A Reflection of My Life after living in Uganda as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer

Thursday, September 29, 2011

I Love the North East!

The North East holds another really important person for me: my sister Ang. She is in her last semester of college and when she wasn't writing for the Boston Globe, planning graduation, working or going to class, she made a bit of time for her best older sister. I introduced her to some of my favorite old hang-outs. We drove around taking in the charm of New England. I listened to all her problems and gave sound advice (at least I think so). She graciously rubbed my back as we snuggled in bed - well, there may have been a few complaints but she did it! We also walked a few beaches in there too.

Notice Ang still has that bright-eyed look of the young and innocent to her.
I, on the other hand, am brow furrowed from the harshness of life.
Or, maybe it was just our individual responses to the sun in our eyes:

It was fun seeing a part of her life. Ang asked if it was weird seeing her in Boston. We never lived there at the same time. Other friends asked if it was strange seeing them 3 years later now with husbands, children, houses, driving BMW's and Saub's. It was different, yes, but it seemed normal too. It's a natural progression. They're living life, I'm living life. Those exterior changes are interesting to see but it's the interior ones I want to grow with them through and hope they grow with me.

While the biggest part of what I love about the North East is the people, I also absolutely love the ocean and the beach. It is probably my favorite place in the world. Any large body of water does it for me but there is just something extra special about the ocean. It brings me peace and calm. I find rest there. I tried to get in as much beach time as I could on this visit. I even made it to the water in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine! And I was honored to be along for Bridget's son Parker's first trip to the beach. He loved it, of course!

Fall in New England is a time for apple picking, going on drives to see the vibrant changing of leaves, apple cider donuts, hay rides, pumpkin ice-cream and last minute trips to the beach when it is a surprisingly warm day. When I was in college and even after, my friends and I would drive up to Ipswich to walk through a corn maze and buy fresh fall produce. Outside of the corn maze there is a measuring stick to mark your growth over the year. Since I started going there I haven't grown. Every year it says the same thing and every year I am a little disappointed. At least I'm not shrinking...yet...
Five Years Later...
And so I left the East Coast, the same size I have been for years, with baby spit up on every outfit I brought, sand sticking to my toe nails and so much love in my heart for the beauty of the area, the memories I have and most of all for the deep friendships that pass the tests. Goodbye New England. Until next time...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

East Coast Friendships

Over the last 6 months I have learned more about friendships than I thought I needed to know. When you reach your late 20's you think you have a good understanding of friendship. The drama of middle school friendships are over. The drifting apart of high school friends is passed. The staying up all night learning minute details of each other in college are through. Yet, as life continues and the true friendships stay, you learn what it really means to remain friends.

All through my time in Africa I had great friends calling me once a month, writing e-mails, and sending letters and packages. I felt supported and loved. I needed those notes of encouragement and reminders that I was still loved back home so that I could keep living my life in Uganda confidently. While that may have been a testing time for some friendships - who is going to stick with you when you live 8000 miles away - I didn't feel the test until these last 6 months when I was living in the U.S. again. Who is going to accept that you are different now? Who is going to ask the probing questions that make you be honest with yourself and with your friends? Who is going to call you over and over even when you don't have the strength to return their calls? Who is going to get on the next train when you are having the saddest day of your life and come hug you? Who dares to keep living with you when you barely know what living is in that moment? I am usually strong and friendship doesn't seem too hard. But I recently went through a time when I wasn't the strong one. I needed my friends to be strong for me. I needed them to ask me how I was really feeling. Friendship was hard.

I am very thankful for the friends I have. These last few days in the North East have revealed more friends who have stuck it out with me -who want to know who I am and who accept the differences and the things that have stayed constant. Thank you for your understanding and your love! May we continue to weather life together.


Molly, you make me see life more abstract. You help me live in the gray and be happy there. You ask me hard questions and let me ask you hard questions. I value your advice and am honored when you ask for mine. Thank you for taking me into your home and letting me live a bit of life with you and your family. Your daughter makes my heart melt. I am so proud of the mom you are and the wife you try to be. Thank you for sticking with me. I am so thankful for your friendship.

I can't believe I didn't get any pictures with you Molls but here is a piece of you I absolutely love!

