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Paris Apartment

Before I officially leave my apartment in Paris this weekend, here’s a little tour of my place:


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This apartment has been perfect for my 6 months in Paris. I still can’t believe how fast my months here have flown by. This weekend I began moving back to Reims and it’s weird to be in an almost empty apartment. That being said, I am in love with my new apartment and am so excited to spend the next year there! One of the best parts of my new place is definitely the amazing view!

 

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Tomorrow is the last day of my internship which means that summer break is almost here! I hope y’all have been having a wonderful summer so far :) I can’t wait to see those of you in the states soon!

 

Until next time :)

 


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Africa, Day 5: The Soccer Game

What a fun day it’s been!!  We were disappointed to learn that we didn’t get to see the village kids today, but we did mix things up a bit in the best way possible (in my opinion, that is.)  Instead of spending the morning working on the construction project, we drove to a primary school for Mac to show us around one of the nicer private schools in the city.  It was composed of several buildings grouped together on a sloping, dusty terrain.  Peeking into empty classrooms, it was cool to see what educational paintings covered the walls – words flanked picture after picture, illustrations coordinating with their term in English, then in Chichewa, words like “giraffe” and “eye” and “Tuesday.”  A drunken man had taken to following us during our walk, stumbling erratically and speaking with slurred, incomprehensible words.

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For a few days now, Mac had spoken about taking us to play in a soccer match with the village people.  Today was our day!  After encircling throughout the school grounds, we came back to the entrance where the public field lay, a large patch of dusty dirt right in front of the school.  My giddiness was practically tangible.  I hadn’t even remembered the last time I’d played, and when did one come across the opportunity to play freakin soccer in Africa.

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So five of us volunteered enthusiastically to play.  Emma, Nick, Mitch, Grace, and I.  Though there was some confusion at first regarding whose team would take whom (honestly I think it was just secret back-and-forth handoffs because no one wanted the azungu on their team!!), eventually it was figured out.  The field was huge, or at least it seemed huge, with no painted outlines, simply dirt.  On each end stood two netless, rusted goal posts.  Most of the men played completely barefoot.  Had they grown up in villages like Baluti, where having shoes wasn’t necessarily a given and rocky terrain was prevalent, I could see why: their feet had grown accustomed to the rough ground.  For their whole lives, those feet have been toughened from constantly trodding on the rocky surface.  In other words, they’ve been conditioned to withstand surfaces that would quickly demolish my own wimpy feet.

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All of us azungu were placed on the same team.  Why, I have no idea! (Clearly someone lost their round of Rock, Paper, Scissors.)  But we sure did have fun!  It was difficult to keep up, though.  Not only was I pathetically out of shape, but none of us had considered bringing cleats.  But after accidentally stepping hard on another player’s bare foot, I was glad that I hadn’t.

As center midfielder, I sprinted up to help the strikers.  First quarter in, I assisted our first goal. The men crowded along the sidelines went berserk, cheering and jumping and whistling like maniacs and gesturing excitedly at me: “Way to go, Seesta!!”  I returned their silly gestures, giving them a goofy celebratory dance.  We were dying.  One of the strikers, whom I’d noticed had rolled his eyes with dramatic exasperation at me when I’d missed a pass, jogged up to me in the midst of our antics. “You ‘ave to bee see-ree-ous,” he scolded, gesturing emphatically.  I nodded as I stifled a laugh, because he clearly was being serious himself, and wondered if I had to actually score the goal myself to meet his approval.  I couldn’t help but run back and imitate his comical annoyance to Mitch and Nick. LOL :D

During another scuffle to gain possession, I went down hard on my left leg, feeling it scrape.  But the adrenaline was pumping, and I’d hardly felt a thing.  I got back up quickly and raced back into position toward the ball. I never did get a sub out, at least until late in the game; Grace came out first and had no desire to reenter the fast-pace chaos.  She’d sought refuge in a large Africa tree with Melanie, with no doubt a great view of the game.  When I finally was able to break, viewers greeted me jovially with high fives and “Good playing, Seesta!”’s.  But it wasn’t until I reached Grace in Melanie in the tree and heard Grace exclaim, “Tay! Great jo– OMIGOD what happened to your leg?!” when I finally looked down.  My left knee had an ugly scrape, and a deep gash had formed in my left ankle.  Blood had already begun trickling down my foot and had soaked into my sock and the top of my sneaker.  (No worries, I did not take a picture of it, so there will be no gory images in this post!)

A few of the girls, whom had each brought first-aid kits, helped me clean up my injuries and bandage them up.  The drunk who’d been following us around earlier had plopped down beside us under the large tree.  He took the liberty of gingerly patting down the ends of my tape that had already begun peeling at the edges from the sweat, and kept a small but neat pile of bandage wrappers out of the way.  Very nice of him :)

As I rested, caught my breath, and got treated, several men approached our group and me to compliment my game (though surely they were just being nice) and thanked us for coming.  A few were curious to know where we were from and what project had brought us out here.  Furthermore, I learned that money had actually been put down on this game, and I suddenly felt a slight bit more sympathy toward my less-than-friendly teammate in spite of his prior demand to “bee see-ree-ous.”

We hung around a bit longer, some of us starting a juggling circle with a few of the donated balls we’d brought from the day before.  Afterward Mac brought out the rest of the toys we’d brought from yesterday.  Then Petrid and Jafunda, the two boys who’d given us the street tour that day, appeared to greet us, Jafunda now proudly clad in a fresh, clean, white T-shirt with “Elon” spelled out in big bold letters.  How happy was that boy!  That was definitely a highlight, seeing how glad he was to be wearing it.  Meanwhile, the smaller children took turns turning a jump rope that Emma had included in her things for the orphanage.  They were wicked good!!

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We said goodbye to our new friends and left to have lunch.  From Ali Baba (which we’d now visited twice for food!), our group walked around a few corners and arrived at a market we’d been looking forward to visiting all week.  A black market for goods, it was a cess pool of cheaper goods, trinkets, and souvenirs to bring home to friends and fam (and ourselves.)

However, this sort of environment came with its challenges.  As obvious foreigners, we were subject to being charged higher, unfair prices.  Bartering was an accepted practice here, which I’d never done before, and definitely was not comfortable doing it.  It’s a practice that would be considered downright insulting to any American merchant.  But I was determined to not be hoodwinked into spending more than I needed to.  Mustering my sternest expression and unwavering firmness of tone, I did manage to get some prices knocked down from the original offer.  It seems that the trick is to “lose interest” once you hear what they ask for it, shake your head, and start to put it back down and walk away until they say, “Wait wait wait wait…”

But my gosh, was it overwhelming.  When I shop back home, if I had my way, I’d outlaw anything falling under the category of Badgering Innocent Customers While They Try to Have a Pleasant Shopping Experience.  I do not like to be harangued by merchants.  It’s often fake and always uncomfortable, and I can practically see those dollar signs swimming in their eyes, constantly pressuring me to buy something. Well, you can imagine that this was ten times worse.  Imagine my disorientation upon literally being swarmed by men selling their goods: “Seesta! Seesta! Come closah, Seesta!” “You are my friend. Come look at my teengs.  You are my friend.” “Friend, I geeve you good price. Good price, Seesta.”  I could not look anywhere.  If I made eye contact, they swarmed.  If I looked too long at a wood carving, they swarmed. I honestly would have bought more had I not been so ambushed.  And all this took place in no more than twenty yards of sidewalk, in maybe fifteen minutes!!

