A spinoff in proper "Rhoda" style of my patented e-mail blastograms, this blog was created with the intention of keeping friends and family updated on and amused by my life.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Istanbul: Hardly "Nobody's Business but the Turks"

Arriving at the uber-modern Ataturk airport in Istanbul last night, any preconceptions I had about the place were shattered.

I suppose that I didn't really know what to expect. Probably something along the lines of Marrakesh or Casablanca (though Istanbul is significantly bigger than either), but my visit to Delhi (with the international airport shielded by a corrugated tin roof!) has taught me not to set my expectations too high.

If anything, upon arriving I felt a strange mixture of China (with recently developed infrastructure such as the lovely airport and the light rail train that I took into the centre of the city) and France, of which the old town (Constantinople proper) is highly reminiscent. Really, Istanbul feels like it could just be any other city in Europe with ubiquitous mosques substituting for churches. Perhaps the Ikea adverts add to this ambiance.

In any case, I spent most of yesterday and today exploring. Last night, after finding a place to stay the night, I wandered down to the Galata bridge to see the sea. I have never in my life seen such a bridge though, with restaurants tucked neatly underneath,presumably floating or somehow attached to the undergirdings of the bridge. I was fascinated, so decided to eat there.

I found a place playing almost haunting (but very enjoyable!) live music, and sat outside to enjoy the view despite the chill. I supped on a rather plain (and worryingly chewy) steak baguette chased down with a beer as I was transported by the music and the scenery. Occasionally, one of the fisherpeople (who were fishing from on top of the bridge, so their lines basically went down into the water right in front of me) would haul up their catch: fish the size of an adult finger. Seemed to me a rather fruitless (or at least highly labour intensive!) task for a Saturday night, but they didn't seem to mind and the fish were plentiful if small.

Today I made it to the Hagia Sofia church/mosque/museum and saw the underground cistern. Tomorrow we'll try crossing the bridge and making a triumphant return to Asia before I head off to Cairo! Three continents in one day wouldn't be too bad for a day's non-work, would it?

Now let's see if I can get out of here before the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, returns from the US and decides it's time to invade Iraq... Last night as I was wandering around Istanbul I stumbled across a rail yard and saw lines of army trucks sitting as cargo on a train. Don't know where it was headed for sure, but it doesn't take much of an imagination to guess!

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Paris or Bust

I don't think I've ever been more exhausted. I spent Monday-Wednesday moving flats and then was up again early the next day for a train to Paris. It's been worth it, and I'm recovering well, but I really don't remember being so physically exhausted in ages! Maybe I'm just getting old...

The really exciting news is that I moved to a great new place in London just one neighbourhood over in Vauxhall. For those of you who don't know London, it's actually only 2 bridges south of parliament on the other side of the river, so really a great location. And the flat is beautiful. It's in an old Victorian apartment building on the top floor with original wooden floors, a huge kitchen, and a view of a park on one side and Victorian chimneys on the other. It's much too expensive, but I don't think I could be more excited...which is good, because I think I'm done moving.

Naively, I thought that I would be able move everything in two trips of two large suitcases and a backpack. It, of course, ended up taking double that. Because it was a close move, I decided to move by actually walking my bags between the flats--what is normally at 10-15-minute walk became 30 minutes at best. And the looks, my god the looks. At least it only started raining on my second to last trip just after I had arrived at my new place. Of course, once there I had to lug everything up four flights of stairs to the top floor. I guess it's better than when I lived in a seventh-floor walk-up in China, but at least then I could pay people to help me move!

All this was on top of cleaning at my old place (which, it turns out, it desperately needed). Under the close guidance of one of my old flatmates we got it spick and span for inspection though. If I never have to clean an oven again in my life, it will be too soon. :o)

And if I didn't have enough to do settling in, I decided to take advantage of the fact that a friend is in Paris for the next couple of days to go and visit. That meant a 5:20AM departure on the Eurostar and the ensuing sleep deprivation.

But it's been worth it really. Yesterday was the Fête de la Musique in downtown Paris, and there were performers of all sorts in every square and on every corner. It was like one giant block party and was really enjoyable. I even stopped to watch some capoeira which made me realise how much I missed participating! Now I'm going to have to find a new club in London, assuming my foot gets better.

Today it was crepes and the Musée D'Orsay (I had never been before! It's a great museum that certainly is worth a stop on any visit to Paris!!) and the monument that was constructed in honour of the deportation of the French Jews during WWII. It's a discrete stone structure that sits on the Isle de la Cité just behind Notre Dame de Paris and is also worth a quick look. The architecture is imposing and the quotes carved on the wall moving.

If all goes well, tomorrow it's off to Giverny, Monet's gardens, which I think is appropriate since we just saw some of the water lily paintings at the Musée D'Orsay today. Then it's back to London on Sunday.

All in all, a busy week. It's been well worth it, but I'm actually quite looking forward to just settling back into a normal rhythm back in London. That and sleeeeeeep!

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Jaipur in the News

Last year at this time, I was in India. I might be in dreary ole' London (which actually hasn't been that dreary of late), but that doesn't mean that I've stopped thinking about India. Indeed, I was just talking about a movie I saw there, Rang de Basanti, the other week.

Which is why, when I saw a combination of 'India', 'art', and 'festival' in a headline in the IHT that I immediately thought of Jaipur, the capital of Rajhistan. Chesa and I went there last year to see another friend, Bethani, who was participating in a festival there (you can read about it in my post One Week Down, Almost).

For a review of the festival this year, and its importance for Rajhistan, check out the IHT article Entre'acte.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Kites over Kashgar

I was sitting in a semi-public bath house in LiTang, China (follow link for my previous blog entry about LiTang) when the book first enthralled me. At a mere (ha!) 5,000 meters (16,500 around feet), despite it being the middle of summer, my childhood friend, Robin, and I needed to find some way to warm ourselves up. Hot springs sounded like the perfect solution. We hopped a taxi that took us the 10km outside the city through open skies and windswept fields sparsely populated with yak and yurt.

The hot springs turned out to be a newly developed bathing complex, complete with white tiles but with fairly large 'windows' (well, holes in the wall at least) that let the light shine in. The assistant opened a large valve and steaming, sulfur-laced water poured into the tub.

Desperate for warmth, I sank into the tub, and picked up the book Robin had brought from the US: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Poor Robin was reading a physiology text book if I'm not mistaken, and so it was with a little guilt that I lost myself in the story of Afghanistan for several hours before I noticed my raisin toes.

Such a vivid and enticing epic, my mind kept wandering to the closest I'd ever been to Afghanistan--Kashgar, XinJiang, China (follow link for blog entries from my time there, or see some of my photos here.).

Kashgar is a city of traders, and is considered to be the city the furthest west in China (and there is a big Mao statue to prove it, of course). It's roughly north of Delhi and lies next to China's borders with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan (and not too far from Kazakhstan, thank you Borat). It also used to be the capital of Chinese Turkmenistan (from before XinJiang was an actual part of China) and so I stayed in the former Russian Embassy which has since been turned into a fairly decrepit hotel. The city actually played a large role during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and as Hosseini was walking through Afghan history, I felt connected to it through my experiences in Kashgar.

What prompted this post, actually, was an IHT article (what else) entitled Gambling on China for an Afghan Epic. Turns out they are now filming the movie version of the book in Kashgar, which creates yet another link between Kashgar and the novel for me. I must admit that I'm really excited to see the movie now, not just because they've filmed it in Kashgar, but also because it is a good book AND they are actually filming it in appropriate languages, with for example, and Iranian-born actor who has even bothered to learn Afghan dialect. The waiting begins!!

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Marrakech Vid

And since I'm having so much fun playing with iMovie, here's another short excerpt of my trip to Morocco.

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Essaouria Vid

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Best Laid Plans

Arriving in Essaouira (as-suira, or 'the well drawn/designed') one can't help but feel the presence of antiquity. That's not to say it's not a modern town--indeed, the beach is lit at night with acerbic floodlights that flicker in the harsh sea wind. But standing on the flushed white ramparts that encircle the medina watching the waves crash up against the rocks, one gets the impression that it's a city past its prime. Rising from the sea-mist it sits regally, like a queen who has lost her kingdom but retains her dignity.

And so it is a welcome change from England, or even St. Malo, France, of which it is vaguely reminiscent. In the medina, motorized vehicles are not allowed, making it a real breath of fresh air. It's a UNESCO world heritage site, and in that sense could just as easily be Lijiang or Luang Prabang, but I'm here during the winter, at the nadir or tourist season, and so it's doable. The beach is mostly empty with the exception of small groups of boys playing football.

But it's the history that's interesting here. Essaouira is situated just on the NW coast of Africa (see map above) facing out to the Atlantic ocean and the Canary Islands. There are small islands just off the coast (just like St. Malo), but the port is more like Marseille, with an island housing not the famous Chateau D'If (of The Count of Monte Christo fame) but a prison just the same. Ironically though, the prison sits next to a mosque, whose minaret stands proud as a monument to ancient Arabic expansion into the west through North Africa.

These islands are known as the "Iles Purpres," or the Purple Islands, and it's here that we can begin to see the links to antiquity. During the time of Caesar, it was on these isles that the mollusks used to make the purple dye for the royal robes were collected. But the "height" of Essouira came much later, as an important port along the slave trade.

And walking along the port, now used to support a fairly minor fishing economy, I couldn't help but think about the trade that used to take place here. And suddenly the ramparts became opressive.

But beyond its history, Essaouira is a beautiful city. Today, as I was walking down the beach, a man approached me with the idea of taking a horse over to "Jimi Hendrix's Castle" (note, Jimi Hendrix, and many other hippies, stationed out here in Essaouira during the 70s apparently). I thought, why not, and we were off with me riding Che Guevara (what a name for a horse!).

We did go over to the little village of Diabat, after fording a river whose stone bridge had collapsed long ago. After a ride through the brush, we came upon Hendrix's "chateau," again, long since in disrepair. The best part was trotting over to the dunes and then over to the beach, where we set out in a full gallop through the shallows. I felt like I was either in Hidalgo, with the sea appearing from behind the dunes, or some Bond film, racing down the beach on a horse. In any case, it was the best experience I've had all trip, and is one I'd recommend highly.

If you have the time, Ranch Mogador even does 6-day horse treks from Essaouira to Agadir, following the coast. It's something I'll definitely have to keep in mind for next time, as riding horses is soooo much nicer than riding camels!

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Spice Facts

I realized last night during our train ride to Bangalore (the city of beans, there is apparently a long story about how it was given this name), I realized that I forgot to post my promised trivia about spice that we learned during our visit to an organic spice farm in Goa. Well, let me rectify that now!

The top five most expensive spices by weight are (in order of most expensive)
1. Saffron (the "gold" of spices)
2. Vanilla (the "silver" of spices)
3. Green cardamom
4. Cloves
5. Cinnamon (yeah, that one surprised me too!)

Almost all vanilla beans are exported to either the United States or the United Kingdom as they have refined methods of extracting the vanilla oil from the been. They have maximized it to about 90% of the oil, whereas developing industries in India can still only get about 10% (or less, can't remember exactly).

30% of the vanilla exported to the US goes directly to the Coca Cola company, as vanilla is a key ingredient in their secret formula!

Green, red, white, and black pepper actually all come from the same pepper--it all depends on how the pepper is dried and cured.

Bananas are the second largest grass (after bamboo) in the world. They are not trees.

There are both male and female pineapples. The juicy delicious yellow ones tend to be female, whereas the whiter and and not so succulent ones are male.

Now you know!

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Monday, February 06, 2006

Goin' Goan

Well, I'm now officially a beach bum! I realized while I was with Chesa that I had never had a proper beach vacation before (don't get me wrong, I have been to the beach before in France, but only once or twice, and never in a place with warm water), so she took it upon herself to drag me (let me assure you, I was kicking and screaming) to some lovely Goan beaches where we have lounged for the past couple of days. Goa is actually pretty much paradise though (apart from the constant, and rather aggressive, sarong and jewellery sellers), so I can't complain too much. I did manage to get a sun burn (whoops), but that's just because I'm not accustomed to actually being in the sun it seems. We really just sat there and read, and laid in the sand, and went into the Arabian Sea (which was surprisingly clear). I think I made the mistake of actually doing a few laps, but other than that, Chesa has certified me as a beach bum!

Besides lazing on the beach though, we took the opportunity of being in Goa to rent a motor scooter and go scooting about all of yesterday. As Chesa had a somewhat traumatic experience with motor bikes last year in Thailand, we opted for only one bike, and I drove us around most of the day. I was, however, impressed as Chesa did get some practice in on some deserted roads. I'm sure she'll be a moped expert any day now...of course this was an automatic, so it was cheating a bit, but baby steps, baby steps. We had fun taking random roads, getting lost, and seeing the beautiful scenery, but we also saw a Portuguese-style Hindu temple and an organic spice farm where I learned lots about spices. Not that I'm obsessed with food, but it was one of my favorite parts of the day. We even got to (try to) climb a betel tree (looks a bit like a palm). Of course, since I have like zero upper body strength, I didn't get very high, but it was fun trying. Look below for fun spice facts!

Now, this was Goa (which we're leaving tonight due to a shortage of trains to our next destination, Bangalore), but I have yet to talk about Mumbai (AKA Bombay. For all of you not in the know, the name was changed back in 1997 during an anti-anglo push there at that time). Whereas Delhi can't hold a candle to Beijing, Mumbai was at least in the same league as Shanghai (though Shanghai is still MUCH more developed). Of course, the first images we got of Mumbai were the never-ending slums that border the railroad tracks coming into town. Having just read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (a book I would highly recommend for those of you looking for a new book to add to the reading list), I was prepared for the contrast between the British-style architecture of Colaba (the central district of Mumbai) and the corrugated tin shanties of the suburbs. The image that will forever remain in my head though, is the sight of a group of young boys who used a small clearing next to the train tracks to play cricket with cheap little plastic bats and balls. Sometimes it's easy to forget that no matter one's situation, life still goes on. These boys were living in stark poverty, but that didn't stop them from enjoying themselves!

