Monday, December 28, 2009

receiving well and a Christmas message

Some friends of mine recently moved to Rwanda and, thankfully, are recording their Rwandan journey online. Check out their most recent post, To Know Him is to Know Peace, describing a beautiful expression of thankfulness expressed by some Rwandan women who understand intimately that nothing but Jesus can give them peace.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

things I haven't had to worry about yet

When this kind family offered tea to my fellow trekkers and I last May while we were visiting some of the small villages tucked among India's Himalayan Mountains, I never thought of not accepting their offer.

Last week while collecting interviews for a fun-to-cover article about cultural engagement for BestSemester magazine, I heard from Kara, a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia, who described a sticky cultural situation I've yet to encounter:

"It's very difficult to know when to conform to another culture and when not to. This battle occurs every day for me! It's not just about major topics and issues, but about the everyday things. For example, here in Mongolia, if you are offered food or beverage it is considered very rude not to accept it and then consume it. But when it's something you know is going to make you sick, must you eat it? What if it's vodka, which is very popular here? I don't really want to encourage excessive drinking, and I definitely don't want it to appear like I condone alcoholism, which is rampant, but if I refuse to take a shot of vodka, I may be offending my hosts. What do I do?"

Tonight I ran across a related tidbit on the blog of a traveler/photographer I don't know (greetings, Mitchell, in case you ever discover this link to your nice site) who is recounting some Romanian adventures:

"I was reminded a little of India, when the locals almost forced their hospitality upon us, only in India the hospitality takes on the form of tea and food, while in Maramures you have to drink their toxic home-made “Tsuika”, a 50 + degree alcoholic beverage, strong enough to burn a whole in your stomach. After drinking five or six shots of it in the first day I decided that in reply to future offers it would be better for me to drink a tiny bit of it, make a face and say that it is too strong for people from my country, which is not far from the truth."

I'm thinking Mitchell's suggestion of a way out of this particular cultural engagement predicament sounds pretty good, so I've decided it's something worth adding to my bag of traveler's tricks in case I'm offered something stronger than tea the next time I'm on the trail somewhere in the world.

So far I haven't encountered any real food fiascoes in my travels. Thankfully. Of course, there were those small fish I ate in the village of Kisaba on Bukasa Island in Africa's Lake Victoria (I blogged about that here), but fish are not bugs. Or vodka. In that same town, though, I had the only experience I can recall of deciding not to eat something, even if not eating it could be considered impolite. It had more to do with exhaustion and dim candles, though, than with what was on my plate:

Sometime around 11 pm or midnight the night we stayed in Kisaba, we were finally led to our hosts' home/shop for supper. We wound through the dark fishing village on the edge of the lake and eventually passed through a covered storage room/kitchen area and entered a dark room of their home. I think it was the same room they used as a little shop during the day. It was lit only by a small light that, as I recall, was some sort of small oil lamp kind of thing. Whatever it was it emitted the amount of light of a small candle. Hence, when they brought our food, it was nearly impossible to see what was on our plates.

I was really tired at that point in the day and not so hungry anymore. And it was the chicken, of all things, that forced me to the brink of impoliteness. I decided I couldn't eat it because I just couldn't see it well enough to pick around the bones and such, and it was probably a pretty skinny chicken, so one had to do a lot of picking. So, I ate some of the other things on the plate and hoped it would be too dark for my hosts to tell what I hadn't eaten. I never noticed any dirty looks and everyone was still nice to me, so I guess no offense was taken.

And that is pretty much my most exciting food story thus far. (You were on the edge of your seat, weren't you?) Well, other than the secretly stealthy, invisible spices in the food at our Indian hotel, the food they kindly tried so hard to Americanize for our group. But that's another story for another day, maybe. And now that I think about it, there was that other dimly-lit meal that I ate in Maissade, Haiti, but other than the dimly-lit part and not being able to participate in the dinner table conversation because my Creole language skills are non-existent, that meal was really tasty.

So, anyway, the real moral of this blog story is that sneaky, hot spices and chicken-in-the-dark are a far cry from tsuika. And I'm glad some other travelers have gone before me and called back warnings about the more tipsy variety of hospitality I might someday encounter.
*Top photo: India, photo courtesy of Leigh Greer.
*Bottom photo: view out the door of a church in Kisaba, Uganda.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


For a few days I'm back where I began. It's a good place to be. Especially while still-cheery autumn sun glints down on Upper East Tennessee's hills and hollers. Today for barely more than a moment I did something I've done all too rarely here, during either my growing-up days among the narrow, windy roads or on my regular return visits to see my family.