But, I did find a few wood carvings of animals I loved (two elephants, a giraffe, and a gazelle), some hand-painted postcards of recycled paper, two bead-wrapped carvings of a tribal Malawian man and woman, and three elephant-shaped buttons.  Everyone met back up at the end of the block, laughing in disbelief at the chaos we’d just braved, not to mention all the money we’d just spent.  Then before reloading back in the van to return to Kabulafor the night, we bought newspapers from a streetside seller for 300 kwacha each (only a few dollars); today’s edition sported a cover of the newly elected president of Malawi!  The former incumbent had actually been a woman! Joyce Banda.  The new president is now Peter Mutharika.  The paper man couldn’t stop grinning at all the profit he’d just made, and he waved gratefully at us as we drove home.


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Monte Carlo

After sleeping hard that night, we were up and ready to leave the hostel by 9am for what would become a major highlight of our four weeks in Europe.  Late the night before, our two fellow roommates arrived, who turned out to be backpackers from Germany.  They were quiet but still friendly to us, chatting briefly with us later that day about country rankings in the World Cup.  Packing day trip backs, we piled back into our beloved little Toyota and drove a half hour further east along the coast toward Monaco.

If approaching the coast from the North down to Nice was cool, then driving along the coast as we crossed country borders to Monaco was simply remarkable.  In a moment of uncertainty interpreting the GPS (we’ve all been there…I’m convinced those little devils occasionally display an impossibly ambiguous route on purpose just to enjoy watching us struggle), I turned right instead of going left like I should have.  We found ourselves inching our way along a narrow street that housed a small hotel and ended in a cul-de-sac – RIGHT along the edge of the cliff.  We started to turn around, then paused, looked at each other, and scrambled out of the car to admire the view.  These are some shots we were able to take from where we were standing:

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There was a briefly petrifying moment when I pulled back onto the highway and nearly flattened a Vespa, as the sharp turns in the highway made it difficult to see who was coming around the corner and when.  Soon after, though, we were in the city.  Tall apartment buildings, in pastels of orange and yellow and salmon, surrounded us in the tiny streets.  Expensive cars zoomed past us, practically shining dollar signs off freshly washed and waxed surfaces.  Weaving in and out of buildings, the brilliant blue water peeked in between them.  We were squealing for about ten straight minutes.  Betcha Selena Gomez didn’t get to drive HERSELF through the city streets!! :D

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We started looking for parking.  And lo and behold, the first one that we stumbled upon was right in from of the casino. THE Monte Carlo Casino.  I’m fairly certain I parked between a Mercedes and a very new BMW, both of which would seem trivial in comparison to what we were about to see above us in the casino roundabout.  We surfaced the parking lot and the sunlight hit us like a welcoming bear hug.  Flowers framed the sidewalks beautifully, as did designer shops carrying priceless merchandise.

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And I’m talking designer after designer….

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After designer….

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After another designer…

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And then there were the cars.  We saw several Bentleys…

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…as well as old man Ferris Bueller’s modern day dream come to fruition…

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…and let’s be honest, sometimes red is simply too flashy…

DSCF0178 …sleek black. Much more practical.

And when one sees Ferraris and Bentleys, one simply cannot continue without also laying eyes on a Rolls:

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…or a Lambo, which we finally saw (but heard first) roar past us as we exited the city.  It went by too fast to get a snap of it.

Taylor’s mom had told her that the changing of the guard at the Royal Palace would take place at 11am, and that would definitely be worth seeing.  We began walking up the hill upon which it rested, stopping halfway at a little archway which seemed a popular spot for pedestrians to pause and take pictures.

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And we entered the shopping streets further at the top of the hill, which were beautifully charming, of course.  Two women shopkeepers here complimented my French, which, after years of struggling through the ups and downs of learning a new language, made me feel incredibly good.  The second woman even noted that I had an element of, translated to English, something along the lines of confidence, or assertiveness, in my tone – apparently a very French quality in speaking.  Her kind words were so generous I had to leave soon afterward, lest I blush deep scarlet.

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And after snagging a decent spot in front of the ropes, laid witness to this age-old royal tradition.

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…and then went and explored some more!

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…before stopping here to have lunch with this view of the harbor: DSCF0180

 

After lunch, it was time to head back to Nice, as we girls were set on making it out to the beach before the day was through.  But, before we left, there remained one final item on the agenda: gamble in the casino.  Stepping beneath the marvelous entrance…

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 3.55.27 PM …we were asked to check our bags in behind a storage desk, pay ten euros for the entrance fee, and a minimum of five to gamble.  We all had our first go at the slot machines, and I won back nine euros!  Taylor even won back almost fifteen!  It was unreal.  From the elaborately woven carpets beneath us, to the flawless crystal chandeliers hanging above us, the entire building boasted massive extravagance.  Even in the restroom, after flushing the toilet I watched with amazement how the entire toilet seat rotated a full 360 degrees - it actually cleaned itself.  I felt like I was in a James Bond movie, surrounded by beautiful people in beautiful clothes with beautiful hair and nails and toes and makeup and suits and perfume and skin. And faces.  (Seriously.  I saw middle-aged women jogging the streets with deeply tanned skin and very well-formed abs.)

We drove back to Nice, watching in never-ending amazement of all the glamor and opulence we’d just seen.  The girls headed off to the beach, which was, interestingly, all rocks, something we’d never seen before.  But once you lay out on the towel, it actually wasn’t too bad, so long as you rotated around frequently enough.  One of the elements of being in a city is the chance to hear several languages uttered by your neighbors.  Behind us here, a pair of elderly couples chattered in Italian.

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Annnnnnd as we were leaving the beach, behold!: a man-shaped flying figure.  We squinted, and determined that it was a swimmer clad in rocket-boots of some sort.  Squinting further, his footwear was attached by a long tube to a nearby jetski, which must have been fueling the water that shot from the bottom of his feet.

DSCF0188 …or we can all just be honest and say that it was in fact Iron Man having some innocent fun in the sun, and call it a day.

It goes without saying that this is likely my picture-heaviest post, and for good reason.  I simply could not leave this place without bringing back ways to share its splendor with others.  If we budget-crippled college kids could swing a trip like this, brief as it was, then I encourage everyone to try eventually making it out here to enjoy its wonders, too.

