Exploring Havana

As the Obama Administration started the long thaw of Cuban-US relations, just as the FAA was clearing US-based commercial flights to the island nation, and before we even cleared a major hurdle of Dhanya’s adoption, we were like, “let’s go to Cuba.”

Spirit Airlines started booking flights earlier that fall (2016), and we booked our flight from ATL, stopping in FLL, and onto Cuba in September. (We had to go through the travel agency Spirit specified to obtain a proper visa.) Fidel died November 25, the first US commercial flight landed in Havana 3 days later, and 3 weeks later Zack and I were there too. What a crazy time. Getting “CUBA DOCS OK” stamps on our boarding passes was cool, but getting a Cuban stamp in my US passport was just surreal.

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We booked an awesome AirBnB, a block behind Parque Centrale. It was about $60/night, we had a whole apartment to ourselves, the owners provided transportation to and from the airport, and it had a great balcony to observe the day-to-day of Havana. There was a state-run bric-a-brac shop on the ground level, and a poster of Fidel greeted us as we walked up.

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Staying at an AirBnB helps the locals way more than the state-run Communist government, and this is just one of many of ways you can dodge state-run establishments.

After we exchanged our money (bring lots of cash–American cards don’t work here!) from a local guy (NOT an official state-run money change bureau), we set out to explore Havana on foot. We didn’t have any set agenda, we just enjoyed feeling like we stepped back into the mid-century.

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Men playing chess in public. There is almost no internet in Cuba, so entertainment probably hasn’t changed as much in Cuba as it has in the rest of the world! havana7

The old cars are perpetually out on display, and are not only a means of transportation, but also a way of generating income for the owners. havana8

I bought small painting from this artist, who sells her pieces in an open-air market in the Central part of the city. havana9havana11

We also enjoyed getting from one side of Havana to the other in one of the “coco taxis”! havana12havana28 copyDancing and live music are everywhere, and it’s so hard to not get up and rhumba right along with them! havana13havana14

Sea-washed building facades begged for their photos to be taken. havana15Havana35.jpghavana17havana23havana25havana27 copyLocated within the Vieja (the Old City), we found ourselves at the Museum of Chocolate! Cacao is a major export of Cuba, and while I wouldn’t say this is really a museum, save for some display cases of vintage molds, it is a charming little place filled with colonial charm and delicious treats. We fell in love with their cold chocolate drink, somewhere between a class of chocolate milk and a chocolate milkshake, and for just 1 CUC, we downed several glasses during our time in Havana!

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And thanks to years of Spanish colonization, the tradition of dipping warm churros in your hot drinking chocolate is still alive and well. The churro cart isn’t directly affiliated with the Museo, but they set up shop just outside of it.food14food15

We also enjoyed some deep-fried sugared tortillas from a street vendor, served in a cone made of “vintage” printer paper. Check out those perforated sides–I haven’t seen paper like this since the 90s! food8

Another way to support the Cuban locals rather than the State is to eat meals at paladars. These are restaurants that are essentially set up inside of people’s home. The Cuban government owns the actual real estate, but in recent years, the citizens have been given the ability to use their homes at more or less their own discretion. Good Cuban cooks + “free” real estate = paladars!

Perhaps the best meal our whole stay in Cuba was at Cafe Laurent, which is considered to be one of the finest paladars in the city.  We walked through a small, unassuming shady walkway, up 4 winding flights of stairs (or a tiny elevator filled with cool ephemera), and into the bright white spacious dining room that opened to up a huge balcony and panorama of the city. The food, cocktails, and coffee were great…and a million times better than the state-run places that look pretty and have nice presentations, but are very, very mediocre food.

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And in the land of the mojito and the most amazing rum, we definitely enjoyed a cocktail or two. Culture, and all.drinks6drinks7drinks5

I really only had set our for one souvenir to bring back with me (other than a couple bottles of Havana Club rum, since it’s not available in the States!), and that is a bottle of my own custom-blended perfume.

Habana 1791 is located in an old mansion in the Vieja, and inside you’ll find large glass decanters filled with scents that have been extracted from botanicals on the island. Imagine if you could bottle up Cuba’s best scents…jasmine, tobacco, rose, citrus, lavender…even chocolate!perfume5perfume1

After lots of sniffing and very careful consideration, I ended up with my own small glass bottle of chocolate and other warm scents. It’s honestly my favorite souvenir I have ever picked up on a trip! The mixed it, corked it, sealed it in wax, and wrapped in up in lots of layers of plastic for the trip home. When I wear it, it takes me back to exactly this warm, sunny day and this gorgeous island! perfume2perfume6perfume3perfume4

Since our trip there two years ago, so much has changed with the diplomatic standings between America and Cuba. You can still take your choice of US-based commercial airlines to the island, but the State Department has issued warnings to visitors due to strange attacks on the Embassy workers. I pray that this changes, because this place is an absolute gem. There are no McDonalds or Starbucks dotting the rows of sea salt-washed buildings, there are no Americans opting for an easy all-inclusive stay at Sandals, and it feels like you’re getting a trip to Spain at a fraction of the cost! The people are wonderful, the culture is rich, and the rum is refreshing.

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The Nichols will definitely find our way back! havana27


My Top 10 Tips for Visiting Cuban and Exploring Havana

It’s been a long time coming from USA passport holders, but late last year we were all finally able to hop on a commercial flight in the States and fly to our Caribbean neighbors just 90 miles south. Cuba. Elusive Cuba!

In January of 2015, OFAC (Office of Foreign Asset Control) under the Department of Treasury, made it easier for US citizens to actually travel to Cuba, but it was still a problem to get a direct flight. It wasn’t until 2016 that the FAA approved commercial flights originating in stateside; after the routes were given the green light, Southwest, JetBlue, Spirit, American, and more starting shuttling eager passengers to the island nation.

I booked our flights with Spirit Airlines in September, but the first Cuban-bound flight didn’t leave Ft. Lauderdale for Havana until December 1, 2016. We headed down just 18 days after the route opened, and after a 14 hour flight in coach to the Middle East in 2015, the 45 minute flight to another country was almost a joke. We started our descent within minutes of hitting cruising altitude.

So, that’s a good place to start: cutting through the red tape to physically get down there.

  1. Flights and Documentation

As a US Citizen or passport holder, you don’t have to apply for an OFAC license anymore, but you will want to pre-purchase a visa from the Cuban government. The easiest way to do this is after you book your flight, call the travel broker your airline works with. You’ll fill out a simple form and they will send you an invoice. Once it’s paid, they’ll mail you your entry visa. With Spirit Airlines’ broker we paid $85 each, but some fellow US tourists we talked to paid as low as $50 (they traveled JetBlue from JFK). You CAN buy your visa at the airport before you board your flight to Cuba, but it will cost you $100 a pop and some extra time.

We flew from Atlanta and when we arrived at Ft. Lauderdale, we ran to our gate with barely any time to spare (Spirit Airlines! Imagine that!) and were then re-routed to their customer service counter the next terminal over to finish up the travel documents necessary for entry. We showed our visas that we had already filled out, and then had to sign another form that stated which of the 12 reasons we were traveling to Cuba. Since I’m a teacher and truly was going for educational reasons (I teach the Spanish-America War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Bay of Pigs to my 6th graders), I checked “educational travel” and so did my husband. Most check “people to people”, but whatever you choose shouldn’t be an issue. We were never asked about it again.

