Letting it Go

February 24, 2010

Many people have written me to find out what ever happened with the ring. Last I wrote the bidding was up to $20,000. Sorry for the delayed follow-up. After the frenzy of the auction, I had to immediately attend to my freelance writing, which has gone neglected for months. So, I’ve been buried in work.

But the good news is that my current office is outdoors. As I type, my bare feet are kneading warm sand, and waves from the Bay of Banderas roll in a few yards away. Pelicans are dive-bombing the rich aqua waters, and this thatched palm roof provides cool protection from the sun.

But the best thing is this: the ring sold and I carry with me a portion of the money–$1,000—to deliver to the local veterinarian here, a beautiful woman named Pamela. For years, Pamela has been turning this coastal village into a dog paradise, mostly on volunteer –time through spaying, neutering, grooming, and treating whatever ails them. This minute, I’m surrounded healthy community-owned canine. A basset hound snores by my side, a fat labrador chases a tossed coconut husk in the surf, and a bulldog begs guacamole from sun bathing beauties.


The ring is currently en-route
to Alabama. I sent it off certified mail from the post office days ago. For $45.00, it’s being treated with the utmost care: under lock and key along the entire journey.

Any day now, it will arrive at the house of Brent and Aly, a couple who learned about the ring from the Himalayan Raptor Rescue newsletter that Scott Mason (one of the vagabond philanthropists) sent out months ago.

Brent and Aly have been married for 5 years, but he never bought her an engagement ring. Brent is not a big believer in diamonds. Instead, in honor of their shared love of road-trips, he presented her with an ‘engagement van.’

But as free-thinking as she was, Aly really did want a diamond. Brent said that every time they passed a jewelry store, she’d get a longing expression on her face, and he’d wind up feeling like a bit of a heel. So, now–five years later–Brent has found in my ring the solution to his dilemma: It’s a diamond Aly loves, and a diamond he can believe in.

Brent clocked in the winning bid of $22,000 at 11:57 pm. I was gathered with supporters in my friend Jeanine’s living room. A practicing Buddhist, she placed the ring on her shrine, in the bronze lap of a small statue named Dzambala—a corpulent deity that signifies wealth. To pass the night, we ate pizzas, drank wine, and shared stories. By the time Brent’s bid came in, we were heavy-lidded, but celebratory. At midnight, I let my breath out, fully feeling the effort of the previous months culminate in success.  And just after midnight, an email popped up in my box:

Christina,

Hello and thanks for giving Aly and I the opportunity to be a small part of your journey with your Grandmother’s ring.  We’re definitely happy to be the lucky ones with the bid!  I assure you that Aly and I will take good care of the ring and not take it or its story for granted!  Thanks again so much for this opportunity and we’ll definitely get in touch tomorrow.

Happy Valentine’s Day to you!

Brent

I called Brent the next day to sort out delivery details. I was amazed to learn that he was willing to wire the $22,000 immediately into my account—even before I mailed the ring. What trust! He also invited me to come visit and stay in their spare room any time—an offer that I will definitely accept sometime in the near future.

While it’s true that I entertained certain fantasies that the ring would sell for $100,000, or some such show-stopping amount, in the last days of the auction, my mindset began to change. Web traffic from New York City began to escalate and paranoia set in: What if carnivorous diamond sellers were planning to buy the ring and turn it over for a profit? True, I still would have made money for the vagabond philanthropists, but it not exactly the fate I had in mind for the ring.

So, as this particular worry nibbled on me, I began reflect more on the ring and what it represented. My main concern became less about courting an out-of-this-world final bid and more about finding it a good, meaningful home.


After Brent’s $22,000 deposit registered
in my account, I walked the three blocks to the post office with a small box, tape, and packing materials. The ring, still on my finger, sparkled in the morning light and I felt my eyes start to sting as I walked down the downtown sidewalks. It was starting to hit me: I was on the brink of a leap. I’m really going to do this. I’m really going to say goodbye to my grandmother’s ring forever. For the previous months, I’d been mostly thinking about the ring as just-a-rock.  But now this surge of emotion was forcing me face this other truth:

Selling the ring was a pretty radical thing to do.


A couple of years ago, I enacted the best New Year’s resolution I’ve ever come up with: to jump in every body of water I came across. Unlike vowing to quit getting angry, jealous, or irritated, jumping in water felt small, accomplishable, and somehow significant. There was, I intuited, a secret to vitality tied up in plunging into rivers.

I must have been pushing against childhood memories–memories of the way my own mother approached swimming. While I was having the time of my life doing summersaults, playing dolphin, and hosting underwater tea parties, she’d wade around in the shallows with the other moms, hair pinned into a bun, and hands never touching the water. At eight years old, I made up my mind never to swim in this way. But, as I’ve aged, more and more I have found myself seized by wimpy sensations when it comes to water.

My New Year’s resolution turned out to be a huge success. I jumped into the placid surface of Jenny Lake near the Tetons, into the rapids of the Rgoue River, and dashed through the pounding shoreline of the Bay of Banderas. I’d take deep inhales, firm up my resolve, and plow into the water full-force—without hesitation. And, everytime, I’d emerge from the water a different human—vitalized and full-of-it. Shocked alive.

I’m thinking about this now
because as I walked to the post office with the ring and packing materials that morning, it felt something like standing on the edge of one of those cold rivers: Sort of intimidating, exciting, and imperative to really living.

