Going Inside Kenya’s Kibera Slum: Part 2


Part 2 (of 3)  from my journeys in Kenya’s Kibera Slum:

While photographing the Holy Cross priests’ primary projects in the slum is my main “job” here, I’ve got other, more personal reasons why I’m here. I’ve started to lead volunteer vacations abroad in the last few years, and it’s time to test the limits of my comfort zone, and more importantly, see potentially what I and a group of volunteers could realistically do to help in a slum full of people in need. I’m not so naïve as to think that all slum cultures are the same, but I know I want to try and understand the needs of this one.

(Three years later, married and no longer traveling solo, I’d lead a 14-member volunteer team to build houses in a slum in India.)

For someone who was raised Catholic but has never practiced it as an adult, it was a minor miracle that I had lined up an insider-tour with the Holy Cross priests. As a general rule, single women are not allowed to sleep overnight in a Catholic seminary, nor are they (especially if they’re white) advised to walk into Kibera Slum alone. But my timing is good on both fronts. Nearly every one of the seminary brothers are away at a conference in Uganda, and Brother Cleo has offered guide me inside Kibera.

FINALLY, THE PRIEST

The harried bus driver appears, as promised. I thank him profusely and give him a slip of paper with the number of Brother Cleo. They speak, and then he hands the mobile phone to me. The voice on the other end sounds like soft, cool rain. He was simply waiting for me to call.

“Oh yes, the buses are always late from Tanzania” he says nonchalantly. “How was your journey?”

“Good, long,” I say, just happy to hear his voice. “I’m so sorry we’re here so late.”

“No problem, we’re not far away. Maybe fifteen minutes.”

Brother Cleo tells me to stay put, and assures me he will find me here.

The bus pulls away and I am alone, watching hotel guests appear and disappear. This is a popular stairwell. I do my best to ignore this drug den hotel that I’ve found myself in and instead focus on pressing my fingers into my swollen foot. It has grown in size all day, and I’m worried I might have to go to the hospital if it doesn’t get better soon. Twenty minutes later I’m greeted by Brother David, a young seminarian. Brother Cleo is waiting outside, he tells me, in the car. It’s not safe to leave the car parked at night in Nairobi; idling is better, with the doors locked.

“Colleen! It is so great to finally meet you after all the e-mails!” Brother Cleo says as I get into the car, turning his head around in the driver’s seat to look me in the eye. His eyes are warm, his cheeks round and full.

I smile, and tell him I completely agree.

Once we’re on our way, both priests want to know about my trip, my climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro, my swollen foot. I am just grateful to be in the car, grateful that they care, grateful that these kind men are the people I get to spend the next two days with.

After winding up and out of the city, we reach McCauley House. The big metal gate in front locks only from the inside, so of the brothers comes out to let us in. Tall brick walls, topped by razor wire, enclose several buildings that surround a grassy inner courtyard. The whole place sits on a rise overlooking Kibera, which is on its own big hill, less than a quarter-mile away.

Before we pull the car all the way in, Brother Cleo rolls down the window and points to a few lights in the distance. It’s as if Kibera has a protective edging stretched around one side: a long, narrow field a mile long, but less than a quarter-mile wide.  Cross the field the short way, and Kibera is closer than one might think.

“That’s Kibera,” he says simply, with the calm, even voice I will become accustomed to in the coming days. He knows this place – this famously awful place — is what I’ve come to see.

“We’ll go tomorrow,” he says.

From here, I listen to Kibera rumble. The whole place murmurs and creaks, like a giant old computer running too many software programs all at once. It’s like the sound right before the computer locks up completely. But so far, Kibera hasn’t died. It’s been churning like this for years, components maxed out, struggling keep everything and everyone going within. What is striking, at night, about Sub Saharan Africa’s biggest slum is not what you see (there are few lights), but this organism you hear.

It is nearly 10 pm, but the seminary kitchen is still open, most likely because of me. One of the brothers, as cook-for-the-night, feeds me a mildly spiced African soup and a side of vegetables and rice. After dinner, Brother Cleo then leads me to my room, at the end of a long, dark hallway in an empty dormitory wing on the far side of the grassy inner courtyard. It feels miles away from everyone else. I have a hunch I’ve been put out in the “back 40” for a reason, but that’s just fine by me. The quiet is heavenly.

A MORNING IN KIBERA

After breakfast the next morning, Brother Cleo and I cross the no-man’s land – the border field. My foot, as if miraculously healed by my presence in a holy seminary, is no longer swollen. And so Brother Cleo and I walk, side by side, the first of many walks we will take, crossing a footbridge over a dirty, garbage-strewn moat, then up into Kibera, its own city on a hill. I expected to go “down” into a slum, not up.

From a distance, Kibera is a sea of rusty shack roofs atop a giant pile of dirt and a garbage dump. From close-up, it is much more: a living city, more densely populated than New York,  a city that belches smoke from thousands of cooking fires and reeks of farm animals and garbage. All of this is mixed with the aroma of butchered raw meat, and steaming vegetables cooking at alley-side stands, and a thousand other smells I can’t indentify.

