Tuesday, December 24, 2019

2019: The Year in Review

As 2019 (and this whole decade...wow) draws to a close, I've been reviewing this year and the past ten in my mind over the past few days, and I've failed pretty badly on the regular blogging front this year. So I'm squeezing in one final post before the new year. 

This year brought a lot of travel, and I turned 30 on the Kenyan coast in July. In the lead up to turning 30, I definitely felt anxious about the end of my 20s and put a lot of pressure on myself to figure more things out in my life. 30 seemed like the point that I needed to get my shit together a bit more than it feels like I have it together right now, and to get more serious and become a real adult, etc, etc. etc. So after a trip to France with two friends and then a long weekend with another group of friends in Lamu on the Kenyan Coast doing the complete opposite of getting more serious, I did a solo yoga retreat in Lamu. I tried to journal a lot and set big goals for my 30s and create a ten year plan and just generally feel a bit more like a real adult than I do now, and all I did was stress myself out. I don't regret doing the retreat, and I had a chance to journal a lot and think about my life, but I realize that needing to figure out the next ten years of my life was really unrealistic because there are so many variables. So I've just decided I'm winging it instead. 

A few travel highlights: 
  • Baja, Mexico: I started 2019 with a trip to Baja with my friends Abby and Alex. Although we envisioned working on our tans on the playa, some unseasonably cold weather meant that it was more like eating all the fish tacos we could handle shivering in our winter coats. One night our Airbnb was so cold I slept with all my clothes on. But I'm a big believer that it's the people that you're with and not the place, so this trip actually couldn't be beat. 

  • Kenya: I made a few trips to Kenya during the first part of the year, where I got to see a bit of our Kenya program and to spend a bit of time on the Kenyan coast. 

  • Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa: In April, I had the chance to visit Zambia, which I'd never seen before, and to see my friend Diana. We road-tripped down to Mosi-oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls), which was incredible, and I got to see the falls from both the Zambia and Zimbabwe sides. It felt so different from Rwanda, and reminded me a lot of Nebraska in a weird way. I then did a little solo trip in Cape Town, which never disappoints. 

  • Paris + Bordeaux, France: For my 30th birthday, I met my friend Molly and Julie for a summer trip in Paris and a few days in Bordeaux. The highlight for me was getting to be in Paris for FĂȘte de la Musique on Summer Solstice, where bands, DJs, and music groups play outside in free concerts all over the city all night. We walked across the city listening to different bands, joining dance parties where we felt like it, and accompanying a marching band along the banks of the Seine. 

  • Lamu, Kenya: After France, I packed some cheese and wine and flew to Lamu island on the Kenyan coast to meet up with a group of friends for a long weekend. It was my first time visiting Lamu, and it was really incredible. We took some epic sunset sailing cruises, ate some amazing Swahili food, and enjoyed the slower pace of island life. I then stayed in Lamu a few more days to do a solo yoga retreat, detox from the weekend, and have a few more helpings of their incredible curries...
  • New Hampshire + Massachusetts: In August, D'Assise and I took a trip back to the US to join my family on their summer vacation. It was D'Assise's first time on the East Coast. He cried the first time going into the Atlantic Ocean in New Hampshire because it was so cold, he tried lobster and clams, hit up the boardwalk arcades, and even went to his first Red Sox game at Fenway.
  • Zanzibar, Tanzania: I may have a very real Zanzibar addiction, and made a last-minute long weekend trip to Zanzibar in November. Zanzibar is never, ever a bad idea. 

  • Omaha, Nebraska: There's no place like home for the holidays, or so they say, and I couldn't agree more. It's been great spending some quality time with my family, making up a lot of sleep debt, and catching up with friends. I also had foot surgery last week, which has meant that I've spent a lot of time in sweatpants (the only thing that will fit over my cast!), eating a lot of cheese, and on the couch just taking it easy and recovering. 
  • New Orleans: I have one more trip left in 2019, to New Orleans with three friends. I've never been before, and I'm looking forward to closing out the decade on the bayou with good friends, lots of tasty food, drinks, and some live music, although I may be a bit dancing-impaired given my recent surgery. 
D'Assise started fourth grade in Kigali in August, and has experimented with a few different extracurricular activities at his school, including basketball, soccer, choir, and guitar. There was also a failed attempt by me to put him in "farm camp" for one semester which I thought was super cool (Learning to raise chickens! Proper planting techniques! Composting!) but he thought was a total drag, which is probably why I work in agriculture and he doesn't (although I haven't give up hope!). 

