April 13, 2017 § 3 Comments
When I was a little girl, about eight or nine years old, my parents bought me the computer game Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego? The game, seemingly rudimentary now, but enthralling to a child in the 90s, was educational, meant to teach rapt children like myself basic geography through the virtual hunt across the virtual globe for the notorious, glamorous criminal in the sweeping red hat.
Oddly, nine times out of ten, Carmen seemed to wind up in Kathmandu, a glitch in the game, perhaps, or maybe an intentional set up by the designers to teach young Western gamers the locations of seemingly exotic, distant countries like Nepal. Certainly Kathmandu seemed excessively foreign to me. Even the name, “Kathmandu”, sounded rather like “Timbuktu”, and I conflated the two far off cities in my mind, my only context for either the cliche phrase I’d heard on occasion, “That’s as far as Timbuktu!” Like many others (adults and children alike), I didn’t realize Timbuktu was a real place, and so Kathmandu was equally mysterious and inaccessible to me.
Apparently, interactive educational computer games are an ineffective method for teaching geography, because I remained ignorant of the location of Kathmandu, as well as the location of Nepal itself, until I was an adult. Neither the city nor the country crossed my mind much again. That is, until a friend from college invited me to join her in Nepal for six weeks, flying, of course, into Kathmandu.
My mind flickered back to the vague memories from my childhood of Carmen in her striking red coat, glossy wavy hair, and bright smirking lips, standing on the dirt streets of that remote city, and my wistful imagination began to stir. Was there anywhere more remote than Kathmandu? Anywhere more different than where I was then, living in the middle class suburbs of Dallas? I booked my flight in less than a week; a few months later, I was on my way to Kathmandu.
In the beginning, Kathmandu felt as exotic as I’d imagined it would.
My friend and I stayed for the first few nights at The Hotel Ganesh Himal, a quiet spot with a pleasant garden just a few minutes walk from the tourist district, Thamel. That first night, we went out into the cacophony of motorcycles, small white taxis, faded maroon and gold rickshaws, and torrents of masked pedestrians, in search of a cheap spot for dinner. We found one on the roof above the shops (and the dust and the smog), and ate our first meal of curried vegetables and plain white rice, raving about it beneath the soft flutter of prayer flags and the brilliant white stars.
In our excitement to see the city (and partake of its delectable foods), however, we’d failed to pay much attention to where we were going. When we left that rooftop restaurant, our bellies satiated and our hearts full of the satisfaction that comes from a good conversation with a good friend, we found ourselves utterly, horrifyingly lost. My friend, who’d been traveling across Southeast Asia for the last two months, had a bolder willingness to weave across the narrow streets, dodging motorcycles and taxis and rickshaws that have no ability to discern the difference between hitting a bump in the road and running over a pedestrian’s foot, so she took the lead. I was happy to let her.
But no amount of courage and experience was a match for the labyrinth of dusty alleyways and tangled power lines and neon lights that make up the confused streets of Thamel. We walked and walked and walked, down this street, then that, then back down the same street as before because we’d walked in a circle. Vendors rolled shut their metal doors, closing their friendly shops from us. Tourists in flowing elephant print pants and stiff hemp shirts faded into the intricate maze of rooms in the crumbling stone buildings above. Block by block, the lights of the city shut off, leaving us in complete darkness.
When a taxi rumbled past, its headlights shone like an eerie kaleidoscope through the thick dust onto the rickety wheels of a rickshaw cycling away. Nepali men hung about the street corners, smoking and muttering to one another in the dark. I felt disoriented, afraid. I felt like I was in a film noire, and possibly the pretty but silly girl in the opening scene of suspense who doesn’t make it past five minutes.
We flagged a taxi, but the driver didn’t know The Hotel Ganesh Himal. We stopped a skinny rickshaw driver who pointed in the direction we’d come from and said the hotel was that way. We found a faded brown sign that actually said Hotel Ganesh Himal, but the arrow underneath it could have been pointing down three different side streets, and we didn’t find our hotel on any.
In a final state of fear, me thinking we’d have to curl up on the dirty doorstep of a shop with the mangy stray dogs for company, we stopped a last rickshaw driver on his way home. Yes, he knew the hotel. Yes, he would take us, for 200 rupees. I would have given him a thousand just to get us off the street, but my friend’s cool head prevailed. It’s so close, she said. How about 100?
It was close; less than two minutes later, he dropped us off in front of the small blue statue of the Hindu god Ganesh, a pudgy elephant with a decorous crown, and we tumbled inside the safe, softly lit lobby. I laughed because it was better than crying. Where are we, I asked my friend?
We were pretty much exactly on the other side of the world.
In my mind, the other side of the world ought to be unusual, uncomfortable, perhaps a bit bizarre, and at first, Kathmandu lived up to those expectations.
My friend and I walked around Thamel, where young Nepali men called out from the front of their stores, which overflowed onto the dusty streets with gold singing bowls, turquoise teapots from Tibet, plastic wrapped packets of prayer flags, and lots and lots of hippie pants. “Hello, sister!” “How are you?” “Where are you from?” Catch the eye of one of these vendors and next you would hear, “You like? More colors inside.” Or, “Welcome, madam,” along with a gesture into the musty shop. Or perhaps a simple, courteous, “yes, please,” as if buying that 100 percent yak wool scarf would be a favor, not a transaction.
