The time I pet a possum in my living room in the middle of the night

possum_poster.jpgIt was a Monday night around 1:00 AM… I was, of course, sleeping soundly in my bed.

A cat’s angry yowl pierces through my slumber, “REEEOOOOOOW!!!!.” As any good cat mom, I recognize this as my cat Sia’s defense voice (I had heard this was a thing with mothers recognizing their children’s’ cries, but I can now testify that this also applies to cat noises!). My adrenaline kicks in and I jump out of bed ready to figure out what is going on.  I race into our living room in a t-shirt and underwear. What I have neglected to do in my adrenaline rush, is to put on my glasses or pop in my contacts (or apparently put on pants). I am literally half blind in the dark of night, looking to save my cats (yes… plural… we have lots of love to give).

I hazily step over, and lean down to prop it back upright… and realize there is a ball of fur trapped underneath the tipped over pot.  My third cat….!!!! The ball of fur isn’t moving. My mind is racing wondering if the vet will answer our calls at 1 AM.  I reach down to gently pet my trapped cat to comfort her, and let her know I’m there. She still doesn’t move.  I am about to try to pick her up, when it strikes me that her fur feels rougher than usual. I hesitate with my hands on her back, and suddenly realize….

THIS IS NOT MY CAT!!! The ball of fuzz stirs briefly and I realize… I have just pet a trapped POSSUM in my LIVING ROOM! How is this possible!?  I look to the window, and realize it must have crawled onto our roof and down into our walled-in patio, in through the window and into our living room!

I step back and notice that all three cats (the third one has since graced us with her presence) are now starting to curiously wander towards the possum in an effort to figure out what it is. I quickly grab the one closest to the possum, pull the second one into my arms and awkwardly attempt to herd the 3rd one away from the possum with my feet, as you may be picturing – literally herding cats.

I yell to my husband (although it should be noted, not out of fear, but 1. Because of the hilarious absurdity of the moment, and two, because my hands (and feet) were full herding curious cats who wanted to go investigate the newcomer), “Hey, there’s a TACUASIN in our living room!!! [Fun tip – Tacuasin is the Guatemalan word for possum] Get out here and help me get it out!”

He runs into the living room and bursts out laughing. In fairness, he is NOT half-blind, so he’s actually fully appreciating the scene.  He opens the patio door literally behind the possum… and we wait.

When they say that possums “play dead,” it’s no joke! This guy sat there in my living room for like 5 minutes while I herded cats half-blind in my underwear.  And he DIDN’T MOVE… He just played dead.  Just as it occurred to me that this would actually make a pretty hilarious photo, our friendly neighborhood tacuasin promptly ignored the open door behind him (why take the easy way out?), jumped up onto the window sill, and showed himself out into our patio with a three-cat escort.  He scurried up our jasmine tree in the patio and out and away into the night.

And that’s the time that I pet a possum in my living room (in my underwear) in the middle of the night. I also promptly washed my hands and frantically googled the word “possums” before falling back asleep for a comparatively regular Tuesday.


Xela’s Love Affair with Graffiti


“Man in glasses.” Graffiti on adobe. Xela 2017.

Quetzaltenango, more frequently known by its Mayan name, Xela (shorter even still for Xela-ju), is nestled 2300 meters up into the mountains of Guatemala.  Half of the year, some might consider Xela gloomy – with dark rain clouds, misty skies, and damp nights creeping in around its 200-year-old adobe buildings that adorn the center of town. The other half of the year, brilliantly painted sunsets and vibrant kites adorn Xela’s clear, mountain skies, giving the impression that its ancestors are always near. Perhaps it is against this soulful backdrop that Xela has given rise to a multitude of colorful poets, artists, and musicians. The inspiration born in Xela seeps into everyday life.  The acoustic melodies of tragic love songs drift out of corner bars and adobe homes, poets dream about the volatile past and the opaque future. In fact, even the graffiti of Xela- which is abundant-  is pensive and romantic – seemingly inspired by its surroundings.

In a country unfortunately all too well known for its gang violence, Xela’s graffiti is unusual. There are few vulgarities, few obscenely painted gestures, limited gang references… Xela’s graffiti is unlike any I’ve seen around the world – less political than Jerusalem’s, and definitely less uncouth than most large cities. Xela’s graffiti is artistic, motivational, and passionate. Here are some of my favorites from around the city, with a bit of artistic liberty taken in the translations:


“I give you my life, in exchange for keeping you.” Apparently tagged by the rebel rousers: “Poetic Action of Xela.”


