LANGUAGE

My optimism for assimilating the African languages was dashed early on in my service here. Having always felt I had an affinity for language, I was in for a rude awakening when attempting to seriously study Chichewa. Malawi’s official languages are English and Chichewa but there are at least a dozen other dialects and languages spoken throughout the country, particularly in rural villages along borders with Tanzania, Zambia, and Mozambique. At times even the students are unable to translate for me when we have patients that speak Swahili or other rarely heard dialects.

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Rice field near Chitimba

That said, one of the most important features of Malawi culture is greeting people. So my efforts in language acquisition have focused on mastering the greetings. Further complicating the issue is that one never knows which language to greet in! If I am in Lilongwe, I can be pretty certain that Chichewa will work. In Mzuzu where I live, most people speak Tumbuka, but also speak Chichewa. The locals get frustrated if you speak Chichewa and want you to greet in Tumbuka!

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Woman selling fish in Karonga

On weekends, I often go to Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi where they speak Tonga. So do I offend by offering my greeting in Chichewa? Or Tumbuka? When in Rome, do as the Romans….so I have been striving to at least learn the basics and actually now, feel pretty confident that I have mastered the essentials.

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Sunrise storm brewing over Nkhata Bay

I have been so fortunate to be living in Mzuzu, the largest city in northern Malawi. It is cooler here, less congestion, more trees, and generally safer, though overall Malawi is a pretty safe country. Directly outside the rear gate to the campus is the most beautiful dirt road that has given me the opportunity to run through the villages and farmland in the very early morning hours.

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Girls and their masks

It took me about a month to summon the courage to step outside the back gate, alone, and explore this road that was beckoning me to continue my lifelong passion for running solo in nature. I am much more content experiencing the endorphins and the calorie busting this activity provides.

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Patient ward in Chitipa

Day by day, I would advance my distance just a bit once I felt safe to continue, that no one would jump out of the bushes or maize fields to accost me. I know this sounds paranoid, but really, running alone on an isolated dirt road in the middle of Africa seemed a daunting prospect for me.

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Kelvin making lunch at One Love Cafe

Now, I am happy to report I can run for 30 minutes out and 30 minutes returning back to home on campus. The boogy men have stayed away and the villagers have become quite accustomed to the azungu woman running by in the early hours. I begin at 5:45 mostly because it is light enough, cool enough, and there are fewer people out to stare at me.

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The road is traveled by some walking to work, while others carry water from the bore hole, and often entire families will carry their hoes on their way to the fields. Already by this hour, many men and women are tending their crops with their hoes.

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My creation of spring rolls, African style

The children walk to school in small groups, carrying their thin, fragile, blue plastic bags holding their snacks and their plastic cup for water during the day. They all wear uniforms in varying degrees of cleanliness and repair. Many are sucking on mangos or sugar cane as they shuffle on to school which is at least 1-2 KM from home. Most are largely unimpressed with my activity and are so shy they will not even acknowledge me when I greet them or make eye contact, but others will shout at me from their homes calling, “Azungu, azungu!”

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View while dining at One Love Cafe

By now, I am a curious but well-established sight in the morning. Most probably wonder what the hell would inspire me to run up and down the steep and dusty hills, unaccompanied. Of course, I have been well advised to run in loosely fitting capris, and a full T-shirt so as not to horrify the locals by having too much skin exposed. The challenge for me is what language to use when greeting the people along the way. Do I use Tumbuka, Chichewa, or English. I have played with the variations, not wanting to offend anyone and by now am able to discriminate and choose a language accordingly.

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Yellow Cassia trees EVERYWHERE

Here’s a sample of morning greeting in Tumbuka:

Me: Mauka uli

Them: Ndauka makola, kwal imwe

Me: Ndauka makola, towanga chomene

Them: Yewo, yewo

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Goofy Level 2 students

To further complicate my language processing, I have intermittently studied Afrikaans. Though challenging, I actually enjoy learning this one and find it a bit easier than the tribal languages which are largely incomprehensible to me when someone is speaking fast. I am heading to Cape Town in a week so am hoping to practice my Afrikaans while in South Africa.

