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Friday, December 20, 2013

So Not Home for the Holidays

I was filled with bliss on the evening walk home on an evening in early December. Dry season has arrived with crisp cool breezes and I was imbued with a general fresh feeling, poised for new opportunities and endeavors.   My friendly fellow knitters and I had spent the evening scheming on a new collaborative fiber art project (Storming the Cyclo 2014) at the local vegan arts cafĂ© and I was happy to feel connected and directed on something other than my job.

In the midst of my internal euphoria, I was startled and saddened to see the young boy lying on the small patch of grass alongside the towering wall surrounding the Royal Palace.  Face down, he was motionless and seemingly abandoned.  I stopped for a moment and looked at him, noted the gentle rising and falling of his chest and glanced around for any adult nearby.  The storefront lights in the window of the high- end furniture store across the street illuminated the western-style bed frame and nightstand, gleaming and pristine white.  For a moment I was paralyzed by wanting to wake him up and take him home and the unfortunate helplessness that comes from being, by most practical means, unable to do to absolutely anything in that moment to help him without creating a scene of misunderstandings and inappropriate foreigner behavior.  I kept walking and he haunted me for a while. 

That experience was tame compared to India. My trip to Bangalore involved a conference on neglected tropical diseases, with international experts presenting short briefing sessions, some of which were  completely incomprehensible 10 minute speed sessions of the acronym filled, accent-laden, tiny font on complex chart PowerPoint presentations about diseases that very few have heard of.
Depicting symptoms of meliodosis, also known as "the great mimicker." It is frequently misdiagnosed. Because our lab can grow microbiological cultures, it can be identified and treated. 
These problems: leishmaniasis, schistosomaisis, lymphatic filariasis and meliodosis  plague the very poor:  insects and reptile bites, parasites, and complex bacteria resulting from substandard housing, lack of access to clean water, decent sanitation and quality health care. Because they individually impact very few, they do not receive adequate funding for research and treatment.  These diseases kill, maim and impede any progress to alleviating poverty and sustaining economic development. They are deemed neglected in contrast to HIV, TB and Malaria. 

After a few days of being ensconced in the cocoon of a nice hotel and after the close of the conference, I found a couple of colleagues who were interested in a road trip to Mysore on Sunday.  In the early morning departure,  the traffic was already apparent.   India is so noisy;  life there a barrage of honking horns, speeding vehicles and whoever happens to be in the road at the time: small dogs, grandmothers in brilliant saris and cows.

 I was already queasy from three days of the hotel’s buffet.   The hair-raising winding ascension to the mountaintop temple proved to be too much for my stomach and with a desperate, universally understood plea, I literally lost my lunch.  On our next tourist stop, my Sundanese colleague’s wallet was stolen from her purse. It was an eventful tour.

Just browsing...
After the hell-bent taxi ride to the airport delivered me with time to spare at the gate, I mulled over the cows begging at the Chamundi temple.  I saw a family drop a peeled orange on the ground. The cow stepped up and sucked it up in a jiffy and then approached the family for more, scattering the mother carrying her son and startling the grandmother into slow-motion action. Another cow scoped out the parking lot,  ambled over to the tour bus decorated with long strings of marigolds and promptly set upon eating all of them, stumbling away with the long white thread of the garland tangled around its hooves. While some seem well-fed, others were curled up on the pavement as the humans walked around them. There are always contrasts everywhere.

Sofitel Phnom Penh serves Pumpkin Poup. 
I arrived at the  evening buffet at the Sofitel on the back of a motodop. who likely makes as much money in two weeks as I was going to spend for dinner in a night.  I was invited by a friend to join her group for an expensive feast with all the fixings. However, shortly after we were seated it became glaringly apparent that the staff was both overwhelmed and clueless.  The chefs were pleading for forgiveness from the anxious Americans lined up to receive their allotted portion of the rapidly disappearing turkey; there were no cranberries.  Wisps of pumpkin pie slices were forlorn on the platters.  The disgruntled patrons began loading up on sushi and rich cheeses, I was intrigued with roast duck and the marshmallows in the chocolate fountain. What should have been great was not. 

The end of Thanksgiving week delivered the Asian version of Christmas: towering glittery purple and silver trees in the lobbies of shopping centers and upper middle class venues,  techno-electric variations of old favorites and mini-skirted waitresses in santa hats.  Many of the expats are preparing for visits home (two of my friends have not had a Christmas in their homeland for at least four years) and the juxtaposition and contrasts of my life here are achieving remarkable clarity, yet also triggering memories of a holidays spent in past jobs.

Between 1984 and 1989, I worked as a street outreach counselor in downtown Boston. My job entailed a daily patrol around the edges and peripheries of urban existence: street hustlers, punk rockers and townies kids with horrible family histories.  The youth were marginalized and always bored; the holiday season amplified the sense of disconnection and failure and of wanting and lacking. They congregated in the evening, after the blaring music was turned off and hustling shoppers laden with brightly covered shopping bags had returned to their homes.  Sometimes the  "Merry Christmas!" greetings perpetuate a myth that all of us recognize, on some level, was never really was real in the first place.  We've all had the presents that never manifested under the tree, the family gatherings that got a little creepy, the New Year’s eves where we went to bed early and just waited for the morning when it would be all over and we could begin afresh.

For the youth on the streets of Boston, the agency would plan a special day; staff were assigned to man the tables by lottery.  We put together an early holiday lunch buffet with everything, cleared the classroom floor and rented a videocassette movie.   The youth were so appreciative; not only to have a full-on stuff your face food fest, but also to have a warm, comfortable place to stretch out and relax in the middle of the day with a full belly.  The room was filled with the scent of unwashed bodies and tobacco smoke, punctuated with the occasional snoring and whispered commentary.  It was simply a day unlike any other; a time to capture a small gift of the generosity before the movie ended and the reality of street life resumed. 

In the midst of all of the contrasts between my expat friends and of the incredibly thin, terribly sick and unspeakably poor patients that I pass by on my walk to my office in the hospital each morning,  I'm not tuned into the Christmas spirit.  There's a longing and wistful nostalgia for the comfort of family and familiar tradition, yet my choices and circumstances have me here with one foot lightly resting on each world.   Two years ago in Thailand, it seemed easier.  I paraded my way through morning assembly in a santa suit and led a rendition of jingle bells because I was the only foreigner around.   I taught classes for the rest of the day and opened presents from home in the evening and made plans for New Year vacation on the beach.

from Phnom Penh Post. Inflatable reindeer and
glittery garland are on display everywhere.
This year, the community of expats around me creates feelings of what "should be".  There's a loose plan to meet for a river boat trip, keeping it open for people to do their own thing for dinner.  The big hotels and restaurants are putting together set menus.  My Christian colleagues have services planned.  I'm laying low, unresolved about whether it is better to spend lots of money in crowded restaurants with  casual acquaintances or if I want to find my favorite noodle shop.  I'll go to work a little late and leave a little early. I'll be surrounded by my Buddhist colleagues,cooking up plans and getting things organized in the quiet lull of the holidays while the western world carries on.

Solstice is much more meaningful for me.   I'll celebrate and exercise in the power of a crisp high weather front, consider the potential of what will transpire in the new year and bolster commitments for how to achieve balance in this crazy expatriate life of homeless children and wine bars, of great potential and crushing reality, and of the pressing needs all around us and boundless compassion.  For soon, even here on the shores of the mighty Mekong river, the light will extend farther into the evening.

Winter greetings to all from the tropics~