“Together forever kitty cat?”- This may be my favorite, with the lovesick, heart-shaped cat eyes.


“Liberate the Captive Truth.” Forget regular tagging, these teens just want to work on creating a more truthful, just society.


This one can be translated two ways.  1). “It is incredible” (we will never know what caused the awe!). Or, 2). “You [formal] are incredible.” I like to imagine it is the latter. Either way, motivational stuff.

IMG_5640 (2)

“Don’t throw trash.”  So, just to be clear… Graffiti is ok, since it’s a positive, motivational message.  But trash throwing… get outta Xela!


“Love, I will catch up to you.” Indeed, I hear love’s elusive!

 Xela-ju, you are certainly unique and you have somehow managed to charm me – not only with your surroundings made for dreamers, but with your inspiring and oft-poetic graffiti.

The Shaky Shaky

Playground of the Child Giants

The imposing volcanoes of Guatemala would sometimes have you believe you are a mere spec in a world run by sleeping giants. You see on Tuesday, well technically, on Wednesday morning,  the child giants woke up to play and they made the earth tremble. And that’s not hyperbole – really and truly, the ground shook.

It was 1:30 AM, and we were sound asleep. In fact, I was probably a good 3.5 hours into my night’s sleep when I awoke to a deafening CRACK! The bed, the night table, and then the entire room began to shake. It was a rapid fire up and down frenzied movement, as if some child giant had put us in his toy snow globe to see how fast he could make a blizzard. Some instinct must have kicked in, because despite having been deep into my sleep cycle, I grabbed Rafa’s shoulder, shook him (maybe with all other the shaking that was overkill in the moment) and leaped to the door frame of our bedroom – instantly awake. I knew it felt strong, but my first reaction was to calmly try to wait it out in the doorway.

Time of course loses all meaning in those moments. Maybe 30 seconds had passed, maybe 10… As Rafa finally pulled himself out of bed, there was almost a brief pause. And then the movement changed. It went from a furious up and down, rapid fire shaking to an even more frenetic side to side lurching. It got stronger. One wide-eyed glance at each other and we both shouted, “Vamonos pa’ fuera!!!” (Let’s go outside!). There was no discussing this point. Instinct told us that we needed to get outside, and quickly.

We both took off running towards the door. As we lurched side to side and I focused on not tripping down the steps inside the house, I noticed first a painting swinging on the wall and a few second later a vase on the dining room table wobbling. Shaking, lurching, running… Suddenly everything went pitch black. The power went out. “Focus and get out,” I thought.

As I neared our front door, which leads to our outdoor lawn and garden, my muscle memory kicked in and we made it outside. It was drizzling and cold but I didn’t notice. Safety in the openness of the outdoors. The rumbling quieted and the earth calmed. I took a deep breath. My senses began to kick back in. I felt the cool, wet grass on my bare feet, the drizzle on my head. Relief washed over me. Our house was still standing. In fact, all the houses around us were still standing. We were safe.

And then, as my senses continued to kick in, I realized I had left my cell phone inside by the bed. Surely I should have thought to grab it to make emergency calls, but in the moment, it hadn’t even occurred to me. Then I realized that had no jacket, no shoes, and to top it off… no pants on. I was standing outside on our lawn in a t shirt and underwear with no pants… But on the upside, we were safe.

In the dark, we grabbed one another’s hands and slowly made our way back inside in the dark. First we found our flashlight, then our cell phones, and began checking in with colleagues. I also thought it opportune to put on some pants. We took a brief tour around our house in the dark and fortunately did not spot any major damage. We circled back around to the bedroom and climbed into bed. Our eyes stared up at the dark ceiling. As it turns out, when the child giants decide to shake their snow globes, they make 6.9 earthquakes. No small thing.

Despite trying to sleep, the night was fitful, with multiple “CRACKING” noises – smaller aftershocks as the earth settled (including a 5.5). We stayed up nearly all night, dozing but waking with every creak and crack of the house, every aftershock, and every message of another colleague checking in. Finally, around 5 AM, I fell asleep, only to get up for work around 6:30. The day awoke cold, gray and damp.

