Thursday, March 26, 2020

Record scratch

A week ago, I was flying high. I was coming up on two months in Liberia and feeling settled, challenged, and happy. On one of our weekly Skype calls, my dad asked me about the highs and the lows... and it was hard to think of serious lows. Sure, there were annoyances and frustrations. My air conditioner broke in the middle of the night, leaving me panting in front of an open window, and stayed broke for a week. The washing machine once took four hours to finish a load of my laundry... and then broke for a week. ATMs sometimes ran out of cash. Work had its tough moments, as I navigated a new environment and tried to learn enough Stata to avoid being found out as the imposter I am.  

But overall, if I had written this a week ago, it would have been a chirpy update about how well things were going. I faced a steep learning curve at work, but it was a curve I wanted to be on. The challenging work was balanced out by lazy Sundays reading on the beach. In lieu of a one-bedroom apartment, I had opted for a room in a shared apartment rented out by a church, the Monrovia Christian Fellowship, and what it lacked in luxury it made up for in community. 

There were seven other people living here and, as introverted as I am, I found I really enjoyed having folks to chat with while I was cooking or to drink Club Beers with while sitting on the porch. It was a nice group of people who were all excited about exploring Liberia. We walked to the market in Central Monrovia and saw the chimpanzees at Monkey Island and had plans to spend a weekend in the surf town of Robertsport. Coronavirus was a frequent topic of conversation, but it was mostly humming in the background, like the weather.

Last weekend I joined a group for a trip to Mt. Nimba, the tallest peak in Liberia, which sits at the border with Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire. It was carved up for mining and the nearest town is still basically run by ArcelorMittal. For our meals, we drove up to a guarded gate, walked through rows of identical shipping containers housing miners, and ate in a company canteen. It felt very post-apocalyptic and I joked that I wouldn't be surprised if we came down from the mountain and found that civilization had ended.

Of course, you know how this story ends, because you're living some version of it too. In the course of a six-hour car ride on our way back from Nimba, as I bumped over a dirt road in the back of a 4x4, the ground shifted beneath us. We read news that Liberia had had its first case. President Weah addressed the nation. We learned that Brussels Airlines and Royal Air Maroc, the two major international airlines connecting Liberia to Europe and onwards, were suspending their flights. The Peace Corps announced its decision to evacuate volunteers worldwide (there went one roommate). And the Netherlands and Sweden strongly advised students abroad to come home (there went four more). 

To be clear, most of those falling dominoes were connected to the global state of affairs, not specifically to the situation in Liberia. Liberia still has just three cases (all of them named-and-shamed in press releases), but the government has taken the ebola experience to heart and is taking it incredibly seriously. Liberia has closed schools, churches, restaurants, and beaches and will soon suspend the remaining West African flights, from what I understand. Many motorcycle and taxi drivers are wearing face masks, there are hand-washing stations outside most buildings, and someone takes your temperature before you enter the grocery store. 

As I watched all my roommates leave the country, I felt a bit like a person in a disaster movie who stands still and watches everyone running as the Godzilla slowly comes into view. It felt a bit like I should start running too. For now, my organization has advised us to stay in place, since there isn't really a safe place to travel right now. In terms of current case incidence, if not in terms of health system capacity, we're better off in Africa than in the United States or Europe. We of course had the individual choice to go home - a decision I had to make quickly because flights were shutting down fast. I opted to stay here. I hope I did the right thing, especially since I won't be able to leave, at least not easily, if I need to. The Level 4 Do Not Travel advisory that the State Department just issued made me particularly nervous.

In the course of the last week, I went from living with seven other people to living alone in the church. I went from working with a fun bunch of colleagues to working at home by myself. I went from hustling to launch a survey to having fieldwork postponed indefinitely. I went from weekly beach trips to looking forlornly at the beach from my balcony. In other words, I feel like the rug got pulled out from under me - just as I was beginning to really thrive in Monrovia, the kaleidoscope twisted and everything is different (how many more metaphors can I mix here?)

And you want to hear a bad joke? I decided to pursue jobs abroad in part because Austin was going to be working long hours as a first-year Big Law associate and so I wouldn't get to see much of him anyway. Now we're both sitting alone in apartments across an ocean from each other. If I was home, right now we could be playing one of the four different versions we own of the board game Pandemic. 

