LIMBO | soggy noodles
Stickers of Jesus and soccer players decorated the front window of a crammed minibus. They quivered on the glass, vibrating from the pressure of Ethiopian pop hits. The bus could be heard long before it was seen. Like an ice cream truck.
Aud and I hopped out and into a thunderstorm. A young dude climbed on the roof, tossed our backpacks down and pointed to a cluster of huts below. We dodged some sheep traffic and inched our way down the steep, muddy trail.
“Saaadetnaaaaa,” we cheered as we slipped, slid and side-stepped. It’s a Moroccan Arabic phrase that means something like good for us, but in a genuine way. Lucky us, we thought as the lush highlands embraced us.
It was the first of our 70 days spent traveling in East Africa. A time and place where we embarked into limbo, an in-between, an unknown. We had recently finished our two year stints with the Peace Corps in Morocco. Then we biked across the country. “I feel like a soggy noodle,” Aud admitted upon leaving. Me too.
So this is the story of two soggy-noodle-humans simultaneously grieving and cheering, adjusting our loads, and trying to mold our shapes amongst the past, present and whatever was (or wasn’t) yet to come. “Saaadetnaaaa,” lucky us.
ETHIOPIA | gather
We naturally gathered together. It’s our nature, it seems, to gather when we slow down and strip life down to its core: the earth and its bottomless offerings, and us complex beings inhabiting it.
In the mornings, we’d warm our palms with ceramic mugs of herbal tea as we awaited the sun’s grand entrance over the mountains. We reciprocated farmers’ greetings with a “salam-lo” and a shoulder tap. Acknowledging humanity. Acknowledging that you, me, he, she, they, we are all human. And we’re all here, together. We’d drink three cups of coffee, as part of the traditional Ethiopian ceremony: a ritual of roasting fresh, green coffee beans, grinding them, and brewing the grounds in a vessel over hot coals. Each cup is thought to transform the spirit. So we drank with intention. Gratitude. And puppies (not traditionally included).
Sometimes we’d gather around the pizza oven, which we built from the earth and shaped with our hands and feet. It was our main project while volunteering at the ecovillage. We celebrated togetherness with pizza parties, dancing around the oven and assembling edible art. With avocado basil pesto. Sun-dried tomatoes. Caramelized onions. Roasted pumpkin and potatoes. Sage, rosemary and basil. We cheered for bubbly crusts and for all the beings who were just being.
The pizza, but more so the gatherings, filled me right up. Mulu. Mulu is an Ethiopian name. It’s Abiy’s mother’s name, meaning full, complete. It’s also the name of Abiy and his wife Valerie’s ecovillage where we volunteered. The bedrock of all this gathering.
Abiy was born and raised in Ethiopia’s Choke Mountains, then matured and pursued education in the capital city. He returned to his homeland despite stigmatization of the Ethiopian countryside. Although only 20 percent of the country’s population live in urban areas, I was told the countryside is often perceived as synonymous with hell. A place everyone yearns to escape. If you escape, never go back. But Abiy did. He returned and launched Mulu, an ecovillage to strengthen his community through sustainable ecotourism with his German wife and business partner Valerie. It’s a gathering spot for locals and travelers alike, a space to connect: with the earth, the unknown, ourselves, one another.
At Mulu, we shared every meal, eating off the same large plates. Boiled potatoes, garlicky-gingery shiro (a spicy paste made from chickpea flour), collard greens and carrots, tomato and onion salads. All atop injera, a circular, slightly sour flatbread with a circumference similar to my wingspan. Each meal was a masterpiece, all thanks to Yahyish, the chef, an artist, a queen. A lighthearted, yet fiery lady who cooked three or four gourmet meals a day. All over fire. All while chasing chickens and ants out of her kitchen.”You know something’s wrong,” Valerie once informed us, “if half an hour passes and Yahyish hasn’t laughed.”
In the evenings, we’d gather around a campfire. With soup, stories, silence, areki (a local liquor) and sometimes freshly harvested honeycomb. Our bellies would ache from sugar or laughter overload. Deep belly laughs were inevitable with Anne around, a French volunteer and storyteller. We relished her daily updates about battling the rats that rustled about in her straw roof and kept her awake at night. To scare them away, she’d play YouTube videos of cats meowing.
