Life in Bua

My favorite spot is at the front of the truck. I sit on a block of wood that I suspect is really there as a tether for transporting supplies. Stretching my legs over the cab, my feet dangle at the top of the windshield. From there, I watch the expanse stretch before us as we drive to our work site. Sometimes, I cease to watch and instead feel the expanse within, closing my eyes to enjoy the sensation of barreling down the main road.

We pick up the students from their respective homestays between 7:00-8:00 every morning. Once we’ve collected everyone, we head to the fields. The students stand and brace themselves with the railing on the perimeter of the truck bed. Community members often balance on the rim of the truck, standing with bodies parallel and tight against the cab. Winding through plotted land and seemingly obscure trails, we take turns jumping out of the truck to walk up hills or reduce the weight when caught in a particularly thick patch of mud. Frequently, someone calls out “duck” and we all bend our heads to avoid the scathe of a branch.

The ride is always adventurous. And– as with so many experiences here in Bua– there is a choice as to how to receive it. I could call it miserable and experience it as such, wincing with every bump and thud and counting the minutes until we reach our destination. Instead, I try to lean into it. To call out and focus on the positive parts: the beauty of the surrounding fields with the symmetry of the lines of yuka and chaos of the cacao; the feeling of cool air on my skin with the refreshing kiss of every drop of water; the humor of navigating potholes and wayward tree limbs.

That is one of the most salient lessons for me here: I have the agency to shape my own experience, as my framing creates the extent of my misery or pleasure.

How I’ve discovered so much of the latter! This morning journey brings us to our project site here in Ecuador, building trees with local Tsa’chila¬ people, an indigenous community known for their traditional dress and red-painted hair. Never having planted a tree before, I am still quite moved by the experience of seeing a new sapling in the ground, firm and poised to root.

Most days, I find the experience quite spiritual. As I plant, I talk to the trees and listen to the wind’s whispers. Mostly, I reflect on Life– marveling at and connecting with the energy flowing through the crowded jungles and stretching fields. Quite perfectly, I began a book with body prayer exercises just before our project commenced and I find tree planting an ideal space to develop this practice.

When the jungle’s sting threatens my serenity–bug bites mounting and rain pounding in quantities I question my capacity to endure– I resort to other mental tactics. Sometimes, I choose humor and silliness. There is ample comedic material as we search for stakes marking where to place each plant. Navigating the forested “paths” carved with machetes days before, we stumble over roots and sink into pools of mud. Packing the soil around the saplings’ roots invites biting ants to swarm and then there is the question of what to do about the sweat dripping from my face when my hands and cloths are covered in mud. Singing, laughing, and dancing through this labor always makes it more enjoyable. A lesson in positivity, I’m committed to the experience being nothing less.

Other times, I am in a more reflective place and I think about the many women and men whose livelihood comes from physical labor. I remember the folks at home and abroad whose daily work makes it possible to live the way that I do. An impetus to push myself further, these are the days I serve as tree distributor or post-hole digger, playing with physical limits and building an endurance that my privilege rarely necessitates.

We conclude our work when weather demands it or we’ve planted all of the trees at the site where we worked. Piling back onto the truck, this ride is always more pungent than the former. Perhaps in anticipation of the hammocks awaiting us at the cultural center, or just a concession to the winds, a quiet often passes over the group on our way back.

Though a cultural center, the hammocks are actually a fabricated part of the experience– brought in with the knowledge that tourists enjoy them and associate them with this part of the world. This makes me ask, as so many things do here, how else our presence influences Tsa’chila living.

We explore questions such as this over a delicious lunch and then take time to rest before seminar or the students’ work on their media projects. The unit here is on Environmental Sustainability and Natural Resources, prompting other questions of consumption, responsibility, and policies and approaches to sustainable living.

Our seminar space and lunch destination, the center is also my home for these five weeks. With open structures that boast a beautiful view of the trees, it is one of the most charming places I’ve ever lived. My room is elevated with a ladder to get you there, giving me the allusion that I live in a tree house (a childhood dream since the days of reading and watching Swiss Family Robinson). When the community has visitors like us, women come and stay at the center. It is a joy to get to know Adela, Cynthia, and Lizbeth while we all work on our Spanish, a second language to Safiki for the Tsa’chila. The women provide incredible food and abundant hospitality while I attempt to offer warmth, relationship, and cultural pursuit.

When the students return to their homestays, there is often a window to practice yoga or bathe just before night falls. The property is right on the river, our bath. Venturing tentatively down the path, I test each step before trusting it with my full weight. My caution comes from the multiple sliding splits that the mud has prompted.

