Saturday, January 28, 2012

Hanoi (+Halong Bay)->Hue->Hoi An-->

Great news! My Uncle Mark got me a camera for Christmas!!! Pictures of Halong Bay will be up soon!

I've been traveling for about a week in Vietnam, and have spent time in Hanoi, Halong Bay (one of the most beautiful places I've ever been), Hue, and Hoi An. The thing that has struck me most has actually been the number of foreigners around. We're traveling on what has become informally known as the Banana Pancake Trail because of the industry that has sprung up to to provide tourists with Western tasting food and amenities (like delicious banana pancakes), and it definitely feels like we're always interacting with people associated with the tourist industry. Prices are relatively high--a bowl of noodles in a tourist area can cost up to $2.25, while it should cost a dollar, and candy bars, sodas, and beers all have inflated prices. Right now, I'm taking a twenty-four hour bus to Saigon, and I'd say 85% of the passengers are foreign, mostly European, with a couple of Chinese tourists mixed in. It's odd--I'm used to being the only strange foreign person on a bus. There are so many foeigners around and foreign food is everywhere so I keep feeling like I'm traveling in the States.

So far, Vietnam has been gorgeous, and pretty interesting. We went to a few museums in Hanoi, and a few other sites. The museums weren't that great, but I found them really interesting because everything was written to support the viewpoint of the Vietnamese Communist party. There were common references to "the enemy," "our patriotic sister....," and quite a bit of self-aggrandizing fluff at all the exhibits--even at the Woman's Museum. The biases of museums are fascinating. Like, at the air and space museum the Enola Gay is just displayed as a B-29, with no mention of dropping the bomb. 

Anyways...the museums weren't objectively great, but I enjoyed them a lot anyways.Halong Bay afterwards though was awesome. We stayed on a boat and cruised around this gorgeous rocky outcrops. The only thing that could have made it better would have been a little bit of sun, but the scenery was fantastic, and we did stuff like stopping at an island to check out these caves, going kayaking, and jumping off a boat.

Other than that, Vietnam has been a really lovely tourist trap, which I can totally deal with. I feel bad, but I've really been taking advantage of this trip of eat a lot of Western food. I mean, I've had a lot of pho and banh my and all that good stuff, but having a banana panckae with bacon (on the side) makes me absurdly happy. The baguettes and the coffee here are spectuacular., the people are friendly, and not worrying about class is really nice.

p.s. The bus ride is long, but the scenery is gorgous. To my left the ocean is this gorgous torquouis, the beacues are white and sandy, and the sky is amazingly clear. If I could get to my camera I'd totally be snappingn pictures right now.  

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Traveling in Southeast Asia!

The school year ended, so I've been traveling in Vietnam. I haven't had internet, so I've been pretty out of contact. When I get a chance, I'm going to find a cafe with wifi and sit down, write about it, and upload some pictures.

Happy Chinese New Year everybody!!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A farewell to family

My Dad's account of the last couple of days in China. (He's much better at blogging than my sister is, right?)

Yesterday we hired a car and went to two tourist destinations outside of Kunming.  For you geologists in the audience, you will be pleased to know they each consist of Karst formations.  The Stone Forest is 1.5 hours southeast of Kunming.  The formations their are mostly towers and and very narrow canyons left behind when the softer rock eroded away.  Words, as do photos, fail me.  We spent hours wandering through narrow canyons, down staircases, up staircases and through door-sized arches.  The whole area was very well developed (you probably guessed as much, when I mentioned staircases).  We started at a new ticket building.  Like many public buildings in China it was made of stone and had slippery marble floors.  Once we had our tickets, we went outside and learned we should buy more tickets for the trolley to take us to the actual gate to the park.

After the five minute ride to the gate to the park, it was just a five minute walk to the actual trails.  As mentioned, down stairs, up stairs, around rocks and through arches.  We took pictures.

After three hours of wandering we took the trolley back to the headquarters.  For reasons I do not understand, the trolley dropped us at a different building from where we had purchased tickets (and more importantly agreed to meet our driver).  Because all the buildings are stone with slippery marble floors, it took us a little while to figure out that we were not at the right place.  Eventually we found our driver and he took us to lunch.  

