The Moment Begins Now.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Ruby: Wonderdog

Life is full of lessons to be learned, some of those lessons can only be learned the hardest of ways; through a loss. The experiences we gain from loving and losing are the most difficulty to deal with. Some of the best teachers I have had have been those who don't need to speak their lessons, they simply live them. Some of my best teachers have been dogs.

This is the story of Ruby...

The night was just beginning to overtake Kigali, and my guitar and I were planted on the balcony, reacquainting ourselves and entertaining the passerbys as they made their ways home after a busy and sticky African work-day.

The call came as most bad news does; without warning. My grey phone vibrated on the table and read, "Vans" and I smiled outwardly, excited to speak to my sister. "Hello??????" I almost yelled into the phone. "Hi...." she answered, almost completely disguising the tears and sobbing, "... I have some bad news to tell you..."

When you are aware from home, powerless and simply a voice on the phone, those words are your worst nightmare. For a moment, the world was silent. It was a silence you could feel on your skin, somehow you could smell and taste it, as the Rwandan nightlife seemed to not exist anymore. You could even hear the silence somehow, locked away in the deep recesses of the mind. My eyes, instead of showing me the Kigali landscape, glazed over into a photo-collage and video of every person that was important to my life. In that instant, everything you have learned, everything insignificant detail, everything you had planned for that night, for the future did not matter. It wasn't about that. Life isn't about that stuff, I decided right there and then. As my heart flip-flopped in my chest, and my body went numb, my mind decided what was important to it.

This was my first thought:

1) Did I Tell Everyone I Loved Them Before I Left? Do they know just how much they mean to me? Does Mom know how much I love to hear her laugh? How much Dad is an inspiration to my life? How Rishi is a best friend as much as he is a brother? How much Vans taught me to love the world? How much Angie's positive energy can change my day? Does my family know that I carry them everywhere I go? Do they know I love them??????

"We have to put Ruby down..." Vani said.

Ruby Jaipaul, the newest member of our family, joined us last year after she was found roaming the streets of Westlock, Alberta. When my sis saw Ruby at the shelter, she soon found herself the proud owner of a big, black dog (verdict is still out on the kind of dog). Her droopy eyes made it seem like she was a shy actor, holding back her sweet side, as if years on the street had made her self-conscious. Her ears had a delightful, floppy quality to them, swaying to and fro as she slowly cantered around the house, always moving but never really getting anywhere.

Archer, the Golden Retriever I had grown up with, taught me one of the grandest lessons I have ever learned; that love can be unconditional, instant and everlasting. Love, he showed in his years with us, can be effortless and pure. I loved Ruby with the same gusto as I was taught, from the first moment on, and I knew the feeling was mutual. When she first did her patented drop-to-your-stomach-and-crawl (because it's WAY better than walking) across the room, she had me ("What ARE you???"). I was even a jerk to her, trying to get such a 'mean-looking' dog to bite me, using every yawn as an opportunity to fit my hand into the gaping mouth. She just shot me your standard Ruby-what-are-you-doing-look and continued on her way.

And she changed so much, going from a shy and quiet giant to a lovable and peaceful one who began to start wagging her tail and smiling at the fun we had. She even hopped (well, was carried) into the truck and visited me along with the family when I was living in Jasper. The hikes, hotel and caribou confused her immensly, and although nervous, it was obvious she was becoming comfortable in our family.

That's just Ruby, we found out, a quiet soul with so much love....

I spent the night thinking about a miracle, we always do, when something terrible happens. Sometimes we love with nothing more than hope. Maybe there has been a mistake, a misdiagnosis. Maybe she would make it. When I saw the status's of my family the next morning, it confirmed the inevitable. Ruby was gone.

However, Ruby, like Archer, never left alone. Surrounded by family and friends, Ruby left in a circle of love, a circle of people who cared for her. Ruby knows what she meant to us in the end, and that's important. Her death leaves a void only goodbyes are capable of leaving. I thought about my last moments with her.

I hugged her tightly in the doorway of my sister's home, kissed her on her big snout and slobberly black lips and said what would be my final words to the wonderdog,

"Ruby!!! I will miss you, and I love you."

