Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Kenya - Day 4 and Coming Home

Today marked the final day of shooting on this production for myself, and I honestly didn't have a chance to catch my breath and get nostalgic on it all. We had alot of footage to capture in a short amount of time, so it came down to the wire for the production team. The day started with early b-roll of the kids going to school and the like, but this time two of the girls came up to me to chat. They wanted to know if I was leaving tomorrow, and asked of I could stay a little longer. They were a little upset that I was so busy shooting this documentary that we didn't get that much time to spend with each other. I told them I had one more night, then I was off…and so I had the day to prepare for a goodbye.

As run-and-gun as the day started, I did have time to talk to Sam a little more and just get to know him better. The kid is smart…very smart. He knows a lot about politics, the world in general, and how people operate and work. More importantly, he doesn't flaunt it. He's incredibly humble, and it shows in the genuine smile he seems to have on a consistent basis. The kid is truly an inspiration, and I know I'll remember him long after this project is over.

We went to Huruma today, which is the sister orphanage to Tumaini. Huruma is also where the mentally handicapped kids stay…and to go there I had to prepare myself emotionally. Here in the States, these kind of kids are surrounded with a huge support system and flooded with love and care, and a good amount of them have the capability of living a relatively normal life.

Here in Huruma, it's a bit different. They have each other and the orphanage, and that's basically it. You want to believe, with all your heart, that they'll be okay, that these people have a chance in the world outside of these gates.

And, when you first enter the place, you can't help but believe that. As Rori put it at one point, the place is filled with love. The manager is a very inspirational and faithful person. She puts God in front and lets her faith guide her life, and that love is paid forward to the people in this place. A young man, Comongo (I misspelled that) is a fine example of this. From the moment you meet him, he treats you like family. He'll grab your hand and dance with you. He'll sing and clap his hands. His smile is infectious, and love pours from his heart unconditionally. I came in anticipating sadness, and left Huruma with hope.

The rest of the was much like the morning hours. We shot interview after interview. At one point we hid in the forest with long lens cameras and shot footage of the school in order to avoid the chaos that ensues when children see a camera. I felt like a sniper at one point. I would set the camera to record, then play soccer with them, then come back and change the angle, then play soccer again. It was fun and stressful, and I loved every minute of it.

Saying goodbye was tough…especially that following morning. You wanted to believe that you'll be back. Kids would ask you, and the only answer I found appropriate was "I'll try." And believe me, I will try to come back.

Shooting this documentary really put the life I lead and the life I want to lead into a grander perspective. I left this place with an extraordinary amount of inspirational stories. There's one of Sam, who had 100 shillings to his name. He was in the market with everyone, and he saw one of the kids that he knew. They had been on the streets together, and the kid hadn't eaten in days. Sam gave him the money…everything he had, just to make sure his friend had food. Sure, 100 shillings is the equivalent of $1.25, but it'll feed him for a couple days, and Sam gave it without a second thought.

Now before you go on chastising the jerk with the Corvette, understand that this is the reality of the culture they live in. It is harsh and unforgiving. Kids on the street 'huff' just so they don't feel the hunger pains anymore. Slums stretch for miles and miles, with people living on trash heaps while others drive land rovers and sip imported water. Students study for 12 hours a day just for the chance and possibility that they might get into a university. Their chances are slim, but they do it anyways.

Then there's our culture. Kids throw tantrums when they don't get a candy bar. High school students drop out of school because they think a diploma doesn't mean anything. College students drop out because they drink and party too much, or that holding a part time job and taking 15 credits is too tough for them. It's not enough to have clothes on your back and food in your belly, and having a family is more of an expectation rather than a luxury. Girls and guys judge each other by looks and wealth rather than the love in each other hearts.

Yet it isn't a terrible world to live in…it can't be. You can't look at it that way. I had a long internal dialogue with myself on that 48 hours worth of traveling back to the States, and I know how easy it can be to feel guilty and angry at Americans. I have little in comparison to others, yet I feel undeserving of the blessings that God gave me. I remember reading the tweets that came in on my phone as I landed home, and all of them were superficial worries. None were thankful about being alive.