Besides being astonished by the British-style architecture in Mumbai, and how different of a city it was from Delhi, there were three significant events that took place there: visiting McDonald's (no I'm not kidding), going to a barbershop, and seeing a Bollywood movie.

First, McDonald's. Now, I know that some of you are saying right now "I can't believe he went to McDo's while he was in the land of epicurean delight that India is." But, in my defense, McDo's is so different in each country, I like going in once during my trip just to see, and in this case, it was particularly interesting. As the cow is sacred in India, McDo's had to give up on most of its staple dishes and opt for chicken or vegetarian versions so as not to offend the Hindus. So, no, you can't get a Big Mac, but there was the Chicken Maharajah Mac which was basically the same idea. I opted for the McAloo Tikka (a potato patty with a spicy tikka sauce), which was surprisingly good. They also had such delights as Paneer Shahi (a flat bread filled with the local "cottage cheese" and sauce, and a Crispy Chinese (no, I have no idea what that was, but it was vegetarian, and thus decidedly not Chinese. They were also playing MTV which I enjoyed to no end.

As for the barbershop, I'm not sure that I can do the experience justice, but I will try. As the long-haired hippie look doesn't particularly suit either Chesa or me, we decided that our time in the uber-trendy Mumbai should be taken advantage of, and that we should get haircuts. We had seen plenty of pavement barbers, but nothing that looked much like a salon. After taking a walking tour of one of the neighborhoods though, we stumbled across a salon. We checked it out, and it seemed nice, but it was only for "ladies." Chesa went in for her coconut oil scalp massage and trim, and I was sent across the street to a barber's. India is just into gender segregation like that, something that has really surprised me actually!

Stepping into the barbershop was like stepping into fifty years ago. It had the art-deco decor, the faded leather chairs, and the smell of old men. I ordered a cut, a shave (as I had been told that it was an experience men should not miss in Mumbai), and a face and head massage. The cut started with a fifties-style automatic razor (something to which I was somewhat accustomed having gotten haircuts in China) and was pretty standard for a barbershop. I couldn't convince him that I liked my hair up, so he oiled it and slicked it down for the "nice boy" look.

Then it was onto the shave. It was my first shave with a straight-edge razor like that, but that's why I opted for the experience. It seemed fairly standard for fifty years ago, but two things surprised me: the fact that the shaving cream was indeed just that, cream. I had only ever used foam or foaming gel before, so I wasn't quite sure what was going to happen with this lotion-type cream. He rubbed it on my face, dipped a shaving brush in warm water and worked the cream into a lather. Who knew that's what those brushes were actually for! The other slightly bizarre thing was that he rubbed my face with a wet stone (or was it a whet stone...maybe he wanted me to look sharp. Apologies for bad pun, but I had to do it) after having applied the after shave. I'm not quite sure what that was about, but it didn't hurt or anything, so I was okay with it.

Then it came time for the massages. The barber's hands were a bit rough as he started in on the face, but it wasn't until he strapped a strange device onto his hands that I began to worry. Now, I usually try to make my blog PGish, but I can't find any other way to describe this contraption. For those of you who have ever seen a vibrator, you know that what makes them vibrate is a thumb-sized metallic pellet. Well, imagine an ostrich-egg sized one of those strapped to the back of his hand, and you start to get the idea! There were also two plastic pads that capped his index and middle fingers.

Let's just say that the massage was more invigorating than relaxing, especially when he focused on putting as much vibrating pressure on my sinuses as he could, and when he stuck his fingers in my ears to give my brain a good little giggle. I do not understand why anybody would want this kind of a massage, but I guess it must work for some people, or they wouldn't have it. A little frazzled, I walked back across the street and recovered Chesa (who had been burned twice) and mossied across another street to the Eros movie theatre.

We went in to see our first Bollywood epic (with an average of like three hours each, they're all epic), Rang de Basanthi (note, the 'h' is aspiration, not a 'th' sound). From what we could tell (most of it was in Hindi), it was a story about a British woman who came to India to make a documentary about one of the revolts against her British grandfather. She gets to India only to find that the college students she tries to recruit for her film are indifferent to her film and Indian politics in general. Of course, she gets the rag-a-muffin group to change their ways and the filming of the documentary inspires them to fight a fight of their own against corrupt Indian-government officials.

Though I didn't understand a few key things about the movie, I thought it was fascinating for the messages it seemed to espouse. It was generally jingoistic, touting Indian pride and a uniting belief in democracy. At the same time, it seemed to encourage violence (though the end seems to counterdict that), which would not be typical of an American "anybody can make changes happen" film. Anyway, it's a new film, but if you see it in your local blockbuster, it'd be worth seeing (especially if you have the English subtitles).

But now I gotta run catch my train to Bangalore! Woot, 14 hours this time!

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006


I've made it to Mumbai and her fast Internet connections, so I wanted to share a few photos of our trip so far. Mostly they are just buildings, but we've got a nice one of me and Chesa at the Taj Mahal. Check it out at Fun FoToS for wHeNeVeR!

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Monday, January 30, 2006


Having just rolled out of a four-hour cooking class here in Udaipur appropriately sated, I now have the energy to go for the much promised (and overdue) post.

One of the things that Chesa noticed as we started getting deeper into Rajasthan, was that the further we got from the so-called “Golden Triangle” (the standard tourist route of Delhi, Agra (where the Taj Mahal is), and Jaipur), the touts seemed to get less pushy. I don’t know if I can really agree with that, but I have been enjoying myself more the further we get from the area. Maybe it’s because the tonsillitis has gone away for the time being. :o)

But also, I just think that the experiences have been better. I have already raved about Jaisalmer, but left just before my camel excursion. After a day exploring the city, and after having our car fall in a hole (yes, we had to be pushed out, and the car has made a weird clanking sound ever since), we headed out into the Thar Desert. We arrived at a small “resort” in a small village just as the other tourists were headed out on their camels. We had hardly a chance to stretch our legs from the 50km car ride before mounting our camels. I think that I ultimately preferred my camel excursion in the Moroccan Sahara better, but this one was still fun.

The desert where we were was mostly flat, and full of scrubs. India being India, the diversity of wildlife didn’t fail to impress. Right from the outset, we saw peacocks (don’t know what they were doing out there), and later came across some deer and antelope, and many other birds. We did make it to some smallish dunes by sunset, and enjoyed watching the sun go down over Pakistan. The camel then returned us to our “resort” for dinner. There were traditional Rajashtani musicians, and the drivers (ours included) started dancing. It was okay, but the evening seemed a little forced.

Luckily, Chesa insisted on a night in the desert proper. They packed a camel cart full of blankets, and we set off with a lovely Swiss couple into the desert at about ten at night with a drunk guide to boot. We made a little fire, and the Swiss collected shrubbery while we broke it down to feed it to the fire. We stayed up chatting with our “guide” who seemed to only know, “everything ok?,” to which the Suisse would reply, “Pa-fect!” with a slightly British intonation. We then spread out our bedding, and crawled into the remarkably small sleeping bags. I fit, but just barely, the bag pushing at my shoulders.

It was all worth it though. Despite the cold, and wearing basically all of my clothes, and being crunched in a sleeping bag, and getting sand down my pants, the stars were beautiful. In China seeing stars is frankly a gift, and seeing so many that evening was amazing. I could really see a depth in the heavens that I hadn’t noticed before—or at least that I couldn’t see before! Upon reflection, I realized that it was the first time I had slept out completely under the stars. Don’t get me wrong, I have gone camping many a time, but I always had slept in a tent. Yay for new experiences!

From the desert, it was on to Ranakpur. When we arrived in the verdant valley surrounded by mountains I felt at home. It was so peaceful there, and the hotel we stayed in was quite delightful. We had our own balcony, and all you could hear were the birds. Unfortunately, it was a little too much like home, as I succumbed to an allergic reaction and was stuffed up for the rest of the evening. Boo pollen!

The reason for the stop in Ranakpur was the largest Jain temple in India. Supported by 1,044 pillars, the unique architecture was so intricate and impressive that I was truly awed. But before we made it there, we took a jaunt across the road from our hotel to a nearby lake. An ornithologist’s wet dream, the lake was filled with ducks, cormorants, herons, egrets, and I many other birds. I was delighted to see a grey heron, as the stately bird is one of my favorite, but mostly I just enjoyed being in the countryside away from the hectic daily life that seems to permeate Indian (not to mention Chinese) cities.

But then it was time to go to Udaipur, where we still are. We did see Octopussy last night, and so we enjoyed the day seeing things like the Floating Palace (Octopussy’s abode in the film), and going through the City Palace Museum (which was frankly a bit lackluster to say the least). We also had a wonderful cooking lesson in the evening, and now I can do basic Indian food, so hopefully I can treat some of my trusted readers to a feast at some point.

Meanwhile, we’re off to Mumbai tomorrow in what should be an epic journey—almost 24 hours of train. Meh. Luckily I have come prepared with an epic journey of my own—The Ramayana (one of the fundamental Hindu texts, the story of Rama, an avatar of Vishnu). Hopefully I can make it through!

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Sunday, January 29, 2006

Happy New Year from Udaipur!


This will have to be a quick post, as Chesa and I have an appointment in half an hour to see Octopussy, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to wish all you Chinese folk a very happy new year! I know I've missed it for a second year in a row being in India, but Chesa and I did our best to celebrate anyway: we ate a "spring roll," some sweet and sour vegetables, and "chili chicken." It was generally ok, but Chinese food outside of China doesn't hold a torch.

As for those of you wondering why we're going to go see Octopussy, it's because we're now in Udaipur. There is apparently a scene filmed at the Lake Palace here in the infamous Bond movie, so, since I haven't seen it yet, what better time? It's not exactly like watching "The Killing Fields" in Siem Riep, but it passes the night, ay?

Tomorrow when we've got more time, I'll be sure to update everyone on our camel adventure and sleeping under the stars in the Thar (not Thal, I stand corrected. Also note that the 'h' only indicates aspiration in Hindi, so it's pronounced 't-ha-r' and is not a 'th' sound.) Desert. Good times!

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Riding Thal

First, a rundown of events since last I have posted. :o)

Chesa and I have made it to our westernmost destination here in India: Jaisalmer. Situated on the edge of the Thal desert a mere 100 kilometers from the Pakistani border, I’ve fallen in love. As Chesa likes to keep pointing out, each of the cities we visit in Rajasthan is distinguished by its own special color. Jaipur is known as the pink city as one of the local Maharaja ordered the entire old city be painted that rusty hue to welcome the future (at the time) King Edward. Jodhpur (where we were yesterday) is the blue city as many of the houses are painted blue, a color originally reserved for the Brahmin (one of the higher castes) of which the capital of the Rajput kingdom had a plethora. Jaisalmer though, is known as the city of gold. We discovered the reason first hand this evening while touring the fort: at sunset, the color of the sand and stone all the buildings are made of shines a brilliant gold. It was exquisite.

I’m not exactly sure what it is about this city that I like so much, but it is truly the first one in India that I wouldn’t hesitate to stay in longer. I think part of it is the fact that it’s smaller than some of the places we’ve been, but also that the old part of town is still mostly pedestrian and quite quaint. We also discovered an excellent Italian restaurant for dinner with real tiramisu, so that might also have something to do with it. :o) Tomorrow we head out for a short camel excursion in the desert, something to which I have been looking forward for quite a while.

As for Jodhpur, where we were yesterday, the most impressive part was the fort. As I mentioned before, Jodhpur was the capital of the Rajput kingdom, and so the fort on a mesa overlooking the rest of the town is as ornate as it is solid. It dominates the town. I also quite enjoyed the tour, as it was the first place that actually had an audio tour guide—we even got to hear audio clips from the Maharaja himself. Now, since I know that most of you are avid polo fans, you won’t be surprised to hear that, indeed, jodhpur did originate in this town, as the former Maharaja was an avid polo enthusiast. For those of you have never seen polo in your life (which I hadn’t until last year in Manila), jodhpur are riding pants.

The story I found interesting is that the former Maharaja built a new palace (where his current highness continues to reside) as a drought relief program of Rooseveltian proportion. He employed over 15,000 workers in its building. But that’s an aside. The interesting story is that while touring said palace, we noted that he quite enjoyed planes, as they displayed a model collection of his actual one. Jodjpur actually even had the first international airport in India because of him. The thing we didn’t find out until on the audio tour at the fort, several kilometers away, is that his life was tragically cut short in a plane accident…guess they forgot to mention that!

Other than that, I didn’t find Jodhpur all that exciting. It was obvious that the city had a bit more money than some of the other cities we’ve been in, and the architecture was distinctly influenced by the Europeans, but it lacked a soul nevertheless.

And jumping back to Pushkar, there are a couple of stories I forgot to mention. First is related to the animals: about 3km outside of town, we followed the curve of a road right into the oncoming stampede of oxen. We were able to brake almost immediately, and the animals maneuvered around us, but it was still quite intimidating. I’m telling you, the animals in India freak me out in size and ubiquity!

Also, I mentioned that Pushkar was a holy city. What I failed to mention, however, was that it was so holy that the entire city is strictly vegetarian. Actually, I’ve been eating almost entirely veg (with the exception of mutton on two occasions) since my arrival in India, so I didn’t mind. I just found it interesting that an entire city could be veg. The other thing that happened there that assured us it was indeed a holy city happened at 3:45AM each morning.

