Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What Else Can You Do About It Except Laugh?

Monday morning was my first day of class. I got up around 7:30 am, got dressed, and plucked my toothbrush and toothpaste off the counter in my room and carried them down the hall to the bathroom. There are four sinks in this bathroom. I went to the one farthest away from the door. I applied toothpaste to my brush and began brushing. After about a minute, I spat and turned the handle of the faucet to wash my mouth out. Sounds simple enough, right? There was only one problem, when I turned the handle of the faucet, no water came out. Thinking I must be imagining things I tried turning the other handle of the faucet, still no water came rushing out, not even a trickle. Unwilling to accept this, I went down the line of sinks, turning the handle of each one. Water did not present itself.

After a moment or two I realized that I still had a full water bottle in my room so I jogged down the hall with my tooth brush in my mouth to grab the bottle. I returned to the bathroom and finished brushing my teeth with the water from the bottle. As I peeked into the bathroom stalls and saw the mess people had been forced to leave in the toilets, I felt a surge of anger come over me about the situation. I wasn't so much angry about the inconvenience this was to me, but about how the rest of the residents in my dorm would act. I am the RA for the first floor of my dorm. While I love being a RA because it means I get to help take care of people, the job also has its downsides, one of which is that resident advisors tend to get hit with a lot of complaints. I don't know many Americans who are used to going about their daily routine without water so I expected I'd be met with dozens of angry residents. Just what I needed on my first day of class!

I am happy to say that I was completely wrong. As I walked down the hall and met people with soap suds drying on their legs, water bottles and toothbrushes in hand, I was shocked by the strange and unexpected reaction I got from my residents. They were smiling. Each and every person I ran into was smiling. And when their eyes met mine, we all just burst out laughing. And I mean hysterical, tears-rolling-down-face laughing, because as one resident said in between giggles, "Well, what else can you do about it except laugh?"

Some students ran over to the recreation center to take quick showers. Others (myself included) headed over to the student center for a bathroom, face-washing run. And as I ran into more and more people trying to get ready for the day all over campus, the more laughter and hilarious comments I heard.

And so for that morning, I was proud that people were able to walk across the street to use the toilet without their whole world crashing in. I was proud that people either took the trek to the rec center to take showers in good spirits, or realized that going one day without bathing wouldn't kill them. That morning, I was proud of people from my culture. I was proud that I heard laughter in abundance and not a single complaint. I was proud that people could defy my expectations and that we could all accept that crazy stuff does indeed happen and being inconvenienced doesn't mean the day should be spoiled by bad attitudes. 

Sometimes, things don't go as planned, even something as simple as brushing your teeth. It's so easy to get angry or annoyed in these situations but so much more fun to laugh and embrace the spontaneity of life.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

I Am Here and It Is Now

 Since I got on that first sixteen hour flight to South Africa, time has not been pulsing at its normal rhythms for me and, on occasion, has disappeared from my consciousness all together. I didn't wear a watch in Swaziland, my cell phone remained off, I didn't check Facebook, and only checked my email twice for the sole purpose of assuring my parents that I was alive and wishing my grandma a happy eighty-sixth birthday. Occasionally I would ask a teammate what time it was, perhaps out of habit, but I don't remember ever really listening to the answer. So, as you can imagine, it came as a shock to me to today to check my calendar and suddenly realize that as of tomorrow, it will be a week since our last day at the carepoint.

Nearly a week has past since we said our goodbyes and my heart broke and grew and transformed all at once. I can keep saying that over and over in my head but it still doesn't seem real. I haven't quite come to terms with the fact that I am in America, that I have, as people keep telling me, "re-entered." Every once in a while I feel like a map with a big red X and the words, "You are here" is being shoved under my face as my mind tries to convince me that I should accept my surroundings. But, my heart insists, "You are there. You are there." and I don't have the strength to argue because I want so badly for that to be true.

It's hard to be back on a schedule, to have to adhere to the rigid command of time. I have to wake up at seven, shower at eight, eat breakfast at nine, go to training at ten, break for lunch at noon, return at one, train some more until four, work on projects in the dorm until seven, eat dinner, work some more, go to sleep and repeat it all again the next day. I am virtually always aware of what time it is down to the minute and as much as I love my job and my friends and my school, I find myself missing my life in Swaziland where time wasn't a constant grip on my neck, but a soft hand on my back, pushing me ever so gently throughout my day.

