Archive for ‘Adventures’

July 1, 2014

Thoughts on Finishing the Camino

by Tabitha Kidwell

As I walked the Camino, I kept thinking that it would get easier. “Tomorrow will be better than today,” I told myself. “I only have to walk 14 miles,” or “my pack is lighter,” or “there is less climbing.” But it never got easier. Every day I stumbled into the hostel feeling like I could not walk even one more step. Then I got up the next morning and did it all again.

In the same way, I kept thinking that my thoughts about the Camino would coalesce, that I would gain some sort of clarity towards the end of the walk, or shortly after, or after a week at home.

That has not happened, either.

I finished the Camino two weeks ago, but I’m still not sure what it all meant. I still have so many disparate thoughts about the experience that it is hard to link them all together to say anything coherent. But I’ve already delayed, procrastinated, and resisted writing this blog for so long that my thoughts are beginning to melt away as my memories fade. I know I just need to write something. I started to put together a buzzfeed-style “7 things I learned from the Camino de Santiago,” but I grew more and more frustrated as I wrote it. The “lessons” I came up with – don’t carry too much… everyone walks their own path… it’s the journey, not the destination – were trite, obvious, and overdone. Trying to fit what I had learned into sound-bites cheapened the experience, as if by defining it, I was making it smaller than it really was.

What it was, really, was an incredible, unique, inexplicable, life-changing experience. It was more than just a long trip or a physical challenge or a tour of Spain, but I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the beautiful landscape, the kind people, the meditative nature of walking, the energy from the centuries of pilgrims who have passed before. Celtic mythology talks about “thin places,” where the line between this world and the next is blurred. I think the whole Camino is a thin place, a place where you are more vulnerable and open.

Since coming home, I find myself in a “thin moment,” a time of vulnerability when I am re-evaluating how I behave and who I want to be. I can feel a source of strength within me that wasn’t there before the Camino. Other experiences – graduating from college, living in Madagascar, finishing marathons – have probably contributed to this strength, but I never before felt it as such a concrete presence. Something in me is qualitatively different. I feel more compassionate and more open, more present and aware, more conscious of how I treat people. I see how little is needed to make a happy life. I feel more motivated to let go of masks and defenses, to just be myself – and I feel more confident doing so. I see how often I try to hide behind humor. I understand how different people can be, and that they do not always think the way I do, but I realize that they are on their own path. More than anything, I see how important it is to enjoy the present and trust that you will find everything you need at the right moment. I feel cradled by the universe.

I arrived in Santiago on Tuesday, June 17. After a 28 days of following yellow arrows, I arrived to a plaque on the ground and a cathedral under construction. There was no fanfare, no one to greet me or welcome me or high five me. In fact, I saw fewer pilgrims than I had for most of the past month. I was surrounded by tour groups taking photos, listening to their guides, and paying me no attention. Didn’t they know that I had just walked from Pamplona? That they were witnessing a momentous occasion? I had finally reached Santiago… and it was just over. I thought I would feel a rush of joy and enlightenment, but without the yellow arrows to guide me, I just felt lost.

Though there was no one to greet me the moment I arrived, I did run into many of the people I had walked with during the two days I stayed in Santiago. I spent a gloriously sunny afternoon sitting at a café across from the Cathedral, sipping wine and greeting my friends the way I wish someone had greeted me. Even though the official Camino had ended, we continued saying “Buen Camino” when we parted – now for the final time. What else could we say? Good-bye; good luck; safe travels? None of those was quite right. Our journey together had ended, and each of us had to return home to confront the impossible task of integrating the person we had become with the person we had been before. “Buen Camino” wasn’t quite the right word, either, but it managed to convey everything we needed to say.

Now, I don’t have the right words, either. Maybe they will come some day, but until then, I hope I can share what the experience meant by carrying it with me, by feeling that source of strength within me and letting it remind me to live life well, treat people right, and enjoy every moment. Maybe I don’t yet know how to sum up my journey because the journey isn’t over yet.

