Monday, November 29, 2010

Paradise Found

This week flew by as we anticipated not only Thanksgiving, but also our Independent Student Travel Weekend. We started out with three days of teaching, seminars, lectures, and Chinese lessons. On Wednesday, we had our day-early Thanksgiving celebration. We ate at a westernized café located on the "foreigner street" of Kunming, which has a variety of restaurants that serve food other than Chinese. We were told that they were going to give us their best shot at making an American Thanksgiving dinner and staples to include turkey, cranberries, and pumpkin pie. We had all three of those, along with gravy, sweet potatoes, chicken wraps, chicken kabobs, salad, pizza, and an eggplant lasagna dish. While I missed my Thanksgiving at home, how many times will I be able to have Thanksgiving in China? It wasn’t my normal tradition, but I like to think of it as something totally different.

On Thursday, we departed for a long IST weekend. Lauren, Rachel, Mary, and I decided to go to a town called Shangri-La, also called Zhongdian. Located in the Northwest corner of the Yunnan province, it’s about as close to Tibet as you can get. We decided to splurge and buy plane tickets to avoid the 12-hour, windy bus ride. The flight was an hour long, so we arrived in Shangri-La around 9 in the morning. I felt like I was flying in for a ski trip, especially when I walked outside and was blasted with cold air. Shangri-La is a small town, nestled into snow-dusted mountains. It felt like we were in a completely different country: the architecture was different, the people seemed nicer, the air was fresher. I felt like I could finally take a deep breath again. Because of its proximity to Tibet, there’s rich Tibetan culture here. The town is named after James Hilton’s book The Lost Horizon. Apparently, many towns used to call themselves Shangri-La, claiming to be the mythical paradise from the book. Eventually, they decided that Zhongdian would be the “real” Shangri-La.

The first thing we did was check into our hotel, the Gyalthang Dzong Hotel, to find we were the only people there! It was really nice, though. Lauren and I shared a comfortable room with a huge king bed, complete with electric blankets. We were so happy to find a little heater as well. It was definitely necessary. It’s so cold here; when I walk outside, I literally wear all of my layers—Underarmor, long sleeves, fleece jacket, raincoat, hat, and gloves. Everything feels so much colder without any indoor heating!

Our next order of business was exploring the town. Shangri-La is divided into Old Town and New Town. Old Town is the more culturally-rich, interesting section; New Town has nothing really too special. We walked along the cobblestone streets of Old Town, looking into the shops selling Tibetan handicrafts and trinkets. Taking a long set of stairs, we climbed up to a beautiful Buddhist temple and huge prayer wheel. It must have been at least 20 meters tall. We found a restaurant called The Compass Café, which served some western food. It was our hideaway from the cold, and became our go-to spot for the next few days. We went every day except Sunday (only because it was closed) and sat in the same chairs each time.

The next day was our relaxation/spa day. There was a spa at our hotel, so we all treated ourselves to massages. That night, we went out to dinner at a Tibetan restaurant. Mary and I split a yak and chicken hot pot, which is a soup of boiling broth, with meat and vegetables added to it. They bring it to your table and place it on a flame to it keeps boiling. So delicious, and it warms you right up. They eat yak everything here. From meat to yogurt to yak butter tea. I tried the tea at breakfast and it tastes exactly how you’d imagine butter tea to taste like—hot, watery, salty butter. I didn’t think it was bad, but I also didn’t think it was good. The meat, however, does taste good.

Saturday, we went to Podacuo National Park, the first national park in China. We took a taxi there and arrived at a lodge. We bought our entry tickets and then were shuttled onto a bus. We were waiting on the bus for about a half an hour and had no idea what to do because none of us speak Chinese and no one there spoke English. We really didn’t want to be sitting on us bus all day, either. Finally the bus started moving. We stopped first at Shudu Lake, where we got off to walk along the shore. It was a 2.7 km walk, all on a wooden boardwalk. It was so refreshing to be in nature, especially after being in a Chinese city for about three weeks. We got on another bus at the end of the walk, and were then taken to our next stop, which was a scenic viewpoint. We continued on the bus, periodically stopping. We were able to get off and walk again at Bita Lake. This trail was also all a wooden boardwalk. It must have taken them so long to construct the whole thing. It was a little bit touristy, and not really an “adventure” per se, but still very enjoyable. We were the only westerners I saw there, too.

