One Year Ago Today…

One year ago today…

I arrived in Tanzania, Africa for what was the greatest adventure of my life – a month of volunteering & teaching in the community, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, going on Safaris, and visiting Zanzibar. All of it completely changed my life. I’m in disbelief that it has been a year already. I miss Moshi and my experience EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. I don’t think a day goes by that I haven’t thought about it in some capacity.

I’m so grateful for that experience.

I can’t believe all that has happened, come and gone in the past year and all that I’ve learned and discovered both about myself and others along the way. Nzuri sana.  It’s funny, I always catch myself first, but my instinct is still to say “Asante Sana” instead of “Thank you.”

In that month, I learned so much about myself, what it means to be a community, how privileged americans are and how much we take for granted. I learned so much about gratitude and appreciating what we have; that being wealthy has everything to do with how grateful and happy you are and nothing to do with how much money you have.  I learned to follow my heart; to express love and gratitude and to live passionately. I learned there is so much more to life than just the items we own or the cars we drive or the life we live. I realized how important it is to experience other cultures and to leave your first world expectations at home when you travel to a third world country.

Time and how we perceive it is an odd thing. I reflect and think about all that has happened in the past year since I first arrived in my host city and I am silenced.

When put in perspective that I’ve already lived in DC for 7.5 months, one year ago feels simultaneously both light years away and just few months ago.  It’s a teeter-totter of emotions and memories. It seems like it never happened; it seems like 6 months; it seems like decades ago and it seems like a year.

So much has happened since I landed in Tanzania. I look back on the impact the children had on me, and vice versa; the fact that I no longer have to dream about someday fulfilling a lifelong dream of volunteering and going on African Safari’s is exhilarating and saddening.  It’s crazy that I actually held residence in Africa. Not at a hotel, but a place I called home for a month. It’s hard to fathom that I climbed the largest freestanding mountain in the world and lived to tell the tale. I think about that accomplishment and it still blows my mind that I DID THAT.  At this point it feels like it is a figment of my imagination, just a dream I conjured up in my head, and I have to look at photos for proof I didn’t make it up. I am still in awe and incredibly proud of myself that I actually did it let alone successfully made it to the summit no less. I accomplished 7 things on my life list.

In the past year since returning, I flew 22 hours alone, my sister got married, I was unemployed for a while, I moved across country on a gut feeling and then I got a new job soon thereafter; one that I love because I know I get to impact lives everyday. I made a new home in that new city and made new friends. I’ve accomplished  2 more things on my life list.  I ran my first 5K. I played league sports and started my own Ladies Only fantasy NFL leagues with friends. I have spent an ENTIRE year eating only meat that was GMO/anti-biotic free.

Man, a lot has happened – and that’s just the start of it all.

From the moment I boarded the plane wondering what this adventure was going to be like – until now – the adventures haven’t stopped. When I woke up a year ago today, I never would have predicted just where my life would be today – all because of that one decision to go to Africa.

I miss Moshi and my students every day. This adventure and experience has become a part of who I am and I am proud of the person I have become. I am strong and brave; I am bold and adventurous. I have learned to be true to myself, to follow my gut and to surround myself with people who make me a better person. I am more positive and grateful. I know that I can accomplish big things; I know I can push myself; I can climb mountains and continually challenge myself. I’ve learned to honor who I am and to do what makes me happy.  I’ve grown more into the person I want to be. Asante Sana.

You can’t predict what the future holds but you do have to have faith that you are going in the right direction. Time is a funny thing. It never stops. And as we get older, it only goes faster. It blurs together and weeks become months and months become years. I still can’t believe an entire year has gone by.

What started as the greatest adventure of my life has evolved into my life being a giant adventure now. I am grateful for my experience and thankful I had the courage to follow my dreams and make it happen. I look forward experiencing (what is now) the upcoming year and reflecting on all that I will have done. Maybe a year from now I’ll be in a different city? Engaged? Single? Maybe I’ll be an Aunt? At a new job? Whatever will be this time next year, I look forward to all the adventures that lie ahead.

Hakuna Matata.

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Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end

After talking about it since May of last year, it has finally happened.

Ok. So that is a lie. I’ve actually been telling people that I wanted to live somewhere other than Chicago ever since I returned from living abroad in ’06. I used to joke that I’d live in Austin or Boston because well, it rhymed and I am corny like that, and also because I heard they were fun cities to live in. I love Chicago, it is such a wonderful, beautiful and friendly city. It is my home. I grew up there. A part of me will always belong in Chicago. I don’t think I’ll ever fully leave; it is likely that I’ll be back someday. But I’ve always felt this strong draw to get out, to experience living elsewhere and to challenge myself to live outside of my comfort zone. I need a change. I love growing and experiencing new things and staying in one place my whole life limits that.

