Sunday, February 13, 2011

Spring Break

I'm feeling guilty because I found decent tickets to Vietnam and decided we should go there for spring break in March. Guilty because it would be a vacation we really can't afford and if I'm going to spend the money for even decent tickets we should stay more than 3-4 days to get our money's worth. Guilty because I think we may live in China for a number of years and never get out of the Jing. Then I found great tickets to the following places:

Lijiang. It's 800 years old, and UNESCO site, I believe. So cute, a minority village, albeit touristy, so I'll lots of things to look at and lug back to the Jing with me. It looks adorable, and the weather would be warm-ish.

Tibet. It's far away and the best time to visit is probably not when the average temperatures are around 30 degrees. We'll have to up the quality of the hotel so we have decent heat. We'll have to fly straight into Lhasa...and may have some issues with altitude sickness since we'll be at 15,000 feet without the adjustment we'd get on the train. On the upside, well, it's TIBET. Hello.

Guilin...home of those iconic karst mountains. A trip down the river, then over to a nearby area to a place called the Dragon's Backbone, rice terraces so steep and sharp and green that fall away forever below your feet. Sigh. Not sure about the shopping, though.
What do you think?

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Final Scenes from Cambodia

A floating village on the Tonle Sap (or maybe Mekong) River in Phnom Penh.

The Royal Palace--obviously Cambodian, but with lots of French-inspired touches as well.

It can be difficult to eat where most of the restaurants have tables right out on the street--so many children and disabled people begging. This little girl waited very quietly and patiently...probably because she was watching a Disney movie on the TV inside the bar.

Phnom Penh, near our hotel and the central market.

A coffin shop next to a favorite Thai restaurant in Phnom Penh.

Pedicab driver taking a snooze in Phnom Penh.

Every Buddhist boy is expected to serve a stint as a monk at some point in their lives. Monks are not allowed to work, so anything they need comes from donations. People give food and money as a way to ensure good karma or blessings, so early mornings all the monks go up and down streets, giving blessings and accepting gifts.

Typical fruit stand in the Siem Reap market area...bananas, lychees, mangos, guavas, dragonfruit, mandarins, mangosteens...

The food court at the night market in Phnom Penh. Grab something from a stall, and pull up a mat.

A moment with Noah--not in motion.

Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields

I guess there should be disclaimer for this post, in case some of the pictures might be unsettling.

Siem Reap is definitely geared to the tourist market. It's colorful, the markets are great, and it's compact. Phnom Penh is much bigger and less attractive on the surface. It reminded in some ways of Dar es Salaam. At one point it was the crown jewel in the French Indochina colonies, but time and history have worn it down. The art deco dome of the central market gives testimony to its former beauty.

We spent 3 days here (really, 1 or 2 days too many-there's not that much to do) because of the Killing Fields. Between 1975 and 1979 Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge killed some 2 million Cambodians. Virtually overnight (really, it was 2-3 days) everyone was rounded up and sent out to work in forced labor farms and camps. Families were separated, and any person that was educated or may have been thought to be sympathetic to the former government was killed. As time went on, people were starved and the killings continued. The bodies were buried in mass graves throughout Cambodia, with the largest site located just outside of Phnom Penh. Approximately 20,000 men, women, and children were killed and approximately 9,000 bodies have been recovered at this site called Cheoung Ek. I imagined enormous pits, but the graves were actually much smaller. The whole site is so peaceful--it was the site of a Chinese cemetary before the Khmer Rouge--that it belies the horrible events that took place there. There was a grave for women and children, and a tree where children were executed. The Khmer Rouge felt that any descendant of an educated or anti-KR supporter would someday rise up, so...

Maybe because it is so much more recent than the Holocaust, but I found this site to be profoundly sad and I think it affected me more than the Holocaust Museum we visited in Washington, DC this summer. We had a guide that asked us to watch where we walked because as the ground continues to settle, bits of bones and clothing come to the surface. When I looked around, what I had thought was trash was actually bits of clothing. Some of the signs had bones or skulls stacked up, discoveries that had not yet made it into a more permanent setting. We did actually see teeth and bits of bone on the ground, a reminder that the 1970s was not that long ago. It is surreal to look around and realized that every single person you see, no matter what their age, has lost so many family members so recently. Our guide when we were in Siem Reap was 14 in 1975. His parents were immediately taken and killed, and he lost 5 of his 10 siblings. He did a great job of talking to the kids about what it was like to live through the US bombings and then the genocide. The sad part was looking around and realizing that every person would have a similar story to tell of fear and loss and pain. Despite that, there really is no sense of bitterness or anger. People seemed more interested in living life today and looking forward to a brighter future.