Perhaps more than anything else, Kibera reeks of wet, wan waste. Everywhere, goats and cows and dogs rummage through the garbage. Most of us in the developed world don’t have to live with the stuff that we tuck away, or bury, or sanitize, or burn. We cast away all those moist, mushy things that smell bad: the dead things, the rotting things, the bloody things, the stained things, the cast-off things. In Kibera, though, life happens in tandem with the inevitable waste of life.

The first thing that shocks me, after the smell, are the open sewer trenches everywhere, hundreds of them. Some are only partially dug. These gullies are full of garbage and plastic bags that create unnatural and dangerously mobile dams for the sewage. Overflows are common. I’ve made the mistake of wearing sandals and linen slacks, and I grab my pant legs at the hips to hike them up out of the way as I step over overflowing sections.

According to the Kibera Slum Foundation, Kibera residents who can afford it pay for shared toilets that may get used by many as 500-1,000 people; about two-thirds employ the “flying toilet,” which involves defecating in a plastic bag and tossing it into the air during the night. It’s no surprise that disease – especially stomach and intestinal illnesses –  runs rampant here.

As diseases go, HIV gets the most media attention, with as many as one in nine Kibera residents infected. Still, few receive proper treatment for it. Brother Cleo and I make our way to visit a women’s HIV support group.  Ten women are gathered in one of the member’s homes for a regular meeting. The home is made of corrugated tin, and inside sits one table with a plain, threadbare cloth and one couch with a ripped slipcover. It’s eerily dark inside, despite the late morning glare outside. The women, sitting in the dark corners of the room, shyly introduce themselves one by one.  All tell me how many children they have. Children are a big part of one’s identity in this part of Africa.

Some have as many as eight children to care for, but today they are here to brainstorm ideas on how educate other Kiberans about HIV in an effort to save their neighbors. A few cough. Most look tired. So far, one woman in the group has died of the disease. The women stare at me as I cradle my camera with its big telephoto lens in my lap. I wrap my arms around it, instinctively trying to make it look smaller than it is. The sale of this camera could buy medicine for all of them, at least for a little while. I feel guilty carrying something so expensive in this place, and their eyes are piercing. I know they don’t mean to make me feel bad, but I do.

Brother Cleo talks to them about a door-to-door campaign where they will be talking to Kiberans on how to prevent HIV. The women will be passing out flyers about safe sex practices.  This is a first for me: Catholic involvement in a safe-sex campaign. I’m excited about this, to know this “secret” that is undoubtedly saving lives here.

Part 3 will conclude this story next week.

2 Comments

Filed under Philanthropic Travel, Travel

Going Inside: My journey to Kenya’s infamous Kibera Slum


A lump grew inside my throat. The bus’ idling diesel engine vibrated with a violent vigor below my feet somewhere, as if trying to jar me loose from my seat. But I wasn’t budging. I was traveling in Kenya alone, but for the first time in nearly a decade of solo adventuring, I sought the comfort that comes from being inside a large hunk of metal on wheels.

The priest was not here, and I was not in a good place. 

We had just pulled in three hours late after six hours on the road, well after dark. After snaking through the dark streets of downtown Nairobi, the driver stopped the bus abruptly. We were to disembark on the street — now, quickly, the driver’s body language seemed to insist — directly into the center of a sprawling African metropolis known for carjacking, armed robbery and murder. I knew Nairobi’s reputation, of course. I just didn’t know we’d be pulling in at nine o’clock instead of six, and I didn’t know that, in Nairobi, a poorly-lit street corner is apparently where everyone gets out when there is no centralized city bus station. It’s where you get out when the offices of this particular bus company have closed for the night because your bus happened to be really late. Nobody gets paid to wait for a late bus. This is the way it works in Nairobi.

On both sides of the bus, along the exterior luggage compartments, a group of men appear from seemingly nowhere. From what I can tell, they want to carry our luggage quite badly. In a place with high unemployment, any little bit helps.

I’d caught this bus in Moshi, in Tanzania, and we’d crossed into Kenya hours ago. Our 50-50 mix of locals and foreigners (most of the muzzungus were fresh off the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, like me) all piled out of the bus in a frenzy, happy to be done with the ride. Except me. Not only was my ride not here, but one of my feet had swollen after the long descent off the 19,000-foot mountain the day before, so much so that it looked like a huge water balloon.

The bus had largely followed dusty single-lane roads before finding the highway into the capital city. This was an especially dry July in East Africa, and drought was causing famine in parts of both Tanzania and Kenya. I deeply sensed my white privilege here —  to travel freely, simply because I could, because I had a tiny bit of savings and some frequent-flier miles, and because my culture allows women to do pretty much whatever we want. I felt lucky and guilty all at once, and up until now, I felt perhaps a false sense of security in a less-than-secure part of the world.

