Graham’s last day in Shanghai was warm and sunny. He joined Bridget, Josephine and Quinn on their day off school, on a trip to the Shanghai Aquarium. Upon their return we spent the evening packing, eating leftovers and preparing for each of our journey’s. The taxi came for Graham at 9:40 and he took off for the Pudong Airport to catch a flight through Moscow to London to meet his fiancé, Alicia. Bridget and I finally made it to bed at 11:40 after getting our family ready for our adventure.
We woke at 4:00 AM, had toast, milk and coffee and met our cab, who was 15 minutes late at 5:00. We arrived at the Hongqiao airport at about 5:20. The other students were to meet us there at 5:45. After a little confusion – my first time at this airport and my Pudong experience only gave me a false sense of confidence, we met up with Jane Zu – our third chaperone (and also Josephine’s Chinese teacher) – and our whole bunch except for Jemmy. We are very happy to have Jane with us. Not only is she very friendly but she speaks Chinese. So with our plane leaving in 45 minutes, we checked in as a group minus one, navigated the Hongqiao terminal, finally met up with Jemmy – whose alarm clock “didn’t work” and got all of us on the plane to Kunming. Fortunately when I called his phone and reached an energetic mother rambling in Mandarin, Jane was there to take the call and figure everything out.
It was raining in Shanghai, but is supposed to be sunny in Kunming. It is nearly a 3 and a half hour flight due south and a little west. This helps to put perspective on the size of this country. From Kunming we catch a 45 minute flight to Pu’er City. Very close to the Myanmar border. We barely know our 18 kids by name. As is typical here, the kids are quiet and very shy. It will take some time to get to know this crew. We are scheduled to have 6 straight days of labor. It should be plenty challenging. We are allowed to take one full day (or two half days) off. Looking forward to getting to know the area.
Rob Burke is the habitat for humanity coordinator at SAS Puxi. He’s organized five trips during spring break – Ours to Pu’er, and three others to Bangla Desh, Borneo Malysia, and Nepal. He is on trip himself to Malawi where he has been developing the Jacaranda school. He sent me a text late yesterday afternoon reminding me to pick up the cash for this trip – 48,000 RMB, or roughly $7,500.00 – yes a huge wad of cash. I was slightly amazed this morning as Jemmy showed up with about 2 minutes to spare and we got all of us on this flight that Rob - in Africa – has coordinated all these trips around the hemisphere this week. We are to be met at the airport in Pu’er and driven to the hotel. Very excited.
Rob is a meticulous Teacher. He and I are teaching Algebra 2/Trig with one other teacher, Rosemary. It is an extremely competitive, challenging and fast pace course. We cover material so fast that we give the students pre-printed note sheets to follow our lectures because as Rob puts it, “They don’t have time to write down everything we do on the board during a lecture. Its just too fast.” Rob and I don’t have a common plan and so we do all of our planning by email. Probably 10 – 20 emails a day, many on the fly. He like to debate fine points like whether to deduct a quarter or half point on particular questions of quizzes and tests.
I bring all of this up – to highlight the amount of time and detail he spends on his craft of teaching math. That said, he jokingly says that he is a full time habitat coordinator who teaches math on the side. He facilitates probably 4 trips during each school vacation (Fall, Christmas, and Spring Break – sometimes Chinese New Years and summers.) These trips are very popular among Students and faculty, fill up very quickly, and most have waiting lists. Nearly all of the staff have been on one or more of these trips and speak very highly of the experience. Many have praised Rob for his work in providing this opportunity and really polarizing the staff.
|The village of Chahe up on the hill. Somehow the bus is able to traverse this jeep trail to get us to the base of the village. Grape vineyards in the valley.|
|This ariel view shows how remote|
|Josephine and Jane Zhu (her Chinese Teacher) put the bricks on the house.|
|Bridget is standing with the mama of the family who are the village leaders. She cooked the awesome meals we ate for lunch each day. It was about a 1/4 mile hike up a steep single track trail to her house.|
After dinner, Jane, Bridget, and I walked through the town – small tents selling many things but specially firecrackers and fake money for the upcoming National Tomb Sweeping Holiday. Not sure what that is all about, but Zhang wanted to make sure she had Thursday off for National Tomb sweeping day – she wants to sweep her fathers tomb. This was funny on it’s own because when she explained this to us we thought her father had just passed away. I digress.
