10/25/13

Take It To The Grave

P1060213

I don’t think of myself as a morbid person.

But I do love cemeteries.

What can I say–I think they teach a lot about a culture.

So when I heard that my school was doing an excursion to the one in Xela, I jumped at the chance to see it.

And I was not disappointed.

P1060215

The section closest to the church was the most expensive, and it shows.

P1060212

I loved all the beautiful details:

P1060235

This is one of my favorite pictures of the year:

P1060216

Some of the private family tombs were incredible:

P1060233

You could live in some of them!

P1060224

Yes, that is a pyramid:

P1060222

Some of the marble has been stolen from the nicer tombs:

P1060218

There was a stark division between the wealthy ladino (part Spanish) section and the poor Mayan section.

There was even a wall separating the two.

Looking towards the ladino section from the Mayan section

Looking towards the ladino section from the Mayan section

Normally the cemetery is considered a dangerous place (our guide told us not to bring expensive cameras), but since we were there a few days before Day of the Dead lots of people were there cleaning off their ancestors’ graves. I have never seen so many  people carrying shovels in a cemetery!

The indigenous section of the cemetery

The indigenous section of the cemetery

Many of the graves were cemented over, but some of them were just mounds of dirt. I got a bit choked up thinking about how sad the families must have been when they couldn’t afford to cover their loved one’s body with anything! Plus Kevin (the guide from my school) said that you can’t buy a plot; you can only rent one for seven years. After seven years, they move the bodies (Kevin wasn’t sure where). And, of course, the first bodies they move are the ones that aren’t covered, since they’re easiest to move. Which means that the very people who had to scrimp and save the most to bury their family members are the most likely to have no grave to visit.

P1060227 P1060228

Not everything about the visit was sad; one of the highlights was seeing the most famous grave in the cemetery:

P1060239

Legend has it that Vanushka was a gypsy girl who fell in love with a rich ladino. His disapproving family sent him to Spain to keep him away from her, and she died of a broken heart. But the good news is, she grants wishes! Just write your romantic wish on her grave and your dreams may come true…

P1060238

History, culture, and wishes coming true–it’s like I died and went to heaven! :)

06/2/13

Spring Breakers

My classroom

My classroom

One of the best parts of learning about a foreign culture is discovering new and better ways to do things–best practices that we can bring home and adapt to our own lives.

This story is not an example of that.

This story is, in fact, an example of the opposite.

When we arrived at the school in February, we asked when the vacations would be so that we could start to plan when and how to travel to all the places on our bucket lists. We were told that there would be a three day break in April and two more in June.

“Great,” we said. “When will they be?”

We were such innocents.

It turns out that unlike American school calendars, which were carved into stone sometime during Columbus’ voyage, Chinese school calendars (or at least the calendar at the school we teach at) are afraid of commitment. While the dates of the holidays each vacation honors are fixed, the actual days we will have off school could come before or after the holiday–and it seems like nobody wants to spoil the surprise. Adding a layer to this incomprehensible problem is a second one: in China (or at least at our school) you don’t just get a vacation–you have to make up a chunk of the hours you get off during the week on the weekend. So even if you can guess the dates you will have off, you can’t be sure if you will have to work, say, the Sunday before or the Saturday after. Or both. If you’re wondering what makes that a vacation, join the club.

Eventually we figured out when our first break would be: the beginning of April. The Chinese get the time off from work to sweep the tombs of their ancestors. My students are not big fans of this—traffic is terrible, since everyone is going to the same graveyards, and if their ancestors didn’t live in Wuxi it involves a long drive to the countryside, and then a few hours at a cemetery. But since I didn’t have to spend my vacation sweeping I was very much pro.

Alexis, Liam, John, Brad and I had talked for a while about where we wanted to go, and settled on Xi’an, the central Chinese city that’s the home of the terracotta warriors. It’s an overnight train ride from the east coast, and we knew that train tickets were likely to sell out during a national holiday, so we asked one of our students to write out the details of the trains that we wanted in Chinese and headed for the train station weeks in advance.

