Category Archives: travel

Dog Days Dreaming

Dog Days Dreaming     —by Jinny Batterson

It’s hot and muggy outside, pretty typical for central North Carolina this time of year. I’m used to calling late July and August “dog days,” figuring that even dogs with any sense would spend this part of the year lolling in the shade (or, if available, in an air-conditioned interior). It’s also a time when summer begins to drag a bit. My recollection of “dog days” during my schooling is that by this part of August, I was bored, “dog tired” of school vacation. Going to the swimming pool, attending a fireman’s carnival, getting a root beer float or a hand-dipped ice cream at our local soda fountain—none of these activities had quite the same allure as earlier in the summer. I was beginning to long for the uptick in social life that went with school’s return. Some of my friends probably felt the same way, but we were reluctant to share our views out loud. Instead, we hewed to a teen party line that summer was all fun and school was a drag. Turns out the term “dog days” has less to do with our pet canines than with the pre-dawn appearance of Sirius, the “dog star,” during a roughly 40-day period in July and August, noted since Greek and Roman times.

Sleep research indicates that most of us dream. Fewer of us remember our dreams on waking, especially during these groggy, hot days of late summer. That’s true for me. More often than dream memories, I’ll awaken with a tune or fragment of a lyric in my head. Recently, I woke up with the first verse of “America the Beautiful” as an ear worm. Why that song? Why this time of year? Going down a rabbit hole via online search engines, I found three additional verses, along with some background about the author and the conditions that prompted the song’s writing. 

The lyrics for “America the Beautiful” were penned by Katharine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College. She began the poem while spending the summer of 1893 teaching English at a school in Colorado Springs. She and several other teachers made a day trip up nearby Pike’s Peak.  From its summit, they could see the fertile plains below. Bates scribbled the first lines of what later became “America the Beautiful” into a small notebook she carried with her:

“Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.
America, America, God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.”

In 1893, there was a major economic downturn, creating distress for many laboring families and farmers. This became a theme of the second verse, which implores God to help mend America’s flaws:

“America, America, God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-countrol, thy liberty in law.”

The poem first appeared in print in a weekly journal around the time of Independence Day in 1895. Bates included a third verse lauding the sacrifices of earlier soldiers: 

“Oh, beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.
America! America! May God thy gold refine,
Til all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine.” 

Bates’ final expanded version, published in 1913, contained a fourth verse laying out a vision of an America that lived up to its ideals:  

“Oh, beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years.
Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.” 

In 1918, when the armistice ending the first world war was announced, U.S. soldiers stationed in Europe burst out singing “America the Beautiful.” The song, much easier than “The Star Spangled Banner,” has since become an unofficial American anthem. It’s been performed by dozens of American pop idols, including Elvis Presley, Barbara Streisand, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles. Although it’s rare to hear all four verses, versions have entertained audiences at Super Bowls, presidential inaugurals, and hosts of Independence Day celebrations. One of the most moving performances was a guitar-accompanied rendition by country singer Willie Nelson and a host of entertainment luminaries in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001.

In previous U.S. political cycles, a waking aspect of “dog days” has often been a brief reprieve from political campaigning. Media outlets have provided less news about our government, which sort of “goes on vacation” along with many of the rest of us. Campaign advertising, social media posts, email blasts, robocalls have stayed quiescent until after Labor Day in September. No such luck this year. We’re being subjected to death by a thousand tweets.

Regardless, until after Labor Day, I’ll keep ignoring as much of the political hoopla as I can. Meanwhile, I’m going to celebrate the August 12, 1859 birthday of Katharine Lee Bates. I’m going to relish her lyrics of patriot dreams of an America, with our caring people and stunning nature, that will one day be beautiful again. 

The Cave and Cliff Dwellers of the Vézère Valley

The Cave and Cliff Dwellers of the Vézère Valley   —by Jinny Batterson

Traveling in Europe produces a different sense of time—my previous benchmarks for “old” settlements, the historic recreations of Williamsburg and Jamestown, Virginia, become mere youngsters in comparison with the Greek and Roman era ruins that dot much of western Europe.  Even the relatively “new” churches and cathedrals of France generally date from centuries earlier than the 1607-or-thereabouts thatched mud huts of the initial European settlers at Jamestown.