 


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Nice is Nice

As the second weekend for my time in France approached, we four kids at Elon decided it was time to seize our window of opportunity and make a weekend trip. We chose the coast of France: the southern city of Nice (pronounced “Neese”). Attesting that we absolutely could not spend the weekend there without making the day trip, I suggested making a trek out to the beautiful and glamorous capital of Monaco: Monte Carlo. Monaco is a small country that forms an enclave within French territory, with a population of only 33,000 French-speaking citizens.  It is host to some of the highest concentration of wealth in the entire world.  I’d been once before with my family in 2011 soon after graduating high school, but that hardly mattered; seeing it again would turn out to be just as breathtaking.

So given our travel options and their respective prices, after visiting a few professors in the program (English-speaking, thank the Lord) we all agreed to give the rental car a go.  It was less expensive, even moreso split between the four of us, and who gets to say that they’ve road-tripped through France?  So we book an automatic sedan for the weekend that we would pick up right by Part Dieu train station.  On the day of our departure, we left straight from class (having brought our luggage with us), grabbed a bite to eat once our tram arrived at the station, and found the office behind Part Dieu.  Lugging everything, bags of sub lunches included, we walked up to the rental car counter and requested our reservation.  He repeated what we had apparently asked for online: four door, for three days…and a manual transmission.

One could practically hear each of our stomachs plummet straight to the floor.  Already, an accidental faux pas in our reservation had completely unraveled our first attempt to plan a trip.  We all looked at each other frantically, but none of us had any clue how to drive a stick shift (though I was really the only one of us, at twenty-one, who was allowed to drive it.)  We stood there, dumfounded, like idiots for too long, until Taylor finally suggested we just go into another line of one of the four other rental companies in the office and at least try to see what was available.  We politely told him we’d have to cancel our reservation, swallowed our panic, and sought help with the next rental company.

Lo and behold, after standing in the new line only a few minutes, the guy who’d dropped this heartbreaking news on us rushed over with a huge grin and announced that there was in fact an extra automatic car available for us.  Incredibly relieved, we returned to his desk, but then….the dinging of fee after fee began.  First, we thought getting a GPS would be a safe move, but it turned out to be 10 extra euros a day.  Fine.  Then there was a 90 euro underage driver fee that we had no knowledge of…I grimaced when he told me, but split four ways, it wasn’t horrible.  Then we had to return the car with a full tank of gas (unlike only 3/4, like I’d had to do when I rented a car back in Burlington), which, by the way, turned into a nightmare, as not only driving around looking for a gas station in the city upon our return aged me in years I have no doubt, but also the issue of available parking in the city took up gas as well.  Finally, I almost forgot: tolls.  There were four each way, ranging in price from three or four euros to twenty four euros.  Oy vey.

BUT, once we were finally in the car and sitting happily with our Subway lunches in our laps and our luggage in the car, I implored us all to take a deep breath, close our eyes, and just picture the beach. Sand. Sun. Fun. Done.  After all, who could say that they actually got to road trip through FRANCE?!  Vacation, here we come!

The drive was pretty cool.  It took about four and a half hours total.  We drove along the Rhône for the first part of it, passed breathtaking lavender fields (a common export in France), through mountains as we approached the coast – we even saw a castle nestled on the top edge of one cliff (above)!  That was magnifique!  I cursed my forgetfulness of having left my camera in the trunk, vowing to keep it handy for our backseaters on the ride back.

Here are some shots we did manage to get on the ride back!

DSCF0191 DSCF0192 DSCF0197 The purple there is from lavender fields!

Once we reached the outskirts of the city of Nice, the view was incredible.  Seeing the ocean had never felt more of a relief, and quite a beautiful site to behold: sparkling blue waters that changed hue in a gorgeous gradient the closer it got to shore, with pale orange stucco houses beginning to crowd occupancy of the hills rising and falling around us, bright pink and rich purple flowers dotting the windows of the houses.  The closer we got to the coast, the more abundantly the palm trees grew along both sides of the highway.

We found parking, followed the directions to our hostel (“Hotel Altair”), the first hostel experience for all four of us. We lugged all our stuff up three (or was it four…) flights of stairs.  Across the small lobby was the entryway to a tiny balcony, which had a pretty sweet view of a neighboring cathedral (below.)  The hostel owner led us through a maze-like series of narrow hallways, crowded with desk-like furniture, several of which were occupied by other residents desperately seeking a better signal for the wi-fi reception on their laptops or phones.  We’d booked a six bed room, with three bunk beds.  The room itself had a bathroom with a sink and shower, but the toilet was communal for the entire floor out in the hallway.  The lights in both the toilet (AKA “water closet,” or “WC,” as you’ll find they say throughout Europe) and in the hallway shut off periodically…and by periodically I mean maybe every thirty seconds in the John and two minutes in the hallway.  Both were easily fixable simply by hitting the switch again, but it certainly made for a startling first few experiences being in both.  Honestly it felt like being at summer camp!

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Because the French football match was about to start, we changed and freshened up as quickly as possible.  Did I mention by some beautiful stroke of luck that we are present in France in the midst of the World Cup?  It’s been a wildly marvelous time.  It ignites some of the most electrifying energy I have ever seen – an energy that spreads from the bars and restaurants to the streets outside them to the open apartment windows above them to the cars racing below them.  It is a source of immense fervor of an almost religious sort, a cultural phenomenon that sweeps the entire country and has its people flocking to every functioning television screen each. and. every. game.  In the midst of post-win celebrations last week, on our walk home from dinner three young men with painted faces ran past us on the street, the middle of which had the French flag draping his back like a cape, who chided us for our lack of enthusiasm: “On a gagne, les filles!” In other words, “Girls! We WON!”  As if to say Whyyyyy aren’t you going crazy?!

So, that night was no different.  We’d waited too long to leave the room, and spent a half hour walking around to find a restaurant with decent prices, a television, and vacant seats with a view of the TV…Absolutely impossible.  We finally gave up out of sheer hunger and exhaustion from traveling and stopped at the first place that looked good: an Italian style restaurant, which actually turned out to be great!  We had a wonderful meal, sumptuous dessert (seriously. YUM.), wi-fi service (better than the hostel’s!), and a great view right outside our window of the big open square of Nice, complete with a central stereotypical European naked man statue.

Screen Shot 2014-07-07 at 9.40.56 PM Screen Shot 2014-07-07 at 9.43.29 PM Screen Shot 2014-07-07 at 9.44.07 PM <– This is the same cathedral by our hostel at night. Gorgeous. :D

Even though we didn’t get to watch the game that night, we certainly heard it.  You could garner all the major moments of the game just by listening to the din on the streets.  Continuously rising chatter and shouting meant someone’s attackers were starting to close in on the goalie box, but who’s box was usually unclear.  As the din reached its peak, the seconds following would show whether or not the shot on goal was successful.  Needless to say, cries of explosive exuberance said, “France scored!”  Angry, indignant, obscene shouts, protests and grievances indicated the opposite.  And that night, France  triumphed, claiming another victory.  Every car on the street trumpeted in celebration for hours, and restaurant patrons came sprinting outside cheering.  The privilege of being present in this culturally-jazzed awe-inspiring fête had me bursting with giddiness.


