Our Wandering Youth as Society’s Heroes

23 May

For the past year I have been considering our society’s movement toward more gap years, summers abroad, wilderness explorations, and adventure education programs. Of course I had thought about these programs a lot in the past because I worked as an experiential educator for ten years. But after five years in the field of psychology, I began looking at them from a different, more sociological angle. Ultimately, the arrows all pointed back to my own experience.

For years I wandered. First to France when I was sixteen to live with my great uncle, then to Thailand for a year as an exchange student. And then on to Laos, China, India, Tibet, and many other lands in between. I did this wandering for fifteen years. Often I held a job that either took me to these places or helped me stay in them. And sometimes I just walked from town to town through forests or mountains, exploring people and their lands.

And I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Journals stacked into storage, electronic files went onto hard drives, and random notes scratched onto looseleaf ended up in boxes. I wanted to tell my story, but who was my audience? My parents for the most part. In 1998, in a dingy old classroom in south-central Thailand, I typed dozens of letters on an old typewriter and posted them from the town post office. And my parents read those letters, sometimes responding with their own thoughts on my observations. And now I realize just how important their thoughts were to me. Someone was listening and helping me integrate my experience, even if they had no idea what things were really like.

But for a moment, I want to back up and give some more rationale for what I want to share with you. It begins with the fact that humans are migratory creatures, evolved to wander in search of new spaces and lands in hopes of improving our lot, gaining security, and finding resources. It is an essential trait of our existence – exploration – that has led to our indulgence in wealth, stockpiling, hoarding, monopolizing. But the tempered side of this trait is our ability to nest, make use of our innate frugal nature, build small but quality homes, and share thoughtfully with each other.

Throughout our lifetime, we all need to wander and explore. It is a rite, a movement to ultimate self-identity and to understand our place in the world. This is why, in the twenty-first century, adventure programs and other facilitated experiences are becoming not for the rare, self-motivated outliers, but a requisite experience for the middle and upper classes of our society (and hence the need for more scholarships and nonprofit outfits that open this opportunity for those who cannot afford them). There is no clearer sign in our modern world that our youth are needing a greater global context to their existence.

And this brings me to what I think is direly important for us to consider as a society: The more we embrace this movement for our youth to explore the world, the more we need to help them integrate those experiences into their lives, and our own lives. They are like journalists for us, equipped with not just journals and a keen sense of observation, but also an exploratory energy that many of us have long lost. We need to learn from them and ask both simple and deep questions of them. They are heroes embarking on the journeys that we have yet to endeavor ourselves. The question, “How was it?” is not sufficient – not for our own learning, nor for their processing. Nor is it sufficient for us to tell them what they will find (even if we have explored the world ourselves, we do not know what beautiful discoveries they will make with their mind as the pilot).

To ask our youth questions about their experiences, we need to get detailed and we need to be authentically curious. Many times, a traveler will give clues to her experience through emails or phone calls. Listen for the key words – the places they name, the people they meet, the things they see – and then ask. Ask them about the specifics. Let them tell their story in all its darkness and light. Travel and exploring involves encountering our own inner difficulties and sorrows, as well as our own ability to live fully. For a youthful wandering to become a truly integrated benefit to all of us, we need to embrace its intricate fabric.

As we continue this modern movement of walkabouts, we need to find ways to integrate them into our social fabric. We need to hold them as sacred and give our youth the tools to move through them safely and with integrity. And to give them tools, we need tools. We need these experiences ourselves or we need to learn deeply about how they affect our (and our youth’s) psyche. So if you have not wandered, wander. Even if it is only for a week or a day, find the space and time to explore with as little structure as possible. And then understand that this is a part of what our youth need to do in order to break into adulthood.

My journeys as a young adult brought me many revelations, most of which were small but helpful. The big “aha” moments are few and far between, but the cumulative experiences often leads to a “changed” view of the world, hopefully a wider and more compassionate view. For me, the support of my family helped me integrate my experiences into my life’s work; I wish the same support for the travelers who are now setting out into the world.

– Max Woodfin

A Semi-Urban Guide to Resistance and Acceptance

8 Nov

To the north lies a limestone mountain called Changchong, its round and bald peak quietly looking down on the burgeoning population of southwest China’s fastest growing city. The city itself stretches around the mountain to the east and west, and almost crawls up its flanks. But at some point the mountain holds steady and the people yield.

I, too, must yield to the world around me when I seek tranquility on my bicycle in this booming metropolis. And there are times when I wish I did not have to yield. Today, for example, I rode west and north from my home, seeking a new way out of town and into the mountains. I skipped the two roads I already knew, hoping to discover a faster way into the forests and meadows. But as one dead-end followed another, and as more and more people shook their heads dispassionately when I asked them to help me get out of the city, I grew weary. The roads I did find all led to tunnels that I, the cyclist, was not allowed to enter. I suddenly felt claustrophobic, stuck behind the walls of the mountains in this oppressive and cold urban landscape. Although I knew I had other ways out, I became angry with the shackles we have put on ourselves. And the more trucks that rolled by and the more dead-ends I found, the louder my internal noise grew: “Oh, so if I want to find a rural sanctuary, I have to be in a car to go through the tunnels. I get it. We have created a world for ourselves where nature is something to find, not to be.”

