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.

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

playing frogger across europe

I feel the title of this post deserves a bit of explanation. First of all, I haven’t been able to stop saying “playing frogger across (insert location of convenience here)” since our friend Rebecca visited us at UW Madison a few years ago. Apparently she and my roommates were jaywalking across University Avenue, one of the busiest roads in Madison, and a bit of hilarity ensued. It had to do with weaving a couple cars and tragically biffing over the bike lane divider. By the time everyone had limped, dashed, weaved, bobbed, and tumbled across the street, one person was bleeding, one person was in a tree, and Corinne’s cousin had already called her to ask if it was her who had been playing frogger across University. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to witness this miraculous display of street-crossing prowess, but believe me, hearing about it was nearly as hilarious. So ever since that time, I’ve had a propensity to use the term “playing frogger” quite a bit too much. I hope you’ll understand where the predisposition comes from and forgive me.

The second reason for the title is that I do feel like it fits somehow! For those of you who don’t know, Frogger was a computer game we used to play in the ’90’s. It was great. It involved, among many exciting activities, hopping from lily pad to lily pad collected letters or numbers or words or whatever depending on your level. I feel like that’s a bit what I’ll be doing this Christmas: hopping from country to country collecting memories and snippets of time with dear friends and family.

Lily Pad #1: Edinburgh, Scotland
Collected: 5 GLORIOUS days with my soul sister, Sarah Lang, and her delightful roommates in a city I fell in love with two and half years ago when I visited for the first time. We’ll eat a ton of delicious western comfort food, wear woolly socks, snuggle with blankets, light candles, talk about life and ambition and plans and permaculture, possibly have the toothpaste olympics (don’t ask unless you’re really prepared for the explanation), and generally just have a fantastic time. Not to mention the city is the birthplace of Harry Potter. Which makes it, like, a quadruple whammy for me. So pumped.

Lily Pad #2: Brussels, Belgium
Collected: Another lovely 5 days of waffles, museums, seeing friends I met in Uganda who’ve since gone home, and…wait for it….a little time by myself!!! It might seem weird that I’m looking forward to a few days on my own in a hostel in a strange city, but if it’s weird to you it’s probably because you don’t live in a compound in Uganda with 10 people in your house and another 20 people in the other house in the compound. This compound is less than a quarter acre in size. Cozy. So yes, I’m going to enjoy sleeping until whatever time I’d like without being checked on (still breathing!), curling up with tea and a book for hours on end without the TV blaring or dogs howling, and just generally NOT TALKING to people for a few hours at a time. It’s going to be blissful.
After a few days though, undoubtedly I’ll start to get a little restless. I might even start making lists, help! To save me from this self-initiated cloister, MY BROTHER IS MEETING ME ON THE 28TH!!! Did I mention I’m excited about it? He’s flying into Brussels, and the next day, we’re off to my third and final lily pad….

Lily Pad #3: Dusseldorf, then Berlin, Germany
Collected: 7 days of pure delight. In addition to my brother’s company, we’ll also be meeting my friends Nate and Cosette from college! After studying in Spain for the semester, Nate is off on an awesome European adventure. Cosette joined him, and we’re all meeting up in Berlin for the New Year! There may be pints involved, but I can’t be sure. Tank and I are stopping in Dusseldorf for a night before proceeding on to Berlin, where we’ll take in some football (the lesser kind, unfortunately) and I’ll drag Tank to a couple museums he doesn’t want to go to. I’m really really hoping there will be snow to play in – I bought a warm hat just to prepare for that possibility. Fingers crossed. Then on New Year’s, Berlin erupts in celebration. Tourists pour into the city to ring in the new year, and I’m excited to celebrate the milestone with a global community.

So that’s it! I’m leaving today, so wish me luck. I’ve come this far without losing anything major – or getting anything stolen, for that matter – and I’d really like to keep the streak going. Look out for a blog about each lily pad.

Merry Christmas everyone!

and my Acholi name is…

It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve only been in Uganda for 4.5 days. It feels more like a year, but I’ve discovered that tends to be the way of it when you’re in a new place and constantly bombarded by new sights, sounds, and smells all day. Meeting new people is more tiring than you’d think, and when those new people have an entirely different culture than you, complete with a different way of speaking, greeting each other, and interacting, you find yourself on constant alert. You try to soak everything in and learn it all at once so that you can interface with people as naturally and appropriately as possible. Add starting a new job on your first full day in a new city, and you’ve got me: tired, worn out, slightly shell-shocked, and blissfully happy.

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It would be difficult to describe to you how I came to feel so at home here so quickly. Indeed, looking back, it’s difficult to explain to myself. It might have something to do with how people greet each other here. Whether you’re a stranger or an old friend, it’s very much the same. People clasp hands, or arms, or hug, and they maintain the contact for at least a full 60 seconds, all the while inquiring about your health, family, travels, and work. I’m learning Acholi greetings right now, and there are a ton of them because people are constantly greeting each other and asking after each others’ health. When I walked into what would be my home for the next six months for the first time, I think I heard “you are most welcome” about 50 times. That routine was then repeated on my first day at work. People say it all the time, to everyone. When I came home from work today, I was greeted with “Emi! Hello, you are welcome.” For someone who is as comfortable with personal connection and loves hugs as much as I do, this is heaven.

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It might also have something to do with the people I’m living with. Pamela Angwech is the matriarch of the household, the executive director of GWED-G (where I work), and a total bad-ass. She’s one of the strongest, warmest, most capable people I have ever met. She has a way of making you totally terrified of her and 100% comfortable around her at the same time. She inspires incredible loyalty. Her nephew, Prince, who lives with us, is the most charming 5 year old you could ever meet, with just enough mischievousness to keep life interesting. The people at work act like a family. They play and joke and laugh and support each other constantly. The are the best of friends, and the club isn’t exclusive. If you’re there and you work hard, you’re included. The best part is that they aren’t just family, they are an incredibly talented family. Everyone is so wise and skilled and experienced that they leave me in awe. I’ve already learned a huge amount, and I’ve only been to work for 3 days. I think my head might explode from the awesomeness after 6 months.

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Then again, it could be the physical beauty of my environment. The red earth and all-encompassing green go together in perfect harmony. Long-horned cattle graze lazily by the side of the road as I walk the 5 minutes to work. People pass with a gentle “apwoyo” (casual greeting), and the sun sheds a soft light over the whole scene. It takes my breath away. The office is settled in a spacious courtyard where people are always coming and going past the baby blue gate.

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Pamela has selected an Acholi name for me in honor of starting my culture and language lessons tomorrow. I am Aber, pronounced “abey”, which means ‘beautiful one.’ It’s fitting, I think, because I feel beautiful here. Happiness and fulfilling work coupled with the best of company and good friends is always a recipe for someone who radiates joy. I won’t act like there weren’t a few moments of discomfort or awkwardness. There were times I felt very alone without my traveling companions, and I was nervous. But overall, that’s how I feel these days, radiating. Uganda has that effect on me, I guess.