Saturday, 6 August 2016

Taking a Deep Breath

Stacia and I arrived in Charleston totally done with sitting in the car for hours. By this stage we’d clocked up more than 1,000 miles together driving through four different states.
Charleston is a beautiful city, despite the unrelenting heat we walked around the city enjoying the flower window boxes and the pretty British Colonial homes. It boasts being the friendliest city in America and we saw that play out one afternoon in a restaurant when a middle aged man and his adult son struck up a conversation which ended by us eating some of their food (weird I know) and him buying us another round of drinks before they left for a meeting. Quite a funny story.





My last stop was a small town called Potter Valley, two and a half hours drive north of San Francisco in California, staying with some dear friends Ben and Hannah and meeting their 18 month old son Levi. Every day we sat outside on their deck under the sun umbrella drinking coffee, eating, throwing the ball or stick for Charlie the dog, watching Levi run and play in the yard and chatting. It was a beautiful slow pace to round the trip up nicely. It was really a deep breath for me before getting on a plane back to Australia and facing the world there. We also had a few adventures which included going to Glass Beach, a place I had seen on Instagram but had no idea it was nearby!

Glass Beach California









My flight to Australia was through LA but I didn’t check my second plane ticket until I was getting off the plane in LA. When I checked it I realised it was the wrong flight number and didn’t depart until the following morning. Thinking the check-in desk has made an error I headed for the inquiry desk but couldn’t find any signs for it. After asking the nearest person I could find (who happened to be a very nice looking young male pilot) where I could locate the Virgin Australia desk, the lady at the desk informed me that the flight had been cancelled and to follow a list of verbal directions to find the shuttle to the hotel and return the following morning as my plane ticket already said. So I proceeded out of the terminal without my luggage to look for the hotel shuttle pickup spot. By this time it was about 11pm, I hadn’t eaten since 3pm, I was tired and stressed and there was so much traffic, vehicles beeping at each other and I couldn't see the shuttle I needed, that I was on the verge of tears. I didn’t want to stay overnight in LA, I just wanted to get home!
Eventually the hotel shuttle that I was waiting for turned up and I sighed a massive sigh of relief. Arriving at the hotel there was a really long line of passengers in the same situation as mine and by the time I had a room key it was past midnight. Waiting again, this time for the kitchen to make me a cold salad as dinner, I eventually made it up to the top floor. They said I was upgraded and had to use my room key just to get up to the top floor, but I only had 6 hours before I had to be out the door again and back at the airport. I certainly appreciated the massive bed despite not sleeping well, too afraid I’d miss my alarm and consequently my flight if I slept too deeply.

Arriving in Brisbane in the afternoon meant that I was able to walk into the arms of my dad and my little sister who’d had a baby boy 12 weeks ago. A couple of hours later we were driving up the range to my home town and here I am two weeks later.

In the past two weeks I have spent time with my family, cuddling the baby and playing games with the toddler as well as having real conversations with adult family members. I’ve been welcomed back by the Missions Prayer Team which was so lovely. They gave me a hamper of all things that I love which was a beautiful surprise.
I’ve seen a small handful of friends. I’ve been wishing that just for once when I returned home that I wouldn’t have to be the one contacting people asking to see them. I recognise that they already have their lives, their routines and that my return doesn’t impact their daily life, but at a time when I’m grieving the loss of my former life and trying to figure out my way forward in this one, I don’t want to be the one reaching out.

I’ve already returned to work. I survived three night shifts and was actually welcomed back heartily by the few I still knew but also by those I hadn’t yet met. It will certainly be a transition to work in the Australian system again but at least I have great colleagues to do it with.

If you are interested there is a blog called Velvet Ashes which has a post called How to Welcome Her Back. It gives some good tips for how to deal with a friend who has returned from living overseas.

And now I will turn my attention back to my cup of coffee and the Rio 2016 Olympics and how lovely it is that there is a team of refugees who are able to compete and who have been embraced by the world.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Ripping off the Bandaid

This week when so many of my friends have flown back to their floating home, I am back in Australia and I am staying.

My departure from the ship in June wasn’t really like I thought it would be. I have been the one saying farewell one hundred times over the years and it was actually nothing like I imagined.
I have gone on holidays away from the ship so many times now, that other than having to pack up ALL of the things I have bought and accumulated in the past 5 ½ years, it felt pretty much the same. Walking down the gangway for the last time felt like every other time. Hugging my friends didn’t feel different. Sure, there was an element of sadness but I also felt fairly numb. I walked away from the group of ship family standing on the dock to the waiting car, feeling nothing. The bandaid had been coming off so slowly and painfully during the past month that it was really just time to rip it off. So I moved through the motions of goodbye, waited for the others, hopped into the car, buckled up, waved goodbye and looked behind me twice as we drove off, trying to feel something. Nothing. Blank. Apparently I'm a post-griever.
Several weeks later, it still doesn’t feel real.

