Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Winding Down in China...and a Trip to Pattaya

Lotus pond at sunset. (One of Dave's masterpieces.)
Life continues here in China through that different set of eyes I grow when I know something is temporary.

Of course, everything is temporary.

But what I mean is this: I've decided not to renew my contract. We'll be leaving China in less than 2 months.

My gaze lingers a little bit longer on the lotus pond, on the grandpa doing tai chi, on the kids playing basketball, on the innumerable cute babies and glowing pregnant women. Have I mentioned there's a baby boom here?
Nanning at night
And the things that bother me are easier to let go. The occasional cockroach. The water leaking through the wall in the guest room. Not being able to access certain websites because my VPN's not working. The way a "simple" trip to the bank inevitably takes an hour, or two. Soon...not my problem!

In the larger scheme, those things don't really matter anyway. Nomadic life constantly schools me. It reminds me what matters most. For example:

Friends from China, Singapore, Russia, the U.S. and England.
People. And by that, I mean love.

It's incredible to think about how less than a year ago, I didn't even know these people were walking the Earth. And now we've shared many wonderful experiences, such as Dave's surprise birthday party. Paul and Mike played guitars. Daria, keyboard. Ricky, flute. And I debuted on ukulele, playing "Heart of Gold" while Tina (our Chinese "daughter") and her friend (my yoga student) Jennifer did a dance.

One of Dave's most treasured relationships here is with Lee, the 11-year-old he tutors twice a week.

Lee is whip-smart. He wants to go to university in America. Dave's pretty sure their relationship will continue. Of course that's how we feel about Tina, too. When I told her we were leaving, she broke out into tears. And then I did. It's going to be rough saying goodbye in July, but I will make sure it's more like "until we meet again." Because we will. I want to bring her to Mexico to visit us when she graduates. And if she gets married, I don't care where we are or what we are doing, we will be at her wedding.

Eating Korean food (bibimbop) in China, one of our favorite restaurants near campus.
One of our goals in coming to China was to explore S.E. Asia. Ten months in, and we've been fortunate to experience CambodiaVietnamThailand and Malaysia.  My holidays and the incredibly cheap Air Asia flights have made it possible. Our most recent trip was to Pattaya, Thailand. We'd been warned about Pattaya's sleaze factor. However, Dave did the research and discovered an area just outside the main part of Pattaya called Jomtien, which turned out to be perfect for us.

Heaven = a foot massage on the beach.
Our hotel was in a gay area, which felt comfortable and fun. I loved the flamboyant greeting we received from a front desk clerk as we walked in.
One of the two pools at Agate Boutique Hotel that has rooms at about 35 bucks a night.
At the beach, we chatted with some guys from England who come regularly to Jomtien. I also noticed a young Russian couple; one of the guys had this tattoo on his chest: "Only God can judge me." Especially poignant given what has been happening to queer people in Chechnya.

We spent time wandering around Jomtien's charming streets, happening across some great finds, like Sketchbook Art Café...
...and street carts selling all kinds of treats.

fruit cart
We love Thai food. And like most of S.E. Asia, the tropical fruit is amazing. Dave went crazy for the pad see ew, a dish of thick noodles, veggies and a savory sauce. However, after all this time in China, I'm a bit noodled-and-riced out. Which was why I was thrilled by the many choices of relatively inexpensive and delicious Western food in Jomtien. I ate Caesar salads galore and vanilla soft-serves in waffle cones. We also found a place that made amazing meat and fruit pies.
Walking Street before things really get going.
One evening we ventured into downtown Pattaya. To get there, we braved a hop-on taxi: a truck where people pile onto bench seats in the truck-bed or hang off the back as overflow, which was what Dave had to do. Every time the truck jerked to a stop, I thought he might go flying off. Fortunately, he has a strong grip.

We spent a few hours moseying up and down infamous Walking Street, which is a raucous array of crazy sights and sounds. It's like Vegas on acid, without the overt gambling. We passed mostly bars, restaurants, bar girls, a few people in wild costumes, and the occasional guy trying to get us to see a Ping-Pong-vagina show. We'd heard there was some good live music on the strip, but at 8:30 p.m., no bands were yet playing. And we were ready to go back to the relative peace and quiet of Jomtien.
Dave dove the Hardeep WWII wreck.
One day we took a diving and snorkel tour to the Samae San islands, about 45 minutes south of Pattaya. The experience affirmed and intensified my love for Thailand.

