Bangkok Archives - St. Stephen's University

bus rides and bobby pins

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Shortly after returning from the recent Asia travel study term, Nicola had an experience with someone that impacted him.  His blog entry below speaks of the importance of the travel study terms for both our students and the people they interact with.


Nicola Gladwell gave me a bobby pin.

During a long bus trip this April, I got out the handwritten draft of a short story and my AlphaSmart Dana word processor.

I balanced the Dana on my lap, then realized there was no comfortable–or even uncomfortable–way to prop up the sheets so I could type them. On the back of the seat in front of me was a tightly screwed-on strip of plastic that held the chair cover in place. I tried forcing the edge of a page under that, but had no luck.


It was then that Nicola, seated across the aisle from me, came to the rescue. She removed a bobby pin from her hair and handed it over. I was at a loss what to do with it.

“What do you suggest?” I asked.

She took the flat prong and worked it under the strip of plastic, creating a clipboard. I slid a few pages into the bobby pin and they held.


Later on, we introduced ourselves and chatted a bit. She asked what I was writing.

“A newspaper column,” I said.

This was a lie.

The short story was an early draft, and I never talk about writing so new. It wasn’t much of a lie, however, because I planned to work on a column later on.

“May I read it?” she asked.

“Uh . . . no.”

I know better than to lie and was embarrassed that I have been instantly, though unwittingly, caught.

There was wireless internet on the bus, and she had her laptop open.

“Take a look at my website,” I told her. “There are things there you can read.”

I gave her the web address and she sampled a poem and an essay and said some very kind things about them.

“Now that I’ve read something of yours, you should read something of mine,” she said.

My Dana isn’t wireless, so I asked her to email me the link and promised I’d read it when I got to my hotel.

I have something to confess. Because Nicola is a college student–an undergrad, in fact–I had low expectations. Whatever it was she had written would be, I was sure, devoid of serious thought and lacking in decent craft.

The internet, as is often the case, had a surprise waiting for me.

Nicola wrote about a recent trip to Asia, telling how things that are of small consequence here, are valued and used there. Redeemed, if you will.

She gave as an example, painted car tires being used as plant pots in the Philippines.

She gave as an example, the Asian practice of eating all parts of a beast, including the snout and feet.

She gave as an example, a dollar-store toy that we would scorn in the west, having value in the hands of a Filipino girl.

She gave as an example, the scrap tin that is used in many huts in Manila and Bangkok.

I could appreciate what she was saying, for I’d seen the same thing in Africa.

In Kenya, a dirty, twisted piece of wire is not trash, it is something that can be cleaned and carefully pounded into an attractive pair of ear-rings, often with no more tools than a flat rock for an anvil and a discarded engine bolt for a hammer.

A useless piece of wire redeemed.

I could follow the path that her examples laid down, but was not prepared for where they led me.

“I loved Thailand,” Nicola wrote. “I could live in Chiang Mai.

“I would ride to work on an elephant and guide rafts on mountain rivers for a pitiful living, seeking wisdom from aged monks and taking a masters in sustainable living or linguistics at CMU.

“However. I have a problem. I can’t get it through my head — you have to help me.

“There are over two million prostitutes in Thailand. In [the province of] Chiang Mai, all of them are brought from destitute Burmese villages and trafficked through the village of Ma Sai on the border.

“I was in Ma Sai. I bought a pen. And a necklace.

“All Burmese teen girls traveling through Ma Sai leave without their virginity and thus their hope for a future and marriage, and almost half leave with an AIDS death sentence from their first few weeks in the industry.

“What does redemption mean to a sex slave in Japan, in Bangkok, in Kuala Lumpur?

“If I see so much of what we call garbage being redeemed throughout Asia, isn’t there a way to redeem the consequences of societal chastity, idolatry, obligatory merit-making, hierarchical systems, and poverty?”

I still have Nicola’s bobby pin. I am thinking of framing it and hanging it on my wall.

This will remind me not to judge the abilities and motivations of others.

This will remind me that the life we are blessed with here is not the life most people enjoy.

This will remind me that redemption is everyone’s responsibility.

This will remind me that Nicola, who was her way home for summer break, planned to visit with her family for a couple of days then head north to Ontario.

Ontario, you see, has set a goal of planting 50 million trees by 2020, and Nicola was going to help plant some of them.

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