Thursday, August 27, 2009

Rainy Days

I have been back at site for a week now and the weather has been terrible!

It is gloomy and dark.
It is rainy and miserable.

I have even had to wear three layers and long socks.

The city is empty of students.
My life is empty of stuff to do.

I had a Wes Anderson marathon, reminded me of the Jim Jarmush, Werner Herzog and Buffy marathons we would have in Seattle.

I finished knitting and felting a bag and have started a holey bright green stole.

Black Sheep Bags: Elizabeth Bag by Julie Anderson

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bike Tour 2010

Since school doesn't start for another two weeks, I wanted to go to Xian, buy a $200 GIANT bike with 24 gears, and bike back to my site, 310 km (286 miles). I had already bought maps and on my way home paid close attention to the 6 hour bus route that was mostly flat except for one part that would be a day of biking up and down. I even saw a biker, his bike loaded back and front with panniers. He was taking a rest along side the road for a bite to eat on a long climb.

However, it is too dangerous according to our safety and security officer to bike alone, and I kind of wonder is it because I am a woman or is it really too dangerous for a biker to bike alone in China?

I had wanted to do a month bike tour in the US after finishing my PhD, but the initial cost of buying a bike and gear was too high plus my parents were not too keen on the idea. Biking alone in the US is dangerous.

I think China is an excellent place to do a bike tour.


1. Hotels are cheap (less than $20 a room, sometimes even as cheap as $3 a bed)
2. You can buy water at the many little towns that litter the roads.
3. You can eat at cheap restaurants and eat lots of noodles.
4. China is not a car country yet. Everyone doesn't own cars; therefore, the roads are pretty empty.

There are a few disadvantages.

1. Maps are difficult to read because they are labeled with Chinese characters.
2. Rain. It rains a lot.
3. Nice bikes get stolen.

I am hoping to maybe do a bike tour next summer. If you are interested, let me know.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

My Day Lost in Translation

At bedtime, I started New Moon by Stephanie Meyer and finished it in the wee hours of the morning. I bought the series as a gift for the English majors who were interested in reading the books after seeing the movie Twilight.

The morning light didn't bother my deep sleep and it wasn' t until 8 am, a late hour for me that I was able to finally pull myself free from my comforter, a warmth to the dreariness of days of rain and gloomy cloud cover. I have only been home two nights, and the darkness is already seeping in.

Rubbing my eyes, I tumbled to the computer looking for something human in the quiet isolation and solitude of living in a country surrounded by people, people who even when they talk to me isolate me more with my inability to connect and understand the language. Within all of the noise, my soul feels the deepness of the silence.

Dishes were washed.
Chicken was cut.
Spinach and cilantro were soaked.
Clothes were agitated by the machine.
A soup was made and eaten as breakfast.
Summer fashions were rinsed.
Wrung out and hung by hand.
Will the gray dry them?
One ball of yarn was knitted through.
Soup was heated and eaten as lunch.
A nap was taken.
Red tea was sipped and See's Candy was bitten into.

The movie Lost in Translation was watched in 2 minute chunks.
Streaming was slow today.
Wait two minutes.
Click play.
Watch two minutes.
Wait. Click. Watch. Wait. Click. Watch.
Didn't even get to finish it when the website cut out.

Water and spinach was added.
Soup was eaten for dinner.
Another ball finished.
Another yarn ball added.
Music was listened to.

Who will break my fall? -Brandi Carlile

Friday, August 21, 2009

Home Sweet Home

After 42 days of being on the road and living out of a backpack that could fit under the seat of a bus or train, I am back to the comforts of my tiny traditional Gansu city. As soon as I stepped off the bus, the cold air and drizzle of winter hit me. I guess I will have to put away all of my newly bought ethnic summer skirts, dresses, and tank tops purchased from the muggy south.

