Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Annnnnnnd We're Back!

A whirlwind.  A tornado.  A headspin.  A summer tempest.   Crazy.  Unbelievable.  Absurd.  Wild.

I love words.  And so I keep trying to find ways to describe the past 3 months of my life.  Words, my dear friends, have failed me. 

I’ve settled with my fairytale :-)

Summary:   I have hit 17 cities, 7 countries, over 3 continents.  I have traveled on 3 airlines, traveled over land for 5 days across borders, slept in 9 different beds (if you count  the front seat of a car at the Senegal border a bed lol), and celebrated and eaten the culinary curiosities of  6 different cultures.  AHHHHHHH!!!!!


This story kind of starts at the end of last year…. by way of a story that started at the beginning of last year….by way of a story that started in my childhood.

Because no story has a definite ending or beginning :-)

A little over 1 year ago, I had just moved to my site in Labé and was spending my days prancing around the town asking as many questions as possible, drinking tea with old men, and learning the ropes.  I came with so many ideals of what it would be like to live in Africa and what the development field held for me.  They were all theories that couldn't be proven until I was on the ground, with my feet in the sand, hands in the dirt, face to the sun.

And many have been beautifully confirmed :-)




Since I was a child I have been magnetically drawn to this continent; its history, its life, its struggles.  The stories my family told me of growing up back home, coupled with news reports of the political instability of our country captivated my imagination.   For every school project, I chose Liberia as my subject.  Somehow I’ve known for a long time that I needed to be here to see if all I had dreamt was true.  And finally being here has been the epitome of peace.  I had the nerves of a girl before a date with a great guy, but once we settled in at our table, over conversation and laughs, I knew, “This is meant to be.” 

Yet, too much of a good thing becomes a burden.  At the time I left for the states at the end of last year I was beginning to lose my grip.  Guinea had opened my ability to create again and I ran with it.  The flood gates opened, motivated people began falling in my lap, and soon I was involved in 8 huge projects, planning ambassadorial visits, and writing proposals for USAID & UN—I was moving too fast.  I loved my work, I relished the thought of waking up every day, I was FINALLY running in my direction, and I did not want to stop.

Until God stopped me. 

I completely lost my voice before I left, making it impossible to complete any meetings.  Here, meetings where decisions need to be made are shouting matches, and I couldn't muster up more than a squeaky whisper.  I was forced to just simply give up.

WHAT?!  Give up?!  NO!!  I can’t!!  To. Much. To. Do. 

Oh believe me I tried to stay in the game, but the more I tried, the sicker I became, until I had to just throw in the towel and sit quietly in the corner.  I wasn't able to close out plans that I wanted to, and I had a plane to catch in the US….to sit on my couch and do nothing….something I hadn't done in over a year.  The 3 weeks I had planned to spend in the United States turned into 6 weeks with an included stint in physical therapy for a prior ankle injury.     

Truth will always show itself clearly.

I was burnt out, and I needed to be brought to a screeching halt.

Yet, even after traveling 3000 miles away from my work, I couldn’t just walk away.  I was too used to running, worrying, stressing, and filling every single moment of my days with something just to feel productive.

It took me all of 5 weeks to finally learn to relax.  I spent my last week in the states smoking cigars with my dad, seeing my cousin perform (shout ou t to her band Meen Old World), being silly with my grandmother, getting dressed up, EATING……..just being.






I wish it would have taken me less time to realize what was most important.  But grateful that God gave me that short, but precious, time to re-frame my thinking.

More on how my thinking has changed in a later blog :-)

God wasn’t done with me yet. 

My 3 week extension in the United States gave me only 4 days in country before I had to high tail it to Dakar to meet a dear friend to catch a flight to Italy, where the fairy tale continued to blossom :-)

To give the fairy tale justice, it has its own separate posts (Part 1and Part 2) and FB albums.

Even though I knew my touchdown in Guinea would be short lived, listening to Toto Bona Lokua (Check out my favorite single by this amazing group), watching the sunset as the plane landed in the Gambia on my way back to Guinea from the states my heart came alive.  Home :-)

Landing in Gambia at Sunset

I was soooo happy to be back.