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Malawi, Day 4

Today was a full, fantastic day, but also quite an emotional one. Arriving at the village, it took but two minutes for two small hands to eagerly grab mine. I’d never seen these kids before. From behind my sunglasses, I started crying on our walk to the construction site. How could the simplicity of my presence make these kids so happy, their faces exploding with joy? God, in that moment, sent his response to my prayer when I’d asked Him to break my heart for what I saw over here. Surely their lives were of the lowest caliber if someone as meager an individual as me could make their day so joyful just by being there. But the way He broke my heart was done in a way I would have never imagined. He showed me that the changes we strive to make in this world start as small as lovingly squeezing a small hand.

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Looking back on our collective work and effort that day, we all agreed that this was the day we’d gotten the most work done. Our sore backs that night and the next morning only affirmed our estimation. Seeing the process made since we’d arrived on day one definitely motivated us onward. The land was significantly flatter, necessary to finish completely before we could begin the foundation. Mac had told us repeatedly that this would be the hardest part of the work, after which he never failed to thank us profusely, his gratitude toward our service never faltering.

Today involved all of the same tasks, removing rocks and stones, breaking apart the massive ones, clearing away excess soil. This morning, I’d vowed to make this my hardest work day. Achieve my personal best. But a few individuals in the form of two small girls had other plans for me today. Just as the day before, Lignig found me before I found her (I’d imagine distinguishing one muzungu from a group of only a dozen fellow azungu is significantly easier than attempting the same from a group of now nearly fifty little Malawian faces!) She assumed her routine of keeping tabs on me, even when a shovel or hoe occupied my grasp instead of her hand. But whatever task I did, she would mimic it. With some pointing and periodic tonal emphasis, I’d encourage the formation of a little assembly line of four or five kids; she made certain that her place in the line was somewhere near me or next to me. Having been asked to take over use of a shovel, she would snatch up a hoe from a poor boy using one nearby and began hacking away at the dirt.

At one point, when I started to slip into a thirst-driven, sun-soaked stupor, temporarily zapped of my energy (and brain activity) from the hot sun, I’d slowly stop what I was doing and stare off into nothing. But Lignig, knowing there was work to be done, would tug on my hand until I’d snap out of my reverie and look down at her. She then would point insistently in the direction of our designated rockpile with a grin, as if to say, “That rock pile isn’t shrinking by itself!” and briskly whisked me right in that direction.

Another little girl, maybe five or six years old, wearing a pink dress, scrambled downhill from her perch in the small tree to claim my unoccupied left hand. Lignig, determined to maintain the continuity of our pace of work, kept us marching, rocks in hand. My smaller pal, whose name I could never get out of her, assumed role of Third Rock Gatherer right away. What a sight it must have been, the three of us all hand-in-hand, crouching down in unison to grasp the biggest mwala we could manage, then all rejoin hands, shuffle around to walk in the direction of the disposed rock pile, and march together.

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After finishing work and having lunch, our next visit on the agenda was at an HIV/AIDS support group. This bus ride felt like how I’d imagine when you’re in a tank steamrolling over a couch factory…few other sensations are quite that bumpy. I clung to the nearest graspable object in the van, clenching all of my muscles to avoid slamming into my neighboring passengers. We all giggled and cheered in undulations, with every rising and falling fluctuation that rang out in our downward route. It was definitely a fun ride! But somehow I doubt that our adult advisors, Elaine and Bill, felt the same.

After several minutes of getting tossed around, our vehicle stopped. Gathered around Mac, we listened as he gave us all a synopsis of the people we were going to see. Each member of this group was HIV positive. They were also, as I would happily get to see for myself, wonderfully devout in their faith, and he assured us to not be surprised if (and when) they would start praying or engaging in worship songs. With that, we walked about a minute down the road, and Mac opened a pair of green gates before us.

The closer we got, the louder the song grew. It grew and grew and grew, until we rounded the corner at a fenced-in house and suddenly there were hugs. And handshakes. And smiles. And many warm greetings of zikomo. And best of all, worship. A beautiful song of men and women singing a melodic hymn, a tall, thin woman leading each new line before the others would echo the same lyrics after her. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard before, and it was marvelous. Though the song was unprecedented in my memory, something about it still made me cry. Clearly, worships songs in any language have the same affect on me.

I kept my sunglasses on to hide the tears, only taking them off after regaining composure and when it came to be my turn to introduce myself. There sat on a tarp mat about eleven women, ranging from mid-thirties to seventies or eighties, and two men who looked like they were in their forties. With each of our names and brief bios that Mac translated to them, they would all nod and murmur in unison, each story of our backgrounds as equally fascinating – equally meaningful – to them as the next. From time to time a woman in the group would murmur something incomprehensible to Mac, who would repeat her response in English: “They like your names,” or, “They’re easy to remember!” Two names of our girls were actually the same as two women in the group.

And then they shared their own stories. Many names I’d written down further back in my journal to remember them:

Tresa

Katrina

Grace

Lucy

Esther

Crispin

Zainab

Caroline

William

They took turns sharing their stories about HIV’s role in their lives. Not expecting to live much longer after his diagnosis, William quit his job as a photographer and gave away all of his equipment. But against his odds, he fought through and survived, and now claims that he is healthier now than ever before, once he’d regained all the weight and strength that he’d lost. But he was forced to carry the burden of keeping his condition hidden from the rest of his community. No one from his neighborhood knew he had HIV. In Malawi, those who contract the disease are shunned from society, treated as outcasts, ostracized, bullied; their kids are picked on, forced to endure other people’s children saying horrible things about their parents. It’s simply one of the fallbacks of the culture, one of the many painful realities that come with the ignorance of HIV in this country.

One woman’s husband left her and quickly remarried after hearing the news of her diagnosis. Another woman, Tresa, who had a rare gentleness in her expression and beautiful brown eyes, had one daughter who had left her with six grandchildren to raise by herself. Another woman’s husband, for a very long time, refused to even acknowledge the reality of his wife’s condition, painfully dragging on his denial until he finally came to terms with the reality of it all; today, he finally fully supports her throughout her treatment. Many of them struggled to pay for their medication; but in 2005, the Malawian government made HIV medication free to patients. Needless to say, this helped tremendously; as much of a comfort as it was to have complimentary counseling services available to them, it obviously was not enough to keep them alive.

It usually wasn’t their sad stories that broke me down into tears, as incredibly desolate as they were. No. It was each time they ended their recollections with giving credit to God for sparing their lives, for granting them new life, for always providing all their needs and strengthening their faith throughout the hard times. I remember thinking that if God’s will was for everybody to watch me start crying in the middle of our circle, even if it were to bring glory to the power of His presence in these people’s lives, I was still gonna fight Him on it (foolishly) with every fiber of my being. At the time I was scolding myself for being human in struggling to hold back what I wanted so badly to express, out of the silly fear of embarrassment and shame, but surely my merciful and gracious God was loving me throughout this internal battle in spite of me.