But anger lasts only for so long before we have to look at what lies behind it.

We must resist that which turns us away from each other, that which dehumanizes us: Urban landscapes designed for vehicles, not people; marketplaces designed for material wealth, not nurturing collective needs; disparities that leave the privileged craving more and the less privileged craving what others have. So we must resist this; we must look for change.

Yet resistance is the very thing that erodes our inner peace. Resistance to natural cycles is the impetus behind our massive drive to build misguided infrastructure and collect wealth. And acceptance is the antidote to dehumanizing behaviors. In our modern psyche, two such concepts cannot exist in the same sphere of thought. As we perceive it, thought itself is linear, not circular, and because language and thought are  fundamental to our lives, we feel perplexed and unhappy when the linear way is disrupted.  How can we mount our resistance to dehumanization while accepting our condition as it is?

Old spiritual traditions teach us much about our dualistic nature. In Taoist thought, the way of nature lies within the undulation of seemingly opposing forces; such cooperative opposition is the fundamental energy of life. Considering my deep desire to see our humanity evolve, I choose to accept my resistance to the alienating world of development while finding ways to be content within and without its structure. This is easier to practice knowing that we will change and we will ultimately evolve toward compassionate coexistence. We have no choice.

In my short journey today, I found peace with my world without dismissing the desire for change. As I began circling the city back towards my home in the north, I found a pathway to freedom. Instead of resisting the (literal) obstacles in my path, I made like water around rocks, swift in my own current and letting the world around me shape my speed. And although I did notice that every road seemed to turn me toward the barren center of the city, I found small rivulets that cut back toward other channels leading me home.  In this journey, I found small pieces of humanity: The bike lanes allowed me to roll past rush hour traffic; at a traffic light a wide-eyed infant pounded her tiny fist on her mother’s shoulder as the two coo’d in unison; a side road revealed to me a neighborhood of kids playing games with their shoes and neighbors gossiping about the day. I only wished for more of this.

I dream of urban landscapes that turn one human to another and open the natural cycles of the earth to its people: neighborhoods built for humans, not commuting workers; shops built for interaction, not faceless bartering; roadways built for everyone, not for the few. But I will not let these deep desires for humanity in the face of inhuman trends drive me to misanthropy. Instead, I wish to turn toward the things that are good for humanity: laughing with strangers, infusing humor and love into even the hardest of interactions. It is a cold world sometimes, and we can do our part to make it warmer. We can resist the inhuman by moving toward each other, a task I am working hard to practice in my own life.

Resist. Accept resistance. And accept everything we have without resisting. This is the paradox I am trying to accept. For now, I nimbly break the traffic rules in solidarity with the trucks, tractors, horse carts, motor-wagons, and BMW’s, finding my fluid weave through the City of Eternal Spring under the watchful eyes of Changchong Mountain.

The River’s Revolutionary Ways

17 Jan

Though I am gone from it – having left in a torrent of meetings, encounters, and last-minute trips to coasts and borders – it still runs deeply through my body. When I sit awake, late in the cold night, my mind drifts back to the slow churning of the broad and muddy river and its creative energy.  I sit awake because I am considering how I left the river, how I seemed to forget the Mekong in my haste to project myself through the throes of social complexities. What began as my project to sink deeply into the ways of a river ended with me casting my boat aside and throwing myself down a torrent of unpredictable waters.  Where I thought I was seeking stability, I was actually seeking chaos.  But like a good parent, the river let me go.  It let me wander away or into its turbulence without protest, yet it had already instilled in me a deep sense of calm, a deep sense that no matter where I go and what I put myself through, the river still runs through my body.

It was very late in the game when I wound up on the Thai-Cambodian border. Time was running out and I had already left the Mekong to rekindle relationships with my host family in Thailand. But something called me back to Cambodia and the products of its chaotic history and shady governance. I remember when someone in Phnom Penh asked me for money so that he could eat. In the moments after I turned down the request, I gazed down the street.  Trash was everywhere and potholes slowed down a few SUV’s as they bounced through the neighborhood.  One of these cars, a black Lexus with tinted windows, stopped in the middle of the road for a few minutes, blocking all traffic so its passenger could engage in some roadside business.  When no one complained, I asked why.  My friend, Soriya, pointed at the license plates, “See? Government. You try to tell them, they beat you. Maybe you die later.” I looked back at the young man who asked me for money and a sense of hopelessness fell over me.

Somehow, though, I still believe freedom is attainable.  When I step back from the chaos and deprivation, from witnessing the powerful intimidate the powerless, and from my own forays into the fringes of this society, I feel the river again – the deep, magnificent flow of water that carves canyons with its mass, fertilizes valleys with its mud, and builds islands with its sediment. The creative power of the river arrives back in me. And then I realize how freedom from fear, from poverty, from sadness can be attained: creatively.

