The Legendary Long-Neck Women of Burma…who had long faces

 

You’ve likely heard of them.

Tribal people whose women have extraordinarily long necks wrapped and stretched in gold-colored rings.

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National Geographic

This is not a Thai tradition; nor is it a practice of the people to whom most of our students belonged and whose ethnic kin we came to see: the Hmong.

It is a tradition of the Kayan, a people from Burma.

Burma (also known as Myanmar) to the west of Thailand. We were near Chiang Mai.

Burma (also known as Myanmar) to the west of Thailand. We were near Chiang Mai.

But like the Hmong, the Kayan have settled in Thailand following unrest back home. This allowed for our encounter at the end of our elephant ride.

***

Our pachyderm caravan dropped us off in pairs at the final stop of this three-in-one tourist attraction: elephants show/rides, bamboo raft rides, and then this: the advertised “Long Neck Village.”

Dismounting my seat atop the beast, I walked toward the village featuring a dirt road down the middle with straw/bamboo huts along either side and tables out front selling souvenirs.

I approached along with Poe Meh, a 26 year old woman and a fellow chaperon on this trip. Poe Meh isn’t Hmong. She’s Karenni, as were a few of the 8th graders on our trip.

Like the Kayan, the Karenni are a people from Burma who had also found refuge in Thailand; and like the Hmong, have since found a home in Minnesota. But I never thought to connect the dots between Poe Meh and the people we were about to encounter. She connected them, though. Real quick.

As we got our first glimpses of these women dressed in traditional clothing, including those neck rings, Poe Meh said to me that she recognized them. I asked about her people’s relation, and she shared that the Kayan are actually a subgroup of the Karenni.

Just then, she took a quick breath in, and with surprise said, “That’s my friend.”

She then briskly walked up, exclaiming the young woman’s name.

Poe Meh in her American clothes and her taller, longer-necked friend hugged and talked.

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They hadn’t seen each other in a handful of years since Poe Meh left Thailand for America in 2009.

“What’s her name?” I asked Poe Meh.

Her friend responded, “Marie.”

Another surprise to me that Poe Meh’s friend had learned English.

“How do you know each other?” I asked.

“We were friends in high school,” said Poe Meh.

As teenagers, they lived close to one another as refugees from Burma and studied at the same school.

I used this chance to ask about the neck rings.

First, I learned they aren’t rings. It’s a brass coil that wraps the neck.

“One long piece,” said Poe Meh.

The coil unwinds, and they attach an extension (not sure how this is done) as the girl ages. Then they wind it back around the neck.

“Like a spring,” said Marie with a giggle.

“Do you sleep with it on?”

They do, and they leave it on for eating and bathing.

“Is there a woman with the longest neck in the village?” I asked.

Poe Meh asked Marie, who responded and pointed.

“Her aunt,” answered Poe Meh.

Off we went.

It was only 12 paces up the street. Then to the left was a vendor booth with a woman sitting behind.

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I took the picture. She offered me items to buy. I bought a wooden bookmark.

Here’s a video of the introductions and interaction:


Then I put down the camera and thought about their culture.

I imagined Marie’s aunt growing up in her homeland. There, her neck coil was a defining marker of her life–a status, a meaning.

But now these older Kayan have lost their homes, their cultural environment, and live in a part of the world whose people are apathetic to their ways–except as a feature on a tourist stop for entertainment.

I thought back to a couple of days earlier when we visited the touristy Hmong villages, a non-Thai people adjusting to life in a new land by using their culture to make money.

The bright side is that they make a living AND keep their culture. The flip side is their culture has been reduced to an act, a job. The neck-coil is largely now an empty custom.

Watching the Kayan aunt, she sat there straight-faced, long-necked, waiting for people to buy from her.

Then when she was active, she was posing for photos with tourists, trying to sell them kitsch, and showing a laminated article from a Belgian physician showing how the neck coils aren’t unhealthy.

***

I also thought back to a couple of years earlier and my piece about the 99-year-old Chinese woman I visited in 2011, a living time capsule of the ancient Imperial age of foot-binding. The 99-year-old watched her own progeny walk about with regular-sized feet on the old farmstead yet in a world unrecognizable to the one in which she grew up.

Closer to home, this is also the reality of my grandparents yet alive and watching their grandkids and great-grandchildren assume the new world.

Perhaps due to their refugee migration into Thailand, and the extraordinary physical custom of the neck coil, the Kayan people are a startling example of this universal phenomena of an older generation watching the new take their place.

And it indeed seemed the younger Kayan women did adjust–perhaps to the delight of the aunt.

Poe Meh’s friend and the female Karenni students of our group hit it off.

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Then, up the hill, I met a Kayan woman learned on the Western guitar.


It was nice to end this visit on a bright spot: that the flame of the human spirit cannot be put out even when forced to leave one’s land, transplanted into a new world.

 

The Elephant Park: Potentially Harmful, Certainly Incredible

 

On May 3, our group of 43 students and chaperons went to see an elephant park outside Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. After escaping the city in our motorcade of grey Nissan conversion vans, we entered the park and parked in the dirt lot. Then after disembarking, we looked to our right and a monster came into view.

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From around the corner lumbered and bobbed the great grey beast, putting a smile on my face for seeing something so remarkable and typically only on TV.

 

The first event of the day was the elephant talent show. I assumed cheesy tricks would ensue, and so I was more interested in looking ahead to the elephant ride. But the show would impress. (I’d be impressed before the official show even began.)

We walked into the stands facing the open, dirt pit below. Yet much of this was ignored in lieu of the up-front sight before us: four elephant riders who had parked their beasts in the dirt pit right up against the stands to greet the arriving audience.

So close they were, the audience was encouraged to interact and photograph.

At first hesitant, a few brave souls stood next to the warm giants. Soon others followed. Most of our students and chaperons would take part in the posing, which included some elephant tricks right off the bat: their trunks to hug (and kiss) the people, and remove and put back a person’s hat.

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Elephants took donations, too.

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At first thought, no way will I let it kiss me with it’s big, wet, yucky nose.