I removed the ring from my hand, and packaged it up along with a handwritten note to Brent and Aly. At the counter, the clerk explained that my packaging job didn’t fit in the certified mail requirements: wrong tape, wrong box covering. He handed me a curly strip of brown packing tape and a pair of scissors and instructed me to do it over.

I found a brown grocery sack in the lobby recycle bin and cut it to specs. I wrapped it around the box and was dismayed to find the tape had to be moistened in order to stick. I fished my water bottle from my bag and dribbled a few drops it along the tape. While fixing the seams, the sticky-strip clung to my sleeve, to the countertop, and to a strand of my dangling hair. By the time I was finished, the box looked like a third-grader’s art project, held together with homemade flour-paste. No one would ever guess that a $22,000 ring waited inside.

The clerk chuckled and weighed the package. I paid for the $45.000 insurance and delivery fee. As the postman disappeared into the backroom, I caught my last glimpse of the box. The moment took my breath away, but I calmed myself with this mantra, gleaned from the wall of a schoolroom I visited in Nepal:

If wealth is lost, nothing is lost.

Sometimes people ask me how I was able to part with such a special ring. Here is my answer:

I just took it off my finger, and let it go.

www.committedtotheworld.org

The Nature of Rock

February 13, 2010

I don’t know if I can explain this.

When the bidding reached $20,000 yesterday, I felt a tectonic shift in my perspective. Months of blogging, Facebooking, interviewing, and talking about the ring finally started to culminate, and I began to feel confident that The Ring Project was going to work. My cold feet began to warm. I felt less afraid and more sure.

This is it: my own chapter with the diamond is winding down. But this story started long before I had the privilege of inheriting this ring– and well before my grandfather slid it on to my grandmother’s finger. It started a billion years ago, 100 miles beneath the earth’s surface, when tremendous heat forged carbon into a diamond that rode to the surface by way of an underground volcano. I realized that the effects of this process, which happened so long ago, are reverberating right here and now.

Sometimes, browsing the red layered rock of southern Utah, I have sensed my place in the scale of geologic time. It’s usually a daunting and marvelous sensation: I span my arms across some slot canyon and brush my fingers across epochs–the Paleozoic, the Cretaceous. It’s no doubt beautiful.  But it’s also disconcerting.  The red edifice of pulverized bone and fossil seems so impervious to my own human heart, my tiny life. The rock could care less if I’m a success or not a success, if I fall in love or don’t, if my family is close or not close. And I realize that whatever I accomplish will be buried.

It’s hard to explain, but in this past day, I’ve felt a sudden intimacy with these ancient processes. Like what happened a long time ago is not just locked up in rock that sits inert and indifferent, like a towering hoodoo in the desert. Like what happened then is now breathing, flowing, and mattering. Time, I realized, doesn’t merely transform life into rock. It also works in the opposite way: rock can also turn into life. In this case, into birds and children.

With this ring, someone will save some vultures, send some kids to school—small salvations in the realm of geologic time. But what we do reverberates. Maybe even a billion years later.

The Feast is Set

February 12, 2010

I’ve never been particularly good with small details. One day before the end of the auction, it’s dawning on me that there are a few flaws in my system here–nothing fatal, but a little annoying.  If I were to do this over, I would do a few things differently. But, we learn by doing …

Some friends have suggested that using wordpress blog for the auction might be a little hokey. But after a couple of weeks researching sites like eBay and Bidding for Good, I came to the conclusion that their systems would divert too much money from the ring. Even $200 seems like a fortune in this context; it’s enough to send a kid to school for a year. So, while such an amount may not seem like a big deal in the context of $20,000, it’s a big deal in the context of the tent village in Kathmandu, where an opportunity for education is semi-precious. So, I’m happy about my decision to use the blog, but there are a couple things I could have done to ensure a smoother flow to the auction. If anyone is thinking of doing something similar, please contact me for tips.

My other ‘mistake’ was setting the end time for the auction. Why did I get so hung up on thinking it must end at the exact end of a day–11:59 pm–rather than 5 pm or 6 pm? My current deadline requires east coast bidders to stay up very very late in order to participate in those last crucial hours of the bidding. Then again, if you live in Beijing, it might be perfect. But, if there are any bidders on the east coast, please set your alarm clock and accept my apologies.

It’s too late to change tacks now. As these lines from the Ancient Mariner go:

“The feast is set, the guests are met, and I am next of kin.”

BIDDING RUNS THROUGH 11:59 PM (PST) ON FEB. 13TH!!!

If you have questions about the ring, email me your phone number and I’ll give you a call: ring@committedtotheworld.org

www.committedtotheworld.org

Safe Hands

February 10, 2010

I retrieved the ring from the safe-deposit box yesterday; it now sparkles on my finger (the same finger I broke during a 4th grade softball game).  As I shuffled through a series of asanas in yoga class last night, I couldn’t stop noticing how magical the diamond looked in the low glow of the studio lights. Despite the fact that I’m unable to even touch my toes,  I felt like a real Wonder-Woman with such a ray-of-light emanating from my crooked finger.

But, fun as it is to wear, I have a hard time keeping track of things. It’s occurred to me how unforgivable it would be if I were to lose the ring at this point! What if, while washing my hands, it were to slide off my finger and down the drain? Or slip off in a bucket of greasy movie theater popcorn?

In the middle of the night, I woke in a panic and grasped my finger to make sure it was still there.

It was.

