Little Hands

This was written thinking of the children I met in the Sirlawan community, and the street children I saw in Davao. 

Little hands.  Not like the ones in the community.  Both sets were dirty – but a different kind of dirty.  The community kids’ hands were covered in pen marks from school, beach dirt from retrieving the volleyball, crumbs of rice and the grease of dried fish.  No, these little hands were different.  Covered in dirt from standing too close to the street, the exhaust and dust creating a glue between little fingers.  Covered in the kind of greasy film that comes from not having a bath for too long.  Covered in pieces of trash, wrapper foils and crumbs from empty containers, after scavenging through the trash for food. 

Little hands.  Both reaching out.  The community hands reaching out for a signature from the guests who were friendly and carried no threat.  Reaching out for one last touch, one last goodbye.  Waving excitedly in the air.  But this other set of little hands were cupped, held out, hoping to be filled.  These little hands moved along with me, pushing themselves in to my line of sight.

Little feet.  Not like the ones in the community.  Both sets were dirty.  But a different kind of dirty.  The community feet had dust and mud caught between the straps of their worn sandals.  Sandals that were no doubt hand-me-downs, as evidenced by the mismatched and misfit pairs.  Their little feet ran through the muddy grass, led them up the stairs to their bare classrooms, nimbly climbed the cement walls to drop down onto the beach that surrounded their community.  But these little feet, the other little feet, were as dirty as their little hands.  Shoeless.  Covered in scrapes and dried blood and dust.  They shuffled along the uneven sidewalk beside me, keeping time to my long strides.

Little eyes.  So full of hope.  Watching their teacher fill the blackboard, following the lines on the pages of the school books they had to pay for themselves.  Little eyes that widened in curiosity at the sight of a white woman.  Of men who didn’t carry guns.  Of strangers who weren’t there to disturb but learn from their community.  These eyes that expressed such joy at the simplicity of my signing my name in their notebooks.  Different from these little eyes, who couldn’t hold a direct gaze.  These little eyes that gathered crust and dried tears in their corners, only looking at you with their head bent down.  Little eyes full of shame, despair, fear, hunger.

These little lives.  Being shaped by what is around them.  Neither is fully secure, neither is rich or fully fed.  But one set of little lives at least has an opportunity, a community, a glimmer of hope.  While the other set of little lives has only the community of other hungry children, they only have fear that anything they are given will be violently snatched away.

I thought my heart broke that first day, in the community, when I saw these little hands reaching out.  But then, my heart broke again when I saw those other little hands reaching up.

Smelling Davao

The smells here are the most unique of any city I’ve ever been to.  There is no pattern to the myriad of smells.  They are interchangeable, overlapping and equally powerful.  The exhaust from motorbikes working overtime because they have been transformed into trikes – carrying a basket of people.  The under current of durian that sneaks its attack on anything good and wholesome.  Its like a wet beach towel dipped in sour milk left in the sun to burn.  The smell is so pungent that it makes me gag every time.  Which is rather unfortunate, because it is the most common fruit in Mindanao.  Sold at every street market and rolling fruit cart.  It is the pride of the city, molded into statues and key chains.   So strong is my disdain for this fruit that I may have personally offended many a durian-lover in my quest to remain as far removed from this wretched fruit at all times possible.  It does not help, of course, that people are constantly offering it to me.  The air sometimes hangs with the stench of trash cluttering in the streets and ditches.  Rotting garbage and open sewage combining in overwhelming odors. 

But there are good smells too.  The calming smell of salt water, smells like home, from the ocean that encompasses this island.  And of fresh cut, ripe coconuts.  Fruit vendors lop off the top and pop is a straw for a mere dollar.  The sizzling smells of grilling meats.  And of fresh baked bread.  The Filipinos know how to do bread.  Sweet, warm, soft.  There are bakeries on every corner, their enticing smells welcoming you in. 

As I ride through the neighborhoods in the basket on a tric, these smells follow me.

