As I gaze out on the majestic snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji framed by brilliant blue sky and sea this morning, I am counting my blessings, grateful for the opportunity to discover a whole new world beyond American shores.
The year 2000 will be memorable as my "traveling" year! In February, I celebrated the twins’ first birthday with them in California and shared lunch with my Pisces sister and sister-in-law on a stopover in Portland. Then my sister Ann came to visit for Spring Vacation, and we did a little sightseeing in my neighborhood. Now it looks as though 2001 will be a repeat, with another whirlwind trip to Palm Desert in February and my niece visiting in April.
In the summer, I spent some time in Portland, a week at my beloved Cannon Beach, awhile with the twins, and a few days with Karen at Yosemite, where she was employed chasing bears out of the park at night, before embarking on a trip around the world. I was lured to Italy by an invitation to speak at a conference there, so visited Venice and Florence on my way. Venice was fascinating as a city that relies totally on water transportation; I saw a man unloading cement from a boat, and marveled at the fact that there was no evidence of a cement mixer to keep it from hardening. I watched the street vendors outside my hotel laboriously wheel in carts of fruits and vegetables every morning, and then wheel them out again at night. A side trip to Murano introduced me to the art of blowing glass, where each family has a distinctive technique handed down through the generations.
Visiting Venice and Florence was like revisiting Art 101, enabling me to see and appreciate the work of many of the artists, sculptors and architects I had only read about. The conference was held in the Abruzzo region northwest of Rome, and was fascinating for the collection of people of disparate backgrounds from all over the world who are working to improve computing technology or using it to teach and communicate in the "global village." We spent the last day exploring the ruins of Rome before I flew on to Tokyo (via Geneva, where I bought chocolate, of course). Although Italy was fascinating and inspiring, I got tired of carrying my wallet and passport under my shirt, and overheard one too many impassioned Italian arguments to think I would want to live there.
In November, I spoke to a conference of international school librarians in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This turned out to be my introduction to some geopolitical realities: where in Italy the history is of frequent wars between various city-states, the boundaries of Southeast Asia were drawn by European colonizers attempting to capitalize on the rich natural resources of tin, gold, and spices, with no regard for the ethnic background of the people who lived there. Why, I wondered, is Malaysia split into two parts (with one part comprising only part of the island of Borneo)? The tiny country of Brunei is also tucked into a corner of Borneo, and the rest is part of Indonesia, while Singapore is another tiny country at the tip of the Malay peninsula. It’s not surprising that there are splinter groups of ethnic minorities fighting for independence throughout this part of the world – very similar to the continuing strife in the former Yugoslavia.
Thailand is very proud to be the only Southeast Asian country that was never colonized by Europeans, although in the process the kingdom of Siam gave up Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia and Laos. The name "Thailand" means "land of the free." Thailand is 95% Buddhist while its neighbor Malaysia is predominantly Muslim. Both countries are actively pursuing a technological future; in Thailand for Christmas, I noticed satellite dishes atop thatched-roof houses in remote villages. The contrast between tin-roofed houseboats on stilts and the modern high rises in the background along the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok is striking. In Chiang Mai, we saw traditional cottage industries beating silver, spinning and weaving silk, carving teak, painting lacquerware and making paper by hand. Yet 80% of the Thais are still agricultural, cultivating rice, garlic, soya beans, and their incredibly sweet and juicy pineapple. They train monkeys to pick coconuts, and train elephants to do almost anything! Farther north, we visited some of the fiercely independent hill tribes, and were startled by natives introducing themselves as "from Minnesota" – they were there to visit relatives.
In the ancient capital of Ayutthaya, we were approached by polite, well-dressed youngsters who wanted to practice their English, while in one of the hill tribe villages, we were accosted by filthy youngsters who had been trained to beg from the tourists. Each of the countries I visited has a culture much older and richer than the American melting pot’s experiment with democracy, yet evidence of American influence is pervasive. Tourist hotels and shopping malls featured "Merry Xmas" signs and decorations. One can buy anything in Thailand; although I wasn’t interested in the knock-offs and imitations of Rolex, Gucci, et al., I was amused to see T-shirts featuring Teletubbies as well as Disney characters hanging from the stalls.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have these opportunities to live in and learn about other parts of the world at this relatively late stage of my life. It has given me a profound appreciation of both the similarities and differences between peoples, as well as the hope that our relatively recent technological links can strengthen our mutual knowledge and respect.
Wishing you peace in the new millennium,