Meanwhile, the chants of Tibetan Buddhists streamed through speakers at a nearby music shop, incense stuck between crumbling bricks burnt steadily and sweetly, triangular tinfoil streamers strung across the streets rattled and sparkled in the hot sun, and tangled power lines spilled like masses of writhing black snakes off wooden poles into our faces. It didn’t take long before we came upon yak butter candles burning beside women selling bright yellow marigold flowers on plastic tarps and white Buddhist stupas painted with the sleepy blue eyes of the Buddha himself. Thamel was ancient wooden lattices and tin vats of steaming slippery momos and barefoot children crying, “Namaste! Chocolate?”
In other words, it was living up to its exotic reputation.
And perhaps Kathmandu would have retained this exotic veneer if we hadn’t then moved into the Alobar1000 Hostel on the other side of Thamel.
This hostel, one of the most popular in the city, was a four story maze of dorm rooms with hard bunk beds, balconies laden with crumbling terra cotta pots, and a breezy open rooftop where young Western travelers laid about on lumpy cushions smoking, drinking Everest beers, and eating fried momos. Most of these travelers were in their twenties, and almost all were on monthlong trips across Asia. Most had a number of fabulously intricate tattoos, quite a few purchased right there in Thamel. Most wore flowing hippie pants, long beaded skirts, or floral scarfs they’d also bought in Thamel. Almost all were either coming from or heading to one of the treks in the Himalayas, attending a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, or volunteering at an orphanage, organic farm, or village struck by the 2015 earthquake.
Staying at Alobar1000 popped Kathmandu’s bubble of exoticism in my mind. All of a sudden, Kathmandu, and Thamel especially, was easy to navigate with these experienced Western travelers by my side, and traveling the world wasn’t a wild, spontaneous, slightly dangerous adventure; it was natural, expected. Unlike well-to-do Americans, who go straight from high school to college to the workforce, these trendy Europeans and Aussies and Indians took gap years or monthslong vacations or simply hit the road vagabonding it until their spare cash ran out. I would be in Nepal for six weeks. When I told this to a young Westerner over plastic baskets of naan and spicy curry served in greasy metal bowls, he said, “that’s nothing.” I worried that a small scrape on my ankle might lead to tetanus; these travelers spent a few thousand rupees on sacred geometry tattoos in gritty Nepali tattoo parlors. For them, Kathmandu wasn’t the craziest place to go; crazier still was Dehli during Holi Festival or the Thai Islands any time of the year or Istanbul despite the terrorism
And through their eyes Kathmandu began to look familiar. Western style restaurants, like OR2K, where you could order Mediterranean food served by hipster Nepalis underneath trendy neon lights, were recommended as the best spots to eat. Spending the evening drinking rum and coke at a hazy bar where an 80s soft rock band played was an evening well spent. Drinking to-go Americanos bought from the clean and bright Himalayan Java might have felt like drinking a taste of the real Nepal — except the shop was secretly owned by Starbucks.
Seeing Kathmandu through the eyes of these free spirited millennials, the remarkable suddenly became commonplace, and Kathmandu felt little different than a Westerner’s playground.
Oddly, I began to feel as if I connected more with the Nepalis I met on the streets of Kathmandu than the Westerners in this hip hostel.
I was wary of what appeared to be their somewhat empty approach to travel: the sense that each city, each country, each trip was another check mark off a list of cool places to go, an adventurous story to collect, perhaps, but nothing more.
Don’t get me wrong, the urge to travel took root in me as well, and soon I too was dreaming of visiting ever far off lands — Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bali. In fact, I wondered if my dislike for this approach to travel was because it was awfully close to my own. Traveling is addictive, and my list of places to visit began to grow. But this list also felt frivolous, and a little sad. Missing was a sense of commitment to other people, to a physical place, to a mission unique to one’s own.
The Nepali people, on the other hand, though culturally quite different from myself and my compatriots, made more sense to me. While I didn’t know (and likely never will) what it’s like to sell bananas and pomegranates and apples from a large basket on the back of a bicycle, I understood the motive and intention of the Nepali vendors who called out to me, “Fresh fruit. Bananas. Apples. Fruit juice.” The vendors may have slyly snookered me into buying twice as many bananas as I wanted, but I understood and respected their goal: this was business plain and fair, and the result was money in the pocket and another hard day’s work done. I found myself having more respect for these hard-working Nepalis than myself or any of the beautiful, free and easy Westerners I met on the road.
And yet, just when I thought I was connecting with the Nepali people, I walked past a child on the street, a little girl maybe three or four, dirty and begging on a tattered purple blanket; I saw whole families washing their hair from a hose sticking out of the ground; I saw an elderly woman, her back as crooked as a hanger’s hook, ringing a bell beside a shrine to Ganesh. And I remembered: this culture, and by extension, these people, are foreign to me. As my friend aptly put it, we don’t want to be tourists when we travel, we want to be connected to the Nepali people, to live like they live, but at the end of the day, we will always be Westerners, we will always be tourists. We might as well embrace it.
So embrace it I did. I bought two pairs of hippie pants, one blue with white elephants, another pin-striped. I swapped trekking stories with a traveler from Germany over black tea and yogurt while sitting cross legged on the hostel floor. I frequented the hostel’s popular watering hole: Western Tandoori, where Nepalis churn out dirt cheap roti and Chana masala so spicy it will make your nose run. I opened myself up to the gentle vulnerability of the roommates in my 12 bed hostel dorm, and found myself warmed inside and out by their compassion toward others and their zeal for life.
And late at night, though the hostel played Justin Timberlake and Eminem like a proper Western radio, I could also hear the mad dogs barking and smell the sweet incense burning on the street, and I remembered that I was here in a city so far away from my familiar world that the notorious criminal Carmen always went to hide.