Speaking of which...in September, I will be co-hosting a writing retreat on Koh Phangan. It's an incredible place, and that's no hyperbole. Neither is our title: Write Your Story in Paradise. I know "paradise" is a well-worn phrase, but The Sanctuary resort where we are holding the event fits the bill, in my humble opinion. The experience promises to be transformational. If you'd like to join us, check out our Facebook page.

In the meantime, I will do my best to relish our remaining time in China. We may have a lot of plans ahead of us, but this moment is where it's at. It's all we really have.

teaching yoga in China

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Chiang Mai & Kuala Lumpur

Getting this close to an elephant in an open space, not a zoo, was like a dream. But I was wide awake. It happened at northern Thailand's Elephant Nature Park, "an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center." Better name? Elephant heaven.

Some of these elephants limp on a foot mangled by a landmine. A number are blind due to--get this--tourist flashbulbs in zoos and circuses. Many have other problems as a result of being "broken" in order to be ridden. This is a brutal practice. Nothing like breaking a horse. It involves ripping the babies away from their mothers, beating them, inducing pain in a variety of ways... Google it, if you can stomach it. Now that I'm aware, I would never ride an elephant.
We got in the water with them!
I did, however, caress a few that are used to humans. And it was divine. Elephants are walking paradoxes: Gentle giants. Rough skin, tender heart. We have a lot to learn from them--for example, not demonizing one group for the abject behavior of a few.

Most of the mahouts who work with elephants are born into mahout families. The control of elephants through abuse is a tradition. And a vocation. Elephant Nature Park re-trains mahouts and gives them jobs. These guys do a ton of work around the park (along with armies of volunteers), and can even build relationships with the unruly bulls tourists are not allowed to get near. The mahouts learn how to use food, not pain, to coerce the animals to move to the watering hole or feeding platform.

I swear these sweet beasts are thrilled to be living on this beautiful property. They smile. They playfully throw dirt into the air. They roll in the mud and prance in the river. Finally, they are free. No more cages, no more abuse, no more isolation, no more chains.

We got to the elephants from Chiang Mai, a groovy, ex-pat friendly, yoga-fied city filled with beautiful parks, temples, and street food galore. My former SJSU student, Sarah, now lives and teaches there. She landed in Chiang Mai after a year of travel throughout India and S.E. Asia. We have in common the travel-the-world-and-write gene.

Hanging with Sarah at a temple.

Chiang Mai street food

Sunday market...hard to see the wares it was so crowded.
Evidence of Chinese New Year in Chiang Mai.
As much as I enjoyed exploring the city, I was having island withdrawals. A little city goes a long way. And there was more to come: Kuala Lumpur, or KL, for the last few days before we had to wing back to Nanning.

Speaking of wings...our first KL stop was the Bird Park--a public aviary that was much groovier than I'd imagined such a place could be.

Someone wants my coconut.
I'm not a fan of seeing birds in cages, so what a delight to experience free-rangers of all shapes, colors and sizes.
Thousands of birds in the trees, walking along the grounds, floating in the various bodies of water.  A few were in pens, notably the ostriches. When we got close to feed them through a slice in the fence, the fierce way they grabbed the greens, coupled with their I-could-slice-you-up clawed feet, made it clear why they couldn't be running around terrorizing tourists. Ideally they would be out on the range in Africa terrorizing the lizards they eat.

KL has a hop-on, hop-off bus. Pay one price and you can tour around the city, lingering wherever you like and climbing back on when the next bus comes every 30 minutes. We checked out Chinatown (not worth your time unless you want to buy a fake brand-name watch or shirt), Little India (lots of color, nice vibe), the Petronas Towers (the tallest twin towers in the world), and a lot of other interesting architecture.




Our hotel was just a couple of blocks from a massive night street food scene. We waded through thousands of people, checking out stalls and open air restaurants with gargantuan menus representing food of many SE Asian nations. My favorite treat: deep fried banana.

