Saturday, March 10, 2012

Musings: Dollars and Sense

“Eat your vegetables. Starving children in Africa would love those vegetables.”

As a child, my parents did not subject me to this nutritional logic, although they did subject me to vegetables (yuck). But this reasoning is invoked commonly enough in America that most of us have heard of it, and most of us more inclined towards ice cream than green beans have responded: “Well, I’m not in Africa. And it’s not my fault that the people there don’t have food. And I’m allergic to healthy stuff.”

But now I am in Africa, although not an Africa that matches the image evoked by the saying above. I’m in South Africa to be exact, staying in the town of Plettenberg Bay, living in a homestay and spending my days observing a home-based care health worker at a nearby clinic (her name is Jackie, and she’s absolutely great).

South Africa is one of sub-Saharan Africa’s wealthiest nations, and the main center of Plettenberg Bay is reminiscent of Cape Cod: beautiful beaches, nice cafes, and over-priced boutiques abound. Oh, and there’s a slum just outside of town-a hillside cluttered with tin shacks packed too close together. Just blocks from the beautiful, pool-equipped houses like the one I am staying in (thanks to the tremendous hospitality of a local woman named Steph) are one-room dwellings, some without electricity and most sheltering many more people than their size would suggest. And if, admittedly, few people are starving there, even fewer are getting the healthy diet they need-at least if the number of diabetic/high blood pressure patients I have seen are anything to judge by. Fruits and (yes) veggies are expensive.

But when I have extra food, which is frequently, I don’t give it to those people or to any others in the townships. Here’s invented development expert Paulartya Freirshiva, M.D., PhD, Human, to ask me why.

Paulartya Freirshiva: Why?

Me: Well, it’s too much work.

Paulartya Freirshiva: Really?


Me: No, not really.


Me: But if I go around giving some people things, everyone will expect the same.

Paulartya: So?

Me: So, I don’t want to be treated like just some rich tourist.

Paulartya: But you are some rich tourist.

Me: But I came here to learn, not to dispense things to beggars. I don’t want to feel like I’m only being seen as a fountain of money.

Paulartya: So now your feelings count for more than the malnourished citizens of Plett.

Me: Wow, Paulartya, none of my other imaginary friends are this rude.

Paulartya: So now my rudeness is a bigger problem then global starvation.

Me: I do want to help people. But spending my spare money on loaves of bread won’t really make a difference.

Paulartya: Why not?

Me: There are too many people. Hunger is a huge problem in the world, especially since it leaves people more vulnerable to infectious diseases, but spending my allowance on it won’t even make a dent.

Paulartya: What if you spend your college fund on it?

Me: I can’t-I need that money.

Paulartya: So now your education is more important than thousands of starv-

Me: Shh! I get the point.

Paulartya: You’ve got a pretty big college fund, and you seem to understand the damage that persistent hunger can do to a community. So what’s the reason that’s holding you back? Why not become a one-woman charity?

Me: Because this isn’t the type of problem that can be solved by charity.

Paulartya: Now we’re getting somewhere.

I’m going to dismiss Paulartya Freirshiva, M.D., PhD, Human (his name is a mishmash of a bunch of the authors we’ve been studying).

I could give the people of Plett’s poorer townships some food, and so could most of us. But with huge unemployment rates (upwards of 70% in some cases), increasing incidence of HIV, and embedded racism (Guess how many of the residents of Plett’s mansions are white? Guess how many of the shack-dwellers aren’t?), it’s hard to escape the conclusion that deeper change is needed. To move towards that deeper change, we need to ask some questions, such as:

What caused the huge inequality in South Africa, and what forces perpetuate it?

Why do basically nice people ignore the suffering of their basically nice neighbors?

And more.

Once we find the answers to those questions, we have to ask still more questions.

If colonialism leading to imperialism leading to institutional racism (apartheid) was one of the key causes behind today’s persistent wealth gap, why don’t today’s white South Africans do more to redress past grievances (or if they do, why aren’t these efforts working?)?

Why do basically nice Americans ignore the suffering of basically nice Africans?

And then we have to ask ourselves,

Why does such huge racial inequality persist even in the United States, and what institutions reinforce it?