The first night there, I awoke from strange dreams to the heavy thud of a drum. Not knowing what was happening, and still heavy with slumber, I could only assume the world was ending. After a minute of pounding though, bells chimed in and I was assuaged. The bells continued for almost five minutes, and were joined by a trumpet calling in the night. Chants of ‘om’ could be heard floating through the air. While the interruption in sleep was annoying at first, I couldn’t help but feel moved. I think it was the ‘om’ that did it for me. Chesa had explained earlier that it is believed to be the sound of the universe, and that night, hearing distant chants carried on the wind, it seemed like nothing less.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

One Week Down (almost)

Well, we have not quite made it one week in India, but already we are starting to get accustomed to it. We currently find ourselves in the backpacker (read hippie) haven of Rajasthan: Pushkar. It reminds me very much of Dali in Yunnan in that sense, but Dali has a nicer old town. On the other hand, it’s a bit holier, as this is the place where Brahma (one of the four main Hindu gods) was said to have dropped a lotus, creating a holy lake. He later went here for some important ceremony, but his wife, Saraswati failed to attend. In revenge he married another woman. To get back at him, Saraswati swore that he would never be worshipped anywhere but here, and so one of the only temples dedicated to Brahma is located here in Pushkar.

In any case it has been nice today to relax a bit and reflect upon our experiences so far instead of being ferried from one tourist spot to the next!

Where to start? Perhaps the tourist Mecca of the Taj Mahal. We went there three days ago, and I can’t really stop thinking about it. I know that the building gets a lot of press in the world, and so I thought that it couldn’t possibly live up to all the hype, but it really did. It captured my gaze from the rooftop of our hotel in Agra, and it held my attention until our departure. It’s not as big as I was imagining, but the building itself is just splendid, the sleek curves and the shining marble and mother of pearl entrancing!

The city of Agra, on the other hand, is nothing to write home about. I had expressed concern back in Delhi to some Indian friends of Chesa’s family that Agra would just be a tourist hole. It pretty much was, but who can blame them? In order to stop the erosion of the white marble of the Taj, the Indian government banned industry in the area. What other option do the locals have then to join the tourist bandwagon?

After a morning of sight-seeing, both Chesa and I were happy to head off to Jaipur. Upon arrival in the town, I felt more comfortable at once. Here we saw the aforementioned doctors, but also participated in events held during a local heritage festival. Probably the best part of our time there was meeting up with a Kiwi friend, Bethani, who was studying in Kunming for a bit last semester. She was performing a Maori (indigenous New Zealanders) fire dance while another couple of friends did Rajasthani dancing. It was quite a spectacle, and I just love those small world moments where paths cross in the strangest of places! It reminds me of the universe’s inherent connectedness, and for that, I am appreciative.

As for basic impressions so far: the animals in India amaze me. At one point we were on the road in Jaipur and saw a man riding a horse on one side of street, while an ox was pulling a cart on the other, followed by a camel! All we were missing was an elephant to round out the work animals here! Streets are also filled with goats and boars, and buildings with flocks of birds. Chesa seems to think there was a Maoist campaign to rid Chinese cities of the pestering birds, which I can neither confirm nor deny, but the lack of birds in Chinese cities is quite shocking when compared to their domination here in India!

And as for cultural experiences, our dinner last night here in Pushkar would have to top the list. We sat down for dinner at a little restaurant a bit outside the normal tourist strip. After we sat down, a cow moseyed over to gawk. We gawked back, and even took pictures, not being used to eating in the presence of cows. As we were snapping the photos, a group of what turned out to be farmers from Hariyana (a nearby state) turned to gawking. They eventually got bold, and even sat down with us. We chatted and had a lively conversation for over an hour. The group continued to grow, as there were 40 or so farmers travelling with the Forestry Department to learn new methods of farming here in Rajasthan, and we became the evening’s entertainment. It was fun, though their English was, not surprisingly, stilted, and the restaurant manager didn’t seem to like the crowd. The farmers were clearly more interested in Chesa (I wonder why), and I was worried that I was going to have to deal with that, but when we decided to go, there was no brouhaha.

My favorite quote from the evening came when I was explaining the term half-sister (a term I’ve had to explain to the Chinese just as often). When I said I had one, the man with the best English said: “You mean she’s lame?”

“No, no,” I insisted, and I gave a chortle.

“You mean she’s small?”

Again, “No,” and I smiled and delved into as simple an explanation I could. I think they got it in the end.

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Saturday, January 21, 2006


Well, I think that Chesa and I were mistakenly married (or at least treated as a married couple, but saying we were mistakenly married makes the story sound more interesting) yesterday in a small temple of Krishna’s older brother in one of the seven holy cities in India—Mathura. Upon entering the temple we were instructed to sit down before a deity of sorts, hold a flag together, offer some prayer in Hindi (I was repeating after the priest, hope I didn’t say anything offensive), and were painted with red dots. My understanding is that the red dots are usually reserved for married women...

In any case, it seems fitting. From day one, Chesa and I have taken the his/hers approach to this trip. I ran down from my apartment running a little late (we’re surprised) to head off to the airport in Kunming wearing a black shirt, a blue jacket, with a blue backpack, and with a “messenger bag.” Chesa was the same except in red. Coincidence, you’d think, but then we keep on matching it seems.

It came to a head today when we had matching his/hers doctors visits. Last night in Agra (the city of the Taj Mahal) Chesa and I stopped for sweets after dinner. She got milk-based sweets, I got some other spicier sweets. She woke up in the middle of the night vomiting and with bowels arunning. We were a bit skeptical of medical treatment in Agra, as a scheme was (is?) prominent whereby restaurants intentionally give food poisoning to clients in order to send them to doctors who in turn charge exorbitant prices to their insurance agencies. Chesa, thus, sucked it up and went out for a tour of the Taj this morning (managed not to puke on the actual thing, though did do it right outside) because, hey, it’s not every morning you have one of the seven wonders of the world right in your backyard! And really, that building was just inspiring enough to make the vomit stay down.

After a few more bouts, including a nasty one on the way to Jaipur (the capital of Rajhistan where we are now) leaning out of the car window and having it splatter back in her hair, we decided a trip to the doctor was necessary. I, although not suffering from food poisoning, was starting to get an ear ache. I was sick for the last week and a half I was in Kunming, fighting with a nasty bug my friend had kindly imported from the US for me. My lymph nodes were totally swollen, but after a round of antibiotics, I seemed in good enough condition to fly. But now, I’m swelling back up, and it’s headed in the direction of my ears. Not wanting an ear infection, we decided we’d make a trip to the doctor together.

Let me tell you, everything that you’ve heard about Indian healthcare is true. It’s cheap and above par. No IVs for me, so take that all you stuck in Chinese hospitals! A quick check revealed that I indeed have tonsillitis, and am now on round two of antibiotics, stronger than the first. Hopefully this will go away, and Chesa’s new medicine will get her back on track, and we’ll get to enjoying this beautiful place!

And now, since I’m long overdue for something like this, India by the numbers:

4- Number of times I was offered drugs in the seedy area of Delhi (NOTE: this seemed surprisingly low)

7- Number of times Chesa threw up today (maybe eight as I’ve been at the Internet Café for a while now).

3.94- The level (in PPM) of sulfur dioxide in the air around the Taj Mahal today.

14- The number of children that Mumtaz Mahal, the Persian queen for whom the Taj was built as a mausoleum, had. (NOTE: She died while having the fourteenth)

3- The number of weddings going on within view of our hotel this evening.

60- The cost (in Rupees, equivalent to about US$1.50) of my visit to the doctor (take that all you stuck in American hospitals!) this evening.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Doing Delhi

Well, I’ve finally made it. After an indulgent couple of days in Hong Kong, we (my friend Chesa and I) have arrived in Delhi, India.

Last time I was in Hong Kong, I was unimpressed. I had been living in Taibei for the summer, and Hong Kong only seemed to offer less. There was less space, less integration with Japanese culture, less language I could understand (well, with the exception of all the English). But this time I was in awe. This time it was more, more, more! I had come to the realization the other month that I had not left Kunming or its environs since I arrived in late August. I hadn’t even been out in the countryside until just a few weeks ago. And so, coming from a familiar Kunming with its RELATIVELY sparse amenities (ok, so we still have a Pizza Hut and a McDonalds or two) to abundant Hong Kong was liberating. I sat in Starbucks reading the International Herald Tribune (my God, a REAL newspaper!). I nibbled on a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream cone as I raced down to the MRT to be shuttled off the island and over to Kowloon. I went to an art museum full of contemporary art. I went to conveyor-belt sushi!

Unfortunately, the respite built my hopes of for India. I’m afraid my overly simplistic logic went something like: Hong Kong belonged to the British, India belonged to the British, so same same but different. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I’ve only been here for nine hours, so I can’t say I have really had a chance to make solid inquiries yet, but I do have first impressions. From what I can tell, Delhi is roughly on par with Kunming in terms of development—I was taken aback. I was expecting Beijing, Delhi being the capital and all, but I got Kunming. But that’s only in terms of development. I didn’t think that it was possible to get crazier than China in terms of crowds, and yet the Indians seem to have managed it. I’m used to having a personal bubble of roughly 5 cm in China…I think the Indians give about 2 cm at best! We shall see though, perhaps I will get accustomed quickly.

I’m frankly already looking forward to getting out of Delhi (sometimes you just have vibes), but we still have some exploring to do. But first, we must recover from the ever-so-minor jet lag!

I’ll probably mention this again later, but for those of you interested in what will likely be a more detailed account of our travels here in India, I highly recommend checking out Chesa’s blog!

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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

I'm Impulsive

Okay, so, if buying Maurice wasn't a strong enough sign of this to begin with, it has now been 100% proven that I am an impulse buyer. Bad Jeff, bad Jeff. What got me this time? Well, a set of three two-and-a-half feet tall terra cotta soldier replicas. I think they weight about 6 pounds each (about 3 kilos was the exact guestimate) and are made of clay. They look cool, but I'm not sure what I was thinking buying them, except that they were less than US$2 each...at least I drive a hard bargain, right? I mean, most tourists pay about US$20 for one from what I can establish...Now it's just a question of getting them all the way back to Colorado.

Actually, we're on the last leg of our journey, so it shouldn't be TOO big of a problem. In case you haven't yet been able to determine my current location, my friend Robin and I are in the capital of the Sha'anxi province, Xi'an--the ancient Tang Dynasty capital and pretty much the furthest west you can get in China that "people" still consider "civilised." Note, Xi'an is in pretty much the center of the country, so that should tell you something.

It's a pretty interesting, bustling city. It's definitely a big shock from Litang in more ways than one. First, it's freaking hot! I keep reminiscing to just a few days ago in Litang when I was freezing my pants, all three layers, off. But also, it's just crazy how developed it is here. It is also a fairly compact city with a population of over 6 million, so it just feels crowded.

It's probably a good transition point though, for we are leaving for Beijing tonight, which is bigger, more polluted, more populated, and hotter. I blame Robin for making me go there--I generally avoid it like the plague. Of course, I hear many people like it, so I suppose that I should give it another chance. I was there about three years ago at about the same time of year and spent my time rushing from air conditioned hotel to air conditioned car to air conditioned anything I could get my hands on. We'll see how it is this time.

Now we're off to explore the city wall. Hopefully we won't pass out from heat exhaustion!

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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Higher than Ever

Well, I know it's been a good long while since I last updated, but I've been busy...and in remote places. As we speak, actually, I'm at the highest elevation I think I've ever been outside of an airplane. My friend from the US, Robin, and I are currently sitting in LiTang in the Western half of the SiChuan province right near Tibet. How high are we? Well the high mountain park (which is mountain terminology for a high valley in the mountains, aka South Park, which does NOT refer to a public park!!!) is situated at about 4680m, or roughly 15,354ft! And this is just cruising altitude. If we want to go up into the mountains (the Himalayas) it's only up from here!

But I'm getting ahead of myself. :o) I guess it's been like a month since I last updated. That's because getting out of town was just crazy! Between judging an English competition that lasted 3 rounds (four nights total!), grading homework, making finals, giving finals, grading finals, finding a new apartment, moving apartments, and planning my summer, it's been busy!

As some of you know, or may have guessed from that last paragraph, I've decided to stay in Kunming next year. It was a tough decision between staying and going to Taiwan, but the university suddenly caved to my requests, so I decided to stay. One of them was the ability to move off campus with a living stipend. The university was quite generous, so I went off apartment hunting the next day.

In China, and I didn't realize this when I started, the real estate agencies charge a full month's rent to the renter for their help in finding a new place. I didn't have any other idea about how to go about it, so I used them, and when I found a place (which is really cool!) I had to bargain them down a lot! The negotiations for the apartment were lots of fun too. The rent started at 1800Y, but we got it down to 1508Y per month. Why fifteen hundred and EIGHT? Because the landlord kept insisting that 8 is a lucky number (which it is in China), so she wanted that in there. She wouldn't go down in either the 12 or 14 hundreds though because both 13 and 4 are unlucky numbers (four in Chinese sounds like the word death). Granted the apartment number is 804...guess having the eight cancels out the four or something. It's a walkup, which will be trecherous, but it's worth it for the view. Overall, I'm really happy about the place!!

To celebrate the new place, and also to bid farewell to some of the teachers, I had a big house-warming party on the 29th of June. I just barely pulled it off, as it was on that day that I moved into the house, and I was delayed by the fact that I couldn't get a bike/cart guy to help me move for a couple hours, and when I finally managed to find one, it started POURING (I'm not talking just rain here, I mean it was just gushing water!). But with the help of my friends Jean and Chesa, and the fact that nobody was very punctual, it all came together.

On the 3rd of July, my friend from both Fort Collins and Whitman, Robin, arrived in town. I wasn't quite done grading or moving, but with her help, we took care of it fairly quickly. On Wednesday I barely managed to get all the grading finished, and then we headed out of town on the night train to Dali. Our basic plan is to go from Kunming NW through Yunnan to Dali, Lijiang, and Zhongdian, then pass up north into Sichuan to XiangCheng, Litang (where we currently are), Yagong Grasslands, Kangding, and back to the capital of Sichuan, Chengdu. From there, it's trains to Xi'an in the center of the country, then on to Beijing.

