Sunday, June 21, 2009

Photos at last!

I have finally been able to post some of my photos from my travels. I split them up into four groups:

-Doha, Paris, Berlin, & Chartreuse

Walk On

And now my trip is over. Well, it's been over for over a month now. I start my classes tomorrow (ah!), but I'm excited for what's ahead. I really like my house, I love my neighborhood, my roommates are great, I'm glad to be near my L'Arche family, and I already enjoy my professors and fellow students. (There are 32 people in my cohort. We're going to get very, very close.)

I've been so busy packing, driving across the country, and moving into my new house that I haven't had too much time to sit and reflect on my experiences. But maybe that's a good thing. When I complete something in my life (school, work, traveling, etc.), I have a tendency to prematurely write an ending to the story, as it were, and then put it on a shelf, not to look at it again. But I don't want to do that. I don't want to preemptively come up with a list of lessons I've learned and leave it at that. I want to leave this "book" open so that it can still speak to me weeks, months, and years afterwards.

Nevertheless, I think it's okay to come up with a list of "things to take home," while recognizing that this isn't exhaustive:

-Find pockets of stillness, solitude, and silence (thanks to the Maasai and the Camino)
-Take my's all about the journey not the destination (Camino)
-Don't forget to have some frivolous fun every now and then (Berlin, Camino, Ireland)
-Don't get caught up in the "should"s and "have to"s...only do something because I want to do it (Berlin)
-Never get too comfortable...find something new and unknown to experience. It brings me closer to God (Kenya, Doha, Berlin, Camino)
-Exercise (Paris, Camino)
-Dance (Berlin)
-Love myself (Berlin, Camino)

And there's much, much more that I will take (and have taken) with me. I'm excited to see how my travels will shape me and my personal journey. Thank you for sharing this with me.

If you want an adventure of your own, please come visit me in Seattle! I'm going to be here for a VERY long time. (If I stay on my current academic path, I will finish school in four-and-a-half years.)

I hope you've enjoyed reading my travel blog. Thank you for sharing this with me.

Quality Mother-Son Time

Two weeks after I returned to the States, my mom and I drove all the way from Atlanta to Seattle. Essentially, it was a repeat of my first road trip from Hotlanta to Tacoma in 2005. Bally Boo and I basically drove straight west and then straight north. We made the following stops:

-Little Rock...Ice cream with my aunt and uncle.

-Santa Fe...Adobe ALL OVER THE PLACE. It's city law that the buildings have to look traditionally Southwestern. Even the Shell stations and McDonald's look like little pueblos.

-Petrified National Forest (AZ)...Really cool dinosaur-age trees that had become rocks over time thanks to the silica from volcanic eruptions. Those were some scared trees.

-Grand Canyon National Park (AZ)...It's breathtaking, especially at sunset.

-Red Rocks State Park (AZ)...It's what I imagine the Australian Outback to look like. Really beautiful.

-Las Vegas!...We stayed at Paris Las Vegas (with fake storefronts and cobble-stoned streets inside), saw Cirque du Soleil at the Bellagio, won thirty dollars at Blackjack, lost ten dollars at slots, and went to a strip show (and by "strip show," I mean we drove up and down the Las Vegas Strip at night). I've now been to two of the most sinful places in the world--Las Vegas and Amsterdam's Red Light District--with my teetotaling, Southern Baptist mother. I have a feeling that I didn't quite get the WHOLE experience in Vegas or Amsterdam. Oh well. We still had fun.

-Death Valley National Park (CA)...HOT. Got up to 103 degrees.

-Yosemite National Park (CA)...Stunning. Half Dome is one of the most amazing mountains in the world. It got down to the 50s...a 50-degree drop from our morning in Death Valley. Crazy. It's my favorite national park.

-San Francisco...Wonderful. My mom's co-worker's brother gave us a fantastic tour of the city, and we had dinner with Amanda, my friend from the Krista Foundation. Fantastic.

-Crater Lake National Park (OR)...Really, really beautiful. It was the bluest water I had ever seen. (Supposedly, it's the cleanest water in the U.S.) It was my mom's favorite national park.

We had a lot of good food, but the best may have been at In-N-Out in California and Burgerville in Oregon.

In Search of Leprechauns

Wow. It's been over a month since I've returned to the states, and I've yet to update (and complete) my travel blog. My apologies.

I spent the last week of my adventures in Ireland with my nephew Ben. It was amazing and so incredibly fun. I knew it was going to be a good week as soon as I stepped off the bus from the airport. With a map in my hand, I was trying--unsuccessfully--to find my hostel when an Irish guy (Declan) came up to me and asked, "Do you know where we are?" I replied, "No idea," to which Declan said, "I didn't think you did. Let's go to this pub over here and look at your map together. I'll buy you a pint." AWESOME! Declan was the man. He bought me some Guinness (so much better in Ireland), and he gave me some suggestions for my week in the country.

The next day, I met up with Ben at the airport, and we toured Dublin for a bit, which included the Guinness Factory. Dublin was definitely fun, but Ben and I were really excited to see the rest of the country, so we rented a car for five days, which was a blast. Ben is too young to drive in Ireland, so I did all the driving, which was fine. It was my first time driving on the lefthand side of the road, but it wasn't as bad as I thought. I got used to it pretty quickly, except for two things: First, I'm so used to lining myself up with the lefthand side of the lane, so there were several close calls when our side mirrors nearly scraped against walls, cars, cows, etc. The other tricky bit was remembering that the gear shift is on the left, not the right. It's second nature for me to put the car in park using my right hand. There were many times that I would find myself reaching for something with my right hand but not remembering what I wanted to do, and if I didn't remember, then I wouldn't put the car in park. Oops. Luckily, there were no car issues, except for one flat tire, which I'll come back to later...

Basically, our week consisted of driving around Ireland, exploring, and playing like 7-year-old boys. Whenever Ben and I saw an abandoned castle or church, we would stop and check it out. The best was Blarney Castle, which not only has the Blarney Stone, but also lots of caves and even a giant tire swing.

