Lost in an Urban Slum and some Lessons Learned…

 

The following describes my recent journey through some hilly Lubango slums.

 

With purpose, I turned off of the well-traveled and crowded road, to one less traveled and less worn, with a specific destination in mind for my day’s “journey”.  The ground immediately became uneven and the footing unsure.  The descent was steep, the turf changing often from sandy and dry to wet and slippery and, because I had left the familiar, certainty of direction abandoned me, as well (there were hundreds of shacks (simple houses), but no roads – only rocky, winding paths between the houses).  I had the sun’s morning light and its place in the sky to give me a vague sense of direction, but the many diverging paths provoked uncertainty.  I was comforted because I had many hours of light, I had a general sense of direction, and there were still many people on these paths from which I could seek direction.

 

This is where my lessons began…  The first person I asked for help laughed and thought it funny that I didn’t know the way to my destination and pointed, “Of course, it’s that way.  It’s easy and you need no help.  You will arrive shortly”.  As I left him and looked ahead, the path under my feet divided into two, each heading in different directions, so his “encouragement” was of no help.  My next “help” was a group of young women who, in response to my question, said that I should take it easy and sit with them (“What’s the hurry?”) and relieve my stress before continuing.  This invitation might have been tempting in another season of my life and if not for my desire to complete this journey.  I continued on in my chosen, yet unknown, direction for some time before encountering a group of young men, chatting as they came toward me.  I asked them about the way to my destination and with apparent certainty, they, together, directed me to one particular turn ahead and even described the next turn, giving me confidence in their counsel (they agreed).  I took off with renewed enthusiasm, but after about thirty minutes and several direction changes, I realized I was lost and had no idea how far I had wandered from where I wanted to be.  In my favor was that I knew the first part of the journey was downhill to a river, so any path uphill was abandoned (the elimination of any errant possibilities at this point was helpful).

 

Over an hour, I descended several winding, twisting paths and eventually came to the river.  It was full of barefoot women washing clothes in the knee-deep, rushing water, who had obviously not seen a foreigner at their river for some time and thought it was funny that I asked them for the best place to cross.  I immediately received three answers: one downstream around the bend, one in front of me and another upstream.  I looked at the rocks forming the closer option and thought I’d give it a try.  The rocks were slippery and quite spread out, requiring these old legs to do some pretty extended and calculated hopping.  It was a miserable failure, leaving me quite wet and bruised, but across.   A mental note – return another way!  To quit and return now had a cost, so I was motivated to complete my trek forward.  I jogged away from the women, who were in an uproar, having received some premium entertainment during their monotonous labor.

 

From the river, the incline was severe, and I found myself consistently out of breath and needing to break every few minutes.  The sun was getting high and sweat soaked my shirt.  I encountered a group of young men sharing some whiskey who thought I was working way too hard and yelled at me to “lighten up”.  I was taking the journey way too seriously!  Perhaps at another time/place but, though I was getting tired, I had a pretty defined purpose and I wanted to complete my run by the end of the day (sober).  I asked another passerby about my destination and he simply said I was going the right way.  The next hill crested and I was surprised to see another valley ahead, deeper than the first, with another river below (it looked easy to get there from the top of the hill).  I chose the most direct paths down to the river, slipping a few times and gaining some more scratches and abrasions, but I arrived at some beautiful white water relatively quickly.  This new river appeared similar to the last and my counselors were again many, as were my choices for getting across.  Perhaps out of embarrassment from my last wet fall, I chose to walk along the side of the river and take some time to find my own way across.  This certainly added some delay, but I eventually found a spot where the water narrowed to a point of just a couple of short and dry stone hops and I was across.  I started up, now asking nearly everyone about my destination and again receiving a different answer from each person but, sticking to a pretty direct ascent, I made it to the top and my destination in relatively short time.  I rested and basked in the accomplishment.

 

Now for the return.  I realized several things.  I hadn’t planned for hydration or skin protection and, as I looked back over the hills, I knew I had taken a much longer course than was “necessary”.  In my ignorance/insecurity, I had listened to just about everyone, with little discernment or consideration as to whether they really knew.  I had learned the hard way the wisdom of discernment!  I began watching those ahead of me to try to get some sense of their maturity and knowledge, before asking about mine.  I noticed that I could tell, by what they were carrying, that a couple of them were going to the city (my return destination) and they seemed to direct me through a couple forks well.  Then I noticed an older woman, whose path was to cross mine, and she seemed sure, pleasant, and respectful in our greeting.  In response to my questions, she shared exactly where she was going and I asked he if it was close to my destination.  She said that we could travel together for a time and it would shorten my journey.  Traveling together at least gave her advice some accountability.  Her way seemed pretty sure and we trudged on together for a spell before she pointed me to a turn up ahead that would take me to a sure crossing of the first river and point me in the right direction for the final ascent.  It was a delightful and dry crossing and I began the climb.  I encountered few people, but passed some young kids descending and asked them where they were coming from and they told me and I recognized it as close to my destination, so I asked them for the best way to cross the next river.  They were so pleased to help and backtracked (for them) with me for a good fifteen minutes to put me on a path that crossed a narrow, dry bridge over the river (photo).  I was grateful!