It would.

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More incredible was getting to feel the trunk. I thought it might be maneuverable as I put my hand around it, but it was all muscle and I had zero control. I pet its massive head, the helmet skull just below the rough, thick, taught skin and thinly laid, but wire-thick hairs protruding and jumping right back into place after my hand sifted through them.

I could have spent several minutes getting to know this animal. But the show must go on.

Before these introductory round of pictures ended, I found a bench space a few rows up and next to one of our more curious 14 year olds, a bright Hmong girl named Bee. Soon after I sat to her left, she noticed during all the laughter and cheesing poses, that off to the left was an elephant chained to a post.

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“Why is that one tied up like that?” she asked with concern.

I looked over and stared at this animal larger than all the others.

“I don’t know,” I responded. “Behavior issues. Or maybe it’s just not needed for the show.”

Bee then looked ahead to the trainers still directing their elephants to pose, and she took note of their instruments: a stick which at its end had a small, flat, curved piece of metal coming to a point.

“Do those things hurt the elephants?” she asked with yet more concern.

Another chaperon of our group, a middle-aged Caucasian woman sitting directly in front of us, turned to address Bee’s concerns. “Those things are rounded at the tip,” she said. “They aren’t sharp.”

I wasn’t so sure. But more important than the blade’s sharpness was the bigger issue in play.

“Bee,” I said, “There are actually some people who take issue with the treatment of elephants for these shows and in zoos.”

Judging by Bee’s face, I think this was one of those moments where a young person, assuming themselves to always securely be on the side of good, realized that the line isn’t as defined as they once thought. And thus, that good people can find themselves on the other side of it in the eyes of others.

I continued. “Morals aren’t always black and white. On issues like this, we have to decide for ourselves whether we’re okay with elephants trained and on display.”

Bee had no problem with the show, but did their riders have to jab them? And why did that other elephant need to be leashed to the post?

After a few minutes, all the riders retreated their elephants for the show to begin.

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From the middle of the sunny, dirt field, the elephants bowed in line as their names were given–at the direction of their trainer; and at the amusement and joy of the audience.

The joy would continue.

I had heard an elephant’s memory was strong. But I didn’t know that memory and training could get these animals to dance, kick soccer balls, and paint.

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When I had heard that painting was to be part of the show, I assumed that the elephants would brush a few random lines.

Not so.

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Yes, it signed its own work.

I was floored, and the Chinese people in attendance (about 2/3 of the audience) were on their feet to be the first to buy the art. The park offered it at a price for which I regret not jumping to my feet as well (about $10).

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Rather, one Chinese guy hopped up, raised his arm, and yelled and was awarded the elephant painted by the elephant. The other paintings went soon after to other Chinese customers.

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Note to elephant park: auction the paintings. You’ll raise way more money.

***

After lunch, it was time for the elephant rides.

From a wooden platform, we 43 broke into twos and threes to hop atop the back carriage while the riders straddled their elephant’s neck.

Our student speaking with a rider.

Our student awaiting his ride speaks with a rider atop his vehicle.

Watching this, Bee asked about the weight on the elephant’s backs. “Doesn’t it get heavy for the elephants?”

Then, near our platform, yet another elephant was tied to a pole. And unlike the previous leashed elephant, this one didn’t just stand there. It tried walking away–repeatedly, futilely. It took a step, the slack in the chain tightened, and the elephant stopped abruptly as its chained rear leg held back. This caused the beast to relax and reset back toward the post.

But then it tried again. Step, chain tighten, halt, relax. Step, tighten, halt, relax. Step, tighten, halt, relax.

It did this the entire time we waited for all the students to mount the elephants, and I’m sure it continued thereafter and had started sometime before. Whether this was the workings of a saddened, broken elephant mind or simply that of an animal not smart enough to realize its situation, I don’t know. But the continued, useless effort troubled me.

Then it was my turn to hop on my animal to carry me to our day’s end. It took me and the middle-aged teacher on a jaunt through the shallow river and along its banks, seesawing in its saunter as we enjoyed the elevated view of the beautiful, green, hilly Thai terrain and this intimacy with this amazing mammal.

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View from my ride.

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Other tourists

***

In the days since the elephant park, I have caught a couple of articles arguing that these places are wrong. One headline on an animal activist site stated:

If You Love Elephants, Don’t Ever Ride Them. Here’s Why.

Other articles/organizations represent this sentiment, and I’m sure we’ve all heard before that elephants in zoos and circuses amount to animal abuse.

But I don’t believe these parks and animal respect are mutually exclusive.

Unlike what the article above indicates, these parks don’t represent a right or a wrong. Different trainers will treat their elephants with varying amounts of physical demands and training. To call the institution of elephant parks abusive, one must ignore such nuance within.

Second, what’s considered right or wrong changes over time. We may look back and see these parks as abusive the same way we might one day look back and think of jails as being so. Calling this treatment abusive, period, is direct and useful to make a call to action or stance, but it’s also a vision narrowed in on certain acts in this place and time–with no respect paid to past nor context.

Though I did see treatment I questioned, I also know that Westerners do a good job of placing ideals on others. It may be ideal to not have these elephants ridden–certainly ideal to not chain them up. But these parks help the elephant species in a time where their numbers are threatened. And they help an economy and a people in need.

If there were no parks as some argue should be the case, then these animals might be poached and the economy worsened. While no one wants to see animal abuse, it seems we’re in a time where these parks are the elephants’ ally.

They are their ally by keeping their numbers up and people’s appreciation for them high. Regardless of the tricks–which the people here loved–I was thrilled just to be able to touch and be next to one of earth’s most magnificent species.

If not for these parks, I wouldn’t have had this chance to appreciate them in such a way.

 

The Naturally Adapted Hmong of Chiang Mai, Thailand

The song “One Night is Bangkok” may be one thing that most of us know about Thailand. (Well, that and perhaps the food.)