In places other than this one, I explore (old-school style, sans GPS). I take the long way home. I take roads I've never driven on before, roads whose destinations I don't know, roads that start out heading in directions I want to go without offering any guarantees they'll continue that way. I walk along sidewalks that may or may not deposit me somewhere I recognize. I meander by foot or by wheel. And I make delightful discoveries. Exploring offers you things you wouldn't receive otherwise.

Post-nice-conversation this afternoon with a fellow traveler who doesn't hail from these parts but has made a home-base here I was reminded how little I've explored the nooks and crannies of this place I still refer to as home, in the way of "home-home" that references roots rather than where my books are shelved. I haven't done things here that I have done in lots of other places I've lived in and visited. Mostly, I haven't meandered with eyes willing to see the wonder of this place. Instead, I went to high school and sewed 4-H aprons and babysat and went on youth group retreats here. Good things all but not really the same as exploring. Living, yes. Exploring, no.

In Cape Coast, Ghana, two years ago now, I stole away for some solitary moments spent overlooking the picturesque coastline, watching colorful fishing boats bobbing on the sea as two men carried fishing paraphernalia down a path and then along the beach. I wondered then if they recognized the beauty they walked in the midst of every day or if they only pondered whether the day's catch was enough for their family's supper.

When I tell people where I'm from, those with any knowledge of this place comment on its Appalachian mountain beauty. I agree. Yes, it is beautiful here. But deep down I feel a bit insincere as I nod my head. Because I'm not sure I ever stopped long enough to take in the beauty while I lived in its midst. I don't think I paused on many mountain paths in the middle of my daily tasks and looked around myself, absorbing just a bit of the prettiness I'd been plopped into courtesy of birth. I certainly didn't explore beyond the usual routes from place to place.

When I've returned to Nashville after various travels abroad, I've come back with eyes eager to see my home (in the home-du-jour, single "home" version of the concept) through a traveler's eyes. What would my new friends think of this place? What would they notice? What would seem odd and incongruous? What would seem intriguing? What would seem beautiful? What would seem similar to their homes? What would be strange and different? What would surprise them and crack their stereotypes?

Today, for perhaps the first time, I momentarily turned those questions toward my home-home in the northeastern tip of Tennessee. I explored just a little. I exited the interstate one exit early and headed toward a nearby road that appeared likely to take me to the farm-fenced, sun-brightened hills that were beckoning. I wound along the narrow asphalt for just a little while, crossing a railroad track, passing old Boone Station, and meandering deeper into the hills. That bit of time was long enough to decide there must be more of it. There is wonder here too.

It's sometimes easy to sell home-home short. To miss its charms for its daily grind. To miss its cow-dotted pastures and friendly-looking houses--scattered in delightfully un-cookie-cutter fashion along shoulderless roads--for grocery store runs and "i"s to dot or for family to visit.

But that's the beauty of travel. Done right, it brings you back home, back to where you began, just better equipped to recognize the wonder of the world you walk in every day as you catch your daily fish and finish your geometry lessons and visit your new niece. Here's hoping for more time spent exploring my beautiful home-home.

Monday, October 26, 2009

rockin' it country style in sudan

I've been moving photos from one computer to another tonight and came upon this bit of video. It made me chuckle, for the pleasant memory it holds, so I decided it's time to share it with you. There are so many stories yet untold from my Africa travels, and I'm still hoping to give those stories life here over time. This is a start.

I met Kennedy during a quick overnight trip to southern Sudan from my base-for-the-month in Uganda. I've been curious about and captivated by Sudan for a long time, so I was really glad things came together for me to get at least this brief bit of time there. Kennedy is the Ugandan aid worker who hosted us in this very remote town. As we flew in, it was clear this was one of the more remote places I'd yet been during my Africa sojourn. The terrain was parched and filled only by scrubby growth. No other spots of concentrated life were visible from the air, outside of the town we were visiting.