That's all, I think. That's all that needed to be said.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Dean of Nursing

Who are you, and what are you doing here?” The Dean of Nursing at the Kigali Health Institute asked me. “I have heard no mention of your arrival,” she said, with an air of exclusivity and dislike.

I turned to look at Mazungo, who, quite frankly, looked worse than most patients I have had in the Emergency Room. I know I look worse. The well-groomed, maintained and professional traveller vibe we had left Halifax with had lost it’s battle with the back-to-back-to-back planes, leaving u in a state between jet-lag and landing, smelling of stale recycled air and group body-odor. My eyes were dreaming of sleep, shutting themselves at regular intervals, giving me the look of a man who was permanently staring at the sun.

Naturally, our luggage was nowhere to be found (“That is odd, it is not even in the system,” Olivier, the baggage attendant said, genuinely surprised, stabbing frantically at his archaic MS-DOS computer screen), and the people who picked us up insisted we meet every single staff at the Institute we would be working at those first few hours. We refused, then gave into the gentle coaxing of the group.

This was a bad idea, I thought, tussling my hair and clearing my throat, trying to formulate an answer. Oh no, I don't even know. Like jumping into a shallow lake without looking, I had only read the job description once, and that was months ago. This was where I was supposed to work, and I didn't even know what my job description was. Dear Ravi, will you ever change?
Ravi: Post-Africa Flight Smile

That's rhetorical, by the way.

Just smile, I thought. People Love Smiles.

My smile must have resembled a fish, because the look she replied with was one that looked like a shark, as she leaned back in her office chair, appraising her new meal. “I... I am a fully trained Registered... Nurse from Canada and I am here... as a Professor,” I stuttered, sounding like the child who botches his one line in a school play.

We have a midwifery course that we need an instructor for,” she said without looking at me as she scribbled my name furiously into her notebook. I blanched, and swallowed the sticky-fear that was gaining momentum in my throat.

Yeah, I thought... I birthed three babies... in second year... well not really birthed... I watched... well, I sat down for one... almost fainted. I could teach it... Oh no, I don't have a midwivery textbook... Wait a minute, I can't even be a wife, how do I teach being a mid-one?

Fate must have decided that that was enough humor for one day, because our host arrived and hastily ushered us out to meet some other higher-ups of the organization before I could speak another word. Eventually, we were shown our new home, with three bedrooms (for two of us!), a fully functioning kitchen (a fridge, microwave and toaster!) and, most importantly, an epic balcony, which most of our time at home would be spent, lounging over books, movies and music overlooking Mount Kigali.

That first night, we slept 16 hours, and groggily willed our bodies to function at 7am. Work started at 8am.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The First Moments

The plane skidded to a halt on the dry tarmac in Kigali, and we stepped out into the open air, like movie stars do, to walk across the black pavement to the airport terminal.

The first thing that I noticed about Kigali was the smell of the different air. At first, it was almost too much to take in. It was exotic and hot, like it had just come out of an oven. My cold Canadian winter lungs felt angry at this, and only took in short sips, before it relaxed and let the cold permafrost melt away. It smells of the stir and scurry of heartbreak, of the fragility of human nature, and of the epic failures that produce resilience. The sweet, cleansing wind, like the scent after a heavy rain, reminds me of hope and renewal. It smells comforting, like the smell of returning home after a long time away.

The next thing I noticed was the people; smooth, sweat-glistened skin and dark, brown and black piercing eyes, which immediately glow alight upon receiving a greeting. Tall, fit and proud, Rwandans walk with a relaxed sense of being, greeting those in the area with handshakes, hug and genuine appreciation.

Instantly, in those first few moments of getting off the plane, I threw out all the misconceived, previous notions I had of Africa from pictures, movies and media coverage. Usually, it's a report on the sadness that exists, leaving the positive aspects for imaginations to create. My first impressions were positive, exciting and re-invigorating.

For the first time in my life, I am in Eastern Africa, a place that previously would be mentally crossed off a running travel-list I create whenever gazing longingly at maps. “I’m not ready to see Africa,” I would always tell myself. In all honesty, it scared me, for a multitude of reasons. I unfortunately stereotyped an entire continent, and from those first moments on the ground in Kigali, I dispelled those myths, like one swats away a buzzing mosquito.