This area of China specializes in Grapes and Tea. There is plenty of tea for sale here for good prices. Lots of “raw” tea which is moist and pressed into various shapes. Also plenty of people all over the place and probably even less sanitary then parts of Shanghai around here.
|Ahua will have a hell of a nice view out his front door when the house is done. Except, Bridget and I wont be there.|
Slept hard and had a great breakfast of a lemon broth soup with your choice of thin, medium, or thick rice noodles and gobs of choices of spices and vegetables to throw in it. No protein to be seen anywhere, but great soup! Bridget, wisely brought some organic Oatmeal as here China Belly episode has left her a bit leery. After breakfast on to the bus for an hour ride into the very rural parts of Ninger County and into the village of Chahe. Plenty of village people living off the land to be seen along the way. One thing I’ve seen pleny of here is, for lack of a better word, the bong. Big 3 foot bong with about a 3 inch diameter. Dude sitting on the side of the road smoking his cigarette out of it. This morning our waiter brought a bright stainless steel one up to a table on the 2nd floor. I’m pretty sure it is nothing more than tobacco, but seems to be the thing.
|Single track hike down from house through vineyard and rice fields then back up a different single track the village leaders house for lunch.|
Arrive at the worksite, given hardhats, a bit of a lecture and off to work. We are given the simple, but large task of moving about 20,000 bricks from the front yard of a house up to the second floor. We form a long line of people and perform the old brick transfer. This job should take us about 2 to 3 days and then we’ll see what we lies ahead. Josephine was a great team member, jumped right in with all of the high schoolers and did her part. The house owner is working with us, his family are grape farmers. The house is up on a hill in a vineyard. If you stand on the roof of his house you look around at a very beautiful green mountainess region with many many vineyards all over. It could be Northern California, except it’s not. There are no wineries, this property is not grabbing top dollar and this is definitely third world.
It was not a trivial hike to get to his property from where the bus dropped us off. Nor was it a trivial hike back down from his property, up to the central village, and up a very steep trail to where his parents live. We went up there for lunch and what a lunch it was. Not as many courses, big ole vat of rice, a pork and pepper dish with plenty of Yunnan spices, a stringy spinach, eggs with tomatoes (very Chinese) and plenty of hot peppers, a mushroom dish, and a spicy cabbage dish. And, reflecting their Western influence, plenty of French fries. Good French fries. They’ve recently (according to Jerry) learned how to grow potatoes and how to cook French fries, big and fat. For dessert they brought out a honey comb complete with bees. Very tasty. Relaxing and then back to work.
|Matuschek Family on Spring Break|
Back home to the hotel everyone crashes on the bus. The road is very narrow and not comfortable for a bus our size. We pass through other villages along the way and many signs of subsistence life. The hills are very steep and it is a wonder why the structures don’t collapse. The soil is very dusty and very red with tropical green growth around. It reminds me of the hills around Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, or maybe more like Fuita and even Utah south of Moab. Men pass us (somehow) on motorcycles carrying supplies and loved ones. Chickens and dogs run around on the steep roads. Once we arrive at the hotel we’re given 45 minutes to shower and meet for dinner. More traditional Yunnan food though not as spicy tonight. The kids venture out into town afterward to buy snacks and more food and it is an early to bed evening for all. I have to set my alarm for 10:00 PM so I can wake up to do the curfew check.
April Fool’s day, our second day on the build. We are able to start earlier today and can finally see some progress in our work, measured by the massive pile of bricks on the ground in front of the house diminishing while the carefully stacked piles of bricks on the second floor is growing. Josephine is doing a wonderful job of fitting in with these high schoolers and carrying her own weight. She passes bricks and takes her turn at each task, well most tasks. The most difficult part of the brick passing line is the front man who has to bend over and pick the 2.5 kilogram (5.5 lb) brick up off the ground and toss it to the next in line. Each member then passes the brick to their neighbor. The five or six team members on the stairs have difficult jobs because they have to actually lift the brick up to a higher elevation than which they received it. Those in the stairwell and those on the second floor are exposed to the sun which can be brutal in the afternoon. Finally, those at the end of the line are meticulously placing the bricks in stacks for later use. This isn’t as physically demanding but you need to work quickly to find a place to set each brick and control the direction of the stack. It is easy to get backed up here.
