Volunteer Work in the Lost Horizon
Alison Busche For YMHC – November 2008
There is a purpose behind every journey: some seek new places and excitement, while others wish for relaxation and beautiful scenery. Then, there is yet another kind of journey: one that appeals to a sense of purpose, cultural curiosity, and a desire for new challenges. After living and working in Beijing for almost a year, I did not feel the need for a vacation; rather, I wanted a way to slow down, donate my time in a meaningful way, and a have a true cross-cultural experience in China. Searching online, I found an advertisement looking for volunteer workers at a non-profit that promotes eco-tourism and sustainable development in Shangri-La. I visited their website, read about the mission, and applied immediately. After multiple emails and a meeting with the founder, Ms. Carter Malik, I was accepted as a volunteer and committed myself to a month of service. As I left her UN residence in Beijing on the rainy day of our interview, Ms. Malik had only one warning: “Shangri-La is a place you fall in love with…”
As I descended into the brilliant blue skies and impossibly white clouds of Kunming, I knew that I had made the right decision: to take a month-long leave from my job and volunteer with the Yunnan Mountain Heritage Foundation. This feeling of excitement continued as I headed to the long-distance bus station in search of my friend He Rong. We are good friends in Beijing and she was fascinated when I mentioned volunteering with an organization that works to protect the cultural heritage of ethnic minorities in Southwest China. Tired of the fast-paced city and uninspiring work at her company, she also decided to apply and was accepted to volunteer. When I found her, she was busily taking photographs and looked overjoyed to be in such a new environment. We happily boarded our sleeper bus –with bunk-style beds filling the interior- and arrived 12 hours later to a misty morning in Shangri-La.
Once we had unloaded our bags, He Rong suggested that we have some local yak butter tea before looking for the Handicraft Center. “An acquired taste,” I tried telling myself as I struggled to take small sips of the salty, thick tea. Instead, I sat holding the warm cup in my hands, took many deep breaths of the crisp, thin air and enjoyed the sights: local women passing by in bright pink Tibetan headdresses with baskets of vegetables on their backs, elderly men in top hats, smoking and talking next to wood-burning stoves, and children running and playing outside of small stalls. He Rong and I soon noticed that neither of us had been able to drink much of the strong, buttery tea. We exchanged glances, laughed, and then found a taxi to take us to the nearby Old Town. My first impression, as the driver braved the winding, stone back roads though old traditional-style buildings, was that Shangri-La is well worthy of the name.
We drove past a beautiful temple and almost missed the Handicraft Center, which I suddenly caught out of the corner of my eye. We left our bags outside and entered. Our first sight was of Ms. Malik sitting in the bright, open classroom, listening to a recording of Tibetan chants, and intently writing on a laptop. It was picturesque. She looked up from her work, smiled and rose to greet us as guests until she recognized us from our meeting in Beijing. We were then warmly welcomed and taken to our dormitory style rooms on the second floor of the renovated Tibetan style home. For the rest of the day, we were shown around the center, taken to dinner in the Old Town, and brought up-to-date on all the YMHF’s current projects.
I must admit, there was much more work to be done in paradise than I had imagined. Since officially being renamed Shangri-La in 2001, this small trading town of Zhongdian, or the old Tibetan name Gyeltangteng, has been growing rapidly. Now, far from being secluded like the mystical Shangri-La of James Hilton’s Paradise Lost, daily buses and a new airport bring in millions of tourists ever year. Even famed hotels, such as the Banyan Tree, which now has a partnership with the YMHF, have decided to build in this beautiful and ecologically-diverse area. While tourism holds a lot of benefits for this town, which has now banned its former main industry of logging, this rapid growth has also presented many environmental, economic, and cultural challenges.
Although tremendously scenic, Shangri-La greatest attributes are the unique cultural traditions of its ethnic minorities: the Tibetan, Naxi, the Lisu, the Molimoso, and the Yi tribes. Walking though Old Town Shangri-La, there are an overwhelming number of shops catering to tourists; some are still locally owned and sell genuine products made in the region, but many other shops are owned by outside businesses that sell goods that are manufactured for a much cheaper price in other parts of China. These shops are also more skilled at marketing to tourists and can easily give their products the appearance of being locally-made.