I can remember in my 20s confusing this country in Southeast Asia with the island off the east coast of China: Taiwan. Simple mistake. I was only about 1400 miles off. Then even after traveling to Thailand five years ago, all I knew was that Phuket was the island for beaches, partying, and tourists; Bangkok was the largest city and hub of the country; and Chiang Rai was that “other city” up north where you could find “real Thailand”–whatever that meant.

Well, let’s see what it means. Today we start off with Three Days in Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai is in the northern section of Thailand.

***

As I introduced last week, I’m here with a pack of 8th graders as part of a school trip. I get to chaperon and document their experience visiting a nation where their grandparents, parents, or even they themselves came from. The students are all Hmong or Karenni (a people from Burma who, like the Hmong, have recently been in refugee camps in Thailand and now have populations settled within the country.)

This is a trip to show these students the world on the other side of the planet, inhabited by their ethnic fellows, where they likely would have found themselves had their parents not decided to come to the US.

After our fourth and final flight (from Bangkok to Chiang Mai), after dragging ourselves from the airport to our hotel…

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jet lag = sound asleep students at 2:00 in the afternoon

…and then after dragging ourselves up in the morning, we stared at our first full day in Thailand: April 30, 2015.

First things first: breakfast.

A motorcade of prearranged vans driven by a posse of local Hmong men saw us through the streets of our neighborhood in Chiang Mai.

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Chiang Mai is Thailand’s 3rd largest city, a happening northern hub that continually impressed me by how beautiful it was. To the right in the picture was a meandering river slowly slicing through town, and this river boulevard had remnants of the old city wall laid out in mounds of various size along its length. Plus, it’s blossom season, and trees in and out of the city boasted branches showing painted tips of pink, yellow, and green pastel.

We arrived at a cozy corner diner without outside walls.

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Why walls in 85 degree mornings? AC, perhaps, but not in this part of the world.

Breakfast is served.

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I wasn’t used to soup for breakfast, but it had a tasty, tangy chicken soup flavor.

For dessert: a local selling flower petal necklaces to the students.

I bit and bought one. And I smelled like herbal tea all day. Not too bad, actually.

 

We came to Thailand to see the Hmong in the eastern hemisphere, so that’s what we set out to do this first day.

Before that, a bit of touristy nature.

The tallest point in Thailand was just a drive away, up, up, up a mountain to an elevation that was surprisingly modest in this mountainous country (8,400 ft).

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Nonetheless, it was high enough to see the temperature drop 20 degrees, send a wee bit of shiver down my now-under-dressed body, and then see this here barista gearing up for what seemed like actual cold weather.

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Not the arctic, but the climate did change enough to alter the plant life as we enjoyed a walk through something I called the Yeti Forrest.

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Trees stay warm here with a hairy coat of moss.

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On the way down the mountain, we got our first look at a Hmong village here in the Old World.

Right alongside the descending highway a stretch of vendors sold Hmong clothing, jewelry and figurines, and honey and other foods.

One particular lady dressed in traditional attire sat beside her table of goods. She would have blended in with the rest but for one set of items on her table that stuck out and up.

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Tusks.

Or so they seemed.

But they were small, a couple of the pairs were maybe six inches long, another pair perhaps a foot in length. Yet despite their diminutive size, I believed them to be genuine due to their color, hardness, and the endings (one tapering to a tip, the other off white, broad, and lumpy as it would where it met the head.)

I asked one of our van drivers to translate as I asked what these items were. The lady said they were the tusks from baby elephants. She said they lose their baby horns like people lose their baby teeth. I had no idea.

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If so, it seemed reasonable to not let them go to waste. Yet I had just noted at the Bangkok airport the large signs warning travelers against buying or having any ivory products. Thus, I deemed the risk of airport detainment not worth the reward of owning two small tusks–though I did read that elephant tusk goes for something like $2000/pound. (And on a side note, I think the threat to elephants and rhinos due to hunting will be tapered off by the new technology of cultivating the horns/tusks outside the animals.)

Meanwhile, I also wondered about the authenticity of this villages, as they’ve understandably succumbed to the tourism trend and so many have gone from sowing to souvenirs and that which they do sew is made to sell or wear for the attraction of it. Tourists like to see the Hmong as the Hmong hill people. This was made more apparent the following day in another Hmong mountain village.

Like the one the day before, this village also happened to be in an advantageous, elevated location if tourists are your interest. It was tucked away behind lookout points overseeing Chiang Mai, temples, and touristy towns on the way up. And after riding through all that, we ended up winding back down the back side of the mountain, where trees lessened in number to make way for the small buildings in an opening below.

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Soon we stopped and disembarked in this village that was more than a village. It offered a formal–if not artificial–introduction to Hmong life. The advantage was a population ready for showmanship, a modest museum of the hill people ways, and a layout and decor befitting the Hmong–and Chiang Mai.

First was the simple museum.

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Beyond it was the gardens in back and up, up, up  the hillside.

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Another elevated view away from the gardens:

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Finally, we made our way back down the back side of the village which featured a smooth, level dirt road flanked on either side by vendors selling similar gear and garb as the Hmong the day before. I knew this wasn’t the “real” Hmong experience that one might prefer when coming to see such a place.

“It’s changed a lot since I was here in 2010,” said Kazoua, the middle aged female Hmong COO of our school and trip leader. She said this at the top of the garden hill as students drank drinks from the coffee shop up there.

“There was no restaurant up here,” she continued. “The road wasn’t as smooth and not near the vendor activity.”

But by the time I got back to the van, I realized that these vendors were no less genuine–just adapting to the world they find themselves in today. And within the all this sales and showmanship were just everyday people living their life.

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And this was precisely what we came to Thailand to see.

The following day, we got to experience a walk on the wild wide–the elephant park.

 

Globally Speaking, All Americans are Privileged

 

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa of California is the target of much anger today for his CNN conversation on income inequality in America.

He admitted the problem but noted that “America is the richest country on Earth because we’ve been able to put capital together, and we’ve been able to make our poor, somewhat the envy of the world.”

