Tag Archives: Travel

Cultural Conundrums

How do you do it? I mean really? How do you live the day to day in a culture different from your own without losing your sense of self? I can eat ugali with my hands, brush my teeth outside, wash my laundry in a bucket, but those are methods of daily survival. How do you move past mere survival to actual relationships? How do you develop friendships when culturally people are open with their lives, but can be very private with their thoughts and feelings?

“Just tell me what you’re thinking,” I want to mentally cry. “Does 2pm actually mean be there by 2 or does it mean I’ll be sitting by myself for half an hour before anyone else ambles in? Can I ask questions about your life or is that seen as intrusive?” I’m not trying to be intrusive. I just want to know who you are? I want to be your friend past surface conversations about food and weather.

Then I realize that’s not how it works. You don’t ask questions without first building trust. Information can be seen as a form of power. What you know about someone has the potential to be used as a tool to hurt or shame them. So the focus is not as much about how individuals feel or think, as it is about how a group functions and how it works within the fabric of tradition. The reputation of the group as a whole is what is important. Individual lives fall within that carefully built structure.

The last several months of coming back to live in Kenya have reminded me just how much culture affects relationships. Living within a mix of cultures can teach so much, but those lessons can be painful at times as cultural misunderstandings leave one or both people with hurt feelings or a sense of frustration.

I’m from a “cold” culture as defined in the book “From Foreign to Familiar” by Sarah Lanier. Cold cultures (so named because they are usually found in cold regions like Canada, the northern states of the US, the UK and many European countries) value individualism, punctuality, and personal expression. I’ve also spent a lot of time in “hot” culture countries spending formative childhood years in the Democratic Republic of Congo and now living parts of the last year and a half in Kenya.

People from hot culture countries tend to focus on the group over the individual, are more event focused then time focused, and place a high value on community. Life often has more of a laid back feel and communication is frequently done indirectly so as to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or causing embarrassment. In hot climates there is much more of a communal sense of belongings so what you have is usually shared with the group.

From a theoretical perspective I love and appreciate both hot and cold cultures. But on a more practical level, it can be difficult living within a mix of the two. I want to share my belongings with the group but get frustrated when a DVD comes back scratched. I want to live a more laid back lifestyle but also find myself feeling anxious when not much was accomplished during the course of the day. Finding that elusive middle ground is a constant challenge.

I’ve been learning lately that it takes time—time to build trust, time to establish a reputation, time to understand yourself and why you think the way you do so that you can understand someone from another culture better. But, the breakthroughs do happen. Often when you least expect. As a westerner, I’m learning that I sometimes need to throw out my schedule so that when those times do come, when that trust has finally been built, I can cultivate the moment instead of rushing off and missing it completely. Like last week when my roommate asked me about my family for the first time. The week before she had briefly told me about hers opening the door for future conversations. Now a second opportunity surfaced.

I was able to linger in the moment while we chatted. She was sewing a skirt so I sat down on the floor and painted my nails in order to continue the conversation without standing there awkwardly. As we talked one of our neighbors walked in, and I ended up painting her nails as well. While the nail polish dried we watched a movie. Unplanned, unscheduled but slowly friendships were forming.

I’ve found that it may take weeks even months sometimes but relationships do happen if you stay flexible and are willing to adjust your own ways of thinking. People are more important then DVDs. I’ve had to learned in this communal context that building relationships often involves some scratches. I’m learning to be ok with that. I’m learning to wait and to enjoy the differences. I’m learning that my way of approaching life isn’t always right. I’m constantly learning to be flexible, but the payoff is beautiful as slowly genuine friendships start to form.

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Just a Page

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I was still a bit jet lagged, sitting at my sister’s bridal shower party focused on rediscovering the sensation of flavorful food, when a friend of mine turned to me and said, “so what did you bring back from Kenya?”

“Ringworm,” my jet lagged brain replied. We both laughed and then went on to talk about her daughter’s current trip to Honduras and the joys and pains of living outside your home country. What did I bring back from Kenya?—memories of emotional highs and lows, stories that probably wouldn’t make much sense to someone who wasn’t there at the time. I brought back the burden of the hurt that I saw but couldn’t fix. But, I also brought back feelings of unexplainable joy from being a part of a community that loved God and sought Him constantly.

