A Week of Many Goodbyes

The plan prior to the earthquake was to start from the very end of my field experience, and work my way backwards to the very beginning. I think I’m still gonna stick with it today. So here I am, sitting in a cafe in China, typing away, reminiscing.

(Photo credit to Grace R. for CNSP group photo in the very end, thanks girl!)


Before I forget, let’s begin with my village family picture.

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I honestly don’t know how to describe my last days of field research, the study program, and Nepal. The day the earthquake bestowed itself upon this world, everything changed. It was as if–

Imagine a very normal day, you’re kind of happy and content, walking on the streets to somewhere, on this metaphorical timeline where you know where you’re going and what you’re gonna do in the next few weeks. And suddenly, a ginormous hand came down from the sky and plucked you straight out of the world you once knew.

Everything was very abrupt, and just as surreal.

But don’t get me wrong, it was a peaceful steady-paced process. It’s just that, I never thought my four-month experience abroad would end so… soon.

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Bua (homestay dad) was helping out with the tarkari (vege curry) in morning of departure. That was something I remembered very clearly, as I hid away into the walls of the stone house, camera ready to capture the lasting moments of our last day in Bagmara, Bharat Pokhari. I’m not sure why this instance stood out to me, but it reminded me of my first night there, sitting at the dining mat and attempting to decipher the social structures in our traditional Brahmin family. I remember thinking–if I were his daughter, I would be the one cooking all the meals, serving daal bhaat morning and night, and eating last after everyone else at 7:40pm. But that day, I understood that things are actually a bit different.

The night before, the aamaa of another family asked me if I could take her to Taiwan and American with me, jokingly offering to babysit for my future newborn. The night before that, sano dhai told me to send their regards to my family. They all asked me if I will return.

My response was simple: ma pheri aaunchhu | ek ganda paachi aaunchhu! 

I’ll be back in a year, I promise. When it’s safer, and when my family and school are not freaking out at every precious day spent at this country.

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Saying good bye, red rice blessing our foreheads and white khata scarves around our necks. I don’t know why I simply couldn’t cry. Still feeling heavy in the heart, weighing me down with my trekking backpack.

A brief bus ride back to the city, away from the hill of tigers, crossing the setho nadi (white river), vehicles around us multiplying by the second as we finally reached Pokhara, almost untouched by the disaster.

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Saying goodbye to Sujata as we hugged and she stepped out of the vehicle. As she turned away with her traveling backpack towards the apartment, it hit me that this adventure has reached a conclusion. I remembered the time when we held each other on that grassy field, how vulnerable we felt. And the tears finally came and I can’t believe all this has ended.

I can go on forever about how weird it felt to be in Pokhara. I cannot imagine what is it like for my friend Ann, who arrived from a Chepang village in the mid hills of Chitwan. Coming from an area of destructed houses and dangerous landslides in a community of heavily-marginalized villagers, Ann told me it was as if the earthquake never happened in this strange bubble of Pokhara.

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One last glimpse of the Annapurna range before we leave the Kaski district…

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…and suddenly, back to Kathmandu. I pressed my nose against the airplane window, peering through my foggy breath as my heart pounded with anticipation. It took me a while to realize that the bright orange squares are not roofs, but disaster relief tents.

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“I think they’re from a rescue team.” “Where do you think they’re heading to?”

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Arriving at Kathmandu. Rushing to our long-separated friends, our little group reunited finally, chattering filling the bus with excitement. It did not take long before the atmosphere dropped. I held my breath.

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According to my friend, buildings here are a hit or miss. You can walk by a couple blocks of perfectly well-standing apartments, and suddenly–the bricks, rocks, and glass everywhere.

I wish that everything was back to normal, that we just came back from our 1-month field research, that we will continue our well-planned CNSP curriculum in the program house and that our roommates are in the hostels, waiting for our arrival.

But we all know that’s not true.

“I feel like this is all a dream, and I will wake up in my bedroom in the girl’s hostel and find out that we haven’t even left for field research yet.”

I would play this game, where whenever I turned into the fourth floor hallway and approached my bedroom, I would pretend Samiksha, my roommate, was sitting on her bed, reading away at her physiology notes for the next upcoming exam.

