A study in contrasts
There are times in life when things all fall into place and other times when they all fall apart. You never really know until you are in it whether it is the best of times or the worst of times. On the other side, there are always lessons learned and a better understanding of the human condition. I have generally been grateful for the life lessons wrought of hard times. It is, of course, easier to accept the good with its requisite joy and harmony.
In memoir writing there is a saying that everybody has a story. Lately, I have been privy to some stories from friends and relations that illustrate the strength of human spirit, its innate ability to press through the horrible, the heinous, the heartache and come out the other side either stronger or at least empowered in some way. I am in awe of some of the people I have come in contact and amazed at the complexity of their stories and their success in navigating to higher ground.
My daughter is in Africa at the moment. She is in Kenya volunteering in the Kibera slum in Nairobi. Kibera is the second largest slum in the world. I googled an image of the slum and was shocked by the sheer size of this societal scab. It is far more extensive than I could have imagined. Millions of people there live in mud huts with corrugated metal roofs. There is a lack of clean water and raw sewage flows in the streets. There is crime, prostitution, and substance abuse. Some of the pictures I have seen show my daughter navigating her way through the detritus of slum life to her volunteer placement.
Her interested in working with the differently abled is what drew my daughter to this experience. Her time volunteering in a third world special needs classroom is an education in and of itself, but I think she is really getting schooled in what it is to live with little more than nothing. I think it is safe to say, in the West, we could all do with living with less, but this is taking to the extreme. It is more than I think she expected. More than I thought she would bear witness to on this adventure.
When I was in my twenties I spent five months in Asia. I was backpacking so my stays were short lived in any one place and if accommodations/food/company proved unsatisfactory I was able to move on and make a change. Even so, I was shocked by much of what I saw in in the way of poverty. Most striking was the contrast I found upon visiting the Taj Mahal. The beauty of this mausoleum is well known and is a bucket list item for many a traveler. The image of the white Taj with its inlay mosaics is clear in the minds of most people. The mausoleum is housed within a walled fortress of sorts, and what I found shocking was the shanty village of cardboard houses and other makeshift lean-tos that lined the outside perimeter of the Taj Mahal’s outer wall. It was the height of opulence butted up against abject poverty. It is an image that haunts me to this day. There are others. The view from the comfort of my second class seat on a train travelling through Rajasthan province of 60 or 80 men lined up a hundred feet from the railway track for their morning constitutional. Or the morning I opened my window in Jaisalmer to see three barefoot and filthy children peeing in the gutter.
Once when I was in Indonesia, far off the beaten track, I found myself desperate for a bathroom. The town was not accustomed to tourists. When my request for the nearest facilities was understood — there are ways of making some things understood in any language – there was great discussion among the locals. Finally, I was led to a young man on a moped who motioned for me to get on the back and hold on. Due to the state of my bladder I did not hesitate. I was driven around and around and up a great hill to what I came to realize was the fanciest house in town. My driver knocked on the door, spoke and motioned to me. I was then offered entrance to the home and shown to a clean bathroom that housed a standard squatting toilet. It was the best they could offer to the stranger in their midst.
These events informed my life going forward, and I am most interested in hearing my daughter’s take on the sight and smells of her time in Kibera. And when life for her heads into the worst of times territory, I hope she will take solace in her concrete knowledge that there are always people who are worse off than her or are dealing with bigger and more challenging issues. It is something I have held onto myself, after all these years.