Sunday, September 7, 2014

Ride the wave where it takes you

So there it is.... 18 months in China and with a blink of an eye it's all over. It's hard saying goodbye to this country and all the wonderful people who have impacted my life here.  All the people, places, and experiences there now only occupy a part of my mind. One door closes and another one opens for me.... 4 months in Southeast Asia =)
Shane and Lissy showing me around Guilin- locals I met on the train

The plan (for now) is to make my way to Hong Kong by land. With only 2 weeks left of my visa here I plan to embrace this country and take in as much as I can before leaving it (potentially for good.) On this 17 hour train ride from Kunming to Guilin (in Guanxi province) I admire the landscape of southern China (rice fields, stone forests, and mountains.) The women next to me nurses her infant. Men chew on sunflower seeds while playing a game of cards.  A young girl slurps her bowl of noodles whilst staring at me, this strange foreigner. 

 Freedom .. what an amazing feeling.  With only my backpack, my mind, my heart, and my trust in the universe I could go in any direction from here.
The Sun and Moon Pagoda in Guilin

 First stop: Guilin

Guilin is a place filled with charm and culture, and of course chaos and pollution (as most medium-large Chinese cities go.) However, I still found it nice and relaxing; mainly because of.... well... the freedom.  I spend most of my time here wandering the streets taking in the sights; men practicing tai chi,  elderly doing calligraphy, and the women dancing in the park with a smile on their face and a fan in one hand.  Many different forms of art that I take the time to watch.  All things I could see regularly in Kunming but after awhile became normal, or that I was too busy to even care.

children warming up before their tae kwondo class
During my travels I try and get off the beaten path when I can, while still trying to play it safe. I read about Jiangtouzhou in a travel guide, a fascinating 1,000 year old village whose 800 inhabitants are all surnamed Zhou. A place only 25 km away from Guilin which somehow or another took me over 3 hours to get to. 3 buses, a motorbike, and a short hike  later I finally reach this ancient place.

preparing for dinner in the village

After a few kilometers out of town the bus stops begin to disappear and the bus driver only stops when the passengers advise him to.  Just as I began to wonder how on earth I was ever going to find this place, the lady next to me turned to me and asked where I was going.  She told me that she lives close to this village and could take me. As I normally don’t trust people this easily, something told me that this lady with her 6 month old baby were completely harmless.

 The lady wrapped her infant in a cloth around the front of her and I hopped on the back of her scooter.  We drove through the beautiful countryside only seeing a few farmers along the way.
After a short ride, she dropped me off at the entrance and I took a walk around this ancient place.

from the top of a house in Jiangtouzhou

  The following day, I headed up to the Dragonback Rice Terraces. Although it is not the season to go (the best time being when the fields are filled with water) I still found it pretty remarkable. I met some girls from Spain and we hiked together to the top of the terraces and spent the night.

even the ladies of the minority group must stay connected somehow.
The following morning the girls headed back to Guilin early, but I was feeling up for an adventure and decided to stay at the terraces. I hiked 5 hours through the rice fields to the next village (where there would supposedly be a bus back to Guilin.)
Dragonback Rice Terraces
 The walk was a little quiet passing only a few local ladies all offering to be my guide. (All the signs have been taken down by the local people as a way to lure hikers into paying them to show you the way.)  I somehow managed to finish the hike on my own only to find out there is no bus out of the village that day because of a landslide.
hiking con las chicas de Espana
 While traveling, people appear out of nowhere just when you are about to have a mini breakdown/panic attack/ or other "now what the hell do I do?" moments.  This is when I met Mark & Anna, siblings from Germany, who were likely in the same situation.  We ended up paying a local guy to take us down to the mountain where the slide happened.  We had to hike for about an hour around this landslide to get the bus back to Guilin. The three of us ended up traveling together for the following 4 days.  
Mark and Anna from Germany in Yangshou
We left the city of Guilin and headed to Yangshou, a cozy little mountain town.  Loads of Chinese tourists flock here on the weekend which unfortunately changes the feel of this place; the charm and authenticity of this place are slightly lost.  You can understand why so many people come here.  The karst mountains, that surround this town, make the scenery seem so surreal.  The mountains in the area are the scenery used in many famous Chinese paintings and the back of the 20 yuan bill. 
the 20 yuan bill
I spent 4 days exploring these mountains; boating, hiking, biking, and cruising around on a motorcycle.  After 4 days you reach a point where the mountains around you just aren't as spectacular as they were when you first came. Time to move on...

