Re-Entry

I arrived home in Seattle a week ago today.  And back in the States just a day prior.

Brussels provided a beautiful buffer between here and there – Rwanda and my present.

Departing the plane, I walked hand-in-hand with Sue through the airport, until we stopped at the place where I went straight to baggage claim, and she and the rest of the group turned right for their connecting flight back to Chicago.

My new friends stood around me in a circle.  And as I said my goodbyes, I immediately began to cry.  And I embraced each of them.  First Rich.  Then Rabbi Brant.  Elaine.  Katie.  Ben.  Brenda.

Bonnie, the 16-year-old from Miami, handed me a note she had written on the plane – “Liora” printed on the outside.  She had traveled without her parents, and I was reminded once again of the “real chops” this almost-woman-girl possessed.

Sue reminded me I had bought a scarf, in case it was cold in Brussels.  That Tim, my old roommate, would be meeting me at the train in just a few hours.  And that I had the address of a recovery meeting.  In essence, that I was perfectly capable of taking care of myself.  And when we parted from our teary embrace, the rest of the group was gone.

I picked up my bags and called my friend Michael in Chicago from a payphone.  It was about 2 a.m. there but I knew he’d be up.  “Holy Crap!   Where are you?” he said.

And so I began to slowly slip back into my life.

I marveled at the toilets in the airport.  Each stall outfitted with seat covers and toilet paper.  Each sink running hot water.  And soap in each dispenser.

I sat with a coffee and journaled while I waited for my old roommate to arrive from Dublin.  And when he did, I cried some more.

We rented an IKEA-clad apartment just minutes by foot from Centraal Station.  Tim stayed just a night, and we ate our way through the city.  French fries with mayonnaise, waffles with sugar, chocolate.  I ate salad without worry and bought fruit that didn’t require peeling from the grocery store.

I knew I was no longer in Africa.  And yet I wasn’t back here yet either.  I was in the liminal space – the in between.  And I was blessed to stay there a day longer than I had planned to, because my flight was canceled.

I watched the agitation of other travelers trying to get home, while I only wondered when and by what route I would arrive.  And if I was in fact, ready, to go home.   I was still on Africa time where my only responsibility was to get on the bus.  Quite literally, to show up.  To surrender, drop expectations and breathe it in, as my mediation teacher had instructed me to do the day before I left.

I made “friends” with a teacher from Bakersfield and an entire family from Brussels while I waited in line for rebooking for nearly 3 hours.  The Belgian family smiled often, laughed and drank orange juice.  They would be missing the Chicago and San Francisco legs of their vacation and flying directly into Los Angeles.  They didn’t seem terribly bothered.  Disappointed, but not troubled.  I told the father his easy smile and laugh gave me solace.

And I was grateful to have another day in Brussels.  To eat another waffle.  To walk on cobblestone.  To order a coffee and linger with my journal, watching the sky opening with light and showers and light again.

A day later, my friend Lisa picked me up at O’Hare.  Everything looked sterile.  And I felt like I wasn’t quite standing on the island waiting for her SUV.  Like I wasn’t quite there.  I texted Sue to tell her I was home.  And that Lisa was taking me to Whole Foods.  She told me she had been there the day before and that it was “too much.”  That she had to leave.

Minutes later, I found myself in tears in the yogurt section.  So many choices.  It all felt like “too much.”    And it was.

A day later, when I arrived in Seattle, I walked into an empty house.  My husband told me he would not be there.  The cats greeted me at the door.  And their litter needed changing.

This week I posted photos on Facebook and watched a video of our group dancing over and over again.  I called our mediator to schedule an appointment to have her draft our final divorce documents.  I’ve been looking at apartments in Chicago online.

I miss my mosquito net and talking to Sue each night before bed.  Before I left, another friend and I had spent weeks talking on the phone each night before bed.  We haven’t done that since I returned.  I’m not sure why.

I’ve exchanged a few photos with Rabbi Brant.  Sue’s travel clock is sitting on my desk – she left it for me so I’d be sure not to miss my plane. We talk and text when we are able.  I re-read Bonnie’s note today.