We boarded and less than an hour after takeoff, we were in Havana!

2. Arrival and Transport into City

This gets a little sketchy, because some US citizens on our flight had been given an arrival form, but we hadn’t! We went through passport control and got our passports stamped (which is SO COOL! A US passport with a Cuban stamp! Who would have thought we’d live to see the day?!), and when we went through the next checkpoint, we reached for a white form to fill out, but the guy said “US citizen? No, no! Welcome!!!”. We thanked him and went to grab our checked bag. There was yet another form that people were handing to a Cuban airport official as we walked into the arrivals hall, but yet again, whatever lack of documentation we had didn’t seem to apply to us. ¡Hola Cuba!

The arrivals hall is a bit bananas, but if you arrive with a plan, you’ll be in good shape. We stayed at a casa particular we booked through AirBnb, so we had sorted out airport pick-up with the casa owner. But even if you don’t do that, a cab into the city center will run you about 25 CUCs. The roads are well-marked so even if you’re staying outside of the Centro or the Vieja, chances are good your cab driver will know where to go. It wouldn’t hurt to mark your destination on a map (Google maps or an old-fashioned one!) just in case.

There is a major currency change bureau just outside the arrivals hall, and if you’re taking a cab, you’ll have to brave the long line so you can pay your driver. Our driver drove us to our AirBnB, then walked us across the street to a guy who exchanged money (more on that below) and let us pay him after we did so, which let us avoid the line.

3. Currency, Exchanging Money, and Tipping

Cuba’s currency is closed, which means it can’t be exchanged outside of the country. You can’t get pesos before you go, and you can’t exchange your dollars back once you leave!

Cuba also has two currencies: the Cuban Peso (also called “money nationale” and abbreviated to CUP)*, and the Cuban Convertible Peso (also called “convertibles” and abbreviated to “CUC”; often pronounced like “cooc”). I thought I’d maybe use the CUP for small things like coffee, but our driver said that as tourists, it’s pointless to even try to find them. So CUCs it was.

The CUC is the “tourist” currency—remember, you’re in a communist country! One CUC is equal to twenty five CUPs. A Cuban can get a lot for just a couple of CUCs, so it’s important to tip in CUC. One CUC tipped after a small meal stretches really far for the locals, and since it’s a tip, it keeps money in their pockets. Why do we pay 1 CUC for a cup of coffee while Cubans pay 1 CUP, making their cup 25x less than ours? Because we are subsidizing what the Cubans pay. Again, remember, C-O-M-M-U-N-I-S-M. Fascinating, right?

The arrivals hall is the obvious place to exchange, but you’ll miss a couple hours out of your first day in Cuba if you hang out there in the line. Our driver took us to a friend who owns a business and he gave us the same exchange rate as the “official” places, but minus the line, and he keeps the commission. I’m totally ok with that.

BUT the easiest thing I can tell you is to go to one of the major hotels surrounding Parque Centrale in Centro and exchange there. We exchanged at Hotel Ingleterra a couple times; note that they don’t exchange bills smaller than $20 (which I’m assuming is standard).

The exchange rate is technically 1 CUC to 1 USD. But given the icy history between the countries, we all have to pay a 10% penalty to exchange our American dollars, in addition to the 3% commission fee. So that $1 is actually on worth .87 CUCs. UGH. I know. If you’re really pinching pennies while there, then look into exchanging you USDs for British pounds, Euros, or Australian dollars; it might be worth it depending on the current rates when you travel, but Cuba is overall so cheap that I don’t think it’s worth the extra hassle.

And as a reminder, American credit and debit cards don’t work in Cuba! Plus, they are a cash economy, so waiving your plastic around wouldn’t do you much good anyway.

4. Lodging: Hotels vs. Casa Particulars

All hotels in Cuba are state run. Every one of them. And considering that a stay in one of the nice Parque Centrale hotels run $200 and up per night, and you can’t book them online before you leave (you’d have to go through a Canadian agency), ugh, why bother?

Overwhelmingly, the way to go is a Casa Particular. A few years ago, Raul Castro allowed homeowners the right to rent out their homes or rooms within them to tourists. Don’t be weirded out by this if you are a high-maintenance traveler or are still finding your traveling feet. (This would have unnerved me at one point!) This is so the norm that it is the recommendation of every Cuban travel expert out there. Plus, it supports the local economy of the people.

Even though Americans still can’t book hotels online through our typical avenues like booking.com, Travelocity, etc., AirBnB on the other hand has a business model that already works hand-in-hand with the Casa Particular industry. Booking a Cuban apartment is no different that booking one in Paris, Rome, or anywhere else. We used this one, and I highly recommend it! Barbara’s sister and brother-in-law, Ubaldo, provided our airport transfers for 30 CUCs each way, helped us exchange our money, and were a really gracious and lovely example of Cuban hospitality. Ubaldo even hugged us at the airport when he drove us back at the end of our trip. People. I love people.

5. Wifi

Wifi has only been in Cuba for about 5 years or so, which makes it both rare and still a novel idea. Wifi is only available in a small handful of locations, like the Parque Centrale hotels and a random street corner in the Vieja. You know how in Europe or America you can go to any given café and connect to the public wifi? That luxury does not exist in Cuba!

Of course the internet is state run, and like anything that the government controls, it’s far more cumbersome than it should be. Let me walk you through it step by step:

First, find yourself an Etecsa card. We bought one at a small hole-in-the-wall shop between Hotel Ingleterra and Hotel Telegrafo. You know you’re in the right place when you feel just about positive you’re being ripped off. One hour cost 5 CUCs. The other place we got one, and a much better deal, was the business center on the second floor of the Iberostar Plaza Hotel. It was 10 CUCs for 5 hours.

Make sure that it hasn’t been ripped or tampered with before you purchase it.

Break the seal to find the access code and passcode.

Go to a wifi hotspot (we usually parked in the comfy couches inside of Hotel Ingleterra) and once you turn your Wifi on, it will prompt you to put in the codes. You’re on! But remember that everyone else in that hotel lobby, equally anxious to ‘gram out their mojitos to friends back home, is eating up the bandwidth, so expect it to be slow.

6. Safety

This is last practical part of this post before we get into the fun stuff, and I’ll be quick.

Cuba is not scary. It’s not dirty. It’s not shady. I never felt in danger or like I was going to be the victim of a scam. Our first night we walked back to Centro from the Vieja on Calle Obrapia, a dark road that we didn’t yet realize was just two blocks over from Calle O’Reilly, the livelier main artery connecting the two areas, and never once did we feel like we were going to get jumped!

I didn’t feel like I needed to make sure our camera was stowed away or my purse had to be zipped no matter what (though I usually did). This is how I feel in any given European city, but not in Havana. Now that’s not to say that we were being idiotic or naïve with our belongings, but you get the idea.

Basically, you’ll be fine as long as you’re not a dumb American. (And as long as you don’t look like one either. That’s another blog post for another day.)

7. FOOD. (And drinks.)

Travel perk numero uno is of course what good stuff you can cram into your face and not feel bad about “because you’re on vacation”. Follow this main rule, and you’ll be in good shape:

Independently owned restaurants = fantastic. State-owned restaurants = nasty crap.

Independently owned restaurants, called paladars are strikingly better in every way. A state run place might look nice, but the quality of the meat is not as good. We ate at a couple of state-run places before we really knew any better/too tired to look for a paladar, and we were shocked at how tough the meat was.

