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They're there again this afternoon, a group of young billy goats, by the side of the road, kicking up dust as they locked horns, smacking one another with the forelegs while balancing on the hind legs and chasing one another in between moving traffic. It's hilarious because they're pretty much fooling around like human kids do, except that they're unaware of the dangers on the road. Motorcyclists and motorists were careful to avoid them, but animals are more unpredictable. They'd be safer in a rural setting, I suppose, where the grass is also kinder on their feet than paved roads.
My mother-in-law cancels this year's Christmas family dinner. This used to be at our place because my husband's the eldest son and we live in a spacious apartment. But now, we have relocated here, and work makes it impossible to go home for Christmas. My father-in-law passed away last year, and my husband's younger sister married abroad. The few who are left are stressed out looking after the old lady and in no mood to celebrate. It turns out the young ones are the most disappointed. What is Christmas without the family getting together? So sad.
We received an invitation to a wedding reception from the family across the street. We don't know them, not even a nodding acquaintanceship, but I suppose they invited all their neighbours. I was occupied with classes, so my husband went with our neighbours next door, and gave the family a red packet with some money. He told me how no one spoke to anyone, and the hosts didn't even go around and greet the guests. Instead, each guest reported to a desk to present his gift and have his name and amount of money recorded. Now, that's not very nice!
The girl at the fireplace in the kitchen was the eldest of three children abandoned by their parents a decade ago. The father was sold over the border to the Chinese, and the mother had died. When the kids were brought to G R's orphanage, the youngest was only a few months old. G R’s mother's heart broke when she held the baby in her arms. She said he was dying. He was very sick and weak. She kept the baby with her and lovingly nursed him to health. He's now about eleven and attending school in the capital.
A few years back, our friends found out that their children's father was still alive. Some Christians bought him in China so that they could set him free. He was converted and started a new life. Our friends got in touch with him and the children spoke with him on the phone. He was overjoyed his children are well. Friends helped pay for his travel and he crossed the border hoping to come here and be re-united with his children. Tragically, it was not to be. He was killed in a road accident on his way to meet them.
R was having trouble getting us a ride to her village. I suggested we rough it out on a three-wheeler. She warned us that the final stretch to the village can get very bumpy.
She was right. It was a bumpy ride. In fact, it’s much worse than that. Once off the main road, the track was paved with cobbles and pockmarked with potholes. We crossed a few “bridges” over some streams. R apologized for the discomfort but we're no worse for the experience. The ride cost USD 26, and although we paid, she felt it was exorbitant.
I watched the funeral of George H W Bush on youtube, where I could skip parts and get to those more interesting snippets. There was this Simpson person, an old friend, and himself full of years, whose anecdotes I find very funny. People do try to laugh at funerals. Why? Because we don't want to embarrass ourselves? Because it's more dignified, because we're happy for the departed that they've lived a good life, fought a good fight, and have returned to his maker? I do regret laughing at my sisters' funeral. I wished I'd cried. I wish I had grieved.
I'm looking at this 9 by 12 watercolour piece I did about two weeks ago up on the wall above my bed. The photo reference is a picture a student posted on Instagram, a street scene somewhere in US. I was immediately awed by the colours - the colours of autumn, falling leaves, littered the street like flakes of gold, and the sunlight streaming through breaks between tall buildings lighting up the blocks on the side it falls on. Shadows and light. Perfect. I made a quick sketch and applied the washes, then painstakingly fleshed out the details. I love it!
Oh my goodness! I thought I had only missed a day or two of writing! But Dec 3 to 9 are all in dark shade! A whole week had whooshed by, and what have I been doing? It's scary. It's like a leaking pipe. The little drips seem no cause for alarm, but given time, the tank will soon be empty. But water can be pumped from the well again, and there is more where that comes from, but time is finite. My days are numbered, and if I let the minutes slip away, I will not get them back.
Once, I sent two boys, Sasha and Ian, out of class for misbehaviour. Some time later, while I was showing a video they peered in through window. Still very annoyed, I asked John to go out and tell them to get away from the window.
John came in and said, “They say they're sorry. They want to come in and watch the video. Can they please?”
“No! I don’t want to hear ‘sorry’. They've been saying sorry all morning and still misbehave. I want them to show genuine repentance. I want contrition! I want them to beg for forgiveness!”
Continued from the previous day's entry.
John went out. Seconds later, he flung the door wide open. First came Sasha with Ian close behind. Once in the doorway, they fell to their knees, raised their hands above their heads and then lowered them as they fell with their faces to the floor. “Oh, Madam, forgive us! We are sorry! We've done wrong! Please forgive us.” They shuffled on their knees as they moved into the classroom.
