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.