On Time

Time is a funny thing. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem like there is enough of it. Other times, there can be too much of it. It can get away from you. It can heal you.

As an American, I’ve spent a large portion of my life thinking of my existence in the increment of years. Perhaps, due to my upbringing, I was always destined to think of time in this way. Once a year, my birth is acknowledged. As a child, school started and ended according to a twelve month calendar. When you sign a lease for an apartment, a one-year commitment is fairly standard. Things just happen in years. Even after breaking away from the “conventional” a little more than your Average Joe, I still seem to think of things in years. I’ve done multiple stints volunteering for one year at a time. Even now, while I’m not committed to anything beyond tomorrow, I’m still thinking of the time ahead of me in terms of a year.

Maybe I’ll be in Europe for one year total. Maybe I’ll only be here for a week, and then that time will be added up with whatever else is ahead of me, until I reach a year. And then I can neatly file that chapter away as the proper amount of time.

I say all of this because when I landed on the ground in Athens, I realized that thinking of time in terms of years is a privilege I never thought about. Over and over again, it occurred to me, I’ve heard different refugees both in Athens and in Leros talking about their lives in terms of months or weeks, never years. It struck me as odd because I realized that the way a person measures their life is actually kind of significant.

I can look ahead and behind me and think of years. I spent two years living in Alaska. I spent one year living in Guyana. I may have a year ahead of me in Europe. But a refugee doesn’t know that. Their life is fractured in such a way that they don’t get to sum things up so neatly. For many of the people here on Leros, they go to the police once a month and their legal papers are stamped with a date indicating that they are legally allowed to remain at the refugee camp for one month more. After 30 days, and this date comes around again, they go back to the police and receive a new stamp, granting them another 30 days of life.

One of the refugees I spoke to in Athens, he was given a job helping to translate between Arabic and English in the north of Greece. This job just happens to be temporary, so in a few weeks, he’ll have to look for something else. This short amount of time also immediately impacts the amount of time he can live in his current apartment. And when his job concludes, he’ll have a few weeks to find another job before he would otherwise have to leave his apartment.

Another refugee has taken temporary asylum in Athens, just for a few months. In this short span of time, he has to continuously move from Airbnb apartment to Airbnb apartment as there aren’t any places available to rent any longer than just a few weeks at a time. When his initial asylum is up, he’ll have to be interviewed by the polices again to see if he can stay for a few more months.

I don’t think these brief stints of time consciously register as negative or positive initially to the refugees, but I would imagine that it must get difficult after a while to not be able to plan a significant amount into the future. Time must grow weary on the heart that does not know when to resume arranging a life.

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So, perhaps time does heal everything, but in what increment do we have to measure it in, in order for healing to take place? Are weeks and months enough? Or do years need to be set aside to recover from escaping ones homeland, shepherding your children across dangerous waters, and then waiting out an unfair (understatement) asylum system?

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Late Night Bonding, Early Morning Reflecting

The waitress brings out a tray held leisurely at her side to the table I’m sitting at out in the sunshine on the porch of the cafe. She’s probably about 50 years old and has her hair pulled into a ponytail and is waiting tables in sweatpants, which gives permission to the patrons to be at ease in the establishment. I smile as she lowers the cappuccino she’s just made for me to the table. “It’s perfect,” I say, smiling at her. “LIKE YOU!” she calls back to me in her thick Greek accent. I crack a smile, trying to stay composed, but ultimately erupt into laughter and end up tilting my head back as I can’t contain myself. This statement is clearly too much for me to process. She joins me, laughing simply because it’s contagious, not because she really understands why I’m laughing. As we’re chuckling, I realize we’re literally laughing at my imperfections, and that just makes me laugh more, in the complete joy of being okay with brokenness. 

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Morning

It’s a little after eight in the morning on the island of Leros, Greece and I’m sitting on a bench just off the side of a one-lane road on a far, sparsely used piece of the island. I’m sipping on a coffee and eating some bread I just picked up at a local shop. The little town of Lakki isn’t bustling yet, as it’s the weekend, so I was able to slip in and out without much fuss. I feel tired, my body still adjusting to the new day, and the fact that I went to bed late and rose early.

