Saturday, July 19, 2008

a baby

my little sister had her first baby today.

it's one of those things that only happens once, ever, in a lifetime... and now it's gone. i missed it.

i will first see whatever-his-name-will-be when he's 6 weeks old and devoid of that new-newborn charm: the blank eyes that can't see 6 inches past his nose, the tounge that doesn't know it's part of his physiology yet, the grasping fingers, the pure unadulterated innocence... just moments from heaven.

it's occurring to me, as i sit here on this ugly blue couch, halfway around the world, that when you say "yes" to something, you also say "no" to everything else. and sometimes 'everything else' is more important, more substantial, more enjoyable, more life-giving (etc.) than the thing you CHOSE to do.

i could say here "BUT..." or "However..." or "Nonetheless,..."

but there's no "but" or "however" or "nonetheless" tonight. i just wanna go home and see my sister and her new little baby boy.

that's all.


Friday, July 11, 2008

15 Specific things I miss about home… in no particular order:

(this reflection was prompted by Rebecca Bea Blumhagen... bless her heart)

1. Summer night trips to dairy joy. Sitting on the back porch after closing on those cement, circular benches, eating a Reeses and Oreo “arctic swirl” with Alan and Murm and Kathy or Thomas, Anthony, Bunny, John, Noah, Brigit and, if we’re lucky, Molly Mom and Dad. Conversation pauses when the trains go by and dad goes to check on the penny he left on the track. Hopefully, the cops don’t see him.

2. Jonathan Roth driving by in “Old Merc” He asks if I want to go for a bike ride on the prairie path, or come see him play at Borders, or he comes in and stays for 5 hours, ending the evening with a few glasses of wine and some freshly written songs—and goodbye my love sung at the top of our lungs when he leaves.

3. The porch at (formerly) Elizabeth’s pool house. Candlelight. Oatmeal cookies and dad’s coffee, French pressed on the table. Crickets. Long conversation about marriage, Catholicism or the nature of God. Kids come in, shivering from the pool and sit on our laps in oversized towels.
(Why am I in Africa again?)

4. Sitting on the left end of the 6th row, center aisle, at Church of the Resurrection. Feeling free to stand, cry, talk, pray or fall asleep. I listen to the musicians. I glance over at John Fawcett, whose frail figure cannot help but lift itself to the heavenlies. I think of how much John taught me about humility and not-taking-oneself-too-seriously.

5. The way Kathy and I laugh at Mary when we’re all together in a bed and Mary pretends she wants to sleep in the middle but we both know she’ll slither out sometime in the middle of the night and sleep on the floor and then leave butt-crack-early in the morning before we’ve had the chance to bring her Starbucks.

6. Rain. Midwest rains, I’m convinced, smell sweeter and more like the earth than any other rains in the world. Sitting the wicker rocker on the porch at the farm house as the rain pours down is one of the more beautiful things in life. And when the electricity goes out, that’s even better.

7. The 11pm hour at the Ritchie household. Mom is at the table looking at magazines. I am baking cookies. Dad is falling asleep watching t-vo recordings of Chris Matthews. I have a friend or two over and we are sitting around the island counter in the middle of the kitchen, doubtlessly discussing the misfortunes of my high school acting career or the latest marriage that no one approves of.

8. Women’s prayer. Lying out on the carpet with 6 pairs of loving hands on my back, my neck, my little finger and the small part of my ankle. Words of insight, sentences of revelation, tears of love and longing. Everyone holding on… as if I might slip away… As I have.

9. Going to Chipotle and ordering the usual: burrito bowl with pepper, onions, extra chicken and light rice. Black beans, mild salsa, corn and cheese. (Sour cream and guac on the side). We order 6 soft-shell tortillas on the side and Kathy, Murm and I split the glorious Americanized-“Mexican” concoction . Oh, and I forgot about the coke with at least 3 lemons squeezed in.

9 (b) Oberwies chocolate malt, easy on the chocolate, with an extra cookie straw for dessert.

10. Late nights at crossroads. Age 11-13. Before I went to school. Playing basketball on the parking lot that doubles as a basketball court. We have a construction light rigged up with an extra long extension cord that winds through the meeting room window and bathes the court in light. I wear my Dennis Rodman jersey and pride myself in getting the most re-bounds. My hair is pulled back in a tight pony-tail. Everyone is soaked in sweat but no one wants to stop. We break at 11pm for frozen pizza and mountain dew. A car drives by on route 30 and revs his engine and screeches his tires or gives a friendly honk. Those nights seemed to go on forever… I must have thought they would.

11. Honey Rock camp through the years… Always a summer staple. As a child: camping trips, falling in love with Jesus, Zulu Warrior competitions, mountain bike masters… or grown up: Driving those long curvy roads at dangerous speeds. Christy Braaten. McGriddle Wednesdays. The smell of the lake. The sound of the lake, lapping against the doc. Camping trips. Smelling like smoke. Smelling like sweat. Showering after a trip. Kathy over the kitchen counter. Ben stock brining me icecream on my camping trip.

Emily: It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another...
Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you.
Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? --
every, every minute?"

Stage Manager: No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe they do some.

Emily: I’m ready to go back.

(From Our Town, by Thorntan Wilder)

12. High school days when Noah would come home having completed the day’s mischief and my sleepover club (which met on a daily basis) would hear the stories and giggle. Kellen Scott and Adam Baluch lived upstairs and we would go out for late-night mini-ice-cream-cones at McDonalds.

13. Frost lake days. Sitting on the old dark-wood porch (Can’t believe that thing is still standing and hasn’t sogged under so many years of Frosts sitting and telling stories) Grandma and Grandpa sit like a king and queen in the plastic lawn chairs as their progeny bustles around them. In the screen door, out the screen door, Oops, forgot my drink, in the screen door, out the screen door again. “Close it all the way! Don’t let the bugs in!” Sitting at the picnic table. Swatting flies. “Grown-up boat ride! Who’s coming?”. Quickly, the younger generation organizes our own speedboat ride and when we pass the “grown-ups” put-putting along in the old pontoon boat. We yell and wave and brace ourselves for the next bump.

14. Shanes Deli. Sam makes my high-maintenance sandwich with sprouts, pesto and honey mustard and I devour it along with Mrs. Vinnies Salt and Vinegar chips and a small Coke. Yum!