The work is somewhat tedious and monotonous so we have devised a rotation plan. Roughly every 50 bricks or so we switch, someone from the front of the line moves upstairs to the end. Nobody wants to be on the stairs and so this prevents anyone form being “stuck” there. At first some kids try to avoid certain spots but soon enough understand the power of team and their place and we move along. Only the older and stronger boys and the men work the front job of picking up the bricks and tossing them. It is a severe back and lower body workout in the sun. The group will occassionaly sing, talk, tell jokes to pass the time. However this is a very shy and quiet social group to begin with and so it takes some work to get them to talk.
Some of the kids have been on other builds before but for most of them this is their first. These kids come from wealthy families and this is their vacation. As Jerry put it, “For many of you this may be the only time in your life when you touch a brick.” The kids aren’t afraid of hard work. It is physically demanding but also mentally challenging to stay positive through such a mundane task. The facilities around the build are extremely primitive which is rougher on the girls than the boys.
Lunch today is a bit different than yesterday but the same seen. An incredibly steep hike up a single track to the family homestead. Large bowls of rice, spicy pork with onions and spinach, ground beef with onions, cabbage, peppers, garlic, and some unknown vegetables, a cabbage and pepper dish, spinach, a bean dish with other unidentified vegies that are pickled with mild spice, French fries, and pickled chili peppers that are pretty hot and bursting with flavor. They’re salty and a little sweet. I love taking a big bite of them to enjoy the burst of flavor then quickly chase them with some spinach so they don’t have too much time to burn my mouth too badly. I have ended every meal this trip in tears due to the wonderfully spiced food.
After lunch we come across one of the village elders who must be a hundred years old and about 4 foot tall. She looks sternly at us and I give her my best “Ni hao” and smile. She just gives me a look that says, “yeah, yeah, why don’t you get on with the business you’re here to do. You don’t need to be flirting with me!” In general the villagers are extremely friendly and enjoy having lunch with our crew. It is mostly the older (grandparents) and yonger (small children) generations in the village as those old enough are out working. Next week is the tomb sweeping holiday so we expect to see more dis around.
Josephine has an interesting run in with a little 3 year old from the village. They find a dead bird and Josephine wants to bury it. Each time she tries the little girl digs it up. Neither girl can understand the others intentions. Josephine is trying to write an epitaph on a piece of stone in chalk and the little girl keeps wiping it off. Finally the girl leaves and Josephine buries the bird. We come back the next morning and the hole is empty and the bird is gone. I do know that in China all bodies are cremated and the idea of burial may be very foreign. I do not know what she is thinking and Josephine and Bridget and I talk about it quite a bit. She is troubled by this.
We get in a good rhythm in the afternoon and are able to completely move the stack of bricks up to the second level. We worked about a half hour past our normal quitting time but the sense of accomplishment is worth it for the group. When we hike down to the bus we discover that a dump truck has left another massive load of brick on the road where our bus needs to turn around. Exhausted, we reluctantly begin the inane task of moving part of this pile off the road so we can go home.
It is a slow sleepy ride home. The bus driver stops and we pick up some roasted purple sweet potatoes from the road. Dinner is roughly the same exept the fish is prepared a little differently tonight with peanuts and a sweet sauce. Each night the fish has been exceptional but laborious due to the bones. After dinner, Bridget and I take a walk through town to a section in the road that overlooks a massive garden. Here we watch a woman carrying a load of water – two large buckets on either end of a 6 foot pole which she balances on the back of her neck. She walks with it about 50 meters to a river. Fills it up with water, then walks back to water her crops. And then repeats. Are the benefits of modern plumbing and irrigation financially out of her reach? Are they not necessary? We are curious about the use of water here because it seems so backwards in so many ways.