Waiting to buy tickets at the train station in Wuxi may very well be my least favorite thing to do in China. (As I type this I’m trying to decide if this is true. Is it worse than squat toilets? Oh, definitely. Worse than squat toilets with no privacy? I’m going with yes again.) Why is it so terrible? Well, for one thing, it takes FOREVER. The lines don’t look that long (20 people or so) but they are interminable. You also have to deal with staring, people standing too close (personal space is not a thing here), people cutting in line (totally commonplace), the uncertainty of not knowing if you’re even in the right line (all the signs are in Chinese), and the dread that you won’t be understood when you get to the front (even with a piece of paper with what you want written on it, they may ask questions, and I can’t always understand them or even guess what they’re trying to say).  As if that weren’t enough, for some reason they are always playing a TV show on the monitors that is—I swear I am not making this up—a contest between two men to see who can do a better job of making sandwiches using only their feet. I’m not easily grossed out, but even I have limits.

But the very worst part of going to the train station is that when I finally get to the front of the line, people crowd around me to listen to what I say, and when the woman behind the counter finally makes it clear to me that I can’t buy tickets for whatever reason (we went multiple times in our effort to go to Xi’an, and the reasons were: too early, too early, too late), at least a few of them laughed at me in what can only be described as a malicious manner. Now I am not a passive person—in America I would have had some choice words for them. Heck, I’ve told people off in French before. But in Chinese I would, at best, sound like a toddler doing his best Dirty Harry impression. So I always came away feeling extremely angry and frustrated. (But I did come up with a plan for what to do if it ever happens again. I am going to look them up and down in a really superior way and then say really condescendingly, “I’m using multisyllabic words in a derisive manner.” And just let them imagine that I’m saying something really cutting.)

Anyway, as you’ve probably gathered, we were not able to buy tickets to Xi’an, which was INCREDIBLY frustrating after the multiple trips we had made to and miserable hours we had spent at the train station. By the time this became completely clear it was two days before the vacation. We considered Beijing, but all the affordable tickets to Beijing were sold out. Finally I suggested we visit Hangzhou, a city on the other side of Shanghai that is famous for its beautiful lake. Nobody had a better idea, and Hangzhou won.

Since I had zero desire to set foot inside the train station again, we decided to take the bus. We had never been to the bus station before, but a woman who was lurking outside helped us find the ticket counter. It was not easy, and I’m pretty sure she expected payment for her help, but since I obviously couldn’t understand what she was saying to me (and she never used any of the words or signs I know for “money”), she gave up and left. There was no line at the bus station but there was an even-bigger-than-usual crowd eager to press against me and listen to what I was saying, so buying the tickets was pretty stressful.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel triumphant when I left the station. In spite of not knowing when our vacation would be, in spite of having had zero help and almost zero Mandarin, we were getting out of Wuxi. And we were going to have a good time, damn it!

01/10/13

I’m Not Dead

I’m not dead; the internet in Siem Reap is so slow that I could build a temple faster than write a blog post. Sorry! I am hoping to write more when I get to Phnom Penh tonight (if not, when Isaure and Khalid leave me (sniff!) tomorrow night).

01/4/13

Koh Chang is not Harry Potter’s girlfriend.

429047_10151227234686025_699444845_n[1]The hardest thing about traveling in Thailand? Remembering not to brush your teeth with tap water. I still haven’t managed that once.

Otherwise, things continue to be pretty terrific.

We decided to take it easy on our last day in Chiang Mai. We had brunch at the Blue Diamond (one of the restaurants recommended by Isaure’s guide), which was lovely—tables in a small courtyard with a little river with amazingly expressive koi, and an onsite bakery. (We did have to listen to a very New Age American woman tell her friends about the city’s best health food stores and show off pictures of her most recent retreat. “That’s the cave I lived in. And that’s the ladder to the place where I meditated.”)

Then we went back to Monk Chat, where we met a very friendly guy named Jade. He became a monk because his family was very poor subsistence farmers (part of one of the local tribes, the Karen, which I told him was my mother’s name) and monks get a free education. He said that someday he would like to be a tour guide, so I told him all my ideas for Chiang Mai tours. Hopefully he will remember me when he gets rich and famous from my suggestions. He should—we’re now Facebook friends. (His request.) He and Khalid also had a nice chat about the relative price of iPhones. (Apparently an iPhone 5 is $900 in Thailand! Yikes!)

