A Look Back

It’s hard to believe, but as of today, we only have one week left in England. The past six months have gone by so quickly. Oh, who am I kidding? The past year has gone by so quickly!

It feels like just yesterday that I was sitting in front of a computer screen in Australia and Joost was sitting in front of a computer screen in the Netherlands and we were discussing the possibility of traveling and being on the move for a year. At the time, we laughed, thinking that surely, surely it was impossible. Visas and finances and jobs and timing–it was too much. But somehow, everything came together, and in the past 12 months, we’ve lived in New York, Minnesota, Tanzania and England. We’ve taken trips to Missouri, an impromptu vacation to Memphis (thanks Sandy), Holland, Zanzibar and Scotland. We got engaged. We traveled; we ate; we loved; we ran; we challenged; we saw; we met; we learned; we adventured. It has been one of the most interesting, wonderful years of both of our lives.

It’s hard to write a recap of the past year. So much has happened–I could fill books with our experiences (oh hey, maybe I should get on that). So, we decided to go list form for this post. Joost’s up first.

JOOST

6 Words to describe the year: 

Unconditionally. Gezellig. Adventurous. Mouthwatering. Heartwarming.

5 Favorite memories: 

The overwhelming experience of Times Square on a Saturday night. Hiking the upstate New York mountains during fall and taking a nap at the summit. Giving and receiving happiness while opening the school library in Tanzania. Proposing to Katie in Christchurch Meadows, Oxford, and promising to spend the rest of my life with her. Eating Katie’s delicious meals!

4 Greatest struggles:

Being away from friends and family. Adapting to the pace of life in Tanzania, and saying goodbye to the kids. Tying all the financial ends together–spare change jars for the win. Trying to avoid a perpetual hunchback at my work desk.

3 Greatest achievements:

Working towards my career in mathematics. Running the Kilimanjaro half marathon. Creating a happy home and life in general for me and Katie in the UK.

2 Favorite places: 

Comfy chair on our balcony in Tanzania, overlooking Kilimanjaro.

Our kitchen in England, where Katie’s cooking magic happens.

1 Thing you’ve learned:

In marrying Katie, I’m a lucky man.

KATIE

6 Words to describe the year:

Blessing. Seek. Love. Change. Awe. Gratitude.

5 Favorite memories:

I can’t believe that I included this, because it’s so hard! I’m cheating a little completely and including multiple favorite memories from some of the places we were.

New York: Times Square. Discovering the Highline. Roommate dinner nights. Hiking in upstate New York during fall (gorgeous). Lion King on Broadway. Wafels & dinges food truck. Passenger concert. Apple picking.

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Tanzania: Opening the library. Singing Rihanna songs with the girls. Seeing our kids kick butt at the running races. Coloring for hours. Laughing as the kids patted their full, distended bellies after pilau day. The Kilimanjaro half marathon. Long runs on dirt roads alongside fields of sunflowers, small villages and baboons. Date nights in town. Avocados the size of my head. Cooking for the staff. Giving kids books. Trips to the markets with Teddy and Inno. Running with Jordan. Hanging out with Adam and Terry and the Stella Maris staff. Going to a party with a bunch of other expats and volunteers in the area, sitting on the roof under a brilliantly starry sky with a beer in hand while someone played guitar and being overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude.

 

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Zanzibar: SCUBA diving. Eating fresh seafood on the beach. Sunsets.

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Europe: Edinburgh half marathon. Long runs along the Thames. Ben’s Cookies. Visits from friends and family. Joost proposing. 20 miler in Lake District. Roadtripping in Ronald’s adorable classic mini cooper. Joost surprising me with a bike. Date nights. Cooking for Joost.

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4 Greatest struggles: 

Visas. It seems like we are in a constant state of waiting for visa approvals to be processed!

Navigating cultural differences in response to our engagement.

Finances. I will be pleased when we are both allowed to work in the same country! One intern salary is pretty tough for two people to live off of in England.

Isolation. Being on the move can be lonely; it can also make it hard to relate to friends from home and vice versa. We have also been living in a very small, very isolated, very weird, not particularly friendly town here in England, which made it difficult to make friends. I am an extrovert, so all this alone time has been a challenge!

3 Greatest achievements:

Running races around the world and sticking with training for the Amsterdam marathon.

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Designing, painting and opening the library in Tanzania. Those of you who have been reading our blog for a while may remember the glacial pace at which things moved in Moshi, so finishing it felt amazing.

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Learning how to cook and teaching myself (and Joost) about food. People who have known me for years are pretty shocked to know that I can actually do more than just boil water in a kitchen now! I’ve filleted entire trout on our kitchen counter, baked bagels from scratch and acquired a hefty stash of herbs and spices. I have to be honest–I’m pretty chuffed with myself! I never thought I’d see the day that I had both the skills and ingredients on hand to whip up freshly baked honey lavender bread (topped with goat cheese, lemon curd and a sprig of fresh rosemary) or make turkey sloppy joes from scratch, loaded with veggies and spices. We made a conscious effort to eat as much fresh, local, in season food as possible, which was difficult on our budget, but attainable thanks to how many free hours I had to price compare between different grocery stores and find coupons. Grocery shopping involved careful counting, hours devoted to wandering the aisles finding the cheapest, healthiest ingredients and constantly having to google, “what do British people call _________” Almost everything we ate here was made from scratch by yours truly, including pasta sauces, salad dressings and dips. We avoided salt and preservatives as much as possible. I think we can both agree that this is the healthiest and best we’ve ever eaten!

