Thursday, July 19, 2012

When I Got Arrested In China

The road into Afghanistan was right where I thought it would be. The unmarked, one lane dirt track was in the only gap between the two ridges of 16,000ft-glaciated peaks that I could see. Getting there was easy. Just an hours walk from the small town across a desolate, rocky field. But the three locals that I met on the way either gestured or told me I couldn’t go that direction. I remember about 50 words of Turkish from my semester in Ankara and their Chinese was worse than mine, so I was only half lying when I smiled, told them I didn’t understand and kept walking.

Two kilometers down the road that led to the world’s war-torn capital of opium production one of them caught up with me on his 3-wheeler. He had lost the good humor I had seen in his eyes before. He insisted I come back with him. Closely following him was another man. This one riding a motorcycle with his young son on the back. Since there were now three of them, and this boy spoke perfect Chinese, I gave up feigning ignorance and got on the 3-wheeler.

The head cop was a local. He tilted his dark head back gravely, looking down his aquiline nose at me sitting cross-legged on the dirt floor. We were in the owner of the 3-wheeler’s mud hut. The two Han officers flanking him crossed their arms over their body-armored chests. No one was smiling.

“Why are you here?” The Tajik-Chinese officer demanded in broken English.

That was a long answer.

My path to this moment began two years ago, when I spent the better part of six months learning as much as I could about this remote corner of the world. Xinjiang, the northwestern frontier of China, on whose packed earth I now sat, is home to the Uighurs; an oppressed Turkic-Muslim minority and the subject of my undergraduate thesis. 

During my last semester at Beloit Xinjiang and the Uighurs became something of an obsession. The more I learned the more I wanted to know. How could the Chinese justify their discrimination, arbitrary arrests, torture and executions? Why would the government make such obviously false claims of common ancestry and two millennia of ‘subtle administrative control’ over the Uighurs? How could a population who were being forcibly made a minority in their own homeland, whose culture was being systematically destroyed even more blatantly than Tibet’s, be so unknown to much of the rest of the world?

By the time I was handed my diploma I had found many of these answers; economically and militarily Xinjiang is crucial to China. It is one sixth of China’s total land size, contains 75% of its minerals and the majority of its coal, oil and natural gas. This huge plateau also provides a large natural buffer between Central Asia and China’s industrialized east. But there is also an ideological component. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) believes that if any kind of Uighur dissent is not dealt with swiftly and severely, then other minority groups would perceive the government as weak, rebel and the entire country would fall into chaos. So while the government dumps billions of dollars into ‘modernization’ projects (the majority of which really only benefit the Han migrants) with one hand, the other continuously swings the hammer of the one million PLA troops stationed in Xinjiang whose sole purpose is maintaining stability. And this oppression goes on with nary a peep from the West for three reasons; the Uighurs are Muslim, their resistance is not non-violent, and they don’t have a leader like the Dalai Lama.

I learned a great deal writing those 42 pages, but all my information was second hand. And though only about 10 people ever read my thesis, it felt a bit disingenuous to make such sweeping statements and claims when I had never even met a Uighur, let alone been to Xinjiang. I had never seen the Silk Road stretching into the rocky wastes of the Taklinakan Desert. Never seen for myself of segregated the cities were or what a Uighur slum looked like. And I knew my curiosity would never be sated until I did.

And now I have finally seen all of these. When I crossed the border into Xinjiang there was no celebration, no visible line we went over, but seeing the desolation of the Tarmin Basin out of the train window when I climbed down from my bunk at sunrise felt a little bit like waking up on Christmas morning (that is if you wanted to see scorching deserts and oppressed minorities on December 25).

After 30 more hours on that train we arrived in Kashgar, at the far western edge of Xinjiang. The far edge of the Chinese frontier. It is the farthest city from the sea on earth and an even more intense version of what I had imagined for the last two years. The segregation and socio-economic disparity between the Han and the Uighurs is visible in every corner and on every street. The enforced destruction of traditional dwellings in favor of massive ugly, completely generic concrete blocks can be seen on nearly every street corner. What for centuries had been the cultural melting pot and trading hub of Central Asia now in most places looks exactly like every other Chinese city.  

But despite all this the Uighurs seem far from broken. Though I haven’t been able to find any who will openly talk about politics with me, their day-to-day life seems to be filled with minor rebellions. Only a handful of the many Uighurs I have encountered will even speak Mandarin, and then only when they absolutely have to. The few Han I have seen at Uighur shops usually pay even more than I do. And, despite the massive military and police presence, and the fact that registering as Muslim puts you on a government watch list, the city's central mosque is still packed for evening prayer.

After a few days in Kashgar we continued along the Karakoram Highway out of the desert and into the sheer canyons of the Khunjerab, the ‘Valley of Blood.’ This rugged country got its name from the brutal bandits who for centuries had used the areas rugged terrain to ambush Silk Road merchants, slaughtering them and taking their cargo.

The ribbon of a road hugged the contours of a roaring stream as it wound its way up into glacial valleys, passing stunning mirrors of lakes, sand dunes and the hulking Kongur Mountain, a 24,000ft mass of ice and rock. After six spectacular hours we arrived in the last Chinese town before the Pakistani border, Kashkurgan.

After two days of wandering the five streets of the small town and the surrounding yurt-covered hillsides I decided it was time to venture a bit farther. After all, how could I forgive myself for being within 15km of Afghanistan and not trying to get a look?

“I got lost. I didn’t know I couldn’t walk here.” I told the aquiline nosed officer.

“Road… closed… not OK.” One of the Han heavies informed me.

“So I see.” I replied.

The Tajik officer said something to the other two and they promptly set about standing me up and positioning the three-wheeler and motorcycle drivers around me for photos; proof of their contribution to my arrest. The rest of the family, not wanting to be left out, insisted on also being in the shot.

When we finished a series of candid Tajik family and Travis photos, the police and I stepped outside. One of the Han officers spent a few more moments arranging me, with my bag and jacket, into a relaxed, carefree, and what I though was a bit guilty looking position. I was instructed to sit against the wall and look out towards the road I had been walking along. When he was satisfied with the composition he snapped a few more shots. China apparently subscribes to a more artistic conception of evidence than the West.

“OK! Well, so sorry for the trouble guys. I didn’t realize I couldn’t be here but I certainly know now! I’ll just be on my way.” I said with a smile and a wave, fervently hoping that the photos were all that they wanted.

“No! You come with us.” The Tajik officer commanded.

I felt my stomach drop away. The Chinese police, especially in Xinjiang, are not known for their strict adherence to human rights law, let alone civil liberties.

I rode back to the station in the middle of the back seat, a body-armed Han on either side. I did my best to swallow the fear and think. Acting as ditzy as possible, and making my Chinese even worse and more American than it already is, I tried to make small talk and play up the stupid American traveler role as best I could. It wasn’t much of a stretch.

 My companions, however, were unresponsive. Only grunting or giving one word answers to my questions about how little they liked getting wet when it was cold out and whether they were on team Edward or team Jacob.

When we got back to the Karakoram Highway we turned left. The blood drained from my face. Tashgurkan was the opposite direction. I asked where they were taking me. They just smiled darkly and said nothing.

Ten more minutes and we were pulling through the high, guarded gate of a walled-in police compound. The inside of the compound was square and about a half acre. A 5-story, imposing white building stood fortress-like in its center with a large, half-finished parking lot in front of it.

I was hustled out the car then made to empty the contents of my backpack onto the ground. The Tajik watched with approval as the camera toting Han officer took photos of my trail mix, raincoat, hat and gloves from no less than 6 angles.

My passport was then taken inside and I was left on the courtyard’s steps. The police were taking no chances though. The Tajik officer told the five loitering, assault shotgun-totting officers to watch me closely. I sat down on the steps and waited, trying not to remember the Uighur interrogation accounts I had read with such vivid clarity.

