The life of an expat is a lesson in the impermanence of things.
When we first arrived in Assosa, the earth was a sun-baked landscape of browns, yellows and the scorched black where a bush fire had swept through. We were wondering why we had heavy fleece blankets on our beds and why we didn’t have fans and air conditioners instead. We slowly watched the mangoes ripen on the tree with excitement, carefully observing the transition from green to pale green to blushing reds and yellows.
Well, mango season has come and gone. The morning and evening air has a crisp chill to it and we now use those heavy fleece blankets while our fans sit unused in the corner. We arrived in Ethiopia back in February and it is now the beginning of July. Though I have traveled a lot, this is the longest I have lived abroad in one place. As a global health and development consultant living abroad, there is this strange grey area where we are both a part of our local communities but yet always something a little different. I greet familiar faces on the street but “China! China!” and “Ferenge! Ferenge!” still follow in my wake, forever marking me as foreign. When I was merely a traveler passing through, I always knew I was a transient and tomorrow may be a new place with new faces. As a traveler, we carried our home on our shoulders in our large backpacks or in the four panniers hanging off our bikes. A little bit of home was self-contained, mobile and we had each other. Bryan and I had each other in most of my travels and we were just passing through. Choosing to accept this contract to work six months in a remote regional capital in the far west of Ethiopia where even some Ethiopians don’t really know where Assosa is was like jumping right into the deep end of a pool.
But then again, this immersion into something completely different why I decided to do this contract and leave the familiar behind.
Expat friendships, I have learned, burn brightly. Friendships are fierce and intense and it feels like you have made new best friends, only to say goodbye to them a little later. A part of me is feeling melancholy right now because two of the four volunteers in my cohort, the pioneering cohort of Cuso International volunteers in Ethiopia, went home last week.
I feel so honoured to have had the opportunity to meet such wonderful people, blessed to learn their wisdom and enjoyed the times we laughed. All of times that we sat at Blendana restaurant drinking macchiatos and talking about life and work will always be treasured highlights of this experience in Ethiopia.
But there is this chance that we will never see each other again.
As Colleen and Phil left last week, it didn’t seem so bad because I immediately met a bunch of people from ICRC (International Red Cross) while another friend from IRC (International Rescue Committee) was in town. Though I had just met the people from Red Cross and my friend from IRC only passes through Assosa every few months or so, it was like we were immediate best friends who texted each other constantly and timed our lunch and tea breaks to hang out with each other as much as possible. It’s crazy to make such a connection with others and say goodbye to them as they fly away a few days later.
Each of these brief and bright friendships are like a little pocket in eternity. In some ways, they take on a life on their own and it is glorious and fun in the moment itself but there are a step outside reality. Someone I called a close friend seemed to change and now seems to be another person while I only learned about the pregnant fiance of another local friend over a month after he had moved away. All of us spent many weekend nights hanging out with each other talking about almost everything under the sun yet there was this huge part of his life that I never knew about.
My mom, who is a Buddhist, taught me that everything is impermanent and suffering comes from trying to hold onto something that has already changed …and everything is always changing. The change itself is just a force of nature and life, an effect of time itself, but our emotional pain and suffering comes from our own personal perception – holding onto ideas of how things “should be” rather than how things actually are. Each moment is unique and the challenge is seeing the beauty in that. The trick is to always see the magic of the moment, to fearlessly dive into the experiences and friendships that change us and leave us just a little bit wiser, without worrying about the goodbyes later. Expat friendships burn brief and bright, it seems, but I get to meet a lot of really interesting people, hear stories and tidbits of wisdom gained from diverse experiences. They are heck of a lot of fun when they last…and they always seem to leave with a shining hanging possibility of hope that our paths will cross again. The expat life is full of “see you later’s”, but the flip side is that it is full of hellos too.
If you read this, Colleen and Phil, thank you so much for being an amazing part of this Ethiopia experience! It has been an honour to get to know you guys! Hugs!!