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Where is the resolution? I don’t know, it breaks my heart to even think about leaving.

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Saying good bye to the lovely streets of Thamel, to its hundreds of multi-coloured signs and tangled phone lines, to the numerous metal doors rolled down for the time-being, a temporary state of quiet before the exciting chaos returns again with the recovery of this country. But for now, tents. Everywhere.

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A final night-time gathering in the program house basement (aka classroom, occasional dining area, theatre room, or napping space) as we watched yet another episode about funny governors, parks, and recreation.

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And lastly, saying good bye to my CNSP family, to the didis and dhais, to Summy and Benji, to Janak and Banu, to the program house, to Kirtipur. I remember hugging everyone, walking towards the waiting taxi, and–as tears came again, rolling and rolling–I turned around for one last farewell.

“Thank you for everything!”

group photo 2Laura

One Morning on Pun Hill

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We went on a five-day trek around the Annapurna circuit, starting from Nayapul > Ulleri > Tadapani > Ghorepani > Ghandruk. While staying at a guest house in Ghorepani, we also hiked up to Pun hill, which turned out to be quite an experience.


It was 4:29 in the pitch-black morning. I lay on my soft hostel bed, looking up to the empty shadowed ceiling in silence, waiting for my signal to rise.

Ring ring!

My roommate and I shuffled in our beds momentarily and reluctantly rolled out of our warm beds. I dashed to the restroom on the creaky wooden floor—no sign of light to be seen outside, but my eyes are wide awake.

Everyone gathered outside in excitement, white puffs of condensed air escaping our morning dry lips. Someone pointed up to the pre-dawn atmosphere high up above–luminescent paint splashed across the brilliant dark canvas, each majestic droplet radiating with an otherworldly glow.

“Wow…”

But our amazement could not be continued any longer, for it was time for the hike. Quarter-filled water bottles hanging off our gloved index fingers, cameras sitting impatiently in our swinging knapsacks. Step after step, we crossed rocky boulders and stairs, our single-filed line meandering up the forest path. Resting birds and dreaming critters. Not a single rooster to be heard, just the morning stars watching us in silence.

“Wait.”

It was Ann. I turned around and ceased my footsteps, she pulled out her water for rehydration. It wasn’t long before I too needed to catch a few breaths.

The rest of the group disappeared into the darkness above, quickly swallowed by a growing influx of unfamiliar passersby, who are, too, making their way up to witness the grand wake.

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I looked out into the horizon—I can already make out the blue outlines of the mountain afar, the early signs of day. The sky is changing, forming a gradient of violet and blue, and perhaps a shade of magenta, too?

Heavy breathing against the feather down hood, my lungs gasping for more air. Wearied steps, one after another, sneakers crunching on frosted leaves. We stopped.

Ann took another sip of water again, an unanticipated dehydration. I wanted to say something, but words along the lines of

“I’d rather see the sun set than see you pass out”

slipped out my mouth. I thought it made no sense, but in retrospect it sounded alright.

I thought we’ll miss the moment on the hill top, but turned out we were early. After 40 minutes of intensive uphill hiking, we finally arrived at Poon hill, 3210 m above sea level. A sliver of gold, lining the expansive clouds in the far distance.

I sat down on a stone edge, and observed the horizon. My, we are surrounded by giants. Annapurna South, Hiunchuli, Macchapucchre.

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Trekkers and adventurers from all four corners of the world all gathered here, capturing photographs from all four directions on this little hill. And with people, comes culture—a whole salad bowl of mother tongues and foreign sayings mixed in with the crisp himal air.

But when the moment came, it all became a hush. It was as if mother nature held her breath.

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I took a solitary walk back down, taken away by the strange lit-up forest glittering with morning dew and melted ice. As if we have never crossed this path before. A completely new experience, so fresh to the human senses.

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I would assume I am still the same person as before, but I can never be sure.

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Laura

The Stories of Teeth

Kath and David advised us to conduct mini research projects in our study tour based on our interests and intended focus of our program field research. There were three components to it–interviews (held in Nepali!), mapping, and creative collections.

