Posted on February 26, 2017
Unfamiliar territory, the uncertainty paralyzes. A surge of panic fills my head and heart, only to be soothed by the perfect amber of a freshly poured Czech beer.
“Here I go again…”
Around me is a language I do not understand. Spreadsheets in front of me I cannot comprehend. A feeling of being exactly where I should be. I relax, surprised by the comfort of the chaos.
The color refreshes a memory when I was lost in the more familiar surroundings of the Skokomish Wilderness.
The sky still black, I anticipate the amber sunrise when we summit…rather if we summit, as of right now, I have no idea where we are.
“Shit…” I mutter to myself, louder than I had wanted, waiting only seconds before the echo returns with her reply. “Oh my God, I can’t believe it. You are lost again aren’t you?”
I ignore the question, wishing it away, but the echo continues, “Why did I agree to go on this climb?” She lets out an exasperated sigh, hidden within, a tint of laughter.
Unpredictability in life is the one thing I’ve found to be a constant.
A sharp blow of her hiking pole on my butt is her protest to my stifled laughter, “It’s not funny…” she declares and we continue up the mountain.
“Why is it so difficult to stay on the path laid out in front of me?” I wonder and reach for my beer. Standing in the middle of uncertainty, again where every step I take leads me away from where I expect to be.
Would I want it any other way? Perhaps on some days…
Uncertainty has become a friend of mine. Things change around me quickly and if I do not flow and evolve along with it, I’ll suffocate. Be miserable.
It is cliché, but there is truth in Maya Angelou’s quote, “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” Without change, we rob ourselves of beauty. We rot.
“Remaining at status quo stagnates the soul,” I think to myself, and kicking back with my beer I wonder if that’s such a bad thing?
Yes, change can suck.
Albert Einstein once said, “Men marry women with the hope they will never change. Women marry men with the hope they will change. Invariably they are both disappointed.”
Ah yes, is there anything more destructive than unfulfilled expectations? I suppose this is the catalyst for change, to get lost in the world and explore ~ anything to avoid the poison of expectations.
The chaos of setting out on a new path, getting lost, is part of the process. From the moment we are born, adventure turns fear into wisdom, sparking curiosity to discover.
I think back to standing on the precipice between mountain and sky… the abyss speaking to me, and I glance towards my beer, her amber words ringing clear as I empty my mug, “balance, my friend…there’s a time for adventure and a time to reflect on adventure.” I nod to the waitress for another.
The echo breaks the stillness of the dark while my headlamp scans the trees and boulders ahead.
“Why, again, are we doing this?”
The only words I can think of are “时间不多，从来不停 ~ Time is fleeting, never stop.”
Eight characters a friend of mine, Eric Moen, shared with me last year. Words to provide added incentive to spark change when comfort begins to lead to stagnation.
Those eight characters take me back when I stood along Hood Canal admiring a pre-dawn sky, sparking a childhood dream to climb Mt. Ellinor and watch this land come alive with the sunrise. Yet, in all these years never taking the time to do so. Why?
“Why?” I add to my reply back to the echo, “To see magic. This is why we are here.”
“And… just exactly where is here?!?”
I begin to answer and then begin to question why I invited her. “A very good question…” and continue ahead to what I hope will become an opening.
There is nothing quite like the childlike curiosity we hold inside. The anxiety of pushing forward with new ideas, until that moment arrives ~ our heart rate slows and we unearth something new, something enchanting.
“I’m beginning to understand you never have a plan do you?” another question rings back my way.
Shuffling of hooves on the rocks above remind us we are not alone.
“Not real sure any plan worked out the way I had imagined, so why bother…” is my quick reply, seconds ahead of another sting of a hiking pole on my backside.
I scramble up and around a set of boulders and come face to face with a familiar friend.
Nature never ceases in its pursuit of change; never fears a new challenge change may bring. The sky and the sunshine call out to us all, “You are not alone, the universe is with you the whole way.”