But here’s to hoping the ring finds a home on safer hands fast!

www.committedtotheworld.org

Bridezilla

February 9, 2010

Just four days until I get committed to the world! I’m pacing and nervous, feeling as fickle as a soon-to-be-bride. But instead of agonizing over the bouquet (roses or chrysanthemums?) or my hair (an elegant updo or loose and tousled?), I’ve been debating details of the auction.

Like should  I disclose the reserve price for the ring, or not? I’ve been advised that it’s best to keep it hidden in order to stimulate the bidding. If people know right-off that I won’t sell it for less than $20,000, they are forced to kick off the bidding with an intimidating chunk of change. On the other hand, if the reserve is hidden, they can start anywhere and work their way up to the incrementally, which is a bit less traumatic. This early bidding also stirs up some excitement.

But I’m feeling too horrible about it. I don’t like responding to the posted bids with the message “Thanks! But reserve not met!” I imagine it creates frustration on the bidders end, blindly throwing out numbers without any sense of how close they are to my lowest acceptable price. So, I’m going to put it out there.

I just can’t part with the ring for less than $20,000. Aside from its sentimental value,  the ring is a vintage diamond and was appraised low for tax purposes and is worth more than the posted value. And the causes of the vagabond philanthropists are just too worthy to fall short of this reserve price. So, dear bidders (or soon-to-be bidders!), I hope this doesn’t discourage you!

My other dilemma has been what to do with myself the night of the auction. Hole up by myself in front of the computer and manage privately the incoming bids? Or gather some friends together for wine and snacks and watch the auction progress? But if the auction is a failure, it could make for a depressing party–sort of like attending a wedding where the groom fails to show.

The last thing that weighs on my mind is the actual moment of parting with the ring. More and more, I’m feeling like I want to hand it over in-person. It feels weird to pass along this family heirloom to someone I can’t visualize. Perhaps it’s something like a birth mother wanting to meet the adopting parents. They want to personally transfer their child into good hands. This may not be possible. Perhaps my buyer will live in Iceland and a meeting wouldn’t be realistic. But if that someone special lives closer by, it would be wonderful to know them.

So these are the dilemmas that vex me during the remaining days of the auction. I apologize for my bridezilla-like ways. I’ve been planning this for months and want to pull it off without a hitch. Like any soon-to-be committed gal, it just might be the most important day of my life so far.

Settling Down

February 6, 2010

The city of San Francisco is the perfect place to conclude an overseas trip. From the Torte shops of The Mission to the cannolis of Little Italy, the whole world feels contained in these 7-square miles. I may be back in the country, but the adventure is hardly over.

After the humble rice-and-potato food scene in Nepal, I’m awed by the culinary variety here: taquerias, sushi joints and tapas bars. Cafes with names like “La Boulange” display glossy rolls and serve up gourmet coffee in absurdly pretentious ceramic bowls. Back to dealing in U.S. dollars, everything feels expensive.

There are only seven days left of the ring auction and the bidding holds at $10,000. I’ve committed myself to blogging more during these last auction days, giving more up-to-the-minute accounts as events progress. No more obsessing over commas, or the right turns-of-phrase! Just going to let the words wobble forth like stilettos over potholes.

I’ve been roosting in a Russian Hill apartment. The owners are away in Shanghai. I wake early restless with jetlag, and by 7 a.m. am out wandering. Russian Hill is quintessential San Francisco: sea-weathered Victorian houses, hilly streets, and no place to park. The Powell and Hyde cable car clatters by the apartment, and from the top of the street you can see the spire of the trans-American pyramid, the Bay Bridge, and Alcatraz eerie in the fog.

My half-light strolls are poetic and rich, but this monastic schedule has me ruined by noon. My interview on the Here on Earth radio show was a real feat.  Less than 24-hours after my plane touched down, I was scheduled to arrive at KQED studios to chat about the ring on Wisconson Public Radio. An NPR-affliate, the show is broadcast throughout the Midwest and was a 14-carat opportunity to find a ring buyer.

I wafted into the studio a full hour early, donning rumpled travel clothes that still reeked of incense and the pungent smoke of yak dung fires; I hadn’t even had time to do laundry.  Sheila, the receptionist laughed when I signed in. “Why are you here so early?”

“I just wanted to be SURE I made it here.” Afterall, I thought, a cow might have been dottering in an intersection, or a broken down bus may have blocked the road. Then I remembered I was back in America, where life was preternaturally smooth. But I was still in the habit of expecting the unexpected.

I signed in at the desk and then wandered down to a corner café. The waitress set down a basket of bread and I considered wine. Though exhausted, I also had jittery nerves. A friend recommended a well-timed glass of white before the interview. I ordered a cheap Chardonnay and nibbled on a piece of bread, hoping I wasn’t making matters worse.

At 12:45 I was ushered into the studio, belly gurgling with an unhappy configuration of caffeine and alcohol.  The sound tech positioned the headphones over my ears and conducted a sound check. Through the ear piece, I heard the tail end of NPR news.

My mind spun: I don’t belong here.

For days I’d been having anxiety-dreams about the radio show. Live broadcasting is a terrifying prospect. In fact, I write, in part, because I don’t feel I speak well. I love the long brew of ideas, the process of carefully preparing slow food sentences.

Jean Feraca introduced me and the show progressed at a fast clip. She’d ask a question and I’d alternate between going blank and rambling. Sometimes I’d start to answer and forget the question. Thankfully, Jean was skilled at keeping things afloat. They bulked up the show with music, excerpts from my blog, and sound clips from my vagabond philanthropists.