They even said a prayer for us before we parted ways, asking the Lord that He grant us protection, “until we meet again.”   (Perhaps one day WordPress will let me install the video I took of this sweet sweet prayer that Esther said on our behalf!)

I probably sobbed when we finally got back to Kabula Lodge that afternoon (below), finally able to release all the emotions I’d been bottling since we made that visit. As we were leaving the group’s meeting, they sang us another song to say goodbye, waving and smiling with such genuineness that I nearly lost my composure and started crying again, thinking I might never meet people like these again in this lifetime.

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Lyon: First Weekend, & Endless Idiosyncrasies of the French

Today my Taylor dopple ganger arrives! A fellow Elon student in our program, we spent the last month of school bonding over the stresses of preparing for going abroad for the first time. She’d spent the week before in Paris with her family and is arriving to Lyon by train this afternoon. But now, today boasts incredibly gorgeous weather and the city is bustling with activity.

As I traipsed around the city center, in the streets that stretched out from the open square of Place Bellecour, the action going on in this vicinity was remarkable! Rue de la Republique is a fairly busy street, very wide, closed off to cars, laden with shops, the movie theatre, and an ideal setting for a city’s sidewalk havoc. A multitude of sounds filled my ears the moment I joined the crowd, coffee in hand. One came from a flutist, crouched on the sidewalk curb, who was playing a lovely song, collecting coins in his hat on the ground before him. A young woman, with dreads, facial piercings and loose-fitting clothing (“crunchy,” as we’d say) strummed a banjo as she sang a folksy tune. Earlier in the morning, a duo of guitarists sat on the curb played a pretty melody together. My favorite one so far, which will always represent the embodiment of the soundtrack of France, was, of course, an accordionist.

The further I walked, the larger the crowds that formed to watch street performers. One particularly large group of people formed in the middle of the walkway, occupying the entire circumference, so of course I stopped to catch a glimpse of what drew so much attention. A teenage Asian magician, bouncing around to a silly tune playing on small speakers, and dancing spastically to elicit laughs from his viewers, was performing a series of tricks. The most popular of which involved him pulling a balloon over his head, and blowing it up, even as it covered most of his face; he shook his hips left and right with each hasty breath he blew into the balloon, growing larger and larger above his head until it popped and the crowd applauded. The absurdity of his performance and the style of his sense of humor immediately reminded me of Ken Jeong from The Hangover.

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(Or Very Bad Trip, as the French renamed it.)

 

The French titles of American movies, by the way, change even the English translation, which is usually interesting and always entertaining.

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But one figure I see every time I visit Rue de la Republique, without fail, is a homeless man seated in a wheelchair underneath an uprighted umbrella stand, at the corner of Bellecour at a busy intersection. I’m not sure what it is about him, but I’ve grown particularly fond of him. Perhaps it’s the comfort I find in the reliability of his whereabouts every single day. Perhaps it’s his choice of companions – two cats and two Chihuahuas, all on leashes, laying down next to his chair. Or maybe it’s his unique business strategy: this man is too clever to succumb to the practice of mere begging. No sir, no ma’am! Instead, he has set up before him, under the ample shade of his large umbrella, a table with a chess board, and though his hand-written cardboard sign is in French, I gather that his technique is to take bets with passersby, challenging them to top his game. One day, a challenger came in the form of a little boy, which made for such a cute picture.

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Approaching another one of my favorite open squares, the same one that hosted the carousel and the greenhouse where I’d bought my windowsill flowers, Lyon exploded even more with life and movement. Across the square, I heard strains of a percussion group, and I followed it. A massive parade came marching in my direction, appearing to be some sort of celebration for the world’s countries. Participants were dressed in everything from European lederhosen to traditional Japanese kimonos (complete with a pair of dragons snaking in and out of the sidewalk.)

Now late in the afternoon, new performers had staked claims in Rue de la Republique after I’d turned around to walk back to the train station. An older magician played “Billie Jean” on speakers, addressing pedestrians in animated French. Right next to his circle of viewers, a group of breakdancers performed a routine, complete with back flips and spinning headstands, à la Step Up.

On my way to the station I stopped by the post office to mail a few more letters. Walking up the steps, I glanced to my left just as a young couple was kissing goodbye, clutching each other amorously, the boy pulling the girl close to him by her waist, the girl clasping his face with both hands. This, I was finding quickly, was not uncommon in public. Some took it a bit far, at least by my own cultural standards, but seeing this pair was darling, clear that they were smitten with each other. Even as I admired this brief glimpse, each time I passed a similar display of affection on the street, my malevolent subconscious plays the lyrics of Hunter Hayes’ song “Everybody’s Got Somebody But Me” in the back of my head. Every time. Yes. Always. Splendid.

 

One final word about the never-ending idiosyncrasies of the French (at least for tonight.) Allow me to illustrate it with a little anecdote. In a country like France, and in a city like Lyon, the day always promises a spectacle of some bizarre sort. Today was no different. As I was walking to class one morning, I noticed the man in front of me had an object poking out of his bag.

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Worried it might go tumbling out of his bag, I hurried faster to catch a better glimpse of what it might be. The outline grew clearer, and it began to resemble something quite familiar to me, but I thought there was no way that could possibly be it…

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…but it was.

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Yup. This man was carrying his Chihuahua in his satchel.

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Did I mention the French adore their dogs?

I rest my case.


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Countdowns

1 more weekend in Paris as a resident

9 days until my parents arrive

11 days until I move into my new apartment in Reims

17 days until I finish my internship

18 days until I leave my Paris apartment

31 days until I’m home for summer :)

 

I cannot believe how fast time has flown by! While I’m not quite ready to leave Paris, I cannot wait to be back in the states again. One more month :D

These past few weeks I’ve been busy working on my visa renewal & moving details and enjoying my last few weeks in Paris. I’ll fill you in on some of the details with more posts soon! 


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Malawi, Day 3: The Street Tour

I woke up before the rest of the group to meet Bill, and we waited for Mac to pick us up.  He rolled up in the passenger seat of a sedan with a driver.  Airport-bound, we weaved through parts of Blantyre I’d never seen before.  On one long stretch of open road, the mountains in plain view to our left, I noticed dozens of cyclists carrying enormous loads of coal, stuffed into cone-shaped baskets.  Mac explained that, to make money, many men from the village wake up at 2AM, bike all the way to the charcoal factory, fill up their baskets, and then bike all the way back home to sell it or use it for their own families.  He added that from time to time, the Malawian government would thwart this practice, in efforts to address the rapid wiping out of trees necessary to make their huge coal baskets.

