Salty Seascapes

I love this picture, mainly because I can smell it.

Although your nose would pick up on the traces of salty humidity before you saw it, if you were to wander the sandy path through the trees, you would come across an incredible view of the Pacific Ocean.

The California coast often surprises people who tend to think of it as a sandy strip full of bikini clad sunbathers. That image may prove true in the South, but give me the wild, rocky shores of Northern California any day, with cliffs that tumble down into the sea, with cypresses and ice plants that cling to the rock face and grow through the strangest cracks and crevices, with sea lions, otters, and the relentless pounding of the surf under a misty grey sky of an overcast morning.

I also love the Pacific for the particular smells around the area. The smell of the sea has been often described, but the cypresses change the character of the experience. Piney sweet and almost citrusy, they freshen up old coves full of dead water and filter the mist through their needled fingers. There is another scent—I have yet to figure out what kind of plant it is—that I will forever associate with the ocean, probably because I have yet to smell it anywhere else. It is sweet and spicy, almost like maple syrup or cinnamon, and deeply aromatic. It is pervasive along paths like this, a sort of incense welcoming royalty back into their kingdom.

The Northern California coast is a kingdom I yearn for. While I can see the picture and describe the scent, it is not the same as breathing in the cool air myself, my lungs growing stronger with the thick blend of oxygen, salt water, pine and aromatic herbs.

The other reason I love this picture (which I realize on its own may be nothing special) is that the ocean is not pictured, but I know it’s there. That is where the path leads; you must take my word for it. It is no good pretending otherwise because once you are there, it is impossible to do so. The evidence is all around you, the crashing waves filling your ears and the rich perfume of the Pacific filling your nostrils and lingering with every breath you inhale. Yet still the ocean hides from sight, a majestic but shy beauty. The sounds and smells are foreplay. But round the bend and let your eyes feast on what your other senses knew all along. The vast enormity of the sea stretches out like an untold tale, waiting for an adventurer, a wayfarer, a storyteller.


As evening fades away

It’s five o’clock in Yaoundé, and it’s my favorite time of day.

About a good hour and a half before true dusk, the sun is low in the sky with bright beams slanting through the city and picking up bursts of color. I see the bright fuchsia flowers which I cannot name, the red dirt from the road, the green grass, the yellow and blue of nearby houses which have become stunning.

There is a strong, refreshing breeze that plays with my skirt and rustles the leaves overhead. The heat of the day is past and Cameroonians are making their way home.

As I walk down the path from the office, I take note of the small birds that swoop in front of me and an orange and black lizard and scurries away from my footsteps. I walk out the gate and down the path, marveling at the colors. I pass a vegetable stand on my left: I see bright yellows, reds, and greens, the colors of the Cameroonian flag, and incidentally the colors of bananas, tomatoes, and unripe papaya. Chickens scuttle across the road, unperturbed by motives for their crossing.

I think about the work I am doing. I spent most of the afternoon compiling a report for a linguistics book I read in hopes that it will be useful to the people at the Literacy Department. We are working on developing a curriculum for children to be taught in their mother tongues rather than exclusively English or French, languages they may or may not speak. My job involves researching how to best implement grammar instruction for African languages into a mother tongue curriculum. Although researching does not always seem glamorous, I like to remind myself that I am reading in pursuit of knowledge. There is wisdom in words, direction and guidance from ages past to address our concerns today. What could be a more worthy task than this?

I come down to the main road and turn right. There are still streams of taxis, but they seem less harried than this morning. People in brightly colored garb walk slowly on both sides of the street. On the right, there are yellow, orange, pink, and turquoise foulard headscarves for sale. One the left, several men kick back after a long Monday with a beer, drunk straight from the bottle on a shaded terrace.

I turn left on another side street and pass the small stores with a hodge-podge of items to sell, children wandering in small groups, two women sewing pillows shut, an abandoned building, and a man selling beaded jewelry.

There is no power when I arrive home and the light and colors begin to fade. Everything in seasons. The sun will rise and sink slowly down again tomorrow, highlighting the hills, plunging corners of the city into shadow. Whether or not I can see them, the colors remain.

