Sunday, October 16, 2016

Memorable Hoi An

Charming streets of Hoi An
One reason we were enticed to move to Nanning, Guangxi is that, just 100 miles from the Vietnam border, it's the Chinese gateway to Southeast Asia.

Due to a national holiday, I had a few days off from my teaching job at the beginning of October. So we decided to travel to Hoi An, Vietnam, to meet up with our friends Karen and Widi. Happily, they were headed there during a break from their teaching jobs in India. It had been three years since we last saw them in Chennai.

Dave and I flew from Hanoi into Danang, where at the airport he posed for this picture:

"Danang" is a song by the Radiators, a band he has followed for years. Here, his passion for music and travel collided. (As did his love of friends and community when he posted this picture on a fan website and received many fun responses.)

The Danang airport is small, so it was easy to connect with Karen and Widi when their plane landed. A car provided by our Airbnb was waiting to zip us down to Hoi An, an hour drive.

friends reunite
Before coming to China, we spent a couple of weeks in Vietnam, in cities and the countryside. Hoi An provided us with another side of Vietnam: a gorgeous beach and a quaint, ancient village. Having survived modernization and war, Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

It's definitely set up for tourists. We were approached by more people trying to sell us things than anywhere else in Vietnam. However, they weren't terribly aggressive--and many had things worth buying. Talented seamstresses are everywhere in the town. It's a great place to buy custom clothes at good prices.

On our day spent exploring the town, we sat in a small, crowded theater for a sweet hour of music and dance.

Then we explored some historical sites. At one time, Hoi An was a port city filled with not only Vietnamese but Chinese and Japanese families, which influenced the architecture.

Japanese bridge

Chinese assembly hall.

The day was hot. Cold fruit drinks, fresh fruit and spring rolls helped us re-energize.
Everywhere we went, people were fascinated with Widi. Because he speaks their language, they were convinced he was Vietnamese. He's actually Indonesian. He learned the language when he taught English in a Vietnamese refugee camp in Sumatra. That's where he and Karen met almost 30 years ago.
street food
The next day, we hopped on bikes and rode to Hidden Beach.

It lives up to its name: not overly developed and not crowded. But with lounge chairs, umbrellas, and good food. Oh, and one of the best massages I've ever had (for only about $7). They were able to massage all four of us at one time, while an ocean breeze blew over our bodies.
Dave and Widi getting their Tai Chi on at Hidden Beach.
At the end of the day, Dave and I were both a bit sunburned. We'd neglected to reapply sunscreen after lounging in the warm water. The whole experience had been so heavenly, it was easy to forget. Fortunately, aloe vera gel from the pharmacy came to the rescue.

We took the trip back all in one day, which involved an exhausting mélange of taxis, flights, airport waiting and a confusing transfer. When we hit the Nanning airport, a Vietnamese-American woman at the taxi stand asked if we might be able to help her. The taxi driver didn't know where her hotel was--and she didn't know how to say it, as it was written in Chinese on a piece of paper. Dave had her get in our taxi and said perhaps a taxi driver at the university gate would know, since the university is close to downtown. His genius plan worked.

In the cab, we soon learned we all used to live in San Jose! And when she heard I'm a writing coach, she said she wants my help writing a book about her family's journey from Vietnam to America. Just my kind of gig.

That experience was like an exclamation point on the week of the divine rendezvous. How sweet it was to have a travel experience with friends, making Hoi An even more memorable.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

First Month in China

Flowering lotus pond and campus seen from our living room window.
I asked Dave what three things he'd tell people about our experience in China. He said:

1. It's more organized and less chaotic than anticipated.
2. The food is amazing.
3. And so are the people.

A month in, I agree. But the first week didn't quite feel like that. It was shocking to walk into our campus apartment and see cockroaches crawling over the dead carcasses of their brethren, a rotting hole under the kitchen sink, black crud on the floor of the bathroom, stains streaking the walls. Etcetera.

After cleaning like crazy people, we fell into bed that night--feeling like we'd dropped onto a concrete sidewalk. I missed my memory foam mattress like never before. The cushion-less wood furniture in the living room was just as unyielding.

With the help of some new friends, we were able to buy cushions and pads. And the Dean came over to show us how to use the washing machine--although he wasn't sure about a few settings and laughingly said he usually doesn't do the laundry.

Dave rustled up some light blue paint and transformed our living room. The bedroom will be next.

A man of action.
Once things were clean and comfy, I began to appreciate the spaciousness of our place. And it has two bedrooms--one of which we use as an office and guest room (hint, hint).