He's slowly learning to bicycle and to swim, to speak French and to play tennis as well, and it feels like this year he's turning a page from a little kid into a pre-teen. He's gotten really into Oldies music courtesy of my Dad, and regularly belts out the Beatles and Beach Boys at our house and pretends to be Chuck Berry on the guitar. I've also been doing a lot of thinking about the man I want him to grow up to be and have tried to intentionally begin teaching him a lot of the things I'd like him to know (I might do another blog post on this topic). I want him to learn how to cook well and take care of himself as a grown man, so we've started with very basic things like making coffee, eggs, pancakes, pesto pasta, and quesedillas. He's been super into it, and as a bonus he has on occasion made me coffee and breakfast in bed :) 

D'Assise turned eleven this December before we left for the U.S. (waking me up before 5 am to start celebrating...) and now he's happily enjoying some time with his aunt and uncle and GrandMom and GrandDad here in Omaha. He still believes in Santa Claus, although probably for the last year, and it still feels magical listening to him ask questions about the elves and the North Pole and Santa squeezing down our Omaha chimney on Christmas Eve. D'Assise has also enjoyed learning how to make pizza with my Dad, starting to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone together (best moment of this millennial's life :), talking sports and Creighton Bluejay basketball with my Dad every chance he gets, and spending every waking minute on our foosball table downstairs. 

To be completely honest, I'm ending 2019 sort of on a low note, even though this year has been incredible on the whole. I prioritized work way, way too much over the past three or four months, and it's been hard to overcome the deep feelings of guilt I feel as a single Mom for making the choices that I made. Looking back, I'm not sure that I could have done things much differently, but I feel burned out in a way that I haven't really felt before in my career. I'm not the first one to write about the ever-elusive "work-life balance" that working parents face, nor will I be the last. But I found that over the past few months, the pressures of being my family's sole breadwinner, managing a team of nearly 1,500 people, attempting to be a solid Mama to D'Assise, and trying and failing to maintain a relationship, really got to me. I've sort of learned the hard way that getting great results doesn't really replace the nights I'd get home too late to have dinner or put D'Assise to sleep, and career success doesn't make up for the Sundays I'd spend on my laptop instead of spending time with him. I'm taking a couple of weeks to relax and rest up for 2020 and hoping to re-balance before the beginning of the next decade, and to be more cautious about letting myself get too far off course in the new year. I also have to figure out how to let go of the Mom guilt that I'm feeling from these busy past few months.

2019 taught me that I don't have it all figured out yet, not even a little bit. I don't have parenting figured out and am still sort of making it up as I go along, doing the best I can with what I know and what I have. I don't have a ten year plan for my career, or even a five year one. I definitely don't have dating figured out. Maybe I'll never have all those things figured out, and that's ok. 

As I look to the 2020s, I'm mostly excited and a little bit nervous about all of the challenges this decade is going to bring. This decade, D'Assise will transform from my sweet little boy who still wants me to tell him bedtime stories each night to a full-blown teenager. He will graduate high school and begin university before the 2020s are finished (!!!). I can't wait to see the young man he grows into, although I'm definitely feeling quite unprepared to face teenage parenting. 

I've been thinking a bit about resolutions and intentions for the new year, and I've settled on two general themes: to better prioritize my time, and to challenge myself. I'm starting a new job in 2020, and really excited to gain some new experience in a few different African countries while maintaining my base in Kigali. I'm looking forward to being challenged in a lot of new ways and stepping outside of my comfort zone a bit, as well as seeing some corners of Africa I haven't been to yet. 

