Welcome to JP Melville's review, experience, and statement on foreign aid and the international development industry. A conservative faith in family. A love affair riding the riotous tensions between money, personal freedom, the majestic travesty of our specie's ecological footprint, and economic politics. Selected writing of both prose and poetry, anecdotal travel log to rhetorical essay, dating back from the 1980's to the present. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Tibet – The making of a heretic

once upon a time, in a land far, far away
you asked about my work
China - Canada
government to government
some sort of partnership between politics and bureaucracies
and me.

Find Lhasa on the map,
place a pin three hours out of town on a place called Tsetang,
give the pin a label:
private sector bilateral project manager
international development aid consultant
expert rural planner
professional whooo…
I run out of breath defining myself.

You wished for an update from my end
what was there to tell?

I was on my own, days rolled by
at first, as always, a great thrill, arriving in a new place
arriving where everything is new
all the shops interesting to look into,
even underwear
or toothpaste
or soap
seems unique.

There was the bustle of people,
new colours of skin
new pupils in children’s eyes
new shrill voices ricocheting in my ears
beggars chanting, some barking "Hello! Hello!"
smells of sweet sour sweat flesh tingling in my nostrils
And the cold, crisp air of altitude.

There was architecture
a Potala to gape at
but my eyes reached around corners
of cut stone and dirty whitewashed walls three stories high,
my eyes reached upward
into twisted windows with little jutting wooden parapets
some with shanks of yak meat hanging, drying in the harsh sun
some with struggling potted red geraniums and dwarf scarlet roses
some with a rag of cloth and prayers printed into the weave
scattering faith to the blustering wind,
my eyes squeezed under the low lintels of doorways
through passageways into the secrets of domestic spaces
to a tap running water in a courtyard
and young women washing their hair together
the suds spilling over the cobbled compound floor
for an instant
their eyes caught mine
breach of privacy and intimacy,
so I turned and I was gone,
my footsteps carried me past the photograph now in my memory.

There was dirt
paving stones greasy with years of spit
slippery with wash water thrown out of doorways,
bits of oily vegetable scum
carrot scrapings, potato peelings
and yellow plastic and crumpled paper melting,
floating in eddies of grey waste water spilled from public taps.

And human shit lying on patches of bare ground
turds in half coils, the mark of an old woman squatting,
urine wet on walls flipped from men’s loose zippers
acrid stench electrifying the short hairs in my nostrils
yes, the stench, snapping, sizzling, scintillating shock
only replaced doors down
by another
chemistry of the air
everywhere a restaurant
everywhere a hawker of fruit, apples, oranges, dates, raisins
everywhere vegetables in carts
markets in side streets
markets beneath huge canopies
shades and shapes of rich greens yellows whites
flowing over table tops
red spices
brown spices
roots ground into powder
seeds some ochre
seeds some black
seeds some round
seeds some split...



soul food...

for one dollar a bowl of boiled vegetable wrapped in cloaks of dough
for one dollar a bowl of noodles and meat
for one dollar steamed buns and bright red chilli sauce
for three dollars more than you can eat
for ten dollars an excellent meal
for fifty dollars, extravagance...

Those were some of my first days' imprints
now soaked into my mind
still seeping somewhere into my loneliness
and I wonder,
why was I there?

Because of people?

Taxi drivers with wrinkled faces, uncombed hair
a cigarette dangling from their mouth
white gloves on their hands,
a business the same as everywhere
a man who will take you to where you are going
a word, maybe two, suffices
the gears grate in rumbling, rattled shells of cars
destination reached
door opens
money changes hands
relationship over
you and the driver both having accomplished something
something which leaves you right back at the beginning
the search for someplace else to go.

Women, young women on the streets
foreigners to this high altitude
though not to this nation state
pairs walking arm in arm
shopping for clothes
lipstick painted on their mouths
high heels, tight pants, stiff  blouses
one jet black hair cut sharply, the other stained henna
today's fashion, yesterday's, no difference,
could be Schipol
Fifth Avenue
Potsdamer Platz

so many men imported from the lowlands
some marching on the streets
all times of the day
grey suits
black suits
and that was it
no other colours
no other choice
some suits even digging in ditches
useful bodies
useless persons
labourers, one gone, another fills the void
mindless sweat
serfs of a material world
all anonymous bodies
in an anonymous world.

Some faces interspersed Caucasian
German, American, Swiss
tourists, maybe pilgrims too
pants loose jackets wild
hair dishevelled, long
cheeks unshaven, eyes flirting
these men from strange lands
came to find something
something missing somewhere else.

But then these other women, who were they,
cheeks ruddy,
genetic generations in low oxygen altitude purple skin
hair braided to their waists
hands’ skin black from the cold, the sun,
and for sure the  grain threshing in some village far, far away
gaudy, heavy turquoise beads strung from necks
robes from shoulders reaching to ankles
ragged sneakers on their feet
red, blue, white coloured strands of wool
were these women younger
were they older
some with child strapped to their back
some a sack full of mystery
or necessary stuff only to be forgotten in time
these women from someplace strange
far, far away
at that snapshot moment
there in that city
there these women were
there as pilgrims
there visiting family
or there wondering what was happening to their world
their eyes looked at me,
right through me,
stranger from a strange land.

And their men
pilgrims too
also dressed in robes, these reached to their knees
white fur lined robes
angora goats slaughtered for warmth
beneath which they wore woolen pants
and multiple strands of bright red wool
wound into their long, black hair
knotted over their heads,
odd, some of these men wore suits
their hair styles and ruddy brown faces
did not seem out of place.

So my eyes remarked on those tapestry aprons, women
So my eyes remarked on red wool in hair, men
absolute confidence
with the strength of a past world no longer alive
and with a solicitous triad
of ignorance, pride, and vanity
for which women will breed
and men will kill.

I used to think sorrowfully about people losing their traditional ways
self righteous anger burgeoning in my veins
but now I am not so sure
not even sure if traditional ways are being lost
some people worry themselves about the flooding of Tibet
with those millions of people from other places in China
poor men who can make shoes on the side of the street
with only three pieces of equipment
poor women who can make money
by renting their bodies in a bustling economy far from home
poor farmers who grow vegetables in greenhouses
for nothing other than cash
or the petty bourgeois who come
to open a restaurant
to open a tailor shop
to open a bicycle parts store
to open a sheet metal fabrication enterprise
yes, all these masses of people
some going there and setting roots
some failing, returning home.

Yes, once I worried
about ways of life
about families who had lived in one place for generations
and generations before that
and even before that...

But are not all subject to change?

You?  Me?  Everyone?

So, in that place called Tibet
I saw change
I saw myself inside that change
as I walked the streets and people looked at me
expectations and assumptions and wonder of the white man.

In the end
I have no idea what I took there
or what I perhaps brought out.
I was trained to be conscious of values
Of matters of importance.
In the end,
it all seemed so small,
my conscious thought,
my own small world,
to which the exit door was locked.

I wonder, now,
about these languages in my mouth, how they colour my mind
about these economies which both exploit me and drive me on
about the political tyranny of the masses
about some invisible cabal
which bar or open the gates to which my clenched fists grasp.

All that which I saw
all that which I see
these are the tides of my civilization
about which I can think, feel, or espouse
yet never, ever, ever understand.

Somewhere, maybe everywhere,
I now have come to believe
flows an unconscious river
so very exciting washing around through all of us.

All those people I saw there,
In that land they call Tibet
claims of justice, progress, order
claims of genocide, oppression, exploitation
Or just a mad revel of humanity.

I was a development worker!
I was a development worker?

A heretic,
my friend.

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