It's been quite a journey, and now I'm back home in the US. As I write this, I'm sitting in sweats, sipping coffee with Irish cream, and watching the clouds slowly roll over the Cascade Mountains. I'm trying to write a brief recap, an elevator pitch or highlight reel, of the journey. It's proving to be difficult. Having been blessed to have met so many incredible children, caretakers, and strangers, to learning so many of their stories - some that would break your heart, some that would fill you with sunshine, some that would do both - to seeing things with my eyes that defied description and made time seem to cease, it's hard to know where to begin. So I'll do simply that.
You helped me volunteer for 10 full months in 7 different countries. The original plan was slightly larger in scope, but not by much. As finances started to wane, even as I continued to live just as the children and caretakers did, I decided it was best to focus my resources on spending more time in countries where I already was or would soon be. So, rather than see 10 different countries for 1 month each, I volunteered in Kenya and Peru for 2 months each, and South Africa and Romania for a bit longer than a month. This proved to deepen the connections and relationships, as more time in a handful of fewer places meant more volunteering, more conversation, more being human. I'm happy it worked out that way, and feel I fit in more than a year's worth of volunteering in those 10 months. (I often put in 12+ hour days. It's the least I could do for you helping me to get there).
So, here's the cursory highlight reel. Please forgive me in advance for any grammar and spelling boo-boos.: The journey started in Vietnam, where for the first two weeks I volunteered as a teacher's assistant in the morning at a school for kids with Downs Syndrome and severe Autism and as a caretaker for severely handicapped kids in a ward of a local hospital in the afternoon. I then switched to working as a caretaker for even more severely handicapped children at an orphanage nestled in a Buddhist monastery for the last 3 weeks. From there, I skipped across to Cambodia where my three weeks were split between an orphanage affiliated with the sisters of Mother Teresa, and a daycare/orphanage in downtown Phnom Penh. One month at an incredible orphanage named Namaste in Pokhara, Nepal, was next. There, 40+ orphaned children are taken care of by an incredible staff of 15. My days were usually spent getting the kids ready for school, cleaning, helping with food prep, picking them up from school, and relearning, from their instruction, how to play and be a kid again. After Asia, it was onto Africa.
Kenya was where I spent the first two months of my time here. Joined by my wonderful girlfriend, Megan, we volunteered at the two orphanages that help spawn this journey: Ebenezer and Faraja. Your donations helped us to implement a working 100+ foot trench around the perimeter of the property at Faraja, eliminating malaria carrying mosquitoes from the compound, to provide much needed supplies and a goat pen, and, at Ebenezer, to plow a couple of acres for crops which will (hopefully) feed them for a long, long time. It was a joy to be back, but also bittersweet. I learned some details about Faraja that really caused me to question my time spent there, but the children were, in both places, beautiful as always inside and out.
Five weeks in South Africa at an absolutely incredible place named Nkosi's Haven, home to over 140 women with HIV/AIDS, children with the same, and children orphaned as a result of AIDS. My time in the morning here was largely spent as the resident handyman: hammering this thing into that, painting many rooms, moving boxes and furntiure...and in the afternoon and evening helping tutor a gem of a child named Petros, playing with the kids, talking with the moms, and helping Gracie cook her amazing meals in the kitchen.
One month in Romania was truly not enough. Though I wasn't able to get into the textbook definition of an orphanage, I lived and worked with 20 boys (themselves products of the Romanian orphanage system) at a halfway home of sorts, named UPSV. It's run by a truly remarkable man named Florin. Most of my days here were spent roofing, renovating, remodeling, learning Romanian, teaching English, volunteering with the guys at a foodbank, playing rummy with the guys, and being immersed in the culture.
Finally, Peru. For just under two months, I lived and worked at an orphanage named Azul Wasi an hour outside of Cusco. Home to 14 amazing kids - some orphans, others effectually so - I spent the first half of the days hauling sand, bricks, cement, etc. and helping the kids with their homework at night. My dad and stepmom came down to donate their time for a week, I traveled with them for another week, including visiting Machu Picchu, and it was an unforgettable experience.
And now, I'm home.
I'm thinking about all of the faces. All of the smiles. All of the tears. All of the hugs. All of the hellos. All of the goodbyes. All of the memories.