Now maybe it was because he’s rich, or a Republican, or a white man, or whatever group people choose to dislike him for being a part of, but the richest man in congress speaking about the upside of being poor in America didn’t go over too well.

So I wade into murky waters by contradicting the reactions of all the angry people by saying that Issa may be a rich, selfish SOB that only says these things to forgive his own extraordinary wealth.

But he’s also right.

I’m here in Thailand. I look around, and I realize that all the talk about inequality and privilege back home in the U.S. today is 100% accurate–but it’s also zeroed in our relatively small corner of the world. The fact is, virtually everyone in America is privileged simply by being in America.

This isn’t just about the dirt-poor poverty I see here in the hills of Thailand. This is about what I see in the cities.

Just as the richest in the U.S. can stay atop their pedestal by leveraging the consumerism of the lower classes, so does the entire U.S. by leveraging their foothold of commerce in all the world: electronics, dotcoms, food, film and music as pictured below in a Thai department store.

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Swaths of wealth are generated for the U.S., because the world uses what Americans create. This allows any able-bodied American to get a job–white collar, blue collar–that pays enough for them to own cars, a house, travel, and live a lifestyle that indeed most of the world could only dream of.

Things in the U.S. may not be what they once were, and I’d like to see things change for the better as much as anyone. But it’s also healthy to scale back and see how good Americans have it and why.

 

Our School’s Arrival to Thailand

Thailand is truly a whole other world–and a remarkable one at that.

It’s just not that easy getting here.

It’s not complicated. You just need a couple grand to spend (or stumble upon a good opportunity) and a willingness to sit in airports and airplanes for about 24 hours. Oh, and there’s the whole jetlag thing sure to color every aspect of your first few days.

But enough of that side of the coin. Check out the incredible results for making it to this other side of the planet.

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And these were just taken in the first few days here.

And of course, more than these images are the stories and thought inspired by the exposure to such unique sights and people. Today I introduce you to our story getting here as well as some of our fellows in Thailand and their ways of life…

Three Weeks in Thailand

About six months back, I was blessed with an opportunity to travel to this country. Having just returning from Africa, I found writing work for a school in St. Paul. Part of their needs was to have someone document a trip they take each spring–an immersion and cultural experience for their many Southeast Asian students (Hmong and Karenni).

Four of our students standing behind computers they refurbished and will deliver to our sister school in Chiang Rai.

Four of our students standing behind computers they refurbished and will deliver to our sister school in Chiang Rai.

Impressed by the opportunity, I took it without hesitation.

The plan for our trip is to spend as much time outside the cities and the usual tourism fare, into the quieter villages where the Hmong and Karenni reside. (For more about the school and student experience, see our school blog and Facebook page.)

For a better handle on Thailand, let’s start with a map.

Thailand map

We will use the cities Bangkok (capital) and Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai (in the north) as our bases.

We will use the cities Bangkok (capital) and Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai (in the north) as our bases.

Thailand is one of a handful of smallish countries that make up Southeast Asia. Each of these countries has their own language, written script, and culture–as well as having many other minority groups within their borders. The region is chock full of fascinating history of migrations, border shifts, colonialism, and present-day independence. Thailand prides itself as being the one civilization here that wasn’t colonized.

We flew into the capital, Bangkok, early morning hours April 29.

This was our third flight, by now offering…

a few inflight movies…

a few measly (though precious) hours of sleep…

a constant white noise of the airplane in flight, and…

day and night outside the airplane window seemingly as arbitrary as a lotto numbers.

Airport dots connect the lines of flight: fancy LA, sour smelling Taipei, and finally Bangkok.

There, we 43 gathered our luggage from the carousel, exchanged dollars into baht (1:32) from one of several currency exchange booths, and then five prearranged vans pulled up just outside the airport exit at 1:00 am to drive us to our hotel.

Stepping outside the airport was like taking a lid off of a boiling pot of water. The heat and humidity was all the stranger because it was the middle of the night.

By the time we all arrived at the hotel, received our keys and room assignments, it was 3:00. Super late, but I didn’t sleep a wink. In fact, I wouldn’t get but 8 hours within a span of 72. Only under such circumstances could I imagine pulling off such a superhuman feat.

By the time I got done trying to force sleep, it was dawn in Bangkok.

I decided to tease myself with a few sights to be encored at length when we returned back to this city at the end of our three week stay. Here were my teases.

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I moseyed on back to the hotel and when everyone rose, we enjoyed a complimentary hotel breakfast, a blend of Asian food: rice and noodles, which the students were happy to eat and me amenable as well. They also offered Western-friendly scrambled eggs, which my familiar eyes were grateful to see and familiar palate grateful to taste.

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Students at hotel breakfast

Overall, this chance to lay down, eat a good meal, and take a hot shower wasn’t yet our destination but just part of the commuting process, a long break between our third and fourth flights of our trip. See, our first Thai destination is actually to the north, to a city where we’ll really start our exposure: Chiang Mai.

This is a lovely, historic, lively city with ties to the ancestors of the students. Villages, nature hikes, and city markets would await.

They are what we’ll dive into next week.

 

 

Connections and Coincidence: Tomorrow I’m Taking Computers Back to the Third World

In the 90s, a Minnesotan family by the name of Jacobson was in central Tanzania on a mission trip through their Lutheran Church. While there in the empty, hilly, rocky farmland of East Africa, their adolescent son befriended a local boy by the name of Evaristo. The boys stayed friends through their teenage years–whether together or apart. And when Evaristo was 19, the mother and father Jacobson decided to sponsor their son’s friend to come to America and get a college education.

Evaristo worked very hard to catch up to his peers in English and technological skills. He graduated and became a software engineer, which is his profession to this day. Throughout these years, he has also married, had a couple of children, and started a project that would eventually involve me–a secondary school in his home village.

Friday evening, April 24, I stood before 110 people seated around large, round tables filling a ballroom in Edina. They had come out for a benefit dinner to support the school at which I had worked for most of 2014.

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I stood up there as the feature presenter, the volunteer worker who had arrived to this rural African school with suitcases of laptops and was now back to share his experience starting the school’s computer program. The title of my talk was A Year of Connections.

