No News Is…

We’ve all heard the maxim: no news is good news. Unfortunately, here in Bujumbura of late, I’m going to have to go with no news is…well, no news.

I should end this blog post here. That would sum it up nicely. (And no one could call TLDR* on me.)

The sad reality is…I have no news. August 26, a long anticipated day, has come and gone. For me, as an American observer, it marked four solid months since the manifestations (protests) began. For me, as a lonely wife, it marked four solid months since the day Randy left Bujumbura. For us as an embassy, it marked our last “flash point”.

Let me explain: For four months now, we have all been living under the stressful anticipation of what we’ve come to call The Rolling Date of Impending Doom. Surely something big is going to happen to us. Once we get this or that behind us, we’ll know more. If we can get through this election, or that event, we’ll have a better sense of the future. When this or that day comes, this “flash point”, where we anticipate the risk for a catastrophic event to be high, we’ll be on high alert, but if it passes without consequence (i.e., nothing happens), then the worst will be behind us, and we can get on with life, which includes bringing our exiled family members back. And on and on. The Rolling Date of Impending Doom.

We’ve been living like this for all this time, but really, all along August 26th was to be our last flash point. It was the official last day of the incumbent government, by which time a new government of some kind or another must be put in place.

And August 26th has come and gone. A new government, notwithstanding the question of its legitimacy, has been inaugurated. We still live with vague future potentialities, but no more specific dates. Nothing has happened. We are ready to move on.

Now let me explain what I mean by Nothing has happened. Of course, plenty has happened. High ranking government officials have been assassinated. People have been targeted and gunned down in their homes. Nightly raids continue. Human rights activists and peace loving civil servants have been attacked in their cars. Thousands of citizens have fled in fear. Schools and shops closed. The economy tanked. Life in the city was completely disrupted for Burundians. Plenty. Has. Happened.

But what I mean by Nothing has happened is…nothing has happened that has affected us as Americans, other than the initial coup attempt and subsequent brief closure of the airport in May. Since that enormous disruption which caused the evacuation of our families and pets, we’ve just been living with the Rolling Date of Impending Doom. But the Impending Doom has not occurred and we are ready to get on with it. We have passed our last flash point.

And we wait.

The present Ordered Departure status is in effect until September 10, just three short days from today. We eagerly await the cable that will dictate our future: the Ordered Departure status will be lifted, and our people will return, or it will be extended yet another thirty days. Many in our community are optimistic. In a rare, out-of-character-for-me moment, I do not share their optimism. “In three days (or sooner), we’ll know more,” she said for the thousandth time.

And so we wait.

In sum, this has been a difficult and frustrating time filled with a myriad of conversations, interactions, events, consequences, and perspectives not appropriate for this blog. I long to keep a good state of mind, body, and spirit, but feel I have fallen short of that goal. I’ve always believed that God won’t necessarily change your circumstances during trials, but rather that he seeks to change you.

Unfortunately, these trials have made me more bitter and angry, with me giving in to my frustrations, rather than heeding my own advice and focusing on the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Perhaps just committing those nine words to paper will inspire me to live them better.

Hmph. I’ll keep you posted on that one.

But despite my present circumstances and frame of mind, I treasure the chance to end on a more positive note. Since my last blog post, this happened:

11888036_10203919971594249_5925552916829422512_n(Blog post with details and photos galore to follow shortly.)

And this weekend, I successfully Road Tripped To Rwanda and Operation Super Q Reunification Project, complete with successful (and uneventful) border crossings, brought this guy home:

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At least this begins the reunification of the McQueen family.

Stay tuned for news: the future status of the Ordered Departure, the wedding blog post (undoubtedly more upbeat than this one), and the ever anticipated topic in the Foreign Service: bidding!!

À bientôt!

 

*Too Long, Didn’t Read

Update or Outdated?

Things are so uncertain here that this update may become outdated between the time I finish typing it and when I hit publish. Nonetheless, here’s the latest:

My son likes to tell people that when his mother tells a story, she likes to start with creation and move forward slowly. His hyperbole is impressive but here’s the point: I can weave a good yarn; I can make a short story long.

And this is probably the most difficult story I have ever told, for a myriad of reasons. First of all, it’s complicated and politics are not really my forte. Secondly, it’s personal. Each person experiences his or her own version of reality, right? That’s why Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all tell different versions of the same story. In fact, you can read another version here that is quite different from my own. Same story, different perspective. Thirdly, it’s sensitive. It’s a government story and I am a government employee, so by that necessity, it’ll be the somewhat sanitized version. Honest, but sanitized. And lastly, I’m trying to make this a one-size-fits-all story: one in the same story for those of you who keep up with the news, those of you to whom I’ve spoken recently, and those of you who are coming in from the cold, so to speak.

Now I don’t plan to start exactly at creation for this one, but it does deserve a little backstory, a little place setting. In this recent blog post, I presented a simplistic explanation of recent Burundi history and the current political situation. If you don’t know much about current events here, you should pause now and read that post to get up to snuff on the political climate here and now. That post was written towards the end of March. I’ll pick up here on April 25th, interweaving the story with my own personal challenges, events, complications, and perspectives; otherwise you could just read the news on Twitter, and this would simply be redundant.

In the days leading up to April 25th, rumor had it (keep in mind that rumor is currency: it’s all we ever have to go by) that the ruling party’s congress would meet that day and announce it’s presidential candidate. This was the inevitable moment we had all been waiting for. It was also the day of the Around The World 5K, which thankfully went off without a hitch, just hours before the fateful congress.

As expected, the congress met late in the morning of April 25th, and also as expected, the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD announced that the incumbent, Pierre Nkurunziza, would seek a third term. (If you don’t know why that’s a problem, google “Nkurunziza third term” and you’ll get a plethora of commentary explaining it.)

And also as expected, forecasted, predicted, and dreaded, on Sunday morning, April 26th, the protests started. Anti-third term protesters took to the streets in true African style–throwing rocks, burning tires, marching, and generally causing an unorganized, uncivilized ruckus. And the Burundian National Police responded with water cannons, tear gas, and firing shots, mostly in the air, at least on this first day. (Did you know that what goes up must come down and people have been killed from bullets fired into the air upon their return to earth? That hasn’t happened here, but it can happen, and a bullet landed on the bath mat of one of our co-workers. Thankfully, she wasn’t home.)

So what was that first Sunday like for me? I was sitting on my porch and I heard gunfire. It seemed close. Now maybe if you’ve lived in the inner city of one of our more dangerous US cities or worked in a war zone, that would’ve been a commonplace occurrence for you. But for me? Not so much. If I’ve ever heard that before in my everyday life, then I’ve blocked it out, because that’s the first time I ever remember experiencing the sound of live gunfire nearby.

And here’s the thing: it’s not like we have on the ground newscasters relating all the events in real time with camera footage and reliable information (think: Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore during a hurricane). So we have NO idea what is really happening. I’m not saying it was shakin’-in-your-boots-scary, but disconcerting nonetheless.

And to add to the disconcerting feel of it all, Randy was packing to head to Wyoming later this same day. In multiple telephone conversations with his mother, he had sensed that his father was going downhill rapidly, and I had encouraged him to go. In an unforeseen act of unfortunate timing, his plane was leaving in just a few hours. You can imagine the stress he felt leaving me (and Quandary) behind. (His famous quote was that he was more worried about Quandary than me. Fair enough, as you will see.)