Why do so many basically nice rich Americans ignore or even worsen the suffering of basically nice poor Americans?

Could it turn out that neither “I’m not in Africa” nor “It’s not my fault the people there don’t have food” really begin to explain the persistence of global hunger and other forms of inequality?

If so, it’s no wonder simple charity won’t do the trick. To top things off, once we’ve gotten that far, we have to figure out how to fix all these problems. We can start by becoming informed about the modern world (hey, that’s why I need my college fund!). But education can only take us so far, and the globe’s issues are going to be tough to tackle. Sometimes I wish Paulartya Freirshiva could do it for us.

Edited to Add:
If I see a hungry person, I will give them some food, and you should too. This was more of an attempt to explain why we often don't than an argument as to why we shouldn't.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


My first sight of Angkor Wat, Cambodia, was actually a touch. Our group visited three times, but I missed the first two due to a small case of 'chundering everywhere', or vomiting.

Anyway, on the third visit we left at 4:00 in the morning, to arrive at the main temple complex before sunrise. As a result, I got to explore Angkor Way in the dark, feeling my way around the ancient buildings. Almost nobody was there, but the stars were out in full, and it was so cool to watch the sun come up over the ruins.

Angkor Wat was the biggest Hindu temple complex of the Khmer Empire, which ruled Cambodia between the ninth and fifteenth centuries.

The ruins were amazing, but a lot of the empire’s most beautiful structures were destroyed during the Pol Pot regime, which was also the government that oversaw the Cambodian genocide.

The Cambodian genocide was a politically-based slaughter that killed a third of the country’s population. The ridiculous horror of that time was really hammered in by the killing fields monument we visited in Phnom Penh, explained the history of the atrocities.

In Phnom Penh, we also had some adventures in kite-flying…

And near Siam Reap, we went to a floating village. That’s right. Floating. Village. All the houses and buildings were on stilts in the lakes, and locals rowed visitors through the mangrove forests.

Needless to say, it was both beautiful and intriguing. Imagine if your daily commute was by canoe instead of bus.

As if all that wasn’t brilliant enough, we also played paintball and a rode in a hot air balloon.

(Don't worry, the balloon did leave the ground.)

Of course celebrating Christmas away from my family was sad, but spending the week so awesomely took most of the sting out of it. Wow.

(And no, I have neither reason nor excuse for posting about December in late February. Just think of it as a small dose of time travel!)

Monday, January 9, 2012


After spending the holidays in Cambodia, TBB West headed to Gujarat, India, where we have now been studying agriculture for about two weeks. We have been in our homestays for one week, which has been exciting and overwhelming at the same time. I love my family, which consists of a mother, father, sister, brother, and grandma. Maggie and I are right next door to Kelsey and Nicki, who live with a host of energetic cousins and other assorted family members.

Thinking about this blog, I have realized that to those not familiar with the program I am on, the posts might seem like a confusing (though of course awesome) mish-mash of “Now I’m in country X!” “Now I’m in country Y!”. But it’s not quite like that.

The overarching theme of Thinking Beyond Borders is studying development: first and foremost what it is, and then how it affects the lives of people all over the world.

The word “development” carries interesting connotations in America because it can have such disparate meanings. We think of “developing countries” and in that context view development as humanitarian aid (delivering food, medications, etc. to people without resources).

But when we see the word “development” in a context like “the forest was razed to make room for a new condominium development” most of us would have a very different reaction. We would think of the destruction of something beautiful and diverse by humans who want to homogenize the area and maximize its economic profit (rows of identical buildings will bring in the cash). The humans who run this process are even called “developers”!

So is development good or bad?

If you are a skeptic you might argue that these are two different senses of the word “development”, and that it’s not fair to conflate them, but I would disagree. On this trip, I have not only been reading expert opinions on the topics we are studying, but also talking about those same issues with my local friends and families, and seeing their manifestations first-hand through our work projects. And more and more I have come to believe that “development” is actually a word that encompasses a whole spectrum of meaning, including both the first and second contexts above, as well as everything in between. That’s why we have to be so careful when toss the term around.