Kennedy was great and had such a fun sense of humor. We spent a good bit of time being driven by him between aid sites in the SUV that's so necessary for driving in such places. There'd been some rain recently, leaving behind some very muddy, deep water spots on the dirt road. Kennedy had to do some fancy driving to get us through them. After he'd successfully gotten unstuck in some spot or other, I called up to him from my perch in the back of the vehicle: "You're having fun, aren't you?" He grinned in response.

So in all this driving around, I barely noticed the music lilting from the vehicle's speakers. Someone else commented on it first. I didn't notice it because it just seemed so normal to hear Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and more singing to me. I'd just assumed it was the radio playing all this time. I didn't stop to realize that it was unlikely that there was a country music station broadcasting in remote southern Sudan.

Turns out that Kennedy is a huge country music fan. He was pumping his tapes of country music through the speakers. Kennedy offered me an unexpected bit of home in the middle of this hardscrabble locale. It was fun to tell him about my Nashville home and the country music stars who used to come through my Starbucks line. I was supposed to come back to Nashville and tell them all about the big fan they have in Sudan. :-)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

a little more NOLA

One more New Orleans post is live! There's even a recipe included this time. It's clearly a must-see post. Hop on over while the hopping's good. ;-)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Haiti story

One of the pieces I wrote based on my experience in Haiti last summer is now live: Seeing into the Future. Enjoy! And then pray for the folks in Haiti.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

trying to get it right

Tonight I chatted with a writer friend who just returned from a couple weeks in Southeast Asia. We talked about many things, of course, and among the richness was conversation about how to tell stories of people we meet in such places, that are so different from our homeplaces, without descending into unfair cliche and stereotype. How do you tell stories of far-away people and places to people back home who've never visited them? How will they understand?

Relatedly, we talked about photographs, as she considers which photos to share from her trip. She realized that in Southeast Asia she wanted lots of photos of people, but when she and her husband stopped off in Paris for a couple days, she specifically didn't want people in her photos. Was she exploiting the people in Southeast Asia?

Oh, how I understand what she's wrestling with. So many people who visit points in Africa or Haiti or other developing countries return home armed with photos of themselves posing with cute kids. I'm sorry to say that I have a harder and harder time with these photos, as well-meant as they are and as much as they populate my own photo album. And it's because of that exploitation question. That sense of white Westerner showing off the good things they're doing for the poor little kids of Africa is something I find increasingly troubling. And it's sometimes all too embodied in these photos.

The fact is that kids are easy to come by in many developing countries. To explain: particularly in warm weather cultures, much life happens outdoors. That's where children play. So they easily notice the strangers walking through their village or down their street. Warm weather cultures, where many developing countries lie, are also often very communal, so communities watch over children and children watch over each other and everyone is friendly to strangers. It's just not so easy to take pictures of children in places like France because culturally the children aren't so likely to be running around without adults hovering over them. It's just all so different. On a related side note, I think that people in India and many parts of Africa, for example, are some of the most beautiful people in the world. So photos of many of them make for stunning portraits. And that's partly why so many people are able to take compelling photos of them. But...

After working alongside a photographer while in Uganda, I've started paying a lot more attention to the kinds of photos that make their way into the literature of development and mission organizations and into newspapers and other media. My photographer friend is a very good photographer, but the reality is that I see his photos repeated again and again by other good photographers. The faces are different but the photos tell the same story. But it's not necessarily a true story.

You see, there's no way photographs can tell a whole story. In the same way movies are almost never as good as the books they're adapted from, photographs need words to give them context. Photos on their own aren't fully contextual. They can be artistic and amazing, but as sole tellers of true stories, they can be, well, misleading. Everything going on outside a picture's frame is lost, unable to be considered by the photo's viewers. All the viewer can see is the way things looked for a split second of time within the space parameters of the photo. Photographs rarely provide back story. They rarely explain what prompted the smile or frown captured by a snapping shutter. All of this missing information can tell a story that isn't true at all.

As I seek opportunities for further work abroad, I'm coming to a frustrating suspicion: I need to be a photographer in order to be certain to be sent to points outside the U.S. Photographers must necessarily shoot on location. There's no way around it. Writers, on the other hand, well, if you're looking to save on travel costs, it's much easier to ask the writers to stay home and gather quotes via email. At a loss, I think, to true story-telling. There's nothing that can substitute for being on the ground in a place, gathering the back story and the outside-the-frame action that the camera can't possibly capture.