It’s been a week since my arrival, my return, to Leros and I’ve settled in nicely–something that always comes as a surprise to me, although I should really stop doubting my ability to “drop in” somewhere new. In the magical way that time does, it has kept the world spinning for the last 7 days and all of a sudden I’m no longer a stranger to this place.

When the ferry docked at four-thirty in the morning last Saturday morning, I found my way off of the dock and meandered to the parking lot where I found the familiar old beat-up car, affectionately called the “P.O.S.” (Piece of Shit), that is owned by the organization I’m working for. I climbed in, started it up with a roar of the old engine, and drove off to the house I’m staying at. As I parked the car and found my way to the room I was told I would be sleeping in, I tip-toed into the building and crawled onto the couch in the same room as two sleeping strangers. This is one of the many amusing pieces to volunteer life here on Leros.

When I woke up in the morning, my new roommates and I became acquainted and, throughout the day, I met every other member of the team as they emerged from their individual apartments. After a week of work now, and getting to mingle with everyone throughout the different workweek tasks and apartment life, I can easily see how this is going to be an enjoyable experience again.

As was the case the last time I was here, and always is on this island with this job, the team of volunteers is the very definition of transient. People come and go on a weekly basis; the team is always changing. I don’t think I went more than ten days during my first trip here without some sort of shakeup happening with the people I work and live with. My return has been no exception. After just 7 days on the ground, two people have already left and one new person has already joined the team, with four new people expected in the coming week and a handful expected to make their exists throughout the month of December.

I’m awake at 8 in the morning on a Saturday after having been out until 3am because one of the two people who left was my roommate, who needed a lift to the airport on the other side of the island this morning. The drive takes about 20 minutes, and his flight required him to arrive about thirty minutes before take off (you gotta love small island living). As I hugged my new British pal goodbye and got back into the car, I debated driving straight back to the apartment and joining the rest of my team who would obviously still be sleeping for a few hours, but I opted instead to grab a coffee and sit on the side of the road.

I’m watching peacefully as the waves are lapping up onto the shore, gently washing over the rocks. The coastline in front of me is worth studying, and the uniqueness of the shape of Leros. I keep shutting my eyes as the morning sun is too bright to tolerate, and boy am I filled with gratitude. This is exactly where I’ve been wanting to be since March. And, better yet, this is exactly where I want to be right now. There’s no better feeling than that. After a summer separated from this place, it finally feels like my soul has caught back up with my body. 😉

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Afternoon

After an hour or so sitting by the sea, I drove back to the apartment and began to clean up from the night before. My other roommate was still sleeping, so I closed the door to the bedroom and began to collect the cans and rubbish left around the kitchen before starting on the dishes. Before heading out for the evening yesterday, my apartment hosted a dinner gathering for everyone, despite us having to be shoulder-to-shoulder with one another in our tiny kitchen. As I was washing the dishes, I stared out the window at the cliffside that the house I get to occupy is built up against. The rocks emerging from the earth at the top of the slope are a unique shade of brown, not the standard gray-color the rest of the mountaintops around the island seem to be colored. There are some red flowers in bloom on the edge of the driveway and the clambering of bells from around the necks of the goats up in the mountains echo down the slopes and into the open windows of the apartment. I felt more gratitude. As I continued cleaning, my roommate woke up and greeted me before getting in the shower and a few other volunteers were starting to buzz around the complex, searching other apartments for specific cooking equipment to make more elaborate breakfasts than the weekdays allow. One girl walked by with her towel in hand, clearly heading down to the water to take a morning polar-plunge. It feels a bit like a family, especially as people drop in and out to borrow bottles of water or cooking pots.

The evening before, after hosting the beginning of the evening in our apartment, we all piled into one of the vans we use to shuttle refugees around the island and drove off to the islands exclusive bowling alley. We piled 12 people into a three row van, five in the middle seat, and four in the back. Having never been to the bowling alley before, I was blown away that it even existed on this island. It looked like a bowling alley and hangout area from anywhere else in the world, it didn’t feel like Leros inside. But, sure enough, tucked just off of one of the main roads, there was a bowling alley, equipped with four lanes, a bar, pool tables, a small eating area, and a couple of other small arcade games. With team members coming and going so frequently, it’s often difficult to have some sort of a sendoff for everyone, but with my roommate leaving conveniently on Saturday morning, everyone was up for going out on Friday night to celebrate him, and just let lose in general.

