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I’ve been back on American soil for just over 48 hours now. When I reflect on my week in Liberia, it really feels like a dream. I’m constantly making contrasts between now and then. For example, today, I went to Shop Rite with my mom and I helped her load up the car trunk with our bags — peacefully. On Thursday, when we exited the UN Drive supermarket with MacDella, the Liberian men sitting outside the store followed us to the car, like bees to honey, looking for money. I swiftly jumped in the backseat and shut the door. I remember a Liberian boy still tapping on the door. He was guiding an older Liberian boy who was blind.

When I was driving to Target today, I passed warehouses, multi-story homes, grass. No blankets with housewares spread out on them for sale, nor stands with little boys selling cell phone minutes. No one walking among the cars selling candy. No mounds of dirt sprinkled with trash.

These contrasts aren’t meant to paint Liberia as a pitiful, hopeless place. Because it’s not. The US has the better living conditions, hands down, but I still think Liberia’s children are the models of gratitude.

There really couldn’t have been a more meaningful time to take this trip. It was both my first week of being 22 and the last week of 2007 — which was a big year for me, with graduating and landing a job I love (psst, Hearst Digital Media launched MyPromStyle.com the day I left JFK). It was both a beginning and an end, a time of celebration and of sympathy. I didn’t know how I’d sum it up in a way that wasn’t too cliche or cheesy. But oddly, as we were sitting on the plane at the Monrovia airport, that #1 NY Times Bestseller I’ve already mentioned, “Eat, Pray, Love,” did the job for me. Elizabeth Gilbert writes,

“You abandon your comforting and familiar habits with the hope (the mere hope!) that something greater will be offered you in return for what you’ve given up.” ~chapter 57

She nailed it. Ms. Gilbert was writing about finding God, but she could have been talking about traveling to Liberia with the MacDella Cooper Foundation. Genevieve and I gave up the special Christmas Eve meals our moms prepare, the habit of exchanging presents on Christmas morning, etc… Those sacrifices seemed larger-than-life in the moments we bathed out of a bucket, didn’t have a flushing toilet to use, or fanned ourselves in the 80-plus degree heat. But none of them outweighed what I was offered in return:

  1. The greatest, sincerest gratitude for the smallest things. 
  2. A new wonder for blind ambition. If you ask the orphans what they want to be when they grow up, they’ll rattle off top-notch careers — doctor, pilot, chemist. Genevieve has that on tape. They don’t yet see the economic obstacles that hold them back. They don’t care how long the road is (figuratively and literally — remember that long path to school that the Children’s Rescue Mission kids showed me?) — they just need MCF and its sponsors to open the door for their education.
  3. The thrill of being able to share what I was seeing in Liberia on this blog in real time, of spotlighting orphans who would have remained in obscurity otherwise.

My trip is over, but the storytelling is just beginning. Genevieve and I have our work cut out for us — she editing and transcribing hours upon hours of footage, me writing about our experiences and publicizing MCF.

I will still update this blog with info relevant to the trip and MCF. I’ll probably re-skin it by February, so it’s not just Christmas-themed, but these posts will always be here. If you’ve enjoyed it, click on “Subscribe to blog” from the Blog Info menu in the upper right-hand corner, or add me to your Google reader. Thank you for following me on my journey, and special thanks to anyone who left comments. Most of all, thank you, MacDella — you are Liberia’s Angel.

Send Monrovia good vibes when they ring in the new year at 7pm our time…MacDella and the girls will be in church, a Liberian custom. Happy New Year to all!  

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I captured these moments with my handy Flip camera. Here’s the cute one I mentioned of Belle, MacDella’s 3-year-old foster child (who when MacDella found her, was living in poor conditions with a woman who had TB), telling Gen and I who she loves.

And here’s one of MacDella, asking one of the girls sponsored under MCF’s Duport Road Project how she’s doing in school (filmed Dec. 27).

