Looking beyond the culture shock of poverty

When I tell colleagues or friends about my travel plans to places like Cambodia or Botswana, more often then not I’m met with a strange look. The immediate follow up question is almost always, “Of all the countries in the world, why would you want to go there? It’s a fair question, why spend over a thousand dollars on a flight to an underdeveloped country when I don’t speak the language and don’t have a personal connection. For the longest time, I couldn’t articulate a meaningful response.

Last year I found myself strolling down the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Boy oh boy was I not mentally prepared; the foul odors lurking around the corners, knee high piles of trash and more shocking street kids with missing limbs begging for money. My blood pressure spiked, I nearly ran back to my hotel from culture shock. I kept telling myself that I didn’t travel across the Atlantic AND Indian ocean for western comforts; I came to challenge myself to grow.

The biggest struggle I have while traveling aboard isn’t living without 4G Wifi, it’s actually willing myself to look pass global poverty and the socioeconomics of the developing world. The remnants of colonization are blatant and often piss me off. As a woman of color, it’s beyond disheartening to see people who look like me or share a history of oppression struggling around the world. Whether it’s in Namibia, Paris, or Laos, I find myself commiserating with locals about how Europeans have messed up the world. Getting pass that frustration is the hardest part but also the most rewarding. I often leave each country with a renewed perspective on the meaning of gratitude and community that are golden.

Gratitude  

Backpacking through Southeast Asia made me realize that it isn’t material wealth or things that make people happy and keep them whole, it is the daily appreciation for the simple things in life; like coming home to your grandmother’s cooking, the honor of being able to financially supporting your entire family, or simply being. Happiness doesn’t depend on what you have but rather what you think.

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Community

I experienced an overwhelming sense of community in Khayelitsha, a Xhosa township in Capetown, South Africa. The first thing I noticed was the improper houses or shacks without running water and electricity. I passed hundreds of Xhosa men, women and children in less than an hour’s time; more Black people than I had seen in the city of Capetown over the course of a week. Families were walking around, grilling beef and sausage on an open fire, children playing with wooden sticks in front of their homes.

My skin color allowed me the privilege of blending in. It took some time to see beyond the social ills but when I did, I noticed a richness among the people, a spirit of contentment and gratitude. A local shared that the best part of living in Khayelitsha was never being lonely. He said, “we take care of each other.” That was a powerful moment; I quietly said to myself, “I wish people from my hood felt that way.”

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