15. Being around people who know me. Who know my stories. Who were there for Mr. Mabie, Hamlet and Junior Miss… people who don’t need things to be explained. I’m tired of explaining. Oh, to be seen like everyone else on the streets. Not being pointed and laughed at when I try one of my few full sentences in Kinyarwandan. Not being asked for money. Not being proposed to. Not being treated like an object of wealth and opportunity. Being seen as everyone else. Or better yet, Being seen as Maggie.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

off to tanzania

I am currently eating a meal of my own words. It was only 2 months ago that I swore never, unless forced by gunpoint, to enter Nairobi airport again.

And yet, here I am.

A man just walked by wearing a cheesy tourist tee-shirt, spouting the phrase “It’s all Greek to me” with a bunch of basic Greek phrases, and their translation listed below. I was reminded of the period in my own life when I owned, and wore proudly (with many a laugh) a t-shirt that said “Hukt on foniqs rily werked fer mee”. And I had another good laugh, silently remembering my 12-year-old self, by myself, at the Nairobi airport.

This morning, I arrived 1 ½ hours early for my 8:35 flight. Only to find that it had, indeed, already departed. Apparently, you are supposed to reconfirm your flights by going to the local branch of the airline (a 2 hour process, at least) 48 hours before the flight… in case they decided to change the time. Now, I understand delays, but I don’t really get bumping UP a flight to an EARLIER time. And somehow, everyone but ME figured it out! Another one of those things that I will never quite understand about Africa…

The scene has changed. I have boarded the a tiny plane that is taking me to Kilimanjaro Airport, where I am meeting up with a cast of characters from NYC, affiliated with the Theatre Development Fund. For the next 3 weeks, I will be working along-side a professional (Broadway?) director to write and direct a play with a group of children from a school in Arusha, Tanzania. At this point, this is all the information I have, so please, hold your questions. More to be revealed, as always. Oh, and my dear friend, Rebecca Blumhagen, will be taking a short respite from her burgeoning career as a young actor to join us.
And THAT is a sure excitement.


I haven’t exactly been writing much about my life lately. Messages from people have gone from the more specific “How was your time at the Orphanage?” or “did you get your car battery fixed?” to the less specific “How is Africa?” or “Are you still IN Africa?” to, least specific and most desperate “Mags… are you still alive?”

Excuses (in order of influence): Laziness, business, writers block, laziness, recent addiction to arrested development, more recent addiction to Heroes, laziness.

For the 3 of you who care, and want specifics, here they are:

Upon returning from Ireland (family vacation) /France (Taize) /Belguim (the only thing I did in Belgium was drink a beer at a noisy youth hostel with a guy from India): I settled in to my current living arrangement and, after months of straddling the hips of skinny Rwandan moto-drivers (and more than a few scrapes with death), I finally 'broke-down' and got a car (ironic choice of words you say? not so ironic...). Well, I rented a car. From a friend of a friend. It’s what we would consider in the US a “beater”. But I love it. It has lots of character ☺

Driving around Rwanda is a totally different experience of Africa.

First of all, Kigali is an expansive matrix of non-parallel streets, with a few random one-way streets… without markers. The only way to tell you’re going the wrong way on a one-way street is by the hissing and clapping noises coming from the pedestrians by the side of the road. You may think they are minding their own business but the second you make the wrong turn, about 40 of them turn toward the middle of the intersection, flailing their arms and hissing… and you realize they have, indeed, been watching you the entire time, and you are, indeed, going the wrong way.

The only time i attempted to take my car out out of Kigali, i got a flat tire 50 miles out of town. there we (my friend Jenny and I) were, sitting on a curve in the road, with no help in sight... except for the "help" that came from behind the bushes the ditches ---people with nothing better to do with their time--- who did nothing but bang on my spare tire with a crowbar and steal my money.

we couldn't get the spare tire off. There was a key to one of the bolts that we couldn't find, no matter HOW many pairs of hands searched my glovebox... and stole my money.

finally, after 2 hours in the hot sun, we gave up. I sent the keys back with a Mutatu (the name for a closely packed taxi van) to Kigali. that's how it works in rwanda. everyone knows everyone. the owner arranged to meet up with the taxi driver and we took the only ride we could to Ruhengeri... which happened to be a tow-truck, already towing 6 men and lots of heavy machinery. there was only a bench seat, which was chivalrously given to Jenny and I while the rest of the men sat, or swung, from the machinery in the truck bed. we drove half the way to Ruhengeri, with hot air from the front engine blowing in our faces, then had to catch two different Mutatus to finish the journey. the whole thing took over 5 hours (it's normally a 1hr40min trip)

[I am, by the way, still typing--AND listening to my ipod--and the plane is about to take off. I am sitting across the aisle from a crew-member. Either he doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. Either way, I am going to do my civilian duty and close my computer because I don’t want to “interfere with the instruments.”]

Ok. I’m back. To Rwanda…

Part of the reason it’s taken me so long to write about Rwanda is that some of my experiences have bordered on the unbelievable. Certain things are hard to write about on the world-wide-web. Especially when security is involved. Less especially when you face the threat of being misunderstood. I might find a way/reason to write about this at a later date, for now, suffice to say: my circumstances are quite extraordinary and I’m being well taken care of.

Last week a group of potential investors visited Rwanda. The major perk of my job is that whenever someone even slightly “important” lands, I get to drop everything to join them on a tour of the country. Of course, it’s difficult to spend 5 minutes in places where you’ve spent 5 months, and feel as if an accurate representation is being given, but it doesn’t take much for people to get a vibe of what’s happening in this place, and to fall in love with it. It’s very exciting to watch.

It is difficult to have an “endless possibilities” personality in a country of endless possibilities. You may think this is a good match at first, but soon you become overwhelmed with the … well… endless possibilities. And you are rendered immobile, or indecisive, like a child in a candy store. This year has taught me more about myself than I ever cared to know. Under which circumstances I work well… and under which I fail miserably to organize my time and get anything done. How easy it is for me to ignore God. How much I really LOVE him... (like, instead of feeling like I should love him more and wondering why i don't and beating myself up for the disparity therein) it's a very exposing time.

