Hitchhiking to Nowhere 

The border patrol officer skimmed my passport. “Where are you staying in Togo?”

Pause. “I don’t actually know,” I said, my eyes avoiding his gaze. If only I had known then just how true the statement would be. I rested my chin on my sweaty fist.

“You don’t know?” His eyes were now directly in front of mine. “What is the phone number?”

I shrugged. “Uh…we don’t know that either. Kat, did Anna tell you the name of the AirBnB?”

Across the room my friend was having an almost identical conversation with another officer. I caught her eye. We didn’t need to exchange words in order to reach the same conclusion: if we wanted to make it through customs efficiently, we had to banter our way to the other side.

Kat turned back to the officer, ready to charm with her signature Cuban lip pout.

“We’ll figure it out, right?” I shouted, my hands extending out as if I were on Broadway. “Pas de problème!” The officer dodged my outstretched arm and stamped my passport.

“Bonne chance!” He said with a chuckle.

“Claro que si!” The Spanish words came ringing back from Kat’s table.

“You speak Spanish?” The officer asked her in broken English. “Como estás?”

Kat winked at the officer as he handed her the passport. Knowing that we were departing celebrities, we slowly backed off stage left to exit Benin and enter Togo.

Giving each other a high five, we planned our next move: catch a taxi from the Benin border to Lomé, the capital, and from Lomé travel 2 hours north to Kpalimé, where our friend Anna awaited us at an AirBnB…or so we thought.

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source: the Boston Globe

Before we could say “Bonjour” a policeman secured us a taxi. We felt spoiled when we realized that the taxi had AC. Off we zoomed, feeling like queens.

Aggressive bartering in Lomé landed us our final taxi to Kpalimé. Squeezed into the back of a four door sedan were four women. We made short introductions then turned to face forward. Our hips crunched as we took off, then drifted into numbness until the occasional jolt revived sensation. In the west the sun was setting; the northern sky threatened rain. Relishing the fresh air, we maintained rolled-down windows as if our courage would postpone the downpour.

Two hours later, still confined to the rear of the taxi (which was now starting to feel like a prison) I received a text message from an unknown number:

This is Anna. In Lome. Call me. I am at hotel Lily, on the beach road. Come there with moto.  

I squinted, confused. “Anna’s in Lomé?”

A fuzzy phone call revealed a hiccup in our plan. Kat and I had left a day early, thinking that a longer weekend could only be a good thing. But Anna had not received our messages about coming to Kpalimé a day early. She wasn’t even there.

“You guys are insane,” she said, “The reservation was for tomorrow night—not tonight—but it doesn’t matter. I called the AirBnB lady. They’re painting the house. We can’t stay there at all.”

“What?!” I thrust my jaw in irritation. “Under what circumstances is it okay to cancel last minute so you can paint your house?”

“I’m running out of credit,” Anna said, the signal crackling, “I will come to Kpalimé tomorrow. Try to find the YWAM house. Maybe you can stay there. But it’s not in Kpalimé…it’s in some village on the outskirts of town.”

The dark drive continued as we propelled north into the unknown. I called the YWAM house several times. Finally, a male voice answered. “There is no room tonight. You can come tomorrow.”

“Can we sleep on the floor?” I pleaded.

The man laughed. He thought I was joking. I wasn’t.

Kat and I assessed our options. It took a grand total of five seconds for us to realize we didn’t have many. We could try to find accommodations in Kpalimé but we didn’t know the town and we would arrive late, well after dark.

“I have my hammock,” I said, “We could sleep in the bush. It’s a two-person size. I call little spoon.”

At that moment a Togolese man in the front of the taxi turned around to face us. He must have disliked our wilderness idea because he asked how he could help. I explained the situation to him.

“Hey,” I asked him, “Can you ask this woman if we can stay with her, just for tonight?” I motioned to the woman we had greeted earlier. Before the man had even finished translating to her, she shook her head and turned her back to us.