A breathless gasp comes from behind, and her arm wraps around me along with a whisper “this place is so beautiful…”
Take away expectations, lose the fear of change and get lost in the world. There is no greater truth: time is fleeting, never stop.
“Be the change.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
Posted on September 29, 2016
The scene is one I can imagine centuries ago. A young man overlooking his homeland, within his reach a promise of a career to ensure him of a great life. A “normal life” both he and his family have dreamt about since he was a kid.
His dream at his fingertips, he does not move. He sits there perplexed at the struggle within his soul. A piece of him desires something very different, something unknown. He can taste the adrenalin of this uncertainty.
Two thoughts tangle, tearing him up. A decision has to be made. A divergence of his universe, in one he will stand up, walk back to the village and accept his career to settle into a normal life, while in the other he’ll look over his land one last time and accept adventure as his new destiny.
The divergence was instantaneous.
He sits motionless, wondering which spirit remains. The shadow of a setting sun shifts the appearance of his surroundings and over the horizon, a faint sound calls out catching his attention. He draws a breath and looks over his land.
“How did you end up doing what you’re doing?” her question snapped my head up from the photograph in front of me. “You had a freshly minted MBA, a simple plan of embracing the American Dream working with a Fortune 500 and somehow you fell into this crazy global existence.” She looked at me half-mockingly.
“The American Dream rejected me…and I panicked,” I laughed. “Once the seed of doubt entered my thinking, there was no looking back.”
I look back at the photo. Wonder what life would have been like if I’d hung around the States instead of taking a flyer of adventure in Asia?
Enjoying this contradiction, I review the photo and the stack of journals in front of me, searching to find a trace of a young man who disappeared so long ago.
She holds out a piece of paper, and reads from it:
“Invincibility. The youthful feeling of blind confidence where anything imagined can be achieved. Memories of flying down a mountain, one foot barely touching down on a boulder before confidently taking flight again, suspending life as the other foot searches and touches down lightly only to set off once more. Freedom. Repeat until exhausted.”
“Zero fear,” she says after reading the passage. “All of his senses meshing perfectly with nature and in total confidence. No thought of failure. Bliss.”
“I can understand this feeling,” I add, “youthful invincibility is one of the best stages of life where everything seems possible…running through it all, never believing it will end.”
“Then one day, a faint touch of doubt enters the mind mid-stride and the peaceful invincibility begins to fade. Strained by the thinnest gauze of doubt, the confidence of the immortal mind of youth vanishes forever. And life begins…”
She reads to me, handing me a yellowed piece of parchment as she finishes, dated a day before the young man disappeared.
“The stage of life where we all find ourselves lost at some point…” she says aloud while carefully turning a page of a journal.
“The time between the youthful invincibility of blind confidence where everything will work out as dreamed, and the age of reason where experience brings an understanding that it’s alright if it doesn’t…”
I smile at this thought. The Gauze of Doubt introduced itself to me when my version of the American Dream faded right out of school along with the myth of a normal life. My favorite quote, Doc Holliday from the movie Tombstone still rings clear, “there’s no such thing as a normal life, there’s just life…”
The photo and journals date back to the mid-1800’s, a young man with a lust for life imprinted on his character, a man who spun his own destiny. Words of wisdom in his thoughts, words that hold strength because they’re backed by his actions.
Experience matters. Friendship matters. Integrity matters. After his disappearance, his journals and stories focus on the lives he touched and his new surroundings.
Veering off the well-worn road to success, he chose the path of adventure. He traveled. He learned. He traveled some more.
He never forgot the moment the gauze of doubt covered his eyes, unexpectedly sending him hurtling into a divergent universe. A universe he created.
There is a sense of envy I have reading his words, my wish to experience and see the pieces of life he lived.
Three stages of life formed his writing, at each stage an opportunity to accede into a new reality:
“There is a bit of Thoreau in his philosophy, his writing reminds me of the quote “…not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves...[Henry David Thoreau, Walden]” she looks back at me while taking a sip of her coffee. “The thin gauze of doubt he talks about may dissolve the confidence of youth, but in doing so it ramps up the adrenaline of reality.”
