teaching, The China Chapter, travel, video

When Disney Feeds Wanderlust

I was fortunate last week to spend time in Singapore and Thailand, first celebrating Chinese New Year and then just relaxing near the beach.  Coming back to Chengdu was a bit hard, remembering the chilly weather I left, but spring seems to be making an early appearance here and the city has brightened up quite nicely in the nearly two weeks I was gone.

As soon as I got back, in the few days before school started up again, I plotted my next trip–spring break on Jeju Island–and booked hotel rooms and made flight arrangements.  After that, I fly to Germany to see my school next year.  I feel a thrill just knowing travel is happening again soon.

Today, I had the opportunity to show a couple individuals around the school here in Chengdu.  It’s always so much fun to pop into classrooms and the amazing things teachers are up to.  And walking around seeing kiddos reading in groups or programming robots or making stain glass windows, I felt the early sting of nostalgia.  I will definitely miss this place muchly next year, even though I think Germany will be a nice change of pace and place.

For some reason, the combination of loving the journey and knowing that I would miss the here and now had songs from Moana popping in my head all day today.  Rather than just push them out, I thought I would share them.  These songs have a way of almost perfectly emoting that feeling of wanderlust that settles in my soul.

First from the song “Where you are” we have two moments:

At 1:28, look at the cute, little, trapped-in-one-place Moana sadly sing:

 …And no one leaves…

And then at 2:17, we have the wanderlust meat of the song:

You may hear a voice inside.
And if the voice starts to whisper,
to follow the farthest star,
Moana, that voice inside 
is who you are.

Then we have one of my favorites, “I am Moana.”

Here, at 1:25, Moana sums up the wanderlusting, traveling life completely:

I’ve delivered us to where we are,
I have journeyed farther.
I am everything I’ve learned and more–
still it calls me.

And the call isn’t out there at all,
it’s inside me.
It’s like the tide, 
always falling and rising.

I will carry you here in my heart;
you remind me
that come what may,
I know the way….

And finally, from “We know the way,” at 2:05:

We are explorers reading every sign.
We tell the stories of our elders in a never-ending chain.


So there I end.  Lin Manuel’s lyrics can carry this post far better than anything else I could add.

China, Germany, The China Chapter, travel

Geh nach Westen, junger Mann: Go West, Young Man (Haven’t you been told? California’s full of whiskey, women, and gold…)

Every morning in the winter, I walk to school under the glow of the tungsten streetlights, watching my breath billow in front of me in small puffs of steam. My scarf is tight around my neck and my jacket, with its ripped pockets and fraying liner, never quite warm enough. In Chengdu, I always feel cold in the winter.

Every day at school, I defrost in my office or the classrooms, but move briskly through the halls or between the primary and secondary building. The air has too much bite to it, too much moisture, and the cold settles around my shoulders and feet, sinking somewhere beneath my skin to the very bones within.

Back in Virginia, in the middle of the winter, I used to crank the heat in my house up to a comfortable 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit (15-18 degrees Celsius) and wrap the back door with plastic to keep out the chill. I would come home every day and kick off my shoes as I walked through the door. In socks, jeans, and a tee-shirt, I would lounge around, grading papers, watching television sprawled out on the couch, or reading in my bedroom.

In Chengdu, I remain fully bundled in my apartment, removing my shoes at the door, keeping my feet bare only long enough to replace the shoes with slippers. The heat on my living room AC unit is set to 25-30 degrees Celsius (77-86 degrees Fahrenheit). The apartment will never get that warm. The hot air blows noisily, heating the sitting area before dissipating, disappearing through windows and uninsulated walls. To sleep, I wrap myself in a heavy comforter, snuggling close to a water bottle filled with boiling heat. In the mornings, I loathe pulling back the comforter, forcing myself up and into the eternal chill.

It’s official though, I will not be here next year. After nearly four years of the same routine, same apartment, same school, the thought is both thrilling and sad. I knew, when I moved away from Virginia 4 years ago, that, with family there, I would always have a reason to visit Fredericksburg, to watch from afar as expanded and aged.  Chengdu, however home it feels to me now, does not have the same hold. I have friends—good friends, great friends—here, but many will move away to new jobs and new schools in years to come. Yes, some will remain here, but factoring together plane tickets and visa prices, it’s quite possible that I will never be here for more than a few days after I move away.

Always striving to be diplomatic, I have thought about what I will and won’t miss about Chengdu, the city, itself. Thus, this excludes the phenomenal people I have met here.

What I Will Miss:

1) Food. Sichuan food is amazing; hot, spicy, and flavorful. I detest so-called “Chinese” food in the states now with its cloying sweetness and sugar-overload. From the street vendors to the upscale hotpot restaurants, from dim sum to shao kao, China has some of the best (and least expensive) food I have ever tried.

2) Culture. When you go to the touristy cities of China—Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen—I feel you miss a lot of “real” China. These places feel overly westernized. While Chengdu may be slouching in that direction, for now, it remains steeped in tea houses, bamboo-laden parks, and Face Change artists.