“Do not worry,” he said, “I will take care of you. My name is Seth.”

I was really hoping he would say his name was Jesus…but Seth was alright. We decided to entrust ourselves to our acquaintance in the front seat.

About thirty minutes later Seth signaled the driver to stop the car. I glanced out the window. We were nowhere near civilization. There. I spotted two lights about 100 meters off the road. He motioned us in that direction.

We walked in silence for a few minutes until we entered a concrete compound. Two pairs of eyes peered at us curiously behind the safety of their mother’s skirt. We walked through an open area and into a dimly lit living room. There we waited as instructed for dinner. “This is my native village,” Seth explained. “We will eat here then I will take you across the road. My uncle has a guesthouse. I think you can stay there.”

We ate fou fou, which is yam pounded into a moist, thick paste. Add some fish stew and voila, we had our evening meal. We drank bag water until we could expand no more.

Seth, who had excused himself during the meal, reappeared in the dark room. “Come,” he said, “we can go to the guest house.” Kat and I wrestled our bags onto our shoulders and followed Seth outside. We crossed the road and traced a dirt path. Left turn. Walk. Left turn. Stumble. Readjust head lamp. Walk. Turn. I glanced at Kat with wide eyes and retraced our steps in my mind.

We arrived inside the guest house and were escorted to a small room with a double bed and a bathroom. Before he left, Seth grabbed both of our hands and prayed with authority for our safety and protection. “I will see you in the morning,” he said, passing us the room keys. He closed the door behind him.

Kat and I stared at each other.

“Do you know where we are?” I asked her.

“HELL no,” she replied, laughing. “There isn’t a single person in the WORLD who knows where we are right now.”

I thought for a moment. “You know…I kind of like it.”

A few hours later gentle light coaxed our sleepy eyes to reality. Dawn. My favorite time of the day, especially when breakfast is within reach. The staff took our coffee order.

“Shoot,” I said a few minutes later, sipping the sugary paste. “We forgot the ‘no sugar’ addendum.” We opted to venture caffeine-less rather than drink a lifetime’s worth of dental cavities. Nevertheless, we departed with grateful hearts. Jesus Seth bid us farewell after he prayed again for our safety.  He had already paid for our accommodations but we offered money anyway.

We hitchhiked along country roads and aimless goats until we found our coveted destination: the YWAM base. After room arrangements had been settled, Kat and I dozed in my hammock for a few hours.


Squawk! My eyes opened. A flock of birds darted into the sky as if a predator had pounced. I peered above the seam of the hammock for potential danger. Aha. A voice resounded. This roaring laugh and a bizarre accent could only mean one thing.

“Anna!!” I yelled.

Finally, albeit a day late, our trio had come together.

The reunion was sweet. Anna is the kind of girl who would sign an apartment lease in a foreign country without looking at a single photo. She is unpredictable and lovely. Anna chided us for being idiots and then complimented us for being brave. We slurped mango skins and tossed around the idea of squeezing three into the hammock.

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World, meet Anna Psiaki.

Some people might call us senseless, others might say we’re wild. I’m not really sure, nor does it matter. All I know is that I was refreshed after spending time with women who drummed to a similar beat. The following two days in Togo delivered some of my favorite moments of my life.

Together, we refused a guide and hiked into the Togolese wilderness, determined to track down an elusive waterfall. Not surprisingly, it took us way too long to find the waterfall, and then we spent far too long at the waterfall. We donned our damp shoes as dark blue swells clouded the evening sky.

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We speed-hiked to mountain’s base with only a few minor cuts and bruises. Far from the nearest town and without transportation home, we corralled around the last moto driver. He agreed to let all three of us squeeze onto the back of his bike. Our quartet sped off, clamoring for grip and fist-pumping every time our motorcycle didn’t bottom out.