on the bamboo raft

Since I started traveling through China I have grown to appreciate this place even more. Viewing China through the eyes of other travelers has shown me just how far I have come with this place. Their one or two bad experiences in their few weeks of traveling have allowed them to completely write off this place.
painting fans on the street of Yangshou
 I remember being in their position many times, and now I can look back at that and what I had to do to adapt to the most chaotic, disorderly, and uncivilized place I have ever been to. So this place pushes me, tests me, and takes me out of my comfort zone more and farther than I'd like sometimes. However, there is something to gain from that. This place will make you go crazy, if you let it. Or it can offer you so much, if you let it. You can accept it for what it is. You can’t change this place but it will certainly change you. I’ve had to adapt, overcome challenges, change my perspective in order to be okay with surviving in a place like this. 
calligraphy; a popular form of art amongst many Chinese
  Coming here with a closed mind will only leave you to suffer from the indifferences and difficulties trying to adapt to such a crazy place.  You can try to understand it all you can, but no matter if you are here for a few weeks or a few years I’m not quite sure any Westerner can fully understand this place. Just when you think you are about to figure something out, something comes up that makes you realize you aren’t even close.. It leaves you only wanting more (well at least for me)

This place has helped my mind expand . It helped me not only learn a lot about another culture (a culture that consists of nearly 1/3 of this world's population), but also to learn a lot about my own.
Chinese families are revolved around their one child (or grandchild)

Next: Hong Kong

Thursday, April 24, 2014

A day in the life of an expat in China

It's the sound of the school children shouting e,er,san,si,wu,.... (1,2,3,4,5) while doing their morning exercises at 8:00 that wakes me up every morning. I lace up my running shoes and head out the door for my morning jog along the river. I join the other locals in their morning exercise routines - walking backwards, hitting themselves, thai chi, and other exercises they do to promote the flow of life force, qi.  
Chinese opera at the park 
Groups of ladies gracefully spinning around with a Chinese fan or umbrella in hand, couples playing badminton on the sidewalk, the sound of laughing toddlers running along the river with their grandparents (the caretakers) walking closely behind, and the elderly men playing Mahjong.  Everywhere along this river people are active in one way or another- It is enough to make me feel inspired. After a short jog and a stretch under a cherry blossom tree, I return to my apartment where I spend the morning cleaning, writing, researching, reading, etc.

men playing Mahjong
For lunch, I make fanqie chao dan, tomato eggs with a spicy Chinese sauce over a bed of rice, one of the easier Chinese dishes to prepare.  Later in the day I head into work for my hour and a half long lesson. I join another man in the elevator who has a lit cigarette hanging from his mouth. And 2 elderly, their eyes glued to my white skin and large eyes. I put on my pollution mask and I watch the numbers count down to 1. I hop on my electric scooter and join the thousands of others, likely coming home from work. Passing by restaurants full of people digging their chopsticks into a greasy bowl of noodles, slurping up every last bit. Passing by the illegal street vendors selling black market goods or stolen items. Constuction workers still working in the same place since I arrived in Kunming. 
The streets of Kunming

 Passing by homeless on the street, the cardboard box which protects them from the rain. A lady holding her malnourished baby in one hand and the other outstretched begging for some change. A man in a business suit, texting on his Iphone 5, ignorantly passing by. People pushing fruit carts. Others handing out flyers. I try not to let all these sites distract me from the road. When I finally get to the school, I feel like I won a game - of successfully avoiding every obstacle in my way - not hitting anyone or anything, and not getting hit by anyone.

My prescholiol students
I head up the 5 flights of stairs, in this 6 story building without an elevator.  I walk into my class of 5 years old who greet me with, "hello my beautiful teacher," something that I taught them the previous week. Any worry, concern, or doubt I had slips out of my mind the second I enter that classroom. In that moment I remember what it's like to be a kid again, so worry-free and enthusiastic about life. Children don't judge, or criticize you. They don't tell you what you need to do, or what you are doing wrong. They are so imaginative, curious, and cheerful about life's simple pleasures. It's simple; if you love them they will love you back.

