Little Things

Happy holidays, friends. Here in Lamka it’s a sunny and cold Christmas morning; fresh cinnamon rolls have popped out of the toaster oven now and I’m enjoying a quiet morning with tea and roll before the rest of the house awakes. Spread all around the table here in the living room are the spoils of my glorious christmas which will be happily shared with my colleagues. This embarrassment of riches – chocolate to last us all well into the new year, books to kick start MSF library into the new year and to occupy my free time easily until the end of this assigment, and DVD’s of BSG that’ll allow us all to huddle in front of the charcoal brazier by the TV on the coldest nights – is courtesy of the unstinting generosity of both Steves, Angela & of course Howard and Gene, whose early presents arrived with them for our November vacation. I could never thank you all enough, truly. What I offer, for now, are glimpses of the trails and hills, colleagues and villagers, that fill my life here. Happy holidays, and let’s get 2010 off to a promising start, shall we?

It’s dry season here in Lamka and they’re prepping some road beds for paving, or at least building up the gravel and dirt that cover some of the roads. Out for a run with Fiona I saw again one of my favorite neighborhood sights: a few 10-something kids dragging an obviously hand-made wooden cart (handmade wooden wheels and all — didn’t get a close enough look to see if there were metal axels but I suspect not) bumping by with jerry-cans of water sloshing around inside. (Interpretation: these folks are poor enough that they lug their own water, and poor enough that it’s better to build their own wheelbarrow rather than buy one commercially. Welcome to Lamka.) A couple days earlier, on another of our beloved weekend hill walks, I’d landed dramatically on my bum after jumping a ditch by a field where some kids were playing cricket. (Rare, that: first time I’ve seen cricket here, where the fields are about 99% given over to soccer usually; another indicator we’re culturally in southeast, more than south, Asia.) As though choreographed, the second I took my spill, every one of the kids burst out in uproarious laughter that was light-hearted and funny, not at all teasing or mean. They just found the sight of this bearded weird foreigner going down on his butt extremely amusing. The looks we get on our hikes tell us clearly enough that simply the idea of walking for fun is odd enough as it is — if one has the luxury of free time, one ought to use it to rest from one’s labors, not to take on new ones! Or at least to engage in some normal entertainment such as soccer! What’s with all this walking-through-the-hills business???

…above & below: now you know where those used clothes that you drop in bins end up: I assume they get sold to aggregators who then ship them out to a place like Lamka, where they fill many a shop.

Walking on (and taking one of these photos timed just to when the littlest of the kids was doing one of the dozens of cartwheels he did as I watched – a skill I suspect he’s learned only recently…), I commented to Fiona and Marja that this was a thing many Americans would not understand. These are folks many of whom live, literally, in wattle and daub huts (look closely at some of the photos and understand that these are typical, not unusual) crowded many to a room. These are folks who all walk a ways every morning, afternoon and evening to the nearest spigot and fill those large aluminum water carriers you see in a few of these pictures, for cooking cleaning & personal hygiene…and trust me when I say this water would not pass US FDA standards.

…those are the kids in question; click on the photo and you’ll see the cartwheeler more clearly.

These are folks who, if they have electricity at all, have it only during those rare and unpredictably intermittent hours when there’s actually power coming over the city lines. I said to Marja and Fiona, ‘I’m not sure that most Americans understand, or believe, that it’s possible to be so simply and gleefully happy when one lives in this kind of setting with so few of the comforts and luxuries that we take for granted.’ Part of me thought it was hyperbole on my part, but I really wonder. When I consider the horror – truly! – with which so many of my friends from LA and elsewhere have greeted the concept even of just backpacking or camping, for a few days and a change of pace, in a place lacking a hair drier and streaming internet…well, I just really wonder whether these Americans would know how to locate and experience joy here. And that makes me sad. Again and again I hear friends from the US long for more connection to community, better links with family and the world around them. But again and again I see them go on shopping sprees and sit for hours in front of the TV or the computer instead of getting up, giving up the luxury, and getting out and about to meet and greet the world.

…I can never see a chicken strolling around without thinking of how Steve jumped out of the way in fear of bird flue, any time he saw one when he visited me in China four years ago…

Readers of this blog and friends who’ve corresponded with me lately know I’ve been tired – I’ve been working hard, it’s the cold season here in Lamka and with no indoor heating I do tend get a bit tired after a day huddled around a charcoal brazier. Perhaps I’ve not put out there quite enough of why I do this, all the things I do love not only about my work but about the opportunity to be reminded that the luxury I know awaits me back in the US is not necessary — it’s pleasant, it’s luxurious, but it can also be a trap. I plan to spend most of 2010 enjoying my family and friends back home, enjoying the lovely home I helped my Mom make for herself this year.

Just about this time a decade ago, as 1999 waned to 2000 and those in the know insisted that the new milennium didn’t really begin until 2001, I was at the peak of my last career, in publishing. I’d owned my lovely new house in Long Beach for a mere seven months and my mother came to celebrate the turn of the year and my first Christmas at my new home. Through those sunny southern California holidays, builders were tiling and redoing the pool behind my house, installing solar paneling to keep the pool warm on those cool coastal California summer evenings, the house had bee nicely earthquake retrofitted…and I wondered how I’d make good my escape from that life. Much as I enjoyed – and truly I did – the wine & cheese evening I had with my mom and some friends to celebrate the new year, proud as I was of the turtle and fish tiles I’d chosen to decorate the newly refinished pool (and truly I was), I just saw publishing in an unstoppable decline and frankly knew I’d learned what I needed from the career anyway and was ready for work that would do as much to connect me to world as to fill my bank account. But I had, of course, no idea how to make the shift from well-paid corporate executive to under-paid humanitarian worker. What the US likes to call the ‘non-profit’ sector tends, there at least, to frown upon those with business backgrounds on the assumption that we can’t make the transition well from a cash bottom line to a social or humanitarian bottom line…or from a larger paycheck to a much smaller one. I think if more American were willing to reaxmine their goals and hopes, it could happen. I’m certainly happy it’s happened for me, and I look forward to connecting with all of you again on an extended down time in the US in 2010. Happy holidays & new year, everyone!

…if you’ve googled Manipur, you’ve read about Loktak Lake. Le voila, above and below.


Above & below: watching the friendly football (soccer) match between MSF and Shalom, the local community care center that we work closely with…and village scenes around the soccer field or football pitch.

…Above: one of my favorite kids (an AIDS orphan) at the local NGO that houses patients who’ve come to town for ART treatment, many from Myanmar; and below, the pre-wedding send-off ceremony for a colleague.



3 responses

  1. Hi, Paul,Well, will I have be able to live down those darn Chinese chickens? Egad, will you never forget, man?! And you have to admit, they were particularly terrifying chickens.Anyway, these are lovely pictures and give me a good sense of where you're living and who you're living with. Thanks! It was great chatting with you on Christmas eve, and I wish you a wonderful start to the new year!Love,Steve

    December 26, 2009 at 15:51

  2. What fabulous photos and an informative post. I would love to have seen a picture of you with a beard. Your spirit is amazing. Happy New Year!

    December 29, 2009 at 00:09

  3. Dan

    Paul,Thanks for the interesting post, and for all you do. I think you could have a career as a photographer if you wanted one. Some of your pictures are simply amazing.Ah, Steve. Such a good man, and so good for a laugh, always!Love, Danniel

    January 13, 2010 at 19:11

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