Introduction to Indonesia

I had two choices here: either keep plugging along at the various adventures from more than 4 months ago, or let chronology hang and start telling you all about my new adventures in Medan, Indonesia. I’ve decided to take the latter path.

Actually, I have a lot to tell you all, so I figured I’d begin by telling you something about where I live, and then I’ll start sharing stories later. Don’t hold me to that, though — I seem to be victim to an unfortunate condition called Narrative Tourette’s, wherein I can’t stop using anecdotes to describe things. So bear with me.

Medan was described to me as “your basic big, ugly city.” Well, to some extent that’s true – but for the better portion of last year, I lived in a concrete jungle called Shenzhen, and let me tell you, Medan certainly has got the upper hand on Shenzhen when it comes to foliage and green spaces. Indonesia is a truly tropical climate, and Medan is not exactly in the jungle but not exactly out of it, either. So a drive through the streets of the city is sort of like if you mixed a safari with the streets of Mumbai. Or something to that effect.

Speaking of the streets: there barely are any. I mean, there are roadways, but pavement is apparently a luxury item around here, because the ratio of actual paved road to gravel or dirt shoulder is far lower than that of most other places I’ve been. And I don’t know if this is true all over the country, but Medanese speedbumps are horrible, vicious things that look as though they ought to be glorified rumble strips, but in reality more resemble an earthquake faultline. The combination of deceptively steep and narrow bumps mixed with vehicles that have no shocks as far as I can tell serves to cause quite a bit of trauma to the backside, especially when one is squeezed into a van that is suppose to seat eleven all together with 14 other teachers plus the driver for a half hour every morning. This on top of still having a sore tailbone.

So it’s an adjustment. Pavement is not the only luxury item that, as a Westerner, I very much miss being able to take for granted. Fast internet is another. I have a dial-up broadband modem that connects to the internet at a speed that would shame molasses in January. Even the “good” wired and wireless connections here load a 3-minute Youtube clip in about 15 minutes, if that’s all they’re working on. Forget streaming anything. And, while we’re on the subject of Things I Miss, how about we put reliable electricity on that list? Mine goes out almost every day for anywhere between 20 minutes to 8 hours. We try not to keep anything really perishable in the fridge for more than a day. First Worlder’s problems in the Third World, I guess.

That “we”, by the way, includes my four housemates, who are also teachers at the school, and our housemaid. Yep. We have a maid. Her name is Cici (pronounced like Chee-chee) and she does all the kitchen cleaning and keeps the public part of the house presentable. There is a public part of the house because, well, we live in a working ballet studio, and the dance rooms go from the 1st floor all the way up to the 3rd, where I live, including a room on the second floor directly outside our living room/kitchen area, so the six of us also share our fridge with ballet studio snackage patrol. Cici also keeps the one single set of keys to the entire house (more on that later). I have absolutely no idea anything about her story, because she speaks only Indonesian and I am, in this country, that foreigner who really can’t speak the language. I am picking up about 3-4 words a day right now just from looking at signs as we drive by, but they are often things like “ayam” (chicken) and “ranbu” (hair) and have absolutely no usefulness in daily communication. Besides this awesome ten-year-old in the Jakarta airport (story later), I haven’t had somebody sit down and try to teach me Indonesian yet. I’m hoping to take an opportunity to change that soon.

Okay. Such is the snapshot of immediate daily life. I’m going to try to get to the school, the food, and some epic days of exploring in the next couple of posts. Soon.

Spring Holiday, Part 4: The Full Moon Party

From Wikipedia: “The Full Moon Party is an all-night beach party that takes place in Haad Rin on the island of Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand on the night before or after every full moon.

The first Full Moon Party was improvised at a wooden disco not far from the beach in 1985 for giving thanks to about 20-30 travelers. The Full Moon Party gained fame quickly through word of mouth, and the event now draws a crowd about 20,000-30,000 every full moon evening. The party carries on until the sun rises the next day. All the bars on the sunrise beach of Haad Rin town stay open and play music.”

Full Moon Party: Ko Pa-Ngan, Thailand

IMPORTANT POINTS

  1. 20,000+ people pile onto Haad Rin beach for a night of mayhem and celebration.
  2. This happens once every 28 days (approx.)
  3. Did I mention about an All Night Party with 20,000 people?