“Almost two hundred years separate you two, but yes, you do have your great, great grandfather’s mind, half stuck in reality and half elsewhere,” her eyes giggle, meeting mine.
And doubt seizes the day. Will I ever find out what happened to him?
It is intriguing to look back in time, to dream of changing the unchangeable, but the past pales in anticipation of tomorrow’s opportunities.
I do not move. I sit there perplexed at the struggle within my soul. A piece of me desiring something very different, something unknown, and I can taste the adrenalin of this uncertainty.
The divergence was instantaneous…
Posted on July 26, 2016
It was a strange day I remember, exploring Budapest for the first time with a sensation I had walked these streets before, every corner a story to be told. Each step filled with fascination, time of no concern as evening tumbled from dusk into the magical darkness of night. Pulled forward by destiny into my past.
She was there, a flash of a smile wrapped up in the Old World like a well-worn shawl.
An artistic light gathered around her, fusing the old with new, highlighting the intricacies of the human spirit. Not yet love, only a tickle of possibility. The depths of the night offered us the chance to roam new lands, to dance with the tide and imagine our next adventure.
The start of the day blends with the end of the night, leaving the unanswered question of where we belong. Amid all the laughter, a melancholy undercurrent swirled beneath, leading to the inevitable conclusion.
The exit. A measured trace of emotion is revealed but little else. With no sense of belonging, we vanish into each other’s arms like the whispering winds of the past.
Where will you go when morning arrives? Did we truly exist or were we just a dream, lost in this endless slumber of life?
The music of the world refuses to fade, a reminder of the hope tomorrow brings. The pull of destiny continues. With a smile, I close my eyes and dream of the New World.
Side Note: Along with travel to Budapest (and Europe), two pieces of music helped inspire this post: Karl Jenkins – Bards of Wales (based on János Arany ballad of the same name). Hungarian history is fascinating, a great feeling of the Old World. The other is my favorite piece by Antonín Dvořák, his New World Symphony.
Nothing is quite as mysterious as where we came from or where we are going ~ reconciling the Old and New World.
Posted on November 4, 2015
Lack of sleep makes concentration difficult. I’m on my third cup of coffee and I can’t help but stare out the window trying to recapture last night’s fading dream of a life of a cowboy.
“找不到你公司税务登记证 ! 在哪里?”
The sound of these foreign words spin me back to reality here in China.
“如果找不到太麻烦!” My secretary again looks at me for a response.
I shut my eyes and focus on the feeling of “Let’er Buck” – a touch of the West, a touch of home.
A world away, I taste the dew of the morning and roll out of bed to gaze over never-ending wheat fields. I imagine saddling up the best friend a cowboy will ever have and head out to face the day.
The feeling of adventure mixed with a taste of adrenaline I suppose is why the cowboy often has a wistful smile as he saddles up.
It doesn’t take long for the soft eyes of my horse to be replaced by the glare of my secretary. Her continual banter in Chinese steals me away from my daydream.
The figures on the spreadsheets in front of me wrestle each other in an endless battle to determine whether the year will see a profit or a loss.
There will be a lot more wrestling with figures before the day ends and the freedom of a ride has never felt so far away. Running on the wind lifted by the cheers of a crowd.
I hold up my hand, and the Chinese words stop mid-sentence and for a second all is quiet, a rare moment of peace.
“I should’ve been a cowboy…” I mutter, a common wish for most guys I grew up with, although for me I admit a life on the back of a bucking bronc is not in my blood.
The courage to ride requires a special spirit infused at birth. The adrenaline rush of the ride, the feel of the rope, speed of the chase and mixing blood with mud is a lifestyle meant only for the few.