We also searched for leprechauns... I went to the Blarney Castle five years ago, and while I was there, I found a cave and walked inside, while repeating, "Leprechaun! Leprechaun!" As soon as I get deep enough in the cave and could only see pitch black in front of me, a deep voice from within the cave said, "Who goes there?!" Needless to say, I freaked out a bit and quickly ran back into the light. We didn't find any leprechauns in Blarney, but we think a leprechaun lived in one of the abandoned castles we visited. After we had played around for a bit in the castle, we got back in the car and drove back on the road, but before we knew it, we had a flat tire. Our theory is that a xenophobic leprechaun slashed our tires while we were climbing up the turrets. Luckily, Ben's a pro, and it didn't take us long to put the spare on and then buy a new tire.

Ben and I ended up driving to Cork, Killarney, Dingle, Galway, and then back to Dublin. We spent quite a bit of time on the Ring of Kerry (on the Kerry Peninsula) and the Dingle Peninsula. It was so incredibly green, with stunning hills, mountains, cliffs, and beaches. Every night, we'd find a pub and have a pint or two. The Guinness was delicious, the countryside was beautiful, and the people were wonderful. We're definitely going back.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Germans are angry...

After the camino, I spent another day in Paris (packing, doing laundry, and eating an entire wheel of camembert and a whole loaf of bread by myself) and then I returned to Berlin for a week. It was, in a word, wunderbar. I wanted to go back for another week to spend more time with Melanie and have some silly, frivolous fun again. I also was able to see my friends Holly and Jacqui from the camino several times during the week. It's strange how close we became after walking together and how I just happened to be returning to Berlin. I saw the two of them, I think, a total of 4 times during the week, which was really wonderful. (And I'm totally jealous because they're going back to finish the camino this summer. I hate them. But it won't be as much fun without me. Sucks for them.)

But I think the main thing I wanted to do was create some routines and practices around prayer and self-care that I can take with me to Seattle. One of the big themes of my travels has been balance. Finding a balance between taking care of others (ICROSS, nursing school) and taking care of myself (exercise, prayer). A balance between my school/work life, my social life, and my personal life. I was only in Berlin for a week, so I wasn't able to figure all that out there, but I think I made some first steps, which I'm pleased with. I think regular prayer and walks (without a destination) will be important for me in Seattle. And in life in general.

The most exciting and scary thing that happened during my week in Berlin was May Day. The 1st of May is a public holiday, during which everyone drinks a lot, dances a lot, and protests a lot. And there's an annual tradition of police riots. This year, several groups marched together during a large, peaceful protest. There were anti-fascists, socialists, anti-sexists, etc. Every political movement you could imagine. And then at the end of the march, as is custom, people started rioting. And it's all targeted towards the police, which I guess is better than the people in the crowd targeting each other. The police are in full riot gear and were waiting all day for something to happen, and finally it did.

As Melanie said, it was a strange, kinda beautiful, kinda stupid ballet. I saw the riots around midnight (well into their sixth hour). It was completely dark except for some light from the streetlamps and from the fires people had started in the middle of the street. Everyone was crowded on the sidewalks because all the (dangerous) action was happening in the street. Most people there (including Melanie and I) were merely spectators. But there were some brave, angry souls that would throw beer bottles at the police and then run back into the crowd. The police would then approach the crowd and try to remove the "troublemaker." Three cops would restrain him/her and take them to a police van while about 7 or 8 other cops would surround them in a circle. The police always moved in groups of at least 10. It was an interminable exchange of someone throwing a bottle at the police or starting a fire and then a pack of police officers rushing into the crowd to arrest someone or put out a fire.

It was "beautiful"--Melanie found it more beautiful than I did--in that people who felt powerless were able to gain some sort of power by acting out against the police, who for them represented the State. But it was also really stupid because so many of the beer bottles thrown towards the police ended up hitting people on the other side of the street. And the power that the bottle-throwers and fire-starters gained, what use was it? What did the rioting change? Absolutely nothing. The riots are so common on May Day that they've simply become a tradition. They've lost their significance. It's business as usual the next day.

It was pretty scary because I was right in the middle of it at times, but it was also exciting, too. (I'm sorry, Mom, for breaking my promise. Melanie kept me safe though...) I'm glad I saw it, even though I didn't really see the point of it all.

Life is like a camino...

So I've described all the practical and superficial aspects of the camino. Now let's go a little deeper...

It might be best to start with the question "why did I go on the camino in the first place?" For three reasons. First, to grow closer to God, which I definitely did. I often felt like I was walking with Jesus, and there were even times that I felt like my Dad was with me. I believe that God and our loved ones are always with us, but it was so much easier to see that while I was walking. I had no distractions, no responsibilities. All I had to do was walk and be present, and then it wasn't too difficult to recognize God's presence in the wind, the birds, the mountains, or even my fellow pilgrims. It was wonderful.

My second reason to go was to have some time to reflect on my life, my time in L'Arche, my time in Kenya, etc. Sometimes I "structured" my thoughts around a topic, but most of the time, I just thought about whatever came to mind. It also gave me a chance to prepare myself for the next stage of my life: nursing school in Seattle. I thought a lot about what I want that to look like--yet without too many expectations--and how I can be in school full-time in a healthy, sustaining, and life-giving way. I've decided that I'm going to walk one of the caminos to Santiago every time I have a big transition (starting school, ending school, changing jobs, marriage?, retirement, etc.).

My third reason was to simply go on a pilgrimage. I was really attracted to the idea of it. In a way, a pilgrimage is an outward expression of the internal journey we all experience during our lives. Sometimes the way is wonderful. Sometimes it's monotonous. Sometimes we're surrounded by fellow "pilgrims." Sometimes we are lonely. Sometimes we feel great. Sometimes we feel like we want to die. I spent quite a bit of time thinking about how life is like a camino--to risk sounding like Forrest Gump--and how lessons I learned about the camino are really life lessons:

-Take care of your body.
-Drink lots of water (and some wine).
-Slow down.

And most importantly...

-It's all about the journey, not the destination.

As Diego, one of the Spaniards I met, said, the camino is in your heart, and it's absolutely true.

But this sounds like I was having these deep, profound thoughts all the time, which is not true. A huge chunk of my time was spent thinking about movies and TV shows (Lost!), and an even bigger chunk was spent singing songs to myself. Usually, I'd sing in my head or hum, but if I was alone and didn't see anyone ahead or behind me, I'd belt them out. (I got "caught" one time by some pilgrims that were resting under a tree.) I'm not ashamed to say that most of the songs I sang were showtunes, particularly the entire musical of Rent. One day, I sang the entire thing, except for some of the answering machine messages and "Without You" (booooooring and impossible to memorize). Though I mixed up some verses, I'm pretty sure I got it all. I think it was a good thing to sing because there are a lot of wonderful themes and ideas in the show for me to be more mindful of, particularly "no day but today." (And how to make a "neighbor's yappy dog disappear.")

