Today I’m continuing with some more stories from my past international travels as a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) board member. See yesterday’s post for stories from Bolivia, Zambia and Cuba.
Southeast Asia, 2000: My trip to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam in 2000 was my first official travel as a member of the executive committee of the MCC binational board that used to have oversight of MCC’s international programs. I traveled with an MCC staff member and his wife from British Columbia, meeting up with them in the Vancouver airport on the way to our first stop in Bangkok, Thailand. Our time in Thailand was spent with all the Southeast Asia MCC volunteers at a retreat center on the coast, where we served as resource persons. From Thailand we went on to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
While in Phnom Penh, we visited the Tuol Seng prison museum which documents the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime, as well as one of the “killing fields” where you could still see the holes from digging up the mass graves. We learned that some bodies were brought there already dead, while other people were lined up at the edge of hole and shot or hit so they fell in. A few didn’t die, but played dead until after the soldiers left and then escaped. At the location of this “killing field,” there was also a memorial containing 100s of unidentified skulls. Very chilling sight. I had seen the movie, “The Killing Fields,” and of course had lived through the Vietnam War that spilled over into Cambodia with horrific results, but it was something else entirely to see the way the Cambodians themselves documented this sad chapter in their country’s history.
As someone who came of age during the Vietnam War and internalized a strong commitment to peacemaking and nonviolence, I looked forward to visiting Hanoi, Vietnam, and I found the people warm and friendly. We visited a small business where women worked on a very complicated process of making bowls and other containers that would be sold in Ten Thousand Villages stores in North America. There was a small shop where they displayed their finished products, and I wanted to buy one of the beautiful items to help support their work. Instead, the manager told me I could choose any item I wanted, and he refused to accept my offer to pay. And then he gave me a second piece. I was overwhelmed with the generosity of people who have much less in material wealth than I do.
Zimbabwe, 2003: As soon as I heard that the 2003 Mennonite World Conference Assembly would be held in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe (where I was born), I knew I really really wanted to go, but I didn’t know how I would work out the details. So I was delighted when I was invited to lead a tour group that would visit Brethren in Christ mission points in Zambia and Zimbabwe before and after the assembly itself. I also represented the MCC U.S. board at the assembly. In the months leading up to the assembly, many doubts and questions were raised as to whether it should be held in Bulawayo, given the political situation, economy, safety issues, food shortages, etc. Most of the doubts came from North Americans, I think, while the Zimbabwe Brethren in Christ Church stood firm in their invitation: “Woza! (Come!) God has something for you!’ And indeed, it was a wonderful gathering, never to be forgotten.
In addition to the opportunity to be back in Zimbabwe again, there were several other personal highlights. The theme of the Assembly was “Sharing Gifts in Suffering and in Joy,” and on the day designated as “North America Day,” I was invited to speak to the thousands of attendees. I reflected on my experience as a North American receiving gifts from people I have visited in various parts of the world (including those bowls in Vietnam). After I spoke, I received yet another gift: meeting a woman my father had helped many years before. He met Makanalia when she was a young girl and living in her village. He noticed that she had a serious vision problem, felt compassion for her, and couldn’t get her out of his mind. Probably realizing that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her to get the help she needed, her parents allowed my father to bring her back to the mission station, and there the missionary doctor helped her get glasses to correct her vision. Makanalia went on to become a teacher and leader in the Zimbabwe church – and never forgot what my father did for her. It was very moving for me to meet her after so many years, especially since my father had just passed away about two months before.
Palestine and Egypt, 2004: For my first (and only) trip to the Middle East, my traveling companion was the chair of the MCC board. We flew into Amman, Jordan, and from there drove through checkpoints to Bethlehem in Palestine. At one checkpoint where we had to produce passports, a young Israeli customs official seemed particularly interested that I was born in Zimbabwe. She wondered why I didn’t have a Zimbabwean passport. “Don’t you deserve one?” she asked. I was never sure what she meant by that question. In Palestine, we observed sections of the Separation Wall that Israel has been building for years to try to protect itself from Palestinian violence. I found myself repeatedly thinking about Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,”: “something there is that doesn’t love a wall/That wants it down,” especially as we met with Palestinians who want peace and are trying to make a living in very difficult circumstances. The Separation Wall splits up their territory into Swiss cheese and sometimes separates Palestinian farmers from their olive trees and other crops, forcing them to go through many checkpoints just to accomplish what should be the simple chores of daily living.
In Cairo, Egypt one evening, we went to the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral for their Wednesday evening Bible study. The Coptic Orthodox pope was celebrating the 50th anniversary of his monasticism at age 81. The church was completely full with about 3000 attendees. Throughout the evening (during an oppressively hot spell in Cairo in a church without air conditioning and 3000 people), the pope had audiences with various individuals and groups, signed little mementos, and gave his Bible study – a long overview of the life of Solomon.
Another day, we went to “Garbage City” – an area of Cairo where they collect, sort and recycle garbage. While the setting is rather depressing, many of the people who live there are able to sustain themselves from the sale of the products. (I bought a tote bag from one of the merchants that I still use for some of my knitting supplies!) Outside Garbage City, there is a huge outdoor church carved out of a cliff in honor of Simon the Tanner. Two little girls followed us around and then we were also joined by a bunch of other kids wanting to have their pictures taken. So I took their pictures with my digital camera and showed them to the kids – much to their delight.
And of course, no trip to Cairo is complete without a visit to the Great Pyramids. As we walked the area, taking pictures (I really wanted my own camel-in-front-of-the-pyramids photo!), a self-appointed entrepreneur told us about a little extra tour he could take us on to see some newly excavated grave sites with sarcophaguses and mummies. He began his pitch by offering to take a photo of me “touching” a pyramid. We followed him for a while but eventually decided the whole pitch was something of a scam to make money, but I still had my photo!
One more trip to tell about in a future post – to Indonesia in 2007