Saturday, December 27, 2008

Handel's Messiah

My friend Millie and I went to Handel's Messiah this week courtesy of our friend Andrew, the organist of this exquisite event. He kindly shared two comp tickets with us and we both got dolled up to go to the show. New York at Christmas time is magnificent for many, many reasons and tonight I was especially charmed. Perhaps it was the drunken Santa I took a picture with on the way to Carnegie Hall who was overly eager to have me sit on his lap. Or maybe it was the throngs of shoppers who still pause in awe of wonderfully adorned windows at Bergdorf Goodman. Or maybe it is the sacred choral music that pours out of every tall-steepled church in the city. New York knows how to do Christmas really, really well.

Tonight I bundled up after work for my “get-out-of- your-building-for-the-love-of-god” excursion. Very little snow here in New York, but the wind knows how to find every nook and cranny, every exposed piece of flesh, so I looked like a big, puffy marshmallow marching down the street. I fell into step with two people, about my age, that I immediately wanted to befriend. I liked the way they held onto one another’s arms as they walked. I liked that when they spoke of their friend that made a serious fool of herself after getting drunk and belligerent at a dinner party, they paused and sighed one of those perfect sighs of compassion. And just when I was thinking of how fantastic they were, I blindly followed them into a crosswalk and nearly got squashed by a furious taxi driver. Careful who you romanticize Carmen-- you never know who is going to get you run over!

Life is good. And this week should be full of amusing excursions. I'll keep you posted. Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas with Nate and Elaine

"Working Christmas" is tiring. The services at Madison Avenue Presb were absolutely beautiful-- if I weren't assisting in worship I would have wanted to burst into tears throughout all three services, but I'm not sure that this would have gone over very well. The schedule: Christmas Eve family service (picture a zillion kids acting out the Christmas story- angels and shepherds, Joseph, Mary, wisemen, and lots of random animals) that was charming chaos. Then dinner with 3 lovely ladies from the church before heading back for the 11 p.m. candle-light service (picture stringed instruments, professional soloists, carefully crafted liturgy, and bells tolling at midnight). Then a party at my neighbor's house and finally a Christmas Day service. After the service I ran back to my apartment to change my clothes and pick up a few things before heading to Penn Station to catch a train to Princeton.

Last year when I was feeling very lonely in Zambia (this must have been November when I was still terrified and confused) I made plans, 1 year in advance, to spend the Christmas holiday with Nate and Elaine. And that is what we did. Had a fantastic Christmas dinner, drank wine, and caught up over a game of Settler's.

Elaine and I traipsed around Princeton, went to an intense Yoga class (something I am excited to get into), and finished off the morning with a cup of joe at Small World. A lovely Christmas holiday indeed.

P.S. Please forgive the fact that these are exceptionally "newsy" posts rather than reflective one's.... Herein lies the irony: there is lots to do, do, do in NYC. Harder to be, be, be. Fairly easy for me to sneakily get around trying to make sense of the Advent season in the U.S. rather than in Zambia! But that will come, eh?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

New York City at last

How does one make a graceful entrance into a new place? In a city like New York I suppose it doesn't matter. Manhattan proper averages about 70,000 people per square mile, so the comings and goings of one priestly girl on the Upper East Side matters very little, but this is the most fascinating thing about New York City. Brilliant and mundane events happen simultaneously at nearly every moment of the day throughout the city and most of us carry on completely unaware. This morning I woke up to a winter wonderland, my third Saturday living in the city. People work such long hours and tend to play hard, so the one sacred, quiet part of the week is Saturday morning. Even the taxi drivers seem to know the rule: less honking, less shouting, and a few moments of peace. I took a long walk in Central Park today and enjoyed the kiddos sledding and watching the most committed women carefully negotiating stiletto heeled boots on the icy sidewalks. I stopped by a Starbucks for a hot drink and absolutely loved the pieces of art that sleds and piles of coats and mittens made in various parts of the coffee shop. It reminded me of elementary school coat-rooms on snow days and for a moment I felt perfectly at home.

You may be curious as to my rationale for continuing this blog now that I have returned to the States. But as my quote from Pliny the Elder reminds us, “Out of Africa, always something new.” So there you have it, out of Africa, a whole new life to negotiate and while it might prove entertaining to you (this city is madness and full of good stories), it could prove life-giving to me.
These are pics from my apartment: a tourist’s dream by the way. My couch pulls out into a comfy bed, so pack your bags people. Come to New York for a weekend and we will be amused at mink coats and $600 pairs of shoes and go to the theater and eat exquisite food and try to make sense of this silly world together.

Highlight of the week: saw The Seagull with stunning performances by Kristin Scott Thomas and Peter Sarsgaard. Occasionally I forget just how good some Broadway theater can be. I wasn't mentally prepared for Chekhov and I believe Chekhov is one of those writers you must prepare for. A few summers ago I picked up a collection of his short stories and made it thru story number 6 before I needed to put the thing away for fear that I would succumb to a dark depression and find a hole to crawl into with a bottle of vodka and 50 packs of cigarettes. There was a point while reading I thought, "for the love of God, does springtime ever come to Moscow?" Sheesh. The performances were disturbing and absolutely enthralling. But tonight I found myself eating chocolate ice cream from the container, so perhaps I should lay off Chekhov for awhile.

