Connection

A couple of months ago, I moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia and felt again that great rush of excitement as any new chapter reveals itself. This excitement hasn’t dissipated – it’s been an incredible experience so far. But it’s also been accompanied by a sense of real isolation from friends and family.

I am living alone for the first time in about 6 years. My friends are constantly posting photos of their lives in places that are not Phnom Penh. And for the first time, I’m starting to see really big changes happening within my immediate family – new members are being ‘recruited’ or born, homes are changing and we are all ageing. It’s provoked in me some existential questionings – if I’m feeling isolated, am I where I am supposed to be? Am I making the right life choices? Would I be better off abandoning my love of life abroad to return to my Australian roots? (i.e. What am I doing with my life?!?)

Last week I visited Germany for a close friend’s wedding. It was also a chance to rendezvous with Brighton-based Michaelle in Munich. We took a morning walk through the city. We sat at a cafe and over a spritz, we talked. We really talked. She listened and I talked. I talked and she listened. We talked about our relationships, our work, our families, our fears and our ever evolving philosophical ponderings. We could have continued just talking for hours, if I didn’t have to catch a flight.

Having returned to Cambodia, the fears I felt have started to ease and not because anything has actually changed, but because it felt so good to talk, to feel listened to and to feel understood by someone so close, someone who could relate. I felt real connection. ‘One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and be understood,’ said Senaca. And so I question whether the source of our fears might sometimes stem not solely from our problems themselves, but largely from the fact that we feel our problems go unknown to others, that they are un-shareable, and therefore that we are not understood, that we are alone.

It was a blessing then to see Michaelle in Munich, a reminder of the depth of our own friendship and how incredibly important friendship is. It was also a personal reminder that it’s so important invest time in the great friends and family I have regardless of the geographical distances between us, because feeling understood, feeling connected, feeling loved is so undeniably fundamental to feeling well.

Quality friendship helps ameliorate those seemingly un-shareable fears and it replaces them with perspective – nothing is more important, in my opinion, than the good we bring into the lives of the people around us and that starts just by listening. So for getting up at 3am to catch a flight into Munich, ‘just’ so we could talk, thanks Tauson.

Reunited over spritz in Munich

Reunited over spritz in Munich

The Best of 2014

We started this blog in May 2014 when Michaelle was living in Bangkok, Rachel was living in San Fransisco, and Jennie in Rwanda. Now eight months later, Michaelle is in Brighton, Jennie moved to Tanzania and Rachel is keeping us represented in Bangkok (the place we all met).

To celebrate the fantastic year of 2014, we thought we’d do a joint Christmas post looking back on the highlights of year, what we’ve experienced and learnt.

We always hope that by sharing our experiences we are creating a space where people, especially people away from their families and homes of origin, can find some reassurance, comfort, empathy, or just some amusement. We hope you have been enjoying our random posts this year and will keep up with us in 2015, we promise to get into loads of trouble, maybe even jump out of an airplane again.

Without further ado, The Best of 2014!

The most valuable thing I learnt

Michaelle: It was the year of learning, but I guess the number one thing I learned is that life has a way of working itself out; the answer presents itself eventually to all perceived problems. This year I am going to try to keep that in mind instead of worrying so much!

Jennie: It was without doubt the best year of my life for new learnings, but the most valuable thing I learnt must be that it’s never exclusively a bad thing to find yourself in a difficult situation. With some determination and courage, hardships can open up doors to fantastic new opportunities and possibilities.

Rachel: I’ve lived in three countries this year – Australia, the United States and Thailand. This experience exposed me to three very different cultures, very different communities of people and the very different values and beliefs of individuals living very different lives. What I’ve learnt is that our interests (and our obsessions) are not a given; we weren’t born with them, we were born into them – they are largely shaped by the environments in which we live. This is not surprising, but what is surprising is that despite the circumstantial (and therefore, arbitrary) shaping of our own values and beliefs, we cling to them with conviction, so much so that we often cannot identify with contradictory or differing perspectives. Many of us are willing to openly persecute, vilify or denigrate others to defend our own perspectives. Of course, civilized disagreement is good – it can lead to healthy debate, the readjustment of our thinking and ultimately, the advancement of human consciousness. My point is that we are pretty bad at adjusting our perspectives and even more simply, at respecting different ones. In 2014, I’ve witnessed the “great human disconnect” (which is arguably made worse communication technologies and social media platforms that seem to fortify communities of shared values). The most valuable thing I’ve learnt then is that at least on a personal level, I’ve really got to work on my listening skills.