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Hooking the students up with computers, pairing them with a pen pal from Minnesota, seeing electric poles delivered to our previously, off-the-grid village, there were indeed many great connections to share. But I took things one step further. Connections, I said, are just the germination for change. It’s the life that results from the connection that stands out as the miracle.

As I stated this to the audience, I looked to the back–to the Jacobson family. I addressed them as the connection, the spark that made all this possible. I then highlighted all that has been made possible from their son meeting young Evaristo, to lead to the school in Tanzania, and then to this very evening benefit dinner bringing all these people together for a common goal.

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It was a thrill to share my stories and help raise money for the cause I labored at for seven months and for the students and staff at the school with whom I built relationships. Relationships, of course, being the type of connection that matters most. Such connections not only allow for the technical connections of computers and electricity and the physical connections of intercontinental flight; but such modern-day connections are inspired with the goal of being able to have more experiences, connect with others, and build relationships.

It was one such connection–made five years earlier–that has led to some other remarkable life activity that I continue to embark on this week.

***

Five winters ago, I interned at the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, MN. On one February day in 2010, they offered me an assignment: go to a school in the Midway neighborhood and speak to them about a field trip they had recently taken.

I pulled my car up to this school, entered the building, and met with Superintendent Mo Chang. She then called in five students. She and them–and about 20 other students and chaperons–had just returned from Thailand to visit the lands from where they (and/or certainly their parents and grandparents) had come. The trip was a homecoming and a chance for Old World and New World Hmong people to come together, for these American students to relate to and experience the ways of life for their fellows across the world.

I wrote the story:

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Almost five years later, October 2014, I had just returned from Africa.

I needed a job, so took to substitute teaching. The day I was allowed to teach, I saw an available half-day, afternoon shift for a school in St. Paul. I thought, “Why not?” I arrived to the school, then to my class, and noticed that almost all the students at the Community School of Excellence were Hmong.

I then went to the office and noticed in the business card holders on the receptionist’s desk the very same card I had collected from Superintendent Chang five years earlier.

Same school, new location.

She didn’t remember me at first when I approached her standing outside her office later that afternoon. Maybe it was my beard. But in seconds, her face lit up with recognition–and then suggestions for more stories I could write for the school.

“Hold on, Mo,” I said. “I’m not with the Pioneer Press. I’m here to teach.”

“Well, we need someone to share the stories of our school,” said the short, middle-aged woman.

We talked in the coming weeks, and they offered me a job as the school’s communications coordinator, social media manager, and English language specialist (proofreader). In our first meeting in her office, Mo brought up the school’s annual Global Connections trip to Southeast Asia and how she’d like someone to go along to document the trip. I knew what she was getting at and became energized with surprise at the prospect of traveling again so soon after just returning from Africa.

“Brandon, are you comfortable with a Third World environment?” asked Mo.

“Have you seen my blog?” I answered with a question.

Fast forward to today, and as I write this I’m counting down the hours to departure. Early tomorrow (Monday) morning, 37 eighth grade students and six of us chaperons are leaving for Thailand. Our main destination will be the rural north and our sister school in the Hmong-populated centers near the city, Chiang Rai. There, we’ll help out at the school, our students will spend school days shadowing their peers, and…

…we’ll deliver laptops.

The Community School of Excellence’s computer club has prepared four computers. These very preparers will be soon be presenters, just as I had been a little over a year ago in a village school in Tanzania.

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Tanzania. Spring 2014

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Computers destined for Thailand, Spring 2015

***

It’s about the coincidence of computers, connecting students, and getting the opportunity to tell the stories from across the world.

It’s about the connections and the remarkability of life as a result of the Jacobson’s meeting young Evaristo 20 years ago and me writing a story for the Pioneer Press five years ago.

We sometimes point out the unfortunate reality that we can’t know the future. But how incredible are our lives because we don’t know how connection and coincidence will manifest! We get to experience these manifestations and await what’s around the next corner.

For the next several Sunday blogs, I’ll be writing about the corners turned in Thailand.

Home and Full-Circle with the Ugandan Father and Sons

 

Woozy and waiting, I stood along the sidewalk outside the Minneapolis airport baggage claim. Soon I saw my friend Casey’s grey SUV approach and roll to a stop.

I rolled my own worn and torn luggage to his car.

“Hey,” I said.

“Welcome home,” he said reassuringly.

Indeed.

In the 24 hours prior, I had flown out of Nairobi, Kenya at 11:30 PM. I sat next to a hefty, middle-aged Belgian military retiree who told me about the Rwandan genocide and how his Rwandan wife had to escape. Eight hours later, I arrived at Belgium, waited a few more hours in the airport talking with a long-haired Jewish guy about Israel and Palestine, and then boarded another eight hour flight to Chicago. I don’t remember who I sat next to on this flight. I think I slept two hours in there.

In giant O’Hare Airport, I had to run (well, jog at least) to my gate to catch my plane to Minneapolis. But the flight was delayed. So I took a minute to soak in the fact that not only was I back in the U.S. after being away for so long. But that I was sitting amongst fellow Minnesotans: a man with a Minnesota Wild hat, a woman on the phone with the familiar accent.

Yep. I’m almost there.

I woke up early the next morning at Casey’s place. I’d be staying with him until I got an apartment. Wide-eyed from jet lag, I took in all the “American-ness” of my room: the soft, comfortable bed, the bookshelf and books, and light fixture overhead.

I heard Casey turn on the TV in the living room. I walked out to CBS This Morning and Charlie Rose’s voice, “And now your world in 90 seconds.” Ebola, Ferguson protests, all that I’d been hearing hints of was now declared in this room on Casey’s huge flatscreen. It was in fact the TV, the furniture, the woodwork of this home–the American-ness of it all–that was the larger declaration of which these news stories were merely a part.

To Casey, this was just another morning before going to his job at the bank. He told me to have a good one and went about his day. I remained in his house continuing to soak, looking at everything, feeling the difference between it and where I had been–and between how I felt now in Casey’s house now vs. how I had felt every other time I’d been here before I went away. Suddenly everything was noteworthy.