Lightning reached its talons into tumultuous clouds above us. In Kpalimé we dismounted our noble steed, thanking the driver for a safe return. Only one more stretch remained until we could satisfy our groaning bellies. Within a few minutes we had bartered our way into a taxi. At the time we didn’t realize our chauffeur wanted to kill us, but we found out soon enough.

Shovels of rain dumped onto the poor excuse of a taxi, drowning our windows in blurry streams. Every few minutes the driver packed more people into the car, barely pausing for passengers to settle before he lurched like a bat out of hell. For most of the trip we held our breath…until Anna couldn’t hold it anymore.

Jutting her chin forward, Anna yelled at our taxi driver in French, “Monsieur. SLOW DOWN. WE DO NOT WANT TO DIE TONIGHT!” He paused momentarily (not from driving 60 mph, but from slapping the inside of his windshield with an old t-shirt) to howl with devious laughter and swerve to miss an innocent goat. We opted to depart the taxi well before our destination.

See, we have some sense!

Needless to say, after a warm pasta dinner we tucked ourselves in early. The rainy season flexed and roared all night.

The following morning we enjoyed an Easter breakfast before we bid the YWAM base farewell. Loose coins jangled in our pockets as our trio skipped along the dirt road. We pulled out the camera and shared genuine smiles, thankful for another shot at life.

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World, meet Kat Sotolongo.

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Long hours of travel provided an opportunity to reflect on the weekend. We agreed that Togo is lovely but we don’t like taxi drivers, and we’re allowing ourselves to generalize. We risked safety for the sake of a good story and took some amazing photos (correction: Kat took amazing photos.).

Time away from the ship gifted us the space to stretch and disclose and discuss everything that crosses a twenty-something’s mind. We planned poorly and pretended that we had no regrets.

It’s also important to mention that we prayed—a lot. And we came out alive and better than ever before.

Cheers!

Kayla

​Did you know that beer is really cheap in Togo? But if you order it roadside and want to take the bottle with you you have to pay “extra.” Question…is it considered extra when the price of the bottle is worth more than the beer itself?

Try not to be intimidated by my harmonica skills.

Photos taken by Kat Sotolongo @katsoto ​​

Warm Beer and Grimy Chacos

I’m seated inside the Toamasina port drinking a lukewarm beer that cost less than $1, staring at striped fish in transparent waters beneath my feet. The quiet moment invites contemplation; thoughts swarm my mind, tugging about, and I continue to stare.

My gaze focuses on my sandals–Chacos, to be exact. They’re great, aren’t they? If you’re from the United States, you’re probably nodding your head. If you’re from Michigan, it’s likely that the word “Chacos” itself causes you to salivate.

Most Chaco owners invested in the sandals because they are particularly nifty for walking, traveling, hiking, and water activities. They are sturdy and dry easily. I don’t typically wear mine to work or to run errands (clarification: they’re so comfortable that I want to wear them everywhere. Sometimes I do wear them to the grocery store). But more often than not, if I don my Chacos I’m probably headed for something slightly out of the ordinary. These sandals are, inevitably, tied to fond memories. And weird tanlines.

Right now I am especially grateful for footwear that has accompanied me around the globe, across and through nine countries and many more to come. I am astounded that slabs of brilliantly-shaped rubber could last for many years and graze a variety of terrains.

If I didn’t clean my Chacos they would smell like bus floors, rotten soil, stale sweat, and animal shit. The cleansing and refitting of these sandals, my favorite job, is 100% necessary in order to keep using them.

But you know what? I swear that as soon as I clean them, they dirty again.

Alas, my fondness for the footwear urges me to scrub again and again. I’m happy to do it because they are worth investing in. If I take care of them they can endure many years (that’s what my parents always taught me about owning quality items. I didn’t actually start listening to this advice until I turned 24).

I take another sip of beer, glance at my feet, and pause.

I’m basically a dirty Chaco sandal.

Come again?

I think God treats me like a Chaco sandal.