Aside from class clowning, Anne also oozes wisdom. “When you explore a new culture, you can’t just be open-minded,” she once explained. “You need to be reborn.” And so Aud and I, the soggy noodles, tried to find our shape by digesting the world with fresh eyes. For me, this resulted in 34 journal pages of Ethiopian observations and thoughts.
The pages are full of lists like, “children eat leftovers · wearing blankets · doctors gossip · smell of burning eucalyptus · four kids ran with me for 50 minutes · i think i made made eye contact with a hippo · ‘he isn’t just my father, he is my life,’ · bee wings and legs in honey · 180 fasting days per year · plastic jelly shoes · goats get high off of khat · ‘you realize that your expensive apartment in the city is where you find your biggest sense of loneliness’ · six hour long church services starting at 3 a.m.” As I’d jot down notes, however significant or not, while crowding around the evening fire, Anne would advise me, “don’t write bad things about us,” she’d smirk, “okay?”
We also followed the moon each night as it cycled through its phases, a sure sign that the world was spinning. And with it, we were changing too. But I denied this at the time. I didn’t want to change. I didn’t want to lose fragments of my identity, fearing it would mean I would stray too far from all the people I had come to love. Fearing I’d revert back to my “American self,” someone consumed in productivity and trapped by narrow possibilities of living. Welcoming change meant accepting that there are parts of myself that I’m willing to edit, that I have flaws. It meant I am not a permanently certain, confident being. It meant that I am human.
But I wasn’t ready to accept my nature in Ethiopia. I wanted to grow, without change. I wanted only to expand. To preserve the past and all the people I’d met and all the lessons I’d learned, carry them with me, and add more. They were intimately woven into me. If I lost them, I feared, I’d lose myself.
I collected information, smells, tastes, sights, feelings, conversations, sounds, emotions, dreams, love. Even if they weren’t mine for taking. Believing that I was nurturing my soul and becoming more whole and complete, I gathered everything up and meticulously packed it away to carry forward.
I was stuffed to the brim with things I cared about: people in the states and in Morocco, new friends in Ethiopia. The sun, the moon. The women carrying baskets of potatoes on their backs who yelled “IZO!” (stay strong!) as I jogged by. The men splitting boulders with a single whack of an axe. The monkeys, that hippo, the puppies. The impromptu marathon with Liam. The surprise sheep birth. Koti mixing cocktails and hiding under stools. Chris being late for lunch. Mati’s leadership. Aud and her unapologetic laugh that awarded her the nickname “Kaka.” The prevalence of HIV. Valerie roasting stick bread. Abiy and his “hallelujahs.” Anne and Yahyish’s sisterhood. The textbooks written in English that no one can understand. The man outside the bus who told me, “Chris I love.” The three shepherd kids who hid in bushes and jumped out to scare us. Singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” on New Year’s Eve followed by gunshots. Anne referring to us as “bellies with legs.” Utta treating us to German spaetzle. Alimetu helping us buy peanut butter. Group hugs. The plump French man who articulated that Aud had “fallen in love” in Morocco, affirming one of the few truths we knew.
I too had fallen in love. Profoundly. With so, so much. “I cared deeply about everything,” in the wise words of Liam, “and my mind didn’t want to let any of it go.” So I didn’t. I was no longer a soggy noodle, I convinced myself. I was sturdy and overwhelmingly supported by all these things I cared about. I was full. Mulu.
KENYA | carry
A guest named Fikir visited Mulu while we were there. She brought tea, enough to share, and enough to keep us stocked with plenty after she left. We drank Fikir-tea for the following weeks. In fact, I am still drinking Fikir-tea six months later.
When Fikir learned that Aud and I were planning to pass by her home in Kenya with no set plans, she immediately invited us in. “Come stay with me,” she offered. “It’s just me and my daughter at home.”
A month later, Fikir and her daughter Tsedi waited for us in the rain on the edge of rolling green tea farms outside of Nairobi. They welcomed us in with hot tea and introduced us to their dogs like one-eyed Lucky. “I feel like I’m at my grandma’s house,” Aud admired. Me too, I agreed, per usual.