It's a crazy long trip, but it's been fun so far. I've been to Dali, Lijiang, and Zhongdian several times, but this is my first time up into this part of Sichuan. We had good times there, including a great hike down Tiger Leaping Gorge, and connecting with a group of two Frenchies, to Japanese and a Chinese to go see Emerald Pagoda Lake outside of Zhongdian (where we walked the 8km's out trough beautiful scenery, though I got REALLY muddy). But, it's good to see something new, though I must admit that the bus ride between Zhongdian and XiangCheng was downright scary. We were on a cobbled/dirt road climbing through mountain passes in the fog and rain. Once we arrived and found a hotel, we grabbed some noodles and wontons for dinner, then hiked up the mountain a bit to go to a newly constructed Tibetan Buddhist temple. It was just awe-inspiring--I actually had to hold back tears at one point. The craftsmanship is excellent, and since it's new, it still in great condition. It was great. Then today, we made the 5 hour trek to Litang. In the Lonely Planet, they described it as the Wild West of Sichuan...it really is. We were walking down the street this afternoon and were just astonished at how much it felt like we were walking down the street in a set of a Western movie...though the architecture is a bit different. It's really cold up here (I'm wearing like 5 layers and I'm still cold), but it's worth it.

And now that I'm caught up, I'm going to go explore!

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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Time Warp Baby

As you might recall, since I did mention it on this site a while back, my mother and two of her friends (who also happen to be colleagues) came and visited here in China. My mom was here for almost three full weeks. One of her friends, Sherry, for two, and her other, Ever, for just under one. It was a good trip, of course, and I really enjoyed introducing different parts of China to them.

Much to my mother's chagrin, the only thing that I really posted about the trip on my blog was that I was relieved it was over. Now, I know that she took it in the way I meant it, that I was relieved to be able to relax after being "on" for three weeks, and not that I was either a) happy she was gone, or b) didn't enjoy the trip. But nevertheless, I felt it is only right to add some more about our trip on my blog.

Rather conveniently, at about the same time I decided this, Sherry e-mailed me a great PowerPoint presentation of her/our (we weren't together the whole time) trip to Asia. I think it's well worth sharing, and I think it's particularly interesting to have "fresh eyes" on China (actually, that was one of my favorite parts about having my mom and friends here, is that I got to see China for the first time again). And so, I'm happy to invite a "guest blogger" to my blog to help me describe my mom's China trip. I hope you enjoy!

I have linked to the presentation here for a download. Note that it's a fairly large file, and will therefore take a while to download. You might not want to risk it if you're not on high speed, unless it's really worth it to ya!

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Vignettes a la Haiku

Okay, so the last post was less of a vignette, and more of a, well, diatribe I guess. So, in order to make it shorter and more vignette-like, and also because I'm currently teaching poetry to my students, I thought I would share some Kahsgari haikus for your reading pleasure.

Vignette #2: Outside Kashgar

Poplars line dirt roads
A dry wind rustles the leaves
The mosque stands empty

Vignette #3: On the Abakh Hoja Mauseleum

Hojas of the past
Engulfed in the cool marble
Holy sepulcher

Sun beats green tiled domes
Seventy-eight rest in peace
Dryness permeates

Vignette #4: On the People's Square

The packed square surges
With vigor of vibrant youth
Happy Children’s Day

Vignette #5: At a Restaurant

My Lonely Planet
Held by a Uighur waitress
New understanding

Vignette #6: The Bazaar

Grabbed by forceful hands
A vendor peddles his wares
Chotchkies overwhelm

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Saturday, June 04, 2005

Vignette #1: The Plane

Well, I’m back in one piece…amazing, I know. And an interesting journey it has been! It’s really unfortunate that I was not able to connect to the internet again during my time in the “Wild West of the Orient” (okay, so I just made that up, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?) because there is just sooooo much to talk about. So, since I can’t keep a train of thought for more than, say, two minutes, I thought I would take a vignette approach to this post. They’re not in any particular order (especially not chronological), but I think you’ll appreciate them anyway. We’ll see how it goes.

Vignette #1- The Plane from Kashgar back to Urumqi

It’s 8:20AM in the morning. Well, rather, it’s 6:20AM in the morning XinJiang Time, 8:30AM Beijing Time. The sun is already high in the sky, but the air has not yet absorbed any of its warming rays. After having checked out from my hotel in the former Russian Embassy, I decide that I have some time before my flight, so I go searching in vein for XinJiang-style bagels, but not before I check on how to get to the airport via public bus. After walking for twenty minutes without finding bagels (it was still too early really), I hop the bus to the airport. It being China, the bus didn’t go quite all the way to the airport (too logical), so I had to trek in the last little bit to the terminal. Of course, nothing was clearly marked there, so I couldn’t tell which door to go in, and once inside I couldn’t find the check-in counter. Eventually though, I found it, though I was running late. They had already closed the computer for my flight (of course there were still like ten people to follow after me, so it was a good thing they closed the computer down so early!), so they issued me a ticket by hand, and told me to rush up the stairs for the security screening.

There, the guard, afraid to talk to the foreigner (probably because he doesn’t think he can speak English), grunts at me to get me to finish my security screening (I had already passed through the metal detector, he was wanding me). Wand. Grunt. I give him a weird look. Grunt. I turn around. Meaner grunt—apparently that wasn’t what he wanted. I turn back around. Grunt and nod of head. I fish the Peptol Bismol chew tabs out of my pocket and wonder to myself if he’s happy now. Approving grunt. Hand pushes me. I figure that means turn around. Wand, wand, grunt. Assuming that means I’m done, I step down from the platform and collect my things.

It frustrates me so much here how often Chinese people refuse to even try speaking with me!! Am I really that intimidating?!

In any case, I make through security and am ushered out the door. I run down the steps and across the tarmac, wind ruffling my hair, to the waiting plane that is already mostly full. Upon boarding, I find I am seated in the same row (though across the aisle) of a family travelling with two small children. The balding, slightly comical father is having an argument with the stewardess about having to stow one of his bags in the overhead compartment instead of in front of him. “It’s convenient for you, miss, but it’s not convenient for us. Isn’t that so?” he inquires to the overhead compartment while stuffing in his bag.

A few minutes later as the stewardesses are walking by, one of the kids decides that she wants to be held by one of them. The stewardess picks her up and the kid seems happy. The father asks the stewardess if she would like to be their new nanny (note that the old nanny is sitting next to the mother in the same row holding the other child), and the whole back half of the plane has a laugh.

Directly in front of this family is another foreigner, a tall blonde who looks like a young Allison Janning (C.J. on “The West Wing” if that helps.)

I peer out the window to see a group of about five people running across the tarmac. Bringing up the rear is a somewhat portly Uighur/Pakistani/Ethnically Arabic woman in full head gear and high heels carrying a fake Gucci. I must add that this hijab isn’t just the wrap around kind where the eyes are open to the environment. No, this was a thick brown mesh (I’m assuming, I mean, how else could she see through it?) cloth just draped over her head. She looked like a brown ghost flittering over the tarmac towards the plane, the wind trying its best to blow her scarf off. She finally made it.

Among that group, one woman sits next to the other foreign woman in the row in front of me. With henna-died, red hair, glittery nails, and a fake leopard print shirt on, she looks like she’s trying to hard. Suddenly, she starts sobbing uncontrollably and rambling in Uighur. The foreign woman tries to comfort her, but doesn’t really know what to do, especially since she doesn’t speak Uighur. She tries coaxing her to speak Mandarin, but she’s too far gone.

Again, I look across the tarmac to see more passengers arriving. This time it’s special though. They’re not coming from the same security checkpoint as everybody else did. Rather, it’s an older man pushing a middle-aged man in pajamas on a wheel chair. The man on the wheel chair is clearly unconscious, or at least his head is lolling to the side in a way I’ve never seen a conscious person’s do. They hurry across the tarmac as best they can, but when they arrive at the plane, they face a new problem: stairs. Armed guards run out from the airport to assist, and a group of about five men carry him up the stairs on board the airplane. I tear up. The next I see of them, the old man is carrying the sick one on his back to his seat, where he promptly lays down.

He is not the only person in hospital garb aboard the plane, there is also an elderly man who is also in a bad way wrapped in blankets a few rows behind the new arrival. Even though he’s sick, he’s still wearing his white embroidered cap that marks him as a Uighur.

We take off, flying right over downtown Kashgar. I got some GREAT pictures (see my other blog Fun Fotos for wHeNeVeR to see some.). As we level off, the guy next to me, who has been in what I would refer to as my personal space for the entire take off procedure turns to me and asks me to trade seats. As I want to take pictures out the window, I try to find an excuse not to. “It’s too troublesome,” I tell him.

He tries to start up a conversation. He has a thick accent so I have a lot of difficulty understanding him. He clearly starts mocking me for it to the person sitting to his other side. He keeps trying though, obviously adhering to the belief that the louder he speaks, the better I will be able to understand him. All the while his elbow in my arm. “In China, the personal space bubble is smaller than in the US,” I say to myself, trying to ignore it. As he’s talking, spittle slips out between the gap of his front teeth. I try not to cringe as it lands on my arm.

I politely fall asleep. Tap tap tap. “What’s the temperature in Urumqi?” he asks.

I ask him how I’m supposed to know if he doesn’t? Again, I feign sleep, thinking it probably a bit too impolite to simply stick my earphones in. He starts up a conversation with the woman on his other side. We both notice as he pulls out his cell phone to check the time. The lady to his right gasps “Shouldn’t that be turned off during the flight?”

“Oh no, it’s fine to leave it on, you just can’t make calls during the flight,” he assures her.

“Well, the stewardess said to turn off all cell phones,” she replies.

“No really, it’s okay, isn’t it.” He turns to me for back up.

I roll my eyes and don’t really say anything. I once again try feigning sleep.

Tap tap tap. “Where’s that foreigner from across the aisle?”

“I do not know. I don’t know her,” I assure him. He persists.

“She’s from America like you.”

“Oh, how do you know that?”

“Because she’s a foreigner.”

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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

到了! (I'm Here!)

Well, after a full 24 hours of travelling, I have finally reached my final destination for this week's journey: Kashgar, Xinjiang, PRC. Kashgar is the westernmost city (I emphasize city here, for there are other smaller towns and villages) in China. To put it in perspective, if I decided to walk directly south from here, I would end up in Delhi, India. And so, it has been a long trip.

I left last night from Kunming at 10:45PM, a mere forty-five minutes late. Upon arriving in Xi'an at about 12:30AM, I took the bus from the airport into town (a 37 kilometer distance!) and then a taxi to Northwest Polytechnical Institute to meet my friend Aftron, another Whittie, who is currently teaching there. We stayed up till like 4 in the morning chatting, and we had to be back up at 8AM so I could get back to the airport for my noon o'clock flight to Urumqi, a three-and-a-half-hour flight. Arriving in Urumqi gave me my first record for the day (the second being at the furthest west city in China): at 2,250km, it is the city the furthest away from the ocean in the entire world. Good thing I'm a mountain person.

And actually, it's high plains, so I was feeling right at home. It was hot (over 30 degrees), but at least it was as dry as Colorado, a welcome change. I had a four hour layover there, so I wandered around the "neighborhood" the airport was in trying to avoid the taxis who were desperately honking at me (apparently they were convinced I needed a ride to somewhere and couldn't just be exploring around the airport). I actually stumbled across a cute little park, so I parked myself there in the shade enjoying the dry air.

Then it was on to Kashgar. I arrived at about 9:45PM, but since this area should technically be like five time zones behind Beijing, it was essentially only treated like 7:45PM. I guess I'm going to have to get used to it for the time I'm here, but it's very Chinese that officially they all run on Beijing time, but actually that's just a facade. From what I understand, businesses don't open til like 10AM Bejing time, lunch isn't served until 2PM Beijing time, etc.

As for first impressions, in Urumqi, I was not able to see much of the actual city, but from what I could tell, the Uighur influence, at least in terms of architecture, is not very big. Whereas here, it does really feel like a whole 'nother country (Texas watch out). At the same time, it's typically Chinese, which just confuses my head.

I had an amazingly delicious bagel (first one in who knows how long) while exploring the streets this evening. The vendor didn't speak any Chinese, which meant we resulted to the pointing to different bills game. I was expecting that since we are technically in China that people would speak more Chinese than they seem to. Looks like I'll need to learn Arabic next (after Spanish of course).

And so far, I've only had "Hey, you American war monger" shouted at me once, so I consider that a good day. And now I'm ready for bed!

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Sunday, May 29, 2005

China Map

Here's a map that shows essentially my proposed routes for next week's trip. I still haven't decided between going to Kashgar (Kashi or Gashi in Chinese) or Turpan yet, so I decided to mark both.

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Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Best and Worst

One day while on our trip (I'm pretty sure we were in Phnom Penh, Cambodia) we decided that it would be fun to compare the five countries that we went to (Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines) by creating a list of the "best" and the "worst" things of each country. There are really some things that needed superlatives other than best or worst, but because I wanted to use a nifty table like the one you see below to display them I tried to stick to only best and worst. Sometimes form just has to win over function! So, if there are a few of them that seem weird, it's probably because I was trying to find some way to twist "craziest," or "most creative" into best and worst. Enjoy!

PS- I'm not sure why Blogger feels the need to so seriously screw up the formatting of tables and leave an enormous blank space before it, but there does not seem to be anything that I can do about it, so sorry!




  • Baguettes

  • Balconies

  • Hats

  • Cute tour guides

  • Seafood

  • Traffic/circulation

  • Internet

  • Elbow massages

  • Scammers

  • Taxis

  • Wine


  • Coffee

  • Beer

  • Monks

  • Hotel SERVICE

  • Smiles

  • Cookies

  • BBQ

  • Dining experience

  • Hotel welcome gift (bag of pot for Chesa)

  • Cave

  • Setting

  • Pharmacist

  • Hikes

  • Waterfall

  • Tourist traps

  • Hotel

  • Transport!