Many would think this is bittersweet.  I’m leaving the US after spending every day with my family –and leaving a fairytale trip through Europe and West Africa, eating the best food and fully experiencing incredible moments with great friends and amazingly motivating people.

And yes it was incredibly uplifting and beautiful :-) The things that dreams are made of.  Sometimes I think back to the past 2 months and I can’t believe this is my life.   I am coming back with the fortune of seeing and speaking to my dearest friends and family---my inner circle---emblazoned on my heart.  And the experience of some of the most beautiful sites, world treasures, and gorgeous sunsets to motivate me to continue to live what I believe.

But there is something about this continent that resonates with my soul in a way more familiar than the United States.  Home.   Whereas others may see barren ground, poverty, and lack….I see a blank slate, a portrait, a blank canvas, a future waiting to be carved out.  The excitement of the possibility of change on the edge of everyone’s lips contrasts against the disappointment and still fresh blood of the past and present political and social wounds. The juxtaposition of challenge and possibility is the perfect atmosphere for a struggle.  But with every struggle there is growth.  And I deeply relate to the internal struggle of the continent, fighting with herself and outside influences to get out of the multiple square and slip knots she and the world helped form.

When I was deciding whether I should leave Atlanta and go after what I had wanted for so long, I was working in door to door sales.  Long days, no returns, picture of misery.   I was so tired of life.  I knew there HAD to be more than what I had been living since graduating from Emory University.  I was moving backwards, and wasn’t sure what to do to turn around.  I stopped at one house where a man proceeded to tell me he was a prophet.  Skeptical, I said try me……

And he began to tell me my current situation with more clarity that I even knew it to be in my own heart. 

I was at a major crossroads, and he spoke life to me when I needed it most.   An image continues to stand out to me from that day.  His wife asked me if she could pray for me.  She explained that she saw visions, and would stop when she saw something and explain it to me.  By this point I was sold and so hungry for a compass.  She began to pray and stopped. 

Her first image was me in a field of wheat with a large sickle in front of me clearing everything in my path as I walked patiently, calmly, confidently, forward.

She continued to pray.  And her second image was a room sized canvas.  Mostly white, except for the beginning of an explosive array of colors unfurling into the makings of something---the image unclear—but obviously the start of an attentive artist’s work.

It was clear to both of us what was ahead.

She told me nothing was holding me back, the path in front of me was clear, and I had the paint brush.  God entrusted me to continue the beautiful work of art I had started on the canvas He had created.

I am moved remembering this moment in my life.  I had a choice.  I could live in limbo between my dreams and the status quo, or I could grip bravery by the balls and jump.  As scary as it was, I’m so glad I took the plunge :-)

The past year has been crazy:  oscillation between highs lows, repeated sickness, failed and successful projects, patience, frustration, sleepless nights gripping the toilet, beautiful sunrise mornings, relationships lost, fear, relationships that will rest near to my heat for the rest of my life, sinning, loving, learning my limitations, and where the world is limitless….

Learning to embrace freedom by owning my paintbrush.

So we have lot of catching up to do :-)

But I’m still excited to share this journey with you.


Because life is never a destination, but a journey.  And the minute you begin to see your life as the pursuit of a destination is the minute you begin to lose hope that change….real change….lasting, eternal, internal, soul gripping, life exploding CHANGE… even possible.  When you stop dreaming, your current situation seems never-ending, and you….the person created to conquer some part of this world….begins to die.

Even though the realities of working on the ground in development have challenged my ideals and culture, I am still overwhelmed by my dreams for Africa.  Of a continent united, of a people who know their greatness, of countries giving out of their excess rather than being raped of their resources. 

We MUST continue to dream.  Faith, the belief in what we cannot see, begins with hope.  And hope, always begins with a dream.  

(Check out this article on Entrepreneurship and Faith I wrote for our website Dare to Innovate. Join the movement! )

My Fairytale Part 1: Journey to the Journey

I landed in Guinea at 11pm.  Getting off the plane, the heat immediately hit me like a warm wet blanket.  I inhaled, coughed, and then smiled.  Oh how good it felt to be back :-)  Within several minutes, I was already sweating like a prostitute in church, and I really didn't care….every second felt amazing.