 No matter what it is, as long as you are excited about it, they will be too.  I am their English teacher, but these kids are my teacher as well. They have reminded me of many valuable life lessons that so many of us often forget as we enter adulthood; the struggles and pressures from work and life that distract us from just "being." We often let the stress and anxieties pile up in our mind, leaving us constantly thinking and worrying more and living less. "Sometimes we think too much and feel too little." - Charlie Chaplin

My kindergarden students best attempt at Happy Birthday - It's the thought that counts :)

 For that hour and a half, I leave my ego at the door, and I am a child again. My children help me remember to breathe, to stop worrying, to let go, to laugh often, and enjoy life's simple pleasures; like a game of Freeze Dance or Ring Around the Rosey.

  On my way home, I resist the temptation to stop and buy shakoa, bbq food aka, "mystery meat on a stick." This is a picture i took of a shakoa, in Beijing selling all sorts of things; spiders, snakes, caterpillars, scorpions, and even sheep testicles (the man made my family and I fully aware of this as he shouted "SHEEP TESTICLES [likely the only English he knows) as we walked by.) There is a saying in China that the Chinese will eat anything with 4 legs except a table, and anything that flies that isn't an airplane.

mystery meat on a stick
Still full of energy from the lesson, I walk the 6 flights of stairs up to my apartment... where my best friend, Jimmy awaits me ready to share a cup of tea and stories from the day....

No matter what kind of day it was, good or bad... thoughts still like to take over and race through my mind... I remember to let them go.... and breathe..... I release it all and drift into golden slumbers.

 Tomorrow is always a new day... a day with no mistakes yet..Tomorrow is waiting for us... a day with more strength and lessons learned. A day to start over- a fresh opportunity to make it better.

Happy Spring! Don't forget to stop and smell the flowers!!
USA bound = 3 weeks!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What 30 years of life and 1 world taught me

"When are you coming back to live in the US?" a question that I am asked frequently. Everyone's way of asking, "When will you find a stable job, marry a handsome man, put a mortgage on a house with a white picket fence, own a golden retriever, raise 2 children, etc. When will you stop this life of uncertainty and escape from the real world?" Questions that I can't comprehend. I am not trying to escape anything, nor am I postponing the 'real world.' To me, this life is "normal."
Just because I don't have a permanent address, doesn't mean I am lost. Just because I'm alone, doesn't mean I'm lonely. Just because I live in a city of 7 million people with constant noise and clatter, doesn't mean I'm not at peace. Just because I am without many Western conveniences and a stable job earning a lot of money, doesn't mean I'm not happy.

