Can you guess what springs to mind as one of my best days these past 3 months? The day I picked up garbage and cleaned toilets.
Let me repeat that: The day I picked up garbage and cleaned toilets.
On 26 January 2015, I was going on an adventure. To a homeless shelter. The previous week or so I had been feeling aimless and off-course. I realized it was because i wasn’t helping people. I had known for months that something I really wanted to do in my life was help people. But writing a blog that (almost)nobody reads can hardly be called helping people. Yes, over time I will get more readers and hopefully help a lot of people, but i wasn’t helping anyone at that time.
After googling for homeless shelters and writing down their addresses, I procrastinated for a few days. I finally pulled myself together and committed to going there on Monday the 26th.
That Monday, i got up as usual, went for a walk, showered – so just my normal routine. I walked out to the bus stop and waited for the bus. When it was not there by 10 minutes after it should have been, i checked the schedule on my phone and saw that the bus i was hoping to take only ran in the school holidays. I walked back.
I caught the next bus. I always used cash, but now the bus driver told me that they had switched to a ticket-only policy. He very kindly still allowed me on. The bus was empty and during the route only one person got on. When we were in the city center. I turned on the navigation of my phone and found myself on the map. I got off at the end of the route at the bus depot and started walking.
I was barefoot as usual – I don’t like shoes at all – so I made sure that I was looking where i was going so that i don’t step in the litter that became more common. When i got to the crossroads where I thought the shelter was I found only empty blocks with no buildings. Then I spotted a building and went there.
Inside the iron door I came to a compound. The security guard smoking inside the wooden hut greeted me. I asked to speak to the manager. The courtyard I was in was also strewn with litter, and there was a whole row of wooden huts. A woman approached and introduced herself as Marushka. She served on the committee. When I explained to her what I was doing there she was caught totally off guard.
She first went to change into darker clothes ( she was about to go out) and then we started sweeping up. After we had swept the hall, we mopped it. Then we went outside, swept there and picked up the litter. Then we moved on to the toilets. We mopped the floor, cleaning up the vomit of someone during the night. Then we washed out the toilet basins, including scrubbing them with cleaning fluids. I was lucky then that my nose was blocked by sinus, or it would have smelled a lot worse.
Finally, we picked up some of the litter that had accumulated just outside the hall where 400 people had slept the previous night. The dustbins had been moved and the homeless people there had not walked the extra steps to get to them. Have you ever smelled decaying organic matter? It’s a distinctive smell, and very unpleasant, but further than that I don’t know how to to describe it.
I stopped work when my arms were quivering with exhaustion. Marushka didn’t have anything else for me to do, so I waited there for the next bus. She then suggested that I don’t come back there, because as much as they appreciated my help, she feared for my safety there. She offered to bring me into contact with other organizations that were more set up and prepared for volunteers.
We walked to the clinic to speak with one of the people who coordinates these organizations. We didn’t choose a good time to go, as everybody was on their lunch break. We couldn’t find the person we were looking for. Then we went to another organization. This was Christian based, and I had seen it on google when I was looking for places to volunteer. I had not chosen it because I would prefer a secular environment, but if I could contribute the most there, so be it.
Marushka introduced me to one of the people in charge there. She gave me a form to fill in and then we had to make haste or I would miss my bus. We walked towards the bus stop and arrived there on time. The bus didn’t come. I looked at the schedule on my phone and saw that I had misread the time. The previous bus had passed more than 30 minutes ago, and it was almost half an hour until the next one.
The bus stop was just across from the public library, so we went there to wait for the next bus. Once again I was struck by how helpful and caring people are, especially if you try and help. This library was a lot bigger than the one I usually went to in Alkantrand. Three floors, and with a whole shelf just for personal development books! I found myself a good book and started reading.
We went out again in time to catch the bus. It was late. Very late. It did not come at all, but we stood there waiting for the next one. It was also a bit late, but it did come. I thanked her and climbed on the bus.
This day was not over. They didn’t take cash, and this bus driver was not as friendly(or likely to bend the rules) so I wasn’t allowed on. I climbed out again and set off for the library. I would have to call my mother to come and pick me up. Marushka was gone and I was glad; I didn’t want to put her out of her way any longer. Now I realized a new problem: My phone was almost dead.
I called my mother: No answer. Anxiously, I called my father. I asked him to please call contact my mother and tell her to come and pick me up. Shortly after he calls me back and informs me that she is driving my youngest brother to piano lessons, so she will not be able to come and pick me up. My father would leave work early to come and pick me up. I was surprised at his reaction. Not that he would pick me up, I was sure he would, but that he would not be angry or grumpy about it. For that I was very grateful. I knew that I was disrupting his concentration and preventing him from getting everything done that day.
He works in Johannesburg and takes the Gautrain there and back every day. I would have to wait for a couple of hours. The first part I spent in the library, continuing my book. When it closed a short while after, I went outside and waited on the sidewalk. An obviously homeless person approached me and started a conversation. He thanked me for greeting him back and not just ignoring him as many people do.
He was asking for money, but not the way that beggars usually do. He asked for money to get a taxi. He told me that he was a heroin addict and needed money to get to rehab. He had been acceped but if he could not get there by this evening he would lose his place. He said that he was not cold turkey and that he would not spend the money on a fix. He seemed sincere. He had said very early on that I should go with him to the taxi to make sure that he got on it. I trusted him, I wanted to help him, so I did. I gave him a note that would cover the taxi fare. He then asked if I could buy him soap or give him money to buy soap. I told him that I would not buy that for him.
I do not believe in God, but I told him god bless you. Just because I don’t believe doesn’t mean that it won’t help him feel better. He offered to pay me back at some point, but I told him to pass it on to someone else in need. I have enough.
Later, as I was watching the sunset, I realized that I felt at peace. Until then, or at least for that last few months/years, I had not felt as if I had lived. I had felt that I would not be ready to die, that I still needed adventures to experience, things to do, relationships to be in. Many things to learn. To still find happiness. At that moment, I felt that dying then would not make me unhappy. I would be content with the buckets of happyness that I had had in my life, all the things that I had learned, the things that I had done. I did not want to die, but I did not fear it anymore. I realized that every day after that was a gift. A great gift to be thankful for.
That feeling of being at peace has gone away, and returned at times. Not regretting life is not a once-off thing. You constantly need to adjust course and stop doing things that you will regret. What you regret changes with time, you change, and you have to make sure that you keep up with your own change and not chase dreams that you no longer want. But don’t stop chasing them just because you think you can’t have them.
I waited, and waited. After a while being mindful, with your own thoughts gets boring. You also get tired of standing and sitting. Finally, with my phone dead, my father picked me up. Driving back we realized that my dance class is soon. It was nearby, but I had not eaten since breakfast.
We stopped at a Spar. I looked for food that did not contain meat or milk. I did not find something that I thought would fill me, and I was really hungry. I choose a bacon sandwich and a bowl of pasta. Both were delicious, filling, and well worth the negatives of (probalby) more ache and generally less vitality in the next few days. I was tired after a long day, but also glad that I had a schedule of dancing that allowed me to do more than I would on my own.
The dancing was a lot of fun as usual. I was surprized by how much energy I could still call on and danced until my shirt was wet from sweat. At home I brushed my teeth and fell into bed. I fell asleep very quickly.
This was a day that felt full of activity. Some days I feel as if I am waiting for time to pass, but that day I felt like I was living. I hope you enjoyed the story.
To happiness, and beyond!