We ask Jerry
HOPE is an organization that focuses on the improvement and education toward better living conditions. OXFAM
We wake and head to the site. We’ve been looking forward to the work today because we know we get a new job and are convinced that anything will be better than the mundane “passing bricks.” We arrive to find that we are to split up into two groups. The first will pick bricks up off a pile on the ground and throw them into a dump truck. The drump truck will drive a quarter mile up a creek bed to another building site and dump the bricks. The second group moves this pile of bricks about 30 feet to a location the dump truck can’t reach. Out of the pan and into the fire as far as non-exciting jobs go. The dump truck has a bed that is about 5’ by 8’. The engine is totally exposed and looks like a single stroke engine. The truck has some extremely low gears.
There really are too many of us (about 10) to crowd around this pile of bricks and throw them up in the air. We aren’t given much direction and so bricks are soon flying. As We’re trying to settle on a most efficient way to perform this task Quinn tosses a brick into the air and slams her elbow on the side of the truck on the way down. The pain is so intense she says she feels nocuous. She thought it was her funny bone but it just isn’t going away. I realize my responsibility in this right away – I’m overseeing this crew that just start throwing bricks without any organization – poor leadership! Quinn’s elbow, arm and fingers begin to swell. It’s not good. The other kids just keep working while Bridget tends to Quinn and Josephine is seeing that there really isn’t a place for her here. Bridget wraps a bandana around the arm and one of the non-English speaking Habitat guys walks to the village to get some medicine. I fumble around for the med kit, find it but discover it has no cold packs. The Chinese Medicine is some type of anti-swelling spray so we apply that to Quinn’s arm.
We slowly return to work without Quinn. It is slow, dusty, and boring. We break for lunch early. Another long walk up the steep single track. A few kids have already fallen on it. Up at the house the wonderful food is again waiting for us just as it was the previous two days. Bridget gets a bit more adventurous and tries more of it today. I’ve been eating about 5 chili peppers which are roasted and covered in salt each day. One of the boys, Dylan Choi, decides to eat one in front of his friends and makes a quin 250 kuay. He then repeats the process with a hotter fresh one for another 300 kuay. He is jumping up and down in immense screaming pain but knows he’s wealthier for it.
The afternoon is hot and the work is no better. It gets Bridget and I thinking about the purpose of what we’re doing. A dump truck dumps a load of bricks and we move it a few meters to a different place. All day long. These thoughts bring me down. While am I volunteering my time to help out the Chinese whose government is holding billions of dollars of debt from my country. Just doesn’t seem right. I know I volunteered to come on this trip just to do that – volunteer my time and effort in exchange for a a chance to see a foreign culture that I might have otherwise never seen. I really don’t want to question the worthiness of my actions – It doesn’t feel good. Quinn is on the sidelines unable to help and Josephine is keeping her company. She says she feels embarrassed because she can’t help. I tell her I don’t think the kids really care. Quite frankly, I don’t think they care one way or the other.
We end the day early to give us time to get back to the hotel and go to the hospital to get Quinn’s arm x-rayed to make sure it isn’t broken. It is a quiet ride back to town and the kids disappear into their room when we get to the hotel around 5:00. Jerry, Bridget, Quinn, and I hop in a cab and head to the Ning’er Hospital with limited hopes. It is a holiday and we’re assuming that most of the professionals will be at home. Once inside the hospital we quickly see that we will be accommodated easily. There are a dozen or so patience in wheel-chairs and beds. We are seen right away. A nurse takes Quinn’s name from Bridget – jots it down on a notebook and that becomes the official copy. We are quickly escorted to the x-ray technitian who fills out the paper work and doesn’t want to do anything else until we pay. So Jerry and I march to the cashier, I pay the 88 kuay ($13) and return to see him throw Quinn up on the x-ray table and snap a few pics. As the Dr. is studying these on the computer and man walks in smoking a cigarette. I think this is incredible so I quickly grab my phone. Before I can get a pic the dude leaves but now the doc puts a cig in his mouth. Incredible. The doctor smoking in the office during an exam.