A continued conversation with Sajee

These next few posts are catch-up posts.  I am currently in Manila, working on the conference, and will try to have time relevant posts soon.  ‘Till then, enjoy playing catch-up! 🙂

Last night I had another conversation with my new monk friend.  After the closing ceremony and the bus ride home, he met me by the front doors of the hotel.  In his funny little New York framed Sri Lankan accent he asked, ” Ah Liz.  Where were you?  I thought da bus had left you.  I was sitting in the back to save you a seat, but you were not there.”  I apologized, telling him I had sat up front to finished a conversation with my Vietnamese friend Hah.  “No, no.  You don’t apologize.  See, you are here now.  So, no apologize.  Let’s walk.”

So we went out under the full moon that lit the sidewalks like it was midday rather than nearly midnight.  The air had cooled since the sun’s retreat and the sudden burst of rain that had caught us all off guard during our rally.  The breeze brought over smells of wet wood planks on the surrounding houses, flowers still growing wild and meats frying from open windows.  We listened to the murmur of other voices down the sidewalk, the cars, tricycles and jeepnies honking and rumbling down the road, and the occasional crash of a fallen coconut.

This night, we spoke of more personal things.  Of how his mother went to the doctor for the first time when she was 62.  Not that she didn’t go before because she couldn’t afford it, but rather, she lived such a life that she never needed the assistance of a doctor before.  Sajee told me about the downfall of what he regarded as pure Sri Lankan society.  How it came in 1505 when Portugal moved in and introduced the working man’s greatest health-enemy.  Bread.  He carefully explained how the introduction of this Western staple was the near downfall of their way of life.  How bread weighed a man down, instead of invigorating him to work the way rice and vegetables do.  He spoke of how the introduction of alcohol a few years later changed the peaceful working nation into an dependant nation.

We spoke of farming and the benefits of organic vs. pesticides.  Though neither of us had ever touched a plow.  We spoke of learning to enjoy the little things in life – to find the blessing in each day.  He spoke highly of the Amish (God love the Amish), and we bonded over our loved of Shakertown, Kentucky.

Making friend with Sajee, his insistence that I visit the assembly in Manila and our hopes for reconnecting one day in New York where he lives now, makes me laugh.  I remember Huntingdon days, when Greg’s monk friends (were they Tibetian?) sat in a circle on our Green.  And even though I couldn’t spend the afternoon on the Green with them, I enjoyed their presence on our campus.  A vision of union and harmony between faiths.  A vision not always prevalent on that campus.  I loved listening to Greg speak of his friends, of the things he learned from them.  I wondered if I would ever be in a place in my life in which I could easily acquire such friends.  And now, without even seeking it out, I have a new friend with a bright orange robe.  Who knows, maybe one days I’ll have a gathering of students of sorts, wondering how they can meet someone like Sajee.

Random reflections of my time with Sajee

How did I get to be this woman, sitting cross-legged on a cheap leather couch, sitting across from an orange robed Sri Lankan Buddhist monk, in the “kidnapping capital” of the Philippines, discussing poverty, meditation, and knowledge? 

 

He spoke of knowledge as a gift, one that needs to be used, otherwise, what is the point of the gift? It is meant to be both used and shared.  There is not a problem that cannot be solved without the mind, he informed me. Everything in the world, all the troubles, could be solved if only people would use their minds.  Because the more knowledge we gain, the more we can clear our minds. An unclear mind comes from ignorance. And ignorance and an unclear mind lead to many problems.

 

“I have no things – no wife, no children, no land, so I have no worries. But when I have things, I start to worry. Like this card (holding a business card someone had just given him), before, I did not have this, and I did not worry. But now it is mine, and I will go to my room, and think, ‘Did I bring that thing that I just got? Where did I lay it?’ I have a thing, and now I have a worry. But no money, no land, no things – no worries. You, no husband, no children, no land. You are free. Free to travel, to learn, to develop. No worries for you either.”

