Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Great Wall

Today was a rare and beautiful blue sky day...what better way to enjoy it than to head out to the Great Wall?! I think this must be one of the more tourist-y sections of the wall, but it's very close to Beijing (about 45 minutes) and had some fun things to do.

The Wall is HUGE. I'd say more about it, but signage and information was notoriously absent, so you can read more about the Wall at Wikipedia. Most of the part that we were on has
been completely restored so the materials are not original, although the boys went further out to a section that had not been worked on and so had much of the original work left.

Of course, nothing would be complete without a mini-gauntlet of souvenir hawkers. Apparently it was not very crowded and the vendors were pretty easy-going. The prices were startingly lower as we were leaving, so the kids indulged in a trinket and we filled up on dried fruit, almonds, and chocolate crepes at unbelievably low prices. Prices here start much much higher than they do in Tanzania so bargaining takes a bit more knowledge of the prices, but the people bargain faster so it doesn't take as long.

The Chinese are very good about warnings...almost as good as Americans. And we're learning that you can find a lot of humor in mistranslating English. The mountain leading up to the Wall is steep so you can take a cable car or chairlift up, which we did.

Along with the typical warnings about people who have vertigo, heart problems, etc. there was a warning for the "habitual abortionwoman." Women of that ilk are encouraged to not use the gondola (and I suppose avoid McCain/Palin rallies, too). Of course, that means they would be hiking up the hill, which can't be good, either.

It's a myth that you can see the Great Wall from space. But we could see it as we left Beijing, which was very cool. It was like the pyramids--to actually see something so iconic that you've seen in pictures all your life was really amazing. It winds along the top of the ridge with the guard houses regularly spaced along. The ups and downs are very steep and all the steps are very irregular so you have to watch yourself carefully. There are little tables along the way where people sell crackers, water, and sodas...which they have to carry up, I imagine--the cable cars would be too expensive.

The Wall winds along the ridge, separating China from Mongolia. It's a convoluted path--we could see sentry posts with no wall remaining, and other sections where the wall had clearly fallen into disrepair was not being maintained. Like many places we've visited there is a fairly casual attitude with regards to signs that say "non-tourist area" and venture onto some of those areas. There are other areas of the wall that are much less maintained where you can hike for several hours on relatively rough terrain on the Wall.
Apparently this time of the year can be very dry and dusty, but with the rain, everything was sooo green. The mountains give you a sense of those famous images of the rounded mountains. They aren't very rugged and they really aren't very tall, but they are steep. Looking out it was clear enough see Beijing and as far as you can it, it is FLAT. FLAT. FLAT. No wonder I'm not minding riding my bicycle everywhere!

Everyone's favorite part was getting down--why walk when you can ride? These little scooters offer a 5-7 minute descent--unfortunately we got stuck behind someone who was very timid so we had to poke our way down. The boys ended up getting to go a lot faster. Reminder: stall and stall at the top to get as much distance between you and the person in front of you as possible!

At the top of the post I mentioned a rare blue-sky day in Beijing. On Friday, I took this picture out of my classroom window.

Sadly, that's not rain. That's a pretty typical day, apparently. That's pollution. And it can get much much worse. To be fair, it did rain several hours later so there are probably some clouds there, but most of the days we've been here have looked like this. It's not something you smell or feel and everyone says there's been a lot of rain in August so we thought it was just overcast alot. Nope. We will definitely need air purifiers soon. And lots of plants.

This definitely made up for my rotten Saturday, in which I spent 7 hours visiting 2 stores trying to buy paint and being told at both places (these are HUGE places, like Ikea or Home Depot) that they can't sell colored paint that day. Clearly, I need some help in the communication department. Next time, I go armed with a translator!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Elementary School Introspection

Today I realized something. I love to color. Actually, I have always loved to color. I love a brand-new coloring book—not one of those very intricate difficult ones, or ones that waste pages with silly puzzles. Just about any kind of coloring book will do.

I love a new box of crayons. My favorite is the 64 with the sharpener in the back, but I’ll be satisfied with a box of 48. I love seeing them all standing upright, waiting for their turn on the page. Only Crayola, none of those other brands. Oh, and you never use the actual sharpener. You rotate your crayon as you’re coloring the bigger spaces to keep it a bit pointy. I don’t like to share my crayons because other people might break them or color them flat or (gasp!) peel down the paper.

I actually have a touch of the OCD when it comes to coloring. Given my way, I never take out the crayons and put them in a different box. If a crayon breaks, I have an irresistible urge to chuck the whole box. Which is why I don’t use the sharpener or (gasp) peel the paper. If a coloring page has been marked on, I don’t want to use it. If someone has scribble-scrabbled on a page, I have an irresistible urge to chuck the whole book. I remember being very proud of being able to color a whole coloring book all by myself.