I left the river in my own chaos – something that I needed and, deep down, wanted. I watched men and women navigate the chaos that I had moved into.  And I watched some of them navigate it with ease, like the skilled paddler who finds her line before the descent.  They were the ones who had found creative ways to develop a skill against the odds. And in some cases, someone else had found a creative way to help them.  Creativity cannot come in a state of crisis, but it can come from the inner calm amid the crisis, and this is revolutionary.  As I journey forward through the chaos that I have now chosen as part of my life path (a path reflected in some of the events I describe here), I can thank the river for giving me the bold creativity to depart from its safe confines. I can thank it for how it runs through me, deep and alive.

Witnessing Genocide, Delayed.

23 Nov

Today, I walked the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge regime. There on the grounds of mass graves where bones, skulls, and teeth still lie, I felt the weight of my own ignorance come down upon me.  Shreds of cloth from children’s clothing remained untouched as tree roots grew down around them.  In all the time it took for those roots to entangle clothing that was ripped from children’s bodies, I knew little to nothing of the travesty suffered by the Khmer people during the regime of “Democratic Kampuchea.”  Whatever I may have felt, I could not name it, and in some cases had trouble feeling it.  But if there is any grace in witnesses like me arriving too late, it is this:

Today, hundreds of thousands of people witnessed the atrocities suffered by the Khmer people over three decades ago. Some walked the Killing Fields like me, some heard stories from survivors around Cambodia and the world, and some watched the beginning of the UN-backed tribunals of three of the Khmer Rouge’s most powerful leaders. I was one of these hundreds of thousands. Together, in one day, we were witnesses to events that traumatized a nation, a trauma that still echoes in survivors and their family’s minds and bodies. This was today, and unfortunately for the Khmer people, this witnessing was many days too late.

The word witness plays a special significance here. During the four years of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (“Democratic Kampuchea,” 1975-1979), direct witnesses were primarily Khmer people. The borders of the country were shut down; foreigners were deported; non-Khmer ethnics were arrested and imprisoned; and diplomats were restricted to the confines of an abandoned capital city. To make matters worse, for many years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the UN recognized its government as the only legitimate government of Cambodia. Some have suggested that perhaps the UN and its supporters (including the US) can be partially forgiven, for they too were restricted in their access to Cambodia. The debate of responsibility can continue, and in the end we might realize that all of humanity is responsible for such a travesty, which is why I use the word witness with special emphasis.

As I silently moved around the mass graves of the Killing Fields in the heat of the midday sun, I realized that the suffering in my life might pale in comparison to the suffering of someone who watched his family burn around him, knowing that he, too, will burn, hang, bleed, starve, or be bludgeoned to death. But knowing my own suffering, as seemingly insignificant as it is, clarified for me how desperately I wish to avoid living through something like genocide. This is absolutely selfish, but it is this common selfishness that allows all of us to have compassion, to realize our common humanity. If we felt unscathed through suffering, with what motivation would we struggle against those who oppress others? What would drive us to protect each other from future atrocity?

Unfortunately, this was not the last genocide we have witnessed. There have been more since, and the suffering in Cambodia occurred well after the entire world witnessed the genocidal practices of the Nazi regime. Knowing all this could easily dissuade someone from making any effort to protect her fellow humans from a future act of violence against a population.

The excuses still abound. Today in Phnom Penh, Noun Chea, a major propagandist and powerful leader in the Khmer Rouge, stated that everything he did was for the benefit of his country – to protect Cambodia against any foreigners who wanted to destroy it, to help the Cambodian people become self-sufficient, to help the people build strength and power from within. As he put it, “to liberate my motherland from colonialism and aggression and oppression by the thieves who wish to steal our land and wipe Cambodia off the face of the Earth.” Despite the rhetoric, we can easily see that his cause, liberating a nation from greed, was worthy in theory. But the resulting action of a worthy cause was that 1.7 million Cambodians died of starvation, disease, and execution at the hands of Noun Chea’s revolutionary organization.  A worthy cause is no excuse, and nor is ignorance.

Even though I was not alive at the time, I am a part of this. We are each a part of the system that allows for atrocities to continually occur, and so the question remains: How do we become agents of change, even if we are unwilling to give up our day-to-day lives of comfort? I realized something in the Killing Fields today. The Cambodian people have given us a gift. Today, anyone with the means can visit Phnom Penh and visit the Killing Fields as well as sites like Tuol Sleng Prison. Much money and many resources have gone into these sites to expose the depths of Cambodia’s tragedy and educate the world in order to prevent something like this from happening somewhere else.

From today, we will watch the Khmer Rouge tribunals here in Phnom Penh progress.  While the truth may remain murky, we will continue to deepen our understanding of what happened. I encourage anyone who is reading this to take a moment and read about the tribunals. A simple search in Google News for “Khmer Rouge Tribunals” will give you the latest updates on the historic process we are witnessing today.  Let us all bear witness so that the future has at least some hope of freedom from fear.

How to Cross A River

20 Oct

I swim in the cool mist of the dark and early morning. The gentle knowledge of an imminent sunrise is tucked back in my heart and mind while the residue of recent sleep tries to wear itself off. My host and I walk through the quiet village and past the temple to the steps above the river – she, a forty-eight year old grandmother and a villager of local repute, and me, a guest whose history and knowledge have no bearing on her acceptance of me. We slowly move down the steps with baskets of goods for the market and step into a long, wooden boat. There, on the river, we sit and wait.

