Earlier this week, I was talking to a few other expats about life in Chengdu. After living in China for nearly 3 years, there are so many things I take for granted now. “Watch the ground as you walk” and “check the AQI daily” are things I do not need to be reminded to do. I recently picked up the book Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost and it reminds me how…surreal some of life here initially is to an outsider. As I read Troost’s words, I find myself continuously laughing and nodding. Yeah, yeah, that’s China…
Fellow educator and expat, Kelly, has done a great job capturing some of the more interesting aspects of China life. With her permission, I will be reprinting some of her observations from time to time to give you a look through the laowai (foreigner) lens at life here in Chengdu.
Nope, that isn’t a typo. The “poo” is there on purpose. Chubby little Chinese toddlers are about the cutest darned things ever created – until they urgently bend their knees and assume the toilet-squat position – right there on the sidewalk – where I stroll every single day. Usually grandma or grandpa is waddling along beside them and they stop to supervise; just as a dog owner would pause while Fido relieves himself on a tree. Same, same. Chinese toddlers and dogs.
It’s a fantastic way to potty train kids. When junior is suddenly ready to “go”, he just squats wherever he is. His pants are designed with a large split in the crotch allowing for everything to empty into the toilet, trash can, potted plant, the concrete sidewalk, whatever. No need for expensive, land-filling Pampers! It’s a cultural difference that takes some getting used to. Baby butts and baby twigs and berries just out there for all to see.
I have learned to NEVER step in puddles.
Words & Photographs by Kelly R
When Chengdu has a low pollution day, the entire city looks sparkling, sunny, and new. It’s like putting on glasses and, finally, seeing buildings in the distance with a clarity that you forgot the atmosphere was capable of.
In my last post, I wrote about visiting Delhi and how the city reeked of exhaust fumes and noise. This caused a friend to write to me, “I enjoyed your blog post about India– not as romantic as the movies make it seem? I’m thinking of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel… and you’re saying it’s a bit more Slumdog Millionaire?”
And for that, I have to apologize. India is a fascinating country and my two plus weeks there were full of enchanting flavors, beautiful people, and the clear night sky all wrapped into one intoxicating trip. But Delhi? There is no way I can even feign love of that city.
Fortunately, I did not have to spend long in Delhi. The day after I arrived, we took off, in a private bus, bound for the city of Mandawa. We arrived late, pulling up to a gorgeous haveli. Up until this point, I did not realize how utterly spoiled I would feel on this tour. The staff of the haveli performed a puppet show for us after which we ate a buffet dinner on the roof, staying up late to share drinks and stories.
I stayed on the roof after the others had departed for bed, peering up to look at how the dust of the day had settled fast away and the stars twinkled magically in the sky. I promised myself that I would wake early to see the sunrise.
The next morning, I did exactly that, but felt a bit disappointed that the sun rose surrounded by a cloud of dust. No matter. Breakfast was served and I drank my first of the few hundred chai teas I would have during my time there. Then, with all group members gathered together, we went on a walking tour of the small city.
The morning was a blur of dusty roads and bright faces. Before I knew it, we were off again, this time, headed for Bikaner, Mandawa fading fast from the rear windows of our bus.
When we arrived in Bikaner, we checked in at the adorable Bhairon Vilas Hotel. This hotel boasted amazing rooftops views, a small shop, an eclectic bar—complete with Harsh—the hotel owner manning the bar most nights, and an adorable coffee/tea shop. We scarcely had time to poke around the hotel before our tour guide Raghu grabbed tuk-tuks. We took a dusty ride to the city center and then went on a walking door, running into boys playing cricket, men sporting incredibly-lengthed mustaches, and ending the day drinking an incredible small cup of chai cooked on a pan in the street.
As evening fell, we walked back to tuk-tuks and zipped back to our hotel. Some group members headed out to eat, but others—myself included—stayed behind to write, to read, and to climb up to the rooftops and stare at the stars. By night, Harsh’s bar was abuzz as members of our tour ordered drinks and danced to the random music from Harsh’s laptop.