But today I realized that coloring is very therapeutic. I have been very stressed about starting this new job and today I was coloring my poster along with my student and as I colored I felt so much stress just melt away—even though I was using broken colored pencils. I felt this silly satisfaction when I finished. I felt relaxed.

With this new-found insight, I suspect I’ll carry on. I’ll be an old woman, hoarding crayons, just in case, snapping at anyone who comes near the crayon closet. I’ll carry a bag of coloring books around with me and display my work around the house. I’ll keep all the coloring books I’ve done, and perhaps make a note as to where and when I colored them. My children will roll their eyes and sigh when I refuse to share my good crayons and coloring books with my grandkids and wonder if there isn't maybe something wrong with me.

But I’ll be at peace.

Karen, the Queen of All...

Karen is one of those people who is good at so many different things. Things that I would have to take classes in just to be barely mediocre she does so quickly and efficiently and well. I often turn to her for things that I just can't get together myself because I know she'll make whatever it is look totally cool and easy.

Like my new blog look, for example.

And bumper cars.


Thursday, August 28, 2008

For the Love of God....

Will someone step up and tell me how to add a pattern-y background to my header? The glaring red is killing me.

Actually, I don't want you to tell me--I want someone to do it for me and THEN tell me. Because I've been told before and it's not working for me. But if you do it and then tell me, I'll have a shiny pretty new header and you can have the satisfaction of raising my technical abilities a notch.

In educational terms, teach me to fish and I'll never be hungry again. But first, just give me a fish.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

One World. One Dream.

We did it! We were at the Olympics last night at the track and field finals. Someone just asked me via email if it would be worth spending the bucks to attend the Olympics? I don't know
that I would travel specifically for the Olympics, but if I were ever anywhere near them I would definitely make the effort. It was an amazing experience! One of the amazing aspects of the event was ticket prices, which are apparently fixed in line with the host country's economy. With the exception of big events (gymnastics, track, basketball, soccer, swimming) tons of tickets at the outlet where non-Chinese could purchase them were in the $10-20 range. People were going to 1-2 events every day! Mark went to a handball game and the boys went to baseball (Netherlands vs. Korea) and lucked out into soccer semifinals (Argentina vs. Brazil) so I think we got to experience a good slice of the whole experience!
We saw the men's finals in the javelin, 800 meters, 5,000 meters and 4x400 relay, and the women's high jump, 1,500 meters, and the 4x400 relay. The whole thing went very quickly--they seem to run much faster in person than they do on television--so the whole event lasted less than 3 hours. But what a great few hours it was!

First stop (earlier in the afternoon)was the Nike store to get properly outfitted with some USA gear. We found out that night that we were woefully underrepresenting the US in terms of dress and costuming! Aside: Beijing has some serious high-end shopping. Serious shopping. And there are an astonishing number of people in this country. More on that later, but suffice it to say that negotiating crowds is going to be a real art. And that's just the streets. Wait til we talk about the subway or the stores!

Off to the Olympic Green (more like the "Unbelievable Expanse of Concrete and People and where the hell is something to eat?") and the Bird's Nest. The area where most of the venues are is enormous. I was set to pick up some trinkets for the kids and found out that they were all being sold at the superstore at the other end of the Green--about a 40 minute walk! Food tents were selling ramen or rice bowls and we knew food was not available in the Bird's Nest so we opted for the McDonald's.

Walking, walking, still walking. Still walking. And sweating. Walking, we're still walking. And, finally.....

Nope. Still walking. Still sweating. Noticing that there are a lot of Chinese people here. Wondering if the toilets are squatties. Wondering if I'll ever get the sweat out of my clothes. Wondering if the Diet Cokes are cold. Wondering why the bleep I can't buy pins or lanyards or flags at any place but a superstore where I KNOW there will be 25,000 people and no lines (I know this because I was at a superstore in the city earlier that day).

Sniff, sniff. Ah-HA! We must be close! There! The Golden Arches! The smell of the best fries on the planet! Here are some hungry people standing in line at McDonalds. Lucky devils.

Lucky, because THIS is the crowd waiting to
get INTO the McDonalds. Periodically the doors open and 25-30 people rush in and then the doors shut. It would be easier to get into Willy Wonka's factory. We opted for rice bowls.