What I am chasing though, is almost as elusive, the spirit of the cowboy. The legend created by songs and stories I’ve heard growing up: the down-to-earth attitude, importance of treating each other well and when taking a fall ~ fearlessly dusting off and saddling up again.
Dusting myself off, I stare at my computer and pound out another business email…
The essence of the life of a cowboy defines the spirit of my hometown of Pendleton, Oregon. Waking up every morning with the annual September dream of becoming a cowboy, if only for a day.
To walk out onto the infield grass and take it all in, feeling the crowd with the beating heart of the grandest rodeo in the world, the Pendleton Round-Up.
Around the world there are company executives pilfering the paychecks of their workers, politicians focused on lining their pockets and places where a hard day’s work has become a myth of days gone by.
The cowboy spirit flows through Pendleton with the memories of past cowboy heroes such as Lane Frost, Mike Boothe and Mike Currin – men as genuine in the arena as they were outside.
Also the present champions, Trevor Brazile, winner of four consecutive all-around titles at the Pendleton Round-Up and bareback champion Ty Breuer, showing the heart and spirit of cowboys still run true.
For some, the dreams of the West and the cowboys who built America may be disappearing, however they still remain a strong foundation for the people of Pendleton.
Ranchers and farmers understand there is no such thing as an easy ride and to grab an opportunity when it arrives, knowing it may not come again. So when the rope leaves their hand there is no doubt it will find its mark.
The echo of the rodeo reverberates in my mind, as my fingers struggle to tap out a message on my iPhone. These hands stand in stark contrast to the callused hands of a cowboy holding a rope and reigns.
Any calluses I do have are quickly fading away, perhaps similar to the fading cheers a cowboy hears as he walks away from the arena one last time.
Years ago when I was in my mid-20s, I was talking to a bronc rider after an excellent ride and he said something I’ve never forgotten: “The opening of a bucking chute is like the start of a new day. Some days will be tough with rough rides and broken bones – those days are to be remembered because it makes good days like today taste all the better.”
Patience. Belief. Hard work. Cowboy logic.
There are many things I’ve learned from rodeo champions over the years, but perhaps the most valuable lessons have come from the local farmers and ranchers.
Growing up, my annual summer job at PGG operating Rew grain elevator during harvest stands as one of the best work experiences I’ve ever had.
The many people I worked with at Rew helped form my character, each one having the heart of a Pendleton cowboy. Two such cowboys, Bob Byers, who can create a solution for any problem and Terry Simpson who has an outlook on life second to none; both men define Pendleton perfectly.
From Pendleton to Calgary to Cheyenne and to cities around the world, the spirit of the life of a cowboy flows free and strong. Looking out the window again, I put on a George Strait CD to fit my mood and the music even makes my secretary smile.
Here in China, I’ve found the soul of the cowboy both in myself and in the great people I work with over here.
Closing my eyes, I feel the wind on my face and the pounding of hooves and earth blending perfectly with the music. I feel great.
Yes, I may be thousands of miles from home but all I need to hear are the words “Let’er Buck” and I am right back in the middle of the Pendleton Round-Up arena and it’s a perfect day.
The beginning of December is where the last piece of magic will be performed when future champions get ready to ride at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.
Cowboys who grew up in small towns around the country, holding onto a belief that one day their names will be dancing in the bright lights of Vegas. Their focus locked-in on the final ride of the year and the chance to etch their name in the history books and become a part of cowboy folklore.
Good luck and good health to all. 祝你们好运气，健康.
Posted on October 5, 2015
Crawling out of the teepee at first light, my spirit is buoyed with excitement of the salmon run on the Big River (the Columbia). The echoing roar of Celilo Falls in the background is a symphony, welcoming back the tribes once again.
Rubbing my eyes and taking a cool breath of morning air, there is a light laugh beside me followed by several pieces of salmon pemmican pushed into my hand reminding me while I may not have been born into the Umatilla tribe, I am treated as family.