The next day, we woke up early to see the Junagarh Fort. The fort was built in the 1500s and we spent a good hour wandering through it. Although its red exterior and ornate interior were beautiful, having such a late night before really made it hard for me to enjoy the fort as much as I could have. Fortunately, this was the first of many forts we would see. In other countries, you might tour castles or churches. In India, you tour forts.
After ample time to rest and recover from the previous evening, we spent the afternoon at a camel breeding farm, watching as the herds were driven back into the farm from a day grazing. Seeing hundreds of well-trained camels was pretty surreal. By that time, the sun was hot in the sky. We finished off our trip by trying camel-milk ice cream.
That night was another one of drinks, dancing, and star-gazing, but—intent on beating the sun up—I went to bed early. Then next morning I did, indeed, rise before dawn. Again, I stood on the roof for an hour or two, freezing and trying to discern the changing intensity of light in the sky. When everyone was awake, we ate breakfast, packed our bags, and said goodbye to Harsh and his hotel.
We were headed next to the city of Jodhpur, but before we got too far out of town, we made a stop at the Deshnoke Rat Temple. This temple was something I had read about. I had originally been a little nervous about the aspect of wandering around this house for roughly 25 thousand tiny, beady-eyed rodents without shoes, but Raghu bought us all pairs of socks. The temple was not wall-to-wall with rats as I had expected, but after stepping in one too many puddles on the floor, I cannot say I was sorry to go. After leaving the temple, we stopped by a little shop, washed our feet and re-shoed, and drank yet another cup of chai.
Jodhpur is known as India’s blue city, a nickname, like so many of India’s nicknames, derived from the exterior of the buildings. Upon arriving in the blue city, we wasted no time before making our way to the Sardar Market. As I wandered the stalls, I spoke with Indian men on holiday, dodged cows drudging through the street, and took pictures of the spices in every scent and color. This was the India I had dreamt of!
The next day, we stopped by the Mehrangarh Fort, my favorite fort of our tour. Perched high above the city of Jodhpur, Mehrangarh offered marvelous views of the city’s brilliant blue walls. The fort itself was again ornate and, with the sun climbing into the bright Indian sky, the fort became the perfect backdrop for a photo session with fellow travelers.
So many bloggers and travel writers say that India “assaults the senses.” They talk about walking out of the airport in Delhi and being surrounded by the sounds and scents of a new world. That is not the Delhi I saw.
After leaving the peaceful beaches of Sri Lanka, I flew into Delhi. For two weeks, I was going to tour the Rajasthan area complete with a dip into Uttar Pradesh region to see the Taj Mahal. But, the tour had to begin somewhere and, with its international airport, Delhi was that somewhere.
After standing in no less than five lines to get through customs, I finally grabbed my hiking backpack from the emptying conveyor. When I finally made my way out to the arrivals hall, I saw a sign with “G Adventures” on it. Well, that was easy enough. The gentleman holding the sign informed me that my ride was not here yet, but I could sit, relax, and grab a drink at a little terminal coffee shop.
That sounded great to me.
At the time, India was at the tail end of getting rid of certain rupee notes. Fortunately, a friend had warned me that ATM lines were long and there was a cap on the amount you could withdrawal each day from the bank. Because of this warning, I had been fortunate enough to track down rupees whilst in Singapore. I paid for coffee with a 2,000 rupee note, much to the disdain of the cashier, who scrambled to find change.
Before long, my driver was in front of me. She led me through the parking garage to her car, where my suitcase and I spread out in the backseat. The seatbelt clung to its holster, refusing to be of service. So like China, I thought. Then we were off.
I was ready for an overwhelming sensory experience as we exited the garage. But, alas, by this time, the sun had set and Sunday night traffic choked both the roads and the exhaust-fume filled air. Soooo like China.
I was immediately missing Singapore and Sri Lanka. Some travelers love cities. And, to a certain extent, I understand that. The clubs, the parties, the dancing, the shopping, the food…but in so many other ways, big cities all over the world are melding into a faceless, international version of the unique gem they once were.
And this…this sputtering, China-like, polluted bottle-neck of a city…was my first impression of Delhi; a land laid to waste by modernity.