I had forgotten how much fun bowling can be when you’re with a group of people and just being goofy. Having met up with a few other volunteers from the team who were already out for the evening, there were 14 of us in total so we split up into two teams of 7. We divided ourselves up based on the languages we speak. People who can speak German were on one team, and the remainder of us who do not speak German were on the other team. This made for a funny little rivalry between the two groups. A few hours later, after many laughs and a boatload of sarcasm, the team seemed to have bonded even closer. I was so happy to be a part of that. I drove the crew home at 3am since I was sober. When we cleared out of the place, the “party” left with us as our group of 14 made up about 75% of the patrons left at the bowling alley and bar.

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Bowling and bonding. 14 of the 16 current team members.

This is all how I find myself here, on this lovely early Saturday afternoon, sitting on the veranda of my apartment in Greece. Saturdays are our only days off, so it’s especially appreciated that it’s sunny and the weather is calm. Last Saturday, the day of my arrival, it was a downright monsoon and the whole island seemed to be flooding. This is much more relaxing and will allow us to rest for the upcoming week which will suddenly be upon us.

As always, I hope to post more of these misadventures in the days ahead. With an entire week of work now “in the books” for me, I’ll be falling into a more regular pace here from Sunday to Friday and will be able to write a bit more about what I’m doing this time around at the Hub.

Until next time.

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Athens to Leros, Ferrying Forward

Journal entry from Friday, 16 November, 2018:

I’ve just wrapped up four days in Athens after flying in from Cabo Verde on Monday. The time passed so quickly, but I found myself completely engrossed in the city and the people there for the entirety of my time there. Unlike my previous two trips to Athens, this time, I know plenty of people in the city, which really made all the difference for my stay there.

At long last, after more than eight months a part, I was able to reunite with my friend, Basel, who painted a number of paintings for my place of employment this summer. Coordinating this art exhibition with him was an extensive experience that kept us closely connected throughout the entire summer. Seeing him again in person, in a brand new location, mind you, was a trip. We spent our first afternoon together sipping coffee and sitting in a park in Athens before wandering around the city together and eventually ending up back at his flat where he and his two roommates, who I also know from my first trip to Greece, cooked dinner.

They cooked chicken, but kept me in mind and made sure to present multiple vegetarian options throughout the meal. Basel made a delicious salad which rivaled many of the Greek salads I’ve sampled across this country in my three trips here. Sitting down to dinner with the three of them in their studio apartment in Athens was a bit surreal. It felt like the moment was more than likely destined to not happen, so the fact that it was, indeed, happening was not lost on me. These were three people who, when I had left them, were still living in a refugee camp with no certain decision about whether they would ever be allowed to the mainland portion of Greece or if they would simply be sent back to Syria and Iran. Breaking bread with them, and hearing their stories really put a few things in perspective for me.

As a volunteer this past winter, there were specific rules and guidelines about how to go about developing relationships with the residents of the Hotspot (refugee camp). There were concerns about relationships between both sides growing too strong, which would result in the refugees feeling more loss when the volunteer(s) they had bonded with eventually left. But there’s also a coldness to not being yourself and opening up to someone you naturally would want to get to know and spend time with. The rules in place with the organization I work with about relationships with refugees is ever changing. Sometimes, the rules are very strict, other times they are more lax. It seems no one has quite found the perfect balance yet. This is why having eight months away from the project has changed a few things for me. I’ve grown closer with a select few residents who have now transitioned further into their journeys into the EU. Having crossed a few hurdles with them, a trust has been built, so when I found myself in their home and having a meal with them, they were more honest than they have been able to be before with me.

Unfortunately, I cannot share what I’ve learned over the internet. But as they shared some of their stories with me, my mouth dropped open a few times and I had to scoop my jaw up off of the floor in order to not present as a total idiot. Everything they were saying made sense to me, but I couldn’t help but be in complete and utter awe of the “system”…the disgusting, disgusting system that is in place to screen people and then decide what will happen with the rest of their lives.

Two days into my stay, I met up with two other former residents of the Leros Hotspot who are now in Athens. They too shared more with me than they had in my previous trip. What happens to refugees once they’re granted any sort of stay in Greece, whether it be for 6 months or 3 years, is ridiculous. They’re given no support. They’re just thrown into a new city, a new country, and expected to make their way on their own. It’s mind boggling.

