Missing Malawi hits me in weird ways and at random times.
This week it was a quiet night in my dorm room with low lights, no hurried task to complete and my bed sheets smelling of essential oils that reminded me of (sometimes) lonely nights in the back of the cake shop. Reminded me how I gravitated towards creating rituals in the often candle lit evenings, dabbed soothing oils on my wrists to remind myself to be calm when I heard noises I didn’t recognize, read pages and pages of books, sang loudly in the shower, took time each night to arrange my mosquito net around my bed just so. I hadn’t used my essential oil spray much since coming home and the scent brought me rushing back to my room in Zomba.
Last week it was walking downtown thinking about what I should buy for lunch and suddenly, vividly, being able to taste rice and beans and masamba otendera, all drizzled with mango spicy oil at Uni Café. Since then, I’ve thought often about my lunch hours, eating always too full plates of rice and chatting with my wonderful colleagues.
It’s being at Thanksgiving and my family talking about how the last time we were all together was Canada day. Except I wasn’t there because I woke up in a tent at Chingwae’s Hole on Zomba Plateau, stared at views that seem to stretch forever, hiked down in the mud and sunshine, chatting with friends. It’s missing spotting monkeys and it’s remembering the burn of fire ants biting my ankles.
It’s calling a taxi and having the driver not say a word to me. It makes me think of Edoh and Mr. Mmanga and Kevin and Patrick and miss the friendships that came along with service in Malawi.
It’s getting confused for a month straight as to where my evenings were disappearing to because the sun would set and it would suddenly be 9pm?! I kept forgetting that darkness was not a sign of my evening starting but of bedtime approaching and lost a lot of time being confused by the long summer evenings in Ottawa.
It’s a flood happening in residence and immediately thinking of the morning I woke up and put my feet down into a puddle, called Esnatt and then went to church, while secretly hoping the rat I’d been sharing my house with would drown. William mopped up all the water for me and Esnatt and I thanked Jesus that my laptop survived.
It’s thinking of Esnatt and Esela and Emela and their kindness, their honesty and humour and care for me. It’s missing invitations to dinner and Ntanda nearly pulling my hair out and eating cake way too often. I need to call them, I miss them a lot.
It’s getting covered in bug bites in late August, panicking for a second, not believing how stupid I was to not wear long pants and bug spray before I remember that here bug bites are just itchy and not a risk for malaria.
It’s sitting in my government cubicle and not having Mwayi ask questions about the weather in Canada, not hearing Bongani singing in the background, not seeing Helen in all her beautiful skirts, not watching Stella and Queen have photoshoots outside, not getting movie reccomendations from Lekodi, not hearing Bosco sing “Samantha oh Samantha”, not seeing Sharon and Rodger and Janet and Jess, not chatting with the other volunteers. It’s sitting inside at the same place each day and missing sunny porch mornings and rides to the field.
It’s missing feeling like I was doing truly meaningful work that made my soul sing.
It’s walking all the way to work and realizing no one looked at me. It’s putting my phone on shuffle and hearing the songs I used to dance to with the kids on my street.
It’s Tuesdays with no plans that make me think of Paka and yoga and drinking shitty Carlsburg beer. Its missing friends but knowing paths often cross again, hoping some of our paths will cross again.
It’s buying tiny avocados and being appalled at the cost. It’s missing the conversations I used to have with my potato lady and my banana lady and my vegetable guy.
It’s wearing my Chtienge clothes and getting showered with compliments, always answering “my tailor Isaac made it” with a smile, because I promised him I would give him credit when people asked.
It’s randomly thinking about going on safari because it was beyond incredible and often feels like a dream. It’s having a snapshot saved in my mind of sitting under most star filled sky I’ve ever seen, everyone quiet and the car engine turned off so as not to scare the seven lionesses surrounding us, stalking a pray far off in the distance.
It’s people asking “So what’s Africa like?” and wanting to tell them how little I know about Malawi, let alone the continent, but instead just saying “it is incredible” because that is also true.
It’s getting grades back for papers written about MASA, thinking of the plays and songs and students I got to see. Thinking about how academics can’t capture their energy.
It’s eating eggs for dinner cooked in curried vegetables like I did so many nights in Zomba and remembering how the man whole sold eggs on my street never let me get away with speaking English, always made me practice my weak Chichewa.
It’s working in Ottawa with another intern from Malawi and talking about it rarely but knowing she is missing it too.
It’s planning trips for the Outdoor’s Club and being bombarded with memories of Mulanje and weekends at the lake.
It’s seeing friends on social media and remembering laughing with them in person on another continent where now neither of us are.
It’s walking past tall buildings instead of tall mountains on my way to work.
It’s hearing myself say “when I was in Malawi…” way too often, even when I try to contain it and wondering will people will get sick of me and tell me to knock it off. Half hoping they do and half hoping I get to keep telling stories.
It’s taking my morning vitamins and thinking “wow I’m glad I don’t have to take Doxycycline” Every. Single. Day.
It’s plugging in a charger and for a split second being surprised that it worked right away, even now months later surprised that the electricity never fails me. It’s knowing how incredibly privileged that makes me, how privileged I was even there to have power much of the time in Malawi.
It’s the painting hanging in my office and the tapestry on my bedroom wall.
It’s going to post this blog and having to wade through countless drafts of posts never published because I was scared of telling the wrong stories or of making people think things were law instead of just my experiences.
It’s settled contentment of being home and with friends and yet still missing Malawi.
It’s wondering how long simple things will bring this ache.
It’s missing Malawi sometimes intensely and overwhelmingly but not feeling like I want to run back. It’s people asking me if I want to return and not knowing how to say I’m not sure without making it sound like I didn’t love it, because I loved it but…I don’t want to hop on a plane tomorrow.
It’s remembering that my internship was hard and also good. It’s realizing that missing Malawi is hard but also good.
Being in British Columbia made me wish that I was a painter. Despite usually feeling like my words are sufficient to paint images in people’s minds, these views had me speechless which happens very rarely.
One day I went hiking with my family and left them to continue the trail while I climbed down to the rocky beach. Kicking off my sandals and walking out onto the rocks, I feel more like a foreigner than anything else. My feet are soft, from summers spent on sandy shores in Georgian Bay, years of running through Beausoleil Island and Killbear Provincial Park. This pebbled beach, rolling under my feet and pricking the soles when a bit of shell peaks through, it feels different. It’s hard to believe this is the same Canada I know and love.
