Let's Boycott Everywhere
Are there any countries you would not visit for moral reasons? Iran and Afghanistan maybe, for their appalling treatment of women? Brazil on account of the rainforest destruction? Israel for land invasions and oppression? There are easily identifiable objections to many places: Russia (war crimes), Turkey (repression of Kurdish minority), Hungary (anti-LBGTQ), USA (abortion rights and more) and China (a growing list of issues including the treatment of the Uighur people).
I wonder if the urge to boycott places could be extended to anywhere. France? They have a dodgy record on nuclear-testing and West African interventions. Denmark? That place does have a dark underbelly when it comes to immigration. The Faroe Islands? I was recently informed, via Twitter, that no one should go because they hunt whales. Britain? Their government has a long record of shipping poor people around the globe of which the Rwanda extradition plan is only the most recent example. Local councils in London have used the same policy, carting ‘problem’ families out to places like Milton Keynes and Harwich. Boycott Westminster?
But when places get cut adrift, and travellers will not go, everyone loses. Personal experience of places usually reveals that issues are complex and people well-meaning rather than malevolent.
In 2008 I went to China where preparations for the Olympics were under the direction of rising star, Xi Jinping, still four years away from the presidency. By current standards, that time seemed like a period when the country was opening up, heading for a more relaxed and democratic future. The Hong Kong protests and clampdown had yet to happen. The Uighurs were just one of many ethnic minorities.
The domestic airport in Beijing was, by Chinese standards, chaotic. With the Olympics only a few months away, workers were struggling with the upgrades required. If there was a plan to teach airport staff English, it had yet to bear fruit. The programme to put up English signs was also behind schedule. In addition, I had arrived at a busy time, and was late. I was ushered through a few doors, handed a paper in Mandarin, and made to understand that I should run. I came to a hall filled with passengers and saw a line of people heading through a door to a plane. It was my departure time. It must be my plane. I ran through.
On the plane no one spoke English and someone was in my seat. I took another. It was only after take-off that I began to have misgivings. Eventually a passenger who had a few words of English was found and brought to me. It still took a few minutes for the truth to become clear. I was on the wrong plane.
When I eventually reached Lijiang, a mere ten hours late, the person who was supposed to meet me was still there. Lily looked like a young teenage girl dressed for a high school prom, rather than the veteran trekking guide I had expected. Next morning when we set out on the trail, she was still dressed in a cutesy outfit with tennis shoes, but walked quickly and confidently. In fact, Lily would prove to be more than capable.
We climbed a stony trail to her parents’ village where we stayed a night. Her parents were from the Naxi ethnic minority. They wore Mao caps and were very proud of their daughter. She was modern. They kept pigs and lived in a stone cottage with a rickety roof. The kitchen had an open fire and the floor was covered in dry pine needles. We ate home-grown persimmon and walnuts then wandered around the village meeting various relatives and friends. The faces were wind-chipped. Many of the old ladies still wore the traditional dress: a kind of tasselled apron. Lily introduced me to her brother who was busy installing a bio-digester to run on pig muck. “We will extend our strawberry season with the heat,” he explained.
Lily had heard about eco-tourism on the radio and contacted an American NGO who had helped her set up her own travel company.
Next day we carried on walking into the mountains, stopping for lunch before we left civilisation behind. Lily translated the menu for me. “Today’s special dish is, ‘Everything from inside a big animal’.”
“I’m not sure I’m all that hungry. Is there anything else?”
She nodded. “Yes, there’s eel with ants, beef with ants, frog, chicken’s womb fried with green pepper, steamed eel, or hot small birds.”
Beef with ants? That tickled me. And it was surprisingly tasty.
When we got to the top of the mountain, there were vast panoramas across Yunnan. On one distant hillside I could see a village.
“That place belongs to the Yee people,” said Lily.
“Let’s go there.”
But Lily did not seem keen on the idea. It was too far and not on our route. I persisted. Lily resisted. I insisted. Lily agreed.
Our approach to the village raised a commotion among the dogs and a welcoming party soon gathered, mostly made up of women wearing huge triangular head dresses, something like Lady Guinevere might have worn to dinner at the Round Table. The faces were smiling and mostly elderly and toothless. Where were the young people and the men? All gone to work in the cities. Why did they wear these huge head-dresses? It was tradition. Sometimes they did get blown off their feet in high winds.
We were invited inside a wooden house where the ladies were cooking meat on an open fire. “We are the White Yee tribe,” they explained, via Lily’s translation. “We came from Sichuan in the time of Chairman Mao.”
Jung Chang’s biography of Mao had recently been published, revealing that Mao had been a monster, a tyrant responsible for the disaster of the Cultural Revolution and countless deaths. In China his reputation was less clear: ‘both monster and a genius’ was one assessment.
I asked what the ladies thought of Chairman Mao. This elicited a lot of laughter and debate to which Lily listened carefully, then made a summary.
“They like him. Before Mao, the White Yee people were the slaves of the Black Yee people. Chairman Mao banned slavery and the Black Yee were forced to release them. For that reason the White Yee will always be grateful to Mao.”
We ate the meat. The village was simple. No electricity or running water and in the absence of men, the old ladies and children had to do all the hard work, occasionally getting blown over by strong winds.
While we were eating, there was an interruption. A trader had arrived carrying a yoke across her shoulders with two baskets. She unwrapped one of them and laid a selection of baby clothes and other items on the path. There was widespread approval among the women. They handled the clothes and admired the synthetic colours. Then one of them removed her head dress and was handed a pair of scissors by the trader. She cut off a big length of her hair.
The trader took out a pair of scales and weighed the hair. A round of bargaining took place and the woman was recompensed with two pairs of socks. The hank of hair was coiled up and tucked away in the other basket. Some of the older ladies seemed to disapprove, but the younger women, the ones with babies, were ready to swap hair for clothes. I offered to cut off some of my hair, but the trader waved away my offer. Too short. When sufficient long hair had been collected, the trader packed up and set off down the mountain.
We all went back to eating the pork. The older ladies lit long pipes. A discussion began and Lily had to work hard to keep up a translation. Some of the younger women had heard that there were new ideas about human origins: was it true, they asked me, that we were descended from monkeys? I said this was a fact. The older women laughed so much that they choked on their pipes. Didn’t I know that humans were descended from frogs?
On the way down the mountain later that day, we passed an old man with a wispy white beard. He was carrying a musical instrument that had only a single string made from horse hair. When I asked him to play, he went and sat on a boulder then launched into a song. Sadly the recording I made is long since lost (as are the photographs from this trip), but I remember being amazed at the sound. It seemed impossible that such music could come from a single string.
Thanks to everyone for last week’s likes and comments. They really are appreciated and keep me enthusiastic to write more!
Very thought provoking Kevin! It reminded me of when I volunteered in the Hoang Lien reserve of Vietnam in about 1996. Its right on the border with China. We were lucky to be able to stay in some of the Hmong villages; our task, to record species and monitor biodiversity. The Hmong were busy cutting down the huge pomu trees of the rainforest that they then shouldered (amazingly) down the windy tracks and over the China to sell. They were also very few mammals as they had either been eaten or trapped! They were very poor and had very few ways of making any income. I was in my early 20s and it was a really good lesson in not judging at face value what was going on!
Great blog Kevin! really enjoyed reading this one. Politics, people, wisdom and most importantly a good laugh or two!