ABC Post 8: Squandering My $5 Tax Refund

When money comes to one unexpectedly, the best thing to do is squander it. 30 years from now you won’t remember or care if you spent your money on practical things like bandaids or cupcake liners, but you WILL remember the wonderful day you carelessly squandered.

(I realize that this sounds like bad advice. But I have to occasionally give myself bad money advice or else I’ll never have any fun.)

This time of year people are squandering their tax refunds, and I wanted in on the fun. So imagine my delight when I opened the mailbox the other day and found my Virginia tax refund.

Five entire dollars!

Unfortunately, due to inflation and such, there’s not a lot one can buy with five dollars. I decided to use an Instagram poll to narrow down my choices.

“What shall I splurge on?” I asked my Instagram followers, presenting the following three options:

  1. Gas for a vacation to the other end of town
  2. A slightly fancier than usual toothbrush
  3. Mystery beverage from the Asian food store

Initially, people voted for “gas for a vacation to the other side of town,” but after a bit “mystery drink from the Asian food store” began to catch up. Which was fine with me. Every time I go to the Asian food store I look longingly at the rows of unique and delicious-looking beverages.

But I never try them because I rarely let myself squander money.

When Jenny came home from school she was laughing. “Your Instagram story was so funny!”

“I’m glad you found it funny,” I said. “I was trying to be funny, but no one laugh reacted. I guess they were too busy voting in the poll. What did you vote for?”

“I voted for ‘slightly fancier than usual toothbrush,’” said Jenny. “That was by far the funniest option.”

“A lot of people are voting ‘vacation to the other side of town,’” I said. “Which I don’t really understand. The toothbrush is the funniest option and the Asian food store drink is the best option.”

“Yeah, but everyone understands the gas prices joke,” said Jenny. “Not everyone understands the toothbrush joke because they don’t understand how we live.”

However, by the end of the day the toothbrush had overtaken the gas, and the Asian drink was by far winning overall.

Today I went to the Asian food store to buy my drink.

So many options!

I wanted something mysterious…something where I wouldn’t know what to expect. So instead of purchasing some delicious-looking green tea or sparkling grapefruit juice, I grabbed an odd-looking bottle of some sort of plum drink. 

This drink only cost three dollars, so I went next door to Dollar Tree (which Jenny and I colloquially call “dollar twenty-five tree” due to its hike in prices) to look for something fancy that I could glue to a toothbrush.

That way I could have both a slightly fancier than usual toothbrush AND a mystery drink from the Asian food store! What a life!

I considered all kinds of stickers, bows, nail polishes, glitter glues, and even googly eyes, but settled on butterfly-shaped fake jewels.

When I got back out to the car I looked at my gas gauge. Could I afford to take a vacation to the other end of town too?

I decided that I could.

On the northwest side of town, farther than I’ve ever been before, was a “park and natural area” so I decided to go take a relaxing vacation there.

Wander the paths. Eat a picnic. (And by picnic I mean some snacks and my mystery drink from the Asian food store.)

The wandering was nice and so were the snacks, but I sampled my drink and wasn’t impressed. At first it tasted very sweet, like kool-aid, but then it had a strange, almost medicinal aftertaste.

And that’s when it struck me.

Plum drink. Dried plums make prunes. Which means prune juice is probably just plum juice, right?

Did I just squander my tax refund on prune juice?!?

I forced myself to finish it, hating it more the more I drank.

My stomach burbled ominously.

I continued wandering around the “park and natural area” and fairly quickly came upon some abandoned farm buildings to explore.

I crawled through this hole
Then through this hole
Down these rickety steps

And into this tower/silo thing. It reminded me of Belmotte tower from I Capture the Castle.

Then I went back up the rickety steps, back through the hole, and on to the rest of the abandoned farm. This included an outhouse with a carpeted seat.

Finally, when I was finished exploring I settled by a pond to write some of this blog post.

This was the first time I’d used my AlphaSmart in months. It was so cold outside all winter, and I was doing so much work that required an Internet connection, that it wasn’t practical. But it felt so nice to write in nature again like I used to last summer.

That was the extent of my vacation. Although there were numerous restaurants and stores on the northwest side of town that I’d never been to, I only had 63 cents left.

So instead I went home and tried to make my toothbrush fancier than usual.

The truth is, this toothbrush was already fancier than usual because I didn’t buy it myself—rather, I got it for free when I went to the dentist. And making it fancier was quite a challenge because it had to be waterproof and it couldn’t interfere with the tooth-cleaning process. One little butterfly jewel was all I could manage.

But then I had all these leftover jeweled butterflies. Not one to be wasteful (despite my attempts to squander money), I proceeded to add a little razzle-dazzle to some other things about the house.

Slightly-fancier-than-usual sunglasses

Slightly-fancier-than-usual alarm clock

Slightly-fancier-than-usual strainer

Slightly-fancier-than-usual toilet brush

So as you can see, while the mystery drink from the Asian food store was a bit of a letdown, I now have a number of fancier-than-usual objects to cheer me up.

What are you planning to squander your tax refund on?


This April, Mom, me, and Phoebe are taking part in the April Blogging Challenge. Mom posted yesterday about hosting a fabric swap, and Phoebe will post tomorrow.


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ABC Post 6: Making Memes of Me

I read an article recently that claimed that the only good thing left on Facebook is private meme groups.

I’ve found this to be semi-true. Tiktok has more interesting content, Twitter has more news and current events, Instagram is better for actually keeping up with people…but Facebook does have one thing going for it, and that’s the groups.

Particularly the private meme groups.

In the early 2010s I was part of Facebook groups with people I actually knew, like people I’d done theater with, people in my youth group, or people I went to Bible School with. But now all my active groups are either weird niche topics or meme groups.

I actually have a love-hate relationship with groups and I tend to delete them if they get too active and overwhelming–especially if they’re full of drama and inside jokes I don’t understand. But then sometimes I hop back in later if I’m bored. You know how it is.


This winter I joined an odd meme group called Mennonite Hood Memes (MHM). It is a mix of Mennonite, Ex-Mennonite, Menno-adjacent, and Kingdom Christian types.

In my opinion, the most interesting thing about the group is that they are big on original content. So unlike other meme groups where people are mostly re-posting memes they found other places, most of the memes in MHM were created by members of the group.

In fact, MHM has some meme templates that I’ve only ever seen in MHM, like this one, which I think is from the Mennonite Church USA archives.

Meme made by Roslyn McCulfor

Recently I met one of the MHM members, Jolynn, in real life.

As far as I know I’d never met Jolynn before, just knew her from various meme groups. But you know how it is in the Menno-world…Jolynn’s mom was from Oregon so I know a lot of her family, we have mutual friends, my mom knows her sister, etc.

Anyway, Jolynn moved within a couple hours of where I now live in Virginia, so we decided to hang out. Jolynn’s friend Becky, who’s also in MHM, later joined us.

Since I still dress Mennonite and Jolynn doesn’t, I thought it would be funny for us to re-create the Mennonite lady meme template. “It’s too bad I don’t have a white net covering,” I mused.

With this, Becky sprung into action. She no longer dresses Mennonite either, but she kept a lot of her clothing, and soon she’d outfitted us with:

  • A cape dress
  • A white net covering
  • Black stockings
  • Black shoes
  • Some conservative Mennonite book I’d never heard of
  • A prop cigarette (made with rolled-up paper)
Meme made by Jolynn Lehman

Once Becky had pinned the covering to my head, we were all set to re-create the photo. Here’s what we came up with:

People then started making memes with the new template.

Meme made by Packy Sporre
This one also made by Packy Sporre

Then, since a photo of me had already been made into a meme, I decided to meme one of my old pictures.


10.5 years ago I was in a play at my community college. This was my first time doing “real” theater and I was very excited. But then one day the director said, “okay for tomorrow’s rehearsal I want you to wear your makeup.”

And I was like, “um…I don’t know how to do makeup.”

Like literally, I’d never worn makeup before. Maybe a few dabs of cheap concealer on a pimple that just made it look worse. That’s it.

I knew that I’d be required to wear makeup, because otherwise I’d look too washed out under the harsh lights. But I had this idea that someone else would do our makeup for us.

But no, we weren’t fancy enough for makeup artists. Every actor had to do their own makeup.

Once I told my fellow actresses that I didn’t know how to do makeup, they tried to help me out. I don’t even know where this makeup came from, but someone found me some foundation, this pink stuff that went on both my lips and my cheeks, and an eyeliner pencil.

The makeup was awful. Very thick and gross. The eyeliner pencil didn’t work very well, so I switched to this other type that came in a solid cake and was applied with a wet brush. That was much easier to apply, but then the liquid would spread through the lines in my eyelids instead of staying in a nice straight line, sort of like when you write on your hand with a very liquidy pen.

But the lip stuff was the worst. I don’t know how anyone can stand the feeling of wearing lipstick. It was nasty, drying my lips out, and it got on my teeth.

Anyway: My main point is that I didn’t like the makeup and I was pretty bad at applying it. Of course, with the harsh lighting and distance it looked fine to the audience while I was on stage, but I wasn’t exactly snapping selfies.

As the show was wrapping up, our director gave us each a pickle-shaped Christmas tree ornament as a gift. Once, in the dressing room during intermission, I jokingly put the ornaments on my ears and struck a “supermodel” pose. My castmate Kim took a pic and put it on Facebook, and I was a little embarrassed but that’s life.