I get to the edge of the water, breathe deeply through my nose, inhaling the salty smell. This too is new. Canada, from sea to sea to sea, for me has always been a land of lakes, where I can dive deep, look up and watch the sunlight filter through the marbled green and blue water. I will not even try to open my eyes in the ocean.
The waves lap against my toes and my feet remind me that they are hurting on the rocks; the sooner I go in, the sooner I can float and let them rest. But the water is cold and it is not a hot day. My favourite black bathing suit, which I’ve been carrying around for days hoping to get close to the ocean, has been left in the car. I didn’t expect this hiking trail to led me to the water. Still, my red jumpsuit will dry quickly I suspect and I don’t know if I’ll get another chance to swim this trip. Now or never.
I clumsily walk into the waves, trying not to fall. A little girl runs toward the water a few meters away from me; clearly she is BC grown because she doesn’t even flinch at the rocks splaying out from under her feet. Her grandma trails behind and we look at each, smiling. I remember that I now look more adult than girl.
“Is it cold?” She asks me.
I smile again and nod. “I’m trying to convince myself to do it, just to dunk and get it over with.”
“It’s not bad, come on!” the little girl is kicking and splashing between us.
She’s right. My legs and feet have adjusted and I know the rest of me will too as soon as I convince myself to get in. I turn around to face the shore, count to three and fall backwards into the shadowy, rolling water. It’s a trick that always works but my breath still catches for a minute as the cold water engulfs me.
And then I let myself breath deeply. Lake or sea, water is water and I always feel at home when I’m floating. My clothes billow out around me but for some reason, it doesn’t feel scary, like swimming in clothes sometimes can. My lips taste the salt and my hair, loose and long, fans out around me, bits of it sticking around my neck and chest. The grandma has taken the plunge too and she and the girl are pretending to be dolphins; I can’t help but grin, remembering all the hours I spent kicking and spinning in the lake back home, sunlight dancing in patches on my skin, as I pretended to be a mermaid. To see me now, in the sea itself, long hair and bright eyes, I can almost fall back into the fantasy.
I start paddling out, awe struck by the mountains on the horizon. It’s this moment that leaves me feeling without adequate words, this moment where I curse my “lack of creativity” and wish my fingers knew the secrets of replicating the Artist’s greatest works. It’s a view all made of blue, the sea the sky and mountains layered in the distance. As if someone started at the bottom and ran out of ink as they shaded skyward, the mountains rise in groups of bluish gray, getting lighter as they dance towards the sky. Mountains always seem to me to be to be vibrating with their own rhythm and life, despite their strongly grounded roots. The trees here look different too. Like Christmas trees in fairytale giants’ homes, they cluster around the base of the jagged hill. From far away, they don’t look green, but rather almost black, a contrasting border to the mountain shades. How wondrous it is that this fairytale view too is the country I call home.
I’m not sure how long I floated there, thinking about how small I was. Just floating in the sea and wondering at the mountains. Eventually my family comes into view over the ridge high above the beach and I know it’s time to go. My uncle is coming down for a minute; I think he wants to touch the sea before we leave. As I climb out of the water, my hair and clothes suctioned to my body, my uncle and the little girl’s mother on the beach are staring at something just behind me. My uncle points and I turn around.
“Orcas” someone shouts.
I stare at the horizon, straining without my glasses to see something far away. To my surprise, I see a fin rise up much closer than anticipated, maybe 100 feet or less from where I had floated minutes before. I watch, mouthing “wow” to myself again and again, unable to come up with anything else, as the rolling waves reveal three orca whales passing by close to the beach. I can hardly believe how lucky I feel; I shared water with these creatures. Their smooth black and white bodies are clear to see, despite my lack of distance vision. My uncle is trying to get a picture or a video but I feel rooted to the rocks, my tender feet forgotten. I want to be present in this moment with Creation. The rollercoaster movement of the orcas, up and down, coming into view further left each time, feels like a gift, handed specifically to me by the Creator. Lord, if you wanted me to fall in love with B.C., you’re doing a really good job of it.
Eventually, we can’t see them anymore as they round the corner of the island. The women tells us that despite coming here, to this beach, every summer of her life, she has never seen whales here, not ever before. I can’t keep the smile off my face; what a gift God has given me today. My feet could dance, even on the rocky shore.
I grab my shoes. I take one more deep breath of ocean air. Nature has so many smells and I’ve grown to love each one. From the mossy dampness of the forest, when you crawl out of your tent in the quiet morning after a storm, to the sprigs of lavender that dot the path in the meadow in late August, to now this salty, brisk, wild smell of sea in British Colombia, a new puzzle piece in my Canadian mosaic. I take one last look at the view. Even though the whale friends have disappeared, this view can hold it’s own for awe and wonder. The mountains in their magnitude, crashing into the bluer sky and melting into the untamed waves evokes in me gratitude, hope and a sense of adventure that fills my soul and reminds me, the way something beautiful does everyday, how glad I am to be alive.
I feel a moment of sadness, knowing that I am not a painter; I will never be able to replicate with misty edges and smudged colours, this picture that my mind will slowly let fade. But it’s ok. this feeling of foreignness and home, of wonder and of awe, of being small and one with Creation. This feeling will come again. I serve the Greatest Painter and He is always sharing with me His favourite pieces of art.
This weekend I went camping on the plateau in the town I’m living in (Zomba, Malawi) and seriously FROZE…winter in Africa is not a joke y’all. Three layers of clothes and I was still so cold at night! Still, I LOVE camping and it was nice to do something that really makes me feel like my regular self, to really feel “in my element” for a weekend. Anyway, that was a side note.
The camping trip was with a group of expats in Zomba and it was mainly a goodbye trip as the coming months are a huge turnover in people “going home” or moving onto to new jobs in different countries. People who have been in Zomba for years are moving on and getting ready to start life over. For those that are staying, there has been a lot of moaning about having to make all new friends. And the people moving on are saying much the same! It’s one of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about expat life. Constant changes in friends and colleagues. Far from the rough roads, bugs, blackouts, slow pace of life and lack of access to activities and products I can get easily in Canada, the things I think I would struggle with the most is being far from home and having a constantly shifting support system in country.