So it was a really, really wonderful three weeks. I felt so at peace, I saw beautiful parts of Spain, I loved the simple rhythm of the day, and I met so many wonderful people. It was by far the best part of my travels, and I invite ANYONE to finish the last 200 km with me. I'll see you in Astorga in 2012.

Monday, May 4, 2009

"No longer strangers..."

"...But pilgrims together."

There's a song that people in L'Arche sing that starts with those lyrics. And it's absolutely true. It's amazing how close I grew to my fellow pilgrims even when we didn't speak the same language, didn't know each other's name, and only said "hola" and "buen camino" in passing. But there's still a deep connection there because we've walked the same journey, we have the same pains, and we're tired. So let's go drink some wine, eat some food, and (if possible) talk about it! (The two biggest topics of conversation among pilgrims: the weather and your feet.)

I was told that I'd meet some great people, and I expected to, but I didn't think the other pilgrims would be so wonderful! During the first two weeks, I would sometimes walk with and always have dinner with the same three people: Holly (an American living in Berlin), Jacqui (an Australian living in Berlin), and Hans. Hans is a 65-year-old Swiss man with unrivaled energy and enthusiasm. He's loud, fun, and fearless. Most of the time, we'd walk alone, but we'd always meet up for dinner (with wine of course). It was such an odd grouping, but it was wonderful.

Sadly, after two weeks, Holly and Jacqui went back to Berlin, and Hans walked farther or shorter than me one day, and I never saw him again. I was sad to lose my two musketeers and our D'Artagnan, but then I met a really lovely British couple (Joan and Chris), who became my new dinner companions. I think I ate alone for a grand total of 3 nights, and that was great, too. During my last few days, I met a few Americans that were my age, and we ate and hung out together. (BTW, out of the 100s of people I met or came across, I met only 7 Americans. I've met a total of 15 during all of my travels since February. Only 15! Of course, I love Americans, but it's nice to get a break, you know?)

And then there were other people that I met and saw everyday. I learned the names of some, but not all. Here's a brief list...

-Ulrika- the German version of Nancy Archer (a former L'Arche assistant). A little intense, but very friendly.
-Johannes- A German guy that walked the camino to figure some things out...after walking halfway, he figured everything out and left immediately to take care of it!
-Sonja- A German living in Ireland, running a pottery workshop for people with disabilities, including some core members from L'Arche Kilkenny! She had some gnarly blisters.
-Sebastien- Friendly Belgian guy. He walked really fast.
-Diego & Pedro- Two Spanish guys that Holly, Jacqui, and I spent quite a bit of time with. They definitely knew how to have a good time...
-The Spaniards- A group of older men that also knew how to have a good time. Maybe too good of a time. The most infamous was Eduardo, who was very, very a bad way. He looked like Pat Toohey (another L'Arche person) without a goatee.
-Low Blood Sugar Lady- She didn't eat enough the first day, and she felt too faint to climb the Pyrenees, so she got a lift from a nice French man. She didn't speak English, so I never got her name. So for the rest of the camino, Holly, Jacqui, and I called her L.B.S.L. instead. The camino is definitely not a race, but we didn't like it when L.B.S.L. passed us.
-Dreads guy with the dog- French guy that camped out with his dog every night. He could have been a model.
-Rainbow umbrella lady- French lady that I thought was stupid for carrying a giant umbrella with her. And then it hailed and rained buckets, and I definitely broke the ninth commandment. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house...or giant rainbow umbrella.
-Beautiful blond German girl that lived in "the bubble"- All of the male pilgrims were fawning over her. Watch the 30 Rock episode called "The Bubble" to see what I mean.

It was just really nice that no matter how far I walked, no matter who I started the day with, I always had some companions on the journey, figuratively and literally. I never felt lonely. I really felt taken care of. Just as in life, no one is alone, truly.

Check out my fire 'stache

I feel I should describe my physical appearance on the camino. We'll start from the top and work our way down...

-The hair- No styling gel (too heavy), just kinda brushed with my hands
-The face- After 21 days of being outdoors for 7 or 8 hours, very red and very, very freckly.
-The lips- Luscious...not. Very, very wind-chapped.
-The facial hair- I didn't bring a razor or cream because I didn't want the extra weight and I didn't want to have to shave. So I let it grow on the camino, and I'm still letting it grow. It's been 4 weeks now, and that's the longest I've ever gone without of course. It's, um, interesting. My facial hair doesn't grow in very thick, and I don't get much on my cheeks or on the sides. What I do have is a red moustache and soul patch--must be the Irish in me--and a black neard (or neck beard). As an act of solidarity, my brother Allen grew his beard out for me while I was on the camino. Very sweet. He even gave a sermon at his church looking very scraggly. "Who's that homeless guy preaching today?"
-Back of the neck- See "the face."
-Shoulders- Little sore at the end of the day, but not bad.
-Armpits- Apparently, I never sweat in the States because I've never noticed how smelly my pits can get. And of course, to keep the weight of my backpack down (and to prevent armpit cancer), I didn't bring deoderant with me. Next time, it might be worth the risk of cancer...
-Lower arms- See "the face." Opposite of upper arms, which are pasty and luminescent.
-Stomach- Yay for no more dysentery!
-Hips- Some redness from my backpack's hip belt. Some pain during the first few days, but not much afterwards.
-The "surgery area"- I think the second surgery worked! No problems at all!
-Thighs/hamstrings- Never hurt except at the end of the last day, which was my longest: 34 km (20 mi).
-Calves- I think they got a little bigger! Nevertheless, they're still quite chicken-like.
-Ankles- Good. Some weird swelling and pain on my right ankle during the first 3 days due to pressure from my boot, but heel inserts fixed that problem.
-Feet- Sore arches and sore "balls of the feet" at the end of the day, but more importantly...ONLY ONE BLISTER! It was pretty enormous, but it wasn't in a pretty insignificant place (between the third and fourth toes), and it didn't hurt at all once I applied a Second Skin bandage.

