It is hard to believe that we have been in this country for only a month and I have already been feeling at home in Palmeiras! Life in a village was slow, quiet and smooth, and the incredible people we met here has made it even harder to say goodbye.
I will never forget when Drica, an outstanding expert of visual and performing arts who works at GAP, told me that she saw another side of me with self-confidence and strength while I was drawing; it was the best compliment I could ever dream of receiving, and she said it in such a genuine tone that it touched my heart. In fact, people at GAP were all really good at transforming everyday knowledge to deep knowledge, with the enthusiasm and determination to face any obstacle, whereas the same words from any other random person would be easily considered hypocritical. I was struck by awe at times when Joas lamented the loss of human consciousness at the landfill, when Neide expressed her happiness and fulfillment working for GAP, and when we drove through town in trash-decorated trucks, picking up trash separated and organized by people of the town whose lives are influenced by the organization. This feeling reached its peak when I had the opportunity to interview with members of the GAP team. With the access to a laptop back in the city, I am ready to organize and translate my pages full of scripts into something I can share with family and friends and spread the mission and spirit of this outstanding organization.
GAP taught me so much not only about environmental consciousness, but also about artistic creations. In my opinion, the people of GAP are true artists, since they see and create beauty from objects that are generally considered useless waste: the gorgeous architecture, gardens and decorations at GAP made with recycled plastic bottles, tools and food cans offer only a glimpse into their fantastic job! When the opportunity came that I could join and design the mural outside the GAP store, I felt more than honored to dive in, and it turned out to be the highlight of my first month experience. In the past, I considered art creation as mainly a medium to express myself and to connect with others at most, and I would generally avoid carrying extra responsibility or social initiative with my work. GAP, however, has introduced to me a new angle regarding this dilemma: I have started to have a closer look at my subject and contemplate on ways I can relate and empathize. Though I need to reflect more on this topic, it is already starting to influence the mural and other pictures I did for GAP, and I am excited to see what will turn out with my sketches and paintings even more in Salvador!
The phrase 下乡上山 translates to “Down to the village, up the mountain”and has a brutal history. During the cultural revolution, this was the name of the program that took intellectuals and urbanites were involuntarily taken out of their homes and relocated in “reeducation” programs in the country side. This piece of history, over forty years old at this point, has mostly escaped the public consciousness, especially among the younger generations, those born after 1980 this memory of this old program is dwarfed by the pressure to achieve the Chinese Dream 中国梦. In the capitol of Lincang prefecture, development has been rapid. There are large shopping centers and high-rise apartment complexes. Pictured below is a temporary wall built around a construction site touting the relevance of this Chinese dream in Lincang, reminding the residence here that the dust from this new building project should be seen as a piece of the collective goal of economic development.
In my experience, finding stories of the reeducation programs are rare. Many of the older generations returned to their city dwelling and went about their lives. Sometimes however, the past is very visible. A year ago, around this time of the year, my co-instructors and I entered a convenience store near a temple in In the mountains of Inner-Mongolia. These stores are ubiquitous in china and nearly always carry the same products. Vacuum sealed meat snacks, chips, candies, soda, Red Bull, rice liquor, sunflower seeds, and cigarettes. This store was a little different, the owner was selling polished rocks and books. Most notably a book on the a geological survey of inner-Mongolia. Thus Man, teacher Gao, had been an accomplished geologist before being sent to Inner-Mongolia after his father, a successful factory manager, was suspected of being a rightist and removed from his position. Teacher Gao had been put on a train and sent to a village near where we had met him to work as a farmer. When the program ended, he got a job as a teacher and eventually in the government as a surveyor, but her never returned home. Needless to say, we were fascinated by this man’s story and surprised to find him in such a tucked away corner of the country. I can’t help but wonder how many people like this exist, but whose stories are never told.