When Ms. Malik first visited Shangri-La in 2004, she was greatly impressed by the traditional crafts but quickly realized that, in order for this region’s rich cultural heritage to survive, the local people must also have access to this influx of wealth brought in by tourism. She envisioned a way to support the arts and culture by giving local people a place to sell their goods and, with the help of investors and volunteers, the Yunnan Mountain Heritage Foundation was officially founded in 2005. The foundation’s Handicraft Center partnered with the local artisans and immediately filled its shelves with traditional handicrafts from Old Town Shangri-La and the surrounding villages: hand-woven cloth table-runners, jackets, and scarves, traditional tampsa bowls, jewelry, paper, copper bells, pottery, and carvings. The sale price pays the artisans, who do not have a store or place accessible to tourists, and also helps them re-invest back into their traditional crafts while improving their livelihoods.
Instead of fighting against the growth, the YMHF has created ways to support the local community by giving them the tools to profit from tourism while still staying true to their rooted traditions. In May 2006, the YMHF launched the “Buy Local” Campaign and tried to help visitors purchase locally made items and to add visibility to the center, helping the tourists to spend their money in a way that will support the local population. The YMHF has continued to sell products from the local villages and is always looking for new ways to improve the store and contribute to the community at large.
Along with the Handicraft Shop, the YMHF is involved in a number of additional projects, ranging from environmental to educational initiatives. The center holds free English lessons every Saturday, during the weekdays in the summer, and has recently partnered with the nearby Eastern Tibetan Training Institute’s “Youth Pre-Employment Program”. This program funds girls from the local villages in a 16-week class that is designed to provide them with skills needed to get their first jobs. As the only native English speaker of the four current volunteers, this would become one of my main projects during my month in Shangri-La.
Soon after our arrival, Ms. Malik and her husband, UN Ambassador Khalil Malik, had to return to their residence in Beijing, leaving the shop, center and all the projects in the hands of the volunteers. I quickly familiarized myself with the store and helped set up and run our table in the main square over the weekend. On Monday, we met with our 26 new students and gave them a written test and individual oral exams before we split them into two groups. The students were just beginning their training program and were very shy to speak, but as the daily classes continued, they became more comfortable and we enjoyed practicing together. In their limited English, I received essays with titles like “If I were a Guider,” “Happy Everyday,” and “My Village.” While life is very steady in their villages, they want to have skills that are adaptable to the market so they can improve their own lives and also provide for their families. Most of them hoped to be tour guides, hospitality workers, or teachers. They were all very lively, quick to smile, and very dedicated to learning during these 16-weeks in downtown Shangri-La.
After walking back from teaching in the mornings, I would find the center alive with activity. Jenny, from Tianjin, was always working tirelessly on our Bee Project, a microfinance initiative that provides bee hives and training to local villages to harvest and sell fresh honey. Lyla, a former finance businesswoman from Shanghai, was constantly on the phone trying to get catalogues and donors for our new library that will make Tibetan, Chinese, and English books available to the local community. Our one employee, a young Tibetan girl named Tasuo, would sit and learn how to weave on a donated loom as our carpenter would loudly saw pieces of wood for the bookshelves in the new library in the background. I would usually start helping around the store and He Rong would return from exploring and taking photos, then sit at her laptop to try and create a better, and bi-lingual, map to our center and advertisement for our daily afternoon yak butter tea demonstration.
In the afternoons and evenings, I would walk to the nearby temples or through the charming streets of the Old Town. The sense of community here is still very profound. There are days when dozens of local men and women would gather together to clean the nearby temples and surrounding gardens, the shopkeepers play Mahjong, a gambling game and popular Chinese pastime, in the shade during slow hours, and every night the tables of stones, necklaces, and barbeque stands in the main square are cleared for dozens and dozens of local men and women to dance.
We have had volunteers in the past that would dance in the square every night. It seemed to be both a celebration and social hour for the community. The same few Tibetan songs are played each night and every move is learned by heart by the dancers. If tourists do happen to come by, they watch in amazement as men and women, young and old, in both modern and traditional dress, move together in clockwise circle in nearly perfect unison. On my first night in Shangri-La, I was stunned that such a thing happens so naturally. I felt as if I had been let in on a secret ritual of this colorful culture and, though not a member of the community, I was warmly welcomed to witness or join in the dance.
