Breathable air in Shanghai
I arrived in Shanghai on the most unexpected day, as I stepped out of the airport white wispy clouds drifted across the sky, the day was hot but I couldn’t wrap my head around how wrong I had been, assuming smog was anything to worry about in this city. The sun was setting as we pulled out of the parking lot, we followed the mag-lev tracks into the city on an elevated freeway, the pillars covered in climbing ivy, trees and rooftop gardens stretched as far as I could see, punctuated by large parks and forested areas. When the magnetic train soared silently past, I knew I was twenty years ahead of the present.
Towards the heart of the city, the elevated freeway was dwarfed by the height of the city, surrounded by a forest of apartment blocks above, below us were other elevated freeways, below them a bustle of street cleaners and electric motorcycles moved amongst the hybrid cars and gardened mediums.
As I stepped out of the bus, I prepared for the blast of exhaust fumes, an assault of aromas that I would be facing for the next few years, but it never came. As I explored the city that night and the following days, looking for the Shanghai I was expecting, I didn’t find it.
Organised streets, electric bikes, quiet cars.
Over the next few weeks, I explored my local area, I live on the edge of the old city; small local shops with little houses in the back, selling anything from used dishes to peaches to custom built wooden cabinets. Eating most dinners at the street stalls, the durian fruit and aged tofu offer the worst of my neighbourhood’s smells (second only to the odd waste transfer sights and open sewers you may find) but the dumplings and street bbq make it all excusable.
As I approached my one-month anniversary in Shanghai, I had seen a variety of weather, from the rain, to the smog, to the perfect days. I understand the concept of smog now, the constant grinding of your lungs and the sore throat, it hasn’t been as bad as I thought, but it’s a slow burn.
Never before has breathable air been a privilege for me.
Growing up in the mountains, I’m amazed that it isn’t more noticeable for me, perhaps I’m distracted by the madness of every day life, but at the same time the incredible organisation of it all; the fact that there are markings on the road and you can comfortably cross without having to dodge an onslaught of beeping motorcycles like you do in Bangkok or Hanoi; the planter boxes that line several freeway, the trees that line several streets; a metro system that I’ve never seen closed, or even late; the grass on the rooftop garden below me actually gets mowed.
It’s a beautiful city, the culmination of so much more than just 23 million lives.
Every day I discover a new area, a new group of people, a new Chinese cuisine, and although the air is hard on the lungs, it’s full of excitement, life and adventure, and it is very breathable.
What is the real problem with ‘Generation Ask.fm’?
When I was younger, and wanted to bully someone, I needed to walk up to them on the playground, I needed to look into there eyes when I told them they were fat, or ugly, or that nobody liked them. I had to look at their face as I shoved them to the ground and kicked them. I had to see their expression contort with fear and pain. I had to experience them reacting to my words.
Now I admit, this isn’t something I spent an awful lot of time doing when I was on the playground when I was younger, and I can imagine that part of the reason I abstained from this behaviour is because bullying was a confrontation which required me to be there, taking part. That took a lot of nerve.
However, not long after I left the playground, the landscape changed.
No only did the confrontation side of bullying disappear, and not only could I do it from whenever and wherever, but most importantly, I could deliver serious blows without the victim ever knowing where this crippling punch came from.
Obviously my mindset has not changed, I know the face of someone who is hurt, I’ve seen it many times, whether in the mirror, or friends on the playground, I can connect to it, it is something very real to me, but having been questioned about the situation of students and Ask.fm, I quickly realised, that it is not real to them.
Ask.fm isn’t responsible for online bullying, it didn’t invent the concept; no one is responsible for the trend of online bullying, much like a pen and paper shouldn’t be blamed for the horrific notes that were passed around my class many years ago; however Ask.fm became a useful tool, something powerful, convenient for the behaviour of bullying and most importantly anaesthetised the reality of what a perpetrator is really doing.
No longer do we need to immediately watch someone suffer from our blows, we don’t need to see them trying to fight back the tears to remain strong, we can deliver our blows and imagine that they are being hurt by it, but it will never be a reality.
This has suddenly become very dangerous, not just because of the existence of ask.fm, or any other social media site that allows anonymity, but because right now, those who are just realising the concept being able to emotionally affect someone, can explore this new world completely numb to the true concept of a victim.
Not once will these newly realised bullies ever have to face their victims during the crime.
