Letters from China

Subject: Hi from China

1/24/11

Tashi Delek everyone.

Forgive me for not writing sooner.

I am well but I’ve been having a difficult time writing and it’s been dislocating to me to not even feel like journaling.

I’m in the lobby of my hotel in Chengdu (where there’s wifi) and it’s cold and damp. (Apparently it’s common in China to turn the heat off

at night even if you’ve got staff people sitting behind a front desk.)

Chengdu is weird city trying to be beautiful but failing partly out

of an obsession with doing everything cheaply AND gaudily.

(There are buildings, for example, wrapped in neon with colors that flash and change minute by minute and yet inside they use 10-watt compact fluorescent bulbs so it feels perpetually dark and cold.)

The air is filled with a pungent aroma of two rivers as sewers (on their morning walks, people think nothing of walking to the edge of the river, dropping their pants, and taking a dump–sorry to be so graphic).

There’s a smoggy, foggy cloud most of the days. It may be nothing more than condensation; Chengdu is a very humid place. But I’ve my suspicions about what’s in that miasma.

And the pervasive cigarette smoke reminds me of Vegas in the 70s.

Am I complaining too much?

I’m tired.

The first and second of three phases of this visit are over.

The first phase of the trip–the visits to Xining and Yushu—were emotionally challenging but rewarding.

I flew from the States to Beijing, spent a night in Beijing and then flew to Xining. Xining is this large, recently built city on the edge

of the desert and surrounded by gorgeous mountains (a little like the American Southwest). It’s a classic case of the government, faced with huge populations in its “inland” cities, firmly encouraging the creation of cities in the west.

It had been a sort of cross roads of cultures (Moslem, Tibetan

Buddhist, Taoist Han Chinese and now it’s mostly Han Chinese). But it’s well designed and it functions.

I spent two days in Xining waiting for the next flight to Yushu. While there, I spent Sunday morning hiking through the huge and wonderful Kumbum Monastery, the home of, I believe, the leader of the Geluk sect of Tibetan Buddhism…It was an early Sunday morning hike and the old Catholic altar boy in me felt comforted by spending a Sunday morning hiking past prostrating circumambulating adherents and sitting in quiet meditation in ancient temples.

Later, I had the second best vegetarian dumplings of my life in a restaurant in the Tibetan section.

That night, before flying to Yushu, I wrote in my journal of my increasing anxiety. I was having near panic attacks. I thought it could be the PTSD returning (it flared up after my attack in October) but realized that, no; it’s simply a reaction to the notion of returning to Yushu.

My last visit had been so hard, so painful and my body–my subtle body–was remembering.

Before leaving Xining, we visited a Tibetan-owned solar lighting and other products company. It was wonderfully impressive.

Later, flying into Yushu, the mountains were snow covered. I felt again that thrill of actually entering Tibet.

The drive from the airport into town showed significant improvements.

Huge new earthquake-resistant buildings going up for a new hospital, new schools, and a brand new, state of the art, military camp.

In the future, if the military again need to be deployed to Yushu it won’t take days to get there as it did in April after the earthquake.

The rubble and tents are still everywhere. But it’s a bit more, I don’t know, orderly is the word I suppose.

The streets are clearly delineated now. Tents housing shops sit in front of piles of rubble that had been the owner’s shop.

The Muslim butcher selling Yak meat is still where he always was–only in a tent now.

While there, we visited three businesses that had received tents in

September. One woman wept and pulled at my hand in gratitude as we

stood over her stall where she sold Yak butter and cheese. Her parents

were warm and comfortable living in the tent.

As she cried and pulled at me, as I wanted to feel the release of crying with her, a crowd surrounded us. As one of the only Westerners in the area, I was constantly stared at, poked, touched. In most cases, it was simply a little kid practicing his English: “Hello. How are you? I am fine.”

In some cases, though, it felt threatening…painfully, frighteningly so. (Was it my PTSD again?)

In that moment, I pulled away from the grateful woman and tried to catch my breath, thinking at any moment the police would come and yell at me for causing a scene.

Rural life in Yushu is hard but somehow I connect with it better.

I don’t mind the lack of facilities there. I’d wake in the morning in a mud-brick room that was freezing with temps barely above zero because overnight the coal/dung fire in my cast iron stove had burned out. But, under my quilts and in my sleeping bag wrapped in my woolen underwear, I was fine.

