Gate F12. Don’t tell.

HEY! We are at the airport in Miami, and after fielding phone calls from worried family members, I thought I’d share a little about what we learned this week, what we’ll be doing, and how it’s all going to work.

To travel to Cuba, we needed two permissions—one from the US government, and one from the Cuban government. Through our host ministry (the org we are writing about for World Next Door), we got a religious license from the US government to travel to Cuba, and this involved one of our Cuban host pastors writing a letter of sponsorship.

Entering Cuba has nothing to do with the religious license from the US, and in fact we have to just sort of conceal the religious license and enter Cuba through the tourist visa we applied for and received from the Cuban government.  The Cuban government is not so into our host ministry due to their work toward religious freedoms and bypassing the Council of Churches which confiscated 8 of 10 containers of Bibles the last time they came through, so if we entered Cuba on a religious visa as other sometimes do, we’d likely be watched or followed, potentially putting the ministry at risk on the ground in Cuba. Continue reading Gate F12. Don’t tell.

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Blizzard Avoidance.

Hey, all. I am writing this at the last second as we are in the air to Miami on the second-to-last flight out of Indianapolis before snowpocolypse hits the midwest.

Seriously, look:

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And furthermore, look:

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See where it says the number 14? THAT’S MY TOWN, Y’ALLS! The low tonight is -17 in Indy, and the High tomorrow is -15. We are expecting a foot of snow. In Miami? A balmy 87 or something tomorrow, then, like, 63 when the cold front comes through. I know. You want me to shut it.

Our escape did not come easy, though. American Airlines told us yesterday as we begged to move our Sunday flight to Saturday that they were sorry, there had been no alert issued, but we were welcome to call every hour. By this morning? A total alert, and we could leave in 4 hours as every flight after 6p would be canceled. Our whole reason for going to Miami was to attend a Monday morning meeting at the organization’s headquarters, to plan the projects we would be visiting in Cuba and to meet the key leaders. The soonest departure after the storm would be Tuesday, although American Airlines projected NEXT FRIDAY.

We kicked it into high gear, cleaning, making arrival arrangements and banging our heads on walls as we packed. We are allotted only 44lbs total from Miami to Cuba, including checked bags and carry-on, making it a pack-weigh-pack-weigh-pack-weigh morning. In the end, it turns out the camera and computer equipment weigh as much as SIX WEEKS WORTH OF EVERYTHING ELSE!

Travel whining aside, I have two major things to share. Wait. Three.

First thing: The Nepal issue of World Next Door is available for download! Remember all those intense updates about undercover brothels and Himalayan hikes and swarms of monkeys and adorable kids? THIS IS THAT ISSUE! The absolute best way to view the content (because it’s the most fun an interactive) is on a tablet or smart phone. But if you don’t have a tablet, don’t worry, you. The entire magazine is available on our website. The first image is a link to the download, and the second image is a link to the online content. Treat yo’self with one!

WND Nepal Ad

Nepal Web Content

Second thing: The Las Vegas issue of World Next Door will be ready for download in Februrary. Remember all those intense updates about brothels and strip clubs and Christians and cupcakes? THIS WILL BE THAT ISSUE!  I have to remind you about the download now, because…

Third thing: WE ARE GOING TO CUBA! And we won’t have easy access to internet. The minimal access to internet we’ll have will likely be available by dial-up on a few hotel PCs.  No real-time Instagram, though you can bet I’ll be later-gramming when I get back. No Facebook. Real time blogging? I have no idea.

This is our last stop on the World Next Door fellowship year, which blows my mind, and we are partnering with an organization called ECHO Cuba. The headquarters are in Miami, and that’s where we’ll spend the week learning about the organization before flying out to Cuba on Feb 11th. We know very little about the work they do in-country, which is why it was so important to catch them at this Monday first-of-the-year planning meeting! They have humanitarian projects going on all over the country, and their mission is to grow the local Cuban church, which exists underground in some parts. We know they facilitate pastoral training and small-group mission trips. We can’t wait to see what all they have in store for us, and we really hope it includes an airport pick-up and a host family in Miami :)

We do know we’ll be staying with a local Pastor and his family, and we know the itinerary is carefully planned with mandated tourist activities during the first week to reduce any suspicions :)  We think that sounds fantastic.

We’ve been to Cuba before, but only for a week and on a vacation, so we expect this to be a very different experience. We loved it though, and we’ve been counting down the days until we got to come back, so we’re thankful for whatever it is that lies ahead!

Thanks for sending us and journeying with us, friends. It’s been one spectacular year!