Tiwonana!! (See you later)

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CLARITY

Two days after my last post, I received emails from both my sisters regarding mom’s failing health, and an email from my brother about Zoey’s well being. The night before I had some very vivid dreams, one of which was a hawk resting on a branch with his back and tail feathers facing me. Two white horizontal stripes emblazoned the tail, representing my 2 choices.

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Village kids greeting me on my morning run

When I awoke, my decision was clear. All of this information seemed to descend upon me as messages that indeed, it is time to return home. A feeling of calm certainty washed over me and I felt for the first time, very strong and clear about the decision. This seems like a miracle to me, that after wrestling and struggling with it for weeks, all of a sudden I had clarity and relief. Truly I believe it could not have come a moment sooner, and I thank God for patience and guidance during this time of transition and discernment.

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Sara’s baby piglets

After emailing PC, SEED, and the Nursing Department about my decision, I felt a huge sense of relief. For the next few days it was difficult to make it through the morning at the hospital, and when returning home at noon, I had to lie down. I went to bed at 8 pm for the next three nights, so exhausted, yet peaceful.

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Kate, mom, Carrie

Clearly, my body and spirit were so traumatized by this decision process and now I have such a sense of relief, and excitement about returning home. We have decided to move mom to Florida where my sister Mary lives so someone will be able to visit with her every week. After facetiming with Zoey for the first time in 8 months, I can visualize the reunion we will have, reducing me to a sobbing mess.

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Male surgical ward

This is what I have to look forward to: supporting my daughter, Kate, on her return from the DR after 3 years of PC service. Visiting with daughter, Carrie, and sharing her excitement about her job and new life in Austin. Spending time with mom. Walking in the woods and cuddling with Zoey. Visiting my 5 grand children. Catching up with friends. Figuring out where to live! Perhaps going to graduate school. How lucky am I!

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Traffic on my morning run

For now, I am going to enjoy and savor every moment and opportunity in Malawi. I am aware on some level of the beginning of the process of detaching, and want to be careful not to withdraw my heart and my spirit as a protection from the pain and sorrow I will feel on leaving.   I have many opportunities to continue to immerse myself and engage in fellowship with the peeps here.

Today I sat in church for 3 hours listening to the entire service in Chichewa, though Father Kamanga was kind enough to welcome me in English at the beginning, the only white person there.

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Jamming at Macondo Camp

Wednesday afternoon I met with my “girls’ group”, a group of orphaned teenage girls, to discuss sex, HIV, and dating. Wednesday evening I attended the 50th anniversary celebration of Brother Michael’s commitment to the St John of God Brothers, a beautiful tribute to a wonderful and kind friend who has loved and supported me here. Thursday evening 25 or so of us mzungu partied at Macondo Camp and listened to a band perform folk and county music, guitars and mandolin! Friday evening I treated my Level 2 clinical students to a feast to celebrate the end of our rotation together. We talked at the table for 3 hours.

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Brother Michael celebrating

Saturday, a student visited with me for an hour to discuss her choice not to have sex with her boyfriend of 4 months. She feels pressure from her friends to sleep with him though she is not ready and feels alienated from her girlfriends as a result.  So these are the real and tender moments that still grace my every day life.

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Goofy Level 2 students

Thanks to Harvey Blatt, I now have a terabyte drive filled with movies to watch as evening diversion if needed, and popcorn I can make on the stove (no microwave).   I have recently just completed Season 2 of Breaking Bad, WOW! Riveting….and at times necessary!

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Girls’ group dancing

This week I travel 4 hours north to Chitipa and Karonga to supervise students in the district hospitals. This is stressful as it is a new environment, hotels are strange and gross, and the food is meager and boring. Another chance for adventure and new experiences! Stay tuned…

 

 

 

 

CHOICES

Indecisive, fickle, on the fence, wavering, waffling, of two minds, vacillating, unclear, tentative….all words that describe my current state of mind. Yikes! The decisions later in life become more complex and burdened with pros and cons that can be examined from more than one point of view.

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My garden in the afternoon

Faced with the decision of extending my service here in Malawi has become one of the most challenging choices in the last 10 years! Initially I believed that 1 year was more than enough to be away from home, family and friends. Now, there is a longing in the pit of my gut to stay for another year.

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Beautiful village woman

This seems like an insane proposition. I am in a country that is imploding. The Malawi kwacha (currency) is propelling itself towards outrageously low stakes against the dollar.   The government continues to put more in its pocket than it gives to the people. Throughout the country, families are struggling daily to put food in their mouths. Theft, corruption, disease are rampant.