I think the question is more how have I changed as opposed to what did I bring back. Because I have changed—so much sometimes that I don’t know how to explain it. Travel does that to you mostly because of the incredible people that you meet along the way. There is some sort of desperate connection that can take place where two people who have never met suddenly find themselves thrown into circumstances so overwhelming and unfamiliar that fast, almost unexplainable friendships happen.

Maybe it’s the type of people that travel attracts, but I think it has more to do with the layers that are torn off when you leave everything that’s comfortable and enter somewhere where you can barely communicate, break cultural norms on a daily bases, and become completely dependant on people who yesterday were total strangers. It’s completely petrifying at times, and once you live through it you leave changed.

I think that’s why travel is so addicting. Once you find that yes you can survive outside the “safe” the “comfortable” of what you know, so many incredible doors are open to you, so many adventures, so many amazing new people that you never would have met if you’d stayed safely in your own home. Yes, sometimes you come back with ringworm, or other unwelcome side affects, but it’s worth it for the way that you are molded into someone new—someone who sees more then just the familiar.

I’m getting ready to get on a plane again. I’m trying not think too much as it’s a bit scary standing, once again, on the edge of the unknown. What’s it going to be like this time? Is it safe? Will I have enough resources to make it? What will the day to day look like? I have no idea. All I know is that this is where God wants me. He has given me that peace. He has given me this opportunity to travel, and it’s all in His capable hands. So here we go. One more page, one more chapter to a story that I never could have written for myself.

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On the Road Again

I’ve been a bit lax in the writing department. I started a post, came back to it a couple weeks later, stared at the first three paragraphs for about 30 minutes, and then just gave up. I guess it’s time to just make a fresh start. So much has happened over the last 12 weeks that it feels like an entire year has gone by, but it’s still 2014 so that must not be true.

It’s been quite the year full of unexpected journeys, life changes, incredible memories, and painful ones as well. But, overall I have to say that I am blessed—so very, very blessed. Each day I see God writing more pages to my life story. It’s amazing just to see pieces falling into place. He has taken me places that I never expected to go and allowed me to meet so many amazing people along the way. Each step has been a step of faith, but I’m learning to hold on and trust God more and more as I see that He knows me even better then I know myself.

The last several months in the US were wonderful being able to rest, see friends, spend time with family, and be apart of my sister’s wedding. Just before leaving the US I got engaged which was a wonderful way to end the trip. I’m so glad that my fiancé was able to come and meet so many of my family and friends. We did a lot of road trips while he was here and now we’re in the UK preparing to celebrate his graduation which takes place later this week.

New pieces of this journey called life. I’m learning to enjoy each piece as it comes and trying not to think too far ahead. Living in the moments big and small. That’s my goal. Each day is such a gift that I don’t want to waste it worrying about tomorrow. God has it all taken care of and even when things don’t always make the most sense there is a reason and a purpose for everything.

I realize this post is a little different then most—more of a life update then contemplative thoughts—but that’s where I’m at right now. Hopefully now that the dust has started to settle from all of this traveling, I should start falling back into a routine and be more consistent with blogging. Thank you all for your patience, and for being apart of this lovely journey of life.

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Stepping Back

 

Stepping back

It’s been a week and two days since I stepped back on American soil. Did you know that US customs is now almost completely automated? You stand in line until an empty machine opens up, then you scan your passport and answer a couple quick questions on the computer screen. The computer then takes your picture and prints out a receipt which you take to the only human being involved in the process. The man behind the desk scribbled on my receipt, and I was good to go.

So I’m back. It’s been fun running into friends at Walmart and getting to be with my family again. I’ve eaten more meat this last week then I think I ate all of last year put together. I’ve only opened the driver’s door instead of the passenger door once since coming back, and thankfully I’ve never had trouble remembering to drive on the right side of the road.

