Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Rain in China is different. Right now, as I type this, a raging storm echos outside. I swear the thunder is louder here. Like a windshield in a car wash my living room window blurs perception with rain. It has been five straight days of on and off rain. I thought it rained a lot in Ireland little did I know that China had Ireland beat. Especially at this time of year when it is monsoon season. An umbrella becomes your new best friend because you never know when a downpour will strike next. 
Downpours are not the only experience offered during Monsoon season. From the wisdom of Forrest Gump, “One day it started raining, and it didn’t quit. . . . Little bitty stingin’ rain... and big ol’ fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath.” Do not mistake me though some days it clears and the sky offers up blue sky and white fluffy clouds which, let’s be honest, are few and far between in most parts of China. 
However, unlike back in the states, rain does not relieve the pressure of humidity. You may step out of your apartment seconds after a downpours and still your lungs will become heavy from the unrelenting moisture. Moisture that is so heavy a swim through the atmosphere seems highly probable. Or the moisture is so much you are hesitant to move too much. 
I thought rain would not faze my chinese friends but I was surprised to find out rain is treated almost as if it is snow. Students are late to class, a friend waited for an hour and a half to escape the rain. Most Americans would become too stubborn and just go, but lets face it, most of us are nice and safe, warm and comfy in our cars. Most of my students bike to class. It amazes me they can balance their bike while holding an umbrella for themselves. However it does become an annoyance when only four students turn up to a class of 30. 
That being said thunderstorms are great motivation to write and become lost in thought. Everything seems richer in rain. Greener, more vibrant, more their natural color. 
When it is necessary to go out in it it is always an adventure and an imagination conjurer. The other day, I walked home from class and realized the bike stands on campus have a similar plastic covering our (my roommates and I) sunroom in Ireland had. Hard blue plastic you would not think able to hold up the roof of a home. I stood under it, the bike rack in front of my apartment. For a second, just for a second I was transported back to Ireland and our shared dinner table in our sunroom. Our laughter, happiness, last minute studying and dinner parties. 
Beep. Beep. Beep. 
(insert motorbike alarm-- the same alarm that drove Lily and Robin nuts while waiting for the wedding dress shop to open on How I Met Your Mother
I snapped back to reality and realized how much thunderstorms would now remind me of China. . . . Thought filled Sundays with nothing to do, naps, comfort, the heat, wet skirt hem from walking to class, deserted campus during downpour. Soon China will be the second place I will fondly remember. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

"I am the worst man you will ever meet. . . . but I am the happiest."

A little over a month left of my time in China. It has been fast and slow all at the same time. As it gets closer and closer to the end it becomes harder and harder to admit I am not coming back next year--especially to my students. (I am convinced my boss gave me the best students these last nine weeks in an attempt to convince me to return next fall).

In little ways I have conquered China. It no longer intimidates me. China is not a complete mystery anymore and I am thankful for this. I have learned a little about a new place and realized, except for China’s unique eccentricities that make it CHINA, it is still a place. A place full of people who have the same needs and wants as me.

Except for some massive loans I have to figure out, it would not be unheard of if I came back next year. However, that is the known option, the easy option, the comfortable option. I would know what to expect. My future looks a lot like it did last summer: unknown. So just like last summer I know I have to try.

I have to try out many things. There are many possibilities. To write, to sing, to swim, to bake, to work for a non-profit, to look at jobs across the U.S. The next year will be a year of exploration. If something sticks, it sticks. If not there is always the world. God knows I will try until the day I die to see as much of it as I can. Thus, after China, I will be in the land of unknown and will not return to China. . . . at least not for the next year.

All right enough of the inner/outer(?) monologue. This post is to tell of two Americans’ adventures in Chengdu and Dali (April 29th-May 5th). Maggie, a fellow Mary Knoller, and I met in the Chengdu airport. We wanted to make sure we were able to see the Pandas of Chengdu and the province of Yunnan, our students speak so much about, before we leave for the U.S. Our first day was travel logged. After a bus and cab we made it to the Hostel for pizza and a nap. Afterwards we immediately made plans to see the pandas the next day. Then it was onto the Irish pub for Egg rolls, Samosas, and Beer.