It’s been making me question a bit if it’s something I actually can or want to do long term. I have aways maintained that after getting my degree I want to live and work in the Global South, for the majority, if not all, of my career. And in fact, this internship was partly to make sure it’s something I can actually handle. I’m pretty easy going and adaptable so I wasn’t too concerned but better to try it for three months before I’ve signed a one or two year contract and suddenly realize I can’t deal with xyz, whatever that may be.
And to be honest, I am really, really enjoying it and have gotten to the point where I want to hit pause as time is going by too quickly (less than 5 weeks left, whattttt). 3 months just isn’t long enough! But how much time would be too long? It’s easy to deal when I’ll be back in Ottawa in a few short weeks, back with my friends, back to my hobbies, my church community, back to doing things other than work, reading and going out to eat with friends once a week. After 2 years or 5 years or 10 years would I still be okay away from the people I love the most? Would I get bored without my hobbies and extracurriculars? Would I be okay with leaving my life in Canada behind permanently?
Yesterday as we walked down the mountain I fell into step with a guy who has just arrived in Zomba to work with an INGO. I had only met him once before this weekend and so we had the typical conversation here: how long are you here, where were you before, what do you do, where are you from, etc. Eventually somehow we ended up on the topic of pros and cons of living abroad. He said it frustrated him when people live in the developing world for a short time and decide it’s not “convenient” for them, i.e. the things like the blackouts or the rough roads or eating the same foods again and again make them leave. On the other hand, he talked about his desire to return home to the states permanently in the next year or so, after 7+ years of living abroad in the developing world. His reasoning was two-fold: he wants to be closer to friends and family, to be truly “home” and secondly, to have a life beyond work which is the reason he is here and the thing his life mostly revolves around. He talked about feeling like he gave up more than convenience to live in Africa, he gave up his hobbies like theatre and certain outdoor adventures as well as “regular” face to face relationships with friends and family. To be fair, I think he has really enjoyed and continues to enjoy his life here. I’m just relaying this conversation because it’s stuck with me and has me thinking. It’s true that here (from what I have seen), life is basically work and then some socializing but it’s less full than back home, where personally, I am involved in many different things. I like to live diversely and energetically and I have a lot going on at any given time. Here, that is not really possible (although it would maybe be different in the capital or a bigger city).
Maybe these are selfish things to worry about. Maybe it’s just a different type of convenience I’m desiring. But this conversation, and others like it with the many friends who are heading truly home and those who will be in Zomba longer have had me considering the actual implications of pursing long term work abroad. It would mean giving up a lot of things I genuinely love. Not just my ability to easily go for all you can eat sushi but things that I define myself by, things that truly give me life. This summer for example I have so missed my yearly canoe trips…its’ just not a thing here and it’s something that usually consumes my summer evenings and weekends. It’s something that is part of my identity. Living abroad would also mean long stretches between seeing my family and my dearest friends. It might be mean lots of friends in my life for short seasons and maybe moving every few years. This summer back home there have been weddings and babies being born and friends graduating and the FOMO has been real.
I’m not saying all this has turned me off living abroad long term. It hasn’t. It’s just had me thinking about it seriously and being honest with myself about what it could look like. Beyond my career goals and the excitement that comes with living abroad, what do I value in life and what do I want my life to look like? What am I willing to sacrifice? What are the things I truly need to live a life I love? Can I get those things while working in the Global South? Where? For how long? What type of city or geographical situation would set me up for success living abroad for long periods?
I don’t have all the answers but I think they are important questions to be asking myself.
Wishing each of you all the best from chilly Malawi,
P.s. Enjoy the random collection of photos from the last coupe of weeks below!
It’s wild to think that I have been in Malawi for nearly a month now. I’m going to renew my visa tomorrow and I can’t believe it’s that time already! So much has happened and yet at the same time, life is quiet here. I’ve settled into a routine and so as much as it’s adventure to adjust to a new country and culture, at the end of the day, I still go to work Monday to Friday. The day to day is too boring for Instagram I’m afraid! Still, there has been a lot of beauty to be seen so I’ll try to give an update on the most major things without dragging on too long.
Firstly, I’ve been learning to live without instant access to electricity. I really don’t want to whine or go on too long about this but it has been a significant adjustment to not always be able to flick a switch and have light. Malawi deals with power load shedding which sometimes follows a schedule and sometimes does not. This means for a certain number of hours each day, each area of the city gets the electricity cut off. The sun sets here at around 5:30pm so not having lights at night means a lot of hours of walking around with a flashlight or lighting candles. I also live by myself so for the first couple weeks I absolutely hating coming home at night knowing I’d be alone in the dark for hours…I’ve gotten a lot more sleep by going to bed at 8pm some nights! The schedule seems to have mellowed out though (less nights in a row without power) and my place got a gas stove so I can cook even when the power is out which I am super grateful for. I’ve also just gotten more used to it…I always complained about not being allowed to have candles in residence so I am certainly making up for it now haha! I even did a co-op interview by candle light this week.
The general pace of life here is much slower as well. Living in Zomba rather than a bigger city like Lilongwe (the capital) or Blantyre (the economic and business hub), means that nights are quiet and there is not much to do…I am used to running around every night of the week with multiple commitments so it’s been a change to come home, cook dinner, read and go to sleep! On the flip side, it is incredibly beautiful here. I love walking to work looking up at the plateau and I am always surrounded by greenery which of course makes this outdoorsy human happy. I don’t think I will ever get used to being in a meeting on the back porch and getting distracted by watching the monkeys and baboons play beside the office!
Speaking of the office, I am really enjoying my work here. It’s been so cool to finally get to work with people in the field and see interventions taking place in real time. A couple of weeks ago I got to go to a drama festival for ArtGlo’s Make Art, Stop Aids program. Along with learning that field work sometimes comes with delays, challenges and broken down cars, I also got to watch Malawian youth use art to be catalysts for conversations about sexual reproductive health in their communities. It was inspiring. On the more regular days, I am in the office (or out on the porch) helping with curriculum, funding research, program review and whatever else I can pitch in with. I love moving seats each day and getting to know my co-workers better all the time. They are quite amused by my weak Chichewa attempts.