I spot a friend from the Nimi’ipuu (Nez Perce) tribe across the way, and remember the spring day long ago in 1838 sitting down with Chief Tuekakas (Joseph the Elder) and a group of men from the Hudson’s Bay Company out of Fort Vancouver.
I was a young kid responsible for translation, fascinated by these leaders discussing the impact of the first party of Cherokees to resist removal to a reservation, not yet knowing their brave march westward would one day be known as the Trail of Tears.
The impact of Chief Tuekakas’ words that day led me to take the opportunity to travel with his people, the Nimi’ipuu.
The wisdom I collected over those years I hold with gratitude, but my most cherished moment came the day when we stumbled onto a camp of the Umatilla people at the base of the Blue Mountains. All it took was one look and I realized I had found the destiny I had been searching.
Over the past 20 years since those early days, I have lived with the Walla Walla, rode with the Cayuse and shared many a meal with the Palouse, Tenino and Chinook – learning a culture and a land far removed from my birth home in Scotland.
My memory is faint, but I understand while the climate, terrain and traditions of my homeland are quite different; the love of Mother Earth is the same.
It is with this thought I can rest my head, my mind drifting off to dreams of the past. Crossing the Atlantic with family and friends in the year 1828 to reach the New World only to watch in horror as disease ripped through our cramped tenement housing, wiping out everything I held dear.
Broke and alone by the end of the year, I snuck aboard a wagon train with a dream to arrive in the Oregon Country to make my destiny. Discovered by the wagon master early on the trail, my skills as a fisherman and hunter proved valuable, and at a young age I had my first job.
The journey through the free country of the west taught me the land, accepting the beauty it offered. The berries and roots kept us fed. The buffalo, elk and deer honored us with their great bravery as we matched them with our hunting skills.
Not a day goes by where I do not thank the animals, plants and spirit of this land for all they provide, and acknowledge the tacit agreement where we will take care of Mother Earth in return.
Sitting here today along the banks of the Big River, the current mood of the Umatilla people is of sorrow. During the previous night, a tense meeting with the tribal leaders signaled the inevitable signing of a treaty with Washington D.C. to give up 6.4 million acres of land.
A treaty threatening to strangle the freedom and culture built over thousands of years. When the tribes sign the Treaty of 1855 they will receive in exchange, land designated at the Umatilla Indian Reservation to become a permanent homeland.
My mind clears as I gaze off into the distant waters of Celilo Falls. My wife Awendela silently sings as she ponders the future of her people, repairing the fishing nets needed for another day’s work.
Biting into my pemmican, I retell an old folktale from the past, drawing a parallel with the clash of cultures we are experiencing today, an emphasis to remain strong and positive.
“An old man spoke to his grandson. “My child,” he said. “Inside everyone there is a battle between two wolves. One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, inferiority, lies and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and truth.”
The boy thought for a moment. Then he asked, “Which wolf wins?”
A moment of silence passed before the old man replied, “The one you feed…” ”
Thinking of the world today, I wonder, which wolf is winning?
With the endless cycle of greed that sweeps through men and their politics, I fear the more things change, the more they stay the same.
I feel for the children of this land. The change in lifestyle will be difficult and clashes of culture will create an opportunity for the Evil Wolf to gain traction in the minds of the young.
Turing around, I watch the children of the Cayuse with their ponies teaching the other kids the essence of the magnificent Cayuse horse dominating the plateau. I smile. We can learn much from the children, for their hearts are pure.
Succeed in educating children well and we ensure a way of life and culture forever.
Teach as well as learn the way of the world, and we can all sleep better at night listening to the howling of the Good Wolf, sharing its “joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and truth” with us all.
Yes, feed the Good Wolf. I sigh and take another bite of pemmican…even with the sadness, I believe this shall be a very good season indeed.
NOTE: The photos above are from the Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon pageant taking place every September in Pendleton, Oregon. A communion of sorts for the farmers and ranchers of the area along with the gathering of Native American Indian tribes of the Northwest, with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation hosting a teepee village of over 300 teepees.
