“Stop making me cry.”

One of my best friends just wrote me that imploring comment about my recent posts on Rwanda. So I figured it was time to break out the upbeat posts for a while, and let you know you can (temporarily)  retire your hankies and wallow in my Pollyanna side.

Actually, there’s a lot to love and celebrate about Rwanda. First and foremost, the people. Almost everywhere you go, little children tear out of their homes, race to your car with arms furiously waving hello, and try out their best English: “Good morning, Muzungu!” (Muzungu means “white person” and as a pasty suburban American, I can tell you it’s pretty intoxicating to finally be considered exotic).

Traveling with my 21-year old daughter Lulu was a total bonus – not only because I got to enjoy her company (and she actually seemed to want to be with me), but because seeing the country through her eyes gave me a totally different perspective. For instance, she was really struck both by how hard the people work (Africans as a whole are industrious beyond belief…

…and how deeply inter-connected the people seem to be (which makes the 1994 genocide even more difficult to understand).

In Rwanda, nobody walks alone. When people are at the water pump filling their 20-liter containers with water for the long walk home, they are laughing, talking and visiting.

When men are hauling 50 kilos of bananas on their bikes, they’ve usually got a friend or two along helping. Rwandans live so closely together (there’s tremendous density of population) and they have such big families (the average number of kids per family is six), there are always packs of kids playing and working together, older sisters tote younger kids on their backs, and families are rarely apart. Lulu loved that! (although it’s also her worst nightmare)Divorce is practically unheard of, everybody walks everywhere, and people spend the vast majority of their time outside in the year-round temperate climate. In rural areas, there are precious few cell phones or electronics and the countryside is spic-and-span. Plastic bags are banned, roadside trash in nonexistent (thanks to a mandatory country-wide cleanup the first Saturday of each month) and women vigorously sweep their dirt front yards every morning and evening.I have to say that I believe President Kagame has done a remarkable job of leading the country, preventing another war, bringing home the educated diaspora to lead the recovery after the genocide, purging the government of corruption, and trying to help the poor find a way out of poverty with a livestock program (modeled after Heifer’s!!) called “A Cow for Every Poor Family.”

Rwandans working their plots in a rice field project created by the government.

I know there is a lot of controversy over Kagame’s authoritarian control, and I’m no expert on African politics, but from what I saw there were a lot of progressive things happening. And less political rancor and toxic discourse than… ummm, here.

Hope was in the air and people seemed really grateful for the things they had….like each other.

Veneranda Mukagakwandi with 4 of her 8 children (plus some cousins).

So there’s my post– and not a tear-jerking moment in sight!

Woman performing the umushagiriro, or cow dance.

Stay tuned for the next post about shiny, happy heifers (not pictured below).

(Sorry, Lulu, I know I promised not to do this…)

Categories: Africa, Children, Heifer International, Inspiration, Photography, Rwanda, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | 22 Comments

Divine peaks & intransigent Maoists… or “Welcome to Nepal!”

As I was flying from Chengdu, China to Kathmandu, Nepal – over the most spectacular vistas you will ever see from the window of a plane (8 of the 10 highest peaks in the world are in Nepal and they’re on glorious display), you might have thought I would be in a paroxysm of delight. And I was … sort of.

The only Tibetan I met.

But I was also plenty cranky because we were flying over Tibet – where I was supposed to be going for three spectacular days, if my visa had not been rejected by the Chinese government. Yes, after I’d spend $200 to assure that my passport, Chinese visa, 30-day in advance Tibet visa application, confirmed flights, carefully crafted bio (in which I assiduously tried to avoid using the word “writer”) and thorough retinue of places I wished to travel was in order, China flipped me the bird.

Now, the fact that you even need a separate visa to go to Tibet, which China is obsessive about referring to as its own territory, adds salt to the wound of having to pay $500+ for a stupid Chinese visa … it’s like paying an arm and a leg for a USA visa, then having to pay extra to visit Montana (which would be totally worth it, btw). In any case, I was bitter about my aborted visit to Tibet when I could SEE IT from the plane… in fact, we landed in Lhasa and spent an hour in its militaristic little terminal.

The Lhasa Airport (all I saw of Tibet)

To make my bitterness even more acute, my adjusted plans to visit additional Heifer projects in Nepal (after my last-minute rejection in Tibet) were jettisoned by threatened Maoist strikes throughout that country. So yeah, I was experiencing a little Global PMS (Post-Maoist Sh#$%t).

But then I got to Kathmandu and the sheer, delightful energy of the place blew my crankiness straight away.

This dusty, frenetic city of 1 million people is wall-to-wall shopping, drinking, eating, building, bargains, music, stupas, shrines, westernized food, trekkers, scarily fit Europeans, aging hippies, buskers, players, monks and prayer wheels.

The eyes of the Buddha are upon you.

Nepal was a surprise to me on many levels – probably because I assumed I knew quite a bit about the country (so many people I know have been there) but in truth, I was clueless.

I thought Nepal was mostly Buddhist; it’s actually 90% Hindu, with an ingrained caste system that is rigid and unforgiving, particularly for women.

I also thought Nepal was a monarchy; but the King and his family were assassinated in 2001, and a Maoist revolution succeeded in 2006 (hence the strikes that truncated my project visits). This small landlocked country, sandwiched between the titans of India and China, is the only Asian nation never to be colonized and knows well how to walk the delicate line between diplomacy and independence.

Nepal’s 3 regions: Terai lowlands, Hill Country & Mountains — and what mountains!

Not to sound too tourist guide-y, but Nepal is a land of contrasts, from the rice paddies of Chitwan to the nosebleed peaks of Annapurna and Everest– and a country of constant surprises.