The First Week: Vignettes

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been in Switzerland for a week this Tuesday.

I could say that the week has passed by in a blur, but that wouldn’t be quite accurate. The week went by quickly, but I remember the days clearly and have vivid recollections of the moments that make up the hours:

When I was going through the Zurich airport, there wasn’t an overwhelming feeling of disorientation like I’ve had in the past in other foreign countries. Perhaps airports are becoming familiar to me, so much so that it doesn’t matter where I am. I could be anywhere and still follow signs to get my luggage and get out.

The jetlag is different for me each time, but this was a few concentrated bad days before things evened out. While I’m still not sleeping through the nights, I no longer feel like falling asleep during the day. In the past, the nine hour difference was a source of tears and exhaustion, but now I am able to find some humor in it. The following illustrates my thought process of my first night here:

At 8:30 pm: “So tired….bed. Shower? Bed…tired.”

At 3:00 am: “While I don’t know how I feel about the lime green accent wall, the room itself has very good feng shui.”

At 6:52 am: “Why couldn’t I sleep more?”

And I feel like my body and I are just not on the same page. If we use some anthropomorphic personification, the conversation might go like this:

Body: Wheeeeee! It’s time to get up!

Me: No, body. It’s 3:00 am. We’re supposed to be sleeping now,

Body: But we’re hungry. It’s dinner time. Why don’t you go upstairs and eat the rest of that shish kebab you couldn’t finish last night?

Me: No. In a few hours it will be breakfast. No shish kebab. Now go to sleep.

Body: We already slept. It’s dinner time. We’ll sleep later.

Me: I’m giving you a fair warning. I am not going to let you sleep during the day. No sleep until the evening. If you stay up now you’ll make it worse for us later.

Body: Lalalalalala. I can’t hear you…

Luckily there are good cures for jetlag. I’ve been walking a lot (because it’s Europe and I walk everywhere), but on Friday some friends invited me to go outdoor rock climbing with them. We took a train to a neighboring town, and I was surprised at how picturesque it was: vineyards, backyard vegetable and herb gardens, colored shutters, pointy gables and flowers in window boxes. When I commented on the town’s beauty and expressed my desire not to be jaded by such consistently gorgeous scenery after a year, my friend (who had lived here before) smiled and said that I wouldn’t be jaded; I would just come to expect it. We hiked partway up a mountain (that the Swiss would call a hill) until we got to the rock face.

I can’t even begin to describe the sense of exhilaration that came over me when I reached the top of the route and looked out over the town, the lakes, and the distant mountains. When I climb, everything else disappears—the exhaustion, the stress—all gone. Conquering that route made me feel like I could do anything, even spend a year learning a new language away from my friends and family. Leaving is always so hard, but arriving can have moments of sweetness and triumph.

Would that it could always stay that way. After a few days of excitement and wandering around beautiful scenery, I came to the realization that I’m living here and that this isn’t a vacation. I need to learn French, and I need to speak it in order to do everything. It may sound stupid, but one of the hardest things for me right now is buying food. I know it will get easier, but for now, grocery stores (which close on Sundays and after 6, who knew?) are overwhelming. I can’t find what I need, and when I do, I can’t always read the trilingual labels well enough (in German, French and Italian) to know what is what. So my little kitchen is pitifully stocked, and I still don’t know where to find peanut butter. The challenge is almost enough to make me not want to cook at all, but after one of my successful shopping trips, once I got the ingredients in my hands and was chopping onions, mincing garlic, and stir-frying vegetables, I could relax in the familiarity of the movements and the routine. Tomorrow I don’t have class, so I will make an expedition to the grocery store and will be making dinner.

Today was our first day at school, mainly getting to know each other and taking placement tests. There are about 60-70 people representing 40 different countries. I love the international environment and am excited to learn French with these people. The professors all seem nice and like they genuinely want us to succeed. Apparently instead of choosing different classes each semester, we take the same classes for a year. I imagine that helps with overall mastery, but I’ve never done that before and hope that I don’t hate my subjects by the second semester.

