“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”
— Maya Angelou

One day recently, a friend and I were puttering around my apartment while the rain beat a steady rhythm against my windows. I was at the stove making lunch, stirring pasta with a mwiko and silently marveling at the wonder of cooking without kerosene (as I often do), while he fussed about with my laptop. Surfing the news, submitting job applications, thumbing through folders marked “PRIVATE DO NOT READ” – probably one of those things. I couldn’t say, as I had my back turned to him; at least, I did until I was struck with a sudden droll thought. I set down my wooden spoon, turned to him, and said:

“Hey, remember that time we lived in Kenya for two years?”

He looked up at me over the rim of my Macbook. “Yeah.”

“That was weird, right? I mean, how crazy is that?”

“Totally crazy.”

We reflected silently on this for a moment, before simultaneously returning to our tasks.

Yeah. Totally crazy.

Three and one-half years ago today, I was hunched over a plate of takeaway pasta, a scratchy Ramada Inn blanket draped over my shoulders like an invisibility cloak, guzzling Nyquil for all I was worth and watching the series “Lost” die with a whimper. My bags were packed, I was ready to go. I was excited, and exhilarated, and maybe even a little scared. I had prepared as best I could but genuinely had no idea what lay in store for me. I feel a literal ache in my chest when I think back to those days; I want to reach through time and give that girl a hug, telling her, “It’s going to suck. There will be days you want to quit your jobs, or flip a table, or abandon everything and catch a motorbike taxi straight to the airport. But there will be incredible times, ten times – fifty times – a HUNDRED TRILLION ZILLION times as many as the sucky ones. It will be one of the most magical, empowering, humbling, life-altering experiences of your life. You will live untold adventures, and probably never find a way to express it, it’s just that huge. You will come home and you will miss it. You will never go an hour without thinking about it, even if you start remembering where you are when you wake up more often than not. And when people tell you they always wished they’d join the Peace Corps, 2+ years of memories will flash through your mind at once, but all you will be able to say is, ‘Go.’

Adjustment has had some intense highs and equally intense lows, and generally in ways I didn’t anticipate – not unlike Peace Corps itself! Go figure. There have been crazy adventures of a sometimes less bloggable type: new apartment! New friends! Using soap again! Being interviewed for newspapers! Speechifying! Traveling on other peoples’ dimes! Wearing lipstick! GOING TO TARGET! OH MY GOD, TARGET!!!





I spent holidays with my family for the first time in years, rather than jaunting off to some remote (and/or potentially hostile) locale. I never bought a television. I applied to graduate school and struggled to condense my own personal brand of awesome into a succinct, sincere 500 words or less. I can only assume that a lot of klutzes work in psychology, and that at roughly two-thirds schools to which I applied, some poor assistant dumped a grande skinny extra-hot vanilla mocha over my application folder and was far too mortified to ask me to re-send my documents. But of those who recognized my quirky, obnoxious brand of wonderful, I chose my favorite. I’m currently pounding away at my graduate thesis in psychology at American University, and learning daily that (as one scholar put it) “Graduate school is less about honing your talents and more about learning to manage intense existential anxiety.”

I also picked up a new roommate – he’s a sassy redhead with soulful brown eyes, and bitches love him. I like him pretty well myself; enough to forgive him when he hides my left shoe under the couch time to time.



As for my American friends – the rotating cast of characters you saw pop up in this space periodically – they’re all chugging along. My fellow PCVs are either still in Kenya, rushing headlong towards their own close-of-service conferences, or making their way in the world back Stateside. Several live in or near my city, and we try to meet up as often as I can. As much as I love my friends from other eras, I don’t know what I would do without these former colleagues. When you’ve been through what we have, no one else gets it, not really, anyway. But that’s ok. Someday we can all chip in on a dental plan to correct the years of grinding our teeth about celebrities who go to Africa for the purpose of being celebrities who went to Africa. (Fun fact: All PCVs have bruxism. I am not even making that up. It’s a truth-fact, for once.)

My Kenyan friends are generally doing well: having babies, shuffling between jobs, buying their own shambas and moving up in the world. One of my host sisters got into university. The family couldn’t be prouder – she’s a smart cookie. I am pleased to say that no one died, or was injured, or even found themselves permanently displaced by the election, irregularities aside. I am also deeply relieved that everyone with whom I have a connection – PCVs, NGO friends, Kenyan family – escaped the atrocities at the Westgate Mall. (At least, physically; the emotional scars of both terrorism and the incredibly graft-soaked government response … well, ask me over a beer, next time you have three hours or so you want to listen to drunken expat rantings.)

As you can probably tell, I have a lot of thoughts on the subject.

Overall, life is good. It goes on. And I’m glad for that.

Before I wrap this all up, I need to say one more thing:


In Kiswahili, this means “Thank you,” and I say it from the bottom of my heart. All you, my readers, were (and are) amazing. From the care packages (OH THE CARE PACKAGES) to the letters, e-mails to blog comments, I am truly touched. I helped a half-dozen people with Peace Corps applications, and wish them all the best. I had notes from women on distant continents who told me I’d inspired them to take risks and travel. I got hugs and expressions of pride from mentors I didn’t think were capable of such affection. All of it was overwhelming and panic-inducing and achingly, achingly beautiful. I talk a big game, sure, but the truth is that I’m a deeply critical, self-doubting introvert who is vastly more comfortable jumping into a shark cage or motorbiking across an African country or navigating a public transit schedule in an unknown language than striking up a conversation with a semi-stranger during an organized happy hour. The love and support I got from so many people over the course of my journey … well, this doesn’t happen often, but I am struck speechless by it. It is this as much as anything that made a closing entry to my blog a feat 13 months in the making – I wasn’t ready to let go, and I didn’t know how to say goodbye. You all are amazing, and at the risk of sounding like some asshole Oprah impersonator, you are the real inspiring ones.

Now go forth and do some awesome.

When I started this blog, I genuinely expected it to get three hits a day: one from my mother, and two from me accidentally hitting “refresh.” However, it quickly outpaced that and I remain in humble awe of your reader loyalty. This blog, which welcomed over many tens of thousands of unique hits from over 100 countries, and at least one quasi-viral post, was an infinitely greater endeavor than I’d ever anticipated. I still can’t believe it happened. I am proud to leave it up as an archived resource for future RPCVs, and as a love letter to all the experiences I had.

Of course, wanderlust is – as we say in the sciences, when one word won’t do when five words are possible – “pervasive across the lifecourse.” When I stepped out of Dulles airport on August 27 of last year, I wanted a home, a castle, a nest, a place to hang my pictures and fall asleep in my own blankets. That lasted … oh, a month. Ponder the following: my grandparents were born, lived, and died having virtually never left a shapeless patch on the map known (then and now) as Kanawha County, West Virginia. A half-century later, their granddaughter, an old spinster maid at the ripe age of 26, has been to nearly forty countries. And many more, in her hopes and dreams, including visions of the silk road and kayaks in Antarctica (it’s just a small matter of budget limitations, as we say in government work). There are more than 150 left one my list, with more big plans zooming laps around my mind every minute of every day. I shall always love the country that brought me first to learn, but my heart will always wander.

On that note, as this blog journey fades to black, and the credits start to roll, I leave you with one final Monday Morning (Well, Sunday) Morning Mix-Tape … play us out, boys.