Celeste, you are a new friend but one I have been through so much with already. You understand a part of me that most cannot because they haven't lived it with me like you have. You also understand this crazy time of adjustment and I am thankful for your words letting me know I'm not alone in these feelings. You make me smile and remind me to be young at heart. Who else makes getting face paint and airbrush tattoos so much fun? Your joy for life is infectious. Thank you for being there for me. Kwagala nnyo Mukwano gwange!

Celeste, me and Thomas - RPCV's from Uganda at the Jazz Festival in Boston 6 months after leaving Uganda

Diana and Paul, you remind me of all the experiences we have been through together. Your recount of life leaves me breathless from laughter. You both ask questions that challenge me to be thoughtful and not flippant with my response. Your sense of time gives me hope that parts of Africa can live in America. Thank you for your firm gentleness and your genuine interest in who I am and who I will and can be. Your friendship is so special.

Me, Diana and Paul at the beach in Maine - ahhhhh

Bridget, where do I even begin? You are so insightful. You know how to put yourself in someone else's shoes and feel for them. Thank you for you phone calls, emails, letters and packages over the years, especially over the last few months. I can't thank you enough for trying to understand me and changing with me. You don't let me get away with much. Your fight and exuberance for life make me want to live fully. You make me laugh so hard I almost pee my pants at times. Thank you for all you are to me and more.

I decided this wasn't too scandalous of a picture to post
since you have already put yourself breastfeeding on your blog

I love you! And Parker too.
This trip East has reminded me further of how blessed I am to know and be known by some pretty incredible people. Thank you dear friends for living life with me.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Boston, I'm back!

I used to live on the East Coast. A large part of my development happened there. I went to college and entered the working world when living in/around Boston. I love Boston! Yet, when I came back from Uganda, Boston was the last place I wanted to go. There were too many memories there. And too many people I would need to see. The pace of life seemed so fast I didn't think I could handle it. So I put it off. I talked on the phone to my friends there and made half enthused promises to visit soon.

As time has passed I have become more emotionally stable. I am more confident in my ability to live in the States again. And a burning desire to see Boston and visit my old life pushed through. I called my friend Bridget and asked if she'd be around and after getting the affirmative, I bought my ticket before I could change my mind.

As my plane descended over Boston and I looked out at the familiar sites I couldn't keep the smile from my face. I was back! I was coming home.

It is always a struggle of wanting to spend quality time with people and wanting to cram as many activities in as you can when you visit. And really, who can resist the carrot cake pancakes with maple cream cheese butter from my favorite breakfast place on the North Shore?

And creamy pumpkin ice-cream from Richardson's? It's only a fall flavor after all!

The memories are good here. And the friends are fantastic. My time in Boston will fly so quickly. But I am very happy to be here. So watch out Boston, I'm back!

Monday, September 19, 2011

A MN Cultural Night

My friend Paul is into Minnesota cultural events. In August, my friend Lauren was visiting me from Philadelphia and Paul told us about the annual A Prairie Home Companion Street Dance that would happen in September. This event is to kick off the opening of a new season of A Prairie Home Companion by Garrison Keillor. They broadcast the show on the street in front of the theater and after the show the night is full of live music, contests, meatball and mash potato dinner and dancing.

Paul goes to this event every year so I planned to also attend. When I was in South America I told the girls I was traveling with about it and JaNahn admitted to her huge crush on Garrison Keillor and became adamant about attended as well. She even heard about the Loon call competition and practiced all along the Amazon River. Lauren happened to be in town for work this week and extended her ticket to spend the weekend with me. So it was Lauren, JaNahn, Paul and I who hit up a true Minnesota cultural event.

It was really fun to see so many proud Minnesotans and visitors hanging out on Exchange Street in St. Paul all excited about Minnesota accents and Loon calls. It was also fun to see Lauren, who grew up in South Jersey and now lives in Philadelphia, experience something so Minnesotan.

JaNahn beaming from being in the presence of Garrison Keillor
Garrison Keillor moderating the Loon call competition

Afterwards, Paul took us around to a few other St. Paul, Minnesota hot spots. Here are Lauren and I at Mickey's Diner.