That seems a bit odd, but the analogy holds truth. God leads me on journeys I would never tread if I were alone. When he (or she?) cleanses me, a lazy scratch at the surface doesn’t suffice. A deep clean, often with some sort of uncomfortable, wiry brush, is necessary to release and rid the grime.

Because I am human, I also will “dirty” again, but the best thing about love is that it never ceases. God’s love for me is unending and given generously. He will never give up on me even though I mess up repeatedly. In fact, I will probably screw up before I finish writing this. I’ll probably drink way too much beer (just kidding, it’s too warm for that. I also don’t think God would be upset with me–he probably has far more to worry about than my beer consumption in Madagascar). Regardless, it won’t be long before I do something stupid or hurt someone.

The whole point of Jesus’ teachings, I think, is to never give up and always persevere. God didn’t give up on me and if I claim to follow Christ, I also cannot give up on God’s promises. He promises in the Bible to fight for me, redeem me, give me hope and a life that never ends.

Damn.

So don’t give up! Even if a person or situation feels dirty, hopeless, or useless. Refuse to give up on your marriage, your children, each other, or yourself.

If you do, come to Madagascar, sit by the Indian waters and drink a lukewarm beer. I promise that you will gain the strength to continue. I might even feel inspired to buy you your own Chacos*, if that’s what it would take to prove my point.

Cheers!

*let’s discuss this offer after I start earning an income again

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Have Yourself A Merry Little Pity Party

Yesterday marked my first Christmas away from home, in a warm climate, and aboard a ship. Rough life, huh? In all sincerity, I wasn’t particularly excited to celebrate this year. Since I arrived on the Africa Mercy five weeks ago I have battled a severe case of “scrambled egg brain.” This self-diagnosis reflects the ever-changing emotions and tired, mushy state of mind I now possess. Anyway, Christmas:

At 0640 an abrupt alarm unkindly reminded me I had to work. After a mostly sleepless night, I rolled out of bed with a scowl on my heart.

I arrived on the ward and took report from the night shift nurse. As I planned out my shift I grew more and more annoyed. Every task and assessment felt unnecessary and too involved. I convinced myself that the job requirements today were too taxing because it was Christmas. I sat down anyway and created my schedule.

My co-workers and I soon discovered a slight problem. Three of the nursing staff wanted to eat brunch at 1130 but only two could attend. We had signed up for time slots with our friends. I planned to meet three close friends and eat our Christmas meal together.

Guess who drew the short straw.

In addition to the morning excitement, I’d get to eat my holiday meal alone. It was only 0737 and I was already fighting back tears. Every muscle in my body wanted to fight the injustice. I felt sorry for my poor self.

I’m away from home. I’m tired. I have to work on Christmas. I can’t eat brunch with my friends. I have to measure urine and clean vaginas and take care of a diabetic and convince a child to exercise and…

Thankfully, these depressing thoughts prompted me to take a break early. I walked to the cafe to collect a coffee and croissant. My already sad heart almost broke when I saw the length of the line. I didn’t have to check my watch to calculate I would not have enough time to even place an order.

I asked an acquaintance if I could jump ahead. Almost immediately I was at the front. My friend, Krystal (also the holiday barista), asked me what I wanted.

“Uh, something peppermint?” I muttered.

The man in line ahead of me turned to face me. I had met him before. The spunky Aussie was the principal of the school. He spoke.

“Oh, dont worry, yours is already being made then! There, set your mug down.”

“What?” Confusion contorted my face into a funny expression.

“My wife and I had another drink made to give away. It’s peppermint and coffee. You take it! It’s for you. On us. Merry Christmas!”

I smiled, thanked him, took the coffee and sat down at a nearby table. I knew the coffee was cheap, if not free today. Why was I so touched by his kindness?

I returned to work feeling slightly more grateful. I smiled at my patients. I provided better care. I began to see all the blessings that followed in the day.