Note that this is all my amateur footage — just wait until you see what Genevieve, the pro, captured with her Canon video camera…10 tapes will be edited down into a compelling documentary. I’m going to plan a TCNJ and NYC premiere of the documentary in the spring when she’s finished!

A recap of the trip to come…

After breakfast at the Royal, we drove down to the waterfront market (below), which was filled with Liberians selling clothing and household supplies. It was chaotic, but not so much as the red-light market, which would trap us in traffic jams. We didn’t get out and shop here, just drove through. In fact, I didn’t buy anything non-edible in Liberia, because what a tourist will find is a lot of stuff that is made in China or resembles 99-cent store merchandise. MacDella said she even bought body lotion once that had 99 cents written on it, but they charged  her $15 US dollars! So sorry, friends and family, no presents for you from Liberia — but I do have tons of pictures which I’ll be uploading and transforming into slideshows.

Waterfront market

After lunch, Gen and I had our last baths from a bucket (woo hoo!) and then gave the girls some parting presents — Barbies, Barbie clothes, and a tea set. Marci helped Belle unwrap her Barbie and she loved it, calling it her “baby.” What I found interesting though — and MacDella says this is a cultural thing — is that Leila and Hajal wouldn’t open their gifts, even though we prompted them to do so. They said thanks and smiled, but unlike an American kid who would have torn it apart in 2 seconds, I guess they wanted to savour the mystery of what could be beneath the snowman gift wrap and metallic gift bow. Even though they could probably guess it was the same thing Belle got? I’m not sure. But obviously Liberian children’s lives don’t revolve around toys and presents like in the US. 

When we got to the Liberia, security check was ever simpler than pre-9/11 in the US. It’s just a metal detector, not an X-ray machine like Europe and the states have. But in Liberia’s case, international terrorism doesn’t rank high on the list of worries — domestic issues are much more severe, so I guess we weren’t too surprised.

I’ll write more later about the actual flight, homecoming and post a cute video. Just wanted to let you know I’m home safe. But I’ve got sooo much more to write, here and beyond!

 mnyk,yymymymmymymmymyymymmymymymyyyyyyyyyyyymyyymyyyyyyyyymymm

belle

Belle is sitting on my lap and she typed the lines above. We are going to miss her so much…but here’s the best news! MacDella told us last night that the kids are coming to NYC for summer camp! I have already volunteered to babysit — I can take them to the Central Park Zoo, Toys ‘R Us, Coney Island, a Disney Broadway show…it will be so much fun! That makes saying good-bye to them much easier. Here’s Belle dancing on one of our first nights here:

Belle

After we leave the Royal Hotel this morning, we’re going downtown to the markets by the port, then back home to pack and leave for the airport around 6pm. Our flight leaves the Monrovia airport at 9:30pm.

I’ll keep blogging after I get home — to post some video that can’t upload with the Internet speeds here — and other reflections, so check back again!

After I blogged, we drove to the Children’s Rescue Mission orphanage, which is where my favorite kids from the Christmas party are from (like Prince!). MacDella brought the extra shoes to swap sizes with the kids who got pairs that were too big or too small. Here’s Mapu with her shoes:

Mapu

As soon as we stepped out of the SUV, the kids came running to give MacDella and us hugs. They weren’t as clean as they were on Christmas or dressed as nicely, but they were still so happy. I pulled out my bottles of bubbles, a tip Brandon gave me, and they were totally enthralled!

Bubbles

Prince and his friends gave us a tour of the orphanage, starting out back at the pig pens. I asked them why that one pig in the back was stuck in a hole, and they said because his back legs were broken. 😦

Pigs

Then we saw some of the fields where greens and cabbage grow. Next, they took us to their dining hall, where we saw the girls preparing lunch, which was a plate of rice with a bean soup over it. The boys introduced us to the three cutest puppies I’ve ever seen, truly — here’s our guide with one of them.

Puppy

On the other side of the orphanage, they showed us another field and pointed down the long path they follow to get to school.