A weeklong experience every one should experience once in life ~ Let’er Buck ~
Category: Education, Nature, Philosophy, Photography Tagged: American History, American West, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Culture, Happy Canyon, Identity, Let'er Buck, Native American Folklore, Native Americans, Pendleton Oregon, Pendleton Round-Up, photography
Posted on August 31, 2015
She sits there quietly with the glow of the morning sun reflecting everything a beautiful day should contain. I pace around in search for the perfect angle to enjoy her, and as I look on with eyes filled with desire I set my camera and capture my first sunrise at Arches.
A thought enters my mind…have I just fallen in love?
Stretching out, I close my eyes and sigh. Relaxing under her arch, comfortable with the idea I am experiencing something amazingly new; I consider the gnawing question of “why am I here?”
This thought wriggles around a bit in the back of my mind, but fades as the warmth of the sun and the soft whispers and laughter of the wind allows me to drift off to dream.
Somewhere up north nestled in the Olympic National Forest lies Ellinor, waiting for me and whose love I’ve professed many times. I’ve grown up with her. Shared many summers and winters wrestling with her, the magnificence of her peaks as well as her wicked sense of humor.
Well, her wicked sense of humor will be something I will have to be wary of from this point forward, as news will eventually leak of this tremendous one-night stand I’ve had here in Arches.
Looking down on me now are the eyes of Mother Nature taking stock of her beautiful daughters scattered throughout this land, and the foolish men who try to take them as their own.
Admittedly, I wonder if Mother Nature is planning her revenge, annoyed at me stealthily working my way into another of her daughter’s dreams.
While there is something special returning from a journey or simply escaping life to find Ellinor waiting for me arms open, there is also something special in diving into something new, a sense of freedom speckled with risk and danger.
Mother Nature knows this fact well, within hearts is a desire to pursue. Bravery to chase an undefined destiny and embrace a new challenge. She has admired such and with this thought I beg for her understanding.
Instead of racing up to embrace Ellinor and run my fingers over her once again, I stole out of Seattle and roared down south listening to the inviting whispers of Arches, one of Ellinor’s magnificent cousins.
Leaving behind my steady girl in search for another I am guessing has annoyed Mother Nature, but I figure this is something she has faced since the beginning of time. People running roughshod over her, with appreciation for her beauty and little else.
The thrill of the pursuit never gets old, and Arches has shown me the risk I take is well worthwhile.
With the evening fading, I rise up and rest against a boulder glancing at her boldness once again, where the glow of her skin shifting from the soft light of the morning sun to darkness as starlight now basks upon her; the night air tangling up around her, taking her to bed for the night.
As with Ellinor, the awe and excitement of Arches is naturally breathtaking, with added electricity generated by the unusual and striking differences between the two.
Her feel is different. Her smell. Her sounds.
She ignites freshness from the very core of my soul, lighting a fire of new ideas and dreams. One taste, and it is impossible not to reach for the unknown and hold her forever.
Strangely, the exotic and unknown is something people often fear and avoid. A veil of fear hiding the joys of what life can offer. A veil for sleepwalking through life, afraid of what is different.
Instead, look at the exotic as a gift. The lure of the mysterious is a catalyst for discovery, where new ideas, growth and innovation begins.
As I lay on the ground staring up into the peaceful sky, Arches brings out this curiosity and the lure of possibilities. What is out there?
I hear her words floating around, softly within my dreams and as whispers within the wind. Sweetly telling me to ignore the drone of modern life and wrap myself up into her inviting arms.
Traveling from the temperate rain forest of Ellinor, where new shades of green highlight every visit, to the extreme of the high-desert of Arches, where stunning shades of color seize the senses.