After lunch (egg and tomato soup, eggplant, peas and meat, and "pockmarked grandmother's tofu,") we went to "nine countrysides" which is a canyon that heads into and through a cavern.  Again, the trail was paved with rock.  The rain had stopped so the trails were not as slippery as they were in the Stone Forest.  The deal included a boat ride and more stairs up and down.  The path followed the stream into a very nice cavern.  Our guess is the trail went through the cavern for at least a mile.  Before the last set of stairs we came to a sign that offered a "pole slide service."  It turned out that was a sedan chair ride, but we declined. Once we finished the last set of stairs we were able to get a "rope lift" a.k.a chairlift, to the top.

Then a two hour drive back to the hotel.  Before dinner I went for a walk through the nearby park.  One area of the park had a barbed wire fence with many notes and pictures stuck on the wires.   Folks were gathered in small groups and some were reading the notes.  I have no idea what it was all about.  Then we went to treat Will to some western food at Salvador's.  Will ran into at least four people he knew from TFC, including two supervisor types.  All of them are great.  

Today is Sunday (Saturday evening in Albuquerque)  I am headed out for a short jog.  Then Tessa and I will probably go shopping, to lunch and then the airport.  I look forward to being home, but am not excited for the flight back. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Another Blog from my Dad!

Yesterday we took the bus from Dali to Kunming.  The bus ride was an uneventful trip and had time to show three Chinese movies.  One romantic comedy about a 30 year old man who was trying to get his masters in psychology at Oxford, but could not because his examining panel felt he did not understand women.  So he goes home to China and falls in love with a girl who turns out to be a student at the high school where he teaches.  For some reason they are roommates too.  Then he declares his love.  The student rejects him.  He goes back to Oxford.  The girl realizes her mistake and follows him.  Coincidentally, she shows up during his re-examination and declares her love and he passes and they get married.  Or close enough.  The other movies were not much better, but at least they made the trip seem much longer than expected.

Today Will needed to go to the Vietnam Embassy, so Tessa and I went to the Horti Expo Garden.  The cab ride was another adventure.  For a long time we were stuck in traffic, but it seemed to make the cabbie very, very angry.  She just kept yelling and honking until traffic started to move again.  I do not think it was because of her yelling.  I think the light just changed to green.

The Horti Expo Garden had a very nice entry way and ticket taker.  When you are buying your ticket you can see some tour trolleys, a snack bar and a giant clock on the side small hill.  It turns out that is about all there is to see.  Mostly is a deserted group of exhibit halls and "national gardens."  Some of the exhibit halls are crumbling.  One even has grass growing out of the wall.  The China Hall was in pretty good shape, but just had some furniture samples on display.  The Thailand garden area had a sign that said "Crocodiles," but that just turned out to be an empty stinky room.  After wandering in the rain, all the while watching out for escaped crocodiles, we decided to head to the "Expo National Styles Food Area."  By that time our expectations were very low.  We finally found the abandoned building where the food area used to be and decided it was time to head to the exit and find some lunch.  If you need a set for a low budget, post apocalyptic disaster movie, I can recommend the Horti Expo Garden. 

Once we had found the exit Tessa and I found a restaurant.  It turned out to be the kind where you point to the items in the glass door fridge.  At that point we really missed Will, but we pointed to some veggies and some meat, got a great lunch (some kind of grilled ribs, spinach with garlic and a soupy green leafy thing), and headed back to the hotel.  The traffic on the way back was much better.  Will had just finished the first part of his efforts at getting his Visa so now we are all back in the room and planning our next outing in Kunming.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Horror, The Horror!

We are in Dali which is some kind of destination for foreigners traveling on a budget in China.  Will suggested we stay in a youth hostel he knows.  I asked "Is it super clean?"  He looked away.  So,  I suggested we stay in a nicely landscaped hotel with western toilets, free breakfast and hot water.  Much to every one's relief we followed my suggestion.