But anyway, I knew it would make a great meme, so I unearthed it and created this:

People thought it was especially funny to see this after just seeing me in a cape dress and white net covering. I don’t think people realized this picture was over ten years old. I really haven’t changed an enormous amount in 10 years, except for about 6 gray hairs and a wrinkle between my eyebrows from constant skepticism.

Speaking of skepticism…

Next thing I knew, my “skeptically buying shoes while a skeptical man looks at me skeptically” picture, from my last blog post, was memed by an MHM member named Avery Amstutz.

Then today, this gem showed up on the page.

Like several other memes I’ve featured on this post, this one was made by Packy Sporre, who is a very prolific meme-maker.

Anyway, I’ve found great joy in these memes of me, so I thought I’d share them with you as well.

(I don’t know if I want to recommend the group or not. You might love it or it may not be your cup of tea. So if you join because of this post and then get into a terrible argument with a troll, please don’t blame me, lol)


Want to get caught up on April Blogging Challenge posts? Yesterday Mom posted a book review, and Wednesday Phoebe posted ten things about herself to help you get to know her better. Mom will post again on Monday.


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ABC Post 3: Awkward Memories That Live in My Head Rent Free

I think I attract awkward moments.

I think they just find me, somehow. No matter what I do, I will end up in an awkward moment.

Like the other day, I walked into a coffee shop and the door closed on my boot and took it clean off my foot. Then the door closed, with my boot on the other side of it.

And it wasn’t one of those boots that easily slips back onto your foot. So not only did I have to go back outside to retrieve my boot, but I didn’t want to block the doorway while I struggled to put it back on. So I stuck my toes in and hobbled to the cash register, ordered, and then yanked at my boot while the barista prepared my tea.


I have these awkward memories stored on movie reels in the dusty back parts of my brain, and sometimes a random incident will trigger one of them. Suddenly it starts playing: an awkward memory from my past.

Last night someone on the Internet mentioned Roald Dahl, and it triggered one of those awkward memory reels.

The Elevator Memory

Backstory: I dream every night, and often these dreams are very vivid and very funny. It happens, at times, that I’ll see a person or incident and it suddenly makes me remember something funny that happened in my dream.

In such cases, it takes all my willpower not to tell everyone around me about the dream.

And sometimes my willpower fails me.

I’ve learned to leave out the boring parts of dreams, so usually this is just a couple sentences. A little cringe, but not too egregious.

But one time…

It happened in the Oregon State University library, six stories tall with a very slow, very busy elevator. As soon as I climbed onto this elevator full of strangers, I remembered my dream.

“Oh, last night I dreamed that this elevator was the great glass elevator from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!” I announced to everyone. “It shot through the roof of the library and into the sky!”

No one responded. Not a smile. Not a chuckle. Not a groan.

Slooooooooooowly the elevator doors closed.

Slooooooooooooooowly the elevator began to climb.

Sloooooooooooooooooooooooowly the doors opened again, and I scuttled away to hide in an abandoned aisle of books.

The Escalator Memory

I guess the awkward elevator memory made me remember my awkward escalator memory.

One time, when Jenny was about 4 and I was about 13, we went to a mall with our cousins. It was my job to watch Jenny. Jenny and one of her cousins about her age were obsessed with riding the escalators, so I and another older cousin took them up and down the escalators several times.

On one of these trips, I failed to hold Jenny’s hand as we stepped on the escalator. I did not realize that this was a crucial part of the experience.

About halfway down, I realized that Jenny was not with me. She was still at the top, crying because I hadn’t held her hand.

All my big sister instincts kicked in at once. By hook or by crook, I was going to rescue Jenny. So I started booking it back to her…up the down escalator.

Which TBH is pretty hard, even though it goes pretty slow.

For some reason, the last sprint was the hardest. I felt like I wasn’t quite going to overcome the momentum of the escalator. But then, with a valiant lurch, I did it! I reached the top and rescued Jenny!

That’s when it registered that there was a kind handsome young man at the top of the escalator, and he was saying, “I can hold her hand.”

In fact, he’d been saying this the whole time I was huffing and puffing my way up the down staircase, but I’d been too singularly focused to notice.

Billy and the Paper Airplane

I had a teacher in community college who had a few unorthodox teaching methods. Several awkward things happened in his class, and this is one of them.

The first day of class, I arrived late and the only available seat was right up front. It was a pretty crowded classroom, and the frontmost student table was right up against the teacher’s desk. So the distance between the teacher and I was conversational-distance rather than teacher-student distance.

Then, of course, that was my seat for the rest of term.

On one side of me sat a mom who was returning to college. On the other side of me sat Billy, this all-American, good-looking-in-a-very-basic-way, baseball-playing, cap-wearing guy who occasionally said something interesting, but whom I paid very little attention to.

One day I arrived early to class and was one of the first people to enter the room after the previous class had vacated. The teacher of the previous class gave my teacher a box of donuts and said, “we didn’t eat all these, you can give them to your class if you want.”

My teacher then held up the box of donuts, and as the whole class filed in he said, “Emily brought us all donuts today, so don’t forget to thank her!”

And a bunch of people started thanking me before I had a chance to explain.

Then, my teacher decided we were going to prank the class next to us. For some reason, there was just a door between these two classrooms. He had us all make paper airplanes, and then he opened the door and we all threw our paper airplanes into the next class.

My airplane never made it to the next classroom, but I retrieved it.

Then, feeling clever, I wrote a note on it. I said:

Since I “brought the donuts,” does this mean I can take the leftover donuts home with me?

Then I tossed it at my teacher.

At this point, we’d all settled into our seats after the paper airplane prank. My teacher took the paper airplane I’d just tossed and, pretending to read the note out loud, said, to the whole class:

I have such a huge crush on Billy, but I’m too shy to let him know. Can you tell him for me? -Emily

Then he put the paper airplane down and we got on with the class.

Regarding what happened next, all I remember is that after class I retrieved both the paper airplane and the donuts, ran after Billy, and showed him what the note really said. He didn’t seem fazed, so I presume he understood the nature of our teacher and never actually thought I had a crush on him.

This teacher, incidentally, is one of the former teachers I’ve kept up with the most. In fact, he occasionally reads this blog.

Final Thoughts

So yes, those are the types of awkward memories that live rent-free in my head. There are many more where those came from, but those are the three I thought of today.

At least they make good stories, you know?

Also: I’m sorry to say that the picture I put at the beginning of this post has nothing to do with the contents of this post, except that it’s one of the most hilariously awkward photos of me. Amy took it when we visited Kenya in 2011. I was buying shoes. I don’t know why I was so skeptical.

Or why the shoe seller was so skeptical.

This has been post three in the April Blogging Challenge. Yesterday Mom posted about her friend Verda who passed away, and tomorrow Phoebe will post on her new blog.


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The April Blogging Challenge is Back! (Also: I played a prank on my coworkers)

Photo by Polina Kovaleva on

This year, we’re bringing the April Blogging Challenge back.

The April Blogging Challenge is an annual event where me, mom, and whatever other sisters we can rope in blog for most of the days in April.

Every year the rules are a little different depending on what we feel we can handle.

This year, I’ll be posting on Tuesdays and Fridays, Mom will be posting on Mondays and Thursdays, and my sister-in-law Phoebe will be posting on Wednesdays.

Jenny and Amy may jump in with a post or two if they find something they desperately want to say, but I wouldn’t count on it.


Today is April 1, aka April Fools Day.

I have to say, I do love a good April Fools prank. Probably the two best ones I ever pulled were this one and this one.

This year I decided to prank my coworkers.

For the past three months I’ve been working virtually for a company called LifeX Marketing, doing copywriting. There are about ten employees and we all work remotely, but we do a lot of zoom calls so we know each other fairly well.

Everyone has a daily to-do list in a shared google sheets doc. We go over it every morning. We also edit the doc from the same google account.

And this year, I decided to add some spice to everyone’s April 1 to-do list.

Now, my coworkers never gave me permission to write about them so I’m going to use some randomly generated pseudonyms from here on out.

“Maggie” had fairly recently returned from SMBI, so I added “DM the cute by from SMBI” to her to-do list.

“Jeremiah” always has a drum set in the background in his zoom calls, so I wrote “Perform an epic drum solo.”

“Larry” requires a bit of back story:

Once I took off work to go to a funeral, and when I came back I posted on Facebook: The weird thing about being Mennonite is that people don’t just disappear from your life once their story arc is over. You’ll never see your college crush again but you’ll bump into your Bible School crush at funerals for the rest of eternity.

Several of my coworkers read this and commented on it the next time I showed up in a zoom meeting. Larry noted that he and his wife sometimes joke that they should host a dinner party and invite everyone they’ve ever had crushes on.

I thought this was hilarious, and sounded like the premise of a short story. So I added “host a dinner party for my past crushes” to Larry’s to-do list.

I made my additions last night, and in our zoom call this morning everyone was talking about it. “Hector” was convinced that “Craig” had done the prank. “I can tell because you wrote that Jeremiah should perform an epic drum solo,” said Hector. “You’re the only one who would use the word ‘epic.'”

“I promise it wasn’t me,” said Craig. “It had to be Neil. The additions were made really late. Only Neil stays up that late.”

Neil just had a mysterious smile on his face.

“Okay, if it wasn’t you, raise your hand,” said Hector.

Everyone raised their hands except me and Neil. I guess Neil was still trying to be mysterious.

“Emily!!” Said everyone else.

Somehow I’d never been on the suspect list, which is funny because I assumed people would immediately figure out it was me. But I guess I haven’t been there long enough for people to fully discern my nature.

