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READ and a “Pistol of a Lady”

“Only a life lived for others is a life worth living.”

— Albert Einstein

I met Dr. Antonia (“Toni”) Neubauer shortly after I started my recovery program at Lake Tahoe. She soon became a very close friend.

Toni is a bundle of energy. I call her a “pistol.” Standing no more than five feet tall and I suspect not many years younger than me, she founded and heads an adventure travel company, Myths and Mountains, rated by National Geographic as one of the ten best in the world. She leads many of the trips that Myths and Mountains puts together herself. When not overseas, she seems to be constantly inviting people to her home for song circles, play reads, and book clubs. One can get dizzy trying to figure out how she packs so much energy into her small frame.

Of greater significance is that in the early 90s, Toni had founded an organization known as Rural Education and Development, an international non-profit organization initially designed to bring literacy and economic development to the country of Nepal. The organization, better known by its acronym of READ, had a Board of Directors but the members were not much engaged and Toni pretty much soldiered on by herself for many years.

As we got to know each other, Toni began to ask me to join the Board of Directors of READ Global. I told her over the course of several years that as much as I respected what she was doing, I simply could not commit myself to accept her request. Not only was I still going through a physical rehabilitation effort but I finally, for the first time in my life, was learning to say “no.” A problem that I have always had is that when I say yes I completely throw myself into a project. I feared that it would be too much for me to undertake yet further responsibilities with READ given the state of my health and everything else that I had on my plate.

By the summer of 2004 I had made a remarkable recovery by any measure or standard. Nevertheless, my wakeup call had convinced me that I might not have long to live. So I decided that I would put together a trip to visit the only region of the world that I had not previously visited. For the most part, that was the former French Indo- China consisting of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. I also wanted to see what Myanmar (formerly Burma) was like.

So I put together a two and a half month trip which started in Vietnam. Travelling alone, as more times than not I have done, I left in early September for Vietnam. I travelled everywhere in the country that I wanted to see starting in the far south and continuing to the farthest point north. I found the Mekong Delta in the south to be incredibly hot and humid and I could certainly understand how frightening warfare must have been in that area. Narrow waterways and thick jungle, perfect for hiding ambushers. I travelled up the Delta to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. It is a huge city and remains the economic center of the country.

As I travelled north, the country became quite lush and very beautiful. I crawled through a major tunnel that had been dug by the Viet Cong. It was a difficult ordeal but a Vietnamese lad told me that he would guide me through it. He was young, quite small, very nimble, and he scooted right along. However, as a westerner I am substantially larger than the average Vietnamese and with my bad knee to boot I was in pain and had a very hard time making my way. It was one of only two times in my life that I remember being claustrophobic. The tunneled maze seemed to go on forever and it was unbelievably hot. Eventually I got to an area within the tunnel that had been used by the Viet Cong for a hospital. There I was able to stand up for a few minutes.

Then we continued on, still underground. It would have been impossible for an American G.I. laden with military gear to get through those tunnels. There was simply not enough room in the passageways and the sweltering heat and humidity was insufferable. Eventually the tunnels led to a river which in effect was the escape route if one was needed. After a good forty-five minutes or so, was I ever happy to stand upright and to breathe fresh air. I was dripping wet with sweat.

Continuing farther north past Hue, DaNang and Marble Mountain, I eventually came to Hanoi. Hanoi is a beautiful city. It is much smaller than Saigon and still retains its French architecture which the Vietnamese greatly prize. They may not have liked the French occupation of their country but they did and still do appreciate French architecture and cuisine.

From Hanoi I continued on to Halong Bay on the Chinese border. It is one of the most beautiful spots to be found anywhere, startling in its beauty with small, lush chiseled islands all over the bay.

During the month I was in Vietnam, I attended a lot of religious ceremonies. Although my visit was only a generation after the end of the Vietnam War, not once as an American did I encounter any hostility. I found that extraordinary because I had been in Europe a generation after the end of World War II, and the animosity towards Germans in most parts of Europe at that time was still quite palpable. The Buddhist philosophy embraced by most Vietnamese values among other things living in the present and not unduly dwelling on the past. As one Vietnamese told me, “If one dwells on the past it is generally with regret, and if one dwells on the future it is generally with anxiety. Better to live in the present.” Very Buddhist.