 

We shared our life philosophies. His is to learn something new from every person he meets. Mine, very similar, is to learn something new every day. The more we know, from places and people from our travels, the more we can use that knowledge.

 

When he asked me if I meditate, I told him that I work not through physical meditation, but through internal processing by way of writing. That I write until my head is completely cleared. He told me that as long as I am clearing my mind, I have no worries, I am meditating and it is good.

 

We compared the teachings of our great leaders, Jesus and Buddha, who both said, in their own ways, to not worry about tomorrow, for today is enough to take care of, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We agreed that if Buddha and Jesus were around right now, they’d be friends, telling people to love peace, not war. He said that he and I are living out the same teachings, the same life to not worry and to learn and to love.

 

He lauded me as knowing more than him, because of my experiences in traveling. Because I have seen more, I must know mor, was his logic. But I feel that sometimes the knowledge crowds my mind, making it harder for me to take it all in. But I appreciated the sentiment from him, that travel equals knowledge, particularly a kind of knowledge that we did not have before.

 

He lived for two years in Cincinnati.  I found this to be highly amusing, as that is only an hour up the road from where I used to live. There is apparently a Buddhist meditation center there as well. But he also worked with and knew many Catholics, who he also lauded for doing good work among the poor in the city and around the world. “They get much money, but they use much money – and always for the poor. It is very good.” The Catholics offered to give him a scholarship to attend Sullivan University for computer classes, but he turned it down because he was too busy, and offered it instead to someone else.  Interestingly enough, Sullivan is where my most-former roommate Nate will be attending culinary school starting in January.  I am never amazed at this small world we live and move in.

 

We continued to speak of many other things: the war situation in Africa and Iraq – children losing their hands to war and petty thefts; the drug problem in Mexico; the immigration situation in America; underage drinking; the economic problems in Asia, particularly in places like the Muslim community we had just seen.  And then, it was time for bed.

Spending time in the Muslim Siralwan community

The sweat made my shirt cling to my already over-heated body. As we walked down the dirt paths lined with wooden houses with bamboo thatched roofs and t.v.s we were met with curious stares and timid waves.  When arrived at the community school, the classrooms were full of eager faces, segregated into girls on the left, and boys on the right. I was thankful to witness that girls were given the opportunity in this poor community to attend school.  The Hello Kitty patches that most of the girls had sewn on their dull green skirts flashed a group sense of individuality.  The teachers welcomed the interruptions we caused, and even allowed the children’s lunch break to run an extra half hour on account of our playing volleyball on the beach.

I was overwhelmed by the graciousness of the youth, giving up a full day to guide us around, displaying their community with pride. The openness and honesty of the community leader as he discussed the Mindanao war and the fear their community faces every time the military comes stomping through.  He spoke of the history and situation of the bracket of young adults who go overseas because they are consistantly discriminated against in the job force in the city due to their religion.

The sounds of noon-day prayers leaked from the open windows of the mosque, and the irony that even though a curtain will forever separate the worship of men and women, once they are through those windows, all of their prayers still end up intermingling.

The children begged for our autographs like we were pop stars. One new international friend commented, “You looked like a celebrity, the way they all crowd around you. Do you feel like a celebrity? Because you look like Angelina Jolie.” (oh he is far to gracious) Their little voices chirpped “Picture! Picture!” every time a camera appeared – quickly assembling themselves into a glob of grinning faces beneath their hijabs all askew and their sparkling eyes.

At the end of the day, saying our farewells, a crowd of children waved and shouted their heavily accented goodbyes. Standing behind the barbwire that kept school children from the beach during school hours, three pre-teens stood, trying to look sullen, but obviously not wanting to be left out of the international excitement. Over the sea of brown hands and little fingers furiously waving goodbye, over the pricks of the rusted, twisted wires, a single hand gesture to stand a part from the rest. A metal hand. Rock on kid.