I make my way to the rocks where water flows with varied strength based on the rain’s fall. Often, its force is powerful and I fight to brace myself in the heart of the current. Dipping into the cool pool, I revel at being this connected to the earth. Pulling out my biodegradable soap (irony noted), I lather my body and enjoy the rushing river curve over the contours of my body. My hair comes last. When I am finally ready to fully submerge, I duck below the surface.

I feel infinite. Remembering a meditation introduced to me in Sri Lanka, I observe my thoughts and picture them floating along the river. I then join the flow, One with thought, water, and source.

The evening concludes with dinner and a game or conversation with my co-workers and fellow volunteers living with us. Along with my Spanish, my Bananagrams and Set skills continue to progress.

I retire to my tree-house after spraying my toothpaste as thin as possible so not to disturb the plants. Living rustically while studying the environment is a compelling way to conclude our trip. I reflect on practices and choices at home where my urban ways create a false sense of separation between choice and impact. What chemicals do I thoughtlessly wash down the drain that I would never dare to dispose of here? How much more waste do I produce when I am not packing out my trash? Where is the limit to this life of excess? What are the costs of that line?

The rhythms of my days are ones of connectedness. Contentment and challenge present themselves in equal measure as life in Bua teaches me about Life itself.

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The post that finally explains my whereabouts

Almost everyone who writes me asks a series of questions that highlight the details and specifics I neglected to share. I’ve heard time and again, ‘I’m reading your blog, so sorry, but…’.

Don’t worry. It’s not you; it’s me. For today, I’ll write an information-sharing type of post rather than my usual reflection or story. Here are my FAQs…

Where are you?

I am currently residing in Plettenberg Bay, a beach town in the Western Cape of South Africa. The Program Leaders (PLs) live in a flat together just below a family’s house in town. We have a breathtaking view of the ocean and are a five-minute walk to the main street in Plett. The students all live in homestays with White South African families just down the road.

We will be in Plett for another week and then spend a week on safari. We head to India on October 31st and are still deciding what costumes we’ll wear on the plane. Here is a visual of my itinerary in reverse order. For a detailed itinerary, see here.

Image

What are you doing?

I am currently leading a global gap year program with Thinking Beyond Borders. This means that I support students in their learning and experience throughout a trip around the world. We explore international development through experiential learning, dialogue-based seminars, local homestays, and readings.  Each country has a different area of focus. In South Africa, we look specifically at Public Health and HIV/AIDS. Across every unit are the core questions of the program: how can I be a proactive agent of change; what is “development”; who am I; and what do we assume about ourselves and others. 

My role centers on facilitating reflection as students make meaning of their experience and learning. This happens formally through both mentoring relationships and seminars. It also happens throughout all of the extemporaneous conversations we get to have while exploring the world. Additionally, the PLs are responsible for the logistics that come with coordinating a travel program abroad- taking students to the doctor, planning local outings, and keeping track of passports and the like.

What does a normal day look like?

We have a weekday routine that gets disrupted quite frequently (with sixteen students, a lot is happening all the time). In general, my mornings are the most leisurely part of the day. I sleep in until about 8:00 and decide what I want to do for myself to begin each day. This alone makes me so in love with the job. The late morning and early afternoon entail lesson planning, errands, and meetings. With Plett’s beautiful weather, I do as much of this as possible outside on our deck (where I often practice yoga in the morning). For our unit here, the students spend time every morning with a caregiver for our partner organization, PlettAid. The students shadow caregivers as they provide home-based care in their local communities. In the afternoons, we all come together for seminar and further research and reflection. Our evenings usually include lots of reading, a break to enjoy dinner (I’ve really enjoyed cooking since being here), and other logistics for the program such as reporting, parent communication, and accounting. On Fridays, the students don’t join their caregivers and we all spend the morning together with students working on their presentations for the end of the unit, writing blogs, and having one-on-ones. The rest of the weekend varies depending on where we are in the unit. A few weekends, we leave town to see other parts of South Africa; others, we hang around Plett and are largely free with hikes and other outings scattered throughout our time.

Living with your co-workers makes it hard to ever stop working; we are forever processing our experience or talking about our students. We are currently working on creating some boundaries/lives outside of work. One thing we already do is try to give each PL one day off a week. On this day, I usually hang out in town and do something fun (surf lesson, extended yoga session, massage). This is a nice time to recharge.

For more on what the students are up to and thinking about, you can check out their blogs here.

Who do you work with?

