Saturday, January 30, 2010

Everything Chinese was Good Today.

I am so disppointed that I didn't have my camera today on our expedition. We had a fantastic warm day with blue skies and headed down to Houhai to do a bit of chairskating. It's just what it sounds like...little metal chairs welded to runners. Usually one or two people (but you can get 3-4 crammed on them) scoot around the ice, propelled by....screwdrivers welded to longer metal spikes. You can see the ice bikes in the background, too--bikes welded to runners. Oh, and there are ice skaters, too--all wobbling or dodging in and out. You can get quite a bit of speed going. Imagine hundreds of kids, families, teens, all zipping to and fro across the ice, waving two foot long sharpened scredrivers. No one can stop, it's impossible to steer, and the Chinese continue to demonstrate what seems to be a complete inability to judge distance. It is so. much. FUN. Honestly, it's one of the few times I don't mind all the people crashing around and screaming. We spent a couple hours racing around and just loving the bright skies and the beautiful weather.

Then it was off to the Golden Tripod for dinner. I just lurve dim sum--we had shrimp and shrimp/chive dumplings, barbequed Sichaun pork buns, and miniature pork meat pies. The best one else in the family seems to go go for these things the way I do, so I don't have to share! Cantonese food is so much lighter and fresher tasting--I think our American interpretations of Chinese food must be largely Cantonese. But Beijing does know how do do one thing and that's NOODLES. We had Sichuan noodles with shredded pork...spicy and delish. And these noodles are also super--you get a big bowl of plain noodles, a plate of julienned carrots, radishes, and celery, and a few bowls of toppings--usually a fermented bean paste (my favorite), and then some egg-y one and then a mystery meat or tofu one. You just pour on any or all and dig in. Sometimes restaurants have private rooms--they're fun and nice when the restaurant is really crowded and loud. And, you always get good value reading the menu--pigtrotters, or stuffed cow intestines, anyone? No? Maybe boiled fungus and glutinous rice? Duck feet? Maybe you can see why noodles are a tasty (and safe) bet.
I really can't recommend visiting Beijing in the winter for the most part...but if you come, chairskating is a don't miss activity--and one that isn't well-publicized in the travel books. And I just love the restaurant so it's a good excuse to get to that part of the city!

One Last Glimpse...

Khao San Street, Bangkok...big hippie/backpacker vibe.

Hua Hin night market.

Young monks (maybe 11-14 years old) on the river taxi)

She's resting, but she'll carry all of that across her back!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ringing in the New Year

For most of my life, I have happily avoided New Year's celebrations. Drinks and food are overpriced, restaurants are overcrowded, and celebrations seem forced. I just don't get staying up late so I can drink a little more and jump up and down. Lucky me--now I live in a country where I can get not one, but TWO New Year's (we're getting ready to roll in the Year of the Tiger in a couple weeks).

Did I mention that I love Thailand? Because I think I've found the perfect way to celebrate New Year's. I'd even go so far as to say it would be perfect even if it weren't celebrated in shorts or on a beach. If the beginning of January (from the Latin "Janus" the god gates and doorways, beginnings and endings) is a time of looking back at what has happened and looking ahead to what is to come, shouldn't there be a better way to do it than by wearing a silly hat and mauling strangers?

We saw this Thai tradition (or maybe it's Buddhist) last year from a distance and it was just beautiful, so we were very excited to be able to participate this year. The resort we stayed at had a big Thai/seafood barbecue and then fireworks and lanterns at 9:30 for the kids and again at midnight. We had so much fun we all stayed up to do it twice. The idea is that you light the lanterns and make a wish or a promise or a resolution, or say a prayer, or whatever touches your heart. Then, you release the lantern. I had such a feeling of peace as I watched our lanterns sail up and out over the ocean. Up and down the coast we could see lanterns being released everywhere. Lovely.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Quick Trip Back to Thailand

So...having the computer gone right after Christmas prevented me from posting many pictures from Thailand. Now, it just seems a bit silly now that Chinese New Year is drawing closer. But the cold just will. not. go. away. Period. And today I worked with my 3rd graders on crafting thir thesis statements and I found myself coming up with "Summer is the best season of the year" which tells me I could use some freakin' HOT weather. So, back to the warm memories of Thailand.

