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Memories become reality

As we approached New Zealand six months ago, the plane banked and we looked down at the golden white Farewell Spit fingering the brilliant blue sea, and the green North Island coast stretched starkly around the Bight up to the white mountain. The sea and sky merged in a seamless backdrop which gave the otherworldly appearance that the land was floating in mid-air. Our daughter, having few (if any) memories of New Zealand, asked: “Is this country in the sky?” When your norm is an Asian megacity, it might as well be.

Nevertheless our kids were very excited to return to Asia. As we flew in to land last week, the same daughter eagerly looked out at the warehouses, fields and packed-in red roofs. “Is this Asia?” she asked. “But where are the malls?” Ah, so THAT’s her primary memory! At any rate, it’s heartening to know they are so fond of the place. Meanwhile, my chest tightened as I saw the smudges of smoke rising from piles of rubbish every hundred metres or so. We know the rubbish smoke was one of our big stressors in our last term, and here we are, willingly returning to the dirty milieu.

From the moment of touchdown, and in spite of already being awake 18 hours straight, the girls nagged us about visiting their old friends. We managed to put them off for two days, long enough for us to recover from heat stroke and jet lag, before visiting our old home (still empty) in the slum. The kids made an enthusiastic reunion with their friends, but quickly realised that something had changed. After a couple of minutes, one of them came to us and asked: “How do you say: ‘I don’t understand?’” After establishing that they couldn’t exchange their news, the kids resorted to running games. Their language will return soon enough.

You may have heard us tell the story of the elderly woman who broke her leg and hip after a motorbike ran into her (she was walking by the side of the road). The driver apologised and gave her about $100 to visit the hospital, but it never really set properly and she was still confined to her bed and suffering hip pain for months afterwards. Adding to her trial was her shack: the worst we know of. Its roof was old billboards and torn tarpaulins that blew open in the wind and was hopeless in the rain, and the plywood walls were little better. We had employed her daughter and son-in-law for odd jobs to contribute to a roof upgrade. Her 8-year-old grandson is a good friend of our girls.

During a skype call from New Zealand we were delighted to learn that the family had finally raised enough money to replace their shack roof with solid sheets of asbestos cement, so at least she could stay dry during the rainy season.

She recovered enough to limp about with the help of a stick. Then disaster struck again. She was picked up by police for begging in the wrong place: and the 80-year-old cripple was clapped in jail for three weeks. She returned home with terrible diarrhoea, and died of dehydration a week later, three days before our visit. “If only you had been here,” said her grieving daughter, “we could have taken her to hospital. As it was, we just had medicine from the corner stalls.”

Six months away and the senseless plight of the poor had almost become a memory, a useful fable for illustrative purposes. On our return it took just minutes for the injustice to become real enough again.