Then Jean hit me with a math question.

After a clip of Marc Gold explaining how $2,000 can build a school, Jean asked: “So, Christina, tell us: if each school costs $2,000, how many schools can you build if the ring sells for $22,000?”

It was a simple story problem, but I panicked.  It was like being called on in math class. Two schools? 11,000?

“A lot” I blurted out.

A few big-hearted callers phoned to express their support and I teared up. I was touched by the support.

I returned to my Russian Hill digs, took a shower, and settled in for the deepest sort of sleep. The next day I woke up in the 4 a.m darkness and listened the interview podcast. And for a half-drunk, half-wired, jetlagged diamond seller, it actually wasn’t that bad.

www.committedtotheworld.org

Transitions

February 2, 2010

I finally bid ‘Namaste’ to Nepal last night and am now stumbling through the hectic streets of Hong Kong. With only 4 hours of airplane-sleep, my brain cells feel scrambled. How bewildering that in just a matter of hours, it’s possible to go from a land of rice paddies and water buffalo to this high-tech riot: traffic, tall buildings, blinking signs, masses of fashionable strangers, and shops crammed with thing-to-buy. It’s no wonder that I feel, well, not quite myself.

Just the other day, my friend Jen was talking about these sorts of transitions. She’d once lived among some Nepali villagers who believed that people were particularly vulnerable during periods of travel. She used the word “liminal” to describe it: stranded between worlds, the identity dissolves, and one is more prone to haunts and worries. For this reason, the villagers approached travel with great trepidation and respect.

Perhaps that is what’s going on then. As I traverse the globe back to the States, I am not only transitioning back into the rote, familiar ways of my country, but also transitioning back into the last phase of the ring project. And here, in the in-between, I have too much time to question everything. I dine alone on Dim Sum and brood about the diamond.

Will people really start making offers? Will these months of effort pay off? I admit I can get discouraged, especially when I check the ring email account, which is filling with more Viagra ads than bids for the ring.

Without a doubt, enthusiasm for the idea has been epic. Friends have been ultra-supportive, and the media have jumped on board as well: The Huffington Post, The Oregonian, Bradt Travel Guides. Two weeks ago, I told stories about the ring on a Toronto radio station via cell phone. Next week, I have an hour-long radio interview on the show Here on Earth: Radio without Borders.

But the bidding remains sluggish. Perhaps this is just the way of auctions, everyone waiting till the last minute?

Amid among the growing pile of spam, there is some hope. Web traffic is flowing at a nice clip. The site seems to have a global audience ranging from Spain to Singapore, to Iceland, and Peru. New York City has made a particularly good showing. Yesterday, 30 people clicked on the actual auction page. So, the while the diamond lovers don’t seem to be bidding, at least they are window-shopping.

I’ve even have had a few serious inquiries via email, and I’m grateful to these people for expressing their eager interest. It makes this project feel suddenly more real, and also helps it seem less theoretical that I really am going to part with this ring.

I’m surprised to find that the more I confront the reality of letting the ring go, the closer I feel to my grandmother. Had I just resigned it to a safe deposit box indeterminately, I’d have probably done something as equally stead and precious with her memory: Preserved it as sort of a locked-away Still Life painting.

But as I contemplate this semi-radical act of selling the ring, my connection with my grandmother seems to come alive again. I reflect more deeply on my relationship with her, what it meant, who I am, and who she was.

And I take comfort in the knowledge that, even without this ring, there are a million ways for me to remember her. Whenever I hear Big Band music, eat a turkey and cheese sandwich, or catch a passing scent of Oil of Olay. Even now, as I wander these busy streets so far from home, it occurs to me that on the travel map she hung in the garage, she had a stick pin right here in Hong Kong. Perhaps she even walked along this same Chantham street right here in Kalwoon.

There is no question that with or without the ring, my grandmother is  part of me. I see her when I look in the mirror or at my passport photo—no doubt I’ve inherited those same smile lines, that same slightly sleepy look into the camera.

But if even these associations are not enough to bring my origins back–if I find my sense-of-self flagging on some Chinese street amid pots of boiling urchins and dried squid and need something more tangible to ground me–there is always the small wedding band, which I plan to keep and wear.

In such precarious transitions, I can always look at it and remember just who I am and where I’m from.

www.committedtotheworld.org

Trust

January 30, 2010

Today it was the jeep. Scott turned the key. Nothing.

“Someone call Shiva!” Scott stepped out and punted the door shut.

He wasn’t invoking Shiva-Shiva, the four-armed Hindu deity—though such omnipotence would’ve been a real boon on such a morning. He was summoning Shiva-next-door—a taxi driver who found a niche in Nepal’s cutthroat cabbie-scene: if you show up on time and don’t overcharge, the passengers keep calling.

Scott’s assistant, Emily, plied herself from the cramped jeep and steadied the vulture, Kevin Neophron Percnopterus, on her forearm. The three of us stared out at the morning lake and waited. A water buffalo nibbled rice staubs near the roadside. A bus top-heavy with passengers on the roof roared by, leaving a swirl of black soot and distorted Hindi music.

Scott narrowed his eyes and sighed. The jeep breaking down wasn’t my fault, but I somehow felt moved to apologize for everything going wrong.

“No. Things aren’t going wrong,” he said, trying to convince himself.  “It’s just the way it is here.”

