A Pink Dog and Snowflakes, Deep in the Heart of Rwanda

Our family spent Thanksgiving week in Rwanda. I gathered images in my journal, and now I spill them here. Because there are so many stories worth telling in this world, and I feel like we had our tank filled to overflowing. Twenty-four hours of travel, across the wide ocean, we stepped off the plane Saturday night, bleary and excited, eager to see Rebeka for the first time. She would spend the night with us until Thursday, five nights of sleepovers, sharing a bed with Alayna at the guest house, sharing meals with our team of thirty Texans. This trip wasn’t just about Rebeka, but she’s where it all started, at the airport, hugging her familiar neck.

Seeing Rebeka in the Kigali airport.
Seeing Rebeka in the Kigali airport.

It was our third time to Rwanda. We would visit all of our sponsored kids over the week, seeing some for the third time, tracing their growth through six years of pictures, delighting in small changes and slowly growing, long-distance friendships. That first night we fell into bed, and woke to Rwanda. Misty morning, bird tapping on the window, soldiers running past outside, chanting. We stumbled into the day, wide-eyed. We ate breakfast as we gazed at the capital city of Kigali, spreading down the hillside in front of us, cupped by some of the “thousand hills” Rwanda is so famous for.

View from the back porch of the guest house.

Breakfast was warm bread and sliced bananas. We drank water from a bottle, careful not to ever drink from the tap. Then the team loaded up and took a bus an hour south down bumpy red roads to Bugesera for Sunday morning church service. As the world slipped past I saw and remembered. People walking, everywhere, hundreds of them. Crazy motorcycles, perilous traffic, and then into the country. Dusty, smiling children and lush, green hillsides.


Mud homes with metal doors, or curtains for doors, or sometimes no door at all. Cassava drying on a blanket outside, chicken pecking at it. Small children carrying big yellow cans, fetching water. Children chasing our bus, calling “muzungu” (white person!) and waving hard.


Women washed clothes in plastic tubs and hung laundry on bushes.


Cows with long, dangerous horns, walked gentle down the road. A baby crawled two feet from our passing wheels, women walked with huge bundles on their heads, men pushed bikes up hills, loaded high with bananas or water cans. Clothes tied on sticks were scattered in the fields to scare birds from the maize.


Rebeka’s sister Esperanza was at the church service in Bugesera, though we didn’t know it until after. She came, shy and curious, once it was all over (the two hours of dancing and singing and murmured prayers in a foreign tongue all around us, hands held high, two sermons, delivered passionate, translated for us).  Esperanza hugged us, smiling, and sat quietly, sharing our lunch, trying popcorn for the first time. Rebeka translated for her big sister, proud and comfortable.

Then we were in a van, bouncing down a red dirt road. We stopped to pick up two women dressed in bright church clothes and gave them a lift, three or four miles down the road. From the backseat, Rebeka said, “My dad!” pointing at a thin man walking down the road, wearing a blue shirt. We stopped and picked him up, too, and he squeezed into the front seat. He was all big smiles and shaking hands and then we were off again. Rebeka’s dad chatted with the driver, Clay told me later he had already been to the lake near their house to catch fish, walked six miles to the road to catch a ride to the capital, took an hour there and back to sell his fish, and was walking home again. It wasn’t one o’clock yet. Had he fished in the dark?

When we arrived I recognized her house from the pictures, beautiful lake shining on the right, house up a small hill on the left, and neighbor children already gathering to witness the spectacle of muzungus arriving in their van. The first thing I saw when we stepped into the house was the pink dog.


When Rebeka first arrived in America a sweet little neighbor girl started bringing presents. Little bags with treats. The small, stuffed pink dog with giant eyes arrived on day two, and Rebeka kept it faithfully clipped to her shorts for weeks.


Now here it was, hanging from her ceiling, along with paper snowflakes and a few other assorted toys.

As we sat on either side of a small coffee table, and the translator helped us talk to each other, my eyes kept straying to the ceiling. That dog, those snowflakes, they told so much about this family. I have never been in a sponsored kid’s home that was decorated this way. There may be a calendar picture tacked to the wall, maybe a faded picture of the sponsor family, sent across the ocean, but this was special. This spoke of a mother who gave freedom to her children to express themselves. It was a reach beyond fetching water, washing clothes, cooking meals, and all the basic survival tasks that occupy their days. It spoke of creativity and imagination and the desire to make things pretty no matter what the raw materials. I hope if I had a small house made of mud in Rwanda, there would be snowflakes hanging from the ceiling.