I had no idea where to start, but I knew I wanted to talk to people about their teeth. Armed with my dad’s camera (hanging on my neck like an amulet), a notebook in one hand, and my one black ink pen in the other, I stepped into the winding, manure-coated village paths and embarked upon my adventure!

But truth is, I didn’t learn much about oral health behavior & conditions with the little number of days I have in this hilly world. I can tell you that everyone (tries to) brush their teeth once every morning with toothbrush and toothpaste.

Although, I did enjoy taking pictures of people smiling, and I might as well tell you about these wonderful people I happened to cross paths with in my short five-day journey. Keep in mind, that this is not how the villagers would typically act in front of the camera–they were either heavily encouraged to show their teeth, or laughing at the peculiarity of the situation.

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This is Minakumali aamaa, my house mother in charge of most things that go on under the roof. She’s originally from India, fell in love with a Tamang man and moved all the way to Mhanegang to start a family. Her husband, secretly married prior, was unfaithful and left her for yet another marriage. But she chose to stay in Mhanegang and raise three amazing sons, two of whom are working abroad in Qatar. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder how brave she is to raise a family all by herself. She also told me she doesn’t drink, smoke, or eat junk food, which is why she has such great teeth.

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This is Palden, the little adorable rascal who would take apart anything he can possibly get his tiny hands on in the kitchen or elsewhere, and scream and cry until he gets what he wants (didi’s breast milk). It is important to note that once presented with candy, he will immediately transform into a beaming angel of a child and sit obediently beside the wall so I can finally take a decent, focused picture.

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Say hello to Kamala didi, the daughter-in-law and beautiful wife of aamaa‘s second son. She came from a different village, and has the heart of a thousand mother lionesses. Regardless of all the troubles Palden brings to the house (Bang! Clash! Splatter!) , by night she will always be holding him in her arms, kissing his forehead, and nurturing him with her warmth until he drifts off to sleep.

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This is Krishnaman dhai, the son of the village headman’s sister. He is very much troubled by teeth and gum problems, and claimed to change a toothbrush once every week. He is also an jaw-droppingly amazing dancer, as witnessed in our final celebration night in the village.

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This is Joma, the grandmother of the village. She is 97 years old and doesn’t speak any Nepali–I had to ask another didi and Anjalaji, our Nepali teacher, to orchestrate a three-way translation (English-Nepali-Tamang). She told me that back in her days, women would rub ground coal on their teeth for cleaning and men would brush their teeth with the soft branches of the usele tree.

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This is Setebika (sp), I’m not sure if he’s from this village. He and his son approached me when I was resting on a stone fence under the shade one sunny afternoon. I showed him some pictures of other people’s teeth, and his son insisted that I take a picture of his dad’s too (but he didn’t want a picture of his own!).

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One of my favorite people in this village, Mr. Dibatur. Some claim that his perfect wrinkles can lighten up anyone’s day like an unanticipated double rainbow after a gloomy rain. I am personally more lightened by his perfect set of porcelain dentures acquired all the way from China. He is very proud of them! And would constantly take them off and show them to us, which can always be a pleasant surprise.

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This is Budalimaya aamaa–a neighbor and regular audience of our house television after 7 pm. She has an amazingly beautiful smile that I will never forget. On my last day, she asked me when will I come back, and hugged me so tightly that I felt like a granddaughter she never had.

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And last but not least, Kabira Tamang, the wealthiest man of the village. After hearing great things about his teeth, I decided to hike downhill (at the grave risk of missing daal bhat) on my last day to meet this extraordinary man. I wish I had more time to ask him about his teeth, but I like to imagine that he lost his front set of teeth while saving the lives of fifteen children, and now live a secret alternative life as a friendly vampire.

I have taken many more pictures, but I figured this would be the extent of your short-lived internet attention span. If you have some time, I would strongly encourage you to pack your bags, notebooks, and camera and head off to a Nepali village like Mhanegang. The people you will meet there (and their teeth) will truly be like no other, really.

