When I moved back to the U.S. from Sri Lanka a year and a half ago, I was given a warning.
“Your passport is full,” the oily-skinned U.S. customs agent said. He glanced at my short hair and round cheeks, then back down at a picture of me taken 26 countries and a lifetime ago. “You are not permitted to leave the U.S. again until you get a new passport.”
“That’s fine,” I said, adjusting my heavy backpack straps. I’d been back in the States for 17 minutes. “I’m not going anywhere for a while.”
I will recall this moment almost a year later while running barefoot through downtown Boston, on a sweltering Friday afternoon, in a cocktail dress. HOW did I forget my passport was full, I cannot stop thinking. Moments earlier, I was gripping the backseat of my Uber driver’s seat, head bowed. “I can’t look, I can’t look. I’m going to be sick, I’m so nervous I’m going to be sick,” I said. He’s hurrying, he’s a Southie and lives and breathes these streets, but even his flagrant disregard for red lights cannot get me through Boston’s summer traffic fast enough. Taking off my heels, I tell him to pull over. I jump out of the car. The sidewalk is hot, hot, hot and I start running, dodging tourists—a skill that will prove useful a few months later, when I am living in New York, navigating my way through evening runs on the city’s streets.
I am officially panicking. What if I don’t make it to the Boston Passport Agency by 4:00 p.m. in time to retrieve my new passport, the one I paid $250 for earlier that day, the one I need in order to fly to Ireland on Sunday to start my summer job? What if I make us all late to our friend’s wedding (why we’re in Boston in the first place)? What if my best friend’s boyfriend is not successful in his efforts to buy a tie from someone off the street before we get on the road? What if my date forgets his guitar in the hotel room and isn’t able to play at the reception? (Which would leave everyone disappointed, especially me, but this is no time to be selfish.)
Finally, finally, I am running up the stairs of the Tip O’Neill Federal Building, breathless, sweating through my dress, leaping through the security screening machine. Up the never-ending staircase and past the uniformed customs agent and there it is, my new passport, all 52 stampless pages of it, pushed against the Plexiglas by a pursed-lip woman who, I’m sure, sees this panic every day. It’s 3:59 p.m. I catch my breath. I put my heels back on. I kiss my passport.
How is it that the most stressful and most happy moments of my life have always, without fail, revolved around travel?
Six months later, I am sitting on a couch at Plot 28 in Kigali, Rwanda, my sister’s home for a year. Katrina, Mom, and Dad are sprawled out next to me. We’re eating popcorn and watching the series finale of The Newsroom. Mom’s already finished her bowl of popcorn—we always divvy up our portions because when it comes to homemade stovetop popcorn, none of us are good at sharing—and she’s trying to steal some from Katrina’s. Dad is in his pajamas, hands behind his head, feet propped up on the coffee table. There’s a small Christmas tree across the room; Katrina rode home with it on the back of a moto the other day. “You should’ve seen me,” she said. “I can now eat, text, AND carry Christmas trees on the back of Kigali motos.” She says Kigali with a slight accent, elongating the l sound with her tongue between her teeth. In Kinyarwanda, the country’s principal language, words are pronounced phonetically. Except, of course, when they are not.
The power goes out.
“I knew that would happen,” Katrina says. Since the speakers connected to the computer no longer work, the three of them lean forward to listen to the laptop. The crickets begin to chirp a little louder. Somehow, the lights on the Christmas tree are still shining.
The last time I posted a blog from this continent was May 16, 2010, the day I left Ghana after living there for several months.
What do we take with us when we go, and what do we leave behind? I’m flying home tonight with pockets full of sand, uneven tan lines, and a mosquito net that I refuse to part with. My Bradt guidebook has seen better days but I suspect the next traveler I pass it on to will find its worn edges and scribbled notes inside endearing. My bookshelves will soon be home to many more books, my walls home to woodcarvings and paintings. I’ve got gifts of glass beads, traditional kente cloth, pottery, more fabric than I know what to do with, and sounds on my voice recorder to remember forever: popcorn popping on a stove in a small village in the Eastern region; hours of conversation between eight great friends on a tiny beach on the Atlantic coastline, shooting stars passing us by overhead; the start-up of a motor taxi; the clapping of Model UN delegates; the wind right before a huge African downpour.
It was a difficult goodbye. I thought I was used to it by now, I wrote. But nothing compares to this.
And now, four-and-a-half years later. Rwanda. Kigali. Kicukiro. Plot 28. It’s raining softly. There are presents around the Christmas tree. We’ll all be sleeping under mosquito nets tonight.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted regularly on this blog, a place I’ve loved coming to over the past few years. So much has happened this year—much of it thanks to the sweat and tears that went into obtaining that new passport—and I have so much I want to write about: traveling around Ireland, teaching in China, moving to Brooklyn, starting graduate school at NYU, being accepted for an internship at the New York Times, spending the holidays here in Rwanda. It’s been a year of exciting, challenging experiences, and I look forward to writing about them here in due time.
In times of major transitions, it can be difficult to stay grounded, to remain loyal to the things we value most. I’ve missed writing in this space, keeping in touch from various corners of the world. But I’m glad to be back—and somehow, writing to you from this cozy corner in East Africa feels just about right.
My second day in Kigali, it starts pouring. Katrina’s tiled roof is known to leak, so the four of us run around her small house placing bowls under drips and moving furniture away from the wall. I spot a few bugs but leave them for the geckos that will soon come in from the rain. Later, when the rain lets up, we hop in a taxi to head into town. I’m eager to chat with our driver, Fidel. (“Like Castro?” I asked when I met him. “Thank you,” he replied.) We talk about Rwandan politics and holidays and family. Fidel is single, waiting for “the best” woman to marry.
“It is difficult, you know?” he says as he shifts gears and swerves around motos, a few trucks, a man carrying a stack of mattresses on his head. “To know inside the heart is difficult.” I tell him I understand. I tell him I am so very glad to be here.