That is where the true danger lies.
The Nomad Family
Without warning, the door of the Gur swung open, in marched a bundle of fur and boots, quickly unwrapping itself to reveal an older, red cheeked man, Puujee stood up, scooped a bowl of soup, handed it to the man and sat back down, not a word of welcome. He sat and ate, they started battering away in Mongolian, every so often I got a brief translation; “He lives up the valley”, “He asks what the heck you are doing here in the Winter”, “he doesn’t like that the carrots in the soup are cut so big”, “he says carrots are for rabbits”, “do you have any cigarettes?”, “he says that if he eats too much spice his nose bleeds”. After half an hour, a milk tea, and a bit more Mongolian later, he bundled up, and disappeared out the door. Puujee didn’t once bat an eyelid.
This is how you survive when you are nomadic in Mongolia. It is cold during the winter, the thermometer outside the Gur, which is a traditional family tent, reached -32, and that is at the start of their spring, in one of the mildest winters in years. Born from these cold winters and unforgiving lands, is a family of people, a culture of unrivaled acceptance.
During the day, my friend Puujee and I were riding over some of the breathtaking ridges and through some of the snow drifted valleys, every so often, when the wind picked up or our fingers were getting cold, we would ride up to the nearest Gur, walk in, drink the hot milk tea which always seemed to be ready, chat for a bit, and ride off again. Not once did anyone seemed surprised or unprepared.
Every door felt like my own house back in Canada.
It all seemed in line with experiences I’ve had elsewhere, tiny fishing villages in Indonesia or the garbage pickers in Nepal, there is a sense of community in these places which I feel is forgotten in the suburbs of the west.
A sense of familiarity with strangers.
It will never cease to amaze me, the more material we obtain, the more isolated we seem to make ourselves, and the further away from the ideal of community we venture.
I’ll never forget sitting in a Gur with an elderly couple, drinking some of their home made vodka, made from yak milk, I asked to take a photo, and in Mongolian they replied, laughing, “of course not, we are in our pyjamas!” Yet, there they were, hosting their neighbours wholeheartedly.
Only in Mongolia to pyjama parties come by so casually.
See my photos from my trip to Mongolia on my Facebook page.
Fishermen in the rain
The rain started picking up, drumming on the tin roofs and turning the rubbish strewn alleyways into muddy rivers flowing eagerly towards the canals and waterways winding through the fishing slums in Northern Jakarta.
As the community ducked into their little shops and stood in doorways, dutifully waiting for the warm rain to pass, the kids took to the streets, screaming, running and dancing in the water spouts spewing from dusty roof tops. The bridges between each neighborhood quickly filled as they dove off the railings into the swelling canals as if the rain was cleansing the sludge that flowed through them.
I followed a group of them along a dyke which led to the shipyard where the larger fishing ships were moored. I could just see through the rain a few boys, maybe ten years old, climbing the anchor chain up the side of the boats to dive off the top and climb back up again, dancing and sing on the boat roofs.
Sitting in a doorway, watching the spectacle, sat an older man with a baby on his lap, quietly watching me in the rain, when we caught eyes, he waved me over, so I carefully walked up the bamboo ramp to the door where he was sat, oddly placed halfway up the side of his house as if the ground floor was an afterthought they slid in at the last minute.
Between the mimed conversation and the baby investigating the whiteness of my face, we watched more kids climbing the ships, the rain pouring down around them, children running along the dyke, jumping from boat to boat and swimming in what was now a soup of the cities streets.
Then, out of a trapdoor in the floor, the mans wife appeared, looked at me, said something far more complex than my two word Indonesian vocabulary at the time, then handed me a fried fish and a cold tea, then disappeared again.
It was delicious.
As I picked away at the fish with my fingers, with the man approvingly looking on, more family members kept popping out of the floor, gathering around to watch me enjoy, at this point, the second fish that appeared from the trap door, and a pile cut up mangos the man was skillfully adding to the meal for me. When his eldest daughter arrived, who spoke some English, many of my questions were answered, I found out that the fish I was eating was caught by the man that morning, the mangos were from just down the road, and I was wet, from the rain, which was not good, I was told.
I should add, at this point, that the daughter, now known to be nine months old, had grown bored of me, and was successfully navigating the room without falling down the open trap door, or cutting her hand off on the machete the man was using to cut up mangos with. She will go far in life.
