Meanwhile in Africa, Part 2: Where To Begin

Now that I’ve written about the day that had the biggest impact on me during my Learning Abroad experience in Africa its time to rewind to the beginning.  This is the part in the movie where the words on the screen say “Six Weeks Earlier”.

Except, I’m not sure where to begin…..

Does this part begin when I decided to go back to college in January of 2017  “Eighteen months Earlier” or does it begin when Trent came back from his Naked and Afraid adventure after contracting malaria, “Ten months earlier”.  There are so many amazing stories that happened in these time frames that could each be their own blog so for now….. We’ll begin here…….  “Three Weeks Earlier”…..

Chapter 1 – My first journal entry……..

It all began when Trent was invited to be a survivalist on Discovery Channels adventure show Naked and Afraid XL All Stars. Trent The challenge took place in South Africa and the survivalists were to attempt to survive in the Selati Basin for 40 days. As you know by now if you’ve watched the series or seen his Social Media feed, Trent contracted Malaria during this challenge and though the disease threatened to take him out of the challenge he persevered.  His warrior spirit drove him through extraction with his new “tribe” of naked friends and he completed what many have called “crazy” and I call the most EPIC ADVENTURE OF A LIFETIME!!  Upon his return to the United States we found ourselves at the University of Utah Travel Clinic being checked out by Dr. Scott Benson to make sure Trent’s malaria had been taken care of and he was on the path to recovery.  During the check up, Dr. Benson mentioned that he took students fromdr benson and Trent the University of Utah to Ghana, West Africa every year for a Global Health Learning Abroad Research Project. Coincidentally, I had just been notified a week before that the waiting list I was on for my International Studies class had been declined.  This was the FINAL credit I would need to complete my degree at the University of Utah for my Bachelors degree in Psychology. I certainly perked up when Dr. Benson mentioned something about students going to Africa. The moment Trent returned from this mystical land I could feel my heart longing to set foot upon this continent and Dr. Benson had just handed me the map.  We discussed further that this would fulfill the credit I needed for graduation. Dr. Benson also explained that although I would be travelling with pre-med students, I was not required to be pre-med. It was as if the theme music for some heroic super hero film began to play and I knew that seven months from now I would be travelling with complete strangers, to an unknown land to meet a culture I would fall in love with.

 This FREAKED ME OUT!!!!

But I just knew this journey had something magical in store so “trust the process” became the mantra every morning when I stepped into my day. I took it step by step, went to all the meetings, submitted my application, started to get my budget together, furiously wrote up scholarship essays, arranged for my vaccinations, took my online prep classes, completed all the learning modules, set up a go-fund me to help out with costs, arranged for financial aid to supplement what I wasn’t able to raise and finish up the required activities of the University before leaving.  

Before I knew it June 28th had arrived. I was packed and headed to the airport. I had planned to fly out a few days early and meet a few of the pre-med students in Accra to have a few extra sightseeing days. When I checked in online the airline offered $200-$500 to give up my seat because they had overbooked the flight. I ignored the offer and although the anxiety was beginning to set in about going early and not really knowing anyone or what to expect, I took a deep breath and continued to “trust the process”. I summoned my courage and reminded myself that THIS was my adventure of a lifetime!! Everything was so smooth with my check in, luggage weighed in right at 50 pounds, security lines were short and soon I was standing in front of gate B2.  An announcement came over the speakers and announced that due to the extreme heat in Salt Lake City they needed at least 40 volunteers to give up their seats because the plane could not take off with the weight.  They offered $2000 for anyone that volunteered….THAT WAS THE PRICE OF MY TICKET!!!! I went to the counter and asked if they could get me on another plane the next day to make sure I would arrive in Ghana on the day my professors (Dr. Benson and Dr. Dickerson) would arrive.  That was possible and I texted the other students and let them know I wouldn’t be joining them early.