February 7, 2017 § 2 Comments
One of the joys of working as a freelance writer? Meeting interesting people willing to share their stories with me. It’s always an honor to write about the people I meet and the interesting things they do.
Most recently, I wrote a profile of local Dallas author Sanderia Faye, whose passion led her to transition from accountant to writer to literary advocate. She’s the author of the award-winning novel Mourner’s Bench, which is about life in the Arkansas Delta during the civil rights movement. Faye now hosts literary events around Dallas.
Read about her here.
January 11, 2017 § Leave a comment
It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to post on this small corner of the Internet. I suppose that’s a good thing; it signifies time spent on other writing projects (read: monetized writing projects #win) and time spent on general holiday comings and goings. Happy New Year, by the way.
For those interested in some of my latest writing endeavors, here’s a link to my most recent story in The Dallas Morning News about Liturgical Folk, a Dallas-based, cross-generational music project that centers around religious poems set to folk tunes.
There’s still time to pre-order their albums, and after researching and writing about them for the last few weeks, I’d recommend it.
And finally, last year I resolved to read one book a week for my New Year’s resolution. At times, it felt like running through a museum. But mostly I loved how it encouraged me to be intentional about reading every day and exposed me to new writers.
For anyone interested, here’s the complete list!
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
Meditations from a Movable Chair by Andre Dubus
Politics and the English Language by George Orwell
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
The Autobiography of Saint Therese: The Story of a Soul by Thérèse de Lisieux
Silence by Shūsaku Endō
Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth Mccracken
Ella Enchanged by Gail Carson Levine
Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert
Run by Ann Patchett
Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith by Robert Barron
Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson
Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Beneath Wandering Stars by Ashlee Cowles
The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling
Gift from the Sea by Ann Morough Lindbergh
Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by John O’donahue
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
She Walks in Beauty: A Woman’s Journey through Poems by Caroline Kennedy
Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett
Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Seders
The Dalemark Quartet Vol. 1 by Diana Wynne Jones
The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo
Very Good, Jeeves! by P.G. Wodehouse
Hinds’ Feet on High Places by Hannah Hunard
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
Finding My Way Home: Pathways to Life and the Spirit by Henri Nouwen
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey
The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide
Why Be Catholic?: Understanding Our Experience and Tradition by Richard Rohr
I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro
Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women by Sarah Bessey
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World by Anthony Doerr
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
God for Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter by Greg Ponnoyer
Emperor of the Air by Ethan Canin
Turn My Mourning Into Dancing: Finding Hope in Hard Times by Henri Nouwen
Cold Tangerines by Shauna Niequist
Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
Redeployment by Phil Klay
Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons by Christie Purifoy
First Light by Rebecca Stead
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber
Selected Stories by Andre Dubus
No Man Is an Island by Thomas Merton
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas by selected authors
The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth by Scott Peck
Phew! Don’t worry, I won’t be trying this again (but if you have any book recommendations, I’m always open to them)!
Here’s to a great 2017, y’all!
November 8, 2016 § 1 Comment
There are few things more effective at waking me in the morning than stumbling into the kitchen for some hot black coffee only to find a dead rat lying on the rug.
Since moving in with my grandmother and our two family pets, Scout, the black and white border collie, and Lucifer, the black cat named after the devil, this has happened to me not once, but several times. My grandmother’s house in Dallas runs up against a drainage ditch that all kinds of wild animals call home — possums, raccoons, squirrels, and, yes, rats — and either Scout or Lucifer (I can’t be absolutely sure which) wants to show me his respects by offering up these kills.
Common knowledge tells me it’s the cat who’s bringing me my morning surprises. After all, cats are notorious for hunting rats. But Lucifer is rather fat and lazy, and she hardly ever leaves my bedroom or her favorite sunlit cushion in the living room, so my hunch is it’s Scout.
Technically, Scout is my brother’s dog, but since my brother rents a single bedroom in a tiny house in Burbank and I live in a whole house with a yard in Dallas, he’s essentially become my grandmother’s dog and my dog.
Scout is a beautiful dog, and I’m not just saying that because he’s mine. Everybody thinks so. Or at least, all of my neighbors do.
He has a half white, half black face split perfectly down the middle (at one point, my family tossed around the idea of calling him Phantom). He’s smart, as most border collies are. His favorite activities include sleeping at the foot of my grandmother’s bed, taking an afternoon walk, rooting around in the backyard shrubs, being scratched by my grandmother behind his legs, eating ginger-flavored dog treats, eating table scraps of any kind, barking at pedestrians, barking at other dogs, barking at cats, barking at squirrels, and barking at absolutely nothing — usually, at night.
I like to call Scout “Fluff Muffin”. My brother likes to call him “Killer”. When I say, “Fluff Muffin, come get a treatie!”, my brother likes to remind me that once, “Killer” jumped into the air and caught a bird in mid-flight.
The dead rats I almost stepped on always made me wish Scout was a little bit less of a killer and more of a fluff muffin. That was, until I found the live rat.
I was sitting in my grandmother’s living room, enjoying an evening bowl of ice cream while watching the Olympics on TV, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a gigantic rodent with a long grey tail scuttle across the brick wall from the fireplace in the corner to the dark shadow behind the TV. It happened in a flash, in less than a millisecond, so quick I thought perhaps I was hallucinating. After all, can rats really climb on walls?!
It turns out, yes, yes, they can. They have sharp, strong claws that can grip the sides of just about anything. I discovered this while watching with horror a number of YouTube videos on the very phenomena later that week.
“Mim!” I said, turning to my grandmother where she sat in her favorite armchair. “I think I just saw a rat on the wall!”
“What did you see?”