Thankfully, Randy arrived safely in Denver and made it to Thermopolis near midnight on Monday, thanks to the help of Adam, Ian, and his brother. He was able to visit with his father for a few minutes that night and spend the next day with him before his dad drifted into a coma. He died in the early morning on Thursday, April 30. I am ever so thankful that Randy was able to be there, and to have spent those last few precious moments with his dad.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, (well, Bujumbura, really), we are settling into our new lives: uncertainty and its friend and constant companion-fear, hungry for realtime news, knowing the protests are going on every day–riots, tires burning, streets blockaded, protesters pushing to get to downtown, police responding with gun shots, tear gas, water cannons–and yet our embassy-bubble life widely unaffected. The protests (or manifestations, as they are called in French) are concentrated in certain quartiers, which are easy enough for us to avoid when traveling between the embassy and home. It was surreal. For me it was like knowing something was going on in another country, another continent, far, far away, and having to remind myself it was actually right in my back yard. Life went on as usual, going to and from work everyday, but with a palpable tension in the air, and a real fear of how things would develop. Stores started closing early. Schools closed simply because no students showed up–parents were afraid to let their kids go. The university closed, and six hundred students sought asylum outside of the embassy gates. (That is an accurate statement, but it seems worse than it actually was. They were peaceful and quiet and stayed an appropriate distance from the walls, never threatening us.)

One day I was standing near the windows in my office and I did hear gunfire really close. Suddenly the “duck and cover” alarm, which we hear every Friday morning during our weekly drill, sounded, and I yelled to my staff: this isn’t a drill! The protesters had made it to the side entrance of the embassy and the police had fired rounds into the air. However, it was over as soon as it started, as the police pushed them along, and they were gone. (It’s important to note here that we at the embassy, or even as Americans, have never been the target. Unlike in other countries of unrest, this isn’t about us.)

As things continue to ramp up, it suddenly hits me that I have to mobilize for a memorial service across an ocean and a couple of continents during an unstable time when it is likely they will be reluctant to let me go. (Bujumbura has no medical services that meet Western standards, so I’m kinda it. Me and a plane to get you outa here, so you can imagine their reluctance to allow my departure.) To make things worse, the following Monday, when I am attempting to prepare to leave on Wednesday, many of our locals, including both of my health unit staff, were unable to make it in to work. Public transportation had stopped, and even for those with cars, certain neighborhoods were blocked. The front office (embassy-speak for the ambassador and the second-in-command–the deputy chief of mission, from whence all decisions flow) told me that if my staff couldn’t make it in, we’d have to re-think my presence at the funeral. We negotiated and scrambled and made some arrangements and at 10:20 on Wednesday morning, May 6th, I was cleared to get on a flight later that afternoon.

It was a grueling week. Five flights, 30 hours of flying, dinner, an hour drive to sleep at Ian’s, an hour and a half drive back to Adam’s in the morning to meet up for a six hour drive to Thermopolis, a burial service, a night without sleep (a full eight hours and I never fell asleep once), a memorial service, another night of fitful sleep, another six hour drive back to Denver, one day in town filled with a few more complications not fit for this blog post, and another long-haul flight back.

(Optimistic people like me always like to look at silver linings, right? As bad as all this was, and it was about to get way worse, there were silver linings. I met my future daughter-in-law and spent Mother’s Day with all my children. I’m beyond thankful for these surprise blessings.)

You can imagine the shape I was in when, about twenty minutes before we were due to begin our descent into Bujumbura, the pilot comes over the loudspeaker and announces that we will not be landing in Bujumbura. The airport was closed. We would be going on to Nairobi and all of us destined for Bujumbura were to stay on the plane. I honestly can’t remember if it was at this point, or after we landed that he told us there had been a coup d’état in Bujumbura, but I do remember quite well the sinking feeling of oh crap! that settled down around my exhausted body and mind. Now what. Exactly why the front office did not want to let me leave: I was now officially “caught out”. There was a closed airport between me and my job.

The next ninety-six hours were not fun. And this story now diverges into two lanes: what was happening to me and what was happening in Bujumbura.

Without going into too much gory detail, while my husband was in Denver mourning the loss of his father, and my dog was in Bujumbura in the care of friends, I spent two days at the US Embassy Nairobi suffering through a roller-coaster ride of no information, conflicting information, and misinformation, then two days in Kigali, Rwanda, trying to figure out if and how I was going to get back to Bujumbura.

(More silver linings? In Nairobi, I had lunch with a colleague from Abuja who was also in town, and in Kigali, I spent the entire day with my precious Brooke, and ate Mexican food.)

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (Bujumbura again), things were happening, the details of which I’ve only pieced together in the weeks following my return. Here’s what I’ve been told:

Wednesday, May 13th, the day I was to land, while Nkurunziza was attending a summit in Tanzania, there was an attempted coup d’état, followed by massive celebrations. Then starting at 4:30 the next morning, there was unprecedented violence. Some friends describe huddling in their inner hallways while gunfire, grenades, and explosions literally rocked their walls. The coup attempt had officially failed.

Following this ordeal, my co-workers also suffered poor communication while the embassy made decisions on their (our) future. Eventually it was decided that all family members, non-emergency personnel, and people who needed to leave for family or personal reasons would be evacuated to our official safe-haven, Kigali, Rwanda, on a charter flight scheduled for Sunday morning. No pets allowed. Somehow a couple of determined folks worked very hard to arrange for the embassy’s six dogs (including Quandary) and three cats to be brought overland to Kigali. I still don’t know how they made that happen, but thankful they did.

As for me stuck in Kigali, it was determined that I was to head to the airport, along with 11 marines and two other people who were caught out, and return to Bujumbura on the charter flight that was evacuating everyone else. (OK, not everyone, but almost everyone. Talk about feeling like I was crossing the picket line. Or going the wrong way on a one-way street.) I was able to say a quick good-bye to the second group of evacuees in the airport who were boarding the plane we had just arrived in, but the first group included people who have since moved on and I will likely never see again, some of whom were good friends.

Today marks four weeks since my return on that charter flight. We who remain at the embassy have settled into that horrible phase: the new normal. My husband is in Denver, unable to return even if he wanted to, as the embassy remains on “Ordered Departure” status per the US government for the foreseeable future. My dog is in Kigali, being cared for by strangers, to whom I am very grateful. There are about 16 of us, considered emergency personnel, continuing to work at the embassy, all without family, pets, and many of our friends and previous co-workers. This results in an increased workload and a decreased workforce that lacks the usual support systems. We have no sense of the future–not tomorrow, not next week, not next month, nor when the “Ordered Departure” status might be lifted and our families return. Since part of my responsibility within the embassy is mental as well as physical health, I question the sustainability of this current new normal.

As for our city and country, we teeter along in a steady state of stressful uncertainty. The airport re-opened a few days after the embassy’s frantic evacuation as well as the land borders. Life resumed some sense of normalcy, although many, both locals and expats, have fled. (Silver lining? The internet is better.) Today, the last of my non-embassy friends left town. I still drive to work every day, and have now started to venture out to stores and restaurants in certain parts of town, after two weeks of traveling only between work and home. The economy has tanked, and this in the third poorest country in the world. The protests continue in fits and starts. Many protesters have lost their lives in the melée. An opposition party leader was gunned down in the night near his home last weekend. There is no independent media. No one knows what will happen, and the prospects for peace are slim. The electoral calendar has been re-scheduled, but there is slim hope that elections can be free, fair, transparent, and credible. And then what?

While I admit that my main concern (and the subject of this blog) is for myself, the reuniting of my family, and the mental health of my charges at the embassy, my heart breaks for this country and its people. They have come so far in the decade since the end of their horrific and prolonged civil war. They are beautiful, hardworking, honest people in a breathtakingly beautiful country. They are on the road to democracy, freedom, progress. But the seemingly inevitable future is bleak. Please pray for Burundi.

In sum, I want you all to know that I have always, and continue to feel safe and unthreatened, albeit lonely and isolated at the moment. My heart breaks for Burundi, and yearns to be reunited with Randy and Quandary. I long for peace for this country, and for our lives to return to the routine we had come to love here.

In three short weeks, I journey to Denver and then on to Telluride to celebrate Adam and Val’s wedding, and to enjoy precious time with extended family and close friends, for which I am over the moon thankful and excited. In the meantime, I hold on to these words that Jesus spoke to comfort his disciples:

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

I’m thankful that Jesus has overcome the world, and I take heart that I know my final destination is heaven, but I could sure use some overcoming right here right now in Burundi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Around The World 5K

I belong to a Facebook group called We Run The World. It’s comprised of runners (no surprise there) from the Foreign Service from (again, no surprise) all over the world. It’s quite inspirational and sometimes informative, as people ask questions, post achievements, and throw down challenges. If you follow this blog you may remember this challenge from the end of 2014.