After about an hour an immaculate, white Suzuki SUV pulled up. A small, rotund and self-important looking Kazak and his assistant stepped out. It seems an almost universal truth that the suit outranks the uniform, and this round Kazak, with his shiny silver suit and pink open-collar shirt, was no exception.

The Takij officer with the aquiline nose ran out, enthusiastically clasping his superior’s indifferent hand. He gestured at me and they spoke in hushed tones. I didn’t know what to make of their interaction and how it boded for me. The Kazak looked rather bored and uninterested in what his subordinate was telling him, but whenever he looked at me it was with narrow, suspicious eyes.
After a few minutes of this the Kazak seemed to have heard enough. He waved the Tajik officer away with the kind of dismissive gesture most people reserve for insects. He walked over and stood looking down at me. Taking a deep breath, he narrowed his eyes and put one wrist on his hip. Then, lifting his free hand, he began waging a pudgy pointer finger at me and yelling in the most heavily accented Chinese I have ever heard.

I didn’t understand a thing he said. When he stopped for air I quickly interjected, with as much civility as my fear and annoyance would allow, the same story I had told the other officers.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t know I couldn’t be there. I was just going for walk for an hour or two. I’m sorry. I didn’t even know the road went to Afghanistan. I know now and it won’t happen again. Sorry.”

The Kazak considered this for a moment. Not convinced, he made me empty out my bag again and show him the pictures on my camera. Though I hadn’t taken any photos that day, he insisted that I delete all of the pictures I had taken since arriving in Tashkurgan. Incredulous, I asked him why. His face got red and he started yelling again so I shook my head and started, as slowly as possible, deleting my photos. Luckily, he lost interest after a few seconds. Wandering over to where my stuff lay, he absently buttoned his shiny silver blazer and stared at the decidedly unsuspicious contents of my bag.

After a moment his expression changed. He looked suddenly tired and disappointed. Maybe this wasn’t going to be the career making CIA spy/opium smuggler arrest he had hoped for when he first got the call. He gave me back my passport then motioned for me to pack my things and get into his car.

The Tajik who had originally brought me inwasn’t so easily convinced. He leapt forward and tugged plaintively at his boss’s sleeve, begging him to leave me at the station. If I left and turned out to be Jason Bourne then he might not get the credit he deserved! The plump Kazak was unimpressed. He shook him off while I quickly grabbed my things and got in the back seat.

The Tajik, however,  wasn’t going to give up easily. He reached through the open drivers window and kept pulling on the shiny silver sleeve and pleading with increasing desperation as the Kazak started the engine and began driving away. He seemed completely oblivious to his minion’s continued protests. I watched the Tajik’s aquiline nose bob next to my window for 50 meters as he ran along side us before finally gave up. I couldn’t help but smile, but only a little. I wasn't sure if I was out of the woods yet.

We drove the 15 minutes back into town to the main police station. I was brought through the back door and introduced to a distinguished Chinese officer at a desk. The Kazak’s abrupt change in behavior said that this new guy seriously outranked him. The two men spoke for a moment then the man behind the desk asked me, in perfect English, to repeat my story. When I had finished he looked satisfied. The Kazak left, shooting me a dirty look as he went towards the door.

The Chinese officer took me down stairs so he could make a copy of my passport, just in case. While the scanner was working a group of three very big, very serious looking men in civilian clothes walked in. They looked from me to the officer, not saying word. My host looked up from the scanner absently.

“Oh, we won’t need you anymore. He just got lost. Not a big problem.” He said in Mandarin.
Looking a bit disappointed the three men looked once more at me, then turned and left. I felt a deep shudder crawl up my spine as I watched them go.

The Chinese officer handed me back my passport. I apologized and thanked him again, then turned to go.

“No problem.” He said in his perfect English, “But it might be best if you were on tomorrow mornings bus back to Kashgar.”