I flew out of Durban, through Dubai and on to Seattle. The plane from Dubai to Seattle was pretty empty and so when the opportunity to have four seats to myself arose, I jumped up, covered myself in a blanket and promptly went to sleep laying flat, a rare luxury on a 14 hour flight.
Have any of you watched the BBC series Call the Midwife? It’s one of my favourite TV shows and comes with a 50% chance of tears. Well the airline entertainment had season 5 which I had never seen before, so being overtired and already emotional I sat in my row of four seats and watched Call the Midwife and cried. Eventually I turned the show off and just sat staring at the flight plan on the screen in front of me, thinking about all that had just happened leaving my ship home and cried. Not just silent tears either. Face screwed up and nose streaming sort of tears. No one even noticed.

Arriving in Seattle I was greeted by my friend Molly, who took beautiful care of me. After a shower and a perfect cup of coffee, we hit a Seattle highlight, Pike Place Market. I took in the colours and smells of freshly cut flowers, arts and crafts, seafoods, teas and all sorts of yummy foods. We met up with another ship friend and headed out for a sushi dinner. Around that time I hit a jetlag wall of tiredness and eventually crawled into a dreamy bed and fell fast asleep.



The next day Molly drove me out to Pier 66 where I found my friend Heather and her family, along with the Norwegian Jewel cruise ship for the next adventure. With a mixed apprehension and excitement I boarded the largest ship I’ve ever been on. So many parts of living on a ship were familiar, including the crowds that you fight everywhere to get anywhere. Of course this cruise ship was completely different to the AFM (Africa Mercy). The Norwegin Jewel is 14 decks high, it is also double the length, too many restaurants and bars to count, an art gallery, spas (hot tubs), pools and water slide, a casino and carpeted almost everywhere, just to name a few differences. There are 1,200 crew and I knew none of them, although they were all very friendly. You can eat almost all hours of the day and before you are even hungry it is time to eat again. An event is always taking place and if I hadn’t already learnt how to live with constant activity around me, and fear of missing out (FOMO) I would have been a basketcase. Instead we spent most of our hours on board staring out the windows, eating, reading, eating, playing games, eating, watching shows in the evenings and did I mention eating? Our favourite time of the night was going back to our cabin (called a stateroom on a cruise) all the way down on deck 4 forward and finding our origami towel creation on the bed.


Deck 7 walkways practically disappeared from view they were so long

 
Unfortunately mid June is too early for Salmon in Ketchikan

Ketchikan's harbour

Us at the Mendenhall Glacier, outside of Juneau



Heather checking out the glacier





The train from Skagway

Skagway harbour

One of the seven origami towel creations that we found in the evenings


We visited Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway (all Alaska) and Victoria (B.C. Canada). We walked around each town looking in their local stores, learnt a little bit of history, watched the Lumberjack show in Ketchikan, walked to the Mendenhall glacier in Juneau, took the train up the White Pass and Yukon Route in Skagway and walked the streets of Victoria. It was fun and so beautiful. We saw dolphins and whales, glaciers and icebergs, waterfalls and snow-capped mountains. All the while my mind had intermittently been churning thoughts of returning to Australia and all that comes with it, but to keep my head in the game I tried to concentrate on where I was presently and focus on that.

From Seattle we travelled down to my friend’s town Medford, Oregon. Then the following day after a beautiful morning outdoor church service, different friends (Tim and Karin) picked me up and we drove back up to Portland. There we tasted some of Portland’s delicious foods, Pip’s Original Doughnuts and Chai, Salt and Straw for gourmet ice-cream, schwarmas from a street food truck to name a few. We hiked trails and drove the Fruit Loop tasting wines and ciders while catching up and talking of old times.


Chai and doughnuts at Pip's

Cider tasting at the Hood River Fruit Loop


Onward from Portland I flew to Durango, Colorado where I joined Mercy Ships friends from all over the US, Canada and even my kiwi friend who’s living in Northern Togo. We squeezed into every bed in our generous host’s house, some overflowing into tents, others in pop-up camper vans. Every day held adventures, hiking trails in the mountains (we got hailed on and froze when the temperature dropped significantly and it rained the whole walk down), soaked in the hot springs in Ouray, went white water rafting down the local river with Durango friends, a day out on a shooting range, lots of BBQs and meals together, Dutch Blitz, bocce ball and cornhole games. It was so fun to see so many friends that I hadn’t seen in years. I love it when you can just pick up exactly where you left off.

 
Ouray Hot Springs

Look at the size of this thing!


Hitting the 200yd, 300yd and 400yd targets took just 4 bullets!

The mark where my bullet hit and then ricocheted off and hit Mirm in the forehead



Soothing baby Bennett took some African mama style





The American cornhole game
 

After Colorado I flew to Virgina to see Stacia and her family. I always think it’s interesting to see where your friends grew up and all the things that are normal for them in contrast to your own ‘normal’ upbringing. From Virginia we drove through Charlotte, North Carolina for a quick stop and onward to Nashville, Tennessee where we got to join our friends Josh and Katie for their wedding! Another beautiful ship love story became until-death-do-us-part in a gorgeous outdoor ceremony in the woods of Tennessee.