June 13, 2014

Why are you here?

by Tabitha Kidwell

One of the commonly asked questions as you meet other pilgrims along the Camino is “Why are you here?” I always had trouble answering this question. I could tell why I decided to come – basically, I had the money and the time, and it had always been at the back of my mind as something I might do one day. But I didn’t have a clear idea of my purpose in being there, or what I hoped to gain from it. Traditionally, walking the Camino absolves you of your sins, so many Catholics were doing it as a religious pilgrimage. Other people would say that they enjoyed the physical challenge, or wanted to lose weight. Some wanted the cultural experience of really seeing Spain, or they were going through a transition in life and wanted to do some soul searching. I was doing it for all those reasons, but none really stuck out to me.

If they weren’t locked, I ducked into churches along the way, and yesterday I was in a monastery chapel when I realized why I was there: I was on a religious pilgrimage. Given that this is the precise reason the Camino even exists, that this is why people have been doing it for the last millennia, maybe I should have realized this earlier. Hey, I’ll never claim to be an especially self-aware person.

Part of the reason I wouldn’t admit this even to myself is that it’s always been hard for me to talk about my faith or my religion with others. Because some of the loudest, most visible Christians in our society are those who are judging others, telling them they will burn in hell and need to repent, identifying yourself as a Christian can bring a whole lot of baggage. A lot of people have had negative experiences with Christianity, the Bible, or “The Church,” and it’s hard to know what’s going to come up if you start talking about your belief in God. Ironically, I worry about people judging me as a “judgmental Christian.”

But I am a Christian, and a judgmental God has no place in my beliefs. If I believe in God, I have to believe in a God that is wonderful, loving, and accepting, whose presence in your life serves only to make your life better. If people meet and come to understand that God through the lens of Buddhism, Islam, or even yoga, I believe it all comes back to the same divine source. I think belief in religion or spirituality improves your life, because it has improved mine I’ve always had an interest in religion, a drive to be involved in a faith community, and an interest in learning more about God. Maybe it was my mother’s influence, or the wonderful church I grew up in, or just something in my own personality. I wanted to go to church as a child, I got involved in high school seminars even though I had no friends there and was a socially awkward teenager, and I read the entire bible before I was 20. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about other faiths – especially Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. I think a lot of people in the west find meaning in eastern religion, especially if they have negative experiences with Christianity, but for me, learning about other religions helped me to see that Christianity is the language of my soul. It just makes sense to me. I pray to God, I learn from Jesus, and I feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. I was drawn to the Camino as a religious experience, even if I didn’t consciously realize it myself.

So, I am here on a Christian religious pilgrimage, to grow closer to God and better understand His presence in my life. It’s hard for me to say that, to shout it to the world via the blogosphere, but I think I need to say it, and I need to say it loudly. The more that people like me can drown out those “fire and brimstone” preachers on their pulpits, the more that everyone can search for the belief system that makes sense to them, the more we can all learn from each other, and the more peaceful the world will become. At least that is what I believe.

June 8, 2014

A typical day on the Camino

by Tabitha Kidwell

I’ve been walking the Camino for about three weeks, and blogging is a bigger challenge than I thought it would be. It’s not because I don’t have enough to say – because I have so much to say that I don’t even know where to begin. The experience is so big that it defies explanation. But part of it is very easily explained – like the movie Groundhog Day, I basically re-live the same day, over and over again. So, I can explain one day. Maybe my explanation of one day can come to explain something more.

At about 5 AM, I wake up a little bit, hearing the first pilgrims getting ready to depart. I usually stay in albergues – pilgrims hostels, where you pay 5-12 euros for a spot in a bunk bed in a room of 4-30 (but sometimes as many as 100) other pilgrims. To beat the heat and the crowds, some people get up and depart before sunrise. Some of the later rising pilgrims complain about these early birds waking them up in the morning, but I am always glad when I hear other people up. I don’t want to be the first up, the one to wake everyone else up, but I also prefer to get an early start on the day. After the first round of people get packed up and ready, I get up, get dressed, and try to carry my belongings quietly out to pack in the hallway. This usually involves me dropping something and making a ton of noise. Oops. I stuff everything in my bag, have a yogurt and an instant coffee, try to blister-proof my feet (think lots of vaseline), and head out.

I love walking in the early morning, just as the sun is rising. The world is so calm and peaceful that time of day. Spain isn’t exactly an early-rising culture, but I sometimes see middle aged women in track suits or old men with canes on their morning walks. Mostly, I listen to the birds singing and witness the light changing as the dawn melts away and the day begins. The first few hours of walking are always a breeze, and I often didn’t remember then very well when I finish at the end of the day. What did I see? What did I think about? It takes a little effort to remember.