Now though I can put on a kettle of hot water, turn on the DVD player and watch whatever I want, Blood: The Last Vampire is first on my list. Now I can surf the internet as long as I want without having to be quick because of the waiting line of foreigners. Now I can wake up as early as I want without bothering the people I am sharing a hostel room with as I climb down the wobbly ladder of a bunk bed. I sometimes got up at 5 am to take a walk in the morning air escaping from the heat. Now I can finally use facebook, blogger, and youtube. If you want to find out how, find a way to contact me.

Top Three Things About Being Home

1. Living in the comforts of familiarity

Traveling, I am always on the border of "being lost." It is an adventure exploring a city for one's needs and desires, but it is nice to be back to a place where I know how to do things.

2. My flat

I love my apartment, the conveniences of it and the solitude in it. Plus, I have a ton of unread books about topics I like to read about like gender, alternative relationships, and other issues that cannot be discussed freely in my traditional city. Lucky for me a good friend who I met in Guinea sent me a heavy birthday present.

3. Knitting

With the cold weather fast approaching, I finally can take out my knitting needles again, finish halfway done projects and start new ones. A PCV who recently COS'd left me yarn and Caitlin's mother left me a gift of yarn, requesting I try to knit a sweater.

Bottom Three Things About Being Home

1. Noodles

Even with 42 days away from noodles, I am still tired of noodles. Down South, in Kaifeng and even in Tianshui they had the best street food and savory rice dishes.

2. Housework

I need to do laundry, fix my sofa, and probably dust and mop the floor.

3. No more clothes shopping

After traveling, I have realized that my city has hugely overpriced clothes! It was fun shopping in the bigger cities because items were so cheap. My city doesn't have a train station; therefore, the expensive cost of transportation is included in the prices.

As you may have noticed I haven't mentioned anything about students or being back at school. Well school hasn't started yet and won't until the first of September. Also, I might not start till the end of September since Freshmen have to do military training. Students and teaching are not on my mind yet. I am still on summer holiday. Soon though back to the grindstone....

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Blooming Wallflower

Living abroad has made me afraid of foreigners. This week the Xian hostel where I am staying is full of French speaking people. I have running conversations in my head, but am unable to open my mouth.

While living in the states, I was working on my fear of talking to strangers and was working on my dislike for small talk. I practiced weekly by talking to people and forcing myself to say something rather than just people watch and just sit silent among a group of socialites. By making a conscious effort to turn into a social butterfly, I was becoming less of a wallflower.

But Africa and China have made me afraid of people.

In Africa, whenever I stayed at the Peace Corps houses, I always felt the loneliest amongst Americans. I think living in the isolation of a foreign language and a foreign community makes me more comfortable with the silence of an observing loner.

On the train I was silent. The people on the train thought I was Vietnamese and didn't know any Chinese. I discovered this when a brave man who had been staring at me the whole train ride tried to break the ice by handing me a ripped snippet of a Vietnamese newspaper. I promptly replied in my skeletal Chinese that I was American with Chinese heritage. The ice was broken. We had a nice conversation about why I don't speak Chinese better and about my family background.

In the hostel, I am silent. I have lost my ability to socialize in English. Plus right now I have a bad case of hives which makes me feel like a walking contagious disease. I am too afraid to make contact with people and scare them away with my skin condition. In Chinese though I can talk for as long as the other person is interested and patient enough to use simple Chinese. Mostly though I hide.

I am a growing wallflower who is preparing to buy a good bike and go on a 4-5 day silent retreat, biking alone the 240 miles between Xian and Xifeng in preparation for a 2 month bike tour I'd like to take next summer. I have to work on my travel and bike vocabulary. Maybe I can write a zine, A Guide to Biking in Gansu: Useful Chinese phrases included.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Sleep with Never-ending Interruptions

Unable to get a sleeper car for my 34 hour train ride from Nanning to Xian, I had a hard seat for the whole way. The train is a tight space, a narrow aisle with no leg room. Seats face each other and your legs bump into the person who is sitting across from you. All four or six of you share a table. Since I sat on the aisle, one would think I could stretch out except people were always moving down the aisle!

