January 4, 2010

Flight AI 102

I'm sitting on the plane heading to Kolkata. It feels like I am in this gap of time and space, between somewhere I know and somewhere I don't know. Between people I know and those I have not yet met. What if I am not here at all? Living in an airplane is s good as living nowhere. I am not at my place of departure, nor have I reached my destination. I have no world of my own, only the space and vehicle around me that defines the path of my travel. It is a strange existential crisis. I have left Pittsburgh and Connecticut as my homes, hoping to call India home for the next 6 months.

As I embark on this journey of adventure, service, or, perhaps most accurately, discovery, I am terrified. But it is not a fear of the sea of microbes into which I am throwing my unprepared body, or teaching children having no formal training, or even the uncertainty of a completely new place. Indeed, I am so excited by the challenge of being confronted with problems, meeting new people, and offering what I can to help them. I am not afraid of the culture, the men, the food, the weather, or the language; on the contrary, I embrace them. I am not afraaid of leaving behind the comforts of my daily life for a while, even the people will be there when I return. I am not even afraid of failing, because I know that I enter this experience as a learner. I will make the best of it by tackling the tasks before me with my entire soul.

What truly terrifies me is my own naivete. In other words, I know too well that, well, that I don't know. The future is entirely uncertain, and has a lot to do with my own initiative, perseverence, and strength of heart. In thinking back on my trip to Ecuador, where I volunteered for a summer teaching hygiene and nutrition to young kids, I believed I was going to improve health, save lives, empower the weak, and confront poverty. I believed I could change the world in one summer. Granted, I think I made a meaningful difference in many individual lives during those ten weeks. But while I tried to teach, I learned harder lessons about health care, happiness, structural violence, behavior change, human nature, and pride, lessons which, though they were extremely frustrating at the time, have sat with me to make me stronger. The thing is, this time, rather than entering the experience with unabated idealism and impossible standards for myself, I enter it "prepared" in that I expect to confront more of those same hard lessons, except, I am tortured in not knowing yet what they will be.

I can only anxiously antcipate some of these invisible challenges. I will be facing the many diseases that plague the city (for both myself and the patients); whether it is malaria, malnutrition, dengue fever, leprosy, cholera, or giardia, as well as the lack of access to health care to treat these illnesses. I will face a vastly different country with a culture and people that I cannot pretend to understand, and that I can only hope will understand my motivations for being there at all. I am afraid of disillusionment and my own inadequacy. I will be facing the reality of poverty, the horror of disfigurement, the tragedy of abandonment, injustice of inequality, the pain of hatred. I am afraid that confronting these challenges will become an addiction that drives my being. I am afraid that here on this airplane, without borders or definitions, without even an identity or location as I soar over green and blue shapes, without any sense of certainty, is exactly where I should be.

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