I’ve also gotten to start exploring Malawi a bit on the weekends (and I am looking forward to hopefully doing a lot more of that!) My very first weekend in the country I went to Lake Malawi, at Cape Maclear. I hadn’t been feeling well during that trip but even so, I had a great time. Boat rides, a fish fry on the beach, snorkelling, reading and taking in that I was actually, finally, in Africa for the first time was a pretty good way to spend the weekend!
All smiles by the lake
Sunset has started
My second weekend I hung around Zomba and started getting to know it a little bit better. I visited the market with my landlord/friend Esnatt and she introduced me to her vegetable man, potato lady, and banana stand of choice. The market here in Zomba is not nearly as overwhelming as the one Nick and I visited in Guatemala, or even the others in Malawi I have seen. I also hung up my hammock between two mango trees, ate cake at MaiPai (where I live), read a lot and called friends from home. I also went to church with Esela (Esnatt’s sister…there is also Emela) which was interesting…mostly because it wasn’t much different from home! The English service wasn’t, anyway. Apparently the Chichewa services are more lively.
My third weekend was filled with plans that ended up changing. In the end, five of the girls who I flew over from Canada with (the other WUSC interns) came to visit from Lilongwe and we went hiking up on the Plateau that dominates the Zomba views. It was my first trip up and I can promise that it won’t be the last. As I said, my outdoorsy heart is pretty happy here surrounded by all the green. We had a fancy lunch at a hotel on the top with a beautiful view and hiked to a waterfall. Myself and Val even went swimming!
Last weekend, the fourth in Malawi, I happened to find myself back at Cape Maclear…I hadn’t been sure I would make it back at all, let alone so soon! This time I was with a group of other expats from Zomba and it was really a fun weekend. We stayed at a lodge down the beach from where I had been the first time and I read a whole book while laying in the sun, taking swim breaks and chatting with new friends. We did a boat cruise as well, at sunset, and danced to fun songs in the evening. It was nice to get to know some people living here and to feel like I am making friends!
I hate when I let myself fall away from blogging….it always means that when I get back to it, we end up with these long winded catch-up posts that don’t have a particular topic. I think one of the reasons I have been so hesitant to share my time here is that I am trying to be mindful of jumping to assumptions or sharing things I don’t actually know much about. Honestly, I just don’t want to appear whiney either, or ungrateful for the opportunity to be here, or like I can’t handle development work because I am lonely and don’t like not having electricity. And the truth is, I really have been fine, even when I miss Ottawa or wish I was eating a meal that doesn’t involve rice.
I still haven’t found quite comfortably how to be honest about my experiences and share them but also not being dramatic or making things out to be different than they actually are. Where is the line between being critical and being condescending? How do I allow myself to be curious and process my lack of knowledge without spreading ignorance?
Over the next couple weeks (once Skype interviews for co-op are over, fingers crossed!) I’m hoping to write some more specific posts, about things I’ve done or things I am learning. I would love to know what people want to hear more about. Are you interested in more development minded posts, analyzing things are the same or different from what I have been taught in school? Or in more travel focused posts, about my weekend adventures and the beauty and culture of the country? Or stories about my life here, like my show down with the rat who has decided to share my room? Something else? Let me know!
Or, muli bwanji, in Chichewa, the language spoken throughout much of Malawi.
This probably (hopefully?) won’t be too long of a post as I am typing on my phone! My laptop has been left in Zomba while I travel this weekend.
As you can presume from the fact that I am writing to you all, I have indeed made it safely to Malawi. I arrived in Lilongwe (the capital) on Monday afernoon and spent the first few nights at a lodge while we went through orientation with WUSC Malawi (our sending Canadian organization). Us is the 8 female Canadian volunteer interns who are with the Malawi Student Without Borders program this time around. We arrived together and will see each other on and off I’m sure. Five of the girls are living in a volunteer house together in Lilongwe, two are staying at a lodge in Blantyre and that leaves just me! I am living in the back of a pastry/coffee shop called MaiPai (pronounced “my pie”), in Zomba.
The first few days watching the Lilongwe ladies settle into their home, making plans for shared tuk tuks and the weekend, I was feeling pretty nervous about the fact that I would be all by myself. Additionally, WUSC hasn’t sent volunteers to Zomba in a long time so no one could give me information on things to do, places to get groceries, good taxis to call etc. Considering everything in Malawi is done by word of mouth and who you know, this was a little stressful! In fact, all anyone could tell me was how beautiful Zomba is…not that I am complaining about natural beauty!
We spent our time in Lilongwe going over culture, language and little things like how to buy phone minutes, how to take mini buses (the slightly sketchy public transport), where to find the vegetable market. We also did some more work oriented tasks like reviewing how they want us to go about monitoring and evaluating our work and how to fill out our workplans.
Finally, on Thursday morning it was time to head to Zomba! It was about a four hour drive down to the more southern part of Malawi and we arrived just in time for my introductory meeting with my organization. I will be working for the next 3 months as a Youth Leadership Officer with “ArtGlo” or in longer terms, the Art and Global Health Centre Africa. They use creative leadership programs and approaches to health and development. For example, they have a program called Make Art Stops Aids and a Students With Dreams program (which I will mostly be working on) which gives university students funding and an open slate to develop creative development projects. They are then supported by the centre to impliment them and also grow in their own abilities as leaders. Having worked as a leadership facilitator at camp, I remember getting to watch the kids develop their skills and become more confident and how rewarding that process was so I am super excited to be working in youth programming again and with students at the university. From what I understand I will also be helping to update training manuals and write funding proposals. I’m sure I will get a better idea as I get settled in but that is what I know so far. I met a couple of coworkers who were super welcoming and very cool so I can’t wait to be introduced to everyone else on Tuesday!
Why Tuesday? It just so happens that we arrived right before a long weekend for a national holiday! Not wanting to waste any potential travel time, the other interns and I scrambled to get together taxis and hostels at Lake Malawi. We are going to Cape Maclear tomorrow (Saturday) and staying until Monday. Apparently it is the big tourist and expat hotspot so we will see!
That said, I will be living alone in Zomba so it made more sense for me to tag along to Blantyre and then taxi from there so I am visiting here until we leave tomorrow. More dinners with volunteers and my third city tour in three days! So far, so good.
I don’t have much to say about Zomba itself as I was just there for about 16 hours haha. Still, we walked around the “city” (its a more like a town, if that haha). But it is so green!! And at the foot of a mountain so safe to say, I am already obsessed. The coffee shop I will be staying at seems really cute and all the staff were so welcoming. I’m excited for my daily walks to work and to get to know the city and the people! More on my adventures there to come, I am sure.