As soon as it got dark I was ready to try to fall asleep, to sleep away some of the hours of the 34 hour trip. As soon as I'd almost be asleep, my neck would snap down and I would almost fall off the seat. I'd doze again, but then the hot food 15 RMB meal cart would pass. I'd doze again, but then the magazine cart would pass. I'd doze again, then the 10 RMB meal cart would pass. I'd move out of the way not to be hit. I'd doze again, then the fruit seller would come by, then the packaged food and drink cart, then the 5 RMB meal cart. I'd be almost asleep and then all of those carts would come back again after making their way to the last train car.

I'd almost be dead to the world when the movie guy with DVD players to rent would go yelling by. Next the toothbrush seller, then the bright light and singing toy top seller, then the gold card with a fortune written on it seller, a seller who had a 10 minute speech and would shush anyone who was talking or making noise. Because the people I sat with had money, they stopped every seller to buy something. These people were the ones who wanted to buy a hard sleeper bed, but who had been denied. They had extra money to spend and bought everything. Our tight space became even tighter with the extra person and their goods. My head would snap into the backside of the seller. My feet would kick the seller's basket of goods. People don't just buy and go. No, buying was a long process at least 10 minutes as questions were asked and colors of toothbrushes were inspected and bargaining and small talk comments were given.

I could get 5 minutes of shut eye before I was disturbed again.

As the summer holiday comes to an end, China's population is rearranging itself. Millions of students board trains sometimes with their parents and extended family. Whenever we stopped at a railroad station, a ton of people would climb on all looking for an empty seat on a train that had been standing room only since 3 hours after we departed Nanning. The aisles would fill and my leg room would disappear. Next the ladies with plastic stools for $1 would come by, something else to fill the aisles with.

As things started to calm down and as I started to think maybe the lights would go out since it was 11 pm, 3 cell phones started playing loud annoying music, speakers that crackle due to the poor quality and excessive volume. I stuffed ear plugs into my ears. The clack of the train tracks and people's loud conversations died out leaving the 3 cell phones and their music loud as day, a mixture of 3 melodies mushed together into chaos.

The next thing to interrupt my sleep was a gang of 6 train conductors bullying their way down the full lanes asking in mean voices to see everyone's ticket.

Finally at midnight, things started to calm down. People pulled down curtains and put them on the dirty floor. They crawled under the seats, their knees and shoes visible in the aisles, road bumps for the selling carts. Maybe now the carts would stop passing by. As I slouched down and stretched out my legs hoping not to be interrupted again, I started to doze off. Quiet finally existed in the terribly noisy night when the woman across from me turned on her cell phone, full blast, Bryan Adams, a lullaby, I could not fall asleep too.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

34 hour Train and No sleepers

I arrived in Nanning last night after a 9 hour bus ride from Hanoi. I stopped at the train station and there were only hard seats, no sleepers, not until the 22nd. I can't stay in Nanning till the 22nd. So I bought the cheap $42 ticket and will be sitting on a train for the next 34 hours to Xian! I will leave today at noon and should arrive at 10 pm.

I am off to Wal-Mart to buy food for the train ride.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Volunteer turned Tourist

As soon as I arrived in Hanoi, I was off to mini rock islands. Kyan's volunteer group (VIA) had bought a one night tour package to Halong Bay. We were to sleep on a boat and the cost would be $40.

The American dollar no longer has any meaning for me. I no longer understand the worth of dollars. Living abroad has totally warped my idea of what a $1 can buy.

I expected broken down buses to drive us to the boat. I expected the boat to be a big ugly piece of junk, big sails, and gross toilets. They'd probably give us bamboo mats as beds to lie upon the deck at night. There would probably be no shade except for a big blue tarp over an area of the most uncomfortable wooden benches. I had no idea how we'd get food, stranded on a boat. Maybe we would stock up at little stores before boarding. That's what we do when taking an overnight train. I imagined a primitive experience, one a little better than Africa. Maybe there wouldn't be any livestock that we'd have to share sleeping quarters with.