The Full Moon Party is a huge draw for international tourists. At the January 2010 iteration, we met people from all over the world– from Brazil to Finland, Canada to South Africa, all getting together to get painted, get their drink on, get their dance on, and – oh, yes – play with fire.

Our evening started with the glo-paint. After snarfing down some delicious curry, we headed to one of the myriad hostel/bars where the glow-in-the-dark body paint was free, as long as you were okay painting it on

Face-painting the Canadians

yourself. We got down with our bad selves, painting all sorts of funny/cool things all over ourselves and generally making a huge painty mess. One friend had a skull-and-crossbones painted across his chest; another friend got swirly lines all over her arms and legs and one got handsy with the paint and started putting neon handprints all over everyone. I got one of my artistically inclined friends to do a moonlit beach scene on my back, which I thought appropriate.

Painted up, we headed to the beach to procure buckets and begin the evening’s festivities in earnest. Let’s talk buckets for a moment. This is a phenomenon at every major tourist spot in Thailand and Cambodia, as far as I can tell – drinks served in, basically, toy sand buckets. For the Full Moon Party, buckets are sold pretty much every which way you turn, and what you buy is roughly $3 USD for a bucket with what looks like half a fifth of vodka, rum, or sangsom (Thai whiskey, ugh) and a soda mixer, mix it yourself, and drink it out of the bucket. Ko Pa-Ngan was the first place I encountered them, but after that they were pretty much everywhere we went. As I prefer my alcoholic beverages in the form of wine, microbrews, and the occasional gin & tonic, this was not my cup (bucket) of tea (liquor) but it sure is popular with the western tourists. (As are the Shroom Shakes, of which I did not partake; it’s one of those things where they are highly illegal but law enforcement doesn’t actually give a damn, so as I understand it they are sold fairly openly along the beach front.)

This would be a bucket.

When you walk out onto the beach, you first notice the wall of bucket-vendors lined up in stalls all across the store fronts along the water. The different vendors have different (often totally obscene) names and catch-phrases scrawled over their stalls, and so you just sort choose whichever one speaks to you most because the buckets are all a standard price pretty much no matter where you get them. The vendors will do deals, too – buy 3 buckets, get one free etc. – so they are kept quite busy throughout the night.

The next thing you notice is all the FIRE! There are fiery signs declaring “Full Moon Party: January 2011,” Tiki torches, fire hoops and – best of all – the Fire Rope. I don’t know which evil genius decided that it was a good idea to douse a massive length of 3-inch thick rope in kerosene, light it on fire, and then use it as a jump rope, but whoever it was deserves a medal for creating pretty much the most awesome beach party activity ever. The brave souls who venture into the Fire Rope Circle (and we were not few) make their way to the front of the crowd, and when the rope starts swinging just jump on in. This can have hilariously disastrous effects, especially if two people decide to jump in from opposite sides at the same time, or if a jumper misjudges the swing of the rope. Once you’re in, the rope gets swung faster and faster in an

Fire Rope!

attempt to dislodge you; I believe there was some kind of prize (a free bucket, probably) if you managed to defeat the rope-holders and jump until they lost the rope. No-one did, as far as I know, while we were standing there. I of course had to get in, so I did probably around 3 or 4 rounds; the first time I got in okay but missed about the third jump which left a nice sooty welt on the back of my ankle and opposite calf. In another round, my friend and I got in and were doing very well and some drunken fratboy ran in and messed up the rope. That thwack left me with straight-up rope-shaped burn (not serious) across

Gives whole new meaning to "rope burns"

my right foot, which I’m pretty sad has disappeared because for a little while it looked to turn into a totally badass scar. Ah, well. There was also a big slide around where the Fire Rope was happening, and I think at one point the slide even got lit on fire, which didn’t seem like such a brilliant idea to me but hey, whatever floats your boat. I did, however, do the pyro-less version of the slide.