So last year when everything changed and I started to reevaluate my life, I recognized that I wasn’t truly being the most authentic version of myself. While I am extremely grateful for my friends in Chicago who have come into my life recently, I still felt something was missing. I realized I was a dreamer and a talker but not really doing anything about said dreams. As part of The Year of CarynI immediately began to take action towards putting my plans in motion for figuring out what I needed to do to make myself truly happy. 2012 was the start of doing things now and just because it is 2013, a new year, that doesn’t mean the momentum from 2012 has to stop.

After I visited DC for the second time last year, a friend said, “You should just move here” and with that it hit me that there is no better time than now to fulfill that dream. This is the perfect time in my life to pick up and move to a new city. I don’t have a boyfriend or a husband or any children, and I don’t even have a full-time job for that matter right now. If there was ever a time to have a new beginning, this was it.

People ask why DC? The truth is I have friends here so that made the decision easier, but it was honestly just a gut feeling. So far my gut hasn’t steered me wrong and has led me to great adventures and tremendous growth. When I visited over New Years, I almost signed with two other apartments, but for reasons here and there I had reservations. I nearly gave up but then on whim I skyped with these two girls and that was it. Again, in my gut I instantly knew they were the right choice. I quickly signed the lease and had 13 days to sell all my furniture, sublet my apartment and pack everything up. The last two weeks have been a complete whirlwind. People say moving is super stressful but because I know in my heart that this is where I’m supposed to be now, I was calm and not stressed.

Turns out my life fit into only 16 boxes. What wasn’t sold or donated (which was an embarrassingly large amount of clothing and chotchkes) was brought back to my parent’s place. I decided to ship everything instead of renting a truck and driving it out myself. They came and got my boxes and it felt like you move for free without the hassle of the heavy lifting or the stress of driving it out there yourself. Plus, it was all trackable and insured.

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My apartment was perfect; I’ll miss living on my own in such an affordable spacious place. Closing the door to my apartment was harder than I expected. It was truly symbolic of that chapter in my life coming to an end. I had managed to collect gift certificates to various local places and enough booze to last me a lifetime so it gave me great pleasure to share it with friends instead of throwing it out (once opened, you can’t ship it). I am grateful that I got to say goodbye to so many friends over dinner while also spending two days with my parents before leaving town.

Fast forward to Friday, February 1st. Timing couldn’t have worked out any better, even if I tried. I was able to hug and say goodbye to my parents at the airport gate because their flight (they left for a cruise the same day) was to leave only 10 minutes after mine. I was reminded just how much more personal and emotional it is to say goodbye at the gate like we commonly used to do pre-9/11, rather than being rushed away by curbside security. Looking after them as they walked toward their gate was very emotional. I was excited about this new adventure but saying goodbye not knowing when I will see my parents, my puppy, and friends again was difficult. It was horribly bittersweet. When I studied abroad or went to Tanzania, there was always a known return date in the near future. I know that I am only a 90-minute flight, a call or even FaceTime away, but this time I have no idea when or if I’ll return to Chicago. I’ve never lived (permanently) away from Chicago and am used to going home when I want. It will be hard to not be able to go home for the weekend on a whim, at least without having to buy a plane ticket first. I am blessed to have such a close, loving and supportive relationship with my parents and that makes it harder than all other goodbyes.

Whenever I go away for a big trip like studying abroad in Italy, volunteering in Africa, or even going away to over night camp as a kid, my mom always wrote a letter for me to read on the plane and this was no exception. After our hugs and tears and goodbyes at the gate, they sat on their plane and I on mine, at the same airport, texting in a group chat. It was utterly adorable and made me smile through my tears. I was totally that crazy girl on the plane with tears streaming down her face for no apparent reason.

As I was walking off the plane, feeling oddly stuck between two worlds, my new apartment building called to tell me all 16 of my packages had arrived a day early. It seemed to snap things back to reality and things were already off to a good start. I immediately began unpacking and making this place my new home.

I know that I am just beginning my new adventure and that I chose and needed this change in my life. Everything in the past year has led up to this. Although my family is extremely important to me and I will miss them tremendously, I am excited to begin this new journey and to be closer to so many wonderful friends.

I am proud of myself for taking an active role in making my dreams a reality. I am proud that I didn’t procrastinate this move. I know this is only the beginning and that it isn’t going to be easy at first. There will be a lot of adjustments and change and it will come with a large amount of challenges, struggles and compromises. I will need to be patient and open to new experiences. The thing about change is that it forces you outside of your comfort zone and disguises itself as something painful and uncomfortable. But once you accept it, you forget you were ever worried in the first place. It becomes the norm. You just have to trust the change.

