Thursday, March 13, 2008

Top 10 Things Most Difficult to Leave Behind

I just got back from a long walk (trying to prep for Kilimanjaro) and along the way I started thinking about the items/things that will be most difficult to leave back here in the States. I'm assuming there will be things I don't realize I miss until I'm in Tanzania, but for now there are a few items that immediately come to mind...

1. Evan-- The boy is irreplaceable. Describing why I'll miss him or what I'll miss about him could be a post in and of itself. He's the love of my life. Enough with the cheese... moving on.
2. My family--Although none of us live in the same area (Fort Wayne, Williamsburg, L.A.) I talk to them at least once a day, typically via phone. Giving up those conversations will be hard. Thankfully Megan's a big talker and her parents will be visiting us for the last 2 weeks of our trip. A stand-in family never hurts. :)
3. The Internet-- We live in a technological age and I personally live with a very techno-savy boy. Shamefully, checking my e-mail is one of the first things I do every morning and one of the last things I do before going to bed. The Internet is a way for me to stay connected to my family and friends but also the greater world at large. Hopefully we'll be able to hit up a web-cafe every once in awhile.
4. Cell phone- I'm spoiled by my father in-law, Bob, who pays our cell phone bill through his company. Thus we get new phones every 2-3 years through his company plan. Since upgrading to the newest Sprint phone, I've taken full advantage of all of the gadgets that come with a "smart-phone," like playing Solitaire, checking e-mail, and bugging my sister since she's now on speed-dial. The plan is for Megan and I each to rent a cell phone in Dar Es Salaam and use it primarily for safety reasons in case we're separated.
5. My car-- I'll miss the freedom and mobility it provides. Without my car, I wouldn't be able to do nearly the amount of babysitting I've done over the years or visit my family as often as I do.
6. Fresh water-- I'm an avid water drinker. Having the ability to have purified water come straight from my tap is a luxury. Through some heavy reading, I've learned to drink only bottled water while in Tanzania. Thus, I'm stocking up on my favorite Sigg water bottles.
7. Gluten-free food-- Without access to gluten-free food, my pesky wheat allergy will rear it's ugly head... sore joints, bloating and all. Luckily most of the food staples in Tanzania are gluten-free, but I'm convinced that staying gluten-free is going to be a difficult task.
8. Chocolate-- My sweet tooth is horrendous. There isn't a day that goes by without snacking on some Nutella or ending the day with a bowl of chocolate Ice cream. Hopefully Megan and I will find some decent chocolates in our town of Arusha.
9. Books-- I'm an avid reader and without my library card, I'd be totally bored. Unless I'm absolutely exhausted, I read every night for about an hour before falling asleep. I'm already making a list of the three books I want to take with me, but secretly I'm hoping to hit up a Tanzanian bookstore.
10. TV-- Another shameful treat of mine. Since the writer's strike, I've cut my TV watching by half. I still avidly watch the Today Show in the mornings and Nightly News in the evenings, however. Going without access to the TV for 2 1/2 months will be interesting for the basic notion that I won't be caught up on all of the American drama... AKA: Who won Big Brother? How're the American Olympians doing? Which politician shot himself in the foot with such and such comment?

Friday, March 7, 2008

Why Tanzania?- Part 2

When all you want to do is go abroad, choosing specifically where to go is quite the challenge. For nearly 4 months, Megan and I sent e-mails back and forth to one another, each time with a different country in mind. Nepal? Too much political unrest. Thailand? Monsoon season. China? South Africa? The list went on and on. Each time we got excited about a specific country, we'd do a little research and come to a roadblock. I began to worry that we weren't going to find a country we could both agree upon. This was a deeply shared dream, but was that just it? A dream and nothing more?

We had a few criteria we wanted met: safe, decent weather, third world conditions, and the chance to work with kids. Originally our top choice was Thailand. For awhile now, Thailand has been my "stare-at-the-map" day dream destination. What isn't to lust over? Buddhist mystique. Tropical climate. Gorgeous beaches. Elephants. It all sounds so perfect. Unfortunately, after doing extensive research, we realized Thailand in May-August would be nothing but a giant rainstorm. Definitely not the weather we wanted to experience for 2 1/2 months. We had to go back to the drawing board.

