Living On One Dollar

Nic and I watched an interesting yet thought-provoking documentary last week called Living On One Dollar. The one-hour documentary chronicled 4 American boys, in their early 20s, who decided to spend their summer in Guatemala – living in a village of 300 people atop a mountain. The village people didn’t speak much Spanish but communicated via a local dialect.

The reason these boys  – happy, optimistic fellows – did this was to research if it was possible to live on one dollar a day. They had learnt about this fact in their studies and with funding, decided to experience if this was indeed possible as 1.1 billion people around the world did earn one dollar or less a day and managed to survive. 

Sean, Zach, Ryan and Chris recorded their 56 days via video as well as journals. They decided to also draw a number, any where from 0 to 9 each day from a hat. This number represented the amount in dollars they could spend that day, assuming that was the amount of dollars they had earned that day. 

They also wanted to lease a plot of land, a small piece, just to plant radishes. This satisfied their need to know what it took to be farmers, as most of the villagers grew their own produce for sale. One woman grew onions while others grew other crops. 

As much as the research factor kicked in, reality also dawned on the four of them that it was not easy subsisting on a few dollars a day. On the days they drew 9 which meant they had $9 to spend at the local market (which was a bumpy truck ride down the mountain), they bought firewood, beans, rice and bananas.

What initially started out fun (eating plain cooked black beans and rice) turned out to be dreary and you could see it as the gaunt faces of the 4 boys became more evident day by day. 

One of them also contracted parasites in his intestines which gave him stomach pain and gas! 

On days they drew zero which meant zero income, they started to feel like the villagers – hopelessness. When they spoke to the villagers, they realised that most of the villagers depended on farming and they depended on their children to help with farming. Thus, a boy called Chino had to stop school because his father couldn’t afford to buy school books – he was asked to work in the plots of land which grew produce for the family’s subsistence. 

When 12 year old Chino was asked what he wanted to be, he answered that he wanted to be a farmer. Upon probing, he finally said he wanted to be a pro soccer player. 

Some of the villagers also remarked that it has hard not to feel tired or lethargic – all they had sometimes was salt and tortillas for their families. The better-off ones like a 24 year old family man called Anthony (because he had a job in town as a cleaning person) could afford to cement the floor of his home. Small improvements like this helped to prevent water flooding their houses when it rained. In most villager’s homes, such as Chino’s, the floor was just plain mud. 

Anthony’s wife, a 20 year old, was already a mother. She had harboured dreams of becoming a nurse but had to stop schooling as her family couldn’t afford to pay for school. It was tough being poor as she said she didn’t have the nice dresses to wear to school and it made her feel bad. She seemed to console herself that it was just as well she stopped schooling. 

But she did the next best thing. 

She took a loan from the local Grameen bank to start her weaving business and started using the profits to slowly fund herself through classes to see if she could get a licence as a nurse. 

One of the American boys went to the local bank to find out how or if the villagers could get a loan. What they found was that the bank set such high criteria that the poor villagers could never afford to get a loan! Luckily there was the Grameen bank which gave small loans to the village women to get their small businesses started. 

Now what got me thinking was – why was it that women had the brains to think of starting a small business while the men didn’t? Apparently, women are the best people as Grameen loaners – they did not default and were reliable enough to pay back their loans in small instalments. And what do the men do?

This documentary was touching because not long after, I had tea with Jana, my bestie from school who had now relocated to Penang. She works for a regional NGO called PANAP involved in helping ensure our food sources are clean and safe. In other words, pesticide-free food, food that was not genetically modified and food that honoured the farmers, the people who cultivated our food. 

She had just returned from Nepal where she did a short program with the children of a Nepali school called Snowland Ranag Light of Education School. This school is in Kathmandu and offers education to the disadvantaged children of the 13 districts of the Upper Himalayan region.

The school was founded by Guru Ranag Tulku Rinchen Rinpoche who is also known as Dolpo Buddha in 2002. He believes that education improves lives and started this school in Budhanikantha, Kathmandu. 

