Friday, March 27, 2009

Glimpses of a 'National Geographic' life

At certain moments in my life, I see the world clearly for a split moment. I see all of the beautiful people, blessings, and joys crisply and clearly as if I am staring into a wonderful movie, as if I am detached for that moment to truly see, to wonder at the beautiful spectacle that is life. In those moments, I think to myself, this is not just a story I am watching on a screen; this is my life. I realize the hilarity and that fate alone could have brought me to such a place in my life.

One of these moments happened while I was in Tanga at a wedding. I was completely surrounded by women, full of joy, dancing in a large circle with children. We danced outside of the groom’s house under a tent. As we moved slowly in a circle around the traditional band, our feet kicking up the hot sand-dirt, I smiled at the huge group of onlookers and did a slight head bow to signify my happiness at seeing them, my gratefulness to share some time in their beautiful smiles and warm, wordless welcomes. The colors of the women’s congas were vibrant contrasts to the sandy floors and colorless exteriors of the homes. The congas were draped over the heads of the older women. The material fell delicately and honestly around their foreheads and wrists, as only material truly lived and loved in can do. A man in the middle of the band, the center of our dancing formation, loudly sang in a chant-like way words I will never know, meanings I could never guess. I was wearing my only dress that I had bought from the market in Morogoro. I wrapped the other part of the material around my recently shaved head, partially protecting my innocent skin from the rapturous of the sun, but mostly trying to respect the beliefs of the beautiful women, men and children around me.

At this instant as I tried to find a rhythm in my dance that was similar to the music, although I believe that I will never be able to hear the rhythm correctly and act appropriately, I looked around seeing my life as a national geographic picture. I could see the vibrantly, life-like photographs that the article would have. I envisioned the quotes, the story line, the descriptions of the band’s beat, the lyrical language that would be necessarily to come anywhere close to the real experience. I was in awe.

I realized right then how hilarious I was, the experience was. Whitney, a little girl who grew up a few hours from Mexico in the heart of Tex-Mex saying “Ay Ay Ay” and waking up to mariachi bands, a little girl who’s favorite thing in the world was to go see her grandparents and jump on the trampoline with water and, more importantly, her cousins, who loved to play in the mud and drag thrown away christmas trees to her backyard with her brother and sisters to create a giant tepee (aka a hole to China to the neighbors, but don’t tell them that it wasn’t real). Here that girl was in Africa, in Tanzania, in Tanga, right off the Indian Ocean, dancing with women I could not understand, at a wedding for a groom and bride I didn’t know. But here I was. How did I get here? How did that little “Ay Ay Ay” saying, trampoline jumping, Christmas tree dragging hellion come to Africa, to this very spot, at this very moment to be sharing this experience with these people.

No words could suffice, no words could convey my awe at the moment, but no words were needed- I could only convey my awe through gestures, smiles and holding hands. I could never say it better. When people ask me about my trip, there is simply nothing I can say. I always feel like my answers to these questions are so ridiculous and inept. How could I sum up something that was never verbal, but a life experience of color, short shared moments with people whose stories I will never know, but who I experienced life with dancing around a band at a wedding, in Tanga, in Tanzania, in Africa?

More importantly, this moment causes me to pause and reflect and wonder what moments I am missing in my daily, ‘normal’ life. What moments with my loved ones have I missed the importance of? These beautiful moments of raw honesty and joy don’t just happen in Africa; they happen in living rooms in Texas, in parks in Virginia, in streets of Calcutta, in gas stations in Alabama. They happen in my day-to-day life, in the boring, in the mundane, when everything seems perfectly normal and to be the same old thing, there is a little miracle.

I wonder: why have I not realized this before? Me. I am not able to see the beautiful, life defining moments in my own life. Traveling has awakened my senses to see more clearly the gorgeous, little miracles at home. I want to recognize the ‘national geographic’ moments in my each day: when I am sitting around the table on a Tuesday night eating with my family, my mother laughing so hard she is crying, my littlest sister recalling some hilarious story of the day about a boy being cute until he opened his mouth, my brother patting his newly filled stomach and talking about running and lifting, and the ever complaint of how he can’t build muscles like other boys; the evenings spent sitting in the grass with friends discussing our newly built college lives, dropping tea all over the new concrete and eating dark chocolate for comfort; sitting in classrooms discussing ideas, dreams and hopes of the future with teachers and friends: long, life-drawing emails from people I love detailing their defining moments in the last weeks.