And I’ve asked the people about me to call me Liora – my Hebrew name that I adopted in Rwanda.

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Rwanda — Final Day

We leave in an hour for the airport.  Sue is reading in the lobby, Ben on the lawn.  Bonnie is journaling.  I have finally posted my blogs from the past days.  And this, my last installment, I am writing by hand.

 We spend the morning back at the market buying last-minute gifts.  Baskets.  Bracelets.  I spy a set of ankle bells like the ones the dancers wore at the traditional Africa village.  Mark, our driver, negotiates the price of 5,000 Rwandan francs and I buy them.

 The vendor pulls out a headdress and I shake my head no.  I look for photographs of me on my phone, dressed in this traditional garb but I can’t find any.  They are all on Rich’s camera and he is not here.  Rabbi Brant pulls out his IPhone and plays the video he shot of me dancing.  The vendors gather round and give me the thumbs up.

Sue and I wander back into the food section, seeking out what we were told was curry but is really a type of salt – most commonly used for cooking beans, to season and to decrease cooking time.  The market is ripe with new smells I cannot place.  Perhaps it is hotter today and the smells are more pungent.  There are few muzungos here and we draw a few stares.

We eat Chinese food for lunch and it is surprisingly great.  A nice change from the potatoes, beans and rice we have eaten at most meals.  And yet, a plate of French fries appears on the lazy Susan and they are gobbled up.

After lunch we stop by the Hotel Des Mille Collines – the Hotel Rwanda – and have a beverage by the pool.  I do not feel any special energy here regardless of what has taken place.  It feels like just another luxury hotel.  I ask everyone around our table to name their “best moments.” 

Prayer with Anna Marie.  Yoga with the workers at the jewelry cooperative.  Ivuka gallery.  Establishing a children’s library at WE-ACTx.  A comedy sketch by the Amohoro children.  Our favorite moments are those that are universal.  Language-less.  The ones that connect us to the people about us.

 

We return to our hotel and I lie on the bed and leak.  Tears streaming down my face.  Sue sits with me, listening.  Holding space.  I am not ready to go back to my life.  And really, I don’t have to quite yet.  I will be getting off the plane in Brussels to meet my old roommate and friend, Tim – traveling from Dublin for one night to meet me.  I am sad to not be traveling with my friends.  To turn off before them.  And yet, it somehow seems right.  That I am going somewhere else.  Not quite yet home.  Somewhere in the in between.

 At the airport we drink a final African coffee (coffee, ginger, steamed milk and cocoa) and board a delayed plane.  My original ticket has me sitting in an exit row but my boarding pass places me further back, in a window seat.  I notice this in Nairobi and point it out to the flight attendant, but the flight is booked.  The man next to me offers to switch seats so I can be on the aisle.  It is good enough.  What Sue and I call Africa good.  And I am grateful for it.

Rwanda Day 10

There is Africa good.  And then there’s Africa fabulous.  Sue and I call Africa fabulous those unexpected, serendipitous gifts you couldn’t even begin to imagine.  Like the day she helped set up the jewelry co-op for WE-ACTx.  To her mind’s eye, the women workers seemed distant and disconnected from the American volunteers.  And yet, when the work was finished they spontaneously burst into song and dance, and invited their American counterparts to join them.

 Today is Africa fabulous.

 We are riding our bus called Malcolm X heading North, to a traditional cultural village a few hours East of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  We climb up windy paved roads into the mountains.  The terrain is lush, with terraced gardens climbing steadily up.  A man is hand painting the white stripe in the center of the road.  People are riding their bikes on the shoulder.  And walking, always walking.  With yellow jerry cans for water and carrying sticks on their heads.  Many are dressed for church.

 As a group, we settle into the roles we’ve chosen for ourselves.  Rich is in the front of the bus, shooting photographs.  Nancy and Trudy are talking about travel.  Sue and I share a set of earbuds and have a dance party in our seats – grooving to Donna Summer, Barbara Streisand, Lily Allen and Barry Manilow.  An eclectic mix to be certain.

