"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Friday, December 31, 2010

The China Journals, Chapter Seven: Incandesence in Tibet

More than a hundred and thirty years ago, the incandescent light bulb was introduced to the world. Now it is in danger of becoming obsolete, replaced by more energy efficient lighting.

But I suspect the figurative language that arose from the incandescent bulb will continue for a long, long time. “Shine a light on it,” and “light bulb moments,” and “not the brightest bulb” are a few examples.

At this time of year when we look back at the past year and beyond that, and wonder what the future will bring, I am thinking about those figures of speech. If ever there is a need for a light to be shown, it is on China’s enforcement of the “one child” policy.

China’s notorious “one child” policy to control population growth ostensibly does not extend to ethnic Tibetans. In theory, the policy is meant to cover only the ethnic majority Han people of greater China.

Yet, the Internet is replete with reports of Draconian and inhumane enforcement of the policy, not only on Han Chinese sent to populate Tibet, but on ethnic Tibetans. Numerous on-line articles accuse the Chinese government of forced late-term abortions and sterilizations, infanticides, and eugenics.

We tourists with the Road Scholar program were not told of these things by our guides, though we certainly had not been oblivious to the claims before making this trip. We were at times, however, surprised that our guides seemed to be quite open in discussing certain subjects. Our principal guide was a Han. In Tibet, she was accompanied by a local guide who was an ethnic Tibetan, and a guide in training who was from a Tibetan nomad family.

So with these things in my mind, we were taken to visit a Tibetan school whose student body was comprised only of Tibetan orphans who resided at the site. We had been in the countryside during the day, and this was our last stop on the way back to Lhasa.

Our bus pulled off the two-lane highway and parked on a wide dirt shoulder. We were led across an unevenly paved yard, complete with basketball hoop, and into a classroom in a small, nondescript one-story building constructed of concrete blocks. A dozen or so children were working diligently at their desks.

Once we were all inside, lining the walls of the room, the children looked up. Some spoke basic conversational English phrases, such as “I want to be your friend.” The speaker would then select one of us from our group, and offer to shake hands.

I was astonished at the lack of accents, unlike the English-speaking Chinese I’d met. We could ask questions and the children would answer, all translated by our Tibetan guide. While they seemed to range in age from kindergarten through about fourth grade age, they were learning not only reading and writing in the Tibetan language, but also Chinese and English.

We visited a second classroom where most of the children appeared to be slightly older, yet still ten and under.

One child said, and I’m paraphrasing, “We don’t have parents but we have our teachers and we love them.” Many of the children asked if we had children, and where we were from.

Some of these children were true orphans,. lacking both parents, and some were children of parents who were unable to care for them. Some may have been there because of the “one child” policy, wherein a farming or nomadic family might choose to give up a daughter in favor of a boy who can help provide for the family unit with labor.

They were happy, confident, and enthusiastic in communicating with us. They sang to us, and asked us to sing for them. “Row, Row, Row Your Boat, sung round-style, was our choice.

And then, as we left each of the classrooms, we gave each child the candy we had brought with us from China. Sweets are a rare treat.

Some sources suggest that within a century there will be no more ethnic Tibetans, principally as a result of the “one child” policy enforcement.

The ride back to the hotel was quiet. Cameras were put away, in adherence to the strict warnings about not photographing the armed Chinese soldiers that seemed to be everywhere on the streets of Lhasa. Taking pictures of them was forbidden, we were told, because “they are not there.” There was an incident with one of her groups, she said, when soldiers chased down the bus and almost seized a camera from a tourist who had taken pictures and had not seen the soldiers.

I almost made the same mistake one day when we passed a tall white monolith, beautifully landscaped with multi-colored flowers. I raised my camera, and just in time saw with an armed Chinese soldier standing guard at its base. This monument was built by the Chinese to commemorate the “peaceful liberation of Tibet.”

(NOTE: Tibetan orphans are not allowed to be taken from Tibet. Otherwise, that little imp at the very top of this post might have found her way to Alaska in my extra large suitcase.)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What are the chances?

Today was another full-on bonkers day as I ran the mail delivery route, six hours and 130 miles out of the shadow of Wrong Mountain. Really. That's its name.

I left the house in darkness this morning. Six inches of snow had fallen during the early morning hours in temperatures just above zero, and as a result the snow was as light as a fleeting thought.

When the late-sleeping sun finally struggled above the mountain peaks somewhere around 10 a.m., it illuminated a partly-cloudy sky and layers of fog levitating above Turnagain Arm.

The snow added to the already heavy flocking on tree branches.

Sometimes the drive seemed to be through a wonderland of snow.

By the time I completed the mail run, the sun was sinking back below the horizon.

But just before I left the last village, I noted mist rising over the mouth of Kenai Lake. I parked the truck and walked back, knowing what I would find and wanting a picture of it.

Open water at the mouth of Kenai Lake.

My husband would call these last two pictures "ptarmigan in a snowstorm," because of the limited visibility. Ptarmigan are solid white in winter, except for their black eyes, and obviously ptarmigan would be almost impossible to see in a snowstorm. It's an old joke between us, one for pictures taken of who-knows-what.

But I knew what I was after, and here they are:

Three white adult swans and one gray cygnet in the mist of the lake.

I could barely see the birds when I took these pictures using the optic zoom.

What are the chances, in two out of four pictures, that I would capture these exact moments of symmetry?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Out of the Shadow

Do you suppose, because I live in the shadow of a very tall mountain for four months every winter, that I go completely bonkers when I get out of that shadow into direct sunlight?

You think that's the reason? Is that why I can't drive by Trail Lake on the way to the post office without scoping out the photo possibilities.