I’d rise and quickly dress, journal and meditate (which, by the way, was an amazing experience in itself…meditating in such a place) and meet the family around the kitchen/dining/living area stove. We’d make tsampa and sip hot water and enjoy the quiet. On my last morning there, it snowed and Tsering and I walked through the village within the town where she and I her parents live and visited older folks in tents, eating tsampa and sipping hot water and brought them blankets.

Those folks had been organized into a sort of senior housing facility with each older couple or individual in a private tent with a wooden door. The organizing group had received a tent from us in September; a large 45 square meter tent which they use for communal dining and meetings (and visits from a local doctor).

We also visited some families and individuals whom we’d helped in

September. One in particular, an old man who was clearly devastated by the loss of his wife was caring for his terribly disabled niece. Sadly the niece died shortly after our visit.

One of my most painful and powerful memories of that trip was in visiting the old man and the young girl. I cherish a prayer flag (a Gesar flag for those who know such things), which the staff here at secretly signed by many of those who’d received tents that we donated.

One of my favorite pictures is of the old man and the young girl smiling as they signed the flag for me.

The last few days, the second phase of the trip, has been very rewarding (despite my complaining) but it’s activated a different part of my brain. We spent the last four days (and today is the last day) in a conference (in a meeting room at this hotel) with 30 or so other Tibetans from all around the Plateau talking about micro finance, building businesses, and eco-tourism. The meetings move smoothly from Tibetan (and each of like a dozen dialects) to English and back.

At times I’ve felt like my old VC self.

There are about six folks from Yushu here (including Tsering who works for the sponsoring NGO). One night, she asked if I could spend some time with one of close girlfriends. When we were in Yushu we’d visited her parents in their temporary tent home.

Her family of 15 (extended uncles and aunts and cousins and such) lost 5 people in the earthquake. This girl/young woman was in Xining when the earthquake hit and like many took a bus for 16 hours to get home.

When she did, her parents asked her to bring water since there was none in the city but the military had commandeered everything and so there were no supplies. She got to her family’s home…what was left

of it…and began helping to clear the rubble. That’s when she uncovered the bodies of her 3 and 11-year-old nieces.

Sitting in a tea bar here in Chengdu, she wept uncontrollably as I sat with her, listened to her story, cried with her. Her hair is falling out, she says. She thinks she’s sick. She is overwhelmingly depressed and guilt-ridden and her college professors in Xining told her she’s too sensitive.

There are two attendees at the conference I asked to spend time with her. One is a traditional Tibetan doctor; he gave her “medicine” for her hair. The other was a monk (Abu, he runs the orphanage I visited in September and with whom I will visit again in a few days. A GREAT guy who’s smile is infectious.).

They will sit with her.

I’ve had my aches and pains (and frequent runs to the bathroom). At times I’ve thought I was sick with a cold (or worse) but later realize it’s just me being the somatizing Jerry.

The conference has been empowering for the attendees and gratifying for me. I spent time with three young guys from Yushu this morning that are trying to start an adventure travel company to promote tourism in the Yushu area (it is spectacular outside the town).

They want to learn about Internet marketing.

We’ve done training sessions on building business plans, the effective use of capital, ways to build locally owned businesses and the local term positive effects of building efficient local economies.

But really it feels like we are training a new generation of social entrepreneurs–people who see the value in solving their community’s problems by building small, nimble organizations that can have a lasting impact.

Tuesday we had out of Chengdu for the third phase of the trip…a visit to Minyak and Tagong. The latter is to see Abu’s orphanage again and the former to see a new tourist “camp” where Westerners can come and spend a week living like a nomad.

I’ve such a mix of feelings that it’s often hard to simply be. Last night I slept for 10 hours. I miss exercising, deodorant, and smoke-free restaurants.

But I’m grateful to be at the point in my life when I can give back to people in this way.

I miss you all and think of everyone often. The next few days I’ll likely be even more out of touch as we move back into some very rural (and cold!) areas.

With love,

Jerry

———- Forwarded message ———-

From: Jerry Colonna

Date: Fri, Jan 28, 2011 at 5:51 PM

Subject: Another installment from Jerry in China

Sorry for the length of this one…thanks for reading.