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Kitty family

On a daily basis, someone comes to ask for food, a job, or money for school. I am approached in the parking lot, the hospital, my front door, on the street. I witness intense suffering in the hospital every minute I am there. Wounds are ghastly, infections are aggressive, poverty is everywhere. People are dirty, smelly and bugs crawl out of wounds.

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Carol at the rose quartz mine

Yet, living in this country opens my heart and inspires me to focus on something outside myself. I forget about the minutia of whether I will have a chai or a latte at Starbucks. Whether I will prepare the $20/pound swordfish or the tenderloin. Whether to buy the new shoes I have been coveting at Macy’s. Life becomes simple and beloved.

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Zoo after a swim

I believe it is this simplicity and tenderness that have embraced me here in Malawi. The people are gentle, uncomplicated, kind, warm and have completely opened their hearts to me. There is great humility here, in every positive sense of the word.  Living in Africa is mysterious, challenging, alluring, and seductive and that appeals to my sense of adventure.

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Boniface at attention!

Returning to the US during the election process does not appeal to my apathetic political spirit. I would rather remain in the bush with the zebras. It is far more soothing to my soul than getting myself riled up over some political debate.  AND OH BY THE WAY, it is -20 in Vermont tonight!

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male surgical ward

Severing my attachment to this environment would be difficult. My brain and spirit are like sponges now, sucking up every morsel of information and experience, incorporating them into my soul. There are days I cry, and days I am at such peace with the simplicity of my life here. I am leading a project at the hospital to improve pain management ie there is very little. The objective is less patient suffering. I would hate to leave with this unfinished. I adore my students. The teaching is invigorating, challenging but joyful.

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Circumstances at home compel me to re-examine my choice. Mom is slowly failing, I haven’t seen her in 8 months. Carrie has moved to Austin, started an exciting new life, new job. Kate is returning home after 3 years in the PC herself, requiring tremendous adjustment. My precious 24 hour companion, Zoey, continues to search for me, but is in good health. They all evoke feelings of guilt, desire, responsibility, and a deep longing to come home. It feels highly indulgent and self-centered to stay.

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View of the lake from Chitimba escarpment

Most days I am unwilling to let anyone in on the state of my decision. It is a moving target. I have approximately 10 days before it will be too late to change my mind. My decision must stand. In the meantime I have done Ben Franklins, prayed, meditated and sought the advice of friends, family and colleagues. I am still torn. In the end, it is up to me and I have to trust that there is no wrong decision; I will be supported in whatever I chose.

CONTRASTING LIFESTYLES

This is a challenging time in Malawi. The Malawi kwacha (currency) is in deep trouble, recently falling to an all time low this week of 720MK/1 USD. When I arrived in July it was 480. This time of year is very difficult for Malawians as the rains have come but the new crops are growing and not ready for harvest. Most people have run out of food and are hungry. You see it reflected in their faces, their sluggish pace. It wasn’t until just recently that people were begging or asking for jobs or $$ both on campus and in the parking lot at Shoprite.

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Patient laundry at the hospital

For the first time in my cushy life I am witnessing firsthand people going hungry daily, begging for food and money. People are desperate. There were riots in Kasungu 3 days ago because there was no maize AT ALL for nsima, the local staple food. People were demonstrating and impatient waiting in line for the government to deliver maize to the location so there would be food for those without. Of course, everyone was afraid they would not get their allotment.

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Delectable nsima served at hospital

As we traveled home from the northernmost region I was struck by the number of children standing on the side of the road with buckets full of mushrooms, mangos, and cassava for sale. They sit or stand in small groups by the side of the road all afternoon, waving for you to stop to buy their food, a heartbreaking sight.

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Painting traffic lines by hand

Imagine the folly of encouraging students to teach their patients about protein diets for wound healing! Patients receive 1 meal per day from the hospital consisting of nsima and beans. Other nourishment must be provided by the family or guardian. When a patient suffers from severe burns or an infected leg wound, we educate them on the importance of eating protein. These people cannot even afford to buy powdered milk, never mind cheese, eggs, beans or chicken. Generally, the caregivers provide some kind of disgusting liquid porridge; it is brown, liquid and is made with flour, sugar and water; no protein and very few nutrients. If you are willing to eat it, it fills the stomach. At times they are able to afford an egg or maybe some small fish for 50 MK, about 7 cents. Otherwise, they go hungry.