The days flew by and I began to learn more and more about this region’s customs, made some local friends, and discovered new places. As I walked around town, little kids from our Saturday class would appear and come running, shouting ‘Lao Shi! Lao Shi!’ (Teacher! Teacher!) then greet me with large smiles. All of the volunteers are asked to work 6 days a week, but we spend our free Sunday’s hiking, mountain biking, and exploring the surrounding areas, including the massive Songzanlin Tibetan Lamasery on the outskirts of town. My favorite temple, however, is only a minute from the center: situated on a hill, with a towering prayer wheel that takes at least a few people to move, this temple is visited daily by local devout Buddhists. We often had tourists stumble into the Handicraft Center while looking for this landmark and would gladly tell them about our organization and point them in the right direction.
We handed in weekly reports to Ms. Malik, who was in constant contact regarding the Handicraft Center, the shop, and helped guide each of us in our individual projects. Although we were all working diligently, it always seemed like there is more to do in the center. During the month, I often ran into the frustrations of wanting to accomplish every goal at once: preparing for and teaching classes, trying to create a better display for our local Yunnan coffee beans, researching of the progress of our bee microfinance project, advertising for our daily yak butter tea-ceremony, helping customers in the shop, creating donation boxes, and trying to spread more visibility in the community. After one week, I began to hear the Chinese phrase, which I had heard from so many people when I first told them that I was studying Mandarin, repeating in my head: “Man, man lie” (Slowly, slowly go). This became my manta on days when it seemed I wasn’t doing enough. Ms. Malik, who has previous experience setting up a center like this one in Uzbekistan, seemed to understand better than anyone that everything takes time and encouraged us all to keep working and be patient.
Even with all the hard work and sometimes frustrating lack of instant, tangible results, it was very easy to stay positive in a place like Shangri-La. The local people have a very relaxed and balanced view on life. As part of my individual project, I interviewed many local people about the effect tourism has had on the community. I think a Tibetan man, who grew up as a nomad and has lived in Shangri-La for five years as a tour guide, put it best: “When you build a road, both the good and bad will come.” He then described his former world where horses are a basic human need and hundreds of yaks are herded with families to provide milk for butter, cheese, and the “world’s most amazing yogurt”. He now drives a bright green car, smiles and says that tourism has brought a lot of wealth to Shangri-La. He, like so many, has chosen to move to New Town that has more modern convinces than the traditional buildings of Old Town Shangri-La.
It was difficult to think of leaving after only a month, just as I felt like I was making some progress and becoming closer to this amazing community. I believe now that people in mythical Shangri-La could live to be over two-hundred years, or at least experience the fullness of that many years through the quality of their days. It was wonderful to spend so much time in this unique place and have such meaningful work with the YMHF. I began to say my goodbyes to my students, friends in the community, and began to welcome the new volunteers who would continue on the work and create new projects.
The work here of helping tourists learn how to become better guests and supporting the local artisans though their purchases marks the first steps in creating a way for the culture to invest in itself and, therefore, to invest in its traditions that are so valuable here and not outsourcing to other places. I felt happy to have been one part of the YMHF’s work that others will carry on. I had one last phone call with Ms. Malik to for a final report of all my projects during the month, and to thank her for the opportunity to work with this organization and also for the warning; Shangri-La does capture your heart. I was happy to hear that I could come back anytime to volunteer again with the YMHF. I put down the receiver, reflecting on all the projects of the last month, and continued chanting to myself, “man, man lie.” I walked around the center, taking a last look at our crafts and new library, and also thought of the motto of the YMHF: “May the fruit of our efforts benefit all mankind”.
As much as I would like to think that I made a huge impact on Shangri-La during my month of volunteer work, I know that in truth it is the other way around. I bought a few more gifts from our shop for friends in Beijing, did some final packing, and left for the bus station. I arrived early, sat down and enjoyed the good weather the vibrant scene of the busy station. I looked over at the same small noodles and tea shop where I tried my first taste of yak butter tea and decided to go in to have one last cup. While still more like thin buttery soup to my Western palate than tea, it was now full of a richness and flavor that I had grown to love. I savored each sip, warmed by the memories of the people and experiences of the last month. I finished my cup, boarded the bus and, like so many of the volunteers who work here, spent the journey planning my return to Shangri-La.