I was.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Fortress of Hypocracy

“You know… if irony could kill… not many people… would survive this mountain.” I gasp.
I look at Jasper, my equally fatigued Belgium climbing companion. His eyes move from the empty bottles, candy wrappers and oxygen cans strewn over the ground to the sign, that inspiringly proclaims in white, block letters, “Love nature Protect Environment.”
Leaning over, with his hands on his knees, he shakes his head, “I doun’t care… whot they say… I’m naut paying focking… 230 kuai for this shite.”
I’m inclined to agree. And though the hypocrisy is infuriating, I know part of our animosity is just anger at ourselves for being caught, as we were, without tickets. But only part.
Kawagarbo (Meili Xue Shan in Mandarin) may be the most magnificent mountain I have ever seen- dominating the alpine skyline like some glaciated, ethereal fortress ripped from the pages of a fantasy novel- but the corrupt fat-cat bureaucrats who sell the tickets certainly didn’t build it, and they sure as hell aren’t maintaining it.
And that just sucks. This soaring peak is one of the holiest mountains in Tibetan Buddhism; a throne upon which supposedly sits the powerful warrior god of the same name. Tibetans believe that if man ever transgresses upon its summit the warrior god will leave, and that his departure will be accompanied by all manner of cataclysmic events.
Luckily for them, despite 7 attempts by both Japanese and American expeditions, no one has ever made it to the top. A nighttime avalanche during an attempt in 1991 saw all 17 members of that Japanese-Chinese team killed in one of the deadliest mountaineering accidents in history. Now, due to its religious significance, it is illegal to climb the peak.
But the while Kawagarbo itself is off limits, the area surrounding it is turning into a tourist magnet. The villages of Upper and Lower Yubeng, nestled in a stunning, forested valley near the base of the mountain, are at the center of this storm. And our refuse littered trail is the most direct route to get there.
This saddle, with its forest of prayer flags rippling over the sea of garbage and pine needles, marks the end of our last climb of the day. We started hiking 9 hours ago, at 8:30am, taking a small trail that dropped 2,400ft to the headwaters of the Mekong River. Then, after sating ourselves on dumplings and Snickers bars, we continued across the river to the trailhead, then 3,000ft up the opposite side of the valley. 
It wasn’t the most direct or the fastest route, but we had heard that if we went this way, we could avoid the ticket offices. We heard wrong.
Though our furious power walk almost got us past the ticket office at the trailhead unnoticed, at the last second a shrill 20-something and her screaming baby saw us and sprinted over. A series of inspired lies, and shamelessly taking advantage of every culture weakness my three trips to China have taught me, managed to get us through the encounter without paying. However, we were promised that if we didn’t present or buy tickets at the office in Yubeng ‘there would be consequences.’
Our ruse had, however, bought us an extra 4 hours to think of a way around this unjust expense. But, despite our best oxygen-depleted efforts, we couldn’t think of any realistic way to get away without paying. And as Occam’s razor cleaved each new and more convoluted idea asunder, our anger and depression, along with the piles of trash along the sides of the trail, grew.
Brainstorming gave way to self-entitled bitching.
Oh sure, it was no problem to build ticket offices and hire people to wait at every entrance in order to ensure that no poor traveler could get in without paying the rough PPP equivalent of $180, but god forbid these selfless bureaucrats use that money for anything other than furthering their own personal enrichment.
I mean, why not just push the concept of irony to its breaking point and become the utter antithesis the egalitarian leaders that Marx had envisioned? Is it too much to ask that a little of that money is put back into the mountain? But no, that might mean these socialist champions of the people, their immense forms reclining on ornate day beds in their Kunming penthouses, with imported Swiss chocolate smeared across their quivering jowls, would have a little less extorted money to gamble and launder out of the country through Macau. With less ill gotten Yuan they might not even be able to -in the middle of one of the worst droughts in decades- get their brand new Audis washed every single day by their conniving man-servants. And if that inalienable right of power and privilege were lost, then what was next? If that domino fell then how could they even be sure that their Lacoste-clad butterball children would be able to have even the most basic of comforts, like the latest smartphone and iPad? No, that would simply be going too far. That is one slippery slope that, thankfully, a one party authoritarian system has allowed these Jabba the Hutts to avoid.
Now, thoroughly impressed with our own vast insight and moral superiority (our anger, of course, had nothing to do with the fact that the cost of the ticket might cut into our beer funds), Jasper and I now broadened our gaze from Yunnan’s politicians to the Chinese system as a whole.
We decided that it is that same insecure, one party system that, like a jealous lover who doesn’t let her whipped partner even look at the other girls, is the cause of most of China’s woes.
Though the centuries old concept of the Mandate of Heaven still gives the highest levels of government in Beijing credibility among the masses, no one even tries to deny that the country is riddled with large-scale local- and provincial-level corruption. An AIDS prison camp that was set up to hide the local government’s responsibility in Henan’s HIV explosion, and a reinforced concrete cap placed on an ancient Silk Road well because of the local party leaders acquisition of a bottled water company, are just two examples among thousands.
The central government claims to despise this type of corruption, and, in one sense, I believe them (though I think it’s more of a ‘sorry we got caught’ than a ‘sorry that it happened’)- the corruption seriously undermines their legitimacy and represents a real and growing danger to the continuity of their power- but what can they do? Encouraging citizens to report corruption helps, but local police often arrest troublemakers before they can get to Beijing. An anti-corruption bureau would seem an obvious answer but it, by definition, would need to be independent of the power structure of the Party. And, by the Chinese Communist Party’s calculus, creating such an organization could risk that new entity becoming a more popular and attractive alternative than the government it was created to monitor. Severely punishing a few high-profile perpetrators may have helped a little, but until the culture of such compartmentalized and potent authority is fundamentally changed, Lord Acton’s words about absolute power corrupting absolutely will continue to ring true.
“I’m naut gauing to pay… they can kick me out, but I’m naut suppoorting this.”
Again, I agree with Jasper that this is ridiculous. But though I have no interest in being complicit in such flagrant and immoral profiteering (or losing some of my beer money), the last hour of analysis and wining has reminded me of a fact so fundamental it is can easily be lost in the details; China is, on a very fundamental level, different than the West.
Their imperial form of government hasn’t really changed for last 5,000 years (though have been calling it something else for the last 70). There are no elections. No low-level need for the opaque, Kafka-esque bureaucracy to prove their usefulness to the people. No one in power here gives a shit what you think of them. Not unless you have several million armed, angry peasants with you. And even then they would probably just send the army.
“I’m with you man, but I think that they would probably just have the police pick you up when you came down. They’d keep you in jail overnight, and then just make you pay a huge fine (read bribe). It’s China.”
Jasper takes a deep breath, looks away and doesn’t say anything.
In another 20 minutes we arrive at the ticket office on the trail just before Yubeng. 2 local adolescents briskly step out and ask to see our tickets. They have obviously already been warned to be on the lookout for two grungy, bearded young foreigners. Thankfully, Jasper seems to have decided that his rebellion, though completely justified, wouldn’t solve anything. He sits back and lets me try to handle it. After ten minutes of trying all manner of excuses and stories, I give up and digress into bargaining.
Though the situation sucks, it’s impossible to be angry at the 2 teenagers. By the end they are apologetic and, from what they say, the villagers hate the sleazy local officials and their negligence more than we do. But they have a job to do. In the end we get away with half-price student tickets. Plus there is also an additional 5 Yuan fee that the villagers collect for helping keep the village clean. Feeling a bit less defeated, we pay and continue down the trail.
Coming around the last bend, we are greeted by the most idyllic mountain village that I have ever seen. The ring of traditional packed-earth Tibetan homes, tucked against the forested cliff on the east side of the narrow valley, quickly gives way to radiantly green terraces dotted with pink cherry blossoms and pine trees. All this against a backdrop of towering, knife-edged peaks. Their white, ragged blades stabbing up into the red, flaming clouds and deep purple sky of the sunset.
Not only is the view spectacular, but the village is immaculate, not a candy wrapper or bottle in sight. The contrast between this utopia and the eroded, litter-strewn trail couldn’t be much starker. The altitude seems to have rarefied attitudes along with the air.
When we descend two days later with a motley group of Chinese travelers, we take a different path. This trail, running through forests and narrow fields filled with grazing Yaks, is almost as clean as the village. And, to our horror, by the time we get to the van that our new Chinese friends have organized, we haven’t passed one ticket office.
At the end of the trail, as we wait for the rest of our group to catch up, we lie down to rest on a rickety bridge that stretches over the muddy waters of the Mekong. I wonder aloud to Jasper why it is that in this country, which some analysts have claimed has a purer form of capitalism than America, the monetary cost of experiences seems to be inversely proportionate to their quality. He shrugs and closes his eyes. “I don’t know man. Like you said, it’s China.”

Saturday, April 28, 2012


I was supposed to be in Xinjiang by now, up on the high steps of China’s northwestern frontier. I was supposed to be sitting on wool carpets in the earthen houses of the Tarmin Basin, discussing- in Turkish or English, but certainly not Mandarin- the racist policies of the Chinese Communist Party. My company was to be Uighurs. Turkic Muslim’s who, during the lulls in conversation, would look longingly towards the western horizon and the independent central Asian states that lay just beyond. Remembering their two brief stints of independence and still nurturing a shadow of a hope.

 But when I look out my window I don’t see the bleak expanse of the Gobi Desert. When I walk down the street I don’t see the Caucasian Muslims, whose culture, history and politics I spent my last 4 months of college engrossed in. I see a sea of grey, red and glass apartment buildings backed by pale blue skies and rugged snow capped peaks. I see tour buses loaded with Han sightseers decked out in the latest outdoors gear. I see Tibetan women selling homemade Yak yogurt and cheese. I see Shangri-La, and it has sucked me in.

When I got off the overnight bus from Kunming 3 weeks ago and made my way over to Kailah’s apartment in the Eastern Tibetan Training Institute (ETTI) building, I was only planning on staying for 2 nights. If I was going to get up to Xinjiang, and see everything that I wanted to along the way, there was no time to dilly-dally, even if it my host was a fellow Beloiter. But 2 nights turned into 5, and after a bike ride around the base of 15,000ft granite peaks, a morning of teaching the pronunciation of landscape adjectives to 16 Tibetan teenagers, discovering 20-cent Yak dumplings, AND Kailah’s generous invitation to stay, I decided that Xinjiang could wait. This city is just too interesting.

The City

 Despite the sense of ancient mysticism that the name invokes, Shangri-La has only existed for about 10 years. Before that it was Zhongdian, a one yak, backwater town sitting in a 10,000ft high valley on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. Its metamorphosis into the tourist behemoth that it has become began when some savvy government officials received permission from Beijing to change the town’s name. By agreeing to also use the name Shangri-La for the entire county, these officials appeased their competing neighbors and won the official right to the mantel of the mythological Buddhist kingdom. A kingdom which legend describes as an esoteric and enlightened place; a place where jade palaces are said to float above a hidden valley at the base of a crystal mountain.

To legitimize this new title, ‘experts’ where brought in to verify that Zhongdian was in fact the basis for the mythical Buddhist paradise that James Hilton popularized in his 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. The fact that Lost Horizon was a work of fiction, and that Hilton had never actually made it to China, hasn’t deterred 3 million Chinese tourists from descending on the city’s old town and monasteries every year.

Despite the huge growth the city has experienced as it tries to keep up with the exploding tourist industry, it remains relatively small. With 130,000 residents it is barely more than a village by Chinese standards, but that’s the best part of it. That, and that there’s almost no pollution. I didn’t think you could find either of those things in China anymore.