There was little motivation to do. It was enough to just be. But I did have one thing to do today: get a phone.

I walked out of Casey’s house in Minneapolis on that fair, cloudy October morning. I walked to the bus stop–something I would ordinarily have seen as a time-consuming means to an end. In my mode, however, the means was as important as the accomplishment, and I took in the clean streets, the cars lining them, the other homes.

I got to a bus stop not really caring where I went. I would have enjoyed taking in most any neighborhood in town. A woman stood there, and I asked her how much the fare was.

“Seventy-five cents for me, but I’m a senior,” she said. I counted my dollar bills exchanged from my Kenyan shillings and figured I’d be okay.

I asked when the next bus came.

“10:16. Hopefully it’s not late,” she said.

It wasn’t. It came at 10:16. Two days before I rode into Kenya from Uganda on a bus that was two hours late and was from another company altogether because my bus had broken down. Then, this new one didn’t have the amenities promised to me but did offer two giant cracks splitting the window near my seat.

I stepped inside the bus in Minneapolis. Known for being used by people in low income brackets, to me this bus was high society. Smooth ride, smooth stops, clear voice overhead.

It’s good to be back.

***

Three weeks later, I had my phone, got work with an area school, and had a car to get there. I bought my brother’s old Pontiac. It needed a wash.

So I went to complete the circle, to put the other bookend on my 8 1/2 months in East Africa, to see a man soon after returning home whom I had first met shorty before departing last January.

I shared two-thirds of this story a couple of weeks ago: I met a older Ugandan man at a car wash in Minneapolis just days before I left for Africa. He told me about his sons in Uganda, neither of whom he had seen in 16 years. He gave me their numbers; I took them uncertain of my chances of actually meeting them.

But I did.

Now back home, I went to wash my car hoping to see the Ugandan dad and share of my visit with his sons.

He was working.

I dropped off my car to the attendants and walked up to the tall, greying man.

“Hello, Yusuph.”

“Brandon!”

I had some pictures for him.

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I also had some footage. But that came two days later.

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On this day, Yusuph and I went to a coffee shop, where I showed him video of his sons’ fish farming operation on Lake Victoria.

He had been in touch with his boys over the phone over the years, but hadn’t seen them.

“Now I know what they are talking about,” he said in discovery of their work. “I never know what they mean when they say they have a cage in the lake.”

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I also showed him a picture of his sister and her family.

For Yusuph it was a reunion of sorts and a thrill that this Minnesotan guy he met at the car wash could actually see his family and return to show and tell about it.

For me, this was the perfect finale to 3/4 of a year spent on an adventure.

I look back and realize this was an adventure defined by the people I met–the way they opened the doors to new experiences, wisdom, and opportunities for service.

I realize I can look back even further and see that this is what shapes all my travel.

I can now see that this is actually what shapes all my life whether I’m on the road or living my regular life back home.

You never know who you’re going to meet, what they can teach you, or where they’ll take you.

In fact, that school I got a job with? They need someone to document their trip to Thailand. I leave April 27.

 

Race as a Factor in Receiving Jobs, Grants, and College Acceptance

If the comments on the Star Tribune are any indicator, there’s something like a 60/40 split of those who congratulate Minnesotan Munira Khalif for her incredible accomplishment of being accepted to all eight Ivy League schools versus those who are claiming her success as a sign of a problem.

Naturally, many don’t want to hear any negativity around such a feat backed by her accomplishments. Others though, have children with resumes just as impressive and so complain because their child didn’t get accepted into one Ivy League school.

Interestingly, both the supporters and naysayers can use Khalif’s acceptance rate as evidence to make their point.

It’s become a back and forth over whether the applicant got into all these schools because of her accomplishments or because of her race. The Star Tribune editorial board responded to those saying the latter by arguing for the former. But we don’t need to debate whether colleges accept based on background and ethnicity–particularly elite private ones. They do.

The conversation should be about the merit of favoring people for such a factor.

***

The idea of helping a historically-disadvantaged group is noble and inescapably messy. Like trying to set age limits on a privilege, you’ll inevitably miss the mark by allowing some the permission who shouldn’t and restrict others who should be able to.

Another factor–often forgotten–is that in a world of finite resources, giving a leg up to a certain group of people requires cutting the legs out from another.

Two weeks ago I applied for a writer’s grant from an area foundation. Right in the middle of the application was this question:

artist of color

Seeing this took the wind out of my sails–quite the opposite reaction of what this foundation was likely going for when offering money to writers. I was discouraged, though, because I knew what this question meant: I was being penalized because of the color of my skin. Never mind my background. Never mind that any number of Asian, black, Middle Eastern, or Latino candidates from privileged families will check “yes” and have a better shot–and perhaps less of a need–for the award than I.

I’m white. Strike one.

Some might say, “Now you know how it feels to be black or brown.” I try to ignore such two-wrongs-make-a-right arguments advocating mistreatment to equal things out. I also thought that if I was anything other than white, that it would cheapen the accomplishment of getting this grant or that scholarship or that job knowing that I was awarded something not because I was the best, but because of a scoring handicap I was deemed to need.

But then a question hit me: Have my own accomplishments always been awarded purely because of my ability?

To the degree that systemic racism is a factor in the U.S. is the degree to which I’ve been able to enjoy such an advantage my whole life.

This realization caused me to look up and stare at the wall for a couple of seconds…

***

I know I walk around in the U.S. with the privilege of being a man rather than a “black man” or an “Asian man.”

I understand and appreciate why scholarships, grants, and government employers show favoritism due to a person’s race.

I guess I just wish we didn’t have to live in a world where such distinctions need to be made. (What exactly is an “artist of color” anyway?) Maybe I want this ideal rather than face the reality of racism. Nor do I understand how anyone who supports the message of MLK can turn around and support such race-favoring initiatives and policy that literally couldn’t be any more contradictory to what he said about judging a man by his character and not his skin color.

