Into the West

 >  Into the West, Replay

On a plane somewhere over the polar ice caps – 6,400km (4,000 miles) from Los Angeles, California. 

“Lay down,
your sweet and weary head
night is falling
you’ve come to journeys end
sleep now
and dream of the ones who came before
they are calling
from across the distant shore
 
Why do you weep?
What are these tears upon your face?
Soon you will see
All of your fears will pass away
Safe in my arms
You’re only sleeping
 
What can you see?
On the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?
Across the sea
A pale moon rises
The ships have come to carry you home”

One week earlier

I was painting a mural of the rugged Lesotho mountains outside the window of the Touching Tiny Lives Safe Home, replaying the hour long Lord of the Rings Calm/Ambient compilation on YouTube. The mural was part of a bigger project in which I was brought to repaint the entire safe home at Touching Tiny Lives organization in Mokhotlong.

All of the music in the Lords of the Rings series is an all-encompassing sensation of emotions that are also captured in the story – of sadness, defiance, and hope. The lyrics above are from the song Into the West by Annie Lennox. It is a reference to Valinor, also called the Ultimate West or the Undying Lands. Valinor is beyond the confines of the world but there is a straight path that leads there. This song particularly moved me. It felt important at that moment in my life, although at the time I didn’t know how relevant it would be to me a week later.

If there is one thing I know about Basotho it is that they do not like crying and most react to it in a way that is both distant and discomforting. So when I was uncontrollably wailing outside of a local bar cultural appropriateness was thrown out the window. 20 months ago I committed to a full service in the Peace Corps and I knew there were few things that would make me say, without a second thought, “I’m coming home,” before my service was over. In one single phone call my mom’s health became my top priority and all I wanted to do was be home with her, hold her hand, and tell her we would get through this together. I was given the green light from Peace Corps to go home with 60 days total of unpaid leave and an opportunity to return to my service in Lesotho afterward.

 >  Into the West, Replay

“And all will turn

To silver glass

A light on the water

All souls pass

 

Hope fades

Into the world of night

Through shadows falling

Out of memory and time

 

Don’t say: <<we have come now to the end>>

White shores are calling

You and I will meet again

And you’ll be here in my arms

Just sleeping

 

And all will turn

To silver glass

A light on the water

Grey ships pass

Into the West”

 In California, September

I didn’t have time to think about reverse culture shock, Chipotle, or California beaches immediately. During my first few weeks at home I accompanied my mom to doctors appointments, anxiously waited in the hospital for the doctor to tell us everything went well and she is in recovery, and walked around the hospital with my aunt about 50 times catching all the Pokemon we could. (Thank you, America, for making me now check my app ten times a day to see no Pokemon in Lesotho, ever).  I lazed at home with my mom while she recovered. I was not complaining either; the fast-paced world out there overwhelmed me. How do people accomplish so many things in one day? I showed off my new cooking skills, awing Mom with my French toast and homemade pizza. I fell to my knees at the sight of Trader Joe’s. What a beautiful, heaven-like place. And you know I ate lunch by Costco samples at least twice. When my mom healed from her surgery I took her to see a live taping of The Voice at Universal Studios and a few days before I left the whole family came together to celebrate a “Happy Everyone and Everything Party”

  >  Into the West, Replay

Into the West a song of bittersweet reassurance. In my case, Valinor signified going back to Los Angeles, California; a place outside of the realms of my world in Peace Corps. A place I had not planned to go to, but now needed to. It is said that in the journey to Valinor, someone you have lost (or not seen for a long time) will come to escort and welcome you so that you may no longer have such crushing sorrow at the thought of their physical absence. When I received that life-changing phone call from my mom and I found out her health was in jeopardy I have never been more terrified or cried as hard in my life. For days I walked in limbo trying to figure out the extremity of it all while discussing the options I had with Peace Corps. I played the song over and over and as the lyrics ask, “Why are those tears upon your face?” Soon you will see all of your fears will pass away,” I soon learned my mom was there to escort me, and I her. And together, we would find healing.

