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Traveling Solo in South Sudan – Gypsy Momma

Over a week ago I spent my Saturday morning striding through the rich red dirt roads of Yambio, South Sudan, with smiling sun-glassed boys on boda-bodas (motorbikes) asking if I needed a lift. By 10am the sun was blaring and I ducked into a small, dark cement room plastered with Bob Marley posters to change US$20 at a horribly bad exchange rate for some South Sudanese pounds.

I was on a mission—my hotel, distrubingly named the Sunrise Comfort Inn, didn’t have working internet since the day prior when I arrived in Yambio from Juba. I needed to find a way to call my husband—to find out if my kids were okay (as in alive!) and to let him know I was alive. Not being able to communicate with my family for an entire night leads me into a dark abyss—my loss of control eats black holes into my soul—something I’m working on.

My family is, of course, perfectly fine. I’ll get to that lovely, blissful non-eventful part in a moment. First, I want to take a step back and reflect a bit on my evolution to date as a mother, as a working parent, as a traveling parent, and as a human being. When I first started blogging about traveling with babies, my first daughter was an infant. I was in love…infatuated…and it was easy. Oh, how lovely those days were with one little smiling babe attached to my chest—both of us wrapped in a blanket of sunny innocence. She, at my breast, accompanied me on jeep rides through deserts in Jordan to sit down and speak with groups of Bedouin women, older tribal men tickling her cheeks, and hung out at the office on my chest in Paraguay during meetings with cooing Latin American businessmen. It was simple—and lovely—then.

Four years later she is now four years old and my son is two. The two year old still dangles off my deflated boobs that have been sucked on for the past four years straight without break between the two of them. My babies have breastfed, tantrumed, and grown over these years, accompanying mom and dad on work travels to Jordan, Lesotho, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Kenya, and Haiti, with fun trips and family visits to India, Lebanon, Spain, and France. For the past year we have made Lusaka, Zambia our home where they are both now in school leading, from our perspective, comparatively “stable” lives when looking upon the years prior.

Before we had our daughter, my husband and I took a collective deep breath in, decided we would just “see how it goes,” which for better and once in a while worse, has become our parenting motto. We let out a long slow exhale as we realized that traveling with our baby wasn’t so bad. We did the same when we added our son, and here we are now, and we have just sort of figured it out, somehow, someway along the way. We’ve adapted and made modifications, we’ve made mistakes and questioned our sanity. We’ve booked our travel so that I was leaving just as he was coming—as long as one parent was there with the kids. For the first time ever my husband left for two nights away for a business trip while I was here in South Sudan, leaving the kids in the care of our trusted and capable nanny of one year in Zambia (and it was magically fine). And we’ve loved our kids, and each other, fiercely through it all.

But me four years ago when my daughter was just born would never have fathomed leaving my two children for a three week work trip to South Sudan. My babies always traveled with me then. But now, I’ve become more comfortable with my role as a mother, more trusting of my partner and support network, and perhaps more confident in my ability to separate from my children without fearing I am permanently damaging them. Now it isn’t a question of if I am going to travel without my babies (of course I am—they have school! And South Sudan has malaria…and guinea worm…and….typhoid and…). Rather, it was a simple conversation with my husband which began with him asking me, “Do you really want to take on this work?” to which I answered with a passionate, “Yes!” The conversation quickly moved into a logistical one, referring to our calendar to identify the best dates based on travel he already had planned.

I love my work, and I feel lucky to say that. There’s still a big romantic part of me that loves the adventure of visiting a new place I haven’t been before—to take in all the sights and sounds and people. I love having a specific job with a tangible deliverable at the end (in this case a maternal and child health assessment that will be used to design a 15 year project—awesomeness on that long of a development project!). If I had to choose between my kids and my work, I would choose my kids. But the thing is, I have finally come to a mostly peaceful space where I realize that it doesn’t have to be a choice between the two, and that leaving them for three weeks isn’t prioritizing work over my family. It’s simply me going to work—and loving it—and being a happy person for it, and being a happy mom at the end of it. Distance really does make the heart grow fonder—especially in the case of toddlers. I like to believe, rightly or wrongly, that being a happy person in a happy marriage is perhaps one of the greatest gifts I can give to my children.

So, right…here I am relishing in happy mommyhood away from my family in Yambio, South Sudan for three weeks (actually two- the first week I spent in Nairobi getting my visa processed). Except it’s a bit more complicated than that, because, after all, I do miss my family, too. I cried to the point of a near panic attack on the way to the airport when I left my family in Lusaka.

The next day my children refused to speak to me on Skype. Well, my four year old refused—she was angry I didn’t wake her up from when she fell asleep in the car on the way to the airport so that we could say goodbye, and my two year old broke into crying at the sound of my voice. But the days rolled on, and the kids are okay—they are settled into their routines of pancakes in the morning before heading to their respective schools—running around the yard with the dogs in the afternoon or going to a music class or dance class. They don’t need me. They can be happy without me.

The first time I realized that I am not absolutely essential to my children was when my daughter was 16 months old. My identity as a new mother was shaken and I was a bit horrified. My husband left me in Nicaragua for two weeks to finish my work there, while he took our daughter back to our then home in Chicago—because she was miserable in our hotel room. I was able to finish my work competently, and after much anxiety on my part, my husband and daughter were contented back in Chicago. He was enough for her.

