This is our first practice blog, so I’m taking pieces that Barry, John, or I wrote in our wonderful round-the-world-trip we took during the 2002-2003 school year.
Subject: A page from Barry’s journal
December 26, 2002
On our way back from Goa to Mumbai, we’re on the train in sleeper non-airconditioned 2nd class. Three bunks are on our side and three across from us. Sitting opposite from us is a Goan family: the mother, father, five-year old girl, and a one-and-a-half year old boy. The boy, wide-eyed and open to everything, is sitting on his father’s lap; it is his first train trip. His father has an arm around him. The daughter is the lying down beside him. His wife is sitting by the window quietly eating an orange and feeding some to their daughter. I can feel the love that this man has for his family.
Although the man is from Goa, he works in Kuwait. He saw his son for the first time just two weeks ago. He is 42 and has been working in Kuwait for 19 years. He gets to come home for two months every two years because his company will pay the airfare then. He cannot afford to pay himself. In Kuwait, he shares a room with two other men and has a used car that he drives as a taxi. He gets up at around 5 to drive people to work before he leaves for his full-time job. He has three brothers who also work in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. All four are married and their wives and children all live with his parents in Goa.
He cannot afford to bring his family to Kuwait where he would have to rent an apartment for them and pay for his daughter’s schooling (and a driver to take her to and from school since women cannot drive or be out without a man). So he takes no time off of work while he is in Kuwait and comes home for two months every two years.
I don’t know what to say. I can’t even imagine how hard this must be for him and his family. They look so happy together, and as he told me of his situation, there was no sense of remorse. He’s doing what’s best for his family.
This is a situation which we’ve come to learn is repeated may times throughout Goa (and the rest of India). We were told by another man who has worked in Saudi Arabia that 20% of the population there are working Indian nationals.
All this separation for the man on our train is for not even $650 per month. He said that if he were lucky enough to have a job in Goa, he wouldn’t earn even half as much. What a price to pay! Is his family better off than the families of the men who stay in Goa and try to earn a living at slave wages? The assistant manager at our hotel in Goa told me he earned in wages the equivalent of $30 a month. That’s for nine hour work days, six days a week. He’s in his 30’s and says he cannot afford to get married; he is trying to get work in another country.
The man on our train shows no bitterness, no resentment, only love and commitment for his family. When I asked if he had plans to return permanently to Goa, maybe to retire early, as others I’ve spoken with have, he answers that it’s up to his employer. He’ll work as long as he can, even when his hair turns gray. I told him I’d have been in trouble years ago.
I think we look for heroes in the wrong places. Sometimes, they’re not in the newspapers or on T.V. They are sitting right across from us – on a train in India.
From: Renee Riley [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Thursday, March 27, 2003 12:09 PM
Subject: Report from John
Here is the description that John wrote of his walk to the school bus every morning when we stayed for five weeks in Chengdu, China. We were subletting an apartment from a Canadian family who had left for a vacation; we were across the street from a great shopping center. The streets bustled with people in the modern city of Chengdu (4.1 million people). Keep in mind that in his essay, John was going for a specific yucky effect here. And parts are especially for his friends Jamie, Hunter, and his cousins. He thinks they will appreciate his humor. John loved being in Chengdu and going to his international school with its kids from several different countries and young, enthusiastic teachers.
Walking to the bus stop in the morning always makes me nauseous. I leave my apartment at 7:45 a.m. I walk down the grim covered stairs that have the stench of rodent feces. When I get to the bottom of the steps and walk outside, I look up at the boring gray sky that always makes me sad. Next, I turn right and walk past the 30 wicker baskets of human manure. They have been sitting there for two weeks and smell of rotting feces and urine. I walk past one basket where someone has thrown in a chicken head. Oh, it is so revolting. [Remember this was in 2003. Men had come to clean out the septic system of the apartment complex. The human manure was drying out until it could be taken away and used as fertilizer on farmers’ fields].