 




The plan was to explore Nashville the next day and after driving around the music recording studios, walking the streets and eating lunch in a pub with great live country music, I had expired and was reduced to tears in the airport car park after dropping Heather off. I was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to lie down and close my eyes, but with nowhere to go and an 8+ hour drive the following day, we said goodbye to other friends in the city and knocked 2 hours off our drive for the next day, enjoying the golden hour of sunshine hitting the trees as we drove and ending up in a random town, hotel and the 12th bed I'd slept in that trip.

Do you feel tired just reading this? Yeah me too. Let’s take a break.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

I Don’t Want to Forget

It's the time of year I really dislike the most. The hospital has closed and so I am no longer a nurse which means I not only have a different job but I no longer have daily contact with the Malagasy people which leaves me feeling disconnected. I've also said goodbye to no less than 50 friends, many of whom I'll probably never see again unless we put in major effort. Now that the hospital is packed up and I'm sitting at a computer every day, I'm just itching to get out of here and start the next part of the journey. It's not that I want to leave Madagascar it's that my reason for being here, my normal day to day life, has been removed and the crew has shrunk from about 450 to 200. It's so evident by the empty dock and deck 8 loaded full of vehicles, that we're almost ready to hit the open ocean.

I am ready because I feel a little like I have nothing left to give this country or many of those around me. The end of field service sucks you dry of emotion with so many goodbyes. I am dried up like a raisin. I look around the ship which is my home and try to imprint each special thing about it into my memory, the cafe in which I have eaten two meals a day for years, the dining room hustle and bustle which is now quiet and calm, my little cabin space which is now the most empty it has ever been, the short commute to any place I go, two minutes being the longest time it takes to get anywhere on board. Then most importantly I am consciously committing to memory the people that are my family in this place.

You might wonder why I've chosen to stay throughout this period and not just taken flight. Although it's been tough and it's not over yet, I find it is part of the process of letting go and closure to the chapter. As each goodbye is said, a page turns to mark the end of that season, whether it be goodbye to patients, day crew, friends or the closure of the hospital. When I look around I see that those chapters have ended- the hospital is empty, a shell of its former busy self. My friends aren't there anymore, I think I see them or hear their voice but it's a mistake when I turn my head to find them.
Setting sail is the second last chapter in this season. It is a physical departure from Mada that gives time for reflection before jumping onto the next adventure.

After a very rainy month our last weekend in Mada is beautifully sunny, with the odd shower and despite the fact that I'm tied to the ship with a duty nurse pager today I have been able to soak in the rays from the dock, enjoying the warm breeze, the puffy clouds floating in the blue, blue sky, the mooring lines slacking and tightening above the rippling sea. Beneath where my feet hang, tropical fish swim along the dock wall and there's a big fat starfish under the sea visible from the gangway.

Last weekend as I was sitting in a vehicle traveling for hours I watched with a keen eye everything passing me on the streets and decided to make a list of things I might have forgotten to tell you about.

Have I ever told you...

How much the Malagasy people like hats? Everywhere you look on the streets, adults and children alike are wearing hats.


How hard the Malagasy people work planting, harvesting, drying, and readying their rice to eat?


How resourceful they are using travellers palms for plates, spoons, wrapping, drying out for weaving baskets, placemats, bags, anything woven? They build their houses from the dried branches laid on top of each other and woven together.



How many pot holes their roads have? One man we met told us that in French pot holes are called chicken nests. I was told the roads only get worked on close to election time, so most roads go for a long time between being fixed.

How much I love seeing the community movement on the streets? They are selling goods, braiding hair, drying rice, pumping water, washing clothes, weaving, pushing carts, herding zebu, standing on the side of the road selling chickens hung by their bound feet or freshly caught fish.




How the peoples’ faces break into smiles when we speak Malagasy to them? Salama, ina vaovao? Tsy misy vaovao.
 
How clever they are at riding bikes with a second person perched on the front bar, sometimes as small as a toddler?

How beautiful the stretching green landscape and rivers are?



How colourful the woven crafts are?



How the main mode of public transport for long distance is a taxi-bruisse which is a van with four rows of seats? It seats as many people as you can fit across the seat, about 22 altogether. The other modes of transport is pousse-pousse (bicycle pedaled) and tuk tuk (motored).


How my favourite Malagasy lunch or dinner is brochette de zebu or brochette de poulet avec pomme frite or legumes? The best breakfast around is Portuguese omelette, jus grenadelle, cafe au lait and pan au chocolat.


How chickens roam everywhere? It seems no matter where you are, there will be a chicken there scratching around for food. They have long skinny legs and remind me of a T-Rex dinosaur.



How much I love to drink fresh coconut milk from the coconut selling men and women along the beach road? After you finish the milk if you hand it back to them they will cut it open and dig out the flesh for you. It is so delicious. Some stalls even have a fridge to make the coconut milk cold.



Have I ever told you how much I have enjoyed living in this country? Its people are some of the most beautiful I have ever met. It is a land I truly hope I am able to return to in the future, for it holds a large piece of my heart.



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