I think I changed a bit as a mother then—I let go. Where before I may have to admit to lecturing my husband on packing the diaper bag correctly, or giving him written instructions on how to wash the cloth diapers (don’t forget the extra rinse cycle at the end!), I completely gave in—and it was freeing. Because in a way I think I made more room for him. I gave up my maternal instinct to manage all things baby and allowed him the space to truly be (as he always was and intended to be) an equal co-parent who doesn’t need instructions or reminding from a hover mother. He is an engineer and a project manager, after all, so he makes for a pretty detail-oriented, competent dad.

Two years later, what has happened is something so simple yet transformative for me. Me leaving my two children to go on a three week work trip isn’t incomprehensible—it’s just a part of my work, and my life, and who I am. I’m doing it again in March to another destination. It’s tough emotionally (still way more for me than my kids), but what I think is important is that it’s no different for our kids if daddy leaves to go to the airport or if mommy leaves to go the airport. They’ll still get their heart-shaped pancakes made in the morning and stories at bed time, and they go about their business. They ignore us equally on Skype calls (which my husband expressed relief over). Mommy and daddy, to them, are equal care providers, and they feel equally safe and secure in either of us. And each time I leave my family they prove that they are completely okay every time, which always tugs a bit at my heart. Let’s be honest, it feels good to be needed! But, in return, I am able to free myself a little bit more from my mommy martyr feelings, which gives me the freedom to embrace the parts of me that aren’t defined by being a mother without feeling like in doing so I am failing as a mother or being selfish. With each trip I take I feel I am closer to co-existing with my different selves.

So, the Saturday before last, after walking back along the main dirt drag in Yambio from another hotel that also had no functioning internet, I felt a bit of that guilt, a bit of that, ‘What am I doing here?’ sneaking back up on me. I stopped into a small print shop and explained to a very nice Ugandan man that I really needed to get in touch with my husband. He put on his socks and shoes, went and bought air time (I gave him 10 SS pounds), came back and handed me his cell phone (my SIM I had also wasn’t working, in case you were wondering). I was relieved when I heard my husband’s voice. He was also relieved. We had a quick chat—my children had not suddenly met some awful fate because communication in Yambio failed me. They were fine, enjoying themselves at a Saturday morning art class.

With a spring in my step I walked back through the dust and heat to the Sunset Comfort Inn where I settled in to continue reading Sin in the Second City (so good!) on my Kindle beneath a tree outside on the lawn. I read five full-length novels/ books over the past two weeks. It’s amazing how much time I have with free evenings not brushing children’s teeth and falling asleep during bed time stories! A couple of snappily dressed young Sudanese boys (about 20) struck up conversation.

“How do you like Yambio?”

“I’ve just arrived. It seems nice.”

“We’re shooting a music video. Do you want to be in it?”

I laughed. I could have said no for many different reasons—I was too tired, I’m a mother and don’t belong in a music video, there was no hot water this morning and I haven’t showered and I smell bad, I’m old and, I repeat, I don’t belong in a music video…

But they seemed sincere, and I could tell by their shifting that it took some courage to approach me.

“What kind of music is it?”

“It’s a mix- Afro, hip-hop, reggae…we play here and in Kampala. We’re called Revolutionary Crew.”

“What’s your revolution?”

“You know, change.”

“Yes, what are you trying to change?”

“We want peace in our country. We try to promote peaceful messages about being united, not fighting, through our music.”

Alright, I can totally get on board with that. So, the one with the mohawk had a wardrobe change into all white with some cool big white sunglasses, and for my clip of the music video they sat on either side of me at a table and we pretended to chat over some pineapple juice and a bottle of Amarula. They both took turns singing to me in their language, gesticulating at me with their hands, while I dumbly smiled at them, trying not to laugh. The music had a great happy Afro beat. Afterward, they thanked me for my time, apologized for disturbing my reading, and went on with the rest of their clips, promising me they’d drop off the completed music video before I leave Yambio. I’m still waiting! I thanked them for the afternoon diversion and I went back to my book.

Later Saturday when the internet was working for one hour before leaving me incommunicado for the rest of the weekend, I was able to talk on Skype with my daughter. She smiled gleefully at me and showed me her “charms” that daddy got her in South Africa and asked if I knew how they worked. She blew a kiss to me through the computer, giggled, and skipped away yelling, “Bye mommy,” and went about her busy four year old day.

And magically, somehow, all is right with the world. I’m exhausted with long, dusty, sweaty days in the field—spending all day actively listening to people is truly and incredibly tiring, but also exhilarating and amazing in the ways in which people connect. I laughed so hard I cried today, when I introduced myself to a group of 10 women beneath the shade of a tree. They erupted into high-pitched laughter when I said, “My name is Jessica,” and one woman was softly muttering my name, as if to try to get the pronunciation down correctly (JEH-SEE-KA), for the next five minutes as we began to talk. I love these moments of absolute raw uninhibited truth.

Everyone’s feeling of wholeness is different, especially as a parent, and especially for women as mothers. For me, this is my current wholeness—at least now at this juncture in my journey as both a mother and an individual, and I am sure it will change and morph as the years go on. I am enjoying being immersed in a new place and in my work while also counting the days (five more to go!) until I get to wrap my arms around my little bundles of energy to smother them in kisses.

I look forward to our next adventure traveling as a family, but for now I am relishing in a solo adventure (with some delicious of stretches of time I never get at home…I just started my next novel).

When I have a faster internet connection when I am back in Zambia I will upload some photos of my babies and Nzara County!

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