These are the times, the seemingly uneventful moments, which are the miracles that define my life. I am starting to realize that maybe ‘normal’ isn’t so normal; maybe ‘everyday occurrences’ are more than just everyday occurrences. I just needed a little African push to see the beauty in my own life, the little miracles.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Courtney's Family

Every Friday morning, Harold (with bald Whitney in this picture), an employee with the organization I am working for, drives 3 hours into Dar es Salaam to get samples from hospitals for the rats to sniff for Tuberculosis. He leaves at 5:30 am to start the drive to the economic capital of Tanzania (it also used to be the capital city until a famous Tanzanian president tried to create unity by moving the capital to the geographic middle of the country, but still Dar is the most important city in the country and the new capital is only by name the capital.) I have gone with Harold before to see some of the national hospitals and to see the collection of sputum samples (these are basically little cups of spit and phlegm). But this time my boss, Courtney and I were planning on going with Harold for part of the way and then taking a ferry to see her Tanzanian family that she had lived with for 8 months the first time she came to Tanzania.

I was really excited to meet her family and to experience Tanzania in a Tanzanian’s house- to see how they spent their time, to see how they prepared their food, how they slept. I was ready for an adventure because I was getting so much into my work that I needed a mental break, and I am always up for a new adventure or new experience.

So we got up and threw our stuff into the car to share with other loud talking Tanzanians. We drove the 3 hours to Dar and went to the hospitals, and then Harold dropped us off near the ferry to a peninsula of Dar. We walked by the hustling fish market where local fishermen sell their day’s work right next to the Indian Ocean. We walked into a large open area with a tin roof to wait for our ferry to the peninsula of Dar where Cournty’s family lives. Dar es Salaam is a very hot place; I would say about 95 degrees or so now with no air conditioners anywhere. But the part that makes Dar so hard for me is that the sun is incredibly bright. I guess Tanzania is closer to the sun because I can really feel the sun beating on my poor really (too white) skin and baking it until it is a nice crispy red. We crossed the ferry, which was about 5 minutes in total, to the peninsula. We got on a NDallaDalla (local bus) to go to their house. We piled in with our backpacks and sat crammed in the bus with as many people that could fit; they have a saying in Tanzania: There is no such thing as a full bus. I believe it, but that is very true in India and other countries.

We arrived at our stop to find Macey, 22, and Joseph, 10, waiting to help us carry our things. They smiles were inviting and warmer than the hot weather. I introduced myself and hugged Macey as she said “Karibu sana.” Joseph was more reserved and quite, but he still smiled a big Tanzanian smile as we began our walk to their home. We walked past mud houses, normal for Tanzania, on our little path in between trees and untamed vegetation. After about 5 minutes, we reached their house. There were chickens and roosters running around with little chicks following every move of their mothers. On the side of the house was a little garden and clothes and sheets blew freely in the wind. We walked into the house, slipping our shoes off as we entered. I met Grace, the younger sister that is my age, with a hug and welcoming me in English. Grace is a wonderful singer who has a band that she is hoping will take her through life. She loves talking about music and about the Tanzanian music groups.

The house was a nice one for Tanzanian standards, but there was no running water, not stove or oven- however there was electricity. Little bugs ran in and out of the house- beetles, ants of all varieties, tiny cockroaches, mosquitoes made this their home with Anna and her family. They coexisted without causing the other too many difficulties. Macey took my backpack into her and Grace’s room where Courtney and I would stay during the weekend. We then sat down in the livingroom as Macy cooked ugali, a typical Tanzanian food made from boiling water and adding Maize flour to create a thick porridge-type rice dish. Then Grace and Macy brought the ugali and side dishes to go with the porridge, and we all proceeded to eat with our hands, a skill I thankfully learned in Nepal last summer- and it is a skill to eat with one hand without making a mess. The food was lovely and full of new spices and tastes. I looked over and noticed that Joseph made the sign of the cross and muttered to himself before eating. It made me think.
We ate and talked and even watched an American movie (funny).

Later, Anna, the head of the household, arrived like a storm of energy and liveliness ready to welcome me and hold my hand. Her face is so expressive and joyful- full of life in all ways. She hugged me and talked with me- I trying to speak some Kiswahili and she trying to teach me some. They all were able to speak English quite well though so I was able to fully communicate with all of them.

