Thursday, April 30, 2009

7pm Fort Wayne Time... 1am Buja Time


The low-flying plane gave us panoramic view of the city we grew up in. Downtown, our high school, our old neighborhood. Something about being in cities like Nairobi, Brussels, Chicago, that makes the announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome of Fort Wayne,” a bit underwhelming. But we sigh the sigh of total familiarity and gratitude, because it’s always there for you, your hometown.

Off the plane and through the terminal, and there they are. The ones who spent Christmas without us. And wrapped up in the reunion, the exhaustion of travel evaporates into clouds of celebration. The potential for time together sates our souls, and we know we have no goodbyes to say for a while. I’d love to go into deeper descriptions of the airport, my pleasant drive through the city in my car, and the rest of the afternoon, but those clouds are beginning to condensate again. It’s been a long trip, it’s been an emotional decathlon, and I’m toast.
But even as I’m trying to secure a bootleg signal in my mom’s living room to post these last two stories, I’m thinking about the Buj. It’s still there. It’s still going to wake up in a few hours even though we’re across the ocean. And our friends are going to keep spending themselves on behalf of it. It seems wrong to hope that you’re missed. But I do. Maybe because I just hope my own lament is reciprocated. Maybe it’s pure narcissism. But it’s sad to imagine Buja without me in it.

But that will have to be the dull ache in my spirit for the next few days. Because the hours of goodbye are over for a while. I’ve got a big week of hellos ahead. Off to bed. Goodnight.

1:45 Chicago Time, 2:45 Fort Wayne Time

“Welcome back, guys.”

Trina and Karri and I talked about this moment in the car on the way to the airport in Buj. Trina said that, no matter what her current opinions about our country, there was always this surge of gratitude and joy when the customs agent says those words. I didn’t know until today. But it feels pretty good.

Eight and a half hours on the plane from Brussels with my own private screen. For a movie junkie such as myself, no better way to pass the flight. I put some time in on other efforts, but come on. It’s a little screen built into the back of the seat in front of you! You could play Tetris with the remote built into the arm of your chair! Ridiculous. I’m flying over ice floes in Northeastern Canada and trying to squeeze the T piece into the space created by the oddly placed Z piece. What kind of bizarre world do we live in?

For my friends still in the Buj, you’ll appreciate this one. We land in Chicago and the fasten seat belt sign turns off. Everyone stands and collects their belongings, but there is no pushing. There is no climbing over seats. There is no unnecessary contact. We’re in the back of the plane and everyone is well aware that they are going to get their turn. Then we notice the gentleman behind us.

This gentleman in his sixties, maybe seventies, is dressed in a bright blue patterned dashiki and (how can I say this tactfully?) smells African. Like the cabs I would take every morning or the hugs from my dear Burundian friends that only lasted as long as they did because my love elongated my sensory endurance. He is clearly unenthused at the prospect of waiting for the plane to disembark. He has already posted up behind Karri, arm outstretched and boxing me out from entering the aisle in front of him, and is shifting from side to side, seeing if there’s an alternate route. Then the opposite aisle begins to clear out. This is more than he can bear. He wedges himself between Karri and the aisle adjacent to her, then excuses himself (AFTER this maneuver, mind you) and wriggles the rest of the way so that he can join the free flowing traffic. Karri and I looked at each other. It’s refreshing to know that here we are, on American soil once more, but some things just don’t change. Sorry if that anecdote goes over some heads, but that one goes out to my fellow fighters in the battle of the visa lines. Cheers, guys, and know that we’re still fighting the good fight here in the West.

One last jump to the homeland, and then we’re done. The chapter of our travels to Buja and back will end where it started. Our parents will be right where we left them, like they never left. I’ll have gained a drum, a goatee, and a slimmer waist. And then we’ll go… home? I guess so. But we left a little bit of home back there when Selius shut the gate the last time, a little bit when we left the arms of our friends in the airport, a little bit when our feet hit that staircase and left the ground. And there’s a little bit of home in that Philly apartment, a little bit traipsing around the globe with our Eastern friends. Maybe that means home just gets a little bigger, but the emptiness I feel by being separated from those people, those places makes me think that they are pieces of home, broken off the whole. And while I’ll never be depleted of home, I’ll always feel the phantom limbs that can never be replaced.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

6:30am Brussels time, 11:30pm Fort Wayne time


I don’t sleep well on planes. I think everyone who designs transport is shorter than 6 feet tall. But Brussels air tries hard to make you comfortable. Good food, nice blankets. I look longingly at the curtain to first class and the extra-reclining chairs with ample leg room and rub my knees.