I was very, very lucky to have so few injuries and pain. I think I had some really great boots (Vasque) and a wonderful backpack (Gregory), which brings us to the clothing and accessories...

-Hat- Duke baseball cap and then later my Tilley hat (like a Fedora), which was perfect because it was lightweight, breathable, waterproof, and wide-brimmed.
-Outfit from an REI catalogue- Wicking t-shirt, wicking longsleeve shirt, fleece coat, rain jacket, the pants that can zip off to become shorts, waterproof pants shell thing, smartwool socks, wicking underwear, and the boots.
-The bling- Watch, beaded Maasai bracelet, my beaded Obama cuff I got in Kenya, and a Santiago cross necklace I bought in Pamplona.
-The stick- My Maasai oositeti given to me in Kenya so that I could "walk like a man."

Yes, I looked like I had walked right out of an REI catalogue, but so did everyone else. I kinda felt like I was back in the Northwest.

The Camino: An Overview

I addressed some of the practical aspects of the camino in the last post, but I'll go into them a little deeper here...

The Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) became a pilgrimage in medieval Europe after St. James' remains were discovered in Santiago, Spain. To visit the saint's tomb, people would start walking from their doorstep all the way to Santiago (northwest Spain, only about 50 miles from the coast). For Catholics, the three most biggest pilgrimages were (and still are?) to Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago. Over time, specific paths developed, some starting all the way from Italy and Switzerland, with the most popular being the Camino Frances, which starts at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, a small town in the Pyrenees, just 10 or 15 km from the Spanish border. It's 774 km from SJPdP to Santiago, and it takes most people 4-6 weeks to complete, depending on their speed, their health, the weather, etc. I walked from SJPdP to Astorga for a total of 510 km (about 300 miles) in 3 weeks. When I come back one day to finish the pilgrimage, I'll have 263 km (~150 miles) left to walk to Santiago.

Most people do the camino during the summer when it's warm (aka boiling hot). I'm glad I chose to do it in the spring because the camino and albergues weren't too crowded and were never full, which is a problem in the summer. But at the same time, there were still a lot of people on the camino. It was never too hot, which was nice. (Some like it hot...but I like it comfortably warm.) However, it was usually cold in the morning and evening, and the weather was a bit unpredicatable (rain and hail!).

The camino is made up of dirt paths, paved paths, and rocky paths. it's marked with many, many yellow arrows and lots of markers with the image of the scallop shell, the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. (Supposedly, St. James' body was shipped to the Iberian Peninsula, and when it arrived it was covered in scallop shells. The shell is also an apt illustration of the many paths leading to Santiago, like the shell's ridges meeting at the tip.) Eventually, you become an expert a fnding the markers. Sometimes, it's a tile on a building or a shell on the sidewalk, but most of the time it's a yellow arrow painted on the sidewalk, a wall, or the back of a streetsign.

As I said before, you usually walk 20-30 km a day (12-18 mi) on the camino, but that depends on the weather, the terrain, and how you're feeling. One of the difficult things about walking those distances is that you carry everything witih you: clothes, toiletries, food, water, sleeping bag, everything. Generally, you have a set of clothes to wear on the camino and set to wear in the evenings at the albergue and bars/restaurants. (It's a bit of an adjustment at first, but you quickly get used to seeing yourself and everyone else in the same clothes everyday.) So most people are carrying 20-25 lb. on their backs all day. I think mine was about 24 lb... You really have to be vigilant about only carrying the essentials. Little things add up.

Along the camino, you basically walk from one village/town/city to the next, which can be anywhere from 1 to 20 km apart. Almost all the villages have at least a bar to get a drink and a sandwich, and about 2/3 of the villages (and all the bigger towns and cities) have at least one pilgrim's hostel (albergue). The albergues cost between 3 and 9 euros (what?!) and consist of rooms with 2-100 sets of bunk beds, some toilets, some showers, a sink or two to wash clothes, maybe a kichen, maybe a computer with internet, maybe a phone, and maybe laundry machines. When you arrive at the albergue, you get a stampy in your credencial (pilgrim's passport), you pay, you shower, you wash your walking clothes, and you just rest and hang out. For dinner, you can cook or you can go to a bar/restaurant for the pilgrim's menu, a 7-12 euro 3-course dinner with wine and bread. The albergues aren't the greatest, but they're super heap, and you get used to the snoring over time. (Thank God for earplugs.) And you're so tired by the end of the day that you're content to have a bed and a hot (or not) shower...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Buen camino!

Hello from the camino! On April 6th, I started walking from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, and now I am 340 km to the west in Boadilla del Camino, Spain. That's over 200 miles! I don't know if I've ever been this physically exhausted day after day, but I've also never been this mentally and emotionally relaxed either. It's pretty wonderful.

My average day in a nutshell...
7:00-8:00 am - Wake up, pack my backpack, and get out of the albergue (hostel) before I get kicked out.
8:00-8:30 am - Breakfast either at a bar or outside somewhere
8:30 am - Start walking! I usually walk somewhere between 20 and 30 km (12 and 18 miles) each day. I'll stop every hour or so for a water break, snack break, or lunch.
3:30-5:30 pm - I arrive at the albergue at some point in the afternoon. (The albergues are specifically for the pilgrims, and they cost 3 to 7 euros. Cheap! But we sleep in bunk beds with somewhere between 4 and 100 other pilgrims in a single room. Ear plugs are essential...)
5:30-7:00 pm - Shower, unpack, journal, unwind...
7:00-10:00 pm - Drink wine, eat dinner (usually a three-course "pilgrim's menu"), hang out
10:00 pm - Get ready for bed SILENTLY in the dark while everyone else in the hostel is trying to fall asleep

Spain has been absolutely beautiful. The Pyrenees were stunning. Every time I walked through a bend in the camino, I'd catch a glimpse of a snow-capped mountain and literally curse aloud because it was so amazing. For the past week or so, I've been walking through vineyards, olive groves, and lots and lots of beautiful green rolling hills.