  • Bridges

  • General infrastructure

  • Roosters crowing at 4AM

  • Trash burning


  • Richest cultural sites

  • Overall prices

  • Cooking class

  • Creative massage

  • Uniforms

  • Political ads

  • Luxurious hotel (not that we stayed in!)

  • Taxis

  • Blong bling supa tuk

  • Transport!

  • Border crossing

  • Motorcycle experience

  • Dogs

  • Bus films!


  • Ancient ruins

  • Bas-reliefs

  • Trees

  • Toilets

  • Beds

  • Signs (such as ones instructing Cambodians not to stand on top of a western-style commode)

  • Lips

  • Baguette fillings

  • Breton Festivals

  • Tuk-tuk drivers!

  • Pollution

  • Beggars

  • "Roads"

  • Corrupt Passport Control

  • Toilet town

  • Leaky toilets

  • Prices


  • American-style food

  • Grandma

  • Alcohol selection

  • Meals with important people

  • Cinemas (going to a newly released movie only costs less than US$2!)

  • Polo match

  • Accomadations

  • Original public transport (jeepnies, which are essentially elongated American WWII jeeps)

  • Christians--Catholics if we want to be specific

  • Former American Colony

  • Fruit, especially the mangos!!

  • Laundry!

  • Banyan tree

  • Chocolate (especially "wet dreams chocolate cake")

  • Public safety

  • Class differences

  • Japanese gardern!

  • Destroyed in WWII

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Sunday, February 20, 2005

Homeward Bound

Well, it's hard for me to believe, but Marie-Liesse and I are actually leaving the Philippines tomorrow to head back home. Due to a snafu that I think I already explained, I think we have to spend one more night in Bangkok tomorrow, but then we'll be off to Kunming the next evening. After six weeks of travel it's somewhat of a relief (to the pocket book at the very least!), but I'll miss the excitement of seeing new things every day and being in a new environment. At the very least it should be a bit cooler out, and that I will appreciate!

Things have been going well here in the Philippines though for the most part. I must admit that I indulged last night and went to the ritzy downtown super-developed business part of town known as Makati (where the bomb went off) last night to enjoy a sushi dinner with a martini and later off to a place for a heavenly chocolate cake (called, and I'm not making this up, a wet dreams chocolate cake. I was a little shocked and even a touch embarrased to say the name to the lady working behind the counter, but it just looked so delicious I had to go for it!).

We've mainly stayed around Manila while here, and there has been much to occupy us. Between parties and polo matches and lunches with important people, there hasn't been a need to go much farther. Marie-Liesse and I did manage to make two excursions however out to Corregidor Island in Manila Bay (the last place to fall to the Japanese back in WWII), and down to the Taal Volcano. The Taal Volcano was interesting because it is, as Ripley's Believe it or Not describes, "a lake within a volcano within a lake within a volcano," which indeed is what it was. It was actually very cloudy there and it even spat at us at one point but it was a generally enjoyable excursion.

It has really been a different experience here than all the rest of our travels. We've been staying with Chesa's grandmother who is a simply amazing woman with lots of good stories. She likes to describe herself as a "relic of the Spanish-American War" as she grew up in Cuba and the US then married a Filipino and moved to the Philippines. She was here during the war, moving through eight houses before she landed at the house where she remains at today, and at which she has been welcoming numerous guests since. It's really quite an honour to be on the list and I can only hope to go on and accomplish things like some of the other guests she has been telling me about (like the owner of the Atalantic Monthly for example).

But for now, I guess I'll just have to go back to Kunming and go forward from there!


Monday, February 14, 2005

Where is the love?!

Well, first let me wish you all a happy Valentine's Day! I hope that you all find your own way to celebrate appropriately. Me, I spent the day downtown with Chesa, Marie-Liesse and Chesa's grandma. We went to see "Meet the Fockers" at a mall in downtown Manila. After the show we ate frosties at Wendy's (God bless America!), and wandered around a bit. We got in the car at the mall at around 7:15PM and slowly worked our way through traffic back home. We got there around 7:50PM.

After chatting for a bit, Chesa's dad (who works in security) called from his office to check if we were okay. He informed us that a bomb had just exploded in downtown Manila and that we should turn on the news. Reports are still a bit sketchy but they said that the bomb went off in a bus parked under an MRT station at Ayala Avenue and EDSA (don't ask me what that stands for). The mall we left from just half an hour prior is about two blocks away. Currently the information is still fairly vague in the international press, but for more information you can check out either:


MSNBC doesn't seem to be so quick on the uptake. I don't know how much y'all know about the situation of the Philippines but here's a quick summary:

A long time ago there were indiginous tribes living here somewhat related to Polynesia. Then came Suluyman ddup through Indonesia to convert everybody to Islam. In the early 1500's the Spanish set foot on the island, tried negotians and burnt down the city of Manila two days later, deciding the patron saint of the Philippines would thenceforthe be St. James Killer of Muslims. The church then controlled the Philippines for centuries until the turn of the 19th century, when at the same time as the Spanish-American War the Philippinos were fighting for independence. The Spanish, realizing they'd lost the Philippines and the Spanish-American War ended the war and gave both Cuba and the Philippines to the US. It is for this that it is often said here that the Philippines spent 400 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood. At which point WWII started, MacArthur underestimating the Japanese, quickly lost it to them saying "I shall return," (eat that Schwartzenager), which he did en force, making Manila the second most destroyed city in WWII after Warsaw. There were around 100,000 civilian deaths in Manila alone. Then the US helped them rebuild and dgain independence. Shortly thereafter a dictator surnamed Marcos took control of things. He fell in the end of the 80s I believe, and they've been under the flag of democracy ever since.

What all this means, besides the fact that everybody is confused (I didn't even mention the enormous influence of the Chinese traders), is that there is a huge mixture of cultures here with tenuous relations. The southern island of Mindinao, close to Indonesia, is Muslim while the rest of the country is uber-Catholic. Led by Abu Sayyaf there has been an independence war for a while which has recently flared up.

The group has claimed responsibility for the most recent bombings. I have to admit that half an hour is the closest I've ever come to one, and the only thing that I can ask is, where IS the love? (to quote Black Ey'd Peas whose lead singer is Philippino by the by!)

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Friday, February 11, 2005

On the "Road" Again

Well, it seems to have been a while since my last post. In fact it's been so long that I'm two countries past Cambodia. I guess, to be fair, heading back to Thailand was just for transit, but still!

Honestly, the last few days before finally arriving in Manila, the Philippines were mainly just travel travel travel. We left the morning of the 6th (methinks) from Phnom Penh at like 7:30AM on a bus back to Siem Reap. We were like the only farang on the bus, and when we got there the tuk-tuk drivers were hounding us like I've never been hounded before. They were knocking on the windows of the bus while we were still on even--like they could even talk to us through the window! *Rolls eyes* After stepping of the bus, there were like 20 tuk-tuk drivers addressing themselves mainly to me, none of which I wanted (we needed a taxi to the border). At one point I literally had to hide behind Chesa's Vietnamese-style conical hat until the number whittled down to like only five talking tukers. Then the negotiations started for a taxi to the border at $100 for the full taxi (it had taken us like $25 to get there). After we laughed, a tuk-tuk driver offered to take us there for 100 Thai baht (roughly US$2.50) which is perhaps my favorite offer I've gotten on our entire trip, I think it would have taken us like seven days by tuk-tuk, and we would have been simply covered in dust (not to mention saddle sore, it's hardly a road). Wouldn't that have been fun?! We did eventually get a taxi at a reasonable price.

The driver we got though had some, ahem, interesting character traits. When we first got in we were convinced that he had consumption and were sure he was going to keel over midway as he was coughing horribly. Actually, it was a sniff/cough combination that resulted in him lowering his window several times to properly hauk his luggies (sps?! it's not often that one spells such words!). He also seemed overly nervous at first and was travelling ridiculously slowly, not to mention the fact that he was quite "honkative." Every time he was about to pass anything he honked for several seconds. Being from China, I was kinda used to that, but this guy was OVER THE TOP, so I decided to do a scientific survey, and will soon be producing The Honk Report for your viewing pleasure. Quick preview from memory, I'll check my numbers later: average honk time- about 1.62 sec, average honks/minute-around 1.9, rough calculation of total honks- 344, total honk duration- around 9 minutes.

Although I enjoyed Cambodia, I was quite frankly relieved to get back to Thailand where good food is abundant and the beggars and tuk-tuk drivers are nowhere near as pushy! We were only there for about 1.5 days to get back to the BKK airport from where we flew to the Philippines. I had suggested that when we were there, we should check to see if we really had seats for our BKK-Kungming connection upon return since the travel agent seemed somewhat unclear about it. Good thing we did, for when we finally found the China Eastern Airlines office, they told us that the flight had been cancelled. They said that they'd put us up for a night in BKK though with meals and send us out the next day--and since we just found out that the hot water is out in our apartment building back in Kunming and will be out until "March 1"(read end of March at the earliest) it didn't sound like a bad deal.

But now I'm in the Philippines and staying at Chesa's grandmother's house. It's a wonderful house full of priceless antiques and lots of good stories. It's a pleasant change of pace for us weary travellers. There's like actual hot water for one! But also there're maids, and cooks, and drivers, oh my! We took a wonderful tour of Manila's (reconstructed since the US destroyed it all during WWII) Old Town known as intramuros (inside the walls). The tour guide was great at weaving Philippino history together in such a way that each of its very different periods have started to make sense to me. After the Spanish, American, Japanese, and American occupations not to mention the Chinese traders that infultrated the upper classes I can see why modern Philippinos/as are having an identity crisis!

But now I am out of time for I HAVE TO :o) go to a party held by someone in the American Embassy here. I'm looking forward to it.


Friday, February 04, 2005


Alright, well, I typed this entry before and lost it (I told you the internet connection in Cambodia was iffy!). But I will do my best to recreate it.

Little did I know that growing up in a family that insisted on buying Japanese-made cars only (with an emphasis on Toyotas, Camrys in particular. I might add that my mom totalled the only Nissan we ever had...) would one day prepare me for a trip to Cambodia. As it turns out, Toyota is, with a very few exceptions that I've seen in the capital, the only car company that has ventured into Cambodia. It means that all the taxis and like 95% of the cars are Camrys (the other 5% are Land Runners in case you were wondering). It meant that I felt right at home cruising down what I would losely define as a road on my way from the border of Thailand to Siem Reap in a nice Camry. Who knew?

Anyway, we've been here since last Sunday and are enjoying ourselves mainly. We started at Angkor Wat (which you might know from the movie Tomb Raider if you saw it) and its surrounding temples just outside of Siem Reap. It was really quite spectacular to see all of the old temples and whatnot built at about the turn of the last millenium. I hadn't realized before going there that Angkor Wat was just a little piece of what the area had to offer, that the actual ancient city was called Angkor Thom, and that it was really quite large. My favorite I think had to be the temple of Bayon (see pic above, not my pic but an accurate representation of what I saw) in the very center of the old town Angkor Thom. Each of its towers are carved with big faces with slightly smiling lips. I'm having trouble describing the sensation I felt walking through there. It's slightly creepy for the faces are always watching, but then its simultaneously a warm sensation as if they're protecting you with their pleasant smiles. Chesa appreciated the volupuous lips of the statues and swears that's where the Cambodians of today get their gorgeous ones from. No collagen needed here!

Siem Reap itself came as somewhat of a shock to us though. It's a seriously expensive (compared to the other places we've been travelling) place! Ironically, at the same time its an extremely poor town. I don't think I've ever experienced as many beggars at one time in my life. Joelle, a fellow traveller, "gave in" to a boy who was begging on the street and took him to a little market to pick something out. She expected him to go for a cookie or sweet thing. He pointed to baby food.

At first the beggars were really bothering me, but then I realized that they were not just targeting foreigners, they were also asking other Cambodians for hand outs--and the other Cambodians were responding. I also then learned a little bit more about their tragic history, and though we are far from the days of Pol Pot and his evil, horrible regime, change takes time.

My favorite thing that happened in Siem Reap though was while I was bargaining for some whicker placemats and baskets. We were at a little stand in the middle of nowhere, and we started haggling over the price. When I couldn't get the price I wanted, I gave a vaguely pouted look at our vendeuse. She pouted back and won (remember the Cambodian lips are quite large). We kept at it, and she actually hit me (in a playfulish manner). She even slapped me in the face at one point. It was a good time. I learned later that she was charging a very reasonable price and that I really shouldn't have been haggling at all (I hadn't known at the time) when I went to a different place and they started at $5 for the same placemat I had gotten from her for under a dollar.

We have now left Siem Reap and Angkor Wat and are in the capital Phnom Penh (pronounce pah-nome pen, the h's in SE Asian languages actually, as I've discovered indicate aspiration and does not change the consonant shape) to learn more about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. We went to one of their prisons this afternoon, and it was quite an eye-opener. It was a converted high school where the prisoners were shackled one after another on a long iron rod across the ground of the classroom. They were not allowed to change positions even and just laid on the floor most of the time until they were exterminated.