Safari njema – Travel well.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
— T.S. Eliot

When you walk into my cozy DC apartment, full of knickknacks, the first thing you will see is a coat rack with two hooks. On the left hangs a black women’s trench coat with camel piping, the highest of Target fashions. On the right is a charcoal grey Columbia jacket that looks like it’s been through a war.

That isn’t terribly far off the mark, when you consider all the places it’s been since I bought it in 2009.

I was wearing this jacket the other day when I went to the grocery store – the most banal American task imaginable, yet still one that throws a little skip-skip into my heart rhythm on occasion, even if I’m not always cognizant of why. In a crowded aisle, I leaned back against a towering shelf pasta to let a triple-wide stroller pass, and then I felt it. Prick. The faintest suggestion of a sharp point. And it all came flooding back.

More than two years ago, in June of 2010, nestled amongst the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, I was in the laborious process of making a new best friend. We met up one weekend to go to the market, and upon our return, my friend’s host mother was thrilled to see another Peace Corps Trainee and offered to show us something she thought we would find interesting: a water tower, built by European college students in the 80s. That’s genuinely all I can say about it, because in reality it WASN’T especially interesting. But we went along happily enough, following the host mother over the river and through the woods, hopping a couple fences, taking shortcuts through cornfields, winding down cattle watering paths – I swear to God, we were probably in Tanzania at some point – before reaching the anticlimactic structure maybe an hour after our little outing began. It was a water tower. Thrilling. Then, after a few awkwardly posed photographs, since lost to a stolen camera, we made a near-identical hour-long trek in reverse.

We spent at LEAST that much time afterwards sitting on the steps of the family homestead, picking burrs off each other and laughing about our experiences up to that point. We both looked like we’d been dragged backwards through a thorn grove after losing a dance-battle with an aggressive gang of corn stalks. We never DID get all the burrs, despite repeated close inspections, so over the next two years, we’d periodically be wearing whatever we’d worn that day and, prick. There’s one we missed.

My life now is so drastically, incredibly different today, that sometimes it takes the physical pinch of a thorn to remind me: Oh, right. All that didn’t happen to someone else. Today is my two-month-iversary of landing on American soil. Even surrounded by photographs and clutter from 35 foreign countries, my students’ portraits in frames in my living room, a Kenyan flag tacked up over my bookshelf and lesos draped across most pieces of furniture … even though some of my closest friends to this day are people I met in the Peace Corps … even though I still dream in Swahili more often than English … it feels as though it all happened a lifetime ago. If it happened at all.

It’s a very curious feeling.

I’m back now, I suppose. How long was I gone?


I’ve wrestled mentally about what to do with this blog. Part of me thinks it would be a hoot to continue to write about the ecstasy and agony of re-acculturation, while part of me thinks it stands best on its own as a contained experience. I’ve decided on the latter, but first I’ll offer a few more posts about what I’m up to now, how you can get in touch with me, and some recommendations for travel. I will spare you my experiences at places like the World’s Worst Hotel (in a review for a travel website, I literally included the line “I wish I had a time machine so I could un-stay here”) but instead offer my Best Of list, so you can set yourself up for your own adventures.

It’s been a wild ride, folks. Remember to please keep your hands and feet inside until the vehicle comes to a complete stop.

Almost, but not yet.

Ok, I know what I said the other day, but I think I have a NEW favorite street.

I arrived in Paris scheduled to the hilt: I had 2.75 days to do what was more realistically probably 2 weeks of touring, but by God, I wasn’t going to let that stop me. Just I Overachieve At Peace Corps and everything else I do, on that unexpected day when they give out medals for Overachieving At Being A Tourist In Paris, I intended to be on the highest podium. I would give a humorous yet deeply moving valedictory speech and inspire generations. ( I have no off switch, remember?)

But if ever there were a city that encouraged one to crumple up your timetables and toss them over a bridge railing, it’s Paris. I spent roughly 24 slightly stressful hours determined to do things like shoehorn a half-day walking tour into 2 hours before I realized I would be much happier seeing less but taking more time. (And become Valedictorian of Seeing Things Slowly While Eating Crepes. ::cough::) I no longer timed my leisurely ambles and lacked any compelling reason not to spend an hour seated on the edge of the Fontaine Saint-Michel nibbling a pastry and people-watching. I could spend a lifetime in Paris and never see it all, so I may as well enjoy the parts I can.

Fountain of St. Michael

Arc de Triomphe

At the fountain in the Place de Concorde

A bridge near the Louvre, where it is said that walking with your sweetheart, attaching a padlock, and throwing away the key with ensure lifelong love. ( The French generally dispute this notion, and I’m inclined to buy into their worldview on this one.) Serendipitously, I DID have a pair of surplus non-TSA compliant luggage locks in my Mary Poppins-esque purse. However, I had no particular true love in mind at that moment, and choosing someone near at random (“Hot Train Guy”? “Dude With A Gorgeous Accent From The Brasserie”?) seemed inadvisable (what if he’s a serial killer? Or a cat person?) so I just sat on a bench beneath it and watched the happy couples seek out the perfect lock spot.

Lighting a candle in Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris (and silently dedicating it to the living martyrdom of Pussy Riot. St Joan of Arc [background] knows a thing or two about common folk speaking out against those in power.)

The famed Palace of Versailles. Of the 29 million tourists who visit Paris each year, 22 million of them can be found here on any given day, and 80% of them will be directly in front of you in line as you queue for the loo and/or to retrieve your complimentary audio guide.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise has been the affability of the people I’ve encountered. No doubt influenced by Hollywood, but also first-person accounts of friends who’ve lived/studied abroad here and fellow backpackers on this trip, I’d been informed that Parisians have a reputation for a certain … aloofness, if you will. The vague surliness of ennui that we would all doubtless cultivate if forced to cope with the inherent hardships of living in a clean, stable city filled with art, culture, reliable public transport, endless excellent food, and accessible socialized healthcare. In fairness, much worse statements have been made of New Yorkers: we’re all loud-mouthed assholes ready to shoot you over a parking spot. (For many people, this isn’t far off the mark, but it’s half the charm of the city.) To quote a friend who spent a summer here, “[There exists a] particular brand of Parisian nastiness that emerges throughout the city. They can be mean, but it’s never without intrigue, if that makes sense; and they’re never so mean that the experience ever approaches unbearable.”

Perhaps it is merely the contrast to Romania that is playing havoc with my perception; there, a woman working an information desk at the train station responded to a polite inquiry with a hostile “HOW SHOULD I KNOW?! ASK SOMEONE ELSE!” and gazed at me with a contemptuous look that said, “Only my many years of training and utmost self-control are preventing me from leaping this desk and throttling the life out of you right now.” My grievous sin in this exchange had been to ask which track number I could expect Train 123 [or whichever] to be departing from. And that is but one of many many examples of the kind of Romanian hospitality there I experienced. So perhaps against this backdrop, it should come as no surprise that a waiter’s reply to a statement of gratitude as “Uh-huh” (instead of the “You are welcome, miss” that traditional Southern hospitality would dictate) should be seen as almost a statement of tender affection. Regardless of cause, virtually all of my interactions – from policemen to hoteliers to random people I grabbed in the Metro to ask for directions – have been pleasant.

