“So I want to know… what struck you the most?”
Ugh. That question stuck in my stomach like bubble gum on cement. Even writing about this now, the swirling about feeling of pre-puking, the tears that form and sting in my eyes, and simultaneously the sense that I’ve been touched by something so much bigger than me hasn’t gotten any easier to explain.
So, in the moment, I gave this woman the only thing I had: silence. And respect… and I mean a lot of respect.
Her name was Laura.
|Laura introduces us to her friend... Who asked her to marry him for the xxth time today... She's not convinced!|
Three townships surrounding Cape Town… The smallest at 200,000 people – it’s the size of my home, Boulder, Colorado – and the largest over 1 million. Sixty percent unemployment. Three entire families splitting rent of 20 Rand per month for a room with three beds and one hot plate. The hospital serves 1.5 million. There are 200 beds, and 10 doctors. You must bring your own linens. 9 million in the country living with HIV… 150,000 are kids. Each Saturday, 100 people are buried in this community.
|Langa Township, Cape Town, South Africa|
This is Laura’s community, and I feel damn confident in saying she is – aside from my mom – the strongest woman I’ve ever met. Born and raised, Laura’s engagement in and beyond the community to bring opportunity and growth to the youth of these townships would give any humanitarian a run for their money.
We’d been invited by Laura to visit the townships with her last Tuesday, where she still lives, to meet her family and see other notable buildings in this post-Apartheid phenomenon of human arrangement. It was very far from a light and breezy day.
|Entry way in to the Langa hostel, where generations of families have come to live under one roof, post-Apartheid.|
|A room in the hostel currently rented by three families (fifteen people). It costs 20 rand per month.|
But at the end of the day, I was surprised to find that “what struck me the most” was not a specific experience, but the resurfacing of one image in my mind: a little girl I’d met in Senegal six years earlier.
I don’t know her name.
She work a pink, taffeta party dress, and she saw me coming from down the street. Her feet scuttled in that quick pitter-patter way that little kids do… under themselves and scattered like a roadrunner before their excitement ultimately sends them careening forward. Barefoot and jabbering in Wolof – the local dialect I had only just begun to learn – she raced up to me on this busy sidewalk of Dakar, and took my hand. And she walked me down the street, eyes glistening and with such an intonation in her voice that there was no question she was saying something really exciting.
|Beautiful. Exuberant. Carefree deliverance of love.|
The more I looked down at her, full of joy and excitement, the more I heard the warning voices of professors to avoid children beggars who might be raising money for their ‘generous’ Imam. This was day five of my first trip ever outside the country. I saw the bugs crawling in her matted hair. I saw the crust forming around her piercingly dark eyes, crusting over their shine like dusty diamonds. Fear in my body. Threat.
And just like that, I was torn away from the beauty of the moment. I pulled away. And I fell over. Literally, I actually fell off the curb in Dakar as soon as I wretched her hand from mine… then ran to the other side of the street to save face and quickly get away. Cultural adaptation fail.
Flash forward and I’m stepping out of the back of Laura’s van in the morning in front of the original township hostel – an abysmal yet hopeful place in which families stay to save enough money to live elsewhere in the township. There’s trash everywhere. The windows are barred and broken. The streets are chaotic. Having traveled quite a bit in recent years, this doesn’t seem like cause for concern at all and I quickly jump out of the car.
No sooner had one foot hit the dusty ground and there were two little arms wrapped around me. Like, two of the tightest, most sincere little boy arms perfectly hugging my leg – beautiful smile and sincere eyes… He chirped “Hi!”, briefly rested his cheek on my thigh, and ran off about 10 feet to take me in.
|This is China. Those are brownie crumbs on his lips.|
The guilt of having let go of a child’s hand all those years ago… It was all I could do not to cry in that moment, pick the boy up and swing him around. He literally stopped me in my tracks, and set me up for a day that was filled with some of the most love, amazing children and indulgent fascination in the “other” that I’ve experienced in quite some time. Such stark contrast. Such different perspective.
|Laura's niece was a BLAST.|
Why the change? What changed?
Somewhere amidst the in between years of experience, my trust in humanity changed. I stepped out of books, away from college and in to experience. In to all of it – the pain, the craziness and the uncertainty… and also the power of love, compassion and human touch. We have the capacity to affect and be affected… to change and be changed. In that regard, I guess it wasn’t so much trust in humanity, but trust in myself that changed.
I guess there is a vinyasa to it all. Presence in the experience, noting life’s sequence, the increasing importance of each pose and life moment. Knowing where to place your attention so that each movement forward is a progression that is uniquely you or me.
Which brings me to the present: I’ve made the decision to start a new job, and put myself on a sail boat with 10 other people, to sail across the South Atlantic for a month. Narrowly, these people, this boat, 5 Gyres and this ocean will be my life for the expedition… but it’s so much more. This research – of a truly global issue, in every sense of the word, that is occurring largely unnoticed in one of our world’s final frontiers – is about humanity. In researching the accumulation and toxicity of plastic marine pollutants that are now covering 75% of our planet, this issue is not one for the books… it’s one for us. Now. It’s as much for me as for any kid in the township.
I’m terrified, really. But two New Years ago, I made a resolution with Jonny to do things out of love and not out of fear… and two years later, I’m still renewing this resolution, because it still unfolds for me daily.
I’m not ready to leave Africa, but I know that I need to. I realize that every time I leave here, I leave behind a little more of my heart. But that’s exactly the way I’ve felt about the ocean in the last few years. And I know that I’ll give up a little more of it on this trip, but only in the most invigorating and amazing of ways.
What’s the lesson? Get on the boat, I suppose.
And, really, if life’s a cycle, what’s the point in being a drop in the ocean of humanity, when you could drop in on the wave of your life?
|Playing with the camera.|
|Fascination with the fuzzy material of the microphone / boom.|
|Beer. Seriously... in those two barrels.|