When Scott moved to Nepal 8 years ago, his vision to take travelers on tandem paragliding flights with trained raptors seemed ambitous enough: after rescuing the injured birds, he had to spend weeks readying them for release. The ones that were unfit for the wild, he trained to fly with the gliders. Realizing one of humanity’s oldest dreams–flying with birds–was anything but straightforward.  But these days, “parahawking” feels simple compared to navigating the country’s frayed infrastructure. Each day presents a litany of problems that had become too routine to be thought of as “obstacles:” upturned fruit carts in the road, transportation strikes, thugs siphoning petrol from his jeep under the moonlight. Two weeks ago, a bus toppled off the road to launch. Rather than thermaling with the raptors, Scott and his clients spent two grim hours pulling bodies from the wreckage.

But instead of throwing down his falconer’s glove in defeat, he’s remained steadfast. In favor of the predictable British protocols he’d grown accustomed to in England, he’s learning to imitate one of the Nepalese people’s best traits: tenacity–a belief that with a little trust and a lot of creativity, things tend to work out.

Shiva rallied his little red taxi into the driveway. Scott lobbed his paragliding wing on the roof, and Emily ducked into the back with Kevin Neophron on her gloved forearm. Shiva backed the car out and slalomed it past samosa sellers and shoeshiners. Chickens, dogs, and old women fled to the shoulder. The Egyptian vulture ruffled his plumage and let loose a nervous dropping on to Emily’s jeans. Avian splatter paint.

Nine near head-on collisions and lots of horn honking and we were at the office.

The tandem client sat inside, fingers drumming the armchair. In the last moments, passengers often wrested second thoughts: a fear of heights, or of birds, or a reluctance to hook in a harness with a high-strung falconer and run off the edge of a 2,000-ft mountain so far from home.

Scott introduced himself with a genial bedside manner, and then rushed us out the door. It was best to catch the thermals at their peak for a long, high flight.

We squeezed back into the cab and plowed up the curvy road to launch. Shiva wedged the car alongside overloaded hay trucks, and teased cliff edges. As Scott fielded questions from his nervous passenger, Emily balanced Kevin –the-vulture carefully on her arm as though holding a scalding cup of chai.

On launch, Scott began an intense and intricate choreography: clicking buckles, positioning the inflight camera, putting on a falconer’s glove, passing a whistle over his neck. He coached his passenger and waiting for the perfect breeze for launching.

In a leap-of-faith, Scott and his client ran off the hill and into the air. Emily untethered the bird from its jesses. The moment of release is incredible: a flash of white lunging into the air. Though even wild birds prefer lounging on a branch, seeing them take flight taps something that feels primal and right. A free spirit set free.

Scott placed an egg inside Kevin’s aviary–the vulture equivalent of an after-work beer. Kevin bellied up to the egg, picked up a pebble, and hammered the shell until it cracked and oozed.

When it comes to snacking, the vultures are savant. Once Kevin stealthily plunged the delicate arête of his beak into Scott’s mouth and plucked out a bite of tuna salad sandwich and spit the tomato on the ground. This sort of savvy impressed one Pharaoh so much that he declared killing the vulture a crime punishable by death.

The vulture could use that sort of reverence now.  All across Asia, the scavengers’ populations have diminished by 98-percent in just ten years. The cause: drug-tainted livestock carcasses. Efforts to save the birds have been slow to get underway.

“If they looked like puppies, people would be throwing support at me,” Scott complains.

But even if vultures aren’t particularly cute, humans should care. Without the street-sweeping birds, animal carcasses are left rot. Stray dogs contract rabies from the bad meat, turn feral, and pose a very real threat to human health.

There is cultural fall-out as well. The Tibetans, unable to dig graves in the frozen plateaus of their homeland, rely on the birds dispose of the bodies–a practice known as “sky burial.” The practice is also common in parts of India.

But how to get the average person to care? Scott spends a lot of time online pleading the cause and racking up friends on Kevin’s Facebook page. At his raptor rehabilitation center in Pokhara, he educates visiting groups of travelers. He hopes that through parahawking with Kevin, people will see and gentler, more poetic side to vultures.

His biggest hope lies in opening a “vulture restaurant”—a cute term for a tract of land where the birds can dine on uncontaminated carcasses. He’s collaborating with Birds Conservation Nepal and a nearby Nepali community to realize the project.  The vision is that by giving the vultures a refuge, tourists might visit, and bring economic benefit to the community–an arrangement of mutual benefit.

Does the raptor feel affection for you?” I asked Emily.  It was late afternoon and she was exercising Sapana, a Black Kite Scott rescued from a downed nest (because she was just a chick at the time, Sapana never learned to survive in the wild). The Kite left her glove and skirted low over a table of paraglider pilots drinking post-flight beers and landed on a high perch above their head.

Spending so much time at Scott’s raptor rescue center, I’d gotten very curious about bird psychology, staring at their faces for long periods, trying to divine an emotion from their stern countenance. Emily had worked with raptors for a long time, flying them at runways and zoos.

“I don’t think the raptor likes me, or doesn’t like me,” she answered. “Our relationship is based on mutual benefit. That’s why I like it—it’s not clouded with complicated emotions. Both parties have to benefit.”

“If she ever flew away, I’d know we weren’t doing a very good job.”