Instead $40 bought us a posh trip, not the most luxurious for those with money but extremely luxurious for this Peace Corps volunteer who has been roughing it for the past 3 years.

The four hour bus ride was air conditioned and they even had 1 bathroom break. I have never been on a 4 hour bus trip with a bathroom break. In this extremely touristy area we stopped at a tourist trap full of over-priced food and souvenirs, a place full of foreigners, so I guess it really wasn't a bathroom break, but a separate you from your money break.

At the dock we boarded a fancy boat that was on the border of being run down; however, it was still pretty luxurious. There was a dining cabin with fans blowing and a 5 course meal waiting for us. I was still uncertain though, assuming the worse, but every assumption that I had about roughing it was dashed. There were western toilets. There were even cabins with 2 beds, a fan, plus an air conditioner, and a private bathroom. The next surprise were two tour stops that were free. We got to see some caves and rock formations and then got to go kayaking.

It wasn't all luxurious. We slept upstairs on the top deck under the stars and in the salty air coz the sleeping cabin stank. Even with stinky rooms and roaches, I felt like I had moved from being poor to being one of the rich and famous.

When we got back to shore they tried to stuff 25 people onto a bus. It felt very African; however, even though there were 25 seats there was not enough room. Foreigners pack bags the size of middle school students. The tour guide was trying to separate a father from his family. Kyan and I jumped off and gave up our seats. Traveling abroad one learns that everything will work out. Even in a city full of tour scams and broken contracts, we didn't get cheated when we left our tour group and our receipt, the only evidence of payment behind. We arrived safely back at the hotel, 30 minute tour trap bathroom break included.

I came to the conclusion that living the lifestyle of the rich and famous is nice but not really for me. Give me a map and good walking shoes. That is the type of tourist I am. I prefer experiencing local color rather than buying a luxurious western experience to see some famous site.

Pictures taken by Kyan. (My camera is broken.)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

One reason I live abroad: Food

In Xifeng, China there are tiny one room restaurants or outdoor pushcarts; however, in Hanoi, food is on the streets. It is shoved around light posts, nestled between parked motos, found in dark alleyways, and pushed up against outdoor walls. Women sit with their kitchens at their feet, a hot pot of boiling water over a short gas stove beside them, a table full of sauces, spices, and ingredients in front of them. Boys run from other alleyways bringing ice cold clear yellow drinks served in tall glasses. People sit on tiny stools barely a foot off the ground or they sit lined up on stoops sitting on the ledge of an outdoor wall. Sometimes there are tables and sometimes there aren't.

I have eaten rice with green veggies and patties of seafood or a slice of a caramelized fish with big bones. I have had green papaya salad and bowls of noodles in a light soup. I have had fishy dumplings and soups packed with green leaves. I have bitten into baguettes full of omlettes, beets, radishes, and cucumber. The food is sometimes deep fried or lightly boiled and stir-fried, tasty with light clear colored sweet spicy sauces that are like fragrant dressings topped with fresh cilantro, mint, and other strong flavored greens, making a meal refreshing and cool compared to heavy and hot. The meat though is GROSS! It is all types of preserved meat in the forms of salted meat, sausage and jerky. There is no freshly cooked meat pulled out of cold refrigerators. I would likely turn vegetarian in Hanoi's streets.

Pictures taken by Kyan.

Sitting upstairs in.....

A very modern outdoor cafe

With a cool breeze blowing the mugginess off my sticky skin, I sat above a 5 way intersection illuminated by the neon lights of western restaurants and cafes. There is a continuous hum of moto after moto flowing through the streets of Hanoi with an occasional beep as one wave meets another, the weaving in and out of the chaotic slow-moving two wheelers expertly never hitting the people who also need to cross or barely missing the balloon woman standing in the middle of the street. I am sipping a dark bitter ice cold Vietnamese coffee not sweetened enough by the white condensed milk. The ice melts and dilutes the mixture into a drinkable concoction that maybe won't leave a thick coated icky after-taste on the back of my tongue.