3) Togetherness. I know I have written about this before. In the states, we spend so much time indoors, watching television or talking only to those we already know. In China, so much life is lived outside. People exercise on street corners every morning, dance in public squares every night, eat chuan-chuan at small folding card tables, and get in screaming matches over card games, causing crowds three to four people deep to gather around in curiosity. Any time I travel to the west, I find myself wondering where everyone is and why they don’t spend more time with others.

4) Nightlife. Chengdu is known as a relaxing city and, with traffic, this may be debatable. But there is no shortage of things to do here. If you want to watch a movie, there are literally hundreds of theatres to choose from. Ice skating? Got you covered. Ski slopes? Fake ones here too. Want to go dancing? Okay, just pick from the endless stream of bars and nightclubs that have popped up all over the city. Whatever your cup of tea (haha, puny), Chengdu has you covered.

5) Community. Here, specifically, I am talking about the expat community. While this includes other Asians as well, I’m mostly referring to the western community. There are 20,000ish (rough, rough data) foreigners here in a city of well over 15,000,000 people. That’s a very small percentage. And you end up seeing the same foreigners over and over again, especially if you hit up expat restaurants. I’ve met many men and women just because we keep running in to each other grocery shopping or at international school events. Chengdu is large enough to feel quite anonymous, but the expat community is close enough to feel intimate.

I’ll miss a lot more than this, like the cheapness of China and the ease of transportation, but these are the Big Five, as I will call them.

So, where am I moving to? Germany. And considering I never was really drawn to western Europe, I find it crazy and exciting that this is where I’m heading. To make myself feel better about leaving…I compiled a list of things I will not miss about Chengdu:

What I Will Not Miss:

1) Pollution. I am looking forward to being able to walk outside in the winter without checking to see if I need to wear a mask.

2) Traffic. In a city of (last I heard) nearly 17 million people, traffic is—of course—a problem. But common-sense whilst driving also doesn’t seem to exist here. Cars gallop over sidewalks, barrel the wrong way down one-way streets, and blast their horn at red lights as though that’ll make the light change or the traffic move.

3) Inescapable Temperature. Apartments here are basically giant chill boxes. While this is helpful in the summer, in the winter you. can. not. get. warm. There’s no true indoor heating and the standup air conditioning units make the air so dry that hands and lips constantly cracked. Centralized heating will be a dream come true.

4) Construction. This city has grown so much since I’ve moved here. We’ve gone from two metro lines to six (with 15 more on the way). We’ve seen malls and apartments and overpasses spring up from nothingness to fully operational almost overnight. But with that constant climb comes massive inconvenience—rerouted bus lined, closed sidewalks and streets, and more traffic elsewhere.

5) Spitting. This pet peeve is getting a lot better, not nearly as prevalent now as it was, but the expectorating that the older generation does here—loogies smacking against the ground on heavily polluted days—is still disgusting. I will never enjoy the sound of someone summoning up phlegm and will not miss it in the least.

There will be more forthcoming, but for now, I’m in China, trying to make the rest of this school year a great one and preparing to move west.

prose, The China Chapter, travel

आत्मा की उदारता: Enough to Go Around

An hour’s drive from India’s busy city of Jodhpur takes you to the dusty streets of Chandelao.

I was only there for a few nights, but even in such a short amount of time was able to lay witness to the extreme generosity of the families I met.  Each evening, I would walk the streets, kicking up dust and avoiding the cows in the road.  It wouldn’t take long, before children were everywhere, pulling me into a small temple or dragging me to their house to meet their parents.

The houses were all the same: concrete shells with very little inside.  A few girls, who dragged me to their home, were so excited for me to meet their mother.  They ripped off my sandals at the door and pushed me inside.

The bottom floor of the two story house had 4 rooms; a small main room with a house altar, a small kitchen where their father was squatting while preparing a potted dinner, a storage room, and a small room that was empty, save for a 1980s style television that did not work.

Printed pictures of the families five children were glued to the concrete walls.  There was no paint, no carpet, just cold, hard concrete everywhere you looked and walked.  The children invited me up concrete stairs to see their bedroom, but I felt I had intruded enough.

The family offered me water, then chai, then dinner, but having already eaten, I just opted for a few more minutes of conversation.  Then I profusely thanked the family for inviting me in before heading back to the guesthouse for the night.

To say the house was small was an understatement.  My apartment feels palatial by comparison.  But I never have people over.  I do not drag in strangers for dinner.  I do not think I have ever been as giving as that Indian family in my entire life.

And that’s what I found, time and again, in Chandelao.  One day, Susan–a fellow traveler–and I wandered, quite by accident, into a family’s backyard.  In the US, I might hear screams of “Get off my property,” been chased by a dog, or–worse case scenario–been shot.  In Chandelao, the family pulled chairs out from the house, invited us to relax, and made us chai tea.

What was going on?  Such generosity in such extreme poverty?

It reminded me of a line in The Prince of Egypt: “And that’s why we share all we have with you, though there’s little to be found; when all you’ve got is nothing, there’s a lot to go around.”