It’s crazy always having 3G internet, being able to take an actual hot shower whenever I want, and not having to wash laundry by hand. I haven’t had a lot of reverse culture shock experiences expect that I was shocked with how white the eggs and sugar are in America, and when I got on my first American Airlines plane I was reminded how fast many Americans talk. Its feels a little funny not to carry shillings in my wallet any more and not to hear multiple languages as I go throughout the day.

It’s interesting to me how normal and yet abnormal life is all at the same time. I waved to someone I didn’t know yesterday as I was driving down the road, and I couldn’t remember if that was culturally appropriate or not. I guess since I live in Southern Illinois it was OK, but I need to brake that habit before I go to visit my grandparents in Chicago next weekend.

While I was gone kids got taller (a couple are now taller then me), babies were born, people moved away, and my sister got engaged. It’s fun catching up with life again although this last year in Kenya has changed me, and I’m not always sure how to fit back into this life. For now I’m just going to savor these next two months in the US. It’s kind of refreshing being somewhere where life comes easy, and I don’t have to worry about converting money and communicating in a language that I can understand to some degree but can’t always communicate basic sentences in.

As much as I love America, I already miss Kenya. I desperately miss the kids I got to work with. I miss buying avocadoes for 12 cents. In a strange way I even miss wading through knee high water to get to the store when the rains came in and turned the road in front of our house into a lake. Life in Kenya is an adventure. It’s a life often stripped to the basics. When it’s time to cook dinner you go to the backyard pick cabbage, carrots, and potatoes and make a meal. I miss that. I even miss washing my clothes by hand sometimes even though it would take half the morning to get it done. I miss the stillness of the morning. Sitting on the couch after the kids left for school just reading my Bible and journaling. I felt so close to God in those moments, and it changed me. But, it’s good to be changed. It’s good not to get too comfortable. I think the best thing about traveling is getting a new perspective, being stretched (even though it’s painful) and seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. It’s nice to be home, but I’m thankful that I went. Not everyone understands that, but I’m happy to belong in more then one place. They have both shaped me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I miss this road even on the rainy days

I miss this road even on the rainy days

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You Wreck Me

Every time I think I have it figured out—

You wreck me.

God, every time I think this is it,

The wind whips in and flips the stableness into 62 different directions.

So I stand—teetering—balanced on my toes with my arms stretched out in the air

Groping for truth,

Groping for stability.

Teach me Father

For I try to do this on my own

And I feel myself falling.

Hold me God for you are the only stable thing in this life.

I slowly lower myself back on the ground.

The shaking starts to subside.

My pounding heart begins to quiet.

 

I’m here God

 

In spite of it all.

In spite of people and their opinions.

In spite of people’s expectations.

 

I’m here God

 

In spite of the crazy, chaotic, the unknown.

Hold me Father

In your steady, stable hands.

You’re all I need.

 

I wrote this a little over a month ago, but it’s been the theme of my life this month. So many changes that I’m not sure where to begin. So much that I’ve had to let go of and give to God. But, I’m here wrapped in God’s presence, thankful for this last year, and hopeful for God’s future plans

The children’s home where I have worked for the last 10 months is now being completely Kenyan run. I’ve said bye to the kids, and in ten days I’ll be back on US soil. I’ve had such an incredible year here in Kenya that I’m almost not sure how to return “home.” I’m excited to see family and friends but not sure how much reverse culture shock is going to happen when I step off the plane. Life here is so simple. I feel so close to God here. I’ve learned so much. I’ve changed. I’ve grown.

Of course I’m looking forward to hot showers, tacos, catching up on the last season of Psych, and turning on a light switch whenever I want to. But, I already miss the kids. I already miss the feeling of riding on the back of a motorbike with the wind whipping through my hair. I already miss the ladies who work at the supermarket. They would tease me about getting lost if I missed coming into town on a Tuesday and would make me order my food from the café in Kiswahili even though I sounded like a two year old. I haven’t even left the country, and I already miss it so much.

I do plan to return to Kenya in the fall although, I’m currently praying about different ministry opportunities. I know that God has a plan, so I’m trusting Him to show that to me in His perfect timing. In the meantime, I’m spending a couple days in Mombassa processing everything and enjoying some time on the beach. Then I’ll be packing and on a plane before I know what happened.