There are three PLs in total, so I have two amazing co-workers with whom I share this journey. They both call DC home and have extensive travel and education experience. I’m the youngster of our team, but have recovered from my feelings of inadequacy around this. Seriously, I am so grateful to have these two and count them as dear friends already. We have sixteen students, ages 17-20. The majority of the students just graduated high school and are taking a year before beginning college— some of them deferred acceptance to a school while others are working on college applications now. To really root the experience in local knowledge, we have two partner organizations in each country. One organization is an NGO within the area of emphasis for the unit. The other (sometimes one organization fulfills both roles) provides cultural orientation and training, sets up the homestays, and coordinates travel experiences and guest speakers throughout our time in their country.

What will you do when your trip is over?

To be determined! I may have the option of leading the program for a second time, so I have a decision around that. I am scheming for the summer months, but right now I only know that I want to be around for Lyndi Smith and Danny Warner’s wedding (!). The rest is still in the making, which excites me to no end.

Shadow and Light

In the past eight years, I have done seven homestays.

I did the math with my scholars yesterday.

This is not just seven places and seven dynamic experiences, but seven families.

The lengths of these varied, as did the extent of my connection to said families. But from all of this, I am still in contact with only two (although, to be fair, am currently living with a third).

I have returned to visit zero.

I mentioned in my post about language that I chose Rwanda for a diverse experience. Yet, as I reflect on these things and prepare to embark on a journey to six new countries around the world, I pause.

You see, if things go well with TBB, I can do their program for a second year. And the thought has occurred to me that, if I do, if they have an itinerary with different countries, maybe I could do that one.

This thought now reminds me of a poem I wrote while in Florida:

Five pelicans soared above me today,
I smiled at the sight.
And wished there had been seven.

I’ll take your gifts and with a sweet smile,
paint them black with dissatisfaction and greed.
And romance.

And I wonder if my thirst for new experiences, my love of travel, is not just a new form of consumerism?

While I may practice the art of simplicity by living rurally and out of a backpack, am I not merely embracing the same “more, more” attitude, but with people and places instead of material goods?

When my obsession is not brand-names, but culture, does that excuse the excess?

I must ask: at what point is my intention to immerse and connect exploitative, as I accumulate experiences without sustaining and investing in relationships?

With this, I think that if I do have the opportunity and decide to do a second year of TBB, maybe the same itinerary is just what I need. Perhaps my next trip should be to see some friends I’ve already made. Or maybe the next step I take will place me somewhere for longer than two years.

All of these questions bring me back to a dialogue I facilitated during my MA program about the privilege and implicit dominance of social justice work. A theme of our dialogue was the reality that, for those of us whose work involves travel or work with communities outside of our own, we are the ones in the position to leave. As we spoke about this tension, one brilliant faculty member said, “we don’t leave- the people, the places- they never leave us.”

In my reflection now, I am comforted by how true this is in my experience.

Seven families. And I carry each of them with me, both their faces and my learning etching themselves upon the crevices of my heart, split open with every “hello” and “goodbye.”

This does not resolve the conflict I feel, nor negate the validity of my questions above. When my travels become about accumulation and not connection, I must re-orient myself. Close my eyes. Smell the tortillas forming as the flour on my hands cracks with moisture. See the smiling faces of children chasing the car as we return from excursion. Hear the chorus of voices filling every sanctuary, the hum of oms echoing throughout the temples. Feel the caress of mothers and grandmothers and papas and aunts welcome me into their homes, their lives.

Bienvenidos. Karibu. Sadarayen piligannawa.

And I welcome the memories just as they opened wide their doors.

I remember in Mexico the cool hard bench of the church and seeing, for the first time, someone slain by the Spirit. Their life of joy and fulfillment follow me, reminding me of the Important Things.

The confusion and stress of urban living in Tanzania returns to me quickly, along with the stories from that action-filled weekend. Above all, the patients’ faces of the psychiatric ward we visited to meet a sibling remain sealed in my mind, prompting questions of dignity, healthcare, and systems.

I revisit often my futile attempts to help my family farm in the rural fields of Tanzania, remembering those hard lessons of my own culture’s shortcomings. With them, I remember the children and our worship-filled dancing.

My final family in Tanzania sticks out for their inspiration and passion. From their own experience of adoption, they began a children center which they run brilliantly. Challenging notions of local capacity, they stand strong in my mind as a testament to home-based development.

The community of Guarjilla’s strength and resiliency prods me towards hope, as El Salvador’s story burns fires in my eyes. The stratification I experienced, even as a homestay guest, continues to teach me about my own resource-guilt.

My time in Sri Lanka- though among the shortest- may be my brightest memories. From our dancing circle, to our playful games, the strength of human connection came alive to me in their jungle abode. My host sister’s tears the day we left flow from the frames in my mind to my own cheeks at the shear recollection.