Everything is new. I’m still shell shocked and learning my way around in a new city, a new culture, and a new language. There are days when I feel like I don’t get it. But I know that it’s important to be patient and to take in everything I can. My head might explode, but I will love every minute of it.

Visual Storytelling: Tips from Photographer Laura Cook

I am not a photographer, but as I begin to take more pictures I am inspired by the way Laura Cook uses images to tell a story.

The Daily Post

There’s a difference between photography and visual storytelling. You can easily take a photograph, but not all photographs tell rich stories.

You’ve heard the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” many times, right? As a photographer, I believe this is true when we dedicate ourselves to seeking out images that really tell a story.

We often take images that are part of a set or portfolio, but it’s also important to seek out pictures that can stand alone — that invite you in and make you feel like part of one particular story. Our camera is a tool we use to tell that story, to capture not only a moment in time but also something bigger.

Laura Cook is a humanitarian and travel photographer who spends most of her year in Sierra Leone, West Africa. She loves meeting new people, and through her work, strives to highlight human dignity amid life’s struggles.

Laura blogs at The…

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One-Way Ticket

This is the post I have not wanted to write.

Perhaps that explains my month long absence from this blog, my distractions and lack of focus. I have not wanted to think too closely about that nagging realization buzzing in the back of my brain.

I will be leaving soon.

It feels like something is being ripped from inside me. I am excited to go—we don’t move anywhere unless we believe in the promise of something better—but that doesn’t make leaving friends and family any easier.

My emotions are mixed, to be putting it mildly. On the one hand, I am thrilled to be starting a new adventure. I believe that learning French will be fun, immersion challenging, and living in a new place exciting. Living abroad and traveling wake me up from my daily routine. When I am in a familiar place, I take many things for granted and do not see as fully as I should. When I am somewhere new, everything is a wonder, waiting to be explored.

On the other hand, I realize that I am going solo into a completely unfamiliar situation. I know I will make friends, but it does take time. There will be days when I get lonely and wish to be back with friends and family here. I am also coming to the realization that I will be buying a one-way ticket, something I have never done before. There is no clear end-date to this journey, and I am still unsure as to how I feel about that.

Part of me wants to give in to our culture’s solution for anything uncomfortable: more anesthetic! It would be so easy to lose myself in mindless activities or the distractions of the Internet. It has been easy.

But I don’t want to live my remaining weeks that way. To live that way is to live half asleep, dead to the wonders of the world that beckon every day. Each day is a miracle, but too often we miss it or fail to recognize it as such. God, let me never lose my sense of wonder, that keen amazement that unlocks the heart, and always help me to be grateful.

And now, even as I am faced with the cleaning, the packing, the visa application process (which is truly the worst scavenger hunt ever designed), I can throw myself into these tasks as a measure of my own acceptance. This is happening. I am losing much, but I believe that I have even more to gain. I can’t know for sure, but I am trusting the One who has already brought me this far.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

An Update in the Life

While most of my previous posts have been pieces about travel and language learning, I feel like I have neglected to actually write about the day to day happenings and musings of my life. This week is the gentle letdown after an intense week of presentations. I am grateful to have some more time. What follows are brief vignettes of today:

In French class, my book and professor tried to tell me that the passive voice and the middle voice were the same (they’re not). We have a test on Thursday after breezing through the chapter at breakneck speed. I’m not taking the class for a grade, but the perfectionist in me still tries to take control when it comes to tests.

I was shopping for food and noticed some beautiful sunflowers (my favorite flower). I bought them on a whim. I have a plastic travel vase that holds water but can fold flat when empty. I’m glad to always have a space to put freshly cut flowers wherever I go.


(Note the intentional positioning of the sunflowers under the Van Gogh paintings.)

I am getting really close to getting things together for Switzerland. I am still hoping to leave in the fall, which is just over four months away. I am still excited to go, but this week, I have been battling the overwhelming feeling of not being ready. I’m coming to the realization that I will be buying a one way ticket. I will be leaving my friends, my family, and my life here. How does anyone come to grips with that?