Booksellers on the “left bank” of the Seine. Here you can browse very old books, prints of art created by Parisian artists, and extremely impressive collections of vintage erotic postcards.

A line of souvenir-selling stalls behind the Notre Dame cathedral, peddling countless identical pieces of mass-produced crap that we all love. In several, I narrowly avoided ejection by leaving on my own, having been scolded by shopkeepers to stop swirling the snowglobes, opening music boxes, or running my fingertips over plaster reproductions of famous sculptures. I am so inexcusably tactile that I could never do so. If you chopped off both of my hands as a preventative measure, I’d probably walk in and start licking things.

My very own mass-produced souvenirs. I would have sprung for the ceramic statue depicting the Eiffel Tower as built from baguettes with a crepe French flag at the top, but I was concerned it would break in my luggage.

There’s a lot to love about Paris, obviously, but one of the things that keeps coming to mind is the hobbit-like existence it seems to encourage. A lot of time seems to pass like this:

1. Eat a freshly-prepared and delicious breakfast, then linger over coffee for it to digest.
2. Explore immediate surroundings. Make plans to visit outlying location.
3. Realize outlying location really is a rather long walk away; find self forced to fortify with another artisanal pastry and large glass of wine.
4. Walk to outlying location.
5. Lunch.

And how can it not be this way? The French culinary tradition is bar-none one of the finest in the world. Rather than gulping down enormous portions of over-fried but ultimately tasteless food, as we do in the US, food is an end in itself, to be savored slowly and with generous pours of wine.

Lunch on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées: traditional Paris crepe of ham, cheese, and egg, with a creamy lemon vinaigrette-dressed side salad and rather ample glass of Chablis, followed by an orange zest crème brulee (not pictured).

Cheese, wine, crusty bread. The basic Parisian food groups.

Don’t quote me on this – Paris is a city that likes to keep her secrets – but I’m fairly certain this restaurant doesn’t actually serve food. When you walk in the door, the floor drops out from under you and deposits you in an underground chamber. There, Paris’s scores of Michelin-star rated chefs take turns hitting you with a cricket bat.

I’m not disappointed that I failed to make it through my entire must-see list. Already I am making plans for my next time in Paris: next time I will make it to Vincennes, next time I will rent a vespa so I can cover more ground, next time I will make a reservation for a 3-Star Michelin restaurant and treat myself to a tasting menu, next time, next time, next time … You see, Paris is not a city like Kigali, or Bujumbura, or Dubai, or Doha, to be ticked off a list in the past-tense with a satisfied adventurer’s smile. It is a place to be revisited and rediscovered as your mood and life circumstances suit. I suspect it genuinely is a place that stays with you, and not in the “Malaria: a gift that keeps on giving” sense.

I’ll be back, Paris.

Count on it.

The white coffee cup makes a delicate clatter against its saucer as the waitress sets it on the table before me. The noise jerks me from my reverie, in an instant withdrawing my brain 10,000 miles from my sauna-like village to my body’s present location: Paris. Rue de St German. Sidewalk café. I glance up distractedly and thank the waitress, “Asante tena, dadangu.” It’s typical for me now, if often embarrassing, to slip into Swahili when I’m distracted.

She stares at me for a loaded moment, as if wondering how long she has to tolerate my presence before the nice men in white coats catch up to me and haul me back to the asylum. Then, without another word, she flounces back into the restaurant, leaving me with my coffee and my half-filled Moleskine notebook.


Reverse culture shock, or re-entry shock, describes the feelings of frustration and rootlessness when returning from abroad. One can feel like a foreigner again, as though you’re totally alone in your experiences, and they’re beyond understanding from the people around you. It can result from an idealization of the “primary culture,” or from the stark contrast between the host and home cultures. In the case of RPCVs, all of this is compounded by the sense of loss that accompanies departure: we miss our friends, our villages, our projects. Who knows when – or if – we’ll ever be back? Reverse culture shock is not generally as widely discussed as initial type, and understandably so; you spent over two decades in your home culture, what’s so weird about coming back? It’s not like when you arrive in a foreign country and have to cope with new food, new language, new manners and customs, new people, new bacteria attacking your every bodily process and appendage. (Sorry, PCVs – and RPCVs – like to trade war stories about overseas illness. Ask me about my parasites someday.) But for many people, it’s very, very real.

In my travels, I’ve found re-entry stress to generally be more intense than the initial culture shock. I’m not yet back to America, not yet surrounded by my friends and peers from before, so I’m sure I have lots left to discover. But the contrast between the “developing world,” where I lived for two years, and the “developed” world, where I’ve been traveling these past few weeks, is stark. Everything is gaudy and loud and unfamiliar. Everything is mind-bogglingly expensive. Everything is a little too clean, a little too sterile, a little too easy. Unfamiliar food is great – I’m loving trying new things – but why does the dining experience have to be so formal all the time? Why is everyone always in a hurry?

It’s odd.

(For an unexpectedly gripping [but good-natured] blog post about trying to find something to eat in an airport after a year in Peace Corps Kenya, click here.)

I remember the first time I lived in Africa, after doing a brief summer internship in HIV testing outreach in Tanzania, I came back to live in DC. I’d only been gone a few months, but I felt out of place. My parents took me to an upmarket steakhouse to celebrate. The slab of meat on my plate, marbled with fat and grilled to perfection, was enough to give a serving of desperately-needed protein to every resident of the orphanage-cum-hospice I’d been teamed with. I asked for a glass of water. The waiter brought out a large, chilled bottle of Evian, cracked the seal, and poured it into a stem glass. I found myself irrationally angry with him – why was he trying to sell me a $7 BOTTLE of WATER? Clean water access had been an issue in my part of TZ, too. America’s greatness is evident in its infrastructure – we had perfectly safe water from pipes any time we wanted, why couldn’t he bring me that? I sent away the bottle and got a glass of warm tapwater with a side of judgment. He didn’t get it. He couldn’t get it.

I wasn’t very much fun that evening, I think.

I’m not saying it isn’t wonderful to come home. It is. Nor am I saying it’s more than I can process of handle, certainly. Nor, for the record, do I want to sound like a self-righteous hipster jerk who has Seen So Much and is sooooo much deeper than the folks around me. But as I’ve mentioned before, it’s an adjustment. One that is rarely acknowledged, nor understood, by the people we’re coming home to.


I’m standing in a grocery. My toothpaste has been gone for a week, and you can only get so much mileage out of snatching the tiny convenience pouches of the stuff off of sleeper trains. I won’t lie and say I never had access to these sorts of places in Kenya – three hours on public transport and I could be in Mombasa, home to not one but three Nakumatts, which is the Kenyan equivalent of Wal-Mart. Piped muzak, buzzing fluorescent lights, and infinite shelves of shampoo. But for most of my friends, coworkers, and pupils, a trip to the shop meant something like this:

The “corner store” where I bought all my basics: milk, vegetables, washing soap, etc.

Here, Western consumer behavior is such a banal thing, that it’s nothing to fill a cart full of lotions, potions, and processed foods. It’s a twice-weekly exercise. We get frustrated when they don’t have our specific brand of conditioner, forgetting that there are seventy other choices on the shelf that are more-or-less the same thing.

