a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Monday, September 13, 2010

a life lived fully...

Stephen and I have been in Portland for five months now; the same amount of time we spent in South Africa. These months in the states have zoomed; while at times our months in South Africa felt so very long.

Since we sold both our used vehicles before moving to Africa, we had to purchase a new car upon our return. And we rented an apartment with a loft, something I've always thought sounded cool. Our move to South Africa was supposed to be semi-permanent so setting up residence in the states again meant new furnishings: a new bedroom set from IKEA and a living room recliner in color "saddle" which looks incredibly similar to the savanna grasses of the Tarangire in Tanzania. That both of these new additions were soft was a high priority. South African furniture was so uncomfortable.

In some ways, our life in South Africa seemed like one mini-trip after the next, and it seems we've brought that spirit of exploration back with us to Oregon: we have driven to the coast, the mountains, and the high desert.

One of the many dreams I had for our move to South Africa was to plant a garden. Though I composted and bought gardening tools, the African sun and fire ants in our yard were huge deterrents to my spending much time outside. A small flower garden was all I managed. Since it was spring when we arrived in Portland, heading into yet another summer (eternal summer for us! ha!), I planted a small garden in pots on our deck. We've been enjoying delicious tomatoes for the last couple of weeks.

I complained constantly about the food when we were in South Africa. My spoiled American palate protested the over sweetness of normal savory foods and the diminished variety in the grocery store. So eating out in the states again has been a treat. A treat we indulge in frequently, often patronizing one of the many McMenamin's restaurants, theaters, and hotels.

We are living a healthier lifestyle here in Portland than we were in South Africa: more places to walk on a daily basis, more selection of nutritious food, and of course better health care. Stephen walks the 1.8 miles to and from his job everyday. And I walk to one of the numerous coffee shops and grocery stores nearby our apartment a few days a week. :)

I also enjoy the sense of independence I feel here as opposed to Tugela Ferry. I can jump in my car and drive to the store or across several states. In Tugela Ferry I rarely drove more than a mile alone. Our new car is very reliable (unlike the old Subaru that overheated often or the car we borrowed that broke down though only a year old), streets and highways are maintained (as opposed to the pothole filled roads of South Africa), and generally other drivers know and obey the rules of the road (many drivers in South Africa do not have licenses because they have failed to pass the test for one).

And as for the weather in Portland, to me it is ideal; a few high temperature days mixed in with mostly cool days with some rain. Tugela Ferry has anything but ideal weather: torrential rains that took out the power and flooded the roads to blasting heat of 40 degrees Celsius (over 100 degrees F).

Yet for all the ways Portland is more comfortable and pleasant, Africa is still on both of our minds.

Stephen and I decided to abort our adventure in South Africa because it seems that I was only getting worse the longer we stayed. Almost immediately upon arrival in a rich world country (Amsterdam, The Netherlands), my lupus flare began to subside. And through the spring and into the summer that has been the trend: decreased pain and increased strength. When my severe Lupus flare hit a year ago it was excruciating to move, so I moved as little as possible. I went from spending an hour and a half at the gym usually running and doing strength training, to almost no physical activity or even stretches. After a couple of months not only was I still in lots of pain but now I was also very weak.

At my first appointment with my new rheumatologist in Portland, I complained that my knee popped painfully whenever I bent it. Instead of writing it off as just another symptom of my disease she saw it as a problem that could be dealt with through physical therapy. Then when my physical therapist gave me exercises to rebuild my muscles and they worked, that was like a shot of hope! Suddenly I saw things differently. Lupus didn't have to rule my life!

Moving to Africa was a dream realized but because I was in so much pain, I couldn't even enjoy the reality of it. Not being able to stay was hugely disappointing. I had so hoped to find out what teaching in Africa over many years would be like. And I had so looked forward to learning another language and gaining an understanding of another culture. When we left South Africa both Stephen and I thought returning to Africa to live was probably out of the question. We basically accepted that we would have to live in the states for me. Stephen would travel out of the country to do his international health work. But throughout the summer we've learned some things that give us hope that we may not have to accept those limitations.

This whole summer I've dedicated myself to improving my health. Lupus is a chronic disease and while it can't be cured it can be managed. Managing my lupus symptoms means getting regular exercise, eating a good diet, and managing my stress. One way to manage stress that I've discovered this summer is painting. I took some lessons when I was in junior high and I've painted a few things throughout the years since then, but never have I put in the kind of time and energy that I have this summer. And my work is different now. It's been fun discovering what I can do with paint on canvas. I'm painting in acrylic for the moment but someday I might try oil. Every medium is different though so for now I'm quite content to stick with one and practice a lot. I'm excited about painting. I think it is a significant contributing factor in why I have gone into remission.

Stephen has his first international trip for his new job in September. He's visiting Mozambique, a new African country to add to his list. :) Mozambique is  very poor. On the Human Development Index that measures life expectancy, education, literacy rates, standards of living...Mozambique ranks 172 out of 182 countries. South Africa is 129th.

While Stephen gets to visit Africa, I'm painting scenes from our travels through Africa. And we both hope for another opportunity to once again live somewhere on that vast and beautiful continent.