 Maybe it was my intended destination – a Catholic enclave — that had fooled me a little into thinking I was safer than most single women traveling here. But in truth, I actually would be pretty darn safe. Through the grace of friends at the Holy Cross-run university where I worked back home, I’ve managed a special three day stay in the McCauley House Seminary of Nairobi to learn more about their charitable programs in the slums and to photograph them for my university. While here, the plan is to spend most of my time traveling from project to project, including a visit to an AIDS clinic on the grounds of a Catholic church near the Dandora Slum.

My main focus, though, is Kibera Slum. I’m here, officially, on a photography assignment. I don’t know what to expect, but I do know I’m grateful for an “in”. I’ll be an outsider, for sure, but one priest, Brother Kyomuhendo Atwooki Cleophas —the priest I’m hoping will show up soon – will be taking me inside Kibera, home to 1 million of the world’s poorest people.

 I gingerly step off the bus. Ignoring how uncomfortable I feel, limping a little on the bad foot, I concentrate on looking confident.  One by one, the other passengers meet family and friends and disappear. Once the driver’s assistant hands me my backpack, one of the men offers to carry it for me. I throw the backpack over my shoulder and look directly at the man.

 “No thanks!” I say cheerily, wondering if that was the right tone to take.

 Where was the priest?

 A LEAP OF FAITH

My mind searches for reasons for his absence as I look over both shoulders to see BEWARE OF CARJACKERS signs tacked to nearly every telephone pole and building. I swivel my torso back and forth in an effort to steel my backpack against sticky fingers. Must. Not. Smile. I talk myself into giving off a don’t-mess-with-me look.

 The only light coming from anywhere near is from a decrepit-looking hotel across the street. I hope that I won’t end up spending the night there. I need a phone, preferably, before the bus leaves me alone here. I’m drawn to the one I see in the bus driver’s hand.

“Excuse me?” I say. He doesn’t hear me.

 “Excuse me?” I say, louder this time.

 The driver and his assistant busily close up the luggage compartments.

 “Excuse me?”

 The driver finally looks in my direction.

 “My ride isn’t here, and I don’t have a phone. Can I please call my friend on your phone?”

 The driver looks annoyed. He waits a few seconds, and then speaks.

 “OK, OK,” he says quickly.  “Just wait in the hotel,” pointing to the decrepit building nearby.  “I come find you.”

 I wait on a bench near a stairwell in the lobby, watching the locals go upstairs to their rooms, then back out again, too tired to suspect what’s likely really happening here — drug trades. I’m also just now realizing that I can ask the hotel staff to call for me, if it comes to that. I wonder if the bus driver has forgotten my request, and I wonder too if I’ll ever make it to the Holy Cross seminary near Kibera Slum. Like the priests that live here, I want to be near this dirty, crowded place, where so many are afraid to go. The priests go inside to listen, to pray, and to offer help. Perhaps it is this initial act of courage, to face the ugliest of realities and offer help, which defines faith-in-action best. I want to see that, to capture that. And so I sit and wait, taking a leap of faith.

Part 2 of this story will be posted next week.

4 Comments

Filed under Philanthropic Travel, Travel

The Real China, Part 2


The continuation & conclusion to last week’s post, “Finding China, beneath the yellow fog”

Thankfully, age has not jaded Jinshanling,a town that has instantly won my vote for ‘favorite place’ in the People’s Republic of China. Like a sheltered child, the ancient village has a lovely innocence about it. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Jinshanling’s communal village toilets — just below The Great Wall’s ramparts — a place that harkens me back to a more innocent bygone era. There’s just a wide open “door,” nothing more than an opening in the wall, open to the main street. Villagers come and go like it’s no big deal. Inside the toilet’s stone walls, rows of holes carved in long slabs of stone over a flowing “river” constitute the toilets. I count at least 50 of these. I know I must try this, just once. I hope, pray, that no one else comes in; I complete my business with the speed of a Nascar racetrack mechanic.

It’s clear to me now that Jinshanling is not a place many foreign tourists come to —er, experience things like this. Or to stay.  The military require that all visitors buy a pass to visit the Great Wall of China before they’re allowed to enter the village, and there are just two guesthouses. A foreigner would probably be suspect if he said he simply wanted to poke around town; he’d most likely have to pay, Wall or no Wall.

Most tourists usually come and go in a day, taking a quick walk up to the Great Wall, riding the creaky gondola (salvaged and moved from a defunct amusement park) up to a viewpoint, and snapping photos before heading back to Beijing.

Once paid up and inside the gate, we see a giant parking lot with huge spaces for tour buses. Next to the parking lot sits a row of identical 10-foot-by-10-foot stores with identical blue garage doors. Shopowners stand out front and shout “water!, water!” if anyone passes by. Inside each shop stocks identical bottles of water and Coca-Cola. I didn’t see anything else in these stores—  except potato chips.