It's unlike any other place I have ever been.

Mazungo and Mahindi

It was an unusually warm, cloudless day in Antigonish, when we met with our 'contact' from Kigali, whose job it was to answer all sorts of random questions regarding the place that only existed in our imaginations. She answered whatever we threw at her; from religion, politics, food and sports before getting to the topic of race.

“Is there a word they use to describe white people?” Anthony asked. “Mazungo,” Destiny replied, enjoying our mix of serious and joking questions. “Would there be a word that they would use to describe this skin color?" I asked, pointing at my darker-than-Caucasian skin color. "Mahindi," she replied, "you would be called Mahindi," she said, barely able to contain herself.

Just like that, Mazungo and Mahindi were born. It has a powerful tone to it, commanding yet adventurous, exotic, but pleasant to the tongue. Some would even venture to call it Sexy.

Anthony, aka Mazungo, finished his Bachelor of Science at St.FX and had a story that eerily echoed mine. Feeling the heat of unemployment, he had both moved back in with his parents, and as his joblessness stretched out for month, after month, and onto a third, the call came from the COADY institute to go to Rwanda.'Reggae-Tone' will also be working at the Kigali Health Institute (KHI). We will live together in the KHI guesthouse, and ultimately share in the triumphs, disappointments and the cultural adjustments that go with adapting to a new country.

With his rational nature, thoughtful insight, fresh look on travelling (having never traveled overseas) and terrible French accent, Mazungo is a perfect compliment to Mahindi. Maybe just as importantly, we share a similar love for a delicious, cold Primus or Mutzig (local brew) on the balcony after a long day at work. It has all the ingredients of a lifelong friendship in the making.

When Mazungo saw the picture of us below, hanging out of the side of a jeep scouting for wild animals on a safari, he was moved, "It's the perfect picture of us," he said, pointing to the difference in facial expressions, "the optimist and the pessimist." It's not that he's a pessimist, I think, more than he is a second thought to some of my more impulsive, ridiculously extreme ideas. In that way, we're a balanced act.

With that, Mazungo and Mahindi land in Kigali to begin a journey that will end with the same flight out in five and a half months.

The Movement to Antigonish

The plane landed at Halifax International with a slight jolt, shuttering and cooling off after a long cross-Canada flight. When I found the shuttle, the driver could not believe I was an unemployed nurse, and began treating me like an extinct creature of long-ago. “You see that hospital over there?” he asked, pointing with the tip of his chin to a grey building off the highway, while still watching me suspiciously. “I could find you a career in two minutes there,” he proudly exclaimed, raising his eyebrows, as if surprised by his own boldness.

Career? *Gulp* "Actually, I've got a job... in Africa for awhile," I replied, getting slightly queezy from the thought of filling out another application form, as the van sput-sputtered it's way to Northern Newfoundland.

St. Francis Xavier lies in the small town of Antigonish (lazily prounced Annie-gonish by the locals). Two weeks ago, I had never heard of this place. For the next two weeks, this is home, a training-centre for two weeks for the 20 interns who will be branching off to our respective organizations (from Peru to the Caribbean, Ghana, Botswana, Ethiopia and Kenya) with various titles such as "Forestry Conservationist" and "Sustainable Development Coordinators."

Day 1 of training started with Natalie, the youth programmer, greeted us enthusiastically at 8:30am in a lavish hardwood floor room with a gaping window that spilled warm sun through it. “Out of nearly 400 applicants across Canada,” she said with her trademark hop and skip, “you are the twenty who made it. Congratulations!” For the next two weeks, we were given a crash course in International Development and Cross-Cultural Partnerships by loads of impressive facilitators and support staff at the COADY institute. From 8:30am until 5:00pm, we were students, filling our cups, so to speak, with what was to be our next half-year overseas.

I had no idea how much I missed student life, the classroom atmosphere and long classes, the discussions and debates, the rough mornings (there were a few) and late nights (ditto). This group of people was a mix of everything I wanted from a post-secondary experience. With a variety of backgrounds, life experiences and job descriptions from across all corners of this nation, we were like a current day "Heritage-Moment," a living testament to the multi-cultural mosaic that is Canada. Like a sponge, I soaked it all in, not wanting to spill a drop. Ironically enough, I was more engaged and enthused about these two weeks than most of my Nursing education, which neglected it's global education and placement opportunitites ("What do you mean I have to stay in Alberta for my final placement?").

