Monday, February 18, 2013

Slum Survivor Redux

This weekend, the 2013 Compassion DTS went camping. This trip was not like the other DTS' camping trig the previous weekend, which was filled with ham-flavored crisps and canoes and swimming and sausages. This wasn't your all-American camping trip with a tent and a little air mattress, bacon and hot chocolate.

No, this was Slum Survivor. Take a normal camping trip. Now take away the tents. And the food. And the possibility of showers, the presence of deoderant, the ability to chill around a campfire in nice little fold-up chairs, and electronics, changes of clothing, and any non-prescription medicine.

Now it's starting to look like Slum Survivor. Essentially, SS is a simulated slum environment designed to give as accurate a picture of slum life in as short a time as possible.  In this post, I'm going to start by describing everything that happened, and then go on to discuss how it impacted me. Otherwise, my perspective may not make much sense.

Happy? Alright, let's boogie.

We boarded the buses at 8:30 am Saturday morning with nothing but the clothes on our backs and a few toiletries - toothbrush, toothpaste, and soap. After a two-hour bus ride (listening to everything from Ellie Goulding to Coldplay and Lecrae) we arrived at the Reserve. I can't remember the name of this particular one, but trust me when I say it was in the bush. Really in the bush. After driving for fifteen minutes on a dusty red road, we arrived at the group camping area. Biting flies swarmed everywhere - we ended up "inventing" a dance that made us look slightly less dorky while serving to drive the pests away.

As it turned out, there were a few other families camping in the group site which we had reserved. The leaders could technically have turned them out, but as they had many small children, they decided the family's presence could only serve to increase the reality of our situation. On arrival, we were instructed to go swim in the river for forty-five minutes.

"Big deal," you might be saying. "It's a river. Get over it."

Calling it a river would be polite. Calling it a pool of standing, stinking, stagnant water would be more accurate. What little current there was was almost undetectable aside from the general migration of algae from one end to the other. Lest I sound like I'm complaining, it was actually quite nice, once you got over the slime. The swim essentially served two purposes: one was to make us dirty, the other was to tire us out. More on that later.

After swimming, we hiked back up to the site, where we were instructed to build houses out of the piles of garbage that had been brought along. These houses had to be wind-proof and water-proof, and at the end of 1.75 hours, the facilitators would come around to test them "by fire", as it were. Our outreach teams would serve as the basis of our slum families for the duration of the time, so we set to work. The slum house was surprisingly hard to build - by the time we started, our blood sugar was starting to drop. After all, when you go swimming for forty-five minutes, you tend to deplete energy stores. As we dragged wood pallets and giant cardboard boxes around in the heat, that fatigue began to worsen.

I get hypoglycemic quickly, so it could be that I was affected by the feeling of thinking through molasses sooner than the others. It really doesn't matter much.

During the time we were building, I started realizing how appreciative I was of my background in Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and Surviving Camping Trips With My Family. Because our slum was to be built on a slope, we needed to find a way to brace the structure so that the walls would stay up when shaken violently.

Suffice it to say, more effort was spent on the walls of our hut than the roof. We figured that since it wasn't going to be raining that night, we'd do the bare minimum to keep from getting drenched when the facilitators fired water guns at us.

We passed that test, and then it was time for the challenges. Each challenge was designed to explore different realities of slum life: the first was a piggy-back obstacle course race in which the families competed against each other for rock melon (US' cantalope). Every family paired up in twos, and each pair had to complete the course twice, to imitate the act of pulling or pedaling rickshaws. At the time, we did not know what the prize would be, only that it was food. However, we were extremely motivated at this point: physical labor in the heat of the day with no food and little water had already started to seriously handicap us.

As I typed that last sentence, I felt seriously wimpy. It is so difficult to describe in words the challenges faced in SS. I guess I'll have to hope you'll get in the spirit as I continue to describe my weekend.

When the India team won that challenge, they were kind enough to share the melon so that everyone got a few bites. It was incredible how much of a difference two bites of fruit made! Everyone started smiling a little more, and felt more energetic. This was definitely a good thing as the next challenge was to: 1. Improvise a soccer ball, and 2. play a soccer tournament with the winner receiving another food prize. Team Cambodia all the way! We won the soccer challenge, and were given what was probably the most disgusting-tasting Gatorade I've ever had. Trust me on this one, guys, warmed Protein Gatorade is a thing only to be enjoyed in extremity, but it tasted amazing at the time.

Going back to the slum area, another challenge faced us. Crime and theft is a huge problem in slums around the world, so each family designated a thief to steal something from another family's slum house. Yours truly stole for Cambodia, and I took a pen that someone had foolishly left laying about inside the shack. Each family had to search for where the thief had hidden the items (a pen, a toothbrush, some toothpaste) and when the items were found, we had more free time while the facilitators cooked our dinner. Some people went swimming, but I went to the waterfall to wash my feet.

At dinner time, we ate rice and dahl in our families, then had intercession for the slums of the world. That was pretty incredible, but more on that later.