We were also close to a pub street that, at night, rolled back its sidewalks to Vegas-esque pandemonium. We found a street corner café and enjoyed floating on a local trio's sweet three-part harmonies. Our last night we stumbled across, of all things, a fantastic German restaurant. Eating a luscious salad and potato pancakes, soaked in a magical ambiance, I had a feeling we could be in anywhere in the world. Every so often that surreal feeling of transcending time and space envelopes me while traveling. In this case it was aided by a German beer the size of a toddler.

I write this four weeks later, buried in my second semester of teaching in China. Whether or not we will stay here for another year is central to our conversations these days. The university has sent me a contract and is nudging me to sign it. I have yet to take up my pen.

This trip reinforced for me what I love best about travel: experiencing new things. That may sound self-evident. But it took me into my fifth decade to live the nomadic existence I always dreamed of. I'm not sure I'm ready to stay in one place longer than a year. A zillion possibilities are swirling about, shining like the universe's bling.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Koh Phangan and Koh Tao: Thailand, Part 1 (and a little more of China, too)

Happy New Year
It's surreal to be in China with all that is happening in the U.S. Places of worship being burned? Refugees targeted? Immigrants banned? Russian intrigue? White nationalism? Whose country are we talking about?
I'm concerned about my friends who are complaining about physical illness as a result of the barrage of news. Don't make yourselves sick, you compassionate badasses and change-makers. We need you. As Krista Tippett writes in Becoming Wise, "We create transformative, resilient new realities by becoming transformed, resilient people."
And please don't apologize on social media for posting positive things. Life is multi-faceted. If we're going to be the change we want to see, we also need to be the light we want to see.
All of this makes me ultra-aware of how privileged I am to be able to travel freely. When the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) break occurred, we hit the road with Tina (our Chinese "daughter") her friend Rose, our colleague Michele, and her husband, Joshua. As usual, everywhere we went, people wanted to take pictures with us. But Joshua--a Ugandan reggae artist--was the real star, especially with young guys who thought he was the coolest ever.

we real cool
A 4-hour bus ride from Nanning took us to Detian waterfall, billed as the fourth largest transnational waterfall. In the picture below, the left part of the falls is in Vietnam, and the right in China.

On the boat ride, we got close enough to feel the spray.
The next day we explored Tongling Grand Canyon, which felt like Pirates of the Caribbean, complete with multicolored lighting--proof that "cheesy" and "sublime" don't have to cancel each other out.

When we emerged from the cave, we faced a stunning sight: one of the tallest waterfalls in Asia.
And we hiked around the back of it.
After this two-day excursion, we did a quick turnaround at our apartment and headed out for a month to Thailand, by way of Malaysia. Flying through Kuala Lumpur turned out to be about half the price of a direct flight to Bangkok. Work it right, and Air Asia is so inexpensive; we spent only $300 on five flights.

First stop: Koh Phangan, a Thai island. Hard to argue with a place that looks like this:

To say it's stunning is to understate. As much as I enjoyed (for the most part) my semester teaching, I found it exhausting. This island was the perfect antidote. Dave's college buddy, Mark, met us there. It's a thrill to watch Mark's renaissance. He suffered from a major medical trauma, and has now bounced back and is living large. You can see in his eyes and hear in his ebullient patter a joie de vivre laced with his signature wit. We got right in the swing with lots of good island food...

Mark with a whole snapper.
and drink...
Yes, you can find shroom shakes in a place well-known for its raging Full Moon parties.
We also got to meet in the flesh Brian, one of my many Facebook pals. Currently living on Koh Phangan, he's a traveler and writer, too--and one of those great conversationalists who knows something about everything.

Brian ferrying me around on the island's most popular transport.
We didn't have much on our agenda other than a little exploring, cheap beach massages, yoga, and swimming. That is, until Mark roped us into checking out another part of the island for a dance party--in a place called "Eden," no less. A DJ, Mark is a music connoisseur, always in search of an inspired scene.

To get to Eden, you go by way Sanctuary. (Clearly, the names of these places are intended to lull you there--but they aren't misnomers.) There's no riding a motorbike to get to this part of the island; you must hop on a long tail boat. All able-bodied brawn is enlisted in helping shove it off the sand and into the waves.

Sanctuary is a spa resort with a beautiful open-air restaurant nestled in the rocky face of a cliff. We ate some of their delicious raw food specialties, watching the sunset. Mark chatted up a woman who was there from New York for a five-day cleanse. When he offered her some of his "happy fungus" shake, she eagerly broke her fast with a chug.