While the U.S. Southwest contains mysterious remnants of earlier civilizations—Anasazi settlements that flourished about a thousand years ago before being suddenly abandoned—these ruins are still relative newbies compared with the cave and cliff sites excavated over the past century and a half along the middle reaches of the Vézère valley in southwestern France. 

According to the best available methods for establishing rough eras, early humans first appeared in the Vézère Valley nearly half a million years ago. I remember reading earlier about the now famous prehistoric paintings at Lascaux—elaborate depictions of animals from about 20,000 years ago, discovered by accident in 1940 by youngsters exploring a cave.

Though I haven’t yet visited the replica of that cave (the original was closed to visitors during the 1960’s because the crush of tourists with their attendant humidity and CO2 was damaging the paintings), I recently wound up along the Vézère where some even earlier settlements have been discovered—a small village called Les Eyzies. After a morning’s taxi ride through misty weather, our driver let my husband and me out at the small vacation settlement at the edge of town where we’d booked a stay. We dropped our luggage at the front desk, then set out with our umbrellas to explore. The first large building we came across was a welcome center for the area’s prehistory attractions, with some basic exhibits about various Vézère valley sites (over 80 of them have been excavated at least partially so far) and how archeology is conducted. 

Because we’d opted not to rent a car and because taxi rates were fairly pricey in this mostly rural area, we limited our explorations to what we could reach on foot. First we visited a hillside complex, l’Abri Pataud, that had been explored from the 1950’s through the 1970’s by a team led by Harvard professor H.L. Movius. Due to periodic freeze/thaw erosion and to the situation and geology of the site, multiple levels of tools and remains were found dating from about 35,000 to about 20,000 years ago, encompassing both an interglacial warm period and an ice age.  The earliest relics seem to indicate the recurrent presence of nomadic hunter-gatherers who may have used the site as a short-term hunting camp. Later levels indicate somewhat more settled use of the shelter, which became deeper over time. 

The following day, we bought tickets to the National Prehistory Museum, a modern cliffside complex that has been expanded several times. Extensive exhibits of stone tools and of skeletons of prehistoric animals and humans were leavened with videos and graphics of likely tool-making techniques during the various periods. In between visits to the area’s prehistory, we sampled some of the crafts and foods of the modern small town, which provides a hearty welcome to school groups, vacationing families, and older tourists like us.

As contemporary humans continue the sometimes difficult twin transitions in global climate and human consciousness, I’m grateful for increased awareness of these long-enduring prehistoric ancestors. Their progress and evolution may seem glacial to us, but they bequeathed to their modern descendants the basic intelligence to adapt their living styles during drastic shifts in their physical environment. They also gave us a less tangible, but no less important inheritance—a sense of gentle humor and whimsy.  May we use all these tools well.     

A modern roadside ad in a town full of prehistory

Aubrac’s Fields of Wild Jonquils

Aubrac’s Flelds of Wild Jonquils    —by Jinny Batterson

In late May, as I was walking across a sparsely settled upland French plateau along a stretch of one pilgrimage route of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, I encountered a delicious fragrance—delicate and sweet and lingering. I wasn’t sure where it was coming from. Despite, or perhaps because of, a fair amount of rainy weather, the meadows and woodlands abounded in spring blooms, many of them unfamiliar to me.  That evening at the small guest house where we had booked a room, I noticed a vase of flowers with the same delicate fragrance. I asked the proprietress what these small white blooms were called. “Jonquils des poètes,” she told me in French.

I’m not sure what the English equivalent is. The internet pictures I’ve found of “Poet’s jonquils” look similar, but not identical to the flowers I remember from my trip. A few days further into my journey, I arrived midmorning at the tiny town of Aubrac, after spending a couple of hours crossing several miles of minimally fenced upland pastures dotted with jonquils des poètes, some being contentedly munched by local cattle. The weather was cool and misty.