This was all easy to laugh at because the arm was not broken. We just wanted to be sure. We hop in a cab with Jerry and are back to the hotel in time for Dinner. Bridget, Jane and I head out for a post dinner walk through town to the square. This is a very large public park where there are three or four sets of a large dancing group. Similar to what we have seen in Shanghai but the choreography is much more involved and the group seems pretty tight. Each has a leader. We wander round the square to the far side and step into a tea house. The proprieter is very friendly and we sit down to tea with him. He asks what kind I want and when I reply “green” he says that green is not what these parts are know for. So he pours us the local stash. He is speaking Chinese the whole time of course, but we are with Jane – it is great to run around with someone that speaks the language. This Pu’er region is very well known throughout China for its tea. It is sold as raw tea in a 5 inch diameter disc about an inch thick. Jane is told that this tea matures with age and many people will purchase them with the intent of selling them in 5 to ten years.
Today is a day off so last night was kind of like a Friday. That meant that after I did bed check and fell asleep myself, I was awakened by the laughter of our boys echoing off the back alley of the hotel and into our room. It was 2:00 AM. Part of the job. I got up, put some clothes on and broke up their poker game. We all slept in a bit and left for a day of R & R along a river. We spent the day hanging around at the confluence of two rivers in South Yunnan. The kids waded and some swam in the waters. Others skipped stones. It was a day to be spent lounging around a beautiful river with not much to do. Bridget read a book. She read “The Hunger Games” in about a day at the beginning of the week and now she is reading “Snow Flower and the Magic Fan.” Jerry bought some firewood, charcoal, and pork from a local store. We were treated to bar-b-q over fire on a sand bar. Very nice.
The local habitat leaders spent the time fishing. One of the local guys – not a habitat guy, had gear that consisted of a large battery pack that he wore on his back, a metal conductor on a 10 foot pole, and a net on another 10 foot pole. He would wade out into the river and shock fish with the conductor and then scoop them up in the net. Real Sporty. However, he caught a good bit of fish and his comrades with traditional rods caught jack. We later had river fish for lunch that I assume were caught the same way.
Seems that if the purpose is the sport of man vs. animal, then the traditional rod is the tool to use. It is a battle of wit. The man tries to outsmart the fish by tricking it into believing the bait is something to eat. If the man is clever enough in his fly manufacturing, or bait choice, and if he is skilled enough at camouflaging the bait to make it look natural with rod and line management, then the fish might be fooled. This way, if the fish gets caught it is his own fault – he wasn’t clever enough to avoid the man’s trap. If the fish is clever, and the man’s skills are lacking, no fish. Fair enough. However, if the purpose is to put food on the table, then the tool of choice might as well be the electric shock method. Quick, efficient, and gets you in and out of the river in less time. Do you want to spend a leisurely day on the river, or do you want to eat lunch? Seems to be the Chinese approach to many things.
That's the way the highways between Hongqiao and Zhudi town were built a couple years ago. The overall purpose isn’t a seem-less harmonious introduction of a highway system in an existing community. The purpose was a highway from point A to point B. Anything in the way will be moved. Very different than TREX in Denver.
So how about these houses we’re building in Cha’he? I’m wandering why a village in a country like China – a country with a large amount of capital, needs volunteers? I will have to ask Rob B. for further clarification. Again, 100 miles from here is Myanmar and there is a third world country without a ton of capital – seems the need makes more sense there. But then, perhaps if the government would step in here, the result would not be as we see it. Perhaps the result would be the “Point A to Point B” approach. The houses H4H are building seem to be placed with the longevity of the village in mind. Jerry was explaining that the various ethnic groups (minority groups as he refers to them) have a hierarchy in place. The first group builds their house down low in the valley, close to the road and the streams and ponds. Then subsequent groups build their houses further up the mountain where it becomes more difficult to access and bring supplies. These are old established rules.
Where I come from the wealthy would typically build their house up on the mountain where the views are privacy are premium. One of the big differences here is plumbing. They don't use wells or municipal water. They use mountain water. Jerry says they are able to find water further up the mountain, test it, and they use this for drinking water. Some of the minority groups have a different sense of water. They have three showers in their lifetime. One at birth, marriage, and death. All over this valley the houses you see have a separate outbuilding that is used for the bathroom. It has a large – perhaps 50 gallon – drum on top on its side with plastic hoses running inside. Then on top of the drum is a solar panal, perhaps 6’ X 6’. The hot water is for cleaning. But again, cleaning has a different cultural meaning.
