I just spent my first major holiday away from home on a bus en route to the smoggiest, densest city in Ethiopia, a city that doesn’t really feel like it belongs in this country of slow and endless coffee refills, afternoons spent washing clothes by hand.
For me, there is always ache and longing in bus rides. In leaving where you’ve been, in moving where you’re going, nothing’s ever certain. Images you wish you could carve into your memory slip away, and you’re there, left with headphones slipping out of your ears and nothing else to hold all of that mess inside you together.
On bus rides, there is beauty in the saddest way: farmers squatting on the earth, waving and grinning; women with cotton scarves tying babies to their backs; blue uniform-clad children racing one another home. And on bus rides, the mystery and pain of seeing the inequality and differentness of a new country is magnified. You’re hardly connected to those images outside the window.
I think the most challenging part about living long-term in a country that’s not your own is the inability to forgive certain elements of a culture. I can give grace to hunters who cross the land lines of my grandparents’ property in rural South Carolina by imagining the way deer stew would smell cooked long over the stove. But I can’t always give grace to boys on bicycles in Adaba, who circle me as I’m en route to one of my schools. I don’t know any more of their character or background than the “ferenji, ferenji,” they endlessly scream in my face.
So here I was today, on a bus ride, on Thanksgiving. Sadness and beauty and entitlement and a lot of hard things I don’t want to even think about, let alone be thankful for. And I remembered another bus ride, in India, about 20 months ago, that literally changed my life. It was during that 10 hour stretch from Jodhpur to Jaipur that I realized that being away from America doesn’t only mean experiencing a new place, but missing out on all that home is too. God’s call means making real sacrifices and not always knowing what they mean.
I don’t always like those “I’m thankful for…” lists. Somehow they seem self-indulgent. More about “I” than who or what gives good things. I thought about this today, looking out of the bus onto the brown hills, the flat-topped trees on the way to Addis. Maybe the spirit of thankfulness isn’t like bending down in gratitude to the giver, just to return, once more, to an upright posture. Maybe it’s like being rolled up in a ball, spinning over and over from one gift to another, not being able to make sense of anything, just knowing that you are taken care of and have a final destination.