We would spend seven full days in Rwanda, seven days worth of stories we encountered on those red, dirt streets, but I wanted to start with this one. This hastily sketched picture of what it looks like, what it feels like, to be in this country. And what it was like that first day, meeting Rebeka’s family and seeing that little pink dog.

Rebeka's family, three younger sisters, a brother, and mom and dad. Her older sisters aren't pictured here.
Rebeka’s family, three younger sisters, a brother, and mom and dad. Her older sisters aren’t pictured here.

The Bear/Moose

The last time I wrote a post, we were saying goodbye to Rebeka. Since then we’ve received a few pictures of her back home. My favorite so far is this one.

We feed on these photos like parasites, noticing every details. Her hair is braided! She's wearing that Dora dress she loved! She's wearing the socks Kate gave her!
We feed on these photos, noticing every detail. Her hair is braided! She’s wearing that Dora dress she loved! She’s wearing the socks Kate gave her!

Clay asked us when we thought a day would go by that we wouldn’t think about Rebeka. It certainly hasn’t happened yet, things remind us of her all the time. There are pictures of her around the house, an unfinished craft she was doing with a friend, some picture books I read to her the last night, still unshelved . . . there are pieces of her everywhere.

From all reports, she is happy with her family and will soon be attending a boarding school a few hours from her home. She will miss her family, but they can visit once a month, and she will be getting the benefits of attending one of the best schools in the country. She will also be able to keep up her English, an excellent skill that can take her far. We are hoping to visit her and her family in November, but until then photos and videos sent back from friends on the ground or mission teams are the only way we stay posted. The rest, all those details and stories I wonder about, are left up to my imagination.

Kind of like the bear/moose Clay and I encountered yesterday. We’re in Aspen, celebrating our 20th anniversary a little belatedly, and yesterday we did a fun hike up to Crater Lake and then down and around a Scenic Loop Trail.

At the start of the trail.
At the start of the trail.

At the last part of the trail, we walked past this big bush and heard the HEAVY BREATHING and SNORTING of some sort of BEAST. I’m serious, it scared the pee out of me. I turned around and grabbed Clay’s shirt, and then, in classic fear mode, I side-stepped him and got away from the heavy breathing.

They told us on the bus they’d seen bear and moose in the area. We’d been hopefully watching for them, but had pretty much decided we wouldn’t see one, when we heard the breathing. There was nobody around. Clay tried to peer into the bush while I perched on a tall rock a safe distance away, camera at the ready. Clay tossed a rock into the middle of the bush. Every once in a while we’d hear the breathing again. SOMETHING was in there, something big, I am certain. It sounded wuffly to me, surely sign of a bear. Clay wasn’t so sure. Eventually I hiked back past the breathing to join Clay and we walked slowly away, glancing over our shoulders.

A little ways on, there was a rocky place leading to a dry creek bed. Clay decided to walk back down, pushing through some tangled branches, to see if he could see something from the other side of the large bush. I took the camera and found another rock to perch on. He returned a little later, saying he’d found where the animal had pushed into the thick bush, there was a sort of tunnel he could have gone into, but, kudos to Clay for self-restraint, he thought there was a possibility that he could die if it was an angry moose or bear and he was blocking the animal’s only way out, so he retreated without actually seeing the animal.

That said, Clay thinks it was just a mule deer. I am sticking to my bear/moose story, and I’m almost glad the BEAST never came out of hiding, because I can go on believing our encounter with a bear/moose really happened. There is something to be said for not seeing every piece of a puzzle, for leaving some bits of it up to imagination. I think this holds true whether it’s Rebeka, a creature in the forest, or even my stories. I know readers bring all of their experience and imagination to the words on the page, and the story becomes much bigger than it ever could have been on its own. 

Happy trails to you, and may a few of your questions go unanswered, may some of your stories go unfinished, and may your imaginations fill in the blanks.

The Aspen trees here are beautiful, their leaves all shimmery when the wind blows, and the white trunks like slender white columns, lining our path.
The Aspen trees here are beautiful, their leaves all shimmery when the wind blows, and the white trunks like slender white columns, lining our path.

Tall Tales

For our last day we decided to visit the Aquarium of the Pacific. We saw all sorts of crazy stuff: eels, a shark with a saw for a nose, jellyfish, and giant lobsters. Rebeka has now joined the ranks of those who have touched the back of a stingray, watched sharks being fed, and laughed at sea otters playing and penguins diving. She even had a couple Lorikeets perch on her as she offered them nectar.


We ask her how she’ll ever explain sharks or highways or rollers coasters to her sisters. She just shrugs. When running water and electricity are novel, the rest is just crazy. I imagine her, spinning these tall American tales around the fire back home. And the funny thing is, some of the things we’ve seen when we go to Rwanda seem like tall tales back here. Fifty kids in a first grade classroom and they’re all rapt with attention, eager to learn. Bundles of sticks larger than the woman carrying them, balanced on her head. A six-year-old girl with her infant sibling strapped to her back, tasked with caring for him while her parents work.


Oh I wish I could be there, to see the looks on their faces, when she tells them about riding around in a plastic clam to see the Little Mermaid.


Or how she took pictures with superheroes.


Or gazed at water that goes on as far as the eye can see.


This great big world is full of true tall tales, no matter what side of the ocean you live on. And I guess that makes it . . . wait for it . . . wait for it . . .  a small world after all.

It’s a small world after all, it’s a small world after all, it’s a small world after all, it’s a small, small world . . .


Costume Changes

The moment we wheeled Rebeka through the Disney gates, the Disney staff called her “princess.” “Have a great day, princess,” or “step this way princess.” Our second day at Disney started out with a trip to the “Royal Faire” where Rebeka was decked out in a super fluffy, glittery Cinderella dress so she could look the part. After changing, she settled onto the floor with dozens of others princesses to watch a Tangled play.


We hunted down almost all the Disney princesses throughout the course of the day to get their signatures and some pictures. Of course, Cinderella was a favorite.


We rode the carousel again. The boys have been real troopers, riding the Little Mermaid ride twice and gamely enduring the more tame rides, though they’ve had a chance to sneak off for the thrill rides as well. By the end of the day, all of us were dusted with Rebeka’s princess glitter. Her dress left a trail of sparkles wherever she went. She looked like a beautiful night sky, her dark skin and all that glitter like twinkly stars. But, when it was all said and done, Rebeka is still our silly, goofy Rebeka.



In addition to seeing the ocean and going to Disneyland, we had another item to scratch off Rebeka’s bucket list: snow. We drove over two hours out of L.A. to Big Bear Lake, and headed straight to a tubing hill we’d read about. It was super warm, mid-60’s, but there was still snow on the ground and we couldn’t wait for her to experience this new thrill. Unfortunately, after just one slide down the hill, the staff apologetically told us that anyone wearing a cast who has had surgery can’t tube. I guess we should have known that. It would have been really bad if Rebeka went flying off her tube and hurt herself. Rebeka had fun on her inaugural slide, but she honestly didn’t seem too disappointed, and Clay was a little relieved. He said the hill was dicey, and he could easily see how an accident could happen.

Undaunted, we traveled a little further down the road and hung out at the base of a ski area.



We did another costume change, but this time instead of a princess dress she was donning waterproof riding pants (thank you Daehlers!), and a plastic bag for her cast. Eventually she also put on mittens, a hat, and a heavy coat she brought from Bugesera. She arrived in Austin last August with three coats and a couple of heavy sweatshirts, and she was finally getting to use some of them! She was eager to try a snow angel:



And of course we had to make a snowman.



Our family usually goes skiing/boarding at Spring Break, so being around snow seemed right. As we watched people coasting down the hill, we all got a little itchy, wishing we could take just one run down. Alas, the day was getting late and it wasn’t worth the hassle and cost for just a couple of runs. So, we hopped back in the car and headed back to L.A. This has been a weird trip in a lot of ways. It’s strange not having Alayna with us (she’s on her junior trip in Europe). Our car trip has a totally different dynamic. Little “super-dee-duper-dee-doo’s” resonate from the backseat. The wheelchair rattles and clangs around in the back. But the mountains are beautiful, and the family picture is still very sweet.



We look forward to trading stories with Alayna once we’re all back home again. Thinking of her reminds me of the many costume changes she made as she decided which clothes she would take and how they would all fit in the one carry-on-size suitcase she could bring. She must have tried on dozens of outfits and combinations to find just the right ones.