1/28/11

Kangding, Ganzi, Sichuan, China

Friday night and the honky-tonk border town that is Kangding is all flash and neon lights, this despite the sub-zero temperature. New Year begins next week so the stores are all decorated with pictures of little bunnies…next year is the year of the Rabbit.

Kangding is a sort of crossroads where people from the rural villages come to load up on fruit, vegetables, jeans, underwear…you name it, they sell it.

We arrived back here around 4 p.m. and, after showering and putting on clean clothes and checking email, we went out for dinner. Great local

Tibetan restaurant. Joining us at dinner was the kenpo or abbot of a monastery in one of remote villages we visited earlier this week.

The keno is sort of thin and tall with a quiet intensity that seems sort of regal. Dinner was tense because the dormitory that the local

NGO with which I’m traveling supports hasn’t been finished as promised. The dormitory is part of a clinic the kenpo, the people of the village, and the NGO built.

We were there earlier this week and, after dropping off boxes of donated medical supplies…but I’m ahead of myself. Here are a few notes from the last few days, this phase three, as I termed it in my last message.

1/26/11

Destination: Tagong

We left Kangding early for the three-hour drive to Tagong. With us in the van was Abu. Abu had attended the training session we did in Chengdu. He’s been a friend of the NGO’s with which I’m traveling for years. He’s the Shrine Keeper at the monastery in Tagong (which means, among his other duties, he sleeps in the temple when he’s on duty.)

I first met Abu in September when I visited the orphanage in Tagong.

The drive was easy; in so many ways, I feel like a part of me comes home when I visit Tagong and that morning, I was anxious to see the boys again.

Pulling out of Kangding, I could feel my breath ease. About an hour out of Kangding, you officially enter the Tibetan plateau. The air is thinner, colder and the skies clear and the Colorado blue sky blinds you.

In the car, I think of the John Muir quote: The mountains are calling me and I must go.

We stop to use the W/C (or the rural China equivalent of) and Abu runs out of the car, sick to his stomach. Bad omen? I hope not… he comes back smiling and laughing at his own misfortune; laughing at his own misfortune.

Pulling into Tagong we drive straight to Abu’s house. His mother lives across from the monastery and we’ll be staying with her, Amma. Amma’s yak yogurt is the best in all of Kham and I take mine with just a little bit of sugar and I snack on the fried breads she’s made especially for us.

We put our bags in the guest room and head out to see the boys.

In September, when I first met the boys their schoolroom was a tree-branch-and-plastic sheeting construction in the middle of a muddy yard. When I left, I arranged for a brand new, warm 45 sq meter tent to be put up and for gravel to be put down to keep the courtyard warm.

Shortly after that, the landlord took back the land. So, again, the monks and the kids have improvised a shelter. Like so many things in this land, frustrating.

Walking in, we interrupted the boys in their studies. After some hellos, and our shaking each hand of each boy. I stood in the middle of the room and handed out the presents, the New Year’s presents I told them. A hat, scarf, pair of gloves, and pair of socks for each boy. “Good quality,” Abu said in Tibetan adding, “and not crap.”

I also tossed out dozens of toys…basketballs, soccer balls, badminton sets, ping-pong balls, puzzles and games. Within minutes the boys were all over me to help them open the damn plastic packaging.

Within minutes, I stood and watched a group of six playing with a sort of dominoes set I’d given them and I wept.

God I wish I could take home each one of them.

Later we walked with Abu and some of his fellow monks to look at land they’d like to buy. For about $10,000 to $15,000 they could buy the land and build a school room and housing for 60 kids.

We walked back to the monastery and joined the boys for dinner. Our little group, plus five of the monks and 55 kids sat in a circle. They served me first, the boys fighting to be the one to bring me my bowl.

One gorgeous boy handed me the prized bowl of watery rice with a few slices of potato. As he handed it to me, a tiny bit slipped over the side. Another boy rushed up with a tissue and wiped (or, really, polished) the side of my bowl.

Everyone else received his or her portion and then the kenpo of this monastery said a blessing. We ate silently. Some of the boys licked their bowls after slurping the dinner. Others, especially the boys who’d worked in the kitchen making dinner, watched me closely. They smiled and laughed when I told them it was good. And it was good. Maybe the best meal I’ve ever had.