We made our way to Eden, shakily clambering up rocks along a crumbling path, our only light source my phone. A heroic ascent and descent revealed the scene of Mark's dreams: electronica on a cliff, waves roiling below, the dance floor lit up with psychedelic lights and a wide array of dancers, eccentric in movement and dress. We boogied for hours. My high came not from substances but this wild life. It was like dancing on another planet.

A few days later, we headed by inter-island ferry to Koh Tao. With lots of macho, tatted diver dudes walking around and a more touristy vibe, Koh Tao has a rougher edge. But soon I found a beautiful yoga studio nestled in the rainforest and a great place to have breakfast afterward, my feet in the sand.

Dave hung out underwater with a turtle while I did yoga.
And we enjoyed street food galore.

But the real sweet spot of Koh Tao is its world-class snorkeling. Mark treated us to a private boat for a full day, just the three of us with two Thai guys who knew all the great spots. It was heartening to see so much magnificent healthy coral and huge schools of multicolored fish.

Mark and me
Our pimped-up ride.
After two weeks, I wasn't ready to say goodbye to the islands. So I said "hasta luego"--as we had a plane to catch to Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand--which I will share about soon.

In the meantime, I send my love to my friends in America and abroad. These are critical, historical times. As the Indigo Girls sing:

"If the world is night, shine my life like a light."

Koh Tao sunset


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

China: Three Months In...and a visit to Hanoi.

Tina on our beautiful campus.
Living in China is not at all what I expected. I expected more struggle and confusion, more culture shock, more...difference.

Yes, of course, there are big differences. But they aren't hard to handle. The language, for example. I have not had the time (okay, discipline) to focus on learning it the way I'd like. The "having a job" thing takes up a lot of my living time. Still, we can jump in a cab and say the right phrase to get us home. Translator phone apps help. And we are learning tricks, like collecting business cards, taking pictures of the fronts of buildings, or having someone write down our destination in Chinese. Just show the card or picture to the cabbie, and you're off.

Dave is a master at "getting the gist" of what someone is saying. The other day, the paint guy delivered another batch for Dave's ongoing project of painting our apartment. When he came in, talking away in Chinese, Dave answered in English and showed him around. I couldn't help but laugh because, seriously, this is what it sounded like:

Paint man: xxxx xxxxx xxxxx
Dave: Yes, see, we are using the dark blue as the accent wall in the bedroom.
Paint man: xxxx xxxxx xxxxxx xx xxxxx!
Dave: I know, right?

This has been our experience with most people: they enjoy interacting with us. They love to stop and ask us questions (Where are you from? Do you like China?) and take pictures. Yes, sometimes all the attention is a bit unnerving. Like when strangers crowd around you, wrap their arms around your waist and take a selfie. And another and another...until you have to smile and say xie xie (thank you) and sidle away.

Sometimes I'm just standing somewhere talking with a friend, and out of the corner of my eye I see several people snapping our pictures. It's only fair, though. I often take pictures of charming strangers. No double-standards here.

I thought this attention was all about my whiteness...until I met an African American guy who has lived in China for 5 years and said it constantly happens to him, too. In a city of 8 million people where 7,999,900 have straight black hair and are of a smallish stature, a tall blonde or an even taller black guy with a bright white smile is a total trip.

Willie and me
This guy, by the way, is Willie, who teaches dance here and used to be in the San Jose Ballet company. Yes, we both lived in San Jose, California for a number of years and happened to meet in a café in Nanning, Guangxi.

How most of the Chinese people are so slender is a mystery to me, given the abundance of great, inexpensive food. Yesterday morning we rode our bikes to the campus open-air market. In addition to voluminous, fresh produce, you can buy lots of odds and ends. I picked up reading glasses.

We bought a pomello, my new favorite: pink and juicy and such a satisfying texture. Almost the size of a bowling ball and wrapped like a present in a lovely wax paper. Every one is a gift, for sure. We also picked up passion fruit (another new favorite), small creamy bananas, and a big bag of oranges for just a few bucks.