 I'm almost 30 and well... truth is... I couldn't be happier. I'm in a more positive and self aware state. The experiences I have lived through and years of battling with myself have brought me here. Years spent trying to accept myself and befriend this person inside. Years of focusing on what I can't do or what I don't have. The negativity, shame, unworthiness, self-pity, and anxiety have been some of my best teachers. They have helped me grow and have sent me on a quest for something more - for love, justice, peace, and wisdom. They have taught me to take control of my life. Instead of focusing on what I can't do or what I don't have, I appreciate more and more what I can do and what I have. Accepting this person that I am, instead of trying to change them into a person they aren't.
I have learned more in these past 3 years of traveling and living abroad than I ever had from any text book, any TV show, any corporate job, or any university professor. All it took was one step out of my comfort zone and one giant leap of faith that has made me feel more comfortable with the uncomfortable. The challenges only get easier, the time only gets shorter, and the distance is no obstacle. My journey, which started into the world, has turned into a journey of self discovery.  Years spent searching for "something" that has been there this whole time. From the top of the Rocky Mountains, to diving below the waters in the Caribbean. From the steps of a Buddhist temple to trekking through the Himalayans. Deep within the Amazon jungle, or to the bottom of the world's deepest canyon. Places that have absolutely moved me and brought me so much happiness in that moment... These places that have helped me discover something. Happiness isn't something that we search for. It isn't on the top of a mountain, or on the bottom of the sea. It isn't something that we find outside of ourselves or even from other people. It's something we find within, and it's there when you are ready for it. Happiness is a choice that only we have the power to make.
My experiences and the people that I have met along the way teach me more and more what it means to be human. Traveling deepens my understanding that we are all one. We may be people of different nationalities, gender, religions, or economic status. However, we shouldn't let those things separate us. We are all human beings who have the same wants, needs, and desires. We all ride the ups and downs; from joy to despair, to pleasure and pain. Maybe it's true we have more similarities than differences. Human journey is a quest; a search for knowledge and comfort. We are all in this together, why should we make it harder for one another?
So I will be celebrating my 30th birthday in China. An age I never imagined turning, in a country I never imagined living in. My heart, my tour guide, has landed me in a place over 7,000 miles from family and friends and a safe, comfortable life. A safe easy life that wouldn't provide my mind and soul with the challenges they need to grow.  Like mentioned before, China is a place that confuses me, frustrates me, excites me, and inspires me all in a single day. I feel myself undergoing changes daily.  Thank you China.
 I am a truth seeker who loves to learn. There is no such thing as too many questions, and if there was, I wouldn't care. Traveling teaches you many things. However, I am finding the more I learn, the less I know. So 30 years of life and 18 countries later, I have found that the only thing I know for sure is that I know nothing at all...

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Myanmar (Burma)

Some compare it to Thailand in the sixties. I've never experienced the 60's nor have I been to Thailand, but I like this analogy. Myanmar is full of charm and authenticity, and is not quite changed by modern development and tourism. Despite all the hardship, the people are happy, kind, and considerate. They are also very passionate and inquisitive, and want to be a part of our world as much as we want to be a part of theirs. Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, opened its doors to tourism in 2010. Before then it was named an "outpost of tyranny" by the government of George W. Bush.
Salena & I at Shwedagon Paya in Yangon
 We began our journey through Myanmar in the capital city of Yangon. Before even leaving the airport I was already confused. What is that whitish yellowish stuff all over the faces of the women and children?  And why does it look like the men have been sucking blood for the past few hours? Well I soon learned the stuff on their faces is thanaka, a beauty secret of Myanmar women. It is a long wood cutting that they mix with water to create this mixture which is multipurpose (from preventing skin acne to a natural sunscreen.) As for the vampires... it is from betle nut, which is from the nut of the areca nut wrapped with tobacco in the betel leaf.  Everyday, at least once a day, I was confused about something. Why do some cars have steering wheels on the left side and some on the right? What exactly is "lucky money"? (what all the shopkeepers say when trying to get you to by their goods. Why is the time difference not hourly, but instead half hourly. Why do all the men wear skirts? Why are the women not allowed to touch certain things (some of the Buddhas in certain temples, strands of Buddhas hair, the Golden Rock, etc.) Most importantly, why is there a 14 foot alive python just chilling in the temple?

at the Shwedagon Paya
Yangon is probably one of the best capital cities I have seen. It is underdeveloped (so no McDonald's, few skyscrapers, etc.) The place has a certain charm to it with it's colorful streets and open-air markets.  Due to lack of time, we only planned for one day there in which we spent at the Shwedagon Paya (paya means 'holy one', a religious monument) It is said to be built on a hill where Buddha relics have been found, including eight hairs of the Buddha.

Stefani (Germany), Salena, and I in the town of Kyaiktiyo
 The following day we took a 5 hour bus ride to Kyaiktiyo, home of the gravity-defying Golden Rock. It is one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in Myanmar, and is said that this giant, gold leaf covered boulder is topped by a stupa (a strand of Buddhas hair). How this rock has managed to survive a number of earthquakes adds special value
the Golden Rock in Kyaiktiyo
Thousands of pilgrims come daily to see this rock, which makes the experience more interesting.  Everyone crams (monks in their red robes, villagers with their colorful head wraps carrying their babies in a sling, and Westerners with a camera in hand) on the back of a flat bed pick up truck (12 rows, 6 people to each row- when really there is only room for 4) making an hour long ride up to the top of the mountain. The men (no women are allowed to touch the rock) say a prayer and then stick a gold leaf to the side of the rock.

