Tell us a little about you.
I’m Ashley Strong Smith, the oh-so grateful traveling photographer and owner of Ashley Strong Photography! I’m someone captivated by life and the experiences that occur within those moments. Deep within my soul lives the want, the need, and the passion for human connection. Those intimate moments where a friendship and a relationship forms. Me, seeing, honoring, documenting individuals, as them, and the beauty within their uniqueness. Being inspired by the author Dave Eggers in one of my all-time favorite books, “What is the What.” He tells a story of Valentino Achak Deng, a young man, once a refugee from Sudan, now a citizen of the United States. His vantage point, well it was told from the voice of Valentino Achak Deng in what would be the climax of this story. Eggers painted the pictures so vibrantly, and so passionately. A story. A true story within this life time lived by another soul, yet described as his own. Me, yes me. I am drawn to, connected to, and put on this earth to tell stories. The stories of my friends and clients. My vantage point being this moment, right here, right now.
Describe a situation that you faced that challenged and stretched you.
I was comfortably settled in a tiny studio within an old Spanish style building tucked behind slowly growing foliage on fourth street. Fourth street in Long Beach, California that is. I had this whole 9-5 job thing down. I excelled at my current job descriptions, making my way into a position that better reflected my skill sets in the community development world of public broadcasting. My weekdays were spent maneuvering through the office culture, while figuring out what it really meant to live within my skin. I was happy, or at least what I thought was happy.
I mean, how could I not have been? I was in a place where I truly enjoyed my job, my colleagues were some of my best friends, I lived in a beautiful studio apartment, I made a salary that sometimes supported my life, I ran and did yoga almost daily. I went on adventures when they presented themselves, I had this thing they call weekends, I drank lattes when I wanted, I made connections, I photographed weddings, families, and yogis on the weekends. I was happy. I was content. Content was the overall feeling. At the time, content is what felt like the right feeling to strive for. This reality continued for nearly four years. I kept asking myself, “Is this what life is supposed to be? Is contentment the greatest feeling?” Although I had so much excitement, so much going for me, there was something missing. I knew that my existence was meant to encompass more, much more.
I was sitting at my desk working on another community engagement grant, headphones on as usual, finding myself reading the same line of my soon-to-be submitted grant proposal, repeatedly. Although reading one thing, a very different, very loud question kept swirling around everything that was me at that very moment.
I paused. I listened.
Very loudly in my own skin, I asked myself, “Ashley, are you just existing or are you actually living?”
“Are you JUST existing or are you ACTUALLY LIVING?”
Deep, deep breath.
Please, pause yourself at this moment and ask yourself that very question.
ARE YOU JUST EXISTING OR ARE YOU ACTUALLY LIVING?
A few additional deep breaths danced through my body. I got up from my desk, walked to the elevator as quickly as possible without being suspicious and waited till the button dinged at the ground floor. I walked around our building, focusing on all the natural elements around me, witnessing the leaves sway with the breeze, the water splash around the fountain, the sun glistening that which it touched, the birds dancing about in the sky.
There was a calmness around me, yet a loudness within me. I thought to myself, “I am just existing.” Everything around me truly seemed to slow down.
That very moment.
Well, it was the shift.
The ultimate shift within my existence.
Although the structure of my day job continued for another couple months, change was happening quickly. The immediate shift was through my awareness, being completely present in my feelings, actions, words, thoughts, desires, and wants. Consecutively, I would excitedly rush home after work, well, as quickly as I could with the 405 traffic to begin researching what I was focusing on with my time after work. I turned this research into inquiring, responding to in-depth essay questions, joining webinars, having phone interviews, and followed up by skype interviews. No, I wasn’t looking for a new job, a new apartment or a new boyfriend.
Yes, I was looking to discover this missing piece of my soul. It was time.
Several months after researching, inquiring, submitting and interviewing, I received a letter. I held it tightly in my hands, nerves running through my body, a smile splashed across my face. I paused for a moment before opening it, took a deep breath. “This is it,” I thought. “This is what you’ve been wanting to do since you started college. This is what you’ve known you were meant to do since you were a young girl.”
I opened the letter.
“Congratulations Ashley Strong, you have been accepted into WorldTeach for a semester of teaching abroad in Tanzania, Africa in January 2013.” I took another deep breath. “Please read the following letter.
Once you accept the acceptance, you’ll receive a welcome packet.” I quickly read the letter, went online and most definitely accepted the acceptance! A large envelope arrived a few short weeks later nestling a welcome packet, Swahili language book, needed vaccines, what to expect, and insight into cultural training.
It was really happening.
And happening quickly.
I had a few short months to prepare.
That day I couldn’t focus on anything but that very loud question at a time when I was happy, when I was content. I listened. I listened to that inner voice, that inner knowing and took the time to truly understand my answers,
and to truly understand what it all meant. I was very confident in the knowing of just existing. After all, I had yet to really feel what it felt like to be living- living fully. This very reality was quickly going to change as I was about to live out that which was once a thought, desire, want, and curiosity. I would soon be living with a local Tanzanian family, teaching their youth English and living in a country I knew nothing about, but was so excited to come and learn. This was going to be my new reality. This very idea, that of living in a country so different than the one I had been blessed to grow up in, inspired me, excited me, and brought a vibrancy into my life.