And here was the black hole of the Olympic experience...the food was packaged--rice, chicken/veggies/sauce. You mix it together on the top tray and open a packet of water and pour it in the bottom of the styrofoam box. Shut it up, pull a string and BAM! Some weird explosively hot chemical reaction and 5 minutes later you have a hot meal.

A hot meal in which an entire chicken was apparently shoved through a grinder, bones and all, and then put in the little packets. Inedible. Sad, too, because except for some cookies and caramel corn that was it for food. Luckily cheap beer was available--that along with a lack of food and the heat could be a recipe for disaster. We survived, but we did hit the McD's for a quick bite on the way home.

Which should not be construed to mean that we are eating at McDonald's all the time. Beijing has fantastic food and we are taking advantage of ordering from pictures and trying whatever we get and loving just about all of it!

But I digress...

When you enter something like the Bird's Nest to watch the Olympics in person, what would get your attention? The torch? The crowds? The energy? How about little remote control cars that return the javelin back to the thrower? Very cool and I want that job as an Olympic volunteer in the future. Although I'd have to be in excellent shape because it was at least 100 degrees on the track and not one bit of a breeze and so I'd have to do it basically naked and I'd want to be in shape for that.

But again, I digress...

That was actually a segue because this is for Karen. The former Olympic gold medalist in the javelin set an Olympic record (but don't ask me how far he threw it because those are details and I kept watching those little cars) and he was from Norway and Karen loves Norway. And he had a cool name--Anderes. And we were sitting with a large Norwegian and Finnish contingent and there were also 3 Finns in the finals and so things got a little testy on the Finnish end of things when the Norwegian won. And also he took his shirt off after every throw and he threw 6 times and it was on the Jumbotron so there was nothin' wrong there.

The women's high jump was amazing. They LOOK so tall! And it's my favorite field event. And I bet I could get my weight down like that. But not by exercising. Gosh, no. By not eating for maybe 6 months. Maybe not. That'd be a lot of work, too. After I thought about all of that I went and got another beer and some caramel corn. Seriously, though, they are amazing athletes--there were several personal bests in the competition that night.

We had a great night to be at the Games. The running events we saw are among my favorites. Seeing these elite athletes in action---the speed is unbelievable--was fantastic. Of course we cheered loudly for the Americans, who didn't stand a chance against the Kenyans (whom we cheered loudly for, too) and watched an Olympic record set in the 5,000 meters. Track is a great spectator sport because there are always multiple events going on at the same time--lots to watch, lots of energy! The stadium was very full--it holds something like 90,000 people and with pockets of people cheering for different athletes you don't get that crushing noise that you would, say, at a football game where everyone's rooting for one of two teams. There were lots of opportunities for people-watching as fans came dressed in flags, hats, costumes, makeup, whatever they needed to make sure everyone else knew where they were coming from. Everyone cheered for their country and if they didn't have someone in a particular event, they just cheered loudly for the country of the person sitting next to them. We sat next to an American who is running an orphanage in China, and close to a happy Australian group and a very enthusiastic Brit who got on British TV by displaying an enormous flag (they were very strict about the size of the banners and flags in the stadiums, but this guy wore this in like a toga). This was in addition to the Scandivavians around us, too.

My favorite event in track is the 4x400 relay. It's not as flashy and doesn't get as much attention as the 4x100 but it always comes at the end of a meet and I think it's because it's one of the most exciting events. It's very fast, but the distance allows for a lot of place changing. It's not unusual for someone to lead in a leg, then fall behind, then catch back up. Every lap is like a mini-race and it almost always promises a great finish. The US women won in the last 50 meters in a fantastic haul down that last stretch. And men set a new Olympic record. No one else was even close, but that didn't stop it from being as exciting as the women's race!
Some of the "heart" moments were the medal ceremonies, and not just ours. How many times have you seen those flags go up and anthems played (there's a fan in each of the flagpoles that makes the flags wave patriotically as they reach the top)? It didn't matter whose anthem was being played--when the music starts it was unexpectedly very emotional, even though we couldn't really see the people on the medal podium.

This is as close as Mark will get to the starting line at an Olympic event!

Imagine putting on all your winter clothes and hanging out at the pool in August. That's not quite as humid and hot as it was in the Bird's Nest. But when we came out the view was spectacular! The Chinese love their neon colors and seeing the Cube across the plaza was very very cool. By then the temperature had approached something in the reasonable range, so we were able to hang out and bask in the glow of being a little part of something big. I think China did an outstanding job of hosting the Games (food and trinket shortages aside) and we were so happy to be a part of what is probably a once-in-a-lifetime event!