I paid a guy less than a dollar (I love that for so little you can be helped anywhere you go…I know this is a result of poverty, but it doesn't make it any less nice) to help me corral my 5 bags of gifts and clothes to the front where my host brother picked me up.  We drove through the night of Conakry where smells of grilled meat (affectionately called street meat), burning trash, and that unquestionably African odor (if you've ever been to any country in Africa, at least in my opinion, there is this really distinct odor that comes from everyone and it’s just decidedly African…almost the same as maybe the smell of curry in India) greeted me.

Welcome back, Wi.

I went to visit my host family in Conakry, rushed back over to the Peace Corps house, spent the night, and woke up at the crack of dawn for a bush taxi back to Labé.  Upon reaching Labé, I was showered with hugs and “Ke Toli” or “Welcome” in Fulani. 

Vacation is great.  But what is even more awesome is coming back to love :-)

The next 2 days I spent rushing around town and getting my affairs in order. I had the opportunity to teach one entrepreneurship class before I left, just to stay in touch with my other love :-)

Me and Abe's entrepreneurship class at a local university

I spent an entire day figuring out exchange rates.  $1US=705,000GF (Guinean Franc), $10US = 5,000CFA (West African Franc, used in Senegal and several other countries), 160Delasi (Gambia) = 10,000CFA, $2US = 1 Euro.


At 7am the next morning sitting at the car park waiting for my car to Manda (the first stop in Senegal on your way to Dakar), drinking coffee, watching a cow eat a plastic bag in front of me….I finally took a minute to reflect on what the heck was going on.  I just took a 30 hour flight from America, spent 4 days in country, and now, armed with 5 different currencies, and I am waiting for a car to take me on a 2 day cross border journey to catch a flight to Rome, Italy.

What.  Tha. Crap. Lol.  Hahaha.  Let the games begin.

The car was delayed by 3 hours waiting on a tanty (the generic name given to any older African woman—derivative of ‘aunt’) to get money from her son to make the voyage.  But by 11am, we were on our way.  I was given the privileged seat in the front (American status gets you the goods here), next to an older Guinean man and the driver.  Yes.  3 people in the front seat.  Stay tuned for my post about driving in West Africa.  It’s unreal.

I've gotten used to it, so it was a pleasant drive.  My neighbor was a farmer from Guinea who had land in Senegal.  He decided to make me his daughter for the trip.  I was to now call him Tonton (uncle in French). 
At every stop, he bought me food :-)  Gosh, I love Africa.

We were moving along smoothly, making great time considering we left 4 hours late. Until about 2 hours from the border……

A truck full of dry fish (Of all things…really?  The stench wah not easy oh…lol…Liberian English) had completely fallen through the only bridge out.  The only way to get to the other side involved a difficult maneuver down an extremely steep hill, through a small river, and up another very steep hill.  There were about 15 cars ahead of us and several mini buses. 

I started to lose hope that I would get to Senegal in time for my flight.

While the men worked through dusk, well into the night, praying for each car to make it up a slippery hill, trying every means of locomotion….I chatted it up with locals and prayed that I would be in Dakar for that flight. 

At midnight, hungry, hella-tired, and cranky…our car made it up the hill.  Amen.  We were on our way again.

We made it to the border around 2am.  We were stopped 3 times by border control.  Everyone kept asking me if I had a lot of money in my bag.  Apparently, it is also against the law to leave Guinea with more than 200,000GF (about $30US) because inflation is so high and it costs so much to print money they don’t want to lose circulation of their bills. 

Funny story, everyone was so worried about this law and getting stopped at the border.  Each Guinean citizen was harassed in regards to their papers.  In order to leave the country, apparently you must have an “ordre du mission” or an official document stating your reasons for leaving.  This really is a ploy to get a bribe, but it’s incredibly degrading.  So when it was my turn, I pulled out my American passport.  The woman officer, who had thoroughly harassed every Guinean, looked through it slowly.  The room was silent.  The male officer asked, “What say you?”  The woman smiled and responded, “She’s American.  She is like the birds, she can do whatever she want.”  Everyone burst out laughing.