From the very moment of being accepted, there was no hesitancy, no questioning, no second-guessing, and no reservations. This was what I was going to do; this was where my life’s journey was going to take me,
this was where my soul was going to be stretched. Being a Cancer and a bit overly organized, I knew action had to be taken, immediately. I began brainstorming on ways to fundraise, ways to pay to make this happen although I was volunteering. I had to pay several thousand dollars for this to be a reality. I quickly gave my landlord my 30 days’ notice and sweetly asked my mom and Holmes if I could move in with them for a few months to save money. I hosted an Ashley Strong Photography fundraiser at my local yoga studio where I framed and sold time capsules I documented during my previous travels. I sent detailed personal letters to friends and families asking for donations.
After all, I knew nothing would cloud my vision in making this all possible.
Next, the largest piece, the hardest, maybe one of the scariest, my job. I asked myself, “Are you going to quit? What are you going to do when you get back? ” I reminded myself, “You need this money. You need insurance. You need...the list continued” I paused. “Ashley, trust, just trust that it will work itself out, it always does.” My dear boss, “I got accepted into a program to teach English in Tanzania, Africa, it starts at the beginning of the year.” Deep breath. She surprisingly replied, “Okay, what do you want to do with your job here?” I paused and I’m pretty sure I gasped too. I took another deep breath. “Well, you see, I would love to come back, I love my job.” She said, “Okay, you can take a sabbatical. Just write a formal letter including the dates you’ll be gone.” Yes, this was true. Yes, this really happened. At the time, I operated in shock as I never thought all of this would be a possibility, a reality.
Before I knew it, everyday a new letter and check came in the mail. An email was received, I had another donation through PayPal or the WorldTeach website. My community, the incredible community that existed around my existence truly humbled me. The support, the willingness to give a little and in many cases a lot towards another souls’ journey, my journey, created a happiness that quite frankly changed the lenses in which I chose to view life through.
In January of 2013, I embarked on a journey that has stretched, enhanced and brought a deep vibrancy to every aspect of the woman I am today. I joyfully paid to volunteer teach English at a secondary school on the remote island of Mafia Island, off the east coast of Tanzania, Africa.
I taught 132 students ranging from 12 to 18 years old rotating amongst myself and two other teachers.
Quite frankly, I fell in love. I fell in love with learning from my students, with being a teacher, with being a part of a community so completely different than that of what I had known. I fell in love with a handsome South African who is now my husband. I fell in love with being surrounded by nature, with being able to wake each morning with the rising sun, ending each day just a few short hours after the setting of the sun.
I fell in love with the Swahili language and the culture that carried that very language.
While living on the island, my space consisted of a quaint concrete walled room in a lovely local families’ home where I lived with the second head master, his wife and their son Raymond who was 3 1/2 at the time. The connection, the bond, the friendship that formed with this little soul was so uniquely special. He filled my days with so much light, so much love, so many questions, just as many answers, and so much pure joy. Our communication consisted of tickling, swinging and laughing as there was a deep language barrier. Most evenings after I would run, Raymond awaited my return on the front porch, would sprint to me for some swinging time and then say "picha!"
I would go inside, grab my camera and Raymond and I would take a long walk around the neighborhood taking pictures, pointing, giggling and laughing, truly just being in the moment.
My weeks were filled with teaching English Monday through Friday with alternating streams. I vividly remember moments being absolutely salama (peaceful) and a smile not leaving my face. While other moments were a bit frustrating and exhausting as the language barrier made it hard to say all that I wanted to my students. I wanted to share with the community how much I truly cared. My journal from this time reflected constant reminders. Reminders that words are not always needed, that it was my actions, my energy, my nonverbal communication, me being fully present, is what truly matted. My school was less than a two-minute walk from our doorstep. I walked along a dirt road to my cook and new friends house for morning chai and lessons preparations for the day. After school, my Tanzanian teaching partner and I walked back to the very house we began our morning and ate deliciously cooked local meals by our enthusiastic and loving chief. The food, the richness, the colors, the rawness, the culture, it vibrates loudly in my mind. Chai ya asubuhi (breakfast) was by far my favorite meal as it consisted of either mandazi (a glazed biscuit) or chapati (a tortilla like bread), mayai (eggs), peanut butter, chai (tea), kahawa ya rangi (black coffee), embe (mango) and ndizi (banana). Every evening around sunset, I ran around my neighborhood enabling me to reflect on the events of the day all the while physically and mentally regenerating and preparing for that which was. Runs were followed by bucket showers, yes, it was literally a bucket of cold water with a cup. Each bucket shower became more and more meditative. After mine and Raymond’s evening walk, we’d sit on the front porch, he would color, I would write. Sometimes the roles changed. These days, writing came very easily. The witnessing, the understanding, the fullness, the pure happiness, the euphoria of truly living vibrated my entire being. This, this is what living truly meant. This is what happy truly looked like. Contentment, it was a stale feeling of the past.