Paladars opened a few years ago under the same pretense as casa particulars: the people own them, so they can do whatever they want to with him. On the outside, the buildings must remain the same. But the inside can be retro-fitted to accommodate a legitimate restaurant. They are hard to spot because they don’t usually call themselves “paladars” in the name, but a good guide book or a chat with a local will help point you in the right direction.

There are of course exceptions to the paladar-only rule. The Museo del Chocolat, as I mentioned above, is in the Vieja at the corner of Mercaderes and Amargura.

The pink pastry shop, Pastelaria Francesa, between Hotel Ingleterra and Hotel Telegrafo, is also super cheap and not a terrible place at all to grab a sandwich or quick European-style breakfast. They have good espresso drinks to offset the terrible service (#communism). Hotel Ingleterra offers a decent enough American-style buffet for 10 CUCs a person if you’ve really got a hankering for something like that, but I’m not convinced it’s the best option. We ate there our first morning because we were tired and cranky and it was just more convenient than anything else.

I admit that our stay was too brief to sufficiently explore this aspect of travel, but if you’ll be intentional about seeking out paladars instead of sitting down at the first convenient place you see, you’ll be in good shape.

Let’s talk cocktails.

Even the most temperent would be remiss to not enjoy some Cuban rum. The Havana Club brand is really good, and mixed into any variety of tropical cocktails is refreshing in the Caribbean heat.

Obviously you’ve got to find yourself the famous mojito: muddled mint, a spoonful of white sugar, ice, soda, and Cuban rum. Next you’ll need a daiquiri just to say you did. Cuban daiquiri ≠ NOLA daiquiri, btw. I had a great and Pepto Bismal-pink pina colada at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. My beer-drinking husband drank several of the beers, but the most ubiquitous local brew is a pale Mexican-style pale lager that tastes like a watered down Corona called Cristal. Not fantastic, but maybe it’s your thing. He liked the Bucanero too, which is a little darker. For my money, just stay with the mojitos, my friends!

8. Exploring Havana

The Lonely Planet Cuba guidebook is a great resource to get your bearings in Havana. It breaks Havana down by district and there is a pull-out map in addition to smaller maps throughout the Havana chapter. I marked all of the places that were of interest to us and then was able to piece together a plan for exploring on the first day. The streets are very well marked, and we had no trouble figuring out where we were going.

Transportation: We stayed in Centro, right behind the major hotels, so the Vieja was just a 6 block walk or so, and we always walked there. One night we did take a Coco Taxi, mostly just to say we did. Always negotiate a fair beforehand, and make sure that you either settle a flat price OR your driver agrees to set the meter. It shouldn’t cost more than 3 or 4 CUCs for a zip from Centro to the Vieja, and arguably that might even be too much! Remember that you, the tourist, are subsidizing what costs the Cubans the equivalent of less than a dollar.

Walking Tours: Since I was teaching school up until the day before departed, I didn’t have as much time to research as much as I typically do before heading on a trip, so I booked a full day walking tour of Havana with the Havana Tour Company. I could pay for it online with a credit card and then we covered it with credit card points, so even though it didn’t cost us anything out of pocket, I still think it was worth the $200 price tag. Here’s why:

  1. Our tour guide. Daniel. He was awesome. He spoke great English, had a wonderful sense of humor, and was like a walking Cuban history encyclopedia. He told us from the first moments of the tour that we could ask him anything, even things that we’d think would be awkward to ask a Cuban. (Remember, we were there less than 3 weeks after Fidel died. And yes, we could ask him anything about it.) At lunch, we sat down and compared how Americans are taught the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis versus how the Cubans are taught it.

2. We’re still in the early days of commercial American-Cuban travel since Kennedy was in office. Understand the gravity of this. Learn about the complex history of American-Cuban relations. Teddy Roosevelt stepped down from his high rank in the US government to get together with his college buddies and form a volunteer cavalry that helped liberate the Cubans from General Wyler and the oppressive and abusive Spanish rule. Cuba and America were just fine with each other. During Prohibition, Cuba was the playground of the rich and notorious. A few decades later, Fidel upheaved their government and—surprise—communism was dawning in Cuba. Your tour guide will walk you through this frigid history as he walks you through humid Havana. Our countries are fascinatingly linked to one another, and you should understand why.

And for the love, avoid ANYTHING that claims Hemingway ate/drank/slept/wrote/looked at/though about/walked by there. Why? No local actually frequents them, and the prices are outrageous. La Boguita** was his mojito of choice and the Floradita* was his daiquiri of choice. The prices and lines are outrageous. If you pay more than 4 CUCs for a cocktail, you’re being ripped off.

9. Get outside the city

It’s really easy to find and books tours that will take you outside of the city, or you can even take an in-country flight to another part of the island. Research this and do this. Just like there is so much more to France that Paris, there is so much more to Cuba than Havana. We spent a day exploring the tobacco plantations and gorgeous landscapes of Vinales, and I absolutely recommend it!

10. Souvenirs

Just like Casa Particulars and Paladars, some Cubans are opting to turn their homes into souvenir shops. As you walk through the Vieja and see straw hats or little figurines made out of clay pouring out of tiny doorway, then know you are supporting both the Cuban artisan who crafted it, and the Cuban who converted their living room into a shop. It’s easy to spot locally crafted items over imported goods, and remember that only the government is allowed to import anything from abroad.

So there you have it, my Havana Top 10. Comment below if you have any questions or if I need to update my info due to something changing!

India: Part 2 {Gotcha Day}

The journey to Hyderabad was long, difficult, and draining. Not only the physical travel from Birmingham to there, but also the 2.5 years of red tape from two countries. We were so tired, so worn down, so emotionally and physically drained that I wasn’t sure if I even had it in me to fully appreciate what was about to go down.

But then there we suddenly were. The moment we had been anticipating, in some ways, for almost a full decade. For a year and a half, we only knew a name, a face, and a medical record. All we had to do was step out of the car, round the corner, and she’d be there.

So we stepped out of the car…Screen Shot 2017-11-20 at 5.54.30 PM.png

…rounded the corner…

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In a little pink dress with 100 layers of tulle. Her pigtails had pink barrettes to match.

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As I was walking up and holding Evie’s hand, I remember looking back at Zack with this big dumb smile on my face as if to say “is this real?” Suddenly, our energy and spirits were renewed.

She was perched against the wall, just outside of her little room, and had her hand resting on a handle attached to piece of pipe. My voice went up about 10 octaves as I tried to find the right first words to say to my daughter. (Fun fact: my first words to Evie were “you’re not going to fit into the clothes we brought for you” because she was a lot bigger than we thought she’d be. I’m really glad that my first words to D weren’t the same, because she was a lot smaller than we thought she’d be!)

She did the cutest little tilt of her head while she looked at me like, “who is this lady with a big dumb smile?” I was so hesitant to pick her up, because I kept thinking about how you’re not supposed to pick up adopted children early on, because they have to bond and attach to their parents. So after a couple minutes, I looked at Merissa, an SCH volunteer, and asked permission to pick her up. Amama had to physically push her towards me because I was so nervous. I guess it was a few seconds later as I was physically, actually, holding Dhanya Sri in my arms that I realized that it was me—ME—who was the parent, and holding her was exactly what I supposed to do.