At the near edge of town was a forbidding-looking Romanesque structure. A guide was explaining to a group of tourists in a language I could not understand the wonders and historic significance of this church. According to the French signpost I could partly understand, this former Benedictine monastery was at least a thousand years old and likely built on the foundations of an even earlier structure.

Most of the other buildings along the road and edging the upland pastures were hotels, hostels, or small inns. I noticed one small cafe/guest house that seemed to be open. Several of us stopped and picked out an outdoor table under a protective awning. A warm drink seemed a good idea. It took a while for anyone to come to take our orders—after a bit, an elegant young woman showed up, apologizing somewhat for the delay, explaining that she and the other town residents were all still stressed out from the previous weekend’s “transhumance” festival that annually draws thousands to the area. I’d seen pictures and postcards of this celebration of the opening of common upland pastures for the area’s prized cattle. A nearby town square was still littered with floral garlands and signs from the festival. (Find a set of commercial pictures of the 2018 festival here: http://hotel-lion-or.com/aveyron/fete-transhumance-aubrac/

When our hostess finally brought our coffees and hot chocolates, she stopped to take a smoke break and we began to ask her questions. All of us were curious about the town, whose year-round population has dwindled markedly from a peak over a century ago. Until the late 19th century, our hostess told us, Aubrac had been a traditional farming village, but the harshness of the climate and the difficulty of earning an adequate living caused many farm families to leave the area and seek better lives in French cities. Lots of the adults became small shopkeepers or restaurateurs in and around Paris. However, they retained cottages in Aubrac and continued to bring their families for summer vacations in their former hometown. At about the same time, some area doctors discovered that the clean, cool air in the Aubrac highlands helped tubercular patients. Several tuberculosis sanatoria were opened over the next decades—some have since become hotels or hostels. Most of the local economy now revolves around tourism, compressed into the three or four months of warmer weather. The local cattle, a special hardy breed, supply photo opportunities as well as milk or meat. 

Our hostess explained between puffs that she was even busier than she’d expected post-festival: her five rooms were all rented for the week—a group of businessmen from New York City had come to explore the option of buying quantities of jonquils des poètes to use in a new upscale perfume fragrance. She said that this particular type of jonquil only grew in the wild and had not yet been successfully cultivated.  Some of each year’s blooms already were collected by locals to supply French perfumeries in the southern city of Grasse, a noted perfume center.

I never got to meet the businessmen, who most probably were jet-lagged and perhaps also technology-deprived in this isolated small town. My current exposure to a former-NYC-businessman-turned-politician has temporarily soured me on the ethics and business practices of some.  My hope is that if a deal is struck, the good people of Aubrac will be fairly compensated for their labor and their wild-growing fragrant white blossoms.  I also hope that enough flowers will be left in the fields so that cattle, pilgrims, and residents can continue to enjoy their essence in their native habitat.    

A Lot About Aligot

A Lot About Aligot   —by Jinny Batterson

In late spring, I went with my husband Jim to central France for an extended trip. The first part consisted of a scaled-back pilgrimage walk along part of the “Camino Saint Jacques de Compostela.” Jim had contracted with an outfitter to haul our luggage and to reserve private rooms at fairly evenly spaced B&B’s or small inns, about ten miles apart, while we hiked one branch of a pilgrimage route for two weeks.

The particular section we chose to walk went from the small city of Le Puy en Velay, site of a well-known shrine to a black Madonna, to Conques, a tiny village nestled in a steep valley, home to a set of relics of an early French Christian martyr, Sainte Foy. Though much more comfortable than a longer pilgrimage walk Jim had done earlier with young friends, this trek had enough variables and unknowns in trail conditions and weather so it was still something of an adventure. We were lucky with both trail and weather, getting lost only briefly, and thoroughly drenched just once.

Much of our walk was through an upland plateau region generally known as the Massif Central, including the most sparsely populated French department, Lozere, with more cows than people. After we left Le Puy, we were mainly in countryside, dotted here and there with small villages, ruins of old castles, historic churches and shrines, crosses at many trail junctions, plus lots and lots of cows. Early in the trip, several communal suppers with other pilgrims gave us exposure to a local dairy specialty dish, aligot, one with an ancient pedigree.

