Saturday, January 18, 2014

Thoughts About Stuff

On Thursday, my long awaited sea shipment arrived in Malawi. I sold and packed up my house last May. Eight months, two continents, three countries and one very ornery customs agent has transpired since I’ve last laid eyes on it. By this point, I had completely forgotten I even owned most of this stuff, having come up with somewhat suitable replacements for most of the important items.
As I watched the giant truck pull up and my life unload, I was overwhelmed by my feelings for these Things. See, I never thought I was a person defined by crap I owned (and yes, most of it IS crap). In fact, in the past, when household item would break (vases, lamps, etc) I really wasn’t all the concerned about it. Not because I didn’t like those things (my ex boyfriend once broke a vase that was a cherished gift from my sister), but because they are just Things. Being an adult, I realized it wasn’t the vase I loved, but the hard won relationship with my sister it represented.

I worked hard to cultivate this zen-like attitude towards my possessions. I purposely don’t have the latest tech gadgets (who can keep up?), never shopped more than once every other month for new clothes.  When things broke, I’d shrug my shoulders, clean it up and vow to be more careful next time. I do all this because I want a life and a lifestyle that isn’t defined by ownership, but by relationship. I felt pretty good about myself for this. Smug, even.

Enter, Malawi. For the first six months, I lived out of the two large and one small suitcase lugged from the States. Because of my old attitude towards things, I knew I could do it. It even felt liberating to be pared down to three pairs of shoes.  I was living out my values; making do with what I had. It was freeing, but also left me feeling….untethered. It wasn’t unpleasant, just a bit odd.

So, as that truck pulled up, I found myself enormously grateful. This Stuff, is isn't just Things anymore. These Things represent my Life. My couch provides a safe place to snuggle (along with the quilt my mom and I made together). My soft and smooshy pillows support me as I dream. My bike fills me with joy. I need these things because they represent and make up a part of my life that was missing: comfort, happiness.


I didn't realize it until Thursday, but this representation of a home (My home) is sorely overdue. This may not seem profound from the outside, but it was a paradigm shift for me. I had ignored and downplayed it for a long time, but stuff does have importance. I’ve flapped in the wind, felt the freedom of temporary things for eight months. It was a gift I’m not sure I’ll ever have again, but I am ready to nest.  I am ready to move into the next phase of this adventure, and bring Home officially to Malawi.  And I needed my Stuff to do it.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Back to the Tropics, or T.IA.

Last week I returned to Malawi from a fantastic trip home for the holidays. After being gone for nearly a month, I was a little nervous for what I would find at home and at work. Everything went fine on the reentry for passport control, and despite one piece of luggage missing from my tight connection in Nairobi, all seemed fine.

It began with the moldy car. I didn't even know this was a thing, but apparently, cloth - and even plastic steering wheels - can grow mold. (Behold the power of tropical weather!) I don't know how water got in the car, because it was in the garage. I guess leaky garage/car roof + hot humid locked small space = moldy seat belts. Slightly mysterious, but still, fine.

Then I woke up the next day with immediate jet lag AND the stomach flu. I don't know what was in my system, but my body wanted it OUT. I don't have any buckets in the house, so I threw up in a bread pan. Then, it was in and out of the bathroom until jet lag got the better of me, and I fell back to sleep.

The jet lag was just....weird. I'm not sure how one wakes up more tired than when they went to bed (8am Malawi team means midnight back home), but I felt like I'd been steam ironed. One part of my brain wanted to get up - I'd slept eight hours - but the rest of me felt like I was under water, or a very heavy rock.

I woke up when my electricity went out, around 10am.  
Ten minutes later it was on. Then it went out
......and stayed out until 9pm.   

At this point, between the mold, the stomach bug, the missing luggage and the electricity, I knew I was back in Africa. I also knew that struggling against it was totally and utterly useless. The best thing I could do was stop fighting, and the let the day (and bug!) run its course.

There's a stupid acronym that expats throw around when things don't go their way: T.I.A (This is Africa). I find it rude and condescending. It seems to be thrown about over even the tiniest infraction, like the waitress not bringing food quickly enough. (Not to mention it could just as easily mean "This Is America"). I rarely - if ever - use it. In this instance though, I found myself thinking "Well, this IS Africa, what did you expect?" and laughing. 

After all, I was home, it was warm and I knew my system would soon rebound. I had just traveled 9,000 miles – when you think about it, it’s kind of foolish to assume you’d arrive no worse for wear, Africa or not.

Being totally unashamed to ask for help, I called my nurse friend Kari. She took me to the airport to retrieve my luggage. Then, I put my to-do list on hold (the mold could wait), left my backs packed and spent the rest of the day watching movies on her couch. 

Surprisingly, I was in fairly good spirits through it all. I think it had to do with coming back rested and relaxed, with a new perspective. I am lucky to get this experience in Malawi, with all its moldy, flu-like symptoms. I am blessed with good people in my life, a job that keeps me on my toes and a good constitution. I may lose this rosy glow (it started to wear off when my stove broke later in the week), but am firm in the perspective that indeed, This is Africa. For better or worse.