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I tried to sift through all the things we had been taught to do—how to bond, connect, establish that you are a safe place for them. She spoke about 1 word to me, and 1 word to Zack, and that was the last time we heard her voice for a week. We were escorted into her room she shared with other beautiful little children her age, and then into their play room. We sat there under the watchful eye of Amama, Dhanya’s caregiver whom she loved, and who loved her. That had to have a been a hard moment for her too. We sat on the floor and I started pulling things out of my backpack—snacks, bubbles, little tactile toys. Again, just trying to think back to things we had learned through all of the education we had received through Lifeline.

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I could not have been prouder of our little Evie. Every night for 2.5 years, she prayed for “her little brother or sister in India,” then it was her “little sister in India”, then it was “Dhanya Sri in India”. She loved her sister unrelentingly, trying so hard but so sweetly and genuinely to play with her, talk to her, offer her little things. She played with her sister’s friends and never acted out when Dhanya didn’t return her affections. She still just says, “it’s ok, Dhanya was shy then.” While we were in India and every time since coming home, when we ask Evie was her favorite part of India was, she says, “my sister”.  We prayed huge, massive prayers for Evie’s little heart, and God answered our prayers so big for our oldest girl.

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The next few hours were a blur in a lot of ways. We saw her little bunk bed that she shared with her best little buddy, squeezed and loved on her foster siblings, and hopped in an auto rickshaw and drove from Courage Home to Joy Home, where she had spent most of her life. The older girls of Joy Home couldn’t get enough of her. They fed her biscuits, passed her from one set of arms to another, hugged on all of us, walked en-masse with us up to see her old bedroom where her crib used to be, and jumped on the trampoline with her. It was so wonderful to meet these sweet young women who loved her so much. I think I even remember someone telling me that they called her “Baby Dhanya”.

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By time we got back to Courage Home, it was clear that she needed a break, and we did too. In some ways, leaving her that first—and last—time was hard, but I’m also glad that she got the evening to process the day’s events before we left for Ongole the next morning. I’m also glad that we got a night of rest too. The Lord gave us a peace as we spend the evening at the hotel and wrapped our head around the day. There were so many times that night that our emotions would surge and we’d just break down, then we were ok again. It was a crazy night.

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We all went to bed really early that night, after a dinner of really boring American food room service—something that would become almost a daily ritual that we found to be immensely comforting!

We woke up the next morning to meet our caseworker Morgan, her newlywed husband Jeffrey, and our guide Alex, who was already starting to feel like family. (He likes telling corny jokes—we speak that language.)

As we drove back to SCH, stacked like sardines in a little car and zipping through the city center of Hyderabad and over to Jubilee Hills, there was such a different feeling. A night of rest, a day to unpack all those big feeling, having Morgan there, and knowing big prayers were hanging over us from half a world away were really helpful. We walked back into Courage Home feeling no longer like strangers, but rather as the newest family in the Sarah’s Covenant Homes community, and more importantly, like our family was actually complete. For so long Dhanya was there, but not actually THERE…but now she was!

When we arrived, Dhanya was running around with her sweet little friends, but wasn’t so quick to rush to us. That was ok. We were prepared for that. She clearly knew that something was up. The story from here on out, I want to share just bits and pieces of it, because I want her to hear the full experience of the day from us so that she can own her story.

Let me be very clear: no orphanage is “good”, because no child should be raised without a family. But Dhanya lived in a good place. A wonderful place. So good that sometimes I wonder if there will always be a twinge of guilt in my life, because if we had matched with a child in a bad orphanage, maybe we could have brought more hope to that child. In fact, the state-run orphanage in her city has had many terrible, gut-wrenching stories come out of it, and the place she lived for the first 4 months doesn’t even allow the families to go inside of it.

But I can’t live a life of what-ifs. I’m so grateful that my daughter knew love before us, and for all the other beautiful children who live there who will not be adopted, even if they won’t know the love of an earthly mother and father, they will grow up knowing the love of a Heavenly one. They will be held, fed, hugged, played with, loved, and educated. SCH started as a vision of an American who had a dream of taking special needs children in India and loving them forever, rather than letting them age out of the system and into obscurity. We were able to visit both their Hyderabad and Ongole locations, and believe me when I say, the Hand of God is shown everyday through the workers there. There are a lot of ways to support them: you can sponsor a child’s birthday party, you can send Christmas bonuses to the caregivers, sponsor a child in part or entirely, order things off their Amazon wishlist, and more. Learn all you need to know by clicking here.

Anyway, all of that to say, making Dhanya leave her home was going to be hard regardless, but leaving the people who have loved her unconditionally made it harder. The plan for the day was to spend a couple more hours letting her play, letting Morgan make connections with SCH workers, having a goodbye party, and then finally giving out one more set of hugs before getting in the car and driving to Ongole.

The day went exactly as planned. We have so much good video and tons of adorable pics of that day, which I can’t post because we want to protect the identities of the children there. But this one of Jeffrey is too cute! Jeffrey.jpg

I especially loved hugging on Little V, who is Dhanya’s best friend, and will soon be living with her mommy and daddy in Seattle!

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We gave her a little bear that my friend Abby had given us to give to her. It vibrates and makes soothing lullaby sounds, and is still a something she sleeps with almost every night, 5 months later! It was so sweet to see her holding it close and knowing that it belonged just to her!

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The tradition at SCH is to get a cake for the little one who is going home, let them cut it, and then every feeds him/her a piece of cake! Amama made sure Evie got to share in the tradition too, which was so sweet.

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As the kids happily ate their cake, I handed out small gifts to her caregivers. I gave them baskets filled with specialty chai tee, a couple of Moon Pies, and a hand-written note with some rupees clipped inside so they could have a sari made. I gave each of them the most genuine and heartfelt hug I’d ever given anyone. How do you adequately express gratitude to the people who RAISED YOUR CHILD before you physically get there to do it yourself?! Sweet Alekya, Mariya, Amama, and Prashanti: thank you. I don’t even know what to say besides that, because no other combination of words even start to touch how I feel. I also need to take this paragraph to extend my love and gratitude to Nikki and Merissa. Nikki is a long-time SCH volunteer who works tirelessly to advocate for the children and make sure they have mementos of their time at SCH when they leave, and Merissa was there to make sure that everything went smoothly. So grateful for every part of their ministry!

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The last thing to do was to gather Dhanya and her foster siblings and explain to them that Dhanya is going with her mommy, daddy, and sister to America, and then say a prayer for her. Merissa explained so beautifully that while they’d miss her, it was a reason to be happy. Her nurse Prashanti then prayed in Telugu for her as we all sat in a circle together. I’m not crying, you’re crying.

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Finally, it was time to get in the car and leave. This was so, so, so hard. I’ll never forget Little V and Dhanya hugging each other one last time, or her caregivers lined up and waving goodbye, or the look on her face as she started to cry just a few minutes later.

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The drive to Ongole was so long and so difficult. It never seemed to end. It was about 9 hours total, but it felt even longer. We held her as she slept, cried, and grieved. Several times we got choked up ourselves, as we continued to let it sink in that this day was here, and heaps of compassion for how hard that was for her, even if it was beautiful for us. In the picture below, you can see her tears on Zack’s shoulder. I didn’t even want to take that photo, but I’m glad I did. It’s so sweet to see that tiny little body in the big arms of her daddy who has loved her from afar for so long.