2014’s Most Unexpected

Michaelle: I never would have expected to gain a brand new family. In 2014 I was so welcomed into the Palestinian-Syrian refugee community in Bangkok  and  I never could have expected so much love from a group of people. Also, after having faced a war in Syria and innumerable hardships in Bangkok, you could never imagine how much love they still have to give. They make me believe in the good in the world and I am proud and inspired by their strength.

Finding family everywhere

Finding family everywhere

Jennie: Everything about 2014 was unexpected. I started it off rather miserable, having recently split with my fiancé, more or less unemployed and temporarily living with my parents in a snowy and dark Sweden. I remember watching the fireworks on my own on New Year’s Eve – my parents at a party and my guests already home with their two small children. The future seemed a tad gloomy.

In the midst of it all, I had this nagging gut feeling telling me that I needed to go back to Rwanda for a volunteer opportunity. I didn’t have much money and no real plan B, but went anyway. Now, a year later, I’m looking back on 2014 and seeing some of the best times of my life. I have made a ridiculous amount of new friends, many which I’ll keep for life, and I’ve landed a dream job in Tanzania.

This New Year’s Eve, I spent in Dar es Salaam cooking up a storm with three (2014 new) good friends. I couldn’t be happier.

Jennie nye 2013

NYE 2013, not quite the party we had this year.

Rachel: Late one Monday night, I was lost in Los Gatos, California, with Terry Hershner. There was almost no charge left on his electric motorcycle – our only mode of transportation on a public holiday in this small isolated city. Cold, hungry, grumpy, lost, we stumbled across the only bar in town showing any sign of life – a group of beautiful, middle-aged women enjoying the remnants of a lavish meal. The restaurant had closed, but out of kindness, these women invited us to join their table and before we knew it, we were the centre of their attention, eating their leftovers, drinking their wine and sharing stories of our journeys across California on Terry’s electric motorcycle. This was the night I met Durga, an Indian, cricket playing venture capitalist with a gapingly open heart and open mind. After we’d finished eating, she invited us back to her house and almost 24 hours later, several Indian meals later, we were still there, sharing stories, exchanging beliefs and how we each hoped to impact the world. It was the most unexpected encounter of my life to date and it’s a day I’ll never forget. I think of Durga often and how wonderful it is to live so openly and without judgment to the strangers around us.

I spent too much time worrying/thinking about…

Michaelle: Men. They take up entirely too much time. On top of that, I have the worst taste in men. If I were the statue of liberty my sign would read “Give me your passive aggressive, your emotionally unavailable, your masses of idiots”. I have no general solution on the topic, however.

Jennie: Contract extensions. Job applications. Written tests for jobs. Job interviews. Those stupid things I said in job interviews. Hearing back from job interviews. Whether or not I would get job A, B or C and move to X, Y or Z. Whether or not I would die unemployed and penniless of exhaustion.

Rachel: I want to help create educational resources for kids. At some point in the process of creating these resources, I started to question my own motivation  – was I doing this because I believed in the cause, or because I wanted to prove myself and my own capabilities? I had definitely taken a fairly significant stand in moving away from the UN system to go it on my own. But was this about ego or conviction? Once the idea entered my head, I found it hard to erase and I could not easily separate these two driving forces. In the end, worrying about this has held me back from doing something important. As Mark Twain famously penned, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” There is no point stalling. In 2015, it’s time to start creating.

I particularly remember this one happy moment…

Michaelle: I was getting into bed one night in Bangkok in the flat I shared with a wonderful woman named Erin. I yelled goodnight to her through my open door into the neighbouring kitchen. She responds with, “Did you just say I love you?”

“Haha, no,” I said, “but I do!” And we started saying I love you before bed each night. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but it always felt like a real home there, and when you are so far from your roots, it is all you need.