I arrived home late tonight to my seventh homestay family, with this post half-written and the rest swirling in my head. After a long day of work in the city, my house was already sleeping as I slipped in the door. Slowly, my arrival stirred them and, one by one, siblings came to greet me.

Perfectly, my sister Weneza finished writing for me. Peeking her head around the door of my room, her eyes shining with the nervous excitement of trying new words out on her tongue, she proclaimed:

“I will remember you, my heart.”

ThinkImpact Family Tree

As I delight in my Rwandan family, I feel similarly blessed by the TI staff and my scholars.

The staff is comprised of three advisors including me. The other two, Emily and Kathryn, feel like friends I have had for years. Both PeaceCorps alums in Mozambique and Belize respectively, we all have a similar aptitude for adventure and cross-cultural experiences.

We complement one another not only in our interests, but also our strengths. I learn from each of them every day how to better support our students and am not so secretly recruiting them both to the student affairs profession.

Kathryn attended a private Christian college and just completed a MA in a nonprofit leadership program. Few people understand the implications of a school like Westmont or a program like mine in SOLES, so I am wowed by our resonance within each. Emily rounds out our team, for Kathryn and I together would likely share too many blind spots. She comes from a marine science background and is well schooled in listening, providing the technical lens and quiet that would otherwise be lacking.

We are enhanced by our incredible Country Associate Edison, a Ugandan studying at Brandeis currently, and our in-country staff person, Noel, a Rwandan whose brilliance and humor never ceases to amaze me.

And how we laugh together. The five of us keep coming up with excuses to meet so we can see each other more than the expected once a week meeting. We encourage our scholars to plan tours in other’s communities and hitch a ride to one another whenever Noel will allow it. Emily and I have even walked to the borders of each of our communities to share curriculum resources (and, honestly, to hang out together).

I love them each dearly and can’t believe we have only five more weeks on staff together, or that we’ve only known one another for five.

As for my scholars, they are great. Hailing from Dartmouth, Georgetown, USC, Claremont McKenna, Colgate, and Carleton, they are a bright bunch with a wide range of disciplines, perspectives, knowledge, and experience. We have a great team dynamic and they support one another through their experiences well, making my job quite easy.

Right now, the scholars are approaching community members they met throughout immerse and are inviting them to be on their design teams. Everyone, including me, is nervous and excited to begin the heart of the design work and to see what comes of this experience.

As I miss my community back home, I am thankful to be surrounded by such wonderful people.

As dust settles

For me, nothing rivals the feeling of belonging when it is newly acquired. As I walked down the long path towards the view of Lake Muhazi that never ceases to take my breath and the neighborhood children ran to greet me with hugs, high fives, and a chorus of greetings, I smiled at our settling into this new routine together. There is something magical about feeling at home where it was once unfamiliar, at communicating across culture and beyond language (my Kinyarwanda is still limited), and at having a sense of knowing that brings deep peace.

And this is what I feel at my home in Nkomangwa. When Gabby, my five year old friend with special needs, greets me with our dance, I feel like we’ve had this way together for years. When we arrive at my house, my many siblings join the group of children that I accumulated on my walk and we play futbol or dance. When I tire, we play cards (slap jack or go fish), or teach one another our respective languages until dinner.

All parts of my day feel this way- worn before- like your favorite tee that is soft from use with balls of cotton gathering from the many washes. My morning has a similar comfort when I awaken and throw on clothes to meet scholars for our 6AM workout and my sister frantically joins me to walk together (her to school and me to exercise). I return from exercise to bucket bathe (everyday- I have never been so clean) and have breakfast with my mama.

On the mornings I don’t have munama (meetings), I share chores with my siblings and we sing together as we peel potatoes, wash dishes, and do laundry. But, as my sister says, “I have weakness,” and I am not allowed to do many chores.  When I “help” cook, it so far entails being permitted to watch them cook and carry prepared dishes to the house.

The bed I sleep in is normally two sisters’, my presence displacing them and shifting rooms all throughout the homestead.

When children fight for who will hold my hand, sit beside me, or carry my water bottle, I cringe at the status- not simply the status of a guest, but that of a westerner.

So, as I rejoice in our new routines, I am aware that they are those of an outsider. While I enjoy life here, I continue to question the cultural imperialism I contribute to by my presence in their home and community.

Sitting in this paradox, I seek to posit myself as a learner- interested and invested in their culture, respecting, celebrating, and loving all I come to know, and enjoying my walk home along the way. 