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Chitipa countryside

I have smuggled food into the units for my favorite patients but this is dangerous as it alienates them from the others, gives me a bad rep, and isn’t really fair. But I do the best I can to control my desire to feed everyone. I have learned that I can’t give everyone something; the beggars, the children, the women, even the students ask for things on a daily basis. It causes such internal conflict and moral dilemma. How does one choose? I have my own moral compass and I just do the best I can….

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Quail for sale at the market

Meanwhile, I am living the life in my own little world. I have an incredible 3 bedroom house to myself, a beautiful fenced and private back yard, a part-time gardener/clothes washer, and my own vehicle. It is hard to make eye contact with the laborers that swarm outside my house daily. It is the gathering place for the landscapers and security personnel during shift change. What they must think of this azungu and her lifestyle. I feel guilty and helpless most of the time when faced with this. However, I am thoroughly enjoying my experience and building my community day by day so I go inside close the door, enjoy myself, and forget about it; the only way to survive. And sometimes I help someone.

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Crafts at farmer’s market

Traveled to Lilongwe, the capitol, this weekend for beautification and a weekend with girl friends. What a stark contrast to the average Malawian’s life. The last Friday of the month and everyone has been paid so lines are tortuous and long at banks and supermarkets as people are replenishing their stores and have cash to spend.

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Linnea choosing salsa

Thoroughly enjoyed my weekend in Lilongwe with friends at the farmer’s market, largely attended by mazungu (expats, white people) but jovial and interesting nonetheless. I bought Haloumi and parmesan cheese, fresh lemon grass, earrings, homemade tortillas, and ginger peanut butter.

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Amber’s garden

Had long and engaging conversations with my friends Emese, Amber, and Megan, and Linnea. Able to get haircut, color, pedicure, and eyebrows waxed! Watched 2 episodes of Breaking Bad with Emese.   Chinese one night, Nepalese the next, and homemade ice cream to die for! Also bought a blender and more glass brewing containers for my Kombucha! Ready to head home and make pesto and smoothies with my new toy!!!

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grasshopper

Grateful to be here with a job, food, and friends…

 

 

 

Returning

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Chalet on safari

Early on in my service in Malawi, I experienced some deep, dark moments of doubt and wondered whether I had made a dreadful mistake. Emotional ups and downs seem to be part of this experience. They fortunately are balanced with moments of joy and satisfaction that appear in an instant, completely unexpectedly.

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Christmas table decos; poppers, streamers and hats

What I wonder is, how can one go from being in a fetal position, depressed, sobbing, and hurting to the core, to absolute elation 24 hours later. Is this a normal part of the human experience? Peace Corps? Me? Or all of the above?

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As a sober woman, I walk the fine edge of balance 24 hours a day. Achieving balance and emotional sobriety has taken years of practice, self-evaluation, asking for help, and vigilance. It is put to the test almost daily in a position like I have here in Malawi. Additionally, several interpersonal relationships have called into question my faith in myself, my discipline, values, and courage.

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Nasturtiums in my garden

Returning from a wonderful vacation in the US to another wonderful vacation in Africa was challenging and required tremendous patience and honesty. I arrived in Mzuzu to a living situation that was uncertain and potentially incredibly painful. Spending 24/7 with my 24 year old daughter was beautiful but also difficult as she challenged me on several fronts, about my behavior, choices and actions.

I finally arrived home Sunday to an empty house after a month of constant companionship with family and friends. Having made some changes in relationships, I was sad, depressed, scared, and hurting deeply. My faith in God is unwavering, but sometimes I wonder if I am heard, and what exactly is the hold-up on the relief?

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A little bit of heaven, my back yard

Later Monday morning, I received some news that has drastically altered my life for the better. I will have my own house for the next 6 months, through the end of my service here. I found myself dancing, singing, and thanking God for mercy and an amazing gift this week.

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New kitty hiding behind basil

When I contrast that to my day before, I wonder….by taking action on one thing, does that trigger another reaction, and so on. I believe that by taking a stand for myself, the universe, God, Spirit, whatever, follows by pouring into my life that which we deserve and need.

