Many years ago I went for a walk along the Niagara Escarpment with a group of friends and a couple of adults. We came to a fork in the road and the children (most of us between 8 – 12 if I recall) insisted that one path led home while the adults insisted the other path was the correct direction. We ultimately decided to split up – the adults went one way and we – 5 kids and our dog Cleo – went the other. We walked a long way and eventually realized that we were not getting closer to home and it was getting darker in the woods. Rather than turn back, we decided to cut across a field and start walking down a gravel road. We had literally no idea where we were other than somewhere in Ontario. I remember that day as being an adventure – something the five of us were in together while we tried to find our way home – rather than being scared because we were lost.
Eventually a couple with a huge dog in a very small car drove up and a man rolled down his window. “Are you the kids who are lost?” he said. “Everyone has been looking for you. Get in and we’ll take you home.” We were a little perplexed, but we squeezed in and they took us back to the start of the trail where we found our parents – and the police. It turns out that while we were on our adventure, everyone else had been out looking for five lost children.
The last several weeks have been a reminder of the difference I felt that day between being lost alone – that scary feeling of impotence and worry – and being lost together, a feeling of adventure and collective courage against the odds.
In early September I left Kinshasa to attend training. I had two fantastic weeks, learned a lot, but was more than ready to go home on September 24. The only problem was that 5 days before September 24 there were demonstrations – followed by riots, burning of opposition buildings, and the killing of between 39 and who knows how many people – in Kinshasa. B was safe and the violence never came near the Embassy or the area where we live, but for five days the question of whether I could return – or not – was debated thousands of miles away from me. Right up until September 23 I was told that I would be staying put for at least a week or two.
It sounds all fine and good to be offered a couple of weeks to hang out in relative civilization, except I was on the government’s dime, so without a job or training I became an unwanted guest without any support for my upkeep. We no longer have a home that we can live in anywhere outside of Kinshasa so there was nowhere I could go that was “mine.” And, while I have fabulous friends and family who offered us (C was with me) shelter, there is only so long anyone wants to be living in a guest or hotel room out of a suitcase.
All I wanted to go was go home – to B and Miller and the crazy place we love and live in. We (and by we I mean most people in difficult posts like Kinshasa) complain a lot about the hardships of living in a third world country without all the same conveniences of the U.S., but ultimately being able to go to Target, or pick up a Chick-fil-a sandwich anytime of the day or night (except Sunday) means little when we are forcibly separated from the comforts and people we love. For better or worse these places become our homes and we love them, even while we complain about them.
I eventually got the ok to return to Kinshasa – thanks to a lot of strong support from people on the ground here – and flying into the dusty, dirty, sparse N’Djili Airport brought tears of joy to my eyes.
The joy was short lived however as the “EFMs” (family members) of Embassy employees were ordered to depart post for a “safe haven” mere days after we returned. In DOS parlance this is an “Ordered Departure” (OD) (and whatever you do don’t call it an evacuation) which is not to be confused with an “Authorized Departure” where you actually get to chose whether you want to leave or not. We did not get to choose (guess what my choice would have been…). This is another aspect of Government work that irks and confounds me – the “ordering” – never mind that the ordering is coming from someone thousands of miles away who is not wandering the streets and seeing that nothing appears out of sorts – the sheer lack of autonomy is something I am not sure I will ever get used to.
So off C and I went again. This time though we were with all the other EFMs – and, as I learned many years ago in those woods, being together makes a big difference in how lost you feel. I still wanted to go home and be with B and Miller, but being surrounded by my “U.S. Embassy Kinshasa family” while we tried to fashion a “school” for the 50+ children we brought with us, and learn our way around a new city, with new idiosyncrasies, currency and difficulties, felt very much more like an adventure than my 5 days of lonely distraction in the U.S.
As luck would have it, we had a short vacation planned with another Embassy family during the “OD” and with a little arm twisting and ticket switching we managed to leave our “safe haven” and spend a few days in Scotland before finally getting to return to Kinshasa.
And, as much as I prefer being lost together to being lost alone, vacationing together is even better.
* A nod should also go to the (relatively unknown outside Canada) band Blue Rodeo whose song “Lost Together” has been a near constant refrain in my brain during these “lost” weeks.