Path to school

When we left the Children’s Rescue Mission, the kids started asking me to write down my e-mail and phone number. I knew the didn’t have Internet or a computer at the orphanage, but I wrote it down for them anyway. Who knows, maybe they’ll save it and write to me someday from college. MCF sure puts them on that road. 

We stopped at some shacks along DuPort Road, where MCF runs a project to send children to school.  I noticed many of the kids had white powder all over their faces and I didn’t know why. MacDella said it’s because rocks are the main industry in this area of Monrovia, and the kids have to help their parents grind them to sell.

We stopped at the school these children attend and met the principal. He showed us the library, which seemed to be a source of pride for the school. He said that he had blueprints for an expansion to the library. When MacDella went inside, she picked up a book and said, “I remember this book from when I was in school!” That tells you a lot. MacDella’s not that old, but back in the States, kids don’t even use the same textbooks that I did in elementary school.

library

At night, MacDella took us to dinner with Patrice, the former Miss Liberia, at the Royal Hotel. Later on, MacDella’s friend joined us and he was telling us how so much needs to be rebuilt in Liberia. In the midst of the conversation, the lights went out and the restaurant was pitch black. A fitting reminder that Liberia still is on generators and has a long way to go.

Me, Patrice, Genevieve

The Internet is faster this morning, so I’m going to upload more party pics. By the way, I’m feeling MUCH better — I can’t believe how quickly I’ve recovered from my cold. Today (Thursday) we’re going to visit a couple orphanages; Genevieve will film and I’ll play with the kids — I brought bubbles! I also wanted to mention that on our walk to the Royal Hotel this morning, we passed the president going to work! There was a whole fleet of UN cars, sirens blaring, to escort her. We didn’t see which car she was in, but we were in her presence! 

***** 

The kids gobbled up their meals — I ate the rice and macaroni salad too. It was delish!

Kids eating

 Here are some kids sporting their backpacks, which were filled with new black shoes.

Kids with backpacks

Liberia’s Angel, MacDella Cooper, cheers on kids in the dance competition.

MacDella

Isn’t this girl ADORABLE?

Sunglasses girl

Here’s Genevieve, the best third-world travel buddy I could ever ask for, fascinating the kids with the replay on her video camera.

Genevieve

This is Prince dancing. I swear he could be the next Will Smith. There was something very special about this kid. He seemed more American than Liberian. He didn’t have the sorrow in his eyes that most orphans have (before you start to play with them and take their pictures, that is — then you can make them smile!).

Prince

Here’s another of me surrounded by the kids. Genevieve and I found that even when we told the kids to “smile!” for pictures, they kept a straight face. I don’t think it’s because they’re upset — it’s probably just their custom. But when we would show them the photo on the camera screens, they’d smile a mile wide.

Me

Merry Christmas!  This was a day I’ll never forget! First, let’s be honest — spending Christmas away from home (especially in a third-world country) is not easy, not even for me, even though before we departed I was like, “I won’t get homesick! I stayed in Spain for 3 months and never got homesick!” But spending a major holiday away from home is a sacrifice of really special traditions that you’ve followed for years…in my case, 21 years. I felt homesick at the beginning and the end of the day — especially in the morning when I opened the Christmas cards my family had hidden in my suitcase, or ate dinner without them — but at the party, all of that faded and I knew I had no regrets about taking this trip. When you’re at the MCF Christmas party, seeing and being part of the enthusiasm, wonder, and gratitude of the kids is truly fulfilling a way that no other achievement can ever be. The true meaning of Christmas, I guess you could say — no Santa Claus required.

MacDella’s wealthy friend Papa, who has a beautiful home in Liberia, opened his yard to the 600-some kids from 4 or 5 different orphanages. The women who cooked the food — chicken, rice, and pasta — started preparing last night until 1am, then woke up at 5am!  The kids are used to eating cornmeal, as you read in an earlier post, so this was a VERY special treat.