Waiting is one of my favorite activities in this part of the world. I live different lives in different places, and my life in the United States has an impatience for waiting. If I am early or on-time to a lunch appointment and my colleague has not arrived, I feel nervous. I pull out a phone or find something to read, anything to be sure I am not “waiting.” In Laos, something shifts and waiting becomes okay. Perhaps it is how this part of the world helps me remember that I will not die even if nothing is happening.

After some time, my host pulls out her cell phone. The world is still dark but for a flash light from a boat floating down the river about one-hundred meters away. The light reveals more fog upstream, giving the impression we are in a room on the river. She calls someone, speaks a few words about who is coming, where we are, and so forth. Then, silence and waiting on the long, wooden boat.

Thirty minutes or so after walking down the steps to the river, we have navigated our way upstream through the eddies near the bank and are in the middle of the river’s channel, powering forward but going nowhere except to the other side of the river. The pilot, a younger woman in her thirties, has angled our boat 45 degrees off the current, allowing the water to push us to our destination. The boat itself is a sleek craft, one meter wide by almost ten long, allowing it to cut through the water and maintain a rather straight course even when varying currents, boils, and eddies try to push it off.

As we near the other bank, I note nothing that appears to be a destination – no other boats, no break in the trees above, no dock or building. Except for the contours and bends in the river, there is no sign of a landing. But our pilot knows, perhaps by feeling, and we hit the muddy bank just beneath a little trail up to the market. Standing up, my host and I gather our baskets of goods and step onto the muddy shore. She hands the pilot a few bills and mumbles something to me about the mud and its inconvenience. We then begin the slippery walk up the path to the market in the big town above. The soft light of morning opens and the mist locks into its position in the surrounding mountains, as though preparing to fend off the sun.  And I think, this is how someone ought to cross a river.

Two Moments and A River

17 Oct

 Taking time with the small deeds matters. A moment of time spent in the present, experiencing all the rhythms, sounds, and intricacies is often more pleasant than reveries and memories. But occasionally the present might present us with an item – a sound or a perception – that touches something in us. Our mind may sneak its subtle tongue into the world of the present and draw us into the world of the past or future – the worlds of loss and not having. Such is the subject of my own mind in this town, Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang sits quietly by the banks of the Mekong River and its tributary, the Nam Khan. It is a place visitors often describe with eloquence, naming the various feelings that arise in this town – feelings inspired by ancient temples and palaces, Indochinese architecture, and the town’s welcoming attitude toward visitors. I write this only because I would prefer to skip the pleasantries of introducing “the feel” of Luang Prabang to my readers (a task many others have already endeavored) and move on to my experience of this town almost ten years after my first visit in 2002.

I arrived here several days ago and was surprised that not a whole lot has changed about this town. A few more guesthouses coupled with a few more European bakeries have made it slightly more attractive to honeymooners and vacationers. While China and Thailand, economic powerhouses of the East, might see change on a rapid scale (China far outweighing Thailand), Laos seems to amble along, giving itself time to make slightly more informed decisions about its destiny. In fact, the number of “foreign” consultants working on development projects in this country may be an indication of the government’s practical investment in a desirable future. But I will save my analysis of Laos’ transnational development relationships for another time, and again, if I can, direct my reveries and daydreams into the now.

I am sitting on the main road, which turns into a tourist market at night. Hmong and Lao women are setting up their crafts, and I am penning some words, to the curiosity of an eight year-old boy from a village some twenty kilometers away. He first approached me with a cardboard tray of bracelets to sell earlier today. When I responded in Lao, he seemed interested more in me than selling his goods. He sat down and began watching me intently.  Now, later in the day, he is back by my side.

My meeting with this boy was the first of two moments that brought me into my experience, both in my body and in this land. This boy, dressed in an old brown t-shirt and some stained shorts, comes from outside of this large town almost every day to sell these bracelets – he and a couple dozen other children. He said that he can use some of his money to buy himself snacks, and brings the rest back to his “people.” While I wondered more about this boy, I would not pretend to be able to change his situation, and have not yet resolved that it should change. But something inside of me did want him to have more interesting experience with a non-local, and so I engaged him in conversation. We talked about his village, his brothers and sisters, and his bicycle (something he was very excited about, which made me think it might be a new item). He then shifted the conversation to me, wondering if I lived in Vientiane and if I were a teacher.

And then he says this: My father is not here…not around. He has been gone for a while. Won’t be back. A wave of energy seemed to rock my body backwards into the wall behind me. The feeling was palpable, as though a mortar round had sent a powerful shock wave from thirty meters away. It was not necessarily the part about his father being gone that hit me; it was the Won’t be back. At his age, this knowledge seemed powerful.

After he broke the story of his father to me, I gently and slowly found my way out of the conversation and began walking. I walked through the quiet streets of Luang Prabang for two hours, watching, thinking, feeling. I felt closer to people, more open to the world, and yet simultaneously on the brink of tears, like anything at any moment could drop me into the release of sorrow.