A few intentions for 2020: Prioritize + Challenge Myself 
  • Putting time with D'Assise first: I've only got seven years until D'Assise leaves for university, and I'm very much aware that the days of him wanting to spend a lot of time with me are waning. In 2020, I want to plan a couple of fun getaways with him, as well as prioritizing my weekends and evenings to spend time together. 
  • Better prioritize friendships: When I look back at 2019, the times I felt most alive were the times I spent with close friends: in Mexico, in France, on the Kenyan Coast, and here in Omaha, as well as having friends over for wine nights and game nights and dinners at our house. 
  • Teach a weekly yoga class: I worked hard to get my 200 hour yoga teacher certification eight years ago, but then promptly moved to Rwanda. Although I've taught a lot of classes for friends and some of my students over the years, I've never taught a regular weekly class at a gym or studio. I'd like to do a regular weekly class and challenge myself to get out of my comfort zone. 
  • Take more yoga classes + get back into running: I've always loved yoga, and used to run quite a bit before breaking a bone in my foot three years ago in a half marathon. I took an extended hiatus from running and turned to boxing instead, but now that I've just gotten foot surgery to repair my foot, I'm looking forward to getting back into running a bit in 2020. Well, after I get out of my cast and crutches. 
  • Learn some new things: I'd like to get better at salsa dancing, and maybe learn a fourth language (probably Spanish or Portuguese, but Swahili is a contender too). I feel energized by learning something new, and want to make sure I'm constantly challenging myself to grow. 
  • Take a sabbatical: In June, July, and August, I'll be taking a sabbatical from work to travel and spend some quality time with D'Assise. We're currently working out the details, but planning for a big South America tour, to Brazil, Argentina, and Ecuador hopefully. D'Assise is at a perfect age to travel, and I'm excited to start seeing more of the world with him.  
  • Read more: This is forever on my resolutions list, because can you ever read too much? 

Bring it on, 2020. Wishing all of you a wonderful new year and new decade!

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

A Quick Jaunt to Zambia

The big downside to living in Rwanda for me has been that after being here for seven years, nearly all my friends eventually leave. It's a heartbreaking experience every time and it means I have to re-make friends constantly. However, the (only?) upside to this situation is that I now have good friends who live all across the world. My friend Diana moved to Zambia over a year ago, and since then I've been trying to find a time to visit.

Three weeks ago, I finally had the chance after a work retreat in Kenya, and I landed in Lusaka after an early-morning flight. I haven't travelled in Southern Africa very much, and I was awed at how different it felt compared to Rwanda. Diana picked me up in her RAV-4 affectionately named Suzie-Q. We threw my (excessive) luggage in the trunk and headed to Kabwe, a small city about three hours north of Lusaka, in central Zambia.

One of the things I love about visiting friends in a different country is that they have unique insights into things that you might not otherwise know about. As we drove past several cement block factories, Diana pointed out to me that they usually had small Turkish flags on their signs and several had Turkish names. She explained that a few Turks had started cement block factories, and now Zambians just sort of associated Turkish bricks with being higher quality, and even the companies that had no affiliation with Turkey would name their brick shop a vaguely Turkish name or paint a small Turkish flag on their sign. 

Even though it was my first time there, Zambia felt oddly familiar to me, and I tried to put my finger on why. After Diana pointed out the trucks with company names like "Cargo 2 Congo" and "Zalawi", we passed on the tarmac road, I realized that one of the reasons was that Zambia, like Nebraska, is a place people often travel through to get to other places (I believe the kind term East and West Coasters give to places like Nebraska is "flyover territory"). For my friends from other states who have been to Nebraska, most have merely passed through on a cross-country road trip, down the endless straight expanse of Interstate 80, on their way to other places.

Nebraska or Zambia? 
Like Nebraska, Zambia was very flat, with large expanses of maize growing in rows as far as the eye could see. It felt quite different from Rwanda, where land sizes are tiny, the landscape is mostly green, lush, and hilly and most farming happens by hand.

