Camellia Travels the World: I Wish You All the Happiness

November 6, 2019

Time flies so fast! We already departed Chile and came to our third destination, Nepal. We come, again, at the best time for celebration. Navratri is a ten-day celebration in the autumn for harvest after the monsoon season. Dashain is the tenth day and the biggest day of the festival.

On the ninth night, there is a mask dance. Only selected community members can perform this. Once they put on masks, it is believed that they are possessed by gods. They start dancing from streets, going around neighborhoods, until they reach the Durbar Square in the center of the town.

We were lucky to catch the tail end of the festival and spend time with our host family. After an exhausting day of celebration with other family members, our host parents came home early and performed the whole ritual for us. As they were preparing, I snuck in to watch the process. One crucial element in Hinduism is Tika. Elders put tika on the forehead of younger relatives to bless them with abundance in the upcoming years. The red also symbolizes the blood that ties the family together. Each family has its own “recipe;” generally, one would mix rice, yogurt, and red coloring from roses to make tika.

Me getting tika from our host father.

After everything was set, we went in pairs, kneeling on the mats in front of our host parents. Our host dad put tika onto our foreheads to give us blessings and a black mark to protect us from evil. Then, he said a prayer in Nepali, which could roughly be translated as: “I wish you all the happiness, health, luck, and all good things happen upon you.” At the end, he also patted our heads. Then, our host mom gave us a handful of things: new paper money, a new coin, a fruit, and some sweets. These symbolize good harvest and wealth.

Family Photo. In the front are our host parents, and in the back are our host siblings .

Having this cultural experience was already incredibly amazing; yet, something even more miraculous happened: the Kumari (living goddess in Hinduism) came to our neighborhood to give blessings.

To be named a Kumari, a young girl has to pass dozens of tests to prove her righteous deity. For example, she should have never shed any blood (got any scar) or lost any teeth. She should not be afraid of evil. To test her bravery against evil, the candidate will be put into a dark room with masked men dancing around and heads of animals illuminated with candles. If she expresses any fear, she will be ruled out. Once a girl becomes a Kumari, she will stay in Kumari Ghar, a palace in the center of the city, and perform rituals for the disciples.

Kumari rarely comes out of the palace, but only for special occasions. In the past, Kumari would go to the king’s palace to perform rituals for royalty. After the abolishment of monarchy, she has been paying visits to the neighborhood of the descendants. Four families in our neighborhood are connected with the king, including my host family. Thus, she came to our neighborhood and stayed in the house of the senior member in the community.

Patan Durbar Square at night.

At nine o’clock at night, she was carried into the community by her father. Many children ran to meet the Kumari. They worshiped her by touching her feet, and some put her feet onto their heads, getting blessings. Then, she was brought into the house and closed the door. My host brother said that the Kumari had to perform a series of rituals secretly. After a moment, her father came to re-open the door to the line of people waiting to receive blessings.

It is a mental juggling practice for me to comprehend the role of the Kumari. From a western point of view, the role of Kumari is so radically against individual’s rights: she has no freedom of movement as she cannot walk; she cannot talk to anyone other than her family; she used to not receive any education (now there will be a private tutor for her); and she “retires” once she receives her first period. Yet, for Nepalis, the Kumari is the manifestation of the divine female energy. She is the living vessel of Goddess, as she embodies innocence, courage, and spirit. So, should we appreciate the role of Kumari as a cultural and religious tradition or critique it with our western “civilized” ideologies?

Anyway, this was a once in a lifetime experience, and I truly appreciate being able to participate in this celebration.

Another important element of the festival is gambling family members will gather and play cards together. By the way, I won enough money for a meal!


Camellia Travels the World: “Defending the Land is Defending Our Mother”

October 29, 2019

Mari Mari, my friends! (Hello in Mapudungun, the native language of the Mapuche people).

After weeks of crazy busy city life in Santiago, we escaped to the south of Chile. No, it is not Patagonia, but a lovely town called Curarrehue. On the border of Argentina, Curarrehue is home to the Mapuche people, an indigenous community that inhabit south-central Chile and southwestern Argentina. We stayed with community members while learning about their ideologies and struggles through talks and site visits.