Recently my host family here took Maggie, Nicki, Kelsey and me to a nearby market (the surrounding farming villages, like ours, all sell their products at the central town where the market is located). On the way there, on the side of the road, I saw a billboard advertising apartments in a new complex. The sleek building depicted on the sign was a definite contrast from the brick and tile houses of the village, where you are more likely to see a camel or a water buffalo than a car or a computer, and below the image was the slogan, “Here you can fulfill all your dreams. Create a better lifestyle.” (for the curious, the signs around here are a mixture of Hindi, Gujarati, and English).

In an apartment complex, my family couldn’t live with all their cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters together. They (and we) couldn’t play with baby goats or watch the sun set as they walked home from the temple. But before the forces of Westernization/modernization that brought the apartment complex arrived, the family didn’t have running water, an enormous labor saver, or electricity, which allows us to play music on speakers, put food in a small refrigerator, and have lighting at night.

So what to do? Regardless of who we are or where we live, we all want to “fulfill our dreams” and improve our existence. But it’s not always clear what the “better lifestyle” we’re seeking actually is. That’s why the words on the sign to me seemed to unite the disparate versions of development that I described above. Development isn’t good or bad; it’s just different. It’s about people and cultures changing. To presume that development of any kind will “fulfill all your dreams” is downright foolish, but it is no less foolish to vilify development as something destructive. All we can do is learn as much as we can about the world, in order to make the best decisions possible.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Where the Gods Live

I've been in China for over a month now, but I wanted to do a quick post about where TBB West was after we left Ecuador but before we arrived in Kunming.

In short, we hiked Machu Picchu!
Also, we learned to spell Machu Picchu.
But mostly the hiking part.

I've trekked before, at summer camp, but I've never trekked like this. Of the mountains along the Inca Trail, Andrew F said, "this is where the gods are", and it's easy to see why:
The ruins at Machu Picchu were by far the biggest and most complex, but they were also the most touristy, and after the relative solitude of the mountains (the Peruvian government limits the number of people who can hike the Inca Trail at one time), the city was too jam-packed. Still, it was impossible not to be impressed by the scale and intricacy of the place.
As far as the physical difficulty of the hike, it was tough, but the experience was so worth it. I would go again in a heartbeat, and only partially because of the delicious food waiting for us at the campsite at the end of each day. The whole week was amazing, and the hike was more fun than I ever thought I could have trudging up stairs. There were lots of smaller Inca ruins along the journey, and whenever you got tired of admiring those and the Andean scenery that surrounded them, you could strike up conversations with other hikers on the trail.

That's about it for our week in Peru-although during our days in Cusco, we did get to go to a chocolate museum, where we made our own chocolate and sampled an unhealthy amount of delicacies. Andrew K and I also stumbled upon some Inca ruins while wandering near Cusco one morning, and got a tour from a local stone carver.

What's that you say? You also want to see a picture of two grazing llamas from behind? Well, if you insist.

Farewell 'til next time.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Not Too Simple

I once heard a saying from a friend who had lived in Japan:

"When you've spent two weeks in Japan, you know all there is to know about the Japanese. After two months, you know a little less. And after you've lived in Japan for two years, you realize that you will never know anything about what it means to be Japanese."

Adjust the time frame and the country, and you have my China experience in a nutshell! I think that's part of why I haven't been blogging lately-everything here is so complex and overwhelming that I can barely wrap my head around it, much less write it up in snappy blog post format.

Let me explain what I mean. In Yunnan province (where I am staying) alone, 26 different recognized ethnic minorities co-exist. You can go to the largest market in Kunming, the Bird and Flower Market, and stroll past stalls of Miao jewelry next to Bai clothing stores, followed by rows of digital cameras and cellphones (and, furthermore, when you stop in at the Miao jewelry shop, the traditionally-robed proprietor will look up from his portable DVD player to greet you).

But even this situation has several hundred layers of nuance behind it. Ethnic minorities in China were once discriminated against severely, but are now encouraged to continue their cultural traditions-so long, of course, as they do so in a manner that is happy and tourist-friendly. Minority groups are granted some autonomy within their provinces, but they can most emphatically not become their own states, regardless of how much or little they have in common with the Han Chinese majority. So China celebrates its diversity, but with the primary goal of projecting an image of harmony that may or may not serve the best interests of the minorities themselves, who often struggle to preserve their traditional ways.

