This is a photo taken in 2006 on the aptly-named Gold Coast of Ghana, West Africa. The person walking into the sunset is Emily, my dear madamfo ('friend' in Twi). We'd met only a few hours before on the bus en route to this idyllic scene.
I'd just flown in from the University of Montana for a semester of study abroad at the University of Ghana. She had just arrived from the University of Idaho. Though we only lived a few hours apart back in the states, we'd never met before. Little did we know this picture would mark the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Our days in Ghana were, in short, colorful. We stayed balanced though. Going to the bank was a full-day effort. Some days, we'd carry buckets of water up three flights of stairs for showers when storms shut off the sewer system. Machete-armed muggers on motorcycles weren't afraid to slash purses and backpacks straight from pedestrians braving traffic-choked streets.
But indulgences were bountiful. Leisurely mornings over coffee at Cuppaccino were a particular joy, scribbling in our journals, listening to heart-stirring folk music, like single, longing 20-somethings often do. And cheeseburgers, for one, were really good at the Jazz Club in the embassy district where we'd watch keyboardist, Victor Dey, put the room in a trance with his spindly fingers sending tunes into balmy evenings.
One sweltering night in Ouagadougou, we took turns soaking sarongs when nighttime temperatures refused to budge from 125-degrees; one person would lay as still as possible while the other would drape the refreshing cloth over the sleep hopeful waiting for evaporative cooling to offer some relief.
On a month-long road trip through Togo, Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso, our eyes were opened to a world that would send us home changed forever. We pounded fufu and braved bowls of grasscutter soup (fancy word for rat) paired with Akpeteshie. After exploring a voodoo marketplace replete with monkey heads and human eyeballs, we shared spaghetti with an Italian NGO-worker at her beach house in Benin beside a church where an exorcism took place while we apprehensively relished spoonfuls of homemade pasta.
Moonlit nights wandering the dusty maze of Agadez found us in the midst of a mystical gathering for Muhammad's birthday with residents draped in long white robes. We rode camels and discovered dates for the first time. We killed scorpions the size of our palms, took too-long bus rides past children splashing happily in dirty riverbeds while their mothers boosted babies on their hips, shouting "mango!" to us. The exchange of sweaty money took place, followed by the incomparable taste of fresh, juicy mango.
After Africa, we returned to school, catching up occasionally at festivals, and, on the day of our respective graduations, boarded a plane instead bound for Oslo, Norway, for the inaugural International Ecotourism Conference. From there, we bounced to Israel (with a brief stop for paddleboating below the Charles Bridge in Prague).
In Israel, we lived in an apartment in Tel Aviv, road-tripped around the Golan Heights, climbed Mount Masada and Mount Sinai for some unforgettable sunsets, dove with dolphins in the Red Sea, explored the pyramids and got chased by Bedouins after an innocent afternoon drinking tea in a cave above Petra.
Eleven years later, neither of us are practicing economic development in third world countries, like we imagined. Rather we found the loves of our lives, me with the man of my dreams in Colorado, Emily still in Idaho with her fabulous Nathaniel. She's now the mother of three little ones, and pregnant with a fourth.
Her sweet mother, Susan, was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, at the time given a life expectancy of two years. Like her daughter, Susan has an irrepressible spirit and zest for living and grandiose adventures. I've had the pleasure of traveling parts of the globe with her and her husband, Ron, a few times over the years and am endlessly inspired by Sue's passion for culture and people.
After her diagnosis, Sue took smart steps to protect the health she had but hell or high water can't keep that woman from traipsing around the planet to visit friends, seeing sites she'd always hoped to lay eyes on and experiencing all of the tastes, sounds, tunes, textures she possibly could. When she isn't globetrotting, she's back at home with family, engaged in her kids finding their true loves and falling into that happiest of roles as beloved grandmother.
On a recent trip in Scotland with a girlfriend, Sue fell ill and was flown home, told by doctors there was nothing left to be done; she had two weeks at the most. That was last week. She's now in her home in a hospice bed, saying goodbyes to the many souls she's touched with her light and love.
Emily told me yesterday her mom seems at peace, ready to move on from this broken body. Emily added that she'd heard dying was like bringing a child into the world, like your body is giving birth to spirit. The body goes into this very protective place, a quiet place where maybe you want to be alone. Emily watched as her dad wrapped his arms around Sue, blanketed knees pulled up to her chest.
I sat outside yesterday while an odd sprinkle fell from a sunny sky dappled with a few non-threatening clouds. The sun was brilliant, and the spits of rain were magical. I thought of Sue. I thought of how our lives are touched by people. I thought of family and health. I thought of my dear madamfo, Emily, and how hard it must be to let go of the person who brought you into the world, while preparing to bring in your own.
"Nothing grows in comfort zones," she said before our conversation ended.
It's funny how some people in your life just stick, despite time, distance and life changes. Thank goodness for their honesty, wisdom, wit and grounded openness to all of the character-building moments life presents. Thank goodness for old friends.