When we exit the bus, we are greeted with throngs of children selling crayon-colored pictures of elephants and gorillas.  They are selling them.

 Our visit is guided.  A re-enactment of what once was in Rwanda.  All the actor/participants are former poachers, offered a new livelihood. 

 Rich is voted king and dressed in an African sari and headdress.  Rabbi Brant is his advisor.  Katya, the youngest, is queen.  And Trudy, our elder, is the King’s mother.  The rest of us are commoners.  It is pure kitsch.   And we are good sports and play our parts well, especially King Rich.  We learn about the politics of life in the kingdom, and in the king’s bedroom.  About traditional medicine and “”herbal Viagra.”

 A group of men, shirtless, donning headdresses and wearing bells on their ankles, begin to drum and dance.  I can hardly contain myself, and suddenly I am being pulled from my bench to dance in the dirt.  First with a sari-wearing drummer.  And then, and I am indoctrinated.  A spear and shield are put in my hands and a headdress is tied onto me.  And one of the dancers catches my eye.  I follow him.  Arms up and out from my shoulders.  One knee down to the dirt and then the other.  Flipping my head in one direction and then the other.  I am keeping up.  I am following.  And I know it.

 We dance off the dirt “stage” and they take the costume off of me and tell me I am a great dancer. I am dizzy.  I am flying.  And minutes later, I am pulled out again to dance.  The other women join us.  I am breathless and still following.

 My private-secret-fantasy career has been to be a choreographer.  I am dancing with professional dancers right now and I am keeping up.

 We take photographs together.  My lead puts his arm on my arm.  His head to my head.  Sweet.  Gentle.  Another dancer puts his arm around me and places his hand on my breast.  I smile and move it.

 I don’t have words for what has just happened to me, and this is problematic because I am a writer.  My friends show me videos of the dance on the way home.  Sue and I listen to Madonna “The Immaculate Collection” until her Ipod runs out of battery.  We pee on the side of the road. 

 I tell Sue that on the drive up, listening to Lilly Allen, I had the physical sensation and  knowing that I was now divorced.  The paperwork, the mediator, is all detail.  The connection, or at least, a connection, was severed in that moment.  And I am sad, and a little bit more free.

 

 

Day 10 Rwanda

There is Africa good.  And then there’s Africa fabulous.  Sue and I call Africa fabulous those unexpected, serendipitous gifts you couldn’t even begin to imagine.  Like the day she helped set up the jewelry co-op for WE-ACTx.  To her mind’s eye, the women workers seemed distant and disconnected from the American volunteers.  And yet, when the work was finished they spontaneously burst into song and dance, and invited their American counterparts to join them.

 Today is Africa fabulous.

 We are riding our bus called Malcolm X North, to a traditional cultural village a few hours East of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  We climb up windy paved roads into the mountains.  The terrain is lush, with terraced gardens climbing steadily up.  A man is hand painting the white stripe in the center of the road.  People are riding their bikes on the shoulder.  And walking, always walking.  With yellow jerry cans for water and carrying sticks on their heads.  Many are dressed for church.

 As a group, we settle into the roles we’ve chosen for ourselves.  Rich is in the front of the bus, shooting photographs.  Nancy and Trudy are talking about travel.  Sue and I share a set of earbuds and have a dance party in our seats – grooving to Donna Summer, Barbara Streisand, Lily Allen and Barry Manilow.  An eclectic mix to be certain.

When we exit the bus, we are greeted with throngs of children selling crayon-colored pictures of elephants and gorillas.  They are selling them.

 Our visit is guided.  A re-enactment of what once was in Rwanda.  All the actor/participants are former poachers, offered a new livelihood. 

 Rich is voted king and dressed in an African sari and headdress.  Rabbi Brant is his advisor.  Katya, the youngest, is queen.  And Trudy, our elder, is the King’s mother.  The rest of us are commoners.  It is pure kitsch.   And we are good sports and play our parts well, especially King Rich.  We learn about the politics of life in the kingdom, and in the king’s bedroom.  About traditional medicine and “”herbal Viagra.”