We drive the equivalent of three city blocks to where the town ends. Jinshanling has only one street. The street leads directly up to the Great Wall. We park the van just off the road in a gravel lot and Hai Li introduces us to Mr. Wong, one of the town’s  shop owners.  We rest at a plastic table in front of Mr. Wong’s store in an old brick building that abuts the street. We eat peanuts and drink beer before setting out for the first itinerary item: a short evening climb up onto the Great Wall of China.

We walk on The Wall only as far we can until signs tell us to stop walking. We quickly hit a militarized zone, where Chinese soldiers train in the rugged hills. On the way up, I run my right hand along the old stones of the Great Wall, and it feels exhilarating to be touching something so historically significant. At the top, we pause to take in the view of the forested hillsides dropping below us on either side of the wall. Like a snake disappearing into a burrow, The Great Wall disappears into the smog in both directions, even though from here it stretches at least 2,000 miles each way. There is no sunset to see, as the smog is deeply settled in the hills all around us. Mr. Wong points over The Wall and says all of that was once Mongolian territory. Smog obscures the view in that direction, too.

The Wall once stopped the Genghis Khan, but it can’t stop the wafting cloud of pollution from Beijing. Smog can travel up to 300 miles a day, much faster than Khan’s armies ever could, and can scale the Great Wall effortlessly.

DINNER IN THE STREET

It’s dusk by the time we scramble back down the steps and set foot in Jinshanling again. When we arrive, Mr. Wong’s wife, her sister and a handful of cousins and friends have made dinner for us in the Wong house behind the shop. We eat on a white plastic table set out on the street as Mr. Wong’s children dart under and around our table.

Giddy and talkative from the rice wine and beer, we set out with flashlights to go back up to the Wall, but this time in a different direction than before, along a wooded path that switch-backs.  Our watchtower awaits. Tomorrow, we’ll walk the other direction — away from the militarized zone — for about eight miles until we reach another village.

Mr. Wong and Hai Li lead the way up an ancient stone staircase. We have to use our hands to brace ourselves as we climb into the tower. Mr. Wong, though, does it carrying a plastic fold-up table and chairs. Hai Li negotiates it carrying our breakfast food in a bag. After setting up our sleeping mats and sleeping bags, we spend the evening enjoying the rice wine and practicing our English with our hosts. We’re laugh and laugh until at least 1 am, but no one is near enough to hear.

Our toilet is a plastic bucket in a far corner of the watchtower, with no curtain and no toilet paper. Another ‘real China’ moment. As night settles in, the yellow fog disappears and the stars appear.

Since the long flight from the U.S. to Beijing, I’ve been suffering from an ear infection, and I can barely hear out of one ear now that we’re camping on the Wall. The ocean is crashing inside my head, and we’re nowhere near the ocean. And there’s loud ringing too, though this is a quiet place. My equilibrium is off too, so my steps are slow, deliberate. I do my best to sleep; when I can’t, I look up at the stars from this incredible watchtower perch.

Still feeling my cold the next morning, I eat hot Chinese noodles from a box for breakfast, the spicy beef flavor.  Mr. Wong boiled the water before the rest of us rose. Hai Li says it should help my cold. That’s what she eats when she has one. She is sincere, and I can’t help but smile.

We set out after breakfast and begin to hike. Within the first two hours a stifling heat settles in, and with it more smog from faraway Beijing. Little ladies and old men selling Coke and guidebooks and postcards sit inside some of the watchtowers. They shout out “post-card?” “cold water?” “guidebook?” in broken English as we approach. But other than the vendors we only see a few other people on The Wall all day.  With the exception of two European women near Simatai, they are all Chinese.

The walk is long and hard and stunning all at the same time. Some of the steps are so steep and crumbling that it helps to steady myself with my hands. By the time we reach Simatai, where lunch awaits, we are overheated and exhausted. The temperature has risen to nearly 100 degrees. I’m amazed and humbled by the Chinese laborers who built The Great Wall.

WESTERN, IN LOOKS ONLY

It’s a relief to get back to Jinshanling, where we can clean up, rest, and with time, cool off with the setting sun. But Jinshanling is a place not entirely braced for sweaty Westerners. Perhaps we want too much relief.  After the hike, we’re out of drinking water. My husband, gracious, tells me to take a shower first while he goes out to the bottled-water-and-Coke-shops to (hopefully) find some bottles of water for us. I shower in the dark bathroom where the water comes out of a spigot in the wall between the toilet and sink. When my husband returns, there is no bottled water. The few shops still open at 4 pm have soda only, and warm beer. He brings back a 2-liter of Coca-Cola.

And as my husband steps into the shower, there is no water for him. Not even to flush the toilet. We would soon find out, through Hai Li translating for the woman at the front desk, someone suddenly turned off the entire town’s water supply.

“When the farmers need the water for their crops, the water supply to the village is shut off,” the woman tells my husband. “It will come back on eventually. Just wait a while.”

Wondering how long he would wait, my husband asked if he could call the front desk from our room to check in if necessary. With a sweet, matter-of-fact voice, the woman answered:

“Oh, the room telephones aren’t actually connected to anything. They’re just for decoration.”