I knew from back in high school that Pol Pot was one of the most terrible of the dictators, but I'm really starting to learn and understand what that meant here. I watched The Killing Fields in Siem Reap (which by the way, Athol Fugard plays a bit role in. I saw his name in the credits and was like 'like the playwrite who wrote Master Harold and the Boys?' I had to research online later to verify, but it was indeed him. Athold Fugard is just one of those names you don't forget!), and would highly recommend it. I'm just astonished, as always, with how vicious human beings can be to one another. The scariest part is how large of a role the kids seemed to play in everything. They were the guards' aides, and selected who to kill. *Shudders*

And with that note, some "Fun" (aka informative) Facts for Cambodia:

25- The percent of the population killed during Pol Pot's reign.
14- The number of beggars we had while sitting at a cheap street vendor having dinner in Siem Reap. It was less than an hour.
VII- The number the God King Jayavarman who built most of Angkor Thom and Wat. On a side note, he was forced to sleep with a woman incarnation of a naga (snake/dragon thang) EACH night lest the kingdom fall apart!
10,000 sq km- The amount of land the Tonle Sap Lake expands over during the rainy season in Cambodia. In an interesting geologic/meteorlogic phenomenon, the Tonle Sap river, which links the Mekong River to the Tonle Sap Lake reverses direction depending on the season. When it's the wet season up in Laos and the Mekong River is high, the river runs into the lake to fill it. During the wet season in Cambodia, when the Mekong is running low, the lake drains into the Mekong. Crazy desu ka?

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Saturday, January 29, 2005

Liar, liar, pants on fire!

Okay, so in the last post when I said that it was my last one in a while (mainly due to the fact that I've heard that internet can sometimes be iffy in Cambodia), I lied. But really, the only reason for that is that I forgot a few things that I wanted to talk about. Okay, one ever-important thing: my culinary adventures in Thailand.

I know that I tend to care about food more than most of you (I did write a whole thesis about it I suppose), but I thought I'd share on the off chance that it interested the rest of you.

Here in Thailand I've tried two new snacks that I quite enjoy. The first was snot on bread. Okay, so I exaggerate a little bit, but the sauce looks and feels remarkably like snot. As I'm not selling this well, let me backtrack. I was walking down the street in a random part of Bangkok not usually frequented by farang as far as I could tell and stumbled upon a street vendor with little pieces of bread on display in her cart. I thought to myself, 'huh, I wonder what that's for,' so with lots of pointing (which, BTW, I think is culturally inappropriate which I realized later) I was able to communicate that I wanted "the bread thing." She put the bread in a steamer pot (which surprised me, I might add, although I didn't know what to expect) and spooned some green goo into a plastic bag and added condensed milk. After a short time she took a metal funnel and funneled the bread chunks into another plastic bag for take away. I took my bags to a bench next to the main river that runs through Bangkok and tasted away. The snot I used as a dipping sauce for the steamed bread pieces. It was sweet and quite delicious. I later found out that the reason for the green color is a leaf that is commonly used in Thai cusine that acts much like vanilla. It's called pandanus (pronounce as you see fit). In any case, the whole dish gets 1.5 thubs up, as it was almost too sweet. I did like the lightly steamed bread idea though.

The other sweet snack that I enjoyed was corn. Sweet you say? Yes say I. At the same place the next day, after missing our bus stop and having to continue on to the next one, we happened upon a corn vendor. He took kerneled corn, added butter, cream, sugar, and a dash of salt, mixed it together and put it in a cup. For decoration it was whipped cream and blueberry syrup. Overall, an enjoyable combination. Who knew that blueberries and corn went together?! I have to admit that one of the reasons that I like Asia is that its desserts (or at least sweet things) tend to surprise me. Before, in China and Japan, it was the sweet beans that impressed me. In Thailand, the sweet corn.

As far as more traditional Thai dishes go, I'm quite enjoying the tom yam soup. It's a spicy soup traditionally made with prawns, lemon grass, and ginger. I think I'm renaming it yum yum soup, but maybe that's culturally insensitive or something :o).

Now go eat!


The Great Escape

I'm here braving the wilds of a Bangkok internet cafe/computer game emporium to bring you what will probably be my last post for a while. I must admit that I think it is noisier in here than it is out on the street (which for Bangkok is saying a lot) because there are boys with loud speakers shouting and shooting each other via computer game behind me. Sometimes airconditioning is just worth it though. I was able to tune them out a bit by focusing on uploading a whole slew of photos to my photoblog, Fun Fotos for wHeNeVeR. They're not exactly in a sensical order, but I think you'll enjoy them just the same!

If all goes according to plan, tomorrow much too early in the morning, the three of us adventurers will be off on the required pilgrammage to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. I'm preparing myself for a crazy day tomorrow getting into Cambodia. Originally, I hadn't realized quite how difficult of a task it was going to be, but I think I'm armed (with information) and ready. You can check out the website Overland Travel Between Bangkok and Siem Reap if your curious what we're up against. Not only do we have to deal with regular every day scammers, we also get to try not to get jipped by corrupt government officials. I'll be sure to let you know how it goes.

As I suspected, Bangkok is starting to grow on me. I still think that it's a Taibei wanna be, but at least now, after really taking time to explore the royal tresures I can start to appreciate Bangkok and Thailand for what it is. The Thai royality did Thai and European fusion very well, at least with regards to architecture. The Thai royalty definitely had resources and exposure unseen by their neighboring Lao. It's also been interesting to start learning a little bit more about their culture. I hadn't realized that the Hindu influence was quite as strong here as it appears to be for example. I've also seen a lot of cool Chinese statues that were brought to Thailand as ballast in the bottom of ships that you can't find anymore in China (thank you Cultural Revolution!).

At the same time, after spending almost an entire week here (the same amount of time we spent in the entire country of Laos, which was most certainly not enough time), I'm ready to get back on the road. I'm sure Angkor Wat will be well worth the visit AND the extremely expensive $40 entrance fee (the temple is owned by a petrol company, but at least some of that money is now actually going to the upkeep and maintenance of the place, which is better than the nothing it got before!).


Thursday, January 27, 2005

Thailand the Tame

We've now been in Thailand for just under a week and have decided to chill for a while where we now are in Bangkok. I have to admit that, although I'm still quite enjoying myself, Thailand has not yet lived up to my expectations for it. Well, Bangkok at least.

I think when I came here I was expecting to find a crazy, sparkly city pulsing with life. A city that was tripping on yaa-ba (meth). By that I don't mean the people all on yaa-ba, but more that I would get this highly energized feeling from the city. A town where you couldn't let your guard down. I think I've seen too many Hollywood movies and taken the Lonely Planet too seriously. As far as the Lonely Planet is concerned, all the Thais in BKK are out to somehow trick the unknowing farangs (foreigners, derived from the Thai word for 'French' the first foreigners in Thailand one would imagine). I'll admit that the tuk-tuk drivers constantly asking "where you going?" so that they can, presumably, convince you not to go there and take you instead to a gem store where they get a comission, presumably, gets annoying, but it doesn't seem much different than Laos in that regard.

Really, I think that once I get over my expectations, I'll start to enjoy BKK for what it is. I've managed to have some fun wandering around some various quarters here and exploring. It was particularly interesting wandering around some back soi today and seeing people living in stilt houses on a canal. Although I'd seen a similar set up before, I wasn't expecting it in downtown Bangkok. I also enjoyed China Town, and thought the commercial district was okay (though again not as new as I was expecting).

The best way I can think of to describe Bangkok is as a Taibei wanna be. I know this doesn't particularly help those of you that haven't been there either, but maybe it will help others. The weather seems about the same. They're both littered with 7-11s on every corner (although I'll bet you that Taibei has more). Their respective cultural monuments are grand in scale (though I think Bangkok might win on this one. The Royal Palace is simply spectacular, and I'm enjoying its wats more than Taibei's temples.).

But basically this town is how I imagine Taibei just a couple of years ago. The difference seems mainly to be that Taibei has picked itself up by the coat tails and is starting to boom again. Bangkok is limping behind. Taibei now has the tallest building in the world. Bangkok's commercial center, Siam Square, was built in the mid seventies. Taibei now has a very functional MRT system. Bangkok has two sky train lines that don't go all that far. Taibei will soon finish a project to install wireless internet covering the whole city. I can't even imagine that in Bangkok.

Maybe it's not fair to compare cities like this, and I should enjoy each for what they do have to offer, but this is honestly how I'm seeing it. I might also add that I think that I prefer Taibei mainly because it doesn't have as strong of a tourist element, and because it has a stronger Japanese influence which I do enjoy.

Anyway, as for some Bangkok tales, I don't have much to recount other than that I have learned my lessons and was able to thwart a taxi driver trying to rip me off.

I had gone out to visit a friend of mine and my mother's who was touring around SE Asia this past month as well in her hotel that was half way out to the airport. I suppose it probably only cost like $35 a night or something, but I'll tell you that goes an extremely long way here! It was an impressive hotel! Anyway, I went out there at about 8:30 at night for a drink. It was good to catch up with the friend, but then it was 11:30 and time to go back into the center of town for the night. First, I went to the concierge to see what my options were for how to get into town. After I ruled out the limosine option, he called a cab for me. What he couldn't seem to understand was that I was not a customer of his hotel. He kept on wondering when I was coming back, and if I needed the taxi to wait for me, etc. I tried to explain I was staying somewhere else but he wouldn't listen. Finally he asked me if I had an "appointment" (which I take to mean either a meeting with a prostitute or some sort of drug deal, probably the former. I had told him that I was going to KhaoSan Road, the main tourist road of BKK.. I told him I had just so that he could create a reason for himself why I would be going into town that late and not coming back.

Anyway, the cab came and I got in. He started going down the hotel's half-kilometer driveway and asked me "how much?" I was like "how much what?" He replied, "how much to take you to KhaoSan Road. I'm sure that whatever you want to give will be fine." I thought to myself, "yeah probably not since that would be more like 100 baht," so I asked him how much he thought. He hesitated. Asked me again how much I would pay. I retorted "as much as the meter says." He said, "no, no. How much did it take you to get out here?" "150 baht." I lied, it had taken me 165 baht. "Oh no," he said. "Turn on the meter and we'll find out," said I. He refused. "Turn on the meter or stop the car!" I insisted. He turned back around and dropped me back at the hotel. I scoffed and explained to the concierge that he wouldn't start the meter. The concierge tried to coerce him but he resisted. I said, "Fine, I'll wait for the next taxi," and that was that. I made it back into town on the meter for only 130 baht. That first taxi driver just saw a rich foreigner he could take for all the money he could, and that still frustrates me, but I try to imagine the Thai side.

Actually, I think that's the most frustrating stereotype of foreigners all over Asia. They have money. It makes for a frustrating time if you actually live in a place like China. Coming home from the airport or train station in Kunming they keep insisting on paying 40 yuan when it should be 20-25 max and you know it. I guess there are worse stereotypes.

And with that I'll end my somewhat wandering post :o).


Sunday, January 23, 2005

It's a small world after all...

Here we are Sunday afternoon in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. It's a beautiful day outside, and yet the fans in the internet cafe were just calling, so here I am :o)

Chiang Mai seems like an interesting enough of a town, although after Luang Prabang it doesn't seem all that special. It's apparently a good place to take different types of classes, so Chesa and I took a Thai cooking class which was quite fun last night. We were the only students, so it made the class much more fun. We learned very important things like it's important to wash your hands after handling Thai peppers but before going to the restroom, and we made some delicious food too. I think my favorite was a very simple dish of fried morning glory (a type of plant here in Thailand and Laos). I really like the complex flavors in the food here, and so far I haven't died from eating anything too rediculously spicy.

On another food note, this town won my heart last night while browsing around the night market. We were just walking down the street, fate beckoning. We walked past an ice cream shop and I was like, hey that looks like a Swensens (really good San Francisco ice cream company that we used to have in FoCo and where my parents always would take me for a treat if I got good grades in school). Lo and behold it was. I mentioned that I liked the place, then looked down at the menu out front and noticed that it was open to a picture of a Mr. San Francisco (a scoop of ice cream on a plate with a cone stuck on as a hat, a cherry on top, and a collar of whipped cream and rainbow sprinkles). It was what I ALWAYS used to get as a kid (with bubble gum ice cream nonetheless), but I haven't had it for ages since Swensens closed in FoCo, and they didn't have a Mr. San Francisco at the Swensens in Taibei. So, waxing nostalgic I went in and got one and was just all smiles for the rest of the evening.

But really that's just the beginning of the "it's a small world" stories. Actually, just before we discovered Swensens, we ran into another teacher from Kunming who had recently arrived here as well. Random.

But even crazier is what has happened to our other friends Joelle and her Mexican husband Salvador who are both teachers in Kunming and with whom we met up in Laos. After a somewhat harrowing seven hour speedboat ride up the MeKong River (it was crazy, loud, fast, and super cramped. Just imagine sitting in the bottom of a cardboard computer box hurtling at great speeds down the river, getting splashed in the rough spots, and meanwhile having a jet enjine humming right next to you, and that's about the experience!), we made it to the Lao-Thai border with about 45 minutes to spare before it closed. We all exited Laos, hopped on a ferry across the river, and the three Americans and the French went through. Salvador (henceforce Chava) was the last because he was being slow, and when he presented his Mexican passport for inspection, he was told that he needed a tourist visa to get in to Thailand (the rest of us were able to just get a tourist stamp visa on arrival for free). None of us could believe it. Joelle and Chava had gone to the Thai Consulate in Kunming to check if he needed a visa before coming, and the woman there told them that he did not.

Unfortunately there was nothing that they could do, and they were sent back to Laos. They were told that the nearest place that they could get their Thai visa was in Vientiane (the capital of Laos), which is at LEAST a two day trek back from the absolute middle of nowhere that we were. Luckily, we just got an e-mail from them saying that the Lao government was happy to uncancel their visas, so they didn't have to go through that hassle. And when they were in the tiniest of burgs called Huay Xai which is serious podunkville like I can't begin to explain, they were approached by a girl that started speaking to them in Chinese. It took them a while to figure out who it was, but then it hit them that it was the Lao girl from the Chinese class back in Kunming (though they hadn't known she was Lao). She helped get them a good guesthouse and what not, and having such luck kind of helped smooth the situation down a bit. They're now back in Luang Prabang, and we'll hopefully all meet back up together in Bangkok.

