Toilets of the world

Between August and December of 2012, I traveled from the United States to six different countries. Before I left, several people asked, “what will the toilets be like where you’re going?”

I decided to let you all see for yourselves. These are the toilets I used around the world:

Boston, USA

Boston, MA, USA

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Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more

Logan and our Charlie Brown Christmas TreeMaybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more. ― Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas

This is the third consecutive year that my family members have chosen not to exchange Christmas gifts. In 2010, we shifted away from this material side of the holiday in an effort to refocus on what we considered more important: spending time with and appreciating family and friends.

The year of 2012 marks another present-less Christmas, but also the first where none of my siblings made it home to our parents in New York. I stayed in New Orleans, Louisiana with my sister, Julie, while my brother continued his world adventures in Christchurch, New Zealand. Continue reading

Carrying burdens

When Americans practice good posture, many of us try walking a straight line while balancing a book on our heads. The Rwandese can do better than that. They can balance an entire bucket full of stacked apples on their heads and walk miles up and down unpaved hills.

Historically, carrying on the head has also been referred to as “carrying burdens.” I find this term particularly ironic considering the daily physical and emotional burdens carried by so many in the developing world. Regardless, this way of transporting goods is a common part of everyday life in Rwanda. And, it was one of my favorite things to observe while traveling the country.

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I rafted the Nile

Last weekend, I went white water rafting on Uganda’s Nile River. Fear filled my bones for days leading up to the trip, along with most of the five-hour voyage down the mighty waterway. But, I refused to leave Africa without exploring this historically famous river. So, I did it. I rafted the Nile.

White water rapid intensity is measured by grade, from one to six. Grade six is usually considered unnavigable and unsafe to rafters. We took on the Nile at grade five. Experienced rafters like venturing this river for two main reasons: the water is deep, and it’s warm. This means rocks and frigid temperatures are less of a concern when flying out of the boat. It also leaves more time to traumatically count seconds while trapped underwater. Continue reading

Frank and Liliose

One of my hardest adjustments to living in Rwanda has been that of having hired help around the house. Well, let’s say it’s been my hardest and easiest adjustment.

In Rwanda culture, a standard for most homes includes having a house girl or house boy help with weekly chores, and also for a guard to patrol the property at night. So, a portion of my monthly rent in Kigali goes toward the salaries of one house girl and a guard named Frank.

Frank keeps our house safe at night. From Sunday through Saturday, he sits at his guard post between sundown to sunup regulating our gate and keeping watch over the property. Frank wears a blue uniform with tall black boots and a baseball cap that my roommates occasionally borrow while intoxicated on the weekends (we recently bought him an extra hat as a gift for his good spirits). Frank keeps the gate locked every Continue reading

A pause

It has officially been two months since I exited the plane at Kigali’s International Airport. Life since then has been what I imagine life to be like if staring inside a tornado from a grounded bathtub – calm at the base with a whirlwind of disorganized familiarities spinning chaotically above. The best part about sitting in the bathtub, though, has been the view of observing each bit of life swirling around me. And unlike the tornado, I’ve been able to choose which pieces to bring back down to Earth and which to send sailing with the wind.

This post is a pause…a time of closing my eyes to the swirling gusts to absorb the joys and learn from the hardships. I have not loved all moments here – whether spinning or still, but I have enjoyed most. And, when I pause I also consider: isn’t this what makes up every stage of life – the chaotic and calm, the loving and not loving of moments?

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Six days on Rwanda's roads

I recently spent six days traveling the Northwest corner of Rwanda. My brain has not yet processed the amazing, frustrating, enlightening adventures of the week. And, that makes writing about it difficult.

After my Internet-less efforts to write a blog post produced nothing but scribbled nonsense in a notepad, I decided to embrace the chaos. Truthfully, the need to process Rwanda has been an integral part of my life in Rwanda. So, I have summarized my trip in the best way my disheveled brain knows how: to describe the random, beautiful chaos of my week by stating the random simple events and emotions that filled my days.

