Connecting to Source

Returning to America for a few months between country assignments abroad, we don’t take its conveniences for granted. Taxpayer money is working here, I note after returning a library book, driving by safe, clean playgrounds, delighted by the lack of trash in the streets and how well-paved the roads are, like smooth jazz, I think to myself after years of potholes.

After parking mere feet from the entrance of the grocery store (in a well-marked parking space), I enter to find it sparkly clean with well-stocked shelves. And, at self-check-out, there’s no need to convert currencies-I’m in and out in a flash. Before it’s even 9:30 in the morning, I’ve got all of my ingredients for dinner and have wrapped up errands without stress; not a feat easily achieved in developing countries.

On the other hand, because it’s so easy to pop into Target, Old Navy, Trader Joe’s, and stores with everything we need (and so much more that we don’t, but I”m a victim of marketing), I find myself in commercial spaces more frequently here. I realize, too, how much I miss having personal connections with local merchants like we do overseas.

In Cairo, I enjoyed asking Haani, the man with kind eyes who ran the street corner market if anything new had arrived. “Yes,” he would say, proudly pointing out a glass jar of rock salt collected from the flats in the Siwa valley. “There is a video about this salt- you would like to see?” He once asked, opening his phone before I could reply.

I watched his mobile screen with wonderment as it displayed a desert landscape with salt pools resembling the surface of the moon. When I handed him Egyptian pounds to buy the spice, he said, “Shoukran” (thank you.) “I don’t have change…but next time, ok?” I smiled and nodded as he handed me a tiny pack of gum as a show of faith.

Near our house in Honduras, Ramsay practiced Spanish at roadside stands as we bought produce directly from the families who grew it. And in Swaziland, with a mix of Siswati, broken English, and grins, I got updates about the infrequent (coveted) arrival of black beans and goat cheese. Those exchanges took a bit more effort but ultimately felt deeply rewarding.

Perhaps because in the states, we rarely know the story and person behind the sale, I’ve attempted to be more consciously aware of what we are buying. I admit that I still swipe my credit card at times without considering what it took for that product to end up in my hands, but I try to remember the ripple effect our purchases have; the impact it makes to support small businesses and farmers directly when we can.

“Do you know what that’s made of?” I ask our son Ramsay when he points to a Minecraft T-shirt with an expression of please, mom?

He stares at me blankly and takes a guess. “Cotton?”

We look at the tag and see it does have some cotton, (blended with synthetics I can’t pronounce) next to “Made in Vietnam.” We talk about the people and businesses involved in its manufacturing, and how much travel that T-shirt endured-perhaps in trucks, cargo ships, and planes in order to now hang where we are standing.

As a woman who grew up in Columbus, Georgia, a town known for its textile mills, I ask Ramsay to think about the T-shirt’s journey, how it may have been part of a supply chain beginning with cotton growing in a field that had to be combed, cleaned, and bleached then sent to a factory with large looms to weave it into fabric, involving many hands, countries and multiple machines. His eyes get big.

“Pretty amazing all of that work and travel went into this one T-shirt, right?” He nods, brow furrowed in thought.

On our next road trip, I make a point to stop by a cotton field to show Ramsay where the T-shirt began, to connect to its source, My lips form a smile as I see Ramsay’s mind turning, hopefully with a deeper appreciation as a future consumer who will be interacting with the wide world around him.

Beauty in Simplicity

The movers arrived; a band of brothers in matching red T-shirts, rustling packing paper and ripping long strands of clear tape. A city of cardboard was erected in our home as we watched the color drain from our surroundings.

Art, carpets, toys, and belongings were dismantled and packed away, stripping the house down to brass tacks. Biscuit, our Golden Retriever, and I both vacillated between moments of zen and anxiety, unsure of where to go, feeling a bit homeless inside our own house.

To foster a sense of normalcy while changing houses, schools, friends, and countries,(especially for our nine-year-old son, Ramsay), we have made it a point to set aside certain ingredients and supplies to do fun things: make s’mores, bake cookies, make art with leftover food coloring, watch Christmas movies.