I’m going to say goodbye for now! We are meeting with a WUSC volunteer who is a gender advisor so that should be super interesting. Keep posted for lake pictures because, I guess I am going on vacation this weekend! Not what I was expecting but I am excited 🙂
Ask anyone who knows me – I like to talk. Specifically, I like to tell stories. I try to keep them honest, to recount them the way they actually happened as best as I can. Sometimes I tell it in a dramatic or funny way but I keep it real. And isn’t that what a storyteller is? Someone who relays the facts without distorting them but also without boring people?
The thing is, stories are how we relate to people. It’s how we share bits of our lives, parts of who we are. It’s a way to see that we aren’t alone in the world, a way to let people in, a way to be vulnerable. Sure, sometimes telling my friends about my crazy professor or my long drawn out adventure across campus to get a form signed may not seem like a vulnerable thing but it’s all part of the continual process of letting people in, of learning to relate to others and of learning how to confidently portray who we are.
But what if I didn’t get to tell my own stories? What if they were always being told by observers who didn’t really understand me and who wanted the narrative to fit their own perception of who I am? They say that there are three sides to every story: your point of view, the other person’s point of view and the truth. What if the other person’s point of view was the only one to be told, always, in every circumstance? More importantly, what if their version of the story always portrayed you as weak, incompetent, destitute or worse?
That is the danger of a single story.
As many of you may know, this summer I will be interning in Malawi as part of pursuing my degree in International Development. I am so very excited to have gotten a position with Art and Global Health Centre Africa as a Youth Leadership Officer and I cannot wait to go and live and learn with people on the other side of the world, in a continent I have yet to visit. As part of the course uOttawa has associated with the internship program, I have to go through 30-50 hours of pre-departure training this semester. We usually meet on Saturday mornings and discuss how to ask yourself powerful questions about your internship, how to look at issues of power, privilege and intersectionality, what is means to build capacity in your host organization and other topics to help each of us make the most of this incredible experience while also being as respectful, helpful, humble and open-minded as possible. I am grateful to be part of a program that cares about the ethics behind working internationally in the Global South. And after a weekend of training with WUSC, CECI and Uniterra, I am also feeling pretty blessed and encouraged by the insightful, intelligent, passionate and thoughtful other interns who will be going to Malawi at the same time as me, as well as those who will be in other countries this summer. It is very inspiring to be in a room with people who share your passions.
A week ago we watched a video recorded at TEDGlobal in 2009 called “The Danger of a Single Story”. The official description is “our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.”(see video below). Basically, she talks about the pervasive international perception of “Africa” as a poor country in need of saving, and the importance of exposing oneself to multiple stories or perspectives of individual countries and people in order to relate to them, to celebrate difference while also seeing the threads that tie us all together. At least that is what I got from her message, although it is far from verbatim.
When I got home, I started searching for movies, TV shows, YouTube videos and books about Malawi and/or by Malawians. I found very, very few. Those I could find were mostly written from the perspective of foreigners.
And so I guess what I have been pondering is, how do I make sure that when I tell stories about my time in Malawi, I am not perpetuating the single story? How do I stay true to my own perspective and also accurately portray other people’s experiences? How do I avoid telling stories that are not mine to tell while also using my opportunity to learn from the Malawian people and share my thoughts, feelings and lessons learned with those here in Canada who do not have the same experience? I want my time in this nation to impactful, to build capacity in my host organization, to build capacity in myself and to share knowledge with those who I have influence over, whether through my relationships, my social media, or this blog.
I know that my stories will always carry bias. The biases of being white, of being a Christian, of being Canadian. Of speaking English as a first language, of being a student of international development, of being straight and of the quirks of my own personality. Even that fact that I identify storytelling as being part of who I am, influences the way I communicate, the way people listen and the opportunities I am given to be heard.
I want my storytelling of my time in Malawi to be authentic, honest and true to both me and the people I share my experiences with.
I don’t necessarily have answers, no promises of how I am going to make that happen. But I want you all to know that it is something I am thinking about and something I am going sincerely make effort towards.
So watch this space. I am filled with anticipation. I feel very privileged to get to pursue the things I am passionate about and to have experiences I have dreamed of for a very long time. And I am excited to share them with you. Adventures come in all sizes and types and I try to live everyday like an adventure. But I have to admit, some are a lot more grand than others and I suspect my time in Malawi will be one of the greatest yet.
Please watch the video below and think about the ways in which you can explore broadening the narratives you hear.
Thank you for listening to my stories. I am so grateful to each of you for making space in your lives for my words.
So many drafts saved, so few posts published! The saga continues with the tension of this internet space, as I discover more and more about who God has created me to be, think about how to express my thoughts, figure out what I want to share here and ponder what, if any, my influence is through writing. It’s a fun journey but one that sometimes means not much actually makes its way past a draft!! To make up for it, here’s a reallllly long one with lots of pretty pictures!
Anyyyyyway. If you follow me on social media or know me in real life, you probably know that I went on a little adventure last month to a place I’d never been before – Guatemala! Wahoo! This was my first time in Latin America as a “backpacker” (LOL) since previously I’ve visited with my family but stayed mostly on the resorts, hanging out on the beaches. This was a very different experience! I also got to travel with one of my best friends and we had just the most fun time. Fair warning, this post may just be a jumble of photos and little stories!
That said, there is something very unique about international travel that I simply love. I love the process of going from one place to another, the fact that I can sit down in this mental tube and a few hours later be someplace totally different. I love, love, love the process of planning and dreaming, only to find myself totally winging it when I get there. I love meeting people I don’t interact with in my everyday life whether that means locals or other backpackers. I love the tension and being kept on my toes and having everything just be a little out of my hands. I love trying to practice new languages (I got out a little easy this time because Nick’s Spanish is a lot better than mine and he bailed me out a bit hehe!)
Not to mention, the world is crazy beautiful.
Suffice to say, Iceland lit a fire under my feet and had me checking flight prices all winter and spring. After a while, I realized that my cheapest option was probably going to be Guatemala. So I started telling all my friends that I was going and that they were invited. Some people showed interest, a couple seriously. Eventually my dear friend Nick agreed to come along and we booked flights. Over the next couple months we laughed often about the fact that we were ACTUALLY going to go.
