Monthly Archives: November 2012

Two Stories of Cambodia and Great Reads

We were seated in Happy Lucky’s Teahouse in Old Town Fort Collins just a few days before Thanksgiving and Kari Grady Grossman, co-owner of the teahouse, stopped by. We were chatting with a mutual friend, Dr. Bill Timpson, and he introduced us to Kari. Our book, The Leopard Tree, came up in the conversation and we gave her a copy. She then gave us a copy of Bones That Float, her book about adopting their child from Cambodia. We had heard that a percentage of profits at the Teahouse go to support of a school in Cambodia but did not know the deeper story.

I was already started on the Kindle book, In the Shadow of the Banyan Tree by Vaddey Ratner at home on my iPad. Raami, a 7-year-old girl from a Cambodian royal family, narrates the story. She walks with a brace due to polio and is the apple of her poet father’s eye. When the Khmer Rouge overrun Phnom Penh in 1975, she and her family are placed on a forced journey to a remote village, while hiding their identity as privileged royalty. To be discovered is certain death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The book tells the story of four years of desperate struggles with hunger and abuse. Raami is a survivor despite her disability, but she ages emotionally as she is forced to grow up and live without parental protection.

In the epilogue to the book the author explains that the book is fiction that closely parallels her actual growing up years in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge domination. The poetry of Vaddey Ratner’s language is charming and offsets to some degree the pain of the story. People suffered greatly and died in great numbers form 1975 to 1979 in Cambodia. I finished the book with a sense of relief and appreciation of the arduous journey many people have had in that nation.

Bones That Float: A Story of Adopting Cambodia is not a Kindle book so as soon as I finished In the Shadow of the Banyan Tree, I picked up the hard copy Kari gave us and began reading. For two days I could only put it down to do chores and necessary work. Her non-fiction story follows her own journey from unsuccessful attempts to have a child with her husband, George, through their decision to adopt a boy from a Cambodian orphanage. They would slowly find they were adopting a very troubled nation as well.

Kari learned that many orphans in Cambodia are actually the child of a family or parent who feels ill-equipped to raise and feed the child. She learned her son might have living family in Cambodia. Would he want to know them one day? Would his sister end up in a brothel for the lack of opportunities now available to her younger brother living in Colorado? Kari reveals her inner thoughts throughout the book, which follows her journeys to Cambodia to find their son’s family. In the process she becomes friends with an endearing taxi driver, who helps them as they start a school in rural Cambodia.

Bones That Float is a braided story of Kari’s search for her son’s family, the hardships faced by friends from Cambodia before immigrating, and the challenges of starting a school in a nation where corruption is the norm. Some names were changed to protect people in Cambodia, but the story is true, compelling and important.

The story is shared in local schools in Fort Collins in a reading program under an appropriate version for young people entitled, Teacher Absent Often. Sales of the book help with support of the school in Cambodia through the nonprofit, Sustainable Schools International.

Happy Lucky’s Teahouse is a regular stop for us to meet friends and talk. It has an even more special feel with the knowledge of the journey behind the family and their work in Cambodia. Healing is a process that does not end in months or even years after genocide, but people who help with the healing and restoration are a treasure.

– Tim Merriman


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Before You Visit China . . .

A few years ago we were speaking at a conference in Lushan National Park near Jiujiang City in Jiangxi Province. We had driven to the park from Shanghai and it was an amazing trip across the area in Anhui Province that Pearl Buck wrote about in The Good Earth.

Lisa’s sister, an English teacher, had told us to watch out for anything related to Pearl Buck since she teaches a unit related to the writer. We were speaking in a conference sponsored by UNESCO for World Heritage Site Managers. After a couple of days in the symposium, they took us on a tour of

Pearl S. Buck’s childhood home.

the park. To our amazement, one of the first buildings we visited was the childhood home of Pearl Buck. It was fascinating to see her home, even more so since we were trying to capture all the nuances to report back to Lisa’s sister. Pearl Buck grew up as the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries in China and learned Mandarin while learning English. After attending college in West Virginia, she returned to China to live and write at University of Nanjing.

I read The Good Earth in high school and remember it positively but the specifics had long been lost from my memory. Seeing the landscape with farmers still tilling the rice paddies with oxen is a reminder of how little things have changed for many Chinese people who work the land. When we returned to the U.S., I read the classic novel again and it is still a poignant story. This time I read the digital Kindle version on my iPad. Not only is it available as a digital book, it was republished by Oprah’s Book Club as a printed book in 2004. The eighty-year-old novel is a classic that led to the author’s Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. After reacquainting myself with The Good Earth, I moved on to Hilary Spurling’s Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth. It was also well written and a reminder of how Pearl Buck’s books took on tough topics at a time when most people took no notice of the plight of women around the world. Pearl Buck’s stories from the 1930s and 1940s give a glimpse of what China was like before and during the Boxer Rebellion, Japanese occupation, and Nationalist period. She wrote about racism, child abandonment, drug addiction and many other problems while also sharing the arduous lives of farmers and villagers.