But we do live in a world where race is a factor. And by scaling back, I can see that though getting this grant will be tougher, it’s just one opportunity made so. There are countless others I can pursue, including many that will be easier because of my race. Plus, why not choose to be motivated–rather than discouraged–to put together an extra-strong application?

I hope Munira Khalif similarly disregards any naysayers for her accomplishment and is motivated to prove them wrong about her skin color being the predominant factor in her acceptances. I wish her the best. Not that she needs my wishes. From a browse of her bio, she’s done more with her 18 years as I had done with my first 25.

 

My Last Day in Africa

Eight days.

Six cities around North Dakota and Minnesota.

Six awesome audiences with which to present about Africa and China, discuss about the ways of life there and here, and all of it to grow in our understanding.

Thanks again–all who came out and all who offered support–for making my recent book/speaking tour such a wonderful experience.

Now that I’m finished talking about Africa, it’s time I finish writing about it. Today, we wrap up my East Africa blogs with my final stop.

***

Three weeks ago, I shared about meeting the sons of the Ugandan-Minneapolis man. I had met the father in Minneapolis before I left for Tanzania. I had then met his sons eight months later in the mid-sized city of Jinja, Uganda, where they showed me their fish farming operation.

The following day, I hopped on one last tardy, long, bumpy, cramped bus ride–a 12 hour journey from dawn to past dusk into Nairobi.

They tell me we drove right through the region that Barack Obama's dad was from.

They tell me we drove right through the region that Barack Obama’s dad was from.

Picked up by my host, I was driven out to his home 20 minutes outside city center. The next day I would fly home–but that wasn’t until the afternoon. In the morning, my host was eager to take me to the school he had founded in the Kayole slum.

I had met Douglas Monene on that same travel community website, Couchsurfing.

He was a large, muscular man, but though he looked like a rugby player, he was gentle and academic. We hopped in his grey van my final morning in Africa and rode out to Kayole slum in Nairobi, Kenya.

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We arrived to the street his school was on:

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The school was to the left, but to the right was another site: an open pit mine.

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Mine ahead, polluted river below, heavy machinery was off to the right

This scene was significant not just because it was an odd feature to have across the street from a school, but because people lived in the mine to work, and the residents of this literal mining town was where Douglas recruited some of his students.

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Like my rural village school on Tanzania, children in the slums of Nairobi are limited in education due to the need for them to work.

Douglas is working to change that.

He started INGRID Primary School just a few years earlier. He started it privately or else the local children would have no real education options. He takes in the miner kids without charge.

We entered his school.

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INGRID is an acronym.

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I visited the classes of these young Developers.

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The youngest students

And for a few of the classes, I taught a lesson or two.

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After an impromptu math lesson for this class, Douglas took me to the school roof.

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He showed me the chicken coop and described plans for expansion atop the school. He wants to add high school classes. This roof may not look like much, but it offered a perspective of our physical surroundings–as well as on the relative nature of wealth.

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This actually wasn’t garbage strewn across these residents’ adjacent roofs. This was their belongings in storage.

We went back down, and I took a class of 9-10 year olds who impressed the heck out me with their questions.

One boy and I talked like this:

“Can you have guns in America?” he asked in perfect English. (Schools are English medium in Kenya.)

“Yeah, you can,” I said.

“Where do you get them?”

“There are places just for buying guns.”

“Will you get in trouble for shooting someone?”

“Yes, you will.”

“Unless it’s for self defense,” he clarified.

I raised my eyebrows.

“Well, yes.”

Another girl starting asking about “IC in Hagy.”

I surmised what she may have been referring to, but I didn’t think it was likely she was talking about the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Holland.

She was.

The Kenyan president had been there being questioned about his role in ethnic violence in the country. This topic went above my head, and Douglas happened to step foot into the concrete-walled classroom. So I asked him to come forward to explain it to the girl.

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Not all students were so eager about their education. There are many difficult domestic situations in Kayole. And despite the fact that students can live here at the school–albeit in humble conditions–one may still think that children would favor a sleeping bag and hot meals over a life on the streets. Yet that isn’t always the case.

One missing boy had been retrieved to the school, where Douglas questioned the raggedy, hungry, defeated lad.

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At recess children went outside to play.

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And it was time for me to leave.

not just the school,

not just the city or country,

but Africa.

It was time for me to fly home.

Douglas and I hopped into his van–as did a few of the older students who hadn’t ever seen an airport.

***

We approached Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. We parked, they all walked me to my gate, and we took my final picture in Africa.

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I didn’t even know all their names. Our relationship was but a mere few hours old. Yet it was fitting to part ways with East Africa not just with a goodbye from students (my whole reason to come to Africa was to teach) but to do so after a morning of this unexpected, interactive surprise.

My 8 1/2 months in East Africa was punctuated with such occurrences frequent enough to have me question how much one can pack under the umbrella of coincidence.

From the experiences surrounding the computer program in my Tanzanian village school to the acquisition of electricity in that village to the meeting of other volunteers that I brought out to the school;

From the political rally to the church services to the hospital room to the town jail;

From the medicine man to the Parliament member to the Native American;

From the waterfalls to the white sand beaches to the rock bridges to the hippo, giraffe, and elephant;

From the inner city to the village to the skyscraper to the nightclub;

And within all these settings and experiences were the emotions: the ingredients of life.

From the camaraderie to the loneliness; from the pleasant surprises to the disappointing shocks; from the hectic concerns to the quiet, humble calms; this was eight months in East Africa.

I thank you for following along.

I look forward to sharing it with you when I complete my book.

I look forward to taking you on my next adventure.

For now, we go home next week.

Book Tour Finale: Amazing People and Places Across Minnesota

Last weekend I leapt the Red River from North Dakota to Minnesota to share my experiences from East Africa to China.

Bemidji, Duluth, Brainerd, Cottage Grove: these were the final four destinations of my Life Learned Abroad speaking/book tour, each with their own unique flavor to absorb and remarkable individuals to get to know.