“Well I don’t know about you, but I’m still gonna dance to a Blippi song today,” said Hector.

Jeremiah told us that he had already performed an epic drum solo earlier that day.

“When I take my bubble bath, what do I track time under?” asked Neil. (Months ago, Neil posted a picture of himself taking a bubble bath. I know that sounds scandalous but there were mountains of bubbles and you could only see his forehead and a bit of his nose.)

“I’m not buying a vintage dress for my wife,” Bryce declared. (Bryce has adamantly made known his disdain for vintage clothing. It came up in conversation once because I was wearing a vintage dress, and Bryce didn’t believe it was actually vintage because it wasn’t ugly, lol.)

“Well, I had a crush on my wife before I married her, so I guess I’ll have dinner with a past crush,” said Larry.

Anyway. Maybe it wasn’t the most epic prank I’ve done, but it was a lot of fun. I’d highly recommend adding to other people’s to-do lists for some laughs.

Jenny told me last night that I shouldn’t prank her. At least not anything major. “I don’t think I could handle anything as epic as the green sock prank,” she said.

“You should prank me!” I told her.

When I went into the kitchen this morning, Jenny started acting very mysterious. It took me forever to figure out what was going on, and then I saw her “prank.”

Anyway. That’s all for today…you can find a new post Monday on Mom’s Blog, and Phoebe will start posting Wednesday on her blog.


Order my book:
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Follow me on:
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Patreon: (This is where I post bonus blog posts, about more personal/controversial subjects, for a subscription fee of $1 a month [or more if you’re feeling generous]. I try to post twice a month.)

Surprising Our Mom for Her 60th Birthday

Last week my five siblings, one sister-in-law, and I flew to Oregon to surprise our mom for her 60th birthday.

But before I get to that story, one quick announcement: On Friday, March 25 I’m doing a book signing, along with my mom and Shari Zook, at Piccadilly Coffee and Tea House in Lancaster PA, from 11 am to 1 pm. So if you’re in the area already or coming for REACH, feel free to drop by!


Matt and Phoebe live in Houston, Jenny and I live in Virginia, and Amy lives in Thailand, but Dad got the bright idea to fly us all home for Mom’s 60th birthday.

Now, Mom’s birthday isn’t until June. But Amy teaches school in Thailand and Jenny attends grad school in Virginia, so this week in March, over Jenny’s spring break, was pretty much the only time it worked for all of us to come home.

Matt and Phoebe came out Friday and stayed with Phoebe’s parents. Mom and Dad took a trip to the coast on Sunday, but Dad pretended it was just going to be the two of them. Meanwhile, Amy was heading to the Eugene Airport where Steven would pick her up, and Jenny and I were heading to the Portland Airport where Ben would pick us up.

I joked once that it takes 20 hours to get to Oregon but only if you fly, and to be honest that wasn’t so far from the truth. We flew Southwest because Dad had a bunch of free tickets from credit card usage, getting bumped, and such. But we couldn’t find Southwest flights into or out of the smaller, closer airports, so with 3.5 hours of driving on one end, 2 hours of driving on the other, a 3-hour layover in Denver, and a 30-minute flight delay, we traveled a total of 18.5 hours from our Virginia house to our Oregon house.

We spent Sunday night at my parent’s house. The next morning Steven picked Amy up and the five of us packed up everything in the house that we’d need on the coast trip.

We headed out that afternoon and met Matt and Phoebe at our house in Depoe Bay.

Now remember, Dad and Mom were already out at the coast. They’d spent Sunday night at a hotel so that Jenny and I could spend Sunday night at home.

The plan was for us all to meet at a scenic viewpoint called Boiler Bay. Matt and Phoebe drove a car that belonged to Phoebe’s parents, and the rest of us just hopped in Steven’s car and hoped Mom wouldn’t notice. We parked, hunkered down in the car, and then after Mom and Dad were looking at the view we got out and sneaked behind mom.

We had a mild panic attack when Dad parked right next to Matt and Phoebe, but Mom didn’t notice, and we were able to surprise her!

Watch the tiktok video I made of it below:


My siblings flew to Oregon from Virginia, Texas, and Thailand to surprise my mom for her 60th birthday.

♬ original sound – Emily Smucker

After that surprise we all went back to the big house we’d rented, Amy made Thai food, and we all prepared for a wonderful three-day vacation.

And then Covid hit.

The funny thing is, our trip was exactly two years into Covid. And in those two years, none of us have gotten it. None.

And then it struck when we happened to be all together again.

What happened was this:

Just before Amy left Thailand she met up with some friends. Then, en route to Oregon, she discovered that these friends had come down with Covid.

Amy took a rapid test on Monday and another Tuesday morning, and both came up negative. But by Tuesday night she was starting to feel sick so she slept in a room by herself, and Wednesday morning she took another test which came up positive.

We’re all vaxxed and most of us were boosted, so we weren’t in danger of being extremely sick, but there’s still a number of guidelines in place that would make getting Covid a major headache. For instance, you’re not supposed to fly if you have Covid, and Jenny and I were scheduled to fly back Friday. Also, Jenny would have to skip classes and get someone to cover her teaching job for her.

Finally, Amy decided to just go home early and live in our barn loft. I know that sounds cold and 7-Brides-For-Seven-Brothers-ish, but I promise it’s warm and has a bathroom and kitchenette, haha.

The rest of us spent the day on a hidden beach searching for agates, and then we went on a hike in the afternoon.

That was basically the end of the vacation, because Thursday I spent most of my time packing up, leaving the coast, unpacking, and doing my taxes, and Friday I spent all day traveling. (Jen and I took rapid tests before we left, and they were negative.)

Meanwhile, Matt and Phoebe are staying with my parents so that they don’t get her parents sick, and Amy is still in the barn loft.

So far our precautions have proven fruitful. Besides Amy, none of us have gotten sick. But we’re not out of the woods yet.

At least we had two days all together as a family though, and I’ll see Amy again at least once before she goes back to Thailand. So all is not lost.

I hope you can tell, from the video, how much fun we all have together.


Remember, book signing in Lancaster on March 25!


Order my book:
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Follow me on:
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Twitter: @emilysmucker
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Patreon: (This is where I post bonus blog posts, about more personal/controversial subjects, for a subscription fee of $1 a month [or more if you’re feeling generous]. I try to post twice a month.)

January 2022 Life Update

Still Living in Blacksburg VA

It’s been a snowy, cozy January. I love looking at the snow. I put a desk in the corner window and feel piles of inspiration as I watch the interesting people in the street.

Like the guy who rides his bicycle wearing a pink tracksuit and a hat with bunny ears.

But I’ve found that I’m not a big fan of the cold. I don’t think my Oregon clothes are really warm enough, and just like the year when I traveled, I’m pretty much wearing the same wool sweater every day because it’s the warmest thing I own.

It makes me feel like a cartoon character.

Also, my cousin Derek and his wife Grace recently moved to town, so that’s been fun! It’s nice to have family around.

Started a New Job

I started a new job as a copywriter for LifeXMarketing, which is the main reason I haven’t been blogging much. I mean, it’s very part-time, so I still have time for other writing projects.

But man, there are so many things I want to write. The ideas never stop. Fiction, nonfiction, blog posts, Patron posts. Other things too, like plays. And speeches. Podcasts. Youtube videos.

Unfortunately, my idea-generator is set to 100 and my energy is set to like, 3.

So having a “real job” of sorts does cut into the amount of time I can spend on other writing projects.

Edited my Novella

I talked about this some last November, but I recently wrote a novella. I basically concluded that this was not something marketable, and just wrote it for fun.

The novella is about a girl who climbs into a mysterious taxi one night because she is so lonely and fed up with her life. Since she doesn’t have any money on her at the moment, she pays by handing over some strawberries and agreeing to tell the curious taxi driver the story of her doom.

The first part of the novella is the story she tells the taxi driver, which ends up being about five people in particular who contributed to her current state of distress and loneliness. In the second part, the taxi driver takes her to a mysterious conference where she runs into all five of them again and discovers what was really going on.

I wrote the story to work through the loneliness and isolation I felt during the pandemic. But I used fantasy to convey it, and I did dumb stuff like naming all the major characters after the characters of whatever book or movie I happened to be consuming at the moment. Also, I threw some real people in as side characters, just for funsies.

I finished the first draft in November and let it rest through December, but this month I edited and revised enough to send it to my editor. Also, I let Jenny read it as a beta-reader. Their reactions were enthusiastic enough that I’m considering publishing it as an e-book.

However, that won’t be for a bit yet. I want to do another round or two of revisions first.

New Projects

I made a new years resolution to write another book. By “another book” I meant non-fiction book, and I know what book it is. It’s the book I was working on with such enthusiasm all autumn before I got discouraged with how vulnerable it was and took a break.

It’s essentially a book of essays about trying to figure out life, love, career, purpose, and community as an older single person.

I’m determined to finish at least a draft of it this year.

But the new fiction ideas burrow into my mind and won’t let go.

And it’s even worse this time, because now that I’ve written a novella I’m convinced that I have what it takes to write a real fiction book.

So yeah…currently I’m spending too much time dreaming up a book that involves completing a bucket list. I only mention that because I could use your help:

What is on your bucket list?

Please let me know in the comments.

Kenya Part 6: Mombasa, and the Journey Home

Hey friends! Are you ready for the final installment of my Kenya trip?