That's the key I think…recognizing what life is, or rather trying to figure out what it is. As Americans, most of us don't have to worry about the struggles of living. We all have the capability and the resources to do anything we want…and I mean anything. Most of us aren't willing to fight for it though. We aren't willing to do what is necessary to make our dreams come true. And what does that even mean? To dream?

Now I find myself sitting in a room…packing my stuff again and getting ready to move, and I'm feeling out of place. I was so incredibly blessed to be a part of this project, and to meet and fall in love with these people half a world away. They were so eager to learn from me, but it was I who learned more from them. I don't know what that lesson is, or if there is a lesson at all. I am feeling something though…is it peace? Is this happiness, finally recognizing that I'll be ok? I know I have a great family. I have so many friends that I love with all my heart, and I truly mean that. Yes you, you sitting there reading my blog. I love you simply because I know you. Even if we haven't met…I love you.

It's time again to move on. I've gotten use to this feeling. At the beginning of this journey to accomplishing my hopes and dreams, I had only one fear: that I would lose steam and give up. That, after time, the world would beat me down and force me to settle for second best. I don't think I can give up…no, I know I never will. There is too much love in this world, there is too much hope to give up and become bitter and jaded. There is no reason to feel that you are alone, or that this world is a terrible place. You are alive. You are living. You are loved. That's my lesson I bring back from Tumaini, and as long as you remember that happiness will always come your way.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Kenya - Day 3

When I was a kid and I thought of Africa, I immediately thought of that Indiana Jones, over the top, British style safaris. You are all in jeeps with Lemon Squeezer caps and chasing after lions and giraffes, not to hunt them of course, but to just be in their element. It's always been on my bucket list since: to do a proper, authentic African safari.

On day 3 of my Tumaini adventure, I got the chance to cross that item off my list. LIke the night before, I didn't get a wink of sleep. I woke up thinking that Matt was Captain Blood and utterly hating his existence (no offense of course). But, when you have a job to do in this field, you sacrifice when you need it to get the necessary shots. It started like every other day: another beautiful morning in Tumaini with amazing shots of the kids going to school and the grounds.

Today, however, was not the same. After the kids left Matt, my Dad, and myself geared up for Abadare. We felt like soldiers going to war, with our cameras as our weapons and each other as our fellow squadmates. The morning consisted of cleaning our barrels (cleaning the glass), reloading magazines (capturing data and clearing memory cards), and gearing up (fresh batteries and tripods). Naturally, I was stoked.

The car rolls up and I knew immediately this wasn't my Indiana Jones adventure: it was so much better. Most of the Think Kindness team took a standard van, but the production team had a Landrover at our disposal. This car had seating for 8 people, which we used as production gear space. The top of the car had 3 hatches that came off entirely, allowing us to hang out of the car like gunners on a humvee.

We set up the car pretty efficiently. In the front sat Nicole, who was our lookout for the excursion. My dad and Matt were in the second two seats, loaded with a mounted tripod on top of the van. Liz sat in the next row, with all our glass in the seat next to her. And in the back was Digesti and myself, with my 40d on the middle seat and extra glass in the seats next to me.

The gates to Abadare look like the gates to Jurassic park. You drive about a kilometer into thick brush until you see this large electric fence guarding the park. A lone guard shack sits at the entrance to the park. We pick up our maps to see how huge this park really is. To get from one end to the other the short way is about 50 miles, so I didn't feel bad that they fenced the place in.

The day started out slow because I was severely sleep deprived, but the day started off with a serious bang. About a kilometer in the park we hear a rustle behind us. A very loud, huge rustle. Like a freight train comes a young elephant barreling across the road and through the brush behind us. It not only scared the living crap out of our van, but it woke all of us up and from then on out we were in complete film mode.