 A group of men, shirtless, donning headdresses and wearing bells on their ankles, begin to drum and dance.  I can hardly contain myself, and suddenly I am being pulled from my bench to dance in the dirt.  First with a sari-wearing drummer.  And then, and I am indoctrinated.  A spear and shield are put in my hands and a headdress is tied onto me.  And one of the dancers catches my eye.  I follow him.  Arms up and out from my shoulders.  One knee down to the dirt and then the other.  Flipping my head in one direction and then the other.  I am keeping up.  I am following.  And I know it.

 We dance off the dirt “stage” and they take the costume off of me and tell me I am a great dancer. I am dizzy.  I am flying.  And minutes later, I am pulled out again to dance.  The other women join us.  I am breathless and still following.

 My private-secret-fantasy career has been to be a choreographer.  I am dancing with professional dancers right now and I am keeping up.

 We take photographs together.  My lead puts his arm on my arm.  His head to my head.  Sweet.  Gentle.  Another dancer puts his arm around me and places his hand on my breast.  I smile and move it.

 I don’t have words for what has just happened to me, and this is problematic because I am a writer.  My friends show me videos of the dance on the way home.  Sue and I listen to Madonna “The Immaculate Collection” until her Ipod runs out of battery.  We pee on the side of the road. 

 I tell Sue that on the drive up, listening to Lilly Allen, I had the physical sensation and  knowing that I was now divorced.  The paperwork, the mediator, is all detail.  The connection, or at least, a connection, was severed in that moment.  And I am sad, and a little bit more free.

 

 

Day 9 Rwanda

Today we are visiting homes served by Amohoro and CHABHA, and I get to reconnect with some of the agricultural students I met a few days earlier.  We stop at Mary Grace’s house.  I had noticed her days earlier.  She is strikingly, model beautiful.  Today her head is wrapped in a scarf and I am able to fulfill one of my Africa fantasies – to learn to tie a head scarf African style.  I have been watching the women since I arrived.  Some wear stiff, tall, almost architectural wraps.  Others tie soft cloths around their head.  They all look fantastic.  I pull out the scarf I have stuffed in my bag and I ask Mary Grace and Irene, the Amohoro volunteer who has coordinated our visit, for assistance.  They look at me as if I have asked them how to tie my shoes.  Irene graciously wraps a brown and white scarf around my head, takes my picture with Mary Grace, and we continue on.

 Later in the day, we return to Ivuka Studios for a gallery opening.  We were first invited here by William, a local artist who volunteers with WE-ACTx..  But first we stop at David’s house – the executive director of CHABHA – to wash up and use a Western toilet.  There we meet Aji, a chef from New Orleans who just opened up Mezze Fresh, Rwanda’s answer to Chipotle, and two other American women.

 Together we stroll to Ivuka where a host of ex-pats are dancing, drinking and occasionally purchasing art and jewelry.  Rabbi Brant calls it the Rwandan equivalent of Rick’s American from Casablanca.  And we talk about the possibility of me being an ex-pat myself.  It has been a backdrop conversation for the duration of the trip.  I am soon to be single and I have no real commitments or ties to anyone or any place.  I can do this if I like.

 I keep making powerful connections, dropping right into my place in this city.  And my travel mates only half jokingly ask me if I will stay.  I am having this conversation again.  And I realize that to do so would mean always being a bit of an outsider looking in.  It would also mean putting my dream of rabbinical school on hold.  My heart hurts.  And I pay attention.

 I tell Sue about our conversation.  I am worried that I am squandering my opportunities.  That I will disappoint others.  And myself.  She reminds me that I don’t have to change everything to step into the next chapter of my life.  That I can merely go deeper in my inner journey.  That I can move to Rwanda.  Or Chicago. Or I can stay in Seattle.  That I can work on my stuff.  The stuff I brought here with me.  And that I can go home with my Rwandan-Hebrew name, Liora, if I so choose.

Rwanda Day 8

I know I’ll never be able to truly articulate what it is to be here.  So many photographs I can only capture in my minds eye.  They are gone in an instant.  The women walking on the side of the road, wrapped in bright fabric, baskets of bananas or mangoes on their heads.  A bright pink sun setting in the hills.