Jennie: 2014 was the year of road trips. I think it was in September, three good friends and I travelled up to Musanze and Burera in Rwanda. We found some stunning spots with views over lakes, mountains and volcanoes. We took silly photos of ourselves surveying the lands and came up with inside jokes we’re still laughing about. We ate home-made pasta at a small Italian restaurant, drank tequila shots and played semi-drunken “would you rather”. Having recently gotten a new job, I knew I’d soon have to leave beautiful Rwanda and these friends behind. Rather than feeling sad, it made me appreciate the time we had together so much more.

jennie tanzania

Rachel: I was in Barcelona on the Feast Day of St Joan, the start of Summer and the longest day of the year for the Spaniards. It was also my final day in Spain after a three week holiday. I remember reflecting on my state of mind and I realized that I could not remember feeling happier than I had over those past few months and especially those past few weeks holidaying in Spain. My happiness was tied to the beautiful company, the weather, the tastes and smells of Spain and then also the perfect dosage of alone time for necessary contemplation and appreciation. As I wrote then: “It’s late and I’m sitting beside an 85 year old women in a wheelchair who is drinking wine and laughing her head off. I don’t understand a word she says. Sometimes I fear that I’ve reached peak happiness. Watching her tonight, and with all that lies ahead, I doubt that could be true. So with firecrackers all around, salud to you Espana, for reminding me that happiness is always right here right now and that life – for it’s a jagged edges – is beautiful.”

Three people I would like to thank and why

Michaelle: There are too many. Can I group them into threes?

1.Fouad, Shouaq, Ibrahim for helping me with my PhD and becoming my family.

2. Dave Green and Erin Bodnar for emotionally supporting me through a super tough year.

3. Jennie and Rachel for always, always listening.

There are too many more people to thank and I am so grateful for all of them.

Jennie: I will only mention two: Michaelle and Rachel. Although I could easily write a 10 page essay about why, I will settle with them just being there, every step of the journey, always. Crying with me, laughing with me, telling me off, giving me advice and letting me do the same for them.

Rachel: Aside from Jennie and Michaelle, you have become like sisters to me, here’s mine:

Terry. In 2014, I spent two months with the wonderful Terry Hershner, helping promote the film Kick Gas and also learning a lot more about electric vehicle technology from one of the greatest EV enthusiasts in the world. Intellectually, Terry is far superior to me – I could not pretend to keep pace with his brilliant mind. Nonetheless, we have a beautiful connection and he has a beautiful heart. For all that he hopes to achieve in pushing electric vehicle technology and for all his crazy ideas, I admire Terry immensely. My life is richer simply for having met him.

Azin. Michaelle and I were playing tinder one night in Bangkok when Azin popped up as a match. She grabbed my phone and starting texting him. We met Azin that night and while he was only passing through the city and looking for friends to meet, for us, this was anything but a momentary passing. Since we met in July, I’ve come to regard Azin as one of the greatest listeners I’ve ever known. He’s also one of the most driven and most ambitious. For the something within that drives his entrepreneurial spirit, Azin has inspired in me a greater confidence in my own capability.

Ibrahim. If my year has been wild and carefree, Ibrahim’s has been the complete opposite. Some people have real problems and I am not one of them. But some of those that do have the inner resilience to not only overcome real challenges in their personal lives, but to pull the rest of us along with them, empowering us and inspiring us too. Ibrahim doesn’t judge a soul and in his humility and openness, he inspires me to be a better person. I don’t believe it’s coincidence that he and I have crossed paths in this life. Ibrahim has taught me a lot about the real challenges of so many in this world and about human connection.

Rachel and Terry on their many adventures

Rachel on one of her many adventures

2014 described with three words

Michaelle: Challenging. Eye-opening. Over (thankfully).

Jennie: Metamorphosis. Friendship. Adventure.

Rachel: Painful. Exhilarating. Joyous.

Michaelle's 2014 summarized here.

In Summary: Michaelle’s 2014

What I’m looking forward to in 2015

Michaelle: Finishing my PhD, writing a book, the conflict ending in Syria. I also hope to just go with it a bit more this year, I am on the right path, this much I am certain, I just need to stay on it and enjoy the ride.

Jennie: Seeing my parents again after more than a year and taking them on an epic holiday through East Africa: gorillas, safaris, craters, beaches, mountains and lakes. Showing them where I’ve lived and where I’m living, watching them also fall in love with these stunning places. It’s long overdue.

And while 2014 was a year of personal growth, transformation and change, I think 2015 will “institutionalise” these changes, slow things down and make the ride a bit more comfortable. Yet not any less fun!

Rachel: In 2014, I existed like a feather in the wind, floating by observing the lives of those around me, and occasionally getting sucked into them. I’ll be 30 in 2015 and I consider that an age of marked maturity and a time to transition from the role of passive student to proactive instigator. I’m feeling wiser for my wild and carefree 2014 and I think I needed this year off to reevaluate my values. Floating through so many very different communities in so many different countries has been critical to this. Ultimately it’s strengthened the convictions I’ve always held and with a stronger sense of self, I’m excited to see what I’m capable of creating.