Since returning I started a new job, celebrated the holidays, and came down with a sore-throat-and-headache virus that I’ve had for a week now and can’t seem to kick (I’m currently awaiting COVID test results). Needless to say, blogging got shoved to the back burner of my life. But I’m here today to deliver the last post of my Kenya trip–the tale of our time in Mombasa.

(And if you want to catch up, here’s Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.)

I saw the Indian Ocean for the first time in my life as the plane descended into Mombasa that December evening. The warm humid air crashed into us as we stepped outside. For the first time on this trip it felt like we were on vacation, and I settled into the back of the taxi with Steven as we squeezed through traffic. Steven stuck his hand out the window. “Hey, I touched the car beside us!”

Later, as I researched details for this blog series, I realized that we visited every single city in Kenya. Nairobi, the capital we flew in and out of, is the biggest city in Kenya, followed by Mombasa and then Kisumu. Nakuru officially became a city on December 1, the day before we arrived there, so everyone was talking about it. “We’re a city now!” I gathered that in Kenya, there’s an official difference between a city and a town.

Mombasa, besides being heavily populated, is also undergoing a lot of road construction right now, so it took us nearly an hour to get from the airport to our hotel. We didn’t really know what to expect from our hotel. Dad had just gone on Priceline and found something. I think he picked this particular place because it was a suite–one room had two single beds for him and Steven, and the other room was for me.

It was oppressively hot. Steven and I stood on the balcony to get some air. “Where do you think we can go to get some food?” I asked, looking out over the deserted road we’d driven in on.

“I don’t know, but I’m starving,” said Steven.

“Me too. And thirsty.” It was bottled water only for me now, but where was I to purchase it? I wondered what would happen if I just boiled faucet water in the electric kettle and drank that. I was scared to risk it. Besides, the electric kettle was kinda gross and dirty.

Not gonna lie, the suite had its quirks. Like, there was a propane tank in the middle of the kitchen floor because it was too large to fit in the cupboard under the stove. And the place used real keys, half of which were old-fashioned skeleton keys. We were given a whole ring of them–one for the main door, one for the balcony door, one for each of the bedrooms. That was kind-of charming, actually.

When we discovered the air conditioning units in our bedrooms we breathed a huge sigh of relief. We turned them on and then went to try and find some food.

Steven asked the security guard where we could find a restaurant, and he told us to go next door. Well, next door was another hotel. Unlike ours, this one had a restaurant attached. It was a lovely little place that sold basic Kenyan food, a little bit of Indian food, and some American food, all at a reasonable price. (Dad ordered a hamburger and Steven and I rolled our eyes, haha.)

We ended up eating most of our meals there while in Mombasa. The lady behind the front desk at our hotel got a little annoyed at us, because the place we were eating was their direct competition. But we were just like, um…if you had a restaurant we’d eat here, but you don’t.

Also, yell at your security guard, not us. He’s the one who told us where to eat.

The next morning Steven and I woke up relatively early, and Dad was still asleep. We went wandering down the street to see what we could see. I later learned that we’d wandered in the wrong direction. If we’d turned right we would have ended up in a part of town full of shops and restaurants. But instead we turned left, where there were just a bunch of resorts one after another.

We did cut through a vacant lot and get a good look at the Indian Ocean, however.

Even though it was fairly early in the morning, it was already incredibly hot. I think the temperature in Kenya is mostly based on elevation. Nairobi and Nakuru were quite cool, relatively speaking. I often wore a jacket, especially in the mornings. Kisumu was a much lower elevation, down by Lake Victoria, and was properly hot. Mombasa, on the coast, was oppressively hot.

The main reason we’d come to Mombasa was to hang out with Peter, Steven’s friend/Into Africa brother. But Peter lived in a different part of town and it was going to take him a while to get to where we were. So before contacting Peter, Steven wanted to make sure we had the whole COVID test situation figured out.

Ah, the COVID test.

Traveling internationally is complicated these days, especially because the rules keep changing. When we came to Kenya, the rule was that if you were fully vaccinated, you had several days to get your COVID test before traveling. (If you weren’t vaccinated you had a shorter time frame–I think 24 hours.) But while we were there, the rule changed so that vaccinated or not, you had to have a PCR COVID test dated within 24 hours of when you were leaving the country.

We were leaving Kenya Sunday morning at 1 am.

Someone told us that instead of waiting until Saturday morning to get tested, we could potentially get tested on Friday and they’d change the date on the test for us if they knew we were traveling. I know this sounds dishonest, but we were kind-of baffled as to how else we were supposed to get our results in time.

The thing is, we didn’t even know where to go to get tested. We were in an unfamiliar city after all. Dad and Steven started looking things up and calling different places.

Meanwhile, our hotel decided that today was the day to re-paint the building. So all morning there were just people outside, looking in our windows.

Eventually Dad and Steven figured out what hospital we needed to go to for our test. We were about to leave when we ran into another conundrum. Our balcony door was unlocked, and there were strangers on our balcony painting the building. But how awkward to lock the balcony door right in front of them, like, “hello there, by the way we don’t trust you.”

We solved this problem by putting our laptops and such in our bedrooms, and locking them with the skeleton keys. Then, just before we left, Dad had to dash to the bathroom. I shook my head in an I-told-you-so way, because I’d warned him against eating the raw veggies on his hamburger the night before.

Oh well. I went to get my activated charcoal, but my door was locked. Right. I took that skeleton key and could not for the life of me get it open. Keys and I don’t get along well. Steven had to help me.

Anyway, I made dad take charcoal and then we took a tuktuk to the hospital, only to discover that the receptionist lady was so not jazzed about the whole take-the-test-Friday-and-date-it-for-Saturday business. She convinced us that if we came in Saturday morning, we could have the results by 6 or 7 pm.

Okey dokey.

We had several other errands to run that morning, including getting some more shillings, going to a grocery store to buy a bunch of tea for mom, and buying bottled water. Basically we’d just tell the tuktuk driver what we wanted, and he’d take us there.

A tuktuk, by the way, is a little three-wheeled taxi. They drive all over the city and usually it’s super easy to flag one down and go wherever you want to go.

This whole time, Steven was trying to get ahold of Peter but was not able to. So he and I decided to go spend some time at the beach while we waited. (Dad, meanwhile, just wanted to rest back at the hotel.)

Under normal circumstances, if I’m going to go swim in the wild somewhere, I just wear my swimming clothes under my regular clothes. But it was way too hot for me to attempt this. So I just decided to wear a t-shirt and swim trunks, and that’s what I’d swim in too.

Unfortunately, my swim trunks were still stained by the activated charcoal I’d dumped on myself in the middle of the night.

But I mean, what can you do? I just wore the stained swim trunks and went on my way.

Of course when we got there, someone was immediately like, “hey, if you come into this hut and pay me a dollar you can put your things in this locker and change in this curtained area.” Then I felt a little silly. Look, where I come from no one swims in the freezing-cold ocean so no one creates handy-dandy changing rooms on the beachfront. But whatever.

Then I swam in the Indian Ocean. It was amazing. Gloriously warm.

Look, I match the boat.

The only issue was that there was a ton of seaweed on the ocean floor, and it felt kinda creepy to walk through it. I wished I had a nice flotation device. Later, too late, I realized you could rent them.

At one point, Steven felt something funny on his foot, reached down, and came up with a starfish. It was tan with red spikes, and honestly we couldn’t figure out if it was real or not at first because it didn’t move at all. Maybe it was dead? Maybe starfish just straight-up don’t move? Who knows.

Anyway, after swimming and splashing around a good deal we walked along the beach for a bit. Of course I was dripping wet but it felt rather nice, on such a hot day. Much nicer than our morning walk.

“Wow, I’m the only white person on this beach,” I told Steven. “This must be what you feel like all the time.”

“If you see another white person it’s gonna be like–instant connection!” said Steven.

Oh, also there were camels on the beach. I’m not sure why. Someone who used to live in Kenya DM’d me on Instagram and said you could get camel rides, but certainly no one offered Steven and me rides.

After swimming and strolling we decided to go get something to eat. “Can you take us to a restaurant?” we asked our tuktuk driver. And he took us someplace. It was great. The table legs were made out of bare tree trunks.

Steven ordered wet fry fish like we’d had at the lakeside restaurant in Kisumu. I was gonna try something new, but the bean and veggie mixture I ordered, while fine, was not nearly as delicious as Steven’s fish (which I sneaked a few bites of).

The chapatis were fantastic though, as was the tea.

This whole time I was just in my wet clothes, although Steven said they didn’t look wet. The charcoal smudge was still there–the ocean swim minimized it but didn’t make it disappear–and in general I was a mess. But honestly I didn’t really care, because I was cool as a cucumber. Temperature wise, I mean.

When Steven finally made contact with Peter, it was already late in the day and we agreed that Peter would just meet us the next morning. I’m trying to remember what we did the rest of Friday. I think I took a nap. Our lunch was so late that we didn’t need supper, but after it got dark we decided to walk to the same grocery store where we’d bought tea earlier and buy a few snacks. Which was all great except for the last few intersections. I never quite got the traffic rhythms, so crossing streets felt kind-of hazardous, and Dad nearly gave me a heart attack once when he just went wandering merrily across the street.

Anyway. I had Steven’s name for Christmas so I was trying to buy him Kenyan things that he wouldn’t think to buy himself, while also not letting on that I was buying him gifts. That was a challenge. At one point I borrowed money from him to buy a present for him, lol.

The next morning we went to get our COVID tests for real.