Aud and I are often on the same wavelength, operating as a singular unit. We spent all waking and sleeping hours together for over one hundred days and nights. In the same tent, the same twin bed, the same mustard shirts, all while exploring wide spectrums of emotions. Aud’s been on the ground crying. I’ve woken us both up from middle-of-the-night screams. Sometimes, we know the other is silently shivering in pain, so we wait it out together. Maybe suggest a peanut snack. “If I open my mouth, I’ll cry,” I gulped out once. “Don’t worry,” Aud assured. “I’ll do the talking.” We’d yelp with joy and scream on mountain tops. Play air guitar to Blink-182 when we needed a playful release. We measured our emotions in terms of how “fragile” and/or “strong” we were feeling, and we carried each other through the choppy fragile waves and the celebrations of strength too.
Upon entering Fikir’s world, Aud and I both felt fragile. But comforted. Loved. Safe. Fikir gave us warm beds, hot showers, huge juicy mangoes, honey she harvested herself, many tours: of her garden, of the tea farms, of a fancy mall nearby. I think all women are superwomen, but Fikir is uber-superwoman. She composts scraps of veggies that she grows herself, crafts herbal remedies, cares for over 100 chicks in her chicken coop, reviews research for international journals, plays tennis, practices yoga, and even makes her own dog food (gourmet dog food, I should clarify, that made Aud and I giddy to eat ourselves until we learned it was actually for dogs). And on top of all that and more, she raises a courageous and inquisitive daughter. Fikir reminded me how secretly selfless mothers can be, giving me an urge to rush home and hug my own mama.
Fikir shared insight with us, about everything, it seemed. “The muddier, the better,” when it comes to kids, she advocated. She expressed frustration about various events of grouping, othering, racism. “People forget that we’re all just humans,” she emphasized. She actually still gives me advice to this day, like inspiring me to experiment with sweet potato flour. She introduced Aud and I to the ins-and-outs of life in Kenya: the lasting impact of colonization, the capitalist-driven open economy (there’s even a Coldstone Creamery) and how it’s diminished communal culture, the highly competitive professional sphere (a result of many foreigners settling down in Nairobi), the increasing obesity rates due to the status-driven push to consume more processed foods (the more processed = the more expensive = higher status), the boarding school programs that kids often start at seven-years-old and thus never really know their parents.
Tsedi taught us a lot too. Like mother, like daughter. Her wide-mouthed, front-toothless glee reignited our own. She shared her art supplies that we used to make a book together titled “Tsedi’s Big Ride” after she became a bike-riding-champ within an hour and almost rode down a nearly vertical drop. This memory still plays in my head in slow motion, the only time in my life that I literally froze in fear. Tsedi reminded us to stay curious, brave and gung-ho. About things like bike rides and chameleons and strawberry ice cream. “Who wants ice cream?” Fikir surprised us after dinner one night. The three of us gals exploded, “WE DO!”
Tsedi and Fikir carried us through a particularly vulnerable time. I left Ethiopia knowing I was full, touched by many people and experiences, but I didn’t realize the weight of it all until we arrived in Kenya. I am who I am because of all the people who have impacted me over the years, I was certain, but who am I without them? And what will happen — to me, to them — if I let them go? These questions haunted me.
My load had become so full, and I had carried it so far. I felt like all the seams of my backpack and my very own skin were going to rip open. Maybe my fingernails would pop off. All the holes, my insecurities, my flaws, the unknown were shining through. “I am small and swirling,” I wrote in my journal, “I am not in charge here.”
I never have been in charge, actually, but I like the illusion of control. So at this particular point in time, I continued to pretend. I cared, so I carried it all. In our restless fragility, Aud and I hit the Kenyan coast. We camped outside a club. Laying in our tent basically naked and still sweating from the humidity, we passively participated in karaoke night until early hours of the morning. We ate porridge in the shade of banana trees and drank lots of fruit juices and bopped to the early 2000s American R&B on public minibuses.