When you're in college and frantically busy with assignments, rehearsals, coffee dates and house meetings, it's difficult to get a true sense of who you REALLY are. I don't mean this to sound all self-discovery-ish, nor do I claim to have "found myself", not nearly. but when you see yourself outside the high-performance landscape, you see how a lot of things you have done in the past because you wanted people's approval (consciously or subconsciously) sort of fade out when you're in a culture that's not performance-based. but it's also revealing to see what's left: what you still have appetite for. chances are you are now doing the things you're supposed to be doing... without all the busy clutter.

but i digress. i think we're about to land.

"thank you, maggie, for sharing your narcissistic thought patterns with the whole wide world."

you're welcome.



Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Over-sized Leprechauns and Over-packed Cars

I am forcing myself to write … my eyelids are drooping and I’m slouching like a 7th grade boy…but I know I have to write. However badly, I have to “just do it”. Some writing teacher’s voice is echoing somewhere in the recesses of my mind, saying “writing is a discipline. If you want to be a good writer, you have to do it… even when you don’t feel like it” now, while I wouldn’t say my biggest aspiration in life is to be a “good writer”, I do wish to tell stories, and I wish to tell them well… whether my own or someone else’s… and the way to do that is to muddle your way through your jumbled, late-night thoughts and find the ones that are the most true, meaningful (to you) congruent and full of life.
So here comes my life.

I have been getting several… more than several reminders that 1. My life is a little confusing if you’re not living it (and really confusing if you are) and 2. that I haven’t done a good job at keeping my loved ones (and the world at large, who doesn’t care nearly as much) informed about my life: including my whereabouts and occupation (small “o”).
I intend to rectify this negligence on my part, with no promises that this will be the last time you are confused as to why I can be having passion fruit with an Anglican archbishop one day, and surfing in Ireland the next.
Let me explain.

My family chose, for the first time in who-knows-how-long to take a real, bona-fide vacation. For those of you who know the Ritchie family, you will know that this is completely out of form for us. We just aren’t the book-a-hotel, rent-a-car, hop-on-a-plane and lie-on-the-beach-for-a-week sort of family. In the past, when we have done something “vacation-ish,” we’ve gone places like Rwanda and Iraq. Hardly the sites for eating lobster and getting a tan.

So, when the von Trapps told us they were singing in a music festival in Abbeyfeale, Ireland, “we” decided it might be time to do what normal families do. Take a normal vacation.

The problem is, normal families don’t travel with 17 people… And 6 instruments…

In 4 vehicles.

Needless to say, we could have made big money documenting our trip and selling it to TLC. Thank God for GPS. Somehow we made our way around the country (along the southern coast) stopping at quirky bed and breakfasts along the way and discovering the less-charted areas of the Emerald Isle. It was quite charming, to say the least. The Irish countryside is… (you fill in the blank. I hate using words like ‘captivating’ or ‘beautiful’ to describe something like the Irish landscape. It simply does NOT do it justice.

The trip ended and my family left, two by two. And all was silent. I was given the keys to a gorgeous flat in Dublin for the weekend while I decided what to do next. Saturday night, I was taken, accidentally, to a Gay club. I danced with a Slovakian contortionist. Funny story # 5. Sunday night, I met Iron and Wine on the street. Had dinner with them and got a free ticket to their show. Pretty sweet as well.

I woke up on Monday morning PLANNING to take a ferry to Wales (because I hate to fly) and then trek my way down to London to audition for LAMDA’s one-year-theatre conservatory. Well, the audition slots were full, so I decided to drive BACK, across Ireland, to the Cliffs of Moher… where my friends, the von Trapps were still staying.
So I went on a road trip, by myself, and saw all the things I hadn’t seen yet.

There is something so magical about the winning combo of driving in a beautiful place with beautiful music playing on the stereo. I am sharing this with you now because I had to experience it alone and I wished someone could gave been there. I set my GPS and started to drive: Kilkenny Castle, The Rock of Cashel, the monastic ruins of Glendelough… it was brilliant. I packed a half a loaf of brown bread, whole-grain mustard, turkey and Irish cheese. The sun didn’t set ‘till 10pm… and I finally arrived in Doolin after midnight. Thankfully Justin was awake and let me in.

Next day: Cliffs of Moher… we (the children and I) hiked WAY out, to the end of the point, and sat there, in the thick, squishy grass, for a couple of hours… talking about life and dreams and the color of the waves.
We also discovered the new Kate Rusby CD and listened to it all the way through, to and from the cliffs. Another movie moment.

At home, Annie had made us Chicken Soup, which we ate with brown bread cheese-toast. The perfect ending to a perfect day.
Somehow (still don’t know how) I talked Annie into letting the kids go with me to France for a week. We booked cheap tickets via-Ryan Air and left the next morning.

Life is good.


Now I could go into all the long and boring details of why I was going to France in the first place… but I don’t want to. Suffice to say, we spent a day in Paris, seeing all the cliché sights (which don’t feel so cliché when you’re THERE… there is nothing so unique as eating chocolate banana crepes at the foot of the Eiffel tower) and then took a train down south to Taize. All I knew about Taize before going is this: it is a place where they write and sing songs… some of which we sing at my home church. I soon realized it was a town, overrun by a monastic community where they receive (get this) 2,000-6,000 (!) visitors on a weekly basis. Stranger still is that 92% are from southern Germany and about 89% percent of those are between the ages of 16 and 19. So, basically, we spent the week in a German Christian High School camp.


The highlight (besides the beautiful evenings of candlelit singing in 10 different languages) was sitting around with 400 beer-drinking adolescent Germans, singing “take me home, Country road”, while some German boy played along on his Trumpet.
Mrs. Von Trapp must never know about this. Promise not to tell.

All for now,

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Intermittent Months

(this blog was written in April. But I lost it. And just found it. And didn’t want it to go to waste)

It’s been a while.

As I was explaining to Sophie the other day, on the hour-long car ride to Muhaze,
I only write when I feel full of words.

Stories build up over time and then, in a few glorious moments (or hours), everything pours out, and I can’t type fast enough.
This presents a problem, however, when there are no words. When the stories feel stale, foggy or just plain uninteresting.

And this is the point where the faith of the storyteller is tested.

I know there will come a day when I don’t apologize for writing too many words; When I don’t have to search for the most startling incident to catch your attention. A day will come when the details of simple life, crafted gently, but not overworked, will be enough. Just enough.