We have not yet bought meat or fish there. Perhaps our western sensibilities just aren't ready to pick from the mountainous slabs of raw meat, or to face a woman pulling a fish from a bucket of water and clubbing it to death for our dinner. Usually we get already-cooked chicken and duck at the fantastic deli in the grocery story, where we also buy delectable noodles and dumplings.

Then there's Yann, a French guy who lives above us who cooks amazing soups, pastas and desserts and sells them at a reasonable price. I mean, really? We have a French chef delivering to our door?

The last months have been a whirlwind of activity, combined with the madness that is midterms. The bureaucratic wackiness involved in creating and administering the midterm is not something I want to re-experience by writing about it. Suffice it to say that it involved illogical and time-consuming procedures, and : a) I freaked out then b) I calmed down. After all, working for a California state university has prepared me for the bureaucracy of a Chinese university. Dave (bless his heart) stepped up to crunch numbers and deal with documents I felt like burning. And now it's clear to me what needs to be done, so the next go-around will be easier.

Other than that, the job has been mostly delightful. In contrast to what people had "warned" me about--that Chinese students are not creative--the students are writing inspired poetry, creating extraordinary video poetry interpretations, and taking lots of creative leaps. In the memoir class, they love to perform scenes from the book. Daily I am discovering how they learn and what they are capable of, and I plan to redesign my courses for next semester in hopes of becoming an even more effective teacher.

(The only thing I don't think I will get used to is calling students by their chosen English name--when they are Hamburger, Watermelon and Xylitol.)

The abundant social activities have included a big Halloween party right out our front door...

An American expat Thanksgiving potluck featuring a fruit turkey:

Made by our friend Fran, from Nashville

A student talent show:

That's Tina on the left.

And a faculty dinner that featured the most honest presentation of a cooked chicken I've ever seen:

Okay, so maybe not all of the food here is delicious. Boiled chicken ain't my thing. Neither are insects.

Centipedes on a stick and other delicacies at the night market.
You also see chicken feet and duck feet everywhere. For our student assistant's (Tina's) birthday, we took her to a restaurant of her choice. Because the menu had few pictures and no English, Tina ordered for us. They brought a big pot and set it on the hot plate in the center of the table. Inside were...duck feet. Tina's favorite. Oh dear. With my chopsticks, I extracted one from the pot. It slumped there, a sad little extremity. I watched Tina happily chew away, spitting out the bones and tiny toenails.

I took a few nibbles. It was delicious, albeit not very satisfying because there's not much meat on it. The little bones make it complicated, kind of equivalent to the labor of eating a pomegranate. The pot was filled with other delectable things: potatoes, tofu skin, tofu cubes, quail eggs, taro root. Next they brought out lotus root and a huge plate of seafood on ice also to be cooked in the savory broth: crab, shrimp, octopus, mussels, clams, and cockles. A side-dish was a Nanning specialty: tasty noodles with little snails. Yep, I even ate little snails. And liked it.
duck feet and tofu
Before this lunch, we'd taken Tina to buy a new bike, her birthday gift. When Tina's bike disappeared, we knew this was an opportunity to buy a useful and meaningful present for this young woman who has done so much for us. At first she refused, saying it was too expensive. But I pulled out all the stops, telling her the dollar was strong, it wasn't expensive for us, and we would be extremely sad if she said no.

the perfect choce
To get to what everyone calls Stolen Bike Street, Tina perched sidesaddle on the back of Dave's bike. I mentioned she looked so at ease on the book rack, even as Dave swerved in the traffic madness and hopped over speed bumps. That's when she told me that when she was young, her family was poor. They had no car, just a bike. Her mother did not like leaving her and her brother, who was an infant, at home. So she would put the baby in the basket, and Tina sat on the back of her mom's bike. (She added that her parents eventually started a profitable business and now have a car.)

The current-day version of the family-on-a-bike.
(This is in Vietnam, but you also see families like this in China.)

After the purchase of the bike and the eating of the duck feet, Tina told us she had something she wanted to say, launching into what seemed to be a prepared speech about how much we mean to her. She had barely begun when tears started streaming down my face. She thanked us for being so friendly, for never losing patience when she's trying to figure out something. She recounted the fun experiences we've had, and said, "You have taught me thing about life." She recalled when we went to the bank one day and it was so crowded that we decided to leave and come back another time. "You said when things are 'chaos'" (she remembered learning that word from Dave) "that it's better to go away and do something else." She also said she has learned from us to appreciate the small things in life. And she was especially touched when one day I told someone she was like our Chinese daughter. She really is. Truly, I love her with all my heart and am amazed China has given us the gift of her.