Conversely, finding stories about those relocating themselves in pursuit of the china dream are very prevalent. In Bandong village 邦东乡, where we have been living for the past week and will remain until October 2nd, we can see the effects of rural to urban migration first had, as the village is home to mostly the youngest and oldest generations. Most who leave end up in Lincang or Kunming, seeking various types of employment. While walking around the village with Jesse, he comments regularly on the changes he has noticed, coming to this village annually over the past three years. There is a new road, a new dance square, there are many new concrete houses, and many houses have new additions. Pictured below is the house where the instructors have been living. It has a new third floor with clear plastic roof and walls made for drying the tea. The money for these additions often come from money sent home by children who have gone off to urban centers to find work. The result is that the quality of life of those in the village has become markedly more comfortable, they can greatly boost their incomes if they can invest in tea processing facilities. But as this village grows, others are being bulldozed for the development of expanding roads and cities, and regardless of whether or not the village survives, the economic pulls that draw children to the city pull families apart and the cultural products that come from these ties are being lost.
I cannot imagine what it would have been like to be “reeducated” by the communist party, but I do know the value of spending time in small Chinese villages. The complexities that exist in these small places are enormous. I feel that I have many questions about what motivate the people around us, about the social pressures on different ages and genders, about the balance of traditional knowledge and modern practices. Doing this home stay was a major part of my motivation to sign my contract and work with this program. I honestly do feel that by going down to the village, I am going up the mountain. And I have immense gratitude for both our hosts and our students, who have been working hard to connect with their family despite language and cultural barriers.
Our students will be volunteering for six months in Kunming, but service is not something that one time process and one of the greatest gifts that this village has given me has been the opportunity to slow down and, as a group, discuss the impact we have had and can have when while in this village. If you want to get a taste of our discussion, I recommend these two ted talks. The first stresses the importance of listening if one wants to provide “service” and the second questions the impact of volunteer-tourism and challenges its viewers to value learning service rather than giving one’s self a pat on the back for volunteering one’s time.
Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!
Daniela Papi: What’s wrong with volunteer travel?
We cannot be in discussions all the time, when we are not a together as a group is when much of the learning happens. This is when tea is picked, food is prepared, conversations are had, and bonds are formed. There is a lot of work to be done, the group can be seen together after picking a basket load of tea leaves, and if there is any extra time, well, we have a going away party to prepare for, and it is never too early to start choreographing dances.
Contrast-it has been the defining aspect of our trip thus far. New vs old. Traditional vs development. Religious beliefs vs economic goals. Even as I sit in the historic district of Dali, I cannot help but notice “Its A Small World” playing in the background.
Our journey through the Tibetan areas of the upper Mekong began in Benzilan, where the sounds of cows and yaks provided a melody for the constant beat of construction. From Benzilan, we traveled to a small Tibetan village, where we met with a hunter who now works to preserve the land and animals he once would have killed. He shared his perspective–a deeply religious connection and respect for the surrounding land and sacred mountain Kawagabo. Yet, on our day trip to a hot spring in the middle of the icy Mekong, the hunter’s eyes gazed upon the construction of a new road that would enable the development of another dam along the Mekong.
As locals spun prayer wheels, seeking internal spiritual merit, turbines spun beneath the surface of the river, churning their way towards external economic advancement. While trekking up into the mountains, one could not help but notice the pristine and clear tributaries, which were lined with trash from the recent influx of tourists.
As we descended from the Tibetan plateau, and “Tashi Delek’s” turned to “Ni Hao’s”, the steady flow of the Mekong repeatedly met stagnant concrete dams. Mountains of construction gravel stood tall, even against actual mountains which bore the wounds of relentless construction.
The future of this region is tied within this contrast. And yet, even amidst uncertain development and turbulent change, there were also times when contradictions converged. Times when Tibetan children were able to maintain their language and culture, while at the same time adapting to the changing times. When tourists and pilgrims met the dancing waterfalls of glacial melt with their own laughter and joy. When one man’s actions were able to reduced the number of hunters in a village from 30% to 1%.
And so, as the journey down the Mekong continues, and we no longer witness the development of the Tibetan region through the nearest window, we can only hope that this development can embrace the power of connection rather than division, and that decisions made in the drawing room can be inclusive of the range of individuals who interact with and rely on the land, water, and glaciers of the upper Mekong.