 The School

 Since the Chinese government doesn’t allow any foreign NGOs to operate within the Tibetan Autonomous Region (Tibet as we see it on a political map), Shangri-La has become something of a Mecca for NGOs that target Tibetans. It sits at the far northwestern corner of Yunnan, next to Tibet, has a population that is roughly 40% Tibetan, and is easily accessible by bus and plane.

Within the relatively large community of NGOs and civil society organizations in Shangri-La, ETTI enjoys something of a crown jewel status. It is funded by USAID and AusAID, and was written up in National Geographic and featured on the popular Australian T.V. show, Foreign Correspondent.

 ETTI’s mission is to train Tibetan youth in the skills that they need to take advantage of the regions surging tourism market. As it stands, skilled migrants take the majority of high paying hospitality work, while local minorities, the area’s main attraction, are left working menial labor jobs with no real stake in the presentation or future of their culture.

 ETTI provides its student’s with the skills necessary to succeed in the industry through several intensive training programs, all free of charge. They have also achieved a very respectable 95% employment-on-graduation rate for the students of their flagship Youth Pre-Employment Training (YPET) course. But, despite its relative success and fame, ETTI is still plagued by the same scourge as almost every other NGO; a lack of funding.

The first week I was here in the ETTI compound I did some projects write-ups and edits to try and regain some sense of the productivity and usefulness that I have been missing since I left India. It went well, so I figured that when I decided to stay for the rest of the month it wouldn’t be much of an issue to get a small living stipend in exchange for my office work and for helping teach English classes. It was. Even my third and final offer of 500 yuan (roughly $76) for a month of full-time work was beyond ETTI’s budget.

Still, I wanted to stay and help. The only thing was that I couldn’t justify doing so without having some sort of income. So I went to old town.

The Bar

The first place I checked at was a guesthouse run by one of Kailah’s friends. Xiao Chun was very nice, but working 12 hours a day cleaning toilets and floors in a dark restaurant for $80 a month wasn’t quite worth staying for. I thanked her and moved on.

Next I did a trial night as a kitchen assistant at one of the nicer of the Tibetan restaurants that clutter the cobble stone back alleys of old town. They liked me and wanted me to stay, and I would have -working in an all-Mandarin kitchen would have been great for my Chinese- but the next morning I heard back from Jason at The Raven.

 The Raven had always been my first choice; this cozy, candle lit bar, with its packed earth walls, uneven wood floor, and timbered ceiling is THE cool, smoky, local bar. Jason, who, in his leather biking jacket and old Dr. Martin boots could easily win an Iggy Pop look-alike contest, originally came from London and has spent the last ten years running The Raven and a tour company. The tour company, as Jason puts it, is a necessity. It pays for the remarkable amounts of alcohol that he drinks with his posse of western academics, Tibetan tour guides and nomads during the six nights a week the Raven is open. After hanging out there on one of my first nights in town, I remember thinking it would be an dream place to work.

And on that morning after working as a kitchen assistant, that dream came true. I called the very nice, and very stylish, French/Chinese couple that run the Tibetan restaurant, told them I had found another job, then went down to The Raven at 6:30pm for my first shift.

 That was 2 weeks ago, and though my liver and circadian rhythm may not feel the same way, I think this may be the best job I have ever had. I get paid to ply iPhone toting Chinese tourists and grungy foreign hippies with booze and chat with them until 4am.

 And everyone comes to The Raven. Last night at 11pm, going clockwise around the room, there was a group of American college students on an SIT program, a Harvard-trained Tibetan professor, who was talking about the research grant he got to study the morphology of ogre folktales on the plateau, a group of 20-something trust fund endowed Hans, throwing shot glasses full of 3% alcohol beer into their red, perspiring faces, and the Shanghai bureau chief for the New York Times, who sipped at a Coke while he told me about the month he had spent investigating Apple’s Chinese supply chain.

Leaving this utopia in two weeks for the long, desolate road to Xinjiang is not going to be easy.  

Paradise and Shangri-La

Stumbling the 4km back home after last call each night takes me through the deserted cobbled streets of old town and across the asphalt border into the sprawl of modern Shangri-La. The only people I pass on my way through the center of new town are taxi drivers slurping noodles, loitering police and drunken revelers stumbling out of karaoke bars.

 Turning off Shambala Ave. onto Kailah’s road is like stepping into Enter the Void; the entire block is filled with hotels whose 5 floors blaze with flashing neon tubes and 10ft tall back-lit Chinese characters. The inebriated excitement of the men scurrying into the marble entrances, along with the heavy make-up of the women sitting in the lobby, make me fairly certain that these hotels offer hourly rates. I don’t think the western ‘experts’ saw this when they came.
Each night, after quietly shutting the apartment door, drinking a liter of water and slipping in to bed, I feel the same way. Though it is far more multifaceted than Hilton’s description, and there are no floating jade palaces or crystal mountains, for many people, from the Tibetan nomads studying at ETTI to the exhilarated Han tourists in the neon-lit hotels, and maybe even for me, Shangri-La does seem like something close to paradise.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The In-Between

From my seat on an over-turned flowerpot atop this half demolished building, I can see all of Kunming. The surging crest of the steel and glass waves of modernity that silhouette themselves with light against the mountains to the north; the villages, markets and dilapidated apartment buildings that ooze out in organic, meandering lines across the flood plains.

This rooftop is the first real island of quiet that I have found since touching down in Yunnan two weeks ago. The first real peace.

It has been more than 4 years since I was last in China. A lot has changed. I’m no longer a bumbling Beloit College junior looking for my first experiential impressions of the Middle Kingdom. Impressions that I could superimpose on the dozens of hours of academic research and writing I had done on this ‘communist’ juggernaut. I’m still searching for insight, but this time it is of a different sort. The kind that is not chained to a grade or a desperate search for validation and legitimacy.

China has changed too. Things are more expensive. People are a little less impressed by tall, balding foreigners mumbling at them in Mandarin. Things seem to be moving faster and with more confidence. Like me, the country seems a little more self-assured. A little more aware.

Up here, on the rubble-strewn roof, the wail of this New York City-sized metropolis has become a distant hum. It feels like the city’s screams for attention are, for the moment, directed at one less person. Even 5 days ago, when I was 15,000ft up on a glaciated peak, it didn’t feel like this. This dark space. This in-between. Alone and forgotten.

Though aged and decrepit, the husks that litter the city’s southern flats are anything but empty. The hodgepodge of added balconies, clotheslines and window dressings give testament to the living force that is the thousands of human lives that grow and move within their walls. It is the people in these hives- with all of their creativity, love, hate and, more than anything else, ambition- that drive this country forward.

It was that intense ambition that forged the city to the north. The steel and glass that, despite its technical and aesthetic advancements, still has the same feeling of transience that bleeds from the fissures running through the broken-down apartment blocks.

All the buildings that I see in both directions are shells, not homes, impermanent and disposable. A means to an end. One more stepping-stone along the way to an unseen bank.

That chaotic, messy, little-understood ambition is a motive force alone. A river that is racing downhill but hasn’t yet found a sea.

I couldn’t see any of this from the streets; it’s all too close down there. I saw the rush and felt the drive, and couldn’t help but be swept up in the hustle and bustle, but it’s like trying to see where that river is heading while getting half-drowned in its torrent. I had to get away from it first. To step back and separate. To pull myself free so that I could glimpse it in its entirety. It’s now that I see that the seething mass of humanity, the one that seemed to be racing in a million directions, all seems to be moving the same way.

The half demolished sanctuary under my feet shares the same ephemeral quality as all the other buildings around it, only in a more immediate sense; in a few months it will look just like all the other bare, rubble strewn patches blotched across this provincial capital that I biked past to get here.