SONGS…AND SILENCE

On our last morning in Jinshanling, Hai Li suggests we ride the gondola up to a special viewpoint, so we can get a panoramic view of The Wall. The smog is clearing, just a little, and the sun is as hot as ever. At 10 am, the temperature is already approaching 85 degrees.

My husband and I knock heads scrambling into the tiny gondola carriage, a Plexiglass contraption barely big enough for two adults. The cars do not stop or slow down in the loading zones. Once we are inside for a few minutes, the car becomes stiflingly hot.

The Carpenter’s plays from a loudspeaker attached to each support tower, blaring “Every sha-la-la-la, every oh-oh-oh-oh …”.  My husband and look at each other and smile, and the song fades again until our car rattles up to the next tower, “Every shing-a-ling-a-ling . …”

Once at the top, the music stops. I wonder, were The Carpenters our in-gondola entertainment? Is talk – or silence, for that matter — too dangerous in China? We are the only riders on the gondola this morning, and once we are off at the top, the operators, sitting in little sheds at the top and bottom, stop the whole apparatus.

Up here, there is not much except a hillside with some paths leading uphill – our lookout spot. We reach the top of the rise to see The Great Wall. This time, the Wall is actually below us.

The smog is thinner today, and we can see it stretch long in both directions. We take a breath to take it all in and … whomp! Chinese propaganda music blares from behind, a kind of Communist anthem. Someone has set up a loudspeaker on top of a telephone pole. It’s loud and jarring and shrill and echoes down the hillsides and off the Great Wall. The next song is a less brassy, but no less amplified.

The music doesn’t seem to bother Hai Li, who begins picking nuts off nearby trees, filling a plastic bag. It’s a family tradition to cook the nuts with vegetables, she says.

“Good for health,” she says, one of her favorite things to say. She also says this about Jinshanling’s rice wine.

She is soon joined by three old women picking the same nut. They claim this nut is hard to find in stores, and is expensive. As she sidesteps down an precipitous slope to reach a tree, my husband decides it’s time to help her. I take a picture of the old women, who are happy to pose, with the Great Wall in the background and the all-important nut trees in the foreground.

The music abruptly stops. The women smile. I click the camera, and snap a “Real China” moment.

4 Comments

Filed under Travel, Uncategorized

Finding China, beneath the yellow fog


Part One (of two) from travels in China

Most of the world is aware that in Beijing, the fog is not the cool, lilting, low-lying cloud we wish it were — you know, the kind mysteriously enveloping bonsai trees and waterfalls in all those old Chinese landscape scroll-paintings. In Beijing, the fog lives in tandem with honking car horns and hot, sticky humidity that drips off your forehead.  Only at night does it feel ethereal, and only if you lie to yourself that it drifted in off the Yellow Sea.

Beijing’s ever-present fog is pure pollution – tons of toxic particles hanging suspended in the city’s air from cars and trucks and factories.

Pure pollution. It’s an oxymoron fitting for modern-day China, a country already full of ironies. Long-steeped in what was once pure — ancient tradition, spare living, Confucian morals and healthy diets – it’s no secret that China, in some places, is polluted on the outside, and sometimes on the inside, too.

China’s bear-hug of capitalism has been strong and fast, and no number of no-drive days in the cities (an obvious public relations scheme by the government) will make any noticeable difference.

But dissecting the multiple forces at work that have made Beijing China’s version of Los Angeles is another story for another time and place and destination.

This story is about little Jinshanling, and how the smog and all that it represents is starting to poison her.

Jinshanling is tucked in the shadow of the Great Wall of China, more than 150 miles away from Beijing. The tiny village, with fewer than 200 people, is a pocket of civilization older than most civilized places in the world.

My husband and I are here as newlyweds on week two of our honeymoon, hoping to see a slice of old China. We wanted to really see the Great Wall, to find a section where we could take in the grandeur without a lot of people around. The big question: how do you do that in the most populous country in the world?

Answer: Google it. Even Jinshanling can be found on a Google search.

What I found, really, was a local tour company that for a few hundred dollars would provide a Chinese guide, two nights’ stay in Jinshanling, one night of camping inside one of the Great Wall’s abandoned watchtowers, and an eight-mile hike on quiet, sometimes crumbling sections of the Great Wall to the village of Simatai.

The company wanted full payment by wire transfer to China before we left the United States. My husband smelled a scam, but I pressed on.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” he asked.

I pause and say nothing. Instead, I turn my head to the side and smile.

I would let him answer this one himself.

“We show up and no one comes for us at our hotel in Beijing and our money is gone.”

I agree, yes, that could happen.

We wire the finds.

And so here we are, in a van, less than 18 hours after touching down in China, winding through the country roads on the way to Jinshanling. Three hours drive from the city, and the pollution-fog lingers among the corn stalks and hovers over the fruit trees. It sticks to the hillsides like an ugly cloud of cigarette smoke obscures the walls of a pub. It makes my skin feel like the floor of a fast-food restaurant.