Earlier this year, someone threw down the challenge of running a virtual 5k. The idea is that we’re all part of the same race, even if we’re spread out on multiple continents. The organizer organized it as a fund raiser on behalf of a Foreign Service family whose child was recently diagnosed with Diamond-Blackfan Anemia. Another FS runner designed the shirts. It was quite the global initiative.

Here at US Embassy Bujumbura I decided to join forces with the Community Liaison Officer (CLO) whose job it is to organize events for the embassy (among many other things). He and I spread the word, got people excited, ordered t-shirts, collected money, and chose a date.

The week leading up to the race was filled with rumors about a possible upcoming political event that put the reality of the race in jeopardy. I was devastated, because as I had mentioned in a recent newsletter article, organizing this event brought together many of the things I love: running, promoting healthy activities, fostering community, and organizing people to have fun.

As it turned out, the run was scheduled for early morning and the political event late morning, so we were able to gather and get’r done without a hitch.

From its humble beginnings as a 5K with a couple of friends, I’d say Team Bujumbura’s Around the World 5K was a great success, captured here in beautiful photos by my ever-ready photographer, Randy.

Here are Renee the ELF (English Language Fellow), Hilary, and Michelle our female winner, relaxing before the race starts:

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And they’re off! A beautiful day in the beautiful setting of Jardin Public:

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That marine in the blue shirt didn’t stay in the lead for very long:

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And the winner! David Tietze, who, much to my jealousy, just completed his first half marathon: The Kigali International Peace Marathon. Congrats, David; I’m totally green with envy, although running a half or a full in a city named The Land Of A Thousand Hills may not be my dream race!

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A few more action shots:

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HILARY! That HAIR! Can you believe this girl just carried that hair around for a full 26.2?? Congrats, Hilary!

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Here are the race organizers in their glorious finish: Ian the CLO, Guita the lovely, and yours truly!

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The US Embassy Bujumbura 5K really was a great success. We had fifteen runners, a cheering squad nine strong which included three toddlers and one Flat Stanley, and two dogs. Here we all are post race. Props to the head of the cheering squad, Jim and Kate Carney for support, IMG_9176time keeping, and the sign!

 

 

Here’s a close up of the fun shirts, designed by a FS officer in Kyiv, Ukraine. Note all the participating embassies from all over the world! (Note, too, this is soaking wet from the sweat of our winner! Plus, I like how CO rated as a country. While I’m in total agreement, I still don’t know how that happened! 🙂 )

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After the race, some of our spectators took the opportunity to give some lovin’. It’s like a petting zoo, only better!

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Even the ambassador participated. True to form, she was late, so here we are, walking the course with Quandary after everyone else finished.

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This may seem like an uncharacteristic post: lots of pictures and an entire post dedicated to a relatively small event: a 5K. I decided to post this “latergram” because I wanted to preserve this wonderful memory of a beautiful day and a fun event. And because our Around the World 5K on April 25, 2015, may go down in the annals of history as our last happy day in Bujumbura for quite some time. 

it’s five weeks past the event today, and sadly, that statement still rings true. Stay tuned for the explanation of why in the next blog post coming shortly.

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY!!!

Happy Anniversary to us! A year ago today, we landed in Bujumbura, wondering what the heck we’d gotten ourselves into. And what a year it has been!

At the end of January, I celebrated my one year anniversary of leaving Denver and joining the State Department in this blog post. It was full of updates, reflection, looking back, looking ahead, evaluating. I feel like now, ten weeks later, it is too soon: too soon for another reflection post, too soon for another update on Burundi instability, and I sure can’t top my recent adventure posts.

So what should I do? I don’t want my Bujaversary to pass without recognition, so how about a photo essay? After all, a picture paints a thousand words.

Enjoy!

Here are my travel partners and I, enjoying what we imagined were our last days in civilization, in Brussels, just before boarding our plane for our direct flight to Bujumbura.

It was such a precious moment: the memories of Brussels (and Manneken Pis), the awe of adventure, the anticipation of what we were about to encounter…

And then we arrived, to our new home, at long last:

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and our senses were overwhelmed with the new sights and sounds and smells of Africa,

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They are an industrious, creative, hard-working group!

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My co-worker’s daughter’s dowry ceremony. We felt very privileged to take part in the festivities, although we didn’t understand a single word. This was inside a tent that had been erected which took up the whole street right in front of her house.

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Hiking upcountry in the beautiful hills and eucalyptus forests:

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 And the oh so many amazing adventures:

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IMG_8524 The ubiquitous roadside markets with their luscious produce, in every village:

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 Lots of interesting geology:

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 And learning about the geography of the Rift Valley and it’s Great Lakes:

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Rift Valley

And sadly, the devastation from flooding, which recently wiped out several villages:

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And our beloved hippos, which we visit most Friday afternoons at the Hippo Hole,           an embassy favorite

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And fun with family:

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And we made it. The exit gate as proof!

And sunsets to die for:

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Alas, there are a thousand other photos to capture our lives here, but I guess this will have to suffice for now. If you want to see more, I think you’ll just have to visit. After all, we still have a year left to go!

What’s Happening

Although admittedly this blog has focused on our extraordinary adventures, and while admittedly some of them have been quite amazing, (and admittedly much more interesting to read about), these aforementioned adventures in reality occupy a minuscule fraction of our time here. Our minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and yes, almost a year, are, in actuality, spent working. To be imprecise, (much to my chagrin, I don’t have a spreadsheet with exact amounts like my engineer son and brother would have), I’ve spend about 2200 hours working, 5500 hours on call, and 672 hours having amazing adventures. Do the math: minuscule proportion.

So I thought it only fair to give a shout out to something other than vacation, as I really don’t want to completely misrepresent my life. I could write about work, (see below the snapshots of my office, complete with my homemade stand up desk, our well-organized pharmacy and well-stocked lab, and one of our Marine Security Guards horsing around with EK, our Cameroonian RN), but that might decrease my readership substantially, due to the boring aspect of the daily grind. (The work days are spent mainly filling out governmental forms and squeezing in a patient visit every now and then. Every once in a while something vaguely exciting happens, like when the Regional Security Office is conducting victim extraction from an armored vehicle training and shards of glass go everywhere. PPE, people, PPE.)

I could also describe our cushy “East Africa-light” lifestyle, with a generator insuring that our refrigerated goods stay refrigerated, our massive amounts of “consumable goods” shipped from the homeland stay cool and fresh, and we sleep in mosquito-free AC. But that’s not all that exciting either.

But what might give you a little insight into my everyday life is to throw a little spotlight on what’s happening here in Burundi. Nothing that I write can’t be found in any media outlet: the NYTimes, the BBC, Reuters. But reading it here might make it a little personal, a little succinct, a little simplified, and a little closer to home.

Right now in Burundi, there are two major issues going on. The first is ongoing; the second is new. Both represent an unknown future. Facts remain hard to find and rumors run rampant. Through informal discussions with everyone I know here, people are all over the map as to their predictions of the not-so-distant future. On one side of the spectrum are the bright-eyed, optimistic souls floating along in the River of Denial. (I myself am happily ensconced in this boat.) On the far opposite end are the risk-averse, nay-sayers that are packing suitcases and preparing to leave at a moment’s notice, thinking that could be any moment’s notice. (I’ll leave you to guess who’s the president of that club.) And the rest of the people, locals and ex-pats alike, are somewhere in the middle of these extremes.

The first, ongoing issue is the political situation. In a super simplified, non-politically sophisticated version of current events, here’s my take on what’s happening: After emerging from twelve tumultuous years of civil war in 2005, Burundi is set to hold its second set of democratic elections in the coming months. I wouldn’t begin to pretend that I could outline all the parties, oppositions, alliances, and intricacies of the political landscape, (it takes an entire spreadsheet just to name the parties) but here’s what is clear: according to the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi, a president is limited to two five-year terms. The current president, Pierre Nkurunziza,

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has been in office since 2005. Now I’m not good in math, but that feels like two five-year terms could be up. Of course, there are some loopholes and extenuating circumstances, but the potential exists that his party (the CNDD-FDD) will nominate him to run again.