I had been planning to walk all the way to Santiago de Compostella (774 km total), but I've decided not to finish the pilgrimage for several reasons. First, I was getting really anxious trying to figure out how far I had to walk every day so that I could get to Santiago within 30 days. By not going to Santiago, I can go at my own place, I can better take care of my body, and I can focus more on the journey rather than the destination. So I'm only going to walk for three weeks (I have one week left). I'll go as far as I can, and then at some point in the future, I'll finish the pilgrimage in Santiago and walk even farther to Finesterre (the "end of the world" on the coast). And instead of walking the camino for another week, I'm going to return to Berlin for another 7 days. I had such a wonderful time there earlier this month, and I'd really like to spend more time there.

More on the camino to come. (It's taken me so long to blog about it because the last thing I want to do at the end of the day is go online, and when I do use the internet, I always have a bunch of "business-y" things to do.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Stop this train...

Before I started the camino, I spent the weekend with my friends Joy and Beranger in Voiron, France. I had worked and/or lived with them while I was in L'Arche, so I thought it would be nice to visit their home in the French Alps. It was super relaxing. And for once, I was with people that understood L'Arche and that I could imitate core members with. People usually look at me strange when I lick them, say that I'm "nervy," or call them a "fat cow."

One of the days we drove through the Alps for a bit and visited the monastery in Chartreuse, where the documentary Into Great Silence was filmed. We weren't allowed to go in the monastery. Those Carthusians really cherish their silence. I don't know if I could do that... It was hard enough for me not to bust out into "The Sound of Music" while frolicking around the green hills surrounding the cloister. Chartreuse is famous for its liqueur, which itself is famous for its brilliant green-yellow color. I haven't tried it yet, but it's pretty beautiful.

The best part of the weekend was the food. Lots of wine, and lots and lots of delicious cheese. Scrumptious, stinky fromage. For the last night, we had homemade cheese fondue, and that was amazing. I could never be lactose-intolerant or vegan. Sorry, PETA.

I left the day before I was to start my pilgrimage, and like a fool, I got on the wrong train. I didn't miss the train, I just got on the wrong one. I didn't bother to read the destination on the side of the train. I boarded a train, and while I was waiting to stow my suitcase, the train started moving. 15 minutes early. I freaked out a bit to say the least. Thank GOD that the train was heading to a town outside Paris and that this town has a metro line that runs straight to my host mother's apartment. I could have ended up in Nice! Or Normandy! But I still ended up in Paris, and I arrived in time for my train to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to start the Camino de Santiago... (to be continued)

Friday, April 3, 2009

I also heart graffiti.

I had a strange transformation regarding graffiti in Berlin. It's all over the place there, and at first I hated it. I thought it made the city look trashy. But over the course of the week, I kinda fell in love with it. I think I took over 250 pictures of graffiti on the sides of buildings and especially on the Berlin Wall. There's a small section (1.3 km) of the Berlin wall still standing called the East Side Gallery, and it's absolutely covered in graffiti. And it's not just tags (though there are plenty of those) but rather large murals and really beautiful designs. I had planned to walk by the East Side Gallery and then go to one of the museums, but I didn't have to do that. The Wall was my art for the day. It was interactive art. Artists painted the large murals, and then other people would come and add to it, tag their name, whatever. It was a cooperative, messy effort, and it was beautiful.

When I returned to Paris after Berlin, I went to an exhibit at the Grand Palais on "Le Tag," which was all about graffiti and street art. What the curator did was give 150 street artists two canvases, one for the artist's tag and the other for an image of love. It was a really cool concept. As the exhibit explained, graffiti isn't always meant to vandalize, ruin, or destroy property. The colors, asymmetry, and messiness of graffiti break up the monotony, the right angles, and the tidiness of city life. It can be a public display of one's politics and one's self. I still don't know how I feel about spraypainting someone else's personal property, but I can definitely appreciate the art behind it.

I heart Berlin.

I didn't think I would. I have to admit that I wasn't exactly looking forward to being in Berlin. I was just excited to see Melanie, a good friend from high school. I had watched a German movie on my flight from Doha about some kids in Berlin, and it made the city look cold and empty. And it didn't help that when I arrived, it was freezing and overcast.

I had essentially written off Berlin, but on the third day, the city said to me, "Wait a minute! Ein minuten bitter!" That day, Melanie and I went to Marx-Engels Platz in former East Berlin for a demonstration and then she took me for a nice bike tour of the city, recalling interesting bits of information from her days as a tour guide. And then that night, Melanie and I and some friends of hers went to an underground (literally...four stories underground) techno dance party. We got there at 1 am and left at 9 am. It was so European, so Germany, and so much fun. It was incredibly liberating because as a white American, I'm so conditioned to thinking that I'm not a good dancer because "white people just can't dance." I'm usually super self-conscious when I'm dancing in the States, but I wasn't in Germany. And that's not because I suddenly acquired techno dancing superpowers, but rather because I realized that the Germans around me weren't any better than I was. So I let it all go. It was wonderful. I was so present, at ease, and crazy that a few people came up to me to ask for drugs. No, there's no ecstasy at work here. Just a catharsis after being repressed in the States for 25 years.

Berlin is a fascinating city because it doesn't have a unifying identity. It doesn't have the romance or charm of Paris or London or Amsterdam. Berlin has been so many things over the's been ruled by Prussians, Nazis, capitalists, and communists. Because Berlin doesn't have a single identity, Berliners are able to play an active role in reviving the city, whether that's through politics, philosophy, the arts, etc. That's why Berlin is home to so many leftist, radical groups because there really isn't a status quo to fight against.

I also loved Berlin because I love saying things with a super thick German accent. I don't know a lick of the language, but I can imitate it pretty well. Muck, muck, muck, muck, muck.

Paris makes my butt hurt.

I've spent a few days in Paris, visiting some old haunts from my study abroad days. I was given the best FREAKING (there it is again) host family for my semester in Paris. I lived with Noelle and her son Alexis in the 16th arrondissement (across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower), and they are the best French family anyone can ask for. Noelle cooks wonderful food, offers to do my laundry, and most importantly, lets me stay with her whenever I come to Paris. (She has also given me a key and has said that I can leave my stuff with her while I'm traveling around Europe and doing my pilgrimage. So I think I will end up traveling in and out of Paris five times during this trip.) And Alexis is a man with a developmental disability that is super welcoming ("Bill!! Ca va?") and always does the dishes. He was one of the main reasons why I decided to join L'Arche. Though I must admit that I was disappointed that the core members didn't do the dishes. (Just kidding. Sorta.)