This brings me to the last claim on your attention as you arrive at the party: the wall of people along the shore. At the beginning of the night, around 10pm or 11pm, the fray is wildly energetic, dancing and skipping and playing with fire and singing along to the VERY loud music blasting from all the stores, a few PA’s set up near the flaming signs, and the hot club at the end of the strip. On towards 3am or so, the crowd begins to diverge into a few of distinct groups: the wild partiers who are still going strong, dancing the night away; those who are starting to feel the night’s effects and have sat down in the sand with head in hands or in some similar fashion, and those who are starting to sober up and meander down the beach peering about at the destruction the night has wrought. The last two groups continue to grow as the dawn approaches, though the dancing picks up again right before sunrise when the club starts absolutely blasting “Let the Sunshine In” from the musical Hair (I found this hilarious) and the whole beach starts going nuts singing some variation of “let the sun shine” or “hail the sunshine” or something along those lines.

It’s actually pretty awesome, an entire beach of people dancing and singing and waving and greeting the dawn as it comes in gray at first and then the sun pops over the hills and suddenly the beach is awash in light, and you can REALLY see the destruction and carnage. Straws and glowsticks, beer cans and flip-flop sandals litter the beach front in stunning quantity. And as the light hits, people begin to pack it in and head back for their hostels all over the island; taxi services descend on the egressing hordes and sandwich shops open for the early onslaught of hungry and beginning-to-be-hungover hordes. We caught an open-air pickup-truck taxi back to Haad Salad at around 7am after grabbing breakfast sandwiches, and at that time in the morning the weather was gorgeous, sunny and cool; a perfect, scenic way to end our All-Night Party.

Next up: Phuket. Someday I WILL get out of Thailand with these things, I do promise.

Spring Holiday, Part 3: Koh Pa-Ngan

Have you ever been to Paradise?

Its brightness is startling. It has an abundance of sunshine. The sea, the flowers and the sky have the most beautiful colors you could ever see.

Have you ever been to Paradise?

If you were there you would know what Paradise really is.

Have you ever been to Paradise?

-excerpted from Carolyn A. Helmbrecht’s poem, “Have you ever been to Paradise?”

The first thing you notice about the beach at Haad Salad is the glorious turquoise of the water. It never gets old to me; for sheer natural beauty I posit it is hard to beat tropical waters.

Then you walk out onto the fine white sand, and as you come out from under the shade of the palm trees lining the avenue to the beach, the January sun hits and warms you, and then all you want to do is plop down with your bamboo beach mat, a good book, and a Jason Mraz album and just soak it all up.

If you’re me, you’re also spending a few minutes baffled and amazed by the combination of “January,” “sun,” and “warmth” all being uttered together in a sentence.

Yeah, okay, Koh Pa-Ngan is a tourist spot and yeah, okay it’s best known for the wild Full Moon Party (which I’ll get to in another post) every month, but there’s something to be said for showing up on a tropical beach and having it be exactly like what you imagine vacation should be. Haad Salad is also a quieter spot; there are more families and retirees there than at other spots on the island, and the pace of life on that particular location is very much the slow, relaxed beach culture that is so nice to get to after frenetic and stressful travels.

Highlights include fresh, cold coconuts whacked open with what looked like a meat cleaver and drunk while admiring the gorgeous aquamarine view; snorkeling in the bay and meeting a school of some adorable and curious stripey fish, as well as a number of sea cucumbers and other odd wildlife; a swing tied to a tree that swings out over the water; and spa hour at the little thatched-roof massage hut– the girls got coconut oil massages, and I opted to get a mani/pedi while looking out over the vista, sipping delicious rooiboos tea and snacking on delicious little baby bananas.

Oh, one more note about the snorkeling– unfortunately, the two days we spent snorkeling in Haad Salad were the only chances I got during the vacation, despite lugging the snorkel gear (okay it was only the mask and snorkel, but still) along with us for most of the trip); and that particular beach is not known for its reef system, so most of what we were seeing was just shallow water marine life. Also, the first day we went, the sea lice were out in force and we kept getting stung the whole time we were in the water. It’s not bad, mind you, but still annoying and not very pleasant when you can’t see what on earth is biting you and causing such odd discomfort. We’d been warned that on windy days, you ought to stay out of the water because the jellyfish get blown into the bay (?) so there was mild concern when we first started getting stung about jellyfish; though that was quickly dispelled when we realized a) there was nothing visible and b) Justin told us it was sea lice. Apparently it’s pretty cheap to get SCUBA certified in the islands, so that’s another regret– maybe in May…

Our little bungalow had a hammock out on the porch, but we spent most of our evenings at the hostel’s restaurant. It’s open-air, basically a big porch with tables and chairs as well as a living room setup with couches and a tv, which thankfully was never turned up loud enough to hear from the rest of the tables; there were also a few little– I want to call them “pavilions,” little seating areas like at a tea house with low tables and the Thai-style triangular seating cushions. The restaurant’s curries were absolutely outstanding, and we also all got hooked on their coconut shakes– what I assume to be basically sweetened coconut milk blended with ice. Yum!

