It is hard to believe that Christmas is only two weeks away! I have heard reports of snow storms in West Michigan, and since my last memories of home are from the middle of August with the sun shining I am starting to realize that I have been gone a while already. It is certainly strange to be living at the equator as Christmas approaches; I am finding it hard to believe that it is actually mid December because everything I associate with winter and the approach of the holidays is absent here. Every day feels like the height of summer to me, which is great, although I am missing the changing seasons.
I was able to post some pictures while on an MCC retreat a few weeks ago because I had brief access to somewhat fast internet, so hopefully the photos give you a very small visual glimpse of some of the things I am experiencing here.
So a few weeks ago, in mid November, MCC had its annual all staff retreat. It was a really wonderful time of relaxing, refreshing and sharing joys and struggles with each other. We all met in Arusha for a few days and then we took a small bus to a beach resort on the shore of the Indian Ocean for a three day stay. The place we stayed at was called Emayani Beach Lodge, and it was a really simple and eco-friendly but also very beautiful place. We did a lot of relaxing and swimming; the water was at least 90 degrees Fahrenheit which is amazingly warm for an ocean! One of the days we took a boat trip to a sand island a little ways off the coast and went snorkeling along the coral reefs that surrounded the island. It was really beautiful, with tons of colorful fish and exotic looking coral. My favorite part was seeing 3 octopi as they slowly crawled from one coral to another, changing shape and color and texture in unbelievable ways as they blended in to their surroundings. We also were able to watch two baby sea turtles emerge from their sub-terrainian beach nest and make their mad dash to the sea, avoiding hermit crabs (with our help of course) along the way. Since I can't add pictures here in Shirati, here is a link to a blog of a fellow SALTer in Tanzania with some nice pictures.
After returning to Arusha having finished our time on the coast, everyone prepared to return to their various home and work locations throughout the country. I and another family had to make the customary journey through the Serengeti to get back to our homes here, so we decided that since our park fees would already be covered by MCC and since on our way through we would be passing right by the Ngorongoro Crater (the road is built on part of the rim) we might as well pay a little bit more to enter the crater and have ourselves a safari. So we did just that, and it was incredible! The crater itself was indescribably beautiful, and we saw all kinds of animals up close as we drove around, like lions, buffalo, wildebeest, ostrich, hyenas, hardabeast (what a great name), elephants, warthogs, gazelle, and a few rhino and tons of flamingo at a distance. And then after spending the morning in the crater, we of course still had to drive through the Serengetti plains and woodland to get to our destination, and we saw a whole bunch more animals! It was a great trip to say the least. I have posted pictures on my facebook page so if you are interested and have a facebook account you can check them out.
Upon arriving back in Shirati it was a little difficult to adjust back to everyday, largely uneventful life here after such an awesome vacation, but this place is very slowly starting to feel more like home the longer I am here. The agriculture project I am working on is slowly moving forward, and we hope to fix the irrigation windmill next week. My Swahili is always improving, as the moments where I am surprised by my own ability to speak and to understand someone are becoming more frequent. Two steps forward and one step backward is how it feels, but I am slowly getting better.
I am curious to see what Christmas will be like here; I have already noticed a huge difference as the festivities leading up to Christmas day have thus far been non-existent. It will be strange to experience a Christmas that is so much simpler and more specifically religious than what I am accustomed to, but as my pastor said to me in a recent e-mail, this will be a Christmas that I will always remember as the Good News of Christ coming to live among us is stripped of all the familiarity and consumeristic cultural hooplah that I am accustomed to and boiled down to its simple but beautiful essence. So while I will certainly miss everything about Christmas that I know and love--like being with family, snow, and annual traditions--I am trying to embrace this Christmas as an opportunity to experience the gift of God, in coming to live among us as one of us, as enough all by itself. Nothing else about the season that I know and love to distract or detract from the Good News of the incarnation.
In other news, just in case any of you have sent me a letter and have not heard from me that I received it, that would be because I haven't received it. While I have gotten a few letters and packages from people, a lot of mail has gotten stuck somewhere on the long journey and has not yet made it to me here. But I am patiently waiting for the day when all of a sudden it all appears in a bundle at the post office (or so I hope).