Then the second moment came. I had walked into a bookstore, perhaps looking for a slight distraction. Perusing the books, my eyes landed on a murder mystery written by a Bangkok resident. That’s when it all flooded in, my body into itself and the truth of where I was…the truth of where I am. When my father and mother visited me in northern Thailand some five years ago, they brought with them a few books by this author. It was their tradition to read novels that take place in the regions they visit, and the closest thing they found for northern Thailand was this series of crime novels starring a Bangkok police detective. There, in a wooden bookstore in the midday heat of Luang Prabang, the tears came streaming down my freshly shaven face.

It was a grief that goes deep into my existence, a grief that I would argue works deeply into our common humanity, and it was this grief that surprisingly brought me into the present more powerfully than the meditative practice I have held for a number of years. I left the bookstore and the puzzled shopkeeper and headed to a place where the land could hold me: a quiet spot in the shade by the banks of the Mekong. I let grief flood me, and let the river’s movement clean out the grime of suppressed doubts, sorrows, and fears.

I saw how sorrow is attached to change, how in every moment we lose the past that our mind seems to prefer. This is why, when a town changes, when a village outgrows its family-oriented ways, when a city like Jinghong grows to three times its size in a few years and sweeps over villagers’ rice paddies, we feel such grief. The trouble is that we, as a global society, need the physical space and time to encounter this grief. When the human world moves quickly, we jump into the current because it seems to be the only plausible action. We only swim out to the banks when we realize it is too much for us. But this realization does not come regularly. We usually try to find ways of beating the current, which in turn makes the current more turbulent.

This boy, this town of Luang Prabang, this river: they allowed me the space to feel the grief of a lifetime of losses, from the death of grandparents to the death of my father and the loss of my childhood home, to the separation from a dear partner, to the many recent turbulent changes in my life. I saw the boy adjusting to a change and being able to speak of it with a stranger. I saw the river and its ability to move across whatever path the land held for it. If we can speak of our losses and slow down the artificial changes we create, perhaps we will evolve as humans into a place where we can support each others’ losses, reserve human-made change for positive, thoughtful evolution, and move at a pace where our bodies and minds may generate compassion rather than turbulence.

-Max Woodfin

Full Circle

5 Oct


Days ago, I learned of a friend’s death. I was fresh off a bus and eager to update myself on news outside of Yunnan, so I stepped into a small place and looked up the world on a computer. Awaiting me was this news.

Fifty meters away was a stone path. The stone path led to the edge of a large lake, so I walked there and gazed. I gazed long and far, feeling both the beauty and the horror of this life. At once, they merged into a knowing as deep as the lake. It began to rain a cool rain; I stood, soaking in the bounty that life – and life’s eventual ending – bring. This friend had taught so much to the world around him. He embodied the love that many people spend their lives seeking, and pointed toward love’s path for others to follow. And his death has renewed my sorrow for another death in my life – a loss that has forever permeated my choices and perspective in this world.

Death has no boundaries, only circumstance. And in my revery over death, the lake and water provided for me. Two days later, I have come back to the river hundreds of kilometers downstream from where I last left it. The river flows and holds, then flows again. Whether the current catches a large lagoon deep in the tropics or the reservoir of a dam, it eventually falls through its course into the ocean. Or perhaps it ends when the molecules of water rise into the atmosphere, or filter into the earth beneath irrigated farmland. Whatever the case, it ends. But while the river ends in form, it is renewed by the water that it brought to the ocean, whether in four hundred years or four hundred thousand years. The process brings water back to the sky, then back to the earth, and back into the river.

How could life exist without its fin? In fact, life is a series of deaths. Shiva, god of destruction, destroys the universe to make room for rebirth, for the creative powers of the world to grow. In many ways, I have grown through the deaths of life.

Let me explain. Ten years ago, this month, I was in the town of Jinghong in the far south of Yunnan, China. It was a large town then, but now it is a city. The Mekong River, just down from the main commercial area, is an afterthought – a brown torrent in the shadow of a massive bridge and billions of investment dollars. But the death of what I knew – the small town that looked upon the river – has made way for new understandings and new relationships. When I was in Jinghong ten years ago, I was embarking on naïve relationships, experimenting with research, and throwing myself fully into whatever came my way. I hit my own walls and other people’s walls. Those relationships had their own deaths, as did my specific aspirations at the time to pursue studies in development.

This has come full circle. I am in the city of Jinghong teaching development to a group of young people who will surely be successful and influential in their lives. I am sharing my knowledge of both the physical and metaphysical worlds as they relate to this region, the river, and its people. And as limited as this knowledge is, I believe that it is the right direction. Whatever has died in my life has given me much more than the face value of its death. In fact, death has become my ultimate teacher. Those who have left this world are, then, my teachers. As I consider my friend and walk the common path of wondering “where” he is now, “what” he is doing, and “how” life works if it ends, I once again come to love. This feeling of love brings me to the loss that has changed much of how I view the world:

My father never gave shallow words of wisdom to me. Rather, he was like a river; his wisdom was a meandering source of power and strength. And like a river, his nature was often novel. He was full of surprises, usually subtle surprises. And his greatest surprise to me was the depth of power that unveiled itself when he left this world.

