Down to earth

So I’m not really sure why, but for some reason traveling always puts me in the mood for writing – airplanes, cars, trains. I’m on an airplane right now, about to take off. Maybe its the feeling of movement underfoot, or the wide open spaces that fill a lighted window.

Here is a fun fact about me: I love being up high. I love hiking, running, walking and climbing to the top of things – whether it be a rocky mountainside, a hill in the park, or the bell tower of a Roman Cathedral. I like the feeling of openness at the tippy-top, and I’ve been thinking, maybe it has to do with my craving for perspective: to be able to see as much as I can, all in one glance. The vastness is never any less stirring, no matter how long you look.

Maybe this is why I liked Canada so much (where my family just spent the last week of our vacation). There’s just so much space, so much water, and yes, so many mountains to climb. Vancouver feels very much the “city of the future” with its pristine, geometric high rises poking out of mountain shadows and its young, healthy, ethnically diverse population. My heart might have been sold in the airport, where I discovered the water saving fixtures on the toilets, and the lime green prius taxis. Or maybe it was the cement trucks painted in a pattern of (I swear to god…) asparagus! Moments ago the voice out of the little screen in front of me requested that passengers consider using their own ear phones rather than purchase new ones “to help the environment.” It’s little things like that that give me hope.

But anyway, all these mountains have been making me think of Senegal, for the perhaps slightly unfortunate fact, for a mountain-lover such as myself, that Senegal is absolutely, completely flat – or at least 99.9 percent so. And being a very visual person (images can sometimes express my feelings better than words) this picture of being down in there, at ground level, is perhaps one of the greater challenges I am beginning to anticipate, as the day of departure draws nearer.

The very title of our group – GLOBAL CITIZENS – implies that we set our sights high. We are after all, idealists. Climbing to the top of things, I feel like I’ve been one all my life. But after our first conversation with citizen journalist Tori Hogan last week during our conference call, we were reminded of the importance of keeping our gazes back down here, on earth. “You will probably gain more and learn more than you will be able to give in seven months,” Tori told us. And of course that makes perfect sense. How could we, a group of young Americans walk into an unknown family, community and culture and presume that we have the ability or the right to change lives? We must listen and learn first, Tori advised. And down here on earth, even the learning part takes time.

Earlier today, during my first interview for our filming assignment (to make a short film of our home community), my subject answered one of my oh so clever questions with an even cleverer one.
“How would you define a global citizen?” I asked. “Well, I’m not sure what a global citizen is,” Sandy began. (And this is basically what she said) Because, to be a global citizen would mean that you would have to be aware of different people in different places all over the world. And you can’t acquire true awareness of those people until you’ve visited them all and immersed yourself in all those different ways of life – which makes it very hard to be a true global citizen because very few people can travel the whole world.

And then Sandy made the really good point that maybe people can be “global citizens” within their own communities. Maybe a global citizen is merely someone whose values extend beyond his or her own doorstep. It’s important to recognize that the scale of extension varies from person to person, but the key is the first step – outside yourself. If everyone could be a global citizen within their own community, Sandy said, I think the world would be a better place.

Beside me my neighbor has pulled the shade down, and so just like that, Canada is out of sight. I wanted to watch the mountains fade gradually into the distance, and I’m tempted to reach over and yank it back up but no, of course I wouldn’t do that.

That exhilarating state of clarity in which I feel at the top of the world will probably not come to me for many months, if at all. We will be immersed in our one tiny corner of the great unknown, our villages, before we even know how to swim. But again, its all a matter of perspective. Right now that one small dot on the map seems all too little of a place to spend seven months, but maybe the true vastness of the world can be discovered not when you get to see it all, but when you discover the depths of just one piece, one village, one family, one other person. And I’ll miss the soft green slopes and valleys of New England (and Canada!) but I’m sure, figuratively, I’ll always find some mountains to climb.