I was astounded by the amount of animals we actually saw. You see them in zoos or small fields, but never out in the wild and in their element. We saw huge elephants fighting with tusks, water buffalo and wildebeasts near the watering hole, monkeys swinging from trees, warthogs in the brush, and…..well, you get the picture. Best part was we were filming the entire thing with glass that can pick up your nosehair from 300 yards away, so some of the footage is pure gold. Oh yeah, and I got a baboon family crossing the road and 'mating' in the wild. Yes, I'm good…

It wasn't all work though, we had fun throughout the day. I couldn't help but singing Lion King throughout the trip at the expense of everyone else's sanity. At one point I was singing 'Hakuna Matata' (which strangely actually translates to No Worries in Swaihili) and a warthog popped out of the brush. We would talk to the elephants and we booed the antelope at the water hole because they didn't get eaten by lions. I know, I know…it's morbid. But that kind of footage is quite literally gold, and it's all part of the Circle of Life (see what I did there?).

I left Abadare with enough pictures and footage to knock my portfolio out of the park and with a sense of pride in my work. It doesn't really get better than this: shooting film on a safari in Africa.

We got home and I collapsed from exhaustion…literally. I mean I love Matt to death, but the guy was working me to the brink. They gave me the night off to rest.

So far this Africa trip has been a mixed bushel of emotions. There's a natural love that comes from this place. The people, especially the kids, don't care about your background or your job or wealth. They don't care how you look or how charismatic you are. They love you simply because you are breathing. That's all. It's only taken 2 days to develop relationships with these kids that I can have for the rest of my life.

Part of me is inconsolably sad thinking about what these kids have in store for their future. Many don't have families to go back to. Some struggle just to get through school, not because they aren't intelligent but solely because they can't afford a $5 uniform to go. And even if they graduate high school with perfect marks, they'll struggle to find a scholarship to go to university because of where they live.

It's really easy for me to think "How horrible….what can I do to help?", but unfortunately there isn't that much I can do for them. I can give them money, but that doesn't guarantee anything. Most are just content with me being their friend. I feel terrible about it too because the love they give me doesn't feel deserved. I didn't do anything. I'm working on a documentary for them, yes, but I don't know them. I've barely been able to spend time with them and get to know most of their stories, yet they love me like we've been friends for years. Heck, some of them are better friends than some of the ones I have back home (not you reader).

Saying goodbye is going to be tough because I'm excited to get home and proceed with my life and they are very sad to see me go. I have a life to live when I get back…a life to start really. Many things have been put on hold to accomplish this trip, and after I'm done here I need to do my own thing. I'm very scared, but being here my fears seem so petty. They are so excited and thankful just to be alive. If they can do it, why can't I?

Kenya - Day 2

Day 2 of Kenya started…well, a little painful. The mattress provided by Tumaini is something of a mix between a Temperpedic and concrete. I spent most of the night thinking "am I really comfortable or do I feel like I'll have back problem for the rest of my life after this?". Luckily, our film schedule is limited so waking up at 5am to film was an absolute priority.

We roll to the front just before dawn to film the kids getting ready for their day. Strangely enough, their rituals aren't much different from ours. They get dressed, gather school supplies, eat, and are off to school. I was quite surprised how normal it was…well, except for the school hours. The kids go to school from 7am-5pm. Yeah, that's right American kids…10 hours of school a day. Next time you start complaining about how much you hate school, just remember a Kenyan is literally schooling you.

After a short break Matt decided to get an interview from a kid named Sam. Sam is a sophomore in high school, and he just got done studying in Maine at an American high school. The kid is immediately personable: he greets you with a smile and is very well spoken. He tags along and goofs around with you, and it was very easy to develop a friendship with him. Sam talked about the problems in Kenya, and how he wants to become a lawyer to help out here. He's a guy with a head on his shoulders and enough passion in his heart to do whatever he wants in life. I already starting praying for him, hoping he finds his break.

Watching Matt interview Sam was something of an exodus for me. The film quality was near perfect, and it was my first experience with how Matt interviews people. It is a natural conversation: very fluid and organic. He draws the tough answers from people without being abrasive. It's a style I hope to adopt myself someday when I'm doing my own documentary work.