As I write this, I’m on the overnight ferry back to Leros. The ship just departed Pireaus Port in Athens and we’ll cruise all night until about 4:30 when I’ll disembark in the middle of the dark with a few dozen other people and resume this refugee experience that I haven’t taken my heart off of since last January. Last time, when we docked, someone from my team picked me up and drove me to where I would be staying. This time, already knowing the island, the new team has left me the car parked on the side of the road near the ferry where I’ll drive myself to where I’ll be sleeping. This seems so innovative to me! Since I already know the island, why not let the whole team sleep through the night instead of wasting their time picking me up? Perfection.

I’m being as honest with myself as possible throughout this experience, I’m making that a goal of mine. Too often I’ve relied on stronger versions of myself to ‘get me through’ experiences like the one ahead of me, but this time around, I’m looking to feel everything that is ahead of me in a way that will help me to process events as things are happening. Too often, I feel like I’m trying to unpack experiences once they’re over, and the events and people and feelings all pile up as the days and weeks progress. I mentioned before my unease while in the Lisbon airport for 12 hours, transitioning from relaxing African holiday to full-time European volunteer work. Being in Athens, collecting stories and reigniting so much of the past gave me a lot to process right off the bat.

I don’t know who I am in this whole ordeal. Without even setting foot back on the island, I’m already feeling the hopelessness, the backwardness. And so, where do I belong in all of this? Or, gosh, do I belong? Being reminded about how messed up the system is here creates a regular cocktail of emotions inside of me. If someone is going to risk their life to get to Europe, then get shoved in a camp for a year or two while they desperately try to navigate the system which doesn’t favor honesty, and then, ultimately, get shipped back to the place they fearfully fled from, what’s the point? But I’ve already kind of got my head wrapped around it. We’re all spinning around this same earth together. Every small act of kindness or good deed ultimately adds to the whole. So, I remind myself, these are people. And yes, even though people I cared about in the camp from months ago have filtered out in one direction or another, there are new people filling the containers of the camp and they too deserve as many doses of love as everyone can shell out. And maybe their time in Europe is only temporary, but that doesn’t mean this is hopeless.

There is life to be lived, after all. There is love to be shared.

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Sad Stories and a Cappuccino

“That would be a good name for a poem,” he says to me as we say goodbye.

God, let there be a “next time!”

This guy, one of the refugees I know, he’s a poet. He’s reached out to me after I posted a photo of myself in Athens on Facebook. I have four days between landing in Athens and catching the ferry to Leros. He’s asked to meet up and I accept the invitation. He brings a friend, another one of the refugees that I know.

The last time that I saw the pair of them, they were tied up in their asylum cases the same way most of the refugees I worked with are. When I arrived and when I left, there was no movement on either of their cases. Neither one got any closer or any further away to accessing the European Union or being deported for the three months that I knew them. Both of them were already excellent English speakers, but they still attended English classes in an effort to further progress in the language.

The one who initially reached out to me, he’s a poet, in every sense of the word. When he was imprisoned in his home country of Iran for being Kurdish (you can be put in jail for simply existing in Iran), he was stuck in his prison confines for six years. Halfway through his sentencing, he begged a guard for a pen so he could write poetry. When he was later caught by a different guard with this pen, his prison sentence was extended.

He had shared some of his poetry with me when I met him initially, and he continues to write now. Whenever I think about how artists critique themselves, especially to the point where they stay things like “I’m not a real poet”, I remind myself of this remarkable Kurdish poet and am reminded that everyone is an artist; because, he may not be a published poet, but he certainly creates poetry in every sense of the word.

When I met up with said poet and his friend in the middle of Athens yesterday, I couldn’t help but give them extra long hugs as an expression of my elation to see them. For them to exist, before my eyes, in surroundings that are not the island of Leros, surely meant something was going right for them.