Anchee Min, a Chinese-born writer, who now lives in San Francisco and Shanghai has written many great contemporary novels about the years from the Cultural Revolution to the present. Her 2010 book, Pearl of China, is an interesting view of Pearl Buck’s life and her relationship with a Chinese girl, Willow. Ms. Min also wrote a memoir, Red Azalea, that is an extraordinary look inside the political propaganda machine of the Chinese in the early years of the revolution for she played a starring role in Chinese political films as a young girl. Anchee Min is married to Loyd Lofthouse, another great writer who has several Kindle books of historical fiction about China.

If you think you will visit China, read before you go. I did it backwards, reading the books after returning, which still provides more depth to the experiences we’ve had, even if in hindsight. China is very accessible these days as a travel destination. Foreign travelers appear to be welcomed all over the nation’s twenty-two provinces. We’ve visited only eight so far, but I will hope to see more in the future and return to some of these amazing places that inspired great writers to provide insight into China’s rich and varied history.

– Tim Merriman

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A Good Book Makes You Think

I just finished reading In the Kingdom of Gorillas: The Quest to Save Rwanda’s Mountain Gorillas by Amy Vedder and Bill Weber. We were in Volcano’s National Park in Rwanda four weeks ago, walking among the mountain gorillas (Kwitonda Group). It is a humbling and breathtaking experience. It made us wonder what it took for these great apes to be protected. We knew some of the story behind the biological study of the gorillas as told by George Schaller and Dian Fossey, but much of the work in establishing and maintaining the Mountain Gorilla Project that led to the opportunity for us to visit mountain gorillas in their habitat has happened in more recent times.

The story of the mountain gorillas’ survival and growth as a population seems unlikely at best. It appeared they were doomed in the 1970s. They reside on high elevation volcanoes in bamboo and evergreen forests

Hiking through potato and pyrethrum fields to visit gorillas of the Kwitonda Group.

on land that could instead support cattle or grow potatoes. Through the years the edges of the park have been encroached upon and threatened by schemes to make them more “productive” in an effort to feed the growing population of Rwanda. The competition for land, soil and acreage is intense. Rwanda is the size of Vermont but has eleven million people.

Amy Vedder and Bill Weber worked on the ground in Rwanda for World Conservation Society and USAID during this pivotal period from the late 70s to the late 90s, studying wildlife and analyzing agricultural and socioeconomic patterns around Rwanda’s forest reserves and national parks. Their work began when Dian Fossey was alive and bringing awareness of the gorilla’s plight to the world, while she struggled with

One of three silverback males is the leader of the family group.

her own personal challenges. They share the story of her last years at the Karisoke Research Center and of the many other people who were advocates for gorillas in the face of demands for the park’s acreage. Many Rwandans wondered how land could be set aside for gorillas when there were people starving for lack of land to grow food. It’s a reasonable question with a complicated answer.

When you spend an hour hiking up through Irish potato and pyrethrum fields to the stone fenceline that marks the park boundary, you find it incredible that you will soon see gorillas. It is an intensely agricultural area. When you actually find them due to the trackers who continually follow their movements, you have the privilege of an hour of standing among a gorilla family who tolerates your presence and is perhaps as curious about you as you are about them. It

Females carry their young as they forage for leaves and bamboo shoots.

feels magical, even when you know they have been habituated over a long period of time to tolerate our presence.

This opportunity could never have happened without the great dedication of biologists, trackers, guides, guards, fundraisers and conservation administrators. Gorillas were being killed by poachers to sell the heads and hands as trophies while capturing youngsters for zoos and private animal collectors. Wire snares were set by local people to capture duiker and other animals they wanted as meat on their tables. Vedder and Weber knew that local people are key participants in the story of gorilla conservation. Many poachers have since become trackers and guides, finding a good living in protecting gorillas. They have incredible

Trackers and guides are skilled at helping tourists have a safe experience that respects the gorillas rights as well.

knowledge of the Virunga Volcanoes and wildlife there, which has been invaluable. Also, they know the tactics and reasons behind poaching and could help biologists understand the challenges.

Some who read this book may be disappointed that it is not about gorilla behavior page after page. But as the authors make clear, the purpose of their work was not only to study gorillas, but to save them as a species. They may have done just that through their good work in establishing the Mountain Gorilla Project. The gorilla population in the Virunga Volcanoes has grown from a low of 260 to more than 770 animals through four decades of dedicated effort by a legion of people. Much of the work took place in administrative and political meetings. The

economic value to the nation and local communities was a key point in developing gorilla tourism. The

Local community dancers perform before gorilla tracking groups go out and collect substantial donations from tourists, an expected local benefit from ecotourism.

seemingly high fees paid for a day’s visit with the gorillas, now $750 a day, support the very large number of people that manage gorilla tourism and continued research, helps fund local community projects, and protects other forest reserves in Rwanda.