Sitting on the mossy earth with my back supported by an enormous grey rock, I am peacefully still. The wind billows and swirls all around me, but in this sheltered space I am finally warm. I inhale deeply and breathe in the powerful landscape that sprawls out in front of me. The grand snow-kissed mountains loom high above; humbling me completely. In the distance I hear the sound of trickling water, reminding me of raindrops on my bedroom window back home.The clouds drift back and forth enveloping the mountain peaks, like baby blue cotton candy on a summers day. I lean my head back and feel the support of solid stone. I feel safe. The same feeling as when someone I love holds me tight. I feel a strange combination of complete connection to the land, but also an unexplainable sense of distance. I am struck by the realization that I have never been surrounded by mountains in all four directions, without a tree in sight. And yet somehow it is a familiar feeling.
I think the quiet solitude of the mountains resonates somewhere in an untouched place inside me. I have always connected more with the ocean, the waves, and the sand than I ever have with the mountains. When I am soaked in sun and salt I feel energized and alive. But when I am hiking, and I feel my body and breath sync into a rythmn, and a rare presence forms my mind, I feel a new connection to the mountainous earth. Whenever my mind begins to drift away like a helium balloon, I look up at the expanse of mountainous terrain and I bring myself back to the moment. I remind myself, I am in Peru surrounded by dazzling turquoise lakes. I am in Peru surrounded by stoic snow-capped mountains. I am in Peru surrounded by energetic people who care about the land. I am in peru and every day is the start of an unpredictable adventure.
I’ve only been in China with Where There Be Dragons for three days, and I’m already falling in love. My initial feelings of extreme anticipatory homesickness and nervousness have given way to a true fascination with this foreign country and an appreciation for the genuity and passion of the I-Team: Luke, Sheila, and ming. We’ve spent the past two days in a beautiful farmhouse/guesthouse two hours outside of Beijing. The family living here can date their lineage back to families in the same town from the 15th century. We’ve watched them drying out corn in the sun against the white-washed walls, and savor all the corn cakes that they serve us for breakfast, knowing that we are experiencing food that was grown 10 feet from where we are sitting. I’m the pickiest eater in all the world (except Alice) but I’ve been able to find plenty to eat thanks the generosity of our cooks, and have even tried new things such as pork shoulder, pickled radish, a huge variety of tofu, and fried baozi.
As Belle noted in a previous post, we’ve spent the past few days becoming oriented with each other, the Dragons philosophy, and what we will be doing during this course. We learned about how we are now in the “honeymoon” phase of the trip, and that we will go through ups and downs with each other and with China generally, but how ultimately we will (hopefully) feel comfortable by the end of our three months here.
We have also started to learn Mandarin. I’m a complete beginner, along with a handful of other people, but we also have a few students who have studied for years. Sheila has been great at teaching me basic words, and while I’m still unfamiliar with the pronunciation and tones of the words, it’s amazing even to know anything in Mandarin at all, and I’m confident us beginners will be intermediate by the time we return home.
Yesterday we had the absolutely once in a lifetime experience of climbing to the great wall of China, up a couple thousand feet. We had taken walks in the early morning and had seen the imposing outline of the wall glowing (an incredible moment in itself), and now it was our time to conquer it. I started out confident, walking in the front of the group. I assumed that my experience backpacking and hiking with NO WEIGHT on my back would prepare me for climbing with my sleeping bag and clothes. But the path was slippery, covered in sliding rocks, constantly uphill, and I am terribly out of shape. By the end of the hike, I was, as I told the group, praying for death and was terribly embarrased that I was the “weakest link”. When I was about to give up, I glanced up and saw that we had reached the base of a 2000 year old watchtower, used by soldiers, that had witnessed history more than almost any other monument I’ve ever seen. Every movie, every picture, every first scene of Mulan, had finally come to life for me. I was there. It felt like being on top of the world, even though I had despaired in the process of getting there.
We spent the night watching the sunset over the wall that snaked off as far of the eye could see, on the ridge of the craggy mountains. We had a wonderful meal of pork dumplings that we had helped our hosts make (they were not impressed by our technique), and ming surprised us with S’more making over our own personal oil candles. We finished the night sitting in the dark, surrounded by candles, talking about why we need to be here and our place in the world.
We all have different backgrounds and interests, but it’s amazing to find how much we overlap and how much we have to learn from each other.
Tonight, we head to Beijing and begin the next adventure.
Love to all,