So here’s 10 things I learned over reading week in Guatemala:
You can be as careful as you like, but you still might get sick. Nick and I were pretty careful about where and what we ate and drank because we had heard that lots of people get sick while in Guatemala (and developing countries in general) but OF COURSE, the day we were supposed to go hiking, we both ended up really sick with some kind of brutal stomach bug or food poisoning. It had us out for the count for a full day/day and a half and didn’t fully go away until more than a week after we’d been home. I actually got it worse a second time after we were home and had to take antibiotics. All that to say a) you can’t control these things and b) you can’t be bitter about it and let it ruin your whole trip. I did warn Nick on day 1 that if anything bad could happen, it would surely happen to me/us. Y’all know the deal #samproblems
2. Travelling with a friend is very different than travelling alone. Not better or worse, just different. When I went to Iceland, I loved that I was totally in control of my own time and that I was only responsible for myself. Travelling with Nick, I suddenly was aware that all my decisions had to work for another person too! There was some tension with that because I had planned most of our trip and felt responsible for whether or not Nick had fun. At the same time, he is an adult and can take of himself. So it was interesting to figure out how to balance those things and how to travel together and how to let each other do their own thing but also be together most of the time. At the end of our trip we had a really good talk about communication and sharing planning responsibilities and how to learn from this trip for future adventures together!
Also, I noticed that I am more chill of a traveller than maybe I realized? I don’t really stress and stay pretty calm in situations that could become concerning and even though I knew that about myself, it was interesting to…notice I guess, what others find stressful about travel. Nick noticed things that I didn’t even think to be concerned about and it was good for both of us to balance each other out in that way because it forced me to consider things more carefully and question my assumptions and I encouraged him to relax a bit. On the flip side (this is going to sound very contradictory), I think I am still a pretty cautious traveller. Like I said, it’s a balance. I don’t act rashly but I also don’t worry once I have made a decision.
Overall, it was super nice to have someone with me along the way, especially since Nick is one of my best friends and he and I haven’t gotten much one on one time since moving out of residence in first year so our time together was really precious to me!
3. “Dangerous” is a relative term and a little common sense can go a long way. Speaking of stress or fear or danger and using common sense, I think it’s worth noting that I never felt unsafe in Guatemala. Before we went, several people voiced concern for us because statistically, Guat has high levels of crime. However that is mostly gang related and concentrated in the capital where we did not stay. There was one situation in a taxi where Nick thought we were potentially in danger but that was more due to a miscommunication in Spanish than anything else and everything ended up being ok. One other time, we were told a particular hike was unsafe unless in larger groups due to reports of tourists being mugged which, just that stipulation made me a little nervous. But honestly, we never felt like we were in particularly dangerous place. On our part, we took some precautions like not wandering around at night or flaunting expensive things around. In general we found Guatemalans to be very welcoming people who were open to sharing their culture (although sometimes they were pushy sales people lol)
4. A week isn’t long enough to appreciate the complexity of a countries history, politics and culture. Honestly, I have little to say about this except to say that I regret not learning more about Guatemala’s history before I went, that I really loved how present and prevalent the Indigenous culture still was and that I am constantly amazed by my own ignorance to other countries’ political climates, even though I am studying international development. I have so much to learn.
5. On that note, I’m still learning how studying development shapes my world view. I felt uncomfortable by how many people assumed my trip to Guatemala was to volunteer or do some kind of development work. Aside from the fact that I am still working through how I feel about “voluntourism”, the comments also felt a little accusative, as if my chosen field of study disallows me from travelling in the developing world for my own enjoyment. Yet, in a strange way, it does. Because of my education, I see things differently. I found myself hyper aware of my privilege as a visitor, painfully aware of my relative wealth. Although I am all for tourism because it is a source of income for many people, it’s impossible to visit Guatemala and not see the inequalities, the lack of drinkable water, the poverty.
Yet, as a student of development, I was ALSO really interested in the efforts I saw being made towards empowerment – Indigenous owned coffee companies, a newly opened restaurant that was part of a women’s co-op and vocational school, Spanish schools that teach the language through politics and education on colonial history. I could see small projects and changes happening. On my end, I am constantly learning and travel is just a small part of that. Even though this was a vacation and not an experiential learning opportunity, my education has changed the lens with which I travel and it continues to challenge the way I think and look at the world.
P.s. Like I said I have a lot of mixed feelings but a definition of voluntourism I would feel comfortable with would definitely involve way more awareness and knowledge of Guat than I had and would require longer term investment than one week – but that’s for another blog post.
6. Try to speak the local language. Just try a little. In Guatemala, you kind of had to know at least some Spanish. Although, in the villages, Spanish was actually the second language for many people who spoke one of 20+ Indigenous languages as a mother tongue! Although my speaking isn’t all that great, my comprehension in Spanish is ok and because of that, I got to barter and chat and hear bits of people’s stories – my favourite was talking to our taxi driver about swimming, a favourite activity we both shared. P.s. shout out to Nick for his Spanish skills saving me when I floundered 2 out of 3 times.
7. Backpacker culture is different in different parts of the world. Previously when I’ve stayed in hostels I have found it easy to make friends and fit into the backpacker culture. In Guatemala I found it more difficult to “fit in”. Many people I spoke to had very different perceptions than I do of what traveling looks like, what it’s purpose is and why one should do it. Although I love talking to people with different points of view, I found the backpacking culture in Guat to be a little toooooo “go with the flow” for me. Not that being flexible is bad but everyone I talked to seemed to be traveling indefinitely, with no plans and no purpose, to the point where some of them were rather rude about the fact that Nick and I were in school – because in their mind, school couldn’t possibly be about anything other than conforming to societal expectations. Along with this, I found many of them didn’t seem to understand that their ability to travel in this manner is not a way of fighting back against the capitalist societal norms but actually a result of their Western privilege – hanging out at a hostel for months on end means you are wealthy enough to travel and CHOOSE an alternative to the corporate world. I don’t mean this as a judgement or to paint all Central American backpackers in a bad light because obviously there are many types of people who travel for various reasons, it was just an overall attitude difference than what I have seen other places. That said, Nick and I did of course meet some really interesting people, from a new friend from Colombia to a group Irish girls on their grad trip to a really cool German couple and an older woman on a spiritual journey. Travel always, always, always opens my mind to the diversity of people.