Damage around the city the next day was evident but, luckily, not devastating. Some walls and roofs had collapsed, landslides covered some of the local roads and highways, but very few people were killed. The government is still assessing the damage. A newspaper report I read yesterday said 65 public schools in our department (think county) had suffered damages, with more than 50% of those being severe or critical. While people here in the land of volcanos are much more used to tremors, this one was the talk of the town all week. Some people even said it’s the strongest one they’ve felt since the devastating and deadly quake of ’76.

From my perspective, I hope that the child giants have been satiated for a while and that the earth has settled back in for another number of years… We Wisconsin-folk prefer that the ground stay stably beneath our feet. On the upside, I think while I live in volcano and earthquake territory, I may have learned a valuable lesson about sleeping with pants and keeping shoes nearby!

“The Mayans are Dead”


“Who cares about the Mayans. They died like 2000 years ago!”

I glanced behind me to see where this tiny voice came from.  A flippant Guatemalan 10-year-old, bored of walking around the Mayan ruins of Takalik Abaj whined to her parents.  This was clearly not her idea of vacation. Her comment hit me like a 100-ton brick, however.

You see, it’s a mistake that most of us, myself included, might have made at a certain point in time – particularly before getting to know the diverse country that is Guatemala. Perhaps this feeling of guilt – that I too may have thought this for much of my life – is what really made this comment hit home for me. Amplifying it, of course, was the fact that this girl was Guatemalan, and she also made the same mistake.

We all learn in history about the brilliant things created by Mayan civilization. We learn about the pyramids, mathematics, solar and lunar calendars and their precision, shamanic healing… the battles between the Mayans and the Spanish.  However, what we don’t hear about is this: The Mayans are actually quite alive and well.  They are not some majestic civilization that built pyramids and then disappeared off the face of the planet with only their ruins to be remembered. What is more, the second mistake many of us make is to loop all Mayans together into one grand civilization.

Here’s the truth: Just in Guatemala, there are 21 Mayan civilizations – all alive and well.  Each of these 21 Mayan populations has their own language (most of which are linguistically different from one another).  These, of course, excludes additional Mayan populations that extend up into Mexico or over into Belize, for example. For many Guatemalans, their first language (and sometimes only language) is a Mayan language. Spanish, while creeping into the vernacular and encroaching on indigenous towns, is often the second language. In the department where my project is based (Totonicapan), 97% of the population is Mayan K’iche’ ethnically with roughly 70% using K’iche’ as mother tongue. Some of the largest Mayan populations in Guatemala include Mam, Kaqchiquel, Q’ueqchi’, and Ixil. Check out this cool map to see where Mayan populations are located across Guatemala today (and their respective languages, of course).


Of course, the differences don’t stop with language.  Many Mayans, particularly women, still use traditional “trajes” (dress).  They consist of brightly colored woven fabric called “huipil” (woven blouse) and “cortes” (woven wraparound skirt that reaches to the ankles, and is held together by sash at the waist. Women also wear some form of headdress or add brightly colored ribbons into braided hair. The “huipil” is a distinct work of art, often hand woven or embroidered, that may take months to complete. It is distinguished by its design, style, pattern and concept. Even today, knowledgeable individuals can identify what Mayan population (and sometimes even what village) someone is from according to patterns and colors of the dress. Traditionally, could even identify the age range and whether a woman was married or single depending on what was woven into her huipil and how it was worn. While today some of the traditions around dress have changed, their pride in their cultures and identities have not.

What has not changed, in many parts of the country, however, are attitudes towards the Mayans. In much of southern Guatemala, including much of the capital, Guatemala City, many people have never been closely exposed to Mayan populations. Spanish reigns, and even many schools teach only about the “ancient” Mayan civilizations – leaving out completely the fact that the Mayans are, in fact, alive and well. For many who do understand just how multicultural Guatemala is, there is a lack of appreciation for those languages and cultures. There are still those whose prevailing attitudes towards indigenous Mayan populations who wonder why they speak “those dialects” and why they are “so backwards.” Yes, those pejorative words are in quotes because I have actually heard them spoken out loud.  Ever since “colonization”  of Guatemala, the Mayans have been discriminated against, repressed, and even suffered attempts at their extinguishment throughout history, though this was particularly fierce during the 36-year Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996).