This far from Beijing, I naively thought it would be gone by now.

Guiding us is Beijing lcoal Hai Li,, an ever-smiling 30-year-old, and our non-English speaking driver. Also with us is a 40-something couple from Australia, the only other people on the tour. (I suppose most people do not prefer to blindly wire money to China like we do. Their loss.)

We hadn’t expected all this to go so smoothly.  But neither did we expect Old China to be so effortlessly enveloped in New Beijing’s sticky dirt. Of course we knew long before we bought our plane tickets how rapidly China, especially its cities, is developing. The dizzying pace of all the construction makes me wonder how one of the world’s healthiest populations is going to deal with all the crap in the air and water and soil.

* * *

For three hours, during our long smoggy drive, Hai Li sat quietly in the front seat of the van.  Seemingly out of nowhere, she would offer up what seemed like government-mandated propaganda.

“The government says more freeways will bring more progress to all of China,” she says as we speed along the eight-lane thoroughfare out of the city, built in advance of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

But once in Jinshanling, she transforms into a deft guide. But Hai Li’s tone softens once we are in Jinshanling, where she makes quick work of convincing two soldiers posted at the town gate to let us all inside – even though it’s just about to get dark and all the tourist shops are closed.

We’ll be sleeping on the Great Wall tonight. But first, I walk down the center of the only street in town, the main one, and I instantly love Jinshanling. I feel lucky to have found her, still quiet and uncrowded in the 21st Century. I hope she stays that way a little while longer.

3 Comments

Filed under Travel

A hidden Amazon village (that wants to be seen?)


My last installment from the Bolivian Amazon:

We’ve spent four days deep in the Amazon rainforest, and for our last afternoon, we’ve been invited to visit our hosts’ nearby village, Asuncion. Our first surprise, as we arrive, is its location right on the Quiquibey River. I think to myself, “We passed it in the canoe on the way here. How could I not see it?!”
Nobody, not even the locals, can see it from the river. Set back behind a high cliff over the water, it is ingeniously protected from floodwaters, intruders, and curious eyes.
Sand paths link several picture-perfect-looking thatched roof houses. There’s a one-room school made of concrete and filled with old wooden desks.
But no one is teaching lessons today. It’s eerily quiet. Something feels inauthentic here. Amazonian villages as they are, for all the Coca-Cola and t-shirts and peanut butter that have infiltrated them, are an authentic part of Amazonian life as much as the plants and animals. I was hoping to see that, but it will not be.
One of the local guides takes us up to a young girl, maybe 12 years old, sitting alone outside on a mat. She is crushing maize with a giant rock. Crush, crush, crush.
She looks up, sends a weak smile sent our way. More crushing. Kneeling on her mat, she seems hardly to notice us as our group gathers around, standing and staring, not knowing quite what to do. The guide begins to talk about how maize is cultivated in the village. It feels like a Disneyland, but with no crowds or costumes or sound of any kind. Except the crush, crush, crush.
After the guide’s explanation, he leads us between the huts of the village. We find more women in similar Disneyesque setups, demonstrating traditional chores: grinding millet, weaving baskets and blankets, assembling roofing material from big palm leaves.
It’s a demonstration to educate us. That would be fine (with me, at least) if village life went on as usual everywhere else. But it’s clearly at a standstill.
Is everybody inside their homes on a sunny afternoon? Where are all of the people? Hiding out? Or do they go elsewhere when tourists are coming to visit? I’m curious, and half-peek into doorways without getting too close to be obvious, or rude. It’s hard to tell if anyone is inside, but when I pass some of the huts, I hear voices inside. They are indeed hiding out.
My mind races. Educate us, yes, but people-exhibits using just four women spread out in stations across the village? Are most of the villagers afraid of us? Did some past group of tourists gawk too much, or walk into someone’s home uninvited?
This scene – contrived, unnatural – clashes with how earnestly the locals have been teaching us about the wildlife. But perhaps I’m overreacting; we were taken into the Amazon rain forest as tourists and students, and in this “village as laboratory” we are students too.
We ask if it’s all right to walk around the village by ourselves. Our guides say yes, as long as we don’t go into anyone’s house. We walk amongst chicken coops and refuse piles (mostly leftover palm fronds from building new houses), and peer inside the empty little school. A dozen wooden desks face a chalkboard.
Then, a real-life person. A man sits atop a large wooden skeleton shaped like a church. He’s hammering together the frame of what will become a community meeting house. We wave and say hello, and he does the same.
I wonder if funds from Mapajo tourists are paying for the community center. The group is quiet as we leave the village and head toward the path along the Quiquibey. I can’t help but think the others are surprised and perhaps a bit stunned by how staged and stoic our hosts seemed to be. Without words, we aimlessly stroll over a wide open field that ends at a cliff overhanging the river. The field is surrounded by the thick jungle on all sides.
We realize we’re walking on the village’s soccer field.
And suddenly, as we step on the field, everything changes. A small group of children and adults run up to us, from behind, asking if we want to play. When we say yes, they go get the ball. It is Saturday after all, a play day.
“Aqui, aqui”, they yell, trying to get us to pass the ball.
“Aqui!,” our players reply.
They easily win, but no one is really keeping score.
It’s a friendly game, full of laughter and energy, things entirely separate from language barriers and economic differences and gulfs between cultural norms.
As the game winds down, we hear the cackle of Asuncion’s CB radio, the only modern communication connecting Asuncion to Rurrenabaque. Static punctuated by unintelligible words emanate from a shed near the field. Spanish? Tribal tongues? It’s too fuzzy to tell. Whatever the language, it’s real and present. No one seems to be inside the shed to answer. The words keep coming with no pause.
We walk home happy along the footpath back to Mapajo. I wonder what the villagers are saying about us. Perhaps the Amazon rain forest is not as isolated as we once thought.
And so, with so much to process, a few of us end up on another cliff above the Quiquibey River on the last evening to stargaze. I wonder what it would be like to live here, with only a cackling two-way radio to call for help. Perhaps life here is made more comfortable in some way by the tourists. Since our village visit, I’m feeling uneasy about the “show” the villagers of Asuncion put on for us, but also grateful for everything I’ve learned from them. I feel settled and comfortable here.
The reality of the Amazon, though, is full of its own dangers: no fence around us, big cats and snakes and insects in the forest nearby, large reptiles and piranha swimming in the river below us. The jungle rules here, and it is teeming with plant and animal life – documented and undocumented, poisonous and live-saving.
But behind us, between the bungalows, candles flicker, as they have every night, lit by the women of Asuncion tending to our camp. The candles sit on the floors of our cabins and poke up through the river sand along the edges of paths. Do they offer any sort of protection? Maybe. Likely not. Within an hour or two, the breeze will blow them out or they will burn down completely. But for a time, they tie together our temporary village and offer warm comfort.
Perhaps that is all we need to breathe easier in a place changing all around us.