By the time we finished, the sky was dark and the stars were out. It was so beautiful to be so far out of the city that we could see the Milky Way. At one point, I was getting really annoyed about a bright light coming from the side, until I realized that it was the moon. In all honesty, star gazing was probably my favorite part of the weekend. It was good to be reminded of the unchanging beauty of creation even in the face of the physical challenges. Also, singing Disney classics and jazz standards by the light of the stars is just lovely where ever you go. It was a good night to be alive.

As we settled in to sleep that night, the babies next door started yelling. Imagine the angriest scream you've ever heard a child create. Now extend that noise for two hours. Just as we started to fall asleep, someone came into our slum and completely collapsed the roof on us. It took us a while to settle in again, but our screaming had awoken the babies again. And then the kookaburas started. And then it got cold. And then I slid out of the slum because I was on the slope. And then the ants started biting.

The next morning, we had quiet time, then more rice and dahl, and then we had an illiteracy challenge. For this one, we had to guess which pills were the "poisonous" or "safe" ones, with ten seconds and a basic table containing the new alphabet. The station with red and blue pills was unexpectedly hilarious.

After deconstructing our slums, we waited around for the buses to come back and get us. The leaders had told us we wouldn't eat until 5:30 that night (5 hours away). I was totally reconciled to that reality - I really didn't care that much and just looked forward to a shower by that point. I was thus extremely surprised and delighted when we made a detour for an good old, All-Australian barbie on the way back. I swear, friends, food never tasted as good as the burnt sausages and caramelized onions did.

So. Now you know the basics of what actually happened. Now I'm going to talk about my thoughts. I'm assuming that's why you've toughed the boring explanation out, after all.

In all honesty, this weekend was not the hardest thing I've ever experienced. Yes, it was tricky and uncomfortable and I had a migraine-strength headache the entire time. I've physically exerted myself to a greater extent on the same amount of food before. Yes, I was dirty. It was not as dirty as the weekend I was certified for Leave No Trace. Yes, we were camping without protection from the elements. It wasn't as uncomfortable as the time I woke up in a pool of water in the middle of a gullywasher in the Olympic Rain Forest.

But understand that this experience was limited and surreal. I only had to keep it together until Sunday evening. The roughly 1 billion people who live in slums are born into or forced into this reality indefinitely. The true slum dwellers aren't rewarded with rock melon and Gatorade for competing in games. True slum dwellers must acquire the food for themselves, and don't have handy supplies of clean drinking water just a few steps from their doors. They don't necessarily have toilets with seats. They don't necessarily have fancy REI sleeping bags and Northface jackets.

The thing about Slum Survivor is that it was patently unrealistic, and yet I found it challenging. You would not think that a period of two days in which you eat only two meals would incapacitate you as much as it does until you live through it yourself.

And yet, even if you ever have this opportunity, you'll understand when I say that it's just a waiting game. Even if you do it for a week, for a month, there's still that knowledge in the back of your head. "I have a home to go back to. My cell phone and two solid meals a day are waiting for me. There's a shower and shampoo and a mattress all at my disposal when I get back."

There's the knowledge of your privilege to keep you going. I'm ashamed to admit, but I gave in to fantasizing about "the first thing" I was going to eat when I got back - and I was only out there for two days!

No, Slum Survivor was not physically difficult to an extreme. But it was spiritually difficult. Why? Because by chance of birth, I am an American citizen. By owning two pairs of shoes, I am automatically among the "rich" of the world. Even when my family was experiencing financial difficulty as a result of the 2008 bubble, it was never a question of us not eating that day. True, we might contemplate many nights of ramen and no pizza, but that's nothing. There was never a suggestion of becoming homeless.

And as I lay there in the dark, listening to the child screaming and the kookaburas laughing, I realized how handicapped we are. We get caught in this mindset that one person cannot help. One billion people live in slums - what possible good could one person do? It's too scary, it's not my problem, those lazy lay-abouts ought to get jobs. Why should I exert myself to help people who just aren't working hard enough? The homeless steal from law-abiding, economy-boosting citizens. They shouldn't be rewarded for that, right?

"He has told you, O man, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6:8.

If you want more, read Isaiah 58. Especially Isaiah 58:7-8.

Throughout the Old Testament, God describes himself as "the gracious and compassionate God" (Exoduss 34:6) who has a heart for the prodigal second sons, the homeless, the dispossessed. I once heard it said that if God says something once, He means it. If He says it twice, it's very important, but if He says it more than thrice, than Christians had better sit up and pay strict attention because God means business.

Preparing for this trip, I spent a lot of time reading about God's compassion and mercy. Even so, I was totally unprepared for the itsy-bitsy peek at what slum life is like. As I result of staring into that abyss, I am so thankful for the electricity in the room as I type, the food slowly digesting in my stomach, and clean hair. Yes, it's petty. Yes, it's simple. But if I had not experienced this weekend, I would be stuck in complacency, taking these things for granted.

And for that disruption to my nice, neat, first-world existence, I am truly grateful.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Your groundwork was not "boring" but absolutely necessary to the rest of the story. Thank you, Sarabeth!