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2 favorite places: 

Bottom of the Indian Ocean while we were SCUBA diving in Zanzibar.

Anywhere I’m with Joost. It sounds cheesy, but after 22 months of being in a long distance relationship, and knowing that we’re gearing up to go back to an LDR while we wait for Joost’s USA visa paperwork to be processed, waking up to his 3D, HD face is incredible.

1 Thing you’ve learned:

We are so blessed to have the privilege of having a place in this beautiful world, filled with beautiful, quirky, imaginative, inspiring people.

Karibu Zanzibar!

As usual, I will start this post with an apology for our lack of blogging. We have had a busy few weeks! We opened the library (very lengthy, picture-filled post to come) and took a short trip over to Zanzibar!

Our trip to Zanzibar was both wonderful and terrible, depending on the time of day.

We stayed in a resort on the North part of the island, near the famous ($1500/night) Mnemba Island. We arrived weary and warm after a series of flight delays and an interesting hour+ long taxi ride. Our driver didn’t speak any English and insisted on driving 100 kilometers per hour on the twisty, unlit roads. At one point, we were stopped at a police barricade. Still not sure why. The majority of life after dark seems to take place right on or near the road. People gather around lit barrels, fire pits and single exposed hanging light bulbs swinging from storefronts.

Our resort was beautiful. Our room was not. Being on a volunteer budget meant a hostel-type room. We were in a thatched roof hut that was just big enough to hold two smaller-than-twin-sized beds. There was no air conditioning–just a slowly oscillating fan that blew 100 degree air on us two out of every 15 seconds (I counted). The mosquito nets hung from a single point on the ceiling, which meant that when we draped them over the frame of our beds, the dirty, smelly nets laid directly on our faces and feet. Well, mine laid on my feet. Joost’s laid on his feet and half of his legs, which stuck a good 6 inches off the end of his bed. We shared a bathroom with an undetermined number of other guests and dead insects.

The best part?

My bed had bedbugs. Yuck! I woke up on the second morning in a pool of my own sweat and feeling a little creepy crawly. I attributed it to the rivulets of sweat still running down my body and lack of sleep. After breakfast, I noticed a couple of red bites popping up. Ten minutes later and I had counted over 50 bites on my left forearm alone. My first fear was that I was having an allergic reaction to something and was breaking out in hives. Luckily (?), a girl on our SCUBA trip happened to be noticing a similar outbreak of bites appearing on her knee. By the end of our trip, I had over 200 bites on my arms, hands, feet and lower legs. If you haven’t gathered, this wasn’t the most romantic trip Joost and I have taken.

All that said, the rest of the trip was amazing.

We got to go SCUBA diving locally and right off Mnemba Island. I hit my 50th (and 51st!) dive and Joost got to try diving for the first time. On the first day, Joost and I were the only ones who had signed up for a SCUBA trip, so we had a private dhow ride, guide and crew! Joost tried the PADI Discover SCUBA course, which basically meant that he learned how to breathe through his regulator and then we were off! We were only able to go down to 12 meters due to his lack of certification, but it turned out that we didn’t need to go any further. By our second dive, we had seen turtles, lion fish, a giant puffer fish, a moray eel, nudibranchs, a sting ray, giant clams, feeding sea cucumbers and A FREE SWIMMING OCTOPUS! We saw it swim down to the sand, burrow partway in and then change color, shape and texture to mimic the surrounding coral. It was so cool, especially since in my previous 50 dives, I had only seen one other octopus and it was wedged into the coral and barely visible. I’m pretty sure that any diving after this is going to have Joost sorely disappointed–the bar has been set extremely high.

On our second day, we got in another two dives near Mnemba. On the way out to the site, we saw a pod of dolphins! Joost dove with his instructor again and I dove with a guide and another resort guest. We went down to 34 meters in search of reef sharks, but no luck. We did see another octopus, an eel, more nudibranchs, another turtle, amazing bommies, a maori wrasse and a big parrotfish devouring a starfish, though. I think Joost has been bit by the diving bug (lucky boy remained untouched by the bed bugs), so hopefully he can get certified soon so we can go on more dive trips!

After our dives each morning, we napped in little huts on the beach, collected seashells, got some souvenirs from vendors on the beach, swam, read (I finished three books!), drank terrible cocktails, fried our skin off, hung out in the hammocks, stargazed and ate. A lot.