Hanoi is a city that never stops, that is always moving, a city where you can't sleepwalk a second or else from an unexpected direction a dangerous vehicle will barely and miraculously just miss you, saving you from injury. This city no longer has bicycles. Motos have replaced bikes and moto parking lots have replaced sidewalks. Skinny families of 4 sit straddled on the long saddles, and children stand sandwiched between fathers and mothers.

To be a pedestrian just go and walk across the street. As long as there are no wide cars, the motos will swerve to avoid you. Walk with a confident constant stride. The drivers are anticipating your step. To hesitate may be fatal. In this city of constant movement hopefully you will only meet beeping horns and good brakes.

Pictures taken by Kyan.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Where am I?

Today I am in Hanoi, Vietnam.

After a two week summer project teaching middle and primary school English teachers in Gansu, I started my trek down South towards Nanning. The 34 hour train trip was luxurious with its air condition and beds. I only had two nights and one day on the train. Often foreigners love train rides since it gives them a chance to talk to local people and get to experience the local flavor of public transportation. For me the 6 people sharing my train space were completely silent. They didn't talk to each other. They didn't talk to me.

In a few words, the train ride was an enjoyable solitary, silent, meditative retreat.

I arrived in Nanning at 5 am and sat at the outdoor benches in the quiet dark train station until the sun rose watching the police walk around waking up anyone who was using the benches as a bed. Even though I had very specific directions for the only hostel in Nanning, I didn't want to wander a new city in the dark.

Lotusland is in a good location and the hostel staff was able to get my Vietnam visa in 3 days. The place is expensive. Ten dollars for a bed compared to $3 beds in Xian; however, they took care of my visa which was one stress I didn't have to worry about. Living abroad for 3 years, I have learned not to trust deadlines and was greatly surprised that a 3 day visa meant 3 days.

I spent the three days in Nanning walking the streets in the morning and sitting in air conditioned shopping malls during the hot humid hours. I declined to see the new Harry Potter movie just because it was so expensive. Nanning is a city that has been flattened, almost all of its old buildings gone, replaced with a modern China. Even the green parts on the map that I took a bus too were modern, no longer old ancient parks but modern golf courses instead.

I took a luxurious air conditioned 8 hour bus ride from Nanning to Hanoi where the border crossing was easy even with the lack of lines and order on the Vietnam side. Arriving in Hanoi, I got ripped off by the taxi driver. I was charged twice the fare to go to the hotel where my friend from Peace Corps Guinea was staying. I hate being fresh bait, a newcomer to a city, but have learned how to find peace in being taken advantage of. It happens. There is no point in getting all angry and upset about it.

Vietnam is so different from China. The French influence is seen in the architecture and actually Vietnam reminds me of West Africa. France left a legacy of baguettes and coffee houses in both places.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Plane or Train?

I am going to Nanning soon. The train ride is rumored to be 34 hours. A sleeper train car is like a moving hostel or prison on wheels since you can't leave your room. Thankfully the train leaves at night, so about 20 hours will be spent sleeping. What will I do during the day? As a person who has always been tormented with motion sickness, reading is not an option. I guess I will practice Chinese, listen to music, watch the scenes go by, and fan myself silly to keep cool.

Or, should I take a plane?

The plane trip is rumored to be a 4 hour flight with one stop; however, it costs $40 more than the train ticket. $40 is nothing in America. $40 in China is a ton of money. With $40 I can pay for about 5 nights in a hostel in Nanning.

Even though I am an American, with an American bank account that has some money in it leftover from a partial readjustment allowance payment from Peace Corps for my first two years in Africa, I feel an urge to travel frugally and experience the life of an unmarried Chinese teacher who has some money to travel with.

Therefore, I will take the train. Will I regret it by the end of the trip?