There are some signs of hope, however. The Guatemala Peace Accords of 1996 specify that children should have a right to learn in their mother-tongue.  While this still doesn’t always translate into practice, it’s a political step in the right direction. There are Ministry of Education-supported programs (including the one I manage) that support bilingual early grade reading and primary education. However, as one of my (non-Mayan) colleagues pointed out, “Sometimes as a Guatemalan, we’ve needed to leave the country to learn our own history.”

I think what is lacking still, is a curriculum that teaches all Guatemalan students about the rich culture and history of their country- ancient and modern; maybe even school trips to not only Mayan ruins dotting Guatemala’s countryside, but also trips to indigenous communities to see how others live.  And for those of us who have not grown up in Guatemala, here’s a blog post to let you know that the Mayans are not just a great ancient civilization “that died like 2000 years ago,” nor were they one homogenous group. The Mayans consist of many sub-cultures, languages, and traditions. Oh- and they are very much alive and well.

Humanity and culture: the Pleasant and the Unpleasant

Feria de Lectura.JPG

K’iche’-speaking Mayan students in traditional dress

Nearly 4 months living in Guatemala and I’m beginning to realize how absolutely little I know about this small Central American country.  In this time, I’ve also come to realize how little many Guatemalans know about the people and vast cultural differences within their borders.

Guatemala is described by some as having four main “pueblos,” or ethnic populations.  These four groups include the Maya, Xinca, Garifuna, and Ladino populations. Within these four groups, however, there is an abundance of languages and cultures.

The Xinca are probably the easiest to describe, although for unfortunate reasons. While there are many Xinca descendents, the spoken language has nearly died, except for a handful of octogenarian.  It is actually just now being put into writing and revived through a formal systematization and schooling process during the last 16 years. Within the past year, this population has revived their first group of youth who now learn to speak, read, and write the Xinca language.  Unfortunately, it’s as a second language.

The Garifuna population mainly runs down the Atlantic coast from Belize and Guatemala down through Nicaragua. This population is generally a mix of Afro-descendent and early indigenous populations (Arawak), many of whom are descendants from those brought to the Americas in the slave trade. In Guatemala, they tend to learn Garifuna and Spanish simultaneously. In Nicaragua, they often learn Creole English, Garifuna, and Spanish simultaneously.

The “ladinos” are a population referred to as “mestizos,” or Spanish descendants. Historically, they have been the landowners, the plantation owners (Guate was, after all, a coffee and banana republic), slave owners (of the indigenous populations), the business owners, the most educated. With the ladinos, there has been a concentration of wealth and resources. Today many ladinos live in the big cities. I have a majority of ladino colleagues, which represents today, the majority of the university-educated work force in Guatemala.  My organization works in underserved, mainly Mayan communities in Guatemala.  Many of my ladino Guatemalan colleagues have confessed to me that they are, embarrassingly (their words, not mine), finally learning about the rich diversity of their country.  They are finally seeing firsthand many of the inequalities between the “indigenous”and the “ladino.” These things were never taught in school or in history books.

Of course I have to also talk about the Mayans!  The Mayans…  World renowned for their precise calendars, their mathematics, their stunning pyramids… I am now finally unearthing the rich Mayan culture and going past these well-known points.  About those Mayans… Just in Guatemala, there are 21 officially recognized Mayan languages and cultures, most very different from one another.  TWENTY-ONE!  While a handful of the languages resemble one another and theoretically derive from the same original source, today most of the languages are really different from each other. For many Guatemalans, one of these 21 languages is their mother tongue and children often don’t learn Spanish until they enter school.

In Guatemala, I’m managing an Education project in one department (think “state” all you U.S. folk) with a component that focuses largely on bilingual primary education in K’iche’ (one of those 21 Mayan languages I mentioned) and Spanish. It is incredible to go to communities, walk around town, or go to a classroom and hear children whose first language is K’iche’.  While I won’t go into the challenges in this blog post of the public education system (underfunded, multi-grade classrooms, lack of access, poor facilities to name a few), I can say that many Guatemalan children have a hard time the first few years of school when they’re suddenly forced to learn every subject in Spanish.