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We stopped for lunch just outside of Hyderabad, and Sudhaker, the SCH caseworker who was sent with us, fed her “Indian style”—she wasn’t really having it, me putting a fork in her face. Sweet, precious Sudhaker, who we just fell in love with—he fed her just a bit too much, and a few hours later, I was wearing that entire dish of yellow fry dahl on my shirt. She puked on me just as Evie stuck a wad of hot pink slime in her hair. We were, um, conveniently (?) passing through a rural Indian village, and when we pulled over for me to change clothes, a crowd of Indians crowded around us and stared at us like we were Martians. (Worse—we were travel-weary Americans!). Walking down the street to a public toilet to change my outfit and wash puke off of my clothes is an experience I will never forget!

I had picked up a set of Sea-Bands before we left, and even though nothing was left in her stomach (or so I though—LOL) and we had given her a dose of Dramamine, I offered them to her to wear. She put them on, and didn’t take them off until we were back in Birmingham. So as you see photos of her from here on out, this is where her cool wrist accessories came from!

Another round of puke later, we finally we arrived in Ongole and settled in at what was probably a good hotel—but a very, VERY far cry from the swank Starwood property in Hyderabad! Nevertheless, we were grateful for the hospitality and to no longer be in a car. I’m also grateful for the pair of scissors they let me borrow, and for not looking at me with too much judgement as I snipped the matted mess of pink goop out of Evie’s hair. Our hotel room had one double-sized bed for all 4 of us, a window AC unit, and that was about it. We had a long night ahead of us, that much was clear.

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That evening, before we crammed sideways into the bed (with Zack propping his feet on stacked suitcases), we tried our best to help her feel at ease. We offered her every bit of food we brought, coloring books, toys, and games, but she just looked at us terrified. Oh gosh, it was so hard. We didn’t know then that it would be days before she’d even talk to us. A week with no communication, except for holding up her pinky to signal that she had to go to the bathroom.

She was also freezing in the cold room (AC was not really part of her life, so far as we could tell), and after I put her in her little Sophie the First nightgown that SCH sent for her, I had to wrap her in a bath towel for an extra bit of warmth. Bless this sweet thing.

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As the girls slept and Zack and I sat in the dark, we whispered about how that was the most traumatic day that our daughter had probably ever experienced–at least that she remembered in a cognizant way. We watched her sleep and what seemed like a never-ending stream of hot tears kept running down my face. I knew with every fiber of my being that this was WORTH IT, but my brain was so fried that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

The next morning, we went to the restaurant next door for breakfast, but no one had an appetite. Dhanya just sat on my lap with her head on my chest, with the most miserable, anguished look. She also started spiking a low grade fever, and gagged several times as we sat there in the oppressing heat and humidity. I sat at the table and tried to get my emotions in check, but wow, it was hard. I remember shutting my eyes and clenching my jaw tight so I didn’t just lose it. Alex, Morgan, and Jeffrey were sitting there with us, and I didn’t want to look like the lunatic with no handle on my emotions. (Luckily, they all have a lot of grace and know that this is just part of it. Bless them. They were so good to us.)

Oh gosh, sitting here and typing this and remembering back to that morning almost makes me want to break down again. Normally, being at a far-flung corner of the earth in a little open-air restaurant is what I live for, but as I held that tiny body in my arms, I wish I could have been transported to Waffle House with a hot plate of bacon. I’ve never wanted so bad to NOT be in a foreign country.

A few minutes later, we walked down to the DCPU office to complete the final few steps that would make her legally our daughter and Evie’s sister. Part 3 coming soon.

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India: Part I {From Birmingham to Hyderabad}

In February of 2015, we made an announcement on this blog that we were growing our family by adoption. For the next 2.5 years, we posted our progress on our timeline, finally culminating in what happened June 19, 2017. Dhanya Sri Ann Nichols, once a child represented by a vintage globe in our family photos, came into our family.

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I chronicled Evie’s early days home on this blog before moving it over to an Instagram page, and our early days with Dhanya Sri are every bit as important! Before Gotcha Day gets too far away, I’m kicking off this blog series in attempt to both hang on to these sweet memories, and also hope it will encourage others who are considering adoption or going through those early days with an adopted child.

I’ve got to get through some complicated backstory first, so hang with me. Without further ado…

As we approached our 3rd summer of the adoption process, we knew travel time was getting near. We had passed court, and were just waiting for passport to be issued. In India, travel approval is granted when the passport is processed, printed, and in the hands of the SAA (Specialized Adoption Agency). As it turns out, Dhanya, though she lived in a foster home in Hyderabad, Telangana, her legal process was through Ongole, Andhra Pradesh. See, Hyderabad and Ongole used to be in the same state of Andhra Pradesh. When she was transferred from Shishu Gruha in Ongole to Sarah’s Covenant Homes in Hyderabad, they were in the same state. But shortly after she moved, the state split. Hyderabad, once the capital of Andhra Pradesh, became the capital of the new state of Telangana. But, Hyderabad remained the de-facto capital of Andhra Pradesh until March of this year. Do you see how this is getting really complicated?

Let’s add to that complication. We were only the 3rd or 4th international adoption that Ongole had ever processed. I had become good friends with two sweet gals named Alicia and Kelly, whose children, Vignesh and Edi, were like Dhanya—legally processed through Ongole, but lived at SCH Hyderabad. Like us, they spent months waiting for their process to move forward but heard virtually nothing. Finally last fall, we all started to see some movement in our cases. Alicia and her husband traveled as soon as she found out they had a court date, spent one month in India, and came home with Vignesh at Christmas of last year. They had to apply for his passport in person in Hyderabad and wait for it to be processed and printed. Kelly and her husband went in May, and after a drive to Ongole and back to Hyderabad, found out that Edi’s passport had to be processed no, not in Hyderabad….passport operations for Andhra Pradesh had moved to a Vijayawada. Ongole and Hyderabad are 8 hours apart. It’s a hard drive through rural parts of India. If it hadn’t been for them blazing a path for our journey, we would have had no idea what all was in store for us. (More on that later!)

Once we got our written court orders on May 5, 2017 (news that was received in the form of a very tear-filled phone call from our Morgan, our caseworker!), we knew we were getting close, but still had no real clarity on passport. Were we supposed to go over there and apply for it in person? What if we got there and had to go back home and keep waiting? What if we got there and had to stay indefinitely? Traveling before passport is issued is completely against the norm in India, but after my agency got a follow up email from the DCPU (District Child Protection Unit) in Ongole that said, “PAPs [potential adoptive parents] are compulsory to attend passport office in Vijayawada”, and simultaneously getting feedback from Kelly about what they were experiencing with passport, we decided that that was our green light to travel, but knew it was still a risk. May 31, 2017: The day “covfefe” was born into American vernacular, and also the day we finally, finally, finally, got to book our tickets to India. Still seems incovfefeable that after all those years of waiting, this was actually happening.

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Here are some videos of me sharing the big news! No one was at home, so I had to FaceTime Zack and my parents!

By the end of the day, we had 4 round-trip tickets to India booked, plus a 5th one-way ticket from New Delhi to Birmingham. Shout out to Matt at Adoption Airfare who secured a great deal for us, and was an absolute delight to work with. I highly encouraged them if you are planning any type of mission or adoption travel!

We spent the next three weeks getting as prepared as we could.

