Confession of an AFS Mother: The First Shall Be Last and The Last Shall Be First


In Matthew 20:16, the apostle writes that Jesus said, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  I am confident that when Jesus said this, he had neither the American Field Service (AFS) nor a white middle-aged woman crying her eyes out in a parking lot in mind.  In my pea-sized Catholic-trained, Baptist-leaning brain, I believe he was talking about important VIPs and little people . . .  you know,  Democrats and Republicans, the Yankees and the Red Sox.  (Sorry, couldn’t help myself — it is September and it is convention time you know.)  Further, it sounds like he was talking about who would get into Heaven and who wouldn’t — humble shepherds, peasants, and modest folks would earn entry and those of us who are prideful, accomplished, with way too many possessions just might not score a ticket to the biggest show above earth.  Now, this is a really great thought and one of those go-to passages that stops me dead in my tracks.  Today it came to mind for a completely different reason.

Cheerleading at a T. C. Williams Titans Football Game, September 2011.

Yesterday, we dropped our 16-year-old daughter, Megg, off in New York to join a crew of other teens from all over the US who will be studying in Europe next year with AFS.  Ours will be living with a family in Ponferrada, Spain in a family with a mom, a dad, a sister and two brothers plus a cat and a dog.  It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?  She is very excited about this opportunity and we are, too.  For the past 11 years, she has been studying Spanish, starting with kindergarten at Mt. Vernon Community School.  She spent half her days in English and the other half in Spanish.  From about fourth grade on, she has wanted to study abroad during her junior year in high school.  This dream started to come into sharp focus about a year ago, well almost — about 290 days ago to be exact.  That’s the day that Megg submitted her application to AFS and the day she started counting down the days to today — the day she gets on a plane and flies to Spain.  Some of those 290 days have flown by and others have been excruciating like the days waiting for our official documents to come from the State Department or waiting for her visa application.  The rest has been a blur of parties, thank you notes, and blog posts.

Starting in about June, we all started realizing that we were about to embark on a series of last things — last time I’ll celebrate my birthday here, last time I’ll see this aunt/uncle, last time I’ll get dropped off at high school, last this, last that, etc.  Yesterday morning was a kaleidoscopic series of lasts — the last time I’ll hug my sister, have a bagel with my best friends, last time I’ll hold my new nephew, etc.  And, like every other time, I was just the chauffeur.  I watched every interaction and cried along with the best of them.  Every once in a while, Megg and I shared knowing glances, but most of the time, I kept my eyes on the road and just drove.  I drove to Zoe’s house.  I drove to the Bagel Bakery.  I drove to the gas station.  I drove to Alex and Shawn’s house.  I dropped by Erin and Jessica’s houses.  I drove to T. C. Williams High School.  I drove home.  Around 9am, we packed everything into the car and we drove to New York.

This would be the last time we would chauffeur her around for 10 months and it was like every other trip.  We chatted about politics and gossiped about our small-town lives.  Megg listened to music in the backseat and every once in a while told us who was where — Paige was on the Pennsylvania turnpike, Erinn was at the airport waiting for AFS to pick her up, Lauren was at exit 10 in a silver Honda – did we see her?  It was like every other trip except that it was the last one we would be making with Megg for a while.  It was hard not to attach meaning to everything, but we all kept it light.

After we parked the car, we opened the back of the suburban and she got her own luggage out of the car.  She didn’t ask for help, she just grabbed it, and started lugging it into the hotel.  Hmmm . . . that was the first time that had ever happened.  Every other time we’ve traveled, Megg was the first to moan and groan under the weight of all of her stuff.  She’d wheedle and cajole anyone and everyone into carrying just one thing for her.  Not yesterday.  She carried that luggage — all 88 pounds of it into the JFK Hilton by herself.  This was our last image of Megg  . . . and the first time we’d seen the person she is becoming — the self-confident, happy, excited 16 year-old heading off on the biggest and scariest adventure of her young life.  Wow!