But for now it sits in the shadow of the city. A dark patch that, for the time being, is of no real use to anyone but me. An acre at most, visible only by the reflected light of the city and the almost extinguished memory of what it once was. The building is checked often enough to keep out the vagrants, but this skeleton is no longer important enough to anyone to station a full-time watchman.

Stepping out of the torrent of China seems to only be possible so close to its beating heart. Only here, in the ambiguity of its masses, are things moving and changing fast enough that there are pockets of peace. Places that have outlived their use and not yet been reconstituted into the ameba of modern, urban China.

No one was with us at 15,000ft on Mt. Haba –me, the 25-year-old British baker and the 24-year-old American musician who had, after a 15 minutes conversation in a cafĂ© 10 days ago, agreed to let me come on their ascent – but up there we were on a well-used trail at the end of an active conduit of tourism; we were supposed to be there. Kunming’s many parks are filled with enormous trees and beautiful flowers, but they are all planted in neat rows. The only thing wild and unchecked in this city seems to be the fanatical drive of its residents.

Only on the remains of this cell that has out-lived its purpose to the organism does the specter of meaninglessness scare away enough traffic for quiet to pervade. For an island, however impermanent, to exist that allows space for the questions of why and where. Where does this force lead? And why is there such a perceived imperative in the Chinese psyche for them to throw themselves into the surge?

I have read a great many books and articles over the last 6 years written by experts and China watchers who have tried to answer this, and maybe some of them will end up being right. But from my vantage point on this fractured flowerpot, it seems that the people in this flood are the only ones who can truly answer those questions. And that they haven’t yet.

Until enough of them can extricate themselves from the flood for long enough to really ask what it is they are working towards, their collective howl will answer ‘just a little bit more!’ Until that changes, and not just here in China, the result will continue to be blind, reckless, unchecked and unsustainable growth, for its own sake.

In a few months, maybe less, the short life cycle of this already half-destroyed apartment building will come to its end and a new edifice will replace it. The lives and stories that made it more than just the sum of its parts, more than just a mass of rebar, concrete, aluminum and glass, have moved on, and what remains will be reduced to filler to be dumped into the fresh foundations of new buildings. New fabrications that will undoubtedly be equally short lived.

I rise from my seat and let my eyes rest, one last time, on the hazy line that is the northern shore of the lake, floating at the southern horizon. My eyes trace the line of a highway from the waters edge up through the heart of the city, watching it twist through the forest of 70-story mirrors, then finally disappearing into the darkness of the northern foothills.

After picking my way down the steps and past the chunks of concrete littering the hallway, I retrieve my borrowed bike from behind a graffiti-etched wall. Through an empty window frame I see a different view; the sun, sunk below the steel arc of a massive Ferris wheel, as it slowly traces its endless circles into the orange sky.

Peddling away from that dark island and through the small alleys, lined with garbage and rubble, onto cleaner avenues, which in turn merge into broader boulevards, the noise of the city rises in volume and becomes more accusatory. More demanding. The pull of the city becomes stronger and stronger, until I finally reach the highway and swing the bike into the crowded, motley stream of commuters moving north, coming back from work to their temporary homes.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

How to be Me

The simple answer is being a cheap bastard with everything and having the right

The question is one which I have been asked a dozens of times, 5 of those in the last few weeks; how do I travel as much as I do and have the experiences that I do, like working for a small Indian NGO for 5 months, without having a job or a hefty inheritance?

I learned most of what I know about travel the hard way. Through a long road of trial and error that has included some of the most wonderful and defining moments of my life, but which has also been tempered by more cultural faux pas and awkward situations than I care to remember.

Though there are as many ways of dealing with travel and new experiences as there are of dealing with life, here are some of the methods that have been the most valuable for me; many of which I wish someone could have told me. And though every country presents different challenges and opportunities, these are some of the universally applicable lessons that my travels across 6 continent and 36 countries have taught me.

Decide to Go

This is the single hardest part of any trip, after doing it everything else is easy. Making this decision means switching your mindset from can I go, to how can I go? This is both a giant leap and a tiny shift.

Most of the time when people have asked me how I get to travel as much as I do, and I tell them how easy and cheap it can be and that they should try it too, I get a list, sometimes a very creative one, of all the excuses for why they can’t possibly do it: “I would miss home.” “It costs money.” “I need to focus on a career.” “I don’t speak another language.” “Other people would judge me for being an American.” “I have to wash my hair this weekend.” Etc, etc,.

All of these may be true (though I have never been judged negatively just for being an American), but if you actually want to travel none of these reasons should stop you. And if you put half of the energy that these people put into thinking of the negatives for why they couldn’t go and instead put it into figuring out how you can, you will be amazed how fast things fall into place.

Yes, there will be challenges but that’s the fun of travel. Once you have decided that you are going and stop looking at the reasons that might prohibit you, and start looking for solutions to how you can, it is incredible how easy it all becomes. But without taking this first step and making the decision that you will be going, real international travel remains an unattainable, impossible feat.

Buy a Ticket

I don’t think I have ever paid more than $1,000 for a round trip ticket anywhere, except to New Zealand. That’s not to say these tickets are easy to find but that if you look around, and wait for deals on different websites, you can go almost anywhere for less than a grand.

And don’t just check the big sites like Travelocity or Priceline, they don’t include all of the airlines. Also make sure to check the sites of the individual carriers that fly the routes to your destination.

As a general rule, once you pick out where you want to end up, look at tickets to all the major cities in that region. There are low-cost carriers for nearly every part of the world and it can be substantially cheaper to fly to a city 1,500 miles away from where you want to end up, and then just get a cheap puddle jumper to your final destination.

For Asia, the best deals I have found on getting here are with China Airlines. For a little extra money they give you either a 6-month or 12-month flexible return date tickets that are perfect if you don’t have a set date that you have to be back by. For getting around Asia, AirAsia is usually the cheapest way, though China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines sometimes have real good prices too. Just don’t expect 5-star service.

Europe is even easier. Once you arrive there are several carriers like Ryan Air that can get you across the continent for less than 20 Euros, if you book far enough ahead.
It is well worth the time to spend 10 minutes on Google figuring out what low-cost local carriers operate where you are going. But depending on how adventurous you are feeling you might want to check to make sure that the one you pick is not on the UN black list, especially for African airlines.

Tourist vs. Traveler

A tourist is one of the people you see in the wanna-be-reporter vests and New Balances, getting on and off air-conditioned tour buses at national monuments. They always stick close to the guide for fear of being abducted by terrorists or touched by poor people. They eat at bad, fixed menu restaurants, stay in 5-star hotels, take photos at prescribed locations, then go back home, probably without ever meeting a person unrelated to the tourism industry.

A traveler, on the other hand, usually gets out of the major cities as fast as possible and as far away from the tourists as they can. They take local transport or hitchhike to get around, and (gasp!) eat the street food. They stay in fleabag hotels and guesthouses, when they are not staying with families they have met, and they carry with them only the essentials that they can fit into a backpack.

Along with being far more interesting, engaging and fun, being a traveler costs a fraction of what being a tourist does. My budget here in Nepal is right around $10 a day for everything; food, housing, transport and activities. When you are spending this kind of money you can easily make up the cost of the plane ticket in a few weeks, when you compare it to the cost of living in the USA.

Work for an NGO

How to find and work for an NGO in another country is the question I have gotten the most often since I have arrived in Asia.

The NGO I worked for in India I found through family connections, but from what I learned there, and have seen and heard from others, you certainly don’t need to know someone before hand to get a volunteer job just about wherever you want.

Before I decided to volunteer for BFTW in India, I did a lot of research into different NGOs and ways to volunteer in different countries. What I found was a little disheartening. There is no shortage of organizations ready and willing to have you come and volunteer with them- provided you want to dish out a few thousand dollars for ‘administrative costs.’ I’m happy to volunteer my time to a worthy cause, but I am not going to pay someone thousands of my hard earned dollars to do what I could get paid for back home.