 We arrive “home” to the CommonWealth View (at this point, it feels like home.  It has been for more than a week.  And I don’t really know where home is anymore.).  Judith, receptionist extraordinaire – who every morning gives my ensemble the once over and then gives me a thumbs up – has set up a BBQ and a movie on the lawn for us.

 We are back late.  Africa time.  She wants to start the movie quickly.  But first, Sue, my roommate, and I head out to the lawn for an impromptu dance party with some of the other women and the teens.  Sue and I are grinding.  I laugh.  I forget how much I like to dance.  There is goat and chicken and sausage to eat.  And potatoes.  Always potatoes.

 The movie begins before we are ready.  But this isn’t my show.  My M.O. here is to show up and experience.  We settle into Gorillas in the Mist.  It is fun to watch the movie with Trudy who saw the gorillas just a few days prior.

 In the morning we visited two genocide memorials – Ntarama and Nyamata.  Tutsi people sought refuge here in 1994, as they had in 1992.  But this time, the church leadership gave them up – betrayed them.  They are sites of mass violence and killing.

 Purple and white ribbons and banners are draped at both memorials – purple for mourning, white for hope.  Clothes hardened by blood remain on the pews.  Cooking pots and pieces of mattresses are stacked in a corner.  There are holes in the ceilings and walls, shot from the outside in.  Gaping spaces where grenades were tossed in, blowing up entire portions of walls, entire people.  Blood stains on the walls – all that remains of the infants thrown against them.  Remnants of stained glass in partially shattered windows.

 At Ntarama there is a sign that translates to: If you knew me, and you knew yourself, you would not kill me.

 Sue and I stand together.  I ask her if we can say Kaddish together.  I hold her hand and it is the first time I cry here.  There is something about touching another in these moments that allows the feelings to spill over.  That reminds me I am not alone, that I will not float away.  That brings me back to my body.  We stumble over Kaddish, missing an entire section.  But the intention is there. 

 Outside with our group of 16, we gather in the meditation space and say Kaddish again, this time led by Rabbi Brant.  It is complete.  I close my eyes and when I open them no one else is here.  My hand is on my heart, as it has been the entire time I have been here.

 Next door, someone is tending to the crops of corn.

 At Nyamata, there is more bloodied clothing.  The remains of personal affects.  Jewelry.  An identification card.  A green hairbrush with a mirror on one side.  The girls in Kigali all seem to carry them.

 We climb down stairs, subterranean, and we see rows and rows of skulls.  Some have bullet holes through them.  Others are shattered into pieces.  Bones are lined up.  I want to touch them.  To feel their perfection.  Their smoothness.  I do not.  I am having trouble breathing. 

 There are rows of coffins, with the remains of 50 people in each.  A single coffin is under glass.  It is a woman raped 20 times and then impaled with a sharpened stick inserted into her vagina.  It is so unfathomable, it doesn’t fully register.

 Our guide was 12 during the genocide and he remained in Rwanda throughout it – always on the run.  One of the women in our group asks him how it is that the priests gave up the people.  “I don’t know,” he says.  “It is hard to understand.”

 I sit on the cool tiles above the mass graves for a long time.  I need to feel this place.  I sign the guest registry on the way out with my Rwanda name – Liora.  Under comments I write, “Here to bear witness.”

 

 

 

 

Rwanda Day 7

I have an hour and a half until dinner.  Unscheduled time is rare on this trip and I am grateful for the time to sit and make sense of it all.

I just got back from a trip to Bombogo, about 30 minutes from our hotel, but still within Kigali city limits.  A bus from Chabha, an umbrella organization that serves children affected by AIDS and HIV, drives us up the steep, windy, red dirt road to the agricultural project run by Amohoro (Rwandan for peace.).  Twenty teens are learning skills to create kitchen gardens to help provide proper nutrition for themselves and 5 other homes.