I realized her life and ours will be a series of such firsts and lasts, hellos and goodbyes for the next 10 months.  Just when she is starting to get acclimated to Spain, she’ll be coming home again.  As soon as we’re used to living in a house with 4 bathrooms and 3 people, she’ll be back and taking over at least two of them again.  As soon as she becomes fluent in Spanish, she’ll be back in the United States rattling off an English rap for church camp.  The list goes on and on — firsts, lasts, hellos, goodbyes.  It wears me out thinking about it — but in a good way.  As I sit in this nondescript parking lot for the first time crying my eyes out wondering what she’s doing I realize this will be the last time I’ll be sitting here.  Although I’m sure there will be many more moments just like this one, I’m going to just keep repeating Matthew 20:16, “so the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”  I’m confident this is exactly where Jesus would want me to be.

Amen.

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Day 1: Our Journey to the Heart of Darkness


“So are you ready for the biggest adventure of your life?” Sara asked us as we piled out of the mini-van that literally limped into the Rwanda-Congo border town of Gisenyi.  Yeah, baby, the Call-Riches had arrived in Africa.  So begins our tale . . .

We left the day after Christmas from Dulles on a non-stop flight to Africa with 15 bags including 7 laptops, 17 soccer balls, a lifetime supply of bic pens, Sara’s Christmas presents, and an obscene amount of cash.  We were ready.  Addis Ababa, Ethiopia was our first stop on the continent — 12 hours with every kind of movie available you could possible imagine — Wall Street, Vampire Tales, Up — as well as more audio channels than satellite radio.  The food was great and we did not sleep despite the Benadryl I pumped into all of us.  We were way too excited and rightly so.  The airport in Addis is the equivalent of a US Airways hub — people and planes going everywhere.  The only difference was that there were no screens telling you where to go and no printed boarding passes.  Oh-oh.  I could feel Lonnie starting to tense up as Ethiopian Airlines personnel started to screech out the names of places.

“Luanda?” a woman yelled.

“No, Rwanda,”  Lonnie responded.

“Ah, Kigali,” she said with an open, welcoming smile.  “Okay, follow me.”

“Follow you where?” he asked with a wee bit of edge.

“Just follow me, please, ” she said with a confident wave of her hand as she turned and walked away.  We pursued her like lemmings, queuing up to a desk she staffed.  I was the queen of the passports with the equivalent of a portable safe on my person doling out the valuable documents with my eyes on them at all times.  After about 15 minutes of waiting, we had our handwritten boarding passes.  We then scurried up stairs, hurried down Hogwarts-esque corridors, huddled on a fast-moving Dulles-like “mobile transporter” or bus, and were led eventually to a much smaller plane that would transport us to Kigali, Rwanda — the capital of the land of 1,000 hills (mille collines in French).

The flight and arrival were exactly the way you’d want them . . . uneventful.  Our fellow passengers  signaled their approval for the pilot’s successful piloting with applause upon landing– we joined in.  Not only did we arrive safe and sound in Kigali, so did all of our luggage (see litany above!).  The next big challenge was using the mobile phone my office had given me — I think they thought I might need it for something really important — to call our hotel, the Mille Collines, to have them pick us up.

“Oh, the Rich Family?  Yes, your transport was there at noon; it’s now 2pm, ” the gentleman at the other end of the line said matter-of-factly.

“Our flight was late.  Sorry.”

“You’ll have to get a taxi.”  Bottom line — you snooze, you lose . . . even if it’s not your fault.  Note to self . . . all the trouble of trying to figure out how to dial the number the hotel wasn’t worth the effort, but it did get my Swahili brain going as I had to ask a Rwandan woman how to dial the number of the hotel.  Now, I’d have to use my Swahili again to hail a cab.   Deep breath.  Kabahita, our good friend and Swahili instructor, had taught us how to do this.  As soon as our convoy emerged from the airport, we were engulfed with offers of support.  It was a bit difficult singling out who was a driver and who was a handler, but there was one earnest fellow named Athanase who somehow caught our attention.  He didn’t speak Swahili — only Kinyarwanda and English.  Lonnie was happy.  His comrade only spoke Swahili and Kinyarwanda.  I was happy.  Lonnie and Mattie went with Athanase.  Megg and I went with Paco.  It was a 30-minute $20 cab ride from the airport to the hotel.  We wound our way from the airport, which is southeast of the central city, through the crowded commercial district, and up many hills to the Mille Collines Hotel, which is situated in the northwest corner of the city amid a lot of government offices and residences of important Rwandans and expatriates.

