A mere 4 days until 2023. As usual, I am staring at a blank page pondering my prose. Not to mention, I have part 3 of my Tanzania story still unfinished. I have a very quiet week, but somehow, the more time I have the less I accomplish. I guess I work best under pressure.
For the last few years, I have written my year-in-review blog and put together a slide show set to music. This year I ran across a song by Switchfoot which I had never heard, but it has quickly become my mantra. Here are a few lines to see where my head is: “Life is short; I wanna live it well. One life, one story to tell. Life is short; I wanna live it well.” As the year 2022 got closer, the phrase “life is short” entered my mind at least weekly, if not daily. 2022 was going to be a tough one for me. In August 2022, I would turn 60. I’m sure you are all saying things like it’s just a number, you don’t seem like you are 60 (trust me my body feels it some days), and all those other things you say when someone mentions “an age”. Why was 60 going to be a rough time for me?
22 years ago, at the age of 60, my mom died after a long, hard battle with Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis. She fought a good battle, but DAMN, she was only 60, that’s the number I will reach this year. It’s tough wrapping my head around that. I am now the same age my mom was when she died an ugly death. So yeah, “life is short, and I definitely want to live it well.”
Without further ado…here’s my story which starts where last year finished. You are an important part of my journey and I hope you found Peace, Love, Light, and Lots of Laughter in 2022. And mom, this year was for you. Especially my time with those kids at Bright English Medium School in Loliondo Tanzania. When my brother looked at my photos and heard my stories, what he said to me was the greatest compliment anyone could give. He said, “you are our mother’s daughter for sure”. I could feel her emotions and her presence. I have one life and hopefully, my life is my story.
January kicked off with friends next door at the Tapas Bar, some fireworks, and bubbles. Next, it was Tamara’s birthday and we met for dinner at a great restaurant, Warszawa Wschodnia, in the Praga District of Warsaw. It had a very cool whale tail piano. January 6th, Epiphany, or a day my mom called “Little Christmas”. Epiphany is also called Feast of Epiphany and Three Kings Day. It marks the day when the three wise men or kings went to visit baby Jesus. In Warsaw, there is a large parade of kings.
It is a reenactment of the nativity and the three kings on camels ride from Old Town to Plac Marszalka Jozefa Pilsudkiego. Thousands of people follow the parade with the kings. It was quite a sight to behold as I walked the route with the throngs. January was quickly turning to February.
February found me starting my own company in Poland called Language Nomad and I could freelance as an English teacher. In Poland, we celebrate Tłusty Czwartek or Fat Thursday (not Tuesday). It is the last Thursday before Ash Wednesday. It is also playfully known as “pączki day”. This is because across Poland more than 100 million pączki (traditional donuts filled with rose or plum jam) are consumed. I decided I needed to get my pączki from one of the most famous bakeries in Warsaw. I knew people wait in line to get these delectable treats, but little did I know I would wait in line for nearly 3 hours. Wednesday morning, I set off for the bakery. When I got off the tram, I saw a line around the corner of a building and knew I was at the right place. What I didn’t know was that there were 3 “corners” to go around.
After 30 minutes, I was happy to make the first turn, happy until I made the turn and saw that I had a ways to go. I decided I had already invested this much time; I may as well stick it out. On a side note, it was also drizzling rain but warmish. When I finally got in sight of the door, and thankfully there had been a coffee shop along the way so I had a double espresso, I discovered why the line moved so slowly. First, the shop was so small only 2 people could enter at a time. Second, there was a limit to how many of the 3.50-zloty (about 80 cents) pączki you could buy. I figured it would be a limit of a dozen, but NOOOOO.
Everyone could purchase 40, you read that right, FORTY!!! It seemed everyone was buying the limit. Well, after nearly 3 hours wait, I wasn’t about to buy 1 pączek (the singular of pączki) and leave, so I took a dozen. Was it worth the wait? Put it this way, I probably wouldn’t wait 3 hours again, they were delicious, and it is all about the experience, but now I can say, “been there, done that”.
