Throughout our trip, something has become more apparent. We all have the same needs: to eat, to be cared for, to love, and to belong to a community. These are universal despite our economic situation and/or the culture we live in.
Somewhere I read that your current situation does not define who you are as a person. I grew up poor, by Colombian standards. But, I never felt I was poor. Instead, I felt the opposite. I thought one day out of the blue our parents were going to tell us we had money and that we were done with the challenge of playing poor. However, we were poor. We rented two rooms in another family’s home, we did not go to private schools, we did not own anything besides our beds and our clothes, and we had very little money. But I always felt we had everything. I never worried about food, who was going to take care of me and where we were going to sleep or the family group I belonged to. I always had my basic needs covered and have always been incredibly rich in love and care provided by my parents and sisters. My parents were never bitter about the situation we were in and always taught us to feel good no matter what situation we were in. Part of the reason I switched from accounting to social work was the passion I have always felt about helping others. I knew this was going to be challenging as we embarked on our travel journey as I was going to see people struggling to meet their needs, specially children.
Turning my blinds on during the month I spent in Colombia was easy prior to Lorne’s arrival as I spent most of my time in seclusion with my family. Our travel journey started after January when we said goodbye to my family and traveled to south of Colombia from Cali to Popayan and from there to Ecuador. I saw Colombia in a different situation than when I lived there. We traveled through towns by local buses that had massive killings by the guerrillas 17 years ago. My heart pounded at times with fear and sadness thinking of all of the people who died during that time. However, these towns had bounced back and showed tremendous resiliency. We found other Colombians traveling with ease through these areas. The highways were in good condition and we felt safe at all times. I did not see children begging on the streets or people in severe poverty as I had seen in previous years. All children that I observed were appropriately dressed and fed and cared for.
Boy in costume Quito Ecuador
As we moved from Colombia to Ecuador, I noticed a considerable change. I saw poorly clothed children in the cities and in the small towns. Also in Quito, there were children begging on the streets. Before getting affected by this reality, I checked my feelings and concluded that these children although poor, looked well fed despite their clothing. There was plenty of food around and people did not seem to be underweight. Also, children appeared to be well cared for and happy.
Kids selling handicrafts during a school day Peru
During our 45 days in Peru, I found very few children on the streets either in the cities or small towns. Most children looked well clothed and fed. They appeared to be taken care of by their caregivers and shy of strangers despite the high number of tourist around them. This is a good thing according to my social work background. So no major struggles for me in Peru. There was also food everywhere we went to in Peru. Children appeared to be happy.
During our short stay in Rio, I did not see any children begging on the streets. I have to admit that we were staying in a fancy area called Ipanema, so the chances of seeing street children were probably very minimal. I did see a lot of poor people begging on the streets around this area from a nearby favela. Twice, I was approached by two men that came up and touched my pockets asking if there was any money in them. It was very sad to see that most of the poverty I observed in Rio was exclusive of black people. I did not see a single white person begging on the street. The people I saw on the street, however, looked well fed.
From the moment we landed in the Addis Ababa airport in Ethiopia, I knew it was going to be a challenging for me emotionally. When we toured the city we saw children on the streets that looked underweight and poorly clothed. As we traveled through villages in the Simien Mountains, I observed signs of malnourishment both in children and adults. Although I did not see the images often portrayed of Africa of starvation, I did see children that were considerably lacking on their development. Children appeared happy and curious of us and were extremely kind and friendly. The children we met hiking were mostly shepherds they were very shy but were happy to receive candy from us and any extra food we had. Although, three kids we met did not eat the pasta or mangos we offered to them, they kept putting their hands out for granola and bananas that we offered. One of the shepherd children pointed to an open cut on his head. We cleaned the wound and dressed it with our first aid kit. These kids had calloused hands, wore rags and often walked barefoot. In the village of Gich, we met a kid that was dirty and had ripped clothing and flys all around his face. This was a hard image. In one shepherd kid, I observed signs of glaucoma in his eyes. All we had to offer him was some candy. Dave told us about a British tourist that he had guided in the mountain and who was getting doctors to make rounds to reach kids in the village. Our guide told us that there is no fixed eating schedule and that children eat something in the morning before they go out to pastor the animals and when they come back home from pastoring goats and cows. We shared as much as we could from what we brought and were offered to us through our guided tour, but I continued to feel helpless. How could we have so much and they have so little I asked myself constantly?