I asked many questions, they asked many more, the younger daughter was trying to be sly while taking a photograph of me, and eventually the rain retired from a constant drumming to birds coming from under cover and the neighbourhood slowly coming back to life, it was time for me to wander on. So, after convincing them that, although the fish was lovely, I didn’t need need a third, or an umbrella, they decided that the next best thing was to give me a large pink elephant plush toy, and told me it was very important that I take it home.
So off I went, as if I didn’t stand out enough with my pasty white skin and hair like a head on fire, I also had a bright, pink elephant with a white polka dot bow, strapped to my back pack.
How the rest of the world celebrates New Years Eve
Bandung is a city in Central Java, sandwiched between two volcanos and surrounded by tea plantations, for the second largest city on Java, you could count the white people on one hand, but despite it being a forgotten city to the west, on weekends half of Jakarta ends up there, and many people from around Indonesia and Asia descend upon it for holidays. Perhaps they like the smell of sulfur that you can enjoy while sitting on the edge of the smoking creator of the volcano. Or perhaps they enjoy sitting in traffic as the city grinds to a hault every day in gridlock, often leaving motorcyclists like myself no choice, but to pull out into the oncoming traffic lane, shutting our eyes, and hoping for the best.
I made a point of getting myself out of the city every day on my bike, and had just finished a long mornings drive through the mountains and the tea plantations, so it was time to stretch my legs. It wasn’t long before I found a random back street that looked interesting enough to explore and turned down it, wandering into the shanty town that it led through.
Before long I was leading a parade of children shouting “Bule Bule, Photo Photo!”
Bule is the Indonesian, round about way of mentioning someone’s race when they are not from around here.
A girl in her early teens, wearing a bright yellow jumper and a big smile walked purposefully up to me and said, without expecting any sort of answer, “come with me”, so, I did.
I asked a few questions as she led me around bends and beyond the realms of my in built navigation systems, but didn’t receive much other than the fact that I was going to a house, and it was good.
I walked through a sudden doorway to an equally sudden burst of applause, as well as a few echos of “Bule?” “Bule!”.
Having been invited to stick around, naturally, I did, learning more about this little home that was owned by a tireless woman named Diah, the daughter of a retired national football star. The place would have been left vacant had she not decided to open it up the children of the surrounding slums, some orphaned, others struggling with HIV, others just looking for a place to hang out, and had it not been for one of those children towing me in, I too, would have been wandering aimlessly in that very slum.
I sat and chatted for hours as crowds of kids came and went, all shouting Bule at me, as if it was something I dribbled on my chin that I hadn’t yet whipped off. They gave me a tour of the area, we watched a bit of local football, had some of the dishes that were being cooked up in the spurratic kitchens hidden away and occupied by clucking chickens who were on the menu, as well as the picking grain off the floors, and eventually, as the sun had gone down and I still had a long walk home, I got ready to head off.
Before I left, I received yet another no-need-to-reply invitation, only a few years old, young Olga, with the word by word help of Diah, invited me to join them again the following night for New Year’s Eve. So I did.
It was another long day on the bike, I had made my way towards West Java to photograph the cities landfills and those who inhabit them, so I made my way back, had a shower and, much to my surprise, found my way back to the home. We danced, and sung, they schooled me at chess, again, played some cards, then Diah, Nanda (the girl in the yellow jumper) and I braved the New Year’s Eve streets to get some groceries to cook up for dinner that evening.
As soon as night fell, the city buzz turned into a festive war zone, fireworks were being launched off every street corner and out of every window, bonfires were lit up in the middle of the busy roads, everyone with a speaker of any sort was doing their upmost to play their favorite song just a little louder than the curb-side DJ next door. We got back calming sound of a couple guitars and the whiz zing and banging of New Years in the Wild West crackling away overhead.
After a few more hours of stories, music and dancing Olga wanted to take Diah and I to his roof top to watch the fireworks for a bit, so off we went, there was a light rain, and all around us the slum stretched on, no street lights but the glow of white light bulbs and fires glinted through the endless tin roofs, followed naturally by the eruption of home made fireworks screaming off in unexpected directions.
As the clock neared midnight the sky all around us was filled, as far as the eye could, see in every direction, coloured sparks, every so often one would light up the sky way above, other times it would scream right over our heads, or bounce off the mosque looming from the tin roofs around us.