Sure, writing has limits too. There's never space to tell everything. And some photographers do an amazing job telling stories through their lenses. But though a picture may be worth a 1000 words, as the saying goes, there are 1000 other words the picture misses. And I think it's those words, composed thoughtfully, that protect a photo subject's humanity and ward off exploitation of the poor people the world loves to photograph.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

domestic travels too

I didn't need my passport to go to New Orleans, but my work there over the weekend was not so different from my writing work abroad. I was there on a little media familiarization tour, along with five other writers and photographers. As in Africa and Haiti and London, I had too-few days to try to learn New Orleans, specifically its food culture, enough to write about it later. As in those other places, I discovered that the story is best learned by talking to a city's people.

I've posted some photos and bits of the story on my other blog: Today I'm writing up more of the New Orleans stories that I was hired to write. Eventually I'll post links to those stories.

Monday, June 22, 2009

mountains, oh, mountains

India makes me want to hike more. In our prep for our trekking in the foothills of the Himalayas and in our time actually doing the trekking, I discovered or perhaps relearned or maybe was reminded that I want hiking/trekking to be a more regular thing in my life. I grew up in the mountains, America's small ones, so hiking should be in my jeans, right? (yes, yes, that was an intended pun. after all my genes are midwestern ones not Appalachian ones)

What a beautiful place we had the chance to traverse during our too few days. In some places homes were scattered along ridges, reminding me of the hollers from my homeland Appalachians, the ones my school bus lumbered into to pick up classmates. Except the Indian version wasn't accessible for school buses or anything with more wheels than a donkey has. In other places we entered real villages with homes clustered together and beautiful, friendly people who made us all want to come back for a few months of village life and work on their picturesque terraced farmland. Oh, someday, perhaps.

Our bamboo hiking poles were essential tools of the trade. Without them the trails would have felt more treacherous. Of course, the locals need no poles and also need no catch-your-breath breaks at embarassingly regular seven minute or so intervals on the climb out of the valley.

Somehow trekking takes on much better purpose when you're hiking through villages and past homes of people who invite you in for chai and chatting. So much more enjoyable than it'll-do hikes around my local Radnor Lake. In India I felt like I was going somewhere as we traversed trails. Here I'm reminded that my normal everyday life is more sedentary than is healthy.

And then after not nearly long enough we were back just a little over a week after we went. And we were the better for it. In more ways than a few. And hopefully we left behind some good news.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

faster than a speeding bullet

In less than two weeks, we're off to India! Check back later and if you're lucky, I'll add the team's bathroom picture. ;-)

Monday, January 19, 2009

reunited. in more ways than one.

I've spent much of this week being reunited with my long-stored belongings. And it's mostly a happy reunion, except for the part where I'm a little overwhelmed by how much I still own even after all the work of purging I've been doing these past couple years. It's mostly books, though, so once those are on the shelves, the pile of boxes waiting to be unpacked will be vastly smaller. As I unpack, I'm enjoying discovering a few more things I can get rid of but am not enjoying disovering the things I did get rid of but now need again. It's much more expensive to re-buy things you once owned but don't anymore. Grrrr.... I mostly guessed right in my purging, but there are a few things I missed on. For example, is there anyone out there with an extra ironing board? :-) I sold mine at one of the myriad yard sales, and now I have an iron but no board and none available in my new home. And ironing on a desk just doesn't cut it long term. Mostly, though, I purged okay.

Today as I unpacked, I participated in a very unexpected reunion, versus all of the expected ones of the day (like the cool mugs I haven't used in ages!). You see, sometime about two years ago I purchased a ring from my sister who was selling jewelry. I loved the ring. It was the perfect style for me, and I could wear it everyday. It was one of the few pieces of jewelry I wore during my four months of travel in Africa in '07, and it was fun to enjoy something pretty. Well, fast forward to the summer of '08, and suddenly I realized one evening that my hand was naked. The pretty little ring was gone. And I had no idea where I lost it and only a slight idea of when. I looked and looked for it, but never found it. And I couldn't afford to replace it. $50 to re-buy something like that just wasn't in my budget.

I hate losing things in general and don't do it often. So it really bugs me when I do. Especially when it's something I really like. You can probably see where this is going....

