The simplicity of smiling works wonders. A very wise young Ethiopian man freshly expressed “Open your face!” He was poking fun at being pouty and sad, instead suggesting someone put a smile on their face. His English language learning curve was so well intended the epic phrase stuck with wondrous effect. His mom introduced me his new phrase with pride. It became our Ethiopian travels anthem for any moments we were forlorn, caught off guard, upset, wiggy about mossies or other bugs, and truly bummed thinking about missing one another in our pending parting.
Universal languages are global gold, especially to a well-worn traveler like myself. Everywhere in my daily practice the power of a smile can lift me from work doldrums or keep the easy spirit I crave as constant flowing. Equally, the gift of your smile outwardly can transform the space and people around you. Add a smile to a stuffy room or a cultural conundrum to heed the transformations.
Innately I think I’m risk-averse. Despite some hairy adventures, I’m never aiming for jeopardy. However, I’m not one to steer clear of a life memory just because someone else has declared a bad experience. If the news is reporting major strife that’s smart monitoring. If I let the pickpockets, slums, smells, oddities, missing limbs, mangy animals, food poisoning, every bomb threat, attack or killing get in the way of my bookings I would be much less experienced. In all that wildness, I believe part of my personal astute traveler arsenal includes my smile. Besides, testing limits evokes a limitless mentality.
Recently I was in a land of unique smiles. Surrounded by extreme poverty and heavy doses of skepticism, I also waded through a variety of soothingly receptive smiles. Even the capital city standards in the low-income country of Ethiopia heavily lack clean or running water. Public toilets described to my family and friends back home illicit lemon-eating cringe-worthy facial expressions Nearly all Ethiopian homes I’ve seen are built without first world structure nor amenities. It’s a country still steeped in progress. Through all it’s devastation, I’ve found a sense of family, happiness, and vibrant personalities. Smiles abound no matter what circumstances you give a human. They’re a touchstone for the hope for a brighter future and a beaming today moment when we choose it so.
I stepped confidently from the security of our charity group van and was instantly thrust into the bustling bloodstream of the murky Merkato. Swaying through the maze of market streets were humans, animals mostly tied to humans or some carts, and so many drastic smells my nose hairs stood on end. I found my steps fiercely and fastidiously pumping along to the rhythm of this life. These foreigners appeared to embrace the chaos of embedding anything as a sale. A tiny street child was gathering discarded coffee beans to dust off in her tattered skirt to try to resell. There were entire furniture sets, tire parts, and jerrycans piled higher than a two-story building, though teetering like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The tangle had space to be frightened. No matter, ingrained in many of the souls was a smile.
I took to my best mode of reflection. I smiled and walked purposefully, sometimes grasping the weathered hand of our security guard a tad tightly. I didn’t harden my face. I received the expected stares, but plenty of quizzical smiles. Some people found it extremely inviting, using my smile to wish to lure me into their stalls. I pounded onward with my group, bobbing and weaving a touristic energy-wake pattern to rival the brightly colored skirts of the hardest-working women I knew boring their intensity back at me. All of it lit up my smile, widening it further.
People from all walks create similar results and play similar ways we do in the USA. Yet, I find they may be more thrifty and wildly creative. Where my nephew would kick a soccer ball around, these street urchins have gathered discarded plastic bags to twist and tie into a hard ball to pass between themselves. Resourceful and often experienced beyond their years, I’ve come to know developing world people are farther enlightened than the typical gurus I and my yoga community friends aspire to follow. The value of a smile to someone who we see has little to smile about it the very basis of why a smile exists in the first place. For a smile does not merely manifest for material or convenience sake. A genuine smile oozes character, radiates hope, and blasts a message of faith that carries an intelligence educational institutions cannot instruct.
I am responsible for my pride. I don’t seek it from others. It’s what I make of it. Living hand to mouth seems to have an energy of determination that many in my western world lack as drive. Tackle your essential happiness. Secure your future. Opening your face to the goodness around you without comparison, shame, or blame levels you up. The spirit of smiling is eternally infectious.
“Saki”! — aka “Smile” in Ethiopian Amharic :)