The three of us meandered up the street from the metro stop we had garrisoned at and eventually found our way into a cafe. I went to the counter and ordered three cappuccinos and then joined them at the table they had found for us at the side of the restaurant. They then began to fill me in on everything that had happened for them over the last eight months. Much like some of the other stories I had been collecting throughout the week, there wasn’t much positive content wrapped up in what they were telling me. Yes, they were in Athens, but it wasn’t because they were granted asylum or given ten-year visas to Greece. They were granted temporary six-month stays, which basically only gave them the chance to come to the Greek mainland and then try to illegally bolt out of the country via Italy or Albania, with or without the help of a smuggler.

Both of them had tried to leave, but had failed. With it being November, the encroaching winter is making passage more difficult into and through the balkan countries. Temperatures around 1 degree celsius is enough to make anyone used to 40 degree days in Iran turn back for warmer weather.

The poet, he had arrived in Athens and been robbed of all of his paperwork and documents that made him a legal person existing in Greece. The other refugee had lost all of his clothes when he hung them out to dry and a storm blew through, taking all of his clothing with it. The poet further explained to me how he lives in a “squat”. But he likes it. It’s an area of the city where the police don’t go, so the mafia runs that part of town. It’s a community of people, about 80 or so, and the majority are Kurdish. The squat exists in a building and there are weekly meetings for the entire squat to make sure each person is on the same page. For eight hours each week, every person is expected to stand watch in order to protect the squat from being attacked by other squats.

I could hardly believe what I was hearing, but it all made sense, too. “The system” isn’t set up to allow refugees to thrive. It isn’t really set up for them to do anything at all, come to think of it. And so, it makes sense that they would find themselves in abandoned buildings, trying to eek out an existence.

When the afternoon concluded, because they had a meeting with a lawyer and the weekly meeting at the squat, I offered to pay for everyone’s drink. That only makes sense, right? I mean, if you have a coffee with a person who lives in a legitimate squat, you pay for their drink? But he insisted that he would pay. And I argued. And he insisted. And that, right there, might be one of the best examples of selflessness I’ve ever encountered. He said it with a smile on his face, too . He only got me off of his back when he said, “next time, you get it.”

This made me feel better. Yes, indeed, next time I saw him, I would pay for his drink. And then I thought some more as I watched him pay the nine Euros. Next time? Oh my God, please just let there be a “next time”! Let the two of us run into each other again somewhere on this giant rock floating around the sun and be given the opportunity to sip on caffeine and talk poetry, please!

As we parted ways, I noted how our meet up had been all sad stories and a cappuccino. He, the poet, noted that this was a decent title for a poem. We hugged and parted ways. When I returned home that evening, there was a message waiting in my inbox on my computer, a new poem, titled just that.

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Three cappuccinos and some sad stories.

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“Volunteering, Why Do You Do This?”

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We’re all in this together.

This evening, I found myself sitting around a small coffee table in a one room AirBNB with three other men. Eight months ago, they all lived in the Leros Hotspot, a refugee camp on an island near Turkey. I volunteered there, working with them for nearly 3 months. Now, they have all been granted different versions of legally being allowed to live in Athens.

The one of the three that I know the least took an opportunity to ask me a simple questions while the other two had stepped out for a few moments. He asked me in his Kurdish accent, relatively good at piecing English sentences together, why some young people liked to volunteer. He said he understood why someone would want to give a week or two of their time to volunteering, but he couldn’t comprehend why someone would give two years.

After a little more fishing, it turns out that he was referencing some mormons that he had met in the city who had preyed on him a little bit. He pulled out a small, black-covered copy of The Book of Mormon that had been given to him and as he put it in my hands I was able to make sense of what he had been asking.

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10pm coffee and The Book of Mormon.

The startling thing about all of this though, was that I had no clear answer for him. The confusion in my head translated perfectly out into the open air of the apartment as I literally stuttered and cut myself off three or four times in a row, unable to figure out how to present a cohesive answer. Yes, I was trying to select my words carefully for the man who understands Farsi first and English second, but honestly, I wasn’t sure of how to answer the question myself, even if someone else had been asking it.

This all felt familiar to me; however, so I dug around in my draft folder for this blog and found an entry I had written months ago, but never polished, so I never got around to publishing it, and I think it makes sense to post now, along with this post. It’s a blog entry I had begun to write after I was finished hiking in New Zealand with a friend. This idea of helping people had crossed my mind then too. Why do I like to volunteer? Why is helping humanity “a thing” for me?