About halfway to Kabwe, we pulled into a place called Lime & Thyme, which I would have missed if Diana hadn't already known where it was. Behind a grove of trees was a peaceful little restaurant with a broad, green lawn and a lovely shaded porch. I was sort of stunned at the selection of dishes offered at the restaurant considering it seemed like it was in the middle of nowhere. They had a long selection of brunch items, smoothies and other drinks, and in a few fridges and freezers lining the room, everything from fresh cheeses to kombucha to handmade ravioli. Insanity, I tell you! 
Breakfast at Lime & Thyme
Kabwe, Zambia
We finally arrived in Kabwe and pulled into Diana's house, which I finally learned to pronounce the Zambia way (Kab-way) and not the Rwandan way (Kab-gay). I was exhausted from the red-eye flight and promptly took a multi-hour nap while Diana headed to work (sorry, Diana!).

The next morning, Diana and I walked to her office. Kabwe was a small city, and the streets were pretty peaceful. One of the things that surprised me was the absence of motorcycle and bike taxis, which are ubiquitous in East Africa, from the biggest cities down to the most remote villages. Perhaps because Zambia is such a big country and the distances are far more vast, I only noticed cars and trucks on the streets of Kabwe.

Kabwe also felt much more developed than most places in Rwanda. There were even a couple of fast food restaurants and a pizza delivery place (being able to get a pizza delivered to your house is the pinnacle of development, in my humble opinion :) It was also an adjustment to be in an English-speaking country. Even though English is taught in Rwandan schools, most signs are in Kinyarwanda around the country, and I'm accustomed to translating when I read signs or speak to a shop keeper in Kigali. In Zambia, pretty much everything seemed to be in English.

We both worked for awhile at her office and then at noon Diana and I walked to get lunch at a nearby grocery store, Shoprite. On the way she pointed out Kabwe's most famous (only...?) tourist attraction, the Big Tree. I was surprised to find that the Big Tree was actually a national monument called "The Big Tree" and apparently is featured on one of the Zambian Kwacha cash notes. This is what I came for, people! 

After staring at the Big Tree for awhile, we headed to get lunch at Shoprite, which was packed at lunchtime. Diana informed me that this was the lesser Shoprite and that I should wait until we went to the proper one after work. Diana pointed out that there were people right outside the store selling some of the stuff you could buy inside. Apparently, the lines could get so long that it was worth it to some people to pay a few more kwacha for what they needed outside rather than wait in the queue inside. 

We got our lunch and headed back to the office for a few more hours of work, and then went to the real main attraction of Kabwe (sorry, Big Tree): the even bigger Shoprite a little outside of the center of town. If you're reading this from American right now, it may be hard for you to comprehend my extreme excitement about grocery stores, but if you're reading this from Rwanda you might understand my elation. Rwanda is a small, landlocked country where transport isn't always easy and the costs of importation are high, so you can't always find the grocery items you might want (ahem, cheeses). Sometimes you'll find the items you're looking for, but it will take going to five different stores to find what you need. Sometimes certain products are just not available, or it's so prohibitively expensive that you have to make do without it.  

When we walked into the bigger, badder Kabwe Shoprite that evening, I'm fairly certain my jaw hit the floor. They had everything I could possibly want to eat or buy. The fluorescent lights illuminated the rows upon rows of produce and the shelves upon shelves of jars and cans and bottles of all sorts of foodstuffs. There were things I couldn't buy in Rwanda even if I wanted to: peaches and plums! More than five cheeses to choose from! I couldn't contain myself and seriously considered joining our Zambia program as I gleefully perused the aisles. 