“A rat, a huge rat!”
“A rat? No.”
“Yes, there was a rat! I saw it!”
Unperturbed, my grandmother adjusted her shoulders and went back to watching Kerri Walsh Jennings serve a volleyball effortlessly over the net.
“Well, Scout will get it.”
Scout lay asleep on the floor. When I sunk my fingers into his fur to wake him, he simply rolled over, exposing his belly for me to rub.
I did not finish my ice cream that night. I also slept with my bedroom door closed.
Several days later, I was back watching the Olympics, Mimi sitting in her usual armchair, I seated on the couch beside her moving on to my second piece of biscotti, when there again, the rat! It ran across the wall!
“Mim!” I shouted, jumping to my feet.
“What? What is it?”
“The rat! I saw the rat!”
“Behind the TV! There is a rat behind the TV!”
“Well, what do you want me to do about it? I can’t catch a rat.”
“But we have to do something!”
“Scout will get it.”
Scout’s ears twitched in his sleep. He did not open his eyes.
The next day, my grandmother called her yard man who is also the man who deals with her wild animal problems. He set up a small metal trap on the mantel above the fireplace. I stopped eating desert in front of the TV. My bedroom door stayed closed all day.
After a week, though, neither Scout nor the trap had caught the rat.
“Scout,” I said to him on one of our afternoon walks. “How come you won’t catch that rat?”
After all, he had caught all of those other rats and left them, dead, for me to find.
Scout stopped to sniff a maroon-colored rock, the same rock he always stops to sniff. A squirrel ran by and his ears perked up. I got no answer.
The next day, my father came to visit. When I told him about the rat living behind our TV, he shined a flashlight back there and sure enough, two white eyes stared back. My father smiled.
“I’m a master rat catcher,” he said. “But first, let’s see if Scout or Luci will catch it.”
It turns out, it isn’t that hard to get a rat from behind a TV. All you have to do is bang on the side of said TV and soon enough, the rat will flee. A few seconds into my father’s hitting the TV, in a flash, the rat ran across the living room floor, burrowing deep beneath my grandmother’s desk.
“Scout! Get that rat!” my father cried.
Scout looked between my father, my grandmother, and me, and then rested his head on his paws.
My father tried again, this time banging on the side of my grandmother’s desk. Sure enough, out came the rat! It streaked across the carpet in a grey blur, returning to its former home behind the TV.
“Scout! Luci! Get that rat!”
Again, neither cat nor dog moved.
My father shook his head.
That evening, my father set several traps all over the house — one beneath the TV, one in the fireplace, and one beside my grandmother’s desk. As grossed out as I was by the rat, I couldn’t help feeling bad for it. After all, my father was a master rat catcher. I remembered him catching rats, raccoons, and even a skunk when I was a kid. My rat didn’t stand a chance.
But if my father was a master rat catcher, then the rat must have been a masterful fugitive, because the next morning, all of the traps were empty and we never saw that rat again.
I did see another rat, however. Several weeks later, Scout was back to his old tricks, and one morning I almost stepped on a dead rodent lying in the middle of our kitchen floor.
“Scout,” I said, ruffling his ears as he panted up at me, staring lovingly through those big brown eyes. “I guess you’re half fluff muffin, half killer.”
Then, I used a rag to pick up the rat by its long, skinny tail and tossed it in the ditch outside.
October 26, 2016 § 4 Comments
I wrote this story about my first night in South Sudan a while back, but wanted to share it now in anticipation of Seed Effect’s fundraising event on Thursday, Oct. 27. If you’re interested in attending this event or learning more about the organization in general, please let me know!
When a small African country appears on the pages of an international newspaper, the news is almost certainly bad, and if that small African country is South Sudan, you don’t need to read the headline to know that the story is proclaiming horrific calamities far beyond the scope of most Western lives.
South Sudan has been in the news a lot recently, with stories coming out about rape, mass murder, and the dislocation of millions. As a result, most people who discover that I visited the country within the past year are, at first, shocked that I had the audacity to go, and then, shocked again to realize that I returned alive.
“I can’t believe you went there,” people say. Or, “Isn’t that a war zone?”
I never know quite how to respond to these questions.
After all, I was only in South Sudan for two weeks, which hardly makes me an expert on the country, and while any visit to South Sudan is somewhat dangerous, during my short stay, I remained within the confines of a small village in the south, while the violence occurred far to the north in an area only reachable by poorly maintained red dirt roads. As one of my fellow travelers put it, getting from our village in the south to the violence in the north would be like trying to drive from Dallas to Oklahoma City without a car or a road. She was exaggerating, of course, but you get the gist.
When people ask me what South Sudan was like, I usually, once again, find myself at a loss for words.
Sometimes, I describe the town where I stayed.
Kajo Keji is lush and green, I say, with rolling cornfields and leafy trees. Goats are tied to stakes along the road. Many South Sudanese live in mud huts called tukuls. Children collect well water in plastic buckets. Men ride motorcycles through town. Women cook chicken over fires with babies strapped to their backs.
Other times, I talk about the war.
It’s caused by two tribes fighting in the country’s oil-rich north, I say, quoting what I’ve read in the paper. And while all of the atrocities you read about are true, the South Sudanese I met were fundamentally joyful. They were generous and gracious and tremendously faithful, and I admire them very much.
Usually, people want to know whether I felt safe. To which I reply: yes, and also, no.
