As I sit in my room on the 17th story of an 18-story apartment in the middle of Kunming, China, I cannot help but wonder: How in the world did I get here? I mean that quite literally actually. How on earth did I end up sitting in this small room overlooking the mountains of southern China? Well, one might say: “Ben, don’t you remember? You had over 24 hours of travel to get from Cusco, Peru to Kunming, China! How can you forget about that 14-hour plane ride from L.A. to Shanghai? That’s how you got here!” Or someone else might even say: “you took a gap year, silly! Don’t you remember signing up for eight months of travelling around the world to study development”? Well, I do remember. It’s hard to forget that flight where Lizzie and I became so delirious that we started to jam out to her iPod (fist pumping and all) while the poor, unsuspecting people surrounding us stared in disbelief. Or when I thought that the warm towel they gave us to clean wipe our faces was really to put over my eyes so I could sleep properly. Or probably most embarrassingly when I tried to grab a cookie and it kept crumbling in between my fingertips. I was so upset that I said “It’s just so painful because it’s just so personal.” I took the crumbling of a cookie as a personal offense… So yes, I remember that plane ride. And I definitely remember first applying to TBB, having the interview with Andrea over the phone, getting accepted, finding out the members of my group, and most importantly, the terrifying day at the airport in Miami where I left my life in Atlanta behind to embark on this journey.
It is crazy how fast time flies. That first day in the Miami airport was now three months ago. Only one month ago, I was in the middle of the jungles of Ecuador in a community called Los Naranjos. I lived in a small hut that housed at least 14 people at a time including my roommate, Andrew, and me. We shared a small bed under a mosquito net, took bucket showers in the backyard, combined, Andrew and I had over 1,000 bug bites (we still have scars), planted over 7,000 trees in order to learn more about the environment, made media projects and participated in seminars, and most importantly became part of the tight-knit community of the Tsa’chilas. From there, we were whisked away to Cusco, Peru where we experienced some of the earth’s most wondrous beauties including Machu Picchu. We spent a little over a week recuperating, regaining sleep (even though we went to bed around 8pm every night in Los Naranjos we still needed sleep…), and taking in the wonders Peru had to offer. And finally after the five flights that brought us to Kunming, China and introduced us to our incredible new PL, Nora, I sit here wondering how I got here.
I realize that I have not blogged since Day 5 Costa Rica. And for my lack of communication, I apologize. The reason why I wonder how I got here is pretty simple: most of the time, my life doesn’t seem real. Instead, my life is out of this world. Or maybe just the opposite, my life is completely in this world— just out of the U.S. While the experiences I have had over the course of the past three months have no doubt been challenging, I think that I am beginning to understand people a bit better than before. I’m definitely not an expert or anything, but I am just slowly realizing how different people can be. Diversity is all around us. Whether that diversity is found in race, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, or mindsets, I find myself surrounded with different influences, and that is something I find to be truly fascinating. In fact, I even wrote a college essay on it (yes, I am applying to college again… It’s been a really fun process to do twice). The more people I meet, the more ideas I come in contact with, and then by default, the more I question my own ideas or pre-conceived notions. I think that is why some of the things here have been difficult for me. I have literally started to question everything: why is it that the world finds itself in its current predicament today? Why was I born in a wealthy home when my friends in Nicaragua received clean, potable water for the first time in their lives about a week ago? And development? Well, lets just say I have no idea what that’s all about. Development changes from person to person, place to place, and the more you look at it, the more complicated and convoluted it gets. It’s difficult because the more answers I seek, the more questions I find. And lets be honest, I’ve never been the most patient type of guy. But, I am learning that patience is of utmost importance. When working with others, when trying to reforest what seems to be all of Ecuador in 5 weeks, when teaching 15-year-old Chinese students about American culture and the English language, patience is necessary. And for that realization, I say thank you, TBB.
So now a little update on my current life: I am in CHINA! Obviously… Our task here is Education. What that means is we have 10 seminars and several lectures on education, a Chinese language class every morning, and classes to teach high school and middle school students English. That is pretty much my daily life right there. I am living with the most fun family in all of Kunming I am sure. It is Gao Jian, his daughter Chin Chin (9-years-old), and his wife (whose name I have failed to learn and or pronounce). They are so kind and welcoming. My host mother is a fantastic cook and never fails to put a delicious Chinese meal on the table usually consisting of rice, lettuce and or spinach, spicy sauces, and a type of meat. I have my own room here (its pretty small, I can touch both walls at the same time), which is quite the change from Los Naranjos where I shared a bed every night. We have a toilet!! Not just the squatters you find everywhere else… You really get to work out your quads. When we arrived here in China, I found myself to be hit with a bacterial infection and threw up about 9 times one day. My favorite vomming place was in the middle of a random plastic surgeons office I ran into to avoid throwing up on the street. I was bent over a hole in the ground puking my guts up in the middle of China. Yeah, I really was asking myself then how the decisions in my life had led me to that moment… It was actually hilarious and I started to laugh while throwing up which resulted in choking and more vomit.
On a more familial note, my host sister plays piano like Mozart. Not kidding, she actually plays Mozart. She’s nine. Naturally, I decided to whip out my piano skills consisting of two songs from the movie, Once, that have taken me 5 years to learn. After I masterfully played my songs, Chin Chin asked me to play the chorus of one of the songs again. With no music to read and in 5 minutes, little Chin Chin played my pride and joy The Hill better than I could ever dream of playing it. All that hard work for 5 years shown up in 5 mins by a small, 9-year-old girl. It was quite the blow to my self-esteem.
On my independent travel weekend, I went to Beijing with Maggie! Wow, we were busy those two days. We went to the forbidden city, climbed the Great Wall (tobogganed down it), ate at Micky-D’s (we’re those Americans), went to the zoo, saw the pandas (bought some panda hats), went to the Summer palace, and then my favorite: went to the Olympic sites and saw the Bird’s Nest, the Water Cube, and were even able to swim in the Olympic pool (well the practice pool… and it was pretty narsty in there). Regardless, I was stoked to be able to see all of it. We had a blast.
Now, my time in China is winding down which is absolutely crazy. On the 17th, I leave for Cambodia where I will spend Christmas. And shortly after that, we go to India! If there is one thing that has been reinforced in me though during these three extraordinary months it is this: Life is Good. I will hopefully never forget that and I look forward to the days and months ahead!