Just remember, once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speedArthur Schopenhauer
We talk about someone we consider to be too old as being ‘over the hill’. But who decides how old is too old? Do we too easily dismiss the elderly among us as being past it? Do we fail to recognise that their journeys up that hill may mean that they have a lot to teach us about the paths that we too must follow?
For Donna’s Lens Artists Challenge theme this week I thought I’d share some stories of people I’ve encountered on my travels who might be considered by many to be over the hill. All of them, despite their age, are or were making a significant contribution to others. Using their own experience to help people. Telling their often difficult stories so that we may learn from or about the past. Or simply making the most of their talents and not settling for mediocrity.
Those of us like me who are, if not over the hill, very close to its peak, can only be inspired by their examples! And consider this:
I’d rather be over the hill than under itGeorge Burns
I have included below some links to fuller accounts of these encounters elsewhere in my blog, in case anyone is interested to read more.
Mr. Duong Van Ngo
Saigon’s grand Central Post Office dates from the late 19th century and is still in use today. Inside you can still see the original telephone booths, and further in, beyond the perhaps inevitable souvenir stalls, are the original, wooden writing desks. Near here we met Mr. Duong Van Ngo. In 2020, at the age of ninety, he was still cycling to work here each morning to offer a letter writing service in Vietnamese, French and English. From the brief conversation we had, his English is excellent.
Culture Trip, presumably writing three years before our visit, describes him thus:
‘At the end of a wooden table inside the post office sits Mr. Duong Van Ngo, a man who has been recognized by the Vietnam Guinness Book of Records for 27 years spent writing letters for those who cannot write for themselves. The 87-year-old writer is reportedly fluent in both English and French and continues to write letters every day despite his advanced age. He starts his working day at 8 a.m and ends at 3 p.m, writing several letters per day while charging 50 cents per page. Mr. Duong has become an icon at the post office over the past several years.’
When the Khmer Rouge prison in Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng (now a museum), was liberated by the invading Vietnamese army in 1979, the guards killed all but a handful of prisoners. The aim was to try to prevent them telling of the horrors perpetrated there.
Chum Mey is one of the very few among the thousands who were imprisoned here to have survived the experience. Today, after many years in which he felt unable to revisit the prison, he and another survivor now come regularly. They tell their stories to visitors either in person or through the books that each has been assisted to write. You can read his full story in my blog post about the museum.
A North Korean national hero
At a very different war museum, the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang, we met a man with a very different story to tell. Proudly wearing his naval uniform he sat on a bench in the museum grounds.
He was then (2019) eighty years old. He was employed by the museum as a guide, although his main duty was simply posing with tourists.
To the visiting North Koreans this man is a national hero. To the relatively few tourists from further afield he is simply an historical curiosity. On 23 January 1968 he led six others, the crew of a small boat, as they boarded and captured the USS Pueblo.
Today the Pueblo is moored on the Potong Canal, in the grounds of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang. It was captured by the North Koreans because, they said, its crew was spying in their waters. You can read the full story of its capture in this post. It’s a story that demonstrates perfectly how differently two sides can perceive, or at least describe, the same historical occurrence.
In my very first post on this blog I described our meeting with a great character, Leo, in New Mexico. He was the owner of the treasure-trove Chimayó Trading Post. The shop has been in this location since the 1930s. And it seemed to me that Leo must have moved here then too, and possibly been sitting inside behind the counter where we met him ever since. His age and that of many of the objects for sale here seemed about the same. And he appeared to be as much of a fixture as they.
To step inside the trading post is to feel yourself transported back around a hundred years. To a time when the pace of life was slower and nothing was ever thrown away, because it might just come in handy one day. And Leo epitomised that ethos. We were also invited to visit his house next door, which was almost as stuffed with curiosities as the trading post itself.
Sadly I learned from an interesting article I found online some years ago (now behind a firewall) that Leo died in 2017. His nephew Patrick now runs the store, but it seems little changed. The spirit of Leo lives on in the trading post he created.
Leon ‘Whitey’ Thompson
On our first road trip in the US, in California, we spent a few days (too few!) exploring San Francisco. While there we visited Alcatraz. There we met yet another colourful character, Leon ‘Whitey’ Thompson. He was a reformed ex-inmate who spent his later years visiting schools across the country to inspire young people not to follow in his footsteps. We bought a signed copy of his book as a gift for Chris’s father John. And Chris posed for a photo with the ex-bank robber.
Unfortunately however that photo doesn’t exist. We discovered a couple of days later that the small snapshot camera used to take it had malfunctioned when dropped earlier in the trip. The film had become detached from the spools and all the shots were superimposed on a single frame, thus useless. So my photo above is instead a poor scan of a 35mm slide showing the inside of a typical cell. Meanwhile have a look at the photo in this obituary notice to see what Leon looked like around the time we met him, and to read his story in full.
A village chief
We were on a tour of the area of Gambia associated with the book Roots by Alex Haley. In it he tells how he traced his family back to a certain Kunta Kinte who originated from Juffureh. From there he had been captured and sold into slavery in the plantations of the American South. There have been some challenges to the authenticity of this account. Haley himself admitted that he took some details of Kunta Kinte’s story from another book. And papers found after his death cast doubt on his claim that he was descended from him. But there is no denying that these villages, like most others in the region, suffered terribly from the impacts of the slave trade. And that those impacts were felt by both those who were taken and those left behind.
For me the most memorable encounter here was not with the descendants of Kunta Kinte’s family, who pose for tourists in Juffureh, but with the village chief. This just happened to be, at the time of our visit, a woman. It is still an unusual and remarkable occurrence to find a woman in a position of power in this part of the world.
I have no idea how old she was. She looked of an age that many would consider to be ‘over the hill’. But she was clearly respected by her people to have been elevated to a role that she seemed to relish. She sat in the village banaba to receive visitors and welcomed us through a translator. She spoke a little about her appreciation of the efforts we had made to leave our hotels for the day and travel to see something of village life.
Over the hill?
So, are/were these people ‘over the hill’? Is anyone? After all, life isn’t one continuous climb until a certain age, then a slow decline. It’s full of constant ups and downs. So the idea that we can ever be over the hill makes little sense. Maybe it’s time we dropped the phrase and recognised that we’re all still climbing our hills and hoping to enjoy the views!