Everything went well, and they promised they’d give us our results by that afternoon or evening.

After that we went back to our hotel, where we finally met up with Peter.

It really was unfortunate that we only had such a short amount of time to hang out with Peter. He and Steven were so close, and had so many memories together, that in some ways it felt like hanging out with a long-lost family member. As they reminisced I learned a lot of stuff about Steven’s life before he came into our family that I didn’t know before. According to Peter, there were six boys who all stuck together through multiple children’s homes and the streets. Today, all of them have passed away except for Peter and Steven.

Peter also told us all about the life he’d built for himself in Mombasa–his church, his career, his music, etc. He told me that he writes and sings music, but I didn’t get a chance to listen to any of it while I was there.

We were getting hungry, but weren’t sure where to go for lunch. Steven and I thought we’d like to go back to the tree-trunks-for-table-legs restaurant, but weren’t sure where it was located. Peter said he was pretty sure he knew which restaurant we were talking about, and it was within walking distance. But when we walked over there, it was a different restaurant.

I think the restaurant we went to was designed to cater to tourists, because there wasn’t any Kenyan food on the menu and the wait staff were all very comfortable speaking English. In fact, one of the really interesting things about Mombasa was that a lot of things seemed set up for tourists, but there were hardly any tourists at all, presumably due to COVID.

Anyway, Peter seemed fine with eating American food, so we stayed and ate hamburgers for our last meal in Kenya.

While we were eating, Steven got a phone call. Our COVID results were in! It had only taken, like, six hours.

Anyway, we were off again. Walked back to the motel, packed up our things, got in the taxi, headed to the hospital to pick up hard copies of our test results, and then on to the airport.

This is not that important, but I realized that the standard paper size in Kenya is different than the standard paper size in the USA, and the sheet of paper with my results was just a hair too tall for my Folder of Important Papers.

It really was a bummer that we didn’t get more time to hang out with Peter. He rode part of the way to the airport with us, and then got out to take public transportation home. Very cool guy. I hope to hear his music sometime, and hopefully we’ll all spend more time together in the future.

Grabbed my new favorite soda.

The trip home was…eventful. I have never, ever, ever encountered an airport as crazy as the Nairobi airport. I’m pretty sure they were updating their COVID system and hadn’t gotten the kinks worked out yet. Thankfully we had a four hour layover between our flight from Mombasa and our flight to Amsterdam. We had to exit the domestic terminal and re-check our bags at the international terminal, and it took literally two hours to re-check our bags.

First we had to stand outside for ages because we had to show a negative COVID test to get in the door. Then we had to send our bags through security as we entered, because Kenyan airports all have two security checkpoints instead of just one.

It was getting late, and I was very groggy. The wheel of my terrible suitcase wasn’t working, so I was dragging it all over, and in general it was a very inconvenient time to get flagged by security. But they were pulling my bag aside and looking around for its owner.

“Um…that’s my bag…” I said.

“You have screwdrivers in here?” they asked.

“Just drill bits,” I tried to explain. “Tiny things.” Please please please don’t make me dig for those tiny stupid drill bits. I got a drill for my birthday last year but had no bits, so on this trip I’d pilfered from my family’s supply. Then I stuck them in my checked luggage and prepared to take them to Virginia with me by way of Kenya. I never expected that I’d have to put my checked luggage through security.

The man was gesturing for me to open my suitcase, so with a sigh I complied. Well, tried to. The zipper was completely stuck. I could not get that thing open.

Look, I’d just randomly grabbed an adequately-sized suitcase from my parents’ attic. As the trip progressed, it slowly disintegrated. The airlines made me sign forms attesting that I’d brought it in this condition, and its disrepair was not their fault.

I was starting to panic. What would happen if I legit could not open this suitcase? And then, with a lurch, it opened. All the stuff I’d crammed in there on full display. And somehow I had to find those tiny screwdriver bits.

Well, somehow I found them in the little plastic bag where I’d dumped them with some hot glue sticks. I held them up for inspection. “It’s okay,” the man declared, and on we went to show our negative COVID test to 5 more people and our passport to 6 more people.

I was so tired and out of sorts by the time I got on that plane, and all I could think was, I still have over 24 hours of travel. How will I survive?

But by the grace of God, that flight was sparse and there was an empty seat next to me. I lay down and slept for a full 8 hours and was fine.

In Amsterdam I said goodbye to Dad and Steven and flew on to Atlanta, and then Roanoke where Jenny picked me up.

That was the end of my amazing journey to Kenya. Overall, except for a couple hiccups, I had amazing health and didn’t even crash when I got home. (Although the one morning when I woke up at 3 am and started frying zucchini, Jenny got a little annoyed at me.)

Now, I did get sick the day after Christmas and I’ve been sick ever since, but someone told me that pretty much the whole state of Virginia has the Omicron variant right now, so I guess I’m in good company. (I still don’t know if I actually have COVID or not. I got tested Friday and my results are still not back, presumably because everyone and their mom is getting tested right now.)

Anyway, take care and I hope you have a marvelous 2022!


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Kenya Part 5: Kisumu, and Steven’s Brothers

Some of you have been wondering where Steven disappeared in the narrative. Although I talked about him in my first post, he was mostly absent from part 2, part 3, and part 4. That’s because when we arrived in Nakuru, where the East African headquarters of Open Hands is located, Steven went on to Kisumu. He sent an occasional text about what he was up to, but we didn’t communicate a great deal.

On Tuesday December 7, Dad and I finished up our Open Hands work and took a taxi over to Kisumu to be with Steven. We walked into the AMA compound and there he was! Over a late supper at my old friend Abigail’s house, we talked about our plans for the following day.

I have an internet friend named Mactilda, the “Mother of Many.” Mactilda is a Kenyan woman who cares for many children who need a home. When she heard that I was coming to Kenya, she wondered if I would come visit her and her children. She lives a few hours north of Kisumu, but Steven had agreed to make the journey with me, so I’d told her we’d come.

Now, however, Steven had a different plan for our one full day in Kisumu. Even though he’d been in Kisumu for five days, he’d had enough SIM card issues and such that he’d only just now made contact with his old friend Christopher. Christopher wanted to meet up the next morning for an hour. Meanwhile, Dad had connected with our old friend Vincent, who wanted to have us over to his home. So we formed a tentative plan: Steven and I would go see Christopher in the morning for an hour, then go up to see Mactilda, spend the early afternoon there, come back, and go see Vincent in the evening.

I was pretty worried though. I could feel that I was over-exhausted, but I didn’t want to cancel plans with anyone.

Well, when I woke up the next morning I felt terrible. I was sick on my stomach and my body was so tired. I knew there was no way I could make a four hour journey and visit multiple people. No way. So I had to cancel on Mactilda, and she and her children were very disappointed. I was going to cancel on Christopher too, but Steven said, “come on, it’s only an hour,” and I agreed that I could probably survive for an hour.

In the end, I was very glad I went, even though I didn’t feel well.

For context, here’s a bit of Steven’s story: As a very small boy, he got lost and was never able to find his family again. He ended up bouncing around multiple children’s homes in the Kisumu area and spending some time on the streets. Eventually he ended up at a home for street boys called “Into Africa.” This home was run by an American couple named Rick and Audrey, and my family volunteered there for several months in 2003/2004. We met Steven there and ended up adopting him later in 2004, when he was about ten years old. At the time we tried pretty hard to find his birth family, but were unsuccessful.

In early 2011, when Steven was 16, we made a short trip back to Kenya to visit. None of us have returned since, until this trip.

Christopher was one of the other Into Africa boys, and now he owns a piece of land where he cares for I think six street boys.

I thought this was the most darling house ever. Christopher is in the process of building it so that Audrey will have a place to stay if she comes back. She had planned a trip, but it got canceled due to COVID, and now he doesn’t know if she’s coming or not. However, if she doesn’t end up using it, he plans to turn it into a school. The living room area will be the main classroom. There are two very small rooms in the house; one of them will be a library, and the other will be a room where the boys can learn tailoring. The master bedroom will be used as a computer room.

It was quite the place. Christopher and the boys really took advantage of all their space, raising dogs to sell, chickens, goats, planting fruit trees, and growing a garden.

Steven and Christopher had so much catching up to do. They talked about all the other Into Africa boys, and Christopher brought Steven up to speed on how they were doing. Some of the stories were really sad, and an alarming number of Steven’s buddies had died in some sort of accident or another. But there were some wonderful, hopeful stories. A lot of the boys had stuck together and helped each other get educated and trained in various careers.

Christopher was so disappointed that we were leaving the next day. He wanted to organize a proper reunion, and he wanted Steven to meet the boys he was caring for, who were currently at school. So Steven and Dad agreed to come back that evening, and see if they could visit Vincent in the afternoon instead. I said I might come too if I felt better. As it was, the bright hot sun was making my nausea even worse, and Steven, noticing my discomfort, said we’d better go.

I spent the rest of the afternoon resting in bed, sleeping off and on, and sipping tea when I was awake.

I didn’t feel well enough to go visit Vincent with Dad and Steven, but by the time evening rolled around I felt well enough to go back to Christopher’s house. This time, we went into the unfinished house and sat in what would become the living room/school room. Christopher had rounded up an impressive number of people, including some other former Into Africa boys and the boys he was currently caring for. We sipped sodas and everyone talked about what they were doing in life.

I discovered something then. Something that felt like a miracle.

