As a social studies teacher, I have always yearned to see and experience the cultures of the worlds I read and taught - countries and people different from ours. I wanted to experience and savor different customs, ethnicity, religions, foods, values, clothing, social mores, beliefs, their daily life…I craved to see their cities, towns, markets, beaches, mountains, lakes, swamps, deserts, jungles, tundra, outback…
Loyola has always been blessed to have the opportunity to welcome students from all over the world. Both faculty and students have been privileged to learn from them. And the more I talked with them, the more my desire to see more intensified.
Through the years my wife Lidia and I were fortunate to travel through Europe, Africa, Australia, Central America, the Middle East and many of the Caribbean Islands. And what adventures and fun we had…Many of you may remember the slides shows of the wonders of Egypt, Norway, Spain, France, Greece, Italy, etc., (hopefully they did not bore you!) Although I am retired, I still pick up books, photos and stories I share with Mr. Sullivan for his history classes.
Last fall we embarked in another extensive adventure: Southeast Asia which included Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Viet Nam. We rode on elephants, ox carts, tuk tuks, boats, rickshaws, canoes, busses, motorcycles, (with shower caps under the helmet to ward off lice), metros and planes. All in all 13 different airplanes, 8 hotels with a 12 hours’ time difference and a 27 hours flight to return home!
In Thailand we experienced the great affection the people had for their deceased king. The entire country was in mourning - a mourning that would last an entire year, with everyone wearing black, or black and white. The picture of the king hung in every building and park. Outside the Grand Palace in Bangkok with its ceremonial halls, gilded spires and ornate buildings, the lines of people waiting to pay their respects went on for miles, everyone patient and reverent.
Respect and reverence is paramount in their practice of Buddhism. There are large and small temples and shrines throughout Asia. Restaurants and homes and many public buildings have small decorated statues of the Buddha in different positions.
Barefoot Buddhist monks, ranging from young children to old men depend solely on cooked donations for their survival, as their faith forbids them to cook. Each carrying a pot, hundreds walk Indian file down the streets every day from 5-7AM every morning. Locals line the streets at the crack of dawn to donate their cooked rice in order to obtain ‘merit’. A clump of rice, the size of a quarter, is placed inside each pot until their supply is exhausted. Not a word is exchanged or a limb touched. We, too, participated in the ancient Buddhist tradition of alms-giving. As we placed the rice in the pot, I saw chicken feet, veggies, money, pieces of candy – everything lumped together. Monks share the food collected, eat what they are allowed, and the rest is given to the poor.
We might turn up our noses at the hundred and hundreds of bare hands and foreign articles touching our food, but when one is hungry…We ate our own unusual food: from rice to fish, noodles, soup, stew and crepes for breakfast in hotels, to unusual dinners and lunches, (alligators, snails, silkworms, larvae, grubs and fried crickets,) in private homes which locals generously hosted for us, and snacks from street vendors of scorpions, grasshoppers, snake, tree frogs, water buffalos and tarantulas. I even ate red ants that were crawling up a tree. The trick was to chomp them before they bit me! Food is also sold and consumed in floating markets. Boats as thick as molasses sell everything from hats to prepared food which is cooked on the wooden boats and handed to customers in other boats. It’s a miracle they don’t catch fire!
Throughout Southeast Asia, few people have automobiles, they are too expensive. At any red light you see a mass of mopeds and motorcycles a half a mile long waiting for the light to change. Drivers and passengers wear masks to minimize the inhalation of exhaust fumes. They carry anything from large mirrors, six five-gallons water containers, humongous baskets filled with food, and entire families – father, mother and three children on a small Vespa!
In a floating village in Cambodia, 1000 people live in floating bamboo shacks. Moored to each other, they stay afloat for 8 months during the rainy season. When the waters recede, the entire village floats away to higher waters. They rely on fishing, and to supplement their living, small alligators are raised in cages and then are sold to restaurants. With no doctors and only a midwife to help, cholera is feared.