We talked for a bit before the process of dinner began. They have a ‘kitchen’ that is outdoors where they build a fire to cook rice and chapattis and everything else for dinner. In the middle of dinner preparation, a man brought buckets of water for bathing and cooking in large 10 gallon buckets. We carried them into large tubs in the short hallway to use for bathing later and the rest went into the cooking area for food.

I tried to help them make dinner, but they would not let me. I was a guest and therefore I would not do anything. So I sat with Grace as she cooked chapati (basically a crepe in this case) on a little charcoal burner on the front porch. I asked her about music and her band and we chatted as the chapattis cooked for about 2 ½ hours. Dinner took at least 3 hours to prepare and was a huge process of getting water and heating up the fire. Everything was done by hand. I realized the true meaning of “modern conveniences” as I really saw how long it takes when you don’t have modern conveniences. It is a long, but not impossible, process. Because they don’t have running water, they have one bucket where they put all of the dirty dishes and trash so that they can wash it later on.

As I watched the family in the way they interacted and loved each other, I was reminded of my family and how much I love them and spending time with them. Anna would smile a full body smile as she looked upon her children- a smile only a mother can do. In the family, I saw my sisters and brother and playing card games with them and little arguments. I was reminded of my mom laughing so hard she could not control herself. This family was so much like my own even across a huge ocean with a different culture and way of life. Through being with and experiencing life with this family far from my home, I truly understood the importance of my family and our love for each other. I miss my family dearly and can’t wait to see them all and spending time with Anna and her family reminded me just how important my family is to me.
Once dinner was ready, we sat down to eat. Anna said we must pray because it very important. We all bowed our heads and did the sign of the cross as Anna blessed the food and thanked God for the many blessings she has. She finished the prayer and began saying how important it is to pray and thank God for everything in life. She had such a powerful faith in a real-life way. She talked about her life and hardships as thanksgiving to God. Her favorite saying to any question of time was- God’s time is the right time. When the food was not ready, it was because it was not God’s time. When they had all been living in a one room shared apartment, it was because that was God’s time and she understood God’s hand in her life in a real way- through hardship and good times, heartbreak and love, sorrow and joy. Her faith was strong and unyielding, like a strong house that could go through many storms and still be strongly attached to its foundation. Her strong faith was inspirational to me. Her ability to see the good in hard things and hard times challenged me to do the same in my life.

After we ate dinner, I went to the room to change for bed because it was already 11 pm by this time. I put on my pajamas and then Grace came and told me that everyone was waiting for me to have a family meeting when I was ready. I walked into the room and sat down on a worn-down couch with little cushion left, and smiled at my beautiful host, Anna. I had just taken out my contacts so I was not really able to see everyone that well.

Anna started to talk about our plans for the next day- we were going to the beach to celebrate Grace’s graduation from Form 6 (Our equivalent to graduating high school) and Anna’s 44th birthday. We were planning on leaving at 8:30 am so we would need to get up by 5 am at the latest to prepare food to take and get everything ready. We talked about times as Grace and Macy complained about he early morning. After the morning plans were decided, Anna looked at me and said something like: “We want to welcome you to our home and to tell you that this will always be your home as well. We are now your family and you will always have a place with us. We have grown very close with Courtney as one of our daughters and we know that we will grow just as close with you. You are how our daughter and sister. You are always welcome.” I didn’t really know what to say; I was taken into the family so quickly without a second thought- just love and openhearted welcoming. Adam, Anna’s 28 year-old boyfriend, presented a conga, a Tanzanian piece of fabric that women use to wear over their clothes and for bathing. Congas are the Tanzanian version of a card, because they are given when someone comes or leaves or on any celebration. They have little messages on the bottom that act as the greeting. You have to be careful to buy an appropriate conga though so you don’t give a “You will be a wonderful mother” conga to a young girl for her Form 3 graduation.

So Adam handed me this piece of fabric, and I was officially welcomed as a part of the family. I was grateful and dumfounded and inspired. I realized how much I love my family and miss them. My family is incredibly important to me and growing with Anna’s family opened my eyes to see how much I want to be near my family.

Sometimes it takes me traveling far away to see what I have been looking for is where I started.

I travel far away
To find, to search
For meaning and purpose
For understanding and experience

I find
Meaning, purpose, understanding, experience
Leading me, showing me
The beauty and truth of where I started-

(My little try at poetry. I know I am not great but I enjoy writing!)
I also included a picture of me two days after I shaved my head! he he! the world is cooler with no hair! Who would have known?!?! :)