Again, I’m not savvy in all things political, but that feels like a problem waiting to erupt. And in a country with limited infrastructure, political instability, and prone to violence, you can see why those risk-averse people are camping out at their end of the spectrum, suitcase in hand.

The second, more recent development involves a fuel shortage. As mentioned earlier, facts remain hard to find and rumors run rampant, but gas lines are long.

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I wouldn’t begin to make a stab at why, because speculations and stories are all over the map, but as mentioned earlier, in a country with limited infrastructure, political instability, and prone to violence, this doesn’t bode well.

Put the two situations together, and you might pitch your tent at the pessimistic end of the spectrum, too.

I write this not to be a sensationalist, nor to alarm any of my friends and family back home, but just to paint a more full picture of our lives here in Burundi. While our adventures have been amazing, our every day lives are a bit more mundane, and sometimes, uncertain.

We are watching this space closely, and live everyday, prepared and ready. We will, of course, respond to each new development as it comes, and cross each bridge as it presents itself.

In the meantime, I remain optimistic, maintaining hope, a belief that all will continue to be well, and a basic trust that our Creator will protect and provide. Ah, you have to love my ever eternal optimism!

Randy keeps his suitcase packed.

Out Of Africa

(With apologies to Karen Blixen, of course.)

When I left The Land Of The Free and The Home Of The Brave last April for Amazing African Adventures Unknown, my intentions were (what did I know??) that I would not leave the continent for the duration of my two year commitment. That was my plan. I had waited many years to see Africa and I wanted to explore every nook and cranny of it that my limited time off, money, and energy would allow. But when my employer informed me that they were sending me to a Continuing Medical Education conference in Bangkok, Thailand, who am I to say no?? And why not capitalize on the paid travel and tack on an extra week to explore the area?

(My astute friend Jean, who knows me very well, commented on my excitement with this gem:  “And to think it wasn’t long ago that Babette was excited about her UC employer paying for mileage and a hotel for business travel to Glenwood Springs!” Jean, remember that UC paid for my mileage and lodging to Montrose as well. I was rocking the big perks.)

So off to Bangkok we went, excited about the Continuing Medical Education conference, of course, but maybe also just a little excited to explore a new part of the world and eat Thai food!!!!!!!!!!! 

The conference went along as planned, with great sessions on all manner of stuff so that we in the bush don’t emerge two years later having never heard of all the latest. (Did you know that Hepatitis C, currently infecting more than 3.2 million people in the US, will be a rare disease in the next 20 years??) Amazing advances are going on in the real world while I’m over here worrying about schistosomiasis and cordylobia anthropophaga. For real.

It was also a great opportunity for networking with my worldwide colleagues, as half of our medical providers from all over the planet were there. And since I came into the service as a cohort of one, I was excited to get adopted by the group who came in right after me. Woohoo! I have colleagues I can email and ask the simplest of questions!

While I was busy conferencing, Randy, who happily accompanied me as the Trailing Spouse, an identity he is embracing without reservation, did a bit of exploring. He visited the bridge over the River Kwai,

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and made a few purchases at the floating market.

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I only had a couple of sight seeing moments in Bangkok, but we did manage to see the Grand Palace…

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…which included a model of Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world.

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(This is just a model. Seeing it was kind of like going to Legoland. If you can’t go to the actual location of Angkor Wat, which is just north of Siem Reap in Cambodia, just check out the model of it in the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Seriously.)

There were lots of Buddhas…

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…including reclining Buddhas…

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…and “The Emerald Buddha”, which was actually made of jade. Go figure. (No photos of it, though, as it wasn’t photogenic.)

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I feel like we can safely say we checked the Buddha box.

Then we visited the Jim Thompson House (Jim Thompson was an American who is credited with single-handedly reviving the Thai silk industry, among a few other things),

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and ate some street food.

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(You can’t imagine what this was like to our taste buds. Bujumbura has some good food…if you like brochettes and french fries, with a little Ethiopian thrown in from time to time…but lacks variety in a big way.)

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(Barked with crap??? We didn’t order this particular delicacy.)

When the conference was over, we headed north to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, to explore a little bit more of the region, neither of us having ever been to this part of the world.

There were more temples and monuments here…

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…but since I don’t speak the language, I’m not exactly sure what this actually is. It was just the whitest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I wonder if they power wash with bleach??

But Thailand isn’t all temples and Buddhas. If you follow this blog, you’ll know that we’ve had some incredible wildlife experiences, like seeing the gorillas, and our East African Safari Extravaganza, and this day with the elephants at Patara Elephant Farm, in Chiang Mai, was no exception. They advertise that you “own an elephant” for the day. They weren’t kidding.

We had to brush them…

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…then lead them to the river with voice commands (and a little gently ear tugging)…

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(I must have looked grandmotherly. Everyone else got an elephant. I got a mom and her baby.)

…then bathe them in the river…

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…after which they said thank you in their own inimitable way.

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After feeding them, (and by feeding them I don’t mean gently hold your hand out, palm up, so they can daintily take the offering with their trunk. I mean stick your hand and arm way up into their mouths and deposit bananas and leaves and whole stalks of sugar cane. They have really big, soft, squishy, gooey lips)

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we were treated to a bare back ride, but not until after we figured out how to get up on these huge but amazingly gentle animals.

With simple voice commands, (it was amazing) you can have them lie down and climb on top, as Randy did…

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…or with another command, you could stand on their trunk and they would lift you up and over.

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And voila! Off we go!

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We didn’t understand the words the guides used for this little moment, but it must have meant something like hug or nuzzle. The more he said it, the tighter the hug.

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And to round out our elephant escapades, we spent some time with these little cute, but rambunctious, babies.

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All in a day’s work and we still had a week to go in Thailand! The fun had just begun.

The next day we checked out The Flight of the Gibbons. If you’re counting primates, you’ll remember that we saw the Eastern Lowland Gorilla in the Congo, went chimpanzee trekking in Rwanda with Megan, followed dozens of baboons in the Serengeti, and now watched a gibbon perform for us in the trees of Northern Thailand.

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This guy really interacted with and entertained us. He stared at us; he swung from branch to branch; he turned his back on us, then turned upside down and looked at us from between his legs. Quite the character!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cool thing about these guys is that they never leave the trees, so to see them, we had to go to where they live. We did this by means of the most incredible zip line adventure I’ve ever heard of. There were 30 different stations, and 17 different zip lines, including a tandem one, a vertical one, and the longest one in SE Asia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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True confessions:

In addition to the incredible Thai food and the eye-popping street markets…

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After all this excitement, we needed a break before heading back to work, so we headed to Phuket, a small island off the SW coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea. We enjoyed the beach and the seafood and one last adventure, of a very different nature.

We spent the day on John Gray’s sea canoes. It was quiet, peaceful, beautiful. We explored caves and lagoons, 51-IMG_1776

 

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swam in the sea, ate wonderful sea food, and at nightfall, we participated in a traditional Thai ceremony: the Loi Krathong.

This was such a beautiful, touching ceremony I could write a whole blog post about it. (But since this one’s taken me more than a month to get up, I won’t.) We made these little arrangements on the boat,

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then after sunset

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we lit the candles and set them afloat in the lagoon.

Most of the decorated baskets only had two love birds, but we put two extra on ours and dedicated them to our son, Adam, and his new bride-to-be, Val, who had just announced their engagement!! Welcome to our family, Val!!

In the end, I decided I liked SE Asia far more than I thought I would. I could totally see us living somewhere in this region. The climate is pleasant, the food is incredible, the adventure ops abound, and the people are way funnier than I anticipated, and quite genteel as well. We will certainly keep our eyes open for SE Asia opportunities.