Variations of a local legend say that in the sixth century, three area bishops were convened by the local ruler to help settle a dispute. As negotiations dragged on, the bishops got hungry. Each took out some special ingredients he’d brought with him and gave them to a local cook to turn into a meal. The bishop of St. Flour had brought lots of potatoes (or, in an earlier version of the story, bread). The bishop of Rodez had brought cheese and milk and butter, while the bishop of Mende had brought salt and garlic.

The cook decided to keep things simple. He first cooked the potatoes, then added the other ingredients to the mix, stirring briskly to blend everything together. The bishops enjoyed the dish so much that they all vied to take any leftovers home, but the remains of the mix were so thoroughly stuck to the bottom of the pot that the dish remained local to the upland plateau where they’d met.

The several iterations of aligot we experienced came with a great deal of ceremony—the cook in charge would appear with a large cauldron which was placed on an equally imposing trivet near the common dining area. The cook would then proceed to lift a big wooden spoon out of the pot to show how smooth and flexible the mixture was, then transfer huge glops of the stuff into serving bowls for us hungry pilgrims. To me, aligot seemed a sort of cross between garlic mashed potatoes and cheese fondue. It congealed quickly as it cooled. Though quite nourishing and warming on chill, rainy evenings, it could sit heavy on the stomach. It digested better if washed down with local wine or beer (or maybe even something stronger).

Once we completed our walk, descending from the plateau into milder weather in other regions, we sometimes had the option of choosing aligot as an accompaniment to our meal, but we usually passed. Aligot, as the bishops surmised, needs a wild, chill setting to reach its full potential.   

     

         

Exceeding Expectations–Three Score Years and Eleven

Exceeding Expectations: Three Score Years and Eleven    —by Jinny Batterson

My birthday happens this month.  As I age, the years tend to go by more and more quickly. Overall, it’s been a marvelous ride so far. 

Having a spring birthday is a quirk of my arrival on earth for which I’m very grateful—spring is generally such a hopeful time of year.  Most of my birthdays have long since slipped out of memory, though a few have associations that persist: 

—my 5th birthday, the first after the birth of my younger sister, when my mother staged outdoor scavenger games in our small yard. The weather was wonderfully warm and sunny; several friends came to enjoy prizes and homemade birthday cake. For one glorious day, I didn’t have to share the limelight with the cute, dimpled new baby.

—my 11th birthday, the final year I spent in the cramped first house our family lived in, before moving to a much larger house that summer.

—my 21st birthday, when I was nearly finished college and got engaged over my birthday weekend to my future husband.

—my 30th birthday, when I was pregnant with our younger child, and we staged an “over the hill party” with friends and colleagues.

—my 50th birthday, when our children were both grown and living elsewhere and I treated myself to a decadent chocolate cake.

At the time I was born, between 1940 and 1950, life expectancy for white women was between 67 and 72 years, increasing each decade. The small liberal arts school I was attending when my twentieth birthday arrived had a college springtime tradition: attaching short poems to a weeping cherry tree in front of an ivy-festooned brick classroom building. Often a handwritten copy of A.E. Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees” was among the offerings:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Back then three score years and ten seemed impossibly old—older even than my parents, aunts, and uncles in our long-generation family.

In the part of North Carolina where I now live, early spring days in 2018 have seen more than one frosting of actual snow, so warmer days and cherry trees hung with blooms are most welcome.  In our woodlands, white-blossomed cherries share center stage with white and pink dogwoods plus redbud trees whose smallish flowers are more pink than red. Along major roads and interstates this year, an extensive array of big, blowsy lavender wisteria clusters has draped adjacent trees. 

And I’ve had the chance to watch the “woodland ride” now for threescore years and eleven—a wonderful bonus. Happy springtime, y’all, wherever you spend it!       