With "my" apartment in the 16th as my base, I've walked all over the city with my stomach as the guide. I think I've met all the food requirements for a trip to Paris: lots of pastries, a nutella-banana crepe from the green crepe stand across from the Jardin du Luxembourg (the same guy is still there), a falafel from L'As du Falafel in the Marais, a croque-monsieur, and ice cream from Ile St-Louis. Is there anything I'm missing?

A recent development in Paris is the introduction of Velibs, city-owned bikes available all over Paris for only 1 euro a day. AMAZING! The seats are super uncomfortable and cause some severe butt pain the next day, but Velibs are perfect for seeing Paris at night. Yeah, it's a little dangerous riding a bike in the dark without a helmet, but how else can you see the Eiffel Tower, the Opera, Notre Dame, and Hotel de Ville illuminated?

An 18-hour Qatar Solo

The cheapest flight from Nairobi to Paris was on Qatar Airways, the world's only 5-star airline supposedly. Well, they ain't lying. That was the nicest flight I've had in coach ever. I got the warm towels, the free candy, the free booze (wine and g&t!), and the best airplane food ever! I don't know what I ate, but it was spicy, middle eastern, and delicious.

But the best part was my 18-hour layover in Doha, Qatar (pronounced either "kuh-tar" or "kuh-ter"...I prefer the former). Qatar is a teeny country next to Saudi Arabia on the Persian Gulf. It's oil-rich, so it's one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but aside from the hotels, everything is pretty cheap in Doha. I FREAKING LOVED DOHA. Yes, I said it. FREAKING. It was a really beautiful city, and it was super, super safe. I got in around 8 pm, and I was walking around by myself until about 1 am, and I was totally fine. I left my hotel room and just started walking, and I found these really cool outdoor cafes/hookah bars and some other beautiful buildings.

My favorite things about Doha:
1. The Arabic written language: It's one of the most beautiful things in the world. I want to learn Arabic now...not really to speak it, but to write it. I went to the Qatar Museum of Islamic Art, and they had some stunning pieces of Arabic calligraphy.
2. The food. Though it's so spicy that it makes my nose run and messes up my digestive system a bit (ha, what's new), it is sooooo good.
3. The many clothing shops selling t-shirts with goofy English on them. I bought one. It makes no sense.
4. Hookahs! I've never tried one before, so I thought what the hey and gave it a whirl. Whoa. It was awesome. I never smoke anything, so it didn't take long for me to get a little tobacco buzz. I smoked the hookah on the outdoor patio of a Moroccan restaurant. I was sitting on a bench covered in pillows, flanked by eight men in traditional garb (long white robes called thawbs with red & white scarves, or shemaghs, on their heads).
5. The people of Qatar are called "Qatari." The next time I travel to Asia, I hope to visit the nations of Qintendo, Qlaystation, and Qega Genesis.

Though I don't quite jive with everything that traditional Qatari/Muslim culture embraces (many women in veils over their hair and niqabs over their face), I was really impressed by the role that Islam played in everyone's daily life. It wasn't just something they practiced once a week. They lived it. I'm not Muslim myself, but I admired that. I'd love to be called to pray five times a day.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Audacity (and Resilience) of Kenya's Hope

This is my final post about my time in Kenya...

It's easy to lose hope in Kenya. There are so many deep-seeded problems that if feels like any form of aid or relief work is an exercise in futility. The government is full of officials that seek power, not to serve their people but to line their pockets. And to obtain these positions of power, leaders divide the country along tribal lines, inciting violence and displacement. Religious/political groups (like the Mungiki) whose original purpose was to curb modernization for fear of Kenya losing its culture and identity--a noble cause, I find--are now organized crime groups that extort businesses of their money and lead violent protests. Hoping to curb this group's power, the police has formed a "death squad" that takes suspected members of the Mungiki to the Ngong Hills to be executed without trying them in court first.

Add to this the natural crises occurring in the country: about 30% of adults are HIV+, malaria is rampant, and children are dying of preventable and curable diseases. And then there's the drought that in some places has been going on for more than a year and shows no sign of stopping. (If you need proof that global warming exists, just come to Northern or Southern Kenya. The rains used to come like clockwork, but not anymore.) The Maasai and Samburu are probably those hurt the most because they tend to live in dry, rural areas and because their livestock is their livelihood. But the cattle have no grass to feed on, and they are slowly dying. If the cows and goats are starving and dying, then the Maasai and Samburu themselves aren't too far behind. Rising food prices don't help the situation.

So you see, Kenya's got issues. I ask myself often how Mike and the other ICROSS staff don't burn out and just give up. How do they keep going when things seem to be getting worse and worse? But then the real question is: what other option do they have? For them, all of these issues in Kenya are motivations to keep at it, to keep trying, to keep helping one person at a time. They are the David to Kenya's Goliath. They'll never be able to eradicate suffering and starvation in one fell swoop, one well-placed hit. But they can chip away at them slowly but surely, one HIV/AIDS patient, one sick mother, one starving child at a time.

And it's not just the ICROSS folks with this audacious and resilient hope. It's most Kenyans. Unlike Americans, Kenyans know what it means to be grateful for what you have and, more importantly, what it means to be content. Yes, things are hard now, but most Kenyans are still aware of the many blessings in their lives. And many, many Kenyans have such a beautiful, tremendous faith that God is with them. His eye is on the sparrow, after all. I talked to Rose, the nurse in Sinkiraine (one of the driest and hottest places in Kenya) about this, and she said, "What else can you do? You just have to keep smiling and trust that God will provide."

I completely understand atheism. How could a god let children suffer needlessly? But I don't think God just sits back letting bad things happen. We have an active God, not just an observant one. He's in the grandmother caring for her starving grandson. He's in Rose, Ebisiba, and Pamela, who care for their sick neighbors simply because that's the right thing to do. God's in ICROSS. God's in the American, British, and Irish donors that contribute to ICROSS, making their work possible. When people suffer, it's not God's fault for letting it happen. It's our fault for not doing anything about it. And even when we fail to act, I still don't think that that's the end of the story. God continues to be with the suffering in small, sometimes imperceptible ways. No one is alone, truly. And that's something to put your hope in.