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Stateversary

Because so many Denverites are transplants from somewhere else, many people celebrate their “Denversary” every year on the anniversary of the day they moved to Denver. Denver is such an awesome city, it’s worth celebrating!

A year ago today, I left my beloved Denver in search of adventure, and to begin my career with the Department of State, so I thought I would celebrate my Stateversary with you. It’s a great chance to pause, reflect, and evaluate the last twelve months.

I won’t spend much time at this point explaining why I chose to leave a city I love, with people I treasured and valued, and a church and church family that was such an integral part of my life, but let’s just say I needed adventure and this was the adventure that worked out. I made no bones about the fact that I wanted to live in another country, preferably Africa, and that my first preference would have been to come as a missionary, but coming as a missionary didn’t work out and a career with the State Department did, so here I am.

A year ago today, I had just finished dealing with all this mess in the packing out process:

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And I was off:

Peace out, Denver. I love you; I'll miss you; I'll be back.

Peace out, Denver. I love you; I’ll miss you; I’ll be back.

And what do I have to show for my past year? And what do I have to say about it?

Evaluating a time period has so many faucets. There’s the personal, introspective side of things; there’s the interpersonal involving relationships with family, friends, acquaintances, and co-workers; there’s the professional side involving not only work, but career and professional development as well; there’s the spiritual dimension looking at our how we’re ‘working out our salvation with fear and trembling’; and oh, so much more.

Where do I begin to throw even a semblance of meaning over the past 365 days? It makes most sense to start with the simplest things and work my way deeper as I go.

The intellectual and informational mountain I’ve climbed: I can honestly say that I don’t think I can remember a 365 day period when I have learned as much as I have during this one, and in so many different categories.

My African geography skills, for example–you’d actually want me on your trivia team for that skill alone. I know almost every country and capital–not because I have studied them, but because I live them. I talk to and about people in all these countries; I know people who live there; my office walls sport multiple world and African maps. And not just geography, but history and culture and people as well. It’s a whole new world and I’ve reveled in exploring it. And the inevitable happened, as many predicted: Africa has crept into my heart.

Professionally, I’ve broadened my horizons and learned more than I ever thought possible. I dabble in tropical medicine (who’d ever heard of schistosomiasis? Now it’s a household word!), prenatal care (my first baby I took care of in utero just returned to post and oh what a cutie he is!), and bureaucracy like there’s no tomorrow. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed the latter, but at least I have loved the rest of it.

Adventure-wise, it leaves nothing wanting. Climbing Kilimanjaro, seeing gorillas up close and personal, safari-ing all over East Africa, chimpanzee trekking, staying at the famous Hotel des Mille Collines, hiking the hills upcountry. And we haven’t even been to the source of the Nile yet! We’ve only just begun!!

Interpersonally, it’s been so rich. In many ways, the embassy community, because it is so small, operates like a family (or a fishbowl, depending on your perspective). I’ve made friends with wonderfully interesting people who have lived all over the world, speak multiple languages, and have a wide variety of political and social beliefs and positions, some of which I share, some I don’t. Because we practically live and work together, we’ve gotten to know people much more quickly than one might in a different (more normal) setting. I’ve definitely left my bubble! And it’s been oh so fun for this people lover!

The other side of the interpersonal coin is missing family and friends back home. I thought this blog would help me stay in touch, but it’s very one-sided. And with our spotty internet, the time difference, and a busy life here, keeping up hasn’t been easy or convenient. Even with wonderful things like Skype, it isn’t like sitting next to someone on the porch swing, or at the kitchen table, or going for a hike together. Conversation tends to be awkward and superficial and infrequent. So if you’re back home reading this, please send me a long newsy letter updating me on all that’s going on with you. I miss you! 🙂

[This reminds me of a song my mother sang to me when I went off to summer camp as a child: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.”]

As for the spiritual challenges, they’ve been monumental. We’ve been so abundantly blessed to find a church where we can worship and serve, but it ain’t no Fellowship Denver or Grace Bible. And God has amazingly blessed us with a couple to share this journey with, for which we are incredibly thankful. But with no small group, and no real community of believers surrounding us and meeting weekly, I have thirsted for fellowship. And thirsted for conversation on a deeper, more eternally significant, level. But God has shown himself sufficient and that, my friend, is all that is needed.

In closing, I can say that I’m loving the adventure as a whole: the new and exciting experiences, the learning and broadening of horizons, the challenges, and yes, even the bureaucratic frustrations. And despite missing home and being close to family and friends and Denver and winter and mountains and restaurants and sporting events and the ease of civilization, I have no regrets and wouldn’t change my decision to go.

It’s been a year to remember and the adventure’s not even half over yet!

Overlooking Bujumbura at sunset

Overlooking Bujumbura at sunset

There's nothing like your very own classic hippo photo

There’s nothing like your very own classic hippo photo

Another Burundian sunset

Another Burundian sunset

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

To the best of my knowledge, except for some animal sanctuary in Georgia, the three animals named above do not reside together in any natural ecosystem. Africa is home to lions, Asia to tigers, and North America to bears, so I’m not sure why Dorothy and her friends were expecting to meet them on the yellow brick road. I guess in reality they didn’t really know very much about their environment.

And I guess I didn’t know very much about the wilds of East Africa either. When I moved here, I assumed that at some point I’d “go on safari” because there are certain things one does when one lives in certain places, and “go on safari” is most definitely something everyone does here. But I have to admit I had no idea what it really meant to “go on safari”. I couldn’t even have identified “The Big Five” (so don’t feel bad if you can’t either; you can read more about them here).

So, as you’ve probably guessed by now, we went on safari, and this blog post is going to recount that experience. I was going to title it “Self-Drive Safari Do’s and Don’t’s”, because although it was an incredible experience, especially the “self-drive” part, there were things I might recommend you do differently, depending on your perspective and your taste for adventure. Like do a little research ahead of time. And make some lodging reservations when you are in the middle of nowhere with limited options. But some people would disagree with me and say it’s all part of the adventure. It’s all about your comfort zone, and everyone’s is different.

Here’s how it all went down:

Our son Adam, ever the adventurer, had this idea that he and his dad would drive across East Africa, making a loop around Lake Victoria, safari-ing along the way, and crossing through Burundi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and circling back home to Bujumbura. It was quite the ambitious plan, which eventually morphed to include only Tanzania. Forget about looking at a map; if you know anything about the roads around here, you’ll think it was a wise evolution of a plan.

So they headed east, and I was to meet them in Arusha for our climb of Kilimanjaro a few days later. For the general tourist, the Kili trip is often marketed as a week of safari, a week of climbing Kilimanjaro, and a week at the beach in Zanzibar. I guess we’ll catch Zanzibar another time.

The trip east was fairly uneventful (I think to Adam’s disappointment and Randy’s great relief), except for one small speeding ticket which Adam refused to pay unless they took him down to the local courthouse, which was what the ticket actually stated should be done. I still can’t decide whether I’m disappointed or relieved that I missed that circus. (If you want details, contact Adam. He’d love to recount the story. “Eighty-eight.”)

So we met up in Arusha as planned and I had great plans for my one day off before beginning our hike. The plans went something like this: sleep in, breakfast, morning nap, lunch, afternoon nap, re-pack my kit multiple times, early bed. They had other plans. They had spotted this national park on the way over, and they thought we should go check it out. Since I am genetically and constitutionally incapable of saying no to any adventure, (some would say I have a bad case of FOMO*), I went along, although I had never even heard of this place.

And by the end of the day, I had a much better idea of what “go on safari” meant, and it wasn’t at all what I’d expected. I guess I pictured hours of driving around, patiently waiting to spot some exotic animal in field glasses, (well, I mean, the animal wouldn’t be wearing the field glasses as that sentence appears to readand taking a few unidentifiable photos because our zoom lens wasn’t powerful enough to capture anything worthwhile, like the photos of the first time I saw a bear in Yellowstone.

