Thursday, May 22, 2008

Grapes of Global Wrath

Four years ago, I finished a season of huts work just as a good friend of mine was finishing a year of teaching english at a Thai university. I flew out to southeast Asia to meet up with him, with the goal of taking a long hike near Siguniang Shan (pictured), at the edge of the Tibetan plateau in western Sichuan province.

We spent a week in the mountains and saw blue sky once, when the clouds cleared for about an hour one morning (but that one hour was absolutely spectacular). Another morning, a yak trampled and ripped our tent while we were out on a short walk from out campsite. After coming from Thailand, we were cold and damp and we weren't enjoying our Chinese camp food nearly as much as Thai cuisine. So we cut the hike short and spent most of our time instead in the nearby town of Rilong, a Tibetan ranching village that was transitioning its economy to serve more and more Chinese tourists, plus a few days in the city of Chengdu.

Essentially, we spent all our time in China within 50 miles of the recent earthquake's epicenter. And the four-hour bus ride between Rilong and Chengdu took us through some of the hardest-hit cities, including Dujiangyan and the town of Yingxiu.

From what I can tell, both Rilong and Chengdu - and presumably, the incredibly warm, funny, and hospitable Ma family that hosted us there - fared relatively well in this disaster. Still, it's not difficult to imagine how terrifying it might be over there.

Much has been made of how open China's press has been in this disaster, and how the country is now accessible to global media, and a greater degree of global empathy. But the mountain towns west of the epicenter are only connected to the outside world by a tenuous two-lane highway and power line that threads its way through huge mountains, and both are now buried under landslides in several places. For a while, these places will have to survive as they did for centuries - cut off from any communication or commerce save for that provided by two days of walking. For a while, all the promise of easier living with indoor plumbing and washing machines has been swept away by the old basic struggle for survival.

Maybe this, and the context of China's position and its ambitions, is why I was instantly reminded of Rose of Sharon in The Grapes of Wrath when I heard about this story: a young Chinese police officer who is also a recent mother has been breastfeeding numerous babies in the earthquake's shelters for children who have been orphaned or whose mothers are too exhausted to feed them.

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