As I was saying my goodbyes, I couldn’t help but get the lyrics to Semisonic’s Closing Time stuck in my head, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.This is my new beginning. Now it is time for me to embrace the change and challenges that may come and just enjoy this new adventure.

After talking about it for so many years, it has finally happened.

Source: gitamba.com via Caryn on Pinterest

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.*This post was supported by UMoveFree. All comments are my own.*

The one where Tanzania taught me the true meaning of wealth and happiness

As I mentioned in the previous post, I learned a lot while I was in Tanzania. While it all had an impact on me, I keep thinking about what it means to be truly wealthy and happy.

It takes a village to raise a child. There is a reason this African proverb exists, and to the Tanzanians, it couldn’t be any more accurate. The children really are raised by the community. In America, we are taught “Stranger Danger.”  There, everyone is part of the clan, part of the family. Anyone can reprimand the children anytime without motives being questioned. There are no babysitters because the kids are children of the community. If a mother cannot afford medicine, she can go to the community to help her. Children as young as 2 years old walk to school on their own. They aren’t at risk of getting kidnapped or of pedophiles snatching them up. Everyone protects and looks out for everyone and seem to genuinely care.* It is customary to ask about one’s family, friends, health, and get updated on life before diving into conversation. Tanzanians show interest in each other’s lives and actually mean it. What a concept. I know. I think this sense of security and trust contributes to why everyone there is so friendly, so positive, so happy. It is a true community in every sense of the word.

I would often sit in the front seat of our van on the way to school to watch the community going about their everyday lives and to see the pedestrians wave and smile at me. The kids smile and wave to Mzungus (foreigners) passing in cars like they are waving to old friends. How can you not smile and wave back to a smiling, waving little kid? Smiling and being friendly really is contagious. I would carry those moments with me even after they had passed. I found myself “paying it forward” by waving to and greeting almost every passer-by.

The smiling waving kids don’t have fancy gadgets or many resources at school, and for some, the porridge we served was the only food they would get all day. But no matter what, they glowed with smiles and a sense of cheerfulness. Everyone says it when they return to The States, but it really is true. Despite having very little, the Tanzanians are the most friendly, joyful and happy people. In all my travels, I have never encountered a whole culture as friendly and grateful before. While in-country, I never felt like an outsider and always felt welcomed. My Dad always says You never know what happens behind closed doors and while that may be true, perhaps this is just a front, the Tanzanian’s I met seem to have found something that many of us have neglected: happiness and being grateful for what they have.

*****

Homes seen roadside. Left- woman (hard to see her) sitting inside her house without windows. Right – rusted homes

Of the volunteers at CCS, I was the only volunteer whose teacher invited her to see her home. My teacher couldn’t wait for the day I was able to visit her home so she could show me her cows and pigs. Her home was maybe 10 feet by 10 feet.**  She had a curtain separating the bunk beds from the living room which was composed of a couch and coffee table. Her kitchen was outside in a wood hut with an open fire. And boy, was she proud of her home and farm animals. It gave her such pleasure to show her prize possessions to me, it was truly humbling. Some of the other homes I saw were nice and kept; some had four walls, some had no furniture, or no windows- just holes to let light in, and a rusted old roof. That is not to say all homes were small and rusty but most that I saw were.

I asked some of my local friends if people travel and found out that many have never left the country or even Moshi Town. Many have never been on a Safari or even seen the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, and here I was doing it all. So perhaps ignorance really is bliss. But I don’t think this so-called ignorance is why they are content with this simplistic lifestyle. Regardless if they travel or not, they do have insight into the world outside Moshi with internet cafes, TV’s, papers and radios. Yet, they are still happy with what they have, not pining for more or complaining about what they don’t have.

One day while I was in town printing photos of my students for an art project, I decided to print two photos for my teacher, too. When I presented her with a photo of herself and another of her with her son, she hugged me and got tears in her eyes. To us it might just be another printed photo, but to her, that photo made her day. She didn’t have a camera so that might be the only picture she has of herself. Another day, she came to class and her phone, think circa 1999 Nokia, (no one had iphones) was smashed in two pieces but she smiled and laughed about it. She continued to use it for several days and I thought of the many people back home who would have had a tantrum and demand it be fixed immediately, as if it was the worst thing that could possibly happen to them. Is a broken phone really the biggest problem in the world? Do I hear “first world problems?” I think so!