The food was amazing. Granted, this is coming from a girl who’s been living off of rice and beans for the past two months, but man it was delicious. We had lots of fresh seafood and we tested our gastrointestinal strength with heaps of fresh veggies (something we’ve only had a handful of times in Moshi, mainly because of risk of contamination). We had kingfish carpaccio, seafood pizza, edamame and avocado sushi, fish burgers, octopus salad, bruschetta, carbonara, calamari, chapati wraps… Okay, I need to stop now. I will say, though, that this is the first time since I left the US (new year’s eve) that I managed to eat three well balanced meals each day. My diet has been almost completely devoid of calcium and protein, so being on the island was the healthiest I’ve felt since the start of January!

On our second to last night, I stood in the middle of the hellhole banda, sobbing. The lack of sleep due to heat and the severe anxiety I had developed about feeding time bedtime melded into me completely losing it when I looked at the clock and realized I still had at least six hours before it was acceptable to wake up and leave the room. Lucky for me, my very own knight in sunburned armor came to my rescue and scored us an upgrade for our last night–A/C, a private bathroom, a bed we could share and NO BEDBUGS! It was worth every single extra shilling.

Overall, it was a great trip, but we’re happy to be back for our last two weeks in Moshi. Teddy and Innocent picked us up at the airport holding a sign that said, ‘Welcome home!’ and it really did feel like we were coming back home.
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Ordinary moments

I believe that God and the universe and whatever other higher power you may believe in has a plan; I believe in trusting fate; I believe in keeping my heart open to letting the world surprise me. I believe that ordinary moments can change your life if you let them.

Four years ago from today, almost to this very hour, I walked into a restaurant in Arusha, Tanzania. I was in my first week of volunteering at a secondary school outside of town. I had left the comforts of America in an attempt to better the world and figure out what I was going to do with my life. When I walked into the restaurant that night, I could not have told you what my life would look like from May onwards. I had a couple of options–I had applied to multiple universities throughout Australia before I left and had a list of backup universities in the US in case I wasn’t accepted. I had considered skipping college and trying to find a job. Really, though, after a few years of health issues and searching for purpose in the US, I was lost and praying that at some point during this trip I’d find direction.

We sat down and ordered drinks. The owner of the restaurant came to greet us.

“So, what brings you to Arusha?”, he asked with an Aussie accent.

“We’re here volunteering,” said our leader. “And Katie just found out that she got into the University of Queensland this morning, so we’re having a drink to celebrate!”

“My daughter goes there! Where are you living?”

“Well, I’m not actually sure if I’m going to accept my offer yet. I’m waiting to hear from James Cook and Flinders, as well. And I have no idea where I’d live,” I added.

“Here, hold on,” he said.

He pulled his mobile phone from his pocket to dial a number.

“Hi, Yasmin. I have an American girl here who got into UQ today and needs to know where to live.”

He handed me his phone and walked away.

His daughter got on and said simply, “You’ll love UQ. Come. Live at Union College. It’s the best.”

Any of you who know me knows how the rest of the story goes.

I listened.

A few months later, after having briefly returned to the States, I boarded a plane in Minneapolis and landed 10000 miles away from home, in a city down under where I knew nobody except the voice of the girl on the phone. 

I lived at Union College.

I made friends from around the world–the kinds of friends that will last forever. I learned about new cultures and countries I had never heard of. I learned about education systems, healthcare, military, family values, food, classes and religions from around the globe. I learned the importance of being a global citizen.

I went SCUBA diving at the Great Barrier Reef, sailing in the Whitsundays and parasailing over the Gold Coast. I drank wine in the Yarra Valley, cursed Thrifty auto rentals along Great Ocean Road and climbed Brisbane’s Storey Bridge. I got pooped on by sea birds on Heron Island. I fed kangaroos and cuddled koalas when I should have been studying. I ran the Gold Coast half marathon. I popped over to New Zealand and spent a week skydiving, snowboarding, glacier hiking and attempting to drive a car through herds of sheep. I ate dinner under the lights of the Sydney Opera House. I spent many nights drinking beer on my balcony with friends, with the skyline of Brisbane in the distance.

I rediscovered joy in running and agony in statistics class.

I got my bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Writing.

I met Joost.

I remembered what it’s like to be all consumingly, overwhelmingly, head-over-heels in love with your life.

And now here I am, four years later, volunteering back in Tanzania after those whirlwind three years in Australia. 

It’s incredible to think how an ordinary, chance encounter can change your entire life. Who knows if I would have ended up at UQ if I hadn’t walked into Yasmin’s dad’s restaurant that night, or if she hadn’t picked up her phone. Chances are good I wouldn’t have. And if I hadn’t walked in, perhaps I wouldn’t have met Joost. Perhaps I wouldn’t be back in Africa, a place that captured my heart and held fast. 

I still can’t tell you what my life will look like in a year. But I know this: I take comfort in trusting that the Universe will always provide.

It is not what you first think. There is no effort of will, no firm resolve in the face of this thing called living. There is only paying attention to the quiet each morning, while you hold your cup in the cool air & then that moment you choose to spread your love like a cloth upon a table & invite the whole day in again. –Storypeople