This Christmas I am thankful for different things. I appreciate the British stranger who served as a delightful brunch companion. I am thankful for the fellow Midwesterner who stopped by the ward on her Christmas to bring me delicious coffee. For the first time in a month I tasted coffee so smooth that I could drink it black. I will never forget the sweet, motherly pharmacist who spoiled me with a back massage after I told her I missed my touchy family. I am thankful for the drizzly evening weather and a close friend who sang beneath the moon with me.

It’s amazing, you know, just how much simple kindness can change your perspective. Open your eyes. Reset your mind. The feeling that comes from knowing someone is taking care of you can gently force you to start thinking of someone other than yourself.

I think God’s love works in me quite the same way. After I have spent time praying and praising in whatever form (singing, writing, taking a quiet walk) my heart transforms, shifting my gaze. The Lord’s peace, grace, and mercy cleanse my mind. They remind me of my responsibility to look after others.

What would have happened without that peppermint coffee? Sure, things could have turned around. But it would have taken longer. My endangered spirit would have stayed tucked beneath self pity, lying to people, “I’m good. I’m okay.” All for the sake of preserving a stupid sorry-for-myself attitude.

I hope this resonates with you somehow. If not, learn from my mess. Do something kind for a stranger. Pause. Share a little love. You never know what could follow.

Left: the lovely Fifaliana, who rocked her exercises on Christmas

Right: two patients from our ortho program ambulate with candy cane assistive devices

Don’t Envy Me

I left Grand Rapids in a whirlwind and didn’t get a chance to tell loved ones my thoughts. Or perhaps I just hadn’t yet articulated my goodbyes. Either way, during my 13 hour flight across the Atlantic I finally had time to process–shortly after the middle-aged Ethiopian passenger convinced me (quite easily) to ask the flight attendant for wine, and sometime before I fell into REM sleep.

I’m extending a ginormous THANK YOU to everyone who went out of their way to see me and/or bid farewell. I couldn’t see all of you but I so appreciate the thought behind your efforts. For those who I did have the opportunity to see, I carry those heartfelt and intermittently tearful conversations with me.

The final, face-to-face (because I’m certainly not dead) conversations were decorated with various words, but almost all contained the same one: “Have so much fun on your adventure!” I felt a little guilty when I heard this over and over again. I felt like a real life quitter who decided to pursue my generation’s chronic  disease known as wanderlust. But, really, I think I felt guilty because you are absolutely right: my seven month journey through Africa is, undoubtedly, an adventure.

But why are these seven months, specifically, an adventure? Because I’m in Africa? I think it has to be more than that. For the Malagasy people “going to Africa” might not be an adventure, and I know plenty of folks who live adventurously without stepping across a foreign border.

These months are an adventure because I chose risk.  I quit my job and willingly entered the unknown. I am surrounded by new faces, smells, sights, and sounds. I got electrocuted by a shower faucet. I have to reconnect to wifi at least a dozen times just to have a short conversation with a friend. I didn’t pack enough underwear (Kelsey, I should’ve listened to you). All of these mishaps are what construct said adventure.

You, also, have the capability to live adventurously. Maybe you’ve hesitated to spend money on that seemingly irresponsible vacation. Go now. Maybe you’ve thought about accepting the new job offer but you’re afraid you will like it less than what you have now. Dare to hope a little! Perhaps you’ve always wanted to talk with the teary-eyed woman you see at mass every week. Why not ask her how she’s feeling? Why not treat the homeless man to pizza instead of walking away with a full pocket and a guilty heart? Why not visit the local restaurant even if it’s not as cheap as Applebees after 9 pm? Why not ask that girl out? For crying out loud, WEAR the purple lipstick you bought months ago and stop worrying what people will think.

Adventure is all around you. You just need to choose it.

On a related note, I want to share that my days leading up to my depature were exhausting and challenging. I experienced every emotion and feeling possible during the last two weeks: pain, loss, heartache, fear, anger, joy, surprise, love, disgust, fatigue, excitement. I left like a hurricane and secretly expected that all the kinks would even out once my chacos greeted new soil. That hasn’t exactly been the case.