Once the moving truck was loaded (protected by guards to prevent theft), our life in boxes drove away and we took deep breaths and prepared to ride this wave of transition. We have chosen this life, embracing this lifestyle in the foreign service; supporting American ideals abroad, helping developing nations while enjoying their cultural wonders, experiential travel, and interesting places and people.

The moves and farewells, though, every few years, are the tough parts. Eight months from now, we’ll be excited to resettle into a new house and community in Libreville, Gabon, after living in temporary housing for several months, (yet to be assigned in Virginia), while attending the Foreign Service Institute for French.

I feel a twinge of envy when I see cozy homes preparing for Christmas with pretty decorations as our bare space has been pared-down, like leafless branches in Winter. But then I remember, in the trunk of our car, I’ve saved our beat-up old Charlie Brown Christmas tree to enjoy until we leave.

Loved for a decade, this little tree has survived three international moves. With its warped shape and glued parts, it looks worn down like the Velveteen Rabbit. I bring it inside and plug it in, smiling at the glow and instant warmth it gives to the room.

In a few days, we will lock the doors, donate whatever we can’t carry, and anticipate our next adventure. For now, left behind here in Honduras are just our suitcases, a few pieces of Embassy furniture, a handful of Legos, the books we are reading, and this brightly shining tree, its light reminding us there is beauty in simplicity.

Have you ever moved during the holidays?

However you celebrate this time of year in your part of the world, may it be full of joy and health.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, and abundant blessings to you and yours.

Sending Holiday Magic and tail wags and a kiss from Biscuit,

Tracy

A soulful explorer living an inspired life

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Creativity & Culture- Off the Beaten Path

In a discussion with chef Luis Valesquez, a local Honduran friend, about the artisan crafts he displays in his Gastro Gallery, he mentioned a town an hour north of Tegucigalpa that had larger-than-life street art covering its walls. I was intrigued. How could this be? I’d been here three years and never heard of this nearby museum outdoors.

Research revealed that this inspirational project in the historical town of Catarranas, founded in 1667 by Spanish rulers, stemmed from artist Javier Espinal. In 2011, he proposed to transform the city’s walls with art. With government investment from the San Juan de Flores municipality, and In collaboration with artists from Honduras, Mexico, Columbia, and Argentina, more than fifty vibrant murals depicting themes of light, peace, and the roots of Honduras were created. (Artists’ signatures are painted on their talented works).

Wanderlust propelled me to take my son out of school and go exploring. I live with perpetual fernweh: a German word meaning “a longing for unseen places.” Like a racehorse stuck at the gate, every so often, I have the desire to break away from daily life and reconnect with something bigger. A friend who home-schools her son agreed, and off we went on our field trip.

We drove the tree-lined, winding RN-25 route north of Valle de Angeles until we entered the tropical cloud forest in the mountains. Thick mist blurred the the two-lane highway until twenty minutes beyond, when the sun returned, this hidden gem called Catarranas, meaning “singing frogs,” appeared.

Walking to the main square to get our bearings, we paused to admire a few sculptures near the pretty iglesia. We were awe-struck by the innovation before us as we ambled through cobblestone streets to find a stunning trompe l’oeil painting “spilling” down the stairs. Another artist used a home’s door as a book shelf, and a narrow alley was shaded by a canopy of crayon-colored umbrellas. This town was wonderfully alive with magical details, surrealism, and movement in those brush strokes.

On the way home, we made a brief detour where my friend had taken a pottery class in San Juancito, which for a tiny village, was teeming with history. It was the site of the original American Embassy in Honduras, housed the first electrical plant in all of Central America, and was one of the country’s first gold and silver mining towns.

Adjacent to an unassuming cafe was a factory, once a soda bottling plant, that now makes pottery, handmade paper, blown glass, and woven baskets.

At the end of the day, I was buzzing from the immersion of creativity and culture. Coupled with the freedom of walking outdoors, feeling safe with our cameras, and soaking up the friendly smiles of locals, it was one of my favorite days in Honduras.

Le Vaya Bien. Go Well.

Tracy