Day one of Chengdu was packed with Pandas, or at least the first few hours were. In the van on the way there we met Clara a student from Chongqing. She told me she goes to Southwest University (The university I would have taught at if I did not choose Mary Knoll. The same university MANY CSB/SJU alum teach at. I had to ask her). . . . “Who is your English teacher?” “JOHN MURRAY.” She responded (the all caps was my embellishment). “That is my friend,” I told her, “We studied in Ireland together!” Both Clara and I could not believe how small China became in that moment.

The pandas were more entertaining than I expected especially because I HELD ONE. I spent way too much money to do so but it was for a good cause. It was soft and cuddly and I half expected it to maul me. But really it was not heavy at all. The only down side was that we barely had a minute with it before it was the next person's turn.
[5/20/12 7:54:12 AM] Catherine: Maggie and I went on to try our first sichuan spicy food. Have to say that the spicy noodles--in no way-- prepared us for the food that was to come. Since Chengdu is a major city, 30 million people, we had to hit up Starbucks but not without a visit to Mao on the way. The people’s park was next-- a nice park but the best part was the singing geriatric participants in military-like aerobics performance in celebration, of course, of May day. The tibetan street was our next stop where we bought jewelry galore and were serenaded by three minorities playing traditional instruments. The day ended with some more shopping at Uni Qlo, H&M and the BEST mexican food I have had in China. What can I say?

Our last day in Chengdu was full of walking. We visited the catholic church where contemporary architecture met Chinese. All the while not realizing, until the end the whole the church, chapels and lodgings were structured to form a cross. Next was the SPICIEST FOOD EVER. We had to try the famous Sichuan Hot Pot. Due to a paper menu full of Chinese characters-- no pictures no PinYin-- and a lack of known chinese words for vegetables our waitress invited us to the kitchen and we choose what we wanted to eat. We liked the La but not the Ma. I have no idea what spice the Ma is but it makes your mouth numb.

As for this hot pot’s spiciness. . . . hmm well let’s just say it never stopped being spicy. We tried to walk off the spice and found the Art museum to be closed so we went on to the AiDao Nunnery. We were lost on the way but it was the best lost that could happen. We found a market of all things “ancient China.” I was determined to find a simple jade ring. I thought I found it but the man wanted 30 yuan for it! I did not want it that much. Then the fun began. He insisted on me buying it. All of the men around him selling other things became involved, semi surrounding us, causing a traffic jam with a woman who wanted to move her bike, all the while speaking to us as if we were fluent in Chinese. We slowly walked away and said thank you and good-bye. Then we remembered and went back to ask for directions to the nunnery. What a way to find where you are going.

Historical places, especially in China, can be disappointing. Tourists can build up too many expectations or when hidden falsities are found the illusion is shattered and meaning is lost. The nunnery did not do this. It was too full of life. Du Fu’s cottage however was basically a park where, possibly, a 8th century poet lived and gathered inspiration for his famous poetry. My glimmer of hope was the excavated and displayed ancient pillars of the former pagoda. Another stop at Peter’s Tex Mex for our last fix of western food and then it was on to DALI in the morning!

We got up at the butt-crack of dawn to make our flight to Dali. We arrived in Dali and were greeted with a breath of fresh air quite literally. Dali, maybe all of Yunnan Province, is where all the beauty of China is. Met our driver Li in Arrivals--he will be a constant in our Dali story. We made it to Five Elements, met Jeanine, So-so, and their two GOLDEN RETRIEVERS (who Maggie and I mauled). Groggy from sleep we dropped our bags and took a nap until So-so woke us up for lunch. Lunch was beautiful. Hopefully it will be similar to the one I will cook for my family when I return to MN. Full of flavor, greens form their organic garden and sauteed tofu.

Maggie and I wasted no time. Tie-dye factory that afternoon, lake tour the next day, and mountain climbing on Friday. Oh, the Tie-Dye factory. . . . Li was our driver again to a small village about 30 minutes away. He stopped and we were greeted by a tie dye shop. Oh no, this is not what we expected. We politely looked around for 10 minutes or so and then--thank god Maggie’s Chinese is much better than mine-- the woman showing us around took us to where they stitch, dye, dry and cut the tie-dye. Okay, now we will buy something. It was great to meet this tie-dye woman though. We got a picture with her and she was almost too shy to do so. We stuck around for 40 minutes or so-just talking. We learned her Grandmother, Mother, Her and her sister all work together.