 

Now I had only the final climb, but this was where I got pretty lost last time, I was pretty spent and I really had no idea if I was anywhere close to where I wanted to be, as the vegetation was thick and I had no visibility along the river.  As I began the climb, I encountered several people, but I was becoming more confident as to whom I could trust, so I dismissed many of their directions (the “majority” had steered me wrong up to this point).  Then, ahead of me, I saw an older man (probably my age 😉 who seemed to have clear sense of direction.  I observed his journey for a while and gained confidence that he could direct me better than the others.  I entered a brief conversation with him (somewhat of a test) and he engaged nicely and appeared concerned (I was soaked with sweat and somewhat bloody).  He shared the journey with me for a while (he was going in a similar direction), and when we separated he gave very clear instructions and then, with sensitivity to my predicament (compassion for the old man), he described my destination exactly so that I might more likely believe his word (he knew his instructions were true and he wanted me to follow them, for my sake).  He obviously knew the importance of credibility so, to humbly increase the weight of his words, he gave me a description of where I was going!  He also took the time to give some very specific encouragement (another credible sign that he had experienced something similar to my state of exhaustion and lost-ness).  I followed his directions and crested the hill exactly where I had begun and finished the last couple miles on flat, dry ground, with my destination in sight.

 

This journey was full of instruction for me and, considering that I am nearing the final stages of my own journey, I was struck by how this day resembled my life, and that I often need to be reminded of what I already know…

 

  • This journey, like my life, was far more complex than I had anticipated early on.
  • Humbly seeking counsel has its advantages and risks (counsel can be accurate and helpful and/or errant and unhealthy)
  • Failure is a consistent part of any journey and our mental health requires acceptance of the same
  • We will be laughed at and criticised
  • The path of our journey ahead is unknown, but will include both uphill and downhill stretches
  • Counsel/advice can lead you away from where you want to go
  • Poor decisions can cause us to journey away from our destination/purpose for quite a while before realizing it
  • Count the costs. Assess the risks.  There are positive and negative consequences for every chosen turn on the journey.
  • Encouragement can be empty.
  • Competing desires are a constant reality in our life/journey
  • Is it reasonable/healthy to expect/desire life’s journey to be stress-free?
  • Everyone had a “right” answer. Everyone appears certain.  The “majority” can be wrong.
  • Asking questions helps in discerning another’s wisdom and care
  • Everyone’s counsel is biased by their own journeys, choices, experience
  • Only a few people (out of perhaps 40-50 inquiries) demonstrated real concern for helping me and only the kids actually went out of their way to help (sacrifice is a good indicator of care)
  • No one really knew, except the last person, but all gave their opinion, some with good intention and doing their best, others with no care as to the accuracy of their advice (same with “counselors/friends” in our life).
  • Our many choices in the little, seemingly insignificant turns of the journey truly affect our time, effort and outcome
  • Wise counsel is invaluable
  • Every decision/turn yielded positive and/or negative consequences
  • Discernment helps in discarding errant counsel, and most of the counsel I received was errant!
  • It was helpful when the advisor had been in a similar place of pain.
  • Few advisors actually cared about my predicament
  • An actual map would have been helpful, though I didn’t think so at the outset (because I had received pre-trip counsel that it wouldn’t be necessary)
  • Our Father has given us an incredible map for living via His letters to us, to reveal Himself, reveal ourselves, reveal realities of the journey, identify healthy and unhealthy choices and their consequences…
  • Crossing the river involved greater risk for injury and, therefore, required more time to find the best way to proceed (more risk/cost requires more time/thought/exploration), like I did on the return (experience).
  • A general sense of direction is only helpful to a point, as one can still get quite lost and wounded in the innumerable twists and turns of life
  • Learning never ceases (“A mental note – return another way”)
  • The older man and woman shared their wisdom, from experience
  • The kids gave their energy and had no ulterior motives
  • “Lighten up!” This is a constant refrain in the American culture, but a solid vision/purpose is a good guide as to how seriously to take various parts of the journey (a time for every purpose…)
  • Sometimes just pressing on has value (after the first river crossing).  Both quitting and continuing any endeavor/journey involve cost.
  • Wise planning would have taken into account the always-certain unknowns
  • The credibility of the counselor has tremendous value as to predictable outcome of his/her counsel
  • Experience has no replacement.
  • Paths that initially look promising can turn one away from one’s destination and one must be courageous enough to recognize error and turn around
  • Next time I travel this path will be completely different (experience)

 

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