A smile is a smile, no matter where you are - My Family Travels

             In the brief seventeen years of which I have lived on this planet, I have traveled to eighteen different states, nine different countries, and four different continents. I have white-water rafted the Colorado River, parasailed across Grecian beaches, cheered for my country in the Winter Olympics, watched the sun set across Lake Michigan, and the sun rise from behind Ayers Rock, Australia. Since I was nine years old, traveling has been my passion. When I am not physically traversing a new land, my mind wanders. I want to ride a camel across the Sahara, ski down the Alps as the snow drifts down around me, and climb the Great Wall.

            But I have always wanted to give back to those who have so hospitably welcomed me to each and every place I have been. As each locale has opened my eyes a little more to the world, I wanted to be the one to make a difference. I spent hours online flipping through pages of search results on volunteer trips, looking through brochures, and begging my parents to even consider allowing me to go. I decided I wanted to go to Africa, so I chose a program through Rustic Pathways.

            I stepped off the plane at the Mount Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania, after over twenty-four hours of travel, exhausted both mentally and physically and in dire need of a bathroom. We waited for over an hour to get through customs, and then we drove another hour to get to our beds. But in the morning, when I woke to a misty rain after a night of sporadic sleep and howling dogs, none of it mattered; I was there, in Tanzania, and that very day I would be able to put my sweat into helping others.

            Each day, I mixed cement by hand, painted grates on windows, and wheeled barrows of bricks and sand to finish the kitchen and water pump system for Nkoakirika Primary School and Poli Village. At night our group played capture the flag and lay on our beds giggling until we feel asleep, inevitably from exertion before ten o’clock. I made plenty of new friends, worked tirelessly every day, and felt the gratification of the village people. But it was the children who made this particular adventure into the greatest of my life. During our lunch breaks, the children, ages five to eleven, would come dashing out of their insubstantial school house with grins from ear to ear. The first day, they used the little English they knew to ask us our names and where we were from. Without even blinking, they grabbed our hands and pulled us into soccer games, braided our hair, and made us dance. We chased them around for as long as we could, trying to tickle them or grab them and swing them through the air. It broke my heart to see them in their ripped, torn and dirtied school uniforms, to know that they owned little more than the clothes on their backs. But their smiles sewed it right back up again.

            This one girl, Diana, sought me out every day. She would never talk to me or sit with me, never braid my hair, but she would approach with a devious little grin on her face. When she got too close, she would run squealing in the opposite direction. I spent most of my time chasing her across the field, pretending to be incapable of catching her, occasionally succeeding and tickling her until she could no longer breathe.

            Out of all of the vacations I have ever been on, out of every group of people I have ever met, the people of Poli Village mean the most to me. Not only did I learn of life in a third world country, I experienced the unconditional reception of the village. Not only did I make a palpable contribution to their community by building a kitchen, but through the children, those unpretentious, smiling children, I may have brought just a little more joy into the lives of others.

            On our last day, the villagers roasted a goat for us: the ultimate sign of trust. They were grateful beyond words, or at least any in English, for what we had done. But I am also grateful to them for welcoming me with open arms and open hearts, for allowing me into their world. They have changed how I view the world, and so I am thankful. Asantesana.

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