Scott has lived and worked in Nepal long enough to shake the overly simple notion that it’s merely a country of poor but happy mountain people. In many ways, Nepal is like anywhere else. As a whole, the people have been curious, kind, and hospitable. The local organization, Bird Conservation Nepal, has whole-heartedly supported his mission. But others have harmed it. Scott spent a year teaching the neighbor kid falconry, only to catch him stealing Euros from his sock drawer. He’s left his work jeep with the mechanic, and had it returned with parts removed.

He’s well aware that being a Brit living in a poor country like Nepal inevitably puts him in an awkward position. He’s been critiqued by people who don’t relate to his priorities. But, for him, this last chance to save the vultures ultimately transcends muddy issues of cultural relativism.  The ecological truth is that the species is nearly extinct and  in keeping to his mission, sometimes the falconer has had to be as skillful and deft as his raptors.

But if Scott sometimes feels disheartened, he’s clearly effective. After listings in the Lonely Planet and scads of articles, parahawking flights are more popular than ever. Plans for the vulture restaurant are fast underway. He’s rehabilitated and released many birds, including a raptor named Dave. Late afternoons, even now, the Black Kite is known to return and fly circles low above the rescue center.

www.committedtotheworld.org

Happily Ever After

December 11, 2009

I’ve always wondered if it was just a cliché: are people in developing countries really happier than we are? How many times have friends returned from their travels saying “they were poor but they seemed so much happier”?

Or is this just something we say to feel better about the inequities of the world? To offset the discomfort of drinking cappuccinos that cost the equivalent of a full days labor in Nepal.

Which, I must confess, was exactly what I was doing the other morning in near the Boudanath stupa in Kathmandu.  When dining in Nepal, the whole when-in-Rome axiom doesn’t apply. For me, at least, tarkari soup at the local breakfast joint delivers a bacterial karate-chop that drops me to the bathroom floor for three days.

So, I sipped my fancy coffee and chewed a croissant and surveyed the scene from an outdoor café seat. My friend, James Hopkins, would arrive at 8:00. We planned to visit a nearby tent village where he’s befriended a group of beggars by helping them upstart a quilt-making business.

It was a busy morning at Boudha. The holiest Buddhist site in Southeast Asia, seekers make the pilgrimage from faraway places to walk clockwise “koras”–or circles– around the dome of the stupa. They spin prayer wheels and sprinkle marigolds and blood-red tikka powder on the surrounding statues to gain karmic merit.

This morning there were two very different koras underway.

Closest to the stupa, an inner kora of red-robbed monks shuffled along with strands of prayer beads swaying from their fingertips. For some it seemed a perfunctory morning stroll, while others worked their way around the stupa in arduous prostrations, dropping to their knees and touching their foreheads to the ground in a sort of traveling sun salutation.

While the devotees mumbled prayers and made offerings, on the outer rung of Boudanath, a kora of tourists and touts stirred into action. Shopkeepers unlocked their doors and heaped wares along the street: postcards, incense, tiger balm, and plastic prayer beads. At gear shops, trekkers began fitting boots and sunglasses. They fingered the fleece of knock-off North Face jackets, and occasionally turned to snap pictures of the stupa in the changing morning light.

Are they happier or not? The members inner kora with their simple offerings of mantras and marigolds, or the affluent outer kora, coddled by down jackets and cappuccinos?

“Happier? I think they are more content,” James observed. He’d just arrived. Tall, light-skinned, and blonde, James was clearly an outsider. Still, he is as familiar has one might hope to get with a culture so different from our own. He’s long been studying Buddhism in Kathmandu, and is an assistant to the revered teacher, Chokyy Nima Rinpoche. And his quilt project has put him squarely in the middle of social dynamics of some of the poorest city dwellers.

“Yeah, they fight –but there is a level of contentment there that we don’t have. They are in the company their whole extended family.”

We sipped our coffees and watched as momentum gathered around the stupa. It was morning rush hour at Boudanath, and inner kora was turning into a red whir of monks putting miles on their legs and on the prayer wheels.

“What they also have is devotion,” James said. In his observation, Westerners approach Buddhism more cerebrally, and are deft at analyzing the intricate concepts, such as “no-self.” The local Tibetans have more of a faith in the practice itself–the prayers, the prostrations. “But both methods lead to the same place. “

We paid our bill and set off for the tent village on foot. Away from the stupa grounds, the streets were congested. Taxis swerved and honked to overtake each other, and uniformed kids stepped over downed wires and potholes on their way to school.  On one corner, a construction project was underway. Three saronged women stood in flip-flops atop a dusty heap of gravel.  One watered the pile with a battered hose, while the other two worked shovels to make cement. A bus rumbled by leaving a wake of black soot.

I pulled my scarf up over my mouth. If it seemed like random chaos to me, James could see patterns in the scene. Through the din of the choked street, he pointed out a line of shoe-shiners squatting on crates.  “Those men over there are drunks from the village.”

A teenager appeared in front of us on the sidewalk, holding with a Dutch coin in his outstretched hand. James pocketed the coin and handed over a rupee note. “I’m also known as a money changer around here.”

We parted from the main street and turned down the trash-strewn alley that led to the village. We passed an old woman stooped under a huge basket of rutabagas.  A man in a wheel chair bumped along behind her. “The King of Boudha!”—James called out. A million-dollar smile smile broke across the man’s face.

The alley opened into an expanse of huts cobbled from bamboo and tarps. Children swarmed around, reaching their small fingers up toward us. James shooed them away, scolding them not to beg from his friends.

