The World As It Is
From the Strait of Malacca to the top of Mt. Nebo, this year has been a whirlwind of traveling and seeing the world. First I went to Myanmar and Malaysia in February, then on to Jordan in June. I still plan to visit Peru in August and Mexico in November, just to top off the year. This is after 6 intensive years of several visits to India, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, and Japan. Oh yes, and there were trips to the UK, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Hungary, too.
I realize that I am one of the lucky ones. I have had a chance to see the spread of culture and human civilization as it has splayed itself out over the land and through the centuries, both in the Orient and in the Occidental world.
Many of the places I go are way off the beaten track for American tourists; therefore, I’ve had a unique peek at the world as it is in so many places.
All through this time I’ve made observations about the patterns that I’ve seen; I’ll share them with you now.
- No matter where I go, there are bustling markets. The street markets give the richest sense of the vibrancy of the culture. Vendors selling local wares (or cheaply-made imitations) to lure the tourists, are evident everywhere. In some small villages in Cambodia, for example, I knew that none of the shoppers had the means of refrigeration; therefore, the grocery shopping trip for the day was vital to keeping families healthy.
Street market scene in Budapest
In major cities in Europe, in Budapest, for example, the produce was impeccably displayed and the variety was astounding. This was quite unlike the local markets in Southeast Asia where only locally grown produce is sold. Street markets conveyed to me the sense of urgency these small business people were feeling in trying to make a living in a highly competitive world. At the same time, when things were slow, I saw a sense of boredom from shop tenders from the many, many hours spent at the storefront.
- Every culture has a spiritual tradition. And, all take their spirituality with great reverence and devotion. Whether it is Buddhist pilgrims circumambulating the Swedagon in Rangoon (Myanmar), Hindu devotees to Ganesh offering prayers and burning incense at a temple in India, or Christian tourists at the top of Mt. Nebo in Jordan (where Moses looked out on the holy land), all have a strong sense of belonging to that place and time. Most noticeable, however, is the wide variety of practices and traditions in the Muslim world; and tolerance is the norm, rather than the exception.
- The technologies of the Internet and cellular phones are ubiquitous
Sreeni Nalagandla in Chennai, India
except in some countries where the governments are particularly threatened by democracy movements and popular access to information. In some countries it is evident that the government uses a heavy hand to control the information flow. In others, the information flows freely from all sources and without censorship. Cellular phones with eCommerce capabilities are quickly overtaking PC-based platforms as the technology of choice for younger, more mobile populations.
- Freedoms taken for granted in the U.S. and Europe, like for example, freedom of the press or the freedom to assemble, are not always available to the people in other countries. In countries where there is an implicit threat to personal safety due to past government actions and human rights abuses there tends to be a more subdued and submissive population. Eye contact is clouded by suspicion and the struggle for survival is much more primal.
- The human/environment interface is taxed to the limit. It was most disconcerting to see the plethoria of plastic bags spread out across a once pristine beach far, far away from any civilization on a tiny island off the coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea. Similarly, it made me sad to see the children playing among the trash heaps along the shores of the Buckingham Canal in Chennai, India where the poor are camped out in make-shift structures.
- Non-governemental organizations (NGOs) seeking to provide assistance with microlending, medical care, skills training, education for the young and many other things are evident everywhere. There are both religious and secular NGOs, all doing good work and channeling greatly needed resources and expertise to those areas of the greatest need. My focus has been on those promoting fair trade as a tool for enhancing the livelihoods and the quality of life for local villagers.
- Access to water by the masses is becoming more and more difficult. At a public well in Jordan I saw the women going to fetch their water for the day for cooking and cleaning and bathing all from a common public well. I saw the same among the Hill Tribe people in the Golden Triangle, and I saw the same in Egypt. At least they had water; there are many that don’t.
- Trade interconnectivity is more and more noticeable as the effects of globalization take hold in every corner of the earth. ATMs are available in most major cities (except Rangoon), ports are bustling with inbound and outbound supplies and equipment, factories are producing consumer products. Even in a small village along the shore of the Irrawaddy where transportation is primitive, the villagers have found ways to get their products to market; by foot.
Villagers carrying pots to the ferry in Myanmar
- The role of women in society is changing for the better in most places I have visited, and with that, the well-being of society overall has improved. As more and more women become vocal spokespersons in political and socioeconomic life, societies become more and more just and humane. Political systems become more transparent and equitable, the conduct of commerce becomes less cut-throat, and the balance between work and play becomes more evident.
- All humans share the same set of basic emotions: love, hate, jealously, anger, tenderness toward children and those most vulnerable, hope for a better future, etc… at the core we are all the same.
The world as it is…..