For reasons which are still unclear to me, Will and Tessa wanted to get a foot massage.  I know for a fact they think I was uncomfortable with the  idea, but really that is not true.  I have always liked dark steep stairways, a warren of low ceilinged rooms, musty recliners and strangers touching my feet.  The good news is it gave me a chance to ponder my lack of Chinese Language skills.  Here are a few phrases I wished I could say in Chinese:

"No, No, I do not want you to dig your knuckle in the bottom of my foot"
"No, not that foot either!"
"I will pay extra, even double, if you will stop"
"Nope, my foot does not bend that way!"

Thankfully, eventually she finished on my left foot so I knew I was halfway done.  The whole ordeal (all 50 minutes) cost just 50 Yuan and does not appear to have done any permanent damage.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

My Dad's Impressions!

Hi Will,

So I find myself visiting Will in China. The most consistent impression is that I do not understand what I am seeing.  I am reminded of my first sociology class.  The professor sent us to visit Dupont Circle in D.C. and report back on what we saw.  I learned later there was quite alot to see there in terms of alternative lifestyles.  I missed all of that.  I returned to class with a report along the lines of "well, there were alot of people and buildings. Some of the buildings were embassies I think."  The reports by the rest of the class were much more worldly and interesting.  So, with that lesson on rose colored glasses, here is my report on my first days in China.  

First, the driving.   I think they call it driving.  Will had lined up a man with a truck to take us from the airport to Songgui.  We had to hike a little from the airport terminal to the driver because he was not an approved airport taxi.  Not a good sign, but shoot, we probably saved 50 cents by not using an approved driver.  Will had a mischievous glint in his eye as he put me into the front seat, and before I was even sure there were no seatbelts we were heading up the wrong way on the freeway exit ramp.  I went ahead and asked "why are we going the wrong way on the freeway exit ramp?"  The Answer:  "its okay, the road is not finished." Which was true.  We were soon flying through a road construction site.  Gravel.  Trucks.  Men.  Other cars.  Slow Cars.  Fast Trucks.  More Men.  Livestock.  Fast Cars.  No worries though.  We were all honking.  Apparently as long as you can honk, you are okay.  Next time you approach an intersection, do not slow.  Do not look.  Just Honk.  It works. 

We survived the drive through the road construction and got to the part where we were in the mountains, honking and passing on the curves.  I noticed random brown haystack looking things.  Smaller than a haystack, but also brown.  I am still not sure what they are for, but I have theories.  In the brief moments when I was not calculating the odds of imminent collision, I saw terraced agriculture fields.  To state the obvious:  That must be alot of work.  Lots of small irregularly shaped fields all working their way up the side of the mountain.  

We did finally arrive in Songgui.  The adrenaline and stress from the drive had eliminated any fatigue from the 30 hour travel day, plus it was dinner time.  The restaurant had a man and a woman in the food prep area.  Will went into the food prep area and he and the lady discussed the contents of the fridge.  Green stuff, unidentifiable meat as well as a very identifiable leg of pig.  Really.  Good looking pig leg.  And a great big tub of rice.  After Will's talk with the lady, we sat down at the table and drank tea.  

We kept our coats on though.  The dining area was "open air."  So far I have been here 5 days and have not been in any restaurant with a closed door.  Some have big metal doors, but they are never shut.  Some do not have any doors.  Just a group of short tables and stools by the side of the road.  Your savvy diners, who want to eat and be warm, look for a spot in the sun and out of the wind.  But that is not always available.  

So, after a little while huddled around my tea cup, the food came.  A great plate of pieces of the pig leg.  Brocolli.  Tofu.  Rice.  A struggle with chopsticks.  More tea.  Really good food. Then, time to find a bed.

Songgui is a market town and most of the restaurants have a few rooms to rent.  There are also at least two motel kind of places that do not have a restaurant.  We rented a room in one.  After confirming that the one chair in the room had just been stacked, but not actually bolted or screwed or even glued together, and failing to figure out the exact source of the liquid on the bathroom floor, I decided to try the next motel. Much nicer and went to bed for the night. No word on my request for a refund of the $7 I spent on the first motel.

