matter the country. It was chaotic, loud and there were smiling kids everywhere.
  • I heard over and over again that despite struggles and difficulties the people face that everyone is tired of war. Even if circumstances get worse before they get better: no more war.
  • A., a generous young man who is a rising star in radio, spent an entire day showing us parts of Monrovia we would have never seen without him. He took us to see a girl’s school that was started by an American who has returned home to Liberia. He showed us the Ducor Hotel (once the highest rated hotel in west Africa) which had been looted and abandoned and was going to be fully renovated by the Libyan government until Gaddafi’s death. From the view of the Ducor, one can see West Point, the largest “slum” in Liberia. We drove to West Point and walked around the neighborhood as A. pointed out things that must improve. Only afterward did he tell us that most Liberians had not been to West Point and that was confirmed by a few locals the next day. We saw what was described as an “Independence Hall” where there is a memorial to the founding settlers of Liberia. This is also where some of the festivities take place each year on Liberia’s day of Independence.

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  • Preparing to leave to return home I felt the duality of Liberia within me. I was exhausted yet inspired. I had learned so much yet still knew so little. I wanted to return to my easy lifestyle but no, I was sad that we could not stay, felt I had adapted well to the daily routine and knew there was (is) so much more to learn. There were ways I could help support young people; one more foreigner did not need to come in and tell people what to do in their own country. The students in Liberia could benefit from all the resources in my classroom; my students would benefit even more from being in Liberia and learning from the students there. I wanted to stay to see the people I met succeed at the amazing things I know they will accomplish; not one of these people needs my recognition or approval to push forward and accomplish great things.

On this Independence Day I hope there is happiness across Liberia.
May opportunities continue and may there be more and more to celebrate.

*If you have access to any pre-war photos taken in Liberia,
please consider posting them here: http://liberia77.com/ 

weekly photo challenge: the world through your eyes

On an unusually pleasant first day of summer I think back to some of the warmest locations I have been. Today is nice; the windows of my home are open and a cool breeze is blowing… but there are many hot summer days ahead.

waiting for the fishing boats to return
near Negombo Beach, Sri Lanka

abandoned pool at the Ducor Hotel
overlooking West Point
Monrovia, Liberia

a woman crosses the street
10 minutes after a heavy downpour
Kigali, Rwanda

waiting for dark and fireworks
in front of the Lincoln Memorial
Washington, DC

unusually steamy, sleepless night
Kathmandu, Nepal

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/06/21/world-through-your-eyes/

weekly photo challenge: my 2012 in pictures

journey to the center of someone else’s universe

This past week we journeyed out-of-state to see my father who was hospitalized. Getting information from far away seemed to be impossible even though we still share the same last name and I know all the code words to access family information. I received small bits of information regarding where he was, or might be. Scenarios ranged from very concerning (another heart attack? possible aortic tear?) or a relatively easy fix (using a small camera to check out his gall bladder?) and various possibilities in between. We did what we could do which is take leave from work, get in the car and drive.

The drive south was clouded with uncertainty. I love my father but our relationship, like all his relationships, is akin to being blindfolded while riding a roller coaster. There are extreme ups and downs and one never knows what to expect or what is next. One could have a great time or crawl away on hands and knees feeling nauseous. He has always been a caring father and he has always been bi-polar. Depression clouds his thinking and being manic has resulted in poor choices and irrational thinking. (He ignored my sister and me for the years we attended university because we both refused to share our hard-earned college funds to help him pay his secretive debts. The same person was hurt and bewildered when we didn’t call constantly and update him on every life event.) He will care for and love someone while scheming and manipulating, desiring to get his way at any cost. He loves people most when they need him and he is kindest to those who can offer financial support. He has a bizarrely co-dependent relationship with my stepmother that has left them both needing each other while crippling each other (both emotionally and physically) as their health deteriorates. They rely on too many drugs, take too many drugs and as I now realize, are addicted to so many drugs.

When I was younger, I was angry for years. I was upset that he seemed to only love us when we could help him. I was upset that his new family always took priority over us. I was furious that they would berate my mother for minor imperfections, forgetting that she raised two kids (quite well I will add), with no assistance from him, on a salary that was less than 1/3 of what I make as a public school teacher. He was never part of the creative meal-planning we had to do each week, shopping at thrift stores as teenagers (thankfully, that was trendy then) or the discussions my mom and I had in preparation of each time we almost lost the house.

Time passed. I became tired of being angry. Despite his erratic influence in my life, I had saved money to put myself through college (twice), I was successful in my career and had positive relationships. I always had a place to sleep and food to eat. I had what I needed to be a happy adult. I forgave my father and let it all go. Everyone makes mistakes…to err is human…I finally accepted the father I had as a young girl is gone. Though parts of him still exist, a different man is in his place.

A few years ago, a week before my wedding, he had a major heart attack. His surgery was a success but he needed care at home and his wife with Multiple Sclerosis could not take care of herself, yet alone him. He was her care taker and he needed help. At his request, we went ahead with the wedding. We cancelled our honeymoon and spent the week with them instead. I was worried for my father and was happy to help them out. (It was immediately clear I had married the right person.) We purchased groceries, cooked, cleaned and organized their house. At their request, we went through financial documents, set up a budget and plans to pay down debt. We discovered my step-mother had an addiction to shopping and she was using all their money to buy crap out of catalogs. My father didn’t have updated glasses, he had not been to a dentist in years even though he had major issues with his teeth and they rarely had enough food—but she had nice clothing, always paying more for one item than I ever have. My father had hole-y socks, worn out pants and a few t-shirts. During this time, the woman who could not move or bathe herself, and who my father had to carry everywhere, began walking unassisted around the house while he slept. Despite the initial feelings that my head would explode from frustration, we calmly explained what would help them and make their lives easier. She listened, decided to act and together, we cut up credit cards, put payment plans in action and recycled (and requested a stop on) every catalog in the house. After just starting a new job, my sister came at the end of the week (for an equally-long stay) armed with recipes, creative ideas and a little more tough love than I am capable of delivering. We felt good. We had cared for them, included them in decisions and empowered them for less-stressful living. They seemed happy and more positive than we had seen them in years—all resulting from a heart attack.

Our visit this past weekend was not as successful. We followed the usual pattern of paying for our hotel rooms, purchasing food and items needed for the home and cooking meals to make life easier. We left a list of healthy, easy snacks and dinners. My step-mother is anxiety-ridden, fearful and demanding. She was so sick with worry that she could not leave her bed even though she wanted to visit the hospital. She called everyone she knew (us and her kids who usually don’t respond to her) at all hours complaining of extreme, fake, physical symptoms and demanding we come over and calm her down. After gall bladder surgery, my father was more concerned about access to drugs and getting a soda than his health. He asked us not to visit with him in the hospital but to spend time with his wife, so we did. In spending time there we discovered receipts for tons of junk food (after assurances they were eating healthy because of the assistance we gave them), new bills from catalog companies and very nice clothing that people who receive government assistance cannot afford. We have gone without to save a little extra for them. We saw this weekend why they are so desperate for our help.

We left town on Sunday feeling foolish. Duped again. This is the first time I did not feel sad when I left Dad. I no longer yearn for the relationship we had when I was a kid. I don’t feel sadness for their situation, I don’t feel anger towards them, I don’t feel hope that they may get better, I don’t feel anything.