The next morning, after meeting with my tour group at breakfast, our guide, Raghu, took us to Salaam Baalak, an NGO that seeks to provide care and opportunities for street children in India. There we met Ejaz, a young man who had run away from an abusive home and lived on the streets of Delhi before joining Salaam Baalak as a guide. With wonderful English, he led us through alleyways in Delhi, explaining both his life and the life of the city around us.
Dispite Ejaz’s best efforts, Delhi did not become a magical place to me. After our city tour, we stopped at an ATM for some group members. I spent the time wandering the streets, talking to charming men and women, and snapping pictures.
Finances sorted, we boarded our private bus and took off, touring the city through the windows. We stopped once at the India Gate to take some shots and walk about, but afterwards, I was ready to hit the road.
Delhi had some amazing people within its city limits, but aside from these faces, it was just a city, like so many I had seen before…
It seems as though it is only when I am on holiday that I have both the time and inclination to blog…about past journeys. So, as I stare off into the black night ocean from the coast of Batu Ferringhi, Malaysia, my mind wanders back to the last time I stared off at night into the pitch dark of the pitching waves. Then it was on the rooftop of a hotel in southern Colombo, Sri Lanka. I spent a few days there: one day meeting up with friends from Chengdu to tour the city, and another day making new friends by combing the beach, collecting conversations like seashells.
It was on this beach walk that I first met Sahil. He stood with his mother and wife, holding a frowning girl in his arms. Sahil smiled at me and, in English, introduced himself. He asked where I was from and if I like Sri Lanka. America and Yes, it’s beautiful. Then Who’s this? I nodded to the girl in Sahil’s arms. “My daughter. She’s scared of the waves, but just you wait! By the end of the day, she’ll love the ocean!” I laughed, reminded of my own ocean ventures off the coast of Cape Hatteras with my father and brothers. We used to stand on the sand bar for hours until I could feel the rise and fall of the ocean even as I laid to sleep at night. I wished Sahil luck and continued along the beach.
A bit farther, past families and photo ops, I happened upon an old boat. The entire aft had been torn asunder, but it sat beautiful in its wreckage. While taking photos of the boat, I heard men screaming and shouting as they started running towards me. I turned my head, perplexed, watching them pour out of a small restaurant on the shore and hurtle my way. Their cries were neither angry nor frightening. They sounded pleased and giddy. Most of them ran right past me and dove into the ocean. One stopped, a grin lighting up his face. “Hi!” He waved and his enthusiasm lit up his eyes. Hi, I smiled. What are you guys up to? “Oh,” Smiley’s eyes darted to the men in the water, “it’s our day off. So we swim!” We joked around for a few more minutes before I asked the boys if I could snap some pictures of them playing around. Smiley’s grin expanded even as he raced and catapulted into the breaking waves.
After snapping photos and saying goodbye to the boys, I began hiking back. The sun was hot in the sky and I was in need of water and rest. After a while, I happened again upon Sahil, this time with a very happy little girl, splashing about in the water. Ah, Sahil, you did it! Congratulations! “I knew it would happen!” he proudly confided.
I walked back to my hotel, my soul full. How rare and beautiful this chance to be all alone in a country and still feel so much love.
Now, Sri Lanka, without the stories…
In December, I had the opportunity to visit Singapore, Sri Lanka, and India. While it will take a few days to go through the 2800 pictures I took of my whole trip, here are a few from my brief 48-hour visit to Singapore. There I visited the cooled conservatories in the Gardens by the Bay (totally worth it!), rode the Singapore Flier (cheesy, touristy, and a great way to make new friends), and saw the Merlions (insanely crowded!).
When my uncle first heard I was spending Christmas 2015 in Vietnam, he told my father that it didn’t seem like too long ago that he was trying his best to spend Christmas away from Vietnam. While the entirety of the Vietnam War predates my existence, I took this revelation to heart and treated my time in Vietnam more thoughtfully that I might otherwise have.
Without delving too much into politics, I can say that the current mentality of the government of Vietnam still relies very heavily on a war fought 40 years ago and all the propaganda they can squeeze out of it. History is written by the winners and there is no place as easily accessible as Vietnam to witness this.
