After my day cruising Halong Bay, I opted to stick to the dense Old Quarter surrounding my hotel for a deeper dive into its chaotic energy.
On the packed streets of Hanoi, the traffic lights and crosswalks are there for decoration. Hordes of motor bikes swarm the roads; pedestrians must clamber over restaurant seating (plastic stools and tables) if they want to use the sidewalks. Walking three blocks exhausted me.
The higgledy-piggledy view from my hotel window encapsulated the hive of human activity.
After the dearth of English-speaking churches on Japan’s remote southern islands, I determined to steer my Indochina circuit around Sunday services. Thus I dedicated the weekend after my Thailand tour to Christ Church Bangkok: a lofty Anglican establishment with a promising website. Once the 7:30am “traditional service” concluded, I would venture forth to sample more of the city’s attractions.
As soon as I parted from my guide in Kho Pha-Ngan, though, the logistics tangled. My cushy airport bus broke down on the highway, relegating us to a dusty half hour under an overpass before a van pulled up. I landed uneventfully in the capital, but then the route from the airport to my hotel cowed me with a labyrinth of transfers. I resorted to taxis – turned down a VIP service asking triple the going rate, passed on an opportunistic haggler just outside the official taxi stand, and at last entrusted myself to a driver with a meter and receipt book.
He deposited me on my hotel doorstep, where I discovered that the fare exceeded my supply of cash.
From Tokyo, we caught a Pokemon-themed plane to the southernmost tip of the main islands: Kagoshima-shi, the city center of my home prefecture. We checked in to JR Kyushu, a suave business hotel set inside the train station itself.
Then I conducted my sister on a twenty-four hour tour of Kagoshima’s culinary champions: tonkatsu (the Japanese version of schnitzel, or breaded pork), cherry blossom pastries, chestnut cakes, and – of course – shirokuma: the iconic shaved ice of the region. Drenched in sweetened condensed milk, studded with fruit, it had topped my list since November 2021 for treats to delight guests. My sister opted for the red beans variation, while I bought the classic.
We scooted downtown for a late night stint at the nearest onsen, a public bath with piping hot mineral waters, powered by the city’s neighboring volcano. On the way home, we paused to purchase a bulk pack of frozen dumplings from a vending machine (a vending machine!) before retiring for a long-awaited rest.
Sunday morning brought us amidst a relentless downpour to my first English church home in Japan, the dauntless Calvary Chapel. As ever, the congregation welcomed us warmly – with a hearty brunch and many invitations to return soon. The assistant pastor’s wife even accompanied us back to the station, where she saw us safely aboard the bus to the airport for our final flight of the week: home to Tokunoshima.
In my 18 months of island hopping and jetting all over Japan, I have dropped in on half a dozen different churches here. Invariably, the congregations have showered me with affection and hospitality — inviting me to lunch, offering to guide my sightseeing, urging me to come again.
Our friend’s family church fit the pattern in all respects except one: it dwarfed every other Japanese church I have attended. Multiple services, Sunday school divided by age group, even a bookshop — we marveled at the ministry built up over the decades. During the service, we sang hymns accompanied by organ and pored over an English transcript of the sermon. Afterwards, I rejoiced at joining an English Bible study in person, for the first time in months.
My friends Petra and Eloise transformed a four hour trek from Vleesbaai to the airport, from a chore to a bonus. We set out early in the morning, bidding the beach farewell as the highway unwound across plains and mountains, carrying us west towards the city of Cape Town.
Our road trip ranged from a rest stop petting farm to a local farmer’s market. The enterprising rest stop featured a picnic area, obstacle course, and selfie stations. I sampled a ‘roosterkoek‘ – a pastry whose baffling name initially led me to tentatively inquire why only male chickens featured.
“Did you make it back home?” a friend from the Christian retreat asked me.
My secondary school had asked me to teach the week immediately following the holidays — so instead of taking a 15 hour ferry home, I sailed for 20 hours to Yoron Island. Thankfully, my itinerary allowed for one night’s stopover in Kagoshima City, where the international Calvary Church welcomed me warmly as ever.
Welcome to “Golden Week”: a succession of national holidays that free most of Japan to travel en masse. You must book your tickets months in advance or forget about traveling on a budget. I decided to spend my allotment on Tokyo, aiming to rectify the fourteen days I passed here in mandatory isolation, forbidden from leaving the hotel property let alone poke my nose into a sushi restaurant.
The trip began with an unexpected detour: JET’s Christian society threw open the doors for me to join their weekend retreat in Nagano — with only 24 hours notice. I hastily abbreviated my hotel stay in Tokyo and bought my shinkansen (bullet train) tickets at Tokyo Station for a 2+ hour trek northwest to join them.
Gabrielle and I had talked all year of her visiting me in England, but in the last-minute rush to finagle my quarantine-free entry to the conference, she obliged me by redirecting to Rome. Joy squeezed my heart at the sight of her – a little piece of home, arriving in a blaze of sunlight. Five days of freedom beckoned, a generous allowance for exploring the city at our leisure.
The summer before traveling to Oxford, I dreamed up a short wishlist for travel in the United Kingdom: 1) Yorkshire, the site of beloved stories from my childhood, and 2) Wales, the only British country still alien to me. With my lease winding to a close on the 30th of June and my plans for the oncoming autumn undecided, the months of July and August opened like a window of opportunity before me, if only I could find the key.
I have a dear friend (and former professor) to thank for almost everything that followed. With a few emails, Sam enlisted friends across the country to host me for weeks (or months, if requested). Buoyed with confidence born of traveling towards a friendly destination, I boarded the bus to London.
Springtime comes in February for Oxford. Bluebells, snow drops, crocuses, and daffodils are disrupting the sombre charcoal tones of winter, lifting my spirit from lockdown doldrums to a hopeful (and often anxious) anticipation of the future.
With most of the libraries shut down for most of the term, I played church tourist and commenced a round of endless walks, reminding myself that I’m not alone here no matter how much it feels like it.
This was not the post I was expecting to write when I began outlining ideas for March 2020 — any more than these months seem to be what anyone was expecting.
The last weeks of my service in South Africa began like all the others: a kaleidoscope of culture, friendships, quiet, and difficult times. Then it started to get weird. A cascade of unrelated events contributed to a growing sense of chaos, which paradoxically prepared me for the end of my Peace Corps service in a way that I could never have anticipated.
In the end, as a friend pointed out to me, it was a mercy.
If there’s anything Peace Corps service has taught me, it’s the necessity of waiting.
My nature rebels against the humility and simple surrender of acknowledging that further action will avail nothing; the outcome is beyond my power to influence; there’s nothing to do but place my trust in the Lord…and wait.
In some small areas, my expectations have made the adjustment: the taxis to my shopping town, the line at the grocery store, the printers at school. Although service providers here rarely hurry and sometimes acknowledge requests reluctantly, that doesn’t mean they aren’t responding. A patient smile does wonders for my health and theirs.
It’s the big questions – about career, family, and the future – that send me into the wrestling ring with God. As a Christian blogger pointed out, there’s a difference between waiting for something you know will happen (eventually) and waiting when you’re not sure whether it ever will. The Biblical images of sowing and reaping acquire new resonance for me as I wonder when the time invested in these critical areas will begin to bear fruit.
Graduation, Christmas, weddings – December in South Africa has it all!
The end of this year – and the decade! – marked the conclusion of my first full year in South Africa. Twelve months ago, I never could have predicted that I would be flying to Cape Town for a wedding, or applying to a masters program in African studies, or joining a family reunion at the same farm where Judy and I reveled in fresh-made dairy last year.
All of these events and more impressed on me the greatest blessing of my Peace Corps service: becoming like family with the people here.
Whenever someone surprises me with that infamous question – “How’s it going in Africa?” or “What’s it like doing Peace Corps?” – I resort to my emergency reply: “Mountains and valleys!”
Peace Corps has given me some of the happiest times of my life – and some of the most difficult. The past month unfolded along the same lines, running from birthday celebrations to a memorial service for a Grade 6 learner at my school. In the good times, in the difficult times, we need not fear…for the Lord walks with us.
While away in Western Cape, I was marveling about the blooming aloes at Talitha’s wedding venue, lamenting their beauty compared to the plain janes lining my host family’s property…only to discover, on my return, that the aloes at home are blooming, too!
After a cascade of often unexpected opportunities for travel this past year, it’s been my joy to discover the tiny treasures of spending time closer to home.
When a Peace Corps Volunteer isn’t soaking in the sights and sounds of her adopted country, how does she occupy her time? What are you supposed to do at site, anyway?
For decoding the nitty gritty of the volunteer experience, please consult this cheat sheet of five daily doings in Peace Corps South Africa: Read the rest of this entry →