My host mom Ida. She is the kindest person I have ever met in my life. She makes the best Chappi (hot pepper sauce) and sopaipillas!

 

Ida is an amazing artisan. She makes beautiful hand crafts to decorate her home. She also gave me a small handmade basket as a gift.

The Mapuche community has a strong connection with nature; to be more accurate, they are considered to be a part of nature. “Defending the land is defending our mother,” they repeated many times. Thus, they are willing to do anything to protect mother nature, against the biggest perpetrators – the Chilean state and private companies. Because of their geographical location and potential resources, many mining companies come into their space, using hydro-powered machines to extract minerals. The Chilean state, even though declares water as common goods, sells the use of the river to private companies. The Mapuche people know that they don’t have power to resist companies from coming, thus they turn to nature and pray for rivers to protect themselves. The people believe in the spirits of nature and share their lives with these spirits.

I honestly did not quite grasp their belief in spirits of nature until I sat by the river and watched the flow. All I could see was the beautiful view of the mountains, and all I could hear was the harmonious sound of water. At that moment, I finally started to comprehend the worship of water and worship of nature. This scene also took me back to my freshman spring semester, when I took a class called Geographic Dimensions and Human Development. I read an article about Fiji indigenous people’s struggle with the Fiji Water industry. Again, I had some sympathy for them at the time, yet I did not quite understand their difficulty. This serene moment by the river finally made me comprehend the issue for the Mapuche and for Fiji Islanders. Water, as a natural resource and an essential need, should not and never be a privatized source for profit. It is such a capitalist idea to take water away from human lives for money; this is a serious violation of human rights.

The river at Regiolil near Curarrehue.

Forests also play a significant role in the Mapuche culture. The people go into the mountains for months, dancing and singing by the woods, giving trees love and company. In their philosophy, one should always ask for permission from nature when entering an unfamiliar place. And to show their gratitude, they also bring some offerings to nature as well.

On the weekend, we went hiking near Volcano Lanin. Before we started, we came by a river at the foot of the mountain. Our guides told us that if we ask for permission from nature sincerely, then mother nature will protect us in the wilderness. Thus, I closed my eyes and prayed in my mind, “thank you for letting us into your space. I promise I will take good care of all my actions in your place.” After praying, one guide took out a bag of flour, grabbed a handful, and placed it in the river. “This is a gesture to thank mother nature,” another guide explained.

After the ritual, everyone felt refreshing and well-protected; thus, we started hiking. For the first few minutes, it was just like other hikes in the woods. However, after a moment, there appeared patches of snow. Then, without knowing, we were stepping into several feet of snow. Two years of life in Virginia did not prepare me well to walk on snowy land. I slipped several times and fell into the snow twice with snow up to my thigh. Luckily, there were many friends well experienced and managed to pull me out of my plight (literally and figuratively).

Our group picture in front of Volcano Lanin.

 

My roomie and me presenting Volcano Lanin.

The whole hiking trip was about five hours. We stopped here and there to appreciate nature and views, and we also learned about special species of trees and seeds in the woods. One guide recounted that he used to come into the woods with his family, helping to find good spots to plant seeds. Yet, the trees’ rate of growth was much slower than the humans’ speed of cutting. “Those Europeans love turning woods into furniture,” he joked.

It was a very short and joyful hiking tour, and I had a taste of the Mapuche’s intimate connection and affection of mother nature. For a people that have been living there for thousands of years, nature runs in their blood. The Mapuche people faced Spanish invasion and Chilean oppression, yet they are staying strong to defend themselves and defend their mother nature. This is a spirit that I shall carry forever.

A meeting cabin for leaders. On the left, you can find two flags. The one on the left is the flag of Chilean Mapuche, and the one on the right is the ancestral flag.


Camellia Travels the World: Special Month in Chile

October 21, 2019

We come to Chile at a special time. September is an important month in Chilean history.

On September 11, 1973, the world’s infamous dictator Pinochet led a coup d’état to overthrow the Socialist Chilean government. On that horrific day, the city of Santiago was overwhelmed by air raids and ground attacks over the presidential palace. Under the terror, President Allende vowed to remain in the presidential palace as a confrontation against the threats. He calmly delivered his final speech to the nation via radio: “My words do not have bitterness but disappointment. May there be a moral punishment for those who have betrayed their oath…the only thing left for me is to say to workers: I am not going to resign! Placed in a historic transition, I will pay for loyalty to the people with my life.” 

