It’s my birthday. I usually take vacation on my birthday but decided to work through it this year. I think it’s been 20 years since I worked on my birthday. I ask for nothing pretty much all of the time so I allow my birthday to be “my day” where maybe I can give a little less and receive a little more…just for one day a year.

The reason I worked is dual. I just started a new job 4 weeks ago and it seemed too soon for time off. I will take the last week of August off instead. Also, I did my bucket list trip to Africa (Rwanda and Kenya) for 2 weeks a few months back and have an 18 day trip to Morocco on the horizon. I’m not suffering from a lack of vacation time.

Since Rwanda is a partial reason for why I worked on my birthday, I thought it a good time to reflect and celebrate what I received from that country.

Dear Rwanda,

To quote Chelsea Handler as of late, you “blew my heart wide open.” I loved your super easy to navigate airport as well as the “drive thru” security where you park your car, get out and the car itself is taken through its own scan. One would think a country as “evolved” as the US would do something so sensible but we don’t do anything sensible. Thank you for paying such close attention to safety. I know it’s the nature of being a developing country which has had many wars and terrorist acts over the years and it’s probably not your preference.

Thank you for your vulnerability in sharing your painful history. I think every trip to Kigali should begin like mine, with a trip to your incredibly beautiful and moving Genocide Museum. To fully appreciate you in this moment is to have known you when….there are no words to describe how to come back from something like that. You never truly do….so many loved ones gone. It’s something that requires witness, ceremony and prayer. I have no words for the feelings I experienced looking over the memorial and trying to imagine the sheer number of people slaughtered. One would think other countries might learn from your experience. Nope. Even more hopeful would be our ability to learn how a country takes steps forward to accomplish the growth and rebirth yours has. It’s remarkable. It’s doable, if it’s in your heart. It certainly is in your hearts. It’s not in the majority of ours.

Thank you for your conservation efforts, your love for and cultivation of your land. The way you protect your people and your animals as equals. Your people take immense pride in being able to share the gorilla experience. You don’t have to share that, but you do. You understand that people would find other ways to exploit you so you share them on your terms, as you should. You keep the trekking prices high, as you should. You use the funding to continue to protect and preserve but also to provide your people with career paths they can be proud of.

There were a number of obstacles in the way of me getting up that mountain, none of which were your fault, but you took ownership of my experience and over delivered where others didn’t deliver at all…an extra expense and amount of work on your people you didn’t deserve to have to deal with. Yet you did, with grace. You gave me a 15,000$ private trek for the price of $1500. America would never do that for you and I know that. I felt ashamed that you felt you needed to do that because I already have more privilege in my life than any of your people could imagine. I did not earn that experience.

So, there’s a few things I want you to know about that trek. I know I didn’t deserve such an exclusive experience. I had the attention of several guides and military. I was walking into that situation, alone, with all these armed men. Add to that, we were close to the Congo border so I could hear guns going off in the distance. That said, I took those steps forward with you feeling safer in my choice at that very moment than I feel at home in America. The experience of actually spotting the gorillas the first time and then the encouragement of your team to move closer….a lot closer, was one of the most exceptional experiences of my life. I am glad to have shared it with you, only you. You getting to see me having that experience means you have gotten a glimpse of joy in me that no other human has ever seen. I love letting you have that. It will always be our secret, our moment and I’m really, really proud of it. You pushed me up that mountain and kept pushing me, behind what I believed I was capable of and showed me that I’ve got a lot more in my tank than I had ever given myself credit for. Thank you. I have maintained that grit and bravery since I got home. It’s what got me my new job.

Your consideration, politeness, service. You were always thinking hours ahead of us. When we came back to the hotel covered in mud, you were waiting to take our dirty boots from us and replace them with flip flops so you could clean our boots and gaiters. I have no idea how you did it but my boots came back cleaner than when I bought them. At breakfast, you’d ask what we wanted for lunch. At lunch you’d ask what we’d want for dinner. This is because you make all your meals fresh and by scratch. This means that you actually spend hours cooking so you never wanted us waiting on you whenever we sat down. And the soups you made with your own vegetables every night…to die for! I have been trying to replicate some of those on my own and don’t even come close to the taste of what you created. I ate exceptionally well in your country.