Well, I think that's all for this side of the globe at the mo. I'm going to put up a photo or several on Fun Fotos for wHeNeVeR after this if I can figure out how.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Luang Pra’baaaynngg

I think that last time I posted I mentioned that we are now in northern Laos in a town called Luang Prabang. Now, all three of those a’s are long, but I have to admit that I’m having a great time calling it Luang Pra-baaang, and giving it a good American twang. It’s just too fun a name.

It’s also turning out to be a pretty fun city. Although I still maintain that it’s a tourist trap, I can now understand why. In Laos you really can’t walk a block without running into at least one temple. Now, this makes sense considering that every boy in the country has to ordain as a monk for at least a couple of days, but Luang Prabang seems to have gotten more than its fair share. One reason for that is that is that it’s a former capital. And really here the temples are quite spectacular and elaborate. Each is painted carefully in gold leaf so that it shines in the sun. The town is also full of monks, and one of my favorite sights was when monk school went on lunch break and all of the boy monks were going somewhere for lunch in their orange or brown robes, there were many who had matching umbrellas (one must realize that umbrellas are used all over Asia to protect from the sun. Actually, the root of the word has shade, ombre in Latin, in it, so that was its original purpose). It looked almost like a parade down the street. Luckily I was able to snap a pic (though not with my digital so I can’t show it here yet).

So, yesterday we spent the day exploring the town and its many wats (temples) on foot. We ended the evening with a traditional Lao dance performance (which was even free, yay!). In other words we took it pretty easy. Today on the other hand was adventure day. Yesterday evening own of the boys about our age who works at our hotel offered, after we were complaining about too many tourists, to take us to see his home village where hardly any outsiders ever go/have been. We took him up on the offer, and took an hour-long tuk tuk (a pickup with benches and a tarp roof in the back) ride out to his town.

We stopped in the middle of a dirt road and my first reaction was “so where’s the village?” I hadn’t noticed that there was a tiny dirt path leading off the side of the road. We hopped out, crossed over the Mekong River on a rather rickety bridge that he explained was rebuilt every year because it was always washed away during the rainy season. A short fifteen minutes we arrived at the first village (not his). We found them in the middle of reconstructing their town temple. We had come to see the school, but they had just had a big test yesterday so were not in session. We found the headmaster though, and gave him some exercise books, pens, and pencils for the students. We also, of course, paused for a photo op with the kids. Then it was across the river on a boat about the size of a two person kayak (there were seven of us in it at the time) to his village. We stopped at his brother’s house (his former house) for tea, then continued on to the rice paddies. We walked all across the fields their and it was one of the most amazing sights that I have seen in my recent memory. We wound our way along the walls of the paddies, and ended up at a river that we had to ford. One of our travelling companions is not so confident about her balance, and had a hard time on the thin mud walls. She had had enough by the time we got to the river, and was not looking forward to the prospects of crossing it on a half submerged dam. But we all worked together to get everybody across. I keep telling her it was a growing experience, but maybe that’s just the American in me talking. I had a blast.

On Friday we’re off to Thailand via speedboat (six hours on a small bench in front of a roaring motor, whooo fun!), so I’ll end with a few general observations about Laos. First, I really like the relaxed pace of life! It’s really a nice change (with perhaps the exception of slow food). Second, I don’t know that I’ve met a friendlier people (not to overgeneralize now). I think it has to do with their greeting, sa-baii-di! You just can’t say that last ‘di’ without smiling. Such good planning on their part! :o)


Monday, January 17, 2005

Laos or Bust

Well, it’s only been three days here in Laos, though it feels like so much more!

We cheated a bit due to time constraints (that and the prospect of a 20 hour plus bus ride didn’t sound all the appealing) and took a flight from Hanoi to Vientiane, the capital of Laos on Saturday morning.

We made it to a hotel where two of the other teachers from Yunnan University were staying, and we checked in. As our official, yeah, we’re in Laos now, welcoming, Chesa opened her cupboard in her room and found a bag full of pot… As there is the death penalty here for drug possession (although I’m not really sure how enforced that is), she just decided to get the receptionist to take care of it. I’ll bet he was happy…

After that, we went exploring, and let me tell you that after the hustle and bustle of fighting motorbikes in Hanoi, calm, peaceful, somewhat sprawling Vientiane. I could hardly believe it was the capital of a country! In some ways it reminded me of Marrakech in Morocco just in pace and what not. It was also quite warm which made all three of us VERY happy.

I’ve discovered that I like doing things that confuse Asians (ie things they don’t think laowai would/should do), so in keeping on that theme, Chesa and I rented a bike with one seat on the back tire, and I peddled her around all afternoon. It was fun and we got quite a few stares. My other favorite thing that has been fun has been telling people that we live in China. The first reaction almost always tends to be “You think I’m Chinese?” It takes us another five minutes of looking in our phrasebooks to explain that, no, in fact we know that s/he is not Chinese but rather Vietnamese/Lao and that it is in fact us who are living in China. Good times!

There wasn’t a lot to see in Vientiane, although I think my favorite, just because it makes me laugh, is the Lao version of the Arc de Triomphe. The best part of the story is that after the US bombed the hell out of the country and we were all friends again, we donated cement to be used to build a new airport. They used the cement for the arc. :o)

As there wasn’t much to see in Vientiane, the next morning we got up early, and travelled by public bus up to Vang Vieng. The town was tiny, and apparently a drug haven (they actually had marijuana and opium on our menu this morning), but very relaxing. I felt at home as we went wading in the river. It was a beautiful day and we wound our way upstream to a bamboo bridge with a sign saying “cave this way.” We decided to go, and ended up spending two hours in the depths of a karst mountain. It was the coolest cave I’ve ever been in because it has yet to be lit and fitted with tourist paths and what not. We just had a guide and a headlight and we were crawling up hydrotubes and under low ledges and whatnot. It was breathtaking!

Today we headed up north to LuangPrabang. I was excited because I heard it was an amazing town, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Town (didn’t know they had those), but it seems like a big tourist trap. Don’t get me wrong though, the scenery is gorgeous!

We’re continuing on to the night market, so I’ll leave you now with a few fun facts about Laos:

  • 30%- The percent of the Lao population that doesn’t actually speak Lao. They speak minority languages, the Hmong people being among the highest percent.

  • 1/5- The amount of the population of Vientiane that was Soviet supervisors and expats before the fall of the USSR.

  • 1- The number of hours that it took for us to get our food at an organic farm restaurant in Vang Vien. A bit longer than other places, but it’s proving about typical. Granted, the food is really good!


Friday, January 14, 2005

Good Bye Vietnam

Well, I don't think that I'll necessarily updating my blog so often during this trip, but I thought that since I still have free highspeed internet access for one more day that I'd take advantage.

First, let me direct your attention to my friend Chesa's blog (also listed under the links to your right as this_wayfarer). She has been posting about our trip together in even more detail than I if you are actually that fascinated by our journey that much.

The last couple of days have been an experience. On Thursday we wandered around Hanoi exploring on our own. I also had to swing by the American Embassy for I had managed to run out of visa pages in my passport, and needed to add some more. Nothing special to report here except that it was surprisingly quick and that the hand sanatizer that they had at each counter struck me as particularly American and made me smile. In addition to the Embassy, we also went to the Vietnamese Museum of Ethnology, saw the Temple of Literature (an amazing temple/university in downtown Hanoi), the outside of Ho Chi Mihn's Mausoleum, and the One Pillar Pagoda. We dined on wonderfully fresh seafood in the evening in a little hole in the wall we found on the walk home.

Of course the reason that we had decided to walk home is that we had had a couple of bad taxi experiences earlier that day. The major one consisted of a taxi driver who started the meter too high, drove us around, went the the wrong American Embassy (even though we had specifically showed him the address, and not like there are two I would imagine, so it must be have been an extra consulate or something), drove us around some more until finally dropping us at the right place. Needless to say, we refused to pay him what the meter said, and got in a rather large argument with him about it until one of the security guards came to help us out. I think we might be a bad trio together, as we don't like getting scammed, something which seems to happen to us quite a lot neverthess, unfortunately. It means that we've created at least three and a half scenes already... Chesa pointed out that we don't seem to be making friends well here in Vietnam, and I think I'd have to agree.

As for today, we took an excursion down to the Perfume Pagoda. The pagoda itself wasn't all that extraordinary, for it was more like a little shrine tucked away at the back of a cave, but I enjoyed myself thoroughly. We got there by a small shallow boat that was rowed by a Vietnamese, then hiked through the forested mountains to get to the actual pagoda. It felt like a real adventure, and it was nice to get away from all the crazy tourists with which we had been surrounded here in Hanoi and at Halong Bay.

Overall I have much enjoyed myself here in Vietnam. When the people aren't scamming us they are very friendly. I also think that their artwork here is simply spectacular. If I had the room and the money I would buy a whole kitchen's full of bamboo lacquerware! But now it's off for adventures in Laos! It's been so cold here, so I'm looking forward to the warmer weather that is expected there!


Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Halong Bay

Well, as promised, I'm back in Hanoi after an almost three day trip to Halong Bay in northeastern Vietnam and so it's time for an update. Above is a picture taken of the bay (though not by me or anyone that I know. It's something I saw though, so I thought it was good to give y'all an idea of what it looks like). It's winter so it was overcast (sometimes foggy) all three days that we were there. Today it was even downright cold, but that doesn't really reduce the beauty of the place. I've always maintained that I like fog, it makes things mysterious, and this was no exception.

We left for the bay on Monday morning, and after a threeish hour trip out there, we took a boat out to tour the bay. It was a good boat trip, as we managed to make friends with a couple of Koreans as well as the apprentice tour guide on our trip. It was his first trip, and so he was more than happy to help (though he couldn't really speak English, which was a detail). I actually found myself in somewhat of a laowai overload. I haven't seen so many westernerns in the same place in ages! Right now they're actually still more of a "they" than a "we" in my head, but I guess that's what living in China/Taiwan for too long has done to me.

Anyway, Halong Bay is an ocean bay with many small rocky islets jutting out of the water at sharp angles. It's a fairly old place (geologically speaking), and so the water has had it's fair share of time to erode away many of the rocks. Thus, our first stop on Halong Bay was "Surprising Cave." It was one of the biggest caves I've ever been in, and the patterns that the water left on the roof of the cave were simply spectacular. It was named "Surprising Cave" by French explorers, and in what I would consider typically French humour, I believe the reason for this to be a rather giant phallus in the middle of the biggest of the three attached caves...but maybe we can be generous and say that it was simply because of sheer grandeur of the caves.

After that it was off to Catba Island which is known for its beauty and even has a national park on it. However, we did not step foot on the island that evening. Instead, there, we rendez-voused with another ship on which we spent the night. That was an adventure in and of itself, as we were aboard with two French-Canadian women (with whom Marie-Liesse and I obviously started a conversation for as to speak French. Though I must admit that I had trouble understanding them sometimes because of their crazy Canadian accent!) who had paid way to much for a trip out to the bay, and were not getting the tour they had expected. They were making somewhat of a fuss about the accommodations (which were not at all what they had been promised) and so I proposed getting a bottle of wine to settle everybody down. Unfortunately it had the opposite effect as it was not opened before us, and what was supposed to be a Bordeaux was most certainly not. At $12 a bottle, we found that we couldn't let it pass, so we told them (Chesa used her Vietnamese phrase book to write words down) that it was horrible and that we wouldn't pay for it. In the end, we didn't, but only because a Slovenian (or maybe Slovakian, I never had a chance to actually talk with her) paid for it because she said she was embarrassed, although she did not understand the situation at all and shouldn't have gotten involved!

In any case, after a night on the boat, which I would imagine in the summer would have been quite lovely and would have involved swimming and star gazing, but in the winter involved drinking a little bit and going to bed, we spent the next day back on Catba Island. We took a kind of short hike in the national forest in the morning, and went kayaking in the afternoon. The kayaking was super fun! Although I have been canoeing often, it was my first time kayaking. Chesa and I were together, and at one point fought hard against the current to pass through a little opening/cave in the rocks into a small inlet. It took us like five tries, but the effort expended was quite worth it as the inlet was so peaceful and full of interesting coral. We also explored briefly another island on foot, which we renamed Cheffa Island.

Today it was mainly getting back to Hanoi that took most of our time. All in all it was a good trip, but I wonder if we could have done it better without having bought a tour. We did learn a couple of good lessons though, and kayaking around the bay I will certainly remember.

As for my Vietnam experience in general, I think I forgot to mention in my previous posts that I was surprised at how related Vietnam is to China. I suppose that if you live under their rule for 1000 years you learn a thing or two... The languages, although there are more tones in Vietnamese than in Chinese are even quite similar. Whereas we just went to Halong Bay in Vietnamese, it would be XiaLong in Chinese. Whereas we are currently staying in Hanoi in Vietnamese, the name actually comes from the Chinese HeNei meaning inside the river. Who knew?

I might also add that on Sunday night we went to see a special art form here in northern Vietnam known as water puppets. I'll put up pictures later, but I must tell you it was the most spectacular puppet show that I've ever seen. I still don't quite understand the mechanics of it!


Sunday, January 09, 2005


Whew! My friends Chesa and Marie-Liesse (yes she's French if you couldn't tell) have made it safely to Hanoi, yay!

Originally we were planning on leaving on Thursday, but because I was behind with my grading we decided to wait until Saturday morning to take off because I was a little behind on my grading. It was an absolute rush for me to turn in my grades before we left on Friday, and it almost killed me (ask my friends, they said I looked like the walking dead. I guess staying up until 4 or 5 AM then getting up again at 10 isn't enough beauty rest!). I rushed to the English Department office at 4:30PM though, then rushed to the Bank of China to exchange money. That's a story in itself!