I’m struggling to be fully present here because I am still so connected to home. But I think it’s okay to have this struggle, and I don’t think it’ll go away anytime soon because these connections (people, really) are incredibly meaningful to me.

I miss my roommates. I miss Bekah’s word puns, Brittney’s palpable energy, Sarah’s laugh, and Christina’s passion for Chuck. I miss hospital banter with Ashley and Andrea and encountering those ridiculous RAZ moms. I miss my brothers’ hugs, my parents’ advice, and my sister’s sense of humor. I miss my pastor’s quirky sermons and the rowdy priest from mass at St. Andrews. I miss long happy hours and late night conversations and spontaneous salsa dancing lessons and Paddy’s irish accent when he reads out loud.

AND IT’S ONLY BEEN FOUR DAYS. Good things are to come, but not without sacrifice.

That’s what I ask you to remember. You can wish me well on my adventure but ONLY if you promise to see your own potential for adventure, right where you are. Sacrifice some comfort for the unknown. Start small and see where you end up. And, of course, tell me all about it!

Cheers to YOU! I love you all.
P.S. I realize that I used the word “adventure” a million times in this post, and I actually thought about using my friend, the thesaurus, to mix it up. But I thought it’d be better to use it as many times as I heard it before I left!

I Would Never Do That

“Alright, it’s time!”

No. I close my eyes, pretending to sleep.

“Come on, Kayla, you have to come.” My co-worker, Kim, bounces eagerly, her shoes spitting sand on my face. She knows I’m awake.

I sit up, arms crossed with tension. “If you pressure me then I definitely won’t go. I have to decide on my own terms.”

“Ok, then, just come along and we’ll just…look.”

Kim, my roommate Christina, and I ascend the jagged rock behind my little brother, Jaron, who is leading the way. My skin has already transformed into a bizarre looking layer of bumpy raw chicken. “Guys,” I try one last time. “I’m already freezing cold and I’m DRY right now. I don’t want to jump in the water…” They ignore my dramatic monologue and we continue climbing.

The sun’s warmth is the day’s only redeeming factor. Unfortunately, the trek to the designated point is completely shaded, and the physical discomfort I feel intensifies the emotional dread I’m battling. My eyes widen in awe as we approach the cliff. I can’t move my gaze from the majestic beauty of Michigan’s Pictured Rocks lakeshore. The water is aquamarine and as clear as a glass of water. Powerful swells of Lake Superior assault the rocky peninsula beneath our feet. I shiver.

Jaron stands near the edge, pauses momentarily, and then jumps. I count at least three full seconds before I hear a splash. A moment later he emerges over 40 feet below, grinning at us from icy waters. He sports a stupid grin across his face, waving frantically for a follower. “Come on! IT’S AWESOME!”

Kim and Christina look at Jaron, glance at the shore, and then at each other. It’s clear they’re less concerned about the jump itself and more worried about the hazardous swim to safety. All I can think is that my little brother currently has one up on me.

I walk briskly to the edge, realizing that I don’t actually have a choice. My competitive nature and thirst for adventure win out. Behind me the girls are talking to each other, shocked that I’m even considering the plunge.

I blink. My mind and feet betray me. I jump. Behind me Kim is yelling, “STAY STRAIGHT,” but there’s only one thought on my mind that I can actually vocalize: “Shhhhhhhiiiiiiiiiittttttttttt!!!!!”

Three seconds later someone punches me in the face. Or did I just transform into a sock inside of a washing machine? Hard to say. I try to swim as waves argue with each other, pushing and pulling me in opposite directions. I sputter toward the surface.

Little relief comes after I inhale fresh air. I’m certain an old, fat woman is churning these waters around me, cackling, while I (a small particle of cream) fight desperately to remain afloat. I’m mostly upset that my boobs, which represent 90% of my body fat, aren’t helping me AT ALL. Good for nothin’. I guess I’ll have to use my arms and legs. 