I have a box full of stories. Things I have a lived through in the last 4 months. As much as I would like to write about today and forget the rest, I’d feel like a bad steward… or something like that… because I am lucky, so very lucky, (we are all so very lucky) to be living life and I count it a blessing to relive it all through writing.

So here I am, stomach down on my Rwandan foam mattress, listening to Kate Walsh and remembering…


On my way home from Africa for Christmas, I visited my friend, Emily, in Jordan. Emily is my travel soulmate. Over the next 2 weeks, there wasn’t a situation that didn’t leave us in stitches, slapping at eachother’s forearms, looking for something to hold on to, barely able to breathe… I think we wet our pants once our twice. There was something about the combination:
Arabic culture + Maggie + Emily = EVERYTHING is hysterical. Don’t ask me why.

We spent the first few days bumming around Jordan. Buying DVDs for a dollar, cooking macaroni and cheese I’d brought back from Africa (I thought it would be this huge surprise, only to find out that Jordan is naaat a third world country… ie they have mac and cheese), going to the Turkish bathouse (they scrub you and scrub you and scrub you… it’s amazing) and getting to know the feel of where my friend lives, alone, with a mosque next door that wakes her up at 5am every morning.
We decided to take a trip to Israel. To say it was hard to get in would be an understatement. Look it up somewhere else online, I feel weird talking about it here.

I don’t have words for this place. In the times I’ve tried to describe it since, I’ve used words like “Intense,” “Spiritually tumultuous” and “Bordering on creepy”. You could FEEL in the air (the way you can feel awkwardness at a social gathering) the centuries of religious tension and spiritual turmoil.

Nonetheless, it is magical place. Every rock has significance. The place where Jesus wept, the road he walked before his crucifixion, the shore where he cooked breakfast for the disciples (and where Peter, in his euphoria, jumped into the water to swim to Jesus).

We spend 2 days in Jerusalem and then took a bus up to Galilee. Our worst idea of the trip was biking “around” the sea of Galilee. We were told it was a 20 kilometer ride to Capernaum, and the sun was about 2 hours from setting. Great, we thought. Scenery, fresh air, exercise, is there a better way to sight-see?
Yes, there was.

3 hours later found us out of breath, out of energy, out of time and not yet to Capernaum. The road we were on had turned into a high was and the sea was no longer in sight. The Israeli-Jordanian border closed at 8pm and we HAD to be out by then. It was 7 and pitch black at this point. We tried waving down cars, but no one would stop. Two American girls hitchhiking at night in Israel = Probably not our best move of all time. We got frantic and started standing in the Road. Finally 2 women stopped. We explained our situation and they just said “sorry” and drove on. FINALLY, after about 30 cars had passed, a taxi driver with a bike rack on his roof pulled over. We had to talk him into it, but he finally agreed to take us back, 50 kilometers in the opposite direction, to the place where we’d first rented the bikes. In the 5 minutes we had before leaving, I scolded the man behind the counter for lying to us about the distance to Capernaum. I have a feeling this has happed before and will happen again.

We got to the border, just in time.

The next morning, we took a car to Syria. Emily was there for work, so I visited my friends, Benjamin and Christian who were living in a monastery outside of Damascus. Syria was also strange, and I feel strange writing about it. The people were beautiful, the food enchanting, but there was also something very hidden about the culture. Something I probably wouldn’t get after spending months or years there.

The next few days turned into a “tour of Syrian monasteries”. Those of you who know Christian and Benjamin won’t be surprised. It was amazing. My favorite monastery was out in the middle of the desert and used to be a Roman fortress. Like 20 miles from anything. We climbed one mile up stone stairs in complete darkness (save for Benjamin’s cell phone screen). The cold air burned in my chest and tears were streaming down my cheeks. But, thanks to Benjamin’s determination, we pressed on without pause, climbing the stairs, into the dark mountain.

We arrived at the gate and the candles lit the way into a tiny 1st- century chapel, insulated by carpets hanging in the doorway, filled with pilgrims and nuns in thick socks and fleeces.

A burly, robed and bearded man sat, cross-legged on the other side of the room. I don’t know how else to describe him but to say he was the closest thing to Jesus I’ve ever seen on this earth He looked at directly at with eyes that both welcomed and saw, knew and loved. “You are welcome” he said, interrupting his own liturgy. I sidled up against the stone wall as the tears continued to make their way from my cheeks to the carpet. It was an experience that goes beyond words or intellectual reflection. (Words, please? Anyone?) It was beautiful. It was otherworldly. I shared Eucharist with 20 people I’d never met (and 2 I had) in a cold ruin on the top of a mountain, in the middle of a desert, in a strange land. And it felt like home.

I think that’s how Christ intended it to be.

And that’s all for now.


Sunday, May 25, 2008

how do you solve a problem like... angry elephants?

I’m afraid I have to backtrack into the recesses of my memory for this blog entry. I’m afraid it’s terribly dated. Like, over 2 months dated. But stories don’t expire, I believe, only our desire to tell them. And I’m working on that…

Ok... so there was that harrowing trip to Kigali… where we got stuck for 2 days in Nairobi with leaking air-conditioners and dead bodies. Then we (myself, Amanda and Justin) arrived in Rwanda where we were joined by the other von Trapp children and a host of Saddleback volunteers from southern California.

My job for the next 2 weeks? To chaperone the von Trapps. I would lie if I said I didn’t get a bit of a Maria complex (whatever that means). The children took to calling me “Fraulein Maggie” and, “Mother Maggie” and I, in turn, took to referring to them as… well… “the children” It was a grand old time: singing in trees, camping with hippopotami… but I get ahead of myself.

It wasn’t long before the whole country found out that von Trapps were 1) a singing group and, 2) indeed, the real descendents of the real von Trapp family. As reported in the local paper, the grand-children of Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.

(pause for laugh)

The paper also called Melanie “Merlyn”, (Pronounced like the wizard) which was another occasion for much laughter. We will never let her forget that.

(mellie and her camera... and an impressed woman in red)

It wasn’t long before we were coerced into singing the Rwandan National Anthem for none other than the President of Rwanda… To be performed for his “Presidential Advisory Committee”, who meets biannually to discuss the future of the country. It was no small ordeal. Long story short, we ended up on national television… every night for the next week. Sofie woke us up at 6am the day of the performance to drill the Kinyarwandan. I never really learned the words and, like a bum, mouthed through a few parts. I know, I know. Pretty bad. But the singing earned us a weekend at the President’s farm and the gift of a Rwandan long-horned cow, for Justin … (to remain in Rwanda)… so I would say that we made out well.

While my parents were there (!) we took advantage of being part of the saddleback crew and rode on their helicopter rides and ate at their fancy dinners.

(this is me and my dad in a helicopter... in case you didn't figure that out)

Parents left. Sadness all around. Real adventure begins.

After our singing debut, we took a trip east to Akagara game park to see some Girraffes and Elephants. We planned to camp for the evening. We were told that everything would be provided: cooking supplies, sleeping bags, etc.

We should have known.

So, after spending the afternoon being gawked at in the local village while we bartered for blankets, spoons and plastic plates, we finally made it to the park. We had two options for a campsite, we were told: The first site was on the top of a hill, overlooking the park. The second was a more rugged site, near the lake where a tribe of angry elephants was known to wander.

“I don’t recommend you go near the elephants” , our guide said, “they are especially angry at the moment”
As you can probably guess, we chose the second site. Not by my choice...“The children” insisted. “If you don’t go, we will” they said. What else could I do? I agreed saying “if we live through this, and anyone asks, it was your idea.”
As we drove up to the campsite in our safari vehicle, there they were: Snorffling and squashling around in the shallow water: not 1, not 2 but 5 Hippopotami, 5 METERS FROM US!

(our campsite, the morning after. the hippos were right on the bank)

[For those of you who don’t know, Hippopotami are, by far, the most dangerous animal in Africa. They easily kill more people than lions or tigers in a given year (I’ll admit, I just made up that statistic… but I know that it’s partly true. If you want to argue the point, don’t. I don’t care enough… but go online and research it yourself). So I am freaking out. “The children” (including my two little brothers), don’t get that anything about this is scary, and our guide (William, who goes by “Willy” says “as long as you start a fire, they won’t come near you.” He also says “if you make weird noise, the Elephants might charge”. Great, I’m with my brothers and the von Trapps who are virtually made of weird noises. Our chances of survival are slim to none.]

So then our wonderful guard builds us a fire and says “I will go get more wood. I will be back in 20 minutes.”
2 hours later find us in the pitch-black night of the African bush, with barely flickering coals and no guide in sight…. and Thomas didn’t understand why I wouldn’t let him play his harmonica.

Finally, we saw a pair of headlights in the distance. William was back. With 8 guards armed with machine guns. Beautiful, I thought. If this isn’t roughing it, I don’t know what is.

“They will protect you” William said.

“I can see that” I replied.

However, they soon decided it was time to return to their “posts” (I still don’t get why he brought them in the first place. Probably just to see the freaked-out white girl).

“I will be right back” William said.

“Ooooohhhoho no you won’t.” I said, and hopped into the driver’s side of the car. “I will take them. Let’s go.”

So I drove 8 men through the African bush in a safari vehicle… in the middle of the night. I was pretty awesome there for a moment. Too bad it was just me.

(We will now pause, for a moment, and feel sorry for Maggie)

So the guys I thought were there to “protect us” were really stationed 3 miles away. I didn’t really get how, if I were to get attacked by an elephant, they would be close enough to do anything… but I figured there was nothing I could do. I mean, I could have forced them to sleep outside my tent… but I don’t think that would have gone over well. Seeing as they were the ones with the machine guns.

So, I get back to camp. We eat a wonderful dinner of hand-packed meatballs and grilled vegetables. William told us some war stories (more to come) and we ate chocolate pudding and African tea. When I wasn’t thinking about the Hippopotomi, looking at me and snorting in the water, it was a magical evening. Camping in Africa: Doesn’t get much better than that.
Went to bed. But couldn’t sleep. You know the sound of someone getting out a bathtub? Well, I heard that sound, times 10, followed by some russling in the grass.

“did you hear that?” I asked Sofie.

“yeah” she said… in a quavery voice.

“that’s it, I’m out. I’m going to sleep in the car.” I said… and horizontally dove out of the tent, cluching my clothes-pillow and blanket as I went (If any of you remember my story about falling out of the subway in London, the action was somewhat similar).

And that’s how it ended. I deserted the 6 children to be eaten alive by wild-african elphants and fell asleep with a crick in my neck.

The next day, we woke up. Which was a surprise. We drove around all day, sitting on the roof of the car.

(kids on the roof)

Saw all sorts of animals: Giraffes, Baboons, Water-buffalo. There’s nothing like seeing them in the wild… absolutely nothing like it.

(zebras. not to insult your intelligence)

That evening, we drove across country to see the world famous gorillas in their natural habitat.

(justin with the gorillas)

(anthony, the documentarian)

Well, I didn’t really go (been there, done that), but stayed back to chill at Jungle-Jack-Hanna’s ranch house. Suffering for the Lord, I know. It was a hard weekend. When the kids came back, delirious and dehydrated, we spent the afternoon playing soccer with the local children and eating chocolate-chip pancakes.

It was overwhelmingly cute.

and then we went to dinner on top of the mountain

with our dear friend, Matt Smith

(do you like how i'm breaking up the sentences to match the pictures? I thought you'd like that...)

(dinner with matt)

The next day we went to the before mentioned farm… where Justin received the gift of a long-horned cow that will remain in Rwanda for safe keeping. We drank fresh yogurt (from the long-horned cow) and played ghost-in-the-graveyard with the President’s kids and 6 bodyguards.

We made our way back that evening and spent the night at Eric (my bosses) house. They threw us a party. It was a families who sing together party. Eric’s wife and all 9 of her sisters sang for us… and the von Trapps followed in turn. Another 5 star evening.

And then… they left. And THAT was a sad day. Except for the part where I figured out how to get a V.I.P tag, sneak into the boarding gate, and buy peanut M&Ms in the duty free shop.

Ok. I will now go and write another blog.

Joy to the world,

Marge-- the white girl

Monday, April 14, 2008

before i forget: The Trip From Hell (or "Chicago to Kigali in 5 days")

Readers Warning: This entry is 9 pages, single spaced on Microsoft Word. If you don’t have time, and want the good stuff, skip to day 4 or 5. But it’s all good.

Day 1 (past tense): Thursday night:

7:30pm: It was with great effort that I tore myself away from the family dinner at my grandparents house, to make the long, snowy drive to O’Hare airport. I must admit, I was hoping the flight would be cancelled. I met the von Trapps at the airport. I was the official chaperone for the two youngest children. I had a bit of a Maria complex... carrying my guitar and leading them down the long hallways of O'Hare, it was difficult to resist sining "I have Confidence". Justin and Amanda could have done without the song.

We were greeted by a particularly grouchy ticket agent, who bewailed us for not getting our bags on the scale quickly enough and not being earlier for our flight. It’s always nice when people are helpful and kind. The flight to London was relatively uneventful. I took sleeping pills which is never a good idea, because you still can’t sleep, but feel worse about it because you’re artificially tired.

Day 2: (present tense):

11:00am We arrive in London Heathrow,
Justin leaves my guitar in the plane: The first glorious mishap. I run 1 mile, backwards through security checks, only to find the guitar case sanctioned (they thought it was a bomb). Thankfully, once they see a flustered young American woman, they assume I’m stupid and give it back, without much questioning.

1:00 pm We take a train to London, shop in Covent Garden, walk through Kensington park and eat scones at “The Muffin Man”: a perfect English day.

Until we get back to the airport…

5:58pm We arrive at Heathrow for a 7:00pm flight: which would be plenty of time, were we in the right terminal and already checked in.
We soon realize one of our mistakes.
(This section is annoyingly detailed. Skip if, like me, you hate details.)
[The trains from T3 (Terminal 3… easier to say) to T4 come every 30 minutes. Our train left 20 seconds before we got there, and we have to wait 26 minutes for the next one. This got us to T4 twenty minutes before out flight departed. Still fine, I thought, assuming people in the security line and at the gate would be helpful, and not not helpful.
And then we realize our second mistake.

6:53 found us near tears (well, I’ll speak for myself here) in front of the woman who decided naaaat to let us on the plane (I am convinced) to punish us (4 people board after us). Granted, we hadn’t been checked through by the grouchy man in Chicago… (details, details) and think we have been. We will found out later that it would have been entirely possible for the woman to check us in and let us on the plane… she was just in the mood to teach a lesson.
I’m going to teach her a lesson….
(If she ever tries to come to Rwanda and get involved in a PEACE plan, that is. Oh, I’ll make her wish she’d let me on that plane. She’ll see.) ☺
(end of details)

7:00pm Here’s where the real chaos begins. I call my travel agent at home. He says if we get over to the united desk ASAP, we might be able to catch the 9:10 flight to Ethiopia. Without thinking too hard, I leave wide-eyed Amanda and Justin at the desk where we are trying to reclaim our luggage, and run out to where I think the desk should be. Of course, United is in T3 (at this point, I am coming to loathe Heathrow). I can’t go back to where the baggage is, so I’m not sure If I should take the train and leave them, since it’s our only chance to get out that evening, or wait, like a responsible chaperone.
I rip out a page of my journal and write, with a ball point pen:


(To which I should have added, “good luck” or “God help you” because that’s about how much hope I have that they would find me.)

I chew a piece of gum and try to stick the paper to a post where they might see it, coming out of baggage claim. It falls off 4 times, and the paper is getting soggy from sticking and re-sticking my spitty gum. So I find a nearby wall and hope neither airport security or the cleaning lady takes it down before they see it.
I take the train to T3, only to find that United has closed for the evening. What can I do about it? Nothing. I try the “help line” but no one answers. I mean, there’s a message that says “Thank you for calling United… you know the rest. (The typical, supremely unhelpful message telling you to call back when it’s convenient for THEM, not you. Why do they even try to be polite in those messages? It only makes the customer MORE annoyed). So, it’s back to T4 to see if Amanda and Justin haven’t been swallowed by the Heathrownian abyss.

(try to understand, each time you switch terminals, you have to go down 3 huge flights of stairs and walk a half a mile of a hallway… hoping your train has not just left, because then you’ll have to wait another 20 minutes)

The moment the train lurches into movement, I get a call from Amanda saying “where are you?” They went to T3. No, they didn’t see my sign, they’re just smart. They only got 3 of our 6 bags from the desk. They’re calling from a payphone in T3 arrivals.

“Stay right there. I’ll be right back.” I then realize that I might have to talk to someone in T4 about tickets for tomorrow. I can’t call her back. So I go back up the 3 flights of stairs (for the 8th time that evening). My legs are aching at this point. I’m carrying 3 bags.

I find a representative for Kenya airways.
“You’re lucky” she says. “I was about to leave” I didn’t say I felt anything but lucky at the moment. “How are you?” I ask, in a moment of graciousness. “I’m pissed off.” She says. “ I just had to wait for a passenger for over an hour!”
“Well I’m pissed off too.” I say. “I just missed my flight to Africa, we lost half of our luggage and I lost the 2 children I’m responsible for”.
“I’m sorry.” she says. I know she means it. “I’m sorry too. “ I say, “I’m glad we got that out of the way”
She books us on the next days flight to Kenya. But tells us that we’re on standby out of Nairobi. No big deal, I think, we are 1,2, and 3 on the waiting list.
(In line with the rest of the trip, I was quite wrong.)
I take the loathsome train back to T3. We decide to go back to T4 and leave our luggage there. Another train ride (I really should have counted).
Take the underground into town, find a hostel, eat some Chinese food, and fall asleep exhausted.

Day 3:

We arrive at the airport 3 hours early the next day. Justin and I have a debate about whether it’s a sin to worry or not. He thinks worrying helps. I think it doesn’t. The conversation ends when I pull out my bible and read the “Therefore, do not worry about anything…” verse. “What version is that?”, Justin asks. I realize this is not the time to prove any point, when everything is going wrong. But in situations like this, I find my only defense is to let go of everything, try to laugh as much as possible, and let things happen… more out of a need to survive than piety.
Oh, and they have “found” our remaining 3 bags, and tell us they are “going to be on the plane.”
Ha ha.

Day 4: (I realize this is long. No one is forcing you to read on. But the worst parts are yet to come… because now we’re in Africa).

None of us sleep on the plane and we arrive at the Nairobi airport at 6:30 am.