Afterwards, we told Li, through broken chinese and pantomime, we wanted to walk around the little village. It was the China I expected. Hilariously he took us to another tie-dye store where we were attacked by a pushy saleswoman. Maggie caved in and bought one. My earring became caught on the scarf she put on me. While I tried to fix it Li and Maggie started to freak out and tell the woman, “No, no, hold on.” Apparently the woman was coming at me to help me out. The problem was that she was coming at my ear with a pair of rusty old scissors. Needless to say we left as fast as we could but not without making her take a picture with us.

We walked away laughing and told Li NO MORE TIE-DYE. “Okay, okay,” he said.  We tasted our first of the famous Bah-bah (the local bread of sweet or savory ingredients). Then we walked around the local market of beautiful produce and mysteriously disappearing bunnies. The night was made up of dumpling making at the Hostel where we met the third worker in our hostel Jessie. Then a walk around old Dali town. Since Dali is so beautiful there are many tourists who open business. One of the local businesses was the Bad Monkey Restaurant and Bar. It goes without saying we frequented it every night.

Thursday boasted a beautiful day that caused a little sun-burn, beautiful views of ErHai Lake and great new friends. The tour was Li driving us around the Lake. No boats were involved, to our surprise, but for good reason--to protect the lake no boats are allowed on the water unless it is fishing season. More markets we experienced as well as many little villages. The best was a local restaurant Li took us to. We had chicken and vegetables, sauteed peas and green beans, flowers cooked with eggs and Yunnan CHEESE. Another nap, shopping, and dinner at the Bad Monkey closed off the night.

Friday-another beautiful day. The climate in Dali is a lot like Colorado. We began to climb the mountain after a touristy, but necessary, chairlift ride to the start. Hiking in China is always paved and set so we diverted whenever possible and climbed rocks, I put my feet into the streams and picked up all the trash I could. It was a difficult climb at times but it was pure bliss. After an awkward chair lift down-- a Chinese couple were fighting which resulted in Maggie and I awkwardly trying to keep up a load conversation so we did not have to listen to the girlfriend sniffling.

Our vacation was almost over, then. . . . the Bad Monkey happened. We spent the night with micro-brews, dancing, French guys, Chinese girls, a man who claimed he was, “the worst man you will ever meet, but I am the happiest.” Maggie and I tried to feel him out and he turned into one of those harmless characters you meet in a bar. He told us the same story at least four times and bought us plenty of beer. I have to admit though he did get everyone up in the bar to dance. It felt great to stay up until three. Especially when it was because of good beer, good conversation, dancing and music. The only problem was the flight the next day. I returned to Jiangmen happy to have more colorful memories. However it was learned: NEVER travel by plane while hungover.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

"Long Time No See. . . . "