Songgui is dark in the morning.  Not quiet though.  The trucks never stop going through.  Some big.  Some small.  And a million kind of tractor looking things that chug, chug, chug, chug everywhere they go. By 8 am it is getting light enough to see and we meet Will at the only intersection in town.  Two of the corners have food service.  The tables are outside.  Which is fair, because the food prep and cooking areas are also outside.  So Will talked to the lady and we sat down at a very short table on short stools.  Each table has cups with hot spice, salt, msg, and a couple of dangerous looking sauce things. 

Will has ordered noodles in a pork kind of broth.  Will recommends the hot spice and it is very good.  Plus it is hot.  Nothing like a bowl of hot noodles on a cold morning in Songgui.

Then to school.  Not to be too proud, but Will runs a great classroom.  60 (I counted) seventh grade kids. They all wear the uniform jackets.  Not sure I understand why the uniform is a red white and blue windbreaker that says "Sport Fashion" on the back.  They poured into the classroom and were all pretty interested to see Tessa and me standing in the back.  We did not have the uniform red, white and blue windbreaker jackets, so they knew we were new.  

The bell rings(not exactly like a school bell, more a series of faint tones)  and Will asks them to be quiet.  They settle down and the lesson begins. The kids are focused (with a few minor exceptions) and happy.  Words fail a proud father, but it was great to see Will explaining in Chinese (I assume that was what he was doing) and leading them through their exercises.  The kids have final exams, so much of the focus was on test taking strategies.  

Much more to report, but it is time for dinner and a bus ride to LiJiang.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Arrival, Food, and Class

Hello! My name is Tessa, and I'll be your guest blogger for today.

After a long day of travel, my dad and I made it to Will’s town! Traveling for over 31 hours is, of course, easy for such seasoned travelers as ourselves, and we soon found ourselves happily chowing down on pigs’ feet and other delicious things. So far, everything we eat is absurdly delicious, although I don’t think that we have once finished a dish. So much food!

Today we also visited Will’s class (before eating a yummy freshly-dead fish in a broth with a strange spicy/numbing/what’s-going-on-in-my-mouth? spice in it) and it was fantastic. We introduced ourselves at the front of the room, using only present tense, and then Will asked them questions in Chinese about what we had said, to see how much they had understood. Students offered answers enthusiastically, and I think that they understood almost everything.

 Will’s students were wonderful, and Will is a fantastic teacher. The kids willingly read words from the board en masse, and respond to every question he asks. And they obviously like and respect Will (of course!) and are actively engaged in the class. It was a fun class, and one that I know I would enjoy being in as a student. I have more compliments for Will's teaching, but I'll save them for later. I don't want to embarrass him on his own blog. :)

The classroom only a little bigger than a classroom one might expect to see in an American middle school, but there are many, many more students in the room. The classroom has white walls and huge multi-pane glass windows. A big chalkboard in the front of the room is under a pasted-on Chinese flag. There is a slight dais underneath the chalkboard, I assume for visibility. 60 kids sit two to a bench on what look more like sawhorses than anything else. Each pair shares a big desk with workbooks in it and on top of it and generally everywhere. We sat at the back of the class at one of the desks; I was quite a fan of the benches—way more comfortable than those silly little chairs with the mini-desk attached. Plus, when I sit in a chair, I tend to sit lower and lower until I'm practically lying on my lumbar, which is comfortable, but not the best I'm-paying-attention position one could be in. Yay benches!

Will has another period today, and then we'll out for dinner, which I expect will be really good. Bye!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Last Week of Classes!

It's the last week of the semester here, so I'm stressing out. There's just a couple more days to try and cram as much English as possible into my students heads so that they don't fail the test (too badly). It's gonna be rough. I keep being surprised by how bad a teacher I was for the first two months or so (and the first month especially so). When reviewing some of the most basic stuff, some of my students are still making mistakes that I should have corrected a long time ago. First year teachers are supposed to be awful, and I'm definitely no exception to that rule. I'm definitely looking forward to next semester, and the chance to do a lot of things better, but I'm also really looking forward to break. Having a rest sounds amazing.

Monday, January 2, 2012

My Dad and My Sister are Coming!!!!!!!

They will be here tomorrow! I will greet them, and then take them to the best restaurant in town to partake in one of my new favorite dishes--pig's feet!