We found Puja washing aluminum dishware at a small spigot with a small soapy stream flowing behind her. She stood up, tossed her braid back, and repositioned her mustard yellow sari. She flashed a shy ivory smile. With her little knowledge of English, Puja served as a sort of intermediary between James and the village. She greeted us and went for tea.

While Puja boiled water, James walked around the camp to exchange greetings. This community of 500 people began 25 years ago, when three Rajasthani families arrived in hopes of finding work near the touristy stupa. Things must have been desperate in Rajasthan, as the work-scene in Nepal is pretty dismal: With a 47-percent unemployment rate, those lucky enough to glean  work can expect to labor for about $2.50 a day. But the village has managed to keep afloat with begging and shoe-shining over two decades now.

And things are looking up since James helped start the quilt business. Now the women spend their days hand-stitching bright designs that sell for $150 each—enough to send their children to school for a year.

They regard James with great reverence. Just weeks ago, he appeared for one of his regular visits, and they pulled him by the arms to the corner of the village. There they’d built him his own hut–a tarp tent that granted the best view in the neighborhood: a sunny tall grass field in a city where open space comes at a premium.

We ducked inside Jame’s new place, and waited for Puja to bring tea. The walls were decorated with posters of fruits and vegetables and images of Hindu deities

James had to explain to the villagers that, though flattered, he was content in his apartment near the stupa.  But he stocked his new village digs with tables and chairs and declared it a study room for the kids.

Puja came into the hut with a tray of scalding hot teas. “Puja makes the best tea,” James said clasping one of the mug handles, “just the perfect amount of ginger.” She closed her eyes and smiled humbly.

We sipped our tea and mostly communicated in the universal language of smiles and nods.

Then James asked: “Puja, could you show us some quilts?”

She pulled one out the dark corner and unfolded it, creating a shock of color against the dingy mud and tarp greens of the hut. Since the women scavenge leftover materials from tailor shops, they make-do with what’s available: pinks are combined with oranges, browns with reds. Lacking a quilting tradition, the women are unbound by conventional approaches, and the results are beautiful and artistic—the blanket perimeters are edged with fabric flowers, the threads holding the pieces together vary in color and size.

If starting a quilt business out of scraps sounds straightforward, it hasn’t been. In setting up the project, James had to contend not just with finding fabrics, setting up a website, and facilitating sales, but working with a totally different mindset.

Again and again with the village, James comes up against the double edge sword of  Nepalese contentment. It’s the national mood, embodied by the cliché “Ke Garne,” which means What to do? In the best sense, the phrase reflects an endearing acceptance of what can’t be changed. But, at its worst, it indicates an apathy that has kept the country stuck and poor.

“The caste system means there is no pulling-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps. They have a different idea of success—a nicely different idea. Praying and having a big family is success.”

James acknowledges these values, but sees real problems in the areas of comfort, health, and sanitation. It’s taken some work to help them envision a better future and more secure life. The villagers, he explains, don’t understand long-term-planning. “They are understandably caught up in the immediate needs. It’s ‘what’s for lunch right now.’”

To counter this, he’s started a savings program by giving them each their own box where he’ll match whatever rupees they drop in. He’s also convinced them of the importance of school, which is all about planning for the future.

On our way back to the stupa, we stopped in at the Kumari Sadan school. The principle came out from his office to greet us.

Achyut Prasad Pudasaini  wore a navy blue jacket and gray trousers, and a neatly trimmed mustache.  His stick straight posture gave him an aire of nobility that stood in stark contrast to the crumbling walls of the school. “Welcome!” he said with a slight bow. “Come. Please.”  He led us into an empty classroom. “We have 100 students total in this school. James has helped sponsor twenty-four of them!”

He turned and looked squarely at me: “Twenty-four! That’s not a joke!”

The classroom was Spartan: dingy concrete walls and metal benches. A weak shaft of light filtered through a tiny window. Drawings of flowers and rabbits were tacked near the cracked chalkboard. Up near the ceiling in large lettering, a quote:

If wealth is lost, nothing is lost. If health is lost everything is lost.

“This school is in trouble,” Principal Pudasaini confessed later, when we were drinking tea in his office, which doubles as a roughshod library for the children. The school opened in 1986 as a place where Kathmandu’s poorest children could be educated. “The government gives us no money.” The school is understocked and understaffed, lacking books, computers, teachers. But there are even more fundamental needs: “You can see its cold now and the children don’t have jackets.”

Principal Pudasaini sees the connection between education and the fate of Nepal. “This country is very sweet. Very nice–like Switzerland! But there is a dirty game being played by the government. They are not clear-headed! We need real leaders for the future. Not just talkers!”


I don’t know if the Nepalese are happier or not
. As we traced our way back toward the stupa, passing trash heaps and skinny dogs, an image lingered in my mind:

Principal Pudasiani standing in the center of the drab “music room” with its crummy tape player and poor lighting, in his starched blue jacket and perfect posture, chin up. He’d been to America. He’d toured the great libraries of our colleges.  He was well aware of what he did and didn’t have to work with.

I can still see him now: extending his arms and issuing a declaration that sounded pessimistic, but might be just what Nepal needs.

“I am not satisfied.”

www.committedtotheworld.org

Photos of tent village here

(If the ring sells, Quilts for Kids will recieve $3,000 to sponsor the tent village kids to attend school)

Family Politics

December 2, 2009

The transition from San Francisco to the remote Northeastern corner of Oregon brings on psychological whiplash. In the city, time coursed by in BART stops, dance club beats, and social appointments. Here, on the outskirts of nowhere, not much distinguishes one day from the next. It’s like moving through a Still Life painting—I climb over barbed-wire fences, traverse pastures, and pause against the quiet backdrop of mountains. I look up into the Spartan bare-branched trees and attune myself to minutiae: a cloud shifting stratus-to-lenticular, the occasional thud of an apple falling onto the dampened ground.