Time isn't just holding me, it's holding our entire culture. I've been asked what time it is by a friend at least ten times in the past two days. Every time this happens I get a surge of distress. I want to scream at them, "You are here and it is now! That's all that matters!" But, instead, I slip back into the cultural norm, pull out my cell phone and inform my friend that it is one o'clock and that we need to get back to training.

I feel like I am starting this life all over again. The twelve days I was gone feels more like twelve years. Everything I once called normal seems completely unfamiliar. This world feels like a museum instead of a home. Things are too clean. I am too clean. I miss blowing dirt out of my nose at the end of the day and shaking rocks and dust out of my shoes. I miss really having a reason to shower. The roads in this world feel too smooth, the lights feel too bright, the cows are far too fat and the dogs are ostentatiously well-groomed.

There is time here. There is so much time. And it has so much power. I want to love it. I want to say I feel so blessed to be back in America. I want to say I am so glad for all of the freedom we have. I want to be proud to call this place my home but I'm just not there yet. I'm not sure I can ever fully be there again.

It's 10:35 pm in Iowa and I don't know what that really means. I am here and it is now and I'm still living and breathing and ready to be in reality again serving my brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Inadequate Words

I'm sitting in my dorm room in Iowa, tired, sore and sweating. With the help of my father and several friends, my stuff has all made it into Hildenbrand Hall and I start Resident Advisor training tomorrow. It's crazy to realize that four days ago I was in another country, continent, and hemisphere. Everything that's happened since landing in America has been a blur. I feel disconnected, like a brainless robot performing tasks but unable to truly think or feel.

One of my family members asked me the other day if Swaziland had been an unbelievable experience. The truth is that it wasn't unbelievable, not at all. I have never felt anything so incredibly real as I did during the few weeks I spent in Swaziland, I have never felt so alive. The experience that's unbelievable is returning to America, returning to a place that I once called home and realizing that my heart is still in the rolling hills and mountains of a country far away. What's unbelievable is waking up each morning ready to spend the day at a carepoint with smiling, wonderful children and realizing that it will be at least another year until I can be in their presence again. What's unbelievable is spending my time away from my loving and fantastically supportive teammates who, in a matter of hours, became my family. What's unbelievable is coming into a world where we complain about five extra minutes in traffic, a broken air conditioner, hair in the sink, too much grease on food and a million other minute details. Swaziland was real. The shock of America is what's unbelievable.

As I adjust to existing again in my native land I feel, as my friend and teammate Sierra would say, like I'm on "The Struggle Bus." Friends and family members alike have been asking me countless questions about my experience in Swaziland and as I recount story after story to them I realize how incredibly inadequate my words are. I can describe my horror and pain witnessing the children's ward of the hospital we visited, I can describe the landscape and how many children came to the carepoint barefoot, some traveling three or four miles on roads of dust and rocks. I can describe the crumbling huts made out of branches and mud that many children come home to with no dinner on the table or parents waiting to care for their needs. I can describe so much of the pain and suffering I witnessed and experienced alongside the people of Swaziland but it's inadequate to just tell these stories without being able to describe the unspeakable joy and peace that permeated the entire country and its people.

I don't know how to describe in words the source of the light that shone out of the children of Ludlati Carepoint. I don't know how to explain their gratitude and contentment despite the grave odds they face. I don't know how to explain their resilience, their kindness, their bravery, loyalty, or beauty. I don't know how to convey to people how inexplicably happy these children are, how blessed they are to be able to survive on God's grace alone and be constantly thankful for even the smallest blessings. I can't explain how much peace I felt holding little Danele against my chest, or the excitement of a chat with the animated Colile or how my heart shattered into a million pieces as sweet Kholiwe called out to me, "I will pray for you all year!" as I walked towards the van on our last day.

My words are inadequate and that's hard. I want so badly to tell everyone the stories of my trip but nothing I describe can truly bring that place justice. I am on The Struggle Bus and don't know if I will ever be getting off. I can only take peace in the fact that while my words are inadequate, God's love for these children is not. I rejoice in the fact that while so much about the lives of these kids is broken, their spirit remains strong. They are an indescribable blessing that I can only make feeble attempts to put into words.