Later, the boys wanted to treat me so they took turns “massaging” my back…basically punching me. I can’t remember laughing so hard.

Later still, over tea and around the hot cast iron stove burning wood, coal, dung and anything else that would burn, we worked numbers on a blackboard. What would it take to build a school that could feed and house 60 boys, whether or not they want to become a monk? How many teachers? What subjects? What about medical visits and what about clothes? (Earlier the boys all showed off the brand new Tibetan style winter-coat robes my colleagues at this NGO paid to have made for the boys).

We left the discussion with nothing resolved except that I would help Abu make sense of his long term plans (help him think about a long term plan in the first place).

Still though numbers swirled. And of course my head spun…how could I help? How can I help them get to a sustainable place? A school isn’t just about the bricks; it’s about the long-term support.

One number, though, stands out in my head. And that night, back at

Abu’s mother’s place, as I finally settled onto the bed in my sleeping bag, with the indoor temperature reading 10 degrees, one number stuck with me: 1.5 Yuan per meal per kid. That is, 23 cents.

1/27

Destination: A small village called Dora in the Minyak region

Tenpa is a colleague from the NGO and Dora is his home village. It’s about three hours northwest of Tagong and consists of about 40 families.

We’ll be spending the night at his family’s home. Our main destination is a monastery and medical clinic.

In the morning, before leaving Dora, Abu showed us the temple at the heart of the monastery. It’s the second oldest temple in all of Tibet.

I’m finding that meditating in such places, places that are more than a thousand years old, shakes me to the core.

The monastery we’re headed to is about an hour to an hour and half from Dora. Driving through Minyak, driving past Dora and towards our next monastery, I’m floored by the jaw-dropping beauty of the area.

By far, this is the most beautiful of all the places I’ve visited in

Tibet. Its remote, pine-covered, snow-capped mountains remind me of

Patagonia and the San Juan mountains of Colorado.

This latest monastery is a new location with new buildings and a new temple, all paid by the 200 or so families of the local village.

Set hard against a hillside, it has some of the beautiful views I’ve ever seen. A quick tour, a chat with the local monks and then it’s off to the visit the clinic. We’re dropping off supplies when our car is quickly and somewhat oppressively surrounded by villagers. As word spreads that some Westerners are in town, the crowd grows. I start to panic. It’s that same panicky, Stranger in a Strange Land feeling I had in Yushu. Then, my anxiety made me focus on the police as a threat. This time, there are no police and I start to feel like I can’t breathe. Too many faces staring, too much energy from them drawing me in. I lean back against the car when I hear a very loud and distinct and friendly, “Haaallooo!””

Tenpa is talking and laughing with two young folks in the crowd and what at first feels threatening to me quickly feels like simple curiosity. Then I find out that a number of the people in the crowd were Tenpa’s students when he taught English in middle school. I’m shocked. I’ve spent weeks with Tenpa and never knew.

We head home to Tenpa’s house and I fall asleep in the car. I’m exhausted.

Tenpa’s house is classic Tibetan architecture–the animals on the first floor (to stay warm) and the family on the second and sometimes the third floor. There’s an intricately decorated with paintings and carvings central room where the main cook/heating stove sits. There are the classic wooden intricately carved and painted benches that serve as communal seating and convert into beds.

Piles of food come out cooked mostly by Tenpa’s sister-in-law (who, in classic fashion, is married to two of Tenpa’s brothers (Tenpa’s niece, gorgeous, bouncy alive, and seven climbs from person to person.

It’s not quite clear which brother is her father but it doesn’t really matter.)

I ask how long his family has lived here. He tells me how his family has been in the village for generations but, during the Cultural Revolution, because they’d been landlords, they lost everything. “My father and mother went to the woods,” he says, “they had no where else to stay. He even started hunting and fishing to find food.” Tibetans do NOT hunt and they do NOT fish. They may eat meat but they revere sentient beings too much.

“Sometimes,” he continues, “They even had to eat…bon.”

“Bon?” I repeat not understanding.

Frustrated he makes a crushing movement in his hand…”How do you

Say?…bon, bon, no wait, bone.”

“They sometimes ate crushed bone?” I ask to clarify.

“Yes. Crushed bone mixed with tsampa.”