20 interns went from strangers to an eclectic, supportive family in two weeks, and with barely enough time to learn “The Rankins” newest album , our time in Antigonish was over. As quickly as we were put together, we were pulled apart, heading to our respective locations. For Anthony, Abena and I, Kigali, Rwanda was the last stop on a 36 hour journey across the globe.

For me, I had been on the road since last September, never really settling in a place long enough to call it home, a drifter, in many ways. As we boarded the plane, I thought of it all in a linear sequence.

Jasper --> Edmonton --> Ponoka --> Tofino --> Antigonish --> RWANDA (full-stop). Having a place to call home for six months seemed a foreign concept (and actually, a little restricting), but welcoming, nonetheless. As I stepped onto the plane, I remembered the words from a toast at my going-away party, and was struck at their appropriateness.

"To the Next Step!"

Monday, April 12, 2010

Unemployed: Day 72

Somewhere between Canmore and Lake Louise, Alberta (early February)

I’m jolted awake from peaceful weariness with an audible gasp, like I had been holding my breath for way too long. My first thought, “Where am I?” is never a comforting feeling to wake up to. All I can see is a musky brown carpet above me. I wriggle my toes, and take a deep breath. It’s cold, as my visible breath shows, and I’m in a sleeping bag. As I shift up in a reclined seat, it comes back to me. I’m in my car, aptly nicknamed trusty old Godzilla. Still shaking the sleep out of my being, I look out the window and am greeted by the looming, jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains. The road trip was three days old.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, I thought to myself as I slinked back into the uncomfortable driver side seat for a couple extra minutes of sleep.I call it the “Degree-Hangover,” the place where you finally have this piece of paper stating your skills, but can’t manage to find work. I had watched friends go through the same phase, and was determined to skip it.

The past two months had been proactive and optimistic. I mailed, called, emailed and applied to over 70 hospitals. From Iqaluit to the Salt Spring Islands, the only pill I could swallow was the bitter one of defeat, of rejection... of failure. What if I could never find a job??? My imagination wandered to being on the side of the road in a grizzled beard and tattered nursing scrubs with a large cardboard sign scribbled in Black Sharpie, “Need Food! Will Give IV.”

Disappointed and disillusioned, I packed up the car and followed the sunset West. If I returned home from the road-trip and there was still no hope, I would move to the only place that had shown some interest in my career....last chance saloon (also known as Saskatoon). I looked at the clock: 11:15am. Today could be big. A good friend (thank you) had shown me a Nursing Teaching Internship in Rwanda. Originally, I planned to get experience in Canada before taking nursing on the road.

As with every thing you try to plan in life, it didn’t work that way. My phone interview was in 10 minutes! I drove to a nestled spot between two large snow-capped mountains, brushed my teeth (just in case they could smell through the phone) and took the interview that changed my life.

Unemployed: Day 84 - Victoria, Vancouver Island

The call came the day I thought it would, and when the caller ID read, Nova Scotia, I couldn’t feel my legs. That makes driving a vehicle tough. It had been so long since I heard the word “Congratulations,” I thought it was a cruel joke, and waited for her to add, “JUST KIDDING!!”
After numbly hanging up the phone and miraculously avoiding all traffic disasters along the way, I decided that the first phone call I should make was the hardest... to my parents.

Me: “So... Mom? I, um, I got a job!”
Mom: “Oh, in Saskatoon? That’s wonderful dear, when will you be starting?”
Me: “Actually, change of plan... I’ll be moving to Rwanda for six months to teach Nursing. It doesn't pay well... well, actually at all, but a job is a job...right?”
Mom: “Call your father when he gets home. We’ll talk when you get home.” *Click*

"She didn't say NO!" I thought, as I pushed Godzilla further to the most Western point of our country, and celebrated with my road-trip partner. It hadn't sunk in yet, and it wouldn't, for a while, but this was the start of something big.