Telling stories

The first thing I noticed was the smell.

Be happy, dear readers, that this column doesn’t come equipped with Smell-O-Vision. I’m talking about the stink that comes from mountainous piles of garbage.

The second thing I noticed was the heart-breaking poverty. Suddenly the smell didn’t bother me so much.

I’m talking about the Garbage City in Cairo, Egypt. Three years ago I spent a summer living in Cairo and writing an article for the Egypt Daily News — an English-language newspaper affiliated with the International Herald Tribune — about educational opportunities for the Zabbaleen, the “garbage people.”

In Garbage City, pigs run wild in the streets. Food vendors ply their trade from carts perched precariously on the piles of garbage that fill the dirt streets. Young children are pulled out of school to help their parents sort through the garbage that the families bring in from all over the city by truck or cart. That’s how the Zabbaleen make money, by going through millions of pounds of trash each week looking for recyclables. The hepatitis rate is above 50 percent.

I wrote my article about non-governmental organizations providing educational opportunities that still bring home the bacon. The boys learned computer and math skills while recycling bottles. The girls learned to weave rugs, quilt and make paper from scraps of fabric and waste paper found in the trash.

Those hot days spent dodging trash piles and making friends with the locals — they were amused enough at my rudimentary Arabic to offer me bread and allow their children to follow the lady with the camera around — were incredibly fun. The stink didn’t bother me after a while. The poverty did, and still does. But what an experience for a young journalist! I felt honored to tell the story of young people working through incredible adversity.

Several times each week, without fail, a number of people ask me if I enjoy my job. Of course I tell them yes, and mean it, but I wanted to elaborate on why I love working in journalism.

I have been able to do many exciting things in my tenure as professional journalist. I spent an afternoon last summer floating down the Flathead River with a couple of guys while they fished. It was a lazy August day and the trip took three hours. The sun glinted on the water. The fish struggled and pulled against the lines. The bends and turns in the river seemed endless.

Two years ago I harnessed up and walked across a ropes course for the disabled and wheelchair-bound in Breckenridge, Colo. Counselors helped people experience the thrill of a ropes course who otherwise never would have.

I spent a week on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota shooting photo essays about two powerful Lakota women. One — the granddaughter of Black Elk — runs a wildly successful restaurant out of her double-wide. The other manages a nonprofit program that helps Lakota get into mortgages, and more importantly hang on to those houses through mortgage counseling.

Earlier this year, I walked up the boardwalk to the Hidden Lake Overlook with 12 children from Missoula. They were participating in the Parks in Focus program, which gives underserved children a camera and teaches them how to connect with nature through photography. We saw marmots, birds, flowers and bighorn sheep. Those children couldn’t stop raving about seeing three bears during their trip to Glacier National Park.

Last week, I met Sen. Max Baucus and listened to him answer tough questions from a critical crowd at Glacier Discovery Square. While there are many issues with our government, one beacon of light is the fact that we are able to talk to our legislators. They don’t — we hope — make our decisions for us, but with our input. Baucus didn’t have all the answers, but he spent more than two hours listening to his constituents voice their thoughts.

Journalism is a ticket to wonderful experiences. It’s a way to meet new people and learn about different ideas and cultures. Its essence is storytelling. I’m so glad I have the rest of my career to listen, to learn and to explore — to tell stories.

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