But at least on the day that we drove around Tarangire National Park, it wasn’t at all like that. It was up close and personal, more like this:

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The first animal we saw. We were pretty excited. Little did we know what was to come. Thing is, for no particular reason, I’ve never liked ostriches. But we were excited for our first spotting of an animal in the wild.

And then there was this guy:

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Altogether, in the three national parks we visited, I can honestly say, without exaggeration, we saw thousands of wildebeests. Thousands.

And then we were treated to these beauties:

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It was hard to chose favorites, because it was so awesome to see them all out in their natural habitat, but these guys were way up there. (No pun intended.) They are so much fun to watch, and especially to watch them run, which is so incredibly graceful–like filming someone in slow motion.

Now these kids in their striped pajamas were to me the most fascinating of all:

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They seem so very horse-like (indeed, they share a genus Equus and a common ancestor), and it seems African civilization could have used a horse-like assistant, for transportation and agriculture as well as for their military, yet they have never domesticated the zebra. Why? I do not know, but ran across these interesting observations while investigating the mystery.

Then we thought, wouldn’t it be nice to see an elephant? And along come these big fellas:

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We saw them far away, down near the river:

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and causing a Tarangire version of a traffic jam:

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And we saw them up close and personal, like this:

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(Of the thousands of photos from five different cameras, this is one of my personal favorites. It was right about here that one of the tour guides in another vehicle yelled at us, in a language incomprehensible, something that we gathered through hand motions and context was ‘get back in the car’. However, the fine print in the park guide did not specify that we could not exit a vehicle; it just said that we couldn’t put ourselves in danger from an animal. I guess the definition of danger from an animal demands personal interpretation. This is not the closest encounter we had. Stay tuned.)

And then there were these wild animals:

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Then towards the end of that first day, we came upon this scene. First we just saw the one lion on the right in this photo, obviously standing guard.

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Then we looked a few feet over and we saw this whole pride hanging out in the shade under the trees.

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Then we saw this guy going back and forth:

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Then it took us a few minutes to figure out just what was going on: mealtime.

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Wildebeest for lunch, anyone? Ah, the circle of life. We felt so privileged to be party to this little feast; it wasn’t to be our last.

And finally we saw these ferocious looking dudes right as we were circling back to leave:

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Little did we know they were the first of so very many cape buffalo we would later see.

And in addition to the animals, which is of course, what you “go on safari” to see, there was the beauty of the landscape:

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And the brightly colored birds:

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And the famous baobabs:

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(If you don’t know about the baobabs in your life, you should read “The Little Prince”.)

And that was Tarangire National Park, the first of three.

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From there, Adam and I headed out to conquer Kilimanjaro (which you can read about here). Upon our return, we continued on our self-drive safari at Ngorongoro Crater, and another amazing day. Again, hard to pick a favorite, but this place was amazing. We headed out early thinking daybreak was the best time for animal viewing, not really knowing what to expect from the “crater”. Our early morning started in the mist:

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We got a little view down into the crater:

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then headed down into the crater for an eventful day:

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Another traffic jam:

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Male and female he created them:

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Great view of the crater lake at the end of the dry season. You can’t tell from this photo (and the roads don’t go any closer, because presumably in the wet season this lake covers the whole area), but the dots you see are hundreds and hundreds of flamingos.

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And no words will do this photo justice:

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Nor this one: (I have friends who think warthogs are cute. Really??)

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A little baboon grooming session:

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And then came one of the highlights of the day:

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We came upon these guys with their heads down in the grass and barely discernible; they were so well camouflaged. Had we not seen others cars stopped, we might have missed them.

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We made another loop and circled back to see this guy seeking some shade:

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And then this beautiful moment:

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These were the only maned lions we saw in the three parks. I could go on with the lion pictures forever. It was so hard to chose the best shots of the hundreds we took.

Then we saw this herd of cape buffalo charging, and figured there must be a reason:

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And sure enough, we circled back again to watch a lioness take down the slowest cape buffalo from this herd. It was quite a ways from the road, and while we watched it for over an hour through the field glasses, unfortunately the photos didn’t do it justice. She did chase away three of these opportunists:

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After the cape buffalo stopped struggling, she rested for quite some time, then feasted on the most treasured delicacy. If you’re familiar with Rocky Mountain Oysters, then you can guess what she devoured first.

After this exciting event, we caught a rare siting of the critically endangered black rhino, one of the Big Five:

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And so we drove up out of the crater, got lost but eventually found Olduvai Tented Lodge, one of my favorite places I’ve ever stayed, where we spent the night and were treated to a sunset walk led by our very own Maasai warrior.

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In the morning we made a quick stop at the Olduvai Gorge, where Louis and Mary Leaky excavated the famous hominin footprints

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then headed on to the Serengeti, the largest and probably the most well-known Tanzanian safari destination.

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Each of the three parks we visited were different, and incredible experiences, and special in their own way, but the Serengeti was most noticeable for its vastness, its variety, and its sheer numbers. We saw dozens of species of animals we could neither identify nor had we seen previously, as well as herds of wildebeests and cape buffalo and Thompson’s gazelles numbering in the hundreds, sometimes thousands.

These peaceful guys were lounging alongside the road just after we entered the gates, as if they were assigned the welcome committee duties:

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We saw so many thousands of gazelles, it feels wrong not to include them.

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There were multiple types, each with different, but distinctive markings.

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Now I know I must bring this blog post to a close, and I hate to shortchange the Serengeti, so I’ll end with this Close Encounter of the Third Kind. There is a river that runs through the western part of the Serengeti, and although the road parallels it, it doesn’t come very close to it except here.

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Periodically, there were vague dirt paths (OK, maybe we made some of these paths up) that could bring you all the way up to the river. So off we went, in search of our last predator, the crocodile. Before we found any crocs, we saw this scene. Now coming from Bujumbura, the land of the hippos, we don’t get overly excited about seeing them, but the sheer numbers here are incredible. Every dot you see in this photo is a hippo.

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And then we found this croc shoot, a place where they slide down into the river:

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We navigated down dirt paths a few more times, caught a few sitings of some babies, some crocs off in the distance, and even some crocs and hippos hanging out together. (Who knew those two lived together in harmony?)

Then we drove up to find three large crocs sunning themselves on this bank. Immediately two of them jumped into the water and swam off, but one stayed to taunt us:

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As we drew nearer, he grew a little more threatening:

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We took advantage of some photo ops while he stood his ground and smiled for the camera:

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We made a little lunge towards him and he showed a few more teeth. (It is worth noting here that the “we” refers to the two people in the photos above. During this entire scene, Randy is sitting in the car just this side of a heart attack.)

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We made a final threatening move in his direction, and off he swam. Chicken. I couldn’t believe we’d had a showdown with a croc and won!

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And the last scene we saw as we drove out of the Serengeti to begin the long drive home was this hyena taking advantage of someone else’s work. It takes all kinds.

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The circle of life continues, and the three of us made it back to Bujumbura, safe and sound, with a new appreciation for the wilds of East Africa, and for the splendor, the beauty, the magnificence, and the variety of God’s creation, as well as the inability to ever see wild animals in a zoo again.

 

 

*FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out

 

 

 

 

Lessons Learned from the Streak

A word of caution:

This post is about running. If you hate running, or reading about running, or even if you hate runners (OMG, no way, right?!?!?), go ahead and move on to the next item on your reading list.

So I belong to a group of runners from all over the world. It’s really fun and interesting to read about their escapades, their races, and all their adventures from exotic places. (Well, at least they seem like exotic places, but then again, Bujumbura may seem exotic which it decidedly is not.)

Generally I have been mostly an observer to the group, but when someone threw out a challenge in mid-November, I decided to join in and go for it. The challenge was to run at least one mile every day from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. And when you think about it, that’s quite the challenge, since traditionally that period is reserved for mostly eating and mostly not sticking with any kind of exercise or activity program.

New Year’s Day was a great celebration of my last of 36 consecutive runs: some good, some less than spectacular; some long, some short, but always at least a mile; some fast, some very, very slow, but 36 in a row! I have been running (off and on, but mostly on) since 1978, and I have never, ever run 36 days in a row. It was quite the experience.