We reached the airport, a small concrete facility with a simple red roof, at 7:45.  We waited for a bit to speak with a staff member, who would not arrive until eight…theoretically.  According to Mac, government employees were notoriously lazy, and had little incentive to put forth much effort of showing up to work on time or exhibiting quality work ethic.  As a result, they don’t think twice about having to make people wait (sound familiar, you fine folks at the DMV?)  Policemen and trafficpeople in particular are notoriously corrupt.  Later in the day, we would learn exactly how corrupt that meant.

All things considered, it took between 20-30 minutes to reclaim my suitcase.  I didn’t even have to undergo customs inspection.  Instead I signed a piece of notebook paper and the Kabula lodge address for their records.  And off we went.

Upon our return to Kabula, there was no time to waste!  Everyone cheered seeing me lugging my long-awaited suitcase, but I had to rush downstairs to change in time to grab a bite of toast before we boarded our bus.  Today, the bus took us past Mac’s house and closer toward the construction site, shortening our hike distance a bit.  Kids had already begun chasing us behind the bus, ready to greet us as soon as we hopped out.  I recognized a mere few faces from yesterday, considering the number had since increased and they were wearing different clothes (my go-to trick for recognizing people!)

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I settled into the focus of physical labor.  The village workers showed us how to use the ground tools most effectively.  I thought I’d been making fairly good progress with a hoe, hacking away rapidly at the rocky soil, until one of the men asked me in English, “Exchange?” and handed me a shovel.  We both laughed!

Today’s work was longer, but it was incredible to see how much land had been flattened, progress had been made already. And we had all the kids there with us on the site; some working with us, some playing games or taking pictures, others content to sit in the shade and just watch us work.  At some point in the morning, many of them grouped together in a circle as Emily and Grace showed them how to do the Macarena and the Hokey Pokey. :)

One little girl took to following me around today.  If I understood her correctly, her name is “Lignig,” and she’s getting better at pronouncing my name (when I try to teach them to say Tay-lor, when they repeat me it comes out sounding more like Tee-wah.)  At nine years old, she never hesitates to boldly come find me and grab my hand.  Some mornings she showed up carrying a toddler on her back, and already I could see strong muscles forming in her arms.  And with those strong little arms of hers, she was always ready to help me work.  We developed a routine of holding hands as we walked back and forth between the soil and the rock pile, picking up rocks and stones (called muala, in Chichewan) and together walking them back to the rock pile for disposal.  She never left my side, and her smile almost always mirrored mine.

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After our designated few hours of working, we made our way back to the village with the kids in tow, washed up again at Mac’s house, said goodbye, and piled back into the van to go to lunch.  I got a cheeseburger, pleased that the majority of our food options were highly westernized.  We ate at Ali Baba (kinda like Prince Ali Ababa AKA Aladdin, no?), in the city of Blantyre, and sat right near the open door that showed the bustling street outside.  Children would often stop to peek in and stare at us.

Then we walked into town on foot.  Today, we were given a street tour by two boys whom I’d vaguely noticed had hopped into our van with Mac.  I’d just never questioned it.  They were going to show us different parts of the city where they lived when they’d been homeless.  Translating, Mac gave us a brief description of life on the streets as an orphaned and homeless kid, always at risk of police beatings for sleeping on the streets or robbery from older children or adults.  The first place they took us was a bridge just a few minutes’ walk from the restaurant.  We were led through a heavily foliated area – I remember assuming that it was pretty enough to be a garden, given all the beautiful plants and flowers.  Downhill we went, toward the open mouth of a large tunnel below the bridge, weaving around plants and rocks as we walked.

The boys were Petrid and Jafunda, roughly thirteen and fourteen respectively.  While Petrid was the lankier of the two, Jafunda was much more built, with a sturdier build and incredibly strong arms.  They began to speak, and with every pause Mac filled with his translations, the story of their desolate childhood began to unfold.  This place, this filthy place with clothes and rags hanging from the mounds of dirt flanking the muddy stream streaking from beneath the tunnel, was one of their spots of refuge each night.  But not every night promised refuge.  Older boys and men would sometimes prey on them, robbing them of their money they’d spent all day begging for.  Sometimes they sexually abused them.  When they claimed to have no money, honestly or not, they were beaten anyway, out of the assumption that they were lying.  Mac asked them in Chichewan to give us some sort of demonstration but didn’t elaborate.  Petrid hopped up and began to walk uphill on a steep cliff leading up to the bridge.

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With silent graveness our eyes followed him, as he stooped down to pick up a brick and two thick football-sized stones and handed them to Jafunda.  As Jafunda began his description in Chichewan, he demonstrated by placing his foot on top of the brick, then resting the second stone on top of his foot.  His speech grew faster as he continued by slowly bringing the second stone on top of his own foot, imitating a much more violent version of the same action, and we all grimaced.  There was no translation necessary.  This was how the kids were tortured for their money.

We hiked back uphill and away from the bridge.  I remember thinking as I looked back, how could such a seemingly wondrous place from afar, disguised with its thick and gnarled African trees and wildly colorful flowers, host such hellish reality below.

They then led us back down the street, and around a new corner.  We were told that this was another sought out place for safety during the night.  When they finally had to seek elsewhere for shelter, because predators learned to follow them back to this location, and because sleeping in the streets meant greater risk from police beatings and immediate imprisonment, they came here.  Where was here? A series of dumpsters behind a grocery store, their best way to find food that had been recently thrown out, usually from frequent power outages when the food started to go bad.  We stared at the dumpsters in silence as we watched Petrid walk in between two of them, crouch onto his stomach, and scuffle sideways until he disappeared underneath, showing us where they’d hide and sleep.  Jafunda even climbed top the top of one, making his way up easily, and looked down at us with an amused expression at our dumfounded ones.

After the tour, the remainder of our afternoon had a more positive mood.  Mac kindly showed me the post office so I could mail a few postcards, which each needed TEN stamps!! I’d barely squeezed them all on.  Then we shopped in the nearby outdoor market, traipsing through a myraid of colors, textures, and sounds.  Produce. Spices. Colorful baskets of different beans. Fabrics. Books. Fried food vendors.  Imported goods, mostly clothes, mostly from the States.  Several girls were intent on shopping for fabrics, so we weaved our way to the other side, where we found a great variety, and I bought a beautiful black and gold pattern with giraffes.  Afterward, Mac led us back down a lower end of the market, which was darker, more cramped, under a scantily roofed series of open huts with fried food and more produce.