Ever since my conversations with Quilter and Camp Sunburst, I've been pulled towards the HIV/AIDS community. I'm not sure if it was this gut instinct or something else I don't quite understand yet, but Tanzania simply fell in our laps. When glossing over the countries our volunteer organization (Global Crossroads) offered, Tanzania jumped out at me. I pride myself on being knowledgeable of global current events and perspectives, but here was a country I knew little of. It was in Africa nonetheless, but that didn't phase me. Maybe it should have, but it didn't. I was intrigued by the volunteer options available to us in Tanzania and I once again jumped into researching the country.

Tanzania couldn't have been any better of a fit for me. It's a gorgeous country, or so I've read, located in East Africa along the Indian Ocean. Known for Mt. Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti wildlife, Lonely Planet describes Tanzania as "the country [that] embodies what is for many quintessential Africa." Tanzania is one of the few African countries to have escaped political difficulties and civil unrest. It's a culturally rich country of 100-plus ethnic groups living together peacefully. Unfortunately Tanzania hasn't been able to escape the HIV/AIDS crisis that is gripping Africa by the throat. According to The Global Health Report, by the end of 2005, it was estimated that there would be approximately 110,000 children ages 0-14 in Tanzania living with HIV/AIDS and approximately 1,100,000 children under the age of 17 who had lost one or both of their parents to HIV/AIDS.

Whenever I think of Tanzania, my heart is immediately pulled to the Tanzanian children. Of course everything I know about the situation on the ground is second-hand, but I can't seem to feel drawn to these children. Although her book is about the children of Ethiopia, I've been especially inspired by the words of Melissa Fay Greene in her book, There is No Me Without You. An entire generation of Tanzanian children are growing up with one or more of their parents sick and dying from the HIV/AIDS. An entire generation left to discover life on their own. I cannot fathom this. I also can't fathom not doing anything. Here I am, a 24 year-old college graduate living a comfortable life by all means. I grew up in a loving home with parents who cared deeply for me. I never had to worry about where my next meal was coming from, how I was going to take care of my 3 younger sisters, or wonder why Mom was sick. My biggest fear was talking to the cashier at McDonalds. I was and continue to be so blessed by the incredible people I have in my life. I would be selfish not to share this love with the universe.

People have various reasons for volunteering, especially going abroad to do so. Here I can't speak for Megan, only myself. For me, this trip is a way for me to share all of the beauty and love I've been given in my life with people who are more in need of this than I may be. I'm not going to Tanzania in an attempt to share my religious views, which may work for some people... just not me. I simply want to support the woman and children of Tanzania who may have been given a bad deal of the deck by the universe. I'm taking with me the great memories I've created with all of the kids and families I've had the opportunity to interact with over the years. I'll be tucking kids into bed by kissing their noses and giving them a "magic pill" (an imaginary pill that gives you sweet dreams) just like I did with M&B P. I'll be giving big, squishy hugs like E.C. I'll be teaching all of the girls how to princess dance like G.C. Should someone have an upset stomach, I'll remember how R.K. taught me to sooth "icky tummies." I'll teach little boys how to draw comics like G.T. and how to play football like T.C. I'll teach little kiddos all of the signs M-A. G. has taught me. I'll share with these women every warm hug I've received from Mrs. C. Every inspiring conversation I shared over dinner with the P. family will be shared. All of the love and life you've given me over the years will be tucked gently into my backpack and sprinkled in the spirits of the people I meet in Tanzania.

I'm not sure what to expect while in Tazania, but I'm sure of one thing... this is what I'm supposed to be doing.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Why Tanzania?

As more people are learning about my trip this summer, I keep hearing the same question, "Why Africa? Why Tanzania?" What seems like such a simple question is really quite loaded. I don't have a simple response and really, don't want one. I'm going on this trip for various reasons and I think that if I broke down my reasons for choosing Tanzania or Africa to one basic response, I would be stifling myself.