So many things have happened this year that it would be impossible to fit it all into one blog. I made a short video (which I will post below) of some of my favorite picture just to capture some of the memories from my time here at the children’s home. As this door closes I’m lingering a bit in the shadow almost ready to take the next step, but already missing what I’m leaving behind.

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Some Day I’ll Go Back

I remember where I was sitting when I heard the news. He’d been killed—the little boy I used to play hide and seek with. Him, his mother, brother, aunt, and cousins. They had been our neighbors when my family lived in Congo the family of my dad’s very good friend Bura.

Bura had moved his family and his brother’s family into town where he thought they would be safe. He had stayed with the house sleeping in the shamba (garden) at night incase of house to house attacks. The house to house killings happened again, but this time in town not in the village. All but one of his sons was killed.

I’d been reading a Redwall book, a fun little series about mice and various other animals who lived in an abbey. With each book some greedy rat pirate or fox king would attack the abbey and an unlikely hero would rise up and save the peaceful inhabitants from the evil that threatened them. Well written books but at times violent. I couldn’t finish the book after hearing the news. I picked it up several times, stared at the same page for awhile, and then eventually returned it half read to the library. I was in jr. high and learning quickly that the world can be an ugly, uncertain place to live.

Awhile ago a friend of mine recommended that I read the book Stringer. A journalist’s story of living in war torn Congo. I’m at the part of the book where the journalist is arriving in Bunia not far from where I grew up.

Bunia—the first place I remember lying awake at night unable to fall asleep because an occasional truck would rumble down the road. To me, a girl who had been living in a rural mountain village, it felt like a big city. It was the first time I remember sleeping under a mosquito net, and it was where my brothers and sisters and I read Calvin and Hobbes comic books for the first time.

Now I think about Congo, and while I long to visit the places where I grew up, I know they wouldn’t be the same. It’s still a war torn country corrupt and broken. A country full of natural resources but constantly under bad leadership. It’s a forgotten country. The holocaust of my generation ignored except for the occasional news story. But, when I read about names of towns and statistics of rape and death I don’t just see numbers and maps. I see people I knew and loved. I see places full of memories.

Some day, God willing, I will go back. I haven’t forgotten. I haven’t given up hope of again seeing the place I once called home. Congo is always on my heart. It’s pains affect me. Its stories have changed me. I haven’t forgotten. I can’t never forget.

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Feeding my Soul

IMG_2564Laying in the sun—palm trees, a pristine pool, tropical flowers. It feels like a different country, almost a different world. The sun feels so rejuvenating and the cold that has refused to go away for the last three weeks has finally started to break up. There’s nothing like a break in the sun after months of working non-stop. Not that I mind. I love my life, the kids at the children’s home, the daily routines. But, with such an emotional job it’s healthy sometimes to get away; and Mombasa is the perfect place to recharge. The food is amazing (yay a break from ugali and beans). The weather is deliciously warm.

For the last three days I haven’t had anyone really need anything thing from me which feels so good after spending the majority of the last nine months constantly on call caring for 17 of the most wonderful kids in the world. Even though I love the kids I work with to death, it’s a physically and emotionally exhausting job. It’s nice to get away from all the pressure, expectations, and endless needs. I’m already feeling so refreshed after just three days, so I know I’ll be able to do a better job when I return.

Travel, new places, cultural, all feed my soul. There is something so incredible about getting to discover or rediscover a new place. Tuesday we spend the day exploring Mombasa’s Old Town. We bartered a price with a great guide who took us all over the city. We saw the spice market, hundred year old buildings, and even ducked our heads into the fish market where we saw everything from dried shark meat to live lobster.

I ate Swahili prawns for lunch fresh shrimp cooked in coconut sauce. It was heavenly. I’m glad I live in such a diverse world. Full of such beauty and flavor. Last night we sat out in the gazebo chatting with our neighbor and new friend from Germany. We talked about life, God, and the challenges and joys of working in ministry. I love those moments. I feel so alive, at peace, full of purpose, and happy in the presence of my creator. He has made such a beautiful world, and I love being able to enjoy different pieces of His work.

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