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Zambia sunset

In the last 72 hours I have been on my knees, sobbing hysterically, dancing with joy, scared to death, indecisive about choices I am facing. The tears come out of no where, all times of day and night. I am in that wilderness of indecision, grief, and anticipation. It is uncomfortable and hurts.

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Puppy love

During my meditation today, I played Returning, Jennifer Berezan’s beautiful chant. Once again, sobbing, I began to realize how far I have strayed from “home”; that my tears, my fears, the tumult in my gut, results from taking a stand for myself and being brought back to my center, with a subtle grace and a loving presence that I see glimmers of now and then. Most of the time it just hurts.

Through choices I have made, I have strayed from my core values, commitments, integrity, and standards. This is a slippery slope for a recovering person, but with my faith in God and support from my friends and family, I think I am returning home, to myself.

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Christmas Day dinner

Today I am grateful  to be crawling back to center, to be alone in my own house, to have friends and family I can count on, and an amazing job in a country that is beautiful, joyful, and mysterious. I look forward to the walk out of the wilderness into the light, with full anticipation that all will be well…

 

 

Near Death on Christmas Eve

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Never in a million years did I imagine that I would spend Christmas Eve on safari in Africa, over 7000 miles away from home. Carrie and I arrived in S Luangwa, Zambia on the 22nd after 2 grueling days of travel through Zambia from Victoria Falls.

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Victoria Falls

Croc Valley Resort is perched on the Luangwa River along the perimeter of the National Park. With luxury tents, chalets and camping accommodations the safari resort offers a respite from the heat of the day after traveling on game drives in the early morning and late afternoon.

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Baboons grooming

We have ventured out on 2 morning game drives (breakfast at 5:30) and 2 late afternoon drives at 4:00. The drives are 4 hours long and feature a tea break 3 hours in.

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Herd of water buffalo crossing the road

Food is plentiful and delicious and the scenery is peaceful and lovely, watching the enormous hippos snort and play in the river.   During the evening hippos, antelope and at times elephants wander into the campsite to graze.

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Monkey eating butter on the bar

Monkeys and baboons are everywhere. You have to be alert and quick as in the morning the small monkeys leap onto the table to steal food right out of your hand! Smart and crafty, they will note when you leave your seat and skirt the table to take advantage of your departure.

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The game viewing has been absolutely breathtaking. By far the most outstanding drive was Christmas Eve morning. We came upon a pair of mating lions lounging under a large tree just off the road. Our guide, Kalima, stopped so we could observe and take photos. Breathtakingly beautiful, the lion pair was actively engaged in a mating ritual which we were privileged to observe first hand.

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The pair segregates themselves from the pride for 4-5 days during which time they actively mate every 10 minutes or so for this entire time. Their coitus lasts about 10 seconds after which they growl and carry on and collapse on the ground and rest. It brought tears to my eyes as I felt so awed by the scene and the privilege of watching such beauty and intimacy in the wild.

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Female relaxing in the bush

We came upon a second pair of females lounging on the cool rocks in the bush just after our tea break. We could approach them in our jeep and got within 20 feet of them to photograph.

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Mating male, resting

On our return, we stopped again to observe the mating pair and this time Kalima drove off road and up to within 15-20 feet of them. Though not allowed to do this, there were also 2 other vehicles that had driven up close to witness this amazing site. The pair mated just as we parked up close and personal, completely uninterested in our approach. Now, bear in mind, this is an open jeep and the guide is not armed.

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Zebra buddies

Then, disaster! As we prepared to leave, our jeep got stuck in the mud. The other vehicles had departed, leaving us alone.   Both lions were watching us closing, literally within 20 feet of the jeep. Kalima was trying to rock the jeep in and out of the mud to no avail. Six humans in the jeep all thought simultaneously, “Which one of us is going to die.” This was a very serious situation. I was terrified. We all stayed completely still. I hid behind my camera, reclined as if taking photos. No one moved a muscle or spoke.

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Male impala

Kalima was unable to exit the jeep to lock the wheels due to the proximity to the lions. His strategy (planned or not) was to rock it and make as much noise as possible with the engine. It worked. The female stood up and began slowly walking away. The male rose and followed her, gazing over his shoulder at the pathetic humans stuck in the mud.   We paused, still as statues until they were 50 yards away. Kalima got quietly out of the truck to lock the front wheels. After another 2-3 minutes of rocking and roaring, we were able to depart from the mud.

