There was a moment in Malawi when I was stuffed in the back of a taxi – when I thought to myself, “I am not going to miss this.”
You see, there were five of us in the back seat of a small-sized vehicle. What I learned about public transportation in many African countries is that vans or cars only move when they are full. And, by full, I mean that an 11 seat van will wait until there are 15 people wedged inside before pushing the gas pedal. I have also learned, that the last person in has the best seat – because they can give one big final shove that accordions everyone else up as they comfortably yank the door closed.
Along with those facts, there is no expectation of following a schedule, and it’s not uncommon wait patiently for a van to fill up before leaving. There are also occasional moments when everyone en-route detours along the way to meet the needs of one person. On that day, not only were there five of us in the back seat, but one woman communicated to the driver that she needed to stop for a few dozen eggs, so we all paused in front of the small store and waited for her to return with merchandise in hand.
The most remarkable thing about this whole process is the great patience exhibited by everyone involved. What you won’t see or hear are things like eye rolls, raised voices, or questions of concern.
And now, here I am in Malaysia. I love visiting Asian countries. I always have. But this time, after months in African and Middle Eastern destinations, it feels a bit different to me…more isolated. I am not lonely, but I am definitely aware that I am alone for the first time on this journey.
You see – while there were things about places I visited that felt mildly challenging, I am also reflecting on how there are so many cultural aspects of life supporting positive mental health. So far, the lack of some of these things has felt heavy to me.
*Trust – there is great trust in communal cultures. It wasn’t uncommon to see children walking far from adults – down roads, through village streets, running errands for their parents late into the night. In some ways, it is everyone’s responsibility to look out for their well-being. In fact, while sitting and waiting for a van to leave, one woman happily handed me her baby as she went to get a few drinks. There is something about having people trust you this much that brings feelings of pride. In Malaysia, I have been told there is often a sense of distrust – so much so that even apartments on high levels have large metal grills covering the windows for fear of theft. I am not passing judgment on what is right, or which is safer, or the potential risks, I’m just noting the personal difference and power of feeling that others believe you are a trustworthy stranger.
*Activity – kids in previous destinations are always on the go. It is rare to pass an open space not filled with large groups of kids playing. What I love the most, is that there are rarely any adults to be found faciliting game rules, solve their problems, or organize their play. Conflicts are solved by them – sometimes with a shove – but in all cases, I watched kids play, resolve conflicts, and move on. Physical activity is constant for children. For me, all of the cities were very walkable. I felt safe at all hours, and the roads were meant for pedestrians. Here, in Kuala Lumpur, walking is almost impossible with highways breaking paths and the expectation of using public transportation. When asking for directions, people tell me, “Oh, no, that is 2k away, too far to walk.”
*Sense of Belonging – One thing I am desperately missing right now is impromptu human interaction. As I have mentioned before, my last months have been filled with daily short conversations with tons of people. Since arriving in Malaysia, not one stranger has talked to me without being forced into it. I make it my mission to spread love by smiling and greeting people, but it is always met with an initial awkward pause, and then either a pleased response or avoidance and backing away. It wasn’t just me who received attention in places in Africa – people often greeted each other with kindness and interest.
*Demonstrations of Faith – Mental health conversations often dig into connections to faith and move to breaking the stigma that things like depression and anxiety are demonic. At the same time, there was great comfort in interacting with so many people who would willingly pray for each other with deep sincerity and belief in powerful healing. Even the names of local shops center on messages of faith, well-being, and grace. Preachers share inspiration at the beginning of bus rides before the videos of praise songs begins. While faith is important is many places, it often feels personal. Forced public displays of faith can bring questions, but for me personally, I often found the messages on stores and cars to be something encouraging.
*Consumerism – Malaysia is filled with shopping malls. I have never seen so many. And yet, there are times when mall shopping feels relatively distant and unimpressed. There seems to be value in having expensive things. It’s such a drastic shift from local community markets where you can absolutely find everything you need and where people are laughing, shouting, and engaged in bartering. The chaotic nature of markets feels intensely connected and there is great personal satisfaction in securing the best prices. While visiting countries in Africa, I observed great resourcefulness wherever I turned with kids and adults using every available material. Some of my favorite moments were observing the great pride from children who had designed their own toys and games.
*Touch – My personal bubble is quite big and I really enjoy hugs and affection. People I met while traveling during the last months loved to share hugs when you met and departed…deep, loving, kind hugs. In many cultures, it takes time to warm up to someone before diving in for the deep hug. For many, this would be a desirable cultural norm. For me personally, I miss that.
*Acts of Kindness – People often shared what they had with me. When walking down the street, children would give me a piece of whatever they were eating. Random acts of kindness were typical each day – carrying my heavy bags, stopping traffic so I could cross the road, etc. At first, it was easy to feel suspicious, but after a few months, outgoing kindness became a norm. I haven’t been here long enough to experience these kinds of things, but I can say that there is great power in being on the receiving end of such gestures during recent months of traveling. I felt beyond safe – I felt loved.
For me, while there are great mental health conversations needed all over the world, there are things that we can do each day. I have learned so much during this journey, but my hope is the lessons from visiting countries in Africa and the Middle East will provide sustainable changes in how I view life at home. I believe the things I saw and learned should be valued and are valuable for all.
While I know I will transition to these new places, right now, I am aching for one more ride, trying to catch my breath as I sit stuffed below a crowded pile of passengers.