I find it strange yet normal to have different lives converge. Paul is a friend from growing up and represents so much of Minnesota to me. Lauren is a college roommate and my life out East. Yet, we all meld together somehow despite our different cultures. It really is beautiful.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

My Endless Winter

Why are there tomato plants and flowers inside our house? Because last night we had the first frost of fall. It is the 15th of September! Much too early if you ask me. I feel that I have been jipped of summer this year. I spent my summer in San Francisco entrenched in fog. I spent a month in the winter of South America. And now, I am in Minnesota and it is jumping into fall and winter. I don't like cold weather. Take me back Amazon!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Being a Gypsy

I sat next to a business man on my flight home. After telling me about his company and all that he does the inevitable question came, "What do you do?" To which I put on my innocent surprised to be asked this question face and say in all seriousness, "I'm a gypsy," and smiled slightly. "Seriously?" he asked. "Oh, yes. I travel the world as the wind blows. I work a little here and there. Enough to fund the next adventure."

Of course, my mother is horrified every time she hears me say this. While she has supported and appreciated my life endeavors thus far, she also wants me to come across as responsible and not completely flighty.

As a self-professed gypsy, I know this season of travel and exploration is coming to an end. I have one more trip planned and then I will become "responsible" and look for a job. I'm about ready to settle into life in the States again: have a steady job, get an apartment, make friends with my neighbors and so forth. This time of mourning, or readjustment as some call it, has been an adventure of self discovery in and of itself. I have been coming to terms with ending a life I absolutely loved and starting a new one that I can and will come to love too. After spending the last month in South America, I feel much more settled and confident in my ability to live.

So, the end of my gypsy era is approaching. It isn't over yet. I still have another trip to make but it is coming to an end. In my heart, part of me will always be a gypsy. But the physical part will let it go for a time.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

South American Part VII: Bogota

Pictures for now. Words to come soon...
Bogota, Colombia

Melissa with our new friend David

JaNahn and I drinking coffee from cups that say, "Perfect Love" in Spanish

Saturday, September 3, 2011

South America Part VI: The Tri Boarder

We got off the boat at the junction of Peru, Brazil and Colombia. As this is the Amazon, and a developing world, getting an exit stamp was quite the trial. We had to walk with the sun and high humidity during the heat of the day to a little village in Santa Rosa. After finding the police, who you had to check out with first, and then a man with a stamp, we had to hike back to the river and take a boat across to Colombia. Then we had to go to the airport to get an entry stamp. However, all traffic into the airport was closed when we got there because a flight was coming in. Does this make sense? We eventually got the necessary stamps and even bought our airline tickets to Bogota for only $100!

JaNahn, Kate and I popped over to Brazil for the night to see a festival that was going on. There were a lot of dancing women wearing g-strings and feather head dresses. All aged Brazilians were performing traditional dances and loud drums and other instruments were playing. It was fun to be in the crowd. We were given flags to wave and people seemed happy to have us sitting amongst them.

Melissa was sick during our time in the Colombian Amazon so while she slept JaNahn, Kate and I went for on a jungle walk, explored Leticia and its many street food stalls and walked through the markets selling cheap products. The tri-boarder was a fascinating place. While the jungle is the jungle on any side, the towns were vastly different from each other. Santa Rosa in Peru was unpaved, small and simple. Tabatinga, Brazil was colorful with more scantily clad people. Leticia, Colombia was extremely friendly and developed with clothes stores, grocery stores, gas stations and paved roads with nice houses. Life seemed a bit easier on the Colombia as opposed to the Peru side.

The Amazon continued to be a magical place for me and one I hope to visit again someday.

No cars - only motorcycles/scooters - Leticia, Colombia
Little shops/markets selling most anything
What else is there to do when it's so hot you can barely breathe? Eat ice-cream with JaNahn, of course!

Delicious street food vendor!

Alligator we saw on our walk that's retinas has been eaten by ants so it couldn't see
Trailed path in the Amazon jungle
A real live anaconda!
The Amazon River was in low season
Bridges connecting countries

South America Part V: Drifting Down The Amazon

Melissa loves the mountains. She couldn't stop raving about the beauty we were continually in and she felt deep peace and comfort there. I also love the mountains but it is water that brings me the most peace, contentment and life. It was with a bit of sadness for Melissa that we left the Andes Mountains and flew to Iquitos in the Northern Peruvian Amazon.

Ever since the very first night in Lima, I felt like I could breath again. A weight had been lifted that I didn't even know was on me. It was in Iquitos that life really fully came back to me. Iquitos was hot and humid. Everyone rode on motorcycles because the city is only assessable by air and water. Things were slower. Dinner didn't start until 8 pm. Tarp covered restaurants were crowded near the markets with outdoor cooking stands. The markets were busy and hot with flies dancing around. The water was brown. The sun beamed down and I loved it all! It was the most like the life I used to live. I got it. I understood it. I felt comfortable there.