A Wise Man and the Mountain

1 Oct

A Cathedral in Cizhong stands high above a road in the making

The old man’s hands reflect seventy years of sun, dirt, and mountain — sinewy veins that ripen when he reaches up for a pear off the tree, or cuts grapes from his vines, or pours yak butter tea into my cup.  And if his hands are not proof of his devotion to the land, a mere glance up to his face would rest the case.  This man had lived the land and knew it.  It was his land, his sanctimony with the gorge and the river and the glaciers, and I was his visitor in this small vineyard town in the Mekong gorge.

After a week in a high, verdant village below the two sacred peaks, we wound our way up to the bustling and aesthetically displeasing county capital of Deqin, and then back down the steep slopes of the eastern Himalaya to a small wine-producing village on the banks of the Mekong. One thousand meters below Deqin, the land felt warm, almost hot. The sun blazed and the flies swarmed, and even the site of bucolic vineyards and walnut trees could not distract me from the initial experience of heat and heavier air. Still, at two-thousand meters (almost 7,000 feet), the nights were cool and mornings pleasant.

Within an hour of arriving in Dalun and upon an invitation, I followed an old hunter through the terraced vineyards, walnut groves, and irrigated mountain streams to his multistory, earthen home. Along the way, he directed me to break off bunches of grapes and pick pears from the massive trees (which, upon pulling, would loose a number of other pears, some of which would land squarely on our heads). Upon arrival at his home, I noticed the massive timber used to build not only the house itself, but also the entryways, animal shelters, and garden walls. And a skilled carpenter had carved elaborate Tibetan symbols into the window frames, doorways, and columns of the courtyard.

I remembered back to our time in the high village of Hongpo where people had stretched cables nearly two kilometers down a mountain. They used these cables to send these large pieces of wood from the forests above. But around Dalun, there were no forests on the surrounding slopes. In fact, the slopes were barren except for some small shrubs and nopal cacti. Between patches of green were deep grooves where rainwater and landslides had continually cut into the mountains. The wood, I thought, must now be brought in by truck.

As noticeable as it was, the deforestation in Dalun paled in comparison to the construction projects surrounding Dalun. Above, below, and around the village, laborers and machinery were cutting deeper into the earth to build roads. To the northeast, laborers are upgrading a roadway that stretches all the way to Lhasa; this will soon be a Gaosu Gonglu, a “superhighway” of sorts. To the southwest, a road cuts to a touristy village on the western banks of the river; and the road to this village is the road that will continue along the Mekong hundreds of kilometers, opening the Tibetan world of Deqin County more directly to the Mekong basin of southern Yunnan.

And today, I sit in another village across the Mekong from that road, sixty kilometers south of Dalun. From a rooftop in Cizhong, I can look down over a nineteenth century missionary cathedral toward the road. The greenery of a steep mountain slope abruptly ends where the gash of a roadway begins. In fact, the gash starts anywhere from thirty to one-hundred feet above the road surface itself, and debri from the project spills another hundred to two-hundred feet into the Mekong.

When I first sat down in the old man’s Tibetan household in Dalun, I was more taken by my own indulgence in the resources of the village – grapes, wine, apples, pears, greenery, streams, friendly dogs and kittens, and walnuts – than by the impact of development. But the longer we stayed in Dalun, the more I could feel the approach of development’s low roar. It was as though I were in an open canoe, floating slowly on a meandering river before hearing the distant warning of an impending rapid. At first, it is a distant white noise; I might think that my ears are playing tricks. But then, as I round a bend, the whirring, wrathful voices of water pouring over rocks and into holes becomes louder. My eyes dilate, my heart quickens, and I prepare for the inevitable. And finally, when I’ve done all I can to prepare, I am above the roaring drop where, despite all my preparation, the unpredictable power of water has its say in my fate.

Only on the river, I have practice. I have prepared many times for the descent. A village like Dalun does not practice approaching development a number of times before perfecting it. A village like Dalun has only one chance to get it right, and much of its fate depends on the external forces of development rather than its internal knowledge and leadership. On a river, I know I can scout a rapid, use my previous experience, and read the river so that I might make an evolving set of decisions. These decisions will hopefully allow for my survival, and perhaps for my own evolution as a conscious human. Will Dalun have this opportunity to preview the world twenty years from now? Does this old man, now my friend, have the wisdom to encourage his fellow villagers to put on the brakes and consider their fate?

Fortunately, he does. But this old hunter, now devout Buddhist, is one of the rare few who has experienced enough to see the big picture. That his mountain, the massive snow range called Khawakarpo, is worth our homage. That it is more important to develop internally than externally. That when death approaches and our life becomes a timeless spark in the combustion of the cosmos, what does it matter that we can buy a flatscreen television just an hour away in Deqin? That ultimately our own awareness and consciousness can do more to evolve humanity than the antiquated practice of building stuff* in the same way, over and over and over again.

*After seeing this building of “stuff” for every day of three weeks in some of Yunnan’s most remote terrain, indeed it begins to seem like “stuff.” At Mingyuan Glacier, across the river from Dalun, we encountered, at the top of a steep climb, a set of stairs and platforms for tourists to view the glacier. Yet there was no educational or interpretive infrastructure. This, when the glacier has receded nearly two kilometers and one thousand vertical feet in the past forty years (one third of its size). This is to say that I believe, and regret, that we are building “stuff” without the stuff of consciousness.