The journey back to shore is both treacherous and tiring. Thankfully, my brother is a strong enough swimmer to support himself and act as my personal lifeguard. I love him for it–but let’s be real: I would’ve loved (even more) to receive first aid and mouth-to-mouth from a shirtless and muscled Coast Guard rescuer. Maybe next time. Right now all I want is food, warmth, and bed.

Several hours later, thanks to northern pasties and subpar coffee, I am thawed from the inside out. The four of us depart the flannel-filled establishment in search of a nearby campsite. No luck. Instead, we decide to make use of our time and drive to St. Ignace, which is over two hours away.

Jaron is navigating us through the darkened world. I peek at the stars, thankful to retreat to reflection. I can’t help but relish the delight of my cliff jump. Yes, it sucked, but I’m so glad I did it. I laugh, thinking of how I initially resisted the idea. Why was I so opposed? More importantly, what inside of me changed at the cliff’s edge? Why did I do it?

I suppose I was opposed because I didn’t consider that other factors (such as competition and adrenaline) would outweigh my fears. I realized at the moment, watching my brother below, that I could handle twenty minutes of bone chilling cold to achieve the satisfaction of a new experience. But those are influences I never considered until I was at the point of decision.

I’m starting to think that this happens more often than I realize. I ponder an opportunity or path and conclude, I would never do that. Or more often, I could never do that. When I finally come to the moment of decision, BAM. I’ve decided to do exactly what I had previously deemed improbable. 

I remember feeling deeply discouraged when I received my midterm grade during my first year of nursing school. Just before that term had started I told my parents that I was going to quit nursing school and move abroad to work with YWAM (Youth With A Mission). They laughed and responded, “no” (I wasn’t laughing). I began my pediatric rotation and suffered through the courses, receiving my worst grade in all of nursing school that term. What did I tell myself, looking at my scores? It doesn’t matter. I would never work with kids anyway.

Three years later I applied for a job at a children’s hospital. When the HR representative called me and offered the position, I still had hesitations even though I had sought them out. I was confused because I had always told myself I would never… But guess what: I did, and I’m so glad I did. 

A few years ago I considered (for a hot second) making a commitment to being single, but the thought actually made me nauseous. Several friends did this during college and all reported good things, saying they pursued healthy friendships, learned about themselves, and invested time in their faith. I, however, abhorred the idea of relinquishing control. I could never do that. What if I meet an awesome guy? Woof. So I said no and concluded I never would. 

Late this summer I sat at Reeds Lake, feeling an unusual craving, almost a burden, to pursue romance. I’ve been single for the last year and a half so this newfound pressure felt unnecessary. Deep down I knew that I didn’t want to start anything before moving to Africa in November. I also don’t want to pour my energy into a relationship while I’m working with Mercy Ships. Frankly, the timing just seemed right and I felt peaceful about it. So I’ve decided that I’ll stay single until I return from my worldwide endeavors–and this time around I haven’t felt nauseous.

Cheers to saying you’ll never do something and then doing it!

   

  


[yes, I did wear the same outfit for four days. You can see the photos were taken on different days by subtle changes in headband positioning.]

From Michigan to Madagascar

“That sounds so cool. You should totally do it,” I affirmed, cupping my steamy, tea-filled mug.

Kelsey, my dear friend and college comrade, smiled. “You should think about doing it with me.”

I inhaled earl grey steam and pondered. “Mercy Ships? Nah. I’ll do my own thing.” I withheld my genuine reason for declining. Truthfully, my heart yearned to work overseas but I wasn’t interested in volunteering and raising money. I was already paying twice the required monthly payment on my student loans. Even though I tried (so hard) to sweet talk the Chase Bank man during our chats, I was certain those loans weren’t going anywhere. It seemed silly to ask for money when I still owed the bank thousands.