The cheese selection in Kabwe, aka Team Zambia's #1 recruiting strategy. 
We bought some wine and cheeses and bread and headed to meet up with two friends who previously worked in neighboring Burundi, Daniel and Laure. It was great catching up and hearing about their lives in Zambia. And then, because it was Friday night, that meant one thing: pizza night! Back when Diana and I both lived in Karongi in rural Western Rwanda, our community had a longstanding tradition of pizza night Fridays. Community members would take the time to roll out the dough, normally topping it with shredded Rwandan gouda, the only kind of cheese available, and bake it in the pizza oven behind the communal house. I'm fairly certain that this situation classically conditioned us, and Diana has kept the tradition alive in Zambia (albeit getting pizza from a small lodge in Kabwe and skipping the gouda :)

We jumped in Suzie-Q and headed to meet up with a few friends and colleagues at a nearby restaurant/hotel. We ordered some pizzas and I tried the local Mosi beer, after the real name of Victoria Falls, Mosi-oa-Tunya. My badass friend Andrew was traveling by motorcycle from Nairobi, Kenya to Cape Town, South Africa, and he was passing through Zambia at the same time, so we got a chance to catch up about his epic trip so far. He talked about his ride so far through Tanzania, Malawi, and Zambia and his plans for southern Africa, and I mentally calendared in an African solo motorcycle trip when D'Assise goes off to college. After we were stuffed with pizzas and Mosis, Diana and I headed back to her house to rest up for the road trip to Lusaka the next day. 

Monday, April 22, 2019

In Defense of Traveling Solo

About a week ago, I took a short trip to Zambia to visit my friend Diana (more on that soon!) and then a quick solo trip to Cape Town, South Africa. Don’t get me wrong, I really love a good trip with friends or family. But to me, it’s like comparing apples and oranges—both are quite nice in their own individual way. Since becoming a single adoptive Mom, there’s something that I find particularly refreshing about traveling by myself. In my everyday life, I’m often focused on my to-do list, and other people’s wants and needs, from my team to D’Assise. Most days I’m lucky to get a few minutes to myself before I fall asleep at night.

On a good solo trip, I’m not thinking about anything but myself and my own wants and desires. I can take the time to savor my meals, wander around different neighborhoods aimlessly, go on adventures, catch up on a bit of journaling at a cafĂ© (ok, a lot of journaling…), and just have the space and time to think. I have to make zero compromises. I can do pretty much whatever I want, whenever I want, and there’s something really freeing about that to me. 

In explaining this concept of being able to do whatever I want on a solo vacation to some friends at work, the example I gave was that I could eat dessert whenever I want. A colleague gently pointed out that as a full-grown adult, I could technically do that whenever I want in real life, not just on vacation, but I digress.

No parents! Double Dessert!
At several points during my vacation, I found myself questioning why I was traveling solo (or perhaps, that I was questioning myself after other people first questioned why I was traveling solo). The first time this happened was in Victoria Falls. My friend Diana had to get some work done, so I headed to the Zambia/Zimbabwe border myself to see the falls from the Zimbabwe side.

The Zambia side
At the border crossing, I handed over my passport to the Zambian immigration official on the other side of the glass.

“What’s your purpose in going to Zimbabwe?”
“Seeing the falls from the other sides, sir,” I replied.
“Where’s your partner?” he said, gazing up from my passport.
“Excuse me?”
“Why are you alone?”
“Um, I don’t know, I’m just traveling by myself?” I replied, flustered by the question.
“So you don’t have anyone with you? A husband? A friend?”
“No sir, just me.”

He gave me a skeptical look and gave me an exit stamp. I headed across the bridge spanning hundreds of feet above the churning waters of the Zambezi river on to Zimbabwe, pondering his questions.

Made it!
A few days later, I was having dinner for one at a restaurant in Cape Town. At this particular restaurant, a small dining room is filled with long tables, which you share with other people if your party isn’t big enough to fill them. As I pored over the menu with a glass of wine, deciding what I wanted to order, another couple sat down on the opposite side of the table as me and spoke together in a language I couldn’t understand. Once my food came, the man wearing a Yankees baseball cap asked me a question about what I ordered, and we slowly struck up a conversation. I learned that they were Dutch and just finishing their two week holiday; their flight was in a few hours.

Once again, I got the question, “Who are you traveling with?”
“Just me.”
“Really? All by yourself in South Africa?”            

