In 8 weeks I have been on 3 continents and 7 countries.
June 15th we left Iraqi Kurdistan.
July 15th I arrived in South Sudan.
And on August 15th the world has stopped spinning at a dizzying pace, long enough for me to sit, reflect and hammer down some notes.
Goodbye to Iraqi Kurdistan
Sweaty hugs in the Sulaymaniyah airport. Nawzad, Omar and John squeeze us, thank us and we all say that we hope to see each other sometime in the future… though we don’t know if that will happen. We wave goodbye and Brian and I sit down in the crowded airport. I look out the windows at the hills. Those hills where 4 Americans were taken hostage by the Iranian government, those hills where people sought refuge from Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons dropped in the name of Allah, those hills that are now crowded every weekend with families who are enjoying their new-found freedom. We board the plane and say goodbye to Iraqi Kurdistan.
We land in Istanbul, Turkey. The drive from the airport to our hotel is stunning. We are still in the Middle East, but not the same kind. We are on the cross roads of the East and West. We eat dinner on the rooftop of a hotel, overlooking the river on one side, and Old Istanbul on the other, with the magnificent Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque.
We take our time walking back to our hotel. The cobblestone streets are lined with cafes, bars and restaurants. Though our stomachs are full, these places beckon us to sit and drink something more, eat something more. But we opt for a drink on yet another rooftop, overlooking Old Istanbul that is now lit up, continuing to show off its ancient structures.
Breakfast on the rooftop. We are in the land of cheese and honey, olives and bread and strong, delicious coffee. We could stay on that rooftop with our breakfast, but the city calls.
The heat is already causing sweat to drip down our backs as we find our way to the Hagia Sohpia. We enter its large doors and step into the damp protection of ancient stone. We gape as we walk through each corridor and hallway. The centre dome makes our necks ache, and we were tempted to lay on the floor, as others are doing, in order to save our necks and still try to experience the full stature of the rotunda. Islam has stamped its names for God over the wings and faces of giant angels, but even these massive stamps cannot cover what was built as the glory of the Roman Empire.
Our next destination is a Turkish mansion that has turned into a Museum. Intricately painted tiles line every wall in every doorway, hallway and walkway, each design is more stunning than the previous. We take endless pictures of the blues, reds, and golds. That kind of artwork cannot simply be walked past. I try to imagine living in a place with so much color and beauty. I think I would go blind.
We walk through the massive mansion grounds until we feel our stomachs telling us it is time for lunch.
We walk down narrow streets and alleyways through the city toward the river. Once we find the river we walk until we find a line of brightly decorated boats. We have found the Jimmy Johns of old town Istanbul. Men in gold-embroidered vests on the boats pass fresh fish sandwiches to the hundreds of customers standing on the sidewalk. As the waves moved the boats UP and DOWN, I am sure that at least one sandwich will get thrown into the river, but as I watch, the men on the boats and those receiving and distributing the sandwiches are obviously used to this… and not one fell. I watch as our sandwiches are prepared on the hot grill right on the boat. We sit with the hundreds of other fresh-fish sandwich fans next to the boats and savour each bite.
When we have eaten our fresh fish sandwiches we walk to the Turkish bizarre. We literally get lost in the endless paths through the ancient market. Its age is covered by endless options of fabrics, tiles, tools, and trinkets. Our upcoming travel plans don’t permit us to buy anything… so we are forced to decide we will have to come back.
We find a café in the bizarre and sit and cool off under the cover of the market.
The afternoon flies by with the Babylonian cisterns and the Blue Mosque.
We stop by the hotel, change and prepare for our last supper together. The next time we will have supper together will be in South Sudan.
We eat on the cobblestone streets, telling ourselves not to think about how wonderful the day has been… to enjoy even though it will be over far too quickly.
We buy ice cream from a sidewalk vendor who is paid more for his performance than for the ice cream… but it is worth it.
We sit in the park that sits at the feet of the lit up Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque and try to decide which is more spectacular.
As I lay in bed, flashes of colour tiles dance behind my eyelids. History and modernity met on these streets. And we were all too quickly about to say goodbye to it.
Parting of ways – This narration goes the way of Switzerland
We say goodbye to each other on the cobblestone street in front of our hotel. My next destination is Geneva, Switzerland, his Nairobi, Kenya. As my taxi drives away from him, our paths separate , but both lead us into the craziest, most exhilarating 4 weeks that either of us have ever had.