Yes, I felt safe in Kajo Keji. It was safe enough for me, a twenty-something-year-old American woman, to wander away from my fellow travelers in the market and buy avocados from a South Sudanese woman with a baby in her lap. It was safe enough for me to eat some unknown meat prepared over a fire in an outdoor kitchen. And it was safe enough for me to walk alone amongst the tukuls on a Sunday afternoon while barefoot children skipped beside me shouting “Hieee!” and “Galatot!” – Kuku for “white person.”
Yet, it was not safe enough for us to sleep in a concrete bunker at night without a South Sudanese man guarding the place with a bow and arrow. It was not safe enough to prevent one of my fellow travelers from observing toward the end of our stay that he was glad we were leaving soon – he’d recently heard that soldiers from the north were moving into Kajo Keji in case of a coup.
And it was not safe enough for us to cross the border from Uganda into South Sudan without being stopped in the dead of night by soldiers with vicious-looking semi-automatic rifles.
I’d been fast asleep against the square window of the Cessna Caravan, the small propeller-powered plane flying us over the rural countryside of Uganda, when we began the descent. I awoke just in time to stare in awe at the thatched roofs of the tukuls, the smoke from the outdoor fires, and the children running through the bush.
We landed on a bumpy grass field which served as the airport in Moyo, a small Ugandan village on the border of South Sudan. The field happened to be located beside the village school, and as soon as the propellers stopped turning, dozens of children of all ages crowded in a circle around the plane. Though many of them weren’t wearing any shoes and most of their clothes were more like filthy rags, some of the teenagers owned flip phones, and they unabashedly took photos of us as we stepped off the plane.
We’d left Dallas over forty-eight hours earlier, but Moyo wasn’t our final destination. We still had to drive over the Ugandan border into South Sudan, where the twelve of us would spend two weeks working with Seed Effect in Kajo Keji.
Originally, we’d planned to fly into Juba, the country’s capitol. But the day before our planned departure, news of possible violence and travel moratoriums in Juba caused us to change plans. We were now entering South Sudan through Uganda by bus.
We were a group of Texans of various ages and backgrounds with one thing in common: we’d all felt a spiritual call toward South Sudan.
As for me, the decision to go had been fairly easy. Ever since I first learned about microfinancing in my high school world studies class, I’d admired how it empowers individuals in low income situations. As a budding journalist, I would be able to write a profile of the organization’s founder for my local newspaper. Plus, I love traveling, especially traveling to exotic places, and though I was wary of using this personal enjoyment as a reason to go, I must admit that it came into play. I never felt God whispering in my ear, “Go to South Sudan,” or anything like that, but I’d been told that God doesn’t always talk to you in your dreams; sometimes, the right path to take is simply the one laid out in front of you.
Now, however, I was doubting all of my reasons to come.
We’d waded through the throngs of Ugandan children to climb aboard a mud-splattered bus with the words “reaching the unreached” scrawled in faded blue paint along the side. I’d sat in a window seat toward the back with the intention of getting a good view of the African bush. It was a short distance from Moyo to Kajo Keji, and if we’d been on a paved road in the U.S., we would have reached it in less than an hour. But the roads in these parts of East Africa are not only unpaved, they are dusty and full of potholes.
Our ride would be bumpy and slow, and we had to stop three times before we reached South Sudan: first, when a Ugandan soldier on a motorcycle with a machine gun strapped to his back gave us a ticket for breaking some mysterious law; second, at the Ugandan border, where we relieved ourselves in a shack built over a cement hole and were told by a Ugandan border guard that we needed to pay him a good deal of money for Visas to leave the country; and third, at the South Sudanese border, where we sat on hard benches in a hot room watching a monkey tied to a stake turn circles around himself while we waited for the South Sudanese border guard to finally tell us that the Visas we obtained in the U.S. were now worthless and we would need to purchase new ones – at a high price.
By then, the sun had set, and when the sun sets in South Sudan, it is pitch black. We stumbled through the dark, most of us only half lucid, and climbed back onto the bus to begin the final leg into Kajo Keji.
I was just beginning to consider using my duffel bag as a pillow – after all, I couldn’t see any of the tukuls or leafy trees or sloping hills in the dark – when lights flashed on the road ahead.
The bus pulled to a stop.
We were immediately alert. The driver and our South Sudanese escort whispered to one another in the front of the bus. Outside, I saw the outline of several tall, lanky South Sudanese men in camouflage standing in the headlights, holding semi-automatic rifles.
Our escort, a young woman in khaki slacks and a magenta button-up, got out of the bus. When she returned, her expression was unreadable.
We’d been stopped by the soldiers, she said. They wanted to search the bus. Everyone had to get out.
Oh my God, I thought to myself as I followed the rest of the group down the aisle. Today is the day I am going to die.
My mind flashed back to the many news articles I’d read in preparation for the trip, stories about mass rape and murder. We’d been assured that violence of that kind rarely happened in this part of the country, but what if we were the rare exception?
I saw us lined up against the side of the bus and shot. I saw us kidnapped for ransom. I couldn’t imagine what rape would be like, but I wondered if that might happen, too.
As we huddled together in the dark, the South Sudanese soldiers encircling us with their guns held loosely, black barrels jaunting to the side, I began to pray.
More often than not, when I take the time to pray, my prayers are accompanied by the voice of doubt, which wonders whether prayer has any real efficacy at all. I mean, when all is said and done, sometimes it seems our prayers are answered, but other times, it seems they’re not.
Sometimes, the circumstances in our lives line up so perfectly that wonderful miracles happen. Other times, the circumstances in our lives line up so unfortunately that inconceivable tragedies occur. How can I equate one to the answer of prayer without simply turning a blind eye on the other?