I can’t say enough about your people. From every child chasing our Jeep to wave and say hello, to the armed guard at the ATM…you couldn’t have been kinder. Every time I saw your smiling children, especially with our trip into one of the village schools, I felt so ashamed that if you or your children were to visit our country, you would not receive the same excitement and joy. If you appeared to be lost or needed help with something here, our people would at best ignore you and at worst, ridicule you. Americans are not as good as you believe us to be. I think you just see more good ones than bad because the kinds of people who would take the time to travel to your country tend to be educated and open minded people who don’t think we are better or smarter than you. My love for your country runs deep. My heart is forever invested in you. I want for you a bright, healthy future…no deviation from the road you are currently on. I hope to see your school children grow up to be teachers, conservationists, scientists, doctors, benevolent politicians…people who will ask the hard questions, make the right decisions and not have told fear the other side of elections….do we keep this or do we go back to war? I can’t imagine having to live so precariously, although, as an American, perhaps it’s not as distant as I have always believed it to be.

Since I’ve been home, I am trying to get my hands on any and all material to continue learning about your country…books, movies, documentaries. Underneath all of your growth and beauty still lies a sadness, a known absence. I am deeply sorry for the lack of support from my country during your most recent genocide. We knew what was happening. We knew we could help but were more interested in saving face because we were embarrassed by our involvement with Somalia. I’m sorry, but trying to help people in need, even if it doesn’t get the outcome hoped for, is never something to be ashamed of and never something to turn away from. America feels so insulated that we are somehow better and more evolved than developing countries. That only proves how uneducated we are because history exists to show us where we are going. Instead, we fight our school systems in an effort to keep,our children from knowing truth. You know where that can lead better than anyone.

I fell in love with your country and all of your people, for sure. But I also fell a little in love with myself in a way I deeply needed. I went on that trip sensing I was at some kind d of crossroads and decision point in my life. I didn’t anticipate that one part I needed was just a general appreciation of myself as well as a reckoning with my priorities. I am “practicing” these priorities, this kindness with myself that is creating a softness I needed. Breathing is a bit less labored than it was before I met you. The softness I am giving myself is also going outward to others. I think I am going to forever be discovering little gifts from you here and there. I still think of you every day. I am still processing my experience and am sure unexpected memories will continue to pop up. You’ve given me a piece of myself only you have seen which is pretty special. I was at my best with you because you command that from people, as you should. You have so much to protect, so much to be proud of, so much to fight for, so much to hope for. In a way, I am envious in that I don’t think America has anything to hope for right now. I think we only have what we need to prepare for and the history you openly shared with me shows me just how dark and dire it can get. I don’t think my cohorts here in America have the slightest idea and don’t fear nearly enough. Any fear they do have is severely misplaced for the only fear they actually should have is that which we see in our mirrors.

May you continue to seek and find peace amongst immeasurable massacre and loss. No amount of decades can ever take that pain away. No family can ever truly recover. Thank you for letting me have a glimpse into that pain. I think the only way to experience your pride is to get a look at your pain and I deeply appreciate your reverence.

Thank you for sharing your lovely children with us. I think they make it pretty simple to understand what’s important in life and what isn’t. There is so much forgiveness, hope and love wrapped up in their little hearts and eyes. Their singing voices, clumsily tripping over each other to be the first in line to greet us and show off their skills….my eyes tear up with pure joy whenever I think of them. They are my optimism. They are my inspiration.

Thank you for ushering me into this year’s birthday. It’s just a little sweeter than most birthdays because I feel like I’ve got new Parts to me, even at this old age. Some things were definitely “born” in me because of my experience with your country. I feel like it’s you, me and the gorillas…a little secret we share with no one else. I can’t imagine better people to have opened myself up to.