Living on campus is great. With its food courts and canteens, two farmers' markets, sports fields, basketball and tennis courts, many apartments and dorms, it's like a city within a city. Everyone who works for the university--students, faculty, and staff--lives here, including retired employees. There are people of all ages around, including elderly and children. And on campus are schools (from preschool through middle school) for the kids.

The Chinese love exercise. On my way to class in the mornings (a five-minute walk), I see retired people playing volleyball and badminton. There are big sports fields here where people play on the equipment, kick balls around, practice Kung Fu, walk, jog, stretch.

In the evenings, groups of (mostly women) gather to "square dance"--which is more like line dancing to a boom box that's blasting anything from traditional Chinese music to pop songs.
Dancing like mama.
Soon I'm going to join one of the dancing groups. People tell me the women will show you the steps. They may laugh, but it's all in good fun.

People also ride bikes and motorbikes everywhere, which adds to the feeling that China = movement. All motorbikes here, by law, are electric. This has the pleasant effect of keeping down air and noise pollution. Some days are hazy here, but for the most part, it's pretty clean and green.


just outside campus
We are in Nanning, in the southeast--just 100 miles from the Vietnam border. Yes, there's an active vibe here--but also a laid-back one. I was surprised to discover that siesta isn't just for Spanish-speaking countries; it's a thing here, too. From noon to 2 p.m.-ish, campus offices close down as do many businesses. I'm beginning to get into the afternoon peace and quiet. I even nap now and then, not my usual forte.

I'm finding I need the rest. My body and mind are adjusting to my new job: teaching creative writing, literature, and yoga to college kids. For three years, "going to work" has meant editing books in my yoga pants. It's been an adjustment putting on real clothes and being "on" in the morning.

Class on the American Memoir
For the most part, the students are eager, kind, and thoughtful. "Class discussion" isn't what I'm used to; they don't like to talk unless called upon. However, when I structure discussion and activities using my bag of tricks (such as letting them write or talk out ideas with a partner before talking to the whole class), they get into it. They also love games and role playing.

With Charles, the son of our new French friends
who are here for the husband's postdoc.
My colleagues have been great, sharing information with us, showing us around and inviting us over. For mid-Autumn festival, we went to a mooncake-making party at the home of Li Ji (an administrative assistant) and Sophie (who runs a campus preschool).

Li Ji playing a song for the kids.

Weighing the dough and rolling into balls, mooncake-making preparation.

We were also invited to a mid-Autumn festival meal, where everyone participated in making pork dumplings. All the food was delicious--except the snake, which according to Dave was too spicy. I couldn't get past the fact that it still had the skin on. More suitable for boots than appetizers, if you ask me.
Soup, greens, two kinds of chicken, dumplings and snake.
After dinner, Peter made us tea at his special tea table. A connoisseur, he pulled out many little packets of tea, some of which had been aged for years. We sipped and compared ala wine tasting.

Everywhere we go, the food is fantastic (and cheap). We are especially fond of Nanning's dumplings and noodles.

Fat noodles with bits of fried pork.

 We're happy to have discovered a music scene. Paul (from Liverpool) and Ricky (from Singapore) play at an ex-pat bar on the weekends--and they have opened a café called the Ukulele Club, where they plan to run music and literary events.

At the Queen's Head.
Walking around the parks, you can hear lots of music, too. Much of it's from boom boxes, but sometimes you stumble across live instruments.

People's Park
One of the greatest joys for us has been getting to know Tina, our student assistant. She has helped us with so many things, from getting wifi and opening a bank account, to shopping for specific items, to translating labels so we can figure out if we bought, say, toothpaste or hemorrhoid cream!

We gave Tina one of the mooncakes we made.
She's extremely bright and capable. We've spent so much time with her that she's beginning to feel like our adopted daughter.

You've probably noticed that most of the Chinese people I've been talking about have English names. Many choose to use one with foreigners, a name that is similar to their Chinese name. I'm taking Mandarin lessons and hoping that once I learn to speak it well enough I'll be able to call them by their Chinese names. And maybe I'll have them use mine: 凱特 (Kǎi tè).

I feel like I have a million more things to say about China, even though it's been only a month. Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Exploring South Vietnam and Cambodia

I think this is an ox. Or maybe it's just a cow.
Now that we've been in China for two weeks, our travels through Vietnam and Cambodia feel like a dream. Carrying only backpacks for a month, we took 10 flights, several boats, innumerable tuk tuks and taxis, and ox. Okay, we didn't really ride the ox, but we saw a lot of them.

We started out in Vietnam with a few days in Saigon (locals don't call it Ho Chi Minh City). My first reaction to Saigon was: where are all these people going? The vast number of vehicles--mostly motorbikes--is an incredible site (and sound). People weave around and through each other in seemingly impossible ways, their bikes stacked high with goods and passengers, defying gravity. No one is moving especially fast. The flow feels organic, albeit crazy, like salmon during the height of spawning season.