But the voice of doubt was not in my head that evening as the South Sudanese soldiers forced our vulnerable group to circle the bus. It never is when you’re really in trouble. I prayed ceaselessly, relying solely on the fervency of my prayer and the hope that God was listening. After all, what else did I have to protect myself if the situation made a turn for the worse? I’m not sure I had ever really prayed in my life until then.
The soldiers wanted each of us to remove our suitcases from the back of the bus.
The first member of our group to bravely step forward was a lady who loved Disney more than almost anything in the world, and when the young soldier aimed his flashlight down at her bag, the barrel of his gun swinging precariously, we saw that the suitcase was shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head. And when the soldier gestured for her to open it, we saw that the insides were chalk full of blow-up balls and candy bracelets – gifts she’d planned to give to the South Sudanese children.
There we were in the dark, in the middle of South Sudan, with Mickey Mouse grinning up at us and the soldiers with guns leering down at the candy inside his head. If the situation hadn’t been so terrifyingly surreal, I would have laughed. As it was, I was too busy praying.
So it went. One by one, each of us opened our suitcases on the dirt road while the South Sudanese soldiers loomed over us with flashlights blazing, guns ominously clanking. After about the fourth suitcase, the soldiers decided they’d had enough and waved us back onto the bus.
I did not feel safe again until we were barreling down the road away from them. Another half an hour later, we pulled into the compound at Kajo Keji, which would be our home for the next two weeks.
Later, after a solid night’s sleep and a breakfast of scrambled eggs and a thick flatbread called chapati, we would speculate on why the soldiers stopped us, finally deciding on what seemed the most plausible answer: the soldiers in the south were bored and jealous of their compatriots in the north, who got to see all the action.
Scaring us was a way to pass the time.
When people ask me about South Sudan, I am always wary of sharing this story of our crossing the border because I fear my telling of it will come across flippant or opportunistic: flippant, because the event was so frighteningly strange any retelling of it becomes comical, and opportunistic, because it was a brush with danger that makes a great adventure story for me, the American who made it home to her house in the suburbs, while for the South Sudanese I left behind, the life-threatening dangers remain.
Though I only spent two weeks with my South Sudanese hosts in Kajo Keji, I feel close to them. I am Facebook friends with a number of them, and every time they post prayer requests about friends who have been bitten by black mambas, relatives who’ve been injured in motorcycle accidents, or nearby villagers who’ve been wounded in violent massacres, I feel a combination of powerlessness and a desire to do something, anything, to help. I care about them, I guess is what I mean, and I want every story I share about my time in South Sudan to reflect that.
Yet, I’ve felt compelled to share this story nonetheless, seeing that I add the above caveat, because it’s an example of what it’s like to live a life so obviously prey to forces outside one’s control.
The South Sudanese live at the mercy of so much: unstable political forces like those which caused the soldiers to stop us in the night, as well as every unpredictable force of nature you can imagine, including illnesses like malaria, wild animals like the poisonous black mamba, and even the rain, which they rely on to water their crops and fill their wells.
Reading articles about South Sudan these days, I often feel a chill, partly because, in some small way, I experienced what it’s like be at the mercy of these forces, and partly because I wonder if our Western lives are much less under control than we’d like to think. In many ways, the South Sudanese know this truth – that we are fragile and dependent creatures – better than we do, simply by virtue of where they live.
I suppose that’s why, when I listened to them pray again and again during those two weeks, praying over bowls of fried chicken, praying inside overheated churches, and praying under the shade of leafy palm trees, I always felt the voice of doubt had little air to breathe.
After all, when faced with your own vulnerability, it hardly ever does.
October 23, 2016 § 2 Comments
Happy weekend, y’all! Here are a few links to things I’ve written lately.
Of all the things I ever thought I’d publish, poetry was not one of them. Which is why I’m glad I sometimes (okay, a lot of the times) get things wrong.
This month, one of my poems was published in the beautiful online literary magazine s/word! You can read the poem in the magazine or check it out here:
I’ve talked before about my work with The Well Community, a nonprofit that serves those who struggle with mental illness in Oak Cliff, a borough of Dallas. The Well is a super organization, and I recommend them to anyone in the Dallas area (or beyond) wanting to help those on the margins.
This month, I wrote several stories for their blog:
- I hung out with their members, those who struggle with mental illness, during their biannual spiritual retreat.
- I chatted with several volunteers about their experience helping The Well.
- And I hung out with a group of firefighters renovating The Well’s boarding house.
If you’re interested in learning more about The Well, please drop me a note! I’d love to answer any questions about them.
Also, I recently created a Facebook page where I post links to things I write. You can check it out here!
October 15, 2016 § 7 Comments
In my family, we have a tradition.
It began a year before I was born, back when my parents were newlyweds, and like almost every other family tradition out there, it’s somewhat peculiar.
My mother wanted a cat. She’d grown up in rural Montana surrounded by animals of all different kinds – frogs, wild geese, a beloved Boston Bull Terrier – and when the church’s pastor announced at the end of Sunday service that there was a box of kittens waiting to be adopted in the reception room, she looked over at my father with pleading eyes.
To which he emphatically replied, “No.”
The way my mother tells it, they were just going to take a look. Scratch a pink nose, tug a triangular ear, rub a furry belly. I have my doubts about this. I am fairly certain that my mother never planned to leave that church without a kitten.
In any case, they had just entered the gymnasium, the cardboard box on the other side of the room, when one of the kittens boldly climbed the box’s side, sauntered over to where my mother stood, wrapped its claws around her ankle, and sunk its teeth in.
For anyone else, this would have been reason to shriek out in pain or, perhaps, kick the cat across the room. But not for my mother. Instead, she looked down at that fuzzy fur ball and cooed.