Before I get out of my complex, I look at the piled up abandoned bicycles. All of a sudden, I see among the bikes a nest of rats! I scream. Finally, I get out of our complex of seven story no elevator buildings.
Now I see more people. I hear people to the right and left of me spitting onto the street. I look down and the streets are covered with mucus and some is on my shoes. Almost all the people stare at me. I hear people snickering at me. Other people point at me and yell “lauwai, lauwi” [foreigner]. Soon a group crowds around me. Even little boys are staring at me to see what I will do next. I hear an “ah.” I take a step and wipe my face with my hand. I scratch my butt. I hear another “ah.”
Finally, I get to my bus stop. My friends Mickey and Juhung are already there. All of a sudden, we see a hippie bus with a silver and gold rainbow on it and heavily tinted windows screech up to the curb. We know there are no hippies inside. We quickly move back. The side door slides open. Two men in camouflage suits and helmets jump out with their double barrel shot guns. The somber men cock the rifles. Two men and a bank guard run out from the bank behind us. They take a heavy battered silver case from the van and return to the bank. Once the bank doors swing shut, the van guards turn to climb back into their vehicle. One of the men spits near our feet. The van speeds off.
Just then our big, clean Meishi International School bus pulls up. At last, I get on the bus.
From John, 12 years old in Chengdu, China
** This is from an e-mail I sent on March 27, 2003, when we were still in China. I’m responding to a friend from my Maui school.
The war [U.S. war against Iraq had started on March 20, 2003] hasn’t really had a personal impact on us except our own anguish. The night the bombing had started, Barry, John, and I packed up and went to stay with our friends, Liz, Doug, & Mickey. We had already planned to go on a trip into the mountains outside of Chengdu for that weekend, and it seemed prudent to all stay together. We didn’t know how the Chinese government would look on us. I was nervous as we went in the dark by taxi across town. Some celebration was going on, but in their firecrackers I heard bombs.
On the weekend when we were in Dan Ba, a village in the mountains, a well-dressed man cornered Liz, who is the one among us who can speak some Mandarin. He questioned her about Bush, but not in mean way. Later, a ten-year-old Tibetan boy was the one who had the most to say. Although the villagers don’t have access to central heating, many of the Tibetan houses have satellite T.V., so they know what is going on. The boy commented that the U.S. is big and Iraq small, so it didn’t seem fair. He also noted that China is bigger than the U.S. Also I see there is a whole different mind set here. The U.S. promotes individual rights; the Chinese follow the idea of it’s the good of the whole that must be considered.
When we returned to Chengdu, I was afraid that the people on the street or the owner and staff of restaurant we’ve gone to almost every day would not be so friendly to us. But on Tuesday, our first day in Chengdu after the beginning of the war, Jack, the restaurant owner, ran out to greet us on the street as we were walking by; he bought us a good luck talisman to get us home safely. We feel very welcome here and hope the war ends quickly.
Good luck to you in everything that you are doing. Say “hi” to Mark and everyone at school. We’re having 14 people over for dinner tonight (we’ll make spaghetti, garlic bread, and salad, and then get takeout from our neighborhood restaurant), and then John is having a sleepover for three boys. It should be fun and a chance for John to do normal boy things with friends. We wish you could come over too. Love, Renee
Kate was responding to this e-mail:
Greetings from China. Barry, John and I are still in Chengdu. Monday is John’s last day at school here. He has enjoyed being with other kids and having a school structure. Barry and I enjoy walking the streets and hanging out in parks and tea gardens. We’re staying here a week longer than we planned before we go to Bali.
We are getting all the bad news – on T.V. In fact, we probably get better coverage in some ways than you do: pictures of injured and dead Iraqi women and children, big anti-war demonstrations around the world [but those same pictures have been repeated about one million times] China’s stand, Japan’s concerns, Tony Blair in the House of Commons, etc. Barry has been glued to the T.V. since we got back from Dan Ba on Monday night. I’ve had my fill. I feel so pessimistic about how this can turn out well in any way.
