Playing the Game

I was in the back of a truck bouncing through Port-Au-Prince with six strangers. We sat in complete silence as we drove past groups of children, their pleas for money blending into a steady drone of unintelligible noise as we passed. The only thing separating me from the Haiti I had heard so much about was a thin metal grate. Barely enough to keep the children from climbing in when we stopped, it only mildly interfered with my view of the city. 

I expected to feel bad. I knew Haiti was the poorest country in the western hemisphere. I knew they had severe problems with deforestation and clean water. I thought when I arrived I would empathize or feel sad for them. Instead, I watched silently as we made our way through the streets, feeling only wonderment. 

Little did I know that in a few days I would have the most shameful experience of my life.

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Santa Claus is Coming to School

by B.J. Stolbov 

As the only (old) white man with a (long) white beard in my rural Filipino community of Northern Luzon, I get the exceedingly great pleasure every December of being Santa Claus.

I am a volunteer high school teacher. My first year here, I was asked to play Santa Claus at my high school’s Christmas assembly.  I excitedly volunteered.  Dressed in a red t-shirt and red jogging pants (the colors of our school), my black rubber swamp tromping boots (cleaned), a red cap with battery operated white blinking stars, my wire-rimmed glasses, and my long white beard, I, Santa Claus, appeared from the back of the stage of the school gymnasium to loud amplified blaring Christmas music. 

One thousand students went wild. This was my ultimate rock star Santa Claus moment. I strode across the stage waving, and then waded down into the roaring crowd.  Carrying a red bag filled with candy, I threw handfuls of candy everywhere.  It was almost a sugar frenzy riot. Everyone loves Santa Claus. No wonder he does this!  What a rush! I felt like Santa Claus. 

Next year, I was again invited to play Santa Claus.  But not only at my high school, where now, of course, everyone knew me; but also at an elementary school, where few, if any, of the kids knew me.  I cheerfully accepted.

I arrived at the elementary school dressed in regular clothes, with my Santa outfit hidden in my tightly folded red bag.  The principal of the school had made all the arrangements, agreeing with me that no one, except for a few teachers, would know that Santa Claus was coming to their school.  In the principal’s office, I changed into my Santa outfit. 

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Shifting Sands in Rajasthan, India

words + photos by Barbara Aman

We arrived late at night at the field office of the nonprofit, a crumbling cement structure with a few rooms and a few rusted bed frames with torn, flattened pads. I was here to document the progress of a multinational water-supply project in this drought-challenged desert region in India’s western Rajasthan state. No luxury hotel here.

Up before sunrise the next morning we first visited water catchment areas, where large areas were dug out a few feet down, the women wielding picks, the red dirt transported away with beat-up metal bowls by all available family members--typically grandparents and grandkids, who often worked together. The elder male stood at a distance, dressed in white--as if a maharajah from the past, leaning against his wooden cane--while the women, dressed in brightly patterned red saris, toiled behind him.

It’s the women and girls who are most affected by the water shortage here. Many in the villages spend up to five hours a day walking to and from the closest well or storage tank, carrying water in their beat-up metal pitchers. Water for drinking, cooking, washing--it falls to them to fetch it, however far away it may be. Male/female roles are strictly cast here: Whatever it takes to keep the home and family running, it’s up to the females to get it done.  At one point, Michael, my partner, had teasingly picked up one of the full water containers and placed it in my arms, and my legs almost crumpled. I could not imagine how these tiny women could carry these on their heads.

The next stop was a completed water catchment and storage area and as we drove up I could see the bright white paint job on the 12-foot round tank, jutting up about 2 feet from the ground, the lower half nestled tidily in the hard clay soil. A young woman stood atop it, quite shyly, covering her face with her tattered sheer sari while balancing her metal water jug adeptly atop her head. Her eyes seemed to bore through me, even in their shy state.

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Hanukkah Behind Bars

by Judith Fein

Christmas lights fringed the adobe walls in downtown Santa Fe, and I was feeling gloomy. In a few days I'd be leaving the country for a work assignment, and I wouldn't be able to celebrate the holidays with the kids behind bars.

For several years, I had volunteered to teach them creative writing, and I'd become very attached to them. In spite of their crimes, I loved them because they were just kids. Their life stories were punctuated with abuse, abandonment, and pain, and I knew their young hearts would ache with loneliness during the holiday season.

Impulsively, I called the head of the jail. He said I could have a special holiday session with the kids the following night.

Almost all of the Hispanic and Native American kids were Christians, and I wondered if any of them knew what Hanukkah was. I spent the next day buying plastic dreydls (tops) and gold-wrapped chocolate coins called Hanukkah gelt, and then I cut up more than 600 paper chits. In case my Hanukkah idea was a dud, I bought and signed Christmas cards for the kids.

As I was leaving for my Hanukkah mission, my friend Kitt arrived at my house with an enormous 50-pound pillowcase full of candy. "A little something for the kids," she explained.

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