Fast forward to today. When I felt like the woman from Jesus' parable in the Gospel accounts who celebrated when she found her lost coin. As I unwrapped mugs from a cardboard box, something rolled to the bottom of the box. Hoping it wasn't a piece of broken mug, I was shocked when I discovered that it was my lost-for-good ring. It's amazing what a pick-me-up it is to find something you thought you'd lost forever. I want to tell everyone that it is found, so they can celebrate with me! And now I have an object lesson every time I look at my ring-ringed finger: my joy at finding this silly little bit of lost metal is miniscule compared to Jesus' joy at welcoming new children into His fold. And as I worry and fret about checkbook balances, my ring-ringed finger is also a reminder that God isn't an austere, miserly God. He delights in giving His children good gifts, which sometimes means giving things that aren't necessities.

Friday, January 9, 2009


I've been back in the States for 2.5 weeks now. And I'm surprised. At how clear it is that it is the right decision to stay put for a while. Because I'm tired and full.

Over the years I've slowly, slowly been growing better at first recognizing and then trying to live within the boundaries and limitations inherent in humanness. This isn't an easy thing for me as I tend to live life full with poor ability to recognize it's fullness and only end up wondering why I'm so tired all the time. Until times like this when I stop for a bit and realize that for two years I've been planning major travels while simultaneously growing my freelance biz from part-time to full-time, growing into a new church community in Nashville, deepening old and new friendships, volunteering in my community and then absorbing millions of impressions and interactions as I travel around the world. Oh and trying to learn French. And accepting assignments that I've never done before and have to learn (or fake, at least that's sometimes how it feels) my way through. And trying to read more and actually being successful at that, courtesy of my book group. And trying to cook more. And any number of other things. All while living temporarily (that means home and office are on the constant move which also means constantly lining up manpower and vehicle power for shifting belongings) in one house after another.

Part of the reason I wanted to go to London this fall instead of waiting until 2009 or some other time is that I wanted to return to the States in December. I came back from Africa in December too. And the dark days and contempletive aspect that can accompany the Christmas season, Advent, is the perfect aspect to return into from a long sojourn. I am thankful that this year I didn't have any pressing work assignments during the remaining holiday season, so I could arrive back into my family's arms for Christmastime and then rest with some dear and very fun college friends in a lake cottage in northern Indiana while we rang in the New Year. I needed that time more than I even knew when I scheduled it.

And then I returned to Nashville feeling desperate to secure permanent housing, unsure how long I could muster continued survival in the land of the temporary. Though a generous friend long ago offered me a place to stay for the month of January, until I could figure out more long-term digs, I returned unsure how I could force my way through another whole month of trying to find things in packed and unpacked and repacked bags, of how I could do my work while sitting on an air mattress on a bedroom floor, and in general of how long I could hold on a little longer. The extent of this feeling has surprised me.

Thankfully, thankfully, things have come together in good fashion for me to move into good housing next week. So I've been forcing myself to hold on for just a tiny bit longer. But this is hard. I am not at rest. I am not settled. I am thankful to be able to write at all today because I haven't felt I had the capacity for writing, even for journaling, for what feels like a while but is probably only a couple weeks. Yet I am glad that the visceralness of these feelings will make the contrast of settledness so visceral too.

I am also eager to stop for a while and listen to and process all that's been poured into me these past two years. I am still in Nashville, and I am still writing, and many of my friends are still the same. Yet everything has also changed. These two years of fullness have launched new things, and I am excited to stop long enough to learn what these new things are.

I am thankful, too, for friends who affirm my weariness, who tell my always-onward self that it's okay to retreat a little for a while, who understand why all I want to do right now is sleep and read and sit with my friends.

Originally, I was planning to return to England this year, hoping to get in a full six months abroad. But over the fall months in London, though that continued to be the plan I wanted, I never felt full peace with it. So I proceeded with it until God made more clear that instead I need to stay in Nashville for a while. And as much as I would love to head back to London so soon, I've found a bit of relief in the rearranged plans, and I am very excited to participate in Nashville life through the larger eyes and heart I'm bringing back to my city. And I'm excited to trust God for all the places and people I hope to get back to some day and for all the new ones I hope for too. And I'm hoping and trusting that stopping for a while will better equip me for those places and seasons even as stopping works out it twin purposes for my right-now life too.