The kitten was small and black, with bright yellow eyes.
“No,” said my father. “No. No. No.”
But the kitten was already in my mother’s arms, batting at her chin with its tiny clawed paws. And so, my parents left that church, a tiny black kitten snuggled in my mother’s coat.
And because the cat was black, as black as those cats in horror movies who howl and run out of dark alleyway shadows, and because my parents have a wry sense of humor, they named the kitten Diablo – Devil in Spanish.
Thus the tradition began. Any cat my parents owned had to be black and had to be named, in some language or another, after the devil.
Though I am technically the elder in our family of four, my mother always called Diablo her “first baby.” By the time I was born a year later, Diablo had lodged himself firmly in her heart. And though he was a cat, he certainly lived up to all of the stereotypes of oldest siblings.
For one thing, he was extremely protective. My mother loves to tell the story of how I used to crawl around the house until I found Diablo lying sprawled asleep in a patch of late afternoon sun and promptly flop myself directly onto his exposed belly. Or how I used to grab onto his bewitching tail, stick it in my mouth, and chomp down. All this torment Diablo took with a kind of Stoic patience, as though he understood that I was merely a baby who did not know any better and that no matter what I did to him, there was no situation in which he would be allowed to retaliate in turn.
Then, there were the German Shepherds, another story my mother loves to regale. We lived in a townhouse at the time, and because my mother felt bad for any cat cooped up inside, but didn’t want to let Diablo out for fear he’d be killed by a negligent driver, she took to walking him around the block – on a leash, like a dog.
For other cats, this may not have gone over so well. But Diablo was a special cat, and he took to his afternoon walks like it was second nature.
A number of our neighbors also had pets, including two older ladies who owned two German Shepherds. Now my mother, who had a bad experience with a German Shepherd as a child, was deathly afraid of these dogs. Whenever they came around the corner, she would stop stalk still, holding Diablo’s leash as if it were a lifeline. Diablo, on the other hand, was not the least bit afraid. In fact, as though he could sense my mother’s fear, he would raise his shackles and pierce those muzzled German Shepherds with a fierce glare. The way my mother tells it, those German Shepherds took one look at Diablo, turned around, and took off running, the only sound their expandable leashes whirling in their shocked owners’ hands.
Diablo was a gentlemanly cat. In the mornings, he would leap gracefully into my mother’s porcelain tub and wait for her to fill it with an inch of lukewarm water in which he would give himself a thorough bath. He disliked milk and catnip, treats that were far beneath him, but loved my mother’s gourmet cooking, licking up such expensive dinners as roast beef, steak on the grill, and honey glazed ham.
If his manners were graceful, his stature was even more so. His black fur was slick and shone in the sun. He walked slowly, plodding along as though he had nowhere in particular to go, and yet every step he took was deliberate. Once, my brother and I told one of our neighborhood friends that Diablo was actually an African panther, and he believed us. Nevertheless, I still denigrated his genteel nature, nicknaming him such epithets as “Bubba” and “Bobbles” and, the only one my mother ever used, “Dobs.”
No one, least of all my father, expected Diablo to live as long as he did. Which is why we adopted our second black cat when he was still alive, my father naively assuming that old Dobs wouldn’t be around for much longer.
But cats always have one more life than you think. Diablo, it turned out, would live for eighteen years, until the night he disappeared suddenly, without a trace.
My mother walked around the house crying for days. My father used it as an opportunity to teach my brother and me about the mysterious, yet absolute reality of death. Meanwhile, I would wake up in the middle of the night, thinking Diablo was there, sitting stately at the edge of my bed like he had ever since I was born, but he was gone.
Given my family’s patriotism and penchant for free market economics, it’s always struck me as ironic that our second cat was a bona fide Canadian. We were vacationing in Prince Edward Island off the coast of Nova Scotia when the manager of the B&B told my parents about the litter of kittens living in her barn.
Of course, we had to see them. My mother, brother, and I spent a glorious morning playing with those energetic fur balls. I was partial to a white one with a little brown spot beneath her chin. My brother loved a fluffy gray one we nicknamed Grayball. My mother, a black one with a partially bald eye. We carried them around beneath our arms. I plucked daisies and stuck them behind the ears of the ones I thought were girls. The little black kitten: definitely a girl. She got extra daisies to cover up her bald spot.
All of us were sad when my father emerged to tell us it was time to leave. That night, we had reservations at an Anne of Green Gables-themed B&B.
But on our last day of vacation, my father woke us with a surprise.
“We’re going to visit the kittens,” he said.
“Really?” said my mother.
“Just for fun,” he said. “It’s on our way.”
My brother and I were ecstatic. No one, not even my mother, expected what my father had up his sleeve. For as the three of us happily snuggled with the kittens in the barn, my father diligently packed an old cardboard box with crumpled-up newspaper, a plastic baggy filled with cat food, and a red plastic bowl so that we might take home a small, black, bald-spotted kitten.
My father named him Teufel – pronounced Toy-full – which was Devil in German, and it wasn’t until after we took him to the vet that we found out he wasn’t a girl.
If Diablo was a stately gentleman, Teufel was a fiendish rogue.
He was first and foremost, a barn cat, which meant he was skilled at catching and devouring all manner of small creatures. Rats, mice, snakes, birds – you name it, he would kill it and eat it, leaving only a small pile of bones. Once, when I was seventeen, I drove all the way to high school, parked in the coveted senior parking lot, and slammed the car door, only to find the remains of a large rat stuck to the trunk of my car. I refused to clean it, instead letting its long pink tail, scruffy grey skin, and bloated purple intestines dry to a crisp in the hot Texas sun.
Teufel was unabashedly audacious. He stood down a wild fox, winding my mother into hysterics as she listened to their wild snarls. He roamed at night through the tall Texas grass, braving coyotes, rattlesnakes, and cougars.
Of the four of us, he liked my brother best.
Every morning, he would plod into my brother’s room, leap onto his bed, and settle himself directly onto my brother’s solid, warm back. My brother would wake to Teufel’s purring — a sound that did not necessarily mean the cat wasn’t about to lash out at you with razor sharp claws — the feeling of those claws lightly digging his skin.
I suppose Teufel liked my brother because he didn’t treat him special in any way. Whereas my mother doted on him, offering him nibbles from the dinner table, and my father had, on several occasions, slapped him off that very table, my brother ignored him completely. And as a rogue cat – my brother and I often called him the pirate – this was exactly what he wanted.
Me, on the other hand, Teufel didn’t seem to like very much.
I suppose it was because I once thought he was a girl and put daisies behind his ear. Teufel was the kind of cat to hold a grudge.
After I moved away for college, Teufel became very sick. Cancer, said the vet, all over his mouth.
I wasn’t around for that last year of his life, but my mother tells me that Teufel knew he was sick, the way animals often do. He became very dependent on her, and so much was her love for him that in the final days of his life, when the cancer was causing pieces of his pink tongue to fall out of his mouth, she fed him warm water and watered-down cat food with a plastic syringe.
On his last day, Teufel, who hadn’t been outside for days, walked the perimeter of our Texas home, my mother watching him through the kitchen window. He smelled the sweet grass and watched the sun fling brilliant rays of light across the mesquite trees along the horizon. Then, she took him to the vet.
She called me several days later with the news. Although by then I felt rather detached from Teufel, a cat I’d never felt that close with and remembered more for the times he’d slashed me in anger than cuddled me in love, I was still sad I didn’t get to say goodbye.
As I write this, my family’s third black cat, a corpulent female with a white tuft of fur just beneath her chin, lies sprawled across my desk, sleeping contently.
I was never supposed to end up with this cat. My mother rescued her as a kitten and so technically, the cat should live with her. But my mother and father now live in a tiny apartment in Washington, D.C., while I live in a suburban house in Dallas, a living arrangement that’s landed me with the cat who’s currently shedding clumps of fur all over my room. Incidentally, fur is somewhat like glitter: just when you think you’ve gotten rid of it all, more appears, matted to your bedspread, perhaps, or stuck to the legs of your yoga pants.
My father named our third black cat Lucifer, a name that was promptly shortened to Luci when the vet told us she was a girl.
Luci, as I said, was a rescue cat. My mother found her in the dead of winter, hiding in an empty home that was under-construction. She was near freezing and living on bugs when my mother used a can of tuna to coax her out of a hole in the home’s cement foundation.
My mother paid dearly for rescuing Luci. The terrified kitten was so excited at the prospect of eating real food for the first time in her life, she gobbled up all of the tuna and then tried to eat my mother’s fingers too. Lest any kitten fool you with its adorable eyes and miniature paws, let me remind you that these animals are relatives of the mighty lions. Their teeth cut through skin and bone. My mother walked around for a week with a giant bandage wrapped around her throbbing index finger. But she is a saint to all lost kittens, and despite the pain, Luci was allowed to come home.
Like all creatures, the early months of a cat’s life are its formative years. Before her rescue, Luci’s life was marked by starvation and fear. All alone in the frigid cold, she survived by catching and eating anything smaller than she – mainly, bugs – and hiding in her hole from anything larger – mainly, the coyotes who roamed the Texas hills. To this day, Luci is marked by these habits of survival.
She gobbles up bowls of Meow Mix as though it’s the only food she’s ever had and may ever see again. Then, she gobbles up what’s left of the dog’s food. And then, she winds herself around my ankles, tail curling up my leg in the hopes that I’ll drop her a tasty morsel of my own meal (which, of course, I always do).
When she was younger, Luci jumped at the slightest noise. She hid under the bed when any stranger entered our home. She hated to be outside. Now, she is a calmer, older cat who spends her days immersed in her two favorite things: sleeping in the sunlight that illuminates my room and eating like a deranged wolf.
She is a sweet cat who’s never once lashed out at me, and I love her companionship very much. In many ways, she is the perfect pet. She loves it when I scratch the top of her head and will snuggle against me for hours while I rub her nose, yet she is also perfectly content to lie around the house by herself, requiring nothing more than to be left alone.
Growing up, people sometimes told my mother, “I would never own a black cat.” I saw shock on the faces of these same people when my mother told them our cats’ names. “You mean you named your cat after the Devil?” Why yes, yes we did.
What is it about black cats that engender so much fear among us? In many cultures, they are considered signs of evil. The association of black cats with Satanic forces goes back to the Medieval Age. If one crosses your path, it means suffering and death lie in your future. If you pet a black cat, you may also find yourself in the company of the Devil himself. If you let one aboard your ship, on its next journey, the ship will sink. The list of bad omens goes on and on.
Yet if we are going to take up superstitions, I’d rather be like the Scots, who believe a black cat in the home brings prosperity. Or the English, who believe if a fisherman’s wife owns a black cat, it will keep her husband safe at sea. Or the Celts, who believe a woman who dwells with a black cat will attract many suitors.
In case I didn’t mention it above, I am, in fact, a single woman living with a black cat. A black cat named Lucifer, perhaps, but after all, the Devil’s only in the name.