Then you have to wonder, what are 'traditional ways' anyhow, and why must the choice be between 'preserving' or 'exterminating' them, as opposed to letting cultures grow and change on their own? But in such an increasingly connected world, filled with societal pressures and misconceptions, what does 'on their own' even mean?

These are the sorts of questions that cloud my mind when I try to write blog posts. To make the matter even more complicated, the over 50 ethnic minorities in all of China (as opposed to just Yunnan province) represent only a fraction of the hundreds of groups that applied for minority status when the government began implementing special laws regarding the country's minorities. If your head is spinning, you're not alone.

Still, the vast diversity of China and Kunming does provide a certain serendipity to daily life. I can walk home past the half-butchered carcass of an unknown animal hanging in the street, and enter my host family's apartment to see their 15 year-old daughter, Ting ting (English name Sunny), browsing the web on her iPad. Experiences like that one make me realize that our day-to-day life in the United States is not the only model of modern existence. And if the smallest cotidian details of city streets vary so much in each country I visit, maybe the larger patterns that govern societies are also changeable and varied across the globe.

Anyway, if I can't explain the intricate web that is China in a few paragraphs, I can at least give you all a summary of what my daily life is like here.

Each morning after breakfast (I'm really starting to appreciate starting the day with a bowl of hot noodles) I walk 20 minutes to the university where we have Chinese class. Our teacher, Charles, has a store of patience matched only by the quantity of his varied talents (Palaeontology? Japanese? Photography? Check, check, and check.)

After class we have either a lecture, a seminar, or media project work time, followed by a leisurely lunch break. You can get seven fresh dumplings here for the equivalent of about one US dollar.

At around 1:00, we go to a local middle and high school, where we split up into groups of two or three to teach classes of English language learners. The 60 student class size makes this fairly intimidating, but we are gradually discovering what techniques make for an effective and enjoyable lesson.

After teaching, we walk back to the university for media project time and lesson planning for the following day. Then we go our separate ways and I head back to my family's apartment to chill out, have dinner, and read.

So that's it for my average routine. Although I had some definite culture shock when we first arrived in Kunming, having a fun and set schedule has helped me feel more able to absorb the huge variety of sights and sounds here in China. And of course, Charles is always ready to help us with questions about both language and culture. On one of our first days here he explained to us that Chinese language is often awkward, dancing around strong expressions and substituting soft negations. For example, if I absolutely despise a dish at a restaurant, I "don't love it too much"; and if I give a blatantly wrong answer in class, it's “maybe not too correct”. This concept of linguistic side-stepping is not unheard of in English (ha!), but I explain it to you here because it is in this sense that I intend the title of this post. Perhaps you can now better understand what I mean when I say that China is Not Too Simple.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Weekends in Ecuador

There were five weekends during our time in Ecuador. On the first, we moved in with our host families in Los Naranjos. We also spent the second weekend hanging out with them!
My family lived in a fairly spacious, open wooden house.
This is the sitting area; to the left is the kitchen and to the right are the beds where we slept.
Here's Lisette, our gracious host mom, and four year-old Kiara:
This, however, is Kiara's more typical modus operandi:
That weekend we hung around the house, doing laundry with Lisette and playing with Kiara. Manuel, the father, has a weekend job at a radio station. I also went to a great community soccer game-we ended up playing Tsachilas versus gringos, which ended in a predictable but fun defeat on our part.

The next weekend, our whole group left Los Naranjos and traveled to the coast, to a fantastic and secluded beach in a place called Bahia de Caracas.
We didn't do much apart from relaxing, sleeping in tents, and playing in the sand, but I found myself struck by an artistic impulse:
This is a collage I made from debris, trash, shells etc that I found on the beach. It's a sea monster!

The rising tide eventually returned my work to the ocean.