The brochure notes that: “Life is hard for the 5.85% of Nepal’s total population of 26, 494,505 people living in the region. Income generating activities are very low and literacy rate is also very low ie. 52.67%.

“Cultivatable land is very little and whatever pastoral land there is used for cattle grazing. Lack of communication and transportation has made the region inaccessible….children are compelled to work wit their families to provide more hands with little knowledge that education could provide them with the means to a better future even in such challenging condition.”

The school offers free education thanks to the donations from well-wishers and supporters of Dolpo Buddha. 

Jana tells me that the children have had to trek for one month to reach the school! The children live at the school as their homes are just too far away. When I heard she was going to this school in Nepal, Nic and I asked her if she could bring two boxes of Faber-Castell gel ink pens for them. 

More than 10 years ago, Nic had backpacked to Nepal and he had seen how everyday items we take for granted, are in much demand. Items like sewing needles, pencils and pens. We didn’t want to overburden Jana’s luggage with too many things so we figured two boxes of pens would be light and easy. 

As a child, I used to write with red pens, copying the answers from the borrowed library book “Tell Me Why” into my battered school exercise book. I didn’t know why I did that but the memory of writing down words thrilled me to no end. 

I was gratified to hear that the children were indeed pleased to be gifted with pens. They used the pens to draw and write. But most of all, the children made us two simple gifts – friendship bands! I was deeply surprised at their gratitude. After all, the pens were a simple, inexpensive gifts from Nic and me. 

But it also dawned on me that what we take for granted – black pens, going to school, a cement floor – were important to most people whose lives are challenging. 

Just like it is challenging to live on one dollar a day. 

I think it isn’t just in Guatemala. I bet you there are Malaysians who are also poor, living hand to mouth. 

But I am always thinking: what makes one person get out of poverty while the rest don’t? Do they need money to get started? Or they need something other than money? 

The other thing I am always thinking and asking – would it help if people had role models? 

I’ve learnt a lot from House of Hope, a drop-in centre in Rifle Range which provides food and assistance to the people who live in Rifle Range particularly the children, single moms and the elderly. My WomenBizSENSE members hold annual parties at House of Hope and this year, we’re doing a steamboat dinner for the elderly on 13 February using funds that we have accumulated under our Social Responsibility fund as well as donations from generous friends and members. 

Many of these children come from broken homes – they either only have their mother or if they don’t have parents, they live with their grandparents. Some of the children are bright but they lack opportunities. 

One of the opportunities is the access to role models. I’ve felt that role models can be a catalyst, that one spark that could transform someone from never aspiring to much to someone who is excited to follow in the footsteps of her inspiration. 

I am still tinkering with this idea. Based on my networks, I know I can easily get people, from friends to clients, to give talks to these kids as a way to open up their worlds and most importantly, their minds.

You can only be who you want to be if you know it can be done. You need to know that someone just like you has done it. You need to know you’re not the only one forging the path.

I once remembered Nic and I talking to 4 teenagers – 3 boys and a girl – what entrepreneurship was about. They were off to college soon but they weren’t quite sure if what they wanted to study was important or worth it. One boy quietly noted that he was going overseas to do medicine because his father chose it for him! If he enjoys medicine, he’ll be an inspiring doctor. If he despises his chosen field, his parents will be disappointed. 

Yet all of them expressed surprise that business could be a viable option besides the traditional occupations – doctor, lawyer or engineer. A degree is always important but what you do after you complete your degree is as important too. After hearing us speak so excitedly about our business and the principles we hold, they now knew that (small) business wasn’t always about the boring stuff. 

Part of what my blog does is my own self-reflection – to note down my ideas and perhaps to connect with people like me who want to do better for our community. 

I don’t want you running off to Guatemala to help; in fact, my friend’s spunky daughter joined the Raleigh Project in Sabah last May and had a grand time helping build water pipes for the villagers in Sabah.

Can you imagine that 50+ years after Merdeka there are still villages in Borneo without proper access to something as basic as clean water? (And here I am dissing the slow Internet speed!)

Anyway, Sher Ryn had such an incredible learning experience that she gathered a group of friends (which included her mom’s friends and that meant Nic and me) and had a small presentation where she showed us photos of her month-long trip and what she learnt from her jungle experience.

The expedition influenced and touched her immensely. She saw with her own eyes, how getting water was never easy and what piped water could do for the kids and families of that Sabahan village. She learnt how to understand the quirks of other people – people of other nationalities who joined the expedition. 

I know she’ll do great things in time to come – she is such a fireball of energy plus she has amazing attitude – and she is an inspiration to me! She’s only 20 but she had the guts and the spunk to rough it out in the jungles of Sabah. 

But more than that, she has supportive parents. I know Peter and Fidel, her parents, and they’ve brought her and her brother up to be spontaneous, well-mannered and considerate young people. Fidel even backpacked with her daughter to Myanmar! 

Anyway, part of why most people feel disconnected and bored stiff today is that they’ve never thought about anyone but themselves. They’ve never realised how fortunate they are. They don’t know how the rest of the world lives. They don’t see the world, cliche as it may be, from another person’s viewpoint. 

When I was a Girl Guide back in my secondary school days, I went for a week-long camping trip – a jamboree in Templer’s Park with Girl Guides and Scouts from all over Selangor. During the entire camping experience, we had to do our “business” in a large trench about 5 feet deep. We squatted on planks placed across the trench. The four corners of the trench was covered with tarpaulin – sans roof. The sky was our roof. You never want to look down into the trench. We liberally sprinkled baking soda over our poop once we were done. My bestie tried not to go to the open-air toilet because it stank badly. 

The trip was eye-opening. At least for me. I never took my bathroom for granted ever again. 

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Find out more about the documentary at www.livingononedollar.org 

Find out about the Snowland Ranag Light of Education School at www.srleschool.edu.np or email: db.rinpochetrust@gmail.com 

The Queer, The Exotic & The Melancholy

I wrote this when I was in Phuket about 3 weeks ago when I was on holiday. We were at Patong, the most popular tourist beach area in Phuket. It’s akin to Batu Feringghi but with lots more flavour.

We’d stayed at the southern and quieter stretch of Patong but from our hotel, it was only a 10-minute walk to the infamous Bang La Road. During the day, this stretch of road is harmless but after 9pm, the road becomes a throbbing night life full of people and gawkers. I wrote this piece as a means to figure out the conundrum that is Phuket, Thailand.

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Idol Worshippers

I was at the Buddhist Tzu Chi Recycling Centre at Taman Lumba Kuda (behind Shang Wu Primary School opposite the Penang State Mosque) a few weeks ago. It was a warm Saturday afternoon which made people lazy to go out.

Nic and I were there to see for ourselves what a successful recycling centre looked like.

The area we live in, Taman Sri Nibong, had received a proposal from the good people at Tzu Chi that they wanted to turn an abandoned food court in our residential area into a recycling centre. Tzu Chi would pay MPPP a rental to use the premises. They did a presentation a few days before that to let us know what their plans were plus answer any questions or doubts.

I like Tzu Chi, not least because they’re a Buddhist organization. They are an amazing example of what good things can be done if done right and with compassion. The way Tzu Chi is run can put many conglomerates and businesses to shame; they have such integrity, such intelligent systems and their inspiration is truly awe-inspiring. (Another Buddhist organization worth mentioning is The Kechara Group. Love, love, love their work.)

Another group had also wanted to turn this old food court into something else. I shall not name this group but they did nothing after proposing their idea for all of two years. When I was in the RA Committee (and that was 2 years ago), I had heard of the big idea but nothing came about. Naturally we all assumed this other group had lost interest or had no funds.

So now that Buddhist Tzu Chi had an idea and proposal, this other group gives an ultimatum – “take our idea and benefit this entire taman or go with Tzu Chi” assuming that only THEY could do something good for this area – when they had remained so quiet for the last 2 years. Humans are so bloody predictable. Give them a bone and they will fight like dogs.

And these are grown men and women!

Some say that a multi-purpose hall is better (so let’s tear down the old food court). Some say a recycling centre is dirty and will attract strays. Some say a library is even better (oh dear, in this day and age when even adults don’t read and we expect kids to go to a library?). Or a coffee corner. Someone even said, why don’t we ask someone rich like Vincent Tan to give some money and turn it into a hall.

Oh so many ideas.

Anyway, that has yet to be settled. While the arguments zoom back and forth, there’s an elephant in their midst. No one wants to say it but the taman residents are afraid Tzu Chi will turn Taman Sri Nibong into a temple or something. Or proselytize and turn us all into Buddhists.

The people who make bold accusations like this did not attend the Tzu Chi presentation nor did they make the effort to visit the recycling centre in Taman Lumba Kuda (which is clean and quiet and gives the entire community a place they can gather!). They sit behind their PCs and spew forth such illogical statements that it makes me wonder – why are certain Christians so afraid of Buddhists?

I am a Buddhist and I can tell you this – we do not go around proselytizing because we’re not about saving your souls. Your soul is yours. It is your karma to have your soul. It gives us no credit to save your souls.

So there. I’ve said it. No offence to Christians – I have plenty of Christian friends, OK.

Plus my sister is a Muslim. Yup. She is. My own blood sister. So yes, I do know what I am talking about.

In fact, I have been asked again and again to join Christian groups on pretext of going out for dinner/party/fun.

My neighbour Vern and I have a secret code for this -“porridge group”. I told her this story – when I was in USM as a freshie, all naive and young, my senior approached me and asked if I wanted to go out with her friends for porridge. I was not feeling too well then, having just recovered from chicken pox, so porridge sounded divine (and campus food was always spicy and curried).

I didn’t know it wasn’t just porridge.

After our dinner at a nearby hawker centre, she drove us all to her friend’s house. A big group had gathered.

“Oh, we’re going to watch a movie and sings some songs, that’s all,” said this senior to me. I was lucky my roommate was with me. She was just as confused as I was. Maybe we looked too heathen!

The movie was about Christ and how he died for our sins. The songs were songs of praise with live guitar music. It was practically a cell group meeting for all I know.

We couldn’t even walk out of the house as we had been driven there and out of politeness, had to wait until the 2 hours were over before we were taken back to our hostel.

I felt so cheated and so angry. I never spoke to that senior again. If only she had clued us in, at least we would have had a chance to decline or if truly interested, to say yes.

But to induce two girls and bring them to a cell group meeting on the pretext of going out for dinner was the cheapest of all cheap tricks.

I always tell people I meet that religion is deeply personal. What you do in your personal life is between you and God or whomever you believe in.

Whatever religion you belong to, be the best follower of that religious teaching.

I studied in a Methodist school. I know the Lord’s Prayer – I had it memorized when I was 10 when I was searching for some sort of religion to cling to. I grew up with a best friend who is deeply religious – a Catholic where I had joked “Nothing comes between you and Jesus.”  I tried attending Friday sessions at the chapel in my school. But nothing.

Religion is an affinity. I had none with Christianity. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect it as a religion. When I came to USM and learned the Dhamma, it felt like coming home. It fell into place for me.

Many friends became Christians after years of praying as Taoists and Buddhists. It’s OK because they finally found what they were looking for.

But to presume that Buddhists are all out to convert people is wrong.

Have you ever seen a Buddhist giving you a pamphlet and saying “If you’re free, why don’t you come to our service this Sunday at 1oam?” or “What are you doing this Sunday? Would you like to join us in worship?”

So for all our corny slogans of 1Malaysia (I hate it with all my heart), we still don’t understand each other, do we? We still don’t know what we all are or how our philosophies differ or when they merge.

Some Christians are afraid of some Buddhists/Taoists/Confucianists. We’re all that cymbal-clashing, idol-worshippers who burn joss paper, light incense and live by archaic superstitions.

Open up your eyes, will you? Come and understand first before you judge.