Some of the villages looked like places that have been untouched by time. There was no electricity, running water and people lived like they always had for hundreds of years. We saw girls carrying plastic Jerry cans of water to take home. Lorne made a comment that if civilization were to collapse, these places would continue and survive as they do not depend on so many resources like we do. I struggled with feeling dirty as we hiked up these beautiful mountains and felt the most covered in dirt that I have felt in my life. I thought for sure I was going to get sick, but did not. I even became used to using squat out houses throughout our 4 day hike.
Ethiopian as a Christian orthodox country follows a very strict food diet. People eat meat only on Wednesdays and Fridays and no animal products during lent (time of our travel). Also, it is rare for someone to eat a considerable amount of protein given their limited incomes. We gave out candies whenever we found children. By the end of our trecking, there were more children than candy to give. I constantly heard: “Hello” from children.
We stayed one night in the village of Ambaras on the grounds of the elementary school. Although these kids were better off than the shepherds we observed previous days, they would run to us saying hello hello, and asking for food, clothing, pencils or money. One child told me in English: I am hungry, please give me food. How do you respond to this? I spent most of my time during the day we camped on the school grounds on the tent. The feeling of helplessness was overwhelming for me. These children looked very happy, curious and connected to one another, but I felt a big whole in me as I could not offer or do anything.
When we started our trekking tour with David, he was explaining how he was a shepherd boy and lived in the mountains. I told David I was poor when I was a child. David said: “I bet your poverty was better than mine”. After seeing the village where David grew up and how people live, I agree, my poverty was better than his. I never went hungry, I was always clean, I did not endure any hardship or had to work or did not know when my next meal was going to happen. I always had access to health care even when this was public or the witch craft woman my mom used to take us. I could count that my parents were likely going to be around to care for me until I was able to do it on my own.
One of the highlights of this trip was meeting David’s grandmother. She is the oldest person in her village at 89 and highly respected. David told her that he would bring her eye drops next time he comes by as her eyes are not doing well. She was so gentle and loving towards David that it reminded me of my grandmother, Julia. Before David left she told him that she may not see him the next time he comes by. I understood what she said despite not speaking a word of Ethiopian. I told David that his grandmother said that to him and he looked surprised and said yes. I cried right then. Maybe it was all of the emotions I was building up of how much I felt for the hardship people go through in Ethiopia, maybe I was too tired from sleeping in a tent, maybe it was all of this.
I was not looking forward to visiting Ethiopia in honesty. I tried to avoid countries where I know I am going to struggle emotionally and which ban homosexuality. You can go to jail for 3 years for having homosexual relationships in Ethiopia. However, I am happy we went. I am glad I experience this reality and confirmed once more that we all have the same intrinsic human needs. What Ethiopians lack in food, they make up in human relations. We often observed men walking hand in hand, hugging and caring for each other in a gentle way. Everyone thought about the others. They often shared what they had or were eating and treated each other with kindness. There were great moments during our track when we were sitting around the camp fire and despite our many differences, we shared laughs and drinks. This is a place that taught me that poverty is a relative concept and that what one views as extreme, it might be a better reality for others.
Although I have never seen such severe level of poverty in my life, I saw an incredible amount of wealth in human relations in Ethiopia. They are rich in things that many economically wealthy countries lack.
Amesegnalew (thank you) Ethiopia for opening your doors and teaching us so many lessons.