A Meaningful Christmas And Birthday Present For Myself

I decided to give myself a special and meaningful Christmas and birthday present.

I received two emails one day – one from ORBIS and another one from a Christian group. In their newsletters, they invited their donors to have a site visit. The ORBIS one would go to Cambodia (max 8 people only) while the Christian group would go to Yunnan, China. I responded to both.  

I got rejected by ORBIS, obviously. I wasnโ€™t surprised at all.

So, there I went to the remote areas in Yunnan to visit the primary schools and distribute Christmas presents to the school kids there. Isn’t it what we are supposed to do at Christmas?

When the primary school students thanked me, I just couldn’t help myself from thinking, ‘what have I done to deserve it?’

Dinner on our first night. Yes, food again. ๐Ÿ˜€ Food is good. ๐Ÿ˜€ Wherever we went, we were accompanied by the local police, including dinner time. It was a sumptuous dinner! The food tasted very nice and what you can see in this photo was not all. I was too busy eating so when some other dishes were served, I didn’t bother taking any more photos. ๐Ÿ˜€

The Christian group used our donations to sponsor students, build new schools, renovate old and torn down schools and construct facilities in villages. The first place we visited was a village with a newly built well. It was actually a big project because the organisation didnโ€™t just dig a hole in the ground. They also installed pipes in the village so that the water could reach all the households in the village. The whole project was solely sponsored by this Christian group.

On our way to the village. We had a little drama here. Half way through our trip, the police found out that the highway we were on was still under construction (you can see the construction work and a bulldozer ahead of our cars) so we needed to take another route – a more dangerous route.

While we were waiting on the minibus, I talked to one of the donors in our group. She told me she wasnโ€™t a Christian. Rather, she was a Buddhist.  She sponsored these kids because she thought education was very important. Ignorance is a โ€˜sinโ€™ in Buddhism. She said, โ€˜If we have more educated people, our world will be a much better place. Imagine, what will these people do if they donโ€™t have the chance to receive education?โ€™  

You can see in this photo that the roads were very narrow. These trees you can see in this photo were actually grown on a cliff. The driver told us it would be very dangerous if it rained. It’s not hard to imagine what the lives of the villagers were like.
I was standing beside the well when I took this photo. Wasnโ€™t it beautiful? This type of farming (terracing or terrace farming) is very popular in Yunnan because of the numerous steep slopes in the province. In the northern part of Vietnam, you can also find this type of farming method because that area is very close to Yunnan so they share very similar landscape.
Drying the corn. Corn is food. It’s supposed to be for us to consume. It is not a substitute for fuel. It’s for humans and farm animals and this is also what the villagers rely on.
A kitchen. We visited a household in the village. I was so tempted to tell them that their kitchen was even bigger than mine and it had got everything there too. ๐Ÿ™‚   I was glad that they had clean water now.
The first school that we visited.  What a warm welcome! Can you see the ‘green carpet’? The students carefully selected the green grass, laid it on the ground and made it a nice natural ‘carpet’ for us.  Wasn’t it thoughtful?

At the entrance of this primary school, the teachers gave us some wine. I had a sip. It was very very very smooth (and strong like the one I had in Beijing) and it tasted better than whisky. ๐Ÿ˜›

Food again!!!  ๐Ÿ™‚ The teachers and the students prepared this food for us. Look at the table! The students laid the tables with grass too! So thoughtful! In fact, the food was quite nice.  We even had tofu in sweet soup for dessert. I hope all this preparation didn’t take them too long. I didnโ€™t want them to spend too much time on cooking for us than studying. (photo was contributed by one of our group members.)
Look at the students! It was a big event for them so they all dressed up in their own ethnic clothes. So pretty!! ๐Ÿ™‚ After we gave out our gifts, we took a group photo.

When I was giving out the presents to the students, I saw a little kid in an oversized jacket. He looked so cute in it. ๐Ÿ™‚ I wanted to take a picture of him but I couldn’t find him afterwards.

That was probably the nicest suit he could get from his family.

The school and the VIP area. It looked so modern now.
Around the school, I found this harmonious scene โ€“ a cat and a puppy curling and sleeping beside each other. The puppy looked so cute! It looked like it was smiling!! ๐Ÿ™‚ Sweet dreams!! ๐Ÿ™‚
This little kid looked like he was peeping. He was probably curious about my camera. ๐Ÿ˜€
Neighbours near the second school we visited.
This school hadn’t been built yet. The current school needed renovation badly so the Christian group donated some money to this school to build a new school building with dormitories in this location.
Hence, our mission was to lay the foundation stone. That was my first time to experience this.  It was so fun! The shovel was very heavy though. We thought we needed to ‘bury’ the foundation stone so we kept shovelling the sand towards it. ๐Ÿ˜€   When the stone was almost half ‘buried’, the Christian group staff stopped us.  After all, it was our first time. ๐Ÿ˜€
After the ceremony finished, the students took the benches away. I tried to help them but the bench was so heavy that I could hardly lift it. You can imagine how heavy it was for them.
The blueprint of the new school. Yunnan also experiences earthquakes so all the school buildings sponsored by this Christian group had to be earthquake proof. Several years after our trip, an earthquake happened. The organisation told us that all the schools they built survived the earthquake. This reminds me of a talk that I attended in Singapore about the work done by volunteers in Nepal.
While the staff were discussing the blueprint of the school, I requested to have a look at their current school site. This was their current classroom.

I asked the kids to show me around the school. They were very shy and none of them wanted to do it. Then suddenly, one little kid came out from the crowd volunteered to be my guide.  When I said little, I really meant it. He was very short and he looked very young but it turned out that he was a Primary 6 student. I was so shocked that when one of the teachers saw my facial expression, she laughed.