Besides hearing daily Mayan street chatter, one of the beautiful things about Guatemala is that many Mayans still proudly wear their traditional, colorful dress every single day – particularly the women. And each of the 21 cultures has their own styles and patterns within the colorful dress. While I still cannot distinguish what sub-ethnic group people belong to by their dress, how cool to know that other Mayans can distinguish. How beautiful to see such pride for their culture. How wonderful to know that the 21 Mayan languages (and Garifuna for some) are still mother tongues for new generations.

Mayans also have a unique cosmovision of divinity, the world, the earth, and our interrelation with each.  The interesting point here is that all of the Mayan populations, despite language, geographical, dress, and cultural differences, all 21 groups share the same cosmovision, with only minor details changing from group to group. For example, my Mayan colleagues have explained to me the importance of your “Nawal,” or what day you were born on according to the Mayan calendar.  Your Nawal basically tells you what abilities you are born with, what your eventual mission in life is (regardless of when you come to it), when you should make offerings to your ancestors to thank them for your gifts, when to cleanse yourself, how to work with people of different nawals and much more.  The Mayan cosmovision blends traditional healing and medicine with modern. Studying the cosmovision properly can show you how to balance your energy and the energies around you. It is deep and rich, and would take years to understand it all.

While there are so many wonderful things to point out about Mayan culture, I can also recognize that there are many challenges still to overcome.  My non-expert guess would be that many of the things I’m about to mention come from the large inequalities between ethnic groups, including education and resource concentration.  For example, there are high levels of alcoholism, unemployment, violence against women, gender inequalities, teenage pregnancies, and female student drop-outs among Mayans.

Perhaps more disturbing, however, is how deeply entrenched some of the racism and classism can be in among Guatemalans. In 1996, the government actually wrote the right to education in one’s mother tongue into the peace accords after the brutal 36 year civil war (much of which also fueled racial divides).  However, in practice, many teachers who speak the language of a geographical area don’t get placed in those areas, sometimes for political reasons. Nearly all government meetings are done in Spanish, never in one of the other 23 languages.   I’ve heard wealthy business men question the work of our education project, asking why we’re teaching, “Those dialects” (cue offensive tone of voice).  I’ve heard people use the term “indio” (Indian) very derogatorily. Perhaps worst of all, I’ve noticed that a lot of ‘ladino’ Guatemalans don’t have a clue about or even a desire to get to know their fellow country women and men.

I know it’s easy to criticize this as an outsider, and I know there are plenty of race and class problems in my own country. My learning about Guatemala may only have scratched slightly below the surface so far. However, I’m happy to have colleagues who are actively trying to learn about how other Guatemalans live. I am also thankful for the opportunity to learn and reinforce once again that there are so many ways to live and be. That is humanity and understanding.

Learning Chapin Spanish, 101

Xela from El Baul

Photo of our new home, which I did take a really nice shot of, but no longer have in my possession due to extraneous circumstances. This photo is unfortunately unoriginal and pulled from the interweb of things. End caption tangent. 

In the case that you haven’t followed our trajectory via a personal conversation or social media, we have recently (ok, nearly a month ago now…) moved to Guatemala.  In general, it’s been a really nice transition.  In so many senses, it feels familiar… yet different.  Having spent 5 ½ years living and working in Nicaragua, our lovely neighbor to the south, and many more months across the Central and Southern portions of this great continent known to almost everyone else in our hemisphere except the US and Canada as “America” (yes – just one American continent – mind-blowing!), it feels a bit like going “home.”  In another sense, however, there’s so many new things to learn about my new “home.” For example, there is a whole new multi-cultural dimension to our lives. In addition to Spanish, roughly 22 Mayan languages are spoken in Guatemala, as well as Xinca and Garífuna. The department (think state or province) we are living and working in is about 90% Mayan. There will surely be a forthcoming blog post on the nuances that this additional cultural dimension adds.

But I digress… I will start by recognizing how nice it is to be back in a familiar context where everything from the social cues, norms, and language are second nature… well… almost second nature with some readjusting to contact and communication with the male species after two years in Afghanistan (another blog post, I’m sure).  However, for the focus of this blog post, I’ll let you in on a few of my Chapin (Guatemalan) Spanish snafus during my first month and a phrase that was and is… all too familiar…

Example one:

My first two weeks in Guatemala I swore up and down that I was being addressed as “Sir” in Spanish!  Time and time again, I would hear, “Buenos dias señor!”  “Adios señor!” “Como le va señor!” It was all I could do not to run into the bathrooms to check and ensure that I 1). Hadn’t had a sex change, and 2). Didn’t look like a dude. I mean, as a married woman, I should be most commonly referred to as señora, although heck, even señorita (younger, unmarried woman) would pass, but he was definitely not saying either of those two things.   I explained this terrifying personal dilemma to a colleague about whether I was inadvertently being perceived as a man, and pointed it out one day to this person after a 3rd party kindly exemplified by yelling out, “Buen provecho señor!” (Have a good meal sir!).

“See!?”  I hissed to my friend.  “I swear he must think I’m a man!”

My friend bust out laughing.  “He’s not calling you señor,” she said.  He’s calling you sèño! We [Guatemalans]  use sèño all the time. Don’t worry, it’s a polite way of referring to a woman when you’re not sure if she’s a señora or a señorita!

Whew.  Gender and sexuality crisis averted.  But really… sèño and señor sound all too similar when spoken quickly!

Example two: 

La cañonera. My third week in country I was helping to plan a workshop. One of my colleagues had put together a list of workshop materials which included “una cañonera.”  Not having anyone around at the moment to ask what the heck a cañonera was, I quickly took to the ever useful Google Translate.

Results: Antique gunship.

Hmm… This complicated things… What the heck were we going to need a giant, antique gunship for during a design workshop on education?  New ice breaker…?  Threat to those who aren’t participating…? Pirates on the horizon?  I began to assume either my colleague was crazy or this was some sort of Chapin slang. I rummaged a bit in our supply closets to see if maybe I’m missing out on a key workshop toy or tool that resembles an ancient gunboat… or even a modern day warship. I quickly Skyped a trusted friend and presented my Google Translate dilemma.

“Do you know why we would need a giant, antique gunboat for an education design workshop?”  I asked.  “Any clues?”

“Siiiii!” was the answer I got, along with a lot of laughs. “It’s a projector!”

“Ooooooh…” I replied. “Why didn’t they just use the normal Spanish, proyector?! That would have avoided a lot of confusion!”

And of course… the similarities

This one is familiar to anyone who has lived in Central America and it all came flooding back to me with a simple “Fíjese que…”  “Fíjese que” was almost the death of me when I lived in Nicaragua.  Nothing good ever, EVER comes after “Fíjese que …”  Fíjese que is the polite equivalent of “Well, you see…”

Fíjese que there is/are no… [insert milk, eggs, avocado, tortillas, electricity, water… anything you’re looking for or were hoping to get.]”  “Fíjese que … I can’t sell you a hamburger without the mayonnaise because it’s not listed that way on the menu” (really!?). “Fíjese que … I might have accidentally backed my car into yours and caused a huge dent.”

All the… milk, eggs, avocado, tortillas, electricity, water, hamburger without mayonnaise – you name it… that I was never able to get for X or Y reason while in Nicaragua came flooding back with that short phrase. Relearned lesson: NOTHING GOOD EVER FOLLOWS FIJESE QUE.


Goodbye Afghanistan

“I’ve got you under my skin…” The words of Frank Sinatra have been echoing in my head the past few weeks as I’ve said goodbye after goodbye. It’s hard to believe two years have passed since we first came to Afghanistan. Like the red dust here that gets into every pore and underneath each and every fingernail, Afghanistan has gotten under my skin. Sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse, it’s a country that has left its mark on me.  It has heightened my feminism (or maybe that’s also a factor of growing older and- hopefully- wiser as to how far the world still has to go to obtain equality?). Afghanistan has showed me a corner of the world that few outsiders ever get to see, and taught me a lot about both my boundaries of what I can live with (and without) and where those boundaries end.  Every time I move countries, I’m again amazed at how much we, as human beings, flexibly adapt to the circumstances around us and learn to live both with and without everything that has most recently been familiar to us.  Afghanistan is a place that has taken me (more than once) to my breaking point, but has also shown me how some of the simplest things can make me feel the happiest and most fulfilled that I’ve ever felt.  So that said… to depart, I’ve prepared my top lists of things I will NOT miss, and of course – the list that far outweighs these “boundary testers” – the things I will miss dearly.

Things that tested my boundaries:

1).Wearing all of my clothes at once – like really, truly, all at once. Just picture wearing a sack-like dress or long skirt over pants (yes, over pants – not leggings – pants), with a sweater, socks, a head scarf and – if I’m in one of the more conservative parts of the country, the bedsheet-like attire otherwise known as a chador namaz that basically makes you overheat, trip, lose all peripheral vision and look like a black Halloween ghost roaming the streets without actually trick-or-treating. Yes, I will not miss that.

2). Not being able to hug males – There were times in saying goodbye over the last two weeks that I really would have liked to hug my male Afghan colleagues as I told them how awesome they are and how much I was going to miss them.  I was lucky if I got handshakes, which was already pretty risqué.

3). Having questions for me directed at my husband – Yes, this was done over and over again out of respect for both myself and Rafael (it may sound strange, but it can be culturally inappropriate to talk to a man’s wife directly)… but it’s infuriating to have questions for you – when you’re standing there as part of the conversation – directed at your husband.

4). A lack of freedom – This is a multi-faceted one… In a few places we worked in Afghanistan, we were confined to the office and guesthouse compounds, with no way to see outside the mud walls for 2-3 weeks at a time.  I also won’t miss having to be accompanied every time I want to go for a walk/ hike/trip to the bazaar. Oh, and I also won’t miss watching the men get to go out and do all the fun sporty stuff like play soccer, volleyball, going for outdoor runs, etc. Freedom is a precious thing and I foresee many solo runs/grocery store trips/hikes in my near future…

5). Jokes about 2nd (or 3rd) wives – Yes, yes… these were all told by male colleagues and meant in good fun because they knew the jokes would rile me up. Unfortunately… They’re still not funny to me. Guess they did manage to get a rise out of me after all. J

6). The dust… THE DUST!!! – Whether trips to the field, dust storms (yes, those are actually a thing where you can’t see more than 5 feet in front of you), Kabul soot, or dirt-road trips between sub-offices, I will not miss dust in my mouth, my hair, or my clothes which wash brown for a week after.  Oh, and did I mention that Afghanistan has one of the highest percentages of airborne fecal matter in the WORLD?

7). The smell of winter – A weird one, yes, but let me explain. With bukharis (stoves) being lit all winter, you don’t realize that you smell like you’ve been on a year-long camping trip until you leave the country. Not until then do you realize that you are the outlier in sea of fresh laundry and soap-scented people. And I won’t mention that sometimes those bukharis are lit with chalma – a lovely concoction of sheep dung…

8). The Kabul guesthouse fridge – This really, truly, could have been a whole separate blog post about the joys of shared living. Let’s just summarize this to say that many international staff pass through the Kabul guesthouse in route to other offices around the country but no one really lives there.  God forbid someone clean the damn fridge, or heck, think to throw their leftovers out or put a sticky note on it saying, “Please eat me by XX date!!!”  I think I’ve hit my quota of moldy spaghetti, goopy spinach that leaks all over the inside of the fridge, month-old eggs, rotten potatoes (seriously, has there ever been a worse smell!?), and forgotten jars of whatever. Seriously, it sometimes feels like walking into a frat house minus the alcohol, the parties, and the people. But now, I can let it all go…      **Cue the song “Let it Go” from Frozen (which ironically enough was the first song I heard as I walked into the Kabul guesthouse 2 years ago – you know who you are…). “Let it go, let it go…” **

And this leads me to the things that I will really, truly, and deeply miss about Afghanistan:

1). Mantu, kebabs, and naan – Mantu are divine-tasting homemade dumplings filled with ground meat, chickpeas, and tomato sauce, topped with a mint-yoghurt sauce. If you ever find yourself at an Afghan restaurant, please get the mantu!!! Kebabs are self-explanatory, but I’ve never had such tasty chicken/beef/goat kebobs cooked to perfection with bits of fat (sorry vegetarian friends!) skewered in between the meat.  Naan are the giant flat breads, often cooked in a tandoor oven in a round shape or oblong shape the length of your arm.  If you are a guest, you will also ALWAYS get your own giant naan. There is nothing better than naan fresh out of the tandoor, made with locally harvested wheat from the Afghan central highlands.  Our cat agrees. He is the world’s best naan thief.

2). The humor of spewing greetings at each other at the same time – I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a place where the respectful way to greet someone is to ask a string of 8 or so greetings in Dari (Hello!, how are you?, you are fine?, how is your family?, how is your health?, how is your family’s health?, may you not be tired!, may you be well!) while the person you are greeting simultaneously asks the same 8 greetings, with neither person actually waiting to hear the other’s answer to any of the questions. This form of simultaneous greeting is rendered extra humorous when done in English (repeat the above string of phrases and see who can get them out first!!).

3). No mosquitos, cockroaches, or other such creatures – Sure we had the occasional mouse (much to the delight of our cat) but it has been SO refreshing to live in a place where you don’t really need to worry about mosquitos (so long malaria/dengue/Zika/Chikungunya!) or cucarachas.

4). The stunning and stark beauty of the mountains – I’m sure my photos have spoken volumes about this point. Everyone assumes Afghanistan is a hot desert, filled only with sand and dust (ok, yes, there is a lot of dust…). I’ve loved showing the world the beautiful side of Afghanistan. For all the years of conflict and war, this country certainly makes up for things in raw beauty any time of the year. Winter snows on the mountain slopes, rain fed wheat making the slopes green and snow melt flooding the valleys in silver rivulets in spring, the tawny shade of summer that makes the rainbow bands of rock stand out on the mountains, and the brilliant shades of yellow and orange on the poplar trees in fall.

5). Being able to leave my doors unlocked at night – Sure, I didn’t tell many people about this one during our stay in the ‘Stan, but you read this one correctly. In the central highlands where we lived, Afghanistan was so safe that we never had to worry about locking our doors at night. Now that we’re gone, I can let this secret out and you’ll all still sleep peacefully at night. Yes, Afghanistan of all places, was so safe (in terms of break-ins and petty theft), that we often slept with our doors unlocked. Where else in the world can you do that – and more specifically – what other country in the world with such a “reputation,” can you do that?  I love being able to break down stereotypes!

6). The stars on crystal clear night – The remote, crystal clear nights in rural Afghanistan provided stargazing like nowhere else.  I suppose that’s what happens when there the concept of “city power” does not exist (although in a town of a few thousand, maybe “city” is a stretch). There were plenty of nights I’d wished I’d had a telescope to sit on the roof and watch the stars. There were also plenty of nights where the moon was so bright, we could have easily gone on a nighttime hike with our way fully lit. Don’t worry. We didn’t do that. Again, sleep peacefully my trusty reader.

7). Blindingly sunny skies during the depths of winter – As someone who hails from Wisconsin, land of dreary Midwestern winters, this really brought a newfound pleasantness to winter. While there was plenty of snow (and I mean lots! Again, breaking stereotypes of Afghanistan!), even winter days were nearly always blindingly sunny. With the reflection off the snow and sunshine at 3000 meters, it was also a good way to catch a winter sunburn. Yes, fellow Midwesterners, that’s right. A snowy winter sunburn that does not stem from your holiday trip to Cozumel.

8). Sharing iftar dinners – Seeing colleagues take on the holy month of Ramazan (Ramadan) during the long, drawn-out days of summer gives you mad respect for people who can fast for 19 hours. Getting up to eat breakfast at 2:30 in the morning is no joke either. While I can’t say that I fasted for all 19 hours, being able to share with colleagues the joy of drinking water and eating for the first time in 19 hours is pretty special, as are many of the foods that are prepared specifically for breaking the fast at iftar time. I think Ramazan and iftar also hold a special place in our hearts as we first arrived to Afghanistan just as Ramazan began in 2014.

9). Hikes in the mountains – Replete with skipping down the mountain to the tunes of Taylor Swift or singing the Sound of Music from the mountaintops while pretending to be in Austria, the hiking in Afghanistan was always beautiful and I will miss simply walking out of my house (accompanied, of course) up into the mountains.

10). My job – It’s been amazingly fulfilling to be able to support little boys and girls and young women attend school in or near to their communities. It’s also been great to see my team grow and become stronger at working with communities and the Ministry of Education to provide educational services to remote, under-served communities.

11). Our colleagues – while of course this one sounds cliché, Afghans are amazing people. They are resilient, funny, thoughtful, caring, and hardworking people.  I will miss our colleagues dearly and hope to go back one day under more peaceful circumstances and visit many of their families’ villages. Our colleagues and Afghanistan have gotten under my skin in a way I suspect will always stay.