We talked about why I find solo traveling so refreshing, my life in Rwanda, their life in the Netherlands, and they asked if they could buy some shots for me because they felt bad I was traveling all alone. Soon some sort of South African apple liqueur arrived at our table and we all took them together. A few more of the apple shots later, I had invited them to come visit me in Rwanda, and we’d exchanged contact information.

A couple nights later, I was thrilled to have found a last-minute reservation for the Potluck Club in Cape Town, which often requires bookings several weeks in advance. I took the elevator up to the top floor of the Old Biscuit Mill, which has spectacular views of Cape Town. I ordered a cocktail and waited for my table to be ready, taking in the twinkling lights of the city stretched before me.

My table was finally ready. The waitress asked me if I wanted to face out towards the window overlooking the city, or facing in towards the restaurant. I chose facing in, and as I sat down the waitress quickly removed the extra set of dinnerware at the tablet that had been set for two. I know a lot of people say they hate eating alone at a restaurant (especially when you can’t be pre-occupied by a book or scrolling through social media), but I sometimes find it kind of nice. I ordered a few dishes, ordered another cocktail, and then did what I often do when dining alone: just took everything in.

The restaurant was on the smaller side, but lively, with an open kitchen and bar. I noticed the chefs in the kitchen moving about at breakneck speed, almost in an elaborate dance, preparing the tasty small plates to go out to the diners eagerly awaiting them.

I began to look out at the other tables while sipping my drink, listening to the din of conversation filling the room.

There was a couple that looked about my parents’ age who had moved their chairs together right at the corner of their square table so they could hold hands and gently lean their shoulders together. I couldn’t hear what language they were speaking but inferred that they were American from the man’s belted pleated khakis and polished white New Balance tennis shoes and the wife’s vaguely safari-esque ensemble.

There was a younger Asian couple, who had brought their three or four year old child with them, which probably wouldn’t be a move I would make, but more power to them. The mother and father hurriedly ordered a bottle of wine to share, wrapped a napkin around their son’s neck, and lovingly cut their son’s food into pieces.

To my right, there were two South African girls who looked about my age, dressed to the nines in sharp dresses and stylish black heels. They chatted away about their work, discussed a possible girls’ trip to Mozambique, and then toasted with champagne to a new relationship one of the girls was in.

I was interrupted from my observations (some would say creeping, I like to say “observing” J) by the waitress at my table holding a very large book.

“Would you like something to read, miss?”
I was a bit befuddled by the question.
“This is a book about the restaurant and chefs here, I thought you might be interested in reading it while you wait.”
She placed the hefty book on the table, and I flipped through it, still sort of incredulous that the underlying assumption was that I needed something to distract me, or that I must be uncomfortable eating solo.
The book brought to me by the waitress. Seriously.
My food arrived, and it was truly amazing (highly recommended if you visit Cape Town!). I took the time to savor each bite and admire the artistry on each plate. I ordered extra dessert and another drink (because #solotrip). In between courses, I again gazed out at the other diners, disregarding the book beside me.

There was a married couple who looked completely miserable a few tables away. The wife seemed to be trying to engage her husband in conversation, while he barely looked up from his phone. When the food arrived at their table, the man would launch into a flurry of photos from every angle possible, and then would quickly return to his phone’s screen, his face aglow in the pale blue light in the dimly lit restaurant, while his wife looked like she might cry. This continued on the entire meal, the woman looking more and more dismal as the evening went on. My heart really broke for her, and at one point, I thought about offering her the sizable book on the chefs but ultimately decided against it.

I paid for my meal and on the elevator down I thought about how strange it was that this was the third time in about as many days that people assumed that I must be traveling with someone, or be unsafe/bored/unsatisfied in my own company. It was funny to me that the waitress had assumed I needed a book while I waited for my food, but that it would probably be socially unacceptable for her to have brought that chefs book out to the woman whose husband couldn’t be bothered to look up from his phone, even though she probably needed it a lot more than me.

And thus concludes my defense of traveling solo. Highly recommended, especially for the free pity shots at restaurants while dining alone.