If there is to be any action outside the forces of weather and gravity, it’s by invention, and so people around here gather to stoke the social fires. On Thursdays they sing karaoke, and scoot their cowboy boots across the floor at The Hydrant. They drink lots of beer. And since there are not many restaurants to chose from, they host potlucks.

Dinner with friends the other night: cheese-covered Spanish rice, hot soup, and an olive-cabbage-pinto salad that brought a summer crunch into the winter evening. Conversation turned to the ring. Our host, Philip, works with gems. His wife, Jodie, is a loving presence who monitors her guest’s wellbeing like the warmest sort of mother, overfilling our plates and topping our water glasses. Across the table from me their friend, Loring, sat and remarkably worked four needles at once, stitching socks to give as Christmas presents to her family.

I mentioned the latest ring development: Anna Griffin, a reporter from The Oregonian, contacted me recently with an interest in writing about the ring. Anna’s column is sharp, strident, and political. But what kind of political angle would she find for the With This Ring Project?

I was excited. The Oregonian has a wide group of active readers, and it was just the kind of publicity the ring needed. But it also had me scared. Though I’d never really considered it before, maybe selling the ring was a political act. Although I believe fully in the auction, I’ve been nagged by the sensation of doing something transgressive. Is it okay to sell a family heirloom?

Historically, English law stated that the owner of an heirloom could dispose of it during his lifetime, but it must remain within the estate. In other words, it wasn’t cool to sell an heirloom to just anyone, like I’ve been hoping to do.

Though such directives maintained social inequities by keeping valuables contained in families, I can understand such laws. At its best, an heirloom preserves a family story. It’s a tangible reminder of the past, of our origins, and it symbolizes of our ancestors. An heirloom is a testament to the fact that we do not simply appear out of nowhere, but are inexorably linked to a long line of people who came before us: people who struggled, migrated, married, worked, survived, reproduced, and parented.

So, if an heirloom is symbolic of this fact, then is selling it dishonoring them in someway? Are we obligated to covet grandma’s punch set, and pass it along in the prescribed way, even if sometime we find ourselves totally broke, or discover that our values are different?

Since setting up the ring website, I’ve heard a lot of  heirloom stories—how a string of pearls from a deceased mother-in-law has been languishing in the attic forever, or how diamonds like my own have been holed up in a safe deposit box, owned by someone who feels too uncomfortable to wear it, and too guilty to sell it

My own thinking has been this: why keep that Japanese urn or Confederate belt buckle in storage when its value could be unleashed for good causes?

Not that I would advocate that everyone liquidate their heirlooms, and sell off their family history. Where we come from is important, and if an antique picture of Mary Queen of Scots transmits our family story in some way, then that is valuable.

Selling an heirloom is a highly personal choice, and my decision to do it comes from individual circumstances that make it feel “right” in someway.

Perhaps I am able to do it because my family has never been particularly close (except for mom!). We don’t use affectionate nicknames, hold few traditions, and rarely tell stories. Our estranged tribe is scattered to the winds–across California, Oregon, Nebraska and Minnesota and, especially since my grandmother died,  often fail to gather for holidays. We don’t talk on the phone, and routinely forget each other’s birthdays. Though we have mourned this, and wished it were different, we remain largely aloof.

I have regretted this at times–when I hear of brothers  rafting the Grand Canyon with their sisters, or watch whole Thai families running restaurants, or even when I see families bicker, because at at least they are interacting. But the upshot of my family’s discombobulation is that we are sort of free to be who we are. We’ve set off in our own directions, forged new lives, new identities, and are not particularly bound to follow in any particular footsteps. If I want to grow dreadlocks, I will. If I want to be tightrope walker, that’s okay too.

So, the little part of me that is afraid to sell the ring is just a little part–the part that wishes we were close, that wants to belong to be in a family where I’m obliged to tow the line. It’s also the child part– that powerful longing for approval that persists too long into adulthood.

Because I’m not 100-perent sure that my grandmother would like what I’m doing. In selling the ring, I guess I have a sense of ‘coming out,’ of saying ‘hey, my values are different.’

Someone recently asked me if I had $22,000 in cash–instead of a ring–would I still give it away. My answer was ‘probably not.’ I would likely spend the money on a new paraglider, a camper van, or on a trip to Morocco. But cashing in the ring for these indulgences would never sit right in my conscience. On the other hand, donating the diamond money to great causes feels like the right use, and serves as sort of an ‘out’ for a person like myself.

Almost.

I still fret.  Friends assure me that this is actually a great way to honor my grandmother. They constantly remind me that it is MY ring now, and therefore MY decision.

But across the dinner table that evening in eastern Oregon, Loring, who was nearing the end of her sock, was much less reverent: “You know that all stuff about the deceased rolling over in their grave? I always say ‘well, they probably need the exercise.’”

www.withthisringproject.org

NOTE: I’m behind on my blogging! Stay tuned for a visit to the amazing Quilts for Kids project at the beggars’ village in Kathmandu. If the ring sells, Quilts for Kids will receive $3,000 (see www.withthisringproject.org)




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