In America, our problem is we are always coming out with new shiny, flashy, things so we always want more. Status determines wealth. We always want the next best thing instead of being content with what we have.  We always want more, more, more. We live in a society where everything is bigger, better, faster, and now. We need instant gratification. Nothing is ever enough. Tanzanians live very simple, happy lives and are seemingly content with what they have.

I am not trying to imply they do not have their challenges because that just wouldn’t be true. Everyone has challenges and hardships. But perhaps they just handle it better and with a better attitude. Afterall their motto is Hakuna Matata – (yes, the phrase from The Lion King)- and it really does mean no worries/problems. They don’t seem to be bothered by the silly, waste of energy drama or stupid stress that us Mzungus always seem bothered by.

After seeing their lifestyle, the simpleness that surrounds them, the way they smiled and waved at me as I drove by, and how I was treated with such a welcoming friendliness, it became clear to me that having more money and stuff doesn’t guarantee or equate to happiness. We, Mzungus, were often looked at as people who were rich simply because we were foreigners. To the locals I may be “rich”, but in my eyes, it is the Tanzanians who are rich. The Tanzanians showed me that wealth isn’t measured in currency like Schillings or Dollars, but in happiness and gratefulness. They showed me that happiness is not dictated by how many material possessions you own, how much money you have, or by something as silly as even if you are connected to the internet or not. Rather, it is based on what you deem as a priority, your outlook on life, who you surround yourself with, how you treat and are treated by others, and if you appreciate what you do have.

It is this, happiness and gratitude that makes you wealthy, not money or status. And with that, Tanzanians are definitely wealthier.

The photo I took of my teacher; random children on the street waving; lower left: the orphanage kitchen;  Lower right: my teacher’s kitchen

*I don’t mean to imply it is like Pleasantville or anything. It is far from that and I know there are always a few bad apples in a community. Moshi does have a prison but law enforcement is a lot more strict in punishment in order to keep the community safe.

**I don’t know measurements so that might not be accurate. But it was small.

Karibu Tanzania (Welcome to Tanzania)

First, I want to thank everyone who contributed and supported me in making this dream come true. It is humbling to know that I have such wonderful support out there. I still can’t grasp the fact that after 20 years of dreaming, the four weeks have already come and gone. It has been a very exciting journey and thank you for helping to make it a possibilty. I miss my kids everyday and am grateful for the time that I got to spend with them and being able to help make an impact on their lives. I am so grateful for this experience and again, for your support.

*****

I tried to write a post or two while I was in-country but decided that rather than updating the internet on my adventures, I should focus my energy on actually living said adventures. Had I written the posts then, I am sure they would have had a fresh sparkly spin, as everything was new and different when I first arrived. All the things I found fascinating and new; sights, smells and even sounds that kept me up at night at first, all became expected and normal background noise.

So here I am now, trying to recap and relive everything and I find myself struggling to adjust to being home and frustrated that I can’t seem to find the right words to justify the experience. People ask me how it was, and I reply, “Amazing! Fantastic! It was so rewarding! The people were so friendly!” but that isn’t the whole truth and I feel it is just the cliché answer. In all honesty, it was more than “Amazing!” but there just aren’t enough words in the dictionary to give justice to it all or to truly elaborate on how much this trip impacted me. I know I’m not the first to ever make this trip, but it frustrates me when people say, “That’s what everybody says when they come back.” Every experience is different and I wish I could explain it in a way to make people really understand. Even though I took over 2,000 (!) great photos, I still don’t feel they capture the essence, the experience, the terrain, or the rusty and red dirt-covered shacks. They don’t show the feeling, the emotion, the happiness, the simpleness or the laid-back-no-problem-attitude of the Tanzanians well enough.

I did quite a lot in the four weeks I was there. In fact, I knocked 7 NEW things off my Life List! I know that’s a lot to be proud of. *African Safari* Volunteered abroad* Snorkeled in the Indian Ocean *made an impact on someone’s life* Visited Africa (only 3 continents left) * Saw the “Serengeti Migration” at Tarangerie* Climbed Mount Kilimanjaro!* and Rode a camel (again)* 

I will share my experiences the best I can through some posts but I feel very unsatisfied knowing that no words nor photos truly give justice to my experience. I hope I can hold onto those memories even if I cannot find the right descriptions to share just how special that country is and how much this trip has impacted and changed me.

This was not a vacation. Far from it. Everyday was exhausting and hard work, sometimes frustrating, but extremely rewarding. I was up at 545am and asleep by 10pm, usually earlier. The days were jam-packed. We’d teach in the morning and have educational sessions the home-base staff provided for us in the afternoons. I learned a boat-load in a short time.