Last night, under a midnight-black sky a perfect song flicked on the radio, the words of Ellinor lighting up the road ahead:
“Go on and close your eyes, go on imagine me there. She’s got similar features with longer hair, and if that’s what it takes to get you through ~ Go on and close your eyes, it shouldn’t bother you…”
– Melissa Etheridge, “Similar Features”
Her words a bit harsh, but I had to find her so I closed my eyes and hit the gas. If all turned out the way I dreamt it to be, my reward would be witnessing the arching of her back in delight as she accepted me as one who was worthy.
Arches brings to me the diverse look of Mother Earth, one to be embraced: an attraction from deep in the heart, full of uncertainty. Something new, similar to the excitement found around the world: a new culture, a different shade of skin or an intriguing philosophy of life.
Nothing can break the strong bonds I hold for Ellinor, she is family and I’ve shared my deepest and greatest secrets with her. However, life is not all a temperate rain forest and Arches has seen to that…
Extremes exist and instead of lashing out in fear at differences, life is more interesting when embracing the mystery. Ellinor may be upset as I continue my courtship with Arches, but it is while she blushes as new hikers arrive to test her slopes, biting her lip as she feels their exotic touch.
Inspiration is one gift nature gives daily, without thought of creed or race, creating one family respectful and caring for the beauty of Mother Nature and her daughters.
Arches. The allure of colors and your perfume floating in the wind are what makes this land great and keeps us coming back for more.
My return to Ellinor will be fueled by the intense feelings we shared this summer. Your bite of inspiration and temptation towards the exotic heightens the meaning of love.
As I again rest my head on my earthen pillow, I hear Ellinor softly whispering to me again: “Go on and close your eyes, go on imagine me there…”
Posted on July 27, 2015
Sri Lanka. No doubt a beautiful country. The lowlands are surrounded by the blue waters of the Indian Ocean rhythmically rolling onto white sandy beaches of the island.
The central highlands, a jungle of green where a cool temperate climate offers a perfect environment for Sri Lanka’s billion-dollar-a-year tea industry. Lush tea plantations scattered throughout the picturesque scenery.
Nestled within the highlands is the city of Nuwara Eliya, one of the premium tea growing areas of the world. High above the clamor of the lowlands, the verdant landscape feels as if time has stood still.
In many ways it has, as for centuries the tea plantations have counted on the quiet exploitation of the Tamil minority group, members of the lowest caste system in Sri Lanka, to pick tea leaves. Isolated in the remote mountainous areas of Sri Lanka, it is the Tamil women who make up the work force that keep this industry flowing.
The life of a tea picker is hard, long days combined with squalor living conditions make it clear why Tamil Indian laborers were imported into the country so long ago to fill such jobs. Jobs locals refused to take.
Upon a wall of a dilapidated shack in a plantation housing project, eight simple words summarizes generations of thought for tea pickers here in Nuwara Eliya: “Life is a pain…endure is the answer.”
A place with little hope, yet the little hope of today is more than they imagined a decade ago.
She looks down at her calloused hands. Her day picking tea leaves having just ended, she winces at the pain as she lifts her bag of leaves and gives them to the field manager.
Ahead is a hard hour hike home over the hill where she will busy herself with chores, fetch water, cook dinner for her family and then spend what little time remains with her reason for living: her beautiful baby daughter.
Tears well up in her eyes as she honestly wonders if this is as good as it gets.
Every day is the same bad dream, the same hell. Day in. Day out. She wakes up prior to dawn and sets out to the tea fields, plucking tea until dusk and then takes the long hike home. Praying for no harassment, praying for a peaceful night. She understands this is the fate of a Tamil woman on a tea plantation: a woman with little power, a woman with little control of her life.
Sadness hits when she realizes if her young daughter is lucky enough, she may have at best a similar fate. “If she is lucky…” Quickly she erases any such negative thought from her mind.
As a member of the Tamil minority group working in a male dominated culture, there simply are few options available for her, her daughter or their future.
This thought breaks her heart.
She looks out her doorway at a group of Save the Children workers and dreams the impossible dream for her daughter.
Could the promise of a safe environment for children; a school for her daughter to attend and learn the wonders of the world become a reality?