We got vaccinations and started a malaria preventative…

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Ev and I had our last mommy-daughter breakfast date with it just being “us”, and we celebrated my parent’s anniversary with them…3

I plowed through all the paperwork and appointments that we needed to get in order before we arrived, like calling MaxMed at 2:00 am and making an appointment, getting our big accordion file filled up with the right paperwork, emailing the US Embassy in New Delhi, sorting through our visa applications, and all kinds of fun stuff like that. This is basically the adoption equivalent of nesting! It was tedious, but it gave me a great sense of accomplishment!IMG_1387

Evie looked forward to updating our countdown each morning…IMG_1471

And Zack had his own way of getting ready to go…by printing t-shirts with his favorite Bollywood stars on them. He thought they’d be good conversation starters in India. He wasn’t wrong! Hahaha. I love this guy. IMG_1460.JPG

And I started putting together all of the little activities and supplies together for the girls’ travel packs. In the months leading up to travel, every time I went to Target, I picked up a couple more things for their packs. They were a Godsend at all of our appointments, waiting at the airports, the long stretches of air and car travel, and the time we spent in our hotel room. 4IMG_1497

The white packages in the photo below were given to the girls by my dear friend Jennifer Scott. She got Shopkins and other blind bag-type toys and wrapped them up for the girls to open on the trip. These were huge for Dhanya, because they helped us convey that we cared for her, even in those early days when communication was very difficult. So grateful for you, Jennifer! 5

Finally, it was June 17th. I woke up early, went downstairs and made my coffee, and had the realization that this would be my last quiet morning to myself for quite some time. I couldn’t believe this day was actually here. After getting a surprise visit from our friend Ian, eating some McDonalds (a slightly shameful “last meal” before a long trip away from the familiar!), we did a quick video tour of our house on the iPad for Dhanya to watch, loaded up the car, and drove to my parent’s house. They rented a big van and we—me, Zack, Evie, Zack’s mom, my mom and dad, plus my nephew and niece—headed to the Atlanta airport. IMG_1522

Let me break for a second to talk about my mom and Zack’s mom. My mom had been planning to go to India with us for a long time. It was a big step outside of anything she was really comfortable with, but she was there for us because she knew that we’d need help with Evie. It was very important that Evie go with us, because we wanted our family to all be together from the get-go, instead of waiting to come back home and then introducing E and D to each other.

Mom was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer last December, shattering any chance of her going to India with us. This past Spring was the hardest season of my life to date. The uncertainty of India, Mom’s health, church planting, being a first year teacher….it all took a pretty hard toll on me. I’m really close to my mom, she is literally my best friend, and to not have her with me on this journey was like being stabbed and having someone twist the knife. Our goodbye at the airport was pretty weepy! IMG_1532

Enter my mother-in-law. Pam is as intrepid and level-headed as any person you’d hope to meet, and she bravely stepped in when we realized that taking Evie without a support person would be very unwise. She had all of 5 weeks to make this decision, get her shots, prepare, and go. And she did. And we love her for it. 7

We went through security with ease (thanks to Pam), popped our malaria meds for the evening, grabbed a bite to eat, and settled in at the gate. It was about 10:00 pm when they called for early boarding—families with young children. Boom, that was us. We were the first ones in line ready to get on that plane. Then out of the corner of my eye, I see Evie and Pam fall to the ground. Pam was holding Evie’s hand so she wouldn’t run around like a maniac, when Evie decided she was going to start swinging around like she was a monkey and her grandmother’s arm was a vine. Down they went. Pam immediately grabbed her wrist and we knew something was wrong. 30 minutes later, boarding was complete with everyone but us. Paramedics were surrounding Pam trying to determine what had happened.

Should she get on the plane and hope she had merely sustained a sprain? What if the pressure of the cabin made it worse and we had to make an emergency landing? What if it was broken? What if it wasn’t? Could we get medical help during our layover at Heathrow if she needed it?

Finally, we had to make a decision. We had to get on the plane without Pam. She had to go to the ER, and we had to go to India. All of our appointments were lined up, and being delayed by even 24 hours would create a domino effect that would mess up everything. But what about Evie? Could Zack and I really manage BOTH girls, a 4 year old and a 3 year old, by ourselves in an unfamiliar country? What if Evie stayed with Pam? Pam had to get in a taxi and go to the ER and then find a hotel room in the middle of the night in Atlanta. Maybe they’d both be able to get on the flight the next night and meet us in Hyderabad?

We had about 3 minutes to think through this all. Finally, we got on the plane with Evie. I was sobbing. SOBBING. The flight attendants were loading me up with wine and water trying to settle me down! Zack was pulling every encouraging and sweet word out of the dictionary he could think of. I tried to not tell Evie, “this is all your fault!” Wow. What a night.

Once God supernaturally gave me the ability to calm the heck down, it ended up being a lovely flight. Evie slept most of it, and was a rock star when she was awake.

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Here’s Evie and our super cute British Airways flight attendant. I mean, super helpful flight attendant! 9

We landed at Heathrow and prayed that we’d have a message from Pam that it was a small sprain and she’d been on the next flight. Turns out, her wrist was in fact, very broken. Zack and I had to go at this alone. I cried some more. It’s what I do.

The London to Hyderabad flight wasn’t nearly as lovely as the one to London. The crew was cranky, Pam’s seat was given away to someone on standby so we didn’t have room to stretch out, the food was bad, and Zack and I both were so riddled with anxiety that we didn’t even know which way was up. Um, the view of Eastern Europe were pretty though?

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That said, looking at the seat-back monitor and realizing we were able to land in the same city as our daughter…surreal. IMG_1566.JPG

We landed in Hyderabad and things continued to go downhill. Evie was exhausted, and rightfully so, after two back-to-back trans-continental long-haul flights. It had been something like 29 hours since we had left our house after all. When we finally got out of customs and immigration, our suitcases were no where to be found. While Zack elbowed his way to the front of baggage claim just in case, I took Evie to the customer service counter to file a report. The baggage handlers kept telling me that they would watch Evie while I looked for my suitcases. “She is like a baby doll!” they told me. Now I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt that they were NOT child traffickers, but no way am I going to leave me kid alone with you in an airport, dude.

We spent about 2 hours trying to sort out luggage. 2 pieces were found, but the 3rd was not. That suitcase had most of Evie’s clothes, as well as gifts for Dhanya’s caregivers, the SCH staff, and government officials in there. It’d be a week before we saw it again.

We got to the other side of security and met our guide, Alex. (More on Alex later!) It was raining buckets, and we were soaked as we waited for our car to pull around. Yay, monsoon season! I told Zack I was only taking this photo so we could remember this part of the journey. It was a hard part. We hooked up to Alex’s personal hotspot and had a follow up message from Pam that her wrist was broken so bad that she had to have surgery and physical therapy. Jesus, come quickly.

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Our driver got lost, but we made it to the hotel eventually. Alex kept trying to make jokes, but we were zombies. I also was still crying and texting things to my mom like, “please send Dad to pick up Evie and take her home” and “I can’t even remember why I’m here.” I was in a BAD PLACE.

We then had about 3 hours to shower, change into clean clothes, rest, eat, and get ready to meet Dhanya for the first time.

Luckily at this point, Evie was doing ok. Praise the Lord for our sweet little firstborn.

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Our hotel was beautiful, but our nerves were completely shot. Satan was cranked up to 10 as he tried to diminish the beauty of what was about to happen.

But Satan lost.

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Part 2 coming soon.