I land in Geneva with visions of Turkey still looming in my mind. I walk from the train station to the hostel I have booked for the night. With my pack on my back and my guitar in hand, I trod down the streets of Geneva, suddenly waking up to where I am… not Kurdistan, not Turkey, but Switzerland – Europe!
I pass pubs and cafes, making mental notes to check them out when I have lightened my load. I arrive at the hostel, check into the high-school-like monstrosity that houses hundreds of people every night. I walk up the 8 flights of stairs with my heavy load (the elevator is broken) and when I finally make it to my room, I jubilantly open the door. The door swings open a bit more forcefully than I have intended (again, my hands are quite full) and I give a little shout when I see, facing me from the bed in front of the door, one of my roommates – a mummy. It is a mummy wrapped in hospital gowns and clear, plastic rain jackets from head to toe. I do not know if my roommate mummy is male or female, or even if it is real at all. In the room of 8 beds, I figure this mummy could be a prank of some kind… for one of my other roommates, perhaps? I force myself to walk into the room, and to my relief I see a young, blond girl sitting on the top bunk of one of the beds. I pause, catch her eye and point to the mummy, “Do you speak English?”
“Yes”, she replies with a heavy accent.
“Is… everything ok?…” I ask, still pointing to our mummy roommate.
As I point at the mummy, to my great surprise, the mummy moves with a loud crinkle of rain coats. So it indeed was alive.
The girl laughs and says, “Yes… I have been here all week and she has been in here like that every day…. I don’t know…”, she responds more to my face expression than the my question.
So the mummy is a she and it is alive. But a very innocent looking young girl has lived with her all week and she seemed to not be possessed or injured in any way, so I take it on faith that I will be ok for this one night.
I drop my things in my locker and make for the streets of Geneva. I can see from my hostel window that there is a gap in the skyline a few blocks away. I wondered how far I am from the lake and decide that I will head in that direction first. My search is short. I walk two blocks, I turn a corner and, voila, there is Lake Geneva, lined on the other side by the Alps. To my surprise, the beauty brings tears to my eyes. I walk up and down the lake, pausing to soak it all in. The architecture that lines the lake is beautiful, and the companies that are housed in those structures are amazing – Rolex, Cartier, HSBS – wealth. That’s right, I am in Geneva. UN flags wave in the breeze beside Swiss and French flags.
I get to know the city a bit, and I settle on a café to spend my evening.
I get into the café just in time for a heavy rain to begin to fall. Though I want to stay out and continue to explore the city, the rain forces me to do what I actually need to do in the café – start to work. I have about 2 pounds worth of documents in my purse that I must read within the next two days in preparation for the Medair training… which is, after all, the whole reason I am in Switzerland. I sit in the café, eat, read my documents, occasionally… ok frequently… stopping to watch the rain and soak in the atmosphere of the café. Once my head is full of new information, I walk back to the hostel. Upon entering my room, I discover my roommate mummy is still in her cocoon, but she is laying down, not sitting up.
I lay down and listen to the mummy shift beneath her plastic cocoon and laugh. Life is too much sometimes.
I start the morning early. I have a lot to accomplish and not very much time. I need to go shopping in one of the most expensive cities in the world and find some necessary items I wasn’t able to get in Kurdistan in preparation for my trip. I hit the streets of Geneva and I am proud to say that I am able to find the best store for all of my needs – Manor (it’s like a VERY classy version of Target… it has EVERYTHING) – and I don’t break my entire budget getting the things I need!
Big Fall and Little Blessing – A Story from Kurdistan
One of the items on my list is to have my watch repaired. My LOVELY sister bought me the watch and had it sent through a coworker all the way to Khartoum, North Sudan last fall. I LOVE this watch and have not gone a day without wearing it.
Well one bright and sunny morning in Kurdistan, Brian and I were at our favourite produce stand. It is a tiny little stall STUFFED with bright and beautiful, fresh produce. I was admiring a pile of perfectly red plums when a stout Kurdish man tried to squeeze past me in the stall. I stepped to the side to avoid getting bumped into the precariously stacked plums. Well the step I took was actually into a crate of cherries, and I completely lost my footing and my balance. I felt myself hopelessly falling, so I tucked my arms in to avoid taking any plums, peaches or pomegranate down with me, and SPLAT, I fell directly onto a tray of Apricots. Brian and the Kurdish men in the stall all stopped, stunned. Brian grappled to help me up and I slipped and stumbled my way out of the stall. I kept mumbling “I’m sorry” in Kurdish, and I started to consider how much it would cost to repay the vendor for his Apricots, but by then a crowd had gathered outside of the stall it became very clear that the vendor was more embarrassed than me and basically said, “just go”. I turned the corner and stopped to survey the damage. My pants were COVERED in sticky Apricot guts, my knee and arm were throbbing, and the worst part that I discovered was that my watch was broken.
Our apartment was a few blocks away and we had to walk to the office to meet some people so had to quickly hobble back home to change my pants. I was limping with an achy knee, and I realized only after I returned home that I hadn’t quite found all of the Apricot skins on the street corner, I had walked home with Apricot skins hanging off of my rear end. I am sure it was quite a sight for the neighbours.
As embarrassing (and slightly hilarious) as the whole thing was, the thing that really made me upset was the fact that my watch was broken. I took it off and set it on the counter, not having the heart to throw it away.
Just one week later we were packing to leave Kurdistan and I was in the process of ceremoniously throwing the watch away. “Goodbye, watch-that-my-beloved-sister-bought-me”, I said. I was about to throw it away when Brian stopped me. He took the watch and inspected the damage. He pointed out that I was about to go to the THE watch country… and that if there was any hope for the watch, Switzerland would have what it needed. Touche, Brian. I kept the watch in my backpack and added “get beloved watch fixed” to my list of things to do in Switzerland.
As I escalate up and down the amazing Manor store in Geneva, I come to the watch floor, and think of apricots and plums. I think about the worn leather that has darkened two shades of brown and how the threads are fraying and the holes are stretching on this watch in my backpack. I take a deep breath and step off the escalator. I wander past perfectly lit cases filled with watches of every shape and size in every kind of metal, with every kind of jewel or stone. I look for the least pretentious-looking man working at a counter and ask him where I can bring a watch for repair. He points across the room to another counter. On my way to the repair counter I tell myself that a Target watch is perfectly acceptable, even if the leather is worn out… and covered in Apricot guts… it is the watch that I love. I step forward at the repair counter, apologize for not speaking French and find a friendly English speaking repair man to help me. I present my shabby, sticky watch to the man and sheepishly asked him if it can be repaired. He smiles and simply said, “Yes.” Now this is great news, but I am only half way to celebrating. I bite my lip and ask the second half of the question, “Great… and how much will it cost?” The man bites his own lip, squints and looks up at the ceiling. I sigh. What was I thinking trying to get a WATCH repaired HERE, one of the most expensive cities in the world?! I look at him as he puffs out his cheeks and appears to be calculating the cost. He looks back at me after a moment, smiles again and says, “Madam, it will cost you nothing!” He laughs and then I laugh and thank him profusely in the only French I know, “Merci! Merci Bou Coup!”. I have no idea what he does, but the repair is extremely simple, quick, and apparently, even though it is a Target watch, the repair is free.
I walk away from the Manor store with everything I need, and even though I don’t NEED it, I walk away with a fixed watch.
I get on the train and go to my next accommodation – the very small flat of a couple of employees from Medair. Being that I had to book my accommodations last minute, AND that it is summer time in Europe, booking hostels is tough… and I wasn’t able to book a hostel for one night. I contacted Medair and a very generous couple were going to be out of town so they let me stay at their apartment. I walk to their place from the bus station in the rain. When I get into their apartment, there is no mummy and no plastic, sterile environment. Instead there are fresh flowers, and little bowls filled with Swiss chocolate. Having my own apartment for almost a whole 24 hours is amazing. I walk to the grocery store and buy crackers, delicious cheese, and of course, more Swiss chocolate. I take a bath and savour the solitude I know I won’t have for many days and weeks to come.
June 19th – 26th
I wake up in the morning and walk to a café for breakfast. I watch the rain continue to fall outside and try to prepare myself for the upcoming Relief and Rehabilitation Orientation Course with Medair.
After I have taken another bath and say goodbye to my perfect little accommodation, I cathc the train to Vallorbes, a town right on the border of Switzerland and France. Within minutes I am meeting other Medair candidates and Medair staff and my whirlwind week has begun. Because I have come straight from “the field” I share a room with one other girl instead of about 6 which both of us are grateful for.
The orientation course kicks off and from here, I apologize, but I really can’t write any more about my experiences that week. This is partly due to the fact that there is just too much to write about… and it is also partly due to the fact that we are asked to keep our experiences to ourselves for the sake of others that may end up going through this process.
Suffice it to say that it is a week full of lessons and experiences that I will never forget as long as I live.
June 26th – July 15th
Now, I sit in Juba, South Sudan. I spent two more weeks in Switzerland which can be summarized in a chapter of Scripture that has never been so alive to me