Thursday, April 1, 2010

Meeting Greg Mortenson

Meeting one of my heroes, Greg Mortenson
was a great thrill...

In early March, Lorena, my host and contact at United World College in Singapore, sent me an email that concluded, "Greg Mortenson will be at our school while you are here. Would you like to hear him speak?" I don't know why but I waited a day or two before responding "yes" and then watched for Lorena's reply. When it finally came she wrote, "We were too late in getting our request in....sorry." Oh well I thought, a close call but it wasn't meant to be. I was disappointed.

I first learned who Greg Mortenson was when I listened to an interview on WNYC radio just as his book, "Three Cups of Tea" was being released in 2006. I ordered the book from Amazon that night and was really absorbed in the story as I read it. His perseverance and idealism were and have been inspirational to me, as they have been to millions of readers. I've given the book as a gift, recommended it to many friends, and loaned my copies to others.

Greg Mortenson is a hero in the truest sense of the word. He has endured tremendous hardship and risked his life to build schools for girls in some of the most dangerous and remotest corners of the world. The chance to meet him is something I would cherish. I can count on my fingers the number of living people I'd be as excited to meet. In that group would be Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Wendell Berry, and Paul Farmer. Back in 2000 I shook hands with Senator Bill Bradley shortly before he dropped out of the race and that was something I will always remember. I sometimes wonder what our world might have become if Bradley had been president on September 11, 2001.

During lunch one day at United World College last week I began a conversation with a lady named Joy, who looked and sounded  like an ex-pat American. She was, and as the conversation proceeded I learned that she was also one of the people organizing Greg Mortenson's visit. Before lunch was finished she had told us to keep in touch with her and that we might be able to attend Mortenson's talk after all. On Thursday Lorena gave me the good news. Greg was scheduled to speak at 10 am on Saturday and we were on the guest list.

Those of you who know me well know that I am seldom early for appointments. I'm nearly always on time but just can't get the hang of being early. I broke my pattern and arrived at school at 8:30, before any of the organizers were even there. A few people began to wander in as I sat at a table outside writing in my notebook. The temperature was already above 80 degrees F.  At about 9 a.m. I looked up to see two men walking towards me. The big man on the left was Greg Mortenson. I think my jaw must've dropped and my eyes popped open wide. I felt like a kid meeting a famous ballplayer. He must've sensed my awe because he walked up to me, put his hand out and said, "Hi, I'm Greg." I think I said, "I know," but don't remember exactly what I said  after that.  A few minutes later I went into the auditorium where I had done several performances during the week including a family concert two nights before. I kind of hung around in the back looking for an opening to go up and speak more with him. I was nervous but knew I had to do it because I often give the advice to kids that "you'll never know unless you try." He realized what I was up to with my camera and "Bridges" tee shirt in hand and he again made it easy for me to approach. We talked for about five minutes. I told him about Bridges of Peace and Hope, asked a few questions, and had some photos taken. Before I left he tore the end off a piece of paper, wrote down his email address and phone number, and thanked me for helping to promote peace.

As I walked back outside the theater I again felt like a kid. It was a good, mixed up feeling. I felt a little like I had just won a contest, but I also felt like the teenage boy who finally got the courage up to ask a girl to dance, but didn't know what to do when she said yes. His talk was excellent and with some more twists of fate perhaps Bridges of Peace and Hope and I will have opportunities to collaborate with Greg Mortenson and Pennies for Peace. As my friend Ken Buescher often says to me, "You are one lucky guy!" You're right Ken, I am.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Trip Over the Tundra to Singapore

I didn't take this photo but it did look a lot like this out the window

I left JFK airport on Friday March 19 at 4:50 p.m. and arrived in Singapore a day and a half later at 6 am Sunday morning. If you look on a globe you'll see that Singapore really is on the other side of the world. Add in the drive from home to New York City, a six hour layover in Bejing, China, and the trip to the hotel in Singapore, and it was roughly 32 hours travel time door to door. Although that's a lot of time to be traveling it is absolutely amazing that we can be half way around the world in such a short period of time. I find it absurd when I hear fellow travelers complaining about the duration of the 13 and half hour flight from NY to Bejing, but I have to remind myself we all have different tolerances. I'm fortunate in that I actually enjoy the challenges of long distance travel. I like airports and I don't mind waiting in lines. I read two books and did lots of writing on this trip.

The flight to Bejing took us over northern Alaska, and I assume that generally speaking we were in the vicinity of the Arctic and the North Pole. The scenery was stunningly, starkly gorgeous. It was a harsh, white and shadowy gray, crumpled terrain, divided by countless sqiggling fissures that appeared like rivers but were actually cracks in the snow and ice. As awesomely beautiful as it was I couldn't help but wonder how much of what I was seeing may be the result of climate change. Knowing that we humans are living in a manner that may be altering the balance of this magnificent planet left me feeling bothered and a little ashamed.

After arriving in Southeast Asia it took me about four days to adjust my sleep to being 12 time zones away. When it is 12 noon in New York it is 12 midnight in Singapore. For the first four nights there I was awaking while most sensible Singaporeans were fast asleep. There is a comforting silence to those wee hours of the night. More to come when I'm better rested.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sad News From Zambia

Richard and Friends the day we visited Prince Takamado School

Over a month ago I received an email from Zambia titled "Sad News." I was reluctantly compelled to open it, not sure I wanted to know the contents of the message. Life is harder in "developing" countries than we here in the US can understand. I was fearful that the sad news was the death of someone I had met while I was there in October. Fortunately, that was not the case but the title "sad news" was still very apt. Richard Lungu, the gardener I had met and become friends with was in trouble.

Richard and his family live in Bauleni, a compound that we might call a slum or shantytown -- very small houses, many poorly constructed, nearly on top of each other, garbage strewn about the landscape, high unemployment, etc. etc. (For a detailed description of Bauleni and how I got to know Richard see the Oct 22 Blog Entry)

Richard was more fortunate than many in that the house he rented was sturdily built, and he had a steady job working at the American International School of Lusaka. He and I quickly became friends when we met and he acted as my liaison and guide in my visit to the Prince Takamado School in Bauleni. He had a warm and outgoing personality and a generous, gracious manner. I really liked him and was grateful to know him.

The "sad news" was that Richard had been caught stealing from the faculty and staff at the international school and that he had lost his job and may be facing very serious prison time for the offences. When my friend Kate sent me the news she wrote, "I can't imagine why he would risk such a good situation for short term gain?" In my reply to Kate I wrote, "I can't imagine either, but I also can't imagine what it is like to live in Bauleni, or what his motivations may have been." As of now, I don't know what has happened to Richard. He didn't answer the email I sent him a few weeks ago. In the meantime, I did learn from Kate that he had passed along something for me. It was a phone number for the school. I suspect he knew he wouldn't be able to a act as the go-between any longer and wanted me to know how to contact them.

A painting I photographed in a hotel. It seems to fit this entry.

He may already be in prison, which according to Kate would be a very difficult experience to go through and overcome. Not knowing enough details to have an opinion as to whether "justice" is served by imprisoning Richard I can only hope and pray that he gets a chance to make amends, and work to regain the confidences he had enjoyed in the past. I also hope that he and his family can find peace and comfort.

It truly is "sad news" when your friends are in trouble.