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Male giraffe

Every single one of us looked at each other and gasped sighs of relief; definitely the scariest moment of my life. I truly thought one of us would die or suffer some vicious attack.

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Elephant trio

Our evening drive was marred by rain and high winds, though we still ventured out and saw some hyenas and the usual bands of zebras, a baby elephant, and a gennet cat. Returning home to a cold shower, ugh, I donned my fleece jacket and shoes and socks to enjoy a delicious dinner Roy prepared on the braii for our return at 8 pm. Seated by the river under a thatched shelter next to a bonfire in a wheelbarrow, we feasted on beef tenderloin, potato salad and Greek salad for our Christmas Eve dinner.

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Sunset on our tea break

So grateful to be here and enjoying this beautiful continent, and my daughter’s company.

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Leopard stalking prey

Wonderful Vacay!

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3 days late due to internet probs and travel…

A 10 day whirlwind vacation in the US! PHEW!! I am relaxing poolside in my very posh hotel in Johannesburg during a 2 day respite here before proceeding on to Victoria Falls and then on to a 4 day safari in Zambia with the graduate, Carrie.

Ready to leave for Johannesburg

Ready to leave for Johannesburg

All in all, it was a fabulous return to the US, except for the continuous swiping my credit card for hotels, dining, and of course the absolute necessities at Whole Foods and TJ Maxx! I came to the US with a 50 lb bag and a small carry on and return to Malawi with 2 50 lb bags and 2 carry ons. Yikes!

craving Kombucha and dragon rolls

craving Kombucha and dragon rolls

Re-integration was basically seamless. The only unsettling moment was getting in my rental car at the airport. I was afraid to exit for fear of driving on the wrong side of the road, and I am still unsure when g a car what side to enter. Fortunately the driving went fine and acclimated easily to the 4-5 lanes of traffic in Atlanta. No goats or chickens to avoid.

Passed my National Certification Exam for Emergency Nursing on Tuesday, yay, a huge milestone for me after months of studying. Continued on to Auburn AL for Carrie’s graduation on Thursday after picking Kate up in Atlanta. A small family reunion of sorts as Tina and Lauren were also there. Weather the whole time was beautiful and unseasonably warm, in the 70s with very little rain or cloudiness.

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whole damn am

So proud of all the girls! Tina and Lauren are successful professionals and unbelievable parents. Lauren brought your youngest, Holt, who at 3 months is still nursing, and a doll. Kate is still entrenched happily in the DR and is a PC Volunteer Leader in the capital. She loves it and will finish in June when she will come to Africa to travel a bit with me, and some friends.

graduate and grand dog

graduate and grand dog

Carrie, well, she is the graduate after a rocky beginning; Very proud of her for returning and finishing with a 3.0 and a degree in Communications. She is ready to begin her new life in Austin TX with her stepsister Margaret, sharing an apartment together there.

One of the most enjoyable things about the trip was running in complete anonymity in shorts and a tank top, unthinkable in Malawi. No one stared at me or judged my running attire, at least not that I know of. Got a much needed haircut and highlights, pedicure, visited with my BFF from high school, Karen Trager, and spent hours wandering the aisles of Whole Foods.

The most memorable impression was just how many choices we have in the US. My first hour in Whole Foods I was gaping with amazement; overwhelming but delightful at the same time.

view out my window at 5 am

view out my window at 5 am

After leaving Alabama, Kate and I spent 3 days exploring Atlanta. What an incredible city! The restaurants were outstanding.  We toured the coke museum which was amazing.  We also took a 3+ hour bike tour of the city which was so interesting and fun. Atlanta is a city filled with urban landscape art, everywhere. The murals were astounding, check out these photos of 4-6 story murals; the scale evident by our teeny bodies at the bottom!

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Got very bad news this morning;  the Mzuzu University Library burned to the ground last night during the middle of the night. Don’t know the particulars yet but is a complete loss. Devastating for the university and the students.

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Off to enjoy another great meal in Joburg tonight and then flying to Victoria Falls where Roy will pick us up and take us around there and on safari for the next week, yahoo!