 I totter down a hill, partially created of compost, in my orange peep-toe wedges (I was not planning on observing this project today.  For even I would have worn a more practical shoe.) and view the neatly planted rows of beets, carrots and cabbage.  It is the dry season.  The soil is poor, rocky.  And yet the vegetables here look healthier than anything I’ve tended to in my garden in Seattle.

 We join a class of 18 young women and 2 men, learning about agriculture.  Following a brief class we do introductions.  Our names, where we are from, our favorite vegetable.  I spell Liora (my Hebrew name, which has been my Rwanda name as there are two Lesleys on the trip) on the blackboard because they do not understand it.  “An American name,” says one of the English-speaking staff.  I do not correct him.  I tell them my favorite vegetable is squash and I am again greeted with blank stares.  I tell them when I am not in Africa I give massages and help people to choose foods for healthy bodies (I am well aware that Weight Watchers will not translate in this place where so many are malnourished.).  They clap for me, and for my three travel mates.

 The students introduce themselves and say a few words, translated from French into English.  One young woman says “Tell her I love her,” pointing to me.  A young man has a question for Liora.  “Is she single.”  The class erupts in laughter.  I say “Sort of.  I am divorcing.”  I am not sure they understand.  My rabbi tells me to stick with single.  I look at him and put my hand on my heart and they laugh again.  A young woman is breast-feeding her baby in class.

 We take photographs before we leave – me with both of my admirers.  Patrick, a Chabha employee and our driver, says, “Liora, you should consider staying here.”  I tell him I have never been this popular in my own country.

 This laughter is a welcome reprieve.

 Earlier in the day seven of us joined another Chabha project: Agape.  We join staff on home visits to the poorest or the poor, whose children they sponsor.  There are 87 families, 300 children receiving school fees or government insurance cards.  Basics.

 Agape was founded by volunteers after 1994.  They saw children raising children and knew they had to help.  Anna Marie, the “mama” of Agape, was one of those volunteers.  Because of Chabha she now receives a salary.

 We visit six or seven homes.  We are not guests, like we were yesterday.  Anna Marie and three of her staff are checking in on the state of the household, and if there are any emergency needs.  Each visit is 10-15 minutes long and ends with spontaneous prayer by Anna Marie or Grace, one of her staff. 

 The first house we enter is pitch black, save for the holes in the tin roof.  A painfully thin woman is inside.  She is HIV positive and is too sick to work right now.  And so, she has no food for her children.  They are at school right now.  They talk and Micheline (one of the Agape staff) translates.  When we are planning to leave, this painfully thin woman who seems to live only in the shadows, prays for us.  And then Rabbi Brant offers a Hebrew prayer for her.  Tears are streaming down my face.  I am humbled and awed and joyous and pained all at once.  I have no words.  I don’t need any.  Instead, we just keep walking to the next house.

 On our third visit we meet a woman who is also HIV positive.  Her husband, who was also HIV positive, has died.  She has two daughters.  They are both HIV negative.  She tells us that when her husband died, her in-laws tried to take her land.  They told her to return to her family because she had not given birth to boys.  She has no family.  But she has a promise from her husband that this land would be hers.  That he would care for her.  

 She fights for the land and wins.  She moves her family from a tent on the grounds to a house she has built with some help from a pastor.  He provided the roof.  The rest is hers.  She sells charcoal, owns goats and has built another home that she rents.  Tears stream down her face as she tells her story. 

 On the way out, Rabbi Brant tells her she is a righteous woman.  He says there is a story in the bible that is much like hers.  She says she knows it.

 Some of the homes have electricity.  Others do not.  One is a single room too small for all of us – 13 in total – to fit into.  We are greeted warmly, and again, we pray.  At the last house we visit, a boy of 16 pulls out an albino rabbit by its ears.  We all squeal with joy, and he presents three babies, which he places in the hands of our group – two teenagers and a mom.  The energy has palpably changed.  Some kind of magic entets the room.

 On our way out, we drop off Anna Marie at another house.  It appears she will continue working.  We will go to lunch.  I tell my roommate Sue “I will never complain again.”  I know that this is not true, and I tell her so.