As if that's not enough, for my birthday, Tina made me the most amazing scrapbook that includes pictures of all our adventures.

This took place at Café Ukulele, where we'd gone for live music. The evening began to reveal itself as a surprise party for me. Paul sang my favorite song, "Into the Mystic", which he had just learned that afternoon. Two other teachers brought a cake, and everyone sang Happy Birthday.

Earlier that day, my students had also sung Happy Birthday to me in both English and Chinese. I had brought into class a huge cake that the school had delivered to me. Apparently the university does this for all the teachers on their birthdays. It was a beautiful cake, ringed on the top with fruit...and tomatoes. The taste was, well, strange. One of the teachers has dubbed these "disappointment cakes." Fortunately, it didn't go to waste. The students loved it.

Paul's birthday fell just a few days after mine, so we were soon back at his Café Ukulele for another evening of music. The place was packed in honor of this guy from Liverpool who has created a vibrant music scene in Nanning, incorporating Chinese and expat musicians into his show. I read a poem I wrote for him, and 5 cakes (no tomatoes in sight) were brought out.

Jim (Chinese), Paul (British), and Darya (Russian)
Dave's birthday gift to me was an overnight at a natural hot springs resort. Just a 30 minute taxi ride from our house, it boasts 100 pools, small and large, as well as saunas, mud baths, and fish-nibbling foot treatments. I soaked for five hours, napping in between on the stones. Later, Dave and I lay on warmed slabs of marble beneath an awning for another nap. That night I slept 10 hours. I guess I needed it. In fact, I have been sleeping a lot lately. As "easy" as living here is, it takes a different kind of energy to live and work in a completely different culture. My body and mind need regular recharging.
Jiuquwan Hot Springs. The big cold pool and small warm pools.

This blog entry is already too long, and I haven't even written yet about our outing to Hanoi. So here's the quick and dirty: The bus ride was an adventure in and of itself, taking about 8 hours and involving some confusing transfers at the border. We thought we were getting into a shuttle to take us to another bus, so I agreed to sit on the hard console between the seats up front instead of one of the comfy seats in back. Soon we realized, though, I was in for hours with my face mashed up against the windshield and no seatbelt on while the driver passed on blind curves. My butt had just gone numb on the hard "seat," when Dave switched with me at the rest stop.

Fortunately, we made it, shaken if not stirred, and got right into the swing of things with a street food dinner.
Hanoi is known for its street food. For good reason. It was cheap and insanely delicious and festive, if you don't mind sitting on a tiny plastic chair. We went to a few restaurants, and nothing was as good as the street food.

Also cheap are spa treatments, so we treated ourselves to massages and pedicures, and I went to a hair salon. It's quite a contrast, the quiet solitude of the spas and the frantic activity outside: all the motorbikes and cars careening down the narrow streets amidst gaggles of pedestrians and people hawking every item you can imagine.

egg man in Hanoi
We stayed in the Old Quarter, which meant everything we wanted to experience was within walking distance, including beautiful Hoan Kiem lake.

The streets around the lake are closed off Friday through Sunday, so it's relaxing to walk around, people watch, and grab a drink at a sidewalk café. We lucked across some music, too.

Everywhere we went there were people dressed in beautiful clothes, posing for pictures. At the Temple of Literature, the site of the first university in Hanoi which is over 1000 years old, we caught college students celebrating their graduation.

One touristy thing we did was attend a water puppet show. The audience was filled with Western retirees. I suppose we are part of that target market. The stage is filled with water, the puppets manipulated by poles from behind a screen. Charming people, birds, fish, dragons, and water buffalo danced out the old stories, accompanied by very good musicians playing traditional tunes.

water puppets
I think this is the longest blog entry I've ever written. That's a testament to how full our lives have been. It's all so interesting, even the insects-on-a-stick and duck feet and ridiculous bureaucratic moments. And honestly, I feel like I'm just scratching the surface. All of our experiences are marinating in my mind, where I believe a new book is cooking away. Meantime, I am grateful for it all.