Or at least that is what my students say as they greet me after our MONTH LONG (for me a little more than a month) winter vacation. I am equipped with a new schedule and new students. I am psyched. I’M BACK. Back in Jiangmen and I can say this now, with complete confidence, Jiangmen finally REALLY, feels like home. I have my routine which I mix up if necessary. I have mastered the art of filling time with dancing, talking, reading, writing and surfing the Internet (as the Chinese do). I have my local haunts but I hope to find new ones this semester. My produce lady still hangs around. As well as the AMAZING Zongzi pot. 
The first weeks back have gone on without a hiccup, except for a fall down the stairs that has left me with a a rolled ankle, a trip back to Hong Kong, and an “air cast.” I will heal. . . . slowly. Injury aside it is already the third week of the semester! Hopefully this pace keeps going. I struggle with myself because no matter how great my friends, my students, my adventures and CHINA are I am ready to be home. I cannot wait to be back but I do not want to cheat myself out of a great semester because I am too focused on the future. (yes I do realize how contradictory this statement is when I also post it on my Facebook with the date of my return) 
Now. . . . for some fun and because I have been gone for a while, I will talk about the places I visited while on break!
VIETNAM: FOOD. GoCong Town. Phuong. Table as a bed. Hammock. Naps. New fruit. Beauty. French influence. French bread. French homes. Peeled paint. Salamanders. FOOD. Cold noodles, egg rolls, veggies, and fish sauce. Vietnamese coffee with SWEETENED and CONDENSED MILK. Fish market. Friends. Hair salon. New hair style. Hair wash. Massage. Lunch at the Hair Salon. FOOD. Karaoke at T and Amy's house. Tour of Mekong River Delta. Coconut juice. Fruit with salt. Amy’s school performance. HOSPITALITY. Fried fish. Cold showers. Drinks at the new local club. Neon lights. Bus rides. Touched by an old man. Touched by an old woman. (They liked my white skin) Ho Chi Minh City for one night. Markets. Shopping. Central post office. Movie theater. No crosswalks. More buses. Hugs. Goodbyes and Happy New Years said. 
I really cannot thank Phuong and her family enough. 
BEIJING: NICK and KATIE. COLD. COLD. COLD. REALLY COLD. Use that Mandarin. Great hostel. Candied strawberries on a stick (twice). Tian anmen Square. Forbidden City. Hutongs. Summer palace. THE GREAT WALL-- all to ourselves. Peanut butter for Joe. Climbing. Climbing. Climbing. Cold. Outside all of the time. The NEW YEAR. Peking Duck. Upset stomachs (from the Peking duck). Fireworks everywhere-- on every street. New Year Fair. CROWDS. Unknown meat. Cheap beer at the hostel. Laughs. Cards. Chinese food. Korean food. And then there was Coldstone (twice). 
THAILAND: PARADISE. Beaches. Pineapple and Singha. Singha. Singha. Good beer. Getting lost on the way to the hostel. Thai Hospitality. FOREIGNERS. Elephant riding. Alex = terrified. Beach lounging-- on the sand. In chairs if we could evade the “chairs salesmen.” Dinner out every night. PAD THAI. Fried rice. THE BEST SMOOTHIES EVER. Seafood. Phi Phi Island (Yes it is pronounced PEE PEE). The worst boat ride ever= too many waves, more than 40 people, blood, a trip to the hospital (not for us), four puked, smelling herbs to calm our stomachs. SNORKELING. Millions of colorful fish. Beautiful fish. Fish you only dream of seeing. Jellyfish stings. Grabbed by a Lady boy. Old men with young women. Rum and Bomb our bartenders. Sunsets. Sunburns. A stuffed elephant. I want to live here. 
That was my vacation. Yes I do love to capitalize things for effect or just cuz’. If I was not in one of these three places I was in the Mary Knoll house in Stanley Hong Kong indulging my self in good food, fast Internet, nights out dancing and good times. I promised my dad this post would not be a novel like the last so there it is. I have to go to a 9pm night class now. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Thanks. Giving.

I have now spent, the American Holiday,Thanksgiving in two different countries on two different continents. After a few weeks of routine Alex and I received a MUCH needed break in our trip to Hong Kong for Thanksgiving. We joked, since it is just the two of us in Jiangmen, that he misses guys and I miss girls. So we were ecstatic when we arrived at the stanley house, after getting a little lost and being two hours late, and found Tim and Wang Wei. It was as if we had never left. 
Thursday boasted one of the best Thanksgivings I have had yet. In the morning Geoff, Rachel and I went down to the beach. I swam in the South China Sea on Thanksgiving morning! We spent the day being lazy-- talking to other guests at the house while Mayra and some of the guys played American football. Then we all got ready and set of in a mini-bus to the Jockey club in Happy Valley Hong Kong. The dinner was amazing full of all different kinds of food--including turkey, smoked salmon, oysters, duck, fish, mac and cheese, ice cream etc. etc. It was heaven. Afterwards we set off to enjoy Lan Kwai Fong. Maybe, after three months of no hard liquor, a little too much fun--especially on ladies night. Not to mention it was also Rachel’s 23rd birthday. 
Friday morning was lazy. The morning spent at the beach. Then SHOPPING in Hong Kong where I found my beloved digestives that will always remind me of Ireland. Then on to H&M where I only had an hour to get my shopping fix in. I was successful with the help of my fellow Mary Knollers. Then, of course, on to a Variety Show put on by all of the Mary Knoll students in Hong Kong to raise money for Mary Knoll. The show was amazing complete with singing, dancing, skits, Kung Fu and Tae Kwon Do. It was hilarious. 
This time we stayed in talked, laughed and ate. For all too soon we were all leaving on Saturday. We said our goodbyes and started back to Jiangmen, but not before I could get my Starbucks fix. As I have told students the purpose of Thanksgiving is int he name. It is a holiday to Give Thanks. I am truly thankful for all of you in my life. Really I cannot tell you in words how much it means to me when I see you read my blog, or send me a quick hello in emails, Facebook or Skype. It has been wonderful and I know that without my friends and family I would not be able to have this great experience. I love all of you. 
Now. Hopefully. My next post will not be a month away. 