It's hard to say that I enjoyed the day, but I really appreciated learning about this aspect of Cambodian history and seeing the remants first hand. I'm glad we brought the kids, too. There were enough signs to provoke questions, some of them difficult, but I didn't feel it was too graphic for them. Noah had been to the Holocaust museum and the Rwandan genocide trials were held in Arusha while we were living there. I do think it's important that our kids have an understanding of some of the things that have happened in the understand and appreciate something, you have to know its history. The large stupa, the first thing you see when you enter the site, is quite tall. The bottom levels were filled with clothing that had been recovered from the graves. The next levels were skulls, organized by male or female, and then by ages. There were also levels of longer bones. Groups had left strings of paper cranes in bunches around the stupa. It was painful to realize that the Cambodians who were visiting may have been wondering if family members were among those remains. Our guide said that many Cambodians have not been able to bring themselves to visit these sites yet. At every turn the scale of the genocide is overwhelming. Phnom Penh had approximately 2 million people when the Khmer Rouge entered the town in April, 1975 and within 3 days they had completely emptied the city. EVERYONE had left. People were told the US was going to bomb the city and people needed to evacuate for 3-4 days before returning. Phnom Penh remained essentially a ghost town for the next 4 years.

The kids and I went back for a swim, but Cameron and Mark went on to a place back in town called Tuol Sleng. During this time, a high school was converted into prison and torture center where approximately 17,000 people were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. The numbers are overwhelming, and this site is not for children. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge were fanatical about documentation, many (most?) of the victims were photographed before, during, and after their horrific imprisonment. It's another site that looks so ordinary from the outside, just an old, rather battered high school, and then inside arel photos of the victims, equipment, and even stains and marks on the walls and floors.

It was very meaningful to see the Killing Fields at the end of the trip, after seeing the amazing temples at Angkor Wat. Like Mao during the Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge recognized that some aspects of the past were important, sacred even, and were left alone or protected. As a result, we were able to see a fantastic display of history and culture that spans 1,000 years. It's always humbling, coming from a country where anything over 100 years or so is considered old, a country that has never experienced anything like what happens all too often in countries around the world. Everyone told us that Cambodia would be breathtakingly beautiful and they were right. We loved it and were reminded again how blessed we are to be able to experience places like this.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Because the Internet Does Not Cooperate...

You get more pictures of Chinese New Year, albeit in a bit more random manner...

Thousands of people in the Great Hall and this is the only food option. The Chinese can make some really good food, but We usually prefer to stick to fresh fruit when we eat out and have a dessert option. Nicely, it's often just brought as part of the service.

One of the rooms in the Great Hall. Someone told me this is where they receive important guests. The chandeliers are ENORMOUS. The beams are all painted like the beams in the Forbidden City and other historic buildings, but with gold and pale aqua and light blue, rather than the bold reds, greens, and blues.

Can you see she doesn't have her hands on the ground? Crazy.

And finally, the Great Hall of the People at night.

新年快乐--Xīn Nián Kuài Lè!

Happy New Year! You never know what to expect--beside lots of crazy noise and fireworks when you celebrate a major holiday in a foreign country. Chinese New Year is a big family holiday, with millions of people returning to their homes to visit extended family. It can be hard on them--many (most?) take the train, but the system here doesn't allow you to book your return ticket more than 2 or 3 days out. So people buy a one-way ticket to their home town and then there's a mad rush for the return tickets once they get there. People have had their ayis and drivers get stuck for more than a week longer than expected because they were not able to get a seat. Our ayi has gone home for the first time in 3 years so she'll be gone next week as well--we'll really have to kick it old-school here (meaning, the way y'all do in the States) by doing our own laundry, cleaning, and cooking our own meals. The horror! haha

A couple night ago we ended up with tickets to the Great Hall of the People, at Tiananmen Square for a family celebration. It's very interesting to be able to see some of the buildings, and this is a biggie, so off we went. The view of the Forbidden City was gorgeous at night.

Tiananmen Square had been turned into a parking lot...thank goodness we had a driver!