2 Comments

Filed under Eco-travel

The jungle is not a gentle place (Bolivian Amazon, part 2)


This is a continuation of last week’s post “Quiet (for now) on the Quiquibey”

As volunteers before coming to the Bolivian Amazon, we came to Bolivia to build houses in the country’s eastern lowland, about 1,000 miles from here. Fourteen strangers before the volunteer work, many of us now call one another friends. This four-day stint in the Bolivian Amazon is our mini-vacation after nearly two weeks of work, and as the leader of the group, I chose Mapajo because I wanted to bring people to a grassroots indigenous enterprise. I must admit, the price was right too. For a group our size, about one hundred dollars a day per person would fully pay for three nights in the jungle, including the roundtrip flight from La Paz (Bolivia’s high-altitude capital city) to the airstrip in Rurrenabaque, a three-hour upriver dugout canoe trip from Rurrenabaque to Mapajo, all our food, a handful of jungle walks and boat trips, a guide and translator, and a donation to an unnamed community project in the village of Asuncion.
I had no idea it would include an ample dose of awe and wonder, too, for many of us. The price was right (and fair, given the value of the Bolivian currency), for sure. But at what price to the local way of life?
As bold a traveler as I have become over the years, I have no jungle survival experience. I’m happy to hand the reins of responsibility to the locals for a few days, acutely aware that the jungle is not a gentle place. There is a part of me that is nervous about bringing a group of people, none of which has set foot in the rainforest before, to the biggest one on Earth. It quickly becomes clear that while we have the money to get here, we have none of the real skill to survive in this place. We listen closely to our hosts when they tell us not to touch a certain tree bark (it’s poisonous); or when they say to stay away from the fuzzy caterpillars that crawl lazily along the beams of our cabins (one small touch, they say, and our entire bodies will feel as if engulfed by flames); or when they tell us the water from the stream is perfectly safe to drink.
A young woman in my bungalow finds a poisonous caterpillar crawling over her pillow one night. She shrieks when she sees it. We take the pillow outside, shake off the caterpillar, and return the pillow to the bed.
“I can’t sleep now,” she says, nervously pacing around the cabin.
We look up; it’s so dark we can’t see the beams above us. There are probably more creatures up there, but structures in the Amazon are anything but airtight, so we tuck our mosquito nets under our mattresses just a little more securely than before.
The young woman eventually goes to sleep, ignoring her fear of what might be creeping around in the dark.
The next morning, we can’t ignore our need for water. Not having any other choice, we give our empty water bottles to our hosts to fill from the stream; not surprisingly, it’s clear and cool and delicious, and no one gets sick.
If we cannot trust our indigenous hosts, we don’t belong here. We need them in every sense of the word need: we need them to navigate the Quiquibey and the Beni rivers to return us to Rurrenabaque after our stay is up; we need them to find fish for our dinners and fruits for our breakfasts; we need them to apply their tropical medicines if we accidentally touch a poisonous frog or a thorn-laden tree. We are too far from any doctor’s office to think we wouldn’t need tribal medicine.
Our Spanish-and-English speaking guide and Spanish-speaking translator (who understand the Moseten and T’Simane languages) work in tandem. Every time one of our hosts tells us something, it gets translated through two men and three languages before we hear it.
During the day, the men take us out in the dugout canoes or by foot on their well-hidden but well-trodden hunting trails. In the dugout canoes, we go to special places known to the Moseten and Tisane for multiple generations: where hundreds of parrots gather, where big cats lick the salt from the Earth, where alligators lurk along the riverbanks. On our way back to the safety of the lodge in the evening, we can see crocodile and alligator eyes glowing when we shine our flashlight beams in their eyes from the boat. Bats dive from the riverside cliffs to feed on insects.
About five of the Asuncion villagers, mostly women, walk to our cluster of thatched-roof cabins each day to cook dinner for us. We eat by candlelight in a communal building. My favorite is the fish, steamed in palm leaves. It’s an ancient Amazonian river fish, thick and white and buttery, with a name I have never heard of and a taste incomparable to any other fish I’ve eaten.
As we are introduced to the natural environment, the village of Asuncion remains a mystery, literally hidden from us. We know Asuncion is only a 20-minute walk from Mapajo, but have no idea in what direction. Finally, on our final day in Pilon-Lajas, the guides tell us that they will take us there.
Check back to Good Journeys next week for the surprising conclusion to the story.