Laura

Some Moments in Mhanegang

Five days ago, our group went on a study tour to Mhanegang, a Tamang village located four hours away from Kathmandu. We rode on a bus for three hours, got out at the bottom of a mountain, and hiked for about an hour–crossing rivers, climbing steep trails, and finally arriving at the one and only post office of the village. School children dressed in blue and red uniforms, peeking through windows, waving hello and namaste as they all gathered around to witness our foreign presence.DSCF2262 small

Our legs were wearied by our heavy backpacks, but a strange sensation of happiness tinkled in my heart as I sat cross-legged in the guest room of our mud-built house. What is going on outside?

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It was the second day of our stay. Sunlight creeping through our metal-coated windows as I swung my feet off the bed. The floorboards creaked. A rhythmic echo of liquid churning traveled through the mud walls from the kitchen. Prithula, my Nepali roommate, and I slowly made our way down the wooden ladder and saw our aamaa, Minakumali, pulling at two strings attached to a wooden pole, concurrently spinning a thick, metal stick (a mace?) held perpendicular to the floor. And on the bottom of the stick, lay a bucket, filled with a paper-white substance–milk, or dudh.

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We just finished our daal bhat at half past ten, and stood up from the straw mat with our plates in one hand and our daal bowls in the other, ready to head over to the water tap for dishwashing. Kamala didi (sister) immediately halted us, strong hands grabbing onto our empty plates. “Ma ma ma..” I fought back with my limited terminology. I tugged the plate back, running my fingers across its metallic rim.

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We wanted to help with cooking. As soon as my dusty socks descended from the ladder steps, heavy scent of burnt wood overwhelmed my nose. Cough. How does didi and aamaa prepare food in such an closed, smokey space? Cough. Cough. Basnus, Bahini, basnus.” (Sit, little sister, sit) I joined their triad beside the wood fire. Suddenly, the smoke cleared from in my lungs. Turns out it was an altitude issue.

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It was our last morning in the village home. I spooned the daal and bhaat in my metal plate quietly, mixing rice and lentil in a petty, reluctant pace. “Bahini.” My didi signaled me to look up at her smart phone camera. A flash–a photo taken. I smiled at her. She seemed more talkative today.

And not too long after, her hands held onto the ends of a golden-shaded scarf (khata) wrapped around my lowered neck. I bowed low to her too. We hugged each other under the village sunshine, through the wire windows on the orange-shaded floor. I have to say, albeit the absence of words lost in language, it was truly a warming kind of love.

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Laura

When I Got Sick Many, Many Days Ago

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Dear mom, dad, auntie, and Felix (yes it is your obligation as a decent brother to translate this for them),

I know am writing about getting sick, but that’s only because I was sick a couple days ago. My voice sounded funny over the phone, but I swear I am recovering now and feeling perfectly fine, please do not send me back home from Nepal. I miss you all, and have a happy Chinese new year. 新年快樂!

Love,

Laura


 

kay garnay: “what to do?”–a rhetorical question to express letting go of worries under a condition one has little control over.

Today I had daal bhat in bed. And no, it was not really daal bhat, but it was definitely in bed.

Didi entered the room with two metal plates stacked with miniature pots. She placed them on a desk beside me and unloaded a metal cup from the plate.

“Paani.” (water) Clink.

“Bhat.” (rice) Clonk.

She emptied some rice from one of the pots onto the plate. Her hands moved to a neighboring container, and emptied half its contents onto an empty bowl. Soup.

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“Dhanyabaad didi.” (Thank you older sister) I muttered, almost choking on the phlegm that filled my lungs. “Swagatam” (you’re welcome) I wish I knew more Nepali to express my feelings.

Today I also skipped Nepali class, 80% of it to be precise. My hands raised hesitantly, and lowered under Saritaji’s (our Nepali teacher) acknowledgement. “Ma… ma biraami hunu, sutnu? (I sick, sleep)” She immediately corrected my broken grammar. “No, um… ahile (now)”. She raised her eyebrows. “Ahile?” I nodded, trying to keep my eyelids from collapsing from all the fluid. She looked calm. “Hunchha.” (okay)

Somewhat flattered by the kind words of my fellow peers, I left the program house and made my way to the girl’s hostel. Why am I so sick?

But in some ways it’s nice to lie on my bed (curled up in a sleeping bag under two layers of thick soundproof mattresses) and do anything but sleep. No, I can barely doze off without suffocating in copious liters of phlegm. The world spins, and the minimum I could do was hold a pen with my right hand and scribble on my journal with my cheeks resting on the contralateral page.

In five minutes, CI (contemporary issues) discussion would have begun, and I would have been engaged in a deep conversation about Nepal’s politics, gender inequality, medical voluntourism, or environmental issues. But I will not be present for that. And maybe in a few hours after, I would be sitting on a rocky staircase, not too far away from kilagan (the Hindu god of teeth), with a notebook in one hand and the same pen on the other, noting down semi-participating observations of human behavior as passersby receive their blessings for good oral health. But will I really be there, or am I just going to hide under these incredibly warm layers, waiting for load shedding to end so I can finally charge my phone? Kay garnay.

I closed my eyes momentarily, only to give up and open them again. Sick days have always been my favorite, a funny form of guilty pleasure. It’s just somewhat peaceful to take a breather from all the intensive 2-hour sessions of Nepali, guest lecturers on contemporary issues, and research design courses on ethnographic fieldwork.

And I know I’m not the only one getting sick these days. Every day in kajaa (snack), someone would contribute something new to our Journey to Collect All The Illnesses of the World! Stomach pain, diarrhea, constipation, vomiting. And now, the common cold.

I creaked open the door to place my emptied trays in the hallway. Summy, our TA, appeared before me with a phone in one hand.

“Laura, Jack’s (originally Zach, but “z” was a tough one for the Nepali tongue) going to the hospital now. Do you want to join?” I looked at her, and then at my bed a few feet away from us.

“No, I’ll be fine. I just need to rest.”

Oh right, he wasn’t in class today either. I crawled my way back into my overheated nest.

I hope he recovers in the good hands of CIWEC (international hospital in Kathmandu). But other than that, I don’t know how much more we can really do in the face of unforeseen illnesses in this foreign country.

Laura

In Regards to Daal Bhat (Rice & Lentil)

It’s 10am in the morning. Two students from the U.S. sat cross legged, casually discussing about something inaudible. A Nepali student came over and sat next to them. Then comes another, and another, each arriving from their respective classes (Plant physiology? Anthropology?) from Tribhuvan University. A professor joined the table, and following him, the program director. A graduate student pursuing a PhD in anthropology appeared too.

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Everyone, formerly dispersed out in their respective fields and endeavors, all brought together for one occasion–Daal Bhat (Rice and Lentils). And my–when the feast begins, the dialogue begins too. English and Nepali, Nepali mixed with English filling the once vacant room with life. While neither language is my native tongue, I can’t help but feel welcomed in this hybrid of mixed cultures.

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In our program, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of meals we enjoy everyday–breakfast in bed (see picture above) at 7am, daal bhat at 10am, kajaa (snack) at 3pm, and then daal bhat at 7pm. It’s like a reward for all the 2-hour classes we take each day, as we dine peacefully under the Kirtipur sunshine.

It’s 7pm at night. We are eating momos (Nepali equivalence of dumplings) in the after-celebration of our welcome party. Tomorrow night, the sitar performers will be joining us in our feast too after their concert.

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Most of the time the food is vegetarian, and the portions are minimum to American standards–that is, unless you ask for more. Perhaps it is the Nepali culture teaching us something. Didi (elder sister) appeared on my left, holding a bowl of yellow-brown shaded lentil.

Tapailai?” (would you like more?)

Danyabaad, danyabaad” (thank you, thank you), I replied quickly, eager to receive more food.

Didi’s face was stern, but her eyes were smiling.

Perhaps Daal Bhat is unique in that it adds a sense of human to our meals. To be able to look into the eyes of the amazing people who prepared our food, and to express our utmost gratitude for them.

Laura

3 Hours into Kathmandu

I promised myself I will only post after 72 hours, just to make sure I don’t jump into any conclusions in my first impression of this strange, strange country. I hid my laptop in my luggage, curled up into a tiny ball on the couch, and scribbled my many scattered thoughts down in my little black notebook.

To be honest, I don’t know where to begin. Take a look at this photo, if you may.

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The rumble of motorcycles from here and there, cacophonous vehicles honking nonstop as if concerting a disharmonious orchestra. Busy locals rushing to and from different directions on both sides of the narrow streets, and dogs. Dogs, everywhere.

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I looked straight back at the staring storeowners and local passersby. I didn’t know how to act. A couple fellow foreigners walked right by me and my parents, wearing traditional khaki-shaded Nepali outfits–they looked like they knew where they were going. The city continued to buzz.

Suddenly, a familiar greeting turned my head.

“你好!” (hello)

I halted my footsteps. Did he just speak Chinese? He doesn’t look Chinese. The Nepali man held out a worn out poster with photos of hands covered in delicate designs.

“Thank you, thank you.”

Palm out, rejecting offers left and right. Trying to meander through the chaos, looking at people, how differently they look, how differently they dress. Why is he walking so close behind me? Red spots in between their brows.

An imaginary airplane–after seconds of unanticipated turbulence and, spiraling out of control and eventually crashing onto a field of desert land in the middle of nowhere. We have finally arrived in our hotel room.

I sneaked a peak through the cracks of the cream-shaded curtains, rays of sunshine seeping from the thin opening. A man smoking in the balcony from the building a few meters across. He looked towards my direction, and I hid away quickly.

Laura

T minus four

I dragged my heavy luggage in silence through the automatic doorway, my eyes burning from the 15 hour plane ride. What a long journey home, all the way from New York to California (again) and then back to Taiwan. I caught a first glimpse of my mother and father, standing quietly afar, behind the waiting crowd of impatient people holding big white signs, Mr. Brown, Mr. Chung, looking down at their phones, checking the time. It’s been six months. My mom’s wearied eyes glinting under the airport fluorescent light.

* * * *

The sound of footsteps echoing back and forth, strangers chattering nonstop in a familiar tongue, sensors chiming harmoniously as passengers walked in and out the Taipei metro station ticket barriers. But we persisted our conversation, albeit the swarming crowd of her fellow Fu Jen University students overflowing the underground passage. My cousin leaned towards me and spoke.

“In India, the unexpected can happen. Be prepared in Nepal! Remember to walk in with a blank piece of paper… in mind.”

* * * *

We were at the 通化夜市 (Tong Hua night market)–alongside of me, a friend I’ll never see for a while and the other soon off to another adventure for four months. A small snippet of a bigger group of my college family. We wolfed down the satisfyingly crispy 雞蛋糕 (chicken egg cake), laughing to our heart’s content as we took turns aiming dirty baseballs at numbered boards. 2700 points? We’ll never get to that oversized plushie. I wondered why we never did this before. I wondered if our home will reunite again.

* * * *

I was sitting in my dusty bedroom on the second floor, the sound of motorcycles seeping through my window, but I suspect it’s coming from the other side of the Skype conversation, the buzzing streets of Kathmandu. She told me Nepal isn’t for everyone, that it will humble me, that I will learn to accept things as the way they are, because only a few will go as expected. Suddenly, the conversation ended as her laptop died. And her phone died too as we tried to reconnect.

I checked the time, ready to run off to meet my cousin at the subway. Meeting after meeting.

* * * *

We were doing our last walk to 永康街 (Yong Kang Street), weaving our way through hoards and hoards of tourists, oversized buses lined up along the street. I turned to her and told her the truth about how I don’t know where home is.

She told me, home is family. I will find home when I’m with family.

What I didn’t tell her is that while I’m walking alongside with her, my head is already in some place else far away–in Ithaca, in Xiamen, in San Francisco, in anywhere else but here in Taipei.

Where is home, when all I can think about in my early fifteen years in Xiamen was getting the hell out, to the United States? When all I can wish for was a childhood in Taiwan, not China? When all I can listen to was Mandarin music when I’m in Ithaca, and English music in China? When all I can breathe in Collegetown, was the scent of fresh rain on the Taipei city pavements?

* * * *

T minus four, I’m sitting on a sofa in Xiamen, China, mind rolling through the series of events that occurred one after another in my short 1-month stay in Taipei. A part of me is terrified, don’t need another new world to feel even more lost in. Another part of me is impatient–like three years ago, when I can’t wait to see America, to get out again. Because staying here is too boring. Because at least leaving here gives me a reason to think about home, wherever that is.

Laura