It is easy to see why these organizations do this. A lot of people want to come and help but don’t have the time to commit to learning enough about the organization to help in ways other than doing menial tasks or manual labor. However, there is no shortage of manual labor in underdeveloped countries. No shortage of workers who will do twice what you can in a day and three times as fast.

So how do you justify bringing in rich white people to do work when doing so will take jobs away from the local communities that you are trying to help? You charge them a ton of money, let them feel good about themselves for getting their hands dirty for 2 weeks, then use the money that they gave you to do the real work.

What underdeveloped countries do lack are educated minds that have grown up in an efficient system who have a willingness and knowledge of how to think creatively and problem solve. And everyone I know who reads this blog has more than enough of that to be an asset to an NGO.

The best way to find an NGO is to first pick where you want to go then do some research to see what the issues in that community are, and see if you can find any organizations that are dealing with problems that interest you. If you don’t find any NGOs don’t be discouraged. Most grass-roots level NGOs don’t have the time, money or knowledge to make a good, easy to find website.

Do your research on the local issues and see if you can come up with some solutions to the problems you find that you think you have the skills to implement, then get on the plane. Once you arrive in-country start asking around about organizations that might be doing what your interested in. Churches, orphanages and community centers are a good place to start but ask everyone you meet, you never know who might have a friend who rehabilitates child drug-addicts.

After you find a place, do what you would do for any job you are trying to get; go talk to them and tell them what you can do and what you want to do. Most small NGOs are so understaffed and underfunded that they will take any warm body that can walk in the door and wants to work. Just don’t expect to get paid.

If you can’t find any organization doing what you want to do you can always start one. Go find some community leaders that have the credibility to get your project off the ground and convince them to help you.

Just remember to stay open minded. Don’t be the white imperialist who soars down from ‘The West’ to save the savages who don’t know how to save themselves. It helps to have a plan but don’t get so set on your solution that you lose perspective. Make sure to talk to people and ask what they need and what they think the best way to get it would be. They know better than you do what will help them, even if they don’t know exactly how to go about getting it.


Be flexible. This is probably the single most important bit of advice I can impart to anyone who wants to travel. It is very important to remember that things don’t work in the rest of the world the same way they do in the USA. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing; why would you fly halfway around the world to experience the same thing you left behind?

This flexibility applies to everything from day to day plans to the larger plans and goals for the trip. It is painful to see the tourists who have planned out there entire trip down to the minute, because in doing so they are limiting their experience to what they already know, there is no room for the unknowns that are the heart and soul of travel. It’s fine to have goals and a list of things you want to see, but stay open enough that if something cool comes up you have the freedom to take advantage of it.

Without exception the best and most memorable experiences I have had traveling have come from the completely unexpected. If my bus hadn’t broken down, causing me to flag down a passing mini-van on a desolate stretch of road in eastern Turkey, I would never have met the Kurds who I ended up staying with for 3 days. If I had had a set itinerary I would never have met the Georgian family who fed me, then took me 2 hours up a mountain to get drunk at their grandmothers grave in celebration of her life, before getting their friend to give me a ride to the border. Had I been too set in my original plans, me and Taylor would never have made the 3 day ride to a remote coastal village in Indonesia that is one of the last whaling villages on Earth. Tonight I leave for a 5-day mountain ascent with two expats, who live here in Kunming, that I met yesterday at a noodle house.

It can be uncomfortable at first to give up the illusion of control over your plans, but you will save yourself countless headaches caused by canceled buses and ferries, inane and widely inefficient systems and incompetent bureaucrats.

In my experience, travel rewards flexibility far more than any other attribute.

“This too shall pass.”

There will inevitably be times when you feel like you want nothing more than to get on a plane and get the hell out of this godforsaken country. I have not had a trip where I didn’t feel this way at least once. But what makes us better people is the ability to face the adversity and challenges that life slaps us in the face with, learn from them, and come out the other side better because of it. It is not through comfort and ease that we grow as human beings. It is through pushing ourselves past our comfort zones and throwing ourselves into new trials that we cannot easily see a way out of. The process of hitting rock-bottom and building yourself back up through your own will power and sense of self brings with it a real and lasting confidence that cannot easily be undermined.

I have spent most of my short adult life traveling. The places I have seen, people I have met and challenges I have overcome have had a more profound and indelible impact on the person I that have become than any other aspect of my life. I can honestly say that I feel like I could be dropped in just about any inhabited place on the planet and do just fine. This is not because there is anything inherently special about me; it is because I have, through experience, seen just how easy it is to see the world when you decide that you want to.

Nepal: Country on a Ridge

“Her name is Lenin.” He smiled proudly, pointing at the youngest girl in the photo.


“How do you spell th-…” I trail off, realizing mid-way through that this is a stupid question to ask a Nepali villager who told me 5 minutes ago that he was illiterate and had never been in a classroom before.

“…You mean like, Bolshevik, Russian Communist, 1917 October Revolution? That Lenin?”
“I think so. A week after she was born she got sick so we had to take her to the Maoist hospital in Dhunche (the nearest town, a full days walk away since there are no roads).” Dorjee explained. “They asked her name and we said she didn’t have one yet, so the doctor asked if he could name her and we said OK.”

“And the doctor picked Lenin?”


“Well, I think that’s a great name for your youngest daughter.” I say, biting my cheek so hard my eyes start to water and handing him back the photo.
He beams.

I had staggered up to the front door of Dorjee’s guesthouse about 2 hours before he showed me this family photo. A Korean tourist had taken the picture and then sent a copy back to him.

At first he had seemed a little apprehensive of this exhausted, unshaven foreigner hiking so late and by himself. I don’t blame him; I wasn’t looking my best. And I don’t think my ragged “Namaste!,” which sounded more like a death rattle than a greeting, helped my case much either.

This being my tenth day of trekking in Langtang National Park, I had decided that I should really push it and try to get to a village 25km away. Starting that morning I had descended 7,200ft over 16km down a valley, then turned off onto switchbacks that climbed up 3,100ft over 5km. It was steep.

The sun was starting to set when I came upon Dorjee’s guesthouse. I decided that, as the size of my blisters were now about equal to that of my ego, it was time to call it a day.

Despite my appearance he had taken pity on me and showed me to a room, and after lying down for a few minutes and throwing some water on my face, I felt human enough to go down and try for a second impression.

As we sit on the old utilitarian wooden bench outside the kitchen, Dorjee carefully places the family photo back into a cellophane sleeve. We watch the pink and gold light of the setting sun fade from the western Himalayan slopes across the steep, glacial valley from where we sit. He sighs.

He tells me that it is his dream that his three children do what he couldn’t and receive an education. Things are going well for now and he can just afford tuition costs, he says. But the local school only goes up to Class 10 and, after that, he will have to send his kids to Kathmandu if he wants them to finish their schooling and he doesn’t know how he can y get the money to do that.

As we retreat from the evening cool into the cramped, smoky kitchen where his wife is cooking our dinner of rice, potatoes and dhal, he sighs again, “What to do? Our guesthouse is off the main trail and not many people stop here.” Through the window I watch the last rays of sunlight vanish from the top of the ridge.

In many ways modern Nepal mirrors that rugged Himalayan ridge. Geographically is sits perched atop a chain of mountains that comprises 8 of the 10 world’s highest peaks, sandwiched between two rising economic superpowers. To the north is the assertive, authoritarian juggernaut of China; the country that gave birth to the Maoist ideology espoused by Nepal’s ruling political party and the greatest economic success story in human history. Below Nepal to the south lies the bureaucratic, lumbering, but quickly accelerating, democratic subcontinent of India; the birthplace of both of Nepal’s major religions and its biggest trading partner. Indians and Nepalis don’t even need visas to live or work in each other’s countries.