Radio Mille Collines and the Limits to Free Speech

Radio Mille Collines and the Limits to Free Speech   —by Jinny Batterson

Each of us beyond infancy is, I believe, a product of both nature and nurture. Genetic traits and predispositions we’re born with get adjusted over time by our experiences and our successive re-interpretations of those experiences. I seem to have been born with a predisposition toward nervousness, so it’s probable that the name-calling and mud-slinging that too often inhabit media and political spaces in current-day America feel more threatening and more repugnant to me than they might to someone with a less nervous temperament.

Still, my “nurture” plays a role as well. During the 1980s, I spent two years in the economically impoverished central African country of Burundi working on rural development. Before I went, I did as much research as I could in those pre-internet days about the country I’d be living in for a time: Burundi was for most of its history a sparsely populated, geographically isolated mountainous kingdom with a preponderance of rural herders and farmers. Then, starting in the late 19th century, Burundi became first a German, then a Belgian colony, administered along with neighboring Rwanda. Neither colonial power provided much development support. During their four-plus decades of rule, Belgian administrators often used “divide and conquer” tactics, exacerbating tensions between the area’s two main ethnic groups: the Tutsis, most of whom owned and herded cattle, and the Hutus, who tended instead to farm multiple small plots owned communally by extended families in the Burundian and Rwandan hillsides, or “collines.” Since its early 1960s independence, Burundi’s trajectory has included political assassinations plus a massive ethnic conflict in the early 1970s that killed an estimated 300,000 Burundians. 

When I first arrived, I spoke none of the local language, Kirundi. I had little notion of which of my coworkers and neighbors were Tutsi and which were Hutu. Physically similar, with the same language and skin tone, Tutsis and Hutus were sometimes characterized as “talls” and “shorts” in an exaggeration of one trait that distinguishes them at the extremes. Because of intermarriage, a fair number of Burundians were and are a mixture of both groups. During my stay, I gradually built up a very basic Kirundi vocabulary. Though fluency remained beyond my grasp, I understood enough so that when I attended a local soccer game about halfway through my assignment, I recognized the derogatory use of a word meaning “short,” yelled at the opposing team by some nearby spectators. Not quite as offensive as the “n” word in American speech, the epithet was still intended to be disrespectful. 

During the 1980s, Burundi and neighboring Rwanda were relatively calm, but starting in 1993 both countries again descended into wholesale bloodletting, with the widely publicized Rwandan genocide of 1994 and a less-media-covered simmering civil war in Burundi.  Part of the build-up to the Rwandan genocide consisted of incitements by a privately owned radio station, Radio Mille Collines (Radio of a Thousand Hillsides), against ethnic Tutsis and moderates of all groups. According to a summary by the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies:

“From October 1993 to late 1994, Radio-Television-des-Mille-Collines (RTLM) was used by Hutu leaders to advance an extremist Hutu message and anti-Tutsi disinformation, spreading fear of a Tutsi genocide against Hutu, identifying specific Tutsi targets or areas where they could be found, and encouraging the progress of the genocide. In April 1994, Radio Rwanda (the official government station) began to advance a similar message, speaking for the national authorities, issuing directives on how and where to kill Tutsis, and congratulating those who had already taken part.”  The Institute has published detailed transcripts of many of these station broadcasts in English, French, or Kinyarwanda, the Rwandan local language.

After the genocide and a change of government in Rwanda, international criminal proceedings brought to trial some of the political leaders of genocide-era Rwanda, along with some of the media leaders who had helped foment hatred with their increasingly strident broadcasts. Not all ringleaders could be located and brought to justice, but 92  high-ranking defendants were indicted for their roles in a 100-day rampage that killed an estimated 800,000 Rwandans.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I sometimes fear for my own country and for our planet. Derogatory speech is again on the rise globally, whether from politicians, media pundits, or just disgruntled citizens and residents. Americans belonging to groups who have in the past been targets of repression and/or genocide—African-Americans, Jews, immigrants, LGBTQ persons, among others—feel the impact most deeply, but it affects us all.  As one European Jewish leader put it, “While hate speech and incitement is far too often dismissed as bigoted ranting or merely painful words, it can also serve as an important warning sign for much more severe consequences. Almost every genocide, ethnic cleansing or inter-ethnic conflict in modern history was preceded by violent words. We witnessed inflammatory public speech rise steadily before outbreaks of mass violence, whether in Nazi Germany, Rwanda or in the former Yugoslavia.”   