“How can there be so many kinds of things a person doesn’t really need? I can think of no honorable answer. Why must some of us deliberate between brands of toothpaste, while others deliberate between damp dirt and bone dust to quiet the fire of an empty stomach?”
— Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible


Life in Kenya is neither easier nor more difficult than life anywhere else, at least in my view. I don’t want to romanticize it as a simple, carefree existence of spiritual love and maize planting. Nor do I want to paint a bleak portrait of it as The Land of Rape And Lions (I know how not to write about Africa.) It's infinitely more complex than that.

In Kenya, I had a steady paycheck and no regular bills. However, I had to deal with physical hardship plus the emotional toll of working (mostly) with a population that had such desperate needs, a new language, and a culture where I often didn't share the values. (Politically/theologically speaking.)

In America, I will most likely never have to worry about having no access to water or getting caught up in a typhoid epidemic, but I'll be buried under the deluge of the mundane: paying the internet cable bill, deadlines that are actually deadlines, the hectic pace of everything, the fact that my neighbors generally don't know who I am or particularly care. The problems are of a totally different caliber – and adjusting to the sheer pettiness of so much of it will be a jolt to the system, I don’t doubt. Even now, I scroll through Facebook, and find myself going “PFFF. #FirstWorldProblems.” after every fifth status update. It makes me feel jaded and snarky, and I don’t like feeling that way.

So where does that leave us? Is the solution to embrace that tone to life, measuring my success on the square footage of my house and the version of my iPhone? Become the cynical wanderer trope who spoils everyone else’s fun? Or take a more balanced approach – the most difficult of all – and translate my experiences into awareness, humility, and simple gratitudes?

I suppose that, an invisible but poignant alteration in thinking, is as much a goal of this kind of experience as anything.

(I don’t have an iPhone.)




The hollow tapping noise wheedles into my consciousness, poking holes in the hood of sleep draped over my mind. Fire Gospel church, Guardianship service, I think to myself as I try to doze back off. My particularly devout friend Ruth attends that place, and from 10:30 at night until 2:30 in the morning, they sing and chant and call down Glory. Sometimes – times of great joy, or great need – they’ll continue all night and creep home just in time to light the charcoal jikos for breakfast.

But it’s not the drums of Fire Gospel making the noise. As I jolt awake, my eyes focus, and it takes me a few seconds to remember where I am: my hotel room, Paris, France. The measured clunking is the wheezing of the outdated A/C unit gasping as it cools the air. Twilight is creeping over the city. Between the excess sun and the walking exertions of the day, I’d fallen asleep for an hour or so on the threadbare red coverlet of my hotel bed; now, it’s time to head back out. I sling my bag over my shoulder, stuff my hands down into my pockets, and step out into the evening, in search of something delicious. THAT’S never difficult, here in Paris – unless you consider the difficulty of choosing. The night is young and full of promise.

(And crepes. Mostly full of crepes.)

Somewhere, ten thousand miles away, it’s already full dark. Ruth and her sisters are lightning kerosene lanterns, sweeping the stage, readying the pulpit. Men are filing into the sagging tin building, taking their places on rough hewn benches. There is no electricity, no water, but the place is full of the spirit. The Holy Ghost will guide their rhythms. They will drum all night.

My family took a European vacation when I was very young – perhaps 8 or 9 – during which we spent several days in Paris. (I cannot prove it, but I’m fairly sure this first foray into international travel was when my parents decided TWO WAS PLENTY OF CHILDREN. MAYBE EVEN TOO MANY. BY ABOUT TWO.) My memories of that trip are a series of decontextualized flashes; a restaurant with a wine list longer than the actual menu, my acrophobic mother clinging to the back wall of the elevator as we attempted to ascend the Eiffel Tower, a glimpsed view of a gaudy glass pyramid outside the Louvre. My plan for returning to the US had always been to make my way to Europe and fly home from there, and Paris is as good a departure point as any. I found some staggeringly cheap airfares leaving Charles de Gaulle (provided I don’t mind a ten-hour layover in Iceland) and thought to myself, “Why not?” After a grown-up’s curiosity and considerable peer pressure from numerous friends, I decided to City of Light and Love another chance, this time from the perspective of a (semi-)cultured adult.

I know what *my* favorite street is.

My first impression is one of disappointment: contrary to what I’ve been led to believe all my life, the Eiffel Tower is NOT visible from every single window in the entire city, and the streets are NOT paved with tiny, durable croissants.

Tragic, I know.

View of the city from the Basilica du SacreCoer

I’m struggling to think of something profound, or at least entertaining, so justify this blog post beyond the requisite “I’M HEEEERE!!!” Or even something profound or entertaining to write in my personal journal. What is left to be said about Paris? So many of the great writers, thinkers, movers, and shakers of the Western world were either born there or lived there at some point, that to try and say something profound is like trying to come up with a lawyer joke no one has told yet: you’re basically going to fail right out of the gate. Here is a sampling of some good ones.

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

– Ernest Hemingway

“America is my country and Paris is my hometown.”

– Gertrude Stein

“Paris was a universe whole and entire unto herself, hollowed and fashioned by history; so she seemed in this age of Napoleon III with her towering buildings, her massive cathedrals, her grand boulevards and ancient winding medieval streets–as vast and indestructible as nature itself. All was embraced by her, by her volatile and enchanted populace thronging the galleries, the theaters, the cafes, giving birth over and over to genius and sanctity, philosophy and war, frivolity and the finest art; so it seemed that if all the world outside her were to sink into darkness, what was fine, what was beautiful, what was essential might there still come to its finest flower. Even the majestic trees that graced and sheltered her streets were attuned to her–and the waters of the Seine, contained and beautiful as they wound through her heart; so that the earth on that spot, so shaped by blood and consciousness, had ceased to be the earth and had become Paris.”

― Anne Rice

“Paris is a place in which we can forget ourselves, reinvent, expunge the dead weight of our past.”

― Michael Simkins

“He who contemplates the depths of Paris is seized with vertigo.
Nothing is more fantastic. Nothing is more tragic.
Nothing is more sublime.”

― Victor Hugo

Had enough? Well, thank God – me too. Perhaps Paris is the heaving soul of art and culture, the world’s greatest city. Perhaps it once was, and is now a sprawling folie a deux; it’s great because we spend so much time standing around convincing each other it’s great, and the first one to look away loses. (I mean, not likely – any city with this many shops devoted solely to cheese MUST be at least a LITTLE great – and yet it’s always possible.) But really? It doesn’t matter. Because every minute I spend with my fingers on this keyboard, typing in this blog window, is one less minute I can spend with those same fingers wrapped around a crepe (or the stem of a wineglass.) City of European clichés it may be; I am going to enjoy it as such, and be totally unashamed. Bring on the resin Eiffel Tower statues and the overpriced cafe pastries. I will stuff myself silly and be happier for it.

Despite an extremely pleasant first day, I am not yet sold on the idea that it is overall a better city than DC (my #1 pick), but I am nonetheless overjoyed to have made it here, and sad my trip must soon end.

But not before I bankrupt myself buying even more books. Per usual.

My palatial suite. What a way to travel.

I woke up yesterday morning on a westbound train from Bucharest to Budapest. My computer was shuffling music in the background, and although I’m not an early riser under normal circumstances, I spent a long time lying awake, watching the brilliant golden dawn creep over the landscape and reveal the beauty of Europe. (This is, in part, why train travel is in so many ways superior to flight.)

Endless open farmland – wheat, corn … and sunflowers?