BONUS!!!  One more night of snuggles with my love. When I arrived at the airport the next morning I was informed that the flight the night before (that I’d given my seat up for) had sat on the tarmac for four hours because of complications and then the flight was cancelled.  I was given 12,500 sky-miles for this inconvenience …which I didn’t actually experience because as you recall I had given up my seat for $2000….. so $2000 and 12,500 sky-miles and a day later, I was on my way to Cincinnati, then on to Paris and final destination Ghana. There is a reason that the professors and all the advisers say repeatedly “Be flexible, things happen, roll with the changes.”  It was pretty amazing how things were working out. My anxiety level had completely dropped as I was now travelling with one of the pre-med students.  I had met her the day before at the airport when we both decided to give up our seats.  (Her name is Amy….coincidentally that is my best friends name that I traveled to Japan with some 30 years prior….I love little winks from the universe that let me know all is well.)  I was confident my professors would be at the final destination to handle the particulars and answer the million questions I would have about arriving in a foreign country. I sat back, fastened my seat belt and took a long, excited, deep breath….. I was on my way to AFRICA!!!!20180713_191124

 

 

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Meanwhile, In Africa. Part 1. Diving In.

When I left for Africa and started journaling my adventure, I never expected that my first blog would start at the end.  I’ve been back in the United States for about a month and a half. My heart longs to write about my grand adventure….our research, my colleagues, the food, the sweat, the tears, the dancing, the singing and ….. the poop (yes, there’s poop in my story, I was with pre-med students after all) ….. but it seems my heart also has not been ready to dive into the heart ache it will surely find by putting words on paper because once I start to tell the story, this story will end and somehow if I don’t write it, it doesn’t have to end just yet.  I know that it’s not REALLY the end and that all endings are just beginnings and my current situation is not my final destination and all that blah, blah, blah but I also know the only way out is through. But ‘through’ gets messy for me and I must surrender my idea of control (not something I’m really good at doing…or at least, not something I like to do.) “Through” for me is raw, honest and sometimes a little ugly….. Like the ugly cry you do when you watch a Nicholas Sparks movie with snot and those belly convulsions. For me, there is no escaping these BIG emotions I’m blessed and cursed with.  I know there are a lot of emotions all waiting to be unleashed and I’ve been a little hesitant to dive into the deep end of the pool. But I do know one thing, for me, writing is cathartic….. a process of releasing…. in this releasing, I know I will discover and uncover emotional wounds long hidden from my conscious mind, I always do…it’s so human, if I’m open and willing. I can tell this is just such a journey because I have done everything from rearrange my bedroom to painting the front door in an effort to avoid sitting down and diving deep. Today, is the day, I’m diving in…..and I begin at the end……

…..After three long weeks of exhaustive work in Ghana our final day would be a celebration and reward for all the maddening, saddening and at the end of the day, the “gladdening” hours we had all put in to our research projects .  (Sidenote if you haven’t read my writing before…. I make up words, I don’t use correct punctuation and there might be a curse word or two thrown in….. If this is too much for you, instead of leaving critical comments, please do us both a favor and google a “published” research article on overcoming grief, mine is not a technical report….It’s written for me and shared with you in hopes that what we can not do alone, we can do together….specifically on this journey, my intention is to heal my grief.)  So back to the maddening, saddening and gladdening stuff….. We would be spending our last day on the beach because we had

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 worked our booties off in Kumasi for the last three weeks! We arrived at a gorgeous beach resort late in the evening hours after sunset and an exhausting all day bus ride. The moon gave us our first glimpse of the African coastline, she was GORGEOUS dancing in the moonlight.  I drifted off to dreamland that night, excited for the gift the next day would bring….. The ocean and all her majesty!  

I woke up early and quietly made my way to an empty tiki table on the beach.  I sat down, deeply breathing in all the freshness of a new view. Waves pounded the sand, a tiny island waved its good mornings from out at sea, fishing boats were tied off down the coastline a ways and I sank into a meditation of gratitude.  I was grateful for all the synchronicity’s that had brought me to this country. 20180721_072141.jpgGrateful for the amazing women and men I was able to work side by side with for the past month. I was beyond grateful for the breakthroughs we’d had in our research.  I was overjoyed that our little U of U team had truly made a difference GLOBALLY in the lives of so many and that would continue because of the discoveries we made. I was also grateful for the beautiful friendships I had developed so quickly over this time.  Bonded with mutual trust, respect, hard work and a shared commitment to make a difference on this planet. As gratitude after gratitude bubbled up and overflowed from my thoughts one of my new friends approached. She asked if I’d like to go for a walk down the beach to see the hand carved fishing boats.  I anxiously agreed and ran back to my cabana to get my phone to take pictures. I had wifi in my room and I noticed I had a message from my cousin, she wanted me to give her a call. My sweet cousin was going through some tough times and I thought maybe she wanted to talk some things out. It was the middle of the night in Utah where she was so I sent a quick message telling her that I was still in Africa.  I thought she would simply reply that we could chat when I was back home. I then forgot all about her message and headed down the beach.

This walk was very eye opening and I quickly learned that I did NOT want to take surf lessons as I had previously thought about doing for my last big bang in Africa.  The tide was washing out to sea the morning “waste”……animal and human alike. I was disgusted but also glad to have made this discovery because my choice for surf lessons had better research now, that was a for sure “Nope!”  You get used to a lot of “uncomfortable” things when you spend three weeks in a third world country. As disturbing as the thought of a morning poop in the sea was for me, it seemed to be a very normal ritual in this little coastal city.  In the past three weeks 

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I had learned that some things in this culture I would probably never understand but I could still love these people. I could still respect this culture. I could still see them as part of my earth family and I did, I had fallen deeply in love with all of it.  Our walk was wonderful. We laughed, we took pictures, we talked about the people we had gotten to know this past little while. We also found a fishing boat captain willing to take us to the little island for twenty cedis and off we went on further big adventures for the day.  

When we returned I went back to my room and found another message from my cousin.  She said, “Give me a call when you get this message, no matter what time it is.” My heart panicked, I could feel her insistence and I wondered what could have happened to her that was so urgent.  When my phone connected with her voice, she quietly said, “You need to call Janet.” That’s when my heart stopped and so did my breathing. I had to consciously tell myself to take a breath and then I said, “Please tell me what she’s going to tell me so I can be prepared.”  

“Your dad is gone, Sher.  I’m so sorry.”

The sentence just sat there, on the air, hanging there as time disappeared like a cold fog.

I don’t know how long I sat there in shock but after mumbling something I made the call to my sweet stepmom, Janet.  Though I don’t remember the call much, I remember asking her if she wanted me to come home. We were about to fly out of Africa and spend five glorious days in the City of Love…… Paris!  This was an optional excursion, which I had opted in for as a job well done reward for myself….a graduation gift to me! Being the amazing mom that she is, she told me to make the best choice for myself but that nothing would change if I came home tomorrow or next week.  She told me we would make all the plans when I arrived home, whenever that might be. I hung up and walked back into my little room. I must have had quite the lost and forlorn look on my face because my roommates both looked at me with questioning wide eyed, expectant gazes.

“I just found out my dad died.”

Another sentence that just sat there, hanging awkwardly on the air as time again seemed to melt into an eery mist.

This was the only sentence that came out of me, I didn’t know what…..I didn’t know….well, anything….I just didn’t know.  I just sat there, my thoughts stammering in my head as I tried to remember how to walk, sit, talk, breath…..anything. They both tried to make sense of my sentence, rushed to hug me and asked questions to try to get more information.  I had none. I was in Africa, halfway across the world, finishing my Bachelors of Science degree on a Global Health Research Learning Abroad trip with the University of Utah and my dad was not going to be there when I got home? There’s no real way to make this make sense but I kept saying it over and over in my head like a lunatic, hoping that somehow these pieces of the puzzle would rearrange themselves and fall into place to show me that this wasn’t really happening.  Then I went numb. I asked my roommates to please keep it to themselves for now, I wasn’t ready for it to be real. I went out to my morning tiki hut, sat in the chair, pulled my knees to my chest and in the fetal position I stared blankly at the ocean. I just sat there for hours. My roommates checked on me, my morning walk buddy knew something was up and I shared with her, my professors were told and came to see how I was. I didn’t know how I was. I didn’t cry, I didn’t feel sad, I didn’t feel anything.  I just sat in the feeling of ‘nothingness’ watching the waves, completely numb. Later that afternoon one friend convinced me to walk down to the “burrito place” with her. I ordered a Pina Colada (worst Pina Colada I’ve pina coladaever tasted….sorry “burrito place” your food is WAY better than your drinks.) Our table was outside on the veranda facing the ocean. I silently toasted my dad, took a few sips of the worlds worst Pina Colada and sank back into “nothingness”. The table was lively and I was grateful that my friend hosted the conversation at the other end and diverted any attention from me.  It was a picnic table with a plastic table cloth on it. I sat on the back side facing the ocean and there was a chair to the right of me. An empty chair that I didn’t pay any attention to until “Frank” came and sat in it. We had met Frank on our morning walk. He had invited us down to his place for fresh juice. I hadn’t given Frank any thought until he climbed the four steps from the ocean and plopped himself in the empty

Frank's chair

I originally took this pic to capture the goat on the beach. Looking back on my pics I forgot I took this pic but there it was…THIS is where my dad first showed up.

 chair next to me. He didn’t say a word. Just sat down next to me. It felt awkward and I wanted him to go away. I felt like he was invading my space and I was super uncomfortable.  I could feel myself emotionally thrashing inside, wanting him to get out of my space. Then all of a sudden, it was no longer weird, no longer awkward, it just was. I don’t know how long Frank sat there but he eventually got up and walked away, that’s when the music started, no one could hear it but me. “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, Let it be.” Frank and the awkwardness and then the non awkwardness were the “Let it be” my dad wanted me to find that day, he was there, speaking words of wisdom and for now, all I needed was to “let it be”.

Things began to make a little more sense after that or at least it didn’t matter if they made sense or not.  Dad was here. It was the perfect place for me to spend these moments with him….. On the beach, his most favorite place in the world, where I could just BE with him.  The song replayed on a loop and I realized I didn’t need to make sense of it all right then, there would come an answer….. But in this moment, I could just “Let it be.”  

I had once again in my life surrounded myself with an incredible “tribe”. This time it was Global Health, Superhero, Pre-med, Superstars.  I was so wonderfully supported, I was so incredibly loved, I was cared for and I above all I could trust that in my hour of darkness there would always be loved ones standing right in front of me, speaking words of wisdom….this was proof enough for me that no matter where I am, no matter what I’m experiencing…I will NEVER walk this world alone.  This was the change I committed to making in my life a decade before, to leave a life that no longer served me, where I had felt so alone and find a life that LOVED me as much as I LOVED it! In this moment I knew I now lived THIS life!

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My journey had brought me halfway across the world to serve a people I fell madly in love with, finish my degree I was so passionate about and say goodbye to the first man who said “I love you” to me.  Somehow, it was the picture of perfection for me (odd as that sounds). I couldn’t have picked a more perfect place to be when I heard this heart wrenching news.

So on the beach half way across the world, I said goodbye to my dad….and as I said goodbye, he said ‘Hello’ because the Beatles songs are still ringing in my head and I know he’s been hanging out with me ever since Frank got up and I “Let it Be”.  He’s seeing things from a new perspective, getting to know me from a different point of view and I guess I am doing the same thing with him too. Diving deep…… stay tuned for more!

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…and yes, the end is only the beginning!