Of course we need to be able to express opposing views, but we need to be able to express them civilly, rather than by using name-calling, blaming, or personal attacks. Free speech is not the same as hate speech or incitement—please let us learn and teach the difference before it’s too late. 

   

Teaching about Easter in Zhengzhou, China

Teaching About Easter in Zhengzhou, China  —by Jinny Batterson

By now, I’ve spent several springtimes in various parts of China. In most places, I’ve not been very aware of Easter. Christianity is not a strong part of Chinese tradition, and at certain times and places the modern Chinese government has discouraged or even banned celebrations of the Easter holiday. Of course, most of our Easter decorations are made in China. In 2018, over 200 Chinese companies manufactured or distributed Easter decorations —might a bit of the festival’s flavor rub off on factory workers who fashion bunnies and candy and greeting cards? 

The first time I taught English in China, in 2002 in the central provincial capital of Zhengzhou, Henan, I happened to be there when Western Easter fell. Easter Sunday would occur about midway through the several weeks I spent at a private high school that specialized in preparing students for advanced study overseas. The previous week, I’d noticed that the city’s most upscale hotel had a rain-resistant outdoor display of larger than life bunnies and decorated plastic eggs. 

“Aha,” I thought, “an intercultural teaching opportunity!” 

Not wanting to be viewed as a religious proselytizer, something uniformly frowned on by Chinese authorities, I scoured the city’s markets and stores for the more secular accoutrements of this springtime festival, with help and advice from the school principal’s wife. After several shopping expeditions, I’d scrounged up jelly beans and chocolate bunnies, plus fabric, poster paper, glue, staples, and fake flowers to make Easter bonnets. I scheduled a “foreign teacher’s Sunday afternoon Easter social” for one of the larger indoor classrooms and publicized the event to all my classes and to the school staff. Although Sunday was not an official teaching day, the social drew the majority of my students,  plus a few of the Chinese teachers and staff.

“Many American towns,” I explained, “hold afternoon Easter parades. Everyone is glad when the weather turns pleasant after the chill of winter. People dress in their finest spring clothes, including elaborate flowered hats for the women. Sometimes people bring their dogs along and put costumes on them, too. In my city of Richmond, Virginia, people walk up and down about a mile of a major street which has been temporarily closed to automobile traffic. They show off their fine outfits and greet their neighbors.”

Some of the Zhengzhou teen girl students crafted elaborate flowered hats. The most chic pretended that our room’s center aisle was a fashion runway. Some English got spoken, if the conversations rarely moved much beyond the level of “Nice hat!” All the candy and snacks got eaten.

This year I’m spending springtime in the U.S.  Easter is fast approaching. I miss the pageantry and excitement that I’ve usually noticed in previous years spent in America.  The Christian message of forgiveness and redemption seems notably absent—we often are too busy sniping and snarling at each other, discussing the latest scandals on social media and rarely talking with our physical neighbors.  I wonder sometimes whether my Zhengzhou students might have been closer to the spirit of Easter than our purportedly Christian-majority U.S. has become.  How would it be to put aside our perceived differences and to take an afternoon stroll together? Even if our conversations rarely get beyond “Nice hat!”, perhaps we could make a start toward healing some of our self-inflicted societal fractures. 

Dragon Kites on Tiananmen Square

Dragon Kites on Tiananmen Square    —by Jinny Batterson

(Portions of this post have been adapted from my upcoming book, Where the Great Wall Ends: A China Memoir, due out later this year.)