The first full song to come up on shuffle after I awoke was one of my favorites, by the Gabe Dixon band. I’m not much one for omens, but …

And minor misadventures aside, it certainly has been so far. For this I am infinitely grateful. I’m beginning to feel ready to land on my feet in the US. It won’t have the same wall-to-wall thrill impact as backpacking across Africa or midnight trains through Bulgaria, but it’s going to be grand. As Helen Keller once said, “Life is a daring adventure, or nothing.”

A quiet breakfast in Budapest. I thought about getting a croissant as well, but I wasn’t all that hungary.

“Le Bain Turc,” by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1862
(No, it’s not actually anything like that.)

Warning to sensitive readers: This entry contains references to bodies, nudity, and unmentionable garments. Nothing graphic, but PG-13. If you’re reading it aloud to your children, are a direct relation to the author of this blog, or a time-traveling Victorian gentlewoman, go back and read some of my Greatest Hits entries – my love letter to Mombasa, perhaps, or The Gift of Teaching.

On my final day in Istanbul, I had an extensive time gap between Chucking-Out Time at my hotel (a strict noon) and boarding time for my “train” (actually a bus, that takes you to a train, that takes you to another bus, that takes you to a second train) to Romania. I spent some time that morning sifting through the unwieldy stack of brochures I’d picked up in my four days: bus tour? Already seen all the major historical sites. More nargile cafes? Not sure my lungs could take it. Museum of Modern Turkish Art? Museums are among my favorite things in this life, but I’ve been to so many in the past two months that if I had to listen to one more audioguide go on about the fascinating marble relief statuary of Emperor Nobswagger the Sixth I was going to have a loud, public nervous breakdown. Turkish bath? Oh, yes. That might do very nicely, and take up as much time as I needed, to boot.

For many Americans, the words “Turkish Bath” or “Bath House” may bring to mind cruisey evening destinations in cities like San Francisco or New York, where well-built young men and closeted Republican politicians go for some special mingling. But in many other parts of the world, such as Japan, Korea, Finland, or (case in point) Turkey, public baths are a social fixture. Also called hammams, they date back to the days of Byzantium. The experience is usually focused on steam and water of varying temperatures (very hot –> very cold) with a soapy scrub at the end to de-sweat oneself, but can also additional rejuvenating beauty services for an added fee. Today, many people still unwind after work or weekends in their gender-segregated saunas, or dish out cash for extra products and services like salt scrubs, mud baths, or massages. It’s basically a day spa, but with predominantly common areas.

As I checked out of my hotel, I asked the receptionist if he had any thoughts on my idea. He gave me a dark look. “Everyone says they are places for enjoyment, but I only went once. I asked for a massage. But he did not massage, he hit. It was like putting torture on my body. Ever since I have …”

He trailed off momentarily, searching for the best way to describe his feelings in English, before settling on, “Deep-seated phobia.” This statement he punctuated with a visible shudder.

Perhaps reading my crestfallen look, he hastily added, “But the rest of my family, they all go, at least one time per week. My brothers have member cards for service discount.”

I thanked him for his input and set out, brochure clutched tightly in my hand. Baths range in price and opulence from simple $15 steam soaks up to many hundreds of dollars for aesthetic services and a private bath servant. The place I’d chosen was decidedly middle-of-the-road: some tourists, some Turkish women, easy-to-find location. I was quite pleased when I discovered that it was a beautifully-appointed building dating back to the 16th century, with period replica furnishings and an endless supply of traditional juice beverages. A smiling receptionist showed me to a changing area, where I quickly donned the provided faux-silk wrap and stashed my things in a locker.

Here, I must take you back in time a few hours to fully explain my experience: After I’d decided this was how I was going to kill an afternoon waiting for my train, I’d read up on internet tips for Turkish Bath etiquette. Take your shoes off outside and carry them, always tip for extra services, etc. However, there was a great deal of debate about what was appropriate to wear to such a place. Some said the traditional way was the only way: full monty. Others argued in favor of wearing something on the lower half of your body, like a bikini bottom or those awkward hospital-gown-material disposable underbritches they give you at waxing salons. (Who just keeps those lying around?) I thought about this and dug through my luggage, producing the only two items that were a) clean, b) provided some degree of personal coverage, and c) would not go translucent instantly when exposed to water (i.e. not pastel.)

The options were my bikini bottom, which after two thorough sink-washings still reeked vaguely of sea salt and the sturgeon viscera used to chum the water during my shark adventures, or a pair of cotton bikini-briefs bought on a lark at one of Target’s 5-for-the-price-of-1 post-holiday clearance sales. In keeping with the winter theme, they were a jolly shade of fuschia, and bore a repeating pattern of steaming hot cocoa mugs sprinkled with marshmallows. Not the sort of dignified thing you’d expect of a woman mature enough to attend a Turkish Bath, but I was desperate and they were the lesser evil of two intrinsically poor options, so I sighed and stuffed them into the bottom of my purse for later retrieval.

Flash back forward to the locker room: I pulled these out, examined them, and hastily stowed them in my purse again. I assumed someone would correct me if I erred in manners, and until then, cocoa mugs? REALLY? I snugged my wrap up under my arms and went back out to meet my fate.

The receptionist led me by the hand through an intricately-carved wooden door into a steam room. “Come,” she said, before hurrying ahead with a set of keys. I started to follow, then noticed, to my abject horror, a trio of women giggling and splashing each other in one corner – wearing bathing suits. I clutched my wrap and froze mid-step, imagining the headlines to follow: “TOURIST ARRESTED FOR INDECENT EXPOSURE. POLICE CHIEF COMMENTS: ‘Eww.’” The receptionist noticed I was no longer behind her, and called again, “COME,” in the tone one uses for a loveable-but-impish puppy who is beginning to wear on your nerves.

I hastened to catch up and she glanced at the women in the corner. “Americans,” she said darkly, her face bearing a look of private disapproval. She finished with a quiet cluck of her tongue and led me to a marble bench next to a deep basin, which at that moment was being filled with cool water flowing from an ornate pair of taps.

“SIT,” she barked, and I rushed to obey. Before my bum touched the bench, she hastily yanked my sarong into my lap, grabbed an intricately-carved bronze bowl, dunked it in the basin, and dumped it unceremoniously over my head. (It was the second most awkward time I’ve been abruptly stripped by a helpful stranger. On this trip.) “SHOWER,” she said, leaning close towards my face. Before I could share with her any of the especially colorful expletives I save up for just such occasions – or indeed, before I could form a verbal response of any kind – she repeated the series of actions. I sputtered and stammered and tried to push the hair out of my eyes, all the while thinking, Now this isn’t what I was led to expect at all. This is costing me the price of three kilograms of the finest baklava in the land, or a week’s worth of matinee movie tickets, or any number of other things more pleasant than being waterboarded by a stranger. (And let’s face it: we all know that for all the dodgy places I’ve lived/traveled in my short life, I could probably find someone who would be willing to waterboard me at the taxpayer’s expensive, no cost to me.)

Following this second sudden baptism, she dropped the bowl into my lap and began to walk away, calling “SCRUB! DIRTY,” over her shoulder as a parting piece of advice. I could only imagine she had been attending the same night school of Hospitality Communications as the Burundian cab drivers. I tried in vain to follow her instructions while re-wrapping my bathing sarong before saying, “Ah, to hell with it” and dropping it on the floor. To my great relief, I saw the women around me doing the same – although this relief was rather short-lived, because you can only get so much comfort out of being in a room full of naked strangers. (Unless you’re an adult film star, I suppose, but that’s a polar-opposite scenario.)