The most chilling experience was the visit to the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Prison in Cambodia, both a grim reminder of the atrocities committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge during the ‘cleansing war.’ A former school, each classroom was subdivided into small cells with each cell, (appx 4X6), holding a prisoner. Prisoners were brought by truck to a field and executed at night using everything but guns while loud music was blared on the loudspeaker to down the screams of men, women and children being executed. We had the privilege of speaking to one of 7 survivors. He was spared because he could fix typewriters.
In Laos we had a chance to meet and talk, through an interpreter, the ninety years old driver of the former king who drove him for forty years. When the communists took over, the entire royal family and their staff were loaded into trucks in the middle of the night. At one point in the road, the truck with the royals turned in one direction, while the one with the household went to a re-education camp. The royal family, following the example of the Russian communists, was executed. After many years of re-education hardships, he was allowed to go home. Although he cannot speak openly against communism for fear of retribution, his dislike for them is very apparent.
In Laos we also visited a one room village school: extremely primitive but there is no doubt leaning was taking place. We brought coloring books, crayons, pencils. But their most treasured gifts were balloons. After spending time with them in their classroom and playing a local outdoor circle game, the kids showed off their new outdoor bathroom, (which they took turns in cleaning).
In Vietnam, we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels used by the Viet Cong in fighting what the locals call the “American War”. We actually crawled in one of the tunnels that led to the meeting room where the Tet offensive was launched. The tunnels –a 125 miles underground maze – not only had meeting rooms but also mess halls, factories, hospitals, even a tiny theater. The booby traps set are still there as a reminder of the war’s atrocities. The Viet Nam War was brought home and we respect our ‘boys’ who served in the immense heat and humidity, in the mosquitoes infested jungle facing what they could not see to bring freedom and democracy.
Our guides made a concerted effort to help us understand their culture, including giving us extensive bios of their own lives growing up in the region, and the hardships they and their families endured during the wars. Their desire is for free speech in a truly free political system. The young people are politically restless. Through the internet, they see what the rest of the free world has. They want it too. They are tired of either communist or authoritarian regimes.
We were in Viet Nam during the American presidential election. No matter who won, we realized how lucky we are to have the freedom to choose our president, to voice our opinions without fear, live without the government censoring our thoughts, our writings our way of life.
In all our travels we found many similarities and dissimilarities. It struck me that the most important similarity is the universality of the Catholic Church. From the Easter Sunday Mass with Loyola students in Saint Peter’s Square, the Easter Vigil Mass in Zulu country in South Africa, Or Masses in Sweden, Thailand or Vietnam the Mass is always the same. The languages may be different, but the Mass is the same. In Nha Trang, Mass was celebrated in Vietnamese. Although we did not understand the language, we prayed along silently, knowing exactly what the rituals and responses would be. What was different in Viet Nam was their custom in receiving communion: the arms were kept folded, and during the Sign of Peace, they bowed to each other – no handshake, no kissing. Their silence, attention, quietude, (even though it was easily 100 degrees in temp and humidity!), and respectfulness was humbling. The same feeling of peace, of joy, of fellowship surrounded us no matter what country we were. This reinforced our knowledge that we are all children of God. And that there is no excuse to miss Sunday Mass!
On a lighter note, I asked myself: ‘How is it that Vietnam uses the Latin alphabet?’ The guide told me that the Catholics wrote down the language. When I returned home, I did a little research and sure enough, it was the Jesuits. Oh, those Jesuits!
In all our travels we find that the world is actually the same. There are differences on what we look like, how we live, what we eat, what we wear, how we worship, but all people are the same. We all have the same needs; the same concerns about our jobs, our family, home and country. We all strive for happiness, for friendship, good health, the freedom to choose for ourselves, the freedom to worship as we please. It is one world. One human family.
We are looking forward to more traveling next year to visit our son Lucas, Class of ’96, who now lives in Uganda with his family. Another adventure awaits us.