Today I woke up to a flight attendant tapping me ever so gently. "Mr. McCoy, Mr. McCoy," she said with a sweet tone. "We've arrived." We had landed in Bombay, India. The final stop on my trip for MTV's Staying Alive campaign, an HIV and AIDS awareness campaign that gives grants to young people to help empower youth to make better decisions regarding safe sex, which I am the ambassador of.
As I gathered my things, half awake and very confused, I heard her ask one of my traveling companions, "Why is he so tired?" Perhaps it was the fact that this was the 7th flight in the past 6 days, or from scrambling to get through security and customs, meeting with journalist after journalist, visiting 2 continents and 3 countries all in the matter of a little over of a week. Should I explain this to her? NOPE! Too tired. Must keep moving.
"Thanks for the wake up call," I said before departing the plane and entering a country I'd never set foot on before. It seems like months ago that I packed my bags and left my condo in Midtown Manhattan to start this trip.
Nervous, anxious, excited and not knowing what to expect, I boarded the plane at NYC's JFK airport with an open mind and an iPod full of easy listening 80's tunes. Nothing like the sweet voice of Daryl Hall to help with take-off when flying is one of your least favorite past times. NYC to Johannesburg, South Africa -- roughly 15 hours. Jo'Burg to Capetown -- a quick 2.
My first time in the "Motherland." I was there to meet a young filmmaker named Bulelani Mvotho, a Staying Alive Grantee. My hotel was a harsh and striking contrast to Bulelani's township of Khayelitsha, a short 15 minute drive by van.
Tiny pastel-colored makeshift shacks huddled together like tetris blocks. Over 6 million South Africans impoverished and at high risk for HIV infection, among many other diseases that come with the conditions they're forced to live in. I met Bulelani at a youth center in Khayelitsha, which means "New Home." We hugged, shook hands and he greeted me with "Welcome home." Welcome home, I thought to myself. This sense of warmth and understanding raced from my feet to the tips of my ears, and I was indeed "home." A large group of kids of all ages as well as elders from the community gathered in a small room to watch the premiere of Bulelani's newest short film Get Real. It dealt with youth and getting them to be more open about discussing safer ways to prevent from contracting STDs and HIV. I was amazed at how attentive everyone was. Absorbing all the commentary, sharing a laugh here and there when humor ensued. Bulelani blushed a little when I referred to him as a community leader and a role model. He says he's just "playing his role."
Such an inspiring, humble and determined individual, Bulelani has made a huge impression on me whether he knows it or not. After a tour around Khayelitsha, we talked about many things. When we made a stop at his office and had a real heart-to-heart, he explained to me that a young woman of 24 worked with him on his films had recently passed from HIV. I nearly crumbled. When I was a young lad, I lost a very close loved one to the disease, which sparked my interest in Staying Alive. I shared this with Bulelani and he comforted me by saying "We mustn't cry, we must keep moving and educating so we don't have to feel like this anymore."
I had a moment to reflect on a hill over looking Khayelitsha before I left for my next stop. I thought of Bulelani. I thought of my loss, his loss, the loss that is far too common among the people of Khayelitsha. I thought of the hordes of children that followed us as we walked around learning from one another and the smiles on their faces despite the adversity they were faced with everyday. I wrote in my notebook, I wrote until the words stopped feeling natural. Then, it was off to the Philippines to meet another grantee.
While on yet another plane, I couldn't stop thinking about Bulelani. I found myself wondering: Among all the kids that were watching his film, was there another young Bulelani in that room? Were there more than one? His influence on them was as broad as day. I smiled knowing that not only had I made a new friend for life, but one who has forever changed the way I see things. A friend who has sparked a fire in the hearts of the future role models and community leaders of a township crying for change.