Making Bricks in Guangdong Province

The patient and kind brickmaker taught every student how to make a brick.

Imagine standing in a waist-deep hole, muscling red clay into wooden forms to make bricks. That’s what the brickmaker in Guangdong Province was doing, in 90 degree heat, with 90% humidity, when we swooped in upon him, all ten of us in our bright-red t-shirts, Americans cycling around rural China.


Of the dozens of Chinese people we talked to perhaps the brickmaker moved me the most.  He beamed when we descended upon him. Snow, our twenty-six year old translator, explained that the students had come from America to learn about China and would like to speak to him.


He has been making bricks since he was 12, he told us. He is now 44. He does not own the clay pit; his job is to make 1,000 bricks a day.  He works 364 days a year, with time off for the Spring Festival.


These facts, on their face, appall. Yet the man contravened the facts.


He was dressed in a clean, attractive polo shirt and a gingham work apron. His bricks were stacked with an engineer’s precision, in perfectly straight, uniform rows. And he welcomed us with bright eyes and enthusiastic delight.


He invited each student to step down into the clay pit and taught them how to make bricks.  Sweep some red clay out from under the plastic tarp. Roll and shape it into a loaf-shaped bundle. Drop it into the wooden form and firmly press it into place. There must be no air bubbles, no unevenness.  As he demonstrated, the muscles on his ropey forearms stood out like gnarled tree roots.


He has a child, a fourteen year old daughter. She was at school, he told us proudly.


As the brickmaker worked with each student, the adult chaperones conferred on the sidelines. We were taking so much of his time! This generous man, so patient with our students, so calmly instructing them in his craft, what could we do for him? He had 1,000 bricks to make that day!


After he had spent almost an hour with us, we heartily thanked him and almost apologetically offered him some yuan, probably amounting to about $10.


He would not accept our money. It had been his pleasure to teach the American children how to make bricks.  But, he sheepishly said, he had never seen American money. Did we have a small bill?


We gave him $1. He studied it. He would show his family, he said. This was a treasure. He would keep it forever to remember the day the Americans visited him.


Fortunately, I also had some small gifts in my backpack, including a pencil case with a dozen new yellow pencils and an eraser and sharpener. “For your daughter,” I said, opening the case and showing him the contents before handing it to him. His eyes widened. He held the case in both hands, grinning.


“Thank you. Thank you,” we exclaimed. “Xie. Xie.” Waving, we headed back to our bicycles. Our next stop was the village school, where perhaps we encountered his daughter, one of hundreds of earnest children in aqua blue and white uniforms, studying as if their lives depended on it.





Posted by admin in Inspiration, travel, work

Six Photos for Six Days

Since I can’t find the words to describe our experience (only partially due to jet lag), this post consists of six photos, one for each day of the safari in Kwa Zulu Natal.

Sunrise on first morning game drive at Zulu Nyala IMG_8745 IMG_9175  IMG_9558 At the Elephant EncounterIMG_9188


Posted by admin in travel

An Elephant Pilgrimage

Mom Elephant


We are in Africa so my mother can see elephants. She has a special reason for loving elephants. One saved her life when she was caught in the Hartford Circus Fire at the age of 10. She and four other girls were there for a birthday party. When the circus tent caught fire, amidst the flames and smoke and chaos, Mom saw an elephant stoically holding up the burning stairs. She and her friend ran down the stairs and escaped. The other girls, who were seated separately, did not make it out.


Mom has only told this story to me a few times.  I was shocked to stumble upon an independent account of the fire when I read Modoc, The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived, by Ralph Heffer, which describes Modoc’s life-saving efforts.


At any rate, we’ve come to HHuluwe so Mom can see elephants in the wild. She is 84. We are here, 6 women from the family, our own kind of herd.   We are on a pilgrimage.


With some hesitation, I privately told our guide, Rian, the background story behind our trip. He proceeded to look for elephants for us. Yesterday, just after sunrise, he spotted three massive grayish lumps on the hillside opposite. Even with binoculars, I could not detect they were living creatures; they continued to look like boulders. Rian, however, knew exactly what they were, what they were doing, and where they would go next.


He maneuvered the Land Cruiser through the brush for about 20 minutes, stopping in a stand of acacia trees. In a few minutes, three elephants lumbered in front of us. They were 3 ladies, Rian told us, two sisters and one three-year old calf. They paid no attention to us, but proceeded to demolish an entire acacia tree, placidly reaching up with their coiling trunks, delicately stripping off leaves, yanking down branches, and finally uprooting the whole tree, and stuffing its roots in their mouths.  We watched in awed silence as these massive creatures went about their business, oblivious to us, though we were only 10 feet away.


My attention was torn between the elephants and my mother, who was seated in front next to Rian. She looked like a child again, gazing in wonder. A half hour later, the elephants lumbered off into the bush. When they were out of sight, just as Rian started up the engine, I heard Mom tell him, “I was in a circus fire once…”


Posted by admin in family, travel

Into the Blue

The Equatorial Jungle, Rousseau, National Gallery

A sweet old nun recently told me this story.  She’d had a grand time in Ireland, visiting family and many sacred sites, including St Brigid’s Well in Kildare, from which she drew some holy water.

On her return to the States, she was carrying the holy water in a plastic bottle, along with a fifth of good whiskey, a gift for the friend who was to pick her up at the airport at an ungodly hour.

Arriving at the head of the security line, she was shocked when the TSA agent told her she couldn’t bring the liquids with her.  She slowly uncorked the holy water, tipped it to her mouth, and guzzled it down;  then she picked up the whiskey and presented it to the TSA agent. “Call your friends and have a party,” she sniffed, and sailed up to the scanning machine.

I tell you this story because I’m about to set off on an adventure myself, hopefully a little better informed than Sr. Margaret.  I’m heading into the blue, as the South Africans say, going on safari with my mother, two sisters, sister-in-law, and one of my daughters.  

Since childhood, my mother has dreamed of seeing elephants in the wild, and when my sister Patricia saw a safari being auctioned at a charity event, she couldn’t resist. She won the bid, then called me. “You know I can’t take Mom to Africa by myself.” Indeed, I knew she couldn’t.

As it turns out, the lodge agreed to sell additional slots to family members at a very reasonable price, so there will be three generations of Schlichte women on safari.  I’m bringing my laptop and hope to blog along the way, technology permitting,  so stay tuned.

The image above is Henri Rousseau’s The Equatorial Jungle, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.


Posted by admin in family, travel