In addition to the usual steam-and-splashing routine, I’d booked an anti-stress package at the front desk, so within 15 minutes, an old woman similarly dressed in a silk wrap appeared and informed me she was going to be my bath attendant. She led me to an octagonal marble dais in the center of the room, perfectly positioned beneath a brilliant stained glass dome. On each edge of the octagon, a violet silk sheet had been placed. If flopping facedown naked onto a stage surrounded by other flopping naked people sounds like a living nightmare, then you’re wrong: in the nightmares, you’re doing this while also being told your university degree is invalid and you’re expected to immediately re-take your Calculus final but you haven’t got any pencils. Other than that, yes. It’s like the nightmare.

Although I imagine a sizeable portion of my readership would have no choice but to describe me as “devastatingly sexy,” like all women in modern America, I struggle with body image. It’s as much a part of our culture as apple pie or trying to talk our way out of speeding tickets. Watching the recent summer Olympics is incredibly inspiring, but unlike watching other people at a normal gym, it’s different in that you cannot tell yourself that if you weren’t terribly busy with extremely important things (such as eating biltong on the couch while watching the Summer Olympics) you could look/achieve the same as them. Suffice to say, from the beginning, this was not the most comfortable experience I’d ever had. As I shuffled towards the dais, I was constantly trying to swath myself in my wringing-wet sarong. But aside from the aforementioned Bikini Team, I was the only one. The other occupants could care less about my presence, so concerned they were with their own foam explosions or sea-salt scrubs. A body is a body is a body: we’ve all got one, and by virtue of surviving day to day (lungs breathing! Heart pumping! Brain storing information!) they’re all capable of nigh-miraculous acts. I’m forever reminding myself of my own set of skills, talents, and abilities that bring incredible joy to my life. A sea cucumber or any lower animal would envy us, with all its primitive parts, and never fuss over anything that sags or jiggles in an unbecoming fashion.

My self-indulgent woe-is-me cognitive exercises were cut mercifully short by the beginning of my extra bath services: the salt scrub, the foam scrub (which apparently comes standard), the clay mask, and the aromatherapy massage. It’s difficult to focus on that awkward scar on your thigh you got from falling in shorts during summer camp at age 11 when a cheerily-humming stranger is abrading your entire body with salt in the manner of rubbing spices into a pork loin, or gently massaging detoxifying mud into your shoulder blades. The slightest hint of self-deprecation is smothered to death – as you very nearly are also – when you find yourself being slowly suffocated beneath 18 inches of rose-scented foam, as your bath attendant continues to pile it over your entire body, head-crown to toenails, with the gleeful avidity of a child burying his or her parents in sand on a beach holiday.

Indeed, you are unable to entertain any thoughts at all, except a fervent wish to be reincarnated backwards in time as an Ottoman sultana, so you can have someone do this on a daily basis. The experience finished with a light lavender massage, culminating in the “torture” my hotelier had described: with all the gentleness of a little boy playing with a Transformer action figure on Christmas morning, the service attendant set to twisting and bending my shapely limbs, pounding on my spine, wrenching my head from side to side until all 206 bones in my body cracked. Twice. Despite being a rather curious series of sensation while it happened, the end result was quite pleasant. Like a good stretch, I guess, or the forbidden thrill of cracking your knuckles after writing longhand for many pages.

As I stumbled back into the steam-warmed waiting area in a fresh white towel and collected my complimentary post-massage sherbet, I felt like a new person. Not merely in terms of the body image stuff. That was purely secondary to the physical sensations of every endorphin my body has ever created in 24 years of life merrily swimming through my veins. All the strains, aches, twinges, tweaks, bumps, bruises, tingles, tickles, and abrasions from dragging around 30 kilograms of luggage by myself for two months, or folding my uncommonly long limbs into origami shapes to fit into ever-cramped airplane rows, or sleeping on the cement slabs hostels like to call “beds” had all slithered down the drain with the mud and foam. It was an incredible feeling, and not really like one I had ever known before. Total relaxation.

Of course, it all came back, and brought friends, with the stress of some nearly-filched luggage in the Istanbul train station, but that’s a story for another day.

I can’t complain about the day, and would highly recommend it to anyone. Despite my initial ill-ease at the clothing requirements (or lack thereof), I hadn’t had time to feel the prolonged hot crush of humiliation one would expect out of such a situation. At least … not then. The Gods of This Will Make A Good Story Some Day were not done with me yet. I was taking an overnight train through Bulgaria and into Romania that evening, and found myself at the station a little while before my scheduled departure, so I sat down at the attached café for a latte and pastry. It was the same restaurant that once served pre-journey supper to travelers on the fabled Orient Express, and if you’ll forgive my momentary unkindness, it clearly reached its aesthetic heyday then and has been on a downward slide ever since.

Nonetheless, the latte was excellent, and when the time came I began digging through my overstuffed purse for cash to pay the waiter. I dug handfuls of necessities out and piled them unceremoniously on the table: laptop charger, ticket folders, passport, baggy of Kleenex, Snickers bar, breath mints, toothbrush. My wallet was at the bottom, and as I curled my hand around it, the waiter suddenly leaned down beside me. “Madame, you dropped something,” he said quietly, snatching an unseen item from the ground next to my chair and presenting it to me gingerly.

It was the back-up britches. The cocoa mug briefs I’d brought just in case.

Oh, damn.

He certainly earned his generous tip.

“The Female Turkish Bath or Hammam,” by Jean-Jacques-Francois Lebarbie, 1785

Bosphorus Bridge by night, serving as a gateway between Europe and Asia

I’ve always wanted to come to Turkey – it seems a place out of an Agatha Christie novel as much as a real country. Steeped in history, intrigue, and delicious candies worth betraying your family over; who wouldn’t want that? Then, while attending college, I took an Islamic Art & Architecture class (with the glorious and magnificent Professor S. Aberth, one of my favorite professors EVER outside the psychology department, shout out to Bard kids reading this) that sent Turkey rocketing to my Top Three Destinations list. It assumed a vaulted position of great import, alongside Ethiopia and Iran.

And luckily so, because Istanbul has been everything I dreamed it would be, and then some.

Sipping Turkish Coffee while contemplating the domes and spires of the Hagia Sophia. Be still, my geeky travel-oriented heart.

Domed walkway in the Topkapi Palace

My earphoned Audioguide and I at an overlook of the Bosphorus Strait.

The food is excellent, the coffee plentiful – although, I’m sorry to say, still not quite as good as Ethiopia’s – the history rich, the art beautiful, and the people extraordinarily welcoming. To a fault, almost. In the United States, we really like our privacy and our personal space. I’m well aware that many, perhaps even most, cultures are more social than we. (Kenya was certainly no exception: many a PCV was troubled to discover that the response to telling someone you’re sick is to have the entire village descend on your house to visit, chat, check on you, wait to be offered tea, and offer their discursive opinions about everything you’re doing wrong in terms of your health.) But Turkey seems to have the most genuinely social people I’ve encountered in all my travels, which now exceed 30 countries.