Today (Sunday) is our last day here. Mary and Rachel decided to take the bus back, so they left this morning. Lauren and I are spending our last day of relaxation doing just that; we’re trying to embrace our last day of freedom before we fly back tonight. It’s a bit strange thinking about how we’ll be back in the city in a few hours. I much prefer the calmer, less hectic life here in this place that, in my opinion, lives up to its name.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ecuador Media Project

Here is my media project with Kasha, Mary and Alex on traditional medicines used by the Tsa'chia people in Los Naranjos, Ecuador.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

American Music Meets China

What has America done to the world's taste in music? I never expected my Chinese students' list of favorite American artists to include Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and Michael Jackson. They absolutely love them. Okay, so I can understand Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson (because I not-so-secretly love them too). But Justin Bieber—really?

After starting our teaching assignments early last week, it's a little hard to tell how it went. But I think, overall, it went well. It was a little concerning at times, talking to a sea of blank faces. After certain words, however, the sea would come to life saying “Yes! Yes!” So who knows? We taught two classes on Monday. On Tuesday, we served as teaching assistants and mainly helped with dictations. On Wednesday, we taught one period and were TAs for one period. Thursday morning, instead of teaching, we went to the school’s opening ceremony for their Winter Games. Each class lined up along the track and marched in by groups. When they reached us, they performed some sort of dance or routine or got into a formation. One class had a girl dressed up and do crazy sword twirling/ninja moves. Other classes danced to (guess who?) Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber. After that was all done, the games began. It was like a track meet with high jump, long jump, and running events (when I was there it was the 100m.) We left after only a few minutes of the actual events began, though. Every middle school has these games. A country that wants more Olympic medals? I think yes.

At the moment, our daily schedule is shaping up like this:

In the morning, we teach. My classes are at different times—some days they start at 8, some days they start at 10:40. We’ll teach for two 40-minute periods. When that’s done, we’ll head back to the university. We then have a lunch break until 2 in the afternoon. We can go to lunch at either the university’s cafeteria or out to whatever restaurant we feel like. There’s a “western” street fairly close to the university that has a bunch of choices. Some of them aren’t all that western though—like Thai, Indian, and Korean. There are also cafes with more American food and Italian places as well. I’ve gone to the cafeteria everyday except once when I went to a Thai restaurant. I have to say that I actually like the food at the cafeteria. It’s nothing like the ones I've experienced in the U.S. You pay per dish, but everything’s really cheap. Rice is .30 yuan (there’s about 6.80 yuan to one dollar,) meat dishes are around 2.50 yuan, and vegetable dishes are probably anywhere from .50 to 2 yuan. Pretty much two whole walls of a big room are lined with different dishes. We bring our steel eating bowls every day and go around the room, pointing at whatever we’d like. Usually I get three or four dishes, plus rice, for about 5 yuan. And it’s a ton of food! We have Chinese class for an hour after our lunch break. In theory, I know a few more words and phrases now, but I have such a hard time remembering them. After class, we have our seminars or lectures. I get home around 6:15.

The bike lanes here are really big—about the size of a car lane. It’s for bikers and people on motorbikes. On my way home, there are so many people that it will turn into a traffic jam. Literally, we are at a standstill. It’s crazy. Sometimes when I get home, my host family has already eaten! It’s a much earlier dinner time than I’m used to. At night, I do my Chinese homework and readings for seminar. We have a library of books and movies here, so if I have time, I’ll watch a movie. I checked out a book with the intention of starting it this weekend, but I haven’t had the time!

We eat SO much pork in my homestay—we’ve had it at every single meal. I look forward to meals that feature an alternative source of protein. So far, we’ve had two meals with fish accompanying the pork, and two meals with beef. I guess I'm making up for my strict avoidance of eating pork during the last 10 or so years of my life.

Besides looking forward to different kinds of meat at meals, I get really excited when the sun shines. Not only because that means the sun is out and it’s warm and sunny, but because then I get to have warm water to shower. It’s a major buzzkill, though, when I turn on the faucet and think the water’s warm enough, but find out it isn't after I'm already in the shower. I end up wet and freezing and not all that clean because I just want to get out.

It’s funny just how different life is here compared to Los Naranjos—in so many ways. We can do things in the city on weekends and communicate when we’re not with each other. I do miss the simplicity and tranquility of life in Los Naranjos. But it’s fun to be able to do things like go see Harry Potter! Its opening night was a major event, which we anxiously awaited all week. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go to the midnight premiere because we weren’t sure if it was in English. So we toughed it out the extra 19 hours and went to a 7 pm showing Friday night. IT WAS AWESOME. Truly.