And here are some lessons learned from the streak:

  • If you throw down a challenge, I will do almost anything ethically and morally possible to meet the challenge. But then again, I guess those who know me would admit that we all already knew that. 🙂 And as it turned out, there were still a couple of things I never had to resort to, which included running around my yard (which would have been hazardous, not to mention the guards may have decided I’d finally lost it completely), and running at lunch–something I have never done and did not end up doing these 36 days.
  • If need be, you can run almost anywhere, anytime. You can squeeze in a quick run on the way home from work, right before sunset; or in the rain; or right before guests are arriving; or while on vacation; or after you get back from an exhausting chimpanzee trek; or any other equally inconvenient, short or seemingly impossible time slot. All these things, I did do during these 36 days.
  • The circumstances don’t have to be perfect to get in a run.  I used to think everything had to be perfect to run. It had to be the right time–usually first thing in the morning. If I missed that time slot, I missed my opportunity. The weather had to be just right–not too hot, not too cold, not too rainy. If the weather wasn’t as perfect as I wanted, that was enough of an excuse to skip. I had to be “feeling it”. If I wasn’t feeling it, it wasn’t happening. But as mentioned in the second bullet point, you can run almost anywhere, anytime. The circumstances don’t have to be perfect to run.
  • Running short distances decreases the list of excuses for running slow.  I have to admit that I love the LSD run– the Long Slow Distances, despite the fact that all the research shows that we should run smart, not long, and that shorter, faster runs are overall a more beneficial investment than my favorite LSD run. So having to quickly squeeze in some short, relatively-speaking faster runs made it really difficult for me to play my silly mind games about slowing down so I could complete the longer distance. I’m already plenty slow enough; recognizing the need to speed up just a little (and the lack of excuses for not) was a valuable lesson for me.
  • Running goes better when you have a goal or a challenge and some support. I can’t describe how much a difference my fellow streakers made for me–how encouraging and fun they made it, even though I have never met nor actually gotten to run with any of them. I definitely would not have kept streaking without them. So even though I don’t have any running partners here in Bujumbura, and I don’t know of any races I can realistically train for, it’s good to know I have my fellow streakers to spur me on. I will need them more than ever now that the streak is over!
  • Grace and forgiveness make the world a better place, even when it is directed towards oneself. In fact, maybe especially when it is directed towards oneself. We live in a fast-paced, high pressured world, where expectations for perfection and accomplishment run high. Some (although admittedly not all) of us can be very hard on ourselves. On Christmas Eve, due to a packed schedule and spending time with our visiting daughter Megan, the day came and went without a run. By the time I looked at the clock and considered running around my house in the dark, it was already 1:15 in the morning–the streak was already officially broken. So instead of quitting and admitting defeat, I gave myself some grace and forgiveness, ran twice on Christmas Day to make up for it, and re-instated my standing in the streak. Sometimes getting back in the saddle after a fall is more important than never falling. I can’t put into words how important this little lesson was for me. To experience that self-directed grace and forgiveness made me appreciate how important it is for all of us to give and to experience grace and forgiveness more.
  • There are always lots of life lessons to learn from running. But like the first bullet point, I already knew this one too. And I’m not the first person to recognize this: Paul made lots of running analogies in his letters to the churches recorded in the New Testament. I’m just trying to follow in his footsteps, pun intended. 🙂

Happy New Year! Happy running, happy lesson learning, and thank you a million times over to my fellow streakers for the support, encouragement, and opportunity to experience these 36 days together and these lessons learned. Although I never posted any pictures of my runs, here is the sunset on the second to last day, and me celebrating with my husband and daughter at the close of the streak, my first day without running since Thanksgiving! Enjoy!IMG_4890

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The Road Is Never Long When The Company Is Good

“The road is never long when the company is good.” That certainly applies to our trek up Mount Kilimanjaro, both to my fellow hikers–my son Adam and our friend Todd–as well as to our crew of sixteen guides, chefs, and porters from Team Kilimanjaro.

A view that still takes my breath away

A view that still takes my breath away

Here we are, the intrepid hikers, Todd, Adam, and me, while we were still fresh on Day One

Here we are, the intrepid hikers, Todd, Adam, and me, while we were still fresh on Day One

Where do I begin?

It’s been a dream of mine to hike Kilimanjaro for many, many years. I think Adam and I agreed to do it soon after he fell asleep standing up while attempting Mount Fuji in 1997 and we left him asleep (and unaccompanied) in some random mountain hut for like 10,000 yen or something and picked him up on our way down. (True story. Not one of my finer parenting moments.) Let’s just say it’s been a long time coming.

And let’s also just say that while many things were not at all like we expected, the experience as a whole surpassed our expectations.

And like many experiences that stretch comfort zones and challenge abilities, this one, too, was plagued by the demons of the “What Ifs“:

What if the weather was awful?? What if it rained every day and we were cold and wet and miserable and really not having fun at all?? That’s a lot of time, money, and effort to be miserable.

The weather was superb. We got caught in one little hail storm at the end of day six, which was actually kind of cool, but otherwise, seven days without rain! For the most part, we got cloud cover when we needed it and clear skies when we needed it. I don’t think we could have ordered up better weather had that been an option.

What if we didn’t have the right kit and our gear failed us (and we were cold and miserable–kind of a theme here)??

We had all the right stuff and not too much extra, except for Todd’s rented sleeping bag whose zipper broke. (I’m so thankful that wasn’t me. I was so afraid of being cold but I’m so happy to report that was never the case, not even on summit night.) In fact, Adam hiked every inch except the summit night in shorts and tennis shoes. Who knew?

Due to his shorts and tennis shoes attire, Adam had a daily ritual of cleaning his legs when we got to camp every day.

Due to his shorts and tennis shoes attire, Adam had a daily ritual of cleaning his legs when we got to camp each afternoon.

What if we had some freak accident and sprained an ankle or wrenched a knee on the first day?

We didn’t.  The worst thing that happened was a black toenail from not tying my shoes correctly on the descent. A familiar badge of honor.

What if one of us got the dreaded Acute Mountain Sickness and had to come down??

We didn’t.  Although the fear of it hovered around me until we actually summited, in the end, our Diamox did its job and it never materialized. But you just never know. On the second evening, I realized I had a headache, which was soon followed by a tinge of nausea, and I was devastated. Headache and nausea are the cardinal signs of altitude sickness, but how could I possibly be suffering already? We were only at 12,000 feet; I’d been there many times without problems. I knew the cure was to go down, but there was no way I was giving in already. I started the Diamox, slept for twelve hours, and forged ahead, mind over matter and all that stuff. Nothing more came of it, but the scare plagued me with doubts until the summit.

What if I failed??

I didn’t. We didn’t. We all summited and although I don’t think I could put into words what I did expect, I know the entire seven days were not at all what I expected.

Day 1 was a morning of logistics–meeting our team, packing up, driving from Arusha to the gate, buying permits, eating our first of many gourmet lunches prepared by our awesome chef, and getting weighed in. Not us, thankfully, but our gear. There are a number of organizations and initiatives in support of the porters, and in an effort to protect them, there is a weight limit to what they are allowed to carry. Their loads, which they amazingly balance on their heads, of course, were weighed before we started out and again the first couple of camps. If they are overweight, they must hire more porters.

A few of our many porters, balancing our kit on their heads

A few of our many porters, balancing our kit on their heads

I was somewhat embarrassed but overwhelmingly thankful for the tremendous porter support. I would never have made it without them. Summiting was one thing; summiting with gear would have been a different matter altogether.

Here are most of our team of porters on the last morning, getting ready to load up and make the last of the twelve miles to home.

Here are most of our team of porters on the last morning, getting ready to load up and trek the last of the twelve miles to home. I wonder if they were relieved or sad for it to be over?

Back to Day 1: So the hike part of the excursion didn’t begin until after lunch. We had a fairly easy four or so hour walk on relatively easy terrain to our first camp and our first taste of what this experience was really going to be like.