I learned a lot about the Tanzanian culture, myself, about happiness, and what it means to be a community. I noticed drastic differences in the American and Tanzanian cultures. I realized the struggles that ESL teachers must go through. (Mad respect and kudos to Abby and Gina for teaching in South Korea for a full year! It isn’t easy!) I embraced the Hakuna Matata mantra and learned to live simply and appreciate the little things. I learned that I am at peace when I am traveling. I found a calmness in myself I hadn’t seen in years. I learned a new language. I learned no matter how bad things are, they are only as bad as you let them be. It is all about perspective. I learned that the best coffee in the world comes from Tanzania. I learned that having a positive mental attitude and just believing you can is enough to make anything possible – even climbing mountains. Literally. The kids showed me that a little smile, wave or hug can make someone’s day. I realized how unnatural our “all natural” meat is. I realized American children are overprotected and very co-dependent. We have laws and bans on everything and in the end, it is only hurting us. We don’t trust our neighbors or even own children. Kids as young as two walk to school on their own in Tanzania. I learned that while I may not be able to change the world in 3 weeks, I still can have an impact on a child’s life and make a difference. I learned to appreciate the American school system and structure (more on that later). Unexpectedly, while I was teaching the kids, they taught me too. I realized we take a lot for granted, that our priorities are definitely out of whack, and that we are looking for happiness in all the wrong places. I learned so much and I could go on. But for now, I’ll stop there.

My Getaway | Travel/Volunteer Guest Post Series: by Megan Stanley

Today’s guest post is from the beautiful Megan Stanley of Well That’s Awkward. I wish she didn’t live so far away, it would be amazing to see her more often. Whether you need a vacation or not, this is bound to make you want to click over to Expedia and book your next getaway immediately. You can find her tweeting at @meganstanley.

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Some travel experiences are filled with adventures in faraway places, stepping out of one’s comfort zone, trying new foods and exploring new cultures, learning something new at each and every turn.

My trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was NOT like that.

I KNOW. There are so many great things to do in Puerto Vallarta, so many zip-lines and gorgeous viewpoints, so much hiking and snorkeling to do, so much Mexican food to eat, and a whole city to explore. But when I went there in early 2011, after a really rough 2010 and a job search that deemed me either un- or over-qualified for every single opening I applied for, all I really wanted was to relax.

We spent four days at an all-inclusive resort on the southern end of the city, about an hour’s drive from the airport, and from the moment we pulled up to the front door, I was in heaven. We were greeted with champagne at the front desk, and when we arrived at our room we found a plate full of fresh fruit and three different kinds of tequila. From our balcony, we overlooked the pool, with its hot tubs, waterfalls and palm trees, and then beyond that to the Banderas Bay, where cliffs, lined with beautiful houses, dropped down into the water along the white sand beach.

Our vacation package included three meals at any one of the a la carte restaurants at the resort, and for all of our other meals, we had access to an all-you-can-eat buffet. We also had free room service. We did not go hungry.

On our first day there, we decided that we wanted to do nothing except lay around in the sun at the pool, drinking unlimited free mojitos, people-watching and enjoying our break from the rainy Portland winter and the difficult ten months or so we’d just finished, with nothing else on our agenda. We’d leave the resort another day, maybe go zip-lining or wander around the city, or hit up that taco joint right up the hill that the bellhop told us about and that would undoubtedly be fantastic. 

The next day, we decided the same thing. We still had another day, after all. We still had so much more relaxing to do. There would be plenty of time for exploring Puerto Vallarta.

On our third and final day, we woke up and wanted nothing but our pool chairs, a good book, and the attention of the poolside servers who would bring us whatever food and drink we wanted. Anything that required more energy just seemed so… unnecessary. 

HERE AS EVIDENCE THAT I WAS A RAGING ALCOHOLIC ON THIS TRIP

On the day we left, we purchased souvenirs and reluctantly turned in our wristbands and keycards, took some photos around the resort, and settled into our taxi for the hour-long trip back to the airport. As we drove around the winding curves of the road along the bay, I caught my last few glimpses of the blue-green water, wishing we didn’t have to leave. And on our trip through the city, it occurred to me that we had wasted the opportunity to explore a completely new place, to find something we would never find in Portland, and to do something completely new. And while, even a year and a half later, I still somewhat regret not taking advantage of that opportunity, I also know that the vacation we had was exactly what we needed – no agenda, no obligation to do something we didn’t really feel like doing just to say we had done it, no one to answer to except ourselves and our own impulses.

There are many ways to travel. Sure, it can be very rewarding to fill a vacation with activities, to truly experience a new place, a new culture, or even just a new city. But sometimes, it’s enough to just get away.