 

 

Haiti

Last July, I went to Haiti with a group of medical volunteers to work in areas that are considered to be more remote places of the country. Haiti is the 5th poorest country in the world, with a GDP per capita of less than $2,000 (source). I have served both domestically and internationally a number of times, but often seem to find myself on trips that focused on building and construction. That is definitely a need, but my heart has always pulled towards serving children. Despite needing to save money for India, I really felt this was something I needed to put my resources into. I am so glad that I did, and would love to share this trip with you.

Humanitarian work can be tricky in such an impoverished place, and it’s important to serve in a way that will lift up the local community rather than crusade in thinking we hold all of the answers. I knew that partnering with Know More Orphans, a ministry of Altar 84, would be a way to serve with meaning. I’ve known the co-founder and his wife for many years, and knew their hearts for serving Haiti in a sustainable, long-term way. In 2015, Altar84 launched a huge healthcare initiative that would allow their partners in Haiti to serve hundreds of vulnerable children. This trip to Haiti is just one tiny part of this large initiative, and I encourage you to check them out if you would like to know more.

The importance of sustainable service was clear within moments of arriving in-country. The view from the plane as we descended was striking. As we entered the customs hall, we had to purchase a card for $10 that basically was the equivalent to “this is what the foreigners who come here to help have to pay to enter.” It was explained to us that after the earthquake and the subsequent influx of humanitarian effort it caused, the government realized they could capitalize by requiring this extra tariff. haiti1a.jpg

After arriving and getting a good night’s sleep, we got straight to work the next morning in a small village called L’Estere. We set up a series of stations where the children were documented and given a de-worming pill, then were weighed and measured, followed by receiving a medical screening, then a vision screening. Here, and in all the areas where this initiative is happening, volunteer groups will continue to return and do this same documentation and screening for these children. It’s not “parachute in”, then leave and not return until some other organization takes interest in them. It’s a long-term commitment and the people in these towns will continue to receive regular visits and medical care.
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It’s striking to me how often I am asked, “there is so much need in your own backyard, why do you go to other countries?”. First, few people in America are given the infrequent opportunity to access healthcare, and on a dirt-floor no less. Further, only caring for the people around you and only caring for people far away from you are both dangerous ends of the spectrum. Deciding who to serve should not be dependent upon where they live. haiti24haiti25haiti41

After a delicious lunch prepared by the women in L’Estere, we traveled to Calas. There we set up the same rotation of our clinic in yet another dirt-floor building constructed of rusty corrugated tin.
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The next morning, we piled in the van, and we drove to the next site. And we drove. And we drove. And we drove. It took a good 3 hours or so to get there, with half of that being an ascent up a mountain with no paved roads. It was pretty intense. We kept thinking, “we’re almost here!” but then we just kept driving! We all kind of just wanted to either puke or laugh, but I think we all agreed that our time in Trivie Bayonet was worth the commute. (Just a note, no one ever quite decided how to correctly spell this village; don’t even try googling it or finding it on a map!)haiti50haiti48

Once again we set up our clinic a tiny dirt-floored building. The hardest part of this clinic was the little ventilation that was circulating through the building. It really gave new meaning to the word “hot”. It was more sweatbox than anything else, but this was a special place, and the heat was a small price to pay for our afternoon in this tiny, far-flung village.haiti38.jpg13709980_10104192303537175_3581594827639193868_nOne of our translators, Ken Ken, said that the kids wondered “what was wrong with us”, making reference to our light skin. After we wrapped the clinic, we all enjoyed spending time with the kiddos.haiti8haiti9haiti6haiti7

The man in the photo below is Pastor Chuck. His heart beats for Haiti and its people. I have so much respect for him. He is kind, humble, generous, and spoke so much Gospel truth in these 4 days, which was something that my then-home church was not adequately providing. Grateful for this guy. Haiti19

I let the kids play with my camera, and here are a couple of the photos they took. I really love these. haiti5.jpg

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Food and water sources in Trivie Bayonet.haiti5a

On our final full day in Haiti, we went to church and heard a message from Pastor Joseph and from Pastor Chuck. Chuck preached an amazing sermon about how God does not promise prosperity, which of course flies in the face in the false gospel that so many evangelistic preachers are spouting out these days. Click here for a clip of this sermonhaiti11

Click below for a video of our music that morning. Screen Shot 2017-06-10 at 9.19.41 AM.png

After church, we set up our final clinic, which was to further document and serve the children living in the orphanage, which also served as our home base while in Haiti.

The photo below is Dr. Paul Batson, an optometrist in Birmingham, Alabama who is a long-term partner with Altar84’s Haiti initiative. My role during this trip was to work with him on giving vision screenings, and then send any child who seemed they might need additional screening over to him for a more in-depth test. He’s a great guy. haiti13

The man in this photo was actually our security guard during our entire trip. During this clinic though, he greeted the children and handed them toothbrushes. So sweet!haiti14

This is my friend John Menke, who had just graduated college and was in his first year as a nurse, playing games with one of the kiddos at SCH. haiti12

Below is Johnny Grimes, Altar84’s co-founder and Director of Global Works. Another great guy who is doing great things.

Click to the photo see a slo-mo video of John Menke blowing minds with gravity-defying tricks. haiti6a.jpg

I met John as a 10th grader. He was in the youth group in the first years that Zack and I were in youth ministry together, and it’s been pretty cool to watch him grow from a teenager to young adult. I loved that we go to work together in Haiti, just as we did in Costa Rica and in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee in previous years. This trip would not have been the same without John quoting the movie Hot Rod to me. Ancestors protect you, John. haiti35.jpg

Here are a few more photos I’d like to share of our time at SCH in Désarmes. In addition to running a church and an orphanage, they also have a Christian radio station. All of these things are considered public service works, and therefore require extra licensing and taxation to operate. It was difficult to learn that there are so many extra hoops that Haitians who desire to serve their people have to jump through, to the point of even being penalized.haiti15haiti17Haiti20Haiti21haiti45haiti46This little one stole my heart and my lap.
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Water, handed out in plastic bags. Food was always the same and always delicious. I especially loved the smashed and fried plantains.haiti7a

Our group gathered here each morning and evening to fellowship and eat. I had known only 2 of my fellow team members before this trip, so I really enjoyed getting to know each of these people.
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Grateful to serve with this great initiative and alongside these good people, and hope to return one day soon!
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{Fair Trade Friday} Matter Prints

matter1I love the conscious fashion community. It is made up of people across the world who are committed to creating beautiful things in meaningful, impactful ways.

I also love textiles. I might be a middle school teacher these days, but I still hold onto that same passion that drove me to secure that apparel and textile design degree I got almost 10 years ago.

I love travel, too. I’ll be in Cuba soon for a quick getaway with the husband, and that will mark my 20th country!

And as you know, I love India. Our adoption is coming along great, and the day that we will be in India to bring her back home with us is drawing nearer.

When Matter Prints reached out to me about a collaboration, I knew it was a perfect match, and I’m excited to tell you why I have fallen in love with this brand.

When Matter Prints was founded a couple years ago, they set out with a 3-part mission: “to foster designer-artisan collaborations, inspire consumers to value provenance and process, and pioneer industry change and sustainability for rural textile communities.” (Click here to read a little more about that on their webpage.)

These pants are their Sideswept Dhoti.  Inspired by the traditional Indian dhoti pants, it has an updated and modernized silhouette, and I have not one thing in my closet that is so unique. I love them.