After that we decided to finally go for a swim in our hotel pool, since it was our last day and it seemed a shame not to use it. Then we had dinner at a canteen where our waiter asked us to help him locate an old friend of his who had lived in Sacramento 20 years ago. We told him we would do our best. Then we took a tuktuk to the night bazaar, which involved several buildings full of stands, as well as many lining the sidewalks. I bought myself a dress (I hadn’t brought any to Thailand because I couldn’t find anything that met all my qualifications (comfortable in tropical heat, would not get too wrinkled, and modest (I had read that though they would never say anything, Southeast Asians find the sight of women’s shoulders offensive, and I really didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable))). So of course the dress I ended up buying leaves the shoulders completely bare. But hey—it’s knee-length and otherwise quite demure. I also got a scarf and bracelet to dress up my (also modest and boring) other clothes. I negotiated for everything (but not very seriously—I have no interest in making anyone suffer over a couple of dollars).

Then we went back to the hotel and packed for our trip to Koh Chang. At 5:15 a.m. we took a cab to the airport. Two flights and several hours later, we landed in Trat at the most beautiful airport I have ever seen—thatched roof buildings, topiaries shaped like elephants. We arranged to take a minibus to our hotel (which included a ferry ride to the island). The views were gorgeous—turquoise water, and a coastline straight out of Bali Hai. The island itself was surprisingly large and very hilly. We drove through several villages (if that’s what you call them—they are basically collections of restaurants, stands selling beach toys, and 7-Elevens. Yes, those 7-Elevens.)

Our resort turned out to be a collection of small cabins facing a lawn—which bordered an elephant park. It was both delightful and disconcerting to find ourselves staring at elephants, who stared back. Khalid wasn’t feeling well so he lay down to rest, but Isaure and I immediately put on our swimsuits and got directions to the beach (“just go straight.”) Less than five minutes later, we were standing at the water’s edge, surveying a spectacular panorama of palm trees, sand, and the bluest water I had ever seen in person. Hoping that we weren’t breaking some sort of rule, we walked into the seaside resort (which was significantly more glamorous-looking than ours) and found a spot in the shade to leave our things before heading into the surf (if you can call it that if there are no waves…) It was probably 70 degrees; cooler than the Mediterranean I swam in last summer near Monaco, but a hell of a lot warmer than anywhere else I’ve ever been.

By this point we were hungry so we went to a little restaurant  at the end of the road from our hotel which had a view of the sea. While we ate we watched a baby elephant (one of our new neighbors) walk down the street with a man who held him gently by the earlobe. The baby then gave rides in the ocean.

I fell asleep at 6:00pm due to the early wake-up call, but when I woke up at 9:00 I realized that I hadn’t taken my malaria pill yet, and since I knew from experience that taking it on an empty stomach is a very bad idea, I had to go get something to eat. Isaure was already in her pajamas, so I had to make my first solo excursion since arriving in Thailand. Alas, all the elephants were already asleep (or maybe they had the night off?) so there was no one to witness my newfound independence. I ended up just going to a street vendor selling banana pancakes on the corner near our hotel (right next to the 7-Eleven!) They were delicious, and I remain, as far as I know, malaria-free.

 

12/30/12

Chiang Mai Photo Album

Incense at a Buddhist temple.

Incense at a Buddhist temple.

All this exhausting not-working calls for some ice cream!

All this exhausting not-working calls for some ice cream!

Wat else?

Wat else?

Money hanging from the ceiling in the largest temple

Money hanging from the ceiling in the largest temple

In the garden of our favorite wat. Those long pink things are growing on a tree!

In the garden of our favorite wat. Those long pink things are growing on a tree!

Buddha

Buddha

Wat, wat, wat

Wat, wat, wat

Another beautiful wat. Love the elephants!

Another beautiful wat. Love the elephants!

 

(All photos by the lovely Isaure, who is a much much better photographer than I am. I am using her to fool you into thinking I’m really good at this, so by the time she leaves you will already be hooked and unable to stop reading. Carry on.)

12/26/12

Happy Christmas

People keep asking me how I feel. “Are you nervous or excited?”

I used to be excited. Now I just feel… weird. I don’t know how else to describe it—something is off. Things aren’t normal. Everything is weird, weird, weird.

Which is better than a lot of people around me feel. Because they feel sad.