Clearly, having more just means you have more to lose.


China, schools, The China Chapter, travel

How We Do Summer

I appreciate the emails and Facebook messages goading me to post, post, post. So finally, with a bit of downtime, I’ll oblige.

May and June were a whirlwind of activity as we wrapped up the end of the school year. So many teachers were moving and we were expecting so many new incoming teachers that much time was spent helping friends pack, working with our school community to host our annual yard sale, and answering questions that new hires (still not in China) had about life in Chengdu.

The last day of school descended upon us in a rush of graduations and spring performances. Then…summer silence.

I was only here a few days after school got out, making sure the office was set for the summer and that some classrooms were moved to new locations, before I flew stateside.

After boarding the plane in Chengdu, it was a quick 29 hours (Quick? Ha!) later that I was at my parents’ house. I think the best part of the flight—save, of course, flying business—was having Amber, a preschool teacher, on my flight. We meandered the SFO airport together for a while before heading our separate ways.

Back in Fredericksburg, I spent about a week hanging out with family and seeing friends before my brother Sean and I headed to Knoxville, Tennessee. There, we got a chance to see family, eat at a pub our great-great-great grandfather used to bartend at, and listen to music written and recorded by our great-great-great uncle. It was a pretty fun way to kick off the non-jet-lagged portion of the summer.

After nearly a week in Knoxville, we drove back to Virginia in time for the fourth of July…although I definitely slept through any and all fireworks this year, I did get to see my other brothers and even had the honor of being one of those who got to help Colin strip wallpaper in his new house. Oh the glory of it all!

For about a week and a half, I floated around my parents’ pool in an inner tube swam, played with Scout (Meghan’s adorable kitten), did way more shopping than I should have, and spent time with friends catching up over breakfast or walking around downtown.

Then it was west coast time. Just like last year, I flew to Seattle for a QSI conference. I’ve been so caught up with email and data at this school that this post is triggering memories of things I need to look at that we worked on in Seattle…add that to the list of things to do this week!

This year, there were a lot of Chengdu (or former Chengdu) teachers in Seattle at the same time. Seven of us were directly involved in meetings, while 3 came to be with spouses or nearby family. All-in-all, it was treat to see everyone before we again went our separate ways—spreading ourselves all over the earth, from East Asia to South America.

After Seattle, I came home for literally one day to repack and take a test. Then it was Iceland time.

I spent about a week in Iceland…and it was magical. I don’t remember ever being in a country where I felt so emotional about the beauty of it all. From the hump-back whales and pods of dolphins to the spitting geysers and glacial waterfalls, the immensity of the landscape was overpowering. One day, I rented a car to drive down from Reykjavik to Vik and had to pull over multiple times—often to take pictures, sometimes just to wipe the tears that formed from falling so overwhelmingly in love with the country and feeling so small in comparison.

After a soul-reviving trip, I flew back to Fredericksburg. I was so tempted to…whoops…miss my flight from Iceland, but my great-aunt was coming to visit, so to Virginia I returned.

The last week of vacation was spent, again, with family. I learned about Escape the Room box games, played a few, and spent too much time putting together Legos, which….is just fun no matter what your age. I’m just waiting for the company to release a “Chengdu skyline” set.

Before July was even over, it was time to head back to Chengdu. I arrived on a Sunday night—later than expected, due to mechanical problems in San Francisco—and had to report to work on Monday. The first week back was full of work, but a little lonely. Not many people were around—and everyone here had families to go home to at night. After about a week of watching way too much Game of Thrones at night, new teachers all started to arrive. Kurt, James, and I took turns meeting them at the airport and taking them to their apartments.

And then…it was orientation time. During new teacher orientation, returning teachers started trickling in. Before the whole staff orientation, we held a barbeque at the school so new and old teachers could mix and mingle.

Since then, we’ve been up and running. We’ve had kinks to work out—a smaller recess space, a new lunch system, but the new teachers are all very positive and energetic. I really enjoy having them all here and can tell it’s going to be a good year! It’s always a shift when old teachers—especially ones you’ve known for years!—leave, but I convince myself that, hey, now I just have many more countries in the world that have a built in tour guide for me.

So the official first day of school was 17th and for the past 10 days—minus two days when I was knocked down by strep—it’s been work hard during the week, cut loose on the weekends. One of the highlights of my year thus far was getting Lucy—who has been here for 5 years—to go to the Jellyfish (a stupid, loud, obnoxious, can-actually-be-really-fun night club) for the first time ever last night. I thank her niece for helping me chart that victory!

Okay, it is time for dinner, maybe a phone call to the states, then most assuredly, bed. ❤

photography, The China Chapter, travel

स्लमडॉग टू वंडरफ़ुलः ए स्वाद ऑफ़ इंडिया – From Slumdog to Sublime: A Taste of India

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.


faces, human rights, photography, The China Chapter, travel

लोग जगह बनाना – People make the place

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…

photography, The China Chapter, travel

කඳුළු බිඳුවක දිවයින: Teardrop Island (A Sri Lankan Story)

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…