To tell this story properly, I have to back up a little. When we flew from Amsterdam to Nairobi, Steven sat in front of me, next to a young woman and her mother who were ethnically Kenyan but hadn’t been back to Kenya in a long time. This young woman asked Steven, “how long has it been since you’ve been home?”

And I wondered, how long has it been since someone referred to Kenya as your “home?”

As a child, having an adopted sibling didn’t feel any different than having a biological sibling. As an adult, I started to realize that there was a difference. My other siblings had one home, but Steven had two. He would never fully belong to me because he also belongs there. And I began to wish so desperately that Steven could have family in Kenya too. Maybe, by some miracle, we could find his birth family.

Our God is a God of miracles, and maybe someday Steven will find his biological family in Kenya. But as I sat in that room, sipping soda and watching Steven chat with the other Into Africa boys, it dawned on me that Steven does have family in Kenya.

“You are our brother,” they told him, and I felt so stupid that I’d never realized this before. The Into Africa boys were not boys who had no family, they were boys who formed their own family, with each other. And Steven was, and always would be, their brother.

I knew, then, that they have a claim on him too, and I have to share him. I don’t know what God has in mind for Steven’s life, but I know he will visit Kenya again, maybe even move there. And I couldn’t be happier for him. I can’t describe how it feels as a sister to see your brother belong and have family, even if it’s not with you. It is wonderful. Maybe this is silly and sentimental, but to me, it felt like a miracle.


The next morning I was sick to my stomach again, although I’d rested enough that I was a little more functional than I’d been the day before. Abigail and I went shopping for some gifts for Mactilda and her children, since I wasn’t able to visit her. We took motorcycle taxis, which cost about 50 cents a ride. That was wonderful. Honestly, the breeze in my face made me feel a lot better.

By 10 am, we’d bought everything I wanted to send. Mactilda had a son who went to university just across the street from the place we’d bought the gifts, and he was going to get out of class at 11, at which point we’d meet up. But we had an hour to kill before then. Abigail wanted to go back to the AMA compound and then come back.

“Maybe I’ll just wait here,” I said. “Did you say there’s a Java House in this building?”

“Yes,” said Abigail, and we went upstairs to the Java House.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Is that a Mennonite girl over there?” I wasn’t 100% sure at first, because many Kenyan women wear head coverings and skirts, but this one looked distinctly Beachy.

“Oh, it’s Hadassah!” said Abigail.

I ended up hanging out with Hadassah for an hour while Abigail went back to the compound, which was awesome because I wanted to know more about her and how her story parallels Steven’s.

Really, the parallels are astounding. Hadassah is ten years younger than Steven, but they were both adopted from the Kisumu area, in 2004, by Mennonite families. Hadassah was an infant whose birth mother died in childbirth and whose father, since he couldn’t take care of her, asked the local Mennonites to adopt her. Steven and Hadassah were adopted within four months of each other.

Both of them felt an urge to go back to Kenya and re-connect with their families (her with her birth family, Steven with his Into Africa family,) but ran into a lot of issues along the way. Even when it came down to this particular trip, they both ran into visa issues that forced them to delay their trip by several days. Then they both arrived in Kisumu at the same time, seventeen years after their adoptions.

Steven had hung out with Hadassah some during his time in Kisumu, but with my health issues and the short nature of my time in Kisumu, I didn’t think I’d be able to. But here was an hour with Hadassah, dropped into my lap like a gift. We discussed writing, her story, her family, all kinds of stuff.

After a while Mactilda’s son showed up, I handed over the gifts, and Hadassah and I took motorcycle taxis back to the AMA compound.

At this point Dad, Steven and I packed up all our things and then went to a lakeside fish restaurant with Abigail and her husband and children. The plan was to eat lunch, head to the airport, and fly to Mombasa. Yes, I know, we were all over the place on this trip. But one of Steven’s closest Into Africa brothers lived in Mombasa. Besides, Steven had always dreamed of visiting the Kenyan coast.

At the restaurant, I didn’t know how I could possibly eat with my stomach so queasy. But I ordered my favorite Kenyan Soda, bitter lemon Krest, and that settled my stomach somewhat. So thankfully I felt well enough to eat most of the fish because I’m pretty sure it was the most delicious thing I’d eaten yet in Kenya. It was so good.

I just loved the creative engineering of these handwashing stations. One foot petal dispensed soap, and the other dispensed water. A napkin holder was mounted on the wall, so after you washed you could dry your hands on a napkin and throw it in the bucket/trash can.

I eventually figured out that my stomach issues were due to the water. In Nakuru, I drank exclusively bottled water, and I did fine. In Kisumu I was drinking filtered water instead of bottled water, and apparently my delicate stomach can tell a difference. I actually had this same problem when I visited Thailand. I hate drinking bottled water all the time because it feels wasteful–I feel guilty every time I throw out a plastic bottle. But what can you do?

Anticipating stomach issues, I brought activated charcoal along on this trip. But I still struggled, especially in the heat of the Kisumu airport that afternoon. I did better on the flights, because the cabin air was cool, but Mombasa was the hottest town yet and I woke up in the middle of the night feeling horrible. Just horrible.

Now this may sound weird, but I can’t stand taking pills that are in those little plastic capsules. I can feel them sitting in my esophagus, and they hurt. It doesn’t matter how much water I drink nor how much bread I eat, it doesn’t help. So I avoid them whenever I can. I usually open up activated charcoal pills, dump the black powder into a cup of water, and guzzle it down. The texture is weird but it’s tasteless.

But in my midnight nausea, I didn’t have a cup to dump the powder into. All I had was a water bottle about 1/4th full, and I didn’t want to waste the rest of my water by dumping charcoal into it. So I tried opening the capsules directly into my mouth.

You should try this sometimes. It’s harder than it looks, especially when you’re disoriented by fatigue and nausea. I aimed correctly on the first pill, but with the second pill, I dumped charcoal all over my pajamas.

By “pajamas” I mean my swim trunks and a t-shirt, because I like to pack light. I brushed at my clothing, but the charcoal just smeared. Welp. I didn’t want to smear the sheets with charcoal, because that seemed weird. So I changed into my above-the-knee leggings and a different t-shirt. “I’ll deal with the mess tomorrow,” I thought.

The mess ended up being a bit more complicated than I’d anticipated. My stomach, however, filled as it was with charcoal and exclusively bottled water, was fine from then on.

As to the rest of our adventures in Mombasa and our journey home, that will be in the sixth and final installment of this Kenya series, coming soon.


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Kenya Part 4: The Conference, New Friends, and Another Cool Ceiling

(If you want to catch up, here’s part 1, part 2, and part 3)

When I began this trip, I had only a vague idea of what Open Hands was and how I’d be contributing. By the time I’d spent that epic day visiting savings group and interviewing small business owners, I’d fully caught the vision. I began to envision what a completed video might look like. But to round things out, I wanted to interview some of the leaders and get some footage explaining the basics of the organization.

Monday was the beginning of a facilitator training conference. Facilitators from all over Kenya, and even a few from Tanzania, all gathered together at the Cool Rivers Hotel. (Turns out, this was actually why we came to Kenya at this specific time.)

I guess some of the higher-up people in the organization arrived early for meetings, because when I arrived at the Propel Training office to conduct some interviews early Monday afternoon, I walked in on the tail end of a meeting.

The man in the yellow/orange shirt is Amada, the program coordinator for East Africa. He’s actually from Kisumu, the town where Steven is from. The plan was to interview Joe first, then Ken, then Amada.

We couldn’t just set a camera up in the office, because it was full of people and meetings. So we wandered around the complex for a while trying to find a suitable place. I never did quite understand the Cool Rivers hotel. In the Kenyan way, all the hallways were half outdoors, and it seemed to ramble on and be full of strange random rooms. (Once, on my way to the bathroom, I looked out the window and saw something like an abandoned amusement park or fairgrounds.)

After wandering around the premises a bit, we came to a courtyard-like area with some tables and chairs. I set up all my equipment there. (“Equipment” being a camera, a tripod, and a little clip-on microphone–nothing fancy). Joe’s interview went well, but halfway through Ken’s interview it started raining. So we scooped everything up and ran into a random little room that had more than four walls. I don’t remember if it was a pentagon or a hexagon, but the walls were pink, and it was just big enough for one table and a few chairs. It still baffles me. What was the point of that room and why were we allowed to be in there? But it worked very well and kept the rain off. I interviewed Amada in there too.

After the interviews we went back to the guest house for a bit because the guys needed to freshen up, and we also needed to collect the rest of the ladies. Then it was back to the hotel for the opening session of the conference.

This ceiling also fascinated me.

If the speaking was in English it was usually translated into Swahili, and vice versa.

After this opening session, we all went downstairs to the restaurant for supper. Amazing food as usual, but I can’t remember specifically what we ate. I did snap one blurry pic on my phone I guess…looks like rice, ugali, some greens, and some meat?

I noticed that every Kenyan restaurant I went to had a sink, not in the bathroom, just in the general eating area. I wasn’t sure if this was a COVID-era thing or if it had always been like this, but I loved it. It grosses me out when people gobble up finger foods without washing their hands first. But here, everyone lined up to wash their hands, and only after hand washing did they line up to get their food.

Dad wanted to interview some facilitators, particularly those who had led people in their savings groups to faith in Christ. At first we were going to do this after supper, but the hour grew late and there was no time. So then the plan was to conduct the interviews during the 10-minute breaks between sessions the next day.