Though of course, all of this - my interrupted adventure abroad and the one-person pity party I've been throwing for it - pales in comparison to the terrifying slow-motion tragedy that is this pandemic. Every now and then I hit the panic button and worry about the health of my friends and family or (more trivially) that I won't be able to leave the country to come home for my friends' weddings in August and September. I read the articles about how long this could last and I worry that I won't be able to come home for another 18 months, a Rip Van Winkle reemerging after all my friends and family have long forgotten me.

On the bright side - in some ways being abroad has me well-prepared for this. After all, I chose to be socially distanced from my friends and family for a while. I already have a solid routine of online workout classes, a regular Skype habit, and a full queue on Overdrive for two libraries. In some ways this is a win for me, since my faraway friends are even more invested in keeping in touch than they were before. I've already done virtual happy hour and long-distance barre class and am looking forward to even more catch-ups going forward. I'm trying to focus on the good. Normally I love hanging out at home but feel guilty about not venturing out and exploring; now I have an opportunity to indulge in all my favorite introvert activities guilt-free.

I recently read The Dutch House and was indulging in my hobby of reading book reviews after finishing the book. One of them included a wonderful quote from Ann Patchett, on how all of her books are variations on the same story: "You're in one family, and all of a sudden, you're in another family and it's not your choice and you can't get out." 

I've thought of that often over the past few days. I thought I was in one story and now I'm in another. I went from "intrepid female traveller explores a new country" to "lonely girl waits out a global pandemic, one that could end civilization as we know it, on the other side of the world from everyone she loves." None of us are in the story we wanted to be in right now. I'm hoping that by taking this seriously we can write a better ending. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2020


My ninth-grade trip to France with my French class was transformative in many ways, but there's one moment that, 16 years later, stands out more than any other. We arrived in Lille and were distributed to our host families and, once at the BĂ©nys' house, I took a shower in a light-filled bathroom. Once the rituals of arrival were over and the shower was complete and I was out of reasons to delay, I knew I needed to go downstairs and greet my host family and begin the awkward task of integrating into their lives for a week. I so vividly remember the feeling of taking a deep breath and making the plunge - the seemingly insignificant act of walking down the stairs somehow more daunting than the entire trip across the ocean.
I've arrived and taken that plunge in many other places since then. In Turkey, after my internship in Palestine in 2012, I woke up in the hostel in Sultanahmet, where I'd arrived a few days before the friend I was going to go WWOOFing with. I realized I was in a new country, on my own, where almost no one knew exactly where I was. It was equally terrifying and thrilling to feel untethered, like there was no ground underneath me.
In Tunisia, where I first traveled for work in 2013, I remember getting into the hotel in the early evening and staying in my room for the rest of the night and, somewhat inexplicably, crying. My mom had sent me with a "Fearless" chocolate bar and a lovely note referencing my own fearlessness. But at that moment, I didn't feel fearless. I felt terrified. I was scared to go out and explore and ashamed to feel that way, because just six months before I had traveled around the world, and I'd spent plenty of times in Middle Eastern countries before, and shouldn't I be an expert at this by now and ready to plunge into life in Tunis?
In Bangladesh, where I traveled for an internship in 2018, I arrived in the middle of a downpour and was struck with an overwhelming sense of "what on earth am I doing here, in a country where I know literally no one?" I got to my guesthouse and slept on and off for hours and hours – partly because I was exhausted from travel and partly because I was disoriented and couldn’t imagine a time when I wouldn’t be. In my grey semi-wakefulness, I read the news about Anthony Bourdain and cried. In a weird way, I felt blessed that his death surfaced so much online writing about his life – about the enthusiasm he brought to the places he traveled and the food he ate – right at the beginning of my own travels. It felt like he was a guardian angel of my adventure, and I offered up a silent prayer to him when, two weeks later, I spent Ramadan in a rural village and ate cow brain at a baby blessing ceremony and knew this adventure would be a good one.
This time, arriving in Liberia, I reminded myself to be patient. By now I’ve learned that just because I've done it before doesn't make entering a new place, even one ostensibly similar to other places I've traveled, any easier. (And of course, now I’m in a place unlike anywhere I’ve been before.) This time I’m blessed with plenty of time to move slowly and ease my way in, to trust that I don’t need to master Monrovia immediately, to know I’m not a failure if I’m not out exploring every minute of every day. What a gift it will be to watch this new country slowly unfurl itself in front of me.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Fall in (love with) Cleveland

For as long as I have dated Austin, I have known that if we stayed together, there may be a move to Cleveland in my future. I fought and fretted about that possibility for a long time. How would I continue to grow an internationally-focused career outside of Washington? How would I have a fulfilling social life away from my friends and family on the East Coast? (As silly as it is, I pictured all my East Coast friends hanging out without me, even though in reality they're spread across 3+ different cities.)