The following weekend was our first IST, or Independent Student Travel. In each core country, we get a chance to split up into smaller groups of students and travel by ourselves wherever we want within the country. It's a fantastic opportunity to personalize the trip as well as to chill out.
For my Ecuador IST, Michele, Andrew, and I went to several villages along what's called the Quilatoa loop: a collection of towns near the Quilatoa volcanic crater lake.
Our first day was spent at the Quilatoa crater itself, which was absolutely phenomenal:
We hiked down to the lake, kayaked, and then rode hard-working horses back up to the top of the mountain. After lunch, we headed to our next day's location, Zumbahua.
Zumbahua (the pronunciation of which I mangled in several creative ways) is famous for its weekly markets, and rightly so! The market had everything from produce and grains to delicious if suspect street food to DVDs, clothing, and jewelry. I bought gifts for my host family but mostly just enjoyed wandering around.
The last town we went to was called Chugchilan, and while Chugchilan was a pleasant community, that's about all it was. The famed cloud forest turned out to be a two hour walk each way from the town itself, which we couldn't fit into our tight schedule. The other main attraction is the local cheese factory, which we did visit. However, after we paid a man named Dario $20 to drive us there, the factory turned out to mostly be two vats of milk in a room:
(At this point, clever readers will be asking, "What the hell did you expect, Alison? It's cheese. It's made of milk.". To those readers, I provide as a diversionary tactic this picture of one of the alpacas that stared at us while we stood awkwardly near the variously solidified forms of dairy.)
Dario had ended up driving away while we were looking at some mozzarella, so we bought half a wheel of cheese and walked through the mountains for a few hours eating it. Along with a volleyball game with some local Ecuadorians, that was about it for IST weekend-a fun and interesting time all around.
(But seriously, don't visit Chugchilan.)

Saturday of the last weekend was the day we left Los Naranjos. There was a huge party either to celebrate our time there or to celebrate our leaving (I like to think the former), and we played lots of traditional Tsachila games, like spear-throwing and tug-of-war. Then we danced late into the night-imagine speakers and a colored disco ball nestled beneath a bamboo thatched shelter.

I was sad to say goodbye to my family in Los Naranjos, but the next week, we went to Peru, where we hung out in Cusco and hiked the Inca Trail. Blog post on that to come-it was amazing!
As I write I'm in Los Angeles, but tomorrow (technically today) we're flying to Shanghai and then to Kunming, China: our second core location.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Children at Play, or Kids These Days

The other thing that´s been on my mind in Los Naranjos (the village we stayed in) is the total shift in cultural knowledge-in this case, how traveling flips normal societal roles on their heads. When we are safely in our home culture, it is assumed that adults are more savvy than are children than are babies. But what about when we go somewhere new?
We are a group of high school graduates, all headed for college in the years to come. In Los Naranjos, however, we can´t figure out basic tasks like using the bathroom (you get a bucket of well water from outside and throw it in the toilet to flush) or walking home (take a right on the dirt road surrounded by plantain trees). Thrown into another culture, even the most well-educated students are as lost as toddlers (literally-my directions above are a bit tougher when you realize that all the roads are dirt roads surrounded by plantain trees).

By contrast, the actual toddlers here know exactly what is going on in any given situation. Kiara, the four year-old from my house, is a pretty normal kid, except that instead of going to daycare she runs around the plantain trees all day harassing my family´s chickens.
The truly astounding girls, though, are the three sisters who live in the center of town. Milena, Diana, and Anai are eight, six, and three years old respectively. But they wield machetes like pros. They took Sarah on a trip into the forest for cacao, using a machete to hack down the fruits from the top of a tree, then cracking them open and sharing them with all the students! They easily do laundry, paint hair with the traditional Tsachila achote dye, and shoo away hungry dogs. At the same time though, they are utterly normal kids. They love stealing our backpacks and playing with the puppies that were born during our first week in Los Naranjos. It´s amazing to see little children who are so fluent in a culture that I can never fully understand.

I will miss Kiara and those three girls a lot now that we´ve returned to Quito, but just spending time with them in Los Naranjos was as much of an education as speaking with the adults of the community.

Oh, I also want to say sorry for not including any pictures in these last few posts. I do have them on my camera, it´s just a hassle to transfer them from there to the computer to the blog. I promise to illustrate more later. Adios!