It was not a place into which I’d willingly venture alone.  Mac gave us a synopsis of the area, but I barely heard him; a homeless man was tapping at my wrist, then grabbing at it, requesting in English that I buy him food because he was hungry.  I said nothing and he eventually let go of me (again, with the grabbing! WHY!)  Finally we walked back uphill until we met our bus and took it back to Kabula.  Returning home each night to be greeted by a sunset view framed by orange and white flowers…it was spectacular.  After a round of card games and group reflection, which was particularly deep considering the weight of what we’d learned today. Dinnertime, then off we went straight to bed.  (But, obviously, Katherine and I stayed up talking for at LEAST another hour.) :)

 

 


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Lyon, Day 5: Planes, Trains and Oops…No Wheels

Friday morning came, and with it another full day to myself in Lyon.  Yesterday I’d tried to catch a train to meet with Taylor and her family in Paris, but alas, I found myself face-to-face with a less-favorable aspect of France: the strikes.  Apparently they happen frequently with the trains, a fact I find baffling, considering that I’d never had exposure to any growing up. Thursday at lunchtime, I found myself at the train station standing in a long line because six of the eight customer service desks were closed, consequentially.  I’d gone to seek help from Katherine Betts, whose office I’d visited that Tuesday to find out where and when my classes would be.  She’d graciously offered to walk the few minutes from her office to the station while she grabbed lunch and translate for me. 

So there we stood, one of the last people to finally be helped before they were closing the offices for midday, only to be told that the last available train into Paris this week was now thrice the amount of euros I’d paid to get here.  I told her no merci, as I didn’t have that sort of money to drop in one day, and left.  I couldn’t help but feel incredibly frustrated, wondering how on earth these employees could go on strike with such ease and without a care in the world toward the public who still needed transportation.  It was at that point when I started feeling my first taint of culture shock, and I panicked, thinking I couldn’t even leave the city if I had to or wanted to. 

But a good night’s sleep cured me of all that.  I resolved to continue to enjoy the freedom I had here and make the most of it.  I made my daily morning trek to my coffee wifi spot to check in with my family and friends, and even figured out how to use Viber’s free phone calls and video calls so I could talk to Tyler and my parents (Viber is a great app – definitely get it if you’re going abroad! It’s free to download and gives you free texting and calling with wifi, and I’ve had better experience with the connection quality than with Facetime.)  Then I walked two blocks over and made my second visit to the post office, where I was getting the hang of asking for enough stamps to send letters back to America. 

I spent the afternoon shopping around, peering into stores I hadn’t visited yet.  There were a few home décor stores that were marvelous. One of them, Bensimon Collection (#bensimonlyon), had both clothes and home décor, and it reminded me of J. Crew with its eclectic color scheme, and if it also had a home product line.  A second one closer to the open square of Bellecour (below) caught my attention with its sale sign in the window (and a curtain and matching pillow covered in a pattern of colorful book spines, which instantly attracted the English nerd in me.)  The women working there were wonderful, and one of them immediately switched English to help me as soon as she recognized my accent.  She showed me their Christian Lacroix pillow collection; I repeated the name to her slowly, then in a more animated and exaggerated French accent, and they both laughed.  I promised to come back (once I’d had more euros with me!)

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Past the shops and post office and closer to the Rhône river, a long square was bustling with activity.  Lots of people were out walking, girls lay out tanning, and at the foot of the square, a group of teenagers shrieked as they ran through a fountain spouting out of the ground.  It was pretty funny to watch – one boy shoved a girl in playfully with all her clothes on, and she ran after him to smack him, screaming in protest at him.  I stopped here to write a few more postcards I’d picked up, enjoying the scenery.  It was definitely a beautiful day. 

At some point in the week, I’d noticed how popular it was for apartment residents to line their fenêtres with flowers.Image 

Striving as always to further adopt French culture, I decided to get some for myself.  In another open square (there were a lot of these in Lyon) where I’d seen the carousel, a sort of small greenhouse lay on the Saône river side of the square, where a florist displayed a beautiful assortment of flowers.  Sunflowers, orchids (my favorite), roses of every color, and many others I didn’t recognize.  I decided on a pretty magenta kind that I neither recognized nor knew the name in French, but I gathered from my conversation with the florist that they were easy to care for and didn’t need too much sunlight.  So long as the soil was kept damp, they’d be fine.  I paid eight euros for them and she wrapped the pot nicely in plastic. 

I came home early that evening loaded with groceries and supplies.  Looking back on that day, I felt proud of myself.  I’d managed to mail my letters, purchase some school supplies and groceries I could cook in my dorm, find a spot that sold the cheapest chocolate croissants, and bring home some beautiful flowers for my window, all in the French that I was starting to improve day by day.  I felt more like an adult than I ever have!

 


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Malawi, Day 2: Meeting the Kids!

Today I woke up to a bright and beautiful day at the lodge, seeing it for the first time in daylight. Our first full day in Africa. Now, we could see that we overlooked a brilliant view of the city of Blantyre rooftops scattered among a feral-looking variation of trees. With the view came a cacophony of various sounds in the background. Roosters crowing. Children shouting. Music blaring. Horns honking….Another rooster crowing.

Blankets of flower-laden trees hugged the side of the front entrance patio and the sides of the lounge balcony. Flowers were everywhere, all around the lodge. I even found one type that I’d remembered collecting down in St. Kitt’s in the Caribbean, a simple white flower with five to six petals surrounding a soft yellow center, and a beautiful, subtly sweet fragrance inside. Little did I know that I’d soon find another form of wildlife I’d also seen in St. Kitt’s: monkeys.

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Katherine and I had jolted awake unpleasantly from the first of our alarms that went off; I’d hit snooze for another twenty minutes. Though we’d slept long and hard, we still ambled slowly upstairs to breakfast, as blue skinks and geckos skittered across our path up the steps. Before leaving for the orphanage, we called the airport twice to ask about my suitcase. Both times, there was no answer.

When we were ready to leave (thankfully, Katherine had a pair of shorts and sunscreen for me to use for the day), Mac, our “cultural liason,” picked us up in an old rickety bus, and all fifteen of us (drivers included) piled in. It felt a bit like squishing into a clown car, if you’ve ever wondered what that feels like.  And what a bumpy ride that followed! We first drove through the city of Blantyre and stopped at a back to exchange our currency. I walked out with about 40,000 kwacha. I’d never even come close to holding forty thousand of anything in my life. Needless to say, we walked out feeling quite rich, and hopped back into the van to proceed to the village, where we’d be spending every day for the rest of the week.

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The name of it was Baluti. As we drew nearer, the buildings gradually shrank, the road shifting from concrete pavement to dirt. Laying eyes on the community for the first time was fascinating. Produce vendors piled gatherings of tomatoes, potatoes, onions, leafy greens, and even small piles of coal for sale on blankets and tarp. Occasionally a goat would canter across the road, and there were chickens everywhere. And the people! Everybody stared, some with skepticism or wariness, but many smiled, bright white teeth against ebony skin, and waved at our van or even called out, Azungu!

The van stopped at Mac’s house, and he invited us inside for tea and coffee. I learned that he manages the orphanage and therefore assumes great responsibility over the kids (the name of the children’s center is Chimwemwe, the Malawian word meaning “we are happy.”) Mac led us through the gate, some of us (okay, maybe just me!) bouncing to a Black-Eyed Peas song blaring right outside. We’d heard mostly American music since we’d arrived. What was funny is that a lot of it was from several years ago, stuff we were listening to in middle school!