The first branch I was taken to, which I had been told was the main branch (and the only branch at which I could exchange money into dollars, d'ailleur) was closed. Then I thought to myself, 'hey, isn't there another big branch more downtown?' So, I hopped in a cab and told him I wanted to go to the big Bank of China on either People's Street or Eastern Wind Street, I couldn't remember which. Rudely he responded, "All you need to say is take me to the Bank of China." As if there was only one! He, of course, took me to the People's Bank of China, which I insisted was NOT the bank of China, however he persisted. Long story short, I ran the last two blocks to the actual BoC, for it was already 5:20PM. It was luckily still open, and I went in and the security guard showed me how to take a number. I asked him if that was what I was supposed to do to change money and he assured me that it was. I waited until 5:35PM for my number to be called, only to find out that I had to go across the room to another counter to change money...

Then the adventure truly began. I went across the room and first they insisted that I had to be Chinese in order to change money. I said "Well, I'm more or less..." and showed her my residence permit. "Oh, well, then, yes, you can exchange money here but we're closed, come back on Monday." I mentioned that I had been waiting on the other side of the room for half an hour (slight exaggeration) and that I was leaving the next day and she gave in and let me change money!

It may seem like a somewhat banal story, but I cannot tell you how Chinese I felt then. Not only was I Chinese enough to change money, but I also successfully argued in Chinese with the attendant AND she bought the arguments! Not to mention the fact that I was in an awfully sleep deprived state. Alright, I'll stop gloating, but it made my day.

The trip so far has been quite excellent. Due to several turns of good luck, we made it from Kunming to Hanoi in record time-faster than The Bible (aka The Lonely Planet) said was possible. We made it to the border at HeKou, turned left out of the train station to see what was there and found the border crossing. It was still open, so we decided to go through. It took all three border guards to check our passports (aka flirt with Chesa, the slightly Asian looking American who speaks Chinese). All in all, it took us an hour to walk across a bridge, which was nicely counter balanced by the fact that we lost an hour (time zone differences) in doing so. After arriving in Vietnam without any dong (the Vietnamese currency) we walked to the ga (Vietnamese for train station... I have my suspicions it comes from the French "gare" or train station) in a slight drizzle, got an over-night to Hanoi, et voila!

The train was nothing particularly out of the ordinary with the exception that our compartment-mate/conductor decided to give me a short massage (the karate chop kind) and slap me on the ass as a welcome when he saw me lying face-down on my bed trying to get to sleep. I decided an ass slap in Vietnamese must mean welcome...

Hanoi is quite interesting. I had no idea what to expect, but it's better than anything I had imagined. The French did wonders for this place if I do say so myself. The architecture is much more interesting than the utilitarian buildings of China! Our hotel room has a balcony with iron-rod railing and everything! The two most surprising things here though are: a) it's expensive. Well, at least compared with China. I mean, breakfast cost like $1.25! And b) the motorcycles/mopeds--they're everywhere! They fill up the entire street. It reminds me of Taiwan in a way, but there aren't many cars here.

As for tomorrow, it's off for a three day excursion to Halong Bay for kayaking, hiking, and sightseeing. I'll let you know how it goes!

To sign off, some Hanoi Fun Facts:

3.5 million- The population of Hanoi
550- The number of pounds that a tortoise pulled out of the lake in the center of Hanoi weighed when it died in 1968. Legend is that it is a tortoise that would return the sword of peace that was taken by one thousands of years ago. Although this particular tortoise had no sword, it was nevertheless embalmed and is now the center piece of a temple on the island in the middle of the lake.
19- The number of hours it took for us to get from Kunming to Hanoi. The book says to plan for 30!

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Wednesday, January 05, 2005


Well, I saw this article on MSNBC, Thais hope the tourists return, and thought I'd share. For some reason I continue to feel compelled to defend myself on why I'm heading that direction after such a devastating event. The weird part is that nobody seems to be arguing with me besides myself. Hmmm... methinks I sense a bit of self guilt going on here. It seems wrong to profit (in a sense) from this horrible tragedy. But the Thais are saying they need tourists, and we will actually be able to find a place to stay--likely a nice one that is dirt cheap, and, and, and. Well, I'll just have to help out in some way in order to calm my troubled soul.

On a completely unrelated note, today I received like 7 pieces of mail which made me happier than happy can be. If you were one of those who was kind enough to send me an X-mas card or, gasp, package, I just want to say thanks much! Yours will be in the mail soon. Maybe from tropical Thailand where I'll be lazing on the sandy beach enjoying my winter... :o)


Monday, November 15, 2004


Well, I just got back from my weekend in Shanghai and therefore thought it only appropriate to jump straight to Reflection Point #8: Shanghaied!

Not since visiting my sister on the East Coast and going to New York City have I felt so much like I was a hick from the sticks coming in to see the big city as I did last weekend in Shanghai. Even after much reflection (I don’t call them reflection points for nothing :o) ) I’m not exactly sure why going to Shanghai was such a shock, though I do have my ideas. First, even though I was told that Shanghai was a truly cosmopolitan city I don’t think I really believed it until this weekend.

Since I have already been to Shanghai before, I already had in my mind what to expect from Shanghai. The thing is that it was the first city I ever saw in China so I originally had nothing else to compare it to. Also, it meant that we didn’t really explore it much since we were still young, innocent, sheltered, non-Chinese speaking tourists being shuttled around town by our Chinese teacher. Also, and this might be obvious, but the things we saw last time greatly influenced my idea of what Shanghai was—we went to the Shanghai Museum (which is full of very interesting Chinese artifacts), had our meals in Chinese restaurants, and saw the Bund (the main river that runs through town) and the Oriental Pearl (the communist TV tower which has effectively become the Eiffel Tower of Shanghai check out my photo album for a picture of it). Those experiences combined to make me think of Shanghai as a very typical Chinese city.

Even the things that I associated with the West that I knew existed in Shanghai, like Pizza Hut (a fancy upscale version mind you) I can now find in downtown Kunming, and this I think was the real problem—I was tricked into thinking that Kunming was a cosmopolitan city now because, unlike when I was here before, it now has things like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and most importantly Carrefour, things that I had associated with Shanghai before. Of course, what I had failed to consider was that Shanghai was probably continuing to develop over the two years since I’ve been there too!

In any case, my version of what Shanghai is was completely shattered this weekend. First, I couldn’t believe how big it really is. I know I only had a chance to explore small parts of it last time, but I didn’t even begin to understand how much I was missing. The first night we eventually managed to get to the Cotton Club where a live band (that was half made up of ex-pats) was performing Bob Marley and whatnot. The music and atmosphere were great, and I even was able to find a real honest-to-goodness frozen margarita (which I had been craving for ages. Kunming doesn’t understand what frozen means). Also, I think in that bar I saw more foreigners than I had in the entire last month here in Kunming, and I live in the foreigners compound here! Finally, I must admit that I spent the weekend getting my fix of non-Chinese foods. We went to a great Indian restaurant, a Brazilian restaurant (that had salad!), a Turkish restaurant, a Korean restaurant (although we’ve got our share of decent Korean food here in Kunming), and even a Mexican restaurant. It was spectacular.

Also, I think it was the little differences that struck me most. In Kunming we only have hot water from about 7PM to 12PM. In Shanghai we could take showers whenever we wanted because there was hot (and by hot I mean really really hot, hotter than we get in Kunming) water 24/7. And like other big cities, the people were actually quite rude. The first night, we had a streak of only interacting with really rude Chinese people. The guy who checked us into our rooms for example was a complete jerk—so much so that one of my friends, Aaliyah, wanted to just leave. I think the real problem was that we made him put away his calligraphy and actually have to do work…this guy was actually so lazy that when we paid him he essentially told us to give him round numbers of money so that he wouldn’t have to make change, and that we could get the change upon checking out (when he wouldn’t be dealing with it!). Getting taxi drivers to stop was even a problem for us. They just didn’t want to have to deal with foreigners, and we got several drivers who waved us away as we were approaching their empty cabs! This was so surprising because in Kunming, and most other cities in China, if a taxi driver sees a laowai walking down the street they slow down and sometimes stop for you even if you don’t want them.

Now that I’ve rambled on for some 800 words, I suppose I should actually tell you what I was doing in Shanghai. Whitman sponsored all of the Whitman in China teachers to go to a conference held by the China Teachers Consortium about teaching English in China. Our other Kunming friends here that are teachers from Oberlin also went. It was interesting meeting lots of other teachers from around China and hearing some about others experiences, but overall I was disappointed with the conference. Only about a quarter of the presentations we had were actually good, which also was a surprise. I guess I expected professional conferences to be worth my time. I guess you learn a lot during your first year as a professional. My general feeling was “why should I take advice from people that can’t even teach themselves?” So, oh well. At least I got to see Shanghai.

As for the one really touristy thing that I did there, it was to go to the Shanghai Art Museum. Generally speaking it’s an okay art museum—mostly has modern art. I certainly preferred the Tate Modern in London, but there was one exhibit that made it very worthwhile. Basically, there was a field of belts hanging from what looked like small fans on the ceiling. They were hanging at about waist height, and were in a loop parallel to the floor, so it looked like there was just a bunch of invisible people there. The really cool part though was that they were all attached to some sort of sensors and all turned so that the belt buckle was facing you. It was SOOOO creepy to move and have a field of belts all turn and face you! Take a look at the picture so that this kind of makes sense.

And finally, I know that this was a good long entry, but I’ll leave you with some Meaningful Morsels for Monday about the grand Shanghai:

1.5 million- The number of people that Shanghai plans to move out of its downtown area by the year 2010.
600,000- The number of foreigners that currently live in Shanghai.
0- The number of times somebody dazedly looked at me and said “Look, laowai!”
1- The number of times I went karaokeing in Shanghai
10,000- The number of Jews that took the Chinese government up on the offer of immigration without official travel documents during WWII and moved to Shanghai.
45 yuan- The cost of my most precious frozen margarita. That’s about $5.60, or a little bit less than what I make an hour.

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Thursday, October 07, 2004

I’m baaaack!

That’s right, I’m back from my five or so day vacation to the SiChuan (pronounced something like se-chwan) province, and I’ve made it back relatively unscathed. Actually, we were golden until the train ride home, but that’s a different story.

What I ended up doing was taking a good long (19 hours!..and the person that bought the tickets for us thought it would only be 9!!!) train ride up from Kunming to the capital of SiChuan province, ChengDu (pronounced more like ch-ung-doo) to meet two other Whitman in China folk who are teaching in Xi’an (pronounced she-on). During the train ride I got to play the main attraction for a number of Chinese youngsters who thought that seeing a foreigner was just about the coolest thing they could imagine. It was exhausting, but at least they were pretty cute, and I even taught one how to sing “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” Anyway, despite my longer-than-expected train ride, we all arrived in ChengDu at about the same time, so it worked out.

After a night wandering around ChengDu and getting thoroughly lost, we got up early the next morning to catch a bus to KangDing (pronounced k-awng-ding), a small town up in Western SiChuan. It was an eight-hour ride, but at least the scenery was gorgeous. The town itself lies at about 13,200 feet and has a large Tibetan population as it is actually not very far from Tibet. Since the new highway from ChengDu to KangDing is mainly finished, KangDing has suddenly become quite the tourist spot for the Chinese themselves. The problem is that KangDing is a pretty small town that isn’t really used to seeing so many visitors, so they weren’t exactly ready for all the people. What that meant was that we could not find a hotel room for the life of us. While wandering from hotel to hotel we happened to run across a Danish couple from Copenhagen that was in the same situation. So, working together we were able to get one hotel to clear out a room in a neighboring tea house of its mahjong table and they laid some mats on the floor for us. Actually, the mats were probably the most comfortable thing that I’ve slept on since my arrival in China; for some reason the Chinese prefer their mattresses hard.

Having secured a place to stay, we went exploring. The town was quite interesting, and the surroundings beautiful. We had some good meals, took a hike up to a Tibetan “stupa” (although I think stupas are actually Indian things, I don’t know what else to call it—it’s essentially a big statue/temple with no opening designed to hold relics…check out my photo album for a better idea of what I’m talking about.), relaxed in some hot springs, and traded drinking games with our new Danish friends.

Our bus ride back down to ChengDu turned out to be about 10 hours…a few more than expected. The problem was that we got stuck behind a construction zone. As we found out when we finally got to go through, the zone itself that was blocked off took us 45 minutes to get through. What this meant was that since it took so long to get through, they blocked off the road for about FOUR HOURS at a time!!! Yep, we got to just sit there for about 3 hours and 45 minutes. I couldn’t believe it! Alas, it’s the Chinese way.

Back in ChengDu we decided to take a trip out to ChengDu’s famous Panda Breeding and Research Station. It was great getting to see so many pandas up close and personal. I can’t figure out why they are so cute, but I think it must be the black circles around their eyes. They really make them look like they’re just looking at you with those big, round, puppy dog eyes.

Anyway, after all that fun and excitement, it was back to Kunming for me. Coming back I didn’t get mobbed by children (although they did try once), but it was mainly because I wasn’t feeling so well. Then, right as I was going to bed, it hit me. I ran to the bathroom and threw up dinner and maybe even lunch. It continued that way about every two hours or so. At least after the second time it was mainly just dry heaves. I’m assuming I caught some sort of stomach thing, but I’m not exactly sure where I got it from. It has meant that I’ve been awfully tired though because I haven’t really been able to eat anything (although I was able to keep down crackers this morning for lunch, so hopefully that means I’m on the mend). I start teaching tomorrow, so hopefully I’ll be feeling even better by then.

Anyway, here’re some fun facts for Thursday:

0- The number of pandas that were born in captivity outside of China that have survived.
40- The percent of time I spent in a train or bus on my vacation.
2- The number of weeks it’s been since I last did laundry. The fuwuyuan (worker people) here said my laundry basket was particularly heavy today.
<1000- The number of calories I've consumed in the last 48 hours I think.
9- The number of new photos I have up in my photo album, so go check it out!

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