Finding Rest

It was nearing the end of the fourth day of sickness. Each day held more travel and I had pushed myself through a whole lot of crazy. Exhaustion held me in its grip and I felt like my land legs had left me when we stopped our travels for a walk down to these boats. There, walking the sand, with the wind gently pushing me on, I breathed in lungfuls of ocean air made warm with dazzling sunlight. I had pushed my body so hard to get to this point, though there were times when I could not push it any further, no matter how much I wanted to.

“Listen to your body” was a much-used phrase in our house when the boys were little. I still use it sometimes, mostly directed at myself these days. Our bodies are incredibly put together. My body knows when I am under stress before my brain even registers the thought and signals to me in the way I breathe and the muscles that wrap my shoulders. If I am listening, I can be my own best friend. I can step away from the chaos and sit in silence with a cup of coffee. I can do yoga to slow down my breathing and stretch the tension out of my muscles. I can journal or talk to a friend, walk in the park or lean into meditation. I can say no to stressful situations. I can give myself a time out. I can walk barefoot through the grass, feeling life itself push against the dry, cracked skin of winter’s feet.

It’s midday now. The Sampans are docked in the sand, the fishermen have laid down their nets, the morning catch of fish is drying in the sunshine. The quiet wraps around me and I breathe it in. I listen, as my body tells me what it needs.

Photo courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

The People Nobody Wants

I have been following the story of the Rohingya Refugees for quite some time now and have been moved to blog about them here several times before. My dream of one day visiting their refugee camps had finally become a reality. I woke eagerly on Day 3 of my sickness, sure that this would be a better day. I texted my friend, who is a nurse in one of the medical clinics inside the camp, and she confirmed my suspicion that the antibiotics were intensifying my nausea. I put off taking my final pill, in hopes that I could feel more normal for the day ahead. I was able to eat breakfast with my team and we set out for the camp. The road leading out of town was the size of a narrow one-way street, huge holes gaped out of the edges in places, as if a ravenous monster had taken bites of it during the night. We left the town behind and soon the road gave way to lovely views of the ocean on one side and rolling hills on the other. After nearly an hour of driving, we met a sweet Canadian couple who gave us drinks of cold water before catching CNGs (similar to Baby Taxis or Auto Rickshaws) to take us the rest of the way into the camp. As we jostled along the dusty and bumpy brick road, we learn that the road had only been built a few months prior. Before that, it had just been a dirt path, which fast turned to mud during the monsoon. Nearly one million people are crammed into this tiny space that was once a national forest. Now the trees are gone and thousands of tiny huts cluster together on any acreage deemed safe enough for building. I was struck by the organization, the number of blue latrines that dotted the hillsides, and water pumps everywhere.

We passed many NGO centers, women-friendly spaces and even a playing field where kids played soccer together. Many refugees are hired to work at building roads and reinforcing dirt hillsides with intricately laced bamboo in an effort to keep the hills from eroding and turning to mud during the monsoon. Little children greeted us in English as we drove by while Burka-clad women looked on.

It was nearly noon by the time we arrived at the clinic.The heat inside of the tiny metal structure struck me with shocking force, though it was still supposedly the cool season. A tiny pharmacy was located inside along with a waiting room lined with benches, and 4 exam rooms. More benches lined the front of the clinic, to hold the overflow of patient who still had hopes of being seen that day. After finding my friend and being introduced to some of the staff, I was able to be part of one of the exams. An American midwife gently looked into the ears of a two-year-old boy who had an ear infection. He lay asleep in his mother’s lap, made small by her protruding belly which spoke of a sibling soon to be born. Soon the mom was on the exam table, cradling her boy as best she could while lifting up her burka so the midwife could check on her baby. As I perched on my stool in front of the window, I could soon recognize the swooshing song of the baby’s heartbeat. I wondered if I was feeling faint faint from the excitement of it all, or if my traveler’s belly was threatening to do me in again.