In the past six days I…

Learned how to shoot a bow and arrow.  Walked through a thunderstorm (Rwanda has more lightning strikes than any country).  Road passenger while a friend drove a Jeep Liberty down the front steps of a hotel (the steps looked like a ramp).  Met a medicine man.  Bargained one night in a presidential suite for $13 more than the cheapest hotel room in town.   Continue reading

Words of my Rwanda life

Goats Everywhere
Banana trees Cover the hills
Motorcycles Most popular mode of transportation
Bare black baby butts Seen frequently around neighborhoods
Hills Not a single part of Rwanda without them
Carrying on the head The large items locals can balance continues to baffle me
Dirt roads Main roads paved, side roads not
AK-47 rifles All security and neighborhood guards carry them
Tropical fruit Mango, passion fruit, pineapple…yum Continue reading

Shaila meets the gorillas

I made my way toward town under a bright, star-filled sky. It was 4:30a.m. Locals still meandered their way home from the bars, but I had my hiking boots on in preparation for a new day. I was off to see the gorillas.

An estimated 800 Mountain Gorillas currently live in the hills around the Rwanda, Uganda and Congo borders. The Rwandan government allows visitors to see these rare creatures, but only after allocating a limited number of permits each day. While tourism helps boost the country’s economy, the national parks remain protective. Just 20 years ago, this species faced near extinction, with fewer than 300 reported members of its kind.

Rwanda recently raised its trekking prices to $750 for foreigners. Many would consider this a hefty sum, and this poor traveling grad school student was no exception. Continue reading

White girl in a black world

The locals call us mzungus. The word is a Swahili-adopted Kinyarwanda term for “foreigner,” or “white person,” and also the first Kinyarwanda word I learned. Few days pass when this the term does not linger in my presence.

I feel welcomed by the locals in Rwanda. But, I am different than most people here. I have long, light-brown hair. I am white.

I stroll the streets of Rwanda as vividly as an elephant stomping through Times Square.

Last week, I fell on my dirt road while walking home. My curious eyes had wandered away from my downhill steps to some pretty yellow flowers, and I lost balance. While slightly embarrassed, I considered my fall a graceful one. I propped myself back up and kept walking, just in time to catch the attention of one neighborhood boy. His eyes bulged out of his head and within seconds began alerting his friends of what happened. Continue reading

Holy Mary, mother of God

There comes a time in everyone’s lives when we find our paths veering in a somewhat confusing direction, but when all we can do is clutch on for dear life and ride with the wind.

This is precisely what my first ride on a taxi-moto looked like.

I would describe the experience as falling somewhere between humor and fear – with one adrift, starving American girl clenching her fists around the back handle of a motorcycle, balancing her tote bag on one shoulder and a broken-strapped helmet on her head.

I had no clue where I was going. Neither did my driver. Continue reading

Just another day in K-town

I wake up on an average Sunday in Kigali and go for a journey through town. It is an ordinary day to most, but everything seems new and exciting to my two-week-old Rwanda eyes.

I exit my front gate and begin the bumpy hike up my dirt road to town. It’s a short, five-minute walk, but also a steep one. I pant the entire time.

On the way, I pass a church. The doors are open, and vibrant sounds of rejoice echo into the streets. The passionate singing, bright dancing dresses and unreserved clapping makes me smile through the exhausting climb.

Everyone stares as I pass. They do not threaten, nor am I scared. They just wonder about this white woman walking through their African neighborhood. Continue reading

I broke the toilet

Literally. I broke my toilet. I had been in Africa for two days and already started tearing things apart.

This shattering of the ceramic toilet-top perfectly symbolizes my adjustment process to the city of Kigali: The top hides shit beneath its surface, but when ill-treated winds up in pieces on the floor. This is also my life.

If someone asked me to sum up my first week in Kigali in three words, I could do so easily:

  1. Starving.
  2. Destitute.
  3. Helpless.

It wasn’t the city’s fault. It wasn’t mine either. This situation evolved from a sort of cyclical effect that whirled within the crossing-over process of my American culture into that of Rwanda’s. That cyclical effect went something like this: Continue reading

Adele, a driver and me

I opened my eyes and stared up at the tee-peed mosquito net that surrounded me. It was 7:30a.m., and I was in Africa.

My flight from Istanbul, Turkey landed fewer than eight hours earlier. Darkness filled the city of Kigali at that time, so I drew back the curtains of my room and peeked into the new day. A peaceful landscape of red roofs and rolling hills stared back at me. Good morning, Rwanda.

I had deplaned on the runway of a visibly sleeping city the night before and walked toward the building that read “Kigali International Airport.” No lights or lanes guided me. Few airport staff members even looked my way as I meandered alone toward the “ARRIVALS” door. Only a small number of passengers exited the already half-filled plane, as the aircraft still had another late-night stop to make in Kampala, Uganda.
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The faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.