Same old. Same old.

Mundane. No, I do not like to admit it but sometimes I find myself in a rut. The explanation being I have now lived in China for three months and a state of “normalcy” has set in. I go to work, I eat, I nap, I go to restaurants, and the occasional outing to a park or shopping mall. I have a routine that is busy but not devoid of free time. I do not write as much as I should, which is evident in my sporadic blog posts, or even as much as I would like. It seems my perpetual procrastination has followed me from College. I have come to realize that not all of you know my schedule. 
Monday: I have class from 10am to 11:40am. At 2:30pm I meet with my “tutor” unfortunately I do not think he will really tutor me. I think he would rather improve his English. Then at 4:00pm I head over to Tim’s apartment, on the way I stop for some jiao zi to save for lunch the next day. Then Tim and I learn Cantonese cooking from Yin (a Chinese-English Teacher I have mentioned before). Finally, Jelly, yes Jelly, comes over for an hour of English. 
Tuesday: I have class at 8am(Sophomore Non-English Majors) and 10am (Freshmen English Majors). Then, I am sad and embarrassed to confess, Alex and I go for McDonald’s. What can I say it is much better in China than it is in the states and it is something different to eat. That is one thing I did not realize. The Chinese eat Chinese food and not much else. Of course they try other foods-- just as we do. However those “other foods” never become a regular like our Mexican food or Italian food does. 
Then, if it is not cancelled for lack of a practice space I go to a Jazz and Hip-Hop dance class from 2:30pm to 5pm. It is instructed by one of my friends Pinki who, I must say, should quit her Accounting Major and become a dancer/choreographer instead. Pinki and I usually go to Dinner after then my night is free. 
Oh, actually now I will meet with my new Chinese (Mandarin) tutor. Yes. It is three months in. I go on vacation in a month and I am just figuring this out now. 
Wednesday: I have class at 10am (Sophomore Non English Majors-- this is probably my most difficult class) and then 2:30pm (Sophomore English Majors). 
Thursday: I have two more classes one at 8am then another at 10am. Then it is, technically, my weekend. I usually go out with Yin or another friend. We walk around Jiangmen or go shopping. 
Friday: Is my one free day. Usually it fills up with errands, Skype dates or outings with Yin. But then us foreigners gather at Tim’s for Happy Hour where we have Pot Luck or go out to dinner. 
Saturday: A mostly free day. Except, in the morning, Alex and I help with the kids for two hours. (from 9am to 11:20) Oh, and now, at 3pm, I meet with my new Chinese tutor again.
Sunday: I have my last class of the week from 8:30am to 10:10. After this I usually got o my coffee house substitute TCBY. Grab a cup of Colombian coffee and a scoop of coffee ice cream. Hunker down and revise some writing or read. After this is planning for the next week. At 5pm Alex Tim and I have mass and go to dinner. 
Thus a week has passed and nothing is new. As I have told students, “same old, same old.” Yet, you never know, one day some students may just invite you to climb Guifeng mountain. The mountain you have waited for three months to climb and-- for lack of a better cliche, you just haven’t gotten around to climbing. So life is great here in little old Jiangmen. My home. 
Side Note: My black board handwriting looks better. And who knew a container of instant Folgers coffee could smell so good. Thanks Melissa and Stephanie!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

18 hours at a Chinese Hot Spring. . . .