Tłusty Czwartek also coincided with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the start of the current war. The influx of refugees into Poland started almost immediately. The last weekend in February I attended a demonstration in front of the Russian Embassy protesting the war and Putin. I went with my flatmate, Zaka, and it is an experience I won’t forget. Across Poland, people were coming together to help the 100’s thousands of mostly women and children crossing into Poland. By the beginning of March, Poland had already accepted 500,000 refugees. At its height, this number would rise to over 3 million with the population in Warsaw increasing by 17%. The month of March was an emotional roller coaster. My eyes were opened to things I never thought about. Things I can’t imagine ever going through myself. I met people who had no idea what their future would look like. I witnessed humanity and compassion that I thought didn’t exist anymore.
During my first year in Poland, I was always searching for interesting things to do. I happened to discover Pinball Station; an interactive museum established in 2016 by 2 hobbyists. One evening, as I was scrolling, I saw a post by Paweł, one of the founders of the museum. It read (translated version), “To everyone who wants to help refugees. Pinball Station has launched a coach bridge between the border and Warsaw. I, Paweł Nowak, have personally been to the border 5 times. We have coaches and drivers available. Today at 5 am we transported another 48 people. In total, it is already about 150 people transported in two days. We ask you to help raise money for the next transport. Out of 150 people transported, there were only a few men, the rest were women and children, even babies. I am determined, I am in constant contact with foreign countries, and we are looking for accommodation and further transport for them. Please help.” I had been going to the train station to volunteer whenever I could, but when I saw Pawel’s post almost simultaneously I received a message from a travel friend asking if they could send money to me and I could make sure it was put to good use. Soon, without even asking, other friends were contacting me with the same question. I was also contacted by my hometown newspaper, The Tribune Chronicle asking about life in Poland during the war. I told them my story up until that point and that I planned to return to the train station the next day to help.
I had no idea the tidal wave that was about to hit. They published an article, “Drive to Save Lives”. Within a few days, I received over $13,000 in contributions to Pawel’s efforts. This money was not only used to transport refugees, but it helped purchase ambulances that were sent to Ukraine, and food for the shelters.
March quickly turned into April, and I was fortunate to meet up with a friend from my hometown who was in Warsaw with the International Red Cross helping with the war effort. We only had time for lunch and a short visit, but it’s always great to see someone from “home”. Also in April, I was contacted by a good friend who told me he had given my phone number to a woman from his church. Soon I was contacted by a member of her family explaining that they had a grandson who had escaped from Kharkiv Ukraine with his mother and grandmother. Lana and her son had both been wounded by bullets and shrapnel with Lana requiring surgery when she arrived in Warsaw.
They were trying to get to the United States. I visited them several times while they were waiting on a visa appointment for the grandmother. The stories they told me were unbelievable. I’m happy to report that after 4 months, all documents were in order, and they were able to make it to the United States near the end of June.
April brought me the sad news of the death of one of my young students at Yayasan Widya Guna school for special needs in Bali. I had an opportunity to go with Pawel to see the ambulances which had been purchased and were ready to head to Ukraine along with medical supplies, body bags, and food staples. Even seeing what all Pawel was still doing, deep down, it was feeling like the war was becoming just a normal part of daily life. Myself, I was headed to Paris for a two-week holiday with my friend Cathy. Sadly, the war would be all but forgotten as I enjoyed the sights and sounds of Paris and beyond. I took her to all my favorite places in Montmartre and a few others around the city. We even discovered a few new places and traveled to Moulin, France, and St. Genevieve des Bois to visit sights associated with Rudolf Nureyev. We even managed a day trip to Amsterdam.
One of the highlights of the trip was meeting up with Lenore. I met Lenore online through a fellow Kiwanian in Warren Ohio, Leonard, who was in Paris during WWII and shared my love of the city. I had only met Lenore through Facebook, but her Panther Organization was in Paris to visit WWII sights and travel to Normandy. After many years of Facebook exchanges, and the death of Leonard, we were finally going to meet face-to-face along with Cathy and members of her group. What an evening that was on the steps of Sacre Coeur. As we watched the sun go down, listened to buskers, laughed, cried, and sipped Calvados, Leonard’s words of wisdom were in the back of my mind, “beware of the Calvados”. Truer words were never spoken. I will leave it at that. The two-week holiday flew by, and I think I have another Paris convert, right, Cathy?