World’s oldest love poem, written in cuneiform and displayed at the Turkish Archaeological Museum in Istanbul.

I arrived in Istanbul near sundown on an ordinary weekday, and as my taxi wound its way through traffic towards my hotel, I found myself enchanted by the site of hundreds of people happily throwing down elaborate rugs to picnic. Every green space, every park, every patch of bare ground along the Bosphorus had been claimed: families, couples, endless groups of friends. Even sidewalks weren’t safe from revelers. It gave the air of having stumbled upon a very large street festival in the process of engulfing the whole city. I commented on this to the taxi driver and was told that this isn’t merely the result of Ramadan restrictions; year-round, people will take every opportunity they can to sprawl in the outdoors with a hamper full of Turkish treats, or gather around family tables piled high with food. Eating is a social affair. Everything is a social affair, at that. An experience isn’t quite lived unless shared, he explained.

Even traveling alone, I did not find myself exempt from this cultural gregariousness. If you’ve traveled enough, you’re uncomfortably familiar with “confidence men” and cons of every kind who make their livings preying on tourists, many of them setting up lures and ploys under the guise of hospitality. Someone approaches you and strikes up a conversation. They compliment your looks or express a desire to practice their language skills with a “real English speaker.” They offer tea, or fruit, or special “shortcut” directions to a much-sought-after landmark. But almost inevitably, these pleasantries come at a price: you are offered a hard luck story about an aunt with “heart cancer” and asked for money, or met with increasingly obtrusive demands that you return the generosity by buying some overpriced crap from their shop. You are propositioned for a green card, a work sponsorship, or (especially for women) a “special date.” There are 1,000 variations, and at this point I feel like I’ve heard them all. Istanbul is no exception. It has come as a genuine shock, then, that I’ve met so many people who AREN’T trying to sell me something, secure immigration sponsorship, or sweet talk their way into my bed. I hope I don’t sound cynical in saying that, but it’s a truth known to virtually all Peace Corps Volunteers – and Turkey has charmed me completely by bucking the trend.

I’ve spent many, many hours wandering through sites of historical significance, and I would guess almost as many hours chatting with ordinary people about Turkey, America, or my life in Kenya. I’ve found myself in carpet-filled sitting rooms taking tea with legions of neighbors/cousins/family friends, keeping them enthralled with Life In The Village stories, while an eldest son (currently on holiday from attending university in America) translates. I’ve met women from such far-flung locations as Sydney, London, Tokyo, and the Carolinas who came as tourists and never left. I’ve giggled at furtively-told stories of ostentatious celebrity tourists who think nothing of dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars in an afternoon on opulent Turkish furnishings. I agreed to help a restaurant owner’s nephew practice his English, and ended up discussing European economic policy for nearly an hour, with someone who’s living the financial crisis in real time vis a vie their proximity to Greece. I’ve had conversations as to the relative health benefits of water-pipe tobacco as compared to traditional cigarettes with garrulous waterpipe attendants. (Verdict: Yes, the smoke temperature is lower, and the tobacco doesn’t have the added carcinogens and added preservatives found in a pack of Lucky Strikes. But one cube of hookah tobacco is the weight equivalent of 22 average-sized cigarettes. This I was told right before the attendant asked, very sweetly, “Shall I add another coal to your pipe, madam?” Erm, no thank you, I’m good.)

There were some people who wanted me to give them money, either through buying things or just flat out. There always are. But the majority of people were merely polite, welcoming, and genuinely curious about my unique travel and life experiences. With a handful, even the suggestion of obligatory shop patronage or offering to share nargile was met with an unexpectedly chilly response: was I unfamiliar with Turkish hospitality? The timeless rules of host and guest?

I’ll say it again: thoroughly and utterly charmed. Five stars. I’ll be back.

Underground Cistern dating back to the Romans.

Inside the Hagia Sophia

View from the upper gallery of the Hagia Sophia

Baklava: breakfast of champions.

Me resting against some of the 500-year-old tiles in the Harem of the Topkapi Palace. One of my favorite things about Islamic architecture is the exquisite attention to detail; I could talk all day about the colors and patterns in different kinds of tilework alone. (No, seriously, I could. Be careful about asking unless you have nowhere else to be.)

Closet door in the Topkapi Palace paneled in 100% real mother-of-pearl

Sitting area – see what I mean about the detail?

Sun setting over the Blue Mosque and Sultanahmet Square, decorated for Ramadan.

The view from my hotel room was so ruggedly beautiful, I kept expecting the Riders of Rohan to go charging by at any moment.

If you’re scratching your head and staring at your globe right now, don’t feel bad: with a population of only 1.2 million and a total area of around 6,000 square miles, the Kingdom of Swaziland is among the smallest countries in Africa. Even among those who are aware of its existence, it can be easy to overlook when traveling. But for a tiny place it can pack a mighty punch! (Or so I’m told.) There are many things to do in Swaziland! Game drives! Bungee jumping! ATV safaris! Birdwatching! Horseback riding! Abseiling! Potholing!

I have no idea what those last two are, and also, I did none of those things. Well … I did birdwatch a bit, from the comfort of my deck chair next to my hotel’s tiny-but-lovely swimming pool. Swaziland is completely gorgeous, and I fully support fellow travelers doing as many of these economic-growth-supporting tourism activities as possible, but for me, my Marvelous Things To Do in Swaziland list consisted entirely of …

1. Absolutely nothing. This may come as a shock to none some of you, but I’m a bit of an overzealous competitive type-A lunatic at times. I’m not high energy in the way an Australian Shepherd dog may be, but I’m cognitively restless, constantly leaping from one problem to the next in my mind, considering all contingencies. I tend to take on more than any sane person would. I can have trouble forcing myself to relax. I can demonstrate this in one simple anecdote: my senior year of college, my two best friends and I took a spring break trip to Las Vegas, a city that delights in its own meaningless hedonism and cheerily spits on responsibility. One afternoon, we were all super hungover a smidge tired, so we adjourned to our hotel to nap and refresh before another night of male strippers and cocktails at Tao Nightclub.

If you had quietly crept into my room that afternoon, you would have found me sunk to my clavicle in a deep marble bathtub, the lights dimmed, mounds of efflorescent bubbles forming miniature landscapes across the water’s surface, a Norah Jones playlist drifting from my laptop speakers, a mass of honey-blonde hair piled in a haphazard though sensuous topknot atop my head, a stemmed glass of chilled Reisling in one hand … and the other holding a soggy paperback copy of writer/Sudanologist Alex de Waal’s Famine Crimes: Politics & The Disaster Relief Industry. An eye-meltingly bright orange highlighter was clenched in my teeth. Every so often, I’d set my reading down and lurch sideways, sloshing steamy scented water onto the gold-and-cream tiled floor, so I could hit the “refresh” button on my laptop and see if my applicant status with the Peace Corps had changed yet. My friends and I had pledged on pain of death and banishment that we would not discuss – nay, acknowledge the existence of – our undergraduate dissertations while on vacation, but there was always more work to be done, right? I had at least another 20,000 words worth of term papers to write. No one had to know I was throwing away my vacation on them.

I had no “off” switch.