This sense of so many people (and goods) on the move has stayed with me throughout our travels in Asia, in both the rural and urban areas.

We traveled up into the mountains to the charming town of Da Lat, where we attended the wedding of my former student, Au-Co, at the groom's home. Incense was burned, prayers said to the ancestors, gifts given, snacks eaten. A hotel reception followed with insanely delicious food, and a musical program featuring Au-Co's mother on the violin. of the many incidents of fantastic Vietnamese food.

Unfortunately after the wedding, I developed a sore throat, that segued into a cold and cough that lasted a couple of weeks. I engaged my "all is well" and "I am a healing machine" mantras, which helped me to relax and not push against the idea of being sick. The cold lingered, but my mind helped me to continue to enjoy our adventure.

Silkworm farmer.
In Da Lat, we met James, an American who has lived in Vietnam for years. He toured us around in his Russian jeep, taking us through beautiful vistas where coffee is grown. We also happened upon a woman on the side of the road who was tending to her silkworms.

Dave and James sampling local coffee.
One of the most amazing things we did was to take a four-day boat trip up the Mekong Delta from Vietnam into Cambodia. The boat had four cabins...but we were the only guests aboard! The crew of five treated us like royalty. This is one reason to travel in Southeast Asia during rainy season: fewer tourists. It didn't rain every day. And when it did, the rain usually fell at night or in the afternoon for short bursts...a relief from the heat and humidity.

Our cabin
What a treat to sit on board watching the rural world roll by. People washing their clothes, soaking their cattle, swimming, or just hanging out at the water's edge waved at us.

During the days, the boat docked and we disembarked with Thuy, our guide. We walked and rode bikes through small towns and countryside amidst vast, green rice fields and people's homes and small businesses. At one point, we stopped to watch a family pull dragon fruit from a tall tree. A woman walked over and with a grin on her face, handed one to me. Then she came back with a second one for Dave.

One of my favorite moments.

We also traveled in one of these small boats down byways of the Delta.
Floating market.
It's amazing to see the ways in which people live along the water.
We spent a few days in Phnom Penh, a vibrant city where we were hounded by tuk tuk drivers who wanted a fare. That's understandable, given their need to make money in a poor country, but it became a bit overwhelming to constantly be called out to and approached when we just wanted to walk around. Eventually, Dave discovered that dealing with them as buddies was a great approach. For instance, there was one guy we saw often, and Dave would joke with him in an Australian accent. Soon, they'd both be cracking up.

Most tuk-tuks are pulled by motorbikes, but we took one short trip
powered by these guys on bikes.

We flew to Siem Reap, an area famous for its World Heritage 10th-12th century temples, the most famous of which is Angkor Wat. It's popular to see the sunrise there, but we wanted to avoid the madhouse crowds (which are thick even during rainy season). So we went at dawn, when most people had already left for breakfast after sunrise, and had the place almost to ourselves.

Around the temples, there are children begging. The NGOs advise not giving them money because that the kids are being used by adults who take the funds. So I brought small toys to give to the children, which were a big hit.

If you go to Siem Reap, don't see just Angkor Wat. It's spectacular--but to us, some of the other temples were more awe-inspiring.
Bayon at Angkor Thom

Ta Prohm
Next we headed to Lonely Beach on a Cambodian island, Koh Rong. We'd been looking forward to it as a quiet place to relax after our jumping-around itinerary--especially after reading about its "paradise status" on Trip Advisor. person's paradise isn't necessarily another's. I wrote about this faulty notion of finding paradise in my memoir...but I guess we have to learn the most important lessons over and over.

This is paradise for me: snuggling with someone's baby.
A Cambodian woman handed her daughter over to me when I was coveting her.
The boat ride to Lonely Beach was three hours...and when we saw the boat--an old fishing boat with bench seats--we almost bailed. Instead, we prayed for calm seas. Our prayers were not answered. Being on a bucking bronco of a boat, with waves splashing over the sides and rain pouring down in sheets, was, to put it mildly, unnerving. Especially since the captain was chain-smoking with huge containers of gasoline at his feet.

I did my best to reframe it as an "adventure." I also thought about all the refugees who have suffered such conditions for days and weeks. In comparison, we were cosy and safe.

Finally calm seas as we approach the island. These women
(from Paris, Barcelona, and Florence) were on holiday together.