I did have a dream come true today: I got to play soccer with true Kenyans in Kenya. I was pumped and ready to go, and so when my dad and Matt rolled out with the cameras I got into my state of mind. We walked to one of the local high schools and watched as they got their game on…and I was immediately intimidated. It wasn't their skill persay, because frankly they play bumblebee soccer. They are all about flair and high kicking, and often a play can never produce. No, it was the field I was playing on. The grass literally goes up to your knees, so you can't see the ball half the time. You're sprinting full speed through the brush dodging boulders the size of my calf that are shaped like death spikes just waiting for you to trip and impale yourself.

Naturally, my heart was racing as I was playing with the Kenyans. I look up and see that Matt and my Dad, who were taking pictures off to the side, were gone. I was alone at a high school in Kenya. Apparently, they bailed because a group of kids mobbed them asking for pictures…crazy. I stayed a little while and decided to socialize with the high school kids.

It didn't take long for me to make some new friends there either. It started with one guy just asking me questions and walking around, and it wasn't long before I was having a conversation with about 30 high school kids. They would ask me about America, I would ask them about Kenya. They would poke fun at me, I would poke back. It was very fun and nice to be the center of attention, and to have these kids teach me about their culture in the least abrasive way possible. Rori and Brian told me that it looked like I was teaching because the entire field was empty and they were all around me. Fun times…

It isn't all work, and so for the first time in a couple of days, I got to enjoy a Coca Cola. Let me explain how Coke works in the third world. You find a vendor, often in these sketchy shacks or storefronts. There is no refrigeration, just a crate to keep everything cool. You roll up with your 30 shillings (about 40 cents) and buy a Coke in a glass, half warm but tasty nonetheless. Here's the kicker: they reuse the glass. You have to return the glass after your done, which means that I potentially shared a Coke with the entire nation of Kenya. Eh, totally worth it.

After that we walked down the road and it was time for all the little little kids to get out of school. They walked by the dozens down the road and us, 6 Americans with cameras, were perfect targets. We didn't stand a chance… Within seconds, like a pack of vicious velociraptors, they surrounded us and attacked. They all wanted pictures of themselves, and would swarm you just to see themselves. They would giggle and squeal when they saw their faces on the screen, and I probably got some of the best pics of the trip thus far in that chaos of little bodies clawing their way at your piece of the western world.

At the end of day 2, I'm very much enjoying myself. I've met a ton of people and it will be very hard to forget the faces of these children. Some of the older ones gave me Swaihili words to learn, others just wanted to know my story. And even though I'm helping to tell theirs, I know that we have a lot more to learn from them than they do from us. Something is magical about this place…in spite of all its hardships. I hope to find out what that magic is.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Kenya - Day 1

*Note. Internet terrible here. I'll try to update with pictures/more of my blog posts when I get back*

Finally in Kenya, and so far it has been nothing but a positive experience. Third world countries all have the same feel to them. You're on edge, feel gross, and are consistently hungry because I'm scared of the food. Kenya is no different…

You enter the Nairobi airport and you can tell how truly ghetto the country is. The airport is literally falling apart, with moss and mold growing just outside your visa application line. The visa papers were last modified in 1995. You go to baggage claim, where Kenyans are dumping baggage from the back of a pickup truck. Customs railed us on all of our equipment just to prove how corrupt the country really is. Oh, and that exchange rate? 80 to 1. Time to load up on the 1000 shilling bills…

We stayed the first night in a little place called Karen's Cottage. It is something of a quaint bed and breakfast. We got there at 2am after nearly 48 hours of travel, so falling asleep that night was not that hard. Woke up the next day to shooting beautiful foliage and birds chirping. This was day 1 of our mission at Tumaini.

The road there was a long one. 3 hours in a bus driving down sketchy roads and through slums was scary as all hell. There were portions where I had to hide my camera and lock the window in fear that someone might come up and steal me. That's third world though…so you gotta get use to it quick. We loaded up on food at the supermarket and took pics along the way, but nothing too major.