1 Comment

Filed under Eco-travel

Quiet (for now) on the Quiquibey


Excerpted from my chapter on the Bolivian Amazon from my travel memoir-in-progress:

Watching the moon rise over the world’s ventilator, you can really breathe. The stars reveal themselves in the millions from this unlit vantage point in the Southern Hemisphere. And the audio — oh the nocturnal noise! – is all natural: billions of insect and reptile songs creating a kind of ethereal pulse. Croaks and dinkkkks and vrrrs and tzzzzs — melodies that mask the careful foot steps of jaguar – are nightly symphonies in the Amazon rain forest. In three days, I’ve come to relish the cacophony, the dangers it can hide, and the outright mysteries of this place.
The seemingly unbroken top of the Amazon rain forest canopy is just below me; I’m sitting on a cliff above the Quiquibey River, deep inside Bolivia’s Pilon-Lajas Biosphere Reserve and Indigenous Territory. When I look across the dark gurgling waters, I envision jumping over it and walking on top of the spongy rounded lumps of trees for miles.
The reality is, though, even if I could magically walk on the tops of trees, I would eventually fall into a gap: a logged area. But for now, unbroken wilderness is all I can see, and being inside the Amazon for the first time is magic indeed. Like the stretch of rainforest in front of me, my mind feels happily stretched out here, wide enough to process thoughts of past, present and future all at once.
I’m joined at cliff’s edge by a few other night-loving tourists; it’s the first time to the Amazon for all of us, and everyone seems to be having a mind-shift too. I don’t want to leave, and I’m not the only one. For many of us on the cliff, the thought of returning to a world of airplanes and honking cars and crime still feels years away. The reality is that most of us will return to that world in mere days.
But right now the skyscrapers are trees, nourished by ample sun and rain. The trees are so close together they literally hug all day and all night. Lovely how they do that, linking branches, making shade for everybody down below. And there is an everybody under there. Most of the human life living under the canopy have come out onto the rivers and shown themselves to the outside world. A few have not as seen – ironically – on CNN.
Our Moseten and T’Simane tribal hosts are among those who have made – and some might say, seek – contact from the outside world. They’ve built five bungalows for tourists and named the place Mapajo Ecolodge. It has been our home in the jungle for the last few nights.
It’s our final night in the rainforest. I’m concerned about how outsiders like me are changing this place; how I, here as leader of a group of 14 American and Canadian volunteers, have filled the little lodge to capacity. We have already changed the daily life of the local people just by being here, choosing this place to rest and recharge. As my mind wanders, caiman and alligator and massive, ancient river-bottom fish slip through the water just below the cliff where we sit. The Quiquibey is only one of thousands of rivers that snake their way into the mighty Amazon.
Vast tracts of this jungle have remained unchanged for thousands of years. I’d love to know the exact percentage of virgin forest that remains, but the logging rages so fast that it’s impossible to get current figures. I’m here because I want to learn more about the past that rules daily life here – the medicinal plants, hunting and fishing in the jungle, and all the fruits and vegetables that sustain the local indigenous people.
The locals have been teaching us these things. I think that’s valuable for us, members the “outside world” in order to understand – and perhaps better protect – the Amazon. But what are the indigenous people getting out of it, other than money and exposure to our (rather unnecessary) Gore-Tex rain jackets and moisture-wicking socks and SLR cameras?
Do we, by supporting eco-tourism here, do more harm than good?

I’d love to hear answers from readers to this question
.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized