Wednesday, November 26, 2008

From Kunming to Shaxi (back to Kunming) and then to Siem Reap

Well, it has been a while, I'm sorry. I'll get right to it.

We had our farewell homestay banquet and I headed home to pack and give my family their gift – a Peruvian Chess board. They seemed a little amused by it, but when I explained what it was my host father said his son (my absentee host brother) plays and I suggested he could teach them. Then they wanted a picture with me (so I taught them how to use the automatic timer on their camera) and my email address. I guess they didn't hate me. The next morning on the way to the car to drive to the University where I'd catch our TBB bus my host mother asked me if my parents had been to China, which seemed odd, but really her point was that if my parents ever DO come to China, they're welcome to stay with her (are you listening, parents?). I reciprocated the offer (still listening?) It was really sweet, actually.

So after picking up a last round of the best University street food (a ball of sticky rice with sugar and one of the "Chinese Burritos" – a thin pancake cooked on a flat black slab, covered with a spread around egg, chives, parsley, a crunchy thing and plum sauce (I avoid the picked root and the spicy sauce)) we headed off on our 10 hour bus aventura. (Incidentally, "aventura" has become our word for a potentially less than thrilling adventure…as in "Where's Isabel?" "Oh, she and Sandy went on a hospital aventura" or "What exactly ARE we doing for lunch?" "I'm not quite sure…aventura!") The first 6 or 7 hours passed smoothly. I made my Top 50 Playlist and listened to more of They Came To Baghdad, the Agatha Christie audio book I started on our way out of Bua. (The Top 50 Playlists were, I believe, Katie R's idea…basically each TBBer will make a playlist on their iPod of their 50 favorite songs, or the 50 songs they think everyone should know…mine turned out to be the latter. I can't say that the Lip Gloss song is a favorite of mine, but it would make my life easier if people understood the reference…and I feel like it's awfulness will be fully appreciated by many group members…if you don't know the Lip Gloss song I don't know what to tell you.)

And then suddenly, it really did become an aventura. Brace yourselves. We hit someone with our bus. Yes. Yes we did. Driving to Shaxi mainly consisted of country highways where our driver would honk and make people get out of our way, except this time, the guy on the bike came right at us. Amazingly, our driver veered left enough so that only the corner of the bus hit him. It still didn't sound good, but he ended up under his bike on the side of the bus and not under the bus itself which seems to be the better of the two options. He turned out to be miraculously alright. He also turned out to be drunk which explained why he didn't move and also why he yelled at Yuen and Charles for at least half an hour. Luckily (if you can call it that), Sandy, Robin, Yuen and Sam hit someone with their van last time they drove to Shaxi and they learned a few lessons from the experience. First, people will act injured even if they aren't to get money. Second, you can't just call the police, you have to get someone local to call for you so they don't just look at you as some foreigner whose fault the accident must be. Yuen called a friend to call the police (because even Yuen isn't a local…she's a city-dweller) and the police came, took the guy to the hospital where his drunkenness was confirmed (as was his being otherwise alright) and we continued on our way.

We ate dinner at a restaurant that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere just outside of Shaxi, but by that time it was dark so I can't say for sure. It was lazy Susan family style, as all our meals in China were. Honestly, it's disconcerting to order food individually all of a sudden.

We arrived in Shaxi at about 8pm. Our families were all waiting in the main square to pick us up and take us to our homes. Katie C. came with my host mother/grandmother and me because all the families had been waiting for us for so long that hers had gone home (we were delayed by the biker incident…).  It turns out that she lived directly across the street from me and we ate nearly every meal together, one day at one house and the next day at the other. Our families may have been related, they may have been really good friends, or they may have found it convenient because they both had host kids at the same time. Who knows? In case anyone has missed this point, I don't speak Chinese and no one in Shaxi spoke much English.

Shaxi was not at all like I'd expected, physically speaking. I'd been imagining a Chinese Bua. They had been saying "rural China" an awful lot. I guess it was rural. There was certainly a lot of agriculture going on. But where Bua had one hundred and some families, Shaxi had 4,000. I heard someone say 22,000 people. Only in China, with its largest city of 30 million people, is that a tiny rural village. The roads were paved mainly with cobblestone and there were some trucks and a few cars. There were also a lot of alley-type roads much too narrow for cars or trucks to drive down. There were all sorts of shops selling traditional shoes, food, baked goods, cell phones…in the main square there was a store with a sign out front that said "We Brew Real Coffee." And it did. Shaxi has just started to get more tourists and with tourists, apparently, comes real coffee.

Homes in Shaxi are traditional Chinese style houses. They are square with beautiful carved woodwork and tiling and are centered on a courtyard. (That description reminds me a lot of Spanish-style houses and actually, they have a lot in common with regards to the layout). They were houses in use, in no way well-preserved relics. The barn next to my room had animals in it, the outhouse was an outhouse that ran into the field and the upper balcony was used to store corn cobs and to dry peppers. My family had a TV and DVD player in their living room area along with two worn out couches, a few stools, a chalkboard for my little host brother and a circular metal plate on a stand that held embers and was used as a personal heater. There was a refrigerator in the kitchen and running water from the tap in the courtyard which they boiled for cooking or making tea. I've already mentioned the outhouse. I'm not sure how showering worked, though, because it was very cold and I just decided to be dirty for four days. You weren't there so I'm not apologizing to you :-P

Families in Shaxi were more traditional than in cities as well. While in Kunming I lived in an apartment with only my host parents (though, granted, my maternal host grandparents lived a three minute walk awa), in Shaxi I lived with a grandmother and grandfather, a girl who I can only guess was their daughter who was about 28 and a little boy who was 7 (which is exactly what I guessed…I'm magic!). Three generations in one house – the way it used to be all over China. Katie had host grandparents, but isn't totally sure that they lived in her house. Her house was bigger than mine so they could have lived in a section she never really saw. She also had two host siblings, a twelve-year-old girl and an eighteen-year-old boy who goes to school in another city and comes home only on weekends. Rural families and minority families are allowed two children, not one, and the families we lived with qualified as both rural and minority (they were Bai).  (As a side note, Katie and I just talked and are guessing that my host mother/grandmother was her host grandmother's sister or something like that).

My little host brother was adorable and very attached to me. In fact, he didn't like Katie at all, probably because I paid attention to her. We played for hours with little rubber not-so-bouncy balls, kicked around a soccer ball (as I tried in vain to get him to kick with the side of his foot and not his toe), drew on his chalkboard and played hop-scotch, which I taught him and he seemed to like. I also taught him UNO, the card game, which was a little difficult considering the language barrier and the fact that he was only seven. It was entertaining for the hour that we played, though.

The "cultural center" in Shaxi, or rather, the guesthouse owned by Sam and Yuen, was our TBB hub. It was beautiful AND it had wifi. What more could you ask for? Actually, you could ask for a dog with a severe but endearing underbite named Shahu who just had a tiny itty bitty puppy the week before we arrived which we may or may not have named Tabibi (get it? TBB?). Before you get all huffy about me not being in touch, let me say we were pretty booked up in Shaxi. In addition to eating three meals a day with our families, we had seminars, met with the head of the local middle school (which has 1,048 students – there is no local high school), observed English classes at that school one afternoon, taught at that school the next afternoon, watched a movie called Baraka, visited an awesome Buddhist temple with real monkeys and a giant golden Buddha, had a farewell party with traditional music and dance and worked on our media projects (which should be up soon, by the way, although they aren't up yet).

A few of those listed activities deserve elaboration, so here it goes:

1) The Middle School: There are about 2,000 kids at all the local elementary schools combined and 1,000 at the middle school, which makes sense sine elementary schools are six years and middle school is three (seventh through ninth grades…sort of). They start learning English in seventh grade and while the teacher seemed like a pretty engaging teacher as far as teachers that must teach to tests go, her English itself was not very good and her accent made me squirm in the back row when she had kids repeating "com-pu-ter game-uhs" (computer games) and "theeze-uh" (these). (Sidestory: they thought that "computer games" was the word for computer…Katie C and I – yes, we were paired as teaching partners, too – tried to remedy that during our lesson but when we had the kids repeat the phrase we'd written on the board, "I play computer games on my computer," they all added an extra "games" to the end of it. I think we did eventually get the point across, though.) The Chinese also call ping-pong paddles "ping-pong bats" for some unknown reason. But hey, they're the ping-pong masters so I guess we should defer to whatever they want to call it. It was a little strange when it was in the lesson we were teaching though. (We just taught the next lesson in the book because that's what the school wanted us to do and we ended up teaching for one day and not two because Friday was randomly declared a school holiday for some reason I can't recall…Dali province something day or something like that…)

o   The principal also told us that they have "labor class" at the school where they tend to a hundred acre garden (Hundred Acre Woods anyone?) which I think is really cool. We just read some of Gandhi's "India of My Dreams" and he talked about the importance of honoring manual labor so that kids who go to school don't all think its degrading to be farmers or factory workers or artisans etc which I think it a good point and relevant to Shaxi.