Of course, I should have expected this. Especially since I have been on the left behind end of people going far away. A few years ago a very close friend of mine got married and moved to Seattle. We were the sort of friends who had keys to each other’s apartments, made each other dinner at least once a week, and took trips halfway around the world together. On one such trip, to South Africa, she told me that if she married her boyfriend, she wanted to get married on the beach. I joked that she should have her bridesmaids dress as lobsters. At her rehearsal dinner, three days before she was leaving for the other side of the country, she presented me with a lobster hat. I put it on and promptly burst into tears—while all around me, people snapped my photo.

So why does it surprise me when people react that way to me going away? There’s no logical explanation. It just does.

Making people sad of course has made me somewhat sad. Which is not the way I want to feel right now.

I know that once I am on the plane I will be excited again. I know it.

Now let’s say a collective prayer that the megastorm that’s hitting western Massachusetts does not affect flights from Logan, my electronic devices don’t run out of batteries, and there are no screaming babies on any of my flights. Amen.

12/18/12

Tom Sawyer

I don’t think I have ever been the guest of honor at so many parties. In addition to the surprise gingerbread/tea party, my friends threw me one of the alcohol-serving variety this weekend. It had a joint holiday/Asia theme (one of my friends wore a tiny Mrs. Claus dress under a jacket with a Mao collar; she looked like someone in a 1950s musical about to break into a racist tap dance). As if that weren’t enough, tomorrow is my goodbye party at work.

An unexpected perk of saying goodbye to everything in your life is that everything in your life says goodbye back. I have never felt so popular! People I haven’t seen in ages keep getting in touch, saying the nicest things. I feel a bit like Tom Sawyer sneaking into his own funeral (without all the, you know, death).

I told this to one of my friends (the racist tap dancer, actually), and she said, “I hope you don’t really mean our party felt like a funeral!”

That’s the problem with email. It’s so easily misinterpreted. You tell people that the party they threw for you felt like your own funeral, and they think you meant it in a bad way.

12/16/12

Hoop Dreams

What I have been doing, in no particular order:

1. Not sleeping

I should start by saying that I am so grateful to the friends who have let me crash at their apartments instead of forcing me to make the long trek back to the ‘burbs.

But.

I have now spent the night on three couches (and one unfortunate love seat), shared a bed with one friend and two cats (twice), and another bed with a friend who was suffering all night with symptoms that we both thought might be appendicitis.

While it has been awesome to spend so much time with my friends, I am pretty beat.

Especially since when I do manage to sleep in my own bed, I usually get home shortly before bedtime and have to wake up at 6:30ish to beat the traffic.

It has gotten to the point where I am actually looking forward to 33 hours of sitting in air planes.

2. Not checking things off my to-do list

I have a long list of things I need to do before I go stored in Google Docs, so I can stare ineffectually at it from wherever I happen to be.

Every time I try to check something off I always end up adding more things instead. A simple call to the guy who manages my Roth IRA to let him know I’ll be out of the country resulted in him telling me to give my mother power-of-attorney.  Which needs to be done in front of a notary. A visit to one doctor results in referrals to others. And there are always more places that I need to alert to my change of address. Tearing. Hair. Out.

3. Getting shots

Just try to give me typhoid. You can’t. I am IMMUNE!

I am also now, thanks to the doctor at the travel clinic’s boundless enthusiasm on the subject, something of an expert on diarrhea. (If you can’t imagine ever sharing his enthusiasm, you should probably stop reading now.) Did you know that there are two kinds, bacterial and parasitical? Bacterial is like an alarm clock going off in your stomach. It wakes you up every two hours makes you run to the bathroom. Parasitical is much more subtle—it might take you a while to notice that you have it. (The doctor got a special twinkle in his eye as he drew me a graph of how long you will have bacterial diarrhea depending on how you treat it. It was kind of adorable.)

4. Buying ever more expensive travel gear

I keep thinking of more things I need to buy. I finally broke down and bought a netbook so I can blog without endangering my Macbook Pro. And I got a new backpack because the frame one my mother offered me was so heavy that I couldn’t comfortably lift it one-handed when it was empty. I still need DEET-heavy bug stuff, quick-drying socks, some type of security for my backpack, a safety whistle, and way too many other things to list. Imagine how expensive these items could possibly be—then multiply by five.

Ok, whine over. I’m 90% super excited to go, 10% frustrated with all the hoops I have to jump through to get there.

Less than two weeks to go!