Merriam-Webster dictionary uses this description to define the word serendipity.

I reviewed the meaning of this term last Christmas with my Danish friend Kristina. We had met randomly and, as we like to say, serendipitously at a local Uptown bar in New Orleans, Louisiana. Both of us had recently started school at Tulane University and, on that idle Thursday night, had been dragged by our new respective friend groups to break for a few beers.

Neither of us knew many people in the city yet and, out of sheer placement of bar chairs and two outgoing personalities, we got to talking. She had come to New Orleans for a semester-long study abroad program from Denmark. I had just quit my nonprofit job in Chicago, Illinois to pursue my Master’s Degree. We bonded instantly over our shared passion for travel. Continue reading

Life in a Turkish bath

A few months ago, I wrote a post called “Out of Our Comfort Zones” while traveling through Costa Rica. My travel companions and I engaged in every adventurous activity we could find from zip lining to repelling to swinging 300 feet in the air on a rope through the jungle.

Today, I spent 69 Turkish Lira ($37.99) for an old topless woman to bathe me with some bubbly Turkish soap. I was out of my comfort zone in a whole new way. And, it was wonderful.

We had heard from multiple other Istanbul travelers that it would be a mistake to miss visiting a Turkish bath, or Hamam. This method of cleansing and relaxation involves a body scrub and bubble wash, which remove dead skin from the body, clean out the skin’s pores and help a bather’s skin breathe while also regulating blood circulation. Continue reading

What makes Istanbul beautiful

Anyone who has walked around the upper platform of Istanbul’s Galata Tower will notice history in the city’s skyline. Instead of the boxy skyscrapers and glass buildings we’re used to in America’s big cities, Istanbul’s pointed mosque minarets and jagged palace walls give the city a creatively pure look. Every day, the Bosphorus shines a bright blue, shaping a stunning scene against the red tile roofs and typically clear sky of this bi-continental city.

The Bosphorus divides the city between Europe and Asia, and anyone can take a ferry or bus trip between the two sides for about $1 or $2 each way. As an American, I would normally find this type of travel unthinkable. Travel leisurely between two continents? It seems it should be more difficult than just a 15-minute leisurely ride. As my friend Jessica stated quite simply on our ferry ride to Asia, “we’re sailing down the middle of two continents right now.” Continue reading

Istanbul: A shock to the system

I can think of no better way to say it. Istanbul, Turkey has been a shock to my system.

It all started when our plane arrived 45 minutes early (but curiously took off 10 minutes late) into Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. Delirious and exhausted, we exited the plane at 4:30a.m. to find about 20 robed Muslim men and women scattered around the arrival gate on their hands and knees. They had been participating in one of their five daily prayers while waiting for a flight.

I had slept for about 20 minutes since leaving Copenhagen, Denmark and nearly forgot what continent we were on, let alone that we were entering a predominately Muslim country. I gave myself a mental reminder that we weren’t in Kansas anymore, then continued on to passport control. Continue reading

I would be a Dane

If given the opportunity, I would be a Dane…or at least half Dane. Copenhagen, Denmark has been one of my favorite cities ever visited, not only because of the beautiful architecture and lovely people, but because the city and I have compatible personalities.

I would be a Dane, because women wear sneakers as fashion statements. People look presentable and well dressed, but in a neighborhood-casual type of way. A pair of jeans, short-sleeved shirt, Converse sneakers and pashmina scarf provide both comfort and class in this city. My stiletto-loving friend, Rachel, would disagree, but I love this type of practical attire.

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Biking in Copenhagen

One of the happiest moments of my two-week travel adventure occurred at 6:30a.m. while sitting on the Copenhagen, Denmark metro after two short hours of sleep.

To ensure a stress-free journey to her apartment, my friend Kristina met my travel buddy, Jessica, and I at the Kastrup Airport. On our journey into town, Kristina announced in her Danish accent, “I hope you’re ready, girls. I got you bikes for the week.”

I had heard about Copenhagen, Denmark’s well-developed bicycle paths, but had only hoped to cruise down one somedaySince living in Denver, Colorado three years ago, home of America’s outdoorsy and healthy citizens, I came to appreciate those United States cities aiming to develop bike-friendly infrastructures. Still, the initiative is new in the States and the on-board cities few. Continue reading