Friday, February 17, 2012

Malawi Bound.

Children in Malawi

Over the last two years I've gone back and forth a few dozen (or hundred dozen) times about going on a volunteer trip to Africa. I was definitely going last summer, until I wasn't. Classes, money, scheduling-it all got in the way. And then I was definitely going this summer. Until I wasn't. 

And now, improbably, wonderfully, I am going. I've confirmed my place on a Habitat for Humanity trip to Malawi. I've sent in my deposit. I am booked and set for May 25. 

In my latest and last fit of "should I, shouldn't I", I googled my favorite Tennyson poem (excuse me while I go gag at how pretentious that sounds, I swear I'm not even a poetry person, but this poem speaks to the depths of my soul, Mr. Tennyson and I, we are sympatico, soul twins, at least in regards to the meaning of these words). This is what it says, and this is not the first time I've posted it on my blog. 

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honoured of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
I am a part of all that I have met. As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life were all too little.

I kept reading those words, and suddenly the million reasons I had not go go (money, the need to get a job in May, money, money) meant nothing to me. Travel, without question, has been the great, enduring, freaking love of my life. If you come to my apartment, you will see that my walls are covered with travel pictures. And I want to emphasize that this isn't to show off. This isn't because they're pretty.

It's because my soul aches for these experiences. My soul is at peace when I'm surrounded by the memories of these places. I love that phrase in the Ulysses poem, that "I am a part of all that I have met." You would think it's the other way around. That the places you go become a part of you. But it's not like that. I feel like I've left little pieces of myself all over the globe. And that sounds sad and like it would make you feel less whole. But it's just the opposite. Every where I go, every new country I visit, every time I leave a part of my heart behind, I feel more grounded, more connected to this whole, big, crazy, beautiful world. My heart beats and I can hear it echo in Thailand, in Italy, in India, in France, in Haiti. Every new place I go adds resonance to my soul. It becomes louder, stronger, more deeply tied to the earth. 

And it's been almost two years since I've traveled, and I miss it ferociously. Because I adore every aspect of traveling, good and bad, exhausting and smelly. The other big reason I finally just say yes to this trip happened when I was looking up flights to Malawi. I saw that the trip itself would take over a day, that there would be layovers in strange countries like Ethiopia, that individual flights would stretch over 13 hours.

And I couldn't think of anything I wanted more. To be completely honest I can't think of times I've felt more acutely, to the edge of my skin alive than when I'm red eyed and greasy haired in some Godforsaken airport bathroom, on an endless layover in the middle of the night, between two endless flights, when I don't know what time zone I'm in or barely what country I'm in, when I'm sleep deprived and smell like some particularly pungent mix of airport fast food and airplane coffee. That's just it for me. Bottle that and I will buy it for all the money I have. Not everyone would think so highly of those experiences. For some people that might be the definition of hell. But for me, for me it's just everything.

And there was one more big, possibly the biggest, reason why I finally said yes. I mentioned on my last blog that a girl I knew from my Haiti trip, went missing on Mt. Rainier more than a month ago. I've thought a lot about Haiti these last few weeks, because whenever I think about Michelle I think of Haiti. I've thought about how profoundly important Haiti was for me. It was my first volunteer trip, the first time I traveled that wasn't just for me. I made a promise to myself after Thailand that from that point when I traveled I would try to do it in a volunteer capacity. Because I had been so stinking lucky. It was ridiculous really, how lucky I had been to go to the places I had been to. It was time to give back, time to use traveling to help people, because traveling had given me so much already. 

And Haiti was the first extension of that promise. It's such a cliche to say that a trip to disaster rocked, poverty stricken nation changes your life, but it just did. For a solid week I lived every second with purpose, every second feeling like I was doing my best (not always succeeding) to help people. I had purpose. And when I went home, I didn't want to go back to not feeling that way. I didn't want to go back to floating, to applying for writing and editing jobs and feeling sorry for myself when I didn't get them. So I decided to go into nursing, because I knew that nursing would give me that purpose for the rest of my life, the sense that what I was doing meant something, could help people. 

And so the more I've thought about Michelle, and Haiti, the harder it was to say no to Africa. It's hardly a selfless trip. It's been a dream for a long time to go to Africa. But the reason I'm going this way is because it also won't be an entirely selfish trip. It exists somewhere in the middle, between personal interests and a genuine desire to help people. 

And finally, thinking about Michelle made me realize something else as well. When I first heard what happened to her, I found myself thinking how senseless, how senseless to lose your life on some camping expedition on a mountain, what a waste. But very quickly I realized how wrong that thought is, how that thought is borne of fear, not of truth. 

What happened to Michelle was a waste only in the sense that she's gone. But she didn't waste her life. She did the opposite. She was living her life. Whenever you go on a trip like the one we did to Haiti, you tend to bond with people no matter how different they are from you, because anyone who will get on a plane and fly to a foreign country where they don't know anyone, shares your particular brand of crazy. It's this great little club we have, all of us who feel more at home in ourselves when we're a million miles away from home, who can understand ourselves better outside of our comfort zone, whose lives just make a little more sense when traveling. 

I didn't know Michelle well, but I'm guessing that personality took her to Mt. Rainier, to a snowy mountain in a far away state. No, it wasn't senseless what happened to her. A senseless death is having an anvil fall on top of you while you're on your couch watching TV. A senseless death would be getting hit by a car in your driveway. What happened to Michelle had nothing to do with death in fact and so much more to do with life, with living it the way you want, with making what you dream become a reality. 

That's how I want to live my life. Because it's just too short to do otherwise. Because I know for a fact when I'm old and gray, I won't say, "Gosh, I wish I hadn't gone to Africa so I'd have a couple thousand more dollars to give away in my will." 

But I would have regretted it immensely if I hadn't gone. That's where regret comes from, the things we don't do or say.

So I have two requests now, at the end of this very long-whinded blog.

First of all, whatever you have in your back pocket, that trip to take or choice to make or question to ask or whatever you've been debating about, please just do it. I can tell you without even knowing what it is (unless of course you've been debating about going off the deep end and running through town naked, that maybe don't do), to just do it. 

Second, I've started a page through Habitat for Humanity to fundraise for my trip. If I raise $0 I will still go. But a little will definitely help this poor, crazy student whose mother would rather her put this money to more practical uses like rent or food. I can tell you after what I saw in Haiti, that sometimes the best way to donate money is to do it like this, where your money helps put people on the ground. Because it's not anonymous that way. Any money I earn will directly help me build a house for someone who desperately needs it. And so any donation I get I will take as not for me so much as for the person who will be living in that house, that person in Africa who seems far away, but who really is much closer than you think.

Because the world, in the end, is pretty small. You just don't realize it if you never try to see it. (my partipant page with a donation button-completely tax deductible since Habitat is a certified non-profit)

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