Two Manhattanites ditch their big city life to traverse the globe and to get connected to the things that matter most: love, laughter and their fellow man. Read their incredible and inspiring journey.
Let me start by saying that my husband and I have been traveling full time for six months.
We’re from Manhattan (mostly) and eight months ago we decided to give away all of our material possessions that we took so much pride in to chase a lighter life.
We pressed pause on our high-speed lives and careers to live a much simpler, and to us, a very unfamiliar lifestyle, that we were both excited and nervous about.
We spent four months exploring South America before heading to South Africa for three months. At the end of our time there, we decided to do the Garden Route (highly recommend) for a few weeks.
We were completely wiped out after those few days and in desperate need of a big break and an even bigger cocktail. I don’t know if it’s science, but there’s definitely an “adrenaline hangover,” and we had it, full blast.
We looked on a map for the closest town, which was Plettenberg Bay, then ripped through hotel search sites for a quiet place, devoid of external stimulation.
What we least expected from our time at this adrenaline-hangover-haven, was to have our lives changed, but indeed it’s what we got.
We checked into Nothando Backpackers, freshened up and then bee lined it to the bar where we met “Elvis.”
“Elvis” is the general manager of the hostel, runs the bar and basically does anything to make sure that guests have a fantastic time. We instantly love him. He was so fun, energetic and curious in the most endearing way. Also, his name was obviously not “Elvis.”
We peeled back some layers and learned that our Xhosa GM’s name was actually Mawethu which is way cooler – but I guess folks have too much trouble pronouncing it properly. He gave up and rebranded himself after the king of Rock and Roll.
Mawethu lives on the guest house property because he works twelve to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. He’s damn good at his job and is just a wonderful soul.
After two days of spending all of our time with him, we learned quite a bit of his life story, and that epicenter of it all, was his six-year-old son, Lukhnio.
Lukhnio lives in a township (slum) eight kilometers away with his mother, Mawethu’s girlfriend, and her mother. He only sees Lukhnio once every two weeks because the public transport from the hostel to the Township can take hours just one way and Maweth’s demanding work schedule does not allow it.
We had a car, so we offered to take Mawethu early the following morning to the Township, so he could spend time with his son for a few hours before his 10 a.m. shift. He was beyond grateful.
Selfishly, we were also grateful, as this meant we would meet his son.
This is how we found ourselves headed to one of the many, many townships we’d seen while driving throughout South Africa. And though we’d never been inside of one, we thought that we knew more or less what to expect.
However, when we arrived there, it was clear to us both, that our expectations had not prepared us.
Many people have seen the photos of extreme poverty, the infomercials, the ads, the images that pull on our heartstrings and made us cringe to ourselves.
But, have we ever tried to imagine ourselves there?
Have we ever thought about what it would be like to be there, and witness small children covered in filth, playing in the makeshift streets with sticks and old tires, while malnourished bulls and goats roam around, inches away from stepping on those same children's sweet little toes?
Everything from the tiny ramshackle shacks where ten or more people lived in unlivable close quarters, to the lack of running water, to the lack of education and healthcare, struck us hard and was more heart wrenching than we could have ever imagined.
We were standing right in the middle of this unfamiliar scene, realizing that most of these people will work hard for their entire lives and still never be able to afford something as simple as a refrigerator.
Being there, the feeling was really hard to describe, but mostly the feeling was shame.
We had a million questions, and thankfully Mawethu was willing to tell us everything about anything we wanted to know.
We walked through winding dirt paths as we cautiously interviewed our host to understand more about the lives there. As we walked and talked the one common denominator between everyone we passed by was a beautiful smile and kind greeting.
You could feel the love in this community. You could sense that there was something special here beyond the surface level poverty that we see in photos.
What you see in magazines and what you feel while you’re there couldn’t be more different. Obviously they have great needs and all I could think to myself was, what do these people have to be happy about?
We got candid and shared our feeling with Mawethu.
"Listen if you two needed a place to live, and just showed up here with nothing but the clothes on our backs, you could talk to a few people and within minutes your new ‘neighbors’ would give you a place to stay.
"If there was land available, the next day they would help you build a hut, excuse me, a home from whatever scraps they could find. The community would make sure you had food, and they could help you find work."
People are happy here because we have each other. We are a community – not like in your suburbs where you could live somewhere for 10 years and not even know your neighbors name,” he said.
I thought about this for days and was struck with a realization.
In all of my years of apartment living in big cities and actually sharing walls with neighbors, not once have I had a neighbor who has knocked on my door to welcome me, let alone ask if I needed anything at all.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never really gone out of my way to meet a new neighbor. I just wait for the awkward exchange at the mailboxes.
These people, who seemed to have nothing, who struggle to put food on the table, who struggle to live their lives, somehow have more time to help and care about each other’s needs than we do in the “first” world.
The same people who work difficult and long hours for less than a fraction of what I made when I babysat at age twelve, people who walk an hour or more to and from work in the blistering heat, people who actually need to fetch water from a well, build a fire and cook their food from scratch everyday.
At the end of the day these people would find the time to help you build a home; to help you build a life.
We ended up taking Lukhnio back to the hostel and Andrew and I played with him all day.
Kids really aren't our thing but Lukhnio was sweet and well behaved. He was such a good kid, and when he looked at you it felt like he was really looking at you. He was smart and engaging and just a riot to be around.
When Andrew and I decided to pick up lunch for us and the staff at the Nothando, Lukhnio came with us. We went into a shopping center while we waited for our pizzas to be ready. We played hide-and-go-seek with him, running up and down isles, causing a ruckus. Probably not the best behavior to be teaching a child, but that's to be expected with me and Andrew.
In the midst of our silliness we stumbled upon the toy section where Lukhnio stopped, stared at all the goodies and then walked away. I turned him around by his shoulders, steered him back towards the toys and told him to pick out what he wanted.
There were probably fifty things for him to choose from. He thought about it for awhile before finally deciding on a small box of crayons and inflatable balloons.
We were surprised by his selection as there were big toy cars, water guns, soccer balls, plastic games filled with candy, action figures and all kinds of kiddie toys that seemed way cooler to us. He picked the two simplest toys, in our opinions.
Wanting to up the ante, Andrew and I picked out a few more toys, to surprise him. We filled up all three of our arms with as much as we could hold and headed for the register.
At first, he was in shock and when it sunk in that all of the toys were for him, he quickly became overwhelmed with excitement. He didn't know what to do with it all. It was fun to watch him bounce back and forth between playing with his new little novelties.
The next morning would be our last moments with Lukhnio. As I watched Andrew and Mawethu drive away to take him to school, it was oddly sad to say goodbye to a little boy I hardly knew, but absolutely loved.
I will never forget him.
I can’t express the magnitude of overwhelming, raw love and admiration I felt that first day, both at the township and with Lukhino and his father, Mawethu.
This is a real, supportive community – I don’t think I ever really felt the meaning of the word “community” until experiencing the Township. I will continue to feel that love, that community, for the rest of my life.
I went into this expecting to see poverty and become more aware of all the things that I have and aware of all the things that these people didn’t have.
Instead, I left there learning that sometimes, the most beautiful attraction isn’t one you can see from the outside. You can only understand it through love and being there and opening yourself to it.
I learned more about why we began this journey and what I hoped to add to my life from learning what they valued in theirs; filling their days with beauty and happiness.