I swapped places with one of my team mates and sat outside to try to catch a breeze, but my body just wasn’t having it. They took me to the one empty exam room and I stretched out on the table, rolling up my scarf as a pillow. Nurses fluttered in and out to get supplies while the sounds of crying babies, mothers chatting in one corner of the building, men in the other, all melded together. Sounds and smells collided and bounced off the walls of this tiny life-saving structure that had been carried in piece by piece and put together out of love. I lay, unable to do anything else, on the bed used to diagnose and heal their pain, this pale foreigner, stripped of her strength and left only with an inner kernel of humanity, nothing to give but exhausted love, in much need of rest and healing herself. A tiny speck in a camp of a million refugees, a people no one wants. It was there that I recognized the humanity of suffering and need

The sacred truth revealed that day is with me still. To be human is to be equal. Ethnicity, citizenship, religion, wealth or lack thereof, mean absolutely nothing in the big picture. These categories are lines that we have drawn in the sand, lines that distract us and cause us to miss out on all that life could be if we just remembered this sacred truth. May we actively remember.

To be human is to be equal.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

 

Traveler’s Belly Continues

Day 2 of my sickness found me collapsed in exhaustion, despite having slept all afternoon the day before and all through night. My amazing team went out, on their own, bought groceries and fended for themselves. They help me pack up and Ramjan, our driver, picked us up to transport us to the airport for our next adventure. Hours later, we found ourselves in the southeast corner of Bangladesh, in Cox’s Bazar. I was completely spent by the time we arrived at our hotel, so once again, my amazing team ventured out on their own. While I slept, they ate at a local restaurant, ordering by gesturing as there were no English menus. They said the place was packed and by the time they had finished eating, their table was surrounded by people who had called dibs on it.

From there, they walked on to the beach, expecting to find a quiet beach front where they could sit and relax. What they found instead was hundreds folks on holiday, enjoying the sand and the water along with the coastal breezes.

Thoughtfully, they hunted down biscuits I could tolerate, bananas, 7-Up, and Orsaline, a local re-hydration drink. As I nodded off that evening, I found myself deeply grateful for such strong and tender female friends.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

Unexpected Kindness

Misery violently took over my night, pushed sleep aside and sent me rushing to the bathroom. The initial relief was short lived and I soon found myself fumbling in the darkness, desperate for the antibiotics the Traveler’s Clinic had sent with me. I gulped down the first giant tablet, determined to be ready for travel by morning. We had a full day planned, including a visit to a hostel for young girls, shopping and then dinner at a friend’s house before returning to our guest house in Dhaka. Yet, morning still found me pasted to my bed, stomach swirling in unreasonable circles. Relief that no one else had caught the same bug and the reality of our next day’s flight out of Dhaka propelled me out of bed, grateful for friends to help me pack up. This was not the way I wanted to say goodbye to Mymensingh, one of my favorite cities on earth, eyes squinted tightly shut to block out the light and hands grasping a plastic bag just in case. As we left the city behind and headed towards Dhaka, we canceled all other plans for the day and I laid back in my seat and willed myself to survive the journey.

It was awful, I’m not gonna lie. Many roads in this densely populated nation feel like a loop in Mario Cart, only there are a million other drivers racing down the same road and the precipices are real. Our driver, Ramjan, who had been nothing but a gentleman since we left Dhaka, was now doing his best to maneuver his way home. It wasn’t long before I found myself squatting on the side of the road, upheaving the remains of my stomach. Ramjan hovered beside me, full of concern, telling my friend to hold my hand and pull my hair back. He even took a long look at my vomit to try to figure out what I had eaten that was causing my insides to have such a mutiny. When I was finished, he motioned for me to hold out my hands so he could pour water into them. He showed me how to rinse out my mouth and wash my face. As I squatted in the dirt by the side of the road and cupped my hands to accept his gift of water, I felt the Divine tapping me on the shoulder and I knew I was taking in a holy sacrament. I saw my Creator mirrored so beautifully in the face of our Muslim driver who shared his water with this tired and sick American woman. Something inside came unglued and it’s a wonder I made it back into the van instead of catapulting down the embankment.