Flag to commemorate President Allende. The quote is from his last speech: “The history is ours, and people make history.”

The violence did not cease after the death of Allende. Under the dictatorship, numerous citizens were abused and tortured. According to the Commission of Truth and Reconciliation, the number of direct victims of human rights violations accounts for around 30,000 people; they were taken as political prisoners in concentration camps. Approximately 4,500 people were executed, and around 200,000 people were forced to exile.

In order to commemorate these victims of political violence, people gather for peaceful marches and ceremonies on September 11 every year. After learning and discussing the dark history, we went to one memorial site – Estadio Nacional – at night for the commemoration ceremony.

The Candlelight Ceremony outside of Estadio Nacional.

Walking into the tunnel around the stadium, I was overwhelmed by the heavy ambiance inside. The ceiling of the tunnel was not too low, yet I felt it was barely above my head; the lights were brightly incandescent, yet the tunnel was still so dim; the paint on the wall had fallen out, and it was full of marks from history. On the walls, there was a photograph exhibition that reveals the  terror that people had gone through.

Thousands of people were captured, detained, and tortured at this specific site.

Inside the modern stadium, there was a remaining section with wooden benches surrounded by modern plastic seats. Many people put flowers and notes on the fence to pay their tribute. A group of us went inside the fence and sat on the benches for a while, trying to absorb the atmosphere and comprehend the fear and despair in the dark.

The fenced section inside the Estadio Nacional dedicated to memorializing the horror of 1973.

On a lighter note, September 18 is the National Day of Chile. On September 18, 1810, the Independence movement began in opposition to the rule of its colonizer, Spain. The Independence movement lasted more than a decade, but at last in 1826, the last Spanish troops surrendered, and the Chilean Republic was established. Thus, the Chileans have a week of celebration for their independence.

We went on a cultural “site visit” – going to a fonda. It is a carnival fair for a whole week, where people can buy food and beverages, dance Cueca (a traditional dance), play games, and watch rodeo. There were several fondas taken place in Santiago, so I went to the one at Parque Padre Hurtado, closest to my homestay.

My giant smile and double chin with Terremoto (a drink made of pipeno wine, grenadine, and pineapple ice cream) and Anticucho (a meat skewer).

Anyway, it was a lot of up-and-down feelings in one week. On the one hand, we memorialized and honored the dead from the horror of coup d’etat; on the other hand, we celebrated the thrilling independence of Chile. It was a full cultural experience.


Camellia Travels the World: Stepping out My Comfort Zone

October 9, 2019

Hola, Amigos!

I have been in Chile for a while, and I am finally starting to adapt into this new environment. To be honest, even though I have already experienced studying in another country (the United States) for six years, it is still uneasy for me to be in Chile.

Panorama of Santiago area from Cerro de San Cristobal. (Look closely to find Gran Torre Santiago, the tallest building in South America)

First and foremost, there is a huge language barrier. In Chile, almost 90% of the population speaks only Spanish; and unfortunately, my six years of French is unhelpful in this situation. Even for my classmates who have learned Spanish, the Chilean Spanish is still difficult to comprehend, because Chileans speak very fast and use a lot of slang. Therefore, it is my daily struggle to navigate and order food in Spanish.

Furthermore, the language barrier extends into classroom. Even though we have an interpreter for every site visit, and she does a wonderful job, there is still always a giant wall between me and the speakers. We practice consecutive interpretation, which is an interpretation done by repeating in chunks; so I always have a delay in reacting to what has been discussed (when the Spanish speakers laugh at jokes or frown for displeasure, I just look confused). Also, it is difficult for me to concentrate when stories are broken into pieces; thus, even though I am listening to all the interpretation carefully, I feel that I am still only getting half, if not even less, of what the speaker is conveying. Nevertheless, this is a practice that I have to work on for the rest of the trip and in the future.