Haha.  Though in some parts of the world it can get you killed, here American status is a ticket.  The situation made me think how much of a privilege it is to be American.  To get a visa to leave this country as a Guinean to anywhere in the developed world is like touching the Jesus.  Many of my friends are jealous of the fact that for a small fee, no questions asked, I can go anywhere in the world I want.  Yet, in America, very few of us take advantage of that privilege.  What is even sadder is that many of us can’t take advantage of this incredible opportunity because of our financial situations.  So while poverty restricts Guineans from seeing more than their borders because the embassy of a 1st world country will ask more questions to a poor farmer wanting to leave his country for something better, poverty also restricts many Americans from taking advantage of the benefit of an American passport, which can be used to explore the incredible curiosities that exist in this world.

That doesn't excuse those of us that can afford it, but choose to stay behind our desks and picket fences.  You, as an American, have the ability to touch the world.  Use it.  Travel expands our worldview, causes us to be less self-centered, opens us to the great possibilities of generosity, and gives us glimpses of our role in global change. 

Go :-)

I spent the night at the border in the front seat of the taxi with a screaming baby to my back, mosquitoes at my legs, and choking heat all around.  Sleep is a gift.

Waiting for breakfast at the
Guinea/Senegal Border just
before dawn

Reaching Manda, Tonton arranged my car to Dakar, gave me cell phone cards for Senegal with credit, and bought me breakfast.  He waited with me until my car was full and ready to leave.   He gave me his farewell, prayed for me, and proceeded to his own car to his farm.

One thing I love about travel is being privy to the little gifts of people’s goodness.  The only thing is you must be proactive in looking for them :-)  I didn’t want to conversate with Tonton at first— I wanted to put my head phones on and zone out—but I decided to oblige his conversation.  

When you give you shall receive.  It’s a principle :-)


Senegal is the most boring country I've ever driven through, except for the occasional packs of monkeys!  Nothing but flat dry land for 8 hours straight to the capital. The roads were smooth, but it made me so grateful to be blessed with the beauty of Guinea, despite how horrible our roads are…..that’s another post.

I finally reached Senegal at around 9pm.  Surprisingly enough, no one spoke French, even though Senegal is a French speaking country.  The main language here is Wolof, and so I was out of luck.

Creativity :-).  

With a lot of grunts, pointing, horrendous traffic, and finally an older man who spoke French, I made it to the Senegal Peace Corps house around 10pm where I was warmly greeted by my friend, Gambian volunteer John, who would accompany me on the next leg of the trip…ITALY.  I had just enough time to eat, hit the shower, change, and grab a taxi to the airport.

More awaited :-)

My Fairytale Part II: Italy, Portugal, and Back


John and I landed in the Rome airport around 10am.  

The anticipation of what the next 2 weeks would hold was almost unbearable :-)

An employee of Peace Corps Gambia had graciously put us in contact with her brother who lives in Rome.  We had no clue what we were walking in to, but he had offered us free lodging, so we were game.  Confused for awhile about how we were going to get to his place, we walked outside to find Omar Njie with a huge smile and welcoming hugs, waiting for us with his new Toyota Land Cruiser.  We drove to the outskirts of the city, listening to Omar’s stories about living in America, the South Pacific, and working for the UN, noticing that the scenery was growing more and more beautiful and posh. 

We finally stopped at his home—a 3 story Italian villa.  Our home for the next week!  Couldn’t believe that on a whim, we got this!  Blessing #3567392

And the family…..sigh.  I have no words for how beautiful this family was.  They took such good care of us.  The perfect example of hospitality.  Red carpet treatment.  

One thing I love about African families is that no matter where you are from in the world; they will invite you in as a member of the family.  No questions asked. 

Their children immediately became permanent fixtures of my heart :-) Three girls; each with unique characteristics that their parents took the time to nurture and applaud. Listening to Omar’s narrative of his struggle from a poor Gambian child to a where he is now, was so inspiring.  I was so grateful to see a glimpse of the life I want.

Persistence, drive, and faith will get you anywhere :-)

Me and my girls modeling :-)
Take note; this girl will own
you all one day .  So smart.