She allows herself to smile inwardly at such hope, but understands Sri Lanka and the history and culture of her people all to well to put such faith into the future.
Standing in the doorway, she ponders the stories and rumors of Save the Children, the hope this organization has brought to neighboring tea plantations. It is a glint of a possibility, the chance of future happiness for her daughter.
She steps closer to listen to the voices of the workers as supplies are dropped off, and before she is noticed she quickly slips back into her tiny shack.
As she begins to prepare dinner she senses a tingling of awareness, the freedom the human soul needs to dream and pursue experiences.
Tonight she is happy. She reflects back on the stories of suffering and repression told by her grandmother and mother, as well as the horrible experiences she’s had herself, but instead of defeat she sees hope. The hope the vicious cycle of oppression will end.
Generations upon generation of young women are born into servitude in the tea industry, forever working the tea fields of Sri Lankan tea plantations.
The high country of Nuwara Eliya, far removed from the large cities and their economic successes, has remained stuck in the dark ages. Business corruption and ancient ideas thousands of years old keep the Tamil people of this area stuck in purgatory.
The Tamils give their life and blood to the tea industry, making up 2% of the country’s GDP, a commitment spanning centuries. It is a hard life, and while the industry is trying to find a way to give back, there are conflicts of interest.
Business is business, and tea plantation owners are currently undergoing a deteriorating market for Ceylon Tea. In addition to the fear of further decreases in sales and higher costs of providing benefits to the field workers, plantation owners are also terrified of losing a cheap workforce by allowing freedoms and opportunities to the Tamil women and children.
Save the Children as well as other relief organizations have been working to break this relentless and cruel cycle robbing the potential of these children. It is difficult to not shudder while looking into their eyes understanding the future ~ their fate determined at birth.
Change is not easy, especially given the tension between gender and class struggle seeped in cultural beliefs spanning millenniums. The Tamil women and children face daily battles in this quagmire of repression.
A Sri Lankan worker at Save the Children discussed the value the organization brings to the people of Nuwara Eliya, mentioning a quote from Swami Vivekananda, “Dare to be free, dare to go as far as your thought leads, and dare to carry that out in your life.”
This piece of Hindu philosophy, an important part of their culture, rings hollow to them. It is difficult for them to grasp the idea of freedom not to mention the courage to act on such thoughts.
The people of Sri Lanka are the ones stepping up to make a difference. Sri Lankans with the wisdom to understand the value women and children have to their country and their efforts within the Save the Children system brings real change via the following programs:
Such programs provide the base to empower the women of Nuwara Eliya and of Sri Lanka. When hope is instilled in a group, confidence soon follows giving strength to tackle issues. Real change begins to take place.
The Tea Association of Sri Lanka is working with Save the Children on an updated branding model for Fair Trade Tea, a platform of reform for all large tea estates to provide specific and permanent benefits for women and children within their plantation.
In the past, salaries of women from the tea estates were transferred directly to the “man of the house” with the result of wages often wasted on alcohol or gambling.
No longer is this the case. Women now receive salaries directly so the money can be used to buy food and necessary items for childcare. This is empowerment. Step-by-step, change is happening. The dreams of children are beginning to form.
She again stands in the doorway, this time watching her grown daughter go off to work. Her daughter, as with past generations of her family continues the tradition of working on the tea estates…but here is a twist to the tale. Instead of picking leaves in a field far away, she is wearing a white blouse and has entered a nurse-in-training program at the local clinic.
Her daughter looks back and gives a quick smile before disappearing into the plantation’s maternity clinic.
Her eyes well up with tears once again as they had every evening in the past when she worked in the fields. This time, however, the tears of sadness are absent instead flowing down her cheeks are tears of pure happiness…
Save the Children and other aid groups such as World Vision are working in Sri Lanka to break the cycle of repression. To provide hope for children and their mothers, an opportunity to achieve what once was unimaginable: an education and a dream of advancement.
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