a monk lighting incense at the Golden rock
Here we met Tim, from Seattle who is traveling the world for 2 years. We ended up traveling with this lad for the remainder of our time in Myanmar. By the end of our trip we all agreed it felt like we have known each other since we were kids.
On the back of a "tuk tuk" with our long last friend Tim
 From there the 3 of us took a 15 hour bus ride to Inle Lake, stopping for 3 hours in Bago, for a bus transfer. In Bago, a driver took us to see a number of pagodas in the city. Our last stop was at driver's house to see his wife and other ladies working there rolling cigarettes. They work from 6 am to 6 pm rolling about 1,400 cigarettes a day. All of the women sleep on the same wooden plank that they spend all day sitting on. What a neat experience for us all, considering in 10 years likely this place will be a factory with a $10 entrance fee.

Salena learning how to roll cigarettes. We bought 40 cigs from her for 80 cents.
Notice the thanaka on the woman's face

 During our tour of this city, we stopped at a temple which was home to a 14 foot python, and of course I had so many questions. Since no one had the English to tell us, I read online that the head monk believes it's his reincarnated daughter. This only leaves me even more confused since monks aren't allowed to... well, ya know.

Yes, folks that python is alive
sitting Buddhas inside a temple

 After a 12 hour bus ride of restless sleep and feeling nauseous, we arrived at 4am at Inle Lake. I was ready to spend a few days at this peaceful, relaxing place. The first day we cycled around the lush countryside to a small village with a small canal that that provides access to the lake (the lake is only accessible by boat.)
fishermen at the lake paddling & steering the boat with their leg!
The following day, Salena, Tim, and I joined a lovely couple from Switzerland on a boat where we spent the day visiting different floating villages, floating gardens, floating markets, and (of course) more temples around the lake.  We watched a number of people weaving, blacksmithing (is this a word?) and making beautiful jewelry.
fishermen posing in front of the sunset
At one of places there were a few of the Paudang women weaving clothing and selling their handcrafted items. They belong to a tribe residing on the border of Thailand and are bused in to Inle just for the tourists. It is an ancient tradition for this group of people to fit young girls with brass neck rings. After awhile, they can no longer take them off as they are unable to support the weight of their own heads. It was an interesting, yet, somewhat strange experience. I felt like I was visiting a human zoo again, but the ladies would often stop what they were doing to pose for our photos.
The "Long Neck" lady - over 45 years of having this around her neck
From Inle Lake, it was a 6 hour bus ride to our next destination, Bagan. The scenery wasn't anything spectacular; relatively flat with an ocassional field lined with palm trees and rivers full of locals washing their clothing. Every so often we would pass by speakers blowing the sound of Burmese music sung by people holding a jar out trying to earn some money (Again, confused. Do people actually stop driving along the highway to give a tip?) For me, the bus rides are more about that sense of freedom and peace; going on a bus to a place I have never been to/nor know nothing about... over 6,000 miles from home....with over 40 strangers who don't speak my language.

Sunrise in Bagan
sunset in Bagan
The bus arrived at 5pm that night, and "taxis" await at the "bus station." Now, in this time warped country when I say taxis I mean horse and buggies. We stayed at May Kha Lar Guest House, which was nice but a bit noisy. The town of Bagan itself didn't impress me; it was just too dusty and noisy for my liking. However, most tourists come to this place to visit the Bagan Archaeological Zone, which stretches 41 sq. km. across central Myanmar consisting of over 4,000 Buddhist temples, some of which date back to the 1100's.  It is the largest and densest population of Buddhist temples in the world. In the once grand city, these brick and stucco religious structures are all that remain from years of earthquakes, erosion, and neglect. After a week of traveling and visiting temples, I was starting to becoming desensitized.. After visiting 10 the novelty soon wares off. However, this place was really something different, and special. Temples older than anything in my own country, and well, the oldest place that I have ever been to.