Patrice, the former Miss Liberia, got the party started with some dancing! She is a good friend of MacDella’s who I first met in New York — her personality is golden. She borrowed the deejay’s mike and invited the kids to stand up on the porch, introduce themselves, and say how they were feeling after the day’s festivities, because she told them they’re rarely given a voice.

Patrice dancing

The kids loved the cameras, especially the digital ones, where they could see their pic after it was taken. Before the food was served, Genevieve and I wanted to entertain the kids, but there weren’t any toys. In these situations, my three years as a camp counselor never fail me. I taught the kids Duck, Duck Goose and then the Limbo.

meandkids.jpg

One thing Genevieve and I observed firsthand is that MacDella is perhaps the greatest unsung hero in all of Liberia. I’m not going to spell out all the corruption in Liberia on my blog, but just know the people here give MacDella every reason to give up on her foundation with the frustrating, unreasonable obstacles they put in her path. But she never gives up. The hope she has for the future of these orphans keeps her going. She doesn’t look for credit or like being in the spotlight much, but Genevieve and I are determined to shine it bright on her!

I have so many more pictures to share later, but the Internet is being very slow today, so this is the best I could do.

We drove all around the city today running last-minute errands for Tuesday’s Christmas party. I’m not sure whether driving through New York or Monrovia is more chaotic.  In New York, taxis whiz by and there is occasional gridlock — but at least you can opt for the subway when that happens. In Monrovia, you can’t get to market or town without sitting through some traffic — there aren’t traffic lights and the roads are full of pot holes you need to maneuver around. Liberians pass by the stopped cars hoping to sell candy, water, washcloths…It took all day to pick up the food to feed 600 orphans tomorrow — frozen chicken and sausage; rice, cooking oil, and peppers at the market; noodles, Kool Aid, and paper supplies at the Westernized supermarket — and to coordinate the cooking plans. A few women will begin cooking the chicken at 4am Christmas Day, so we can serve it at noon! We went to a bigger outdoor market than this one, but the photo gives you an idea of what the street atmosphere is like.

market-cropped.jpg

Today at the market was the first time we were mingling in true Liberian society, outside the car. As you can imagine, Gen and I attract quite a bit of attention being fair-skinned and carrying around cameras. The hardest was when we left the supermarket, and a group of kids were clanging garbage together to make music, so that we’d give them money. Or when we were getting in the car and girls yelled, “Hey missy! Hey missy!” to get us to buy from their stand. (Earlier, boys outside the Royal Hotel called to us, “their American sisters,” to help them. As sad as it sounds, just like in New York, you have to pretend you don’t hear them — you feel terribly cold-hearted, especially on Christmas Eve, but you can’t help everyone. That’s the hardest part of this trip — the discomfort of knowing how privileged you are in a country that is in extreme poverty.

I was reading “Eat, Pray, Love” on the balcony tonight – the best place to be to get the ocean breeze and some light before the sun sets and the electricity turns on in the apartment — and part of the book (a travelogue) made me think. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author, is talking with an Italian friend in Italy. She writes, “If you could read people’s thoughts as they were passing you on the streets of any given place, you would discover that most of them are thinking the same thought…And if your personal word does not match the word of the city, then you don’t really belong there.” They talked about New York, and how “achieve” sums up the city – I strive for that, so I can see why NYC is my haven. I tried to think of one word I would give Monrovia…Devastation? Hurt? Survival? These didn’t quite fit, because as I said before, there is hope and beauty if you look for it…so I asked Genevieve, who was sitting beside me, what word she thinks is appropriate. Without any delay, she replied, “Money.”

She nailed it. It’s all about money here. However, unlike in the US, money means just having enough to afford the basic necessities — it’s not about affording designer clothing, making millions like Donald Trump, or greed in general, in my estimation.

On a brighter note, I’m very much looking forward to what all these errands have been building up to — the Christmas party!