If you are interested in sustainable development, volunteer work, or ethical tourism, please visit www.ymhfshangrila.com for more information.
Alison Busche graduated from Arizona State University in 2004 with a Masters in Political Science and Minor in Philosophy. She has since been traveling Asia as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bangladesh, TEFL teacher in Thailand, US-China Friendship Volunteer in Chengdu, writer and editor in Beijing, and is currently ‘on-set’ in Japan with a Chinese actress as her personal assistant and photographer.
Comments of A Social Work Student in Kanzisie Village, Shangri-La
By Shan Tsang, Hong Kong Polytechnic University Student Intern, August 2006
I think that placing social work students in rural villages, such as Shangri-La is a good idea. It allows students to step into “different shoes,” and get a taste of a life much different than their own. Living with the villagers we study, helps us understand their life better. Social work students should be flexible enough to work with whom ever their clients may be, young or old, urban or rural.
For me, the most valuable experience of my summer in Shangri-La was being with the rural village women. I found that they were sincere, pleasant to deal with and full of passion. Building up my relationship with them and gaining their trust, made me feel that my project was successful. The most touching moment was when the school kids told me how much they loved me.
To read more about the PolyU students summer 2006 intern project in Yunnan, see our website heading “About Us”
Memories of Shangri-La
By Natalie Kwan, YMHF Intern Summer 2006
My first memory of Shangri-la was sitting on the plane as it landed in the tiny Diqing airport. Little butterflies of doubt were fluttering through my head – what have I gotten myself into, I thought. Two months in the middle of nowhere, with no-one I knew. These doubts dissipated into thin air as I walked off the plane: the sky was appallingly blue and literally took my breath away. It was beautiful.
Thus began my internship for the foundation. I must admit, I felt listless the first few weeks. The money for the centre had not arrived yet, and so there was little I could do. So I busied myself – I followed the PolyU students on their round of questioning tourists; I taught English to students at a primary school with the AC students; I traipsed through the cobblestone streets of the Old Town and inspected every little shop and large souvenir stall in the area.
During that time, I learnt an abundant amount. This ranged from learning how to dance in the main square (though I gave up after several songs) to adjusting to the slow pace of Shangri-la life. After several rainy days, I realized that walking on the slippery, muddy cobblestone roads in slippers is not advisable. And in several weeks, I had gained the confidence to approach strangers and speak in somewhat broken Mandarin. I could enjoy Shangri-la’s laid-back lifestyle to the point where a breakfast and some grocery shopping could satisfy me for the rest of the day. This, I suppose, prepared me for the next stage.
The money finally came for the centre, and we had two weeks to renovate, redecorate and repair the centre for its opening. Gone were the days of aimless loitering – they were instead replaced by deadlines, meetings and inspections. Again, it was a novel experience – I had my first taste of a nine-to-five job after working for several hours straight on a brochure for the opening; I caught a glimpse of the slippery world of contracts and agreements (thankfully Eric expertly dealt with that). My most memorable experience was going to visit the Centre every day and watching the preparations advance progressively and to be a part of the whole preparation (even mopping the floors!). That is not to say there were no difficulties: our banners originally read ‘Welcome HKFW (Chinese Version)’ – literally – and our neighbours where unhappy about the Centre’s new toilets.