Jeff & Brooke

*We are now in Miami and my hair is instantly curly and all our bags made it and we’ve been claimed by our new friend Dulce and her little dog and we have a place to sleep and we are blasting the AC and watching the Colts and eating pizza. And those are all the things that have happened so far in Miami ;)

On Thinking You’re All Smart and Stuff

Alternate title: How (not) to attend your first village funeral.

As the year progresses and we continue to travel to new places, I really try hard to pay attention and improve my cultural IQ by absorbing things around me. I usually feel super accomplished when I master a handful of new cultural nuances. For example, in Cambodia the symbol for marriage is placing two thumbs next to each other out in front.  Two people married.

When we’re walking the streets and people come up to us with a thousand questions in Khmer, if nothing else I can easily answer that Jeff and I are married by holding my two thumbs up together. Everyone then says, “Ohhhhh!” holding their own thumbs up to represent our marriage. (Don’t get me started on the symbols for, “Are you having a baby? No? You just like to eat a lot of rice? Oh.”) Conversely, the symbol for separation or divorce or even just to communicate that Jeff is going to Phnom Penh in an hour and I’m staying here, would be me holding two thumbs up next to each other, then drawing one thumb away in the direction of Phnom Penh. We also learned that a giant tent in the middle of the road means a wedding. Easy. I’m totally upping my Cambodian IQ, here.

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It would make sense, then, if we were walking through the neighborhood and saw a giant tent in the middle of the road plus a group of people preparing a feast, that we might stop, hold our two thumbs together and say, “Wedding?!” with the excitement and joy of effective communication.

We did this. Proudly. (We are clever, you know.)

Imagine our surprise when they all looked at each other with confusion, looked back at our smiling faces, looked back at each other and then said, “No! Died!”

Oh.

Note to self: tents in roads can also mean funerals.

Modest is Hottest!

How about a picture monologue of the time I got rejected by the ancient temples at Angkor Wat?

Back story: I had heard that in Thailand, people are not allowed to enter the temples wearing shorts or tank tops, but in Cambodia temples are comparably pretty lax. We went to the Angkor Wat temple complex today as part of our mid-trip retreat, and I wore a skirt and tank but brought a scarf to cover my shoulders just in case. As we approached the entrance, one-by-one the girls in our group were turned away because of our attire. We were wearing the following items: a floor-length sleeveless dress with a scarf, a fully sleeved knee-length dress, a t-shirt and shorts, and me in the skirt and tank, but my upper body was totally covered in a giant sarong scarf.

#hussies ‎#modestishottest ‎#cambodia2013
#hussies #modestishottest                                                                                                  Photo by Tara

There was a sign at the entrance of the temple that X’d out a drawing of almost every article of female clothing, and even had an X over scarves. What?! The internet lied to me about what would be acceptable at the temple, but I had this magical scarf in my bag which had saved my life on several occasions in the past. I had previously converted the scarf into a shirt, dress, skirt, head covering, and full-body cover-up from my neck to ankles. So after my first rejection, I thought I’d give it another more creative try (or two) (or three).

I wrapped the scarf over my shoulders, tied the ends at my wrists, tucked all the fabric into my high-wasted skirt for good measure, and set off for the entrance.

That’s it guys. Don’t try to stop me. I’M GOING IN.
Hm. But what if they recognize me? Maybe I should cover the whole tank. Yes. I’ll pull it together in front and cinch it in the middle.
(Earnestly walking toward the Entrance of Shame)
Bites fingernails in anticipation. Other women wait from behind the rope with hopes of a better future for the shoulders of their children.
…and denied. Fine. Fine, you entrance blockers. But you haven’t seen the last of me.
*Pulls scarf around 110-degree body to guard against the chill of rejection*
Hey guys. Bad news. They didn’t let me in. But check out that shirtless dude behind me.
Wait. I know! Let’s get mummified.
Intern Anna focuses intently on covering any piece of exposed flesh
But guys. I CAN’T MOVE MY ARMS!
Go. Go with the strength of a thousand shoulders before you, and carry with you the hopes of a thousand shoulders left behind…
Hold on. Are you guys sure about this? What if I trip on the temple steps and can’t catch myself?! You’re right. We NEED this. Wish me luck. Third time’s a charm…
…and denied.   *Hangs head*
Like I really wanted to see some dumb ancient ruins anyway. Spoiler alert: THEY’RE RUINED!
…and then they made me get out of line, so we wrapped me in a cocoon but I was afraid I was going to fall, and THEN the guy said Lady, you don’t understand! No scarf for shirt! but I went through anyway, and then

This photo sequence was brought to you by the rejected women of World Next Door.