I just love Thailand, have I mentioned that before? I'm starting to realize how much I would love living near the ocean. It would take some time to adjust to the heat and humidity--for awhile you'd just feel like doing very little, I think, because you'd be in "summer vacation" mode and I do think the humidity would be wearing. That being said, have I mentioned how much I love Thailand?

I'm not very adventurous about food--Thailand is the only place I've been where I really don't mind (or worry about) bellying up to a cart and just ordering. Thai food must be one of the best cuisines in the world. So fresh. So flavorful. So spicy! No matter where we go, the ingredients are fresh, the meat is top quality, and everything has a bit of a kick. We consumed gallons of green curry, platefuls of Pad Thai, and buckets of beef and basil. Everything is served with rice (take note, CHINA) and the portions are small, which we don't mind at all. It just means that you can try more things! The seafood is fantastic, too--not to mention tastes from other places! We stick generally to soda, water, and beer/gin, but the Thais must put away astonishing amounts of condensed milk, judging by the cases of it near every drink stand. Tanzanians were crazy about super-sweet things, too, in a much different way than we are in the States. If I could criticize anything, it's that they, like China, really doesn't get the idea of dessert. Red bean juice over ice? No thanks. Fresh watermelon, oranges, or dragonfruit. No problem!

Yeah. A tray of those nice big prawns(the tails are probably 5 inches long) will set you back about $5. That's kind of pricey, actually.

Hey, who could pass up an opportunity to experience the meeting of two culinary cultures? Ronald is giving us the traditional Thai "thank you." As in "thank you for passing up fresh delicious food in favor of cheesy fries." Not that the US should be looking into cheesy fries at McDonald's. But they should.

So let's get back to the wats. The what? The wat! Sorry, couldn't resist. At the National Palace, the Wat Phra Kaew is simply amazing. Really, I sooo want to go to Rome to see churches and cathedrals and art to see that kind of magnificence. I always have the same unreal feeling, though, about all the idols. So many buildings everywhere, but most of them aren't open. What's inside? On the spectacular side--the whitewhitehite walls contrasting with the gold and jewels and mirrored/glass The detailing is just amazing. Look at this...

The highlight of the temple is the Emerald Buddha. According to legend, the Emerald Buddha was created in India in 43 BC. Over time the Buddha was moved to Angkor Wat and then back to Thailand, where it was covered in plaster to hide it. When lightning struck a pagoda, the Buddha was cracked open and people believed it was made of emerald (it's actually jade). In 1784 it was moved to the current location. It's one of the most important Buddhas in Asia. It has 3 different outfits (summer, winter, rain) and the King changes the Buddha's outfit on specific days of the year. No pictures are allowed, so the one I actually took didn't turn out well, as you can see--the other one is from a postcard. It appears to sit on a pile of gold and over 100 people at any time were praying in the temple.

More soon!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Book Recommendation from the Soapbox

So my computer is very hinky and has gone to the computer doctor...along with my Thai pictures. But you'd rather read a book review and a bit of speechifying, wouldn't you?

Stones into Schools is the followup to Mortenson's book Three Cups of Tea. While Three Cups focused on how Mortenson began his mission of building schools in Pakistan and his learning curve, Stones clearly shows the knowledge and understanding that he has acquired. It's the story of his work as it moves into Afghanistan, a country much more remote, unstable, and difficult than Pakistan. I don't know if it's the use of a different writer or the choice to write in first person, but Stones is much better and more inspiring than Three Cups. Mortenson remains so humble, willing to listen and ask questions instead of pontificating, tough enough to travel to some of the most forbidding and dangerous places on earth, yet torn by the hundreds of requests made to him that he can't possibly fulfill. His determination to provide schools for people who have been forgotten by everyone, including their own governments is truly heroic. It was especially eye-opening to read about just how remote and difficult life is in the hinterlands of Afghanistan, how almost 30 years of war has devasted the people, and how desperately they want the same basic things we all do--safety, food, a chance to go go school, to raise a family, to see one's children better off than their parents. So much attention is focused on places in Africa, and the only news that comes from these regions is about the war--very little about the people who just as desperate.

Mortenson's descriptions really served to illustrate just how difficult life is. Mortenson visited Pakistan after the earthquake there and saw first hand what kinds of "aid" makes a difference and how horrific the situation was. The people who ask for the first school in Afghanistan live in snow from September to June and on the brink of starvation every single day. No school, post office, voting box, doctor, or food assistance. They are completely cut off and abandoned, but they found a way to find Mortenson to ask for a school. And then hung on almost 10 years until it could be built.

One of the more heartening aspects of the book was Mortenson's relationships with the US military stationed there. A former military man himself, he has been critical of the actions in that area and refuses to take any federal money or be connected to any military personnel. However, at one point, he needs the military to help access and make contact with the people of an area. He was surprised and encouraged to find out that, despite what has been said by the Bushes and Rumsfelds of the government, the men serving on the ground truly understood the people. They knew the feuds, the powerplays, who trusted whom, the roles people played, the customs and beliefs the governed decision-making. They knew that education was vital, that it had to be sustained by the people and that they needed to follow the traditions that surrounded those relationships. It was a powerful reminder that there are good people that do good things, and that the people who speak for a country don't always speak for the people of that country.

It was an interesting book to read along with my book club book for this month, Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas Friedman and after seeing the news of the Nigerian bomber. Friedman asserts that our friends the Saudis, the one we buy all our oil from, use that money to fund fundamentalist Muslim schools. Basically Friedman states that, in addition to pollution and "green" issues, our dependence on oil actually funds the sorts of schools that encourage that very fundamentalist, often violent, way of thinking. This sentiment was echoed in Three Cups when Mortenson found schools in many communities that were funded by Saudis and were teaching a fundamentalist brand of Islam. But of course, the people in the community can't be choosy--often they are the only schools available. We know from our own experience here what happens when a child is disenfranchised, cut off, unsupported by family, or community. That child will fill that gap with a social group and will do what he or she has to do to be a part of that group. We call them gangs. We see the effects of children who feel like they have nothing to care for, that people don't care for them--they look for places to belong. It's the same all over the world. Find a place where people are poor, where they have to struggle to get food, where educational opportunities are scarce, where jobs and security may be almost nonexistent. Let's call this place AFRICA. I think many countries in Africa are ripe for the picking--if people are promised those things they need and value--food, security, education, status--they will take them at virtually whatever the cost. In areas where the traditional family and community structures are damaged through war, poverty, and AIDs, I don't think it would take much for young men to align themselves with an organization that would give them what they needed.

That's why I think Mortenson's project, and any project that promotes education, is so critical. I love that he doesn't promote a Western or Christian or Muslim or any specific focus for his education, only that school be accessible, that they educate a certain percentage of girls, and that they be neutral politically and religiously--that children have the ability to attend a school that is culturally appropriate and free from the pressures of fundamentalism. I think if the US applied its skills and money to rebuilding these areas at a very grass roots level, we could change the way other countries think about Americans. We could fight back at a basic level using education instead of guns. We could rebuild our image and our relationships with countries that view us with such suspicion (and we, them). We did it all across Europe with the Marshall Plan. Why do we have to fight terrorism with weapons alone?

Read the book. And then write a check, if you feel so inclined. And then give thanks that we are so priveleged to be able to take education for granted.
Greg Mortenson has a blog here that provides more information on articles, programs, and activities related to his passion.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Appropos of Nothing...

...but why do Chinese snowmen look like this?
What's with the pyramid body? They have lots of art and symbols that use the circle. Why not a standard 3 sphere snow body? Or am I being too ethnocentric? Discuss.

Want a smoke?

Yeah, so I'm not apologizing for this one, except to say that after this I'll move on to the fun parts of vacation. I couldn't get a better picture of this and kept forgetting every time I was in another 7-11. If you click on the picture you can see they've gone a little farther than our Surgeon General's warning about smoking. Each pack is graphically adorned with a picture of the effects of smoking--tumours, rotted teeth, abcesses, the whole nine yards.
It was even more surreal to watch someone buy a pack, look at the picture, and then light one up. I do understand that smoking is so highly addictive and so so hard to stop. I just don't understand why people start.
Next post--really--will be all the fun that is Thailand!

Thoughts on Animals

I do have problems with people interacting with animals inappropriately. Of course everyone wants to get close to exotic animals and I'm no exception. We have pictures of us with a cheetah in Nairobi and on the back of an elephant in Thailand. I always come away, though, with a vaguely dirty feeling, as if I've contributed to some sort of exploitation. It was the same with Monkey Island. We kayaked about 30 minutes to an island near our hotel in Thailand and brought some bananas. Macaques live there and wait on the beach for the hordes of tourists to deliver snacks. I was actually a bit nervous and suprised that other parents of small children didn't seem to be. Wild animals that are used to being around humans can be far more dangerous than those who haven't. And we've seen the damage that monkeys can do up close when we were in Tanzania. Of course, the kids loved the opportunity to hand a young monkey a treat. Noah was very nervous and just as the monkey reached for a cracker he jerked his hand back. The cracker fell in the water and the monkey had to go in and get it. He picked up the soggy cracker, stuffed it in his mouth, and then turned around and slapped Noah on the arm as if to say, "What a dork!" The monkey in the previous video was more than happy to jump on Cameron and proclaim himself the KING. It would be a short and mind-bogglingly quick move, though, from happy jumping monkey to angry biting monkey. I felt bad participating in it at the end.

Pets are also treated similarly very differently. Although I've posted about seeing dog hides here in China, it actually doesn't really bother me that much. It's startling to see a recognizable hide hanging somewhere, but it really is a cultural difference more about food and practicality. While I don't plan on eating dog, I don't really have a problem with a culture that does, and then uses the hide for to make something useful. I don't want to eat horse, either, and I love horses, but I don't really have a problem with people who would eat one. What's so sad here is casual attitude about pets. A post on our local e-group had someone asking where they could buy a cute cheap puppy at a dog market. Their 2 year old wanted a puppy so they wanted something young and small and not too much work because they'd be getting rid of it after a couple years when they left China. The person's writing and tagname indicated they were very likely Asian. They were blasted from every possible side by people (including me) about the irresponsibility and carelessness of treating a living animal like a disposable lighter. There are dog markets here, courtesy of hundreds of puppy mills, but we saw our first dog market in Bangkok, very accidentally.

Again, Ava adored all the fluffy sweet puppies--you could get anything from a chihuahua to a St. Bernard, the perfect dog for a crowded city where the temperature never drops below 85. They all look fine, but are rife with all sorts of diseases and weaknesses that will render that little sweet thing one sick puppy. Shop after shop after shop hawked thses poor puppies--I think the worst were the other AMERICAN tourists who oohed and aahed over them and thought it was just wonderful how you could get all these puppies! So many to choose from and so cheap!

Of course if puppies aren't your thing, you could buy a crocodile (actually, probably a caimen). Or a 4 foot long iguana. Maybe a parrot--they had adults and crates and crates of baby parrots that didn't even have feathers yet. Or a baby squirrel. Animal trafficking is a big problem in Asia, so I think there's a good chance those animals were obtained from the wild. I don't think I'd have to ask too much at all to get myself a monkey or something else exotic.

To end on a more cheerful note, this is our rescued cat Mao with his fluffy white friend. Back in July on a pouring day we saw a small white kitten completely drenched and obviously homeless. Heartless mother that I am I would only let Cameron put it in the yard and said he could feed it. I figured it would be safer there, and I really don't want to take on an animal I'm not willing/able to move to a new country at some point. The kitten disappeared after 4 days. I thought I saw him this fall, but he was much too skittish to get close. I think this is the same cat. It's very pretty and not too skinny. We often have stray cats in our yard and we always put out a dish for them. This one has come several times and sleeps in the sun on that ledge or on a chair. Mao loves to go adventuring outside so I assume this is one of his buddies.

Friday, January 08, 2010

King of the Hill(man)

Happy New Year!

Thailand has a wonderful tradition of lighting paper lanterns on New Year's Eve. You light one, make a wish (or probably more likely a Buddhist prayer), and let them go. It's incredibly peaceful and beautiful to see hundreds of lights wafting upward over the ocean. Sigh. I loved it.

More soon from Thailand, really one of the best places I've ever visited on so many levels. Everything about it was fantastic. We're definitely going back.