I went outside in the late afternoon to water plants and saw tiny green tomatoes beginning to form on a plant that I thought I had killed. We will have tomatoes in early June. I had been watering a rosebush for the past week, and it finally bloomed today. The jagged lavender petals and the intoxicating fragrance make it my favorite of our roses.

These are small details, but the way we live our days is the way we live our lives.

Quotidian Awakenings

My first encounter with foreign money was in London. I pulled out some pounds from an ATM, having no idea what they would look like, and found myself thinking that I was holding colorful Monopoly play money. Only each “Monopoly” pound was worth approximately two of my own U.S. dollars at the time. (That small bottle of orange juice that cost 4 pounds? Yeah, that wasn’t happening…)

In Spain I used euros (I didn’t make it before they cashed in the peseta), which have their own charm. Not having to change money with each border you cross is convenient. But when I was in the Czech Republic, I enjoyed using the kroner, figuring out the system, and seeing the pictures of old kings displayed on the bills. Culture is more strongly tied to language and customs, but in keeping their money, the Czech Republic took a stand to keep something uniquely theirs.

This fall I am hoping to move to Switzerland. I don’t know what the Swiss Franc looks like. I could look on Google if I wanted, but I actually want to be surprised when I get to the ATM at the airport.

I am not someone who collects money or rare coins. It amuses me to see different types of currencies (like Canada’s awesome new plastic, literally plastic, bills), but it is a tool to be used. For me, using foreign currencies is like seeing a new flag: they both let you know that you are somewhere else. They wake you up from your somnolent routine, shouting, “Pay attention! You’re in another place! Enjoy it.”

Un Cadeau

“The past is history; the future is a mystery; today is a gift–that’s why it’s called the present.”

Sometimes it can be hard for me to be present in the moment. Some people tend to dwell on the past and replay their lives like a classic movie. They think about where things went wrong and what they would change if they could. This mode of thinking leads to regret.

I tend to struggle more with dwelling on the future. It’s easy for me to plan the next big stage of life or to think of ways to make life even better. Far from being productive, the planning stage is a continuous daydream that never leaves the ground. This mode of thinking leads to inactivity in the present.

The present is beautiful–always here yet always fleeting. Try as we might, moments don’t last forever. Once we try to record them through pictures or videos, we’ve taken ourselves out of the moment and it’s already gone.

I think the times I’ve been the happiest have been when I was so caught up in the moment that I was living the present life with wild abandon. I didn’t have time to think of the future or past. Someone recently told me that God’s grace was available only in the present. I don’t want to miss the grace God has for me today by being somewhere else. While it is important to remember what God has done through the word of our testimony and to wait with expectation for what He will do, it’s even more essential to experience Him today.

His mercies are new every morning.


You’re sitting in a café. Post-modernist art covers the walls, combining haphazardly with the retro, second-hand couches tucked away in the back corner. You raise your cup to your lips to take a sip of cappuccino when you pause to listen to the sounds around you. The whirring grind of the coffee machine, the clinking of spoons—but rising above both are the sounds of voices. High pitched sopranos, deep laughter, the caterwauling of children. A blanket of sound wraps around you, but then you begin to pick up words, fragmented pieces of four different conversations near your table. Slowly you begin to understand who these people are at basic level—students, business people and preschool moms. But then you hear a language you don’t understand. There is sound, but there is no meaning for you. After a few more minutes, you finish your cappuccino, get up, and leave the café. You need to get a book at the library.

The biggest library in town is at the university, not too far from the café. You walk over, pull open one of the big double doors, and step into a mausoleum. Silence engulfs you in the form of students studying for their midterms. Only after you listen can you discern the rustling of pages, the scraping of a chair against the tiled floor. You walk past the study carrels, your footsteps echoing loudly in the quiet. You dart to the right, into one of the rows of shelves holding a dukedom large enough to satisfy Prospero himself. You scan the titles and see the names of distant places you have never visited, the names of famous people you have never met. You keep walking through the epochs of chronicled knowledge. A silent tomb, but it holds so much wisdom, so many texts…no.

These are not texts sitting between faded covers. They are potential texts, waiting to be realized.

You pick up a hefty tome at random and flip to the first page: “Once upon a time…”

Now we’ve started a story.