Instead of staying here and worrying, Barry, John, Liz, Doug, Mickey, and I left Chengdu last Friday morning in the dark and just got back Monday night from Dan Ba, northwest of Chengdu, in Sichuan Provence, in what used to be called “East Tibet.” The whole trip was an incredible experience. We in the West could learn much from “undeveloped” cultures; they have culture, dance, religion, tradition, love of the land.
On the way to Dan Ba, we saw the 6,250 or so meter high Mt. Siguniang. I read somewhere that for the Tibetans seeing Mt. Siguniang is like doing seven years of meditation. The mountain is spectacular, majestic, awe-inspiring, but for me my biggest experience came in the reminder that it is good that we are not all the same.
My insight came on a public bus just before the Bo Lang Shan pass, (at about 14,000 feet, I think) decorated with Tibetan prayer flags, of course. It had been snowing, big beautiful flakes that coated the evergreen trees and lay in big piles all over the mountain. Even though Friday was the first day of spring, I felt as though we were in the Rocky Mountains at Christmas.
The traffic was slow. Although the concrete road is new and our trip was supposed to take only eight hours (on a good day last year) instead of the fifteen hours it took us, there are no guard rails or shoulders. Luckily, I was sitting on the cliff side of the bus and could not see the drops only inches from the right side of our bus. Then we were stopped for about a half hour because a large produce truck ahead of us had gone over the side ( the first of three accidents that we saw this weekend, one for sure fatal because we saw the body of the young teenage boy under the rear wheel of a huge truck. So one of the lessons from this weekend is the preciousness and tenuousness of life). Luckily for the driver of the produce truck, his vehicle just went over on its side and was stopped by a rock instead of continuing the other 4,000 meters down the mountain.
Once the road was cleared and just before we got to the pass, our bus stopped to get water to cool off the brakes on the way down the other side. We Westerners got out of the bus to throw snowballs and run around when out of the snowy mist appeared 10 Tibetans: two adult women in their colorful head wraps and jewelry, sturdy men in sheepskin lined coats, cute runny nosed children. They looked healthy and happy. In their smiles, especially of one of the women, I saw peace.
The Chinese don’t understand why the ethnic Tibetans don’t appreciate the roads, the electricity, the schools, etc. that they have given the Tibetans. (Many of us don’t understand why many people in other countries that we are trying to help don’t welcome our democracy). Many of the Chinese look down on the Tibetans as superstitious because they practice Tibetan Buddhism, dirty because they live at 5,000 + feet without hot water heaters, and lazy because they don’t work the way the Chinese do. We met many ethnic Tibetans this weekend as we wandered around the villages. Many invited us into their homes, offered us us what they had (wonderful dried apples and tea), and were friendly and curious about us.
In their event-driven lives, they have time to spend with each other and pay attention to the moment. Can you imagine us in our time and success-driven lives where we are always too busy, inviting a stranger (let alone six strangers) walking by into our homes?
On our way back to Chengdu on Monday, we stopped again at the watering place, and I got a more realistic view of the way that family lives. In the clear weather, I could see the flimsy huts that must never be warm. One woman was tending a pot outside on a meager fire; another was washing clothes in a basin; two sheep bleated from the barren mountainside above us. In her traditional dress, a beautiful girl about 14 years old watered down the brakes on our bus. She probably has had no chance for formal schooling of any kind. Maybe her little four-year-old sister will get to go to school now that there is a road in front of their dwelling. But will she have to board five-and-a half-days a week in a school miles away from her family as we saw was the situation for the children in the school we visited? She’ll have to learn Chinese and will likely come to look down on her family and culture. Is there a way we industrial countries can “help” traditional cultures while respecting what they can teach us? Do they want help?
Enjoy the spring. I wish you could be with us. May there be love in our hearts for everyone and peace on Earth. Keep us posted on how you are doing. “Hi” from Barry and John.