One Year Ago Today

One year ago today I got on a plane headed into what I thought would be misery. Google was full of flashing words like famine, and absolute poverty that conjured up images of those stick-armed children with bellies full of malnutrition and flies buzzing around small tears eking out encrusted eyes. Little did I know that the only misery I would feel in Niger during my seven months would be when I was forced to leave.

It’s the moments that I will take with me: The time when I taught kickboxing to the little girls that loved to hang around my house and they went off into the streets, kicking so high that their hijabs flew like kites above their small bodies. The day when both of my sandals broke at once and, seeing my hesitation to walk barefoot, a man I’d never met gave me the shoes off his feet so that I could walk back home and get a different pair. Sitting around the small charcoal stove drinking chai with a group of guy friends proudly explaining to them how I fully intended to have four husbands just as they all wished for four wives. Teaching English to a packed classroom made of millet, without desks or books and yet the children still came back every morning, eager to see what the crazy white girl would do next.

Then, without time to fully comprehend that the life I’d come to love was truly ending, I was catapulted to Morocco where I’m sure I saw many amazing sights over the two weeks but somehow all I remember was the damp side of a pillow and concealer attempts that could never make-up my loss.

The third plane ride ended in India, in an airport in New Delhi where I patiently waited for family friends I’d never met to show me a slice of life I’d never dreamed I would have the good fortune to enjoy: a spectacular five-day Indian wedding. My parents joined me and I realized how different we’d become–they were appalled by India’s poverty, I was shocked by the lavishness. Deciding to leave my fate up to fate, I took a train ride in the lowest class and despite getting on the wrong train and standing for three hours pressed up against various strange men, the sun setting over the temples we passed and the woman on the train who, without speaking English, managed to both find me a seat and get me to my proper destination, convinced me that I should stay in this crazy country.

Thus began my transition from a country of 16 million to a city of 17 million. From a life of few vegetables to street vendors who yelled the Hindi names of their carts full of produce as they passed by my window. From no electricity to a desk job completely dependent upon it. Late nights at the office ending with greasy, but oh-so-delicious street food. New words like “social enterprise” that revealed their power when I interviewed women entrepreneurs who had gone from being beaten by their husbands to having their husbands work for them: the true power of money.

I came home only to discover that a mere 10 minutes from my house resided a world of incredible people doing everything they can to change the Oakland stereotypes of drugs, prostitution and violence. I came together with 30 other young people and discovered that we really can be the change we want to see, whether it takes the form of neighborhood gardens, community solar, a free summer camp or slam poetry.

A year ago I set out to find my purpose, to figure out where I could be the most useful. I’m still not sure quite what I’ve found–this year has been an exotic jewel of which I have yet to figure out the value. But I feel blessed to have enjoyed it and hope only that next year will be half as exciting.