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Unique not only in design, but also in manufacturing. The fabric was handwoven by artisans in a rural part of south India called Pochampally. They were then stitched together in Delhi, and this one pair of pants created 74 total days of employment for artisans in vulnerable communities.

Matter Prints pants come in only 3 sizes, but they are designed with generous give and a really clever way of folding and tying that makes them easy to fit many body types. I love the way this asymmetrical side-sweeping style creates a large pocket on the right side.

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As with any clothing manufacturing process, leftover fabric is inevitable. Why throw out perfectly good, beautiful textiles?

Matter takes leftover fabric and create garments for the littles! This #MatterMini dress that Evie is wearing is one of the two that came in the #MatterMini bundle. matter6.jpg

If your kiddo is in a constant growth spurt like mine is, then you’ll love the adjustable straps, and the fact that it can be worn as a dress before converting into tunic-length to wear over leggings.

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In addition to these #PantsToSeeTheWorldIn, they also offer jumpsuits, tops, and even scarves that are skillfully crafted, assembled, and shipped (for free!) to you. Your purchases arrive in a cotton drawstring bag and then packed in a sturdy Tyvek envelope “for your creative reuse”. And do you see that little stripe of red stitching on tie? These are the kinds of the little details that make me fall in love with a brand, and I hope you do too.

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Matter Prints is a socially motivated lifestyle brands that creates travel ware that tells its own story, and in doing so connects communities to meaningful opportunities. Learn more about them on the Matter Prints website. Though I was compensated in product for this post, all thoughts are completely my own. 

All photos by Lily Rimmer except for the photo of the packaging.

{Fair Trade Friday} GlobeIn

Earlier this year I came across GlobeIn, a new company that curates boxes for their customers with the purpose of connecting fair trade and ethically manufactured products with the growing marketplace that is demanding it. And really each box isn’t actually a box…it’s a basket! A basket hand-woven in Oaxaca, Mexico. They are beautiful, and this little bonus was actually what clenched the deal on giving this company a try. (Read more about the mission of GlobeIn here.)

I hope you’ll take the time to read the descriptions of each product. As you’ll see from the retail values, this subscription is worth it from a cost standpoint, but the impact reaches hundreds of people around the world, making this so much more meaningful than anything you can pick up at Target!

You can click here for $10 off a 3-month subscription, and also be on the lookout for all kinds of good promotions that they are always running!

My first box was the practical and beautiful Eco-Clean boxglobeincleanIt came with:
–A beautiful hanging wall organizer made in Peru by artisans who have physical disabilities that otherwise keep them from dignified work
A set of scrubbers that is providing independence for women in India who are considered “untouchable”
A surface cleaner that is made of palm and coconut oil harvested from small-scale farming operations in Ghana and India
–A hand towel that is made by a 30-something woman in a part of Turkey where only men have maintained this craft for hundreds of years
–A handwoven purple basket from Oaxaca, Mexico

The total value of this box was $70, plus it impacted people in 5 countries on 4 continents. 

My favorite box so far has been the Threads box!
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It came with:
–An exclusive t-shirt form Wildlife Works, made ethically in Kenya. It’s super soft and has a really flattering cut, and I know I’ll continue to get a lot of wear out of it.
–An adorable tassel cut, dyed, and assembled in Honduras. The beautiful woman, a single mom, who made it started her own business with a micro-loan a few years back, but was forced to close it due to gang activity demanding a “war tax”. However when GlobeIn placed the order for these tassels from her newest venture, she had to hire 6 more women to help her! I wear this proudly on my tote bag every day.
–A foldover clutch woven in India made by a small company located in Jaipur. The retail value of this piece alone is $50!
–A larger sized round pink basket made in Oaxaca, Mexico

The total value of this box was $104, plus it impacted people in 4 countries on 3 continents. 

This Pamper Box was also amazing:
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It came with:
–A Shibori-dyed scarf from Rajasthan, India that I can’t get enough of. I even was given the option to choose the color I wanted. It’s super light weight and is perfect for transitioning in and out of Spring and Fall.
–A bottle of argan oil that is exactly what I need for the dry winter weather that’s coming up. Last March when Zack and I were in Morocco, I was introduced to argan oil. Argan trees only grow in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco and is meticulously and expertly extracted by the lovely Berber women who live in this region.
–The jewelry roll in this box is also dyed using the Shibori technique, and was crafted in Malaysia. Similar to the Honduran tassel above, this order from GlobeIn allowed the artisan to hire more women, and those women now have dignified employment and the benefits of an income.
–A handwoven purple basket from Oaxaca, Mexico

The total value of this box was $85 dollars, plus it impacted people in 4 countries on 3 continents. 

I also received the Picnic Box, which arrived in the middle of summer and was exactly what I needed for long days at the pool with an perpetually-hungry 3 year old!
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It came with:
–A picnic blanket that is made with upcycled materials and lined with flannel, making it perfect for days by the pool. It’s made in Cambodia by artisans who are deaf, disabled, and underprivileged, and now have meaningful employment.
–A metal cup that was expertly hand-painted by artisans in India who also have access to clean drinking water and health care because of their employment. I swear my iced coffee tastes better in this cup.
–A travel-sized cutting and serving board that I actually use in my home office! It’s made in a tiny village in India by a woman who now has 24 others in her village working with her. Hooray for employment!
–Instead of a traditional Oaxacan basket, I received a bottle basket that is also perfect for carrying around brushes or pencils.

The total value of this box was $70, plus it impacted people in 3 countries on 2 continents. 

Other benefits of this subscription include discounted add-on items and the opportunity to add entire boxes from previous months to either keep or gift, some as low as $35, which is almost half off of the retail value. You can use this link for $10 off a subscription!

{Waffle Wednesday} Peanut Butter Waffles with Cinnamon Honey Butter Topping

Who would have that my post in April would be the last until October? Well not me, because I had no idea that just a couple weeks after that post I would be a hired as a middle school teacher at the most incredible school I’ve ever known! Thus began a busy summer of tying up all kinds of lose ends and diving head first into lesson plans and curriculum guides. I’m having the time of my life and wouldn’t have it any other way!

This week I’m on Fall Break and have had been busy getting some new posts together: recipes, travels, and fair trade fashion. But first, these:

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Peanut Butter Waffles with Cinnamon Honey Butter Topping
Yield: 4 large waffles
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup corn starch
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspon of cinnamon
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract, or vanilla bean paste (better than extract!)
3/4 cup peanut butter (more or less to taste; see note below regarding consistency)

A note about batter consistency: waffles are really forgiving. If your batter is a little to thick or a little too thin, chances are good it will still turn out just fine. If you ever feel like the consistency really is off though, gradually add in a little more flour if it’s too thin, or a little water or milk to thin it out if too thick. 

-Combine dry ingredients in a medium-sized bowl and whisk thoroughly to distribute ingredients.
-Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients and add milk, oil, eggs, vanilla, and peanut butter; stir to combine.
-Pour batter into waffle iron,
-Press till golden brown, and serve topped with cinnamon honey butter (recipe follows)

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Cinnamon Honey Butter
1/2 stick sweet cream unsalted butter
1 /2 tablespoon of cinnamon
1 tablespoon of honey (I used the good stuff from We Three Beeks, made here in Birmingham, AL)

-Melt butter in a microwave-safe bowl
-Stir cinnamon and honey into melted butter

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