I tell you all this to make a simple point: relaxing and letting the world go by has never come easily to me. However, Peace Corps taught me patience, and helped me learn that if I didn’t calm down once in awhile I would probably go completely insane and pop like an overfilled water balloon. The past two months have been an incredible ride, but also a very busy one; I will have no other other opportunity to chill in quite this way, I imagine, until I come skidding to an abrupt halt in the US at the very end of this month. (And even there, it’s a brief break to breathe before the dreaded PhD program applications start.) So in Mbabane, I gave myself time to regenerate energy and reflect on my experiences so far. I sat by the pool. I watched the birds. I read two books from start to finish. I dabbed tea tree oil on the innumerable cuts/scrapes/scratches/bruises/minor flesh wounds that had resulted from me getting royally thrashed about in the shark cage (moderately rough seas that day.) I drank Diet Coke and inconspicuously watched other people play chess.

I loved every minute of it.

After the heady adrenaline rush of a long adventure, I strongly suggest you do the same.

The above is a photograph of the plaque at the entrance to the Ntarama Genocide Memorial, formerly a church, in Bugesera, Rwanda. Nearly 5,000 people from surrounding towns tried to take refuge here during the massacres of April 1994. The adults and older children were murdered with clubs and machetes. The younger children were struck against the wall. All the skulls are stacked neatly on shelves at the back of the sanctuary; the weapons used here are lined up at the front. The clothes of the victims – men, women, children – hang from the rafters of the church now, making for quite possibly the eeriest place I’ve ever been.

Street signs from the former inner-city neighborhood in Cape Town, the infamous District Six. Most of the residents were non-whites (including Indians, Asians, indigenous Xhosa people, and those of blended racial ancestry, then called “coloreds” and living in their own special social category). In the 1970s, all 60,000+ of its inhabitants were forcibly relocated by the Apartheid regime and the neighborhood re-zoned “whites only.”

Exhibit about Apartheid arrests in the Nelson Mandela museum.

Sign posted inside the room where the mass grave of Red Terror martyrs is housed. We remember this one, right?

If you’re worried that I’m going to escalate the ghoulishness of the pictures, don’t. I think I’ve made my point without indulging the genuinely horrifying penchant for gore that seems to characterize the tastes of my generation. Or have I? Here’s the thing: I’m doing far more “touristy” things on this vacation than I did in over two years in Kenya. This mental break, giving myself permission to squeal and snap pictures like the obnoxious tourist that I have very much become, is nice. But not all of travel is fun and games. In my view, it’s pointless to visit a place unless you get under its skin a little bit, understand as best you can what the experience is like from the inside looking out rather than the other way around. This can take the form of sampling local foods or attending cultural museums, among many, many other options. This can also come in the form of studying up on a place’s history – both in peace and conflict. Understand the dynamics of the people who live and have lived there. Example: all the pictures above.

Even more than merely satisfying the compulsory curiosities about the place you’re visiting, it’s vital to visit these sites, digest them, acknowledge them, appreciate them. It’s a history-class cliche that those who fail to understand and learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, but the saying is so commonplace for a reason. When you study broad topics like “genocide,” for instance, or “tribal violence,” or “systematic oppression to political ends,” it’s obvious that while each situation has innumerable unique characteristics, imminently predictable patterns in the build-up begin to emerge. For example, master law blogger Popehat mentions that an upsurge in anti-Semitism can serve as the “canary in a coal mine” for the onset of impending tyranny. It’s important to see the past for what it is and honor our martyrs. It’s equally important to hold its lessons ever close.

If this entry sounds slightly more halting than usual, the fact that it’s snowing in Jo’burg right now (omgwtf) and therefore freezing my fingers is only partly to blame. It’s a tricky thing to write about. There is a fine balance to strike between the pureply pleasant (Wine! Sharks! YAY!) and the Things That Must Be Faced (Segregation! Refugees camps! Violence against women! BOO!). Too much of the former and you haven’t achieved the aforementioned “honor and learn” goals. Too much of the latter is really fucking exhausting. It can be especially difficult in places like South Africa and Rwanda, where they have no shortage of enjoyable diversions BUT their darker history is very new, very relevant, and forever lingering on the back of your tongue like the bitterness of burnt coffee.

This, I have (tongue-in-cheekily) decided is why massive memorial museums always seem to have the most splendid cafes at the end: yes, society is a horrid place sometimes. Through greed, malice, or soulless apathy, mankind is capable of some mind-bogglingly awful things. To stare it in the face up close will rip the guts out of the strongest person. But here it is pleasingly warm, and there’s local jazz on the speakers, and happy couples having awkward second dates, and dishy waiters anxious to bring you a foamy mochaccino. The world has some goodness left in it, even if you’re being asked to pay $6 for a cranberry scone.

At the end of the day, it’s necessary, if a bit maudlin, to remember that the history of virtually every nation is written in blood. We don’t always like to acknowledge it, but it’s always there. In the US, for example, how often do we mention the fact that we perpetuated one of the most successful genocides in human history, actively slaughtering or causing the disease-death of tens of millions of indigenous people to make way for our passenger trains and gaudy sky scrapers? These are not “African problems” or “Balkans problems.” There is no group in history that has gone totally untouched, totally free from experiencing or witnessing the extremes of what humans are capable of doing to each other.

Then again, maybe “history” is not the word I should be using; it implies a certain distance, as though we, as a species, have moved on from the perpetration of such atrocities and malevolent indifference. One would anticipate that we learn from our mistakes. Even a beagle will figure out that if it stands too close to a door and gets its tail slammed into it a few times, it should no longer stand there. But I’ve seen so many museum and memorials bearing taglines that are some variation of “Never again” that I find it to be almost a piece of bitter ironic humor: was there ever one that said “this once was terrible, but next time we’ll get it right?” Of course not. We always chant “NEVER AGAIN! NEVER AGAIN!” then turn aside when it does.

In the District Six museum, there is a collection of plain white muslin sheets hanging from a beam as part of their “Nameclothes” exhibit. It started in the 1980s as a way for families who had lived in District Six itself to make themselves heard and list their addresses before they were forcibly removed, but has evolved into something of a visitors’ Wailing Wall. People write messages of hope for their own nations’ struggles and share the pain of dreams delayed. In a dozen languages strangers pour out their hearts, and other strangers annotate with their support. For the most part, it’s very moving. Mostly. But in the low-center region of one of the sheets, someone had written “Is Apartheid really gone? Free Gaza – Pray for Peace in Palestine and Israel!” In bold strokes of black ink, someone had come after and violently attempted to scratch out “Gaza” and “Palestine,” first with scribbled lines, then with the word “NO.” Finally, they’d peppered the inscription with multiple repetitions of one word, much-underlined, in capital letters and trailed by an angry series of exclamation points, as if screaming with all the breath in their lungs:


Perhaps we’re moving away from mindless racism and shameful injustice. Perhaps we’re ready to accept nuance, banish stereotypes, and look for the humanity in others rather than seeking out what divides us. Then again … perhaps not.

Perhaps this is the part that makes these museums so draining and exhausting – not merely our past, but the eternal question that perpetually hovers in the back of our minds: just how much have we learned and grown?

Will it ever be enough?

Kenyan Flag

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.
NOTE: If you choose this option, you MUST click the link in the "confirmation e-mail" after you sign up or you will not receive any further e-mails.


The opinions expressed on this blog do not represent those of the Peace Corps, the United States government, or any other organization. The author is solely responsible for all content on this blog.
Yours truly