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“How much longer papa?” I questioned anxiously.
“An hour more until we’re there.” He answered
I couldn’t wait any longer, I was way too excited! I rested my head on the side window, blinded by the rush of white which covered the sides of the street. I tried to remember what made me love this country so much. I tried to remember the snapshots of places I visited around the world, and places that impacted me….
“Gioia, in 30 minutes we’re there” whispered Mama.
I heard a faint whisper. As I looked out the window feeling pensive, I fell into a deep sleep…
The longer I walk the mountaintops, the more homeless children I see. The dark polluted clouds, make the place gloomy and lifeless – yet why do I see smiles in the eyes of these children. I feel a puncture in my throat as I breathe more of the pungent air. I feel sick and nauseous, wanting to run away from the unbearable truth. I can’t endure it any longer – I want to wish myself gone from this horrible place – to a place of olive trees, wine yards, roman ruins and renaissance palaces, old alley ways, beautiful coasts and mountains, pasta mouth watering pizza’s, and superb gelato. Italy has a lot to give to the world – but these children in the Smoky Mountains can’t experience that.
Yellow, and blinding, it illuminates my eyes and brings despair in my heart. The boots lay still on a broken mattress, stains and torn up, lustrous from their dull and dusty surroundings. It shields her fragile feet from the belligerent ground which wounds those who do not wear any shoes. I look at the yellow boots she has on – I remember another young girl wearing similar boots.
How could I forget that day? The sun was high over San Marco square after a hard pour of raina, and I was standing right in the middle, perplexed by the thousands of tourists. I glanced my surroundings, and began to pace around the piazza: The Basilica di San Marco, the Campanile di Giotto, and a young girl with yellow boots that caught my attention. She was with her family sitting down in a restaurant outside. I remember venturing the hundreds of alley ways, and walking on unknown bridges. I didn’t stop there – Venice was big, and I wanted to explore every bit of it I could. And that’s where I found it – my dream – just like Marco Polo, I was determined for my dreams to come true, to travel the world and experience its beauty like I experienced the beauty of Venice.
The little girl lay curled on the thrown out mattress, dirty, keeping herself warm from the harsh wind that blows along the mountaintops. I wonder if she will find her dream, and experience the beautiful world just like I had in Venice. Beside her was a pyramid of burning garbage. The whole mountain flows with the rotting smell of food, the burning garbage dumps, and the stench of excrement. Nothing in the world smells so foul and dead. Its pungent smell was toxic devouring my lungs. How could she lay beside that pyramid? Scanning my surroundings, my eyes dart like a fish from side to side until I’m interrupted by the scream of excitement from a young boy. My gaze trails his colorless rainbow as he raises his Olympic flame. Relief radiates from him as a smile lights his face, and his eyes illuminates with triumph. Exactly the way I felt when I visited Rome.
Rome was the Caput Mundi – the capital of the world. Lavished with architectural jewelry by her emperors, gladiators, people, and was seized, raided and destroyed. Fires and earthquakes left their scars, but each time the eternal city recovers. Rome a city of power – a city that did not give up when the Roman Empire crumbled - a reminder to me, that in life I too will fall, but just like Rome I will never give up. I will endure and always find a way to rise again. Rome inspires me to conquer all I set out to do – “Veni, Vidi, Vinci.”
This young boy is nothing like what I’ve seen. I expect he found a precious stone or a valuable ornament that he could sell. But taking a step closer, I caught a glimpse of fine golden hair, pale skin, with a broken arm and girly clothes that covers its body. He holds a Barbie doll in his callous hands. Nothing makes sense to me anymore: Why was the girl laying beside that pyramid or burning garbage? Did she lay there to keep her warm? Why is a young boy playing with a Barbie? How can such a ghastly place bring joy in the hearts of these children?
I want to run away from the mountain. It all seems like a nightmare. If only I could make these children see what beauty lay out there in the world. Heat begins to scorch down on me – I crave for cold – I crave for ice cream. I vision myself in one of the Gelaterie in Corso Italia in Cortina D’ampezzo in the Dolomites – Heaven on earth. In front of me were more than 100 unique flavors of ice cream. I had trouble deciding which flavor to get, because I wanted to try everything. The diverse flavors of ice cream made me want to experience each flavor of diversity in life. I felt like heaven upon the Mountain in the dolomites – but here I am – hell on earth - experiencing a tragic moment in my life. But how could I crave for ice cream at a time like this? After seeing those children going a day without any food, I feel selfish.
Does poverty change a person? Did the children’s eyes see what I was seeing? Did their nostrils burn in the smoke? Or were the smiles I saw on their faces no more than wrenching wounds I felt in my own heart? Located in Tondo – Manila, the Smokey mountains lie there six or seven stories high; a chain of endless mountains of garbage inhabited by tens of thousands of people and families. What hopes do these people have? What reason to survive?
On Smokey Mountain, I stepped out of my comfort zone and extended a helping hand. My family, through distance adoption, support twelve children providing them with shelter, food, clothing, and education. Twice a year we get letters from each of the twelve children, writing to us to share what's going on in each and every one of their lives. Through writing we share experiences. Some wrote to me about school and the problems they faced with friends and teachers. Others shared their sadness about lost loved ones. In every one of their letters, they asked me to share a part of life they haven’t – they wanted me to give them hope. I wrote to them about finding my dream in Venice, wanting to conquer all I set out to do like Rome, and tasting the different flavours of life like the Gelaterie in Corso Italia. I remember writing to one of them about Verona – the city of love and hope – where a small marble balcony records the most famous verses of Shakespeare’s tragedy, in which Romeo declares his love for Juliet as she stands on the balcony. I told her that being there gave me hope for finding my love one day, and I hoped she found hers too.
What does it take to save a child's life? Most of us spend money on purposeless things. So will it hurt to sacrifice superfluous things to support a child? We all think it's difficult to help those at the Smokey Mountain. I think it’s not difficult at all. In a place filled with more happiness, unity, and peace than the rest of the world, how can you say that helping them is a challenge?
I’ m back now, sitting in my favourite place in the world – My Nona brewing hot chocolate, my Nono slicing the fine salami he made, my Mama and Zia cooking tortellini con spinachi, my Papa and Zio playing cards on the table, and my sisters, brother, and Cugina making jokes. At this very moment nothing matters but my family. That’s the thing with my grandma’s house – it feels like home: full of smiles, happiness and laughter like the ones I saw in the faces of the children in the Smokey Mountains.
The Smokey Mountains is one of the biggest garbage mountains in the world. It smells like excrement, rotting food, burning garbage, and death. It is a place where you find children roaming around naked. Children swimming in disease infested waters. People die everyday unremembered. Men, women, and children poke through the mountain for a living, retrieving bottles, irons, anything they can get their hands on. It is hell on earth. It is a shame. A scandal. A disgrace. A Mystery that still lies unanswered to me: In a place with such misery where people die everyday unremembered, where death is as common as birth, what is their cause of smiling at the dawn of a new day?
“Gioia, wake up…” Whispered my sister Chiara.
The aroma of hot chocolate floats in the air. I hear the familiar laughs of my Nona and Nono. The flicking of the cards on the table, and the smell of tortellini overwhelms me. I open my eyes – I am home - and there beside my wardrobe – clean and standing tall with pride – lay a pair of yellow boots.