I’m getting a little more used to noticeably sticking out as a foreigner. People’s reactions fill a wide spectrum. Some people will say "hello," a few will even ask us to take pictures with them. Others, though, simply stare. I’ll hear my homestay family say “wai guo ren,” which means "foreigner," at meals. Then I know they’re talking about me, but I don’t have a clue what they’re saying. It’s like being a strange mixture of movie star/alien.

It was a nice, sunny day today. Good Sunday weather. Hopefully that means there’s hot water!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

It feels more like winter in the Spring City

Last Wednesday, we came back to Kunming and moved into our homestays. We were all a little nervous because we’d been on our own for quite some time. The language barrier wasn't really calming our anxieties, either. None of us can speak Chinese, and we were told that some of the families don’t speak any English. When the moment finally came, we were all waiting in a room at the university we’ll be having our seminars and lectures at. One by one, our host parents would walk in the room to greet us. It was really adorable to see how excited they all looked as they came in.

I’m very happy with my homestay so far. My host mother is an English teacher and my host father is a police man. I have a nine-year-old host brother, too. I was only told his English name—Leo. He doesn’t speak any English. My host father’s mother also lives with us and does all of the cooking. I’m lucky to have an English speaker in the family. She can speak it pretty well, although not fluently, but enough to be able to say everything we need to say to each other. I think she understands what I'm telling her, at least. I don’t know anything about my host father, though. I literally have not seem him once since he left the house after dinner the first night I arrived.

I live in an apartment in the university area. In Kunming, there are several universities in close proximity to one another. I walk through different universities to get to different places. My bedroom in the apartment also functions as my hos family's study and computer room, so Leo does his homework in here. My host mom uses the computer to prepare her lessons. So far, I’ve been fine with the lack of privacy. Although I felt a little awkward last night because my host mom was working on a powerpoint while I was lying in bed reading. I wanted to go to sleep, but didn’t want to be rude or make her feel like she needed to leave. So I just decided to quietly put my things away and close my eyes without her noticing. It ended up working out just fine.

There are two bathrooms in the apartment—a squatter and a non-squatter. The showering situation has been a little unfortunate. The first time I tried to shower, the drain didn’t work and I ended up flooding the bathroom. Also, the water here is heated by solar and it hasn’t been sunny or warm enough to heat it up. Apparently we have a gas heater, but my host mom doesn’t know how to work it. So I haven’t been able to shower for a few days. Until today, when I decided that it was past necessary.

Food is very much a part of the culture here. It’s definitely different than American Chinese food. At most meals (except breakfast), each person gets a bowl for rice; the main dishes are placed in the middle of the table. You take individual bites from each dish with your chopsticks, and keep refilling your bowl of rice. When my rice bowl gets below the halfway line, more is shoved in. There is no asking, only feeding. But I’m not complaining—every meal is all-you-can-eat!

The weather has been in the 50s and cloudy pretty much everyday. It wouldn’t be bad, except there is no heating anywhere. Often, it’s colder inside than outside. I wear my fleece jacket basically all the time. Even so, my host mom will always tell me to put on more layers. My host family gave me a pair of wool slippers to borrow, too. Sometimes when I forget to wear them, my host mom will tell me “I’m worried that your feet are cold, please wear your slippers.”

I’m excited to see more of the city. We had some time to explore it yesterday, but there’s a lot to see in a place that five million people call home. Today was a free day, so I rode around on the bike my host family is letting me borrow. I was looking for a water bottle, sweater, and dental floss and struck out on all three fronts. I know water bottles and sweaters exist here, but I’m convinced that they don’t sell dental floss in this country.

We begin our English teaching assignments tomorrow. I’ll be teaching classes of 8th graders, sophomores, and juniors with Mary and John. Classes are 40 minutes each, and we teach two each morning. We developed our lesson plan for our first week and we’re going to talk about different regions of the US, trying to incorporate the grammar lessons from the students' textbooks. It’ll be really interesting. I’m excited to meet the kids!

It’s only 7:45, but I’m ready for bed. That seems to be the way things are working on this trip: I feel like an old person. The rest of the family is doing work on the computer about three feet away, though; so it looks like I’ll be up for at least a little while longer. Tomorrow morning, I’ve got another noodle bowl to look forward to and hopefully we’ll have the spicy stir-fried vegetables and bean curd tofu to add. They’re both growing on me.

For now, I think I’ll go fill up my hot water bottle and snuggle into the Donald Duck comforter on my rock hard bed. Sweet dreams!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Welcome to China

We FINALLY arrived in China last Saturday after three straight days of flying. We were all only half conscious when we learned that we weren’t actually staying in Kunming until our homestays began. Instead, when we landed, we had another three-hour bus ride to a town called Tonghai before we were done with our travels. The whole ride, the bus was dead silent and we were all passed out.