After midnight struck and they slowed gently, the three of us wandered down, thanking his parents, who seemed completely oblivious to the situation, we wandered back to the house, on the way we stopped off at a family BBQ, which was nothing more than a chunk of corrugated steal, probably borrowed from their roof, set ontop of glowing coals, in the middle of a narrow ally way. They handed me two pieces of their chicken, which was easily the best chicken I had had so far that year, and waved me on my way and went back to whispering “Bule!”. We got back, the older kids were still sitting around, we chatted for a bit, I read them a bed time story, in my best Indonesian, which, they naturally found quite amusing, although I can’t imagine it was the story that was funny, as it looked, by the pictures, as a story about girl named Gaga who had lost her library book.
I finally made it out, followed by giggles and I love you’s and having made reassurances that I wasn’t going to forget them, I headed home, having had a New Years I won’t easily forget.
What is the best part of being human?
I have a question, for my non-existent readers: what, do you feel, is the best part of being human?
I’d love to know, leave me a comment or a message!
For me, it is the ability to create.
Anything from art to adventure, our ability to create has without doubt brought us to where we are now in this moment, hurtling through space, overconfidently, on a speck of dust.
But lets not lower our value.
I’m currently in bed after a second long day at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, blown away, once again by our ability to entertain, as well as be entertained. I’ve lost count of the shows I’ve been in, the times I’ve laughed and the times I’ve been awestruck. Its too amazing. Our ability to create.
What do you think the best part of being human is?
Quantifing our lives
A thought came to me just moments before I touched down in Edinburgh this afternoon:
Why do we quantify our lives in years?
What value does that bring to who we are? It would seem, by that standard, that the people with the best lives are those who spend it sitting in a oxygen tank eating the healthiest food and trying not to cut themselves on their soup spoons.
That doesnt sound like a good life to me.
Why don’t we quantify our lives in the countries we’ve visited? Or the friends we’ve made? How about the people we love? Or those who love us? The wine we’ve drank, the sunsets we’ve watched and the rain we’ve danced in, that, to me, is the how I’d like to tell the story of my short lived experience on this fascinating planet. Not just “22 years”.
I was speaking to a friend the other day who lives in Hong Kong, she mentioned this interesting situation which has recently been in the news: in China, there has been several hygiene issues with milk formula for babies, mothers, desperate to feed their children, have started flocking to Hong Kong to purchase higher grade milk formula, the sudden surge caused a shortage in Hong Kong, and as such, the border started regulating how much milk could be taken across the border out of Hong Kong. She told me, in further desperation some women have reported to have flown to Spain to fill up suitcases with milk formula for their children. She said to me, “I can’t figure out what should be done about this, do you have any ideas?”
I looked at her in disbelief.
Am I the only person who finds it shocking that women seem to have forgotten what those bouncy things stuck on your chest are for? Do we really live in a world where the vanity of breasts is so strong that we have not just put form over function, but completely forgotten the function all together?
And yes, I know breast feeding isn’t the smoothest of operations at first, but neither is flying to Spain…
The list of “why” is endless, a quick chat to any medical proffessional will make that clear, so why is it that, in a world plastered in breast filled adverts do we not find it natural to actually use our own breasts?
Have we come to the point where breasts are only an exceptional point of conversation when they are simply on show?
Food for thought… And your child.
Hotels with a twist
Here is a thought, and please tell me if it has been done, or, even better, please tell me if you read this and decide to start one…
I constantly get approached by people on the street, asking for a couple pounds to get themselves into a hotel for the evening, I’m never that keen to provide them with my cash, as they often often come with a strong waft of cigarette or alcohol. I’d rather not fund their slow and expensive suicide. Maybe I’m harsh in this aspect, but I am one to buy two hot chocolates on a cold day, one for me, one for the next person I see who needs one.
This got me thinking though, perhaps we should be able to buy hotel tokens and give them to people, only redeemable at a hotel…. Far too complicated. This brought me to another thought though….
Imagine a hotel which had a handful of rooms which were reserved for a sort of “accommodation for experience” trade-off. A place in a hotel where someone can come, stay, have a shower, a shave, clean themselves up to go to job interviews, and in exchange, they do some cleaning, or wash some windows, maybe help do some labour jobs, you name it, for a couple hours.
Just a thought. I think that would be neat.