Midway through law school, Austin landed a job with a law firm in Cleveland, in fulfillment of his destiny. We decided that after we graduated, he would move to Cleveland and I would move... somewhere else, and then in a year or two I would circle back and join him in the Land. Long story short, some job opportunities fell through and, by the time our lease in Cambridge ended in August, I didn't have anything full-time lined up. So I initiated my back-up plan which was to... follow my boyfriend to Ohio and crash at the bachelor pad he had rented for himself.

We orchestrated what felt like the world's most complicated move (the movers came and packed everything up while we were on vacation in Italy so we came home to a mostly empty apartment, then we had a day to scrub it clean before Austin flew with three bags to Cleveland and I flew with one bag to Mexico City for a girls' trip, then I returned to Cleveland instead of to Boston). I remember waiting to board the plane during my layover in Houston and the man behind me (because Midwesterners are very friendly) asking if I lived in Cleveland. "Well," I said, "I'm about to."

At first, I was excited to explore a new place and determined to have a positive attitude. (Nothing worse than someone who makes a decision and then complains about it.) The apartment had tall ceilings and huge windows and (praise be) a dishwasher. Our neighborhood was super walkable - there was a grocery store right behind our building, yoga across the street, a library branch a short walk away, Cleveland's flagship brewery on our block, and bars and restaurants all around. With all the enthusiasm that comes with living in a new place, we made a point of doing fun stuff - musicals and museums and a Parks & Rec-themed happy hour.

I had a consulting gig and was working remotely. Some weeks it added up to a full-time job but most weeks it didn't, so I had lots of time to explore and to go for long runs and walks. And gradually, I started finding favorite places. I found new group fitness classes and spent way too much of my budget on them. I realized that I could easily see water everyday. I scootered to the beach and ran along Lake Erie. I found my way to the towpath along the Cuyahoga River and started to recognize the different boats passing through to the Great Lakes. I would walk along the path and listen to Unobscured (on the Salem Witch Trials) as the Cleveland skyline glowed during golden hour and lit up after dark.

And gradually, I made the mental switch from "looking for the best in this place" to "this is a place that could feel like home." I started to feel the pride, tinged with defensiveness, that seems to be all Clevelanders' birthright. I even bought, with my own money, a Cleveland shirt to accompany the one Austin's parents gave me as a welcome present.

All together, it was a quiet season. I enjoyed spending time with Austin's high school friends and law firm colleagues but didn't actively try to make new friends of my own. It wasn't lonely, exactly. After the nonstop stimulation of graduate school, it was nice to be a bit of a hermit and to spend my evenings catching up on TV and reading on the couch. And it was nice to spend time with Austin after feeling like ships in the night for much of the past three years. But I did spend a lot of time alone. Every time I left the house, I saw the Terminal Tower - lit up in the colors of the Cavs or Ohio State or something else that I would try to guess - and it came to feel like seeing a friend. (So much so that I felt a nostalgic pang when I saw it again on the Bachelor.)

In some ways the timing wasn't ideal. I would have liked to come to Cleveland when I knew I was there to stay, so there wasn't an asterisk to my excitement and so I could throw myself more fully into making it home. I didn't like the feeling of waiting for my next stage to start, of being in-between. But over the last few years, I've also gotten used to living for places in short stints and I really believe in embracing the current season as much as possible. And it also "left me wanting more," as they say. It gave me a taste of what life in Cleveland could be like and made me excited to go back.

As the fall went on, I got more serious about applying for other jobs. After Thanksgiving I started an interview process and right before Christmas, I accepted a position in Liberia. I got on a plane on January 21 and jumped into a different life. I now find myself living abroad and, while totally thrilled about it, feeling homesick for Cleveland which is not something I EVER thought would happen.

Where before I could see only the drawbacks of living in Cleveland, now I can see the possibilities - of buying a house, of investing meaningfully in a community, of figuring out ways to continue working internationally or to shift my focus. I'm grateful for a restorative fall and for a new attitude. I'm both enjoying the current adventure and looking forward to the next one.