Arriving back in Warsaw in mid-May, spring was in the air. The month ended with a whirlwind of activity, meeting with friends, wrapping up the school semester, and getting plans settled to head to Bulgaria in June. I saw Lana, Anton, and Lidia one more time to say goodbye and wish them well as they started a new life in the USA. The highlight of my year took place one weekend before I headed to Bulgaria, I have no photos because I just enjoyed the company of my brother and sister-in-law who came to Warsaw to visit me. I was thrilled to show them the city I currently call home. We walked all over, ate good food, shared some wine, took in a Chopin concert in Lazienki Park, and just savored our time together. On June 22,
I boarded a plane to Burgas, Bulgaria on the Black Sea to spend the next 8 weeks working at Zenira Language Camp in Kiten. Life at camp never stops, it’s exhausting, exhilarating, and sometimes frustrating, but always rewarding. You make it to the end of the first 2-week session, take a breath and the next thing you know, it’s mid-August and you are saying your goodbyes. Somewhere during the period of June – August, I planned for my next big adventure. I also quietly celebrated that number…six-zero.
“You will never understand the true meaning of your life until you travel and experience how others are living theirs!”
I don’t know who to credit for this quote, but it sums up my most recent experience in Arusha Tanzania but most especially at Bright English Medium School. I knew I didn’t want to return directly to Warsaw as the new semester kicks off at the beginning of October. Last year after camp I flew to Cairo to experience the pyramids. Then I decided to head to Casablanca and Marrakech Morocco. Both were exhilarating journeys that fueled my soul. I tossed around a few possibilities, including a return to Egypt for Valley of the Kings or India but I didn’t have a specific destination, and finally Kenya and Tanzania.
In my dreams, I didn’t have visions of sugar plums, not even lions, tigers, and bears, but baobabs, zebras, elephants, giraffes, and epic sunsets behind massive acacia trees. Another visit to Egypt and a trip to India would have to wait, so I narrowed it down to Kenya and Tanzania. During my research, I remembered I had joined an online community a few years ago called WorkAway. The thing that finally tipped the scales to Bright English Medium School was the quote, “go big or go home”. To me, going big was the Serengeti. BEMS (Bright English Medium School) mentioned their proximity to the Serengeti in their host write-up. Soon I was messaging back and forth with Juliana and Lydia from BEMS and the next thing I knew; I pulled the trigger on a one-way plane ticket to Arusha from Sofia Bulgaria. But, before I headed to Sofia, I took a train from Burgas to Veliko Tarnova to visit friends who had come to the USA as high school students nearly 20 years ago. After a couple days of visiting with them, I boarded another train to Sofia and my African adventure was about to begin.
Sofia to Doha Qatar and then an overnight flight to Zanzibar Island Tanzania…landing on Zanzibar Island would give me a new stamp in my passport and tick country number 41. I had a 5-hour layover on Zanzibar before flying to Arusha on the mainland. After breakfast and my first taste of chapati, I found a driver and for a fee, he took me on an island tour. Made it back and boarded my prop plane for the mainland. I landed in Arusha and went to get my luggage and that’s when I discovered it didn’t make it. That’s a whole other story and you can read about it here. You can also read about my crazy bus ride to Massai Eco Giraffe Lodge where I would be spending 3 nights. The bus ride even had a live chicken. It was 4.5 hours across hot dusty terrain with no real roads and then we were stopped at the border to the National Park area, and I was asked to get off the bus like I said another story and you can read about it at the link. I will say, I was in awe looking out the window and seeing massive baobabs and giraffes and zebras wandering freely.
Luggage-less, I made it to the Giraffe Lodge, my home for the next 4 days. The lodge is an oasis in the middle of nowhere. It was heavenly. You pay an activity fee to the lodge which then provides you with a Maasai guide who takes you on a trek and introduces you to the Maasai culture. My guide was Timan and you can read about my adventures with him, here. At least I can say my life is never boring.