We went down to the docks where there were no docks only cargo boats sitting on the sand being filled with goods. The first boat we went on was hot and dirty. The captain was indifferent to us. The second boat we checked out was clean and less hot. Again the man we talked to was indifferent to our wanting passage. The selling point for us was the butch woman we saw in the kitchen. We figured this Amazonian woman would be our ally if it turned out to be a boat of all men.

We booked three hammock spaces and 1 cabin (really just a closet with narrow bunk beds). I knew I wouldn't sleep well in a hammock and we needed a place to lock up our luggage so this situation seemed like a good idea. The boat was scheduled to leave the next evening at 5 pm. We were there at 2:30 to secure good hammock spaces. The boat was a live with a million and four activities with men loading the boat with cargo and passengers setting up their hammocks. Cargo was everything from Fanta to cows to motorcycles. Probably some drugs too but they were not visible.

It was incredibly hot on the boat while we waited for it to finish loading. I finally got off and sat on the banks in some shade and watched the loading process. At 5 pm they were still loading. At 6 pm they were still loading. At 7 pm they were still loading. At 8 pm they had finished loading and all passengers were supposed to be on the boat but they were still negotiating business with the so called authorities. At this point, we are convinced we are going to die on this boat from overheating. I went down to the open cargo area where the mothers with babies all stood flapping banana leaves or clothes trying to create a breeze to cool down their babies. I eyed the situation and slide up close to one mother hoping to benefit from her waving. With sympathetic looks I made friends with these women and offered to hold one of the babies. This was a selfish act. While I held the baby the mother waved her make-shift fan and I received direct fanning. While I did enjoy the slight breeze my torso soon became drenched in sweet from holding a hot little body and my arms became tired from the weight. But these were precious moments too. There is nothing like a little body resting in your arms. And there is nothing like a gathering of women suffering through a piece of life together in commonality.

The boat finally pushed off at 10 pm. The girls went to sleep upstairs in the hammocks and I opened my cabin door trying to get the finally moving air in. Within the first hour we had hit 2 sandbars. By the second hour we ran straight into an island. It was a pretty big hit and caused the boat to teeter. I stepped out of my cabin to survey our status and found all the men passenger pulling on as many life jackets as they could get their hands on. Some were wearing 3! Not one woman or child had a life jacket. There are some things that really make my blood boil and selfish men who care nothing for the safety and protection of women and children really gets it moving. Seeing we were stuck and the crew was out digging in the dirt trying to dislodge us from the island, I went back to sleep.

Storms can come up quickly and Santa Ana tropical storm hit with a force as we were still stuck on the island. The rain pounded in from all direction. I felt a slight mist from my bunk but found it refreshing. As I was about to drift off again I hear, "Amanda? We're coming in." And the three girls entered. We rearranged luggage and cuddled two to a bunk. The rain was raining in on the top deck and everyone had moved their hammocks and huddled in the middle trying to protect their belongings and stay as dry as possible. JaNahn said, "We're such Americans. We pick an adventure and as soon as it gets to be too much we go to safety."

Eventually we got off the island and continued making our way down the Amazon River. The rest of our trip was smooth sailing and pretty relaxing. It was very slow since we stopped at every village along the river to deliver supplies and pick up other goods to be traded or sold further down river. I enjoyed just sitting on a bench with other Peruvian passengers as we watched the efficiency and order of taking on and off of passengers, the loading and unloading of cargo and the boat's orders of operation. The kitchen staff brought us meals three times a day. We had porridge every morning with bread. Lunch was rice and beans, vegetables and sometimes meat. Dinner was soup. There was nothing touristy about it. It was a functional boat doing its job on the Amazon River. I loved it!

This stretch of the Amazon is the only place in the world you can see pink dolphins. We saw them! They were beautiful in their own way. Very interesting.

The Amazon River and jungle is an incredible place. I am very happy we spent some down-time here.
Passengers passing time looking out as we floated along
Tributary along the river - villagers coming to gather supplies from the cargo boat
Little boys hanging out in cargo rickshaw as we float along
Cute kids we met - hanging out in their hammocks
Melissa and JaNahn looking out as we float along
Packed hammock space on the top floor
Melissa with a stolen life jacket in my cabin
Cargo on the front of our boat, at a port unloading and loading
Village along the Amazon River
Unloading cargo