Origins of the Sacred

29 Sep

High above the Mekong on a wild and cascading stream in a narrow, green valley, lies a Tibetan village.  Above the village to the east, looking over the narrow, green valley, stands a broad series of brown and gray stone mountains. One of these, Jala Chumi, is home to the village’s mother deity. Directly across the Mekong gorge lies another sacred mountain, Khawa Karpo, home to a sacred union between the masculine and feminine. From these sacred peaks fall enormous gray and white glaciers, and from these glaciers, trickles turn to raging torrents. These raging torrents spill from their sacred origins down cliff faces and through narrow gorges into the mighty river we call the Mekong.

The Mekong — Tsa Chu in Tibetan, Lancang Jiang in Chinese — finds its origins both in myth and some of the earth’s most foreboding terrain. Its headwaters form in the vast marshes and lakes of a high plateau in Qinghai, Tibet, and tributaries spill in from eastern Tibet’s great mountains. Most notable of these great mountains is Khawa Karpo, the peak currently shrouded in storm clouds across the river gorge from this village.

The source of this particular village’s stream lies in the sacred lakes of Bai Ma Shan, the smaller but nonetheless breathtaking mountain across the valley from Khawa Karpo. From Bai Ma Shan, two streams, one named the White, the other the Black, merge as one and continue down the valley, eventually spilling their sacredness into the Mekong.

This village, a refuge for walnut, peach, and pear trees in a formidable mountainscape, gains its aesthetic value from its vineyards, terraced fields of corn, lettuce, and other greens, and the massive white and maroon Tibetan compounds that each stand solitary amid the irrigated greenery. Behind this superficial view is a complex network of tight irrigation ditches, water mills, and small concrete reservoirs. Water, and the human system developed to manage it, has allowed this village to produce food across the narrow swath of relatively flat land lying between the steep slopes of Jala Chumi’s shoulders.

Tashi, my friend who grew up in this village (and has since moved to a bigger town eight hours east), explains that residents consider the water to be on the same level as their parents. It is a deep, familial respect that goes to the substance that has enabled their plentiful harvest. She continues by explaining that they must manage the water like an aging parent – that it takes care, love, and skillful thought to be sure that the water source stays healthy and full. The village offspring of this water-parent has been divided into seven sections, each of which has their own mill and small reservoir. Members of each village section discuss, debate, and eventually agree on when and how each household (and its adjoining croplands) will receive water from the reservoir.

In fact, it seems that much of communication throughout the village revolves around water. “We are beating walnuts from the trees and don’t want them to fall into the gushing ditches. Would you please close the irrigation gate for the morning?” “We need just a few minutes of water this afternoon to fill our household water tank. May we open the gate to our ditch before you flood your fields?” “Hello!!! We are opening the third gate now!!!” And so on. Tashi elaborates that they do not pee or defecate in the water, that they make their best efforts to not pollute the water in any way.

The irony of our experience in this remote settlement is that we are, according to most official records, not here. While this village has electricity (as of ten years ago) and an elaborate and adequate water infrastructure, it is protected by its status as a “closed” village – that is, a village which, by government decree, is not open to tourists or, in theory, overnight visitors of any sort. By “protected,” I imply the possible fate that many villages as visually stunning and tranquil as this one have already suffered: gawking travelers, rows of guesthouses, narrow-road traffic jams, obnoxious easterners (from China’s big cities), and ignorant westerners (we recently ran into a traveler who asked, after several weeks in these parts, where he could find “the real Tibetans”). While the government may have various reasons for keeping this village “closed,” I have my reasons for supporting it. There is nothing wrong with slow, thoughtful, well-informed development processes.

This is not to say that we should cordon off places that we – the visitors – find fascinating. It is to say that every human community has the right to develop itself with a wealth of information. I have no illusions that a community cut off from the world’s communication and transportation infrastructure is better off, but I do hold the ideal that a community’s self-determination is valuable and only truly possible when it has access to information, decision-making power, and time to experiment before the swell of outside development comes crashing in.

The questions arise: Is sacredness timeless? Or is it a human construct to be washed over by a new, modern devotion void of spiritual value? Can we be connected throughout the world via fiberoptics and smooth roads and still slow our lives enough to deepen our souls with the rhythms provided by mountains, streams, and rivers? Can we have both?

Down below, the Mekong meanders and roars. Up above, Khawa Karpo and Jala Chumi watch from their glaciers. In between, Tibetan villagers waver between the sacred and the progress. Perhaps, like the White River and Black River of this village, the sacred and the progress will one day merge as one, uniting our spiritual power with our worldly ways, opening our vision to a new way, a new map for living and adapting to our ever changing circumstances.

-Max Woodfin, 24 September 2011

To Learn from the Water

12 Sep

A View from Shaxi's Cultural Center

I have been sitting next to a small, brown river, looking across the way to a half-moon shaped bridge. The rain is a light drizzle, and my heart has softened. At just over 7,000 feet, Shaxi is a temperate, green, lush, and settled village that has been occupied for over a millennium. Its shrines, temples, and grottoes date back to the 8th century Nanzhou Kingdom – a Chinese kingdom whose history is swollen with Tang, Tibetan, and possibly even Indian influence. For centuries, Shaxi stood as a waystation on the Tea and Horse Caravan trail between Tibet and Southeast Asia, supplying traders with food, whiskey, and lodging as they moved north (to trade tea for horses) or south (to trade horses for tea). Tibetans, Tai, Chinese, Yi, Bai, Naxi, and many other ethnic groups played their role in the great web of mountain trails that fed the Tea and Horse Caravan. And Shaxi was a village at the heart of this great network.

