The thoughts of a woman trying to live simply yet abundantly, contentedly yet expectantly, wisely yet adventurously... all for His glory.




Pandora radio: free

prayer cards with envelopes: $25

stamps: $45

ink cartridges and computer paper: thank you Mom and Dad

2 full days of writing, folding, sealing envelopes: about 16 hours that I will never get back

writer's cramps: included free with all of the above at no extra charge

88 support letters finally, finally in the mail:  PRICELESS.

Linked to the Gratitude Community over at Holy Experience... as we recount the multitude of gifts that the Lord showers down.


Lord willing, this is the plan

Here's the proposed plan and timeline so that people who are interested know what's going on in my life... and to give some advance warning that I might be a little discombobulated during all this!

Dec. 11th: start the drive from Rochester to Houston (so thankful that Eva and Chinwe are coming along!)
Dec. 12th: arrive in Houston
Dec. 16th-22nd: fly to Seattle to see both sides of my extended family
Dec. sometime after Christmas: drive to Nashville to see Marshall
Jan. 13th: fly to Rochester for Rachel's wedding (I'm singing in the wedding, too!)
Jan. 17th: fly back to Houston to spend one last week with family
Jan. 24th: fly to meet the Africa Mercy in Tenerife, spending one night in Paris on the way
Jan. 26th: back on the Africa Mercy!
Jan. 31st or so: begin to sail to Togo


first snow

It's snowed all day today, small crystals that have only just barely managed to cover the grass. It looks beautiful, but I still feel chilled.
My apologies for being absent for a while. When I first began to blog, I promised myself that I would only blog if I considered my thoughts "worthy of public consumption." And frankly, I have been challenged to write anything worthwhile while I am here at home... it is so much easier to come up with things to write about when I am on the Africa Mercy.

Brief update: I spent Thanksgiving weekend packing up my belongings and last Monday the moving company came and hauled it all away, excepting a few clothes and my ancient computer. On Tuesday I ordered a laptop, my first ever. Having a laptop will be such a blessing when I am back to living on the ship, and of course I am thrilled to give my 8-year-old, virus-infested desktop a kick to the curb.
But today I have been (emotionally and mentally) frozen, wandering around the house in a sort of twilight. My eyes keep returning to the empty place where my coffee table used to sit. My vintage bookcase is missing too, as are the few books that I keep because they have been formative in my life.

My mind is immobile, caught by the snare of "shoulds" and "must-do's" on my mental list.

And time stretches thinly in front of me: seven days. In just a week I will get in the car and drive south, towards warmer climes and my family, but leaving behind friends I love and a place that has been home for three years.

In my joy of coming home to Minnesota I somehow managed to forget that this is no longer home, and that I would be saying another round of goodbyes all too soon.

But I'll be happy to bid goodbye to the snow, and hello to my parents in Houston.

(I wrote this last Thursday and neglected to post it... so I am posting it now, as is.)


freedom and redemption

Frankly I don't feel thankful today.

I feel overwhelmed.

The sheer number of items on my to-do list seems to have multiplied in the last week, and my heart says I am tired. Tired of complicated. Tired of mundane but necessary. Tired of planning ahead. Tired of dealing with things that I never anticipated; for example, my CPR certification expires August 2010... but I'll be out of the country at that time, so I'd better take the class (in my "spare time") and renew it now.

All of this logistical quagmire has a beautiful purpose: this is the journey I must walk in order to return to the Africa Mercy in January. I'm exactly where I should be, following God's calling... but I'm tired.

I thought about not posting today (rationalizing that no one would notice the absence), but immediately after that thought occurred to me so did another: thankfulness may sometimes be a feeling, but it is more often a choice.

I've been reading in the Old Testament, in Exodus. I've been underlining just how often God does things "so that you may know there is no one like the Lord your God." It's on every single page, in every single chapter. But is it in my heart and mind?

Consider Moses' question and God's reply, from the last part of chapter 5 and parts of chapter 6:
"O Lord, why have you brought trouble upon this people? have not rescued your people at all."

"I am the Lord. ...I will free you... I will redeem you... I will take you as my own... Then you will know that I am the Lord your God."

So today I will choose to be thankful for a God who frees me, who redeems me, who takes me as His own, and who desires me to know Him.

Today I'm joining in the gratitude community over at Holy Experience.


light in the darkness

Notre Dame, Paris

Lord, you have brought light to my life;
my God, you light up my darkness.
Psalm 18:28 NLT

Entering the hushed stillness of a cathedral always instills in me a sense of wonder. My breathing slows, my mind stills, my eyes widen, my heart responds.

In the darkness hundreds of candles flicker and dance. I've been known to gently drop my coins in the box and light a candle as a way of entering into the holiness of the place.

Something about light captures me, perhaps because I have walked in darkness. But Jesus says:

"the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned."
Matthew 4:16, quoting from Isaiah 9:2

So I choose to celebrate the light, especially at this time of year when daylight lessens and nights lengthen.

Light reminds me that though the darkness is black indeed, the Light of the World has already overcome.

Linked to Tuesdays Unwrapped at Chatting at the Sky.


Monday morning sunshine

Continuing to list the many gifts that God lavishes so abundantly...

46) bonfires with friends
47) quiet misty mornings
48) bald eagles
49) high ropes courses, challenging both mind and body

(Photo by Amanda Martin)
50) friends who challenge and encourage

(Photo by Amanda Martin)
51) heated floors in the cabin
52) playing Ticket to Ride with friends
53) cold, clear nights perfect for looking at the stars
54) scraping my windshield for the first time in a long time
55) celebrating Rachel's upcoming marriage with friends at her bridal shower
56) game night with old friends... up waaay too late, but we successfully saved the world
57) homemade waffles this morning
58) Monday morning sunshine
59) a quiet house--doubly precious after all my time surrounded by people and noise aboard the Africa Mercy
60) friends who ask questions and really listen to my answers about my time with Mercy Ships
61) being able to speak at Salt and Light church group last week about what God has been doing in my life
62) looking into a week filled with time to figure out details, fresh chances to reconnect with friends, and time to just be present.
63) being underinsured(!)--I was able to receive a vaccine I needed for $12 (usually $200). Thank you Lord for federal grant money!

When you begin looking for the gifts that God gives, you realize just how graciously he gives: beauty, light, warmth, relationships, fresh air, practical provisions.

I challenge you to begin seeing your world through grateful eyes. Awaken wide-eyed with wonder to every little gift. Feel free to join with me in the gratitude community at Holy Experience.

holy experience


ah, Paris... je t'aime

Oh Paris, how I love you (sigh).

As you can tell, I had a lovely time in Paris while en route from Benin back home to Minnesota.

I love Paris even though it rained in the afternoon and I then proceeded to spend a good eight hours wandering around Parisian streets in thoroughly wet and freezing shoes.

It's surprisingly easy to get around in Paris. From the airport, simply hop on the Metro train and it will take you right into the heart of Paris. After I got off the Metro, it was a quick walk to my hostel where I dumped off my luggage, ate breakfast (chocolate hazelnut spread on bread and a cup of tea), and discovered there was a free walking tour that included all the highlights of Paris I'd hoped to see.