I Am: Food, Places, People, Words

I went on a little Scribes retreat today. Scribes is a) My writing group and b) My pals.

At first I thought it might be writing boot camp, because we had to leave at 6:30am and they told me to bring hiking shoes. But then we stopped at Panera for giant coffees and then we drove 2 hours to Denise and Jackie’s adorable micro-homes in Freedom Forest, where a little breakfast was waiting for us, and then we had a nice walk around a lake, and then we ate loads of chocolate cake. Oh yes, also we did some writing and reading with a good amount of laughing and a tear or two. So, you know. Not boot camp at all.

We did a writing exercise called I Am.  These are 4 categories in which we complete the sentence I am… to describe ourselves. The categories are food, places, people, and words spoken into our lives. I plan to complete this exercise every Sunday as a kind of check-in, because things are always changing, yes? If you like it, please respond with your own answers.  (Wouldn’t that be fun?) (Yes, Brooke, that would be SO fun.)

I am butter cream frosted, molten chocolate, squishy and undercooked, a smidge larger than a normal slice, a brownie-toothed smile with sprinkles on top. And then I am seconds.

I am a bright raincoat, fleece-lined snow boots, dry-touch bug spray, mosquito net, 5-way-wearing-multi-scarf. I am roll-up and adaptable, about 10-pounds too heavy, with a preference for hot, a reverence for the mountain, and at ease with the uneasy. I am, in my heart, lying on a beach somewhere holding a pina colada.

I am my mom’s hair and my dad’s freckles. I am always chasing the brother train because no one thinks about inviting the sister. I am the glue, the caretaker, the organizer, and the bridge from one family member to the next. I am a selfish wife on Tuesdays and a fantastic wife on Fridays to a husband who’s yet to have an off day. I am the beholder of generous friends.

I am blessed abundantly, addicted to bags, creative, freakishly prolific. I am wear your sunscreen and 10% in savings, 10% to the church and no natural talent, but worked real hard. I am be safe and be smart and you’re gonna bring home an orphan.

Please tell me: Who are you?
*Don’t forget the categories: Food, Places, People, Words spoken into your life.

Wait, What?

Things that are weird:

1. Waking up on March 6th, traveling all day, going to sleep at our destination, and waking up on March 8th. Wait, what? What happened to poor March 7th?!

2. Traveling halfway across the world to be greeted at the Kigali airport by long-time friends from Wisconsin. Wait, what? Our friend works for UNICEF? And her family is in the middle of a two-year assignment in Kigali?  Such an unexpected and provisional coincidence!

3. Catching myself trying to absorb everything with that Oh-I-wish-we-didn’t-have-to-go-home-soon feeling, then realizing WE DON’T! Wait, what? We are here for two whole months? And this is our job for an entire year? Score.

4. Sleeping like a princess. Wait, what? The mosquito nets. They look like giant white flowing canopies.  Barry’s even has lace, which makes me wonder if he feels like a *special* princess.

Mosquito NetNet light

5. Waking up to Princess Barry doing Insanity in our little shared 10×12 foot space every morning and then sweating profusely through breakfast. Wait, what? Exercise? Early morning? Tiny space? No breeze? He may soon relocate to the gazebo as soon as he’s comfortable spotlighting his Insanity skills.

*I am a week late posting this. In fact, he HAS relocated to the gazebo, and the maintenance dudes sweep and stare, sweep and stare, sweep and stare.

6. Attending a National League Basketball game (Army Patriot Rwanda vs. the oldest team in Rwanda) with tens of Rwandans in the stands. Wait, what? Yes, tens of Rwandans.  Across the parking lot was the entire country at the football stadium.

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7. Taking a walk downtown and passing by the Tulane University office. Wait, what? That’s my graduate school! What are those guys doing here? Guess I’ll go find out.

8. In Rwanda, they interchange “r” and “l” at random. Also “k” and “ch”. For example, Cyimbili is pronounced Chimbili or Chimbiri, and Kigali can be pronounced Chigali. ALARM is sometimes pronounced ARARM. So, you know, there has been lots of talk lately about the Kenyan erections. Wait, what?!

And on that note, goodnight! We’ve had non-stop, jam-packed 5 days of people, programs and info to absorb, process, and synthesize. We tired.  Mole fol you rater.

(I was doing the “l” and “r” thing)

Musical Chairs. Sort of.