Yet it wasn’t absurd for Kelsey to ask me to join her. For over a decade I have felt a stirring as a living idea grew within me. In college I studied nursing and Spanish and traveled as often as I could: I taught English in Nicaragua, climbed Mayan ruins in Mexico, worked on farms in Cambodia, and visited Buddhist temples in Thailand. I’ve visited Costa Rica, Guatemala, Belize, the Dominican Republic, Hungary, Poland, France, and the UK. Oh, and let’s not forget our friendly neighbor, Canada. All of these excursions have fueled my passion for working overseas.

After college I pursued my international dream by applying for jobs in Honduras, the Dominican Republic, and Abu Dhabi. None of these came to fruition. Frustrated and discouraged, I harbored bitterness toward God, convinced that I was never going abroad again. I felt trapped in Grand Rapids, but the truth is that I was being unbelievably dramatic and, more importantly, I was actually trapped in my own self-pity and limiting stipulation for working abroad: I still refused to consider volunteer work.

I remember the moment my perspective changed. Six months ago I accompanied a group of Calvin nursing students on a trip to Belize. I recall one morning walk along a dirt road in the western mountains. I had arisen early that morning, grabbed my Bible and notebook, threw on a pair of sandals and tiptoed out the door while my roommates slumbered steadfastly. I headed for the hills before the coffee was brewing.

I’m not sure when the thought came to me. Maybe it happened when the sun illuminated the landscape; or perhaps it was the prior day’s memory of patients at the rural clinic, but a quiet, firm thought whispered, you love being abroad. You love it enough that you can ask people to help you come back.

I couldn’t disagree with this notion. I love international travel because the world wakens me. All five senses are heightened when I’m abroad: I inhale fresh scents and odd smells; I hear sounds of languages and the buzz of traffic; I perceive different faces and rugged landscapes; I taste new cuisine and flavors; I feel harsh climates against my skin. These awarenesses make me feel alive.

After that morning walk in Belize the window to volunteer work opened so I could no longer invent a reason to say no to Mercy Ships. I called Kelsey and asked her to meet with me again.

We sat in a different coffee shop. I told her about my recent Central American experiences and then braced myself to reveal the good news.

“I’m going to apply to Mercy Ships. I think I can raise the money and it’d be ideal to go together.”

She grinned. “Yes!”

I headed for home and filled out the application before I could talk myself out of it.

One week later I logged into my email account and read:

Possible Dates of Service in Madagascar

I blinked, anticipating that the message would change. It didn’t. I read that Mercy Ships had an assignment for me. From November 22, 2015 to May 14, 2016 I would be aboard the Africa Mercy, which is currently anchored in the Indian Ocean off the coast of northeast Madagascar. The position they offered is on a pediatric ward where I’d take care of children after they’re released from surgery.

I didn’t waste any time. Of course I wanted to go! But concerns drowned my mind: Kelsey? Housing until November? Loans?

The Lord addressed all of these concerns within a few days. Unfortunately, I’m gifted at crafting countless worries so I’ve already thought of a thousand more. I’m asking for prayer that I am organized and diligent. I need at least one friend to pray specifically that I don’t lose my passport. I’m asking another to pray I receive my immunizations and don’t contract malaria. Maybe two or three could pray lemurs do not attack me. If these don’t interest you there is another way you can help me.

I’m requesting that some contribute financially to help me raise $7,000. If you’re willing I would deeply appreciate donations to either my Mercy Ships account or to my personal volunteer account. If you donate to Mercy Ships (http://mercyships-us.donorpages.com/crewmates/KaylaInnis/) you’d pay for things like housing and travel costs (and receive a tax deduction). If you donate to my personal account you’d supply me with essentials like deodorant and coffee, which would be an answer to ALL the volunteers’ prayers.

I’m determined to make it to Madagascar but I can’t do this alone. I don’t want to do this alone. So let’s chat. I have much more to tell you!

Peace & Blessings,

          Kayla

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photo credit: Hannah Innis