In Tonghai, we began our Chinese lessons! It hurts my brain so much. I really think that I was born without the ability to make these sounds. So far, I know how to say hello (ni hao), bathroom (ce suo), and a few foods. We’ve found that if we try to speak the little Chinese we know to real Chinese speakers, they don’t even understand us anyway. We have lessons almost everyday the whole time we’re here, so hopefully I’ll get better. Regardless, I’m going to get really good at speaking through gestures.

Unfortunately, for me the big event in Tonghai was an emergency trip to the hospital. Disclaimer: if you tend to get queasy, do not read any further.

My stomach had been unhappy ever since the food poisoning, and I had been having strange digestive issues from the time we arrived in China. Some vomiting and weird saliva and burping, but nothing that was too major. Then Tuesday night, I got a stomachache, so I decided to stay in bed while everyone else went to dinner and asked Lauren to bring me back some food. Pretty much the minute they all left, my stomachache turned into a vicious monster sent to torture me to my death. All I could do was lie on my side in fetal position. On top of that, I was getting strange acid reflux symptoms—it felt like I had a pill stuck in my throat and there was acid burning my chest and esophagus. First I started throwing up. Then I got diarrhea. Walking to the toilet was horrible. Well, I don’t think you can even call it walking. It was more of a fast shuffle, my head and torso bent over between my knees. Between some of my heaves, I remember looking into the mirror. My face and lips were pale white, my mouth was chalky, and I was shaking and convulsing. When I blew my nose, chunks of food and throw up would come out. Between throw up sessions, I’d go lie back down on the bed and moan. But then the throw up that was still stuck in my sinuses would mix with snot and form this horridly disgusting ball, which would come down into my mouth. Then I’d have to get up, hobble to the bathroom to spit it out, and repeat, all the while not being able to breathe because it hurt my stomach too badly.

I honestly thought I was having a reaction to the medicine I was taking for my food poisoning, like an OD or something. I had no idea what was happening to me and I was actually pretty scared because NOTHING I did provided relief. We were given a 24-hour emergency number where we could reach someone from TBB back in the states so I tried to call that a few times, but it wouldn’t go through. I reverted back to fetal position and writhing. It was one of those times where you know what’s happening, but just can’t really control what you’re doing. I kept saying “help me, please help me” over and over again. Even though I knew no one was there. I just was not my normal self.

Finally, everyone else returned around 7:30—an hour and a half after the whole fiasco started. The leaders took action right away. Jessie and Loren stayed with me while Scott went to get a doctor and Chinese speakers. It seemed like ages before anything actually happened though. Waiting is the worst. Finally some random doctors came up to my room and quickly checked me. I’m not really sure where the doctors came from, lbut a few minutes later I found out that they had called an ambulance. I got tired of waiting in bed for the stretcher to come up, so I ended up running down to the lobby. Then they rolled me out to the ambulance. It was my first ambulance ride ever. When we got to the hospital yard, the ambulance suddenly stopped. Apparently, there was some back up, so they took me out, lifted up the stretcher, and carried me to the entrance. I was conscious enough to look around at the hospital. It was probably four rooms—actually, they were more covered medical areas than rooms. I don’t think there were doors and you had to walk outside to get between each. The walls and floors were crumbling cement. I sort of felt like I was in an opium or some other sort of drug den, especially when they told me to go to the IV room, where people were just lying silently, hooked up to tubes.

I got a shot in my butt, then an IV. My stomach kept hurting, but I managed to fall asleep about halfway through. When I woke up, the pain was mostly gone. Shannon and Charles (who work for our partner organization) had come along to help us out. They were so great. Shannon bought me a hot water bottle while I was hooked up to the IV, and they helped translate my medicines and talk to the doctors. Shannon also went out to buy me some rice congee, some of which I was able to shovel down.

When we got back to the hotel, I found all of my things (which had been strewn everywhere before I left) packed into my bags by Lauren, Hannah, and McKinley. It was the sweetest thing ever.

It was definitely an adventure, to say the least. Let’s hope things become—and stay—more mellow!