I miss Zambia desperately and miss the pace of life in Kitwe. I continue to laugh at myself when there are moments that I still think I am there. When I "see" lizards out of the corner of my eye for example. Or when the litter on the sidewalk looks like packets of "Double-punch" (a cheap liquor sold in kiosks all over the compounds), but I am not in Zambia. I am living a very privileged life in New York City-- a life privileged enough for a great deal of brooding. And so there you have it: a warning. Some of these blog postings may be full of brooding. But the city is surprising and its beauty will force its way into these commentaries as well.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

One last blog...

This blog was dedicated to a year of ramblings from Zambia, so it really should end now that I am back in the United States. I arrived in Portland, Oregon on Monday morning and this week I have been soaking up the good life with my family. Yesterday my 5 year-old nephew Tate took me to his kindergarten class for “showing.” You know, this is where a child gets to bring in something special from home to show your class-mates. This was rather flattering, you know, that my nephew wanted to show off his “Auntie Carmen.”

I return to NYC just after the Thanksgiving holiday and look forward to re-connecting with folks from Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church and my good friends in the Princeton/Philly area.

I rather like blogging, so stay tuned. Perhaps your Carmie will come up with something new. Maybe I’ll get high-tech and sophisticated. Ummm, probably not.

Thanks for reading.


I thought I should include some photos of just one of hundreds of beautiful, ornate temples that decorate the city of Chiang Mai. One must remove his or her shoes to enter the sacred space and although the thick red carpet absorbs a great deal of sound, I felt like I needed to tiptoe around this fascinating place. Again, I am an absolute moron when it comes to Buddhism, so I found myself observing the monks and the gold statues much like a child -- with confusion and curiosity, even a little bit of caution. I wanted to burst out laughing when I saw my first "farang" monk-- a tall white kid straight out of an Indiana basketball game with goofy tennis shoes, a closely shaved head, and awkward, thick glasses. But I guess all young men are welcomed to try out monk-hood.

The food is delish-- 70 cents will get you an exquisite meal nearly anywhere. There are food carts filled with fried bananas, meat skewers, and iced teas. Amazing curries are a dime a dozen and there are markets filled with rows and rows of fresh fruit and every imaginable noodle/rice dish and other spicy delights. I basically ate my way thru the last two weeks. Know what is good? Sautéed Morning Glory-- not the flower part, but the vines and leaves. Yummy.

Brett, Shelly and their girls Acacia and Anna lit this lantern for me just before I left Thailand. This lovely tradition can symbolize one's prayers and good wishes for a loved one as they depart. The mystery of physics and fire (neither of which I understand) raise lanterns like these into the night sky until they are miniature gold flecks.

What a lovely week.

Saturday, November 1, 2008


Chiang Mai sits at the base of the Doi Sutep mountain range. I spent two rainy days with my girlfriend Shelly and her friend Rachel in Doi Intinan National Park where Rachel has been doing research for the last several years. We visited a small hill tribe (chao khao) village where we had a few quiet moments under a thatched roof as gossamer clouds moved across the sky, swirling and carving out deep pockets from the lush green mountainside. Rivulets of water flowed down the hillsides, the steep thatched roofs of local homes, and eventually the geography of our wet forms as we maneuvered up a muddy road to a local coffee shop where locals and the occasional lone tourist can drink strong, dark brew. The coffee is grown in nearby fields interspersed with rice paddies grown in giant terraces. We were invited for lunch and ate fish soup and rice with some villagers while our host, dressed in typical hill tribe garb, looked on from a bamboo mat near the doorway. During a brief respite from the rain we walked to a nearby waterfall where the air was thick and sweetly pungent from rotting crabapples whose round, hard bodies gave way under our boots as we trudged through the dense undergrowth.

After a day in the mountains I spent one morning with Brett who works for CAM (Church of Christ Thailand AIDS Ministry). I joined him for a site visit in Doi Saket where his organization regularly tends to the needs of AIDS patients and their families. Made a couple of hill tribe babies cry who had never seen a farang before (white person), but didn’t bat an eyelash because this happened fairly regularly in rural Zam. One of the patients we visited was a thin man wearing a tee-shirt with a big yellow barbell on the front that read “POWER” in big block-lettering. Seemed inconsistent with his tired eyes and small frame. Today I went to Hope Home where Shelly volunteers. This is a home equipped to care for high-needs orphans and disabled children. Brett and Shelly have hearts the size of Texas, so it has been fun to see Chiang Mai through their eyes.

Last night I was at a Halloween party that felt straight out of American suburbia—good old-fashioned American fun in Thailand. Fetch. Could have heard the Star Spangled Banner and it wouldn’t have felt out of place. Interestingly, this gathering paved the way for some fascinating conversation about mission/development work in Asia. Am trying to absorb and synthesize various perspectives as I think about development in Southern Africa and I have concluded that nothing is simple or black-and-white.... I don't know. There are loads of successes, heaps of failures, and good intensions abound. I am no expert, but the last year has given me a great deal to think about. Lord Jesus help us as we negotiate this broken beautiful world! Really.