My Story p. 2: International Education

As I embark (today!) for Rwanda and enter more formally into the field of international education, I am reflecting on my own experience abroad and how it shapes my perspective and approach. I am really excited to see what I learn about international ed and how my framework will shift and be formed in my next two roles.

Here is a snapshot of my journey thus far:

 1998-2006: Italy, France, Spain, Canada, China, Mexico, & Costa Rica

  • What: My grandparents take my sister and I on a trip every year. This is hugely transformative and a gift that I will never be able to thank them enough for.
  • So What: The trip that stands out most is our visit to China: we cruise the Yangtzi and see farming communities whose homes will be submerged once the dam project is finished. This opens my eyes to what is going on in the world, and the complexity of ethics (e.g. is it “okay” to displace thousands who have been living on the land for centuries to provide power to millions crammed in a city?).
  • Then What: I have more of a global perspective starting college and am ready for an adventure.

January – June 2008: Tanzania

  • What: I study with Houghton in Tanzania. Following the program, I stay with Living Water Children Center and teach English and Art, while also visiting my dear friends at Wild Hope International.
  • So What: This trip raises questions for me in terms of how to do development well. It also teaches me a lot about my own culture, and I return feeling pretty disillusioned with American culture.
  •  Then What: After the questions from Tanzania, I don’t know what to do with my interest in international work and I feel rather paralyzed by my awareness of my neo-colonial framework.

January 2012: El Salvador

  • What: I travel with the University of San Diego on their Romero Immersion Program. As an immersion trip, we visit with local people, learn about the history of their war, and the connection of it and current affairs to US Foreign Policy.
  • So What: I am inspired by a model that does not posit students as heroes, but as learners. I am re-engaged in international education as a potential career path.
  •  Then What: This trip brings a more concrete idea of the notion of social justice and informs my research and the rest of the time in my Masters program.

June 2012: Sri Lanka

  • What: I go with dear classmates from USD’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences to study Sarvodaya International’s community development model and the role of spirituality within it.
  • So What: I am inspired by an approach to development that looks beyond economics and am energized by a service-learning approach that is driven by local community members and done in partnership with them, as we share in a work party with the local community who planned and funded the project.
  • Then What: Both my interest in development and rural living is peaked through this time. I also am able to better integrate my cultural identity, moving away from the purely host-favored mentality of my previous experiences. Both of these pieces awakened in me my desire to focus on this area upon graduation.

June – August 2013: Rwanda (I leave in T-minus 30 minutes!)

September – April 2013: Six TBD Countries

As I maintain this blog throughout both of my trips, I hope to track my understanding of international education. I know that I cannot even fathom what is to come, and how I will learn, grow, and change over the next nine months. I look forward to journeying with students through their development and process, and will be attentive to my own as well, using this blog as a space to do some of that work.

New Job. New Blog.

Daloz Parks (2011) talks about the journey of emerging adults (me) as one of becoming at home in the universe. This is not a physical home, but a sense of place, begging the questions: Who am I? What is my purpose? Where do I find community? What makes me come alive?

Professionally, it is my role to journey with students as they ask these questions. In reality, I am going through a concurrent process.

My blog title is not about the classic movie that my parents could never get through without crying (I wonder as a quasi dog owner if I could today?), but rather a nod to this developmental task.

Right now, I am sitting in my hotel room with colleagues at training for my summer job. We had this brilliant moment where we were exchanging book recommendations on the history and present state of Africa, and I felt that sense of becoming that Daloz Parks alludes to.

I remember explaining to my friend and roommate on our trip to Sri Lanka last summer that I felt like development workers were more naturally “my people” than student affairs professionals. Don’t get me wrong- I have loved my time in student affairs. I have dear friends and treasured mentors in the field. I don’t know that I am finished with it. And I am certain that student development will be a part of my life and work. But, the conversations at SA conferences, SAchat, etc. do not light me up in the way that this book exchange did.

And I am thrilled to be spending some time on the things that make me feel most alive.

So I begin this blog with exciting news. I just accepted a position with Thinking Beyond Borders to co-instruct and mentor students during a global gap year program. As soon as I return from my time in Rwanda this summer (serving as an advisor with ThinkImpact), I will head to TBB training and depart early September.

This blog is my attempt to create a space to engage in public learning, to reflect, and to share my experiences with these two phenomenal positions and organizations. If I were to predict themes, they will be around power, development (human and community), education, and social justice, with the expected stories that come from cross-cultural exchange and travel.

But, the thing about adventures is that you can’t really predict them. So we will all just have to wait and see…

References:

Parks, S. D. (2011). Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith. New York, NY: Jossey-Bass.