Mattie, Megg, Marcia, and Lonnie

I had thought a lot about what this cab ride would be like long before our plane ever touched down in Kigali.  First, I had been to Kigali, but not since the genocide so I was curious about what a place that had undergone so much violence would look like.  Second, I have seen Hotel Rwanda more times than I care to admit and we would be staying at the hotel the movie had made famous.  The cab turned a corner and there it was — the large cement sign with the signature hills on it representing the logo of the Mille Collines Hotel.  We turned into a parking lot which is divided by a 100-foot median strip with beautiful flowering trees planted in it.  There were angled spots for cars to park like I have at my local Giant grocery store.  For ease, there was one way in and one way out of the hotel.  Our taxis arrived at the modest entrance — a glass exterior with no trace of the oversized wooden doors that Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) locks with so much emphasis near the end of the movie.  Our luggage was efficiently whisked out of the vehicles and into the lobby.  We contracted with Athanase and Paco to come back the next day to take us to some sites before we caught our ride to Gisenyi and ultimately Sara.

The view off the lobby was breathtaking.  From there, you could see the main city center of Kigali as well as the surrounding hills.  Although the panorama was clear, it was not as clear as it would be in a few weeks.  The rainy season had only just begun and the air still had a fair amount of dust in it obscuring the view somewhat, according to the locals.  We didn’t notice.  As we walked over to the windows and onto the platform off the lobby, we looked down on the pool and beautifully landscaped bar area.  It was Christmas Monday and people were still in a reveling mood.  Again, the parallels to the movie were stark so I decided that it was time to abandon my Hollywood-esque vision and live the Mille Collines as I saw it that day, December 27, 2010.  I was not cheated.

Our rooms were modest by American standards and more than adequate, although I did blow out the power using a hair dryer the next day.  Wasn’t that the reason I had my hair cut before I left?  Some habits die hard.  Megg was exhausted and decided to nap while Lonnie, Mattie, and I went down to the pool bar to see what we could see.  A little girl was swimming in the pool and before her mother could muzzle her, she shrieked, “Muzungu!”  much to her caretakers’ chagrin.  Muzungu, the swahili term for foreigner, has become synonymous with white people and is often heard in rural settings whenever white newcomers enter a public square.  However, having served as a Peace Corps volunteer in neighboring Congo (formerly Zaire), I was used to it and had prepared my family for its usage.  We laughed and gave her the thumbs up sign, a seemingly universal symbol of good will in almost any land.  We’d overcome our first cultural event with ease.  I ordered a Primus, the local brew, Mattie ordered a “coca,” and Lonnie ordered juice to celebrate our arrival.

That evening we had a lovely dinner in the Panorama Restaurant on the fourth floor of the hotel.  Imagine the lobby view four stories up with all of the lights of the city below us and you have the picture.  We ordered steaks and vegetables, which were well prepared, however, I don’t know that we would have really noticed if they weren’t.  We were as tired as we were hungry.  One thing was certain . . . we were not going to die of hunger on THIS vacation.  As we were sitting there, not one but two UVA shirts walked past us.  Yes, there was a family of Virginians who, like us, had come to visit their adult Wahoo child who was doing something exotic with her post-collegiate career.  They had come to Rwanda to see the gorillas and Kigali was the perfect place to sojourn before the trip into the bush.  I sighed . . . we would have to leave that to another time as Megg and Mattie did not meet the 18-year old age limit for such an adventure.  I think Lonnie was relieved as a hike into the wet bush was not his idea of fun.

With visions of internet connections and facebook chats in their heads, the girls politely asked to be excused after dinner.  Abandoned, but not at all unhappy about that, we sat and marveled that we were now in Africa.  After months of logistics — renewing passports, soliciting letters of invitation, paying for visas, reviewing itineraries, undergoing shots for every disease known to man — our dream trip was unfolding in front of us.  The biggest adventure of our lives was NOW!

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