I went to a Thai cooking class yesterday, via motorcycle I might add. Motorcycles are everywhere and their noisy little engines remind me of buzzing bees as we take off at every stoplight. Cooking class started in a market, so we could learn all about vegetables and the necessary ingredients used daily in Thai cooking. We then spent some time in the fields of a local farm before making it to the kitchen where we were given a mortar and pestle to begin the first task: curry paste. Very cool, but lets be honest, I want to just buy curry paste in a jar.

Here’s a glam picture of me in my traditional farmer’s hat and a live-action shot. Made about 5 Thai dishes that will be fun to try to recreate in my own kitchen one of these days. Anyone want to come for dinner?

Thailand is beautiful. The women tend to be soft-spoken and slender and the men equally mild-mannered. It is a culture that prizes “sanuk” or “fun” and I am told that there should be an element of joy in all things.

Thankfully, I have found that a big smile covers a multitude of sins.

Aren't these wee kids cute?! The little one on the right was one of the dear souls that was scared to death of us ghosts. This community preschool is full of little one's who are affected by HIV, many of whom are orphans.

Friday, October 31, 2008


Some friends visited Bali about 17 years ago when it was still predominately dirt roads and small villages, but now this beautiful island has exploded into a tourist attraction chock-full of spas and resorts and shopping galore. Some friends and I stayed in the lap of luxury for a few days where the hot sun browned our skin and the ocean swallowed up the black sandy beaches (volcanoes are found throughout the island) at high tide. The sunsets were spectacular and Balinese food divine. I wandered to the Hindu temple pictured above very early one morning before any other tourists and did my best to stay far from the entrance, knowing that my knee-length, sleeveless dress was inappropriate for a visit. I happened upon two surprisingly eager priests who insisted on anointing my head and offering a blessing. I offered a bewildered thanks and gingerly retraced my steps back to the hotel, having no idea what the small grains of rice on my forehead were supposed to mean.

Two highlights of the trip included an excursion into more rural parts of the island, which captures, at least in part, more of Balinese culture. Religious festivals are regularly celebrated and one evening we followed a parade of faithful worshippers that were bringing fruit and vegetable offerings to a nearby temple.

But my favorite excursion of all was my visit to 9th generation medicine man, Ketut Liyer, who studied my hands and face, neck and knees before sharing some wisdom with me. I was utterly charmed by this ancient man whose kind, keen eyes and warm hospitality were a refreshing change from all of the touristy interactions I’d had with locals. He was delighted to find out that I am a “priest” and assured me that this was the right profession for me. He smiled a near toothless grin as he tried to find the right English word to describe me. He stumbled through, “Perfume (perfoom)...fragrance (faygwense)... and after conversing with my friend Becca who speaks fluent Indonesian he looked at me and said “Gardenia.” My mother’s favorite flower was the gardenia, so I took this as a fine compliment.

--Bali is just one of 17,500(ish) islands that make up the diverse country of Indonesia (only 6,000 are inhabited)
--It is nestled in the Indian ocean with Malaysia to the North and Australia to the South
--The population, at least on Bali, is predominately Hindu (yep, reincarnation, karma, etc...), although most don’t practice meditation like their Indian neighbors
--Most Islands in Indonesia have their own language (Balinese for example), but also speak the common language “Indonesian”

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Kingdom of Swaziland

Today we spent time in the Malkerns valley, which is absolutely stunning. Wandered up to a waterfall surrounded by lush green trees and mouthwatering purple jacaranda. Vervet monkeys danced in the branches while a cool breeze tempered the hot sun-- absolutely splendid--- you couldn't ask for a nicer afternoon.

This tiny, circular country nestles into its massive sister South Africa, but shares very little of its sociological complexity. I am trying to be diplomatic here. In actuality, what I love about Swaziland is that it shares very little of South Africa’s paranoia and preoccupation with safety. Don’t get me wrong, South Africa is stunning and awash with charm, beauty, rich diverse cultures, and wonderful people (and perhaps has good reason to be nervous), but I love that I can plop down with Swazi mamas without any pretense or suspicion while they sell jewelry or weave grass into baskets and rugs.

Tracy and I gathered quite the crowd when we asked some women to teach us how to wear proper Swazi headscarves. We received many ooohs and aaahs after we had them on. I looked like I was wearing a turban, which made me laugh and could almost glimpse the camel that would whisk me away into the desert.

We were hosted by a wonderful woman Hlobisle (ummm, lots of “clicks” in their language—very tricky to pronounce) who oversees an HIV/AIDS program with the Mennonite Central Committee. 39% of the population is HIV positive. Yes, you read that right. They have the highest prevalence in the world. Devastating. Polygamy is practiced by its king and I suppose in the rural areas as well. “Free Condoms” were everywhere. Hlobisle said that sex education is not good in Swaziland and starts far too late, but I know there are many organizations bolstering Swazi programs targeting HIV reduction. Everyone is affected in this small country—even if they aren’t infected.