Click here for my answer to this giant question or refer to the previous entry on this blog.

 

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But When Are We Going to Help People?

Over a year ago, when my time in Antarctica had concluded, I landed in New Zealand and went for a long walk.

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New Zealand as positioned above Antarctica.

After meandering down from the city of Christchurch on the southern island on the curving roads of the New Zealand countryside, my companion and I spent two days in Bluff, the most southern town in the country. We hiked a trail that took us to the cliff side that overlooked the ocean, facing directly south. We got there just before the sunset and we stood on the edge of that stony outcropping and watched the world turn dark, looking out over the only waters that lay between us and the continent we could no longer refer to as our home.

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My companion and me on the southern tip of New Zealand, looking out toward Antarctica.

Two days later, we began hiking the Te Araroa, a trail that runs the length of both the south and north islands of New Zealand. Our initial plan was to take a little over a month to hike the south island.

When you hike with someone else, you spend a lot of time with them. My companion and I walked on the sides of roads with trucks whizzing by us, scampered up rock covered mountain tops, schlepped our packs through the muddy trails of the woods, and navigated our way through sheep and deer pastures in the middle of the countryside. Together, the two of us covered a lot of ground, both literally and emotionally. It was as if we had both been released from our sentencing of four months in Antarctica and traversing the wilds of New Zealand was the most abrupt and powerful way to bring us back to the real world.

Being in Antarctica meant that I had formed close bonds with all of the people around me. Even if I didn’t have access to everyone in the world, there were still dozens of people I was close to while I existed with them on the continent. I think this intense feeling of absence, brought on by not being around my friends anymore, played a large part in bonding me with my companion while in New Zealand. Together, we covered a wide variety of topics in our discussions around the country. We had ample time together, certainly, and most of the time it was just the two of us. Two people, traversing the country with the same goal in mind: Head North.

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Once in a while we would happen upon a field full of sheep. They were so skittish that we never got the chance to get too close to them.

It sounds like some sort of scenario people would come up with in order to entertain each other: If you had to be isolated in the woods with only one person for an extended period of time, who would it be and what would you talk about?

My companion had indeed been my friend during our four months on the Ice together; however, he wasn’t someone who would have come to mind to answer the above question. Come to think of it, no one really comes to mind. This made it especially interesting to be isolated with him and to have the opportunity to really connect.

It should come as no surprise that, at one point in our time together, we thoroughly covered the topic of the future, and where we both imagined ourselves going. He had his plan and told me all about the jobs he was hoping to pursue, the house he wanted to buy, the girl he wanted to marry, etc.

And I listened. And I hiked. And I found myself waiting for him to say something, but he never did. And so, when he seemed to have reached his conclusion, I asked him:

But when are you going to help people? 

He didn’t have an answer.

Having listened the entire time with a curious ear, I was a little perplexed, but I didn’t say anything more, we just kept hiking. This is how it came to be that I scribbled down in my journal one evening: when are we going to help people? 

It’s been over a year since I floated around in Kiwi country with my friend, and this sentence has periodically jumped into my mind in the time that has passed since. I think what gets me about it is that it makes sense to me. At some point in a lifetime, doesn’t a person want to help other people? This has to be the thinking of everyone I come across, right?

Nope. And that’s okay. This isn’t how everyone’s brain works. It is; however, how my brain works. This took a little bit of time for me to think on before I came to the conclusion that it is okay if you don’t want to help other people. It’s okay to go about your life and treat people with respect and take care of yourself. It’s okay to buy yourself a house and to live extravagantly, so long as you aren’t hurting anyone. It isn’t a requirement to help other people.

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At the beginning of the country-long trail.

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Our first few steps.

I grew up with parents who had professions in the helping fields. A teacher and a social worker. They met while serving homeless youth in New York City, and they made sure that volunteering was something that my siblings and I were, at least, aware of. Due to their hearts, I was more or less destined to live a life where helping other people would land somewhere on the list between buying a home and getting married. It’s just something that needs to be done at some point.

When being interviewed for some of the volunteer programs that I ended up being involved with in my earlier twenties, I used to answer that I liked to volunteer because I was selfish. And that was the truth. One of the best parts of volunteering was the high that I got off of it, simply because it made me feel so good to be doing meaningful work. Maybe some other people benefited from my existence in a certain place at a certain time, but I was too, and I liked that.