I saw and worked at a dilapidated orphanage shrouded in a gaudy Buddhist monastery. Kids with hydrocephalus lying on the ground in agony every day of their life until they die. I saw smiles on the faces of bedridden blind boys because they felt a human hand. I held a 7 foot python on the Mekong Delta and lived to tell the tale. I watched the sun set on a smog-filled city of 11 million people and 4 million motorcycles, and rise over the spires of Angkor Wat.
I learned what it felt like to look evil in the face and not be able to do a thing about it when I witnessed a 4 year-old boy be sex trafficked in Cambodia. I worked in an exploitative (discovered after the fact) orphanage, the very thing I was trying to avoid. I lost 15 pounds in two months while sweating night after night under a mosquito net with limited electricity, and having another seizure. I had VIP seats to a Cambodian boxing/dancing match.
I gazed in awe as the stars gave way to the sun over the Himalayas, amidst the backdrop of the incredible city of Pokhara, Nepal, canoed down a river on the outskirts of Kathmandu, and saw a Nepali music video being filmed.
I held rap classes for 30 kids in 5 different countries, and recorded verses by 4 of them.
I peered out over the beautiful horizon of the Great Rift Valley with my girlfriend in Kenya, the same day as staring in the frightened eyes of a homeless boy in Kenya suffering from drug addiction, who we did everything in our power to help. I learned children I love were getting beaten by people I trusted. Baby orphaned elephants bound along carelessly, and carefully navigated my way through a slum of Nairobi, on foot, at night. I tasted the best Italian food of my life in Kenya.
I sat in the middle of a herd of Elephants, tranquilly grazing in Kruger Park as the sun went down, watched the sun reflect off the ocean at the (almost) southern most point of Africa in absolute solitude, hiked Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa, in just over an hour and got passed by a 70 year-old woman as I huffed and puffed near the top, stumbled upon a rehearsal for the Soweto Gospel Choir, and had the opportunity and fortune to attend a choir competition where Nkosi's was singing. I learned the true definition of courage from Nkosi Johnson.
I got into, and lost, a real-life sword fight, completely winged a speech on the floor of Senate at Parliament in Romania at a symposium about legalizing international adoption in Romania, visited Dracula's home, went in castles, learned how to lose gracefully at rummy, and how to build a new roof. I learned that 1980's music is still massive in other parts of the world, and that it's not the size of the TV that matters, or the quality of the coffee, it's the people with whom you surround yourself and how much you are present.
I took a mini (10 day) vacation, again joined by my lady, and shared a smooch under the Eiffel Tower, towers of beer in Munich beer gardens, and a Dominoes pizza in the hotel in Madrid.
I viewed jaw-dropping feats of Incan architecture and natural Peruvian beauty, had culinary masterpieces, experienced my parents being kids again, and saw mountain ranges and river valleys that defied description. I felt what hauling buckets of sand at 11,200 (and farming at 16,000) feet feels like, that being present as the representative for an orphaned boy's 6th grade graduation party can light up his face, and that $2 can get you a delicious 4 course meal. I ate a guinea pig. Twice.
I had subtle and not-so-subtle food poisoning for 10 months. I saw 3 wonders of the world: Angkor Wat, Macchu Pichu, and Table Mountain, and still think all of them were elaborate Hollywood sets. I learned how to speak a handful of words in Zulu, Vietnamese, and Khmer, a bit more in Nepali and Romanian, and got somewhat OK at Swahili and Spanish. I was almost denied access to a country 3 times. I "slept" a total of 50 hours in airports. I went to church services in Kenya and South Africa. Shoveled, sawed, painted, hammered, and subsequently swore for hundreds of hours.
Your donations helped to provide hundreds and hundreds of hours of hands-on volunteer time from a (somewhat) competent guy, hundreds of hours of handyman work from a (less than somewhat) strong worker, a goat pen, a plowed field, a 100 foot trench, food for weeks for many kids, sanitary supplies, and holiday presents.
And, for what it's worth, your support helped give this kid memories, stories, experiences, and smiles that will last a lifetime.
The journey is over (for now), and now, the work on the documentary, photos, and book begins. As soon as I finish this coffee. And take a (hot!!!) shower.