Another challenge is cultural custom. One of the most common etiquette in Chile is that people greet by hugging and kissing on the right cheek. I learned this in the orientation, yet I forgot about it in the blink of an eye. Thus, when I first met my little host brother, he opened his arms when I was reaching out my right hand. He looked so confused, and then he turned to his mother, using his puzzled eyes to ask her what to do. Finally, in order to not embarrass me, he gave me a handshake and then hugged me. Nevertheless, I was still abashed by my mistake. Ever since that moment, I engraved this local greeting gesture in my brain.

A family photo with my two host siblings, my host mom, and my two roommates.

Apart from those challenges, I am enjoying a variety of things that Santiago offers. In the metropolitan region, there are several cerros (hills); my friends and I hiked Cerro de San Cristobal to see the panorama of the city. At the Central Market, there are many restaurants (touristy yet still worth a visit); my friend and I had fresh seafood for a Saturday brunch. At Plaza de Armas, there is a big square with neoclassical-style buildings around; we sipped pisco sour (a typical Chilean drink) as we imagine being in Spain.

At the center of the Central Market. There are numerous men in red sweaters waiting for tourists to come. They can greet them in many languages; one waiter greeted us in Japanese and Mandarin. It was also interesting to me that a group of restaurants use the same menu.

The city of Santiago presents itself with multiple facades. Spain subdued and colonized Chile from 1540 to 1818 (Chile declared its independence on September 18, 1810, yet it only won its formal independence when it defeated the last large Spanish force on Chilean soil on April 5, 1818). On account of its colonial history, there is strong reminiscence of European footprints across the city. On the other hand, there are also segments reflecting the modernistic industrial period; the apartment buildings demonstrate the emphasis on simplicity, economy, and functionality. Moreover, the post-modernistic skyscrapers are also scattered in the city. Overall, the architecture in Santiago is quite diverse (sometimes I find elements of Asia as well), so it is very enjoyable to stroll down streets and experience different ambiances.

 


Camellia Travels the World: Human Rights vs. human rights

September 13, 2019

It has been a week since the program started, and we have been contemplating the concept of “Human Rights” vs. “human rights”. In short, Human Rights is a regime of governance working to advance it from the top-down level, while human rights is an array of struggles against oppression from the bottom-up. This is the guiding rubric of our whole journey; we do not only compare countries and their human rights issues, but also learn different forces that promote and defend human rights.

For that purpose, we are constantly dipping our toes into both waters, and I have to say, I am caught in a maze by the diverse range of organizations and their fascinating works fighting for human rights from all levels:

These are our “classrooms.” On the left is the renowned LGBT Community Center in Manhattan, and on the right is a multi-purposed building called Mayday Space in Brooklyn. Even though both buildings are associated with human rights, there is a distinctive disparity of influence and resources.

Visits for Human Rights. We paid a visit to the U.S. Mission to the UN, speaking with a senior adviser of Human Rights and Social Affairs and learning the U.S. efforts on promoting Human Rights around the world. We went to the office of elected officials, studying their contribution for the people of their districts; we talked with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, learning their specific work in defending Human Rights as International NGOs. Apart from these organizations who directly lobby for Human Rights, there is one organization that astounded me. Witness is an organization that teaches and uses the power of video and technology to promote and defend Human Rights. It does not directly lobby for human rights, but they help others to produce more effective videos and avoid potential harm. The group has offices around the world and its work consists of three layers: on the ground with activists, working as guidance for movements, and connecting with big tech platforms. Besides their unique approach for advocating human rights, their ethics impressed me as well. As we were talking about blurring faces in videos in order to protect victims and activists, our speaker also brought up the issue of privacy of perpetrators: should Human Rights apply to all humans, even if one is a violator or abuser of these Rights? This is a very complicated question to ponder. (To learn more about Witness: https://www.witness.org/).

The Twitter Post of U.S. Mission to the UN about our visit.