2)  Baraka: It's an hour and a half, no words, all images of the world. Pretty cool and, since humans have a compulsion to link images into some sort of sensical story, pretty interesting. I recommend it to you if that sounds good. If it doesn't sound good, you probably wouldn't like it.

3) The Buddhist Temple: It was very cool. I didn't have my camera, but everyone else did, so I'll be stealing people's pictures at some point and uploading them. Pictures may be a while, though. Sorry.

4)  Farewell party: There was traditional music and traditional dance (some of which was Tibetan for those of you interested in Tibet, because Tibet borders on Yunan) and when they were done, we joined them in a traditional Bai dance that was 90% the Hora and 10% very similar to the Hora. THEN we had to reciprocate the musical section of the performance which we had not prepared for…so we tried and failed to do the Macarena and ended up singing "I'll Make A Man Out Of You" from Mulan…there were about 8 of us who knew all the words. Probably not the best choice of song for Shaxi, China, but they don't speak English so they'll never know. I believe, too, that there is a video of all this floating around somewhere…I'll let you know.

5)  Media Projects: I'm podcast group this month along with Renee, Katie R. and Alexandra and I am very proud of our final product. There was a bump or two in the road, but generally we were a well-oiled podcasting machine. The recording is seven minutes long, so I know you can find time to listen and when you do, please pay special attention to the balanced volume of all the voices as well as the beautiful fade-in and fade-out of the music at the beginning and the end (both clips of music are from Shaxi). I don't want you to think it was easy though, so I'm going to add that I got 6 hours of collective sleep our last night in Shaxi and our one night in Kunming before heading off to Cambodia.

Which brings us toooooooooooooo: CAMBODIA

There are many wonderful things about Cambodia.

The first has very little to do with being in Cambodia: we get free time! I have  (among other things) this blog to write (nearly Check!), TONS of journaling to catch up on, postcards to write, photos to upload and organize and our enrichment week book to read (it's called How To Save The World…I haven't started it yet because I'm reading a thinish book I bought called Brother Number One about Pol Pot which so far is very good and quite informative since I knew little to nothing about the Cambodian genocide or Cambodian history in general before getting here).

The second wonderful thing? Mango. Everywhere. They peel and cut them and sell them on the street as snacks. You can buy them at all the fruit markets. There is mango juice at restaurants. Coconut too. Coconuts hacked open on one side make a great drink/bowl. Nature's own design. But mango seriously takes the fruit cake.

The third wonderful thing about Cambodia? No one yells. Everyone speaks relatively quietly (relative to me, not relative to people in China who speak at a constant projecting-to-the-back-of-the-Pantageas volume). More than that, though, people here are seriously nice. It's hard to explain, but it's not just polite, its like a general level of genuine friendliness that's just higher than say, Los Angeles.

The fourth wonderful thing is that Cambodian style art is beautiful (it helps that Cambodian people are generally beautiful so the drawings of them get a leg up to begin with) and it's everywhere. Our bit of Siem Reap is Angkor Wat Tourist Town so they sell elephant and Apsara everything in stores and especially in the main markets (one for day, one for night). Apsaras, by the way, are mystical, mythical dancers that came from the sea of milk as the gods churned it and decorate everything from the temples at Angkor Wat to table runners. This makes gift buying substantially easier than I have found it in the past…Although Peru was pretty good, too…Maybe it's something about enrichment week countries…

Incidentally, in my Peace Corps ruminations, I had pretty much decided that if I do do Peace Corps (and it's still quite an If, I'm just a big planner…I have plans A through about G right now for after college) I would do Eastern Europe. The two countries I want most to visit/work in are Turkey and Russia, neither of which currently have any Peace Corps volunteers, so Eastern Europe was my next choice. Cambodia, however, because of the second and third wonderful things as well as the fact that I have a feeling that I could be of use here doing something with orphans or landmine victims or just…something…has moved up on my list from, well, from not being on the list at all. Just a thought.