The dormitory. This dormitory had two beds as you can see but it housed 6 kids. It was a bit overcrowded.
Dinner for tonight. It was winter solstice. On that day, Chinese eat glutinous rice balls. Thatโ€™s one of the dishes we had for dinner (you can see someone was taking two pieces of glutinous rice balls from the bowl of soup). Can you see the sweet brown bread on the left? Thatโ€™s my favourite. I donโ€™t know what it really was. I just liked it. By now, you should have probably noticed that I like โ€˜breadโ€™ (or flour, lol!), like the ones I had in Georgia (the country, not the state), Turkey, Iran and the steamed buns I ate in Tibet. ๐Ÿ˜€

The next day, we went to a gorge where another school was situated.

You can see villagers drying corn everywhere.
Ham factory
The village
Her smile looked like she had brought sunshine to her village.
The kids were having their class. The meaning of Christmas was written on the blackboard outside the classroom.  
Our lunch at school
Toast. The teachers sang to us.
This little girl looked so cute!!!
Yes, this room was their classroom and bedroom. You can see holes in the ceiling. The one in Cambodia looked so much better.
The teachers showed us the village.
Terracing / terrace farming
You can clearly see here, right under their farm, it was a cliff.
The gorge (it’s called Jiyi). The teachers of the school took us here. The paths heading to this place were rugged and narrow, but the teachers were wearing high-heel shoes!  One of them said, โ€˜we are used to it.โ€™
For us, the trail led us to some scenic spots but for the local people, it was their daily commute. On our way back to the school from the gorge, we saw this old man. We didn’t know where he was heading, maybe to the other side of the gorge, but I just knew that life was hard for him. It wasn’t easy to walk on those paths even with nothing on the back.
Watering the vegetables
Another farmer carrying bulky stuff. The bulky things weren’t logs. They were dried leaves of corn. I heard they were used for feeding animals.
Villagers. This is how most Chinese carry their babies on their back. The ‘rucksack’ is usually made of cloth and has embroidery like this one.
What a beautiful full moon! Nope, grass is not always greener on the other side. The same applies to the moon. The moon we see on Earth is the same regardless of where we are. You may find it larger in some months because of the way it orbits but it is still the same moon we are talking about.
It’s our perception that makes the difference.
C’est bon. Our dinner for tonight. Deep fried grasshoppers. ๐Ÿ™‚ No, I didnโ€™t eat them. ๐Ÿ˜€ Erโ€ฆ happy birthday. ๐Ÿ˜€
We left the village and went to the city today. It was so interesting to see these maps on the ground.
A skyscraper. What a huge contrast between the village and the city! Maybe those kids we visited back in 2007 are now working in the city. Most importantly, I hope they are contributing to their alma mater.
A lake in the city. Which one is better, a lake in a village or in a city? I think both are equally important.
Guess what it was? Mango pudding? Nope! Ta-da! Pumpkin!!!  ๐Ÿ˜€
A welcome procession. I couldn’t believe my eyes and my ears! It was another surprise after the first school we visited.

The band took us to the school.

When we arrived at the school, we saw a huge crowd. Not only students, we also saw parents of the kids and some villagers. After the procession, there were fireworks too. It was such a grand welcome.

This school was renovated. Thanks to one of the guys in our group who generously made a donation to make it happen. But he kept it very low profile. He didnโ€™t sit at the VIP area nor did he make any speech. He just took photos of the students, his wife and us. Thatโ€™s all.

The Christian group laid out all the presents including stationery, scarves, gloves, woollen hats, etc. at the VIP area and we started to pack them into individual bags. We were like Santa Claus to the kids. ๐Ÿ™‚   I like being Santa Claus. ๐Ÿ™‚   I hope these kids are now contributing to the society and are helping other kids and families in need too.

Happy students
Isnโ€™t she pretty? I really like her ethnic dress.
Performance by a student
Performance by students. I donโ€™t know the ethnicity of these girls but I really love their outfit!!!  ๐Ÿ˜€
Our last dinner / Christmas dinner. ๐Ÿ˜€  The food was GREAT!!  The presentation was unique too!!  The restaurant was like a museum. Guess which dish I liked? Yes! The sweet brown bread again!! ๐Ÿ˜€

This sumptuous and delicious dinner ended our trip.

Happy birthday and merry Christmas. ๐Ÿ˜€

21 December 2007 โ€“ 25 December 2007

P.S. A few years after our trip, the Christian group informed us that free education was extended to people living in very remote villages, basically everyone in China. Donors could thus choose to discontinue our donations or continue to sponsor students who wished to continue their study in colleges but were struggling financially.

In fact, I don’t want to see so many NGOs in one country. It’s not a good sign. Like in Cambodia where I volunteered for nearly 8 months, the number of foreign NGOs is so high. Common sense tells us why. One of the local Cambodians told me the number of NGOs (foreign and local) had dropped over the past decade which I think is good but still there are many of them. However, I don’t think he would agree with me because he is also a founder of a local NGO. ๐Ÿ˜€ I actually don’t know what his NGO does. It’s a mystery to me. But some French volunteers came to help him for a couple of months when I was there and they said they helped people living in the slums to build a shelter. Another source told me the situation in the slums has improved. I don’t know if it’s because of his NGO or if it’s because the country is getting much wealthier than before (the Cambodian government has decided to eliminate poverty in the next few years so the country has been working hard on this) Again, as I mentioned in my other blog, don’t use the developed countries’ standard to measure the standard of developing countries. Always use the local standard. And the local standard in Cambodia was presented to me by my students last year in their one-minute presentation here. Check it out. ๐Ÿ˜‰ 

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