As we started getting closer to Tumaini, the land started getting more and more beautiful. Rolling green hills with farms dotted the landscape. Wildlife and rivers flowed freely. People just walked leisurely down the road. It was very peaceful.

We rolled up to Tumaini to no children because they were all at school. Setting up the cameras was quick and painless, and then the children came…

Rori really brought it all together with her compassion and genuine excitement to see all her children, and I shortly learned why. Within 5 minutes the are shaking your hand, introducing themselves to you and talking to you about everything. This evening, I met about 10+ kids on a personal basis, and hopefully I remember their names in the morning.

What really got me the most was how happy they were. Each of them were smiling from ear to ear hearing about my bland life. They liked talking to people, and they don't give up on life even though they have had it rough. I can safely say that I've fell in love with all of them. They have the biggest hearts and aren't afraid to share it with you. You just don't get that anywhere else for that matter.

As day 1 is officially over, I am at weird state of mind. I'll be very sad to say goodbye to my new friends, but I look forward to developing a bigger relationship with all of them over the course of the week. Time is arbritary, and for this mission to work it has to be. It'll change my life for the better…all I hope is that I find my place in this world, because I know how bitter it can be and how wonderful it really is.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

I was traveling to Kenya, but got stuck in New Jersey

Traveling over 3 different continents in the course of 48 hours is bound to run into bumps and hiccups along the way, especially if you go through Newark, New Jersey…

Before I express my opinions on the great state of New Jersey, let's update the first leg of this journey to Kenya. If you've known me for any amount of time, there are two things I absolutely despise in this world and will not do unless I absolutely need to: organizing and waking up before 8am.

Unfortunately, I had to do both yesterday as we left the house in Carson City to prep our trip to Kenya. When you're carrying out a production in the field, you are required by some force of nature to organize your gear, and believe me it is one of those 'easier said than done' deals. In my backpack and Portabrace, I divided up a Canon 7D, 3 lens, Rode Videomic, Redrock Shouldermount, Zacuto Eyepiece, 3 hard drives, 10 tapes, Canon XH-A1s, 2 lavs and receiver, 2 shotguns and receivers, 3 chargers, 2 travel charger kits, my Mac, and all the clothes and toiletries I plan on using over there. Impossible task, I know, but I managed to do it without breaking any straps yet (knock on wood).

We woke up at 8am to load up the car, picked up Rori at 10, and were on the road to San Francisco by 11. Strange enough, these are the parts of any trip that I tend to remember the most. It's that mind-numbing traveling when you all know what the job is ahead of us and you can feel the excitement between everyone. You learn a lot about people when you spend a couple hours in a car with them, yet alone 48 hours of solid traveling. I'm proud to say that this team is pretty solid, and we all have our hearts and minds fully invested in our mission (even with all the jokes we crack along the way).

Dropping us off at SFO looked something like this:

Yes, that is the entire production in one SmartCart. It's the boring part and most strenuous aspect of my job: hauling equipment. It's not that fun dragging that stuff 6000 miles away, but you gotta do it.

Not a lot happened at SFO for us. We kicked it, filmed B-Roll, and just relaxed for the most part. The plane trip to Newark, however, was perhaps one of the worst flights I've been on.

We left at 10:30pm, and from the moment we stepped on the plane I remembered vividly why I hate domestic flights. I don't know what it is, whether it's American Capitalism or stupidity, but we have the smallest and most uncomfortable seats in the entire world. Combine that with crappy service and no food and you have the workings of a miserable 5 hours of living.

As I worked on sleep depriving myself, I did have the fortune of spending my insomnia on staring out the window at a side of America I haven't seen before. I've been to Chicago once, but outside of that I really haven't travelled East of the Rockies. The conditions were perfect, allowing me to see the heart of America as it sleeps. We flew over what looked like Kansas City, Chicago, the Great Lakes, and parts of Canada.

As we approached Newark, I got to see the sun rise over a thunderstorm, and that awesome sight of instant morning. If you've ever travelled East overnight, you know what I'm talking about. Behind you is the darkness, and up ahead is a very vivid horizon. The stars graze the sun and for about 15 minutes or so you seem to float between the days. It's very inspirational and fulfilling if you let your mind wander and meditate on everything you hold dear in your life.

Then….we arrive in Newark….

Let me prelude this by saying that I only got about 2 hours of sleep on the plane ride in. We arrive in Newark at 6:30am local time flying through heavy turbulence and fog to arrive at the most disgusting ghetto of an airport I have ever been to. The place resembles a prison from the 1950's: cement pillars shaped to look like decorative architecture but in reality you know that the architect was drunk and really didn't give a crap about the place.

Honestly though, who can blame him? It's Jersey! The hot humidity isn't like a tropical island, but more like a dream crushing blanket sent by the devil to suffocate you with it's smog-filled air. It's so bad that the roofs are littered with dead birds. Yes, in the tram I saw at least 5 pigeon carcasses rotting on the concrete.

The lobby reminded me of a Jr. High cafeteria. You have tons of socially awkward people pushing and shoving each other around just to get to the front of the line for the same service offered to everyone else. Everyone speaks with a God-awful accent and somehow lost their manners when they were about five. They fit right in with the flock of pigeons that walk along the baggage claim carousels and taxi drivers that only nod when asked a question.

As you can tell, I am a bit sleep deprived, and it was much worse at 6:30am. We booked a hotel for about 6 hours to sleep and freshen up, then it was back to this rathole that I'm currently sitting at, waiting for my plane ride to Brussels. Final verdict: Jersey sucks. I'll come back to visit NYC, but West Coast > East Coast hands down.

Whew….I'm glad I got that off my chest. It was a rough 1st leg, but now that we only have 2 hours left on this layover I'm glad to be done here and ready to move on. Our next leg is a 7 hour flight to Brussels, 3 hour layover, then 10 hours to Nairobi, Kenya!

Our mission is well underway, and in spite of everything I'm having a blast along the way. And, to end this entry, I would like to leave you this image.

New Jersey: Where dreams go to die….

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Kenya - Pre-departure

Pre-travel jitters are common, and everyone deals with them in different ways. Some people clean the house from top to bottom. Others will go out for a night on the town, dance the nerves away with a pint of beer and a room full of strangers. Everyone at one point or another calls their family and friends bearing the same message: see you guys later.

This is my message to you. In 12 hours I'll be stepping out my front door en route to Kenya. Naturally, I am slightly nervous. I've repacked my backpack about ten times already. I've optimized my cameras, setting them up and taking them down as if I'll forget under the pressure. There is alot to keep track of....we have tripods, shoulder mounts, 2 XH-A1's, enough Canon glass to make any photographer jealous, light boxes, radios, mics, solid state recorders, and more production equipment that I haven't even touched yet. And it's all being sent over to complete a job in a timeframe that's borderlining insanity.

Thing is, there isn't any crippling pressure. There isn't any overwhelming worry. None because I know what I'm going there for. This story I'm helping to tell is meaningful. The Roots of Happiness is the pursuit for what makes us happy, and it's a message that's destined to find it's way into not only the hearts of our audience but all of us who are so fortunate to be a part of it. The kids aren't the only people who will be changed forever.

Keeping that job in mind over the next 2 days will be a little difficult, however. Here's the itinerary we're looking forward to:

5 hour flight on Friday night from San Francisco to Newark, NJ
12 hour layover in Newark till a Saturday night flight to Brussels, Belgium
7 1/2 hour flight overnight on Saturday to Brussels
3 hour layover in Brussles on Sunday morning
11 hour flight from Brussels to Nairobi, Kenya. Final arrival time is 10:30pm Sunday night

I'll be updating on a regular basis (hopefully with photos and video), so stay tuned. As for now, I'm off for a full night's sleep, God knows I'll need it for the next couple days. Until the next time I find internet....adventure is out there!