Two weeks ago I rescheduled my Thursday afternoon class so I could go to a Hot Spring in Zhongshan. I went with Yin, YIn’s father-in-law, a man who I have not had an actual conversation with--obviously because he does not know English, and his girlfriend. Apparently the two of them like the Hot Spring. . . .  a lot. I call Yin’s father-in-law Grandpa because, around me, he has never been referred to by any other name. But, frankly, he reminds me a little of Grandpa J. The four of us caught the city bus at 2:45pm and began our three hour journey for hot water, sleeping rooms, locker rooms, and unlimited food.
The journey included two points where we got off our bus and switched to a new one. We traversed busy streets to get to the new bus stop to be picked up. This included a turn in the wrong direction, cars dodged and many questions to passersby for help on where exactly the next bus would be. Needless to say I quickly learned each Chinese city can be new and just as confusing to the Chinese navigating it as it is to the western traveller. We were dropped off at the end of a dirt road. Fish farms lined either side and as we walked to the Hot Spring Resort. 
Once we waited for a few minutes. We had to wait because we could only be at the Hot Spring for a total of 18 hours. We arrived a little early to be able to insure three meals within those 18 hours. We waited so we would be able to enjoy dinner (that night), breakfast and lunch before we had to leave: by 1pm the next day. Minutes passed, the staff, complete with Hawaiian shirts and cowboy hats, gave each of us a bracelet-- to be worn at all times. It was the key to you locker too. 
Off to the locker rooms then straight to the chinese buffet. I was ecstatic to find unlimited coffee. It was a little too sweet but I will take what I can get. We stuffed ourselves full and then stuffed ourselves into our swimsuits (best idea of my life) to begin the Hot Spring extravaganza! The heat is unbearable at first. As you slide your body into the pool it becomes okay and then, eventually, relaxing. I was a little disappointed to find, instead of natural basins, different man-made pools the resort pumped hot spring water into. The pools were jacuzzi-like and lined with stones.  Patrons are not suppose to stay in any Hot Spring/Jacuzzi for more than 15 minutes and we did not. We basically tried every different pool except for the ones you have to pay extra for. For example, one pool housed a school of fish that would, after you step into the pool, swarm and nibble at your skin-- a form of acupuncture I was told. 
My favorite was the salt sauna. Yin and I took turns. I massaged her back then she did mine to exfoliate our skin. The salt seeped into our skin as if we were cured meat. The salt melted fast and our sweat dripped from our skin as if we were melting. We exited the sauna and jumped into another hot spring pool to rinse off our new skin. Smooth: like a baby. 
The sleep arrangements are a whole other story. Yin and I, after a midnight snack of cafe and bean paste filled rice balls, moseyed on over to the sleep room. One room. Full of about 50 chinese people all in there own reclining chairs. There were two left calling our names. Each reclining chair foldout into a bed. You are allotted one towel and one pillow. Everyone’s chairs come equipped with its own TV, headphones and moveable table. It was not that bad-- just a huge Chinese sleepover with about 48 other strangers. I was thankful for my ipod though. Public service announcement: snoring is common, no mater where you are.
After a night of great sleep, for me, and restless sleep for Yin (she did not have an ipod).  We finished our Hot spring day with breakfast. Then out to the hot spring pools and then back in for lunch and off we travelled back to Jiangmen. The ride back was less chaotic. Grandpa, Girlfriend and I even got a nap in and Yin gave me my first taste of Hershey’s chocolate in two months. I do not even like the stuff in America but was happy, so happy, to taste it in China

On a more recent note. . . . I had my first experience giving oral finals the first week back after the hot spring. I now know what my teachers went through. I think giving the Final is more exhausting than taking it. To follow it up our first week with a new group of students was this last week. This second group seemed less difficult than the first and perhaps it was because of confidence from my minute amount of experience.
It is so easy to fall into a routine no matter where you live. I still remember, as if it was last week, running out of my room into the living room where my college roommates were hanging out and writing papers. “I am going to China.” I told them. Some days, I find, I forget that this is China and then, suddenly, it will occur to me. . . . I AM IN CHINA.
Your feet will never be completely clean here. 
Motorbikes (Mopeds) are the popular mode of transportation here. In fact, I have seen whole families (the most a family of four) all on the same motorbike. The largest feat I have seen yet was three freshmen riding on one bicycle. 
It baffles me but the Chinese buy and sell MANY t-shirts with english phrases/words on them. MInd you, most Chinese do not know what the words mean or what they imply.   Also, sometimes, even the words do not make sense. The best t-shirts so far: “I am not easy but we can discuss it.” Wore by a fellow teacher’s student. One of my students even had a tee shirt on that said Vodka complete with a picture of a glass of vodka. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Typhoon. Always Rainy in Guilin.

An American in China: the Chinese sleeper bus is one mode of transportation everyone should experience. . . . at least once. 
Alex and I set out on a vacation to Guilin this past week. We received the first through the seventh of October off for National Day. We decided to stay in Guilin from the 30th of September through the 6th of October. How were we to make this journey? Sleeper bus. A sleeper bus is a common mode of transportation here. Basically, it is a coach bus with three rows of bunch beds instead of seats. So you have to lay down most of your journey. With very little Chinese in our heads and survival chinese, written by William, in my notebook we set off on our journey. 
William, like the father figure he is to us followed us on to the bus to make sure we were settled in for our journey. We started to load the bus when Chinese was yelled at us from all angles. Apparently no shoes are allowed to be worn on the sleeper bus at any time. So, you must take off your shoes as you enter and place them in a plastic bag then, of course, put them back on before you exit the bus. Alex and I grabbed our top bunks by imitating monkeys to climb up. Or, should I say, I imitated a monkey as Alex is tall enough to lift himself in. (Riding on the top bunch can only be liked to an amusement park ride-- especially on the bumpy country roads) We said our goodbyes and thank yous to William and thought him gone when all of a sudden he rushed on to the bus to tell us the ride would not be 6 to 7 hours, like we were originally told, but 12 hours with no bathroom on the bus. 
Thus began our adventure. 
I should say the bus stopped promptly every two to three hours to allow us to walk around go to the bathroom and eat. This is where I found out one of my students was on the bus with me. I also mastered the squatters. A squatter is the Chinese toilet. Basically, a hole in the ground you squat over. In all honesty it is okay and makes sense if you think about it. But cleanliness in roadside squatters is not a priority thus creating a ripe smell. However this does not damper the animal life of China. In fact, as I “sat” down in my third squatter of the trip I was greeted by a small frog jumping at the chance to share my bathroom space with me. 
The trip was not too bad. We met a Senior student, Pinki, from Wuyi-- who I am sure I will become close friends with, watched some American and Chinese films(including two Jackie Chan movies), and I listened to some Mason Jennings while staring out my window and thinking to my self: you are in China, you are in China, you are in China and got some much needed sleep after my first month of teaching. 
Day one involved us getting to know the city of Guilin. Our first stop was the Price City Scenic area. Which, to be honest, was kind of pointless without English translations but I learned about the examinations Chinese scholars would take from Alex’s College Chinese history course. We also climbed our first peak/hill/mini mountain: Solitary Beauty Peak. These peaks are what Guilin, Yangshuo, XingPing are famous for and is said to be the most beautiful area of China. The peak boasted great views of the city. At the first look out I hit Alex and told him we were in CHINA to which he responded, “Why are you hitting me,” and, “we have been in China for a month now.” “I know,” I told him, “but, I think it just it me.” After that tourist stop we walked along the Li River where we found Bob Cafe. A little coffee shop/restaurant we frequented during our stay. We were stopped on the street by a salesman who promised us a the beauty of the Longji(Longxi) rice terraces. After a butt load of questions Alex and I agreed to the 180 yuan(our hostel provided the same trip for 400yuan). 
We met Pinki for dinner and enjoyed some shopping afterward. On the way back to the Hostel Alex and I stopped to watch the fireworks for National Day. The U.S. has nothing on China in terms of firework usage. 
Day two started off bumpy with an old couple refusing to get off the bus the the rice terraces. Alex and I were forced to get off instead while we were reassured another bus would be by in five minutes. After ten minutes our hostel ran out and told us to come back into wait since it would be more like 20 minutes. In this time our hostel expected us to pack up so they could move our rooms while we were gone. So probably an hour later than we had planned we set off to the rice terraces. 
On the bus we met two women, english teachers, from America who were in their second year of teaching in China. They shared our dislike for the old couple(this old couple’s defiance to not get off the bus caused the four of us to start our tours late). After we left the bus Yao women bombarded us with bracelets and scarfs reciting looka, looka and so beautiful. The Yao are a minority group in China. The women have famed long hair that they only cut once in their life (if I remember correctly, at the age of 18) and they have to wear their hair in one of three styles that indicate their relationship status. One for single, one for married, and one for widowed. To my knowledge the men have to display no such thing. As long as you ignore the major tourist attraction Longji has become you can imagine a beautiful and different way of life in China. Although us westerners, the two women we met, Alex and I, joked about the lifestyle no longer existing except for the tourist. Comments about hair weaves and modern clothing torn off to slip into the traditional dress before the tourists arrived were common fodder. 
The night included an “Irish” pub with pizza and beer: much need after a long day of being a tourist. 
Day three was a long day full of ups and downs. We met my students Blair and her friend Kellin (her spelling not mine) to travel to Yangshuo. We expected to rent some bikes and try to go hiking but, in my fear of missing out, Alex and I joined Blair and Kellin for a Li River “Bamboo” boat ride. The “Bamboo” is actually PVC pipe. I am glad we did it but it turned out to be a day of mostly traveling instead of exploring. 
We took the bus for an hour and a half to Yangshuo. Then we took a bus to Xing Ping for and hour then we took a rickshaw type go cart for thirty minutes to get to a boat. Our driver was the slowest on the river. He hit almost ever wave spraying Alex and I and ran into multiple boats. We were cold and wet but all I could do was laugh because what else could I do and if nothing else it is now a great story. The views, I do have to say, were amazing though. A lot of my students said Guilin is beautiful and the water is so clear but I, environmental me, could not help but think the water will not stay clear for long with all of these motorized “Bamboo” boats and tourists throwing their trash in the water. 
Our transportation back should have it’s own paragraph. . .  . or two, so here it is: 
China is overpopulated. When you visit a smaller town it only makes sense that catching a bus would become more difficult with a lot of waiting involved. When we got to Xing Ping a bus back to Yangshuo was loading. It was obvious we would not make it on to this bus but it seemed all of the people pushing to get on this bus would not make it on either. There were too many people and not enough boats. . . . or I mean, not enough seats. We watched a western couple make their own luck by opening a window in the back of the bus and climbing in. The girlfriend had a little more trouble than the boyfriend. A Chinese man was more than willing to help and proceeded to push her into the open window via her butt. This was all so hilarious until another bus rolled in and we realized we would have to do the same thing. 
The stampede began but this bus decided to make it a challenge and proceeded to turn itself around. The mob of us pressed against the door, thank God for Alex in this situation,only to side step a few more feet as the bus inched forward and refused to open its doors. Finally, it opened. It was as if the bus was submerged in the Li River and we were the water rushing though a broken window. Alex and I squeezed and elbowed our way on. I turned around to reach for Kellin’s hand and pulled her in. Blair eventually made it but had to stand while Alex, Kellin and I got seats. 
We separated from Blair and Kellin when we got back to Yangshuo--we had different ideas of how we wanted to spend the rest of our time. As Alex and I weaved through the crowded Yangshuo streets we, I, became thankful we did not stay in Yangshuo even if the backpacker/bars and promises of immense hiking called my name. We finally found a quiet coffee shop where I got my first mocha in a month. 
An hour later we joined the line, of a million Chinese people that wound around like a snake, to get back to Guilin. Dinner, fried rice, was in the Hostel this night as we did not get back until 11pm. 
Day four Alex and I decided to explore on our own, as it was probably best. We went to the Reed Flute Cave where the fake colored lighting and water pumped in to create “natural” pools could not detract from the beauty of the cave. I wanted to camp out there like the Goonies or the lost boys. It really made me feel like a kid when my Mom and Dad would take us to caves all over Indiana and South Dakota. 
The after was lazy with walking around the pagodas in the city. We found a steam bun man too. Naps were had back at the hostel and after we met Pinki, again, for dinner and shopped in an “Art Gallery.” I was suckered into buying two paintings. One will definitely be a Christmas present for Mom and Dad. The night was spent with two Americans in our Hostel, here teaching English, we talked and drank beer. It was really nice to share experiences in China with people who were our own age and people who knew what we were going through. We also talked about home and futures. The topics that are so interesting when first meeting someone. I was happy to hear that the things they knew about Minnesota were Brother Ali, Atmosphere, and Garrison Keillor. 
Day five was our last day in Guilin. We visited Elephant Trunk HIll and climbed some more. I love to climb. We indulged at Bob cafe; I had another mocha and Alex had a banana split. Dinner was at the Irish pub again(as Jiangmen does not have one) followed by packing for our 12 hour journey home. 
It was a great and much needed trip. Did I forget to mention it rained the whole time?