There are two people at least partially responsible for triggering my decision to move halfway around the world to volunteer: Lissette and Shira. Nearly three years ago I was standing in my co-worker Lissette’s office and she told me about this organization called Kiva. “You can lend money to people in developing countries.” Eh? She proceeded to explain that you could loan as little as $25 to someone you select from the website, and that money helps build their local business, whether it’s planting rice or buying sewing supplies for an embroidery business. Shocked, I replied, “And they pay you back?” “Yep, it takes about a year, but you’ll get periodic emails when a payment is made.” “Brilliant!” I thought as I raced back to my office to place my first $25 loan to a Cambodian mother of four.
Her husband drove a motorbike, so the store she ran helped bring in supplemental income. Since then I’ve also lent to a tailor in Kenya, a Yemeni group who sold sandwiches and drinks to school kids, a woman from Tajikistan who sold shoes at a market and a Jordanian who made bread. I felt connected to these borrowers in a way that was different from your standard charitable donation. I was investing in their future, and it felt good.
In April I had lunch with my friend Shira and her nine-month old daughter, at which time she told me about the three-week trip she had planned to Europe with her little one in tow. Wow, three weeks in Europe with a baby less than a year old by herself? Color me impressed. She had always been a traveler, so when she had her daughter I thought, “Well, that’s probably the end of that for a while”. Clearly I was mistaken, and thoughts about convention started swirling around in my head. Maybe the “shouldn’ts” and the “can’ts” needed a little rethinking.
I’ve never considered myself very traditional, whatever that even means. I lived in Japan for a year teaching English, and have visited places many people wouldn’t consider a vacation. Yet I’ve had the same apartment and the same job for 10+ years, along with a savings account for what I figured would one day materialize into a down payment for a house. I mean, that’s what you do, right?
The idea of quitting my job and traveling had been a fantasy for a long time, but I kept it tucked safely away while the obligations of being an adult continued to guide my way. Then on 7/7/11 my step-dad passed away, which unearthed pain I never could have imagined. Experiences like that tend to shape a person, and I wouldn’t say I came out of it with a “life is short” attitude necessarily, but I’m sure some fragment of that became nestled inside me. And there it sat until Shira unknowingly nudged it loose. Why do I need a mortgage and a dining room table? Or a 401-k and paid vacation? Ok, those are really nice things to have, but did I want them or was I just told I was supposed to want them? Hmmmmmmm… interesting.
Cambodia. Yep, I need to go to Cambodia. When I was travelling in Vietnam 12 years ago, I almost went but didn’t, and I’ve regretted it ever since. Could I really afford to do it? God, how amazing would that be. But wait, who’s so special that they can give up their job to travel? Who did I think I was? That last part took awhile to reconcile. Eventually I decided that I didn’t need to justify my choices to anyone (emphasis on the word EVENTUALLY). Ok, so now what? Just book a ticket and go? I felt like I needed a bigger purpose and some structure.
I had seen a documentary recently called Half The Sky, which I whole-heartedly recommend (you can stream it on Netflix). It’s based on a book, which I’ve heard is also great. “Turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide” is their tagline. Through a series of vignettes profiling women living in unimaginable circumstances in developing countries, it demonstrates that empowerment and opportunity are the keys to a better life. It moved me immensely.
These two different tracks eventually converged: my deep-seeded desire to travel, and this newer, growing urge to help women create better lives for themselves and their families. Which brings us back to Kiva, whose mission is to “connect people, through lending, to alleviate poverty”.
So back in April I was poking around the Kiva website when I saw a fellowship program. I clicked on it and decided to apply. I mean, why not? The next thing I knew I was interviewing. Then I was accepted for an assignment in India. A few days later I gave notice at work and to my landlord. Two weeks after that I bought a plane ticket to Kolkata. And now I’m in San Francisco about to start my week-long training. It’s all happening very quickly, so maybe when I’m on the plane I’ll finally ask myself, “Seriously? What am I doing?!!”