The thing about going anywhere is that you never know what to expect...I guess that means you can never be disappointed. Or maybe you'd always be disappointed. But chances are, you'll always be amused. Factor into the equation the fact that you can't understand anything anyone is saying...

A mural depicting the unification of all ages and ethnicities under Mao's leadership.

The Great Hall of the People is HUGE. REALLY HUGE. Each room is mind-boggling big. There were bouncy castles, always a hit in any language. One room had amazing contortionists and acrobats. They are always worth watching--and so amazingly strong. We never get tired of watching them. The little guy on the top is about 11 years old. Sorry in advance for the crick in your neck -- I don't know how to rotate video.

It's always a good idea to bring your own food or eat before you go. Thousands of people in a building and there are small plastic boxes of bad sweet cakes and warm soda. We stopped at McDonald's on the way home.

Other acts included a massive stage with Chinese singers and puppet shows. I thought the puppets might be shadow puppets, but they were fuzzy rabbits and a fox on a stage that resembled something from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. There was also an arcade, where you could play carnival games. The lines were long, and there weren't any tickets or prizes, so the kids watched for awhile but didn't want to wait to play.

I don't think the pictures really convey just how BIG everything is in each room. It's very beautiful, but a bit overwhelming. The funny part was that at 9:15, the kids were just ready to get on a bouncy castle when they were stopped and someone pulled the plug. No warning, nothing. Then, as if a bell went off, everyone started moving toward the exits. The gig was over at 9:30 and by 9:30 the thousands of people had mostly left. All the fanfare and effort for 90 minutes!

For New Year's Eve we were invited to a farm by a friend of Mark's. He's Chinese but has lived in the US for a number of years and has a passion for helping disabled young adults. There really are no services or programs to help disabled people learn a trade and become more independent. Brian has bought a farm and has built dorms so that the students can live together and learn functional daily living skills and have oppotunities to learn a trade. ISB has a few students who have worked in our kitchen and doing janitorial work. It's a great and very needed program. We had a traditional dinner that included jiao zi (dumplings that are shaped like old coins). Normally I'm all over the jiao zi but these were filled with lamb, so I wasn't as motivated to eat a dozen or so. We also sampled bai jiu, the traditional grain alcohol. Chinese are big drinkers--this stuff might also be useful for stripping paint or maybe getting oil spots off the garage floor. And it was considered good stuff! The liquid burned all the way down, and then the fumes rose up, and up, and up. Yikes!

Another tradition is giving hong bao, red envelopes filled with money. For children, especially, the hong bao is a big deal. Some of my students will clear close to $1,000 from relatives, especially if they don't celebrate Christmas. Giving certain denominations is key--the number 8 is very lucky so 80 RMB, or 800 RMB would be good. Nothing with the number 4, since that is bad luck. The kids were very surprised to receive a hong bao from Brian mother, whom we had just met. Each one received 100 RMB, which is about $15. The number 100 represents 100 years of long life and good fortune. I'm glad we brought a bottle of good red wine and champagne with us!

We didn't stay long enough to see fireworks there, but managed to catch a decent show from our bedroom window. The fireworks on the right are from our parking lot, just a few houses down. Yes, the guards had fire extinguishers and a water truck. NO, they really are not that safe!

Thursday, February 03, 2011

My Home Decor Inspiration

Remember that fun painting I showed you in the previous post? Here's what the artist has been up to at our school this fall:

These walls are HUGE. And we had the most unwelcoming dull entrance--until now. These peasant paintings are very popular and oh-so-colorful. I love them! This artist's quality is really good. I felt much better about the price I paid for the one I bought when I brought it in to be framed and saw some of the one the shop had for sale--they were really clearly not as good.

These water scenes are much more representative of more southern China, which makes sense since the artist is from Shanghai. There is a city, Suzhou, near Shanghai that has been called the Venice of China--lots of canals and boats.

This one, too, is a bit more southern--dragon boats racing is HUGE in Hong Kong--Dragon Boat Day is a national holiday (usually in June, so we miss it). But the rest of the scene is full of children playing, which is wonderful. The pink is really pink but the overall effect is fantastic.

There's another huge wall on another hall that also got the treatment...and I broke down and bought two more small pictures last week--one of traditional Chinese baby shoes and another of a baby swaddled in a crib. It's hard to feel blue when you look at all this color!