Throughout my time on the island, the word "community" took on whole new meaning. I was invited into so many people homes, just to sit in their living room saying all but a few words, just enjoying being in the company of one another. The community, the vibrancy, the purity, it was so inspiring. There was a synergy. Everyone just seemed to work together, to help one another, to look after each other. There was a hamna shida (no problem) way of life, where people were accepted for who they truly are and not by what they do or what possessions they own. The pace of life, it was very slow. People spent all day just being in the company of others, smiling, sharing, laughing, and telling stories.
Living and teaching on that island opened my eyes, my heart, my curiosity, my acceptance in many, many ways that unfolds daily and I know will continue to discover. While being engulfed in the Tanzanian culture, I observed, I listened, I explored, I discovered unfamiliar facets of my very being through that of being fully present with the community around me. You see, this community radiated compassion through opening their homes and hearts to others. There was a trust, an honesty, a purity, a life enhancing I’m-flying-my-wings-and-really- living exchange. I am humbly grateful for every aspect of this experience as it challenged me, stretched me, expanded my understanding of myself and lead me into the humbled woman I am today.
Upon returning to the States , I wrote, “ I can simply say I am absolutely in love with life. I have never felt so incredible, so beautiful, so free, so “me.” I have discovered a new me, a grown me, an open me. A me so full of love, light and gratitude. A me, so humbled. A me, thirsty for more.”
My soul had been stretched.
My heart had been opened.
My purpose has been discovered.
What did you learn about yourself and how did it shape you into the woman you are today?
On my flight from the States to Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, I watched a movie, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Near the conclusion of the movie, I vividly remember tearing up as I was filled with so much inspiration, excitement, love and openness about this journey I was physically in route to embark on. One line that caught my attention and forced my hand into writing for hours was, “To chart a journey into the unknown, a map is required, yet the most unknown of journey’s is what we call life.” My journey had not just begun on the flight that afternoon, my journey began decades ago, centuries ago, well let’s face it, a life time’s ago.
When applying to WorldTeach, I questioned my qualifications. I was applying for a teaching program and guess what, I didn't consider myself a teacher. Yes, I had volunteer experience where I’d tutored youth, but to stand in front of a classroom, to have my own class, especially in a foreign country, that just seemed silly. Despite my questioning, life continued and I completed all necessary tasks to bring this vision into a reality. One task that created space for me to root down, dive within, discover this woman, that was me, included responding to three essays, each containing multiple questions, “What is your motivation for wanting to be a WorldTeach volunteer? What contributions do you hope to bring to the community?” I dove deep within my soul. “What was my motivation, what could I contribute?” I sat down. I listened. I did my very best to communicate this listening.
My response, “I am drawn to spreading knowledge, authenticity and compassion by working with communities of the world. I want a deeper intercultural understanding of humanity, unity and working together all the while teaching through my native English language. I am a very reflective being always wanting and needing to give back to society, to humanity, and to others. I have a love for life, for humanity, for existence, and for all people around me. I am creative, positive, vibrant, full of life, patient, open to change and ready for new challenges. I am intrigued by the power of humanity, energy, connections, influence and teaching. I am extremely open with a willingness to teach, to learn, to accept, to give my heart and to share my passion.”
While living, teaching and falling in love with Mafia Island, Tanzania, I put my heart out there. I loved deeply. I embraced the community. I put everything I had into my students at Kitomondo Secondary School. Yes, there were challenges. And absolutely yes, were there many aspects I could have improved upon. But, I am human. I experience. I make mistakes. I second-guess my nature. Most importantly, I live. I breathe. I respect. I understand. I love.
Oh, do I love so deeply.
When I think of the moments that made of this very experience, tears fill my eyes. They fill out of mere excitement, of joy, of love. These moments, the breaths within the moments created space for me to witness, to listen, to discover, to understand and ultimately put it all into practice. I rediscovered that our world is unfathomably huge with us; yes us, being a small speckle amongst it all. I tapped into openness. Embrace. Living in the moment. Breathing in the fresh air. Being okay in the presence of my own skin. Even more so, being okay in the presence of the company of all those around you even when words aren’t being spoken. Love, love as deeply as you’re being will release. With love, this world, our world, our existence is a far more beautiful place. Inspire, although you may feel exhausted at the task at hand, your presence alone is an inspiration. In simple terms, it shows you care. I exist in this world because you exist.
What advice would you share with someone who is facing a situation that is
challenging them to step outside of their comfort zone?
Life, life happens quickly. Your actions and choices of today directly affect that of tomorrow. And a year from now. Because truth is, that year from now is going to be today and when it is today, chances are you’ll find yourself asking, “How is it already (insert your date of choice here)? Where did the time go? What have I been doing with myself?” Those answers, only you truly know. Those answers are designed specifically for you, about you, of you. Because you have the very power to make your life, your reality exactly what you want. You can make all your dreams realities. You have the power, the choice to dive into simply existing or fully living.