The swastika is a Hindu symbol for prosperity, and the Star of David stands for knowledge – but what a juxtaposition to see on a home’s entrance gate!

I knew Nepal’s 26 million people were poor, but I didn’t realize that 40% of children under five are underweight and likely to be stunted in growth.

And I didn’t realize there would be so many adorable things to buy, but for once I’d have no appetite for shopping.

I was happy to be in Nepal, and a bit sad to be alone in my sweet room at Kathmandu Guest House.But mostly, I just needed to go see some Heifer projects and people… the cure for all crankiness.

(But that’s tomorrow’s story.)

Categories: Children, Heifer International, Hunger, Nepal, Photography, Poverty, Travel, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

A little bon-bon for Mother’s Day

(With thanks/apologies to Cyndi Lauper for borrowing her beautiful song! And of course, you can click here to support Heifer and the moms it is helping all over the world!)

Categories: Children, Heifer International, Mothers, Photography, Travel, Women | Tags: , , | 19 Comments

First Impressions of China …

A lot of how you first experience China probably depends on how you feel about China before you go there.

Where I went in China (Sichuan province).

For instance, if you think of China as the majestic, longest- lasting civilization in the world–one  that invented paper, gunpowder, kites, ice cream and toilet paper (hard to say which I value the most)— you’re going to be pretty darn impressed with all the rich history and present-day achievements you see. But if you are pretty sure that with 1 billion people, a land mass only slightly smaller than America (I was totally sure it was twice our size) and an economy growing at breakneck speed, China will be taking over the world in our lifetime – and not in a fun, let’s-break-the-bank European way but in a we-are-all-striving-together-to-suffer-and-achieve way – then you’re less likely to be enamored of the culture. Although I have to say, there wasn’t a whole lot of culture on display where I was in Chengdu. Mostly it was just gray skies, lots of smoking and spitting, a million high-rise buildings, and noodles galore. (But I wasn’t in the groovy old-world part of Chengdu with all the pandas, etc. so maybe I just missed the boat.. or the junk.)

Yup, this is pretty much my memory of Chengdu.

Once you get out into the countryside, though, China is awfully pretty.

The people are adorable, friendly and fascinating. The roads are great. Everywhere you look, you see building and new bridges and tons of billboards offering tons of stuff for sale and people who seem to be coping with the stress of living in this highly competitive, highly regulated country pretty well.

I have no idea what this means, but you gotta love a headline that uses the word "protagonist" right?

And make no mistake: China is regulated. You can’t get on WordPress, any Western blog sites, Facebook, twitter or YouTube in China. And my month-long quest to get a visa to visit Tibet came to naught, as they don’t seem to want to let Westerners in to visit that cheerful, beautiful Buddhist country. It’s astonishing how restrictions like this chafe and bind when you’re used to being able to go anywhere you please and criticize, make fun of, and badger your government (go, Jon Stewart!).

Despite the general affluence of China (there are more thousand-dollar handbags slung over skinny girls’ shoulders here than in New York), I also witnessed some of the worst poverty I’ve even seen.

I heard last night on CNN that the Chinese economy has slowed down to a roaring 8%, although China is still producing more millionaires a day than anywhere else on the planet. But there is a world of difference between people in the cities and people in the countryside – as well as a huge income gap between the haves and the have-nots. Which makes the work that Heiferis doing to improve the lives of rural, agrarian Chinese so vitally important. The people I was with were gentle, thoughtful, grateful and sweet– of course! they were Heifer folks, working in conjunction with some really helpful and committed people from the Chinese government– but I have to say, the overall charm quotient in Chinese cities is pretty low. By the time I got to Nepal and a beautiful monk smiled directly my face, I almost dropped over in surprise, I was so accustomed to the anonymous stare of the urban Chinese.

But looking back, all I can remember (as usual) are the children.

And what’s not to love there?

Categories: Children, China, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 31 Comments

My Cinderella story

Quinoa and wild turnip, blowing in the Chillcapata wind.

At the end of the beautiful day I spent in Chillcapata, Peru visiting families who’d received animals and trainings through the FEED program of Heifer International... after I’d stuffed myself at the delicious lunch the community had prepared and gone nuts over all the adorable babies… one of the moms, Carmen Calle, asked me to be the godmother of her daughter Leidy.

Which meant I would be responsible for cutting off the long, black braids Leidy had been growing since birth – a rite of passage when Peruvian children reach the age of 6 or 7.

Although I’d been dazzled all afternoon by Leidy’s adorable grin, I was shocked and chagrined at this turn of events, although everybody else in the room seemed pretty much delighted at the idea. I asked Rosaluz Salazar, my Heifer translator, if this was culturally appropriate and what I was committing myself to (like the Catholic sanctity of the child’s soul), and she assured me it was fine, it was a ritual honor, I could snip and go.

So, armed with a scissors and surrounded by dozens of witnesses, I cut through Leidy’s thick black braids – and voila! she was my god-daughter.

Actually, Leidy’s my fourth god-daughter, since I’m the proud (though intermittently present) godmother of three other gorgeous girls: Marie, Maura and Lottie. I fully understand (through the ministrations of my own incredible godmother, Edythe Mendolia) that my responsibilities are to never miss birthdays or Christmas, and to give lavish presents whenever possible.

After the haircut ...what a beautiful girl!

I hope I never let Leidy down in that department. As the fairy godmother, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

p.s. Just a thought for Passover/Easter: Why not give real eggs (via a real chicken!) to a family like Leidy’s?  Click here for a Chick … and here’s a Chillcapata bouquet of thanks!!

Categories: Children, Passover & Easter, Peru, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 21 Comments

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