I also ran into a guy when I was coming back from the market my first full day here who was riding a red motorbike and asked my name. I said Becca and made to continue walking, but he keep talking and we were in broad daylight on busy street so I kept responding. I was careful, please no one freak out. It turns out that he works with an NGO that runs an orphanage for children whose parents were killed by landmines (landmines may be one of the more evil things in the world). It's 60km outside of Siem Reap, but he was lent the motorbike to come into town to buy more English books for the kids. They were $1.75 each, he showed me a bunch, and his job was basically to get tourists to donate money. He showed me a several photos of kids and books and volunteers and a paper or two from the NGO. It's legit, so I donated some money and made sure he got my email address and that I got his. I want to look into it and may seriously consider coming back and volunteering to teach English. That's actually what got me started thinking about the whole Cambodia Peace Corps thing – how I would be making a real difference in these kids lives by teaching them English. They would be able to get a job in a tourist related industry, which is huge around here. What an impact compared to teaching a huge class of relatively privileged and test-stressed kids in China. I have been left with a serious urge to teach someone something after that slightly frustrating teaching experience in Kunming. Oddly enough, that turned me more ON to teaching, not off.

We also visited some of the temples at Angkor Wat as a group yesterday and then about half of us went back this morning for sunrise. The number of tourists is staggering and I've become quite skilled at cutting them out of my pictures. Still, I'm much more attracted to the ruined temples than the reconstructed ones and tourists generally flock the other way, so for the final day of our three day pass (before out Thanksgiving meal of course) I'm thinking of getting a TukTuk to somewhere remote. (A bunch of people are biking, but oh wait…) There is something very beautiful about giant trees growing out of ruined but beautifully carved stone. I can't put my finger on it exactly…Maybe something about the transitory nature of seemingly immovable and incredibly important things. Maybe something about the beauty lost and the beauty remaining…the fact that it is possibly more beautiful this way than it was in its full glory. Maybe something about the poignancy of the lives lived and forgotten in that place, the everyday lives of courtiers and servants and the royal lives of the kings and princesses all gone, all equally lost and yet all giving some sort of power to the ruined temples. I love to sit somewhere quiet, close my eyes, and see, smell, feel, the entire place in it's heyday. Then I open my eyes and I still see it (thank you Strasburg sense memory training) and I can sit in the quiet and journal. That sounds like such a good plan. I will try to do that tomorrow morning. Right after I finish up my own petty life's duties and take my dirty laundry somewhere where it can become clean clothing once again.

I'm taking lots of pictures, Dad, and I may have even gotten you a souvenir :-)

I've really got to skidaddle now. I'm going to watch a movie with Katie C. and Ian and, not to worry you, but I really need to check up on what's going on in Thailand. I heard something about a bombing at the airport and the airport being closed…apparently the coup that's been threatening to happen for months finally has. We're supposed to go there next month, in case you aren't up on the itinerary, so we'll see what happens with that. Aventura! (But don't take my word for any of this news. Check it for yourself like I'm about to…anything I've heard has come from random Cambodians just chatting about it).

As always, I want to be kept posted on all of your goings on!

Much love from Siem Reap,


P.S. You'll never EVER guess what I happened upon while popping into a convenience store to grab one of these amazing pomegranate green tea drinks I've discovered here: A and W Diet Cream Soda! I know…what? I wasn't even looking because I was SURE I would be seeing that again until May. So. Exciting! Add those two drinks to my list of wonderful things about Cambodia :-)










friend Nancy said...

Such fun to read. I'm enchanted with Cambodia. Can't wait to see the pictures. So excited to find another post after catching up (so I thought) last night. Keep 'em comin' - I have friends following your blog, too.

adelaide said...

Cambodia sounds amazing! I'm especially jealous about the mangoes. Mmmm...

Be sure and let me know how to do get to your podcast once it's up. I'd love to listen.


Le Petit Prince said...

The podcast will be up at: quite soon I think, although I just checked and it's not there quite yet :-)

McG said...

this sounds amazing. I definitely get what you mean about liking the ruined temples, i think i'd be there with you if i were there... with you... um... anyway, you've gotten my photographer sense tingling and now central park seems horribly mundane. and mangos ARE delicious. there's a falafel place near work that has great mango juice, but having fresh mangos and mango juice and wonderful things like that sounds great! keep updating, i'm an addict!