The opening was a success and an accomplishment for all of us, though I must admit it was a bit of an anticlimax. After days of frantic working, there was little left for us to do, except to wait for the renovations to finish and to prepare for our trips home. To be honest, I couldn’t bear to leave: there were so many things I hadn’t done yet, from visiting the Meili Mountain to making felt. With a commitment to the Centre and a list of unfinished business, I definitely hope I’ll be coming back to the squatting toilets and picturesque scenery of Shangri-la
The Road To Meili Snow Mountain
By Ximena Acevedo, Young Professional, August 2005
Sahra and I got back last night from taking a drive through some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen. We hired a driver and jeep to take us to Deqin, to see the Meili Mountain Range and visit the Mingyong Glacier. We set out early on Saturday, and luckily, we had pretty good weather as we headed up the mountains. At the beginning, we headed out of Zhongdian County, which is composed of beautiful praries, wildflowers, and cows and yaks in the middle of a valley. We then passed Napa Lake, which is formed after the snow melts and two rivers meet. We continued on until we reached Benzilan and we stopped to eat. Outside of Benzilan, are many little Tibetan villages, surrounded by fields of huge sunflowers. It is incredible to see where these people have chosen to live… there is hardly anything aside from a cluster of homes, perched on cliffs. And it’s lovely to see Tibetan-Chinese women on the side of the road with their colorful headscarves and baskets on their backs.
We continued on and stopped at the Dongzhiling Monastery which was perched on a cliff overlooking incredible and dramatic mountainsides. This is one of the most beautiful monasteries i have ever seen. In the middle hall, where about 20 Tibetan monks, chanting… so their voices were heard melodically as we explored the different levels of the place. Luckily, there was a monk who was opening up different prayer halls for a Chinese man who was leading a mini tour for a white, middle aged couple. It was then that we got to go in and see the most beautiful Buddha I have ever seen. And the paintings in the hall were incredible. I couldn’t take pictures, and i got reprimanded because i was pointing at this cool 3-D effect that was in one of the paintings to Sahra, and apparently, it is most disrespectful to point at the Buddha with your finger. You need to point with your entire hand. (oops!!)
We continued on to then drive through the Binghai Snow Mountain Range. There was no snow on these mountains yet, but the colors were magnificent. These mountains were intense reds, grays and purples. I felt like i was seeing mountains on Mars. This was probably my favorite part of the drive. We stopped a little ways later when we saw the first mountain with snow on it. The mist and clouds were coming in which created a very mystical feel. We were definitely above 3500m at this point so we could feel our breathing being very short. There was a young monk sitting at the side of the road, waiting for what? Who knows. What really struck me is that the people who live in this area have built their homes into the earth. So there is just a little roof and door that sticks up at an angle from the ground. I’m not sure if the home is just one little room, or if it goes much deeper into the ground. (on our drive back, we stopped to take pictures of one, and the people inside saw us and ran out to greet us and pose for pictures. before we knew it, about 10 people had come out of this tiny house!!!)
We continued on and stopped in front of the Meili Mountain Range before going to Deqin. Unfortunately, though the weather was warm, the clouds that were actually present were hovering right over the mountain peaks.. so we didn’t get to see the famed and worshiped Kawakarpo. We stopped in Deqin to do some shopping and took some lovely pictures of the local people. they were really nice to us and i doubt they hardly ever see any foreigners passing through here. Most places we’ve been, we’ve been of the few non-Chinese. We stopped at a costume shop in the market and the lady had a great time making us put on Tibetan headdresses and having us take pictures.
After this, we stopped at a small little monastery and continued on to the Mingyong Village were we would sleep that night. We chose a hotel that had a nice view of the mountain from which the glacier originates, but unfortunately, that evening we had no electricity. We therefore bargained down the price and were able to pay less that $2 each… for a room with a private bathroom and a western toilet!! (Believe me, a real toilet is a rarity!!!!)
The next morning, we woke up in time to watch the sunrise and then head out on a two hour hike to the glacier. You can rent horses, but we wanted to do it on foot. The scenery was really beautiful, walking through a temperate forest and eventually starting to pass lots of piles of rocks that the Tibetan pilgrims leave along the route. This path we were on is part of a 7 day trek that circumnavigates Kawakarpo, and Tibetan Buddhists come and do this once a year. the path was very steep at points and it was hard to breathe at this altitude. Eventually, we finally began to see glimpses of the blue ice. At the base of the glacier is a small monastery with Tibetan prayer flags everywhere and then the rest of the way was by wooden steps along the edge of the glacier. We had had our hopes to be able to walk on the glacier, but it was actually very steep as it careened down the cliff. It was really impressive to say the least. i read that this glacier is a geographic rarity, as there are no glaciers at this latitude and longitude. On our way back down, we passed a group of monks who were also doing the climb.