And let me tell you in a nutshell what it was really going to be like: sixteen strong Tanzanian men dedicated to getting the three of us to the summit. In addition to carrying all of our gear, they cooked three gourmet meals a day for us from scratch; they set up and took down our tents every day; they brought coffee and hot water for washing to our tents every morning; and at just the right moment on summit night, they sang to us. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

A glimpse into the mess tent with an array of fresh ingredients which they unpacked and repacked every day

A glimpse into the mess tent with an array of fresh ingredients which they unpacked and repacked every day; the chef and his helpers were truly amazing. We had a different hot soup, made from scratch, at every single lunch and dinner.

Much like floating the Grand Canyon, trekking up Kilimanjaro is highly regulated in an effort to protect the mountain and preserve the pristine and precious environment. You must purchase a permit; you are not allowed to hike without a guide; and you must sleep in huts or designated camping areas. The lower down on the mountain, before the groups spread out to their different routes and different paces, the more crowded the camp sites.

One of the earlier more crowded camps lower down  on the mountain

One of the earlier more crowded camps lower down on the mountain

I was afraid the crowds might be a negative, but they never were and neither were the big campsites. Since there wasn’t much to do and I craved sleep, we mostly just went to bed after our incredible dinners. Surprisingly, the noise didn’t keep me awake, but I must admit I LOVED having a tent to myself, a coveted luxury to be sure.

The camps were much smaller the higher we were

The camps were much smaller the higher we were

Day 2 was a full day of hiking, four hours in the morning, lunch then a full afternoon. By walking slowly and steadily, ( and I do mean slowly–the Kiswahili word which we had heard so much in anticipation of the climb, “po-lay, po-lay” took on a whole new meaning), we had easily ascended to 12,000 feet, which is the highest I’d ever slept.

Much to our surprise, Days 3, 4 and 5 were all half day hikes. All three days, we achieved our campsite by lunch. On the afternoon of Day 3 we took a 90 minute round trip hike just to gain some elevation and enjoy some views, giving our bodies a chance to acclimatize, in keeping with the “climb high, sleep low” maxim, which I had often read about but never really understood until we did it. We slept at 14,000 feet on the evening of Day 3 (like sleeping on a 14er!!!) but then came down to just below 13,000 on Day 4.

We didn't take near as many 'scenery' photos as I would've expected--it was difficult to capture the grandeur--but here was a frozen cape buffalo on the mountain

We didn’t take nearly as many ‘scenery’ photos as I would’ve expected–it was difficult to capture the grandeur–but here was a frozen cape buffalo on the mountain

Day 5 we achieved our “base camp”, School Hut, at 15,469 feet, from which we would make our summit attack. Our hike that day was excruciatingly, irritatingly, almost impossibly slow. I was inches behind our guide, Max, hoping I could speed him up. When we got to camp, we said, “Max, that was really, really slow.” He looked us straight in the eye and said in all seriousness, “Not many 55 year old women make it to the top.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that on my birthday three days later, I was going to be a lot older than 55. But apparently Team Kilimanjaro has decided that slow and steady wins the race, with an emphasis on slow. Po-lay, po-lay.

For lunch that day, at all of 15,469 feet, we enjoyed deep fried, freshly made from scratch, empanadas. Seriously. We think Rashide, our chef, may have been the best chef on the mountain. After lunch, we slept all afternoon (at least I did), woke up for dinner, slept until 11, then got up to prepare for our summit attack at midnight. I don’t think I’ve slept that much in ages, but it was delicious sleep at altitude.

We kept asking why we were hiking at midnight, but never really received any real answers. Our guide was good, but he wasn’t overly enthusiastic about giving us more information than we needed. It was mostly a “trust me” kind of attitude for most things. All we can say is that we’re so glad we did for so many reasons. First of all, it was super special to make the summit bid in the dark with headlamps. Plus I can’t tell you how thankful we were that we couldn’t really see what we had ahead of us, or we may not have made it.

When you've reached Gilman's Point, it's cause for celebration: you know you're going to make it. Relatively speaking, you're almost there.

When you’ve reached Gilman’s Point, it’s cause for celebration: you know you’re going to make it. Relatively speaking, you’re almost there.

We're almost there. By this time we had shed our headlamps.

We’re really almost there now. By this time we had shed our headlamps.

And to say that seeing the sunrise from the summit was breathtaking may be the understatement of the century.

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Worth getting up at midnight for

Worth getting up at midnight for

A panorama

A panorama of the sunrise

When we came around the last corner, just at sunrise, and I saw my first view of the glacier, it not only took my breath away, I was overcome with emotion and burst out in tears. The men were all laughing at me, partially confused and partially wondering if they should be concerned, but I was just fully experiencing the moment, and reveling in it.

Feast your eyes--these are melting fast

Feast your eyes–these are melting fast

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The guides of Team Kilimanjaro, and I’m sure all the guides, are dedicated to helping each person summit. I credit my summit success to four things: having my poles, summiting at night, the incredible hot ginger tea the guides brought along, and at just the right moment, our guides sang to us. There is a “Kilimanjaro song” that we knew about, and we had heard some of the other guides singing it to their parties at some of the camps, and I have to admit feeling a little jealous, but our guides pulled it out, in soft, encouraging tones, in the dark, just when we most needed that distraction and motivation. It was sweet beyond words and a memory that will never fade with time.

Anyone care to translate? I don't know what it means, but to say it was music to my ears is another grand understatement. it was what motivated us to take the next step.

Anyone care to translate? I don’t know what it means, but to say it was music to my ears is another grand understatement. it was what motivated us to take the next step.

And then there was the summit. Words fail, but here we are: Uhuru Peak, The Roof of Africa.

Here we are at Uhuru Peak, all three of us and our three summit guides

Here we are at Uhuru Peak, all three of us and our three summit guides

What a treasure to share this moment

What a treasure to share this moment

After the summit, Max looked at Adam and said, “Your mother: strong. Very strong.” I think he probably meant stubborn, but whatever.

A high point, to say the least

A high point, to say the least

And then there was the descent. Many want to know how difficult summiting Kilimanjaro at 19,341 feet really is. My answer: when you go slow and steady and take six days to get up there, not very difficult. Adrenaline (and Diamox) can carry you a long way. Coming down is a totally different story. At one point Adam had gotten way ahead of me and he stopped to wait. When I saw him, I plopped down on a rock and put my backpack down next to me, which proceeded to fall about twenty yards down the mountain. He looked at me and said, “Mom, did you think that pack was going to stay there?” And I answered, “No. Right now I am completely 100% non-functional.” And that about describes my descent. It has never been my forte. Let’s just say we made it all the way down the next day.

Adam, running down the cinder cone. If you look very closely, I think that's me miles behind him...

Adam, running down the cinder cone. If you look very closely, I think that’s me miles behind him…

And we made it. The exit gate as proof!

And we made it. The exit gate as proof!

Here we are, none the worse for wear, after our first shower and with our first beer--Kilimanjaro, of course--in a week

Here we are, none the worse for wear, after our first shower in a week, and with our first beer–Kilimanjaro, of course.

With hindsight being better than 20/20 and all, it’s difficult at this point to avoid the temptation to question if we would have done anything differently…could we have made it up to summit base camp in four days instead of five? Probably. Could we have made it all the way back to the gate the same day we summited? Adam–definitely. Me? Possibly. But for what? I conquered my doubts; the demons of the What If’s didn’t prevail; we summited the Roof of Africa; and we saw the melting glaciers of Kilimanjaro, something the next generation will most likely never see–not because they won’t climb the mountain, but because they will be gone.

Would I do it again? Not likely–not because I wouldn’t want the challenge or the effort, but because I’m not sure another trek could ever match this one in its near perfect execution.

But who knows? If you’re interested, ask me again in a month.

And thank you for reading along this far, and motivating me to capture this experience here by your sustained interest in my crazy adventures. Recording this was a chance to re-live it, and for that, and for you, I am always thankful.

The road is never long when the company is good. And you, too, are good company along this African adventure road, far far away as you may be.