And Kenai Lake, which still hasn't frozen over despite temperatures below zero for what seems like months. There's always just enough of a current or breeze to keep the surface crinkled and "unfreez-able."

Is that escape from shadow why I take pictures of snow-laden trees with the sun highlighting them--on my way to the dump?

Or back up and park at a pull-out beside Trail River to get a shot of the sun behind this spruce while vapor rises from an open spot in the river?

Even the setting sun as it reaches distant peaks makes me stop on the highway and get out the camera.

Do you suppose that's why?

Or, is it really that stunning?

(NOTE: Click on the pix to enlarge them, then click again for full screen.)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Deja Vu Day

I was taken by surprise last Sunday afternoon. A few moments of inattention and WHAM, I almost doubled over from the pain in my stomach.

It wasn’t an illness, a perforated ulcer, or anything like that. It was a memory that got me, a memory of the loneliest day of my life. That’s an odd thing to say when you consider I was heading home from my parent’s house where I’d spent the day with them and my younger siblings.

And yet the loneliness was over-whelming, a physical pain that was devouring me from the inside out, a loneliness caused by myself, by a decision I’d made. While that particular loneliness has lived with me to this day, it never again bit with the shark teeth that it did on that that Christmas Day in 1963. And yet, forty-seven years later, the shark was back in an instant.

Two tears seared my left cheek before I realized what was happening and took back control. I wasn’t going there again, yet it took a few hours of butt-kicking and determination before I righted my boat and beat back the shark.

Now, a week later, the day after Christmas, a tornado swept me up in its vortex and dumped me in Oz. Actually, it was more like three different Ozes, each one wondrously comfortable, and rather than a dead-eyed beast shredding me, I was suffused with nostalgia.


I was riding the rails once again, my hands grasping the curved wooden handlebar, my feet planted firmly on the runners of the classic dog sled. The temperature was zero, the perfect weather for running a dog team. Not for the human—but for the dogs.

I'd stepped on the runners to test the flexibility of the sled, and for an instant I saw before me six silver and white huskies, tongues flapping allegro to the music of sled runners crunching hard-packed snow.

I wasn’t going anywhere, actually, because the sled was on a concrete garage floor and there weren’t any huskies in sight.

It was the sled that going somewhere—to a young girl turning eleven years old who has known for several years that she was “Born to Mush,” just like the title of her home-schooling blog. A few days ago she reminded her parents that in three years she will be old enough to run the Junior Iditarod sled dog race. The parents gulped.

I gathered up all the gear I’d been reluctant to part with for the many years since my last husky died of old age. The gear had been impossible to part with. It was hard to admit that part of my life was over.

Now it seemed right. I adore that young girl and, as her Daddy reminded me, I know where the sled is going and I can always go visit it.


The second part of the journey to my past came because I’ve been trying to find room on my books shelves for more books. More than two hundred lineal feet of book shelves in this house are lined with books, some two deep, and yet I don’t have enough room. I started pulling the ones I would part with, and came across a guitar course for the rank beginner, complete with chord chart and two CDs.

After I returned home from delivering the sled, I got my guitar out of the corner where it’s stood untouched (except for the occasional dusting). The A string was broken. I got my sister’s guitar out of the storage closet. It’s A string was broken. In another closet I found the Ziploc bag with assorted guitar and dulcimer strings and found an A string. It has to be at least thirty years old.

I opened a cardboard box and took out the pages of instruction and music that I’d collected long ago when I took lessons from Wayne, a New Zealander who taught finger-picking for folk guitar.

It took two electronic tuners, a pitch fork and a pitch pipe before I got the darn thing in tune. The C chord is the only one I remember, and the gut strings bit deeply into fingers that have softened after too many years away from a guitar. These fingers have a lifetime of feeling in them, a lifetime of burns and cuts, of heat and freezing, of gentle and firm.

Some of the joints are swollen with arthritis. The ring finger of my right hand has a tendency to lock up, and that will be critical to whether or not I can continue with a guitar course for rank beginners.


An e-mail from Walter inspired my next time travel adventure. He’d been on the trip to China and Tibet that I’d made in September and October. He wrote that he’d just re-read “Seven Years in Tibet,” an account of the time Heinrich Harrer spent in Tibet during and after World War II. Harrer became a mentor to the young Dalai Lama, leaving only when Chinese troops were taking control.

I downloaded the e-version to my Kindle. A couple days later I was sorting through some video movies, intending to give some away to neighbor kids, and I came across an unopened VHS tape of the movie by the same name, starring Brad Pitt.

This evening, after the dog sled, after the folk music, I was looking through the TV schedule and found “Seven Years in Tibet” was playing on Showtime. Momentarily forgetting that I owned a copy of it, I planned to watch it on TV to refresh my memory of the story and also to gauge its location authenticity. An announcement before the movie noted that the film was shot in Argentina because of objections from the Chinese government to shooting on site in Tibet.

After the movie’s release, critics laughed at the “inaccurate landscape.”

Years passed before it became known that a camera crew had gone to Tibet “undercover,” and photographed the buildings and landscape. The landscape was accurate.

And, OMG, was it ever. Shortly after the action placed Harrer in Lhasa, Tibet, I was there, too. The costumes, the Potola Palace, the harnesses on the ponies, the decorations on the yaks, the brooms, the fur hats, the prayer wheels and white prayer shawls—it was all there, even the yellow headdresses of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan monks that served the Dalai Lama.

There I was again in the land I’d dreamed of visiting since I was a small child, and now I know I can go back anytime by simply slipping a VHS tape into a small machine and pushing a button.