The drive back was even more spectacular than the one there, since the weather was GORGEOUS. We didn’t have time to stop everywhere, but we definitely got to take great pictures at the Binghai Mountain Range. And to top it off, when we made it back to Zhongdian County, there was a complete rainbow (the second one i’ve seen on this trip) and the sun was lighting up the lush green praries and tibetan homes so we stopped to take our last great pictures of the day.
All in all, this is a really beautiful area, with really interesting culture and village life as Chinese and Tibetan cultures intersect. The old town of Zhongdian is undergoing a lot of renovation, as artists and wealthier foreigners and alternative Chinese people are moving in. i suspect it will look very very different when I come back. Sahra’s mom is starting up a foundation with her friends here to promote local handicrafts so that will help the economy here. They also want to promote the idea of not letting big business get a strong hold here and turn it into the Disneyland-type tourism that they create with most of their cultural treasures. I definitely plan on coming back to Yunnan and to Shangri-La, as we’ve seen pictures of other spectacular places in the area that we didn’t have enough time (or money) to check out.
A Trip to Dimaluo
By Alex Ebel, MA Student
(Dimaluo is in Weixi County, Diqing Prefecture)
Getting off the truck first coming into Dimaluo, I found the village looked much less like China than I imagined and much more like a picture of Africa on a “please donate” card received in the mail in the States. I spent 17 days in the village offering simple advice to Alou, a local running a traveler’s lodge, and during that time lived more or less as a citizen in a place with more pigs than people. I will here describe a bit of what I saw. First, however, some background on the village:
Dimaluo is a small village located 20 km from Yunnan’s border with Tibet and 50 km from that of Burma. The people of Dimaluo are all ethnic minorities. The Nu, Lisu, and Dulong people have lived there for 200 years, the Tibetans coming 100 later. For as long as people have lived in this beautiful, remote village, influences have streamed in and been adopted. Dimaluo is an enigma. This tiny hamlet nestled in among steep, inhospitable mountains and far from any node of civilization has marvelously been influenced by an incredibly large variety of visitors.
Alou speaks the four local languages as well as Mandarin Chinese. Before attending Catholic mass, the primary Sunday activity of the village since the French missionaries visited in the late 1840’s, his wife and children put on traditional Tibetan clothing while he listened to a CD playing Celine Dion and Bryan Adams.
Throughout the village, many houses in the village had TV’s and VCD players and all had traditional wood burning fire pits. Basketball and Catholicism seemed to be the activities which most brought the village together and one of the two courts in the village was located next to the church. From celebrating the new year twice (both Catholic and Chinese) to singing “Say You, Say Me” without any idea of the meaning, the villagers of Dimaluo, like those of many other ‘underdeveloped’ places of the world, have picked up bits and pieces of different cultures and in doing so changing them, forming a unique set of customs and style of life whose evolution is at once amazing and comedic.
The sphere of influence affecting the flora and fauna of Dimaluo spreads larger even than that affecting culture. Sitting on the borders of three major climate regions, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Tibet, the wildlife of Dimaluo has been affected by almost every visitor who has chanced to come through the narrow valley. Ferns and bamboo shoots spurting up like office fountains out of the hills fight for space with alpine spruce below the snowline. According to UNESCO, the area supports 25% of the world’s animal species and 50% of China’s. The area was a refuge during the last ice age and has been described by UNESCO as “one of the world’s least disturbed temperate ecological areas, an epicenter of Chinese endemic species and a natural gene pool of great richness.”
Dimaluo, through some miracle of history, has harbored and been affected by far more plants and creatures than its remote location would suggest.
The village has had electricity for four years. The houses in the village are all made of wood and almost without exception house pigs and cattle beneath. In one of the houses I sat and warmed myself around the fire. Dirty old newspaper was used to insulate the cracks between the wood plank walls while a small, shiny flat-screen TV projected an ever-changing hologram of Jesus that lit up the room. Alou marveled at this and remarked that he would give a week’s work for one. Every house I visited had a painted image of Jesus or a saint with small Mandarin characters underneath explaining its meaning. This I found peculiar given the majority of the villagers’ Mandarin was limited to buying and selling soft drinks and baijiu to the ethnic Han engineers working at the dam down the road.