(Description needed here: Nairobi airport is one LONG hallway, with about 20 duty free shops selling whisky, cigarettes and peanut M&Ms, one internet café which charges $2 for 15 minutes of internet or $4 per minute for international phone calls, and an “electronic shop” that doesn’t sell outlet adapters or cell phone chargers. There is ONE desk called the “Transfer Desk”. EVERY SINGLE PERSON who goes through Nairobi, has to get their boarding pass for their next flight at this desk. Let me say that again, there is 1 desk for all 2000 people in the airport. 1 desk. Uno. At it’s busiest, I’ve seen 3 people working behind the desk, but usually there’s only 1. The line is, at it’s smallest, 20 people long and can grow to 100+ people. Every one of them has an issue and is in a hurry. You can imagine, I’m sure, the amount of sighs, eye rolls, and elbow jabs.
There is ONE place to sit, at the end of the hallway, called the Java Café. Don’t be deceived. IT wasn’t nice. We sat in a sticy booth where a broken air conditioner was dripping on one corner of the table. The air conditioning never got fixed. That day, or the next. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

I immediately go to the transfer desk to see about our “standby” status. After an hour in line we find out that the flight has been oversold by 18 people. But we should wait at the gate for 3 hours, just in case. The flight gets delayed 2 hours, so everyone gets a chance to check in… except for us. After 3 more trips to and from the café at the end of the airport, and asking everyone in uniform whether or not there is room on the flight, we don’t get on. Who is surprised? Not I. I wait in line another 2 hours to see when the next flight is (you have to wait in line every time you have any question, whatsoever, because no one else knows anything, except for the 2, slow-typing, assistants, behind that stupid desk)

“There is a flight tomorrow at 1pm, but it is oversold by 28 people” she says.
Who oversells flights by 28 people? I think to myself. In a way, it might make sense as a way to insure you’ll make your money, in case 29 people don’t show up, but I don’t think customer satisfaction/return factor into the thinking here. In the land of the desperate, how could it?

“There is a flight that leaves at 9am and there’s room on it” The slender woman with long, set aside, bangs, informs me.
“we’ll take it” I say.
Click-click-click on her keyboard.
“Oh, very sorry,” She crinkles her eyebrows “the flight has been suspended.”
“What does that mean?” I say
“I don’t know.” She says
“Sooo…. What-should-I-do?” I ask. I am beyond impatience at this point
“Leave your tickets with me and I will keep trying”. I leave at 5pm. Come back then.“ she says.
For some reason (mostly fatigue, I suspect), I trust this woman, and leave her my tickets. My solitary chance of getting out of this place.

I find Amanda and Justin, sitting on the floor nearby, leaning against a glass guardrail. “We have a visitor,” Amanda says. A petite elderly woman, clothed in one continuous piece of African fabric, is squatting 6 inches from them, in the place where I had been sitting. I look down at her. She looks up with watery eyes and smiles a warm, tired, clueless smile. “Well” I say “I guess we’ll find another place”

2:00pm We move to the transfer lounge, which is really just a big empty room, and fall asleep on the cold green tiles. I wake up at 4:30pm and go wait in line again to retrieve our tickets. The woman with the bangs is not there. I realize I should have asked for her name. I wait 30 min in line and when I get to the desk, the man behind it assures me that everything is going to be ok.

At this point I start getting sharp with him.

“Try to be patient” he says, over and over.
“I cannot be patient” I say, quite blankly. (The irony here is, I had no choice. In the US, we have the choice to be patient or not; To blow a fuse, or not. Because we know if we blow a fuse, something will undoubtedly happen. Not the case here.)
How can you be “patient” when a stranger is somewhere holding your tickets that are the only out of this country… and is about to go home with them. I was going to be in Nairobi Airport for the rest of my life.
At 5:30, The woman with the bangs shows up. I am so relieved to have my tickets back, I do not scold her for telling me she was going home at 5. However, she is still unable to access our flight, so we have to come back in the morning to see a woman named Penina (who I’m sure, to this day, doesn’t exist). Argh. So now it’s dinnertime. The chance of getting into town to see anything or stay anywhere has been shot. We eat at the airport restaurant. Terrible food, but we haven’t eaten all day, so my pizza tastes ok. Justin’s Lamb Masala makes me want to gag and the Ice Cream tastes like it has been frozen, melted and re-frozen 5 times over.

We rent “rooms” in the sleeper’s lounge, in the sketchy basement below terminal 3. Rooms are $40 per person for a tiny bed and table. There’s barely room to walk into the room. The beds are made of foam and the pillows are stuffed with burlap sacks. IF we sleep for over 8 hours, the price doubles. Needless to say, none of us sleep well.

Day 5:

6:30: wake up and take a cold shower with a bar of cheap soap and dry myself with a scratchy towel that must have come from a cheap beach hotel in the states 20 years ago. We get out of there by 7, and return to our stake in the transfer desk line.
I wait for about an hour in the line. I am 2 people from the front when a tall, well dressed African man runs up to the desk and says “excuse me, we have a big problem!”, in good English. I going to assume the man was Kenyan.
No reaction from the 2 people behind the desk.
“EXCUSE ME!” He repeats, more emphatically “We have a REALLY BIG PROBLEM! Please, someone call security!” There is desperation in his voice.
No one moves.
At this point, I’m assuming this is a rich Kenyan gentleman who has lost his luggage, and wants to complain to an official.
He walks up to one of the men assisting someone and, slamming his hand on the desk, asks: “Why won’t you call security?”
“There is a line, sir. You must wait your turn.” The timid man behind the desk says, without looking up.
“I don’t have time to wait in line. We have a problem NOW! What do you want me to do?”
“Whatever you wish” the man answers
“You want me to do what I wish?” The Kenyan challenges.
The man behind the desk nods, finally looking up, and then sideways at the angry man, who promptly picks up his computer monitor and throws it across the room.
The buzzing airport went silent.
“CALL SECURITY” the Kenyan yells.

At this point, I’m thinking “this is the part of the story where a group of men rush in with hand-cuffs and guns, and this guy gets escorted off the premises, and arrested.”

Nothing happens.

The man behind the computer silently collects his monitor, sets it back on his desk and begins to plug the wires back in.
The Kenyan is beside himself and starts shouting something in Swahili, arms flailing. At this moment I see tears in his eyes. This is not a petty baggage issue. The African men around me become involved in the dialogue. Soon everyone is yelling, but still, nothing official is happening. I look around. Is there any security in this airport?
Soon, the Kenyan storms out, back to the baggage claim area.
“What happened?” I ask the gentleman next to me in line.
“His mother. She fell on the plane from Dubai.” He answers in his thick accent, “She was dying but there was no one to help. Now she is dead. They would not call anyone.”