Prayer for Kenya: Psalm 20:1-5
"In times of trouble, may he Lord respond to your cry.
May the God of Israel keep you safe from all harm.
May he send you help from his sanctuary
and strengthen you from Jerusalem.
May he remember all your gifts
and look favorably on your burnt offerings.
May he grant your heart's desire
and fulfill all your plans.
May we shout for joy when we hear of your victory
flying banners to honor our God.
May the Lord answer all your prayers."

If you want to see all the wonderful things ICROSS is doing, skim through the 2008 Annual Report (I helped proofread it). If you feel so led, you can donate to ICROSS through NWI Kenya, and you can actually designate what your money will go to (e.g., a cow, a pig named after an ex!, a womens support group, etc.). Contributions are really important right now because the drought is ravaging the country and ICROSS' funds are down because of the economic crisis. And what's so wonderful and unique about ICROSS is that--except for Mike, the founder and international director--it's run almost entirely by Kenyans working together to solve Kenya's problems.

Sinkiraine, Part 2: I Am the Luckiest

On a more positive note, while I was in Sinkiraine, I spent quite a bit of time with a Maasai guy named Nixon. He gave me a maasai name, which I still can't quite pronounce: Olamunyak. It sounds like a mix of "almanac" and some name you'd hear on Star Trek. Nevertheless, it was really sweet for him to give me a name, particularly because "Olamunyak" means "the luckiest person." Not that I am already very lucky but that I will be with this name. But I actually do feel like the name already applies to me.

I've met so many wonderful people over the past six weeks. I've learned so much and seen so much. Every moment has been a gift. I've just been so lucky--or is it blessed?--during this leg of the trip. Blessed to have visited the projects I did, to have survived the illnesses I had, and to have spent time with the people I met. And the circumstances surrounding my first contact with IROSS in 2005 were pretty providential as well. (Getting Miek's e-mail address through a friend of a friend and then meeting Mike for lunch at Duke, where he just happened to be for a conference. Crazy.)

I am blessed/lucky/fortunate/whatever to have ICROSS in my life. Olamunyak indeed.

PS- Nixon also told me that he'd give me a goat the next time I came to Sinkiraine. Um, thanks?

Sinkiraine, Part 1: The Hardest Part

I spent my last week in Sinkiraine, another Maasai village where ICROSS has set up a clinic. I stayed with the clinic's two nurses, Rose and William, who are married. I was only with them for four days, but I wish I could have stayed there longer. They were both really lovely people, and I loved being around Rose because she actually spoke and told stories! The other two Maasai women I stayed with were pretty quiet and kept to their "duties" of cooking, washing clothes, watching the children, etc. But Rose was different, and that's probably because she's not Maasai herself. She still has those same responsibilities, but she (not her husband) is the head nurse at the clinic. I felt there was a more equal relationship between William and Rose, which was refreshing to see.

Yet despite the "fresh air" that was Rose and William, my time in Sinkiraine was probably the hardest part of my time in Kenya. There's a drought all over Kenya (the past couple of rainy seasons haven't been rainy enough, thanks to global warming), but it's probably the worst in Sinkiraine. It's so unbelievably dry and hot there. It's so hot that everyone stays indoors and rests during the early afternoon. Grass and plants don't grow, which means that the Maasai people's livestock are starving (I've never seen skinnier cows) and even dying. If the cattle are bone-thin or dead, there goes the Maasai's source of income. And to make matters worse, there's no water in Sinkiraine. They either have to walk 30 km one way to a borehole, or they take the train 55 km to Magadi to fill up 10 or 15 20-L jugs with water. It's awful. The animals are dying, which means that there's no money for food, which is exacerbated by the fact that food prices are really high right now. When that happens, people starve.

I saw a lot of kids with rickets, a condition where children's leg bones are so weak that they bow out due to a deficiency of vitamin D and calcium. It doesn't cause any pain, which is good and bad. It's good in that the children aren't hurting, but it's bad in that it might not be noticed, and if it is, it's just chalked up to the child being born that way. Luckily, ICROSS has given the clinic nutritional supplements for the children, but there are some kids whose rickets are so bad that they need braces and even surgery to correct the problem. But without healthy livestock (i.e., money), how will the family pay for that?

The most heartbreaking patient I encountered was David. David is almost 4-years-old, and he only weighs 8 kg. A healthy 4-year-old weighs 16 kg. David weighs as much as Rose's 5-month-old baby girl, and he's almost four! David's parents live in Tanzania, so he's raised by his grandmother, but she doesn't have any money for food thanks to the drought, so she and her grandson are starving.

David had nothing. He was wearing only a dirty t-shirt that said "C'est tout moi" ("That's all me" in French). Literally, you could see all of him. He was so unbelievably thin that his bones and ribs were clearly visible. But the most devastating thing about David was that he had no affect. He wasn't happy for sure, but he wasn't sad either. He wasn't anything. His eyes looked like the life had been drained out of him. He looked tired from being so incredibly hungry. The children with rickets were suffering, too, but they still had energy and smiles on their faces. Not David.

Rose gave him some supplements to take, but what he really needed was food. I gave his grandmother 50 Kenyan shillings (about 63 cents), which is all I had, for beans. But that won't last very long. ICROSS will be bringing enriched porridge (the best stuff for malnourished children) next week, but how long will that last if this drought keeps going? And it doesn't look like this upcoming rainy season is going to be enough.

So what do you do with something like this? Do you pray? Or do you blame God for letting this happen? Or maybe both. But the only two true responses to seeing someone like David is to do something or to do nothing. Blaming God won't change anything. As hard as it was, my few minutes with David were really important for me. I now know that I will never be satisfied or content working in a hospital in the States, where everyone can get food or health care, whether that's provided by one's salary or by government assistance. But like most developing countries, there is no welfare system in Kenya. If you don't have any income, you don't have food. If you don't have food, you starve and die. No matter what career path I take, I have to be doing something that serves the world's poorest. How can I ever feel fulfilled or comfortable with my work and life if there are Davids out there slowly starving to death? It just wouldn't be right. More on this later...

I hate that I feel at home at a supermarket

I got a beef with the wizungu ("white people" in Swahili, plural of "mzungu"). The country used to be a British colony, and though Kenya became an independent country in 1963, it doesn't feel like British imperialism is over. But instead of it being a political iimperialism, it's now more of a corporate and economic one. I feel like wizungu are here--and have always been here--to plunder Kenya of its wealth. And to be fair, it's not just the British. There are people here from all over Euope and North America (except Mexico...I think finding a Latino in Kenya is like finding a unicorn.)