A growing number of locations world-wide are sponsoring kite festivals. In the town where I now live, March winds bring out people of all ages, eager to enjoy the outdoors as winter ebbs, to search for just the right spot and orientation to launch their creations skyward. The basic homemade wrapping-paper-and-balsa-strut diamond shaped kites I flew as a child pale in comparison with the elaborate heirloom and contemporary kites that participate in some of these festivals. A quick internet search turned up an American-based kite flyers association with members in 25 countries, with at least one U.S.-based festival in every month of the year.  (http://kite.org/activities/events/event-calendar/)

One blustery spring day in 2000 on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, I got to see a few of the world’s most cherished, most elaborate kites. My husband and I were partway through a tourist stay in Beijing. Our first two days had been filled with organized guided tours: the Forbidden City, a nearby section of the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, some of the subterranean tunnels built under the modern city during the 1960’s and 1970’s to shelter residents in the event of a bombing attack by “the Soviets or another country,” as our tour guide put it. Now we had a free day to explore on our own. We decided to return to the vicinity of Tiananmen Square.

As we approached, we noticed several box kites bobbing and weaving in the sky above.  Once on the square itself, we found several older men preparing their heirloom dragon kites for flight. The kites, nearly fifty feet long, had extensive tails made of circles of paper glued to lightweight wooden rings, all linked together by three parallel strings that ran the kites’ entire length and could be used for steering. The rings were decorated with sturdy feathers for stability. Only when the tail was almost fully aloft was the dragon-shaped head of the kite attached and quickly pulled skyward. We watched until our necks cramped from craning upward. We had little language to express our amazement—Jim gave a thumbs up sign. Perhaps our rapt attention was language enough.

Where the Great Wall Meets the Desert

Where the Great Wall Meets the Desert   —by Jinny Batterson

(This entry is adapted from excerpts of Where the Great Wall Ends: A China Memoir, due out later this year.)

In August 2006, I got to see the western end of the Great Wall, near Jaiyuguan, a small city in Gansu province. Many years earlier, I’d first seen part of the wall near Beijing on a guided group tour. On this 2006 visit, my husband Jim and I were headed in stages by train to our first year-long China teaching assignment, in far western Xinjiang. We hadn’t originally planned to view the western terminus of the Great Wall, but fate (and some poor planning on our part) had landed us in Jaiyuguan for an overnight stay.   

We’d been able to get from our initial arrival city of Beijing as far as Jaiyuguan with the assistance of English-speaking Chinese friends and helpful travel agents. The further we got from Beijing, the fewer local people we knew.  Also, the less likely we were to encounter English-capable travel agents. Once we arrived in Jaiyuguan, we knew no one. We’d met no one on the train we could ask for help. We got ourselves and our luggage off onto the station platform. Then I approached the station clerk to buy tickets that evening for the next stage of our westward journey. I got stonewalled. Pulling out my phrase book, trying different dates, I got repeated exposure to a Chinese expression that’s become one of my least favorites: “Mei you,” (pronounced like the abbreviated version of mayonnaise), meaning roughly, “Don’t have.”

Stymied as far as immediate train travel was concerned, we located a helpful taxi driver who guided us to a comfortable tourist hotel near Jaiyuguan’s city center. Luckily we were able to arrange at least one night’s stay there. After we’d settled into our hotel room, we explored a nearby city park, ate dinner at a local restaurant, checked out some small shops, then spent a quiet night’s sleep away from a clanking, crowded train.

The following morning, we decided to do a little local touring. Using sign language, a bilingual tourist map of the area, and some basic Mandarin, we engaged a taxi to take us to the fort at the “First and Greatest Pass under Heaven,” the westernmost outpost of the Great Wall. Our driver, a middle-aged woman, would wait for about an hour while we toured, then return us to our hotel in town.

The fort was several miles west, straddling the narrowest portion of a corridor between two high hills. Our map’s brief commentary explained that it had been built to guard against barbarian invaders who could descend toward China through the pass.  Much of the fort had recently been reconstructed. It was tall, square, thick, appropriately forbidding, with concentric sets of walls and gates to keep invaders out and soldiers in. It had its own water supply. A holding pond to one side supported a luxuriant growth of shoreline willows. From the fort’s highest walls, I could see nearby wall remnants that were little more than crumbling mounds of packed earth in a parched landscape.

I saw few other foreigners. There was little English-language signage to explain the construction and history of this portion of the wall. Then a Chinese dad who sported a T-shirt advertising a Charlottesville, Virginia, pizza shop engaged me in conversation and provided some additional information:

“The fort is built mainly of rammed earth. Its initial construction occurred during the Ming Dynasty, starting in the 14th century. In addition to being a military fort, it was also a trading post along the Silk Road between China and the West,” he told me.

When I asked how he’d come by his excellent English and his American-themed shirt, the man told me he was a cardiologist who’d done part of his training at the University of Virginia’s Medical Center. Before I could ask many more questions, he politely bid me good-bye, rounded up his family, and departed the scene in an air-conditioned minivan that looked a great deal more comfortable than our taxi.     

Remnants of the Great Wall near Jaiyuguan, Gansu in northwest China

Why I’m Glad Our Granddaughter is a Girl Scout

Why I’m Glad Our Granddaughter is a Girl Scout    —by Jinny Batterson

I recently spent a week of after-Christmas visit with parts of the next generations of our family on the U.S. West Coast. As visiting grandma, I got to attend some of the children’s after school activities, including a meeting of our granddaughter’s “Daisies and Brownies” troop. Before the meeting, I was curious about how this branch of Girl Scouting had evolved in the generations since I started Brownies in the 1950’s. At first, lacking everyday exposure to younger children, I found this recent meeting’s hubbub a little daunting, though it’s likely that little girls are no more or less squirmy and giggly than my friends and I were so many years ago. For starters, girls now can become “Daisies” a year or two younger than the Brownie program I entered in second grade.  Still, I recognized parts of the program: an opening circle and a check-in when each girl could relate any important events or concerns, lots of singing, lots of running around, a craft activity, time outdoors, a pledge to honor oneself and others, a short-term service project, plus an introduction to this year’s annual cookie sales campaign for the scouts, parents, and grandparents present.

Since the meeting, I’ve ruminated a bit about why I’m glad our granddaughter is in Girl Scouting. Some American girls recently gained admission to Boy Scout troops. The “#metoo” social media movement has gained wide publicity for its attempts to reduce the incidence of sexual assault and sexual harassment (something the Girl Scouts have been doing with less fanfare for decades). Why continue to be a Girl Scout in these changing times?

Based on my previous exposure and my brief reconnection through my granddaughter, these are several aspects that still seem important to me:

—revolving skills-based leadership within a basic structure. No one person has all the skills needed for the many different situations life will throw at us. In Scouting, some will excel at crafts, while others can organize; some are adept song leaders; some have sports skills; some are tech-savvy; still others are gifted at laying campfires. In the troop where I was a member, one girl, Cheryl, was somewhat less athletic than most, not good at crafts, a reluctant camper, quiet and shy. The rest of us knew, though, that she was very important to our troop. She had a family asset missing to the rest of us: her mom worked at a large nearby military base. At cookie sales time, it was Cheryl’s turn to be a star. Though the rest of us were a little jealous as she loaded the family station wagon full of cartons of cookies for distribution, we knew her work was vital to reaching our sales goals each year.

—an international focus in addition to the local, state, and national civic engagement of each Girl Scout. For me, this was best exemplified by the first international Scouting center, a chalet in the Swiss Alps that opened in 1932. Many Scouts know the “Chalet song” with its aspirational closing: “And this its dedication shall never fail nor be undone, each race, each creed, each nation beneath its roof are one.”  The Chalet is now the oldest of five operating international centers, including a recently organized rotating event space among Girl Scouts in Africa. 

—An affirmation of the worth of each individual, along with the importance of working together toward common goals. Like Cheryl in our troop long ago, some Scouts will have less readily visible skills, but Girl Scouting teaches that each of us has an important role to play. No one is inconsequential. When we get overly invested in a “great leader” model, it can be all too easy to forget this basic truth.   

  About this time last year, I was a local participant in one of many “Women’s Marches” that occurred globally on the third weekend of January. At this year’s anniversary weekend, I’ll have to track hometown activities from afar. Yet after having observed our granddaughter’s Girl Scout troop, I’m heartened that, if and when we forget to value all the world’s citizens, she and others like her will continue to show up to remind us:  all of us matter, including women and girls.