I’ll stop here– next up, Full Moon Party and all its attendant insanity.

Spring Holiday, Part 2: Travels and Travails in Thailand

So here was the plan: I would show up at the airport in Hong Kong, check in for my flight, get on a plane and go to Phuket.

The best laid plans…

What really happened was that I showed up at the Hong Kong airport, found out that through a magical bug in the online ticketing system the airline had lost my reservation and I had to purchase the ticket at the counter, which cost me something like twice as much as the original ticket. (It was a fairly cheap ticket to begin with, but still– not an auspicious beginning.) Also, the ticket purchasing took so long that by the time I had my boarding pass in hand, I had less than 20 minutes to get to the plane before they shut the doors for boarding. And HKG is no small airport, let me tell you. An escalator, two travelators, two trains and a lot of sprinting later, I arrived literally 2 minutes before the doors closed. In fact I’m pretty sure they closed right behind me.

But I was on my way to Thailand! Again, there was a plan. I would fly to Phuket, land at midnight, and spend the night either in the airport or get to the bus station and take the earliest bus out towards the Ko Samui area.

In retrospect, I should have seen the flaws with this plan, too, but I didn’t know how small the airport was, or frankly how big Phuket was (it’s like a 45-minute taxi from the airport to Phuket Town, where the bus station lives) so I arrived with my backpack and immediately attracted a swarm of helpful, informative taxi-drivers and hotel workers whose sole purpose, I’ve figured out, is to stand around until a farang with a backpack shows up and then try to offer them services for a somewhat inflated price. There was literally nowhere to sleep in the airport itself, it’s not big enough to have benches in between the taxi stand and the information counter, so I walked over to information and they wouldn’t let me go without booking me into a cheap-ish hotel/guest house in Phuket Town for the night. Meh. Not ideal, but actually a soft bed and a hot shower, not to mention the all-night pub across the street, was not a bad way to kick off the Thailand part of the vacation. Also, the hotel was about a 5 minute moto ride away from the bus station, which was handy too.

So after falling asleep watching part of some truly bizarre Thai movie, I got up the next morning and made my way to the bus station for a noon ticket to Koh Pa-Ngan where I would be meeting up with a few friends.

(It was at this point, between buying the bus ticket and boarding the bus, that I went wandering down the streets of Phuket town for a couple of hours looking for curry, took a wrong turn, and wound up at “Seng Ho– Phuket’s Largest and Oldest Bookstore!” Of course.)

Okay, so here begins the saga of Travels in SE Asia. My brother warned me about this, but you sort of have to live through it to understand it. I’ll do my best here, though, for any intrepid explorers who plan to visit Thabodinamaysia etc. in the future, which I do highly recommend. Rickshaw hell aside.

The first bus I boarded in Thailand was okay– not a lot of legroom, because for some reason the seats were at a sort of normal height but there was a platform underneath them which ran the length of the bus on either side. So essentially I was crouched praying-mantis style in a splitting leather seat for about 4 hours. On the plus side, I did have two seats to myself so I managed to catch a few Zz’s using my backpack as a pillow of sorts. It’s roughly 4 hours to get from Phuket Town to Suratthani, where the major southern train station is, and where most of the buses to the south transfer.

Once we hit Suratthani, a few folks got off at the train station and the rest of us came out of our sleepy stupor since we were supposed to be transferring soon. In what I found at the time to be a fairly odd maneuver (though I later found out that this is perfectly normal this part of the world) the bus driver took us about 45 minutes out of town and then pulled over on what appeared to be a mostly empty stretch of dusty highway. “Off the bus! Off the bus!” The driver then got out and opened the underbelly, chucking our backpacks into the dust. As a confused mass we passengers all obligingly got off the bus and stood, bewildered, with our luggage. Just then, another bus absolutely FULL of people pulled in front of our bus, and we got herded over to that one. It was so full that by the time the passengers from my bus got on, there were 4 of us without seats. The ticket-taker motioned for us to stand or crouch in the aisles, but took pity on me when the bus jolted to a start and it became clear that the bottoms of my sandals had no traction whatsoever and I slid (with my backpack) roughly 3 seats before catching myself on an unfortunate, but very obliging, bystander. I was at that point invited to sit at the front of the bus, over the top of the partition which separates the driver from the rest of the bus, and is only slightly elevated from the floor of the bus. Luckily, my butt had more friction that my feet, and I only nearly went through the windshield once during a particularly violent  and abrupt stop.