I found that quite interesting because on two prior occasions I had been privileged to meet the Dalai Lama. My first meeting with the Dalai Lama had been in the United States in a group setting but I was later to meet with him again in Geneva with only a few others present and with the opportunity to have face to face discussions with his Holiness. My respect for the Dalai Lama is enormous and, later in life, I have myself taken refuge in Tibetan Buddhism.

Although the Vietnamese do not hold the same reverence for the Dalai Lama that one finds in Tibet and in many parts of northern China, Nepal, Bhutan, Northern India, and elsewhere, he is greatly respected and many Vietnamese still look to him for spiritual guidance.

When I left Vietnam I flew to Bangkok for a pre-arranged meeting with an Englishman named John Sanday O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire). Toni Neubauer had arranged for me to meet with Sanday in Bangkok and we met right on schedule. John is a tall, somewhat stuffy man who has done some extraordinary things including helping with the building of hospitals in Nepal. However, he is best known for his work in restoring wats or temples of the ancient Khmer civilization. During the time of the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields in Cambodia, John was one of the very first westerners to go back in and to start reconstruction of the great antiquities at Angkor Wat and of other wats or temples of the Khmer civilization. I had the honor and extraordinarily rich educational experience of travelling with John through northeast Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.

There are literally hundreds of wats in this part of the world. Most are difficult to find since they have been overgrown by jungle. Some of the more fascinating ones are far removed from Siem Reap, the city where Angkor Wat and Angkor Town are located. John has done so much archaeological and reconstructive work throughout the ancient Khmer world that almost everywhere we went people referred to him as “Mr. John.” His knowledge of the Khmer civilization, one of the greatest of the ancient empires, is unsurpassed.

After visiting well over one hundred wats I saw the results of the “Killing Fields” near Phnom Phen, Cambodia. It was sickening. I had been to a lot of other atrocity sites including several holocaust sites in Europe as well as the holocaust museum in Israel but I had never seen anything like what I saw in the killing fields where up to 40,000 skulls were stacked in one huge pile. There were all kinds of victims. Those who wore glasses. Those who could read or write. The insanity of Pol Pot and his regime was unbelievable.

Mine fields are still being cleared in various regions of Cambodia. I am an adventurous guy. When people tell me not to go somewhere, I’m generally the first to say I’m going there, but I will be the first to admit that in Cambodia when I was told not to venture into a mined area I did not. There were places where Cambodians were down on their hands and knees with proper instrumentation checking for mines and instructing people where they could safely step. I listened intently and stepped exactly where I was told it would be safe to step —and nowhere else.

Leaving Cambodia, I flew into Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). Myanmar has one of the most repressive governments in the world. Nevertheless, I fell in love with the people and with the beauty of the country even though I spent only one week there. Elayna flew to Asia to join me for that week.

The government required that we have a guide. She was quite small and very intelligent. We became good friends with her over that short period of time and she confided in us that every single evening she was required to report all of our movements. This was true when we were in Yangon, Pagan, Mandalay—everywhere. She was also to inform authorities what was being said during conversations with people we encountered. The authoritarian government is reprehensible in every respect.

Myanmar is incredibly rich in resources—diamonds, rubies, sapphires, oil, and much more. The sanctions imposed by the European countries as well as by the United States might have an effect but for the Chinese who openly exploit trade opportunities that enrich the Generals who rule Myanmar. The Buddhist monuments in Myanmar are perhaps as significant as any I have found in the world and lend themselves to the mystique of the country. I could write a book about Myanmar even though I spent only a week there. It is a country where virtually everything is based on astrological forecasts, and where women “paint” their faces white with the bark of a tree and chew beetle nut which causes their teeth to eventually turn dark brown. A strange and mysterious country, full of people begging to be free.

I had now been away from the States for two months travelling in South and Southeast Asia, but I knew that Toni Neubauer wanted me to join her in Nepal to see firsthand what READ is all about and to visit some of the libraries READ had already developed.

I agreed and after seeing Elayna off for her flight back to the States, I caught a flight into Kathmandu and from there onto Pokhara, Nepal. In Pokhara I met up with Toni and with the Director of READ Nepal, the entity in Nepal that works under the umbrella of READ Global. After a day and night in Pokhara, taking in the spectacular views of the Himalayas including the famous mountain known to westerners as “Fish Tail” (also known as Machhapachhare) we caught a Buddha Airlines flight further north to Jomsom in the Kingdom of Mustang, which is a kingdom within what was then the kingdom of Nepal.

Virtually all INGOs had left Nepal because of the Maoist insurrection. Both the Maoists and the government forces were committing horrible human rights abuses. Somewhat remarkably, personnel working for READ were never bothered because READ had assiduously stayed out of politics. Its goal was simply to inspire literacy and economic prosperity in rural and remote parts of the country.

After visiting the READ library in Jomsom, we began to trek up the Kali Gandaki, the deepest gorge in the world bordered to the south by the Annapurna Range and to the north by Dhaulagiri, one of the world’s highest mountains.

Trekking to various villages was fascinating because as we approached each village we would see teenage kids up high on the cliffs signaling where we were. The villagers all seemed to know we were coming. By the time we reached the village most of the people would be lining the streets waiting to put floral garlands around our necks. It was quite moving.

In the village of Tukche, after visiting the library, we went to view the small furniture plant they had established as their sustaining project. They had enjoyed so much success that they had built two more stories on what had started out as a one-story library. The furniture made at their furniture plant became greatly sought after by, among others, the monasteries in the region.

With their surplus money, not only were the villagers able to sustain the library but they were able to build a bridge across the Kali Gandaki, a great river. Before the bridge was built, the people on the other side would have to trek miles upstream to cross over and miles back down to get to the village. A full day round trip.

Now, not only could people on the other side of the river cross to visit the library and to visit the village of Tukche itself, but it also benefited people on the village side of the river as the land on the other side was more arable. Fruit orchards were planted and a small brandy industry followed. One could not help but be impressed—and I was. It was a classic example of what READ was accomplishing.

Toni, having knowledge of the region, had also timed our visit to Tukche so that we were able to witness the most important ceremony of the year. The ceremony which took place in the monastery was one that involved casting the demon from the village so that land would be rich and crops plentiful. Although I had witnessed similar ceremonies before, none had been as colorful as the one in Tukche, nor had any been as prolonged and ornate. Two days and nights in duration, eventually a processional formed and the demon was cast into fire some distance from the monastery.

From this region in the Himalayas which had been settled by people from Tibet hundreds of years ago, we trekked across the Kali Gandaki and took a different route back to Jomsom. Trekking both to and from Jomsom had allowed us to stay overnight in several small but memorable tea houses in villages along the trails.

Back in Jomsom, we flew back to Pokhara. From Pokhara we drove south from some of the highest country in the world in the Himalayas to close to sea level in the Chitwan area next to India known as the Terai. There was a stark contrast in flora and fauna as in this jungle area one can find Bengal Tigers, elephants and other jungle life not found in the high country.

At the village of Jhuwani, we got the same type of reception we had received at Jomsom and Tukche. The reception actually became humorous as eventually the garlands had covered my entire head and I had to push with one hand the garlands up above my eyes and with the other the garlands down below my eyes in order to see. Everyone laughed, myself included. The villagers put on a big show for us as they did in every village.

As mentioned, Toni had asked me several times to serve on the READ Board of Directors and I had continued to say no, but the night after we arrived in Jhuwani when I was again asked, I said: “Toni, I am so moved by the good that READ is doing in this country I cannot say no any longer.” So I agreed and I became a member of the READ Global Board of Directors and, as is always the case, threw myself wholeheartedly into the work. That is my custom. Today, I serve as Chairman of the Board of READ Global.

The first request Toni made of me was that I use my connections to expand and strengthen the READ Global Board of Directors. That I did. Today we have an outstanding Board and a small but very dedicated and talented staff, all deeply engaged and committed to the future of READ and the work that READ is doing in the lesser developed world.

By 2007, READ was ready to expand into another country. In fact, READ had received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on condition that its program be taken to additional countries. The first was India, a country that both feeds the soul and tears at the heart at the same time. Toni and I and another Board Member went to India and established READ India, hired a staff and selected the first village that we would work in.

The first village in which we began to work was the village of Ullon, about ninety miles south of Kolkata (previously known as Calcutta). The village of Ullon is on the Bay of Bengal in the Sunderbans area, one of the last sanctuaries of the Bengal Tiger. As one drives south of Kolkata it is seemingly a never ending congested road marked by squalor and poverty. It takes approximately five hours to travel the ninety miles by car from the airport in Kolkata to Ullon. For hours on end, the road is congested by cars, buses, trucks, cattle, rickshaws, and thousands upon thousands of people.

With a driver holding his hand on the horn the entire distance, after several hours all of a sudden we came upon a litter free road bordered by trees. It was a real contrast to everything that we had previously seen on our way south from Kolkata. We had arrived in the village of Ullon. Here is located an entity known as VSSU—a microfinance/microcredit program headed by a man named Kapilanda Mondal. VSSU is modeled after Grameen Bank, which was founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus.

VSSU now works in over 400 villages in West Bengal regardless of caste or religion. The villagers in Ullon wanted READ to establish the first READ India project in Ullon. They had put together one of the best business plans that had ever been brought to READ’s attention. As a result, we made a decision then and there to start our Indian program in the village of Ullon.

Later that same year I again visited India and, among other things, travelled to Ullon to lay the cornerstone and do the groundbreaking for our library and economic development center there in the village. It was dedicated the following May and since then has attracted visitors from all over the world. From that start in 2007, READ now works in several States in India. However, the country is so vast that, with a population of over one billion people, it will take scores of years to reach all of the impoverished villages and peoples that seek our help.

With additional funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and recognition received not only from that foundation but other international entities as well, READ now has also taken its program to Bhutan. This occurred in the latter part of 2008 when Toni and I travelled there not only to establish READ Bhutan but also at the invitation of the King to observe the ceremony by which the new King was being coronated.

Bhutan is the only country in the world that measures progress not by the customary standard of Gross National Product by rather by the standard of Gross National Happiness. Surprisingly, most of the people speak not only Dzonga, the national language, but also English which is taught throughout the school years. The Bhutanese treasure their architecture, their dress and their culture and have been able to preserve them well so far.

Until recent times, Bhutan was pretty much closed to the outside world. Therefore, I was somewhat surprised and very impressed at the caliber of people that applied for the position of Executive Director of READ Bhutan. Toni and I interviewed over ten people and the vast majority were well qualified for the position. I was enormously impressed with Bhutan and felt privileged to have gone there as it was one of a limited number of countries in the world that I had not yet visited.

The work of READ and the good it does is gratifying and enriches my soul beyond words. I was blessed when I said “yes” to Toni in the village of Jhuwani, Nepal in late 2005.

 

Epilogue

Blessings

“I have to say it now; it’s been a good life all in all; it’s really fine to have a chance to hang around.”

— John Denver (“Poems, Prayers & Promises”)

To be sure, I have led a rugged, adventurous, and blessed life. I am blessed to have been born in the United States, a country which I dearly love, where opportunities abound for anyone who is willing to work hard and persevere through hardships.

I have been blessed to have seen and experienced parts of the world that most people never dream of seeing—and I managed to see most of them before the world became “flat” and homogeneous.

I am blessed to have had English as my native tongue because this richly diverse country—the United States—has been such a beacon to the world that wherever I have traveled, within minutes I have invariably been able to find someone with whom I could communicate.

I am blessed to have lived in an age of medical marvel and miracles. At no other time in the history of mankind could I possibly have survived some of my ordeals. Of that I am certain.

I have been blessed to have fathered beautiful children who, sometimes in spite of my absences and lapses, have turned into caring and contributing adults. They, in turn, have provided me with three adorable grandchildren and, who knows, there could always be more in the future.

Each morning, I open the paper first to the obituary page. If my name is not there, I think “Isn’t this day off to a great start! Now, accept the blessing and make the most of it.”

So while I’ve not yet “gone fishing,” I have only my own hard charging personality to blame. My suspicion is that, while I may preach to the contrary, till the day I die I will keep busy (and never regret a moment of it).

So what’s next for me? That chapter has yet to be written. Yet, one constant remains as certain in my life as the rising of the sun tomorrow. Whatever fate may have in store for me and whichever road I choose to follow, most assuredly there will be something new around the next bend. The insatiable quest for knowledge burns as brightly today as ever.

Robert Frost put it best when he wrote:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

 

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