Visits for human rights. We met with many grassroots activists and organizations fighting for different rights, criminal justice, labor rights, economic justice for Jews, and housing justice. To explore more about grassroots organizations and their work, we were invited to a celebration dinner for housing justice at Mayday Space. We met many organization leaders who fought for new rent laws in New York. For many years, the tenants of NYC had been suffering from landlords’ violation of rights for just housing: shortly-posted evictions, constant rent increases, high deposits, inadequate repair services, and so on. They had been suffering for twelve years, and finally, they won the battle. After months of demonstration outside of the capitol and sixty-two people mass arrests, they have changed the rent laws. One elder lady also told us an anecdote of her victory: “A few of us went to the landlord’s house on a Sunday morning. We knocked on his door, and after a few minutes, he opened the door without checking who is outside. Then, we handed him an eviction notice. He was so mad, and he called the police. We ran to the yard and stuck the eviction notice everywhere onto the fence before the cops got here.” The event truly showed the solidarity of communities; the group is very diverse: different age groups, different races, different languages, etc. Yet, they united to fight for their own rights as well as all the tenants of New York. (To learn more about new rent laws in New York: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/21/nyregion/rent-laws-new-york.html). I am truly inspired by their courage and action to challenge the system and gain their rights.

Even though it has only been one week of learning and unlearning, I am overwhelmed by the depth we have gotten into, and I am grateful for all the opportunities to talk with different organizations and workers dedicated to human rights. This is truly an experience one can never get in a classroom. Alright, one week done, fifteen more to go!

Parts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations.


Camellia Travels the World: An Extraordinary Journey Begins

August 28, 2019

Hello, everyone! I am Camellia, and I am a junior at the University of Richmond, majoring in International Studies: World Politics and Diplomacy. I am from Chengdu, China, and fun fact, it is also the hometown of Giant Panda. At the age of fifteen, I boarded the plane from China to the United States to pursue education. During these six years, I have not only learned critical thinking and empirical reasoning, but also Frisbee playing and Netflix binge-watching. In other words, I think I have taken my root on the other side of the world; and, I decided that it is time for a new challenge.

Therefore, I applied for the International Honors Program with SIT. This has been my dream program since freshman year; it is unique because IHP gives me an opportunity to contemplate with one theme on a global scale. Gladly, I will also be with thirty other fellow enthusiasts and a director throughout the program. We are from different universities, we represent different cultures, we have different hobbies, yet we are all coming together for our shared passion for human rights. Over the next four months, we will closely examine the causes of struggles for human rights, the relationship between human rights and activism, and the comparison of “Human Rights” and “human rights”[1]; Moreover, we will travel to four drastically different locations: New York City, USA; Santiago, Chile; Kathmandu, Nepal; and Amman, Jordan. At each location, we will take classes with local faculty and stay with host families to learn and experience the authentic culture.

This journey is deemed to be extraordinary even from the prequels of my traveling. Long story short, I had to go to Boston for my Chilean visa, therefore I came back to the US a few days before my program. Everything went smoothly until I found out my flight from Newark to Boston was cancelled. It was already 8:30 pm, and all the other United Airlines flights were completely full. At that moment, my heart was filled with despair and my eyes were full of tears. All I had in mind was that I have to get to Boston in time. Thus, I cancelled my plane ticket and made up my mind to rent a car and drive, even though I had been tirelessly travelling for the last 20 hours. When I went to the carousel, I noticed another lady waiting for her baggage. I collected my courage and asked her if she was interested in carpooling with me. Amazingly, she agreed, and we even found two other girls wanting to share the ride. In the end, we embarked for our road-trip to Boston. We talked non-stop for almost four hours and learned a lot about each other: Elisa is from Italy, and she comes to the US to visit her high school host family in Boston; Sneha has just gotten her Master’s degree, and she is going to Boston for a job interview; Erin is on her way back to Boston for an important meeting the next day and her husband’s birthday… Now that I reflect on it, I would never have met these incredible people if I only sat quietly on the thirty-nine-minute flight; maybe the cancellation was not so disastrous after all. 

On our way to Boston. Elisa could not believe how much traffic there was at 11 pm in NYC.

There is an old Chinese proverb: “A good gain takes long pain.” I have finally got my visa after everything, and I am ready to start my journey, hopefully without any cancellations or delays. I will be sharing fun stories, travel tips, personal thoughts, and anything you ask throughout my trip. So stay tuned and wish me luck!

Me trying to paint my “selfie”.

 


[1] Stephen Hopgood delineates the two spheres of human rights in his book, The Endtimes of Human Rights, where “Human Rights” represents “top-down” influences while “human rights” relates to “bottom-up” movements.


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