To be fair, neither the Vietnamese people nor the government seem to have anything again American citizens; rather it’s the American government they cajole and celebrate a victory over. And, interestingly, although perhaps not surprisingly, the men and women in southern Vietnam, once allies with the US, seem very hush-hush about the war, despite the large, very anti-American War Remnants Museum in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC; formerly Saigon), placed by the Northern Vietnamese Troops after the end of the war in 1975 to remind the South how lucky they were that the Northern Army had prevailed.
Regardless, our journey from Cambodia (see the last part of our adventures here) into Vietnam was fraught with difficulty. While in Phnom Penh, it was discovered that our travel agency had given us the wrong paperwork for a border crossing into Vietnam. Fortunately, Nou Sokhien was on duty at Giant Ibis. He took the time to go get us visas to Vietnam from the embassy and didn’t charge us for his kindness. (Again, I cannot recommend this bus company highly enough.)
Although clearing the visa matter took a few hours, with Sokhien’s help, the matter was resolved smoothly. Our tour company also showed up at the bus depot to pay–right then and there–for any unforeseen costs we had incurred that day. Only a few hours after we should have left, we were on a bus into Vietnam.
We crossed the border without incident and, almost immediately I could sense money was around us. The bumpy streets of Cambodia, lined with wild grasses and wooden dwellings on stilts, became gated concrete houses adjoining smoothly paved roads.
We made it to the Liberty Park View Hotel late that night and, tired from the hours bouncing about on a bus, I crashed almost immediately while Kerensa and Melissa explored the streets of HCMC for dinner. When we woke up the next morning, we had a whirlwind day planned–morning at the Cu Chi Tunnels and an afternoon spent touring the city.
The Cu Chi Tunnels were…interesting…and going inside a (widened and heightened for the tourists’ benefit) tunnel still made me feel ever so claustrophobic. I’m not sure if what we saw was our tour guide’s normal demeanor or if he was just very aware of the fact that he was guiding around American tourists, but he kept congratulating us, saying we would “make good Viet Cong” and “yay, Communism.” I’m not saying I would have been in support of the Vietnam War–I’m pretty sure I would not have been–but I still felt as though, just by listening to our guide, I was failing to respect the soldiers sent over to die in this foreign, hot land of jungles and Cu Chi traps.
The afternoon tour of HCMC was a little better. We first went to see the Reunification Palace, where the President of Southern Vietnam lived until April 1975. Then we dropped by the stunning Notre Dame Cathedral and Old Saigon Post Office. We ended the afternoon with a drop by the Jade Emperor Pagoda.
Then we wished our tour guide goodbye, grabbed dinner at a nearby restaurant, and headed to bed early for our next morning tour: a Christmas Eve boat tour of the Mekong Delta.
That evening, we met up with Clemens and Faye, two Chengdu friends, and headed to Christmas mass. We passed by a beautiful, super-crowded outside service but walked on when we learned it was (of course) in Vietnamese. We came to a little English speaking service and…well, celebrated Christmas. Afterwards, we found a club with a quiet rooftop. There we grabbed a few drinks and sat around soaking in the warm winter evening. When the drinks were consumed, the ice cubes melted, and the sticky sweetness of the day had softened into a cool evening, we bid our friends farewell and headed back to our hotel. The next day, we were leaving for Hanoi.
After a few days in Siem Reap, Melissa, Kerensa, and I were ready to see the busier city of Phnom Penh. Our Siem Reap driver took us to a bus depot where we boarded a Giant Ibis bus. If you are ever traveling across Asia and want a great, affordable means of travel, Giant Ibis is the way to go. The bus we were on boasted wifi–although coverage was not always great–comfortable seats and outlet plugs. For a country that doesn’t even have electricity in many homes, the bus…was unexpected in the most pleasant of ways. Giant Ibis’s Phnom Penh site manager, Nou Sokhien, would also prove to be most invaluable in the next leg of our journey.
