There are days when I harbour the thought of taking a leave of absence to go volunteer in some war ravaged African country, helping HIV infected children or rape victims, as if this could imbue my life with more meaning. Recently, I went so far as surfing Doctors without Borders and Oxfam’s websites, checking out their job opportunities – Logistics Manager sounded right up my alley but somehow I don’t think they will overlook my lack of at least a 2 year experience in favour of my proven multi-tasking and working under pressure track record.

Why would I want or need to cross a few continents to find fulfillment when the city I live in offers hundreds of opportunities for volunteers, one might wonder? And one might be right. The usual suspects, such as the Soup Kitchen, always have long waiting lists, but a myriad of other worthy organizations are in need of our time and efforts. I recently applied for a seven week shift at Cooking Matters, teaching low-income families how to cook simple and cheap meals from scratch. It only requires three hours of my time a week, in the evening, and I already know that battling traffic and making schedules fit will prove a hassle. Packing a small bag and moving away for three to six months, paradoxically, seems an easier option. I have this habit that, in order to let go, I really have to let go of everything or else I will drive myself crazy with the kitchen that needs cleaning, the dogs who need another walk, the ironing piling up, the friends I haven’t seen in months and all those trappings that come with life in the city.

The musings of a friend of a friend who works for an NGO in Afghanistan reached me this morning and I read at length of days spent in Kandahar arranging for delivery of supplies, meetings with various Ambassadors, field trips to the mountains and decompressing time in an upscale bar in Kabul (how upscale can it possibly be, I silently wondered) while looking forward to seven new expat nurses just arrived at the Doctors without Borders camp. Would this be a blueprint of my hypothetical African life? Trying to find solace with some Norwegian doctor or passing journalist in order to relieve the boredom or the horror? Suddenly, decamping to Africa looked a tad less attractive.

What transpired from this very funny and insightful man’s words was a basic need for adrenaline rush, shunning a life of conventional home/office routine, with a sandwich grabbed at the corner cafe for lunch and a subway commute at the end of day. He described the months he spent in Milan and how depressed his fellow subway riders seemed to him – grey, sullen, distant, all vivaciousness killed by ordinary life.I sort of recognized a former, younger self in his words, which is why I tailored a life for myself that was not conventional, without choosing the extreme of following wars in order to make a difference. Or feel needed. Routine was not part of my daily life for a long time. There is not much of a routine in a kitchen either, which is funny, because, if not to routine, I am certainly attached to my personal rituals. But I discovered that, oftentimes, behind a facade of grey, sullenness and distance, there are incredible stories to be found, profound tragedies that need healing, funny anecdotes, interesting lives, unexpected personalities.

Maybe that is where we can make a difference. By being more present with our fellow travellers, more interested and less judgemental, more open to the unexpected in the cubicle next to ours. Sometimes a joyride doesn’t have to take us to Kabul or Mogadishu and not even to the downtown Mission on Christmas day, when hundreds of people feel virtuous because they stood behind the counter serving food to the homeless for just one day. The homeless man I see every morning, who lives by the creek in the canyon, would probably appreciate my home cooked left-overs. The single mother I work with, who barely makes ends meet, might like a small gift for her daughter to put under the tree.

I know me. I will keep on checking those sites and fantasize about making a cosmic difference. I respect my quirks. And, if all of a sudden, I start blogging from Kinshasa, you will know why. For now, I am sticking closer to home.



Filed under Africa, Los Angeles, the expat life

2 responses to “THE DIFFERENCE WE MAKE

  1. ci

    Beautiful and meaningful words. I would add the constant need for a person like you to have new challanges, never stop after achieving a goal, no matter what this could be, especially if this means helping others.
    But I honestly would question myself if I had the guts to face what reality means in those areas and I am not sure I could. This is an aspect one tend to underestimate but when I saw for the first time a man with leprosy begging or someone else dying along the street this went straight to my stomach and made the earth under my feet trembling.

  2. sue

    Micro-loans. Look into that …. helping woman start small businesses. It’s the way forward for 52% of this world and their children. Micro-loans will help women to leave the men who abuse them, who infect them with STDs or HIV, who drink or drug themselves into a coma, to escape arranged marriages – if not for themselves, for their daughters. All of the experience you have … will be useful. And – maybe you go for a couple months a year? All if it is possible.

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