What I loved most about Rome was how antiquity laid adjacent to modernity at every turn.  Ruins were scattered like useless litter next to art deco apartment buildings.   I found it bizarre, yet inevitable, that the objects of history were in such abundance that they had become worthless.

For me, however, I felt it a rare treasure.  I loved being engulfed by history, walking roads that had once been traveled by Christ, Paul, Napoleon, Anthony the Great, and countless other leaders during the time of the Roman Empire.  I truly felt like I was touching the history I studied in the $175, 30lbs “Art through the Ages” text book I was forced to buy for a pre-requisite at Emory, strolling past artistic relics from the renaissance period when Michelangelo and Da Vinci directed teams of 100’s of apprentices and commanded large sums for years spent on intricate ceilings and elaborately detailed sculptures of human likenesses.  I’m not usually an art museum person, but the Vatican museum was truly magnificent.




We got lost a lot :-).  I was armed with my Rick Steves travel book, that I read in its entirety on my boring voyage to Dakar, and a couple of other Italy resources.  And though they came in handy, they couldn’t fight the forces of fate that ordained for us to lose our course everywhere we went.  I forgot what it’s like to be in a country where I’m rendered speechless by my lack of language skills and orientation.

But, it gave us many little adventures—strolling down streets in Trastavere, Rome at sunset, standing in the cold in Ostia, learning how to hail a cab at midnight in Rome, eating terrible food, eating amazing food, finding how to exchange money, catch subways, and lose debit cards. 

I’m smiling thinking of our improvisation :-) hahaha, it was fun. 


The inside of the Pantheon.
The circle of light in the top is an
ancient sun dial.  This is the largest
dome structure after St. Peters Cathedral
This guy just had to have his McDonald' Italy!  SMH

At the bottom of the infamous Spanish
Steps.  I made friends!!  Lol.

Trevi Fountain.  Tourists to Rome must throw in a coin in
hopes that they return.   I needed to  conserve my Euro, so I didn't, but
I know I'm coming back :-)
Sunset at the romantic Spanish steps :-)

Beautiful sunny day outside of the  Collesium
We happened upon a random Venezuelan
cultural parade ouside of the Collesieum!
 Merengue in the streets!
Campo di Fiore open air market!
So many amazing smells and sights.
 I bought  strawberries and grapes and snacked all day.
 I also met Guineans and spoke a little Fulani :-)

We caught a train first thing in the morning to Venice.  Of course the tickets we bought the night before were the wrong tickets, and we didn’t have any more Euros. 

Again, improvisation :-)

After about an hour of frantically running around the station, we found our own private car on an 8 hour train ride to Venice; my first time on a long distance train!

As we gained altitude, a smattering of white topped houses turned into a white blasted, snow scape.  The blizzard that hit the East coast of the US hit Venice with vengeance.  For the first time in 20 years, it had snowed in Venice.  When we landed, Venice was a snow covered, winter wonderland.

Stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful….Speechless.

We stayed at the cutest little bed and breakfast with the best service.  If you are ever in Venice check out The Albergo Marin.  You won’t be disappointed.  They directed us to an amazing restaurant….I don’t even remember what I ate, but I remember that it life.

Venice felt like I was floating through the pictures of a story book.  It was just as picturesque as everything I’d ever heard of the city on water.  

And CARNIVAL!  We just happened to catch the last day of carnival in Venice.  Celebration of Mardi Gras in Venice is more regal than wild.  It’s a masked masquerade dating back to the times when Venice was at the height of its reign.  For 1 week everyone wore masks and costumes so that there was no distinction between nobility and the commoners.  It was a time of blatant debauchery and lewd sexual acts, but now, a beautiful public display of palaces, gentlemen, lords, and ladies of Venice.  Brave Venetians took full advantage of the holiday and showed off costumes which seemed to have been painstakingly prepared over months. 

I bought a mask the minute I reached the streets, and spent the day prancing around the square, drinking coffee, imagining what it would have been like to be a rich duchess in the Venetian high court :-)



Gimme yo cake!

The Bridge of Sighs.  Leaving Dodge's Palace,
prisoners would pass this last sight of
Venice and sigh on their way to  execution.

Dodge's Palace....
pure opulence

The Grand Canal at Night other words.

