I remember reading the most imaginative book when I was little. I can’t really remember the title or text (so perhaps reading is not the right word), but I do recall one distinct illustration of a small boy in bed under the covers. In this image he is huddled beneath the sheets in the wrong direction – his small feet by his pillow and his head pointed towards the foot of the bed. Miraculously, under the plain bedsheets, an endless tunnel appears before the boy. The tunnel is dark and narrow, a curious and slightly scary apparition. But the boy is a child after all, his imagination bountiful and overpowering, so he starts to crawl through.
To this day, I can’t remember where that tunnel led, but this particular image certainly made an impression. For a few years afterwards, I would sometimes lay on my stomach in the wrong direction in my bed at night, convinced that if I concentrated hard enough, a tunnel would appear.
In a sense, I crawl through that tunnel most nights as my vivid dreams whisk me away to different pockets of my subconscious universe. Some nights my dreams are fun and outlandish; other nights they are framed by stress and coloured with doubt.
But during the day, in between the long hours of computer work, I find passage through the tunnel in a different, more calculated way; like so many others, I hop down a YouTube rabbit hole.
From Nepal to Siberia
Scrolling through YouTube is generally an effective way to waste time (time that can be better spent writing blogs, for example) but one afternoon, during my post-work ironing session, I discovered the “Most Dangerous Ways To School” series on YouTube.
As the title suggests, this series examines the particularly treacherous routes to school some children have to take. It is both heartbreaking and inspiring to watch these children, some of them just five years old, risking their lives everyday to receive an education – their own tunnel to a better life.
One of the documentaries focuses on a remote area of Nepal, where students must cross a wide and fickle river via an unstable carriage attached to a steel rope to get to school. While the younger children sit inside the carriage, the older children must balance precariously on top and walk along the rope in flip flops to push the carriage to the other side. Even after they make it across the river, the journey is not over; they have to hitchhike along the busy highway before they can finally put their backpacks down and learn. By the time they get to school, they are exhausted and struggle to concentrate. Plus, the long journey home that awaits them after school weighs heavy on their minds.
I watched all the other documentaries in this series over the course of a few days. Each one highlighted the very different dangers schoolchildren face throughout the world on their journey to school. Most of these dangers are environmental, so these documentaries are as much about the few remaining places where nature remains unblemished by human touch. This results in a wild beauty most of us can only dream of after a day of working on the computer.
But carving a life amid the harsh elements is another matter entirely.
In the Yakutia Republic of Siberia, considered the coldest inhabited place on earth, frigid cold temperatures are not an excuse to miss school. As long as the temperature does not dip below -58 degress Fahrenheit, school is open and students are expected to attend.
Students scattered throughout the remote village bundle up in multiple sweaters and coats before braving the bitter, deadly cold. Some of them live within walking distance, though even ten minutes in those brutal temperatures can be deadly if the kids do not speed walk. Those who live further away must rely on a bad-ass school bus driver who listens to techno-Russian on full blast to keep warm in his rickety bus. He is the town hero of sorts because he not only keeps the kids warm on their way to school; he also brings them to a place of opportunity that will afford them the skills they need to choose the life they want to lead.
Although I surely could not survive in those kind of temperatures (we’ve got to stop complaining about our winters, New Englanders) the frozen, virtually untouched Tundra looks ravishingly beautiful. I am so fascintated by the life they lead there.
Every single documentary in this series is well worth a watch and even a re-watch, especially if you are in need of some perspective.
West England with Rick Steves
Rick Steves is a goofy gem I really look up to. He provides a fair, compelling and authentic portrait of every place he visits, and during this pandemic, I’ve gone on several spectacular trips with him.
The other day, he took me to West England, a part of the world I know very well. This trip quickly morphed into a nostalgic stroll through all those narrow-laned, childhood summers I spent with my grandmother in Somerset.
In this segment, Rick spotlights the charming town of Wells and its glorious cathedral, where my grandmother volunteered for many years. Gran took such pride in her position there and so loved giving us a tour of the grand premises every time we visited. Our time in Wells always ended with a trip to the National Trust souvenir shop connected to the cathedral and a picnic of Cornish pasties and sausage rolls on the grassy expanse outside.
The YouTube tunnel has infinite routes, branches and sub-branches, but somehow, it always brings me to a place I hold a miniature copy of in my heart and for that I am truly thankful, even if I had to weed through a few troubling documentaries on North Korea to get there…
So, for now, I will leave you in beautiful Wells where your own imaginative tunnel surely waits.