Needless to say, the 2 hours from Suratthani to Don Sak Ferry Pier was not the most comfortable I’ve ever spent, but the ferry to Koh Pa-Ngan itself was fairly comfortable, and by the point I reached the island, I was pretty ready to see my friends and have a meal, so I didn’t even mind that the mode of transportation to the beach I’d be staying at was a pickup truck with a camper for holding luggage and two benches placed lengthwise in the bed. I’ll talk more about these later.

When we finally got to Haad Salad beach, I was the last to be dropped off and my driver pulled over again on what looked like a dusty track of rode, my hostel nowhere in sight, tossed me my backpack, and drove off. After a good 10 minutes of wandering around the shops, I finally got directions I could use, and started off down another road to what I assumed would eventually be my hostel.

And then I heard the blessedly familiar sounds of my friends’ laughter. There is no balm to the travel-weary soul like the audible mirth of loved ones. I stowed my stuff, ordered a drink, and proceeded to eat what I can only describe as the most delicious pineapple red curry I will probably ever eat in my life.

Next post: Koh Pa-Ngan– the paradise and the Party.

Spring Holiday, Part 1: Hong Kong

I mentioned how Chinese holidays work in my National Day posts about our trip to Yangshuo, but since this most recent was the biggest holiday of the year, it bears repeating.

Chinese New Year, which is based on the lunar calendar (technically the lunisolar calendar, thanks Wikipedia, but since I don’t even fully understand what that means I’ll just leave it at that) is actually a 15-day celebration that culminates most memorably with a TON of fireworks and firecrackers. Most of China (excluding essential personnel) gets 7 days off– not even kidding, everybody except the bus and taxi drivers and the folks who work at international chains basically get to take a week off– and most of it shuts down especially on the first two days of the Chinese New Year. (I was in Hong Kong for this, and I have never SEEN the streets so empty.) For teachers and students, this means a week off of school (two for Junior high), preceded by a week of final examinations, preceded by a week of prep for final examinations. As a foreign teacher, I don’t give examinations, nor do I have to prep for finals. So the school gave us 3 weeks off right off the bat. As it turned out, my juniors finished a week before the seniors, and as a kindness to us (and because they wanted more prep time) the Senior high English department decided to take our classes for that week as well, so we effectively got a month of paid vacation.

I had already booked my flight based on the original schedule, so on January 10th I suddenly had a week off and week to wait until my flight Thailand. So I spent a couple of days cleaning the house top to bottom, then trundled off to Hong Kong to visit a friend and begin my vacation early.

Now, I’ve been to HK a few times, but have never really done the major tourist things, like visiting the surrounding islands or hiking Victoria’s Peak. So I decided I would try to check some of those things off my list while my  host was working, which is why I found myself one afternoon on Lantau island to visit the Tian Tan Buddha– otherwise known as The Big Buddha.  Also known as the “world’s tallest outdoor bronze seated Buddha” from 1993-2007, when it was supplanted by the Giant Buddha constructed in Phuket, Thailand, after the tsunami.  (Again, thank you Wikipedia.) This sort of thing cracks me up, especially about Buddhas. I swear– and I say this after touring SE Asia– each and every large Buddha statue is touted as  “the world’s largest seated Buddha” or “the world’s longest supine Buddha” or “the world’s biggest Buddha made of resin, wood, and bronze casts depicted in a sitting position with one had raised and one hand resting.” The superlatives are out of control. I have actually no idea which is the world’s actual largest Buddha, and it’s sort of not worth spending the time to figure it out for the purposes of this post. Though by all means, have at if it amuses you.

Anyway, the Lantau Buddha is actually quite a thing to see, and it was pleasant to spend an afternoon hiking around the Po Lin Monastery (in and of itself quite interesting, though under construction and so somewhat closed to the public at present) and eating Taiwan-style dumplings at an outdoor bistro down one of the cobblestone streets of the “village” (read: bus station-cum-tourist trap).