Residents’ all depended on farming and herding for subsistence. Every day pigs, cattle and donkeys were herded out to pasture. The children not yet in school would spend daylight hours playing at the edge of town, throwing rocks at the animals to keep them from coming back into town to nibble at the bright green crops planted around the houses. The food the villagers ate was quite simple, from Tibetan yak butter tea to the ubiquitous Chinese tomato egg stir-fry, from hash browns strikingly reminiscent of my father’s (extra garlic and onion) to many varieties of steamed or fried bread.
In the village, the only concrete structures that exist were put in by the government. There are concrete reservoirs placed strategically up and down the wide dirt path that winds through the village. The only public toilet is also a government work, as is the town square/basketball court combination.
For its next trick, the government is putting a dam in just south of Dimaluo. A team of engineers and workers stays at the government built apartment building. These Han Chinese were just as foreign as I, as an American, was in Dimaluo. They looked different, spoke a different language, and as far as the residents were concerned lived on the other side of planet.
20 houses will be displaced by the project. The villagers, for the most part, are apathetic. They know little about how to fight the dam. They look helplessly down the road and make plans to move. Alou’s perspective is surprisingly reminiscent of what I learned about Democracy in high school. He said that as he is a citizen of the PRC, the government exists to serve him and as such it ought to look out for his best interests. He opposes the dam and has voiced his opinion. His voice, he said, has had no affect to date.
As I left Dimaluo on foot, Alou accompanied me the 5 km to the nearest concrete road. As we passed the houses on lower ground and then the dam, I thought about the words “economic development” and all the implications they had; what they meant to the dam workers, to the displaced people of Dimaluo, and to the odd spectator who, much like myself, simply watches and has the privilege of a 3rd person, superficial reaction. I asked him what the people are doing about the dam and its effects. They will continue living, he said. They will move and start again.
Dimaluo is, above all other things, a place of striking contradictions, and this seems to hold for its future as well. Alou’s largest complaint about life in the village was that the education level was far too low. I wonder that perhaps Alou’s lodge will succeed. Perhaps the dam will provide cheaper electricity and the ever increasing reach of the Chinese government will make it to Dimaluo to ‘develop’ the area. Perhaps all these things will bring the village better education and living standards. What then? As it was confronted with Catholicism and basketball, so will it be with the rest of the modern world.
Coming to Dimaluo I was expecting to end up an undergraduate Columbus, peering over the edge of the world. Instead of the primitive society I expected, I found a community and a style of life built on a strange confluence of cultures and an amazing capacity for adaptation.
I think of the last time I stepped out of the back of the used army truck that took 30 locals and one harried American into the village. I offered to help unload the gratuitous amount of pig feed, the bucket of fish and other things considered imports. Asking about the dam, I was told that it will come, that Alou and company will adapt. The flippancy with which this topic was handled sparked a little naive prediction in this starry-eyed liberal arts student. I imagine that all the hubbub of ‘modernizing China’ and the global influence that is slowly creeping into the village will be adopted and adapted in stride like a larger group of missionaries or another public works project. Change will come, Dimaluo will adapt, but these differences are much less earth shattering to the basketball players and the worshippers of Dimaluo than they are to the globalization theorists I read and the 3rd party observers of which I am one.
Painted on the sides of the church in Dimaluo are pictures of angels, Chinese characters, and a few Tibetan religious designs. In this church I attended a funeral. Chants sung at the service reminded me more of African chants on my Paul Simon CD than Catholicism or China. After the service we walked the coffin back through the village up and up a hill. On the walk the villagers picked up large stones and when we arrived piled them next to the grave.
The sounds that ensued: the grunts and orders of those lowering the coffin into the ground; the clumps of dirt hitting the coffin – first loud and hollow thumps then quieter and quieter thuds until they faded into the roar of the stream below; the sound of the gathered rocks being piled around the grave; again the chants, falling back into the noise of the rushing water. From my view point on the hill I could see other villages up mountains and down valleys, I could see their churches and basketball courts and could almost make out the karaoke machine undoubtedly playing somewhere in the distance.