Current Day

I was very nervous to come back to Lesotho, and for good reason. I am nearing the end of my service with only 5 months left and plans for the future are now clouding my mind. It is a strange feeling to leave a part of your heart somewhere while a loved one is in pain. I feel uncomfortable disclosing the details on my blog, but it is still a long road ahead until my mom is completely healthy and it was extremely tough to leave again, although I know she is loved and supported there every day. The dozens of flowers and meals brought over after her surgery were a testament to that.

 

In a full circle I am back at Touching Tiny Lives to finish the painting project I had started months ago. This week we summited the highest peak south of Kilimanjaro, Thabana Ntlenyana. In English its name translates to Beautiful Little Mountain. Didn’t feel so little standing at 3,482 meters.

Oh, and Merry Christmas! Last night we had a quiet Christmas celebration at TTL and decorated, cooked up a big meal, and exchanged white elephant gifts with friends from all corners of the world. I kept true to our family tradition of goofy hats and had everyone take this group photo. 

Pictures of paint coming soon!

 

 

 

 

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Photography

You asked me why I take photos instead of simply living in the moment. I thought about this a lot, but I never did answer you. 

For me, it isn't a question of whether I am enjoying a moment, keeping it for myself and the people I am sharing it with, or ruining it by capturing it with my camera. Cultures around the world, especially Basotho living in rural areas of Lesotho, believe that by taking their photos you are also stealing their soul - in simplest speak. In respecting that, I have become more cautious with how I photograph people. Cultural sensitivity is one of the better personality traits I've gained from the Peace Corps. Contrastingly, I have used photography as a tool for empowerment and I have seen it completely breakdown HIV stigma and discrimination. 


If anything I think my relationship with photography has changed the way I have experiences in a truly beautiful and unique way. Our eyes, well they are magical, but there is something that the camera can see in everything that our eyes do not. When I realized that, it entirely changed the way I look at the world... at nature, at the planets and stars, at light the way it moves. Our eyes, for instance, cannot see the moment as an eagle snatches its next meal, the lifecycle of a plant, or the intensity of a summer lightning storm. 

I suppose I believe that by taking a photo, my moments are enhanced. I've sat staring at the night sky, sharing a six-pack of Odell's beer with a friend, while shooting a star-lapse on countless summer nights. i have began my hikes at 2am to summit a peak by sunrise and see the golden morning light over the mountain. I've made a book of beautiful memories that are reminders of great experiences with people I love from around the world. My love for photography has completely changed and created my lifestyle. Although, each of these moments will never come back through my lens the same as they were, I think it is really beautiful to try to keep something the way it was forever. 


In honor of August 19th, World Photo Day, I've compiled 50 of my favorite photos I've taken since leaving the United States 16 months ago.

The Strange and the Funny

This week our cohort (Lesotho 84) met in Maseru to reflect on our 1+ year of service, discuss future plans and complete tedious, but important monitoring and evaluation talks. We also shared the funniest thing that has happened to us and our strangest Lesotho moments.

Running out of the bathroom and killing a frog with my barefoot

The fact that I barely do laundry anymore

Things don’t feel strange anymore

My pee bucket habits

Skyland’s Stand Up performance at All-Vol, “Frodo’s got nothing on us, we’re here for 27 months.”

Saturday at 9pm

The masturbation kilo followed by a prayer

A woman put a six foot crucifix in our taxi and then got out and asked the driver to deliver it to Berea

Livestock sitting in the front of a taxi and me in the back

Being in a room with ‘Me bathing and a cows head next to me

Skinny dipping off a balcony

My host dad without his shirt on

When I stayed at my friend’s house and my host father asked if it was a “boy” friend or a “girl” friend 

A man pooping on the side of the road

When I was sick and peed in my trashcan instead of my pee bucket

Ongoing intestinal infection

A goats head on fire

Internet memes and jokes

I feel like every day I have one

The five year old girl shouting outside my house at 6am “Show me the money!!!” Jerry McGuire style 

The time two taxi drivers were competing over passengers and the other taxi swerved into us 

When we put on these "alfway" hats