We floated in the Indian Ocean, and basked in the freedom of temporarily feeling weightless. But we’d return back to shore, back to a reality with a different type of gravity. We felt victimized by the weight. Trapped. Everything was too important to release. The people, the stories, the emotions, the memories. They occupied my mind and body. They deserved integrity. They deserved to maintain their power and meaning, but to also be set free. And maybe we did too.
TANZANIA | r e l e a s e
Goofy chaos ensued at a bus station near the base of Tanzania’s Usambara Mountains, per usual at transportation stations as a foreigner in new lands. Aud and I ordered takeaway for our final bus ride of the day. I struggled to understand the cost of our eggy-fries, disoriented by the new currency. A man drilled Aud with a series of nosy questions, another wanted to share his business card, another commanded that the egg-fry-seller was a criminal. And another shouted and whistled and yelled that we were going to miss our bus. “Jackie?” I heard from behind and spun around to see a white woman.
She happened to be the new manager at an ecolodge a couple of hours away, our destination that we had planned to camp at that evening. We had conversed briefly over WhatsApp, and here she was. Joining and dissolving our chaos. Dagmara, a Polish woman, who had spent the last decade managing riads in Morocco. She rescued five Moroccan pups from the alleys of Marrakech’s medina, and she and her dog gang had recently made the leap from Morocco to Tanzania.
A dozen or so thatched-roof cottages were perched atop a cliff. Like the heavens just dropped them there, similar to that house in Pixar’s Up. The birds whizzed by like jets. The clouds engulfed us. People said you could see Mt. Kilimanjaro across the valley on a clear morning, but we never did. Even without Kili views, the energy of the place captivated us and our two night stay turned into over two weeks.
We didn’t have many goals up there. Mainly just to breathe and watch the clouds drift by. We ate chapati, a pan fried flat bread and sipped milky-tea in the mornings. Just Aud and me, a chatty team. Somehow our mindsets shifted. In Kenya, it was just Aud and me. Holes where other people had been. Now, it was just us! “Thank the skies and the mountains and the moon and all the grand marvels in this world for Aud,” I wrote in my journal. “A forever friend, a twin, an air guitar rockstar, a part of me.”
Tanzania marked the peak of my anxieties. Everything finally surfaced, then erupted. I was heavy. Full of good things, yes, so many good things. But also dead weight. Grief, guilt, powerlessness, regret, confusion, unresolved anger, unresolved pain and others’ pain, trauma and others’ traumas. As Radia, my Moroccan mother would say, “nti kathzzi ljbel” (you’re carrying mountains). I was, and I dragged both my own mountains and other peoples’ mountains all the way up this very mountain. I realized I was victimizing myself to the weight, with no good reason, so I embraced transformation, evolution, change. I didn’t just add, expand, collect and gather. This time, I became an agent of the weight instead of a weary bearer. I was simply too tired to hold on any longer.
We took a lot of grassy lays and monitored the bugs crawling. Metallic caterpillars. Fuzzy caterpillars. Pokey, spiny caterpillars. And thiiiiiiick spiders. We cherished the sunset and painted with watercolors. We paused to analyze the flowers, realizing that the flora and fauna was similar to that of Aud’s yard in California. We ate jackfruit, coconut, mango, onions, avocado. Danced the macarena with some gals at a soccer match. We jogged, powered by fist-bumps and “poa!” (cool!) encouragement from strangers. We marveled at clouds of white butterflies. We once witnessed two women balancing 12 bricks on their heads, which marveled us even more. Almost anywhere we went, we’d hear choruses of “haallooo, haaaaaallooo hallo-hallo-hallo.” Little kids with powerful voices, like alarms in the distance.
Everyday, we’d walk a mile down the mountain to eat lunch in town. The same meal day after day. Ugali, a thick, sticky maize porridge that has a similar consistency to playdough. We’d shape it with our hands, then use it to scoop up our collard greens and beans. The price of the meal varied from day to day, between $0.50 to $2.00, with no relation to the food itself. It just depended on if the honest boy or his devious brother took our order. We nicknamed another really grin-y boy, maybe honest maybe not, “the cheeser.” He shared spots on his wooden bench with us and welcomed us even more with fist-bumps and high-fives between bites.