I’m greeted by what appears to be the African version of Total Request Live on the screens at the front of the cabin. Women from Ivory Coast, Guinea, Senegal sway silently back and forth to the drone of the engines and the stirring of the cabin crew. If you’ve never been to Africa, then African music videos are probably just a glimpse into the past of video editing, with producers who don’t know better than to use whatever stock transition effects are available on the software they’re using. The four-corner split and spin. The page-turn from the left. The page-turn from the right. The spinning block. But when you’ve been to Africa, you see something a bit more. You see this familiar desire to be Western while slightly resenting it at the same time. The ladies amble out of a sports car, but the man is wearing a dashiki. The dancing still holds quite a bit of booty shaking, while retaining the swaying arm movements of their days in the choirs of their youth.

It’s familiar because you see this tension on the streets every day. Love 50 Cent, resent the West’s money. Love Obama, resent the US foreign policy. Love Dolly Parton (don’t ask me, but everyone does), resent the imposition of Western cultures and values. I can’t blame them. I live in that tension every day. I’m simultaneously someone abundantly comfortable in the West and annoyed and critical of it. It’s the real tension I’m wrestling with this morning. We’re about to land in Brussels. Who am I now? On the other side of these eight months, will that tension be tilted to one side or another? I have three entries to post. Will I be upset if I can’t connect to the internet? Do I deserve it? Is all that stuff in my suitcase just relics of an extended vacation into development-land? I’m about to set foot into the land of automatic soap dispensers. Who am I?

9:45pm Nairobi Time, 2:45pm Fort Wayne Time

We’re landed in Nairobi and waiting for the new crew to board our (let me check the pocket card) Airbus A 330. Then on to Brussels. My wife has been in that state of flux between trying not to cry and trying to stop crying since we last caught our friends in our arms and tried to renegotiate the goodbyes we knew we had to say. Now she’s wrapped in her cardigan, protected from the strangely novel air conditioning, and resting beside me.

I’m not sure why I don’t cry much. People say that you’re not in touch with yourself; your heart is hard if you can’t cry. I don’t think I’m out of touch or steely, but it’s just not something I do a lot of. Admittedly, I probably said less to our friends in the airport than I wanted to because of the softball sized lump in my throat, and rather than pushing through it to the inevitable choke and sniff, I cut myself off and gave a knowing nod. Does that make me a coward for not wanting to cry? I don’t know. But I got that same lump in my throat when we made that short walk across the tarmac and boarded the plane. It felt like saying goodbye to one more friend.

7:30pm Buja Time, 1:30pm Fort Wayne Time

I’m in the terminal of Bujumbura airport, reflecting on the massive emotional hairball that was the last 2 hours.

Our friend Paulin arrived first, bringing greetings from his family. He is an amazing, promising, enterprising, faithful young man with whom Karri and I have had the great pleasure of spending time. We sat with him, reflecting on the end of term and his hopes for the next year. Next came Samuel and David, the twins from our youth group and worship team, and two of the most affectionate, dear young men I’ve had the pleasure of working with here. I tried to draw a map of the States and explain where Fort Wayne was. It’s always amusing to watch Burundians who have never considered the size of the US realize how large our country actually is. Plenty of tongue clucking and whistling ensues. I’ll demonstrate for you upon request.

Then came Brandon, my fellow spiritual traveler and one of my closest friends here. He corrected my poor Canadian geography, and we discussed the books we’re reading. Finally, Trina came with the truck. The guys sprang into action, ferrying our luggage from the living room to the vehicles. A light rain marked our departure, and it felt slightly fitting. En route, we discussed with Trina the emotional sand trap of making friends in a context like this. Everyone’s leaving. It becomes easy to guard your heart and stay closed off. If you’re reading this, Trina, I’m abundantly thankful that your heart opened for us.

We arrived at the airport simultaneously with Isaac, Michelle, and Meg. These three, who along with Tyler made our community complete, have become fast friends to Karri and I. Michelle, while only here a few short months with many more to come, has proven to be inspirational and steadfast, and a gift to us. Meg came a few weeks after us, and as I said to her in a tearful embrace, brought us more joy than anyone we met here in Burundi. Isaac, however, was with us on the plane from Brussels. He’s been there from the beginning. And if I didn’t say it there, I’ll say it now. You’re an unbelievable person, Isaac, and we love you immensely.

All those emotions, all those remembrances, all those embraces, then through the looking glass and into the world of international travel. Checked baggage – no problem. But we’ve got a guitar and a drum to carry on. We thought we could get away with it. But first the drum got vetoed. $150. Then the guitar got vetoed. We fought, we persuaded. Our friend Noe from Turame came to see us off and advocated on our behalf. A woman who came to my music classes and works at the airport, Mirelle, won top marks in my book for her efforts. To no avail. $150. … On the upside, we don’t have to carry the instruments around the airport. A few people who have just said emotional goodbyes aren’t in the best psychological state to handle arguing over international baggage restrictions in French. C’est la vie.