The class burst out laughing. John said, 'Will that do, Madam?'
What can I say? That will have to do. They can come in.
Every year, this day, I'd have a windfall- the year-end bonus. With that, first, I'd clear all my bills and go into the new year with a clean slate. Then in the weeks that follow I'd run around n a shopping frenzy getting stuff for people who don't need them and some of whom I don't really care for. Because they'd probably be buying presents for me, and I need to reciprocate. But this year, I don't have to. I'm retired! Have been for a year! Nobody expects anything from me any more. I've freedom. Freedom from unnecessary spending!
The winter chill, and the unhealthy snacks I brought back from our last trip home (especially, barbecued pork) brought on the sniffles and the cough. I must have coughed so badly that two nights ago, a neighbour came over with a sweet brew of goji berries and red dates. She didn't exactly say it was for anything, except that we eat it hot. It's a local dessert she had prepared for her family and she wanted to share it with us. That was a nice gesture. Or maybe, she just had enough of my constant yelping and retching. Anyways, thanks.
The "clinic" is just another shop house in a whole street of shop houses that included ours. There were three wooden "beds". The doctor was tending to a patient on the one nearest to us. It looked like he was giving her something intravenously. I was also asked to lie down, although I'm seeing him for a cough. He took my blood pressure, listened to my heart, and lungs. I was given antibiotics and two other types of pills that were unmarked and unnamed, and I'm supposed to take them, by faith, every six-hourly. The bill? Less than 3USD!
The motion sensor set off the chime three times before I dragged myself downstairs to check. Two scruffy looking kids were at the entrance, which was wide open, not daring to enter because they must have set off the alarm (chime). They muttered something. I replied in one of the two languages I know that has a chance of being understood here that I don't understand. I still don't know enough of the local language, but figured something had entered our premises and they were trying to retrieve it. Sure enough, their ball was in our balcony. That was easy.
I've been surfing the internet trying to stay alert all afternoon after taking the cold pills. It's easy to just go to sleep. Real easy. It's not that I've a whole lot of work to clear but I'm afraid of sleeping in the day. I might just get used to it, and then, somewhere along the way, I'll get the idea that there's nothing to stay up for. Before long, I'd despair of even getting up, and depression sets in. I may be making too big a deal of this, I know, but it has happened to people I know.
The temperature continues to fall, lowest about 7 deg C at night, and highest 24, in the afternoon. Back home, the daily range is less than 5 and the temperature doesn't fall below 26. That kind of weather, the sameness, the regularity and the predictability, is one of the things about living there that can dull your senses into complacency. The absence of struggles with the elements, and a governing structure that leaves little to your own devices, and imagination, can be numbing. But I shouldn't complain. We have peace, security and freedom that others elsewhere are still fighting for.
Our unplanned visit to his maternal grandmother's place turned out to be a very pleasant experience. We met his maternal granduncle, Walter. To our surprise, he spoke impeccable English. We're floored by his accent and his range of vocabulary. He's an enigma in this non-English speaking corner of the world. Realising our surprise, his niece showed us a photograph of Walter's father, his uncle and his own grandfather. His paternal grandfather was Dutch! He came over at the turn of the century and married a local girl. That still doesn't explain why Walter spoke English when the others couldn't.
I'm one year older today, but I really don't feel any different. You only feel older when you look back ten or twenty years. Days can be tricky. They mask the passing of time because they pass so quickly. Now that's scary because before you know it, half a life time, or even an entire life time, is gone. That's why I made the drastic move of quitting my job a year ago and moved up here. If I tarry, another year would fly by and then there would be little time left to do anything else with my life.
"We allow the movement of God on the surface of our spirits to become lost amid the stones the world tosses thoughtlessly into our lives. As a result, we lose the vision God could give us of our world and our place in it. Too quickly, and often without struggle, we trade making history with making money, substitute building a life with building a career and sacrifice living for God with living for the weekend. We forgo significance for the sake of success and pursue superficiality of title and degree, house and car, ....over a life lived large." -Serious Times
It was not the picturesque town I had imagined. There were old wooden houses with thatched roofing and very few vehicles on the road. We could see the blue of mountain ranges in the distance. Somewhere up there, the Himalayan peak of Hkakabo Razi sits on Myanmar's border with China and India. Rising up 5,881 metres, it is believed to be Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain.
The next day my friend took us to her village, Upper Shankhuang. The track that runs through her property takes brave souls up to the mountains on a climb that takes several days.