8. 20 is apparently still too young to be travelling. When I was 19 in Iceland I was “just a baby”. Apparently going to Guatemala at 20 still warrants “awww”s and disbelief that young people can take airplanes without adult supervision
9. Splurge on some activities but don’t forget that just being present in a new environment is an amazing way to spend time. I absolutely adored going zip lining in a National Park and I am so glad we spent a day in Chichi at the largest market in Central America. But my favourite memory from our trip is when one morning we got up and went swimming in the volcanic lake. Here’s a little blurb I wrote in my journal that day:
“This morning when I got up, I looked out and saw nothing but trees. With only two walls and no electricity, our hostel room feels more like a secret club house than a bedroom. I got up and wandered down to the lake where the sky was clear and the tops of the volcanoes were visible, towering on the other side of the lake. Carefully picking my way along the boardwalk, I went to a quiet swimming place and jumped in, the clear, cold water enveloping me and then buoying me back up to the surface. As I turned back to shore, I can hardly believe my eyes. Mountains reach up and up, covered in lush, dense jungle and spotted with coloured houses. Around the summits, fog swirls. Nick and I keep laughing because it honestly feels like we must be in a movie, it’s just so beautiful.”
The sheer joy of being a new place, seeing beauty I had never seen before, floating in blue water and laughing with my friend is a wonderful as any activity I could have planned. When travelling, make sure to take time to just be present in the place.
10. Travel always revives my sense of wonder and reminds me of God’s glory and creativity. Wow, wow, wow you guys. Guatemala is seriously incredible! And it just makes me want to see other places all the more. Seeing natural beauty and diversity always just makes me want to draw close to the Lord and praise Him for all He has created and blessed me with. One morning when I couldn’t sleep because I was sick, I went down and sat on a dock around 4am and sang worship songs as the sun rose up from behind the volcanos ringing the lake. It’s as beautiful as it sounds. Traveling around and exploring Guatemala revived my child-like sense of wonder and made me grateful all over again for the world God created.
SO that’s about all I’ve got for now I think. I guess I had quite a bit to say! I’m just so grateful for the opportunities I have to explore and live life to the fullest. Thanks as always for reading, for putting up with my ramblings and for following me along on this ever changing, ever challenging, ever exciting and ever grander adventure.
Every little kid knows the rule growing up: don’t talk to strangers. And fair enough! The world is a dangerous place. Kids are vulnerable. You never know people’s true intentions. However as we get older, the narrative continues. Especially as a girl, I am continually encouraged to keep my guard up around people I just met, not to trust too quickly. Stranger danger becomes a way of life, a way of looking at the world.
While we definitely need to be thoughtful, wise and aware, I think that the intense and immediate distrust of strangers, the assumption that people are bad or dangerous until proven otherwise, is a communal mindset that drives us towards a more individualistic and frankly, more boring society. As children, yes, a blanket rule of thumb is required for safety. But as adults? I would argue that we all could use some more stranger “danger” in our lives. Not literal danger y’all, just a couple steps outside our comfort zones will do!
Choosing to interact with people you don’t know in a genuine and engaged way brings so much joy and interest to our day to day lives. It teaches teaches us about what true hospitality looks like and helps foster an encompassing sense of community that humanizes the “other”.
Friends have, I’m sure, heard me say it before, I may have even written it in the blog, that “strangers are just friends I haven’t met yet”. I don’t say that to be naïve. I’m not assuming everyone will like me and I’m not disregarding the fact that there are indeed dangerous people out there with malicious intentions. However, that is not the majority. Everyone you have ever known was a stranger at some point. Maybe you were introduced by a friend or had a class together and you got to know each other in what is societally considered a safe space.
Who’s to say that guy reading a book in the park isn’t also going to be super cool and share your love of skiing?
Unless you ask her, how will you know that the women sitting next to you on the bus has walked the entire Great Wall of China or that she has her pilots license or that she and her husband have the best love story you’ve never heard?
If you don’t talk to strangers you may never hear why someone would want to be vegan or how one goes about building their own sailboat or what it’s like to work in a brewery or what it’s like to be a diplomat in Syria. My parents always told me, “you can’t do everything”. They were right! But SOMEONE out there has done everything. Don’t you want to hear their stories?
Aside from being purely interesting, it also teaches us how to love more fully. Inviting someone into your life and into your space isn’t always easy and it may require a little bit of sacrifice. But choosing community and choosing hospitality is SO WORTH IT.
As many of you probably read last week I ended up going to Montréal by myself. While we’re on the subject, thank you all so much for the support! I received countless messages of encouragement after my plans got flipped on their head. Spontaneity and risk taking y’all, it pays off. Now I could have spent all weekend exploring by myself but where’s the fun in that? I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason and so I couldn’t wait to get to know these people that had been unexpectedly thrown into my life. Getting to know people and hearing their life stories was one of my favourite parts about my trip to Iceland and I didn’t see why Montreal had to be any different!
I ended up meeting people from all over: Scotland, England, France, Germany, China, Australia, Brazil, etc. Everyone had different reasons for traveling, they were of all different ages and we spoke about all kinds of things, from music to politics to language learning to sailing to what it’s like to be Canadian. I wasn’t just talking to strangers. I made friends.
And although it might have made my mom uneasy, I actually ended up inviting a couple of guys, David and Frank to stay at my apartment back in Ottawa with my roommates and I as they continued their Canadian adventures. You know what? It made my week having them there. Aside from the fact that they were completely respectable houseguests, they were also fun guys! We took them to see the light show on Parliament Hill, went to a karaoke bar, went to Blue’s fest and also just chatted. My roommates and I felt a little lonely when they finally moved onto the next leg of their trips, after each having spent 4 nights sleeping on our couch!
They were strangers. Who quickly became friends.
This isn’t the first time I’ve made fast friends about people and welcomed them into my life. There are a couple of people I’ve met through blogging/Youtube who I’ve actually met and hung out with in real life. There are a couple of girls I connected with on Facebook before coming to university who are still friends of mine. My host family in Switzerland were total strangers and they were some of the most wonderful and kind souls. Speaking of exchange, my current roommate is a girl I met in the airport on my way to Switzerland 3 years ago. Our other roommate was literally a stranger. And you know what? I love them both so much it’s crazy.