Behind the gate lay a dirt yard, with half a dozen chickens clucking and pecking around the perimeter. Several trees offered the relief of shade. A long clothesline, hanging garments from tiny diapers to larger t-shirts, hung from a shed on the left to a corner of Mac’s house, on the right. Susan, Mac’s wife, greeted us happily from inside, then exchanged rapid Chichewan with Mac. As she emerged from behind a corner hallway, a small boy appeared behind her, no more than five years old, hiding shyly behind her long skirt. This was J.J., Mac’s own little boy. Overwhelmed by a full room of strange azungu, he usually stayed hidden from us for the rest of the week.

I pulled out my camera to shoot brief video clips of the setting. Following a sudden burst of shrill voices outside, eye through the lense, I followed the noise back outside, and zoomed into movement behind a tree. Four children, all boys of various ages, peeked out at us from behind a tree next to the house. I’d captured the first kids we saw on film!! They grinned and waved at us, and it wasn’t long until they had us all in a circle to show us a clapping game they seemed to like. By now everyone was outside, either participating in the game or snapping pictures. The oldest, Michael, introduced himself to us intelligently in what English he knew. He was twelve.

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After several more minutes Mac led us a few blocks down the dirt road to the current orphanage facility. Having forgotten the key, he ran back to the house to retrieve it, and as we waited, a steady trickling of more children began to surround us. Boys, girls, all between the ages of maybe three and thirteen. We found that they loved having their pictures taken. After each snap, they’d rush around the holder of the camera to see themselves inside these funny black boxes. Videos were even more entertaining. Either resulted in an eruption of shrieks and giggles, then squeaky chatter in Chichewan. We had a great time, exchanging names, snapshots, and high fives.

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Mac returned with the key, the door was unlocked, and all of us – new little friends included, now numbering around fifteen or twenty – entered a large empty room except for several stacks of plastic chairs in the corner. They all rushed to help, snatching up chairs and handing them out as quickly as they could, as if they were racing each other. Once we were all seated in a large circle, Mac explained to us what work we’d be doing. The new facility, about a ten minute walk (more of a hike, as we’d soon discover) from the current facility. Men from the village had already begun construction; hiring a company was too expensive, hence why volunteers were a big part of their progress.

He continued by describing the state of the education system in Malawi, which is poor. A small percentage of kids reach secondary school, and a much smaller number make it to higher education. In most cases, staying home to help raise siblings and care for the family become a more immediate priority. So, in lieu of this information, he showed us blueprints of what they were planning to build for the new orphanage, including a library, computer rooms, a sewing room and a kitchen, sort of like “home ec” classes. The idea was that if children either couldn’t afford the time or money to go to school, here they would at least be provided the chance to learn skills to help sustain themselves. As we listened, the kids looked around intently, studying us with curious expressions. I let one little boy siting next to me wear my sunglasses. They were so big on his little head that they nearly covered his entire face. It was hilarious!

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Our job, we were told, would be the hardest part of the work. Right now, the property had to be flattened, meaning mounds of dirt had to be cleared and the rocks removed. With that, our meeting was concluded. We returned the chairs, locked the door back up, and began our hike to the site, in the midst of the mountains. All the kids followed us. They raced in between our group, grabbing any of our hands that were free, looking up at us to ask us our names and tell us theirs. That was about the extent of their English. Both of my hands were claimed in seconds. The others scampered around us, giggling, shoving each other, still studying us in fascination. Just behaving as children would.

From time to time we’d pass a set of speakers someone had set up outside their hut would blast some sort of dance music, and I’d swing the kids hands and shake my hips to dance along with it. The gaggle of small boys walking behind me roared laughing.

The walk continued, uphill and downhill, past houses of clay, stone, and straw. Past families milling about outside, babies strapped to mother’s backs, men gathered against walls of their local shops, children stopping in their tracks to stare. Some of their smiled and waved. A lot of them, adults too, would give us the thumbs up, which seemed to be another way they’d “wave,” which was also pretty amusing.

We finally reached the site, an open terrain high up surrounded by higher mountains, overlooking a heavily foliated outer edge of the village. It was already partially flattened, as four men were already toiling away, hard at work in the hot sun. But even the flattened area, which was a small percentage of what needed to be done, was still roughened with lots of large rocks. Mac addressed the men, who were breaking down the stone and moving the smaller pieces to a pile on the far side. Translating for us, he explained our task, which would be to continue flattening the area, mostly removing the rocks today. So off we went.

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The children LOVED helping! They would bustle together and form their own assembly lines, even the littlest ones, passing rocks from the area to be flattened to the rock pile on the other end. Others dispersed quickly, as those of us volunteers who’d start games for them to play were far more fun! We took turns shoveling and hoeing, taking breaks periodically for shade and water and sunscreen. One small boy had climbed up in the tree and seemed to be enjoying his view of us. We fist bumped. It was a gesture the boys seemed to know well and loved to reciprocate.

At one point when I was breaking for water, Katherine and I tried showing them how to whistle. A lot of the kids were able to whistle right back! Then we cupped our hands together and whistled through them that way. But when the kids tried to do the same, their mimicked whistle came from their voices, so they sounded more like Indians chanting. That made us laugh.

After only an hour and a half of work or so, we were all pretty beat, and it was time to head back (I imagine Mac knew we weren’t used to this sort of heat, so he took it easy on us for day one!) On the way back, he took us to the home of the village chief to meet him. Off the rocky path back in Baluti, we turned and entered through a large gate, where we were invited to sit on the steps leading to his house entrance. A man with intelligent eyes and a big grin, he looked like he was in his forties or fifties. Mac, translated for us, had each of us introduce ourselves by first name. The chief would nod and repeat each of our names with us. When it came Nick’s turn, the chief repeated “Nick” then pointed to his neck and asked, “Neck??” and laughed. That nickname (haha! Get it? NICK name??…never mind) became the running joke for the rest of the week.

Then Mac communicated to us our grateful the chief was for our presence and help here and that he feels that through us, God has answered his prayers. I hadn’t expected to get emotional so early in the trip, but of course hearing that made me tear up.

The last thing we did before leaving was line up in Mac’s house to wash up, a stream of brown water running down from our filthy hands and faces. Running water is not a common luxury in Malawi, so we took turns dipping plastic bowls into large tubs filled with clean water, then pouring it over each others hands. We said goodbye to the kids, promising to return tomorrow, loaded back into our van, and drove into town for lunch. The food here is surprisingly Western – I got to have pizza and a chocolate milkshake! :)

Right around the corner was a ShopRite, so we went and bought snacks to take home, laughing at seeing several familiar name brands (they had Lays chips and Crunch bars, even Mars bars!!)

The night back at the lodge was nice and relaxing, spent journaling or playing cards, which we ended up doing a lot the next two weeks. Shower, dinner, group reflection, and it was finally time for bed. I went to sleep quite a happy camper; not only had the day been a great success, I’d just gotten word that the Blantyre airport had my suitcase! We were leaving early to pick it up in the morning!


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