At the end of the day, when everything is said and done, I’m not trying to paint myself into some heroic light. It’s not like there is any rule book for this human existence that says we have to do anything. Other than breathing, taking up space, and dying, I’m pretty sure we’re not obligated to do anything. I just know myself enough at this point to recognize that meaningful days are just about all that keeps me going. Fulfillment is my jam.

Having moved through multiple jobs that I’ve loved and multiple jobs that I…haven’t loved, I’ve been able to pinpoint the deciding factor for each one in terms of whether I like them or not: Fulfillment. Either I felt like what I was doing mattered at the end of each shift or I didn’t. And that was that. Nothing else was a deciding factor, not location or climate or even the amount of pay. Fulfillment was it.

So, when are we going to help people? That’s the question, yeah? I find myself asking it frequently, constantly keeping myself on my toes because I want to make sure I’m putting my existence to good use. This summer, I’ve felt kind of bound up in my place of work. Things have been fine, but I’ve been lacking fulfillment (there’s that word again) in the job that I do 35 hours a week. My existence has been enhanced by some of the smaller side projects that I’ve created for myself that have left me linked to the refugee crisis in Greece, but the monster that keeps me employed and drops money into my bank account falls short in the fulfillment category.

And that’s why I’m heading back to Greece, and back onto the refugee trail. I always find myself a little extra motivated to kickstart some excitement in my life after I’ve completed a fulfillment dry spell. So, I’m very grateful for the many lessons I’ve learned along the way, especially while trekking in New Zealand with that sweet cook I met in the kitchen in Antarctica.

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Caught Between Africa and Europe

If I were a fish, I’d be so upset with myself for getting caught in this net that I would have wiggled and shaken and fought like hell to break myself free only to find myself more entangled, left with not an ounce of strength to my name, only able to wait until morning when the fisherwoman would return to see that my lifeless body is of no use and cast me back into the sea.

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I’m sitting at a Burger King in the Lisbon Airport right now, slurping down a coke and staring at some fries. I’ve been denied access to the terminal since my flight technically doesn’t take off until tomorrow. This means I won’t be able to sleep in the lounge my friend suggested I locate and rest in for the evening. It also means there will be little point in venturing out into the city since it’s the middle of the night and I have my pack with me. And so, here I sit. And here I write.

I’m sad right now. I’m allowed to say that on the internet, right? I don’t have to pretend to be happy all of the time and post pictures of all of the flashing things I do and pretend everything is always spick and span?

I’ve just landed in Lisbon, Portugal, essentially the only city that flies directly to Cabo Verde where I’ve just spent the last 11 days visiting an old friend from high school who is posted their as a U.S. diplomat. I’m in a bit of a unique position (in that, I have never been in this kind of place before) where I’m arriving into the European Union, which I would be legally allowed to do no matter what the case was since I hold a U.S. passport, but I also hold a long-stay visa, meaning I’m allowed to exist here for a year. This is the visa I was granted this summer, that I worked hard to get my hands on. But when I landed here a few hours ago, my stomach didn’t feel right. Something wasn’t sitting well with me.

There was something weird happening energetically on the plane I was on for four hours from Africa to Europe. The man sitting to my right was “man spreading” so badly and the announcements in Portuguese kept throwing me off, pushing me further and further down the rabbit whole of anxiousness. I tried to distract myself with the books I had brought with me, but none of them were comforting, with two of them being about the middle east and one of them being about living in a garbage dump in South Africa. As we approached Lisbon, I couldn’t see anything out of the windows since I had an aisle seat, so I had no reference as for when we would be landing once the turbulence started to pick up and the flight attendants all vanished into their seats. I think the metaphorical aspect of turbulence was bothering me, for some reason. But then we landed, and the seat belt sign clicked off and more passengers than I’ve ever seen before managed to scramble into the aisle almost immediately. The man-spreader to my right stood directly over me, his arm a mere two inches from my face as we waited for the plane door to open. He didn’t seem to notice he had majorly invaded my personal space, of which, I couldn’t create anymore, since I was still sitting in my seat. And so that discomfort sunk in for a few minutes before we were eventually let off the plane.