The initial seed was planted in the living room of the house I lived in during my Junior year at Butler, better known as 4705. My roommates and I, Megan included, spent many evenings splayed across the living room furniture, laptops at hand, dreaming and conversing. Of course most of our conversations centered around the drama that had befallen us that year, this time was different. A few comments regarding my impending honeymoon (sigh... Fiji... how wonderful you were) led to a collective desire to do more traveling abroad. From there, Megan and I toyed with the idea of backpacking through Europe once we graduated and thus the dream was planted.

After spending the summer in Charlottesville as a newlywed, I returned to Butler to live with my second family, the gracious and loving P Family. All of my former roommates continued to live at 4705 and I would thus make frequent trips over, sometimes with M&B in tow. During this time, Megan and I (both planning on graduating in December) discussed the possibility of a European trip. Unfortunately the timing wasn't right for me and the dream was put on hold.

Although we had put our backpacking plans aside, neither Megan or I could truly put down the dream of going abroad for an extended period of time. My itch became even stronger when I spent time with another of the former roommates. Quilter, a strong, feisty, and incredibly smart girl, had spent the previous summer living in Amsterdam taking an international HIV/AIDS course. I loved meeting Quilter at Hinkle Fieldhouse (where she sat and checked ID's of all the intramural basketball players) and listening to her talk about her time in Amsterdam. I was in awe of her passion for HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness, including her desire to have 4705 go in for a group HIV test. Her enthusiasm for and understanding of the difficulties of the third world's HIV/AIDS challenges oozed from her. It was a pivotal moment for me, one that has truly changed the focus of my life's work.

In December of 2005, I picked up and left Butler and Indianapolis. It was with great sadness and trepidation, but also with a strong sense of inspiration. During the Spring of 2006, as I worked as a nanny, I felt a strong urge to do my part to assist the pediatric HIV/AIDS community in America. I wasn't sure how I was going to go about doing this, but I knew exactly who to blame for instilling in me this desire.... Quilter. After doing some research online, I came across a pediatric HIV/AIDS camp in the San Francisco area. Not being typical of my style, I took the plunge and applied for a volunteer camp counselor position. I was accepted in May and in August I hopped a plane from DC-San Francisco, unsure of what I had gotten myself into.

Camp Sunburst turned out to be another pivotal moment for me-- a stepping stone along this great journey. I fell in love with the campers, some infected, some affected, and the incredible sense of community at Sunburst. I met kids from all walks of life. A girl who had seen her brother shot in gang warfare. A set of twins, one infected, one not. A beautiful culturally and ethnically diverse family of 10+ children with two moms. A young girl whose father was incarcerated and whose mother was infected due to intravenous drug use. And yet all of these children had such resilient, warm spirits. They were vivacious and excited about life. They had hopes and dreams. They lived life to the brim. HIV/AIDS played a major role in all of these kids lives, yet it didn't define them. I found great hope in these children. I learned that HIV/AIDS didn't have to be a life sentence, but that I needed to do whatever I could to support these children and others like them.

For the past two years, Camp Sunburst has been the event in my life. It was what got me through exams and money woes. Flat tire.... oh Camp Sunburst will be here in 3 months.... yay! Standing in the bitter cold waiting for the bus to come... hum the Penguin Dance from Camp Sunburst.... yay! Going to camp was the moment I looked forward to throughout the year. When I visited Indianapolis in the Fall of 2006, I remember meeting up with Megan and talking to her for hours about Camp Sunburst. The conversation returned once again to our deep shared desire to travel abroad. What about volunteering abroad? It was just the spark we needed to rekindle the flames.

From that moment on, our planning is a blur. Megan and I would exchange e-mails and phone calls after spending hours surfing the net for volunteer opportunities. After finding a few reputable companies, I decided it was time to broach the subject with Evan. I am the world's luckiest girl because I didn't have to do any begging or pleading to convince him this trip would be worthwhile. Evan is a man of little words, but he made it known that he was here to support me and my dreams, no matter how crazy they might be. It also doesn't hurt for your husband to have a cushion of money set aside from a not-so pleasant car accident when he was in 4th grade. Dude, I am so blessed.

............. Part 2 of Why Tanzania continues tomorrow .................