Our cabin on Lonely Beach.
In many ways, Lonely Beach is amazing: It's on a strip of isolated beach plopped in a rainforest. The people who run it are wonderful, and the food is delicious. However, the cabins are extremely rustic--which normally wouldn't be a problem, but this meant no AC or even a fan. At night it was so hot and stuffy I felt like I was suffocating beneath the mosquito net.
Rainforest friend on our porch.
I enjoyed hearing all of the creatures loudly singing, croaking, chirping and hissing at night. But because of the rain, the ground was very muddy and slippery, so walking the paths from cabins to lodge, especially at night, was dicey.
We were going to spend a week there, but we left after three days; a storm was approaching, and there was no guarantee we'd be able to get out in time to catch our plane. As evidenced by our wild boat ride there and back, the seas are unpredictable. Perhaps a foray to Koh Rong is best saved for the dry season. That's also, apparently, when the water is crystal-clear blue. In the rainy season, it's brown and gray but still warm enough to swim in.
We ended up spending our last days in Cambodia at Otres Beach in Sihanoukville. For only $19 a night, we had a huge, air-conditioned room at a hotel with a pool, walking distance to the sweet beach that is lined with feet-in-the-sand restaurants.
Fun with Cambodian friends!
Otres Beach
We realized that our "sweet spot" is a 3-star experience. Taking along carry-on backpacks instead of suitcases made the journey easier. However, we aren't backpackers in our twenties and have no interest in staying in hostels--and we don't need (and don't want to pay for) 5-star luxury.

We enjoy our middle-of-the road travel, especially our moments of people-watching, people-connecting, and exploring the marvels of nature and human creations. Vietnam and Cambodia delivered it all.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

7 Things I Learned in June.

1. Relax, already, about the outcome. My memoir was named a finalist for a Bi Book Award. The crazy little elf-on-the-shelf-of-my-mind spun its Linda Blair head around, swearing there was no way I would ever win against books put out by big New York publishers.

Bubble Lady at Washington Square Park
So instead of focusing on the award, I whipped out my frequent flier miles, thrilled to have an excuse to spend a few days in NYC. I decided to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, something I'd always wanted to do. I meandered for two days around the West Village and Chelsea, soaking in all those incredible NYC sights and sounds...and bagels.

By the time of the book event, I was so high on my adventure that just being in the company of all those other writers felt like icing on the cake.

And then...I won! Not just one (Best Memoir) but two (Bi Writer of the Year).

That creepy little elf in my mind had almost talked me out of going. You're not going to win, anyway. Why bother?

But when I decided to focus on the journey rather than the outcome--the outcome was even sweeter. And if I hadn't won, I still would have had a memorable time.

2. "Paella season is a thing." We were lucky to enjoy two paella dinners in two weeks.

Chef Todd's creation

Chef Frank's masterpiece

3. ALWAYS double-check texts before hitting send. Auto-correct changed my playful word "wonkiness" to "long penis." Fortunately, my friend thought it was funny.


4. When Life Gives You Traffic, Make Lemonade. Is Bay Area traffic worse than ever, or is this just us adjusting-to-California-after-three-months-in-Baja? When we had to be in San Rafael on a Friday at 6 p.m., we knew that meant being off the roads by 3 p.m. at the latest.

Dave discovered there's a wild animal rehab facility in San Rafael that's open to the public. So instead of sitting in a wall of traffic, we hung out with hawks and owls and pelicans, and chatted with the knowledgeable people who care for them.

5. Let the locals teach you. We've been to San Francisco a zillion times...and taken lots of walks at Land's End and on Ocean Beach...which we did this time with our friend Nicole.

Nicole showed us something new.
Because she lives in the area, she knew of a hidden spot...
secret stairs
 that took us up to Sutro Heights Park, offering this view:

Worth every step--and we never would have known about it if we hadn't listened to a local.

6. Family isn't biology. I've learned that many times in my life--but it really hit home a few weeks ago. We were invited by my godmother to a gathering of her family. I hadn't seen most of these people in thirty years or more--but I felt like I belonged. It was sweet to hear stories about my parents, to talk to people who fondly remembered them.

Two women who loved my parents: Marcia (my godmother, on the left) and Louise.
Marcia and Dean had three sons. And one of them, Greg, said that when they were kids, the three boys had figured out which three Evans girls they were going to marry!
One of my dad's best friends (Dean)...and the guy I was supposed to marry (Travis).
 I was a child last time I saw all these people--but it felt like coming home.

Esperanza and Greg filled the house with music.

7. The story is never over. We are evolving, changing human beings. For the first time in many years, I went to the Pride parade. I wasn't sure how I'd feel there...but it was amazing. (And I wrote about it here.)

At Pride with my friend Laurie, looking at life through the eyes of love.
So, yes, the story continues. No matter what "it" is, this too shall pass.

Welcome, July. I look forward to what you have to teach.