Saturday, August 16, 2014

What Happened?

In case you haven't noticed, this trip wasn't like the others as far as this blog went. Mostly you'd notice because I haven't said much about anything that was happening or what I was actually doing.

I ran into a couple problems early on when it came to recording a public history of what I was up to: telling the story affects the participants. It's tougher to write about something when you see and are working with your subjects.

I've left a few things out of what I've posted here. For example, the day before my story of putting up food tents, one of our biggest projects were destroyed by organized crime leaders, who also reportedly sent out assassins looking for my boss. Amazing story, but posting it had some really obvious hurdles-- primarily the safety of my colleagues and superiors if I went into any more detail than I have in this paragraph already, as the people involved have political affiliations. And anyway, none if it (thankfully) happened to me. I was never in any real danger.

Unlike the time when I was accosted a few blocks from my house by what at first appeared to be a one-armed homeless man and who turned out to be a two-armed (former?) prison gang member with the infamous numbers gang . Thankfully I didn't know enough to be scared by a 27 tattooed on a guy's wrist until I told people about it later, and I was in a well-lit, populated area when it happened. So nothing came of it, despite a thinly veiled threat at the end of the encounter. I just had to keep track of my own personal safety. I didn't have a car to hijack or anything.

Unlike my friend and colleague who drove down to Cape Point with her visiting boyfriend and almost lost their rental car. They drove down the road slowly on the way to the national park, on a slight downhill incline when they spotted a baboon on the side of the road. They slowed down to look and take pictures of the baboon. The baboon noticed them, ambled over to the car, opened the unlocked back door, and hopped in. It took a perch on the center console, and started baring its teeth at the human occupants. In case you didn't know, baboons have a strong enough grip to crush the bones in your arms if they have a notion and opportunity to do so. So my friend and her boyfriend, after being unable to shoo the thing out of the car, both opened their doors and dived out themselves. Luckily the baboon just grabbed their lunch and jumped out a second later, because the unoccupied car started rolling downhill. They had to chase it down, jump in, and lock all the doors.

And as for doors... well, actually I already told that story.

The day to day work honestly was a bit slow for me. I've been explaining it to people this way. I came to South Africa expecting to find a community in need, get to know them, their values, and the obstacles they faced day to day, and then assist them in whatever way I could using what skills and training I could muster. And I feel like I did exactly that. Only the community in need turned out to be American and European college students serving alongside me as interns.

Without going into too many details, because a few things had gone awry, the office was something of a logistical mess when I came in. Nobody knew who was responsible for what, tasks were being duplicated constantly, and nobody could access basic resources like templates for training or marketing material. So I fixed up a couple IT projects in the office to help alleviate those issues. Also while I was at it, I set up two extra broken computers, extended the office WiFi network's range with an extra router, got the dysfunctional printer working, and generally taught and reassured people with IT woes.

I'd like to think they all went on to help the kinds of people I was picturing helping when I fly down. I think the odds are probably decent they did. But it's going to be a long time before we really know, since most of the projects are currently under construction.

In my spare time, I got to meet some remarkable people, especially near the end of my trip. One of them sent me a Facebook message after we'd parted ways:

"Great to spend time with you Joel; just sorry that your experience wasn't as great as it could have been," he said.

That surprised me a bit. I hoped I hadn't come off as complaining about not having a good time. 

"Thank you!" I sent back. "I hope you take any apparent disappointment as me being a perfectionist about my approach rather than any shortcomings in what I found." 

His reply was one of the most flattering comments I've gotten in a while: "I took it as being less of an experience than someone of your caliber would be stimulated or challenged by.....: )"

Regardless of whatever anyone takes my caliber to be, I'm looking forward to hopefully a more challenging experience next time-- not because South Africa and Heart Capital don't face challenges, but because next time I'll know how to better find them myself directly. When I do, I hope I'll have better stories that I'll be able to share on the spot.