The Paralympics start next month--one of Mark's former track athletes from Eden Prairie lost a leg in Iraq and is a US record holder in swimming. She'll be swimming here next month and we're looking forward to getting tickets to see her compete (and a look inside the Cube) as well as possibly some track and field then, too.

There was an afternoon trip into the city that bears commenting on--lots of new cultural things to learn--and laugh at (both at what we do and what we see others do). More on that later!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Different Worlds

Remember these scenes? This is a village called Mto wa Mbu--if you visited Lake Manyara or Ngorongoro Crater you passed through this village. As far as villages go, it's actually very nice. The main road is American-quality and very good drainage ditches line each side of the road. It's generally pretty clean, really. If you ever visited our house or passed through other places in Arusha, you know that the trash is everywhere. Ev
erything is dusty. The dukas (the small shacks for shops) are made from rough boards. There are lots of people, especially kids (50% of Tanzania's population is under the age of 15), and dogs and chickens run everywhere. Wooden carts line the roads and fight with bicycles piled high with crates of bottles, bread, or furniture for the right of way.

This is the village we ride our bikes through on the way to school. I think it is slightly unique in that it's paved. The village sold the school the land to build on and in thanks for their support of the school, ISB gave funds to the village, and the village decided to use the money to pave the roads and run electricity throughout.

In addition to the paving, there are so many differences. First, electricity. There are taps outside buildings, so people don't have running water inside, but there is working power everywhere. The paving keeps the streets less dusty, of course, but there is also garbage service. Any trash was swept into piles and at one end of the village were a number of large garbage cans, which I assume get emptied.
There are a few dogs and chickens, but nothing on the scale that I am used to seeing. There are little dukas and food shops, but all the buildings are cement and brick and are in much better condition. There are some people hanging out, but mostly old men playing games or chatting together. There are a lot of bike carts--3 wheeled bikes with carts attached--and often they are electric. The cars that are seen are in much much better condition than in TZ.

Because China is so large and has a centralized government, it's inevitable, I suppose, that there are aspects that are not efficient, but they are good at keeping track of things and watching for any trouble. There is a small police post at each end of the village to watch for trouble. In many places I see security guards taking their jobs much more seriously than I did in TZ. Our safety and security talks at school emphasized being polite and respectful to police (which should be the rule everywhere) but that we would be treated well and fairly if we ever had to interact with them, most likely to happen in a car accident (that's another post--imagine Tanzania driving on American-style roads at almost American speeds--in a city of 18 million plus!)
Last night we went downtown to the Olympic venues and most of that part of the city looks very very modern and Western--maybe a little more heavy on the neon signage (businesses really do like neon lighting), but attractive buildings, lots of greenery, great roads, very organized looking. This village clearly reflects the some of the less developed aspects, but still we were all struck by how clean it was. Not just because of the paving--Tanzania can't help the dust, of course--but the lack of trash just tossed everywhere. I can't help but (cynically) imagine what would happen to a monetary gift in Tanzania. I think a large amount of that money would be kept and distributed among a very few and the village would not have much, if anything, to show for it.
I really loved Tanzania, and if I took one lesson away from my time there, it was that there are simply no easy explanations or solutions for the conditions that exist there. It was so hard to understand sometimes. I am looking forward to learning more about Chinese culture and development and how people view life and opportunities, etc. here. So far, people are very polite, very industrious, very helpful!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hardship Post?

Ummmm......maybe not so much. Ava has discovered the joys of a jacuzzi tub. I'm appalled at the amount of water it takes to use it so I'm saying no to a nightly tub with jets. She adores the bubbles, of course...what a princess!
We are finally getting our act together for the Olympics. Mark went to handball tonight, the boys are with a neighbor at the soccer semifinals (Argentina vs. Brazil, a big game) and are going tomorrow afternoon to a baseball game. AND...Mark and I are going to the final night of track and field Saturday...the finals in the men's 800m and 5,000m, women's 1500m, high jump, and men's and women's 4x100 relays. All finals. All great events. Logistically it is proving to be quite tricky to pic up the tickets and figure out how to get there and back, but we are very excited at the chance to be a part of the hoopla, and see our first choice of events in the bargain!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Queen of Crazy

Moving across the world causes mental health issues. Hopefully it's transitory. I have been suffering from early onset Alzheimer's since March. Not only do I wander from room to room vaguely wondering why I'm there, I have been losing things that I NEVER lose. Mark is the loser (hee hee) of the family. But I'm setting keys down in strange places, sunglasses, wallets, the whole damn purse. It tends to cause marital discord, I've discovered. "Why did you put the keys in the fridge?" "I didn't have the keys last." "Yes, you did." "No, you drove to Target an hour ago." (See I forgot I went to Target, too) My dear friend Karen has assured me that it was a side effect of packing from Tanzania, living out of suitcases, and arriving here. She's a nurse and her idea is much more cheerful than the possibility of real issues, so I'm going with her idea.

Bipolar issues abound. It takes absolutely NOTHING to set me off. Like, I needed one more form for my swimming pass. Or, the dryer (that I was told didn't work too well, but I guess I forgot) didn't work too well. Or Mark's phone keeps saying he's not available (damn it). On that one I "dropped" the phone. It works differently now but I'm sure I had nothing to do with it. Maybe it always worked that way, I can't remember.

Luckily it takes very little to bring you back up. Like tasty dumplings. My air conditioner working better. My ayi (housekeeper) who seems great and chatters at me even though I can't understand a word. And pedicures.

Men will never understand the amazing effects of a great pedicure. Combine it with a half hour foot massage and I'm not sure there's a problem that can't be rubbed away. She even rubbed the tips of my toes! When she was done I wanted someone to carry me back home so I didn't ruin the feeling by walking. Hmmm....maybe that's why they offer in-home services. That's another great aspect of life--so many things deliver!

Ahhhh...when it cools down, I'll extol the many virtues of great baths, another one of life's pleasures. Unless I forget.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

International School of Beijing

Wow. That was my first impression. You can go here to the ISB website to see their promotional video(s) about the programs. It’s a HUGE building—with a population of 1,800 students, it’s the largest international school in Beijing.

The kids (and I) were suitably wowed by the playground. Noah did mention again the lack of just plain dirt for digging—but given their penchant for acquiring serious amounts of dirt wherever they go anyway, I’m happy to see more concrete and soft rubber stuff. There is a definite Chinese feel—from the dragons to the pagodas. The pagodas are amazing—not some chintzy mock-up. They were repainted this summer and most of the detailing work had to be done by hand. It had a little Disney-esque feel to it, but since I have a love for all things Disney, it suits me just fine.

Nerdy thing to notice—this is the parking lot surface. The tiles take the weight of the cars, but when you drive in or stand, it looks like a large expanse of grass instead of asphalt. Pretty cool, huh (in that, you know, nerdy thing to notice way)?

Inside, the school resembles a pretty typical suburban school with a few notable exceptions. Most schools don’t have what appears to be antique furniture in the halls for decoration! In all the halls there are silk robes, furniture, pottery, and paintings—some on display, some to be used. The middle school has a snack area that is furnished to look like a tea room!
In other respects, there are guidance counselors, school nurses, gyms, media centers, computer rooms—much like what the kids would have back in the States. The great thing here is class sizes—22 maximum for middle school, which is about 10-12 less than where we used to teach. They have a huge stadium and grass and artificial turf fields for baseball, soccer, cricket, field hockey, and rugby—no American football, though. They also have a fantastic theater and a smaller “black box” theater for smaller productions as well.

Afterwards, everyone found something to be excited about. Everyone also remembered that they’ll be the new kids and starting over will be hard. There are about 450 new students this year so they won’t be alone in their newness, but it’s not easy to think about that first day. On the other hand, they’ll have a week where Mark and I are at work and they’re home alone all day with their ayi (housekeeper) who doesn’t speak English so anything might be looking good at that point!

Chinese Lesson #1

It's pronounced Bay-jing.
Not Bay-zheeng.

Like that's going to get me anywhere in the next few months.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Recognize These?

I couldn't get a picture of the iconic blue and yellow front, but any devotee will recognize the logo in the corner. We went to Ikea today to get an ironing board. No, I did not brave a cab--a friend called and asked if I needed to run anywhere in the car, and who was I to say no? Aside from the Chinese writing it was completely like my Bloomington Ikea.

Then we went to an electronics store. Like an American store, it had anything you could possibly want. Unlike an American store, things are arranged by brand, not by item--so irons or toasters are spread out over the floor. Also, absolutely NOTHING was written in English. Trying to figure out comparisons between items involves eyeballing them and taking a guess. When you want something you tell the salesgirl and she gives you a written ticket. You take that to the pay station and pay. They issue you a receipt. Then you return and find the salesgirl and give her the receipt and they give you the item(s). Yes, it takes a bit of time. No one speaks any English, so you're pretty much on your own, so it was good to have someone go with to explain the procedure.

As a reward to the kids, we came home and walked to McDonalds which was (again) all in Chinese. Luckily the food looks (and tastes) the same. The Coldstone Creamery was doing a booming business next door so we stopped for a bite of ice cream before walking home.

Now I'm completely sweaty and need a shower.