At about 9 AM, I stop for a coffee and second breakfast, if I’m hungry or just feeling like a hobbit. I’ve been eating a LOT of Spanish tortilla, but it’s not getting old at all. I don’t linger too long, because I want to get back on the road and keep moving. Sometimes I walk with other people, and they are always very interesting. Most people are from western Europe, but there are also lots of Americans, Australians, Canadians, and a smattering of Koreans and Japanese. Between French, Spanish, and English, I can talk to almost everyone. But sometimes I walk alone, too, just me and my thoughts. I have lots to think about. I think about my family and friends and wonder what they are doing. I think about moving to DC and what my life will look like next year. I think about all of the incredible experiences I have had and how they have made me who I am. I think about things I haven’t thought about in years, like the imaginary house my childhood best friend and I had in her backyard, who I went to each of my high school dances with and how they asked me, and my class schedule junior year of college. I wonder about stupid things like why British people tell their weight in “stone” (why isn’t it plural?) and what, exactly, was the plot of Super Mario Brothers (they were plumbers?). The thinking feels therapeutic, like I am spring cleaning my memory.

I walk through every imaginable landscape – mountains, farms, forests, and urban sprawl. I walk along rivers and along highways. I pass through towns or villages every few miles, and often stop to say a prayer in the village church or to take a picture of the town hall. If I am low on water, I look for the village pump. I pick wildflowers and put them in my hair. I take pictures that would be amazing on instagram, but I forget to post them.

At around noon, I stop for lunch. Often I see people I know, and sit with them. If I can, I get an “ensalada mixta,” because I am not very hungry while walking, but sometimes I get a sandwich. I take my boots off, stretch my feet, and give them a little massage. When I am done eating, I don’t feel like getting up and moving anymore. I wish I could just stay in this town because I’m tired and hot. But I look at the guide on my phone and see that stopping now will mean I have to walk way too far the next day, and I need to do 3-8 more miles before stopping. So I squeeze my feet back in my boots, strap on my backpack, and head out.

And I walk more. I get back into the rhythm after a bit, but I mostly just wish I were finished. I try to find someone to walk and chat with because I am so tired of walking and thinking. If I am alone, I put in my headphones and listen to podcasts and audiobooks. No matter how far I have gone, 12 miles or 20 miles, the last couple hours are hard. The town where I am stopping looks so far in the distance, and once I reach it, the albergue seems to be on the opposite side of town.

But I finally reach the albergue, right when I think I can’t possibly walk another step. I feel terrible. I check in, take off my boots, and lay on my bed with my legs up the wall. I eat chocolate, drink water, and look at my guide to recap all the places I’ve been and to check out all the places I’ll go tomorrow. If there is wi-fi or cell service, I scroll through my facebook feed. After a little rest (and a little sugar), I feel strong enough to take a shower and do laundry. Everyday, I wash the shirt, socks, and underwear I was wearing, and put on the ones I had washed the day before. If I feel energetic or if it was muddy that day, I wash my pants, too. While my laundry is soaking, I stretch. If there is a nice lawn or patio, I might do a little yoga. Then, I write in my journal about all the places I walked, the people I met, and the things I saw. I calculate how long I walked and think to myself that I must have actually walked longer than that.

But by this point, I no longer feel terrible. I feel good enough to go walk around town and see where I am staying. Sometimes it is a tiny town that would be dead if pilgrims were not passing through. Sometimes it is a small city with lots of things to go visit. Sometimes it is a charming picturesque village crawling with tourists. I often run into people I have met along the way. It’s as if you have gone on vacation and learn that everyone you know has also decided to go to the same place. Sometimes with friends, and sometimes alone, I find a restaurant and have the “menu del peregrino” (plgrim’s menu), which consists of a starter (I usually get salad), main course (usually some kind of grilled meat and French fries), desert, and unlimited wine and bread. I drink more wine than I should because, well, unlimited wine. I head back to the albergue, which locks at 10 PM. I lay everything out for the next morning, get ready for bed, and crawl into my sleeping bag. I read a little with my headlamp, then try to sleep. Usually I am exhausted and sleep like a baby, but sometimes people snore and keep me awake. Either way, I get up the next morning and do it all over again.

Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, I’m not totally sure why I’m doing all this, over and over, day after day. I don’t yet know what it means, so it’s hard to explain it. I think something will come of it, there is something to learn, even if it is just to appreciate each day as it comes.

June 3, 2014

Fear of Emptiness

by Tabitha Kidwell

You know that experiment with the jar and the rocks? Like, a guy puts a bunch of big rocks in a jar, and he can’t fit another rock in, so you say the jar is full. Except, then he adds gravel, and it fills in around the big rocks, and when it reaches the top, you say the jar is full again. But then he does the same with sand, and then with water, and then, finally, the jar is truly full This is supposed to point out that you can fit many things into your life, but only if you get the big rocks in first. So, if you fill your life with watery things like facebook or television, you won’t have time for the big rock-type things like friends, family, or faith.

Well, the Camino is like the opposite of that experiment – it’s just a giant, empty jar, with nothing to put in it. You don’t have to go to work, meet up with friends, clean the house, make dinner. You can’t check facebook or watch tv or waste time. You just walk – you and your vast, echoing soul.

I toured the stunning cathedral in Burgos yesterday. In one intricately detailed Rococo chapel, the audioguide pointed out that there was no place left undecorated. It said this was because of horror vacui – the fear of emptiness.

I’m not especially afraid of emptiness – I’m no stranger to either solitude or silence. I lived in a village in Madagascar alone; I spent a week in silence in Taizé; I’ve traveled all over the world on my own. But still, it is scary when the building blocks of your life are removed. I experienced this (and blogged about it) last fall, when, for the first time in my life, I didn’t go back to school. I was confronted with the reality of spending a year without a job, and I didn’t know what to make of it. Now, I’ve also had all the other other elements of my life removed – no friends to meet up with, no volunteering, no Nana Bets to take care of. It’s just me, walking, everyday.

And it’s not clear to me yet what will come of this experience. One of the most frequently asked questions on the Camino is “Why are you here?”, and I don’t know yet how to answer. As I approach the halfway point, my thoughts are all mixed up. I feel disconnected from reality. The truth is, I am disconnected from reality – I’m thousands of miles away from everyone and everything I know, doing something I’ve never done before and will never do again. And I also feel disconnected from time. I am walking in the footsteps of a millennia of Pilgrims, and, blogging and iPhones aside, there is an aspect of this expereince that is timeless, that transcends reality. Throughout history, even while feeling the need to fill the emptiness in our lives, people have felt called to do this Camino. I think the reason why comes back to that jar: to fill it well, to have a life that is not only full, but fulfilling, you have to start with an empty jar.

May 18, 2014

Bucket list Bucketful

by Tabitha Kidwell

I write a lot of blogs while I’m running – it gives me the time to reflect and put my thoughts together. I often come home from a run and sit down at my computer, still sweating, so I can capture the words while they are fresh. I stopped running at the end of April because I had a twinge of plantar fasciitis that I wanted to let heal before doing the Camino de Santiago in Spain. So that is why I haven’t blogged for awhile.

Or maybe I just got busy.

Or lazy.

In any case, I’ve had an eventful month since my last blog about India. I have been to Kuala Lumpur, the Perhentian Islands (off of the Malaysian coast), Columbus, Chicago, Paris, Dijon, and Taizé. When I talked about my plans, people would always say things like “I’d love to go to India,” “One day I’ll learn to scuba dive,” “I’ve always wanted to go to Spain,” etc. It’s really not fair that I get to do it all at once. I’m like the fat kid at the bucket list buffet. Normal people spend most of their time looking forward to experiences like these (I know this because I have in the past been a normal person myself). I feel really blessed to have the life that I do, a life whose path seems to lead me to incredible experiences without very much effort on my own part.

I’m certainly not going to complain about this, but it has resulted in the strange predicament of looking forward to an exciting and unique experience while I was already in the midst of an experience that was exciting and unique in a completely different way. While I was leading English camps in Indonesia, I was excited to get to India. While in India, I couldn’t wait to get home. Once I got home, I spent all my time planning and shopping for the Camino de Santiago.