Pictures Taken En Route to Phnom Penh
Our arrival in Phnom Penh was pretty nondescript. We arrived at the bus terminal and were again picked up by a tour guide and driver. They took us along the shore of the Tonle Sap River to our hotel, the King Grand Boutique Hotel. Kerensa’s room was ready as soon as we got to the hotel, so we headed up to her room where we were taught how to use the fancy door locks. Of all of the hotels on our trip, I think the King Grand was one of my favorites. (Tangent here…I would normally save this until the end of the blog post, but this post gets a tad heavy and this incident is so trivial in comparison. The King Grand was spectacular except for one server, who took entirely too long to give us change from our bill at the rooftop bar. After waiting for nearly an hour, we went down to the lobby to find him goofing around with hotel guests. Don’t eat dinner on the rooftop there and you’ll be fine. Most of the staff was incredible, the rooms were nice, and the location was top notch.)
After taking a respite to settle into our rooms, we found that the hotel was an incredibly short, convenient walk away from the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda (officially the Temple of the Emerald Buddha). We wandered to the palace, paid a small entrance fee and poked around. There was some (royal, I’m assuming?) event taking place in the Hor Samritvimean, so a few of the palace buildings were off limits to both foot traffic and photography. But that didn’t stop us from meandering about the stupas and enjoying the palace grounds that seemed complete with large pictures of His Majesty, Norodom Sihamoni, King of Cambodia.
After touring the palace, we met up with Diana, another teacher from Chengdu. We ate at Friends the Restaurant and spent a little time investigating their adjacent store. Most of the proceeds go to charity, so you have to shop, right? We also made plans to visit the killing fields and genocide museum the next morning…
I felt a long pause was in order there and I took a pause when writing this entry too, not really sure how to write about such a heavy day.
Before going to Cambodia and Vietnam, I didn’t know much about the Vietnam War and even less of the reign of the Khmer Rouge. I always associated the USA with fighting–albeit perhaps sometimes blunderingly–on the side of right, opposing evil. But rarely is history so black and white. I’m no scholar on the matter, so if the topic of the Vietnam War and Reign of the Khmer Rouge really speaks to you, please investigate it further. What I’m writing is only the history of the time as I have learned it from being in Cambodia, taking tours, listening to interviews, and talking to Cambodians.
The Khmer Rouge took power of Phnom Penh easily. Cambodians in the 1970s were tired of being bombed by American fighter jets, a causality of the war with Vietnam. The citizens of Phnom Penh welcomed the Khmer Rouge with open arms in 1975, thinking the tide of violence would recede.
In less than 24 hours, the people of Phnom Penh knew they had misjudged the Khmer Rouge. Citizens of Phnom Penh were expelled from the city, forced to work and dwell in the countryside. But that would be nothing compared to the horrors that were to follow. For the next 4 years, until 1979 when the North Vietnamese Army drove the Khmer Rouge from power, the regime purged Cambodia of all the indecent people opposed to their idea of a classless, agrarian society. Such indecent people included doctors, professors, and foreigners. These people were rounded up and taken to prisons like the Tuol Sleng Prison that we toured. Here, prisoners were tortured until they gave up names of others who were against the Khmer Rouge’s regime. These newly named people were then picked up and tortured themselves. Even a number of Khmer Rouge soldiers actually wound up being tortured and killed at prisons like Tuol Sleng. Out of the 17000-20000 people who made their way through Tuol Sleng, only 7 to 12 are reported to have survived.
When the Khmer Rouge ran out of room for bodies in Tuol Sleng, they sent people to killing fields, like Choeung Ek, located 15 km (9 miles) south of Phnom Penh. There, people were made to dig mass graves for themselves. Then Khmer Rouge soldiers hit them with shovels until they were dead. Infants were swung against a tree, dying instantly from the trauma, and were then tossed into a pile of corpses.
The entire day was dreary and depressing, but I appreciated it as one might a trip to Auschwitz, an area, preserved from the flow of time, showing humanity at its worst that we might strive to become humanity at its best. Still, thoughts give me pause. After being shut down in 1979, Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek were both turned into profound tourist stops in the 1980s. In 10 years or so, are there going to be similar monuments in Syria and Sudan? And who will play the role of the North Vietnamese Army, driving harsh regimes from the land?