I’ve made friends with strangers in the park and random people on buses and in coffee shops. I’ve had fantastic conversations with people I will never see again. I’ve gotten to go on outdoor adventures with friends of friends of friends because I decided to talk to them.
It’s scary to talk to strangers. They represent a total unknown. They could be rude. They could be having a bad day (in which case maybe a friendly banter with you is exactly what they need?). Maybe they re someone unlike anyone else you know – and maybe that makes you uncomfortable. Maybe they have incredible stories to tell and maybe you’ll find them incredibly boring.
But try. Invite someone to have coffee with you. Treat acquaintances with more warmth and hospitality than they are expecting. Smile at the man standing next to you at the cross walk. Take time to step outside of the individual bubble we’ve all taught ourselves to walk about in. Start seeing people as the complex, puzzling, dazzling pieces of art that they are. I promise that your life will become infinitely richer with each story you tell, each face that becomes familiar and each human being you choose to call friend instead of stranger.
Well, I’ve been home from Iceland for just more than 24 hours and I’ve already figured out where I want to go next reading week and scoped out the cheapest flights, if that tells you anything. I’ve travelled before but this was the first time by myself and the first time in this way. Going on exchange in Switzerland, visiting family in Ireland and spending time at resorts in Cuba, Mexico and the Dominican are very different than staying in a hostel and travelling just for the pureness of it.
It truly was a whirlwind 5 days. Between hours spent on buses, planes and waiting around for the two former, I lost all of Sunday and most of Thursday to travel so in reality, I had just THREE days in Iceland. Call me crazy (and some did) for taking such a quick trip but it was exactly what I needed to wet my feet and get out of this city. Don’t worry Ottawa, I still love ya but the change of scenery and sense of adventure, independence and autonomy was so good for my restless soul.
A long time ago, just after coming home from my exchange I wrote a spoken word poem that I posted here, about the intense desire I felt to see more of the world, as well as about how I expected travel to shape and change me. I look back now on my exchange and I am so incredibly grateful of the afternoons I spent wandering around my adopted city (Geneva) and the road trips my lovely host family took me on; it allowed me to see so much of their mountainous country. It was then that I first learned a new language, that mountains became so dear to my heart and that I made friends because hey, they happened to be sitting next to me! My trip to Iceland brought all of these memories rushing back.
And the fact that I wrote “I want to get lost in unknown cities and find Sam in the process” makes me laugh because I really did get lost in Reykjavik one day and rather than panic or get upset about having lost a good chunk of my day, I just went with the flow and had a perfectly “Sam” adventure. It ended with me standing knee deep in the North Atlantic Ocean in February, staring up in awe at Mount Esja, up close and personal.
I had also written about wanting to meet “people rushing about, strangers who were really just friends I hadn’t yet met” and that certainly came true on this trip, to an extent even I hadn’t expected. I noticed that there is something about being a solo traveler in particular that draws friends to you. I’m not sure if it’s because you’re less intimidating/more approachable, if they just don’t want you to be alone or what but I was constantly being invited to do things. That was a common theme in the hostel as well as on tours or even just in the streets. Every traveller I met was eager to meet other people, which was SO refreshing. In my everyday life, I find that we are all so focused on our own busy lives that we rarely look up to see the strangers with whom we could have SUCH GREAT conversations, if only we made the time. As people have been asking me my favourite part of the trip, this actually has been sticking out, above even all the incredible natural wonders that Iceland had to offer and my own adventurous spirit being satisfied. I enjoyed meeting diverse and interesting people everywhere I went. Some of them, I spoke to for just minutes and others hours. Some I am connected with on social media and others I will never hear from again. Some were “recurring characters” so to say (those in my hostel room in particular), well others were part of only one scene like the teachers from New York that I met on my first day at 6am. These “characters” are what fill out an adventure. The beauty of a place is important yes, but those conversations had floating in the lagoon or chatting over drinks are what will stick with me the most I think.
That said, Iceland itself was beautiful. With such a short time frame I didn’t see as much of it as some others. And I missed seeing the Aurora Borealis booooooo. Still, that which I did see was breathtaking. On my second day, I took a bus tour out of the city and around the “Golden Circle”: three popular tourist sights that essentially give a good taste of what Iceland has to offer while being a relatively short drive from the capital. We saw a geyser called Strokkur, a waterfall called Gulfoss and visited the national park Pingvellir (a UNESCO world heritage site) where we walked between tectonic plates and saw the site of the first democratic parliament. My particular tour also included a stop at the so-called “Secret” Lagoon which may have been one of my favourite parts of my trip. Just picture hanging out in a giant natural hot tub beside steaming hot mud pits and a boiling geysir that are feeding directly into the pool. So friggin cool. One of the most interesting things about Iceland is the geothermal energy that runs through the country in plenty.
That said, I didn’t feel the intense connection and draw to Iceland the way I have with other places I’ve visited. I know a lot of people adore the country and many travellers return time and again; maybe I just didn’t have enough time to really appreciate it or maybe I spent too much time in the city and not enough out in nature but I don’t feel a desire to return anytime soon. Not to say I didn’t like it, honestly it’s difficult to explain. Just that I’m glad I’ve been but I wouldn’t rush to be back. And this might also sound strange but (sorry Mom and Dad), it kind of felt too safe. Someone I met put it really well: Reykjavik felt almost like a theme park. It was just so peaceful, everyone spoke English, the capital was small and easy to wander. Again, not to say I didn’t love my trip because I did but it was almost like being in this travel bubble where I had huge margins for error and nothing could go wrong. It definitely took away some of the adventurous feel. And I didn’t feel like I got to experience or see a different culture which for me is a huge and important aspect of travel. Definitely, I’ll go back someday if I get the chance and maybe road trip around, see more, but I’d choose to see somewhere new before going to Iceland again. I think I’ve seen enough of Europe for now though actually…I want to be really immersed in cultures very different than my own.
Overall, it was an amazing experience to travel alone, to meet new people and breathe fresh air in a different country. And like I mentioned, I’m already planning my next trip. Although this experience satisfied me for now, it also reinforced the desire to explore and see more. So skál (cheers) and bless (goodbye) to Iceland and to reading week, and another hello to Sam’s continuing, changing and growing grand adventure.