When we were walking around Ninger city with Jane, she pointed out a sign that read (roughly translated) “use toilet here, bathe here, kill and clean your chicken here” - all in the same room and right in the middle of town. I was reminded of the Seinfeld episode of Kramer cleaning his veggies in the shower while he was bathing.
Without a modern cultural idea of irrigation and plumbing, and without the finances, things may be slow to change here. The owner of the first house is a grape and pepper farmer by trade, but had left his family for a number of years to work near Guangzhou as a factory worker where he earned roughly 1000 RMB ($155) a month. What he could save from that is what he brought home to pay for the house. However, Jerry still believes these villages don’t really posses long term budgeting access beyond this. That said, as these houses are built, they are brick and mortar structures intended to be strong for many years. They will be wired for electricity, but not nearly set for plumbing in the way we are used to seeing. Thin clear flexible plastic tubing runs all the water in this village, which I can’t see lasting that long.
Well, we return to the hotel after the day on the river to what should be a peaceful evening. However when Quinn doesn’t show up for dinner Josephine tells us she is sick. When we go up to check on her, she is dealing with a very upset stomach and a clogged toilet. Not a pretty sight. As I’m translating toilet plunger to the front desk clerk, and Quinn is getting worse, we discover that Josephine had lost Mae’s cell phone in town somewhere. Oh boy! Bridget wants to know why it is OUR family that has all the issues on this trip? Good question! We get the bathroom straightened out and move Quinn to our room and she is not doing very well at all. Bridget, Josephine, and Mae and two others head to town in a taxi to look for the cell phone. Meanwhile the front desk pages me. They want to know if I lost a cell phone. Apparently the man at the stationary store (where the girls were earlier) found it and has a cousin who works at the hotel. The stationary store fellow knew that a bunch of out-of-towners were staying at the hotel and suspected the cell phone belonged to them. So he gave it to a taxi driver who hand delivered it to the hotel. The i-phone 4 probably costs a few months wages for many people. Honest people. Josephine gets a talking to but Mae gets her phone back. However Quinn’s stomach is getting worse.
Quinn threw-up most of the night. She is staying home with Bridget today. Another student, Ji Hun, has a sore Achilles and can’t stand on it, so he will stay in the Hotel as well. Josephine is very eager to be on the build with me and the other kids today. As a team, we have 6 journals that we pass around once each night so that each kid makes about 3 or 4 journal entries during the course of the trip. Josephine’s entry last night talked about how much she is enjoying the trip and how she wishes there were more nights. Bridget and Quinn were ready to go home yesterday. The $20 a night “2-star” third-world hotel is not the cleanest place and for Quinn, the exciting Yunnan cuisine isn’t so exciting to her at this point. She was a trouper and was very open but must have gotten something bad yesterday.
Work today is slow. The kids are excited because we will start to lay brick. However, the two skilled brick layers are slow to teach. Ahua, the farmer who owns the home is cautious and perhaps reluctant to let a bunch of inexperienced high school kids use the cement to build his house. I can understand this. If it were me, I’d be happy to use the help for the labor but when it comes to actually constructing the house I’d want a lot of care. Ahua is taking it on himself to mix the cement and oversee the most important areas of the brick laying. The other skilled man, Job, is part of the H4H and has given a rough 20-minute lecture and mild demonstration on how to lay brick. OK Go. Various kids grab tools and buckets and we are laying bricks on Ahua’s house. At home we end the evening with a walk into town. We split into two groups. 7 boys head to the local basketball court to shoot hoops and the rest of us end up at the town square where public dancing is the popular event. Bridget and I join a few of the kids for the dancing. We then head to the tea house and drink premium Pu’ur tea into the night.
Our last day of work is again slow. We move brick and lay it. Ahua will have a nice house but he’s got a lot of work ahead of him. We’ve got him well on his way. He will finish the work in the next year. He’ll work the grape fields during the day and with his wife finish the brick work in the evenings. We end the day with photos and head to the town of Mohei for a very tasty meal and more square dancing.