The next day being Saturday, my host and I decided to go for a hike in the actually kind of stunning nature at the top of the ridge on Hong Kong Island. Though heavily populated, and often heavily polluted, Hong Kong is also home to abundantly forested areas and some of that sits just over the top of Central and Wanchai districts (which, if you’ve read some of my other posts about Hong Kong, you know these are some of the serious city areas). So we put on our runners and headed up the hill from my friend’s house in Wanchai.

After climbing what I can only assume is the longest, steepest concrete hill known to man, we found ourselves amongst the weathering rocks and rustling trees of the HK hills. The Hong Kong Trail is actually a lush, wending– and substantial– 50 km (roughly 30 mile) hike around the island from Victoria Peak in the northwest to Big Wave Bay in the southeast. In true, efficient Hong Kong fashion, the Trail is divided into Stages, each comprising somewhere between 4 to 7 km (about 2 to 5 miles) and each Stage is rated according to walking difficulty.

We didn’t really bother with the whole Stage business (we’re a bit anarchic that way); we just sorted of started at one point above the apartment, hiked east for a couple of hours, decided the sun would probably set in the not-to-distant future and hey, it was January after all, and set back the way we came. Nevertheless, it was a really nice hike (the Stage we were on is rated a 2/3 for difficulty). One of these days I’d like to try one of the hikes in the more northern parts of mainland Hong Kong: Kowloon or the New Territories. After two full days of hiking, though, I was glad to scarf down some Cantonese barbecue and throw back a couple of beers. Ahhh, vacation.

This Hong Kong trip also featured, besides the strenuous outdoor activity, my first experience with real dim sum. Tragic, I know. But what better place? If you’re unfamiliar with this particular culinary delight, dim sum is basically the Chinese version of tapas, but as a morning or afternoon meal. It comprises small plates of various steamed, fried, and deep fried nummies, such as dumplings, rice cakes, steamed vegetables, and congee which is a sort of savory rice porridge. Tea is also a major component, as with any Chinese meal. And, like most Chinese meals, dim sum is best when ordered “family style” so that everyone gets to try an assortment of different tidbits. Hong Kong is pretty well known for its dim sum, which is after all a Cantonese specialty.

Hiking and dim sum was a great, relaxing way to start my otherwise whirlwind vacation. So! Off to Thailand– see you next post!

New Year’s, Version 1.0

Living in Shenzhen is sort of like living in the suburbs of Hong Kong– not a completely accurate comparison since HK has its own ‘burbs and it’s not like you have to go through customs to get to most cities’ downtown area. Also, most suburbs don’t have populations of 13 million people. But for the purposes of argument, go with me for a second: HK is where the good food, good shopping, and great parties all happen. Shenzhen has its downtown area and a few great spots here and there (don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun place to live) but the nightlife in Hong Kong is truly enviable for those of us living in its mainland cousin. The nightlife is also prohibitively expensive for those making teachers’ salaries in RMB, but on occasion you gotta go where the party lives, and on such big nights as New Year’s Eve, that is definitely down on Hong Kong Island.

It’s one of the biggest party nights of the year for Westerners in the area, and I’m pretty sure the population of the Island doubles starting about 7pm on December 31st. We got into town a bit earlier than that, with the intention of grabbing early dinner and sorting out hostels before heading into the more crowded parts. It was a good thing, too– Lan Kwai Fong, the part of town into which we were headed, was completely packed by the time we got there. The city had put up gates around the area, and less than an hour after we arrived had shut off access to the neighborhood. I’m given to understand that the wait-time to get into LKF was about 2 hours by 9pm.

And it was just people everywhere. All the neighborhoods in Central district were filled to brimming with Westerners– I took a 2am walk around SoHo and the Mid-Levels and it was swarming with Australians, Europeans, Canadians, there was a group of people who were dressed in brightly-colored African garb… The bars were hopping, the clubs were hopping, there was dancing in the streets all over the place. Total madhouse. One of the main attractions is the midnight fireworks show– sadly, I missed it due to having to tend to a friend who wasn’t feeling so hot, but I’ll talk about Hong Kong fireworks in my Chinese New Year post. They are pretty worth it.