On our Vaparetto (water taxi) to the St. Marks Square

I was sad to leave Venice, my favorite city on the trip, but we made our way south to the home of John’s ancestors, Naples!

Naples is far seedier than Rome or Venice.  It isn’t a tourist’s city; it’s a city of real Italian neighborhoods.  We stumbled upon old men playing cards in the street, great hole in the wall pizza places, and saw normal Neapolitan life.  The coast of Naples was absolutely gorgeous and from the hotel you could see Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that covered Pompeii centuries ago.  There was great shopping too :-)




The last day in Naples, we spent traveling along the southern tip of Italy along the Almafii Coast and Sorrento.  We met a great couple who joined us for the trip.  Usually in movies when there is any shot of the coast of Italy, it is the Almafii Coast.  It truly speaks for itself.

Sorrento :-)


This is the official "Mama Mia!!" pose
My fashionable friend I met on the trip down :-)



Last Roman dinner :-)

2 weeks had come to an end, and we made our way back up to Rome where we had to say goodbye to our beautiful new friends and their children.  Bittersweet :-)

Our flight back to Dakar included a 24 hour layover in Lisbon, Portugal.  Unfortunately, it rained the entire day in Lisbon :-(  I’m sure there was something gorgeous there, but the food was less than spectacular and the normally gorgeous coastline was gray.  And then just around the time we needed to get back to the airport, the sun came out. Yay Portugal?!

Yay...Portugal *in my un-amused voice*

Sausage and french fries?  Chicken
stir fry and oranges?  Ok.
Seriously Lisbon?  Chocolate and Vanilla scented babies?!  No.

We planned to go back to Dakar just in time to meet a huge group of volunteers in the city for a West African wide All-Vol conference.  Though we missed the conference, but we hoped to spend our last 3 days hanging out with the Guinean and Gambian delegations.  However, before we landed, we had no idea where they were in Dakar, and all I had was a phone number from an off brand, obscure travel website of the hotel that maybe, possibly was hosting the other volunteers.  And we landed after midnight. Tired.  Hungry.  In a foreign country.  In West Africa.


Through some finagling, and a con artist who led us to an overpriced taxi, we made it to a hotel.  Not the one with the volunteers, but as we would find out in the morning, within walking distance.

We had air conditioning, beds, hot water, and food.  Good enough, no questions asked.

After living in Guinea, admittedly boasting one of the most dilapidated West African capital cities, to see Dakar was incredible.  It was comfortably African, so it felt like home, but also hosted examples of African modernity….monuments, public transportation, electricity, running water, air conditioning, and food from every part of the globe.  The last 3 days of our trip were a relaxing stroll through Dakar streets and beaches, seeing good friends, and saying goodbye to 2 weeks of chill.  The people were pushier than Guineans, probably due to the large amounts of tourists the city accommodates each year, but the food made up for it :-).

My favorite moment in Dakar was spending all day eating fresh grilled seafood, exploring the artsy Ngor Island, and saying goodbye to some dear friends who were returning home.  Relaxing doesn't begin to describe. 




Only to know that several hours away lay the same 2 day road trip back to Guinea and the end of the fairytale trip that further confirmed that dreams do come true :-)

I was back in Labé on a Thursday night and back into work mode first thing Friday morning with a 2 day meeting for the Dare to Innovate conference; still reeling from what had just ended a 2 month refuge from the work I love so.  But oh how necessary it was to take a step back in order to continue to move forward :-)

When I started planning this trip; I didn’t think I had enough money, I didn’t think I could spend that amount of time away from my projects, and I had no clue how it was going to work out.  But I put my faith out there that the desires of my heart would be fulfilled. 

And all my fears were answered :-)

And I’m so grateful to my parents, John, and the friends who pushed me to take a risk who all helped make this a reality.

Thank you :-)

And I hope you all choose, against the crazy schedule of your lives and constant needs that pull at your every place of energy, to plan your own fairytales.  I am gradually learning that we were created with time for rest and play in mind.  Rest is a pre-requisite for productivity and joy.

Decide this year to play more and make your joy a priority :-)


BecauseWeOughta :-)

For more pics check out my Facebook page :-)