This book drives deep into your soul and your beliefs and makes you think. How do we protect the innocent communities of creatures like mountain gorillas in the face of progress, war, development and agricultural demands? So far the good people who have protected the gorillas have created a miracle through patience, diplomacy, research and hard work. We will hope they continue to succeed. Mountain gorillas have as much right to the planet as we do. Because the forest plays such an important role in earth’s complex ecosystem, their future and ours is intertwined. Gorilla tourism does more than just pay the

You can take all the non-flash photos you wish and, of course, unforgettable memories will stay with you.

bills. It puts people from all over the world with gorillas daily to witness the amazing difference that conservation programs can make and become advocates. It makes you think about the rights of other animals to a home and space to live.

The authors give an unvarnished view of the personalities and complications of the many people involved in this protracted story of decades. If gorillas fascinate you, read the book. If you want an unparalleled wildlife experience, visit Rwanda and meet them in the rainforest. Your tourism funds will help protect the gorillas and our planet. Your memories will last a lifetime.

– Tim Merriman

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Memories from the Road

Lisa and a baby panda exchange high fives in Wolong Panda Reserve.

My wife and I travel extensively as consultants and trainers. We are in Japan as I write this and just left Korea after giving presentations at two forest symposiums. As we travel internationally, I faithfully keep a daily diary, a journal, of every place we go, every person we meet and all that we do. I also take an extraordinary number of photographs, but the journal has become the most essential tool for backing up my memory.

At home it never occurs to me to write down what happens, though I think that would be useful to any writer. Daily demands of our regular routine make it seem challenging to keep a journal at home, but empty hours on a plane, train, bus or waiting for the next event to begin are perfect for sitting down with my laptop to catch up on my travel journal.

Getting close to a silverback gorilla in the Virunga Volcanoes was amazing.

When you write books, blog articles and technical papers, you realize just how fallible your memory can be. Try recalling an incredible experience you had ten years ago and want to use in a novel or article. Your memory of the details may be so vague that those details become blurred. You may recall events based partly on what you did but also be influenced by stories from others and TV accounts of the place you have seen. We integrate new information with what we already know and our personal memory is often a mix of personal experiences and learned information.

Reading old journal articles and looking through photos from a specific journey bring it alive again. Sometimes I reread the journals to find people’s names so I can contact them again or just use the correct name when I see them. In technical articles I may need to quote the dates and happenings to be accurate.

Three weeks ago we were in Rwanda, tracking chimpanzees in Nyungwe National Park and mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park. As amazing as those experiences were, some of the details have already faded. Ten years ago we first worked with giant pandas in Wolong Valley in Sichuan Province of China. I have great detailed notes in my journal from the trip and that’s a good thing because time has dulled some of the memories of specific events there. Neuroscience research tells us that experiences are necessary to create context for memories to reside in our brains but it also tells us that every time we remember something, we run the risk of changing that memory just a bit. It’s kind of like taking a book out of the library – every time it changes hands, it gets a little more tired-looking as different pages get dog-eared and bindings start to fail. You can put it back in the library, but it’s been changed, just a bit.

I’ll never forget July 7, 1968, when I ran in the “incierro” in front of the bulls in Pamplona.

In 1968, I ran in front of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. It was my first journey abroad and I kept no record of any kind. I would love to look back at a journal and refresh my memory but it does not exist. My photos from that era are Kodachrome slides stored in a box in the garage so they don’t work well as reminders. I have one scanned photo from that experience that makes me wonder what was going through my mind that interesting day. I know I ate churros and drank a liter of milk before running and that the bulls were big and scary. It would be great to read a more detailed account in my own words.

This week in Japan we attended the Fall Festival in Fujinomiya, a city at the foot of Mount Fuji. This festival has been around more than 100 years and takes place in front of the Sengen Shrine, a Shinto shrine to Mount Fuji. The twenty local communities in the city have built beautiful wood carved dashis, floats, that hold drummers, flute players and cymbal clangers to do “battles of the bands” with neighboring communities in the streets from 4 to 9 PM each evening on November 3rd, 4th and 5th each year. In between the sparring the competitive teams gather in the street to drink copious amounts of sake and share in “bon” dancing. These beautiful dances involve elaborate hand and foot motions that unite the dancers in spirit and movement.

This elder on a dashi team invited me to join the “bon” dancing and I took part.

I really enjoyed updating my journal about the festival. Facebook has become an easy way to share photos with my family and friends. The journal goes into digital storage and some day when I need to recall exactly what happened on this trip, it will be there waiting. Ten years of journals from 22 nations have great value as a writing tool. Perhaps my family will also find some value in them as a reminder of me someday.

– Tim Merriman

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