Boarding. Goodbye, Burundi. I think we’ll see each other again.

3pm Buja Time, 9am Fort Wayne Time

We just said goodbye to Japan. He’s been this face we’ve seen nearly every morning, and there’s an appropriate finality to the moment. When we say goodbye to him, we say goodbye to the fascinating tension that is house workers. Don’t get me wrong, Japan is a great worker, but every expat is going to have opinions and stories regarding the people who work in their houses, and rarely are they 100% glistening endorsements. People struggle with everything from how much to pay to whether to give loans to whether to fire them for stealing or not. We had our frustrations with our staff, but still, when it comes time to give a hug and say goodbye, I can see in him a gratitude and friendship, and I hope he sees the same in me.

It’s been a slow, lazy afternoon, and we’re only two hours away from departing for the airport. It’s difficult to describe the physical sensations I’m feeling. The closest thing I can associate is the feeling of nervousness before a performance. I guess nostalgia feels like butterflies. Or maybe I just know this is the long stretch of anticipation before having to say goodbye to the friends we’ve been closest to here. They’re all coming to the airport with us, and there’s going to be a moment in front of the terminal. There’s going to be a moment when we have to look one another in the eyes. It’s that moment that is causing my stomach to flutter, I think.

I’ve been pacing a lot this afternoon. Mainly because the power has been off all day, and once my computer battery died, I couldn’t write my thoughts. I pace when I’m bored, and it drives Karri crazy sometimes. I think I just like feeling like I’m going somewhere. I’m not very good at sitting still, or focusing wholly on one thing, and pacing gives me the sensation of motion without the nasty auxiliary of purpose. But today, I’ve got plenty to think about: what we’ve been through, where we’re going, how we’re going to get there. Where is Japan going to go now? How will the new tenant treat Selius? Will we really keep in touch with our friends, or will they become the people who you run into by chance years later and have to decide if you’re going to ignore or not because you used to be extremely close and aren’t anymore, which makes it more awkward than normal. And where do those little ants end up after they’re done scavenging the bit of pizza crust and traversing the impromptu highway their relatives have created?

So I pace.

9am Buja Time, 3am Fort Wayne Time

Just finished packing. No matter how many times I do it, it’s always odd to see my stuff in suitcases. Feels like you’ve wrapped your life up in boxes and bags. I know your stuff isn’t your life, but it exists as a kind of symbol. There’s no denying what it means when you pack the shirt you’ve never worn, or find the most effective way to roll your ties. Those are not normal things to do.

Our kitchen table is cluttered with things we’re giving away. Some things, like spare shaving cream, we just don’t care to pack. Some things we’re giving to people. The bed sheets go to Jean Baptiste’s orphanage in Bubanza. The external modem goes to Michelle. The phone goes to Selius, our guard, whose pregnant wife lives in Kayanza a few hours away while he works with us in the city. He doesn’t know that he’s getting a phone yet. I wonder what he’ll think. I can only assume, because he speaks no English or French, and is a bit of a soft-spoken man anyways. But he’s a great worker, smiles a lot, and is staying on with the house for the next tenant. So his job situation is ok. We worked hard to make sure of that.

The voices of the kids in the schools next door are drifting over the walls of the compound. Shouts, repeated lessons, laughs, taunts, all in this language I’ve heard every day but understand nearly nothing of. Sometimes, while standing outside of the gate, the kids would play this game of inter-language peek-a-boo. A group of ten of so would notice us standing in the street. The boldest would try his or her hand at their most recent French lesson. “Bonjour!” If we didn’t respond, she’d simply try again. “Bonjour!” When we’d finally turn and respond in kind, the group would squeal and pivot and jump and run in the unison of a school of fish, until someone else in the group decided to try it himself. “Bonjour!” Response, squeal, next contestant.

Karri’s organizing the money we’re leaving behind, bonuses for Japan and Selius, tuition for a friend of ours who is going to a tech school next year, and extra Burundian francs to sell off to our friends. We’re bringing home a few of the bills just to show people and have as souveniers. Of course, we’re bringing back nice, clean bills, but they will hardly be a clear indication of the norm. Most bills, especially in the middle to lower denominations, are soiled and blackened beyond recognition by being rolled, palmed, passed, and crammed into dirty pockets. It’s a strange practice, keeping money. I feel like there would be few things that could feel more familiar, more indicative of our months here than those pieces of paper. I handled it every day. I worried about it getting stolen. I bargained with cab drivers to save it. People I didn’t know asked me for it. People I did know asked me for it. Those won’t be the memories that last, the momentous things that will be repeated ad nauseum for the next few weeks. But if I want to think about the steady stream of days that run into each other that tend to formulate the bulk of your time and the minority of your description, I’ll find it in the smell of those bills.