Later Tenpa’s Uncle joins us. Now a 78-year old monk, Uncle was fighter. It is said that the only people the PLA feared when the annexation took place were the khampa fighters who took to the hills and fought long after the ’59 absorption (re-absorption depending on your perspective). I am sitting around a stove, eating dumplings, sipping sweet tea, with people who have lived through some of the most dramatic and heart-wrenching events of the 20th Century. I’m holding hands with a man who, after fighting desperately for his country, his people, his way of life, devoted himself to teaching and living the dharma.

I wander off to bed as the talk continues deep into the night…butter tea and whiskey fueling the words.

1/27

In the morning we visit an ironworker. A recipient of a microfinance loan, he’s paid back the first loan and is looking for a larger second loan so he can expand to meet demand. His welding mask is a children’s Halloween mask (best I can tell it’s Casper the Ghost) supplement by a pair of knock-off Ray Ban Aviators (the two are taped together with black electrical tape).

He’s already employing two people and he could expand to three more. His little shop fixes everything. They make iron decorations for atop buildings; the decorations are simples of the dharma and the

Buddha’s teachings (like kneeling deer that would flank a wheel of the dharma, symbol of the Buddha’s first turning of the wheel–teaching of the dharma–in the deer park at Varanasi.) There are parts of motorbikes and stoves everywhere in various stages of repair.

He’ll get the loan (of I think $1000), which will enable him to not only hire and train more people but also expand his inventory of motorbike parks.

This is the type of micro finance that works. The ironworker was orphaned as a boy and raised on the streets of the village. I can see someday he’ll be the village leader.

Our last activity is to visit an area Tenpa wants to turn into a campground. Using a classic nomadic yak hair “black tent” as a centerpiece, he wants to create a base camp to bring westerners too see the gorgeous scenery that is Minyak. Sitting on a cliff edge, surrounded by endless mountains, pine forests, and barley grass fields, overlooking a river that would be a perfect Class I or II whitewater experience, the spot is perfect.

I see families coming to camp, ride horses into the mountains, raft, and experience life in a tiny village at the rooftop of the world. We tell him he has to build showers (solar-heated) and at least composting toilets.

1/28

Destination: Back to Kangding

We wake early and frost is everywhere (including on our breath) but the night was warm and comfortable. Four of us, including Uncle, slept in the same room and so the various sounds of middle-aged men rocked me to sleep.

Before saying goodbye, we walk to a recently completed stupa. Built with the funds of Don, one of our companions, it contains precious relics each of the village’s families have held for generations.

We stand before it, watched over by yaks. Uncle conducts a fire puja ceremony, blessing us, our work, the stupa and all who visit it. As the juniper bushes burn sending out the cleansing, blessing smoke, seven-year old niece hopes over, back and forth through the smoke. I keep thinking how blessed she is.

We pack up to say our goodbyes. Tenpa is nervous because it’s snowed in Kangding and the pass over the mountains from the Minyak area into Kangding, dicey in good weather, will be treacherous. With chains on the 4WD vehicle, we head off. The variety of vehicles we pass, chained and unchained, amaze. Motorbikes carrying TVs and cast iron stoves trying to negotiate a winding, switchback road with a 7% grade and a surface of slick ice stuns.

At the top of the pass, we stop at a stupa for pictures and videos and the wind is so strong we can barely stand.

We continue on, stopping occasionally to check the chains and eventually drive into Kangding, Phase Three is officially over.

1/29

Destination: Chengdu

We’ve a long ride ahead of us. I’m overwhelmed with ambivalence. I know getting to Chengdu is the first part of my making my way home (to what is clearly the NEW Land of Snows–NYC). But so many images and feelings are tied to this land, this people. David Whyte has a poem called House of Belonging and in it he writes:

This is the bright home

in which I live,

this is where

I ask

my friends

to come,

this is where I want

to love all the things

it has taken me so long

to learn to love.

This is the temple

of my adult aloneness

and I belong

to that aloneness

as I belong to my life.

There is no house

like the house of belonging.

I belong in NY. Of that I have no doubt. But it is a wondrous experience to travel to the other side of the world only to feel, again, as if I’ve entered another House of Belonging.

See you all soon.

Losar Tashi Delek.

Jerry

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