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First up was Bemidji, my old stomping grounds. I grew up in Blackduck, so Bemidji was the “the city” as far as we were concerned, the place to get clothes and cars and see a movie. Last Sunday, though, I was the one showing the video…and photos and sharing stories from across the oceans to familiar faces from over the years.

Along with my supportive family and relatives in attendance, I was touched to see my first grade teacher, Mrs. Stomberg, arrive, as did my childhood dentist, Mr. Bengtson. (Thanks for the smile, Doctor:)

Bemidji Pioneer publisher Dennis Doeden arrived early to help set up and then introduced me to the crowd to get things underway.

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My family and friends leaned forward to hear the stories and chimed in with feedback and questions about the topics arisen–the politics of Tanzania, the education system, and why is Tanzania a poor nation? By the end, at least one audience member, an older woman distant relative of mine, expressed more than gratitude for the presentation. She was inspired to donate $200 to the school at which I worked in Tanzania. I didn’t anticipate raising money, but sometimes such bonuses happen unexpectedly.

***

On Monday I sped along highway 2 to Duluth. The two-and-a-half hour drive was highlighted with surefire signs of northern Minnesota.

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Then as I approached the eastern edge of the state, I entered a city with its own idiosyncratic imagery. The morning after arriving in Duluth, I spent some time soaking in its essence.

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That evening, I was honored to share with Duluthians who came out to the gorgeous and historic Fitger’s theater at the Fitger’s Hotel and Brewery.

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We had in house a middle aged female mission worker who’d been to Tanzania 20(!) times. There was another middle aged lady who, like me, had lived in China for a year. I asked where, she said “Zhuhai, near Macau,” and I stared at her for two seconds as that was the very city in which I had lived as well.

Then we had an older guy in the crowd. He raised his hand during my presentation to clear up a point about Tanzania’s political history. It was 1964 (after Zanzibar joined Tanzania), he said, not 1961 when Tanzania’s current ruling party was formed. He would know; he was from Tanzania.

The next morning, I visited the woman in the audience who’d been to Tanzania so many times. She’s done so because of her mission work. But even when home, her mission continues…at her store downtown.

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Meet Beth. In the early 90s, she started to raise money for micro loans to Tanzanian women. In $50 increments, she gave these women–selling crafts, salt, or food–a jump start. Perhaps most successful was the salt operation, where the men and women in this desolate part of the country could now rent an ox cart to carry 200 pounds of salt to market. These loans were more than advances in pay; they started a small movement of development.

“It was a culture,” Beth said.

Today, Beth still operates her store Touched by Africa (touchedbyafrica.info). Her sights are now set in the Kenyan slum, Kibera, where proceeds from the store go to help a school. Stop by or go to the website to obtain these handcrafted items:

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The women in Africa who created the baskets

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***

Brainerd was next on the docket. This one was a wildcard. I didn’t know what to expect. Brainerd is a smaller city where I knew no one and whose newspaper only recently started featuring my writing.

But lo’ and behold, it ended up offering one my biggest audiences.

I was sitting in the empty conference room at the Northland Arboretum at twenty minutes to showtime wondering if anyone was going to come. Then, a lady of about 80 with a thick accent slowly walked in. “Is this the right place?” said Ingrid from Sweden. She shared that she loves talks about the world, that she recently saw a Somali woman speak at the college.

Then another worldly retired couple waltzed in, followed a father/daughter, followed by another couple, and another. Five minutes to showtime, I was in a quiet room down the hall prepping but distracted by the sounds of the outside door continuing to open to newcomers.

I held back a surprised smile as I entered the full room.

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Brainerdites asked about women’s rights in Tanzania, about differences in culture from one East African country to the other, and about the courses taught at the village school. It felt more like a classroom, and I tried to educate as entertainingly as I could.

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At the end, we took some photos.

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She offered me a baggie of colored glass she makes and sells for charity.

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Vince to my left hosted me in Brainerd. Like his wooden tie? There are more where that came from: www.wmsonfurniture.com He’s a wood worker.

It was an honor to present for such open-minded, inquisitive folks.

***

Finally, on Friday the 2nd, I returned home to the Twin Cities…but the tour wasn’t finished yet. On Saturday, I held my homecoming and final event in Cottage Grove.

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At Park Grove library, I was honored to have old college mates, a former (and a current) boss, current Toastmasters fellows, and some relatives I hadn’t seen in ages fill the seats. They asked questions about the diet in Tanzania, the price of schooling, and origins of the Swahili language.

This latter question was answered succinctly by a special member in the audience, the man whose image also happened to be the first photo in my slideshow:

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He’s the founder of the school at which I taught in Tanzania. His name is Evaristo Sanga.

It was another great event and a fitting finale to the tour.

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***

What began as a tour to share the beauty and life of East Africa and China, ended as a survey of the beautiful scenery, culture, and people of the upper Midwest. Connecting the dots from city to city, I realized just how special these places are and how fortunate I am to get to share my stories with you all.

Gratitude bursts for all who helped: Forum Communications for getting the city newspapers on board, the city newspapers and their staff who helped arrange the stops and promotion, Ron Wacks for professional support, my friend Wone Vang for volunteering her time for the fundraising, all those who chipped in for the fundraiser; my hosts, my family, and of course, the attendees of all six events.

I was nervous to get this tour off the ground. So many “what ifs” and opportunities to back out thinking it would fall flat. I almost arrived late to my first stop in Fargo, but after settling down, that event–and each subsequent one–got easier. By the end, I felt great sharing my writing and stories from across the Atlantic and Pacific. Now that I’m versed in these stories, it’s just a shame that I’m done presenting them!

Well, I’ll share them again when I write my book about Africa, (and you can get my China book on Amazon.) I also hope to use this tour as a springboard for wider audiences and further opportunities to share with others the lessons of Life Learned Abroad.

In the meantime, I encourage you to consider sharing your stories to the people of the upper Midwest by way of Forum Communications’ blogging platform, Area Voices. There are countless stories and voices within the communities I visited. More people should hear what you have to say.

It’s fun to share your voice.

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