December 7th, every year between 1992 and 2014, I have found myself in Canada. 2015 I woke up to celebrate my birthday next to the ocean, as I have every time between 1992 and 2014, but this time it was not Vancouver or Halifax that greeted me, but Monrovia.
My birthday in the recent past has never been a grandiose celebration. It has though always been an occasion where I have been surrounded by family, whether that was the one who raised me for 19 years in Vancouver or the group of close friends that helped me transition from childhood to adulthood through university in Halifax. In Liberia, the intensity of a new role meant thinking about my birthday was very very low on the list of things to do in the days leading up to the 7th. I had a few conversations about its existence with my housemates, but nothing more.
The night before, a Sunday, proved to be the best time to try and talk with my family back in Canada. This is a bigger challenge though than you may think given the only thing consistent about my access to an internet connection in Liberia is it’s frequent ability to cut out at any point.
I was able to talk with my family, but only briefly, and to be honest, the conversation saddened me. A crappy connection on one, and the other call lasted no more than 2 minutes surrounded by 35 minutes of attempting to connect. Unfortunately, this is the nature of living in Liberia.
Christmas Day was different. From the train station in Vernazza, one of the picturesque towns of Italy’s Cinque Terre region I was able to FaceTime perfectly (more to come on Italy in an upcoming post). I talked with all my immediate family on what was their Christmas Eve, my Christmas morning. There were even Christmas cards held up to the screen, and the ability to see their faces in a non-pixelated way brought me great joy. Technology is sometimes mind blowing in it’s brilliance, and other times has you ready to throw your computer from your Liberian rooftop down into the Atlantic Ocean.
Back to December 7th. I had spent a month in Liberia, and had started to form some incredible relationships. But I came to a realization that December 7th night. My housemates and a few close friends all came out for a very communal Ethiopian dinner (my favorite cuisine), where my friend Julian secretly paid for my portion of the meal. Then we got home, and I was unexpectedly surprised with a birthday cupcake and a real birthday candle, the latter which isn’t easy to find in Monrovia. I was quite impressed, and then wine, cheese, and even a photo collage of the evening appeared in front of me. The gifts weren’t what mattered, but behind the gifts I felt genuine care and love from what were a month ago, strangers – a group of people I now I consider family.