Many CTLCers wound up in HK for NYE, so I got to wander and hang out with a bunch of different people throughout the night, but the best part of the adventure (in my opinion) was at about 6 in the morning when my whole group managed to make our various ways back to the hostel, and we spent another hour talking and laughing and reviewing the year that had brought us all together. (There were some hijinks, too– one person fell off the bed with a loud thump and a curse, and that sent us all into giggles; at another point the boys absconded with a couple of bras that had been discarded in favor of pyjamas, and processed around the tiny hostel in a fashion show. Ya know. As we crazy kids do.) There was also a run for McDonald’s hashbrowns in there at some point– you know, I have never eaten so much McDonald’s in my life as I did during the week of Western Holiday Madness…

On perhaps 2 hours of sleep we checked out of the hostel and made our way to the Flying Pan for good, solid Western-style breakfast– they make amazing omelettes and absolutely to-die-for pancakes, not to mention a lox-and-bagel plate that brings tears to my eyes– and then set back out for the good ol’ SEZ. Some of my colleagues were lucky enough that their Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) break began that week– I had a Monday off to look forward to, and ostensibly two more weeks of teaching to get through before my vacation would begin.

But more on that later. As promised, next up: Spring Holiday– Thailand, Cambodia, and Hong Kong fireworks!

X-pat X-mas

I have a LOT of catching up to do here.

From January 10th until now, my school gave us vacation time for the Chinese New Year.  From January 17th to February 3rd, I was on a fantastic jaunt through Thailand and Cambodia, and I can’t wait to write all about that. But I also have neglected to talk enough about the Western Holidays which preceded this epic vacation, so I’ll regale you with a brief recollection of Christmas and (Western) New Years’ as celebrated by a tribe of 20-something expats in Southern China.

The Chinese teachers and administrators (not to mention students) start to feel really sorry for us around about mid-December. My kids started asking me every week whether I was going “home to America” for Christmas, and seemed quite shocked and upset when I told them I’d be spending the holiday in Shenzhen. Especially my juniors, bless their little cotton socks, who obviously have less grasp of the time and expense of a trans-oceanic plane voyage than do my older students. (I think they also were more inclined to feel sorry for me because I was letting them watch Home Alone for 2 weeks. Just a guess.) The teachers in our office gave Stephanie and me cards and boxes of tea and other goodies because they also felt bad that we couldn’t go home to be with our families.

And the administrators set up a special Chinese banquet (yikes) with the headmaster (double yikes, he’s a very important guy) at which they all got (as usual) quite drunk from baijiu and implored us to sing Christmas carols with them. Actually the best part of the evening was that the headmaster’s wife brought their 4-year-old son in at the end of the night, and that kid was absolutely precious. He was just learning the names of different fruits in English, and wanted to show off his knowledge with the dessert plate.

But wait. So this was all the week leading up to Christmas. On Christmas Eve, the Shenzhen Education Bureau threw us a party– which basically meant they rented out an entire floor of a hotel in Luohu, a bunch of Ed. Bureau muckety-mucks showed up for (another) banquet for a couple of hours, and then we were left to our own devices with a bunch of hotel rooms,  many bottles of wine, and the single oddest spread of food I have ever seen in my life.  I’ve written about Chinese banquets before, but this one really took the cake. There was the requisite chicken feet-and-mushrooms sort of thing, but coupled with a basket of chao mian (chow mein) in a basket made of puffy shrimp crackers  next to little slices of coconut cream cake and spaghetti that (we deduced) was probably made with tomato sauce, ketchup, and a whole lot of cinnamon and nutmeg. Christmas spaghetti? I’m still at a loss on that one…

Luohu, and especially where we were staying, is a district know for its nightlife. After the banquet wrapped up (there was of course some truly awful Christmas caroling up on stage) we ventured out in search of a bar or club to crash; we were thwarted, however, because all of the bars and clubs in the neighborhood seemed to either be completely full, or have an absolutely outrageous cover for the night. You’d think a bunch of Westerners would be able to find somewhere to get some drinks on Christmas Eve, but no. Denied.

So we made the only logical move, and went to 7/11 and  McDonald’s.

There was yet a gauntlet to be run, however; for stationed outside the Mickey-D’s just outside of our hotel was a group of possibly teen-age, possibly university-age young Chinese men with cans of “snow” (the fluffy white