Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Smaller Place

Baby was on her way to some country that she had never heard of on a continent she had never been to. One of the perks of joining the Peace Corps was a paid plane ticket to a place that she would have to make a committed effort to ever visit again, because [does it really matter?] would never be a place for Spring Break, destination weddings, or a romantic getaway. The culture shock started when she first set foot in the village and saw her pink Keds dividing her from the dirt.

In her small Chicago suburb was an abundance of sidewalks, roads, yards and floors of neighborhood homes. Each surface carried an attitude of its own and thus was treated differently in how one approached each surface.

Baby now stood in a place where it was hard to discern one surface from another. The cold clay dirt ground didnt change for anything.  

Peace Corps veterans had shared stories of going barefoot for only minutes before encountering the tapeworm, which lingered in the dirt waiting to attach themselves to the heels of strangers, whos bodies werent equipped to fight back. A young barefooted man from the village swept out the loose dirt from his home to the outside, careful not to sweep in the direction of Babys pink Keds before inviting her inside. Wanting to be a polite houseguest without risking her health, she faced her first dilemma. She left her shoes on.

It was only 2 in the afternoon before everyone on Babys team had already attempted to set themselves apart from the villagers in a demeaning way—assumptions and discomfort transcended language barriers. But for the villagers, it was to be expected ever since a group of surveyors stormed through their home years ago to proclaim that the villagers were living in squalor and had to be saved.

The only thing that kept the villagers agreeing to take part in this 3-month-long project was the promise that their lives would be easier when it was over. By completing this project, the Peace Corps would spend more money than the villagers would see in their lifetimes, and it seemed foolish not to agree to the promise of bettering the lives of everyone they knew. So, until the project was finished, they would clasp their hands together and nod in thanks at the countless insults given to them by their ignorant visitors who had come to help them out of their dire ways.

It was 4pm and Baby had emptied her canteen into her mouth hours ago. Her body was hot and sticky, but her mouth was dry. She approached that same young man preparing to speak in his language and, in stumbling tongue, asked where she could find water to drink. He smiled and pointed to the horizon. Coming into focus were a cluster of small silhouette figures walking towards the village. An hour later, they were 20 women each balancing 30-gallon jugs on their heads. Another hour later, and the women had arrived with enough water for the whole village—a days worth.

The project leaders name was Chip. He wore an old tattered hat that he got at a local camping shop 10 years ago, the day before he left for his first Peace Corps project. Though it was never said aloud, he was known for leading failed after failed projects—gardens that never flourished, water filters that became contaminated with cholera, fresh-built houses unknowingly caked in lead paint. The list went on. But Chip was one of few MBA graduates willing to be paid scarce wages, year after year. He was to be the leader of this project, and he was committed to make this one successful.

Chip explained to the team that everyday several women from the village had to walk three hours to the nearest well to stand in a long line and fill jugs of water, only to walk three hours back to the village to distribute the water. He pointed in the direction of the well and Baby thought that it was odd that he wasnt pointing in the direction that she saw the women walking from earlier.

The women couldnt walk directly to and from the well because there was a 12-foot deep ditch in the way, which lasted for miles where water once flowed abundantly millions of years earlier. So instead, the women walked around the ditch, which made for a much longer trip. One of Chips teams tried to dig a well a few years earlier without success. There was simply no water left on this side of the ditch. But Chip was determined to find a solution to the problem, the problem he had discovered when he surveyed the site years before.

Were going to build a bridge across this ditch, and when were finished, it will take 30 minutes to get water for the village instead of six hours. Chip credited himself for coming up with the idea.

The plan made sense to Baby, although she was concerned that with Chips reputation they wouldnt be able to carry it through. Still, she was the first to report to the site the next morning. She arrived to an argument between Chip and one of the men from the village. Chip had spent much time in this country and was well versed in the language—at least enough to argue well if he was good at arguing. When the conversation was over, Chip turned to Baby to explain. He wasnt calling her by name. If were gonna be here, eating the food, using the resources in this community—we all need to chip in on the daily chores. He waited.

Were gonna need you to walk with the women and collect a jug of water for our team everyday until we finish this bridge. I would do it...but women have to carry the water. Its a rule. He shrugged without remorse.

The 20 walking women now stood beside Chip with a spare jug waiting for Baby to respond. What could she say? By refusing to go, she would be setting herself apart from these women. So Baby took the jug and joined her new walking partners for the long day journey trying not to convert the 40-kilometer round trip into miles or determine how much 30 liters of water weighed.

The first trip, she said nothing. On the outside, her silence may have been viewed as a revolt against this terrible punishment that she hadnt signed up for. But really she was fighting to keep up and was both afraid of uttering a complaint and didnt want to waste any energy on words. She couldnt balance the jug on her head like the others could, so her arms were heavy with weight. Her Keds were now the color of dirt, and the hot sand was accelerating the deterioration process of her soles. When they got back, Baby went straight to sleep feeling accomplished until she had woken up.

She joined the women once more that very next morning and was at disbelief that she was about to do the same thing. Her legs and arms still hadnt recovered from the day before, but yet somehow, she was moving forward. The other women were chatting in their language, while Baby counted steps and busied herself by retelling stories about her summer flings unaware that she had fallen behind. Then the women began to sing and chant in a quick pace, which helped Baby move faster. The chanting became louder and more jubilant on their way back, and the repetitive verses encouraged Baby to join in.

After a few weeks, Baby had become used to walking the long walk and learned to carry the jug of water on her head, so she didnt have to use her arms to lift. Though her arms were stronger now, so she could rely on them if she had to. The other women had dedicated themselves to teach Baby the local language so she could understand all the stories they shared on their daily walks. She had already memorized the lyrics of all the songs they sang on the walk and was eager to learn what they all meant.

By two months, Baby could understand much of the conversation, and she recognized that the six hours a day the women spent together was not considered just a day of work. They used this day to share stories about their children and funny anecdotes about their husbands. And they all recognized that the whole village would thirst without them. They were proud that they were each given such an important responsibility, and Baby began to adopt this pride too, although she was still looking forward to the bridge being finished.

At three months, the bridge was built. Villagers danced on the bridge in celebration. Families took short trips to the well with wheelbarrows loaded with water jugs and brought back water for the week. Village leaders congratulated Chip for his leadership efforts. By the next day, locals from a village across the bridge were invited over to share a meal. Chip had deemed the project successful.

He went to the bridge to take some photos of his work and saw the 20 women sitting at the base of the bridge with their heads slouched in their hands and looking miserable—some women were crying.

Whats wrong? Chip asked.

In a rehearsed way, the women intermittently answered. Oh nothing. Were very grateful for all the hard work that you put in. Thank you very much for doing this.

But, you all look so sad.

One woman spoke up. Were just upset, because you made our lives harder.

Harder? Because of this bridge, I freed up six hours of your time every day. You dont have to spend your days collecting water anymore. You can think of anything else that you all want to be and you can be it.

Some people spend their lives chasing happiness and still never find it. Before the bridge was built, we had purpose in our lives and we were happy. We flourished on the idea that we were responsible for hydrating our community. You have taken our happiness away from us and have forced us to find it elsewhere.

Baby overheard the women crying and that's when she realized how insignificant walking for 6 hours a day could be, when it brings you happiness.