I learned a lot from each individual experience, but what I learned from having one after another was to stop putting any effort at all into wishing time would move faster. Time moves fast enough without our willing it forward. There are three parts of every experience: first, looking forward to it in the future; then actually living it; and then looking back on the memory. It’s beautiful when the experience is still ahead of you, when you can imagine how it will be in a million different ways. 999,999 of those possibilities disappear as soon as it happens, and then the happening is far too quick, and the memory far too faint. I hate that this is how time works, that it steals our present and seals it into the past while we are distracted by the possibilities of the future.

So, after a year with a lifetime’s worth of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, I have learned to enjoy every moment for what it is, without nostalgia for the past or longing for the future. I’m not just talking about milestones, vacations, or dreams-come-true. Every moment, no matter how banal, is still once-in-a-lifetime. Sunday afternoon at the grocery store, the Tuesday morning commute, Friday evening happy hour – these might happen all the time, but each time is unique, and together, they are the building blocks of our lives. If we spend our time wishing for the next experience, we might end up with no more than a pile of bricks. By treasuring each brick as it comes, we can be sure to build something beautiful.

March 20, 2014

Holi 2014

by Tabitha Kidwell

I wrote in my last blog how I have been in a bit of a funk. If any part of that funk had left me feeling that life is dull and colorless, I have been thoroughly disproven! Last Monday was Holi, a Hindu festival that celebrates the coming of summer. Traditionally, there is a bonfire the night before, which symbolizes the victory of good over evil. This is also a time to forgive others and repair relationships that have been damaged during the year. Then, people celebrate the next day by throwing colored powder and water at each other. Some people carry water guns or water balloons to add to the fun. We volunteers had a lot of confusion and questions about the day – can we go to the grocery store without being ambushed? do the colors stain? Should I wear a raincoat? – but in the end, we just decided to just go with the flow.

Our main guide on Holi etiquette was our friend Prakash, who lives at the Deep Griha Cultural Center with us and works as a sort of helper-guide-translator-house manager. He is 18 or 19, and used to live out at City of Child, but lives here while he is in college. At 7:30 on Monday morning, he knocked on all of our doors and greeted us with a supersoaker full of colored water. That was a shock first thing in the morning, but then we all went up the the roof and joined in the fun, pelting each other with powder and water.

Prakash gets a taste of his own medicine!

Prakash gets a taste of his own medicine!

After Holi on the Cultural Center roof

After Holi on the Cultural Center roof

David, Madga, Adele, and me

David, Madga, Adele, and me

Then it was 8:30 AM, and we had a after-the-presents-are-opened-on-Christmas-morning moment where we just looked at each other like “now what do we do?” So we took showers and went downstairs to have a nice breakfast together. Later on, we ventured out. Like so often in India, we didn’t have any idea of what to expect. We had heard vague rumours that Holi is often used as an excuse to have fun at foreigners’ expense, so we were ready for mischief. But everyone was incredibly polite – a couple of youths on motorbikes pulled up and asked quite kindly if they could put color on our faces, then continued on their way. We made a brief stop at the Irish bar for the requisite St. Patrick’s Day green beer. We thought it might be packed – double holiday! – but it was pretty dead. I think St. Patrick’s Day hasn’t caught on here, and even if it has, it probably can’t really compete with Holi!

Hard to believe "Kiss Me, I'm Tipsy" Green Beer Day was 10 years ago!

Hard to believe “Kiss Me, I’m Tipsy” Green Beer Day was 10 years ago!

Then we walked around a bit more, and made some new friends for Holi part 2.

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The next week, we got to play at school, too. It was so sweet playing with the kids – they had so much fun, and loved coloring their teacher’s faces. They were (mostly) really polite with their color and always said “Happy Holi.”

Okay, there were some ruffians, too.

Okay, there were some ruffians, too.

"Happy Holi, Miss!"

“Happy Holi, Miss!”

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I’m pretty sure now that Holi is over and I can go out without worry that I will be pelted with color. A few items of clothing are ruined, but that is a small price to pay to celebrate the triumph of good over evil and to welcome the summer. Summer is definitely here now – it’s getting hotter everyday. Some days, I think a little super soaker attack might be nice… maybe just skip the color.

March 2, 2014

Language #6… if you don’t listen too carefully…

by Tabitha Kidwell

I speak 5 languages.

Ha! That’s not true. I mean, I say that sometimes, but it’s really not true. I have studied 5 languages, but most of what I have studied is lost to me. Malagasy, so painstakingly acquired while buying mangoes, trying to teach English, and sweating on the Mozambique Channel, only comes to me in random words and phrases. Mahay. Te hihinina. Olom-belona tsy akoho. Much like my favorite red flowered dress from that time, I cannot believe I allowed myself to lose it.

I’m pretty sure Indonesian will also disappear. It came back to me while I was back there in January, and I might find Indonesian friends at grad school, but I probably won’t find many opportunities to use it, and it will also get misplaced in a junk drawer somewhere in my mind.

Of course, I can still say that I speak those languages because I will almost never say it to someone who will be able to test me. French and Spanish I do still speak, and am functionally conversational whenever I run into a French speaker or wander through a Spanish speaking country. But I studied both languages for long enough to know that my grammar is atrocious, full of mismatched endings and haphazardly formed subjunctives.

So that makes three languages I really speak, though I speak two of those rather poorly. And my English is even peppered with international oddities – should I say cell, mobile, or hand phone? – and I tend to throw in an alhamdulillah from time to time.

Nevertheless, I’m working on language number 6 – Marathi, which is basically only spoken in the Indian state of Maharastra. This gives the impression that it is a useless, provincial language (which it might be), but it is spoken by 73 million people – more than Korean, Vietnamese, or Turkish! After teaching and learning so many languages, I’m no polyglot, but I’m fairly good at the process. I know what I need to learn right away – subject pronouns, basic verb forms, question words – and I have 5 previous languages with which to make mnemonic devices. I’m pretty comfortable with grammatical forms that deviate from English (Gender? No big deal. Inclusive/Exclusive we? Got it).

But Marathi presents a new challenge; because it’s the first language I’ve learned with a new alphabet. I observed a 1st grade Marathi class and was super jealous of their neat handwriting and ability to sound out words. Learning to read in a second language is really interesting for me as a teacher. I understand better what it must be like to be 5 years old, looking at a text, and able to pick out one word. I’ve been studying flashcards of the letters and practicing writing them out. I’m at the point where I can copy words and read v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, and I’m thrilled about that. I feel like I now have first hand understanding of education-y words like “decoding,” “deciphering,” and “meaning making.” There are 45 (or maybe 49) letters, and each of the 12 vowels has two forms. Though they actually aren’t even letters, because it isn’t actually an alphabet, it’s an abugida (Since you want to google that anyways, click here). It seems complicated, but it’s actually really nice because it means that each letter/syllable will always be pronounced in the exact same way, so pronouncing words correctly is just a matter of reading them correctly. Take that, French!

In the ten weeks I am here, I won’t make much progress, but it’s fun for me to try. Three weeks in, I’m starting to be able to read and write, but basically all I can do is tell the names and ages of my friends, family, and myself. This isn’t so useful when my family is 10,000 miles away and I only have like 10 friends. I enjoy the process, though, and it’s teaching me ore about how languages and learning work. More importantly, it’s a good gimmick – a party trick, really – to help me build relationships with the teachers and students at school. They’re tickled at my fumbling attempts to introduce myself and identify school supplies. It’s helping me grow closer to the people around me. Which, I guess, is the whole purpose of language in the first place. I may not really speak 6 languages, but they still have helped me make friends all over the world!

January 30, 2014

A Charmed Life

by Tabitha Kidwell

In a previous blog, I mentioned how much I had loved camp growing up, and how much it influenced me. What I didn’t mention was that, my first week away at camp, I spent the first afternoon huddled in my bunk crying. I was paralyzed by homesickness until some cabinmates came in and invited me to play go fish.

It’s so lovely how life works, that you grow and change after every experience, becoming completely unlike what you were before, while still holding that former self within. 8-year-old Tabitha was afraid even to venture to the craft cabin alone; 31-year-old Tabitha doesn’t think twice about jetting off to the other side of the world or plunging to the bottom of the ocean. My life has been a series of experiences that have helped me build this independence, though it wasn’t always pleasant. When I left to study abroad in France my sophomore year of college, I sobbed as I went through security and turned back to wave goodbye to my mom. In Madagascar as a peace corps volunteer, I spent my 23rd birthday sulking alone in my concrete house while all my college friends were tailgating at the OSU-Miami football game back home. But now, I feel comfortable wherever I end up, and I go with the confidence that, even if something more exciting is happening at home, I’m exactly where I need to be. I’m so grateful that I have been able to build skills that help me feel as comfortable in the jungle of Indonesia or on the streets of Paris as in the hills of southeast Ohio or on High street. Actually, I probably feel more comfortable when traveling – every person you meet gives you the chance to reinvent yourself, and every new situation brings the promise of adventure.

This trip to Indonesia has certainly delivered on that promise – I saw things on this trip I had never seen before, and that I didn’t know if I would ever see in this lifetime. It began on the plane, when the stewardess looked out the window, shrieked with joy, and called me over to see what she had seen: the Aurora Borealis, visible as we flew over the north pole. She rushed down the aisle, showing everyone, visibly beaming. I asked her later if it was the first time she had seen the northern lights, and she looked at me perplexed and answered “No, almost every week.” Maybe seeing them just never gets old, but I think she loved being able to share the experience with her passengers, for many of whom this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was as delighted by her reaction as by the Aurora itself!

Then, the camps took me all the way to Papua, the Malukus, and Northern Sulawesi. Papua, the eastern-most province in Indonesia, shares an island with Papua New Guinea, which is no longer even part of Asia. The Malukus perch between the waters of the Pacific and the Indian Oceans. I felt like I had been carried to a land that was “in no one continent and in no one sea,”* but truly on the edge of the world. Had I gone any farther away from home, I would have gotten closer. After a day spent scuba diving with my friend Jessica in Ambon, just as we were getting back to the resort, maybe 100 dolphins swam alongside our boat, jumping and twirling out of the water. They played and swam within 100 yards of the boat for a good 15 minutes before continuing on their way. The boat captain and dive guides were as thrilled as us; despite taking tourists out weekly, they said they had only seen so many dolphins a handful of times.

Then, I traveled to Bunaken, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, with mountains rising from the sea and coral walls sinking to the bottom fo the sea. To complete my trilogy of stunning sights, and to balance out the vast, atmospheric phenomena and Disney-esque animal migration, I got to see my first seahorse while scuba diving here. He was a tiny little guy no bigger than my pinky fingernail, and pure white. I would have swum right by if my guide hadn’t pointed him out as he clung to the coral.

All of this has helped me to feel that I lead a really charmed life. I’ve had so many incredible opportunities, but I don’t feel like I have gone out and chased them – I feel like they have just come to me at the right time. This trip to Indonesia kind of fell right into my lap, in fact. Through all the years, though, the most important thing that I have learned is that who you are with is more important than who you are. When I think back to this trip to Indonesia, I’ll probably remember the aurora, the dolphins, and the seahorse, but I’ll also remember the people I shared those sights with. The charming students at the camps and my talented fellow counselors will loom even larger in my memory. Those girls at camp so many years ago taught me a lesson I still am learning today: there is always a new friend to be made and a new relationship to be built, if you just accept the invitation.

*Laurence Blair, Ring of Fire

January 29, 2014

The Opposite of Love’s a Need for Rest

by Tabitha Kidwell

Karaoke is interesting for me because I am always shocked to see the actual lyrics of songs. I can be relied upon to have sung them incorrectly for years. I was shocked to learn that in “Beat it,” Michael Jackson sang “no one wants to be defeated” rather than “no one wants to beat a fetus.” I mean, who does?

Last summer, driving home from a Lumineers concert with my friend Nate, I turned to him and asked “Do you really think the opposite of love is a need for rest?” He almost crashed the car laughing, because the actual words are “The opposite of love’s indifference.” I’ll admit that does make more sense, but my version really resonates with me right now. When you boil it down, the time we are spending with Indonesian high schoolers at these camps is just loving them. Look past the distracting games, songs, and silliness, and the important thing is that we are spending time together, building relationships and sending the message that they are important people. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.

Unfortunately, all this loving has left me exhausted. Because of troubles with my Indian visa, I had to delay my departure, and I didn’t get to Indonesia until the evening before our camp planning meeting. Within 36 hours of arriving in Indonesia, I was signing in campers. After the national camp, I went straight to visit Salatiga, and was caught up in a whirlwind 2-day visit where I actually got to see most of the people who had been so important to me for 2 years! Then, I took an overnight flight to Manokwari and helped lead the regional camp there. I flew to Ambon after that and basically collapsed in fatigue at my friend Jess’ house. We did some visiting of her city, ate a lot of rujak (sliced fruit topped with a sweet and spicy peanut sauce – trust me, it’s good), and even got to scuba dive one day, but I basically just slept and relaxed all week.

We led the Ambon camp last weekend, and then I flew to north Sulawesi to scuba dive at Bunaken, which is supposed to be one of the best dive sites in the world. The first morning here, I was fighting a cold, but I thought I was well enough to dive. The dives were amazing: great visibility and easy to navigate currents; lots of turtles, nudibrachs, and colorful fish; coral walls that seemed to stretch to the very bottom of the sea. When I surfaced, I felt better than I had before the dive – my nasal passages had been cleared out by nature’s giant neti pot. But that afternoon, I started coughing and turned feverish. I can’t remember a time I felt so sick and weak (at least with no alcohol involved!). So I slept 12 hours that night and spent most of the next day taking cold showers and letting the hotel staff deliver ginger tea to my hammock. I intend to spend the rest of my time here resting up in preparation for my final camp in Kendari. It’s too bad I can’t dive here, but if you’re going to be sick, you may as well be sick in a tropical paradise!

January 6, 2014

Visa Woes

by Tabitha Kidwell

There are many things that have kept me from blogging the past few weeks, but one major distraction has been trying to get my visa to go to India. Turns out, it’s a stressful process. And in my case, more stressful than anything should ever be.

I will take full responsibility for this whole snafu because I’ve been fairly certain I was going to India since I got home in July. I could have sent my application in then, but I didn’t even consider the possibility of needing a visa until the end of November, when an someone who had been to India asked me if I had one yet. I’ve been flitting all over Southeast Asia for the past two years getting visas on arrival or online a week before. I just didn’t even think about it.

So, I started working on it all at the end of November. I had to get a new drivers license that showed my new address, new id photos taken that showed my ears, a cashiers check, and a return mailing envelope. That may not sound like that much, but I was spending most of my time at Christmisc. at that point, and it took me like a week to get it all together. I mailed everything on December 6, and they got it on December 9. At this point, I wasn’t worried at all, given that they said on their website that it would take 7-11 business days, and there were still 18 business days before I had to depart for Indonesia/India/etc.

Well, I should have been worried. Ironically, the Indian consulate outsources their visa processing to a company called BLS. BLS is apparently grossly incompetent. I imagined they were hard at work, checking my travel details and making sure my ears were visible in my picture, but they didn’t even “accept the package” and enter my application into their system until December 17, a week and a half after the post office says they delivered it.

At that point, I started to panic a little. I spent $90 to send a new UPS envelope with overnight delivery in case we ran tight on time at the end (unfortunately, they didn’t end up using it). I called and called and no one answered the phones. I considered sending a muffin basket. I got a new number by calling their Indian citizen services line. I called that number and e-mailed and they “escalated” the processing. Blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda, I continued calling and e-mailing and “escalating” steps in the process until finally it was “dispatched” on Monday, December 30. Plenty of time, I thought. Except that it didn’t show up in the post office tracking for over three days. I called to “escalate” on that third day, was informed that they didn’t know where my passport was, and ended up collapsed on the floor crying and flailing my limbs not unlike a toddler having a temper tantrum. My med student brother suggested I take one of the Percocet from my root canal last summer. Very helpful. Happily, the envelope showed up in the tracking system that night. On Friday morning, I went and talked to some very kind people at the post office and they said it could very possibly arrive on Saturday and I could even come in and pick it up if it arrived Saturday afternoon after the carriers had gone out.

Well, it did not. It is now Monday and I am anxiously waiting for the mail. The tracking system says “out for delivery,” so I feel confident, but wouldn’t be surprised if something else went wrong. I had to cancel last night’s ticket and buy a new one for tomorrow. Here’s the silver lining to this whole saga: I ended up being able to book a one way ticket to Jakarta using frequent flyer miles, and now have a credit on American Airlines. I still have to buy a return ticket, but I should be left with some extra traveling money. And the best news of all: I should be in Jakarta, far away from the “Polar Vortex” currently seizing the midwest, by Thursday afternoon, in plenty of time to do the work I am being paid to do. If my passport comes this afternoon, that is. And if it does not come, I’m probably going to need more Percocet.

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