My luggage did arrive and before I knew it, it was time for another crazy bus ride to Wasso/Loliondo Tanzania for my WorkAway at Bright English Medium School. BEMS is in a remote area of Northern Tanzania, in the heart of Maasai country and on the edge of the Serengeti. Two days after my arrival at the school, our host arranged to take us on a safari in the Serengeti.
There were six other volunteers when I arrived and 4 of us chose to go on the safari. It was a dream come true. We paid a small fee in comparison to other safaris and the money would be put right back into the school. The children many of whom live at the school hadn’t returned for the new semester when I arrived. With a WorkAway, you volunteer a few hours a day in return for room and board. Before the children arrived, we spent our time painting classrooms.
After they arrived, I spent my time in the kindergarten classroom teaching English. The school had no running water, which meant we took bucket showers and flushed toilets with buckets of water. Electricity was sometimes spotty so having a power bank and charging all devices whenever possible was a must. The nearest village was a 30–40-minute walk. Luckily I was able to catch a ride if I needed anything from the shops. I am still writing my blog about my experience there, but I will say it was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I was sad to see my time there come to an end, but I needed to get back to Warsaw to prepare for the new school year. I said my goodbyes the night before as I had to be by the side of the road at 05:30 for the bus to pick me up for a 9+ hour ride back to Arusha. Once in Arusha, I had arranged for a car to take me to my homestay in Kilimanjaro. I spent 2 relaxing days before catching a flight to Addis Ababa Ethiopia, to Stockholm Sweden, and home sweet home to Warsaw.
Back in Warsaw in mid-September, I took some time to relax, regroup and reflect on my whirlwind summer. At the beginning of October, I was with my Nepalese friends as they celebrated Dashain, a Hindu holiday that symbolizes the victory of good over evil. The school semester started up and the rest of the month was quiet.
November 1st in Poland is All Saints Day, and it is celebrated by going to the cemetery and placing mums and lighting candles at the graves of loved ones. It is a very important holiday, and the cemeteries are a sight to behold. November 11th is Polish Independence Day and along with Tamara, I attended the Independence Day March. The rest of the month was quiet which was just letting me breath before my crazy December started.
December kicked off with me showing the cousin of one of my friends around Warsaw. She was in town to give a seminar and in a couple short days we had a Lebanese dinner, drinks at the Panorama Bar overlooking the city, walked all over Old Town, watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, took in the Christmas lights on the evening of the official lighting and walked the royal route. Being from the south of the USA, the snowy, cold weather in Warsaw called for extra coffee stops.
I said goodbye to Patty and on December 5th boarded a flight to Amsterdam to meet a friend from Florida. Maribeth and I spent the day and evening wandering the streets, taking a canal cruise, and walking the Red-Light District. The next morning we boarded a flight to Krakow. Staying in Old Town, we wandered the Christmas Market and ate dinner al fresco. The next day we took a tour of Auschwitz and Auschwitz Birkenau before catching the late train back to Warsaw.
The next few snowy days were spent going all over Warsaw and then taking a weekend day trip to Gdansk for the Christmas Market and a boat ride to Westerplatte, the location of the first battle between Polish and German troops and the start of WWII. We ended her visit with a trip to the Garden of Light at Wilianow Palace.
Maribeth left on the 13th and on the 15th I boarded a plane to meet my friend Guy, who I worked with for 2 summers at Zenira Camp, in Paris. We spent 4 days walking 8-10 miles per day all over the city. We had mad fun at an Ice Bar and even found two ladies that I first met back in 2013. I’m not sure how I fall more in love with Paris with each visit. Back to Warsaw in time for Christmas. I made a turkey and celebrated with friends.
Here it is the eve of the new year…2023! I am about to open a bottle of prosecco and share a toast with my flatmate Zaka and his friend Tarlan. Then we are off to a birthday/New Year party, and we will hit the streets with fireworks and sparklers for midnight. Na zdrowie! Thank you all for having a part in my journey. The messages, cards, and video chats are meaningful, and I cherish every interaction. Life is short….Live it well!