We went home, went to bed, and got up early to make it to the 8 am opening session on Tuesday. Plans shifted around. Instead of interviewing during the 10-min-breaks, I’d interview during the “Overview of Family Finance” session. Also, in typical Kenyan fashion, people didn’t worry too much about keeping a super-strict schedule, so I’m not sure if the 10-min-break thing would even have worked.

The savings groups all have savings cycles, and during the cycle no one can join or leave the group. This man’s session was about how to wrap up a cycle. I tuned a lot of it out, but there was one really interesting part I took note of. Someone in the audience asked a question–I think it was about what you do if you get to the end of a cycle and someone has borrowed more than they’ve saved. Then other facilitators in the audience spoke up with solutions. The one I particularly remember is a gentleman explaining how to set ground rules at the beginning of the cycle so that stuff like that doesn’t happen at the end of a cycle.

What was interesting was that no white people spoke in this interaction. I saw this as a sign that Open Hands is working, at least in Kenya, because the problem solving and solutions are coming from each other rather than from the outside.

The sessions were interesting enough, but my favorite part was the tea break.

Everyone lined up to get tea
I chatted a bit with Sheila. Sheila is the facilitator of Flower Women’s group which I talked about in my last post. (Also note Bruce in the background, still contemplating something deep.)

I asked for black tea, and was given this adorable little teapot full of hot water.

The snack consisted of a mandazi and a samosa. A mandazi is kind-of like a donut except only mildly sweet. As far as I can make out, samosas, like chai and chapatis, became a part of Kenyan cuisine due to Indian influence. A number of Indians came to Kenya while they were both British colonies. Of course the Kenyan versions are different–not really spicy at all.

After the tea break and another session, I went over to the Propel Training office to set up my camera. This set of interviews was a little different. When I’d interviewed the Open Hands leaders, I knew what information I needed for the video I wanted to make. But with interviewing facilitators, I was getting information that Dad specifically wanted to know as he gave his PR presentations. Because of this, Dad conducted the interviews. He mostly wanted to know stories about people who started following Jesus as a result of being in a savings group.

The most interesting story came from a man who actually started a whole church as a result of his savings group.

For some reason I kept having technical difficulties. As soon as I entered the room I plugged in my spare battery, and it’s a good thing I did because halfway through one of the interviews my battery died. I quickly swapped it out, only to have my memory card fill up a few minutes later. I didn’t have a backup memory card and had to transfer the files to my computer, so for the rest of that particular interview I just recorded audio.

For some reason Lyndon and Joe decided to just stand in the room and watch the process. Which was fine until Lyndon knocked a giant picture off the wall, and it went crashing to the floor. Joe and I died in silent laughter. Dad and the man we were interviewing kept on like nothing had happened, haha.

After we wrapped up the interviews, it was lunch time. I ended up at a table with a man named Moses and his wife Rose, both of whom are facilitators.

I had a bit of a hard time communicating, especially with Rose. I asked if they had any children, and when they said they had a 23-year-old daughter, I asked if she was married. They said “yes,” but then when I asked if they had any grandchildren they realized they’d misunderstood me. “No, she’s not married,” they said.

I was afraid I was coming across like marriage is the only important thing, so I said that I’m 31 and unmarried. First they wondered if I was still in school, and then they said that in Kenya, most people marry young.

They said this as though they were trying to explain a cultural difference to me, like I came from a place where everyone stays single into their 30s. For some reason I felt a need to correct that assumption. “In my community people usually marry very young as well,” I said. “But I’ve just never married because…”

How the bunnyslipper do you explain in one simple sentence why you haven’t married even though all your peers have?

“…I’ve never fallen in love. I’ve never met a man I wanted to marry,” I said. (This isn’t strictly true, but it’s true enough. I’ve never met a man I wanted to marry who also wanted to marry me.)

Rose looked me in the eyes and said, “God’s timing is perfect.” As trite as that phrase usually sounds, from Rose’s lips it was full of warmth and understanding. She was affirming that I was at the place in life God wanted me to be. That I was in a good place, even if it was a different place than my peers.

They told me that they are both pastors, and they pastor different churches, even though they’re married to each other. I thought that was odd and interesting. They said that I should come visit them.

“My trip here is very short,” I said.

“Come back again,” they said.

“Open Hands is paying for me to be here, but if I come again it will be very expensive for me,” I said.

“God will provide,” said Rose. Another simple phrase that sounded profound when she said it. Of course, if I’m supposed to come to Kenya again, God will provide.

We finished our food and the room began to clear out. Dad, Jason, Gloria, and I all needed to go back to the house and pack because we were leaving shortly. Jason and Gloria were flying home and Dad and I were taking a taxi to Kisumu, where Steven had been all week.

I have vivid memories of being a child and wanting to go home after church, but feeling like I was going to be stuck there forever. Everyone would be out in the car except for your brother. Then your sister would go in to get your brother, and she’d disappear. Your brother would come back, but then Andy Miller would walk by and start talking to your dad. Your other sister would remember that she forgot something, dash inside, and then the first sister would re-appear.

Well, suddenly things were very much like this. What vehicle were we going back to the house in? Where did Jason and Gloria run off to? Who are we waiting on? Wait, did Ken call a taxi to pick us up here? But we haven’t packed up our things yet!

It was all very confusing and we ended up hanging about the premises for a while. “Who are we waiting on?” I asked, finally.

“Jason and Gloria and Joe are having some sort of meeting,” someone informed me.

“Wait, the media meeting?” I said. “I’m supposed to be in on that!” We’d talked about having a media meeting, but had never nailed down a time. I suddenly realized that now was the last chance, and Dad and I dashed upstairs.

We had a short but productive meeting, figuring out what videos I should make, what Gloria should do with the website, the best way to share pictures and videos, etc. When the meeting was done I hugged Gloria and said, “Well, I guess this is goodbye.”

Joe laughed. “You’ll see each other again at the house,” he said. So I ignored Jason and went outside to tell Verlin and Bethany goodbye. But then I got dropped off at Jamila and Luke’s house to pack, and by the time I made it over to the guest house, Jason and Gloria had left for the airport already but Verlin and Bethany had showed up. So they got two goodbyes and poor Jason got none.

Then Dad and I got into the taxi and we began the three-and-a-half hour drive to Kisumu. The driver was apparently a huge Dolly Parton fan, and we listened to her songs the whole drive. (Or maybe that was just his best guess on what Americans like to listen to.)

The most beautiful part of the drive was when twilight struck just as we reached a hilly wilderness full of African umbrella trees, silhouetted against the purple-blue sky. I tried to get a picture on my phone but it was mostly blur.

It was late by the time we arrived in Kisumu. The Amish Mennonite Aid (AMA) compound looked just like I’d remembered it, though.

It’s strange how people from your past suddenly appear again. When I was thirteen and my family visited Kenya for four months, I went to school with the AMA kids. This was a very awkward age for me. I was logical but not sociable, and if I didn’t feel like doing something, I didn’t. I was also bad at sports. So when all the kids played “tree base,” like King’s base but with trees, I didn’t participate. Instead I wrote down in my notebook exactly why this game was illogical. You’d spend all your energy fighting for your team, but as soon as you got caught that energy worked against you, because that team was now your enemy. So stupid.

It’s been almost twenty years since those days, but I’ve secretly always dreaded meeting one of those kids again, because I knew I’d always be the awkward girl who refused to play tree base.

When I was on my living-in-a-new-place-every-month trip I ended up living in Florida with Ivan and Erma, who were the grandparents of Abigail, an AMA girl I’d gone to school with in Kenya. Then Titus Kuepfer, another AMA kid I’d gone to school with, asked me to be on his podcast multiple times. And now I found myself back in Kenya, and Abigail had apparently grown up and married and moved back to the Kenyan house she’d grown up in.

Abigail was always really nice to me back then though, and she was still nice all these years later. It was late, but she pulled out all kinds of food for us since we hadn’t eaten since lunch. I told her about staying with her grandparents in Florida.

“Did you hear about grandma?” she said.

“No, what?” I asked.

“She has COVID and she’s not doing well,” said Abigail.

Indeed, in the past few days I’ve learned that Erma has passed away. What a sad loss. I know she was ready to meet Jesus, and even when I was in Florida with her she had such trouble with her feet and her eyesight that she longed for Heaven. But she was a very kind, sweet lady, and she blessed me tremendously. I’m sorry to lose her.

After eating my fill I went to bed because I was exhausted. I’d over-extended myself again, and what was worse, I’d planned some intense and exhausting things for the following day. I didn’t know how I could possibly do the things I’d planned, but I didn’t want to let anyone down.

“Maybe I’ll be fine after a good night of sleep,” I said to myself.

But lo and behold, I was not fine.

I’ll tell you more about that in the next post.


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Kenya Part 3: Tea, Rest, and Inside Jokes

That time we all took a nice photo in front of the guest house

(You can find Part 1 here, and Part 2 here)

There I was, locked in the house. I was too exhausted to spend another day traveling around meeting with small business owners, so I needed to talk to the other Open Hands people and hopefully figure out a new plan. But time was running out and I had no way to get to the guest house where the others were staying.

For some reason the houses in Kenya are extremely secure. We’re talking bars on the windows, heavy bolts, and multiple layers of gates and high walls. Although Luke and Jamila’s house was just up the street from their guest house, getting from one to the other required passing through three bolted doors and three heavy gates.

(I was actually really confused by this, because Kenyans in general seemed way less violent than people in the USA. Of course I was only there for a couple weeks, but I never heard anyone so much as yell at another person. I couldn’t figure out if people were just paranoid, if crime had been far worse back when all the houses were built, or if Kenya is secretly more dangerous than it seems.)