As the bus pulled away from the community, we left having learned, having seen, and having heard.  We were thankful for the short time to see something beyond our normal realm of reality.  To hear the plight of a people living in fear, but trying to just live.  The children chased our bus, their little hands reaching up to the windows that were far above their heads, trying to get one last glimpse, one last touch, one last goodbye.

Reflectings from the Underwater world

Any place that has a caribou wearing a snorkel mask is worth giving your money and time to. Just sayin’.

After a 30 minute boat ride across waters that started at the Santa Ana Warf as dirty and trashy, but quickly turned in to clear and smooth, we arrived at our first dive spot. I peeled on my dive suit (not my most flattering look ever), was fitted with dual colored flippers and a mask, which, thankfully, did not rip out my nose ring.

Like tandem skydiving, our dive instructors held onto our suits from the back, guiding us around the ocean wonderland. They were in charge of our regulators and pressurizers, and any other buttons and knobs that may have been on that suit. As first time divers, our only instructions were, “breath deeply, and enjoy!” A good philosophy for life. Maybe a new blog name?

I don’t know that I will ever be able to find the words to describe how beautiful it was down there. The first thing that hit me was the array of colors. Even 30 feet underwater, the brilliance of the colors was breath-taking. (which would explain why our instructors told us our only jobs were to breath deeply and enjoy!) Blue starfish that looked like pieces of forgotten rubber, black and red spiky fish, green and white corals, silver shiny fish, fish with bright orange, blue and white spots. Everything was just so bright! And the amount of life down there was astonishing. From the plants, to the corals, the different kinds of fish and other unnameable organisms. It was obvious that everything was working together to keep each other alive. (another good philosophy for life!) I was allowed to touch certain things; we picked up a thick brown starfish bigger than my hand, and my guide handed me something that resembled a fungus-covered, water-logged éclair. We saw a school of fish following some unknown path that they all knew, reflecting rays from the sun through the crystal waters. I felt like I was in the movie Finding Nemo! I saw every type of fish and creature used in that movie, save the sharks! Thank goodness!! We did however, see a black and white stripped snake that my guide did a very good job of steering clear of. There were hundreds of sea urchins lodged in the cracks and crevices of the coral. There were bushels of anemone and some other translucent puffs that I couldn’t identify.

I was just awestruck. There are many times in life that I stand in awe of the creation around me. Mountains that surround and valleys and encompass; perfect sunsets that reflect over a sparkling body of water; varieties of flowers that color the side of highways and open fields; a forest that blocks the sun yet embodies its own sense of warmth. And I always think, “Thank you God for this beautiful bit of creation to enjoy!” I always stand in wonder of these things, this creation, that I can see, touch, smell and hear. But this underwater world – I don’t know that it was meant to be seen. It felt a little bit like I was spying in on some awesome secret as I floated above the coral life. A beautiful, detailed piece of creation that was once hidden. Humans found a way down there – with awkward flippers and regulators and pressurizers and weights and spandex. Down we descended to something that maybe we were never supposed to see in the first place. And I am amazed, because the Creator could have made underwater life all the same drab color, blending into one another. But instead, we witnessed an array of colors like could never be found on land. God didn’t make that for me to enjoy. God made that because the essence of God is beautiful – and therefore all things created are a thing of beauty.

My journey through the Philippines

For the next few weeks, my blogging may be sporadic at best.  But I am trying to write as much as possible.  There is so much to take in and I want to share as much as possible.  So I am writing, even when I don’t have internet.  I will try to post things in order, but forgive me if they end up being stacked. 

I am currently still in Davao City, until tomorrow morning.  After 5 days relaxing, swimming, scuba diving and eating tons of great food with my friend and co-missionary Kerr, I moved on to a Asian Religious Youth Leaders Summit on Peace.  For the last 4 days I sat in a room with young adults representing 9 religions and 16 countries, talking about sustainable peace and justice.  Tomorrow I fly out to Manila, where I will be preparing for the IAMR.