We met at the Font St. Michel and proceeded to walk to Notre Dame, along the Seine River, through the courtyard of the Louvre (utterly gorgeous architecture, see photo at left), and through a park which displayed an odd mingling of classic French statues and that kind of modern art which can only be described as "strange and slightly disturbing." We stopped for lunch (salmon and cucumber baguette for me) and coffee... I caved and bought a Starbucks. I know, I know--it's completely un-French to drink café au lait (coffee with milk), much less with any flavoring! But it had started to rain, I was freezing cold, and I wanted something hot to hold in my hands, not a tiny little demitasse cup filled with straight espresso.

After lunch we continued bravely on despite the rain, although I must admit I have a hard time remembering what all we toured because I could only think about my coldness and wetness. We ended the tour at the Petit Palais, which like many other old, grand palaces in Paris now housed a museum. We were within walking distance of L'Arc de Triomphe, Napoleon's Tomb, and the Eiffel Tower.

At this point, I had made friends with a couple guys on the tour, and we ducked inside the Petit Palais (see photo at right of a beautiful staircase inside) to warm up and figure out what we wanted to do next.

Now, if you had told me six months ago that I would end up seeing the sights in Paris with a couple of guys I had never met before, I would have told you in no uncertain terms that you were crazy.

But,  it was nice to have someone to take pictures of me at all the landmarks. And they were nice and not at all creepy.

So, the three of us--me, an accountant from India/England, and a Texan student studying in Italy--spent the rest of the day happily getting lost (which can only lead you to interesting doors, churches tucked in small neighborhoods, and great patisseries), exploring inside Notre Dame, and eating dinner at a quaint bistro.

You can't help but be reminded of the grandeur of God when you are in churches like Notre Dame. Everyone is hushed, and the whole place is permeated with a sense of mystery and holiness.

After a leisurely dinner, the three of us took the Metro to the Eiffel Tower. We hoped to be able to climb up to the top--600 some steps--but apparently you are not allowed to after dark, so we settled for riding the elevators up.

After dark the Eiffel Tower puts on a continual light show. When we first walked up it was golden, but within minutes the entire tower was sparkling (perhaps a million little camera flash bulbs?).

The ride up in the glass elevators was well worth the price of the ticket! I am not particularly afraid of heights, but I found myself holding my breath as the elevator kept climbing...climbing...climbing.

But this was the view from the top.

I've decided I could live quite happily in Paris.

After we were safely back on the ground, the three of us walked to the Metro and headed back to our respective hostels. Incidentally, I ended up having a room to myself at the hostel, an unexpected but welcome blessing. After a good night's sleep and another simple-but-decadent breakfast, I wheeled my luggage back to the Metro and headed to the airport... and home.


feeling loved

I have been given two blog awards recently... I'm definitely feeling loved!

Thank you to Angela who writes a lovely literary blog for the Over the Top blog award!

The rules for accepting this award are to copy and change the answers to suit you and pass it on. Answers can only be one word! Pass the award to your favorite bloggers and alert them they have been awarded.

1. Where is your cell phone?  purse
2. Your hair? straightened (for the first time in 6 months)
3. Your mother? lovely
4. Your father? consistent
5. Your favorite food? mac&cheese
6. Your dream last night? none
7. Your favorite drink? tea
8. Your dream/goal? master's?
9. What room are you in? bedroom
10. Your hobby? singing
11. Your fear? loneliness
12. Where do you want to be in 6 years? adventure!!
13. Where were you last night? birthday party
14. Something you aren’t? short
15. Muffins? chocolate
16. Wish list item? pedometer
17. Where did you grow up? Idaho
18. Last thing you did? read
19. What are you wearing? pajamas
20. Your TV? unused
21. Your pets? plants
22. Your friends? amazing
23. Your life? blessed
24. Your mood? jittery
25. Missing someone? Mercy Shippers
26. Vehicle? Honda
27. Something you’re not wearing? perfume
28. Your favorite store? TJ Maxx
29. Your favorite color? all
30. When was the last time you laughed? today
31. Last time you cried? unsure
32. Your best friend? my joy
33. One place that I go over and over? library
34. One person who emails me regularly? Eva
35. Favorite place to eat? Panera

I'd like to pass this award on to two blog friends I've recently "met" who have gone out of their way to encourage me:
Tea @ Homemaker's Heart
Michelle @ Shhhh....I'm Thinking!

The second award came courtesy of Tea, who writes a lovely blog about family and faith. Thank you Tea!

Here are the rules that come with the Superior Scribbler award....
1. Each Superior Scribbler that I name today must pass the award on to 5 most-deserving bloggy friends.
2. Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author and the name of the blog from whom she has received the award.
3. Each Superior Scribbler must display the award on her blog, and link to this post, which explains the award.
4. Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit This Post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky List. That way, we'll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives This Prestigious Honor!
5. Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on her blog.

I'd like to pass this award on to several blogging friends whose blogs are always well-penned:
Eva @ Life and Prime Numbers
Angela @ BusyBees42's Weblog
Roo @ Where Her Feet Land
Deb @ Talk at the Table
Andrea @ One Journey Among Many


my blessings overflow

This past week saw me saying au revoir to friends aboard the Africa Mercy, bonjour to lovely Paris, and je suis la! (I am here!) to my friends as they welcomed me home at the airport.

All in all I am thankful for more things than I can count this past week, but I will at least list the highlights.

24:: Debs, who graciously sewed my duffel bag together in not one, but three(!) places after I discovered holes just moments before I was meant to leave for the airport to fly home

25:: safety pins to reinforce Deb's sewing, and packing tape around the entire duffel bag for added peace of mind

26:: additional packing tape at the hostel in Paris, where I discovered yet another rip in the duffel (oh I wish I had a picture to show you!)

27:: the previously mentioned stitched-pinned-taped duffel bag did NOT explode while in transit home. (Did I mention that I also frequently prayed for this duffel to arrive intact?!)

28:: a free walking tour of all the highlights of Paris

29:: the Paris metro

30:: the Eiffel Tower at night

31:: dear friends meeting me at the airport at home

32:: hugs that left me breathless

33:: my fabulously comfortable bed

34:: glorious fall days just right for a sweater and a scarf

35:: my favorite Stella Mare gardenia candle (a little whiff of heaven)

36:: my houseplants thriving in a sunny windowsill

37:: Paris Romance tea (how fitting!), Earl Grey, chai, and other favorite loose leaf teas

38:: celebrating with friends for Chris' birthday--lots of games and food

39:: freshly mulled apple cider

40:: friends who have asked me about my time in Benin, who listen, who sense the joy in my eyes and voice, and who make me promise to have an open house so I can show pictures and tell stories

41:: friends who mention that they have been reading my blog (so encouraging!)

42:: Eva, who came home early from the cities just so she could see me and give me the. longest. hug. ever.

43:: puttering around the house and chatting with Rachel

44:: Ron offering me an entire SNL night (church young adults' group) to talk about my experiences with Mercy Ships

45:: time to finally reply to comments on my blog from friends old and new

God's gifts are incredibly, overwhelmingly abundant. Please add your voice to the gratitude community found at Holy Experience.

holy experience



This is it: my last day. Today is a day for packing (I have not saved it for the very last second, Mama), goodbyes, and one last walk into Cotonou to buy some cards.

But yesterday? Yesterday was a day for dancing.

Through no fault of anyone in particular, yesterday's shift--my last one in Benin--certainly followed the idea that one should "go out with a bang."

It was one of those shifts where I just couldn't keep up with the myriad changes happening with each of my five VVF patients. Nor could I keep up with the hundreds of little technical things that you have to do with VVF patients to make sure that their surgeries have a good chance of succeeding. All of the nurses who worked yesterday's shift were overwhelmed.

But in the midst of all the catheter problems and opening abdominal incisions and dressing changes, we had another dress ceremony. Four ladies danced yesterday to celebrate being dry and to give testimony to a hope reborn. For once, there were not crowds of crew members or communications people taking pictures of it all. Yesterday was just the VVF ladies, the nurses, and the disciplers. But we still sang and clapped and praised God for the way he works miracles in our lives and in our bodies.

In the middle of a terrible, horrible, very-bad day, I paused to listen to the stories of the women.

I have had this trouble for 12 good years.
I had to travel for several days to come to the ship.
I thought my life was over; I thought it would always be this way.

I listened to the stories of the women--Irene, Animutu, Sekinatu, and Mariama--and it crashed down on me that God is sovereign. I was in the middle of a stressful shift, but I caught my breath as I remembered that God calls each of us by name. He knows each of our stories. He wove each of us together.

And for the first time, I got off the sidelines and joined the ladies dancing in the middle.

(Photo by Mercy Ships communications team)

(When I next blog, it will be from home... see you all then!)


in which I have magical powers

Yesterday I discovered the joy to be found in keeping a little mystery in life.

I was working yet another shift taking care of VVF patients. For a change, I had enough spare moments to unpack and put away our fresh supplies. I was holding a large cardboard box when I noticed Eugenie taking in my every move.

Eugenie watched, completely enthralled, as I took the tape off the box seams, opened the flaps, and began to flatten the box so I could throw it away. As the box collapsed completely, she gasped and her eyes widened in shock. What magic made this large object change shape and almost disappear?

I reopened the box, forming it once again into a rectangle. I showed Eugenie the reassembled box, intending to help her realize that the box simply folded in on itself, no magic required. I slowly opened the flaps again to collapse the box, and Eugenie shook her head in wonder, mouth agape. Louisa, the patient in the bed next to Eugenie, was by this time laughing with us, fully a part of our fun. Apparently this cardboard box phenomenon was nothing new for Louisa!

I shaped the carboard once more into a box and called the other nurses over to share in the moment. I then offered the box to Eugenie so that she too could learn the "mysteries" of flattening boxes. But Eugenie couldn't take the wonder any more and disappeared underneath her covers: this was all just too much.

As we all shared in the joy of the moment, I realized that this is yet another reason why I love working here: I learn to see things from a different perspective. Simple things that I take for granted, like breaking down a box, can be a source of wonder and amazement to someone who has never seen such a thing.

I would never have guessed it, but that simple cardboard box provided the best tears-in-your-eyes, genuine, rollicking bellylaughter I've had in a long time.

Eugenie continues to decline to participate in the wonders of box-flattening. Since no one really speaks her language (there are 52 tribal languages in Benin), I am not sure what she thinks about the whole experience.

But I think that sometimes in life we need to preserve the little mysteries, not rush to explain them, lest we lose our sense of wonder.

Shared as a part of Tuesdays Unwrapped at Chatting at the Sky.


what beauty looks like

This is Gnuipanga, or Panga for short. She's one of the VVF ladies I've been taking care of recently. There's another dress ceremony tomorrow, symbolizing the new life and new hope that these women have after a successful VVF surgery.

Isn't she beautiful?

Thing I am thankful for #23: the radiant smile a woman smiles when she has regained hope.

(Both photos taken by the Africa Mercy communications team)

Join us as we count our blessings over at Holy Experience as part of the Gratitude Community.

holy experience


at the setting of the sun

I sat in the dining room yesterday evening watching the sun slide into the waters of the Port du Peche. It's strange to be able to number the times I will be able to do this on one hand.

I fly out of Benin on Wednesday, stopping for 24 hours in Paris before arriving in frozen and wintry Rochester on Friday evening.

Goodbyes are gloomy affairs, especially when I consider the indisputable fact that I will never see some of these people again, at least not in this life. And "let's keep in touch" is at times simply a well-intentioned euphemism for "I hope you have a nice life."

I was reminded by Maggie that the goodbyes are worth it. I'll take the small pain of saying goodbye to someone lovely over the rather large loss of never having known that person.

Even as I prepare to say goodbye to some very dear friends, I am also thrilled beyond words to be going home both to friends close enough to be family and also my "real" family. Knowing that there will be a group of people waiting with open arms at the Rochester airport makes it so much easier to leave behind people I care about here.

Of course, it also helps to know that I will be back on the Africa Mercy in late January, sailing from Tenerife to Togo for the outreach and then sailing down to South Africa. Which, incidentally, requires sailing across the equator and around the Cape of Good Hope--how amazing is that?!

Want to meet me at the airport? I get into Rochester at about 6.30 pm this Friday, November 6th. I imagine my first order of business will be to head home to sleep (in my own bed!), but I would love to see you regardless.

I wonder, when I open my bags at home to unpack, will they smell of Africa?


gazing out in hope

Yesterday's twelve hour shift was twelve hours of difficult. I've been caring for some of our VVF ladies, and while I love the work, at times it requires more than I am able to give.

For the sake of all my non-medical readers, I won't go into details about my shift yesterday. Suffice it to say I spent most of the day cleaning up after some ladies who were not feeling too well. I had to search high and low for every single supply I needed to take care of my patients. I had a million little tasks to do, each competing for priority. And at the end of my shift, when I accidentally knocked over a container of urine onto my flip-flop shod foot (this is why you have to wear closed-toe shoes in hospitals at home!), all I could do was laugh. It was either laugh... or cry with frustration.

And so last night I didn't set an alarm for this morning, sleeping in until my body chose to wake up. Today I have done little except be with friends, read a good book, and work on a Bible study. When I finally got online this evening to check my email and catch up on some blogs, I realized that today is Monday. Multitude Monday over at Holy Experience. And as I was reading what others in the gratitude community were thankful for, I came across this gem at a blog I enjoy: gazes out in hope.

Gazes out in hope. What a beautiful word picture.

Yesterday's shift was a tough one, but I think about the VVF ladies and am reminded of their strength and hope. These women hope for a life reborn: freedom from shame and belonging once again to their families and husbands. While we may provide the free surgery to fix the hole in their bladder, only God can fix the hole in a wounded soul. He is the Hope-Giver and the Healer, and for that, I am thankful. I am also thankful for:

15) the gratitude community: as we share our stories together, we are reminded of God's goodness.

16) waking up one day last week with a worship song in my head: "holy, holy, holy/ is the Lord God almighty/ who was and is and is to come/ with all creation I sing/ praise to the King of kings/ you are my everything/ and I will adore you."

17) the study of the book of Esther by Beth Moore. I am learning, I am seeing God's hand at work, and I am seeking to know Him more. And I am finally--finally!--enjoying being in my Bible.

18) a quiet room to myself tonight, a rarity on this ship on which 400 people live.

19) God's quiet reassurance breaking through my fretting about how it will all get done

20) a beautiful story of redemption told by my dear friend Eva.

21) Akouvi, a VVF patient. Although her surgery failed, and she continues to leak urine constantly, she continues to smile, laugh, and even tease me as we communicated yesterday through broken French and translators.

22) anti-malarial medications for baby Jenga. In God's gracious timing, his mama Mora is currently a VVF patient, so we have been able to give her surgery and also treat his malaria... which could otherwise have been deadly.

This week, may we each continue to gaze outward in hope.

holy experience


hope reborn

Today two women had their VVF surgeries, the first two surgeries of a two week season. I had the pleasure of caring for both of them and was reminded of just how much I love these women!

VVF stands for vesico-vaginal fistula, which is something that typically occurs during childbirth, and typically only occurs in developing countries with little access to health care. (In the developed world, the problem is fixed immediately in the hospital.)

Sometimes in Africa women with complicated labors will labor for many days to a week. Part of the problem is that many of the women, especially in the most isolated and rural areas, are physically very small. Although they may have had enough food growing up (or maybe not), all the energy and calories go towards the heavy work of hauling water and fuel for cooking, instead of going towards growth. Another part of the problem is that sometimes the nearest road is many hours' walk away and the hospital further still. So a woman may labor for days or weeks(!) with only her family and the villagers for help.

After a while, the constant pressure of the baby inside the birth canal can cause tissue to die, and a hole forms between the bladder (or sometimes the bowel) and the birth canal. The end result is that for the rest of her life, the woman constantly leaks urine, stool, or both. Tragically, the baby almost always dies in the process of the difficult labor.

A woman who leaks urine is shunned by her family, outcast by her community, and usually abandoned by her husband. Her worth as a woman is intrinsically tied to her ability to bear children and raise a family. She often thinks of killing herself with poison.

Somehow she hears about a ship that has come to Benin to help her; somehow she endures hours of walking and bus rides; somehow she survives the ridicule of strangers; somehow she finds her way in an unfamiliar city to the Africa Mercy and is screened for surgery.

She arrives in the ward with her lappa wrapped tightly around her, eyes downcast, trying to make herself unnoticeable.

I welcome her with a smile, help her get washed and give her a bed with clean sheets and pads to help her stay dry. I explain the surgery: what it will be like and what she should expect. And we pray together before she goes into the operating room--that she would know Jesus' love, that God would guide the hands of the surgeon, that she will have a successful outcome.

She comes back from the surgery, sleepy and worn out... but she smiles at me as I help her get back into bed. She is dry--so far so good--but only time will tell if the surgery really worked.

Today, her name is Justine, and her name is Rosalen. Tomorrow, there will be three new names: three women having surgery, three women hoping for a new chance at life. If the surgery works, she is given a new dress to symbolize her new beginning, and we celebrate with dancing and singing praises to the Lord. Then she returns home, hopefully back to the now-open arms of her family and husband.

(Women dancing for a dress ceremony after successful VVF surgery)

The surgery isn't always successful, so we walk a fine line between dancing and mourning on the wards during our VVF surgery season.

Our VVF program on Mercy Ships is called Hope Reborn, completely apropos for a surgery that can give a woman new hope and new life in her community. We also talk with each woman about God's love for her, so sometimes she is also born into the family of God while she is here! Many women are already Christians when they come to the ship, but have not been truly loved or seen for years--sometimes decades--due to their condition.

Watching these women bloom as they discover they are loved and they are not alone is one of the most beautiful things I think I've ever been part of.

Today, at the end of my shift, the other beautiful thing was the pad underneath Justine: it was dry.

(For more information about VVF, watch the movie A Walk to Beautiful, or read the book The Hospital by the River. Both cover the work of Dr. Catherine Hamlin, a missionary in Ethiopia who first brought VVF to the public eye.)

(Linked to "Tuesdays Unwrapped" at a lovely blog called Chatting at the Sky.)



holy experience

Continuing a thread from last week, I am listing things I am thankful for. Want to join? Head over to Ann Voskamp's lovely blog, and be part of the conversation.

6:: a perfect cup of Earl Grey tea with a splash of milk and a hint of honey
7:: competing solidly on team "Lok and Keys" at the Benin Games (the Mercy Ships version of the Olympic Games)

(Lok is in the middle surrounded by the Keys; photo by Mariechen)

8:: iced bissap, also known as hibiscus tea
9:: a gorgeously sunny day at Bab's Dock yesterday... water volleyball, water frisbee, swimming, napping in the sun
10:: everyone who supports and partners with me so I can serve with Mercy Ships--I made a list today in order to write thank you notes, and it is a very long list!
11:: knowing I am headed back to Minnesota to see friends in about two weeks
12:: knowing I am headed to Houston in December to spend the Christmas season with my parents
13:: knowing I will also fly to Seattle to see extended family and friends over Christmas
14:: knowing I am coming back to Mercy Ships in January for the outreach in Togo

What one thing are you most thankful for as you begin a fresh week today?


the meaning behind the title

(lovely image found here)

My blog title, "The Art of Reflection," originally comes from this thoughtful quote by Saumel Taylor Coleridge:

There is one art of which every man should be a master--the art of reflection.--If you are not a thinking man, to what purpose are you a man at all?
Of course, this is true for women as well!

What does it mean to reflect? It simply means to think. Wrestle. Process. Wonder. Feel deeply. Be inspired. Learn. Grow.

Being a thoughtful, reflective person is an essential part of growing personally, spiritually, emotionally, relationally... you name it. One of my hopes is to live as authentically and purposefully as possible. I think that's only doable when I am able to pause and reflect on what happens, what my heart says, what God whispers.

"The Art of Reflection" is also a reminder that as Christians we are created Imago Dei, in the image of God. I am to reflect Christ to those around me. I blog to share what I am learning, thinking, and praying about... I hope as a visible 'image' of how God is at work in my life. I invite you to share in the conversation (I always enjoy reading your comments), and join with me on the journey!

Please share your thoughts as well. In the last week, what have you found yourself reflecting on most often?


a warm welcome!

Since I've noticed that some new folks are reading my reflections, I thought I might just take a moment to say hello and introduce myself a little.

My name is Lindsay, and I'm so glad to meet you! I'm a nurse currently working with Mercy Ships on the Africa Mercy, a floating hospital ship currently docked in Benin, West Africa. Before I coming to Mercy Ships I worked at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for three years.

I believe that reflecting on what's going on in your life--especially on what God is doing--is an essential part of personal and spiritual growth. My blog is a place to share what I learn as I seek to follow God's leading and where I can dialogue with you on your own journey. And now that I am (temporarily) living overseas, the blog is also a place for me to share stories and pictures from West Africa... and process the joys and challenges that come along the way.

I'd love to get to know you, too--feel free to introduce yourself below, perhaps by answering one (or all!) of the following questions:

What do you do for a living?
What's been most on your mind recently?
Where would you most like to travel to, and why?

You can always get in touch with me via email at



holy experience

I've journaled for years, and while some of my writing has been about things I am thankful for, I have never actually listed my blessings. I may or may not be consistent in this weekly exercise, but I have so many things I am thankful for that I just have to start listing!

1. My loving, supportive parents. What would I do without you? Even when I choose paths that increase the physical distance between us, and literally guarantee that I won't see you for birthdays and Mother's or Father's Day, you are able to say "we love you. Go where God leads."

2. The amazing library on board ship. From a great Christian fiction section to newly-discovered nonfiction gems like The End of Poverty by Jeffery Sachs, it has all I need to keep my little bookworm-heart happy.

3. I live in an age of technology... so that while I may be in Benin, I am able to keep in touch via phone, email, and internet with friends and family. I think I might have jumped ship before now if I hadn't been able to cope in this way!

4. The faithfulness of dear friends who keep in touch, sending emails longer than my arm and pretty postcards that made them think of me. And nameless friends who will dress up in pinata and fox suits, lugging guitars and accordions to busy street corners in town, just to create photos that will make me laugh (*cough*Eva*cough*Chinwe*). And my dear "landlady" Rachel, who sends me sweet stories of "our" house and opens bills and deposits checks for me while I am away from home. And Ang, who sends me pretty little baubles just because.

5. The warm, sweet smell of freshly laundered clothing.

I could keep going, but said laundry needs to be promptly removed from the dryer...

What are you most thankful for right now, at this moment?


God alone knows why

Wednesday was a difficult day. I showed up for my evening shift and the charge nurse, unaccountably solemn, gathered the nurses together while she sent the translators over to another ward.

Daniel, one of our translators, was killed instantly when his motorbike collided with a truck Wednesday morning. He was married with two little girls, and his face lit up whenever he spoke about them. He could make trumpet sounds with his mouth to accompany himself on the guitar or piano.

I have memories of Daniel playing "trumpet" while Patrick played the guitar and sang, calming restless patients as they tried to settle down to sleep the night before surgery.

Yesterday I drove with some other nurses to visit his house and express our sorrow with his wife and family. Between the nurses and day volunteers, we were too many for one car so some followed behind on hired zemis. At the house, we were too many for the seats, but we stood and sat and prayed and cried and sang together. We reminded each other that we loved Daniel, but that God loves him more than we ever could. We reminded ourselves that God alone knew the number of his days, and God alone knows why the number of his days was so much shorter than we might have wished.

We reminded each other that God is the father of the fatherless and the husband to the widow. Never before have those words had such profoundly real implications to me as I sat and watched Daniel's two little girls seek their mother with questions in their eyes--who are all these people, and why are they in our house? Why is everyone so sad?

And we kept coming back to one theme: thankfulness. Surprising, perhaps, under the circumstances... but never more true.

We are thankful for Daniel and for his life, and for the ways in which we were allowed to share it. We are thankful for the way he loved his wife and family. We are thankful for the way he interacted with patients on the wards, with laughter and with guitar and with smiles and songs.

And we are thankful that Daniel is in heaven, finally fully alive, making people do double-takes as they search for the trumpet.


welcome home

On the ship, you end up saying more goodbyes in a month than you usually do in a year or two of regular life. Saying goodbye comes with the territory when people come to serve for just a couple months. Sometimes I will spend multiple evenings a week out on the dock, passing out hugs and well-wishes and waving as the Land Rovers carry friends and coworkers away to the airport.

Each time I wonder how it will feel when my time comes to leave. (I have five weeks to prepare for that eventuality.)

Goodbyes are hard, even though I have only known some of these folks for two months. But when you eat and work and play and cry and talk life with people--which is otherwise known as "living in community"--you can become quickly attached to people you have only known for a month or two.

It's good to remember that for most people, I am not really saying au revoir (goodbye). Rather, I am saying tout à l'heure (see you soon). Because even if I never end up being able to visit South Africa or New Zealand or Australia or Norway or Switzerland or England to see these friends again, I will in fact see them again... and what a grand reunion that will be!

It's also good that every now and then I don't have to say goodbye, but instead I get to say bon arriver! Because that's what you get to say when friends like Maggie come back to the Africa Mercy.

Welcome home.


lessons in trust

Before I came, I mentally equated coming to work with Mercy Ships to taking a spiritual cliff-dive: step up to the edge, take a deep breath, and plunge off into the unknown. The truth is that God gives of Himself abundantly. He took the tiny amount of faith and trust I had and covered the rest with grace, and when I look back I wonder why it seemed such a trustfall to come to Benin. It turns out to have only been a small step of obedience. Who knows what steps of obedience may be required of me next, but each time His grace will be sufficient.

I wrote that in July after I had been here in Benin for a couple months. Since then I have continued to think about what it means to trust God, really trust Him, not just say I trust Him and continue to try to hold it all together anyway.

In Natitingou, my friends and I went to swim at a waterfall one day. Rainfall the previous day made the waterfall beautifully strong, churning the water in the pool below to a cloudy brown. And it was here that I had the chance to scramble up the side of the waterfall, first holding onto a tree root and then climbing up the rocks themselves. Guided by a friend who had been there before, I bypassed a ledge on the side of the waterfall and plunged under the waterfall itself to climb onto one of several ledges behind the waterfall.

There were three of us total behind the waterfall, and the plan was to jump out all together. At the countdown, the other two jumped, and I remained standing on my ledge with the water pouring over me.

Now I am not afraid of heights, but I don't like falling. So jumping is hard for me...especially when I am standing behind a screen of water that prevents me from seeing my surroundings, how far it is to fall, and what lies below in the water.

I stood there with the water rushing over and around me and thought about how this was a living, breathing picture of exactly what God has been teaching me over the past year about what it means to trust.

Trust requires letting go.

Trust requires moving from the known into the unknown, even when you can't see where you are going.

And trust requires actually stepping off the ledge, not just thinking about it.

Toes gripping the slippery black rock, I stood under the rush of water contemplating the grandness of a God who gives me waterfalls to teach me lessons in trust.

Eyes closed, heart pounding, I jumped.

And loved it, so much so that I proceeded to climb up the waterfall so I could jump off once more, just for good measure.

Trust is a lesson I am trying to learn well, although I'm not sure it will ever be easy. Thankfully God is giving me ample opportunities to practice.

(You can see three ledges or levels in the picture... we jumped from the lowest of the three.)



Natitingou is easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, and absolutely the most beautiful place I have been thus far in Benin. Especially when compared to concrete-and-zemi-smoke-saturated Cotonou.

Two weeks ago I left straight from a night shift to sit on a bus for ten hours with some other nurses as we headed up to the far northern part of Benin to stay with some missionaries.

I find I can't really write about the weekend, except to say that it was truly refreshing and rejuvenating. I needed the beauty, the mountains, the streams, the waterfall, the flowers, the hiking, the red dirt roads, and the fresh air.

Here are a few of my favorite pictures from the weekend. Head on over to facebook to see the rest if you are interested.

This is not what you think of when you think of Africa, is it? Welcome to Benin.

Looking out over the valley the first evening.

Me and Esther, hiking in the hills surrounding the valley.

Driving just to see the sights in Sombaland... so much fun!

Sunset on the last evening, too beautiful for words.


things I've left unsaid

My blog is more like a journal than a newspaper. In other words, I write more about my thoughts and feelings than the "straight facts" of what is happening here on the Africa Mercy. There's a reason for this.

In my opinion, the things I am learning make for more worthwhile writing than the minutiae of daily life here. I know, I know: unless you live on the Africa Mercy, you have no concept of what passes for normal life onboard, and with a few word pictures you would be better able to picture my life here.

I wrote a while back about some of the things I will never be able to put into words. My experiences here have profoundly impacted how I think and what I value... but I find it near impossible to be able to write about that much. And in addition to those things I can't put into words, I have realized that when I write I am also leaving a great deal unsaid.

I don't blog about specific patients like some nurses do, for example. It's not because I don't want to. It's just that each person's experience living and working on the ship is different, and that includes caring for different patients. Ali, for example, is a pediatric nurse and thus has ample opportunity to write about the adorable little kiddos we take care of on board.

I am not a pediatric nurse, however. In my case, after about five weeks of VVF patients, I had a six or seven week stretch of almost exclusively hernia patients. Hernia repairs are simple and thus the patients would be in one day and out the next, leaving me with little time to learn their names much less hear any of their stories. From a nursing perspective it was a mindless six weeks of work, and I had to often remind myself that although hernia repairs are simple operations, they can be just as life-changing as some of the more specialized surgeries. For example, if a man is unable to work due to a hernia and thus unable to provide for his family, repairing that hernia gives him his livelihood back and keeps his family from going hungry.

In a nice change of pace, I've been working in plastics (surgeries to repair deformities or contractures, often involving skin grafts) for the last couple of weeks. Plastics patients stay at least a week so I have been able to learn their names and listen to some of their stories. Maybe I will write about some of their stories; maybe not. Somehow it seems too personal, too intimate. But I know you are deeply interested in the kinds of patients I care for, and I also know that you have perhaps wondered at the lack of patient stories on my blog.

For the time being I will point you to the writing of some friends who are able to capture much better than I some of the individual stories of beauty, heartache, and healing that we see on a daily basis on the wards.

Naomi from Australia writes a short but good compilation of several stories complete with pictures that are worth more than a thousand words.

Adrienne from Canada writes about some of the VVF ladies that came to us earlier in the outreach.

And Ali from the US writes about a beautiful little baby who came in malnourished and with a tumor as big as her head... and left transformed.


uncharted waters

I ought to be sleeping before tomorrow's early morning shift. Instead, I am wide wake and pondering the fact that I was supposed to arrive back in Rochester, MN, tonight. Since I extended my time here in Benin, I will instead return in November, just in time for a bitterly cold MN winter. (I timed that well, didn't I?)

It's strange to sit here as the ship sways gently back and forth, thinking about the changes the last three and a half months have wrought in my life.

I never imagined when I signed up for Mercy Ships that I would end up staying nearly six months. Six months! It seems such a long time and yet it is slipping away so quickly.

I did not know that I would cut myself adrift from Mayo without a plan in place for what to do next.

I never dreamed that my options for next year would include the following: moving to the Austin, TX, area to be closer to family, or travel nursing somewhere in the US, or heading to Togo on the Africa Mercy.

I love how God's plans for me are always grander than what I dream for myself.

From here on out, the waters are uncharted.


the art of letting go

Needless to say, letting go is a skill learned only through repetition.

Letting go is especially challenging for a woman who loves to plan ahead, loves to strategize, loves to think in multiple scenarios, and loves to (try to) be in control.

A quote that I have been thinking about for a couple months now from Seeds of Sensitivity by Robert J. Wicks: "It is only when you move into the future without God that you experience anxiety."

I am choosing to move into the future with God, which necessarily means letting go of my plans and expectations. I am choosing to trust that God's dreams for me are ever so much grander than I could ever dream.

And I am choosing not to give in to thoughts of "what in the world have I done?!"

What I do know: it's time to once again step up to the edge of the cliff, take a deep breath, and trust.

I don't know what I will be doing after the new year, an uncertainty which is a totally new experience for me. I may be looking for a job somewhere in the neighborhood of San Antonio or Austin, Texas; I may be back on the Africa Mercy for the Togo outreach; I may be travel nursing in Australia. Or goodness only knows what else.

It's a dangerous business... going out of your door...You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. (JRR Tolkien)


a collection of short stories

I know, I know: it's been a while since I have posted a least one that actually says something rather than only just barely hinting at my thoughts.

But I was thinking today of some of the things that have happened that are small enough in and of themselves, but that will give you some insight into what my life is like here.

For example, I have managed to electrocute myself while in Benin. Not exactly what I pictured my parents hearing from Mercy Ships before my remains were repatriated (my traveler's insurance covers this, did you know that?) back home to the States. The story is this: after my last string of night shifts, three other fellow night-nurses and I headed to a lovely resort called Awale Plage in a sleepy little town called Grand Popo not far from the Togolese border. (Both pictures in this post were taken at Awale Plage.) We spent three days and three nights in utter relaxation. The first day we breakfasted on ripe mangoes brought with us from the ship, read novels while listening to the rain run madly off the corrugated roof, and watched tiny little geckos stalk and eat ants. After the rain let up we walked on the beach discovering cuttlefish and sting rays and one lone green piece of perfect beachglass. The next morning the sultry African sun reappeared so we donned our togs (swimmers, bathers, swimsuits) and lay on woven reed mats to watch the waves crash on the steep shore. It was on the evening of the second day that I electrocuted myself while reaching to turn off the light over the bathroom sink. Turns out to have been a charged piece of metal posing as a power toggle. I gasped, removed my tingling index finger from the light, and promptly went out to tell the girls what happened to me. We laughed long and hard about the fact that of the assorted typical ways to die in Africa (zemidjan accident, various parasites, exotic diseases, sunstroke, etc.) electrocution didn't even make the list.

Speaking of zemidjans, in the interest of truth in reporting I fear I must confess that I have ridden a zemidjan...twice. I left that little tidbit out of my chronicles about vodun fetishes in the Dantokpa market, but the truth was that it would have been nearly impossible to walk the distance from the ship to the market and back in the heat of the day carrying heavy wooden drums. The other truth is that I couldn't help but love the wind in my hair even as I clenched my hands around the back of the bike and prayed for safety. That being said, I am not going to ride any more zemidjans. The risk is just too high.

The other little tidbit that illustrates a small portion of life on the ship comes from this past Saturday morning which found me queuing up for breakfast in the dining room status post night shift. You have no idea how ridiculously excited I was to have a pancake, and orange juice, and--get this!--pineapple flavored yogurt! It made my entire day. The food here is generally amazing, so don't misunderstand me. But breakfast typically consists of toast and cereal and some artificially flavored fruit drink. About once a week we also have a bitter-tart plain yogurt which I have not yet been able to render palatable. Food on the ship can be a strange mix of feast and famine: we may have smoked salmon for sandwiches, but we have not had cheese for the past two or three weeks and we don't know if/when more will be coming. But I will miss the sunflower seed bread, the tubs of mangoes in various stages of ripeness, green oranges, and ripe pineapple.

One other thing I will miss when I go back to the states will be the African greeting, which starts as a handshake and ends with a snap of the fingers as your joined hands separate. This happens anywhere from two to four or five times during the course of the interaction.

And finally, the most important part of this post: I have extended my time here by a couple months so I will come home sometime in mid-November rather than early September as originally planned. I just couldn't picture coming back in a scant three weeks. I am learning so much and growing so much, and despite some of the quirks of life here I am really thriving living in Christian community. And I love the work that I am doing on the wards and that Mercy Ships is doing in Benin. (Read the latest Mercy Ships newsletter here.)

It's not that I don't miss being home; I do. I miss camping and trips to Eva's sister's "cabin" and spontaneous ice cream excursions. I miss the farmer's market and weeding in the backyard. I miss canoeing in the river and biking to Pine Island.

But as wonderful as those things all are I want to be a part of what God is doing here in Benin for a little while longer. I have appreciated the many emails, cards, packages, phone conversations, and the knowledge that I am being prayed for continually. If you would also be interested in supporting me financially for my last couple months, you can take a look here.

Tout a l'heure, or until next time.


things I will never be able to put into words

Assuming I can read your mind with some degree of accuracy, you will want to know certain things when I get home.

For example, I have not taken what you might call "classic missionary in Africa pictures"--myself surrounded by a sea of smiling black children; cuddling little ones with enormous liquid dark eyes; tiny sleeping brown babies tied with a bedsheet onto my back. Those things have happened, to be sure. But the things that are worth taking pictures of are exactly the kinds of things that it is impossible to take pictures of. And I am trying to the best of my ability to not perpetuate the unconscious voyeurism that comes so naturally when you view African snapshots from the comfort of your living room at home.

I will not be able to come home and talk about how Africa itself has changed me, or how Africa is in my blood, or how I may be white outside but have an African heart (all things that various friends have said upon returning home from Africa).

But while I may not be changed in exactly those ways, the fact remains that I am changed.

Before I came, I mentally equated coming to work with Mercy Ships to taking a spiritual cliff-dive: step up to the edge, take a deep breath, and plunge off into the unknown. The truth is that God gives of Himself abundantly. He took the tiny amount of faith and trust I had and covered the rest with grace, and when I look back I wonder why it seemed such a trustfall to come to Benin. It turns out to have only been a small step of obedience. Who knows what steps of obedience may be required of me next, but each time His grace will be sufficient.

Part of what has changed me is the conversations I am having here: conversations of a depth that universities back home struggle to foster. Gather people from all corners of the world to live together in community, to work towards a common purpose, and with love of God and others as a common motivation, and certain types of conversations will flow naturally.

I have talked about what I think about President Obama; what I think about black people; what my friend Christian thinks about white people; why Americans are typically so ignorant of what is going on in the rest of the world; what other countries think of American foreign policy, especially the war in Iraq (I'm unable to comment with any intelligence at all on this last one).

I am learning about what really constitutes luxury; what disease in the body can do to a person's heart and soul; what fear can drive people to do; how so much of my lifestyle at home is bought at great cost to other people; what it looks like to dream of opportunity but have no real hope for it to actually materialize.

I am learning what it means to ask questions with humility. I am learning just how much I do not know. I am learning to listen, I am learning to slow down, I am learning what it looks like to honestly care for another person, and I am learning of the faithfulness of God despite appearances. God is faithful despite poverty, despite disease, despite shame, despite ostracization, despite fear, despite brokenness.

I am learning to trust that when all is said and done, God is the answer to the unanswerable questions.


first night

I spent my first night on African soil last weekend in a small town/village called Dassa-Zoume, about 4 hours' drive from Cotonou. Dassa is known for its basilica, 41 hills, and a nearby river with hippos, among other things.

After spending literally hours working out the logistical nightmare of trying to arrange transportation, hotel rooms, and a hippo tour for 14 yovo nurses, we woke up bright and early on Saturday morning to shoulder our luggage and walk down to the port entrance to wait for our transportation.

In true Beninoise fashion, we sat and waited. And waited. And waited for nearly two hours for our pre-arranged transportation to arrive. As we were attempting unsuccessfully to call the interpreter who had arranged everything for us, another two interpreters--Daniel and Charalampous--rode by on a zemidjan, telling us that they would take care of everything, just give us 20 minutes.

And also in true Beninoise fashion, they returned in the allotted time with our new transportation--an old ambulance redone as a very large taxi. We were amazed that in only about half an hour it was possible to come up with transportation for such a large group of people!

After 4 hours bumping down the (mostly) paved road, we arrived in Dassa at L'Hotel du Auberge. What a treat! Each room was outfitted with a double bed, a fan, private bathroom with a sink, shower, and flush toilet (the old-fashioned tank-above-the-toilet variety). The sweet citronella scent permeating the air, screens over the windows, and a mosquito net over the bed made the ambiance complete.

We set out to explore the town, heading first in the direction of the Catholic basilica. It draws thousands of pilgrims each August as they commemorate the appearance of an image of the Virgin Mary in a grotto several hundred years ago. After exploring the church grounds, we asked some local women where we could hike in the hills, as some of the 41 rocky hills that surround Dassa are sacred. We started off down a path that turned out to lead directly through the yards of some of the townspeople, so we started attracting attention rather quickly.

After making friends with some of the children we met as we traipsed through their front yard, they showed us a small boulder we could climb in their backyard. It had a fair view of the town, but we wanted to keep climbing.

As we climbed, we scrabbled through a jungle of trees and stickery vines and tried to avoid stepping on the hundreds of large snails and giant millipedes(!). At times the rocks were so slippery that we had to haul each other up... with the help of four of the kids, who were amazingly strong. Finally there came a point where those of us in flip flops had to turn back while the rest forged ahead in search of a better view. We hadn't really thought to hike right away or I certainly would have worn my tennis shoes!

Andrea and I headed back down, making friends with the kids who hollered "yovo, yovo!" as we passed. After a lovely cold shower, we ventured into the 'backyard' of the hotel where some ostriches were fenced. Only in Africa!

After the rest of the group arrived from their climb we assembled for dinner at the hotel--we'd been instructed by the hotel staff to order 2-3 hours ahead of time, and the same thing for everyone: roasted chicken and fries. Dinner was eaten by candlelight as the electric lights attracted all sorts of giant flying insects which being true women we did not appreciate. Toughest chicken I have ever eaten, but despite that it was very good when coupled with fries and a Youki pamplemousse (grapefruit soda bottled in Cotonou, similar to a Fresca), not to mention a fabulous chocolate mousse.

After dinner it was time to tuck ourselves in under the mosquito nets to sleep before our 0600 departure to look for some hippos!

That next morning, our transportation was (thankfully) prompt... however, instead of the two vehicles we had contracted for through the hotel, there was only one: a rusty, beat-up blue van. One of the nurses who speaks French told our driver that since there was only one vehicle, we would not pay full price. We then crammed 13 yovos and two Beninoise into this tiny, uncomfortable, falling-apart piece of blue junk. There was a significant hole under the gas and brake pedals in the front through which the road sped by underneath. Several people sat on the floor, several had to sit facing backwards on a makeshift seat behind the front seats, and the rest of us crammed onto bench seats. For a tall woman like me, the seats were sufficiently high that I had to sit hunched over or risk a head injury. So off we went, until of course we had to stop at a roadside stand so we could get some (illegally imported, varied quality) petrol. Then onwards.

I thought a journey of 25km (16 miles) would not take us more than a half hour to an hour, allowing as always for what we fondly call "African time." However, goodness only knows how far we traveled, because it certainly took almost 2 hours in that wretched van to reach the river. Along the way, we had the additional boon of breathing in the acrid fumes from the petrol, and the unexpected adventure of a small creek having washed away a good chunk of the road. We all piled out of the van, and the driver attempted to drive over the creek. No luck. Now the van was stuck in the mud at a forbidding angle. Fortunately some men had come along on zemis, and they helped push the van back out of the mud. The second attempt over the "river" was the charm, thankfully, so we once again all piled into our assigned niches and we were off again.

(Side note: one of the zemi drivers was carrying a baby goat like a woman would carry a purse, with its legs were tied together and it was strung over one shoulder. The poor thing cried as it went past us, hauntingly similar to a child's cry. I realize that goats are animals, and they are also very tasty, and there are not really pets in this part of the world. But still! It was a little disturbing.)

After jostling around for nearly two hours, we finally reached the village near the river where we were supposed to meet some local men to paddle our canoes and act as our guides on the hippo-search. However, there were no canoes: someone had died in the next village over and the body was currently being transported somewhere. So we stood by the river and hoped for additional canoes to come along. Of course, the presence of yovos had roused the entire village--or at least most of the kids--to come and stand with people with the strange white skin.

(Keep in mind the absurdity of the whole situation from a Beninoise point of view. Not only are there 13 yovos in a rather remote village in south-central Benin, but that a group of Beninoise women would never ever EVER set out for this kind of trip--not just the hippo part, but the whole thing. It's just not done. One of our translators on the wards had already told us, smiling as he did so, that he didn't think we could possibly want to go to Dassa on our own, without an interpreter and (reading between the lines) without a man to navigate the bumps for us.)

So on the banks of the River Ouémé we stood hoping for more canoes. While waiting, we marveled at the industry of some ants who had literally dug a long, winding trench with raised sides in the ground, stretching as far as the eye could see in each direction. During our marveling at the ants, we realized that we ourselves were being explored by said ants. And the ants were biting. "Having ants in your pants" took on an entirely new, unpleasant, literal meaning.

So now we are standing, paranoid about the ants, and (of course) feeling all sorts of real and imagined critters crawling on us. And at about this time, a few canoes arrive to start our trip downriver to look for hippos.

One canoe held nine yovos (plus two men to paddle... the total weight must have been close to a ton! In a single, carved wooden canoe; amazing!), and the other canoe held only three yovos (one decided to wait it out on the banks) plus two guides. Down the river we headed, the men paddling leisurely and the yovos white-knuckling the sides as we adjusted to the back-and-forth motions of the canoe.

After about an hour, our guides pointed the canoe towards the banks and told us to get out. So we waited on the bank, watching mystified as the guides "called" the hippos by banging on the sides of the canoes with their paddles. Why hippos would be attracted to that, I don't know. Certainly none showed up. After a while, our French-speaking nurse negotiated with the guides to take us downriver further to where the hippos supposedly lived--a big, mean daddy hippo, mama hippo, and a baby hippo. Convicing the guides took some work, as they kept explaining that we did not want to get too close and that we would not see more than a hippo's back anyway (they don't stand up on their hind legs or shake hands in greeting, apparently).

But downriver we went again, the guides telling us to be quiet and still, yet singing and talking loudly themselves. After a while they skirted around a little island in the middle of the river and pointed to a small gray area raised out of the water. Apparently, it was a hippo sleeping. We sat for quite a while waiting, but the thing (pile of rocks?) never moved, not even when the guides "called" it with violent pounding on the sides of the canoes again.

We finally grew tired of the sun, waiting for the "hippo" to move, and the swaying of the canoes and decided to call it a day. Our guides paddled us back to their village where we happily climbed back out onto dry land and jammed ourselves back into the blue van for the long ride back to our hotel.

And that's it for the Dassa weekend, folks! We arrived safely back at the hotel, where we had to haggle with our drivers over the cost of the ride to the village. We had told them upfront that we would not pay the full price for only one vehicle when we had contracted for two. On top of that one of the men insisted that he ought to be paid extra for acting as our "guide" when we had neither wanted nor contracted for a guide... nor did he do anything other than ride in the car with us. Anyway, we settled things and piled back into the relative comfort our ambulance-turned-taxi to head back to Cotonou.

All in all: a lovely weekend away from the ship, an African-style adventure, and a lot of quality time with my yovo friends. What more could a girl want?


what to do in Cotonou

The last two days have been a nice respite from being cooped up on the ship. Yesterday I walked with some girlfriends to the nearby Hotel du Lac, where for 2500 CFA (US $5) you can relax and swim in the piscine (pool). We enjoyed jumping off the high dive (not terribly gracefully on my part, I admit, but it was fun!) and swimming around. On the way home we went into a supermarket which sold everything you might ever need, from sausage and cheese to underwear and foie gras. We gambled successfully and did not get rained on all day!

Today we walked to the Centre de Promotion de l'Artisanat (CPA), also known as the craft market. Getting there is quite the experience as you have to walk quite a long ways along the waterfront, dodging in and out of the crowd of semitrucks waiting to pick up cargo at the port and the inevitable mass of zemidjans. Add in lots of muddy puddles, men randomly peeing in public, semis jacknifing while trying to make u-turns, a multitude of roadside vendors, and noxious black clouds of exhaust, and you have a fairly good idea of the obstacle course we walked! The craft market turned out to be inside an area surrounded by a sculptured and painted cement fence. I expected hordes of people jostling around, lots of hissing and shouts of "sista" and "yovo" (white person), but was pleasantly surprised at the calm. No crowds of people and very few aggressive or persistent vendors...definitely more my style than the Dantokpa marketplace which was a zoo.

Highlights of the day: practicing French with the vendors; bartering for my one purchase; explaining (in French!) the words of an English hymn to a painter, who then proceeded to sing the first few lines of the song to me; stopping on the way back home at a quaint little boulangerie where for $1.60 I enjoyed un chausson de pomme (apple pastry).

One thing I still don't understand is why it is acceptable to just shout out "yovo!" as we walk by. At home, it would never be all right to holler "black person!" or "foreigner!" or "tourist!" at people as they walked by.

I do know that the longer I am here, the more comfortable I feel being out and about. Cotonou will never feel like home, but it has mercifully ceased to be the full-on assault on the senses that it was initially.