We have just one more day in California, and I think we’re done with “costume changes.” No Cinderella dress or snow pants required for the aquarium or the bird sanctuary. Then maybe we’ll go in search of the Hollywood sign, or Sunset Blvd., or revisit the beach . . . so many choices, so little time.

Day Two: Super-dee-duper-tee

Rebeka has a new refrain. She wakes up saying, “super-dee-duper-tee” and she goes to sleep saying it just one more time, “super-dee-duper-tee.” We think she’s excited.

Our first day at Disney was a blast. We decided to splurge and get a VIP guide who can get us to the end of every fast pass line at any time, cutting out wait times waaaay down. This way we can do both parks in two days, and see everything we want to see. We found out just minutes after meeting our guide that she has been to Rwanda. TWICE! It was a match made in heaven, we love Courtney.

Rebeka’s desire? A princess dress. The only souvenir she asked for? A bubble “gun” that blows bubbles when you pull the trigger. Her favorite ride? The carousel. She was game to try almost every ride, even Space Mountain, but she’s not a fan of super-dee-duper fast, or scary. She loved the parade,and our “VIP” status meant we got a primo viewing spot. The princesses took special note of her, it seemed, blowing her kisses and waving. She was all smiles.Here are some of our fave pictures.





This was by far her favorite, we rode it twice.
This was by far her favorite, we rode it twice.
This was a super tame ride, but it started by riding our little boat through the jaws of a whale's open mouth-Rebeka DID NOT want to go in that mouth!
This was a super tame ride, but it started by riding our little boat through the jaws of a whale’s open mouth-Rebeka DID NOT want to go in that mouth!
Once we were in the whale's mouth, she was still a little scared.
Once we were in the whale’s mouth, she was still a little scared.
This was our first princess signature. Merida from Brave took lots of time making Rebeka feel special.
This was our first princess signature. Merida from Brave took lots of time making Rebeka feel special.
The parade was awesome!
The parade was awesome!



California-Day One

I thought it would be fun to share some pictures of our Spring Break trip to California with Rebeka. Day one was mostly travel, with a very early morning wake-up call and lots of time on the plane. When Rebeka traveled to America, her first time on a plane, she never got a window seat. We made sure that was remedied.



She was so excited, making silly faces when we took off and she felt it in her belly.
She was so excited, making silly faces when we took off and she felt it in her belly.

We went straight to Hunington Beach after landing in L.A. where we saw amazing kites, a very cool pelican, a couple of dolphins, and some “swell” surfers.


We got right up close to this guy, and watched as he crouched and then dove for a fish.
We got right up close to this guy, and watched as he crouched and then dove for a fish.
Isn't he gorgeous?
Isn’t he gorgeous?
This is Rebeka's first time to stand at a seashore and see the ocean. When we asked her what she thought, she said, "It's good." We're working on more descriptive adjectives.
This is Rebeka’s first time to be at the seashore and see the ocean. When we asked her what she thought, she said, “It’s good.” We’re working on more descriptive adjectives.

We walked on a long pier out to a cute little diner for a 2:30PM lunch, then went to the beach.

Another "foot in the street" for those familiar with our first blog.
Another “foot in the street” for those familiar with our first blog. It’s no longer innocent of honest to goodness beach sand.

Clay insisted that we would ALL put our toes in the water. Rebeka said, very seriously, that she would NOT put her toes in the water. Clay had other plans for her. And, of course, after screaming came giggling.



She loved it. She also loved playing in the sand, burying Nate’s feet.

Did we mention she's flexible?
Did we mention she’s flexible?

I loved watching them all. It was fun to watch Benji run like a puppy. Shirt-less is his natural state, he loves the water and he isn’t afraid of a little cold.


Ultimately he ended up face down in the ocean, but he didn’t care. Nothing a little sunshine and a towel wouldn’t fix. Day One, ocean, check. Today we’ll do our first Disney Day, so stay tuned for more pictures. I think what we’re all most excited about is seeing Rebeka’s face when we walk through those gates. She told us she thought when we landed in L.A., we would walk out into Disney. The L.A. airport was a big disappointment! No matter how we try and explain what Disney is really like, or show her pictures, they just can’t live up to the real deal. I don’t know . . . I think the ocean runs a close second to Cinderella.

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