At 5am we climbed to the top of a temple for sunrise. We thought it would be neat to see these temples for the first time being revealed one by one with the rising of the sun. Dozens of tourists watch the morning fog amongst the soft glow of the orange sky expose enough light to see ancient temples as far as the eye can see. It was one of the most serene and calming sights that I have seen in a long time.
For $300 you can take a hot air balloon ride over these temples (we did not do this)
We spent the next few days here visiting these temples. Each of them holds it's own uniqueness; from the different architecture, colorful murals, Buddhas, and spiritual meanings. Bagan is a place that I left thinking.. 'how did I never hear of this place before?!'
a child monk praying at a temple
From Bagan we took the train (which looked like something from WW2) to Mandalay. We didn't intend to stay here very long here, since noone that we met along the way had anything good to say about this place. I instantly understood why; a sprawling city of dusty streets, traffic, construction, and a bit of a "Chinese feel" (due to heavy Chinese investment in recent years.) The first day we took a tour inside and outside the city mostly visiting... yes you guessed it, more temples. Half of Myanmars monks reside in and around Mandalay.
The first part of our tour was a visit to a monastery that is home to over 1,500 monks. We were scheduled to get there just in time to watch them eat their 10:15 lunch (awesome.. i thought) Well, it would have been if it weren't for the hundreds of other tourists surrounding the cafeteria taking pictures with their long lens camera practically in the faces of the monks as they eat. I felt like I was at a human zoo. I ventured off by myself away from the cafeteria and a monk started talking to me. Even with his broken English, it was very interesting to talk to him. I asked him many questions about Buddhism, and he had a few about the American culture as well. For example, he wanted to know what "rolly polly, holy moly" meant. I wasn't really sure how to respond to this, as I was a little bit shocked that this was his first question about the American culture, so I asked where he heard this. He responded, "in a Justin Beiber song that I heard yesterday."
At a temple
The monk kept encouraging me to ask him questions about his life. He told me about his daily routine: 4 am- wake up, followed by a 2 hour long meditation. Then all the monks walk the streets together in a line collecting donated food from houses and other businesses. His 10:15 lunch consists of beans, veggies, chicken, or fish (no beef) After lunch he studies Buddhism with his teacher, who wrote the book, Buddhism and Democracy. Pretty much the remainder of his day he spends either studying or meditating.
Little monks collecting food in the morning
For me, the highlight of Mandalay was the sunset in Amarapura, which is famed for U Bein's Bridge. It is over 200 years old and is the world's longest teak bridge at 1.2 km. Yet, another serene, peaceful, and photogenic sunset.
sunset at U Bein's Bridge (this view is also on the cover of the Southeast Asia Lonely Planet)

From Mandalay we (now a team of 4 with our new addition Paddy, from Ireland) headed to Pyin Oo Lwin. It took us about 2 hours in a car to get there.
Paddy blending in quite well with the monks
On our way, we passed an accident where a truck had flipped over. As it looked somewhat bad, fortunately everyone was okay. Most everyone driving by stopped to see what was going on and if everyone was okay.  I say most everyone because I mean, everyone but the police (they turned their heads briefly, but they just continued to drive on by.) Pyin Ooo Lwin is a smaller place located in the foothills of the northern Shan State. We chose to spend a few days here relaxing (at a waterfall and walking around the botanical gardens) before returning back to hustling bustling China.
Anisakan Falls
The overall highlight of my trip was having the opportunity to talk with so many monks. Myanmar is one of the most devout Buddhist countries in the world (89% of the people are Buddhist) I enjoy learning about Buddhism, and there is no better way then to learn first hand from monks in a monastery. Buddhism in China is much different. The monks in China want to come to Myanmar as they look at it as a place of freedom, since they are not allowed to practice religion in Communist China.
A morning visit with a few monks - They are not allowed to touch girls
(which explains the somewhat awkwardness in this picture)
This country will always hold a very special place in my heart. The whole time here I felt at "home", even in this very poor, strange land. We met a number of people who were just so kind and generous, without asking anything in return. As more and more tourists come through this place, the hospitality of many of these people will ware off. Sad but true, as more tourists go through this country, Myanmar will likely lose much of it's charm and authenticity. I feel very fortunate to have gone to a place that has not yet been changed by modern development or tourism.