As I sit in one of Shaxi’s teahouses, I imagine what it would have been like to bide my time while waiting to join one of the caravans passing through town. Perhaps I would have seen a Tibetan horseman riding into town with seven or eight head, having traversed Kham for several days and woven his way down the Mekong basin and back into these mountain valleys on the Hei Hui tributary. It would have taken him a bit over a week to make it from Tibetan territory into these lower hills, though the journey would have been arduous. I imagine the teahouses at dusk, slowly devolving into alcohol laden taverns as traders disband their woes into drink and occasional violence. I imagine bandits riding round the outskirts of the village, finding the hills south where they might purposely get lost and reappear to the southeast in Dali in order to spend their spoils. But then I imagine the morning mist rising from the cobbled pathways and above the ceramic rooftops until they form low clouds on the green mountains that flank the Shaxi valley.

Perhaps I paint an overly romantic image of this place, an idealized – maybe even fetishized – western dream of the east. Indeed, that is what might eventually turn Shaxi into yet another casualty of tourism and eager development. But the image I paint in my mind of yesteryear is actually not a far cry from what I experience of Shaxi now. Its cobblestone pathways are as bright and intact as ever; the ceramic rooftops are clean and well-maintained. The new handcarved doorways simply replace some of the old handcarved doorways. Turkeys wander the streets, men smoke cigarettes and drink tea by the side of the roads, and traders sell wild mushrooms (a delicacy and a large contribution to household economy in this part of the Mekong basin). Travelers do, indeed, wander into town in the late afternoon, but the few of them that make it here are Korean, Chinese, or European tourists. Rarely do they come to sink their woes into a drink, which is fortunate for Shaxi (other towns, developed for their “quaint” characteristics, have become the scene of heavy travel-drinking). For now, the drinking economy is reserved for local officials and their late-night meetings. Rather, the travelers come to bask in their idea of tranquility, their longing for an agrarian life from which many of us humans have descended.

Over the past decade, a Swiss urban design group found their way into Shaxi and dreamt up a plan to renew, revitalize, and preserve Shaxi as a cultural heritage town. In 2001, the World Monument Fund designated Shaxi as one of “100 Most Endangered Sites” worldwide. Since then, the town has won almost one award per year for its efforts to maintain its historical facade. In 2010, Lonely Planet published the town in its China guidebook, opening Shaxi’s door to the ever-swelling stream of backpackers through eastern Asia. Now, its designation as a “Most Endangered” place is attracting the very interest that has sent so many other Chinese towns into objects of development. And to aid in this process, more and more travelers will discover this temporary provision of tranquility.

I, too, arrive here and feel a sense of tranquility. And although I am here to lead an expedition of eight travelers, I desire to stay longer, write more, and sink into the riverside peace of this place. So rather than attempt to analyze our human tendency to emphatically pursue technological progress and then demand regress – in the form of vacation, holiday, retreat, escape, or mid-life crisis – I seek to embrace the deep desire I have to find my own ground, my internal peace.

A small town by a river can provide me with a space in which it is possible to turn inward while staying in relationship with those around me, and I believe it can provide others with that space as well. When we can walk out of a door or gate and into a street where others are slowly strolling, where the streets are not built for speed but as meandering pathways with many destinations, where the wind and water can move freely around corners and brush up against our being…it is here that we can begin to feel how we are the cause of our own anxiety. We have choices, despite the overwhelming pressure for us to merge into the raging waters of commerce, international conflict (and attempt at resolution), and materialist passions.

On a river, the raging waters always eventually flow into a meandering system of eddies and stillwater. The channel always slows down and picks its relative side of the river. When running a river, however wild, we almost always have an opportunity to find a more direct path through the tongue of a rapid and take refuge in an eddy behind a rock. From our place of inner calm, we can watch the many boats that blindly seek the biggest water and disappear into holes, reemerging in a raging torrent and finally falling, broken and exhausted, into the swirling currents below. Outside of the thrill seekers, the most competent boaters I know are those who pick their line and gently adjust their way through the whitewater, enjoying every paddle stroke and watching as their own nervous system responds to the potential consequences. They have fun, but they know their way, and they slide into the stillwater and bathe in its depth.

Like these boaters, I seek the conscious pathway far from the chaotic pursuits of modern progress. Shaxi sits by a river, and I, sitting by the river in Shaxi, come to this once again: We humans can take some hints from the way a river runs by a town, and the way a town can sit by the side of a river. Ten years from now, this town may not be here in such tranquil form, and the river may no longer flow as it does now, but one thousand years from now, a river will likely flow again, and the ruins of this town may sit deep beneath the rubble of a 30th century civilization. And this year, I sat by what would be that rubble: a beautiful collection of homes and people that stands in the September mist of a river valley in the mountains of northern Yunnan.

-Max Woodfin

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