Here is the painful truth – if Ramjan were in my country, he would most likely be arrested or put on a watch list simply based on his appearance and yet he welcomed me,  the stranger. He played the role of protector and host. He was the one who gently taught the first time visitors in our group how to eat with their fingers. In a country where clean drinking water is a commodity, he shared his with me. Dang, he didn’t even avert his eyes from my vomit! It’s the Ramjans that make the world a better, kinder place. In my home country, we tend to judge people like him because of the way they look or the religion they follow. Instead of sharing our water, we build higher walls so those still desperate to come must cross in the desert south of the border, some dying of thirst on the way. We deny place to those who have lost everything because we are afraid they will take something from us. Yet, no matter how high or long we build our walls, how many refugees and asylum seekers we turn away under the pretext of our own safety, we are the ones who lose the most. By diminishing the created, we push away the Creator and Christ is turned away once again.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography and Liga Mullins.

Finding Gratefulness in the Midst of Suffering

I spent most of  last night in the ER with my oldest son, while medical professionals attempted to troubleshoot what was causing his 106.5F fever. He had spent most of the day sleeping, waking occasionally to down some Gatorade and painkillers and complaining of a headache that was worse than any he’s ever had. My thermometer was broken so the prompting I had to take him to STAT Care on a beautiful Saturday evening when most people were outside grilling their dinners was definitely the voice of God.

At STAT Care he shivered in a blanket, head on my lap, while we waited for an hour to be called back to a room. When the nurse took his temp, she went into a very professional panic mode and he was led immediately to see a doctor. After a negative strep test and high doses of painkillers to bring down the fever, we were sent to the ER for an IV and more testing.

On the way there, we passed a homeless couple, begging by the side of the road, same spot they had been when I passed by earlier in the day. The brief exchange we had under the quiet dark summer sky, waiting for the light to change colors, stayed with me long after we checked in to the ER. As the hours passed, they ran many more tests; an IV,  CT Scan and X-ray. The plastic chair became too hard to sit on and I paced the tiny cinder block room, with noises and beeps all around, sirens letting me know that more and more folks were being brought in until all the beds would be full with many people still left waiting. We finally received the news that I was most hoping for – he did not have bacterial meningitis. They said that it could be viral meningitis or just a really nasty virus, but either way the treatment was going to be the same, so we could go home.

Gratefulness got me through the night.

We live in a land of incredible blessing. Our hospitals are not being bombed. Kids in this country don’t have to die for lack of medical care. Tylenol and Ibuprofen could have saved my son’s life, they certainly brought his fever down nearly 7 degrees in less than an hour.

Support. I lost track of how many friends who were reaching out in the middle of the night to let me know they were praying or taking care of my youngest son.

Technology. It allowed the doctors to diagnose relatively quickly and kept me connected to my husband on the other side of the world.

Humor. My son had me laughing out loud as we waited through his pain. He joked that he was turning into a super-hero, the Human Torch. He was sure that the fever had burned up all of his calories and he was starving, searching in vain for a food option on the call button but finding only water and toilet.

Kindness. When we finally got to the ER, another mom let me turn in my paperwork ahead of her when she saw my desperation. She also happened to be a Muslim, a distinct minority in this Midwest city I live in, and she was extremely generous.

Authenticity. I saw it in the eyes of the man by the side of the road. A mixture of suffering, strength, gratefulness, humility and dignity. A window into the human soul of all of us.

Peace. I’m a worrier. Anxiety is very familiar to me. Usually it’s for things I find later I didn’t need to worry about.  But in moments like last night, when I really have reason to worry, I have discovered a peace that comes from God alone. There’s no other way to explain it.

Home. It never looked so good. The reality of life’s unfairness is not lost on me. Around the world, many other parents have no hospital to take their feverish child to, and no home to come back to after a long night.

I hold these blessings in my hands, mindfully giving thanks.