This morning we attended church at Kigali Institute of Education (KIE), where about 11 simultaneous church services of various denominations were occurring in each of the classrooms surrounding the courtyard. So cool. University students from different parts of the country studying at KIE worship together with their associations on this campus each Sunday, and once a month all the denominations worship together. We happened to be worshiping with the Free Methodists, which I think is funny, because the free Methodist Church World Ministries Center is in Indianapolis. Wait, what?

We were not the only visitors this morning. Our preacher, Jean Paul, was a visiting minister from a local church and also a pastoral staff for World Vision. Several former students, including the PR/Communications guy for the Ministry of Disaster Management who also happens to be a photojournalist (THAT was fun), along with the Finance Director of ALARM who just moved from Kenya in January, plus a gospel singer and her guitarist husband were all visiting the student congregation today from their own local churches. Our host, the Country Director of ALARM, travels all over to these university congregations, because he is in charge of the University Youth Associations for the Free Methodist denomination in Kigali City. He brought us along for the English speaking service, which happens once a month.

About 20 students attended, including an 8-person choir. We asked to take some pics after the reason for our being in-country was explained, and below is a clip of the choir. Some songs were in English & some in Kinyarwanda, but most of the preaching was in English. Here is an example of a Kinyarwanda word: Mwaramutse (good morning) or Murakoze (Thank you). Now imagine seeing words like this for the first time in a hymnal and trying to sing them :)

Before the actual service was an interactive Bible study, and after the service was a Q&A time between our team and the students (pic below). We learned about the ways in which ALARM has impacted their lives, faith, and education by asking two questions: What is it really like to live here? and What is God doing in Rwanda through ALARM? We will continue to ask these questions for the next 7 weeks throughout different projects of ALARM and other ministries.

After church, we hopped a public transport bus for lunch, which reminds me: Anytime I’m transported anywhere, I just stare out the window in amazement at the beauty of Kigali city and countryside. The thing about this bus ride, though, is that the middle aisle is actually just one fold-down seat in the middle of each row, so if you are lucky enough to get a middle seat, you are actually sitting in the aisle. Poor you.

Each time someone behind you has to get off the bus, you must get up, lift up your seat and move back to the person’s empty seat behind you. The person in front of you then takes your seat, and the person in front of them takes theirs, and so on. It’s like musical chairs without the music and with no prize. Being the last five people on the bus, Jeff, Barry and I got the last three aisle seats, so who do you think ended up in the very back row after several rounds of musical chairs? The three of us, plus Peter, the finance guy, one row ahead. Winners! (Right?)

We then enjoyed a fantastic buffet and loads of conversation with ALARM staff, a breezy walk downtown past the Tulane office (Wait, what?) and a quick taxi home. So, to recap: We left for church this morning at 8a, and arrived home at 4p. That’s eight hours of church, eating and transport!

In Wonder, Love, and Praise

We are safe and warm and well-fed in Kigali. Before I surrender to jet lag, I want to share a prayer I read somewhere over the Atlantic from Walter Brueggemann’s Prayers For A Privileged People:

…We pray for good departures,
In the way our ancestors left Egypt,
That we may leave the grind of productivity, and the hunger of ambition, that we may leave for a place of wondrous promise,
Visited en route by
bread from heaven
and water from rocks.

We pray for big departures,
Like those of our ancient parents,
That we may leave where we have been and
How we have been and
Who we have been.
To follow your better lead for us,
You who gives new place,
New mode,
New self.

We pray, each of us to travel in mercy,
That we be on our way rejoicing, arriving in wonder, love, and praise.

Swift and beautiful

First off and totally unrelated, I went to the store tonight for milk and eggs and came home with New! Chocolate Chex Cereal (it has all the whole-grain goodness with a touch of cocoa) and a warm delights peanut butter fudge brownie—you know, those ones you heat up in the microwave. I forgot the eggs. Someday I will follow my genealogy all over the world and end up in England on Count Chocula’s doorstep. That would really explain a lot.

Anyway, tomorrow is the last day of July. It might not seem that important, but my lease ends tomorrow, and Sprinky takes over on Wednesday. I will become a couch dweller in her apartment for three weeks, a construction worker in Belize for 2 weeks, a backpacker in Europe (or maybe just a luggage-rolling tourist) for six weeks, a teacher in Belize for 4 months, and after that, who knows.

For me, tomorrow starts the end of Here, and the beginning of There.

I’ve been in a panic trying to pack things up and ship them off to different parents’ basements and garages and closets. My essential items have been condensed to a trunk, a bookcase, and one shelf above the washer and dryer. Not bad, for a girl once accused of running a black market mall from her bedroom. I’ll admit, however painful it was to pick out my most favorite coat, my top 10 pairs of shoes, my 3 best hoodies, my 5 favorite books, my 2 best pairs of jeans, my cutest dress, my favorite purse and my least expensive prescription, it feels fantastic to shed the excess in my life and to carry with me only the essentials.

It’s good practice, anyway.

But it’s the strangest thing: when you become aware of how different life is going to look in the next few months, every little ordinary thing becomes extraordinary. For example, I was at Henry’s on Saturday with my friends, and we ate chips and salsa like we always eat, and Laura counted her coins like she always does, and Sprinky and Ty got beer like they always get, and I ordered dessert like I always do, and we told the same old stories and laughed about the same old things, and it was so comfortable, I could feel myself grasping for the table and never letting go—not for Belize, not for Europe, not for anything. Just me and my friends and Henry’s forever.

I asked if anyone ever wished they could freeze frame a moment.
They all kind of looked at each other like, Oh great, here she goes again.
And I said, “I feel really…I’m just…I feel…”
And Sprinky said, “Drunk?”
And Laura said, “Full?”
And Erin and Ty looked at each other and laughed because they thought I was just totally lost in my 3 layer chocolate cake.
And I said, “Nope. I feel happy. Everything is just perfect.”
And they all laughed at me.

But I’ve had one of those experiences almost every day. With kids from the Boys & Girls Club, who I’ve seen daily and weekly for almost 8 years, since first and third and fourth grade when they were all wearing Ninja Turtle outfits and candy-cane turtlenecks. Now they look like Pussycat Dolls. With every double cheeseburger at Rally’s or McDonalds or at the Pizza Hut buffet, in the movies, at the library, with every forced recital of the definition of a drug and the 5 steps in the decision-making process, I want to hug them and tattoo my name and phone number in their arms in case they ever need anything.

It’s happened with clients and supervisors and even in cleaning out my car. I pulled out pacifiers, preemie diapers, blocks, rings, clothes, cards, butt paste, legos, wipes, vouchers, applications—anything and everything that made me good at what I do. You need a teething ring? Hang on, I’ve got one in my car. The number to Community Harvest? Right here. Child care referrals? No problem, I’ve got ECA on speed dial. The food bank for your zip code? Sure. I’ve got the 211 list in my glove compartment. Your baby has a rash? Well here, have some butt-paste.

Those provisions—the security in helping and in being good at helping, in knowing what kind of help and how to provide—those things are the measure of what makes me “good” here, useful and competent. Stepping outside that world is like a terrifying dream where you realize you are standing in the school cafeteria, naked.

Lucky for us (though most days I think Jesus sits across from me at McDonalds like I do Rita or Adrian and shakes his head like, you think you’re so cool? I remember when you wore Velcro LA Gear high-tops, spiritually) we’re whatever He sees us as. Whatever gifts we have, however we know to use them in whatever capacity and environment we’re granted, we’ll be used and He loves us regardless.

Plus, I know God is creative, and I’ve decided it’s my favorite thing about Him. I like to think of my life is a giant canvas, and that everything I try to do—every interest explored, every gift or lack thereof exhausted—is a splash of color. Whether I am silly or serious or successful or a total failure, or even if I change my mind halfway through and pick up an entirely different can of paint, I hope what I end up with is a beautiful and colorful and unique expression of praise and thanks: for arms and legs that work, a brain, a voice, fingers to type, health and ideas and passions and the freedom to check everything out in this giant, beautiful place he created. He’s got to love that, right? Being the ultimate artist, and all.

At church on Sunday—which, by the way, is a church I went to years ago and every time I walk in the door I see my entire old life standing there, like they’d all been hanging out for 7 years waiting and I kept wondering where everyone was in this city (old professors, old basketball coaches, old boyfriends, old friends, old friends’ boyfriends—in a good, warm and cozy way with lots of hugs…)

ANYWAY, at church on Sunday we sang this old song, which I hadn’t heard in ages, and I had to stop right there and write it down with my new journal and 24 pack Sharpie colors, which I think God likes because of the creativity and all:

Take my life and let it be
consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days
let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands and let them move
at the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet and let them be
swift and beautiful for Thee.

Take my voice and let me sing
always, only for my King.
Take my lips and let them be
filled with messages from Thee.
Take my silver and my gold
not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect and use
every power as You choose.

Here am I, all of me.
Take my life, it’s all for Thee.

Take my will and make it Thine
it shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart it is Thine own
it shall be Thy royal throne.
Take my love, my Lord I pour
at Your feet its treasure store
Take myself and I will be
ever, only, all for Thee.
Take myself and I will be
ever, only, all for Thee.