But what really gets me, and this might be a bit presumptuous on my part, is my suspicion that a lot of the wizungu hate Kenya. Many of them live in big Western-style houses, watch only Western satellite TV, eat only Western foods, and shop only at the big Westerner-targeted supermarket (Nakumatt). It's as if they don't want to be here in Kenya at all. They have transported their Western lives to Kenya, creating this perfect bubble that they never have to leave. The best illustration of this is a conversation I overheard between a British woman and a younger Kenyan man who was presumable her potential house cleaner. She told him, "and I cannot stand the sight of dust. So don't let any dust get in the house." WHAT?! That's all Kenya is! Dust, dust, and more dust! If she hates dust, she hates Kenya.

Clearly, I'm different. I love Kenya. I serve the poor; I don't use them for money or any other self-serving purpose. But is that really true? I think I got so upset by the wizungu in Kenya because I'm just as guilty. I'm angry with myself. I resent the fact that I feel most at home at Nakumatt, the big Western supermarket chain. I hate that I daydream so much about the food I'm going to eat when I get back to the States, and I must admit that I've given in and have eaten at both the burger chain and the Mexican food chain. I'm angry that I sometimes need to sit down and watch an American TV show or movie. (Kenyan TV is pure crap.) I hate that I get so frustrated and imptient with the inefficiency and tardiness of Kenyans. This is Africa, after all! (Not America.) And worst of all, I suspect that I also use Kenyans for selfish reasons. Not for money, but I'll take picture of people without asking sometimes, or maybe I'll use them for a story or blog entry that coiuld win me admiration from my family and friends. (I'm not trying to do that now.) I didn't come to Kenya or ICROSS for self-serving reasons, but in any act of kindness, there's always that voice (that "little dude") that asks, "Now what can I get from this?"

Maybe I'm being too hard on myself and on the other wizungu in Kenya. I shouldn't forget that wizungu have done a lot of good in Kenya (humanitarian aid, tourism, etc.). And we shouldn't have to totally abandon our culture and lifestyle when we're here. But whether we want to admit it or not, we all kinda hate the dust... At times, we all hate Kenya.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Ategelua Barack Obama

("I voted for Barack Obama" in Kimaasai)

When I'm traveling, I usually don't tell people where I'm from unless I'm asked. But in Kenya, I'm VERY proud to be an American. (I don't think I've ever told so many people who I've voted for!) In case you didn't know, President Obama's father is Kenyan, from the Luo tribe in Kisumu. Everyone in Kenya LOVES Obama. When I was here in 2006, Obama was here, too, visiting the country for the first time. Even then, Maasai men living in cow-dung huts were asking me about him and wondering if I would vote for him. I didn't know much about him at the time, but I said I'd vote for him, and I kept my word.

So now when I tell Kenyans that I'm from the States, they almost always make some coment about our President. When I was in Kisii, I attended an HIV/AIDS seminar for high school students. I was asked to introduce myself, so I told them my name and my nationality and said that I voted for Obama. I got a very warm response from the crowd. (Many fo the studnets wanted their picture taken with me, and that might have been part of the reason.)

I've beent old that the entire country stayed up to hear the elction results (they're 8 hours ahead of EST) and that the government declared the following day a national holiday. No joke. And I've been in several rural huts with Barack Obama posters and calendars on their walls. He's a rock star.

Kisii, Part 4: I've never eaten milk before...

During one of my days in Kisii, we had lunch at Pamela's house (she's one of the CHWs). I was tired and hungry from riding the bike and visiting HIV/AIDS patients, so the meal of beans, greens, and ugali (corn flour + water = white, mealy brick) tasted really good. And then Pamela poured us a drink. I could see from the pitcher that it was milk. I assumed it was straight from the udder, which I had gotten used to in Maasai land. But when Pamela poured the milk and it hit the bottom of the glass, it made a "plop." Uh oh.

I think the look of horror on my face was so clear that Malloy and Pamela immediately explaiend to me what it was...sour milk. Milk is boiled until it's sour, bottled, sold, and then mixed with fresh milk to make this "delicious" concoction. The chunks produced are not filtered out at any point in this process. I'll try anything once, so I took a sip. The taste actually wasn't too awful (just like sour cream). The real issue was the consistency. Sipping this sour milk is impossible because it's all chunks. You don't really drink it: you eat it. You pour it in your mouth and chew.

Needless to say, I struggled with it. I tried to just sip it, but a few chunks of milk would slip their way into my mouth. So I just focused on eating instead. Noticing that I hadn't made much of a denty in my glass of sour milk, Pamela offered me another drink: pineapple juice. But this was no ordinary juice. Pamela mixed a bottle of pineapple concentrate with some water. Where this water came from, I don't know, but it was pretty safe to assume that it didn't come from a bottle at the grocery store. And Pamela offered me the pineapple drink in such a way that I had to choose either the juice made from questionable water or the sour milk filled with questionable chunks. I was faced with quite the conundrum: do I choose the chunky drink that will probably make me throw up? Or do I choose the drink with unfamiliar African bacteria that will probably give me diarrhea? (FYI: I had an hour-long, pothole-filled ride on the motorbike to look forward to.) I chose the latter, and it was delicious. However, I did have some loose stools the next morning, but thankfully that was it.

But then on my last morning in Kisii, I had some bad fruit salad. I'm not really blameless in the matter because I noticed that it didn't taste very good, but I ate the whole thing anyways. Well, bad fruit salad and a five-and-a-half-hour ride in the back of a matatu don't mix. (Matatus are privately ownded 11- to 14-passenger vans. They are the only means of "public" transportation.) I felt nauseous the entire trip. I had no appetite, and I thought I was going to throw up until finally I did... We were in the Nairobi city center, no more than 10 minutes away from our destination when a large amount of saliva suddenly flowed into my mouth. I tried to fight it by swallowing, but you know at that point, it's too late. Fearing the worst, I opened the window and then...fruit salad out the side of the matatu. Four times.

(Medical sidenote: When I got back to the ICROSS base, Mike had me swallow a raw egg. He said that vomiting is caused by an irritation int he lining of your upper digestive tract. The egg coats the membrane of the tract, making it impossible to throw up. But there's always the chance of getting salmonella...)