P.S. I can’t actually post any blogs from China because the government blocked blogspot along with Facebook, Youtube, and other similar sites. So I emailed this home and had my parents post it. Thanks Mom and Dad J

Friday, November 5, 2010

In the Footsteps of the Incas

Last Friday we embarked on our four day hike on the Inca Trail. Our group was comprised of the fifteen students, Scott (on of our program leaders—one got sick the day before and the other had this enrichment week off,) three guides, and 24 porters including a chef and assistant chef. But before I say much more, I feel it’s necessary to clarify that this was as close to luxury camping as you can get. I’ll explain.

In the morning, we were woken up when hot coca tea was brought to our tents. A few minutes later, a hot bowl of water was placed outside our tent door. Then we’d have breakfast. The first day we had hot quinoa cereal and pancakes with fruit and chocolate sauce, the second day was a spinach pancake with chicken sausage, the third day was omelettes. After breakfast, we’d pack up (although I don’t even know if I can call it that because the porters even took down our tents and rolled up our pads) and hit the trail. We were given snacks for our breaks, which were mostly cookies, fruit, and candy. When we arrived at our lunch spot each day, we’d find a tent set up with tables and chairs. Then we were served a three course meal. First was an appetizer, then soup, then a main dish. After each meal we had tea as well. After lunch, if we had more mileage to cover, we’d finish our day’s hike. Arriving at our campsite, our tents would already be set up with sleeping pads placed inside. At 5:30, we had teatime, which consisted of hot chocolate, coffee, tea, and more snacks. Then around 7 we had dinner. I don’t know if you can get any less rustic than that. Having said that, it was definitely nice after a long day of hiking to be somewhat pampered. I feel a little bit whimpy for saying that now.

The first day, we took a bus out to kilometer 82 of the railway that takes the non-hikers out to Machu Picchu. After passing through a checkpoint (the first of many along the way), we began our trek. That day’s hike was a fairly mild , mostly flat 11 kilometers. I was surprised to see places along the trail selling drinks and snacks. I guess I didn’t realize how touristy the Inca Trail was. Day 2 was by far the hardest day—nine kilometers with a 1200 m elevation gain up to Dead Woman’s Pass. What was harder for me though, was the downhill that came after that. After we reached the top, we had to descend down steep stone stairs. Not fun on the joints. We were all really tired when we reached our campsite, and most of us just lied around in our tents for the rest of the day. Well, we came out for meals and of course, our Halloween celebration! We all wore costumes and trick-or-treated at each other’s tents. As much as we missed having our Halloween back at home, I think I speak for everyone when I say that it was definitely a Halloween we’ll remember for quite some time. Our hike on day three was 16 kilometers long. We went over two more passes, but they weren’t nearly as hard as the first. Then we descended about 1000 meters to our last campsite. We walked past many Incan ruins, and got to learn about their architecture and history of the Incas. Our fourth day began bright and early when we were woken up at 3:30 in the morning. The porters had to pack up our tents and gear so they could make their train at 5:30. We waited in a little lodge until 5:30, which was when the checkpoint opened. After that, we hiked the last 6 km past the sungate and down to Machu Picchu. It was a bummer because the third and fourth days were rainy and cloudy, so we missed out on a lot of views and scenery. When we got to the sungate, we couldn’t even see famous view of Machu Picchu. Luckily, it cleared out a little later on in the day, so we were still able to see it from a bit further down.

It was pretty incredible seeing Machu Picchu. All of the building and temples and water fountains that are still standing today amazed me. It was crowded with lots of people though, which personally I didn’t find appealing. The mountains were breathtaking. I can’t even explain their beauty. I was surround by these giants, and it made me feel so tiny.

We all went out to a buffet lunch after. Turns out that was NOT a good decision. That night, eight people, including me, got food poisoning. And we all went to the hospital the next day. It was miserable. And to make things worse, it was the day before our crazy long trip to China. I’m still not feeling great. Let’s just say I’ve been eating lots of bread and crackers. Hopefully it’ll pass soon.

I have custody of one of four program computers during our time in China and Cambodia, so I’m actually typing this on our flight from El Salvador to LA. We woke up this morning at 5 for our flight from Cusco to Lima. The plane got delayed and hour for mechanical failure, so in Lima we had to sprint through the departure tax and security. Adrenaline rush. Then we flew from Lima to El Salvador. Our next leg will be from LA to Hong Kong, and then we’ll fly from Hong Kong to Kunming, China. I could be done flying already. But we aren’t even halfway done.

I’m really excited though because my family is meeting me in the LA airport! Knock on wood everything goes well. I can’t wait.

I guess I should conserve the battery on this computer. Unfortunately I signed up for this computer before I knew it was the computer with the charger that doesn’t actually charge.

Wish for no more flight trouble!