After being in Liberia for two days, I know the answer to my blog’s title — “Do they know it’s Christmas?” — is yes. There are modest Christmas decorations throughout the city: garland on the gates of the presidential palace, Christmas lights roped through the barbed wire surrounding the Salvation Army building, pre-assembled artificial Christmas trees in the grocery store. Below, you can even see “Merry X-mas” chalked on the road outside MacDella’s apartment. (That’s a photo booth; you’ll see little booths like these on the street offering photo, cell phone, and beauty services).

Merry X-mas

But when it really hit me that Christmas is a recognizable, big deal in Liberia is when we were leaving a beachfront restaurant, where MacDella, the girls, Genevieve and I had lunch.

Beach - Monrovia

As we were leaving and driving down the dirt path, street children to the left and right of our SUV were waving and saying, “Merry Christmas!” with big smiles. One held a tattered cardboard sign with “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” scribbled in lopsided letters. In an amazingly symbolic way, now that I look back on it, a Gloria Estefan Christmas classic, “Christmas Through Your Eyes,” was playing on the radio.

So to answer Band Aid’s song, yes, they do know it’s Christmas in Africa. But I think Christmas means something different here. It’s obviously not driven by presents and fancy meals, at least among the families who live in shacks. It’s not about fighting to get your kid the hottest “it” toy, or leaving cookies for Santa, or wishing for snow. Maybe it’s about hope. Because I do see a lot of hope in Liberia, especially through MacDella’s eyes. Even with all the obstacles she faces (orphanage directors who won’t distribute her donations, customs officers who rip apart her shipments of donated shoes and book bags), she perseveres because she sees what Liberian children could be like through the success of Belle, Leila, Hajal, and Marcie. I see hope in the hotels and restaurants where we are fortunate enough to eat and use the Internet — the insides are air-conditioned and entirely Westernized in décor. This could become the standard with the right economy. And I see hope in the billboards that line the poverty-stricken streets. Billboards say “Rape is a crime,” “Stop mob violence,” and “Protect yourself against HIV/AIDS.” My favorite pictures a woman wearing a stethoscope around her neck. The caption reads, “This could be you with an education.”

At night, we spent 2 hours packing backpacks with shoes to give to the kids on Christmas Day at the party. You’ll hear more about that later, because MacDella’s foundation is correct in believing education is the way out for these kids…because they’ll ultimately be rebuilding the economy when they’re grown up. More sponsorships are necessary, and tomorrow, on Christmas Day, I’m going to try to spotlight the kids who need our support most of all. Expect LOTS of great pictures next time!

Yesterday, we went to one of the orphanages MCF supports to measure the feet of kids who will be attending Tuesday’s Christmas party. MacDella has boxes full of donated shoes in her apartment. The kids need them desperately — right now, they wear tattered flip-flops or sandals. Without any sort of tape measure or ruler on hand, the only way we could think to match the kids up to shoes was trace their feet on pieces of notebook paper. (We can’t fit them at the party, because there aren’t enough shoes to go around for all 500 kids). Here are some pictures of the kids. They don’t talk much at first, but they always smile.

kids_resized.jpg

Plus, the kids are total hams for the camera (remember Genevieve is filming a documentary). She asked them to give her a “tour,” and they brought us to their dining hall. Meals are probably the highlight of their day. I asked what they had for lunch. One little girl tried to fool me and said “a horse,” but then she said she really had cornmeal.

I love this photo of Genevieve and a little girl who was fascinated with the camera.

gen_resized.jpg

One of the great things about living with MacDella and her foster children (Belle, Leila, and Hajal — plus Marcie, the college-aged girl who helps out) is seeing how taking children out of orphanages transforms them. All three of MacDella’s foster kids flourish. Belle, the three-year-old, is as cute as they come. Yesterday morning, she was enthralled by the cover of the book I’m reading, “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert, and spelled out every single letter on it. Leila enjoyed my iTunes last night, and requested music by Diana Ross and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Luckily, I had both.

Today, we’re visiting another orphanage to do the same sizing — then, MacDella’s apartment will transform into a sort of Santa’s workshop and we’ll begin matching the presents to each kid!