There is a dead woman. Down that hallway, a woman is dead. And no one doing anything. At this point I feel very unsafe. I begin to think about the woman I heard about at Bethel who raised from the dead a boy who had drowned in the ocean. The woman had been praying for a year that she would have an opportunity to raise someone from the dead, and would lie on her carpet and imagine herself saying the words “In the name of Jesus, wake up.” Wake up. Should I go pray for her, Jesus? Should I go now? I haven’t been preparing or praying for this moment…

At this moment, my number comes up in line. I went to the desk. I forget to even ask about Penina, since I’m sure she doesn’t exist.
“Sir, I have been here for 2 days and I have to get out of here. I don’t care how, just get me on a flight, any flight, to anywhere. Otherwise I will take a bus to Rwanda. Or walk.”
The man looks at me and smiles.
“The 9 o’clock flight has been cancelled, but we can get you on the noon flight”
“I was told it was oversold by 28 people”
“Who said this?” He asks
“Never mind,” I say. “Just get me boarding passes with seat numbers”
He prints off the boarding passes and 1 make him repeat the promise that we will, indeed, be on the flight at 12:00 pm. It boards at 10:45. This leaves me 2 hours to find the woman who fell on the plane from Dubai.

I follow the Kenyan man’s trail down to the customs area. There is a small room off to the side and the door has been left open. I can’t imagine what this room is used for on a daily basis. The place where they bring the sick and dying to keep them out of the way? It’s the size of a large bathroom. There is no furniture, no medical equipment. There are about 10 people crowded around what I assume to be the woman, lying on the floor, covered in a bedsheet.

“Excuse me,” I ask the man by the door, “I would like to pray for the woman”
“Hum?” He leans his ear into my face. I don’t think my volume is the problem.
“I want to pray” I make a praying symbol with my hands, like they teach you in Sunday school… like we always see Jesus in posters, His hands clapped together, index fingers and eyes pointed toward heaven. “For the woman” I point past his right hip to where I can see the sheeted bundle.
“Ah yes. One moment” He says, he calls a woman over and mutters in Swahili.
She looks at me. “You want to pray for this woman?” I nod “Do you know her condition?” she asks.
“Yes, I know that she is dead.” I say.
She raises her eye-brows, shrugs and says “why not.”

Now, to prevent this from sounding like a “from the field” missionary report, let me say that I had no feelings of calling or heroism in my bones. God did not say “Go and bring this woman back to life.” I just had the feeling I should pray for her. I was actually shaking. But bold, nonetheless. I knew what I had to do and had nothing to lose. Would these people thing I was strange for asking this woman to wake up, in the name of Jesus. Probably, but who cares? It’s His choice, not mine. He can do whatever He wants. Who cares if I look stupid. In this case, at least.

I ask around the room if anyone knew the woman. They shake their heads. What are they doing here? I wondered. The air in the room was utterly undignified. I shuttered to think about my own mother, lying on a cold floor under a sheet in some African airport, surrounded by a group of murmuring apathetic onlookers.
Someone had her name on a piece of paper. I can’t remember it now.

I repeated the name and said “Talitha cum” over and over. It’s the words Jesus used when he asked the girl to get up. The girl who was only sleeping.

This woman was not sleeping. I touch her hand through the sheet. It is cold and hard, like your feet feel when they’ve been outside too long in the winter… and they can’t feel your touch. She can’t feel my touch. Her belly is swollen. I touch it and it feels like a thick, tight balloon. She isn’t waking up.

I keep praying.

Soon my prayers turn from the miraculous to the ordinary. God’s Mercy for her soul; Peace for her family as they mourn. I pray dignity over her life. Realizing, as I pray, that these things may be miracles. Who knows. Who ever knows. Who knows what it would have taken for that woman to breathe again. Who knows why God, in all His power and Love wouldn’t do it. Who knows why I am stuck in Narobi, and on all fours in this strange room, listening to people chatter behind me about what went wrong.

“The problem was, no one phoned to say there was a sick passenger,” one woman said, matter-of-factly.
“Next time they should call a doctor.” Another added.

It was as if they were discussing a driving route they had taken that wasn’t sufficient. Like, next time we’ll take 1st avenue and not the freeway…

Why am I bending over this woman I’ve never met, touching her cold, bloated belly? I don’t know. But somehow, it felt important. In the same way it feels important to teach a child how to tie his shoe.

A man walks in, pulls the sheet back from the woman’s face, and I see it for the first time. It is squished the way a face looks when it’s pressed up against a window, usually making a face at someone. I marvel at how it has frozen this way. Don’t our muscles relax when they’re no longer needed? The man tosses the sheet back over her face and makes a sound of disgust and clicks his tongue as if to say “Too bad.”

I finish my prayers and stand up. Everyone in the room is staring at me.
“You are a Christian.” A woman says. It’s not a question.
“Why do you pray?” She asks

Why do I pray? I don’t know. Because it’s my best connection to God. Because it made sense as the only thing to do in that moment. Because God may have nudged me to do so… Because I know that woman was loved, deeply loved. But if she was so loved, why wouldn't God …

“Because God said He loves her.” I say
“And what does else does God say?” another woman asks, not mockingly.
“That He loves you all, very much, and wants you to know that he cares about you.”
My answer sounds like cotton candy. I hope, somehow, the meaning is translated.
“Uh” They nod in unison.
I leave the room and start back up the long hallway, back to the transfer desk. I’ve been gone for over an hour. I find Amanda frantically searching the area.
“Everything’s fine” I say. “We’re leaving at noon.”


We sit close to the door and are the first to board the plane. We refuse to believe that it is actually happening. Something else has to go wrong. It is not until we touch down in Kigali that I believe I am here.
And here I am.

I don’t want to write a summary paragraph at this moment. I believe (perhaps wrongly) that stories speak for themselves. And the “why” becomes less interesting as you look at the “what”. I marvel at how what happens to us, against our wills perhaps, becomes part of our stories, our experience that we draw from in the days to come.
Here’s to “Listening to our Lives”*.

I hope this finds you well and full of peace.


*a favorite book of mine by fredrich beuchner