Glimpses

Being far away from family and friends is hard. Particularly hard is the fact that many can’t relate to the life that you live, despite long emails, phone calls and endless Skype sessions. So I wanted to show them instead, show you, what life is like in this beautiful part of the world.

Very timely, I found this app that pastes together video clips, one second per day (if you remember to take one clip each day that is). Below is the result and glimpses of my life in March and April, until I slowly but surely started to forget taking videos.  You will see some Rwanda, South Africa, Burundi and Uganda, and although that sounds a bit wild for “every day life” during only two months, that’s exactly what those two months offered. Many of the best moments were of course not captured on film, but on the other hand, this app allows you to appreciate the small moments, the ones likely to be forgotten – a drive, a dog, an afternoon by a lake.

I hope you see this and make one of your own – what a fantastic way to share life with those who are far away.

Thoughts on Nomadic Friendship III

I’m drinking a glass of wine. I’m in bed. I’m in Santa Cruz, California and I’m alone. I’m here for two months working on a film project. After this, it’s off to Spain for a wedding and then Bangkok to see friends. And after that? Not a clue. This really is, as Michaelle says, a nomadic existence and while the idea of living without a permanent address is not for everyone – my mother is a prime example – the experience of living a modern day nomadic lifestyle can also be extremely rewarding. Continue reading

Thoughts on Nomadic Friendship II

“You’re never alone,” Rachel wrote to me last night. She didn’t need to say it, because I already knew. The first thing I do when I wake up every morning is to check my FB messages. I know there will be something there waiting for me, normally there is a little red notification saying “99+”, which means I have more than 99 messages from Rachel and Michaelle. It’s an ongoing conversation about life, love, happiness and friendship – it makes me laugh and cry and always offers much needed perspectives.

I never expected to have friendship like this  – never knew it was even possible. Although we all live different lives and rarely see each other, we have more in common than most. We all understand the pressures of having a nomadic lifestyle, rarely seeing family or old friends from home, and we are extremely similar in our concerns, challenges, needs and wants. We have become family and it’s an inexplicable feeling knowing that we will have this for life, “until we’re so old we don’t recognise each other”, as Michaelle put it this morning.

Our friendship is thriving on a distance, because we have so much to share from our different daily lives. Rachel riding motorbikes and meeting famous people in California, Michaelle spending all her time with refugees in Bangkok, and me doing god-knows-what (but having lots of fun doing so) in Rwanda.

I wouldn’t trade it for the world and it has change my perspective on life completely. Friendship is everything and every day it makes me a better person.

 

Thoughts on Nomadic Friendship

One of the most frustrating things in the world about your best friends living in 4 corners of the universe is that you never have any idea when you will see them again. With me in Bangkok working on my PhD research, Rachel in San Francisco working on a film, and Jennie in Africa working for a development organization, jet setting around the globe for a coffee and/or a glass of wine just seems a bit unrealistic. For this reason, most of our in-person interactions are not planned, but totally and completely random.

When I moved from Nepal to the UK in September 2012, I stopped by Bangkok on my way out and on my last day, I had a final coffee with Rachel. After coffee, both still hung over from my going away party the night before, Rachel and I walked towards the train platform to say our final goodbyes. A bit teary-eyed and with a hug, I said goodbye and turned to walk away. A few steps later, I turned back around and said, “You know, this is fun in some ways. I have no idea what country I will see you in next.”

Rachel responded, “I can’t wait to find out.”

I continued on my way, smiling to myself; in just a few words, she promised that we would always be friends.

Fast forward: April 2013. I am finalizing my plans to move back to Bangkok, Jennie has moved to Rwanda, but Rachel is still there and I can’t wait to get back. I see Rachel on Skype and type, “Hey, I will be in Bangkok in July!”

She responds, “I just quit my job at the UN and am moving to America to travel across the country on an electric scooter.”

“When did you quit?”

“Five minutes ago.”

I was shocked, I mean, shocked, but I have never been one to discourage an adventure, so I say “that is amazing, when do you get to America?”

She says, “We leave from Charleston, SC on July 4th.”

Shock turned to amazement; I was going to be there then!!! My sister and mother wanted to take a road trip during my summer holiday. It was incredible, we were going to see each other in a place neither of us had ever been before.