Then, checking into the EU, going through immigration, fetching my bag, and stepping out into the night air of Lisbon, I still felt uneasy. While in Cabo Verde, I was communicating over the internet with one of the refugees I had worked with this past spring. He was having a rough time and I had nothing to suggest to him, no advice to offer. It is so very difficult to relate to his experience. I carried him in my heart onto the airplane, certainly. Borders are tricky things when you’re an asylum seeker. So are visas…and passports…and police papers…and…any part of yourself that can be used against you in the case of racial profiling. For me, flying in from Africa, I stepped up to passport control, feeling off balance, handed over my passport without saying a word, and the man scanned it. He then started at the beginning of the book and peeled through each page one at a time, searching for an empty spot to put a new stamp. He came across what he must have assumed was a blank space, not noticing that the two stamps I had from Mexico last November were faintly marked in the booklet, and he stamped me into the European Union. This means he never even got to the page with the massive blue visa sticker with my face on it that indicates I’m allowed to be here long-term.

And that, my friends, is white privilege. Or, white advantage, if you’re with me.

This situation isn’t shocking to me. I’m not going to pretend like this is something that’s hitting me like a ton of bricks all at once. But, the fact of the matter is, while I worked diligently this summer to secure legal access onto this continent, it wouldn’t have mattered either way if I had or had not. I do think; however, for a person of color, it would have mattered that they do the work, and if they were lucky enough to secure the same visa that I did, they would certainly at least need to present it to the passport control personnel upon arrival.

I unexpectedly had to check my bag when at the airport in Praia. It was free, which meant I didn’t have to worry about dragging it around, but it did mean I had to leave the airport in Lisbon in order to collect it before turning directly around to check back in for my next flight, which leaves for Madrid in ten hours. I stood outside for about an hour for seemingly no reason. It’s raining right now, so I found an awning and just rested my bag up against the wall I was leaning on, taking most of the weight off of my shoulders. Once in a while, a security guard would wander outside to smoke a cigarette near the receptacle to my right, or an airport worker would pass by with a line of luggage carts, pulling them along like they worked in a grocery store parking lot. And the rain fell, and I just stood there and let myself feel my feelings. No explanations needed.

I think traveling is one of the most mindful “places” I ever find myself. Both in airports and on planes, I seem to find myself more “in the moment” than I typically do elsewhere. I find myself more content just listening to the hum of the airplane than reading or watching movies. And in airports, I’m more than happy to stare out the giant windows at the planes shuffling around each other on the tarmac. So, for me, standing just outside of the airport watching the rain was an inviting feeling. It’s kind of hard to believe, though I won’t get to see it, I’m gulping in the Portuguese air, which, unofficially, is the 20th country in the world I’ve now visited.

And yet, here I sit, at a Burger King that appears to be nearing closing time. I’ve got three hours until the clock officially clicks over into “tomorrow”, which means I’ve got to find a place for myself for a while before I can officially check back into the airport. How will this next trip through security and immigration look? Will anyone even glance at my passport since I’m traveling within countries that exist within the same borders? I think I’m shaken a bit by the expansiveness of this whole human existence. I’ve left my friend behind in Africa once again and I’ve got a journey ahead for myself now that I’m not entirely sure about how it will shape up to be, who will be a part of it, what the timeline will look like, what it will entail, etc. That’s a little intimidating to think about. And then, of course, not being able to rest properly tonight will keep me on my toes.

I do have hugs waiting for me at the end of this traveling ordeal when I arrive tomorrow afternoon though. This is something that is keeping me going. Some of my people in the capital city have already contacted me and I hope they’re prepared for me to squeeze them so hard that their heads pop off!

Until then, there’s just something about international security that rattles me now that I’ve worked so closely with refugees. There’s a sadness that lurks between the eyeballs that stare at you through the glass booth and the hurried traveler on the other side. If I get confused in airports (which have signs clearly labeled in English just below the Portuguese!), how are other people suppose to pass through here as cool as a cucumber?

Okay, that’ll have to do it for this rant. Here goes nothing, ten hours in Lisbon, then a 6:30am flight to Madrid where I’ll change planes before boogying onward.

Check your privilege. Count your blessings. Shed some gratitude.

Peace.

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Posted in Spirit & Light, West Africa, Western Europe | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment