In my short 19 years on this lovely planet, I've lived in the US. I've traveled to the Cayman Islands, England, Spain, France (and Monaco), Italy (and the Vatican City), Canada, and Ecuador (the Galapagos included).
I love traveling. Since I was a little girl, I've dreamed of traveling to China, and I still intend on making it there someday. But in little travel I have done, I noticed two things: 1) how different everything seemed and 2) how familiar everything seemed. Both of things things were very important to travel and to putting me in the mindset that I often fall into while traveling.
We're all people. We all live on the same planet. We all breathe the same air. We all care about similar things. But there were some things that I knew I could never experience, never feel. Ever.
In Ecuador, the group I was traveling with visited as many schools as we could and donated as much as possible to the schools. I always left the schools sobbing, without fail. It was a tremendous experience. There was one encounter in particular in the school we visited in the Amazon region of Ecuador.
We drove up to the village on our big coach bus and the girls all gathered in a cluster just outside the door. They each held bunches of flowers in their hands and as each one of us stepped off the bus, they'd exclaim in unison "Hola" and one of the girls would push a flower into your palm. It was a very warm and joyful welcome. We got situated off the bus, introduced ourselves to the kids, and then we got our boots on because we were going to plant trees. Each of the kids were instructed to choose one of us by taking our hand in theirs and wait patiently beside us until everyone had found a partner. They then led us up the rather steep hillside to an area with a bunch of markers in the ground. This marked the hole where we would plant our tree.
The community these kids lived in was at a location just on the edge of the Amazon Rain Forest itself but there were only a few young trees and only low grassy plants on the land. Most of the land was just mud. This was a section of the rain forest that had been clear cut. The soil there was no longer nearly as nutritious. The people who lived there no longer had any revenue. They didn't have a single tree left to replenish the rain forest. It was just mud. So a program was started up where the school offered itself to personal contact with tourist groups and travel organizations so long as the organization financed the retrieval of the trees they needed to get the community back on its feet. So this activity was very important, not only ecologically to restore the rain forest, but it, hopefully, in the long run, would provide this community with a stronger economy once more. Then, hopefully, as the trees mature with the kids who planted them, they will provide a higher quality of life for the families these very kids will be raising in the community years down the line.
Once the trees were all planted, the kids walked with us back to their school house. It was nerve-wracking to be led by a hoard of 5-8 year old's through the winding paths of their community, embedded in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, but we trusted them. I'm inclined to say that, of course, these kids were more mature. They faced more responsibility in their daily lives than we ever did. And while that's true, they were still just kids. There were two boys who were particularly rambunctious. They were probably the youngest two boys (there was one girl, very small. Very shy. She was definitely the youngest of the troop) and these two boys were cartwheeling down the path, attacking one another, screaming with joy, hiding in the brush and jumping out to scare one another. All of these kids were just that. Kids. They behaved just like any kid you'd see running around in their backyard at home. There wasn't anything particularly profound about their ability to navigate their way through the hills of their community, it was their home. Their backyard. And they were just kids, extraordinarily excited to have thirty new friends to play in it with.
So that's just what we did. We played with the kids at their school. We played a game of soccer with them, they won. We let the girls braid our hair until their fingers ached (our head ached more). We let them finger our jewelry. We handed them our cameras and taught them how they worked (they'd never held a camera before). I was sitting on the ground, playing some sort of hand game with one of the very young boys. My friend from the trip sat next to me with a girl of about 7 sitting in her lap. My friend knew just enough Spanish to engage her in small-talk. It came up that this young girl had her ears pierced but didn't have any earrings to wear in her ears so she would take narrow sticks or firm reeds from sugarcane and thread those through her ears. She loved jewelry and earrings. My friend was wearing a pair of earrings that I'm tempted to describe as flashy because in the context of where we were and who we were with, they were rather flashy. But really, they were just big enough to cover the entire lobe of her ear. The girl fingered them and examined them closely. My friend asked her if she'd like to wear them. The girl eagerly nodded. So my friend carefully pushed her earrings into the girls earlobes, careful to not hurt her. She constantly questioned if the girl was alright, and the girl always responded with a quiet "Si, gracias!"
Her face shone brighter than anything I've ever seen. These earrings meant the world to her. She absolutely came alive when my friend told her she was finished and she was able to feel the earrings beneath her fingers. She was elated and wore them with pride for the rest of the visit.
It was time for us to go, we were to say our goodbyes to the friend's we'd made at the school. My friend hugged the girl with the earrings. She pulled away from the hug and the girl began pulling at her ears, trying to remove the earrings to return to her. My friend told her something in Spanish and the girl's face burst into the most enormous smile I've seen. She squealed and sobbed and smiled, positively hysterical with joy. She ran into my friend and hugged her once again, sobbing into her shirt.
"What did you tell her?" I asked my friend.
"I told her she could keep the earrings."
The little girl was so incredibly grateful to get to keep the earrings. I've never seen anyone so happy in all my life, and I don't believe I'll ever see anyone happier or more thankful. It occurred to me as we sat in our coach bus and waved back at the kids who chased our bus for as long as they could manage that I could never be so thankful for anything as that little girl was for those earrings. To us they're just earrings, but to her, they're the world. They're an eight year old's understanding of the trees we planted earlier in the day.
Someday, those boys and girls will be mothers and fathers. Those children will have the memories of planting all those trees with their own hands, alongside the hundreds of friends they'd make in the process. They'd then realize what at tremendous gift those trees are to them. They'll remember wearing the same shirt for a year because their family can't afford to buy another. Then they'll dress their children in a new shirt before a year is up and they'll remember planting the trees, and they'll be more thankful than I'll ever know.
Honestly, I'm envious of that. I'm envious that I will never get to be so humbled or so thankful for anything in my life. I try constantly now to remember the little faces of those kids and I try to remember what a tremendous difference we made in their lives. I'm honored to have been a part of their lives. I'm honored to have been able to hand them a full notebook of 100 pages of lined paper. I'm honored to have been able to hand them a pencil sharpener so they're able to use the few materials they already had. I'm honored to have been a part of the group that presented their teacher with $100, more money than she could have imagined, to ensure that these kids get the best education possible. I work so hard to be that humbled and that thankful as those kids were and their teacher was. But I, being a white girl from an upper middle class family with access to excellent education and all the resources necessary, I just don't know that it's possible. Trees provide me with cleaner air, not a future. But those trees made the world of difference in those kids' lives.
But a seven year old little girl doesn't know any of that yet, she just knows that she's impossibly glad to have been given those beautiful earrings to keep. And she's thankful.