single serving friends

If you’ve never seen Fight Club, then the title of this post might not mean anything to you. I happened to watch it for the first time on the plane from New York to Dubai. Or maybe it was from Dubai to Abuja? Or was it on the way back? I can’t remember. All I know is that I was on a plane watching grown men kick the crap out of each other. Overall I thought the movie was bizarre. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting, but I’m still glad I watched it if for no other reason than I was introduced to the idea of a single serving friend.

The main character in Fight Club has a theory that while you’re traveling everything is single serving: the coffee, sugar, coke, snacks, toothpaste…even the friends. His theory perfectly describes the phenomenon that, in my opinion, is what makes travel truly worthwhile – connecting with perfect strangers on completely even ground. Imagine this hypothetical situation for a minute. You’re standing alone by the baggage carousel and another person comes to stand rather close to you. Most people squeeze as close to the carousel as physically possible, but not you two. You guys stand a respectful distance away, patiently waiting your turn to push through the masses and heave your bag off the moving belt. You have no idea whether that person is a millionaire or just scraping by. Whether they have a great relationship with their parents or forget to send even birthday cards once a year. Do they have a significant other? Are they good at their job? Do they tip well? How often to they exercise? What do they regret? You know none of these important things. Something about a 14 hour flight seems to even everyone out – no one gets off one of those flights looking very fresh. The typical markers of success, wealth, struggle, and failure are slowly rubbed away leaving a naked human being in their place. All you know is that you’re standing alone by the baggage carousel and they’re standing alone by the baggage carousel and somehow you feel like it would be a terrible tragedy if these two individuals standing alone didn’t somehow recognize each other. Maybe strike up a conversation. Maybe not. But at least turn to the other person, give them a little smile and an eye-roll that says “how freaking long does it take to unload some bags?” and by doing so, give a small nod of appreciation to that which is human and eternal and precious about the total stranger standing next to you. You may not know them, but you recognize that there is something worth knowing about them, so you open yourself just enough to smile or make a light comment about the terrible injustice of having to pay for a baggage cart.

For me, those little moments are the most wonderful, enlightening thing about traveling. Whether it’s merely a glance, the exchange of a few words, or a laughing conversation that ends in a warm goodbye, it is these completely random interactions, unburdened by the biases and judgments we bring to normal life, that prove to me just how wonderful it can be to be vulnerable. Next time you’re at the airport take a look around. Most people go into what I call “bubble mode” when they’re traveling. They stick the headphones in, crank up the tunes, bury themselves in a magazine, or glue their noses to the screens of glowing devices. Rarely does anyone just sit and look around, acknowledging the people sitting near them or walking by, soaking in the atmosphere of going places, connecting with the people making the journey by their side. Am I the only one who finds that so strange? That we all sit together in the terminal or at the gate or in the tin cans we call airplanes, getting ready to travel across the country or across the world side by side, and we hardly even look at each other? It’s weird. It’s disconnected. And I stumbled across a ground breaking not-so-secret about 7 or 8 long-haul flights ago… Traveling for 36 hours straight can really suck. Sorry for not putting that more elegantly, but seriously, the stale air, the airplane food, the uncomfortable airport chairs, the swollen ankles, the borderline bathrooms – it can be really terrible. But the real secret is that it can also be wonderful, nurturing, and so sweet.

Crazy as it sounds, I love those long days. I live for them. And I realized a while ago that my love of travel stemmed from one very simple practice. I strive to connect with the people around me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s extremely important to be careful and alert when you travel, but that doesn’t mean we have to shut everyone out. Whether I’m sitting at a hotel bar, standing by the baggage carousel, eating pizza at 2 am in the airport, riding on a tour bus, wandering a market, gritting my teeth on a bumpy bus, holding my nose through an iffy bathroom experience, standing in line with aching shoulders waiting to check my bag, or sniffling over who and what I’m leaving, I do my best to really see the people sharing space with me and reach out to them if I can. I’ve discovered that even the grouchiest looking fellow travelers are no match for a charming smile and sincere compliment. Without fail, I walk away from every single serving interaction with a smile on my face. It turns out that being nice to people – reaching out with an open hand to say, I see you friend, thanks for being here, it matters – is the best thing you can do for yourself. It makes you feel more human, more connected, more grateful, more aware…just happier. And when single serving friends turn into lasting ones who text you from all around the world giving music suggestions, sharing funny stories, inviting you to visit, and just checking in….well that’s probably the most rewarding, satisfying feeling I have ever experienced. All because I try to look up out of my bubble and really see the person standing next to me.

So here’s to all the people I connected with while traveling recently. Including (but certainly not limited to)…

Mrs. Worrywart and Mr. Ex-Marine on the flight from NYC to Dubai:  you were the sweetest couple I’ve ever met, and the way you treated each other helped me understand what I eventually want from a relationship.

My fellow Breakfast Club members: though it was annoying to have to finish our Starbucks so quickly, huddling together in the corner sharing stories before proceeding through security made the 2:30 am flight so much less jarring.

Frank. For being brave. Also Chris, Ada, and Joy. For making my one day off so lovely and full of laughter and for teaching me the language of Nigerian car horns – an invaluable skill to be sure.

All the seriously kick-ass filmmakers, photographers, and artists I met at the African International Film Festival in Calabar, Nigeria, especially Bobby, Domilolo, Chile, Dayo, Msuur, Olive, and Koko. You are inspirational, beautiful human beings who also really know how to party. You’ll never know how perfect your timing was.

Brandon from the hotel bar in Dubai: You made those five hours pass faster than I thought possible. For the White Russians, music suggestions, stories, laughs, moments of clarity, motivation to stay the course, and proof that people are wonderful more often than not, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’ll never forget you. Alles gute zum geburtstag, my friend.

And of course all the people I worked, lived, laughed, cried, sweated, itched, wondered, dreamed, and planned with while in Nigeria. Especially Onenu, Ochala, Fr. Peter, Sabastine, Daniel, Lawrence, Margaret, Fred, Genevieve, and Elizabeth.

You’ve made me better.

You’ve made me happier.

You’re are the real reason I travel.

I hope I see you again someday.

i have 167 bug bites.

Well friends, I’m two weeks into my trip to Nigeria**, and there is no word of a lie in the title of this post. Seriously. I just counted. Between the mosquito bites on my legs, the red ant bites I got this afternoon on my left foot, and the sun fly bites covering every exposed inch of my extremities, I think I’m ready for new skin thank you very much. If anyone has any to donate to a poor soul who is about to itch the rest of hers off, I would be so grateful.

Ok so that was a slightly creepy request. I’ll give you that, but you have no idea what I would do for just one tube of Cortasol and one night sleeping with a fan. For the past year and half, my life has been one long exercise in gratitude – I find myself fantasizing about a running shower and electricity at night. The National Electricity and Power Association has been given a different name by locals. Playing off the acronym NEPA, they’ve decided to instead call it Never Expect Power Always, and that seems pretty darn accurate to me. Wayyyy more accurate than the official name, at least.

Despite Nigeria’s rapid economic growth, there are huge lags in infrastructure, particularly in the rural areas. No running water or sewage system, no reliable power, and many of the roads are potholed and impassable when it rains. Thankfully, I’m staying at a wonderful rectory with our founder, Reverend Father Peter Obele Abue. A Catholic priest for nearly 30 years, Father Peter has done wonders for the parish, and the rectory is a pretty comfortable place to stay! Still, the power and water issues plague us, and the only place I can get an internet connection is under one particular palm tree in the back yard. The problem with that is that this particular spot also seems to be the home of my new mortal enemy: the sun fly. These tiny insects leave massive quantities of large, swollen, red, intensely itchy bites in their wake, and I refuse to continue being their buffet. This leaves me with only one option – when attempting to check my email, I must put on long pants, socks, long sleeves, and a bandanna in order to protect every possible inch. Aside from getting the side-eye from the gardener, this approach also leaves me with the problem of drowning in my own sweat. The days here reach 95-100 F on the regular, and as a girl from the Midwest, I normally reserve this skin-covering attire for weather in the 50’s or below. So if I’ve been a bit slow responding to your email, FB message, or other communication, please don’t be offended. I’m limiting my internet time in the interest of self-preservation.

167 bug bites.

No itch cream.

I’m busting out every technique we tried in Cambodia for dealing with bites – toothpaste, hot spoons on bare skin, the works.

 

167 bug bites.

No itch cream.

I wake up in the middle of the night scratching bites I didn’t even know I had.

 

167 bites.

No itch cream.

But…

Before slipping too far down the path of self-pity, let me revisit the reason I came to Nigeria in the first place. I didn’t get on the plane at JFK with the expectation that I was off on a month long vacation. I knew there would be tough moments. I knew I wouldn’t always be comfortable. I didn’t quite know the extent to which that was true, but still I came for a bigger purpose. If I’m working for an organization called Children of Rural Africa, I should probably meet these children I’m devoting most of my waking thoughts to.  Two weeks in, I’ve met many of those kids we work with. I’ve met with local government, grant-making organizations, institutional partners, and staff. I’ve heard from community women, clan elders, and parish councils. I’ve seen the need, and there’s still so much left to be seen. At one time or another I’ve been challenged, inspired, moved to tears, devastated, and filled with hope on this trip. Meeting the people I’m truly working for has been the best thing I could have done.

 

And suddenly……

167 bites.

I don’t really care.

**As of actually posting this, I’m more like three weeks into my trip, but yes, it has taken m that long to get the photos uploaded and find a good enough connection to make the post public. Sigh. Internet struggles.

A Return to Loveliest Insanity

Dearest Friend,

I’m so sorry for being gone so long. Time got away from me, and before I knew it, I hadn’t written anything in months! I’ve missed you, and so many things have happened since we last spoke. In July, I left Uganda and GWED-G with many tears and “I’ll miss you”s and looks over my shoulder. I was initially supposed to visit Nigeria before going home but had visa troubles, so, much to my parents’ shock, I marched up on our Wisconsin porch a few weeks early. I won’t go into detail about their reactions, but let’s just say that my father isn’t often speechless and my mother’s bladder control isn’t what it used to be. Words can’t describe how wonderful it was to see their faces, feel carpet under my bare feet, eat my mother’s lasagna, and introduce Tucker to the United States! That’s right, my four-legged shadow crossed the pond with me. We’d become inseparable in Uganda, and there was no way I could stomach the thought of leaving him behind. One 10 hour bus ride, 2 flights, one layover, and three hours in the car later and Tucker was home! As I predicted, everyone instantly fell in love with his sweet personality and snuggly nature…well, almost everyone. The cat wasn’t terribly thrilled.

The rest of July, August, and September passed in a flurry of coffee dates, dinner dates, TV marathons, new-job prep, dog walks, roadtrips, and packing. I hadn’t come all the way home just to smell the roses, after all. I landed myself a new job! You’re talking to the newest US Country Director of Children of Rural Africa (CorAfrica). Actually, you’re talking to the only US Country Director in CorAfrica’s history! They’re a fantastic organization, founded by a Nigerian Catholic priest named Peter Abue, that runs education, health, water, and economic programs in SE Nigeria (now you see how Nigeria fits into all of this). They’ve got a great group of volunteers and staff both here and in Nigeria, but they saw the need for a more established US office that could spearhead fundraising, communication, and strategic development efforts – so they hired me! Over the next two years, it will be my job to generate resources, strengthen systems, implement initiatives, and in all ways support and grow this inspiring organization that is already doing so much good. When I wasn’t talking in funny voices with my Mom, running around Milwaukee’s nightlife with long-unseen friends, or catching up on Bones, I was getting ready to take the plunge into my new adventure with CorAfrica. Which brings us to October….

Ladies and gentlement, I’m happy to report that I am writing to you from my very own studio apartment in New York City. Queens, to be exact. A neighborhood called Sunnyside, which I’m finding to be charming and full of life. With the exception of a stingy superintendent who edged toward irate today when I locked myself out of my apartment (to be fair, the guy did have to climb in my kitchen window from the fire escape), everything has been wonderful. I’ve gone running several times without getting lost. I’ve done the laundry, figured out how to work the oven, found a few good grocery stores, and unpacked all the boxes. It feels empty without Tucker, who will join me in late November, but my neighbors are welcoming and the family-run cafe across the street serves massive, steaming bowls of lentil soup for just $2.50 each. What more can you ask for?

Unfortunately (or if you’re my superintendent, maybe it’s fortunately), my grounding is only temporary. This Saturday, I’m headed to Nigeria for five weeks in order to turbocharge my work with CorAfrica. The job officially started September 1st, but I won’t be able to get going full steam ahead until I get on the ground, meet people, and see the state of things for myself. Nigeria’s not a terribly nice place to be right now….while the country has done a remarkable job eradicating Ebola within its borders, the rest of West Africa is still in extremely dire straits. Boko Haram continues to cause mayhem in the north, and upcoming elections have everyone a bit on edge. I’ll be in the Southeast corner of the country, though, and we’re not expecting any hiccups. After a few visits to the Nigerian embassy, several encounters with a rather surly visa processing agent, and a bit of hair-pulling over the out of date information on Nigeria’s immigration website, I’ve got my visa! All systems, go!

Now that I’m getting back into my blogging groove, I’ll be sure to keep you posted about life in the Big Apple and my blunders in getting acquainted, my trip to Nigeria, working with CorAfrica, and probably anything else that pops into my head. Again, so sorry for the gap in correspondence, dear friend. Just know that I’ve missed you, and I hope we can go back to being on regular speaking terms again. I’ll certainly do my best on this end.

Goodbye for now from Sunnyside.

Emi