A chance encounter

A chance encounter

I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to see her face that day and it really got me thinking about friendship. Time and space are absolutely, 100% irrelevant when it comes to love and true friendship. Sure, with today’s technology you can see someone 10,000 miles away with video chat and send your thoughts in an instant via a Facebook message. This all keeps us feeling connected, but this is not what I am talking about.

I am talking about love. I am not sure how it works or why it works the way it does, but I did not have to see Rachel every day. I did not have to know what she had for breakfast. Love is constant and irrelevant of the minutes and hours that pass. Over my many years living abroad I have come to understand this concept. With my closest friends and my sisters, the instant I see them, even if we haven’t talked in a year (which sadly happens often), after a hug and a squeeze we are on the same page, as if I knew what they had for breakfast every day for the last 365 days.

People often ask me if I ever get lonely, moving from country to country, city to city. I always tell them no, and they never believe me. I would not believe me either. It is proven to me time and time again, love is constant and everywhere, and I just can’t feel lonely knowing that and knowing that my friends will pop up in all corners of the universe, when I least expect.

 

An East Africa Road Trip

Tuesday night. After a long day at work I’ve taken some time in front of my laptop, with a glass of wine and some cheese from a recent trip to Cape Town, to reflect on the past weekend.

It was a three day long Easter break and I had planned to relax and do some work. After a long sleep in on Friday I woke up to find my housemate preparing for a trip to the Congolese border, with the hope of crossing over to DRC. Debating whether or not to join, I was finally too overwhelmed by the prospect of making it the to the mysterious DRC and about 20 minutes before it was time to leave, I packed my passport and my dollars and I was ready.

Now, you can’t really just cross over to DRC just like that. If you’re a resident in Rwanda you can apply for a visa at the Congolese embassy in Kigali (which one of us was, but being so spontaneous, there was no time to sort one out). If you’re, like me, on a tourist visa, then you have to get your Congolese visa in your home country. Either way, it’s 150 USD to visit this exotic country.

BUT. This is Africa and in Africa normal rules don’t really apply. So with that in mind, a Brit, a Kenyan, a Rwandan and a Swede drove down through the stunning Nyungwe Forest to Cyangugu, neatly located by lake Kivu, overlooking Bukavu in the DR of C.

With all this build up, surely we made it right? Actually no, the Brit and the Kenyan, with their awesome bullshitting skills, were sent off to test the terrain and were offered an “emergency visa” for 300 USD. When they didn’t accept this kind offer, they were escorted back to the Rwandan side. That night, we stayed in Cyangugu and had dinner and drinks by the lake with one of the most stunning views I’ve experienced in Rwanda so far. Waking up to it wasn’t half bad either, the fishermen in their small, wooden boats, singing away, the sun shining on Bukavu, the mountains of DRC and the small, lush islands in the lake. Apparently, if you get too far out on the lake, you will be shouted at and eventually shot (no news there, this happens on the Mekong too).

Slightly disappointed, we drove down to Burundi and Bujumbura instead. Only 40 USD and no hassle. Well, that’s not true. We got our exit stamps and Burundian entry stamps, just to be informed that there then was nowhere to buy car insurance at the border. No worries, said the immigration guys. Just head back into Rwanda and sort it out. So, we went back to the small town, tried to find the insurance company, found the shop closed as it was Easter Sunday, called someone, played some pool and had some beers at a bar while waiting. For some reason, it felt like the opportunity should have been seized to just disappear into no man’s land, but, we nicely returned to the border with our car insurance and none the wiser.

In Bujumbura we ended up having drinks by beautiful lake Tanganyika, which shared borders with DRC, Tanzania and Zambia and is populated with hippos and crocodiles. Had dinner overlooking the city lights, celebrated a birthday with some shots and finally went dancing until 4.30. I vaguely remember harassing the DJ for random song requests and dancing like there was no tomorrow in clubs I probably would have been scared to enter had I not been very, ehum, happy. There was bunch of guys there who were the most awesome dancers (I mean rolling around on the floor kind of good) and me, being Muzungo and all, not having any problems making one of these guys my dancing partner. There is no video footage and for that I’m glad.

There is no real point to this story I suppose. Except for the fact that these random, unplanned events often end up being your most treasured memories. I’m glad I decided to go, despite only being able to admire DRC from afar, and I thank my fellow partners in crime for an awesome weekend full of laughs.