Anyway, I wandered around the house trying to find another exit, but every exit was securely locked with a padlock. And even if I could have found a key, would the gates be unlocked?

The house was silent. Should I venture upstairs and try to wake someone up? That seemed like a sketchy thing to do.

Then Dad sent me a text. Since I was connected to Wi-Fi I was able to receive it. Can you handle another day today about like yesterday? If it gets too much for you I think I could figure out how to lessen it for you…. You are doing very well but I don’t want you to crash.

How sweet and considerate! I wrote back that no, I didn’t think I could handle another long day. But I couldn’t come over and discuss other options because I was locked in the house.

For a while I just sat there helplessly. Minutes ticked by. Then, finally, I heard a voice in the kitchen. Investigating, I saw Tirza, Jamila’s daughter. Once I’d told her the problem she went upstairs to fetch her father’s huge ring of keys, and let me through doors and gates one by one. In the fog of jet lag and time changes I’d completely forgotten that today was Saturday, the day when people typically sleep in.

I got to the guest house with about ten minutes to spare before our scheduled 8 am departure. But there was no need to panic. In my absence, everyone else had figured out a new plan. Gloria would take my place today, borrow my camera, and take photos and videos. I would go to one savings group and then after that, rest.

The group called themselves “Flower Women’s Group,” but ironically they were the first group I’d observed that had men in attendance. Apparently the group had done so well that the women’s husbands became interested in joining too.

Flower Women’s Group actually formed without the help of Open Hands. However, the group leader was a snake who would lie to the other group members and say that the bank was charging huge fees. Because of this dishonesty, the group was not doing well. That’s when they asked Open Hands for help. Sheila, the facilitator, came on board and began teaching about integrity and honesty, and I guess this made the previous group leader so uncomfortable that they left. The group elected new leadership and has been doing quite well.

It is not uncommon for Open Hands to partner with already-existing savings groups in this way, but they try to focus on starting new groups, as it can take a lot of energy and resources to untangle and fix the problems in an already-existing group.

Flower Women’s group was also interesting because there were a number of Muslims in the group. The savings’ group teaching is very Christian, and also Kenya is a very Christian country, so group members tend to be Christians. However, the Muslims in the group didn’t seem to mind the Christian teaching, seeing it as similar-enough to their own faith to be fine…belief in one God and all that.

After this the group split up. Jason, Gloria, Dad, and Ken took off in the rattly white van, while Bruce, Lyndon, Verlin, Bethany, Joe, and I piled into Bruce’s vehicle. They were going to drop me off back at the house, but then they asked me if I wanted to go to lunch first. “Sure,” I said. But then we had some time to fill before lunch, so we went to the souvenir shops.

Joe said that the souvenir shops might be a little intense, because tourism had gone way down during the pandemic. Overall it wasn’t too bad. It got a little overwhelming with a lot of people begging me to come look at their little shop, but most people were respectful. One man, though, would not stop harassing me–literally following me around begging me to buy a map of Kenya or an English-to-Swahili language book. I didn’t want either. I did feel bad for him…he probably was desperate for money. But I didn’t want to reward his behavior, especially since all the respectful people in the market probably needed the money just as badly.

I bought a few gifts and a pair of shoes. The shoes were kind-of an impulse–I saw this pair and thought they looked much more my style than anything you can buy in the USA. Later I was really glad for them, though, because the Kenyans like to dress nicely and I hadn’t really brought appropriate footwear.

Then we went to lunch. Lunch was amazing. We ordered meat for the whole table, and then we all ordered our own sides. I had chapatis and spinach.

Here’s the thing about Kenyan food. In general, it really agreed with me…more than most food, in fact. It was a lot of refined carbs, fried greens, various types of beans and lentils, and minimal meat. Everything was only mildly seasoned. My digestion loved it and my taste buds enjoyed it. But the one thing I could not enjoy was the meat, particularly the beef. It was very tough and full of gristle. I didn’t really get it. Maybe Kenyans enjoy the challenge like we enjoy beef jerky?

Another interesting thing about Kenya is the architecture and interior design. Check out that ceiling. Every ceiling in the USA seems boring by comparison. I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to look like the sky, but the shape of it baffled me. But Amy said that she’s seen similarly-shaped ceilings in Thailand, and she’s pretty sure it somehow keeps the room cooler.

When I agreed to go out to eat, I didn’t realize that it was actually a lunch meeting with a guy from Amish Mennonite Aid (AMA). So it did run a little long, and I was starting to get really tired. But presently we left, they dropped me off, and they went off to…not sure what.

Instead of resting at Luke and Jamila’s I went down to the completely empty guest house. Ah, perfect peace! Perfect silence! I had a glorious nap on the couch in Dad’s room.

After that, life slowed down for a bit. We mostly spent time as a group, eating, chatting, and forming all sorts of inside jokes. Lyndon and Joe were roommates and began bickering like an old married couple because Lyndon had a habit of giggling and giggling while Joe was trying to sleep. But this only seemed to happen when Lyndon took melatonin. The upside to the whole situation was that it was very entertaining for the rest of us, and it made Joe appreciate his wife even more, because apparently she’s not a midnight giggler.

Sunday morning we went to a Kenyan Beachy church, which is always an interesting experience. The church is not technically affiliated with Open Hands, but they have a working relationship. Basically, the idea of Open Hands began when Merle Burkholder was thinking about Anabaptist Financial. Through Anabaptist Financial, Mennonites in the USA were pooling their resources and providing business mentoring. He thought, why are these resources limited to Anabaptists in the USA, when we have so many Anabaptist churches overseas?

So when Open Hands was formed, they started by partnering with Anabaptist churches. Nakuru had several Beachy churches because AMA had been in that area for a while. Lyndon, who co-founded Open Hands with Merle, recruited some of the church members and began training them to be facilitators. One of those church members was Ken.

Although it began in the Anabaptist churches, it has expanded and now many of the facilitators have no Anabaptist affiliation. They are all Christians, however, as it is a faith-based organization. But as I noted before, group members are not required to be Christians, so long as they’re willing to put up with Christian teaching.

Church was a fairly basic Beachy Amish men-sit-on-one-side-women-on-the-other affair. Sunday School. A cappella singing. All that. Dad preached a really good (I thought) sermon about his accident, and trying to reconcile why God allows bad things to happen. His story really seemed to move people. There’s something about pain, suffering, and the emotions and questions that go along with pain and suffering that’s relatable across cultures.

Speaking of which, this was Dad’s first time traveling internationally since his accident. Several people have asked me how it went.

At this point, Dad has two disabilities. The first is his left arm. I don’t know how to describe the state of his arm, but in my head I call it a “withered arm.” You know how in the gospels, Jesus healed the man with the “withered hand?” Well, Dad’s arm looks like how I always imagined a withered hand to look, except it’s his whole arm. Looking at him, you can tell that something is wrong. The shape of his shoulder is off, and his arm dangles in an unnatural fashion. His movements with that arm are jerky and odd, like he’s using completely different muscles than one would typically use for the same movements.

Dad is still gaining skills in his left arm. Once he re-gained the ability to lift his arm chest-high, and the ability to pinch with his fingers, he was able to resume most activities. But he still fumbles quite a bit while doing certain fiddly tasks.

Dad’s other disability is his hearing. He has been deaf in his right ear since childhood, but his left ear has slowly deteriorated as well. Somehow the accident made his hearing significantly worse. He recently upgraded his hearing aids which has helped tremendously. However, he really struggles in places such as airports where there is a lot of background chatter. It was also difficult for him to understand the Kenyans, since their accent and speech patterns differ a fair amount from American accents and speech patterns.

Dad can get by, but part of the reason I came on this trip was to take on a sort-of helper role. Certain tasks require a lot of fumbling, like opening little plastic packages or getting files out of a briefcase, so it works better if I’m there to help out. I also did a lot of yelling into his ear. But if I ever do a trip like this again I’d like to see if I can find a little microphone that can connect directly to his Bluetooth hearing aids, so I can talk to him in crowded airports by just talking into the microphone.

I wonder how the lady at the check-in counter would react if I was just like, “hey, talk into this tiny microphone please.” Haha

The highlight of my Sunday was in the late afternoon when we all went to Ken’s house for a snack. This was the only time on the trip when I was inside a Kenyan’s home as a guest. Of course some of the savings groups were held in homes, but I wasn’t quite a “guest” in the traditional sense.

Ken smiling at his phone
We were served chai, those vaguely-sweet rolls, and yams.
Except for me and my delicious black tea.
This blurry photo was my attempt to get the worst-possible picture of Joe, who kept complaining that all the pics of him I posted on Instagram were terrible. (Meanwhile, Bruce always looks like he’s contemplating something Very Deep.)

Monday morning was also very laid back…at least for me. Other people in our group had a lot of stuff to do, including Covid tests for their upcoming journeys back to the states, and a shopping trip, but I had nothing scheduled until mid-afternoon. I spent the morning hanging out with Jamila and her daughters and some other local missionary ladies who came over for brunch. That was nice actually, because I’d spent so much time running around with the rest of my travel companions that I hadn’t had much time to get to know my hosts. I especially had a really good talk with Jamila’s oldest daughter, Tirza. Wait and see, Tirza is going to do amazing things in this world.

It’s really good that I got this time of rest, because the last half of Monday and all of Tuesday were go-go-go. But I’ll tell you all about that in my next post.


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