We dedicated a couple pages in our journals to a list of realizations that we’d had throughout our months of traveling, some being “eat where the locals do · don’t book return flights home · the power of a high five · meals are better when shared (and when eaten with your hands) · HEY! DON’T FORGET TO BRUSH YOUR TEETH! · all that we’re really searching for: to love and to be loved freely.”
Aud and I chatted about the concept of loving freely often. How deeply we wanted all the people we loved to be set free, from societal expectations, draining relationships, stress and anxiety, lack of resources, lack of agency, their own doubts and self-criticisms, overwhelming careers, some skewed view of success or an illusion of how they should be living. From all internal and external constraints. We just wanted to love, from afar or up close, so that people felt capable, powerful and a sense of bottomless freedom. Both Aud and I had been magically loved in this way, and love’s job is to extend.
It’s a really wonderful idea, but tread carefully, because this desire can spiral and consume you. Because no matter how much you love, people are trapped for reasons beyond the resources you have to fix. Beyond your control and mine too. We can’t set each other free. This realization will make you weep into a puddle on the floor in the corner of a bus station, scream in your sleep and carry the weight of the world that isn’t yours for carrying.
We couldn’t set others free, no matter how intimately we loved and cared. But we could cultivate freedom in our own lives. We practiced this during our final weeks of traveling, granting ourselves permission to make decisions simply by what brought us joy. Sleeping in or air-guitaring or laying in the grass. We were present, awake and aware, but we weren’t consumed. We took notes, acknowledged darkness, sought out the good, marveled at it and cherished it, and gave it back. We didn’t carry any of it with us. We didn’t inhibit it. We just gave thanks, to the butterflies for migrating and to the honest boy and his dishonest brother too. We breathed it all in and then exhaled it all back out, and we continued on. We hopped on the backs of motorcycles, bouncing down the mountain, feeling free and so full of buoyant love for all the people and places and moments that led us there. We had loved and we had left, and we would love and leave again.*
And again. And again. And again.
Perpetual LIMBO | surrender
It was a Sunday morning outside of Moshi, an urban hub at the base of Kilimanjaro, and people were strolling to church. I was on my final jog while abroad. Some kids chased me, giggling in their lacy floral dresses and collared shirts. We shared a minute or two together, then parted with high fives and continued on. Them, to church. Me, to Chicago.
Mt. Kilimanjaro was finally out of her haze. She towered above, proving that something mightier is always looming. Even if you can’t see it. I didn’t know which mighty thing I would experience next. Maybe another high five from a small stranger in a floral dress. Maybe something much less grand than that.
All I knew was that I was a soggy-noodle of a human next to this big ol’ mountain, surrendering to it and to all the days that were to come. Grateful for my mobility and the fact that human growth doesn’t take millions of years like it does for mountains. I would spin around and change with the world. I couldn’t avoid it, like I had naively believed just 70-something days earlier. I let go of my illusion of control, and I jogged forward with a weightless curiosity. I was detached, floating. A sweet surrender that marked the dawn of a new journey.** One where I’m trying to learn to cheer for myself the same way I do about pizza crust bubbles. One of release, healing and loving myself freely for the very first time. I’m praying to sweet mama nature and all mighty things, like high fives and butterflies, that I will continue to step freely. And even more, that you will too.
* Liam can articulate this concept of freeing love better than I know how. Here’s a lil excerpt from one of his essays. “Love is not to possess something. Love is more to join your own person with the world that you are in. I love the world and the people around me, so I will join myself to them and share in that moment. And then I will move on, and connect to the land, the people, and the skies of the next place. Love is to commit, to entwine yourself with the world and to say YES! And yet it is also a nihilistic love, one that must detach when circumstances change, and move on to another place and love again. It is knowing that nothing really matters, so all things are equally deserving of love.”
** I want to emphasize journey. This is a nice place to end this post, but since this initial conscious “surrender” of sorts, I’ve picked up way more than I can carry, spread myself thin, trapped myself with ways i think i should be living, and have weighed myself down with self-imposed anxieties, standards, doubts, beliefs, etc. I’ve had to adjust my load again. And again and again and again.