That night we had dinner at our friend's small wooden house. Vegetables grown in her own backyard, and chicken, from the brood she kept on her grounds, were cooked over a wood fire inside the house. Even the rice was grown and harvested in the village. We ate around a low table seated on the floor. An electric lamp powered by battery hung over the dinner table. The house used water pumped from the streams that run through her property, the streams that carry the melt water from the Himalayas. These streams form the headwaters of the Ayeyarwaddy (or Irrawaddy).
Here I'm not bored even though I'm home all the time, except for Saturday lunch and grocery shopping and church on Sunday. There's no malls, no parks and gardens, no public library, no social gatherings, no uninvited drop-ins from acquaintances and no unwelcome demand on my time and resources. There's also no public transport, so it's not like I can hop on a bus or a train and go somewhere. So, ya, I'm home all the time. But I like it. I can write, paint and read in between language classes, without any distractions. Not even TV. Only Internet.
The day before Christmas. Back where we come from, we'd be having a sumptious dinner with the family, chattering and finishing the evening with a quick exchange of gifts. We don't open the gifts in front of the giver. It's rude, they say. But we rather like it this way, because we don't have to look at the disappointment on the faces, or pretend we like the gifts while wondering what we're going to do with more cheap towels and cookies. I wonder why we go through this ritual year after year without reflecting on the reason for the season.
The sight of several church leaders in their traditional tribal garb was delightful, and reminded us once again that we're in a foreign land, and Christmas this year wouldn't be the same. There're two Christmas trees on stage and attempts at wreaths and mistletoe for decorations. There're several visiting pastors on stage, and one of them delivered the sermon. Someone was kind enough to ask to sit next to us, and in whispers, and at appropriate junctures, interpreted the sermon and explained the proceedings. This fine gesture goes a long way to help us enjoy the spirit of the season.
I sketched the scene from a reference photo on to a 5 by 7 piece of cold-pressed paper of a stone bridge in Lijiang, with three people including a girl pushing a bicycle. Too many details, really, for a painting. The buildings were no less challenging - Chinese arched roofs with ornamental tiles. By the time I'd finished the buildings, I decided I don't want to paint this. The pencil marks were rolled away thoroughly with a kneadable eraser. I'm actually pleased to see the whole hour's work disappear. To be able to erase a mistake cleanly away is cathartic.
"There! That's the restaurant I was looking for! Turn the car around!"
Ten months ago, two strangers took us around this strange town where we thought we could set up some kind of a language school and retire productively in and we offered to buy them lunch to show our appreciation. They took us to a restaurant where we could find food we are used to back home. Since then, we have not been able to contact them, and even after eight months here, we have not seen that restaurant again.
We stood there outside the restaurant. We found it!
After dinner, we sat in the dark at the verandah, taking in the silence of the nght, the breeze caressing my face. Then I looked up and saw above me a tapestry of lights – the whole expanse of night sky dusted with stars!
Yes, I've escaped the city and made this long journey to the edge of civilization, and found myself. This is where I need to be, without the encumbrances of material possessions, or the need to make money, and just be one with my environment, this life sustaining environment, and once again be acquainted with myself, my being.
Wow! I never knew soft pastels can produce such dramatic seascapes with crashing waves, and evening skies that glow and light up the sea. The effects are comparable to oil and acrylic. In fact, it's another school of fine arts called pastel painting. And I thought pastels are crayons! After a few video demonstrations, my respect for pastel painting has gone up many notches. In fact, I think this medium is easier to control than watercolour. I often feel like scrapping the project after the initial washes, because I don't think the painting will look anything like the photo reference.
This year is coming to an end without the usual revelry, senseless spending and endless social functions that would've been a huge financial strain on me if I were back home with friends and family because I've no income for a year and no year end bonus to cover the holiday excesses. Here, in this remote place, few people know us, and fewer still expect anything from us. In fact, in this small town, Christmas means Church services and carols, and no one gives presents. New Year's Eve is a non-event. It's as quiet a week as any other.
The countdown started in Auckland, New Zealand, then Sydney, and I lost interest. If I'd television, I'd be watching live countdowns as the earth spins. But, thankfully, in this place, the rest of the world is far away, and New Year's Eve is just another day. I turned off the laptop, and went to bed. The streets are dark, and the sun had set three hours ago, at 5 pm. I'm more excited about the next morning. We'll be picking up a friend who'd take us to a peak to see the first sunrise in 2019. That should be exciting!
The Tip Jar