Both China and India seem to be competing in a charm and development offensive in Nepal, with each country trying to outdo the other in number of roads and hydropower plants that they build for the Nepalis. Never mind that they insist on purchasing so much of the power generated by Nepal’s rivers that residents of Kathmandu regularly go without power for up to 16 hours a day (I don’t know of any other national capital that can boast that). Or that, strategically, many of the roads that India and China build look like little more than invasion corridors aimed at each others northern and southern borders. Nepal is in a precarious position.

True, Nepalis are, for the moment, benefiting from this competition. But with lower than 50% literacy and having 85% of its 30 million people making less than $2 a day, there is little that Nepal can do but play nice and hope the world’s only 2 population billionaires do the same.

Economically, Nepal also seems to run along a ridge. Tourism is the single biggest contributor to Nepal’s GDP and, with the vast majority of travelers coming to Nepal to trek among its peaks, its mountains are the backbone of this economy. With the areas that serve these trekkers functioning as the nerve centers that supply the capital that keeps much of the rest of the country functioning.

This ridge starts in Kathmandu. The capital city has the only international airport in the country as well as the tourist ghetto Thamel; a packed, haphazard collection of alleyways that boasts 2,500 tourism-related businesses within just 5 square kilometers. This is the base camp from which nearly all tourist set out. From Kathmandu, the ridge traverses from east to west to reach several high points; Everest Base Camp, the Annapurna circuit and Langtang.

Together these 3 trekking areas make up 90% of the treks done in Nepal, and within these areas I would guess that at least 70% of the trekkers stay at the handful of villages and guesthouses mentioned as suggested waypoints in guide books like Lonely Planet.

This gives a whole new meaning to the old real estate saying that the 3 things that matter most are location, location and location. It puts the very small number of Nepalis with either enough money, or, and more often, with ancestral land rights, in a very good position. And it leaves a lot of less fortunate villagers, like Dorjee, left trying to battle uphill, through their shadow.

The concentrated floods of foreign cash that these areas produce have also created interesting localized and cyclical economies, which are based around these villages. They are micro-economies that, like side trails or day hikes, may deviate slightly from the ridge or trail, but always end up joining back up with the main route.

Take the village of Langtang for example. It is the largest of around half a dozen communities that lie along the main Langtang trail. A trail that leads up a gorgeous alpine valley to the base of its 21,000ft namesake, along with a score of cirques and glacial moraines, all of which are walled in by a ring of jagged, snow-covered peaks.
The village itself is made up of maybe 50 homes, at least 20 of which are guesthouses. Everyone, almost without exception, who lives there and doesn’t own or work in a guesthouse is either a farmer, a Yak herder or a porter. The farmers and Yak herders sell their produce and dairy products to the guesthouses, who then substantially mark up the prices and then sell them on to the tourists. The porters, trudging up the steep, rocky trails- their 100-130lbs loads of everything from rice to toilet paper tied into bamboo baskets and held up with a nylon strap pushed across their forehead- follow the same formula.

Different paths can, and often do, come up and join this monetary ridge. They come in the form of the guides and baggage porters form other regions who come to toil under these tourist’s brand name and brand new, over-priced and over-stuffed bags. To toil while the trekkers themselves huff and puff under their half-full day packs and complain that they can’t understand why they are getting altitude sickness when they are only drinking a liter and a half of water a day while hiking at 10,000+ft- “I just don’t know why I should drink if I don’t feel thirsty…”

These guides and porters send their money back to the bereaved families and communities that they left behind. The communities that are not lucky enough to have these soaring peaks right outside their back doors.

Like any ridge ours is a narrow one; it can’t fit everyone. The supply of guides and porters already outstrips the demand for their services, leaving few options for those not lucky enough to get and keep a good foothold.

Many of those that can’t break into this tight market, like Da Rinji Sherpa -a Nepali man with a high pitched voice whom I met on a train out of Varanasi- roll down the slope and end up working in the resource-rich states of the Persian Gulf.
Da Rinji makes good money. Money that he earns working as a truck driver at the Shell oil refinery in Qatar that he is able to send back to his wife and children. But he can only return home for 4 months every 2 years, and his income falls well short of the $60 a day his friends get for guiding treks.

Through the cloud of these reflections an epiphany strikes, snapping my attention back to the present-

“iPhone and camera cases!”

“What?” Asks Dorjee.

“iPhone and camera cases.” I repeat. “That’s what you should sell.”

It was obvious that he needed more money if he was going to educate his kids, but even if I had that kind of money that I could give him, I don’t believe that the dependency and sense of inferiority such gift creates are usually beneficial in the long run. And how do you know your money is actually going to the school?

So I had been staring at the stove that we were all huddled around, trying to force my fatigue-addled brain to think of some untapped economic niche he could fill.
“Ya!” I say excitedly, “ Think about it, everyone, including your wife, sells yak wool mittens, scarfs and hats; the market is completely saturated though, no one person really makes any money on them. But what does almost every tourist that comes here have? A digital camera and probably either an iPhone or an iPod! And I haven’t seen anyone selling little woven cases for them. A guy from Finland I was hiking with for a few days even had a lady make one specially for him. Seriously, if you make some little Tibetan design out of the wool, like one of the 8 auspicious symbols, and put a sign up that says ‘Tibetan Yak wool iPhone cases’ people would eat that shit up!”
“What’s an iPhone?”

I jump up, run upstairs and grab the iPod Touch out of my bag that my friend Myra gave to me before the trip. In another 5 minutes I have taught an illiterate Nepali villager how to use a touch screen mp3 player. Guess there is a reason Apple is the most valuable company on earth.

“See? All you would have to do is make a little pocket that something about twice this size will fit into and put a sign up. Just try making 10 of them and see how they do. I bet tourists will love ‘em!”

“Uh-huh, that’s a good idea…” Though he is a bit preoccupied with switching through the equalizer settings on the Kanye West song he just started playing, Dorjee seems to agree.

Before I leave the next morning Dorjee mentions to me that he wants Lenin to learn Chinese. I have him write his address down and promise to send him a Mandarin phrase book when I get back to Kathmandu if he promises to have his friend email me and tell me how the iPhone cases work out. He agrees, and his wife shyly comes up and hands me one of the red and black bracelets she makes; a token of my contribution to the economic future of Nepal.

As I walk up away from the guesthouse and up the trail I realize that the ridge across the valley looks a lot closer to Dorjee’s than it did last night.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Hammer Falls. The End is Nigh!

This week the hammer falls. This week the first devastating blow will be struck. This week, months of meticulous preparation and planning will come to fruition. This week the genocide begins. Now is the time for the student’s of Sielmat Christian Higher Secondary School (SCHSS) to finally take back what’s theirs!

Our forces are marshaled. Elite units of teachers, administrators, nurses and volunteers await but a one day training course from their balding American commander. After that nothing can stop us. The hounds of the void will be unleashed and a deadly flood of 400mg Albendazole chewable tablets will fall upon the unsuspecting Helminths. These intestinal parasites have no idea the ungodly firestorm that is about to be rained down upon them.

The assault will take place at day break, before classes begin. The pills simply need to be chewed and swallowed, with a little water, before an unstoppable force of modern pharmacology is set in motion as the Albendazole begins its grim task of starving these disgusting leeches of the glucose that fuels them. As the worms weaken and die they will be excreted by the students and their passing will mark the dawn of a new intellectual renaissance in the soon-to-be legendary hamlet of Sielmat. A dawn which will leave these students free to achieve their full potential. Liberated, because their young bodies can finally absorb the full nutritional value of the food that they consume. Precious calories, vitamins and minerals that had previously been siphoned off by the demonic passengers that these unwitting children carried. And this is just the beginning.

I’m excited about this. Apart from one other idea, I have spent more time and effort putting together this deworming campaign than any other project I have worked on here. From research, to program development, to buying and distributing the 17,000 deworming pills, I was there every step of the way, leading the charge. And I’m proud of that.

Though saying that this first deworming day will lead to an intellectual renaissance might be a slight over-statement, it will, at least hopefully, make a noticeable difference in both school absenteeism and student performance. However, the effects of deworming here in Sielmat will, almost undoubtedly, pale in comparison to the response of the students in the village schools.

Sielmat is a neighborhood in Churanchandpur, which is the second biggest city in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur. As such, knowledge of and access to medical treatment is greater here than almost anywhere else in this underdeveloped region. Residents of the remote villages, by contrast, are lucky if they have seen a doctor in their lifetime.

These other deworming days, however, will have to come later and unfortunately, as my visa expires next week, I will not be around for them. So as SCHSS, at roughly 2,600 students, is by far the biggest of Partnership Ministries Society‘s (PMS) 42 schools, has the best educated teachers and is the most accessible, we have decided to start here and deliver their treatment while I, the worm ‘expert,’ am still here.

That's the big project that worked out. There have been many other smaller projects that I have worked on here that have either succeeded or failed, but the only other big idea that I’ve invested as much or more time and effort into as deworming, looks like it will remain just that: an idea.

My regular readers will remember the post that I wrote a few months ago detailing my idea for a Spirulina tank that uses excess heat from a 35 Kw generator to heat its water so the algae can grow here year round. The generator’s exhaust would be bubbled through the water to both trap the CO2 in a usable form within the Spirulina, and to increase the algae's growth rate.

(Quick note for the newcomers: Spirulina is a blue-green algae that, under optimal conditions, doubles its biomass every two to five days. It has been called the Super, super food and the food of the future. NASA, before it got castrated, did a lot research and testing with it for use in space travel and for terraforming other planets because of how much sustenance and O2 it produces. It is a complete protein with large amounts of just about every vitamin and mineral around, particularly Vitamin A, which is great at keeping malnourished kids from going blind. It also produces 400x as much protein per square acre as beef and 40x more than soybeans. Because Spirulina can grow in alkali lakes and brine, where almost nothing else can, invasive species aren’t a real problem and it doesn’t need to take up any arable land that could be used for something else.)

Thanks to the responses from several friends to my posting, I soon realized that my original idea wasn’t going to be feasible; not enough sunlight got to the generator, and to separate all the harmful stuff from the CO2 in the exhaust would take a gas separator that would have cost more than the project was worth.

So I went back to the drawing board and, over the course of many hours of research, email correspondence with friends, physics professors, Spirulina growers and development NGOs, along with solving equations, whose variables I didn’t quite understand, on thermal mass, algae reproduction and water chemistry, I came up with a new design.

Instead of using the exhaust and excess heat from the generator to keep the water between the 25C and 40C that Spirulina needs to grow, I would use the heat generated by the respiration of the bacteria that are present in compost. Heat which, when the right ingredients are combined and properly aerated on a large enough scale, can reach up to 55C.

My plan is this: dig out a section of the slight hill behind the kitchen of the bungalow I’m staying in, build a brick and concrete compost container 9 feet long, 33 feet wide and 4 feet high, then put the Spiruilna tank on top of it. The algae tank will have the same length and width as the compost bin and will be 2 feet deep. The compost bin and the algae tank are going to be separated by a metal sheet, allowing maximum heat transfer. The hot air from the compost bins will be bubbled through air tubes at the bottom of the tank then blown back through the bins, where it will reheat and then the whole cycle will be repeated.

The entire structure is to be buried at ground level for an extra layer of insulation, with 6 inches of Styrofoam covered by plastic on the inside of the bricks providing the first layer. The top of the tank will be covered with a clear plastic sheet to let in sunlight during the day and will then be covered by an insulating top at night. I am even going to go high tech and make glow panels by putting red LEDs in plastic sheets, then uniformly scuffing the outside of it to maximize light distribution. Two science papers that I have read showed that this was an efficient way to boost photosynthesis.

I had a physics professor check my plans at several stages too. By the 3rd draft he said he couldn’t prove that it wouldn’t work. I was thrilled.

The idea is to start with this small pilot-project, produce the Spirulina for use in animal feed, then use the money from the sale of the algae to scale up production and move to human consumption-quality. I did some more research and ran the numbers.

If we do everything wrong, but not quite wrong enough for the Spirulina to die, the tank will make PMS around $300 a month. If, on the other hand, we get everything right, which admittedly would probably have taken a few months of tweaking, the tank will make around $1,575 a month. Building the tank will cost, very roughly, around $5,000 and though the tank would does need at least a part-time care taker, hiring one will only be a few dollars a day.

But, alas, it is not to be. My time here has run out, and my boss is so busy with other programs and projects that are already proven and up and running that I doubt my tank will ever see the light of the Manipuri sun. Not in the immediate future anyway.

In a way it is sad, but I had so much fun putting the design together, and the feedback that I got was so valuable, that I’m not too upset. And who knows? I’m not dead yet and there are a lot of places this thing could work. Maybe someday NASA will get funding, realize my brilliance, and send me to terraform Mars. But I’m not holding my breath on that one.

Other things that fell apart…
-Creating positions, listing and training material for year-long volunteer English teacher positions. Why it didn’t work out: Hopefully it still will. I had to move on to more pressing projects but all the material is there and ready. The listings just need to be posted.
-Working a system to distribute the extra power generated by the Bungalow’s generator to the surrounding community using pre-paid meters. Why it didn't work: Despite quite a bit of searching, I couldn’t find a good, reliable company in India to sell us the meters
-Researching the feasibility of creating an Agrawood or Mangostein plantation. Why it didn’t work: There is a reason both Agrawood oil and Mangostein are so expensive; they are ridiculously hard to cultivate and it takes forever

Other things that came together…
-Organizing and calculating the drug bill for a week long medical camp that treated 6,500 people
-Adapting and improving Sielmat Christian Hospital’s administrative system
-Creating an inventory for the entire hospital pharmacy
-Teaching a class for Theology grad students on how to write a good research paper
-Editing the 15 final research papers of PMS’s Theology grad students
-Making the PMS sponsorship department more efficient
-Working on the hospital construction crew
-Making school profiles for the 25 schools run directly through PMS
-Creating, administering and analyzing a survey on the experiences of the Indian Children’s Choir
-Compiling, graphing and analyzing hospital performance records

Preparing to ascend from India into Nepal and China has, like any departure, made me step back and take stock of my time here. And it seems that in many ways the success of my deworming project and the failure of my Spirulina tank are microcosms of that time.

Like the deworming campaign, several of the other projects I worked on ended up coming together quite well, though that is as much to the credit of PMS and its employees as it is to the work that I did. And like the Spirulina tank, many of the things I worked really hard on and wanted to do here, both work-related and social, I didn’t have the time to see through to completion. But I have learned so much from just about every experience, both positive and negative, that it would be hard for me to call any one of them a failure.

I got a great deal out of northeast India, and hopefully I was able to give as much as I got. But now it’s time for the real adventure. There are Yetis to slay, entrances to the esoteric, subterranean city of Agartha to find and authoritarian governments to overthrow. And whether I’m ready for it or not, it’s time to move on.

Though the original goal of this blog was to chronicle the work I did and the experiences I had working for PMS here in India, I have enjoyed writing it so much, and received enough positive feedback, that I’m going to keep it going as I continue on and ascend up through the Nepali Himalayas and into China. So stay tuned!

I also want to take a second and thank both Mary Keating and Kevin Link for helping to edit the ramblings that I sent them into something a little more coherent. Were it not for their help this blog would have been far worse.