Sunday, November 6, 2011

...a brief brush with culture and a need for more.

I've sent the email and created a Facebook note. I've told the people in my life what I'm doing, and somehow, hitting the "send" button caused my trip to Haiti in February to assume a completely new reality.

This trip is, for me, the culmination of years of longing to serve. I promise to tell you all about it in another note (maybe even today!). This one, however is reserved for some reflection: in particular, reflection on why this trip means so much to me.

I've spent time overseas, and have seen a few places in the world. Not unlike many others who have traveled extensively, the places that changed me most were the places most unlike my Canadian home.

I'd like to tell you about three of them:

An orphanage: rural South Africa. Spring 1998.
I don't remember much, other than the girl. She was about two years old, but was the size of a seven month old infant. Standing in her crib, hands gripping the rail, with a tear flowing down her face, she had me. I was captivated.

I crossed the room towards her. She was perfect, tiny, beautiful, and abandoned. My heart was bursting with a desire to hold her, so I asked one of her caregivers if I could pick her up. Of course, they said yes. Babies can never be held enough.

I put my hands under her tiny armpits, and lifted her from her isolated crib prison. As soon as I did, she reached to hug me around my neck with all of the strength that her little body could muster. As soon as her hands could reach me, she clung to me, and I clung to her.

Holding her was a paradigm shift. How could she be abandoned? Was it AIDS? Did her parents hope that leaving her would mean she might have a better life? Did they really just not want this gorgeous little creature? 

There were no answers forthcoming to me. All that I knew in that moment was I had connected with a person who needed to be loved. She had urinated and her sleeper was drenched. I noticed but decided that holding her was worth it.

She smiled. It was almost as though the touch of another person gave her joy. The feeling of gratitude I felt was sublime: how is it that I could have been in this moment, able to give joy to someone who needed it so much? Clearly, my time at that orphanage, with that little girl, was divinely planned. I have never forgotten or regretted smelling like baby-pee and I still treasure the way that she hugged me.

That orphanage schooled me about a few key life-lessons: that touch is vitally important to develop as a person, that very little effort is required to give someone joy, and that a part of my own heart could be left with a person who I had absolutely nothing in common with. Other than being part of the human race.

I've never seen her again, but I know that I will meet her one day. I hope it's in heaven, where her earthly body doesn't suffer malnutrition and her earthly heart doesn't break with hurts that no child should know.

I wonder if she looks like the little girl in the picture above? I hope that she has a smile today too.

A marketplace: Luxor, Egypt. December 1999.

Marketplaces are also known as bazaars in Egypt. There are rules here: they dictate how to barter, how to finalize a deal, and how to walk away. I knew very little of this when I arrived, and walked away with something far more important than rules.

I was walking through the streets of Luxor with Lisa, a new friend from Australia. Lisa was gorgeous - tall, blonde, and strikingly beautiful, with features that seemed to be admired by all male (and many female) Egyptians. She had encountered her fair share of gropes, seductions, and attempts at converting her to the Muslim faith for the purposes of marriage.

We were there during Ramadan, a holy month of fasting for Muslims, and during the day in Egypt, there was no food to be found. The call to prayer rang out at intervals - I think we heard it twice as we strolled the miles and miles that connected vendors set up to sell you the newest, greatest, and most touristy of wares.
Lisa wanted a t-shirt. I wanted a McChicken. 

I wasn't going to get my wish, so I went along with her into the stall of a man selling t-shirts.

We had learned a rule of barter from our tour guide: if you bargain, the first price you offer is the lowest possible price you can possibly pay. There is no going back if they agree to your original price. Note to selves, Commonwealth girls: lowball.

What he failed to tell us is that bartering in Luxor rarely produces quick results, but what it hopefully will produce is a relationship.

We sat for what felt like an age. We were offered tea and engaged in conversation in broken English and phrase-book Arabic. Lisa and I struggled, but were committed to getting her the t-shirt. After all, what better gift to share with her loved ones back home than a t-shirt wrought by a tough battle?

The battle wore on, and suddenly we realized that what the shop owner was really doing was not fighting us or trying to disrespect our desire for a quick purchase. What he was doing was engaging in a centuries-old custom of establishing a relationship through of bartering. It's a win-win: You make an offer to him, he makes an offer to you. Yours is low; his is high. You don't agree, so he offers you some tea. If you understand the process, you accept the tea, sit with him talking for a few minutes before the next round of offers are put out there. If you don't understand the process, you might get frustrated, fear his motivation, or leave abruptly. All of which do not serve the real purpose of the process: building relationships. If you are willing, continuing the bartering process just might.

We sat. We listened, we asked questions, and we finally agreed on a price. An hour later, Lisa and I walked out of the shop, a little wiser, a little poorer than intended, in possession of the coveted t-shirt, and something more: an tiny understanding of how Egyptian culture works. A treasure.

A family home: Nanacatlan, Mexico. March 2002.

Who wouldn't love a bus-load of people coming into a tiny, isolated Mexican village with a cargo of gifts for their children?

As our group from Samaritan's Purse descended the perilous mountain road and got our first glimpse of Nanacatlan, we didn't wonder if these people would be thrilled to have us here. We couldn't possibly: there were hundreds of children sitting in rows in the large town centre field, waiting excitedly for us to arrive. They were barely controllable, with their teachers issuing mild reprimands for stepping out of line or causing a disruption. Parents milled around and visited nearby. Everyone knew that today, something great was in store for them.

We were late. It had been a rough and terrifying drive in, and our vehicles were somewhat less than reliable.

The shoe boxes were distributed. Children played with each other and with our team. They shared the contents of their boxes, and they smiled knowingly that they had received something more than just a gift: it was hope.

Our "job" was done, and I started to walk. The village was tiny, and the homes were basic. There was no money here, and the families eked out an agrarian living, raising livestock, chickens, and growing corn. I sought solitude, a moment to pray, and thank God for the way that He had used us on the trip. I begged for an opportunity to be a blessing, and that He would bring blessing to this community.

As those words made their way from my heart to Him, I looked and there was a woman peering out of her doorway. She was shy, so I smiled. She came out a little more, and waved me into her home. I was hesitant; here I was, walking around a village by myself, and I hadn't told any of my group where I was going. I had left on a whim. Was I safe? Could I trust her?

I decided that I was safe and that I could trust her. I walked forward into a house with a dirt floor and very makeshift furniture. Everything was in that one room, even the kitchen, tucked into the back corner. She spoke no words of English (in fact, most of that village had absolutely no exposure to English), and I spoke only patchy Spanish.

She pointed. I saw the shoe box on the table. The seal had been broken, but all of the contents were still inside, packed carefully back into the box. 

I imagined her story: she was the grandmother of a child who had received a box. Upon getting the gift, the child played with its contents and then brought home her treasure to her grandmother to show. Then she went back out to skip rope or play tag, just like children do.

As I sat there making up my own story, a little girl walked into the room. She was about 8, and she didn't speak any English either. She just kept saying "gracias," a word that I was well familiar with. I hugged her and kept saying "de nada" to try to communicate how I felt that I had brought her very little, but that experiencing her village gave me so much more.

As I was about to leave, the older woman came to me with tears glistening in her eyes.
"Gracias, muchas gracias," she offered, before crumbling into tears.

I had no more words. I could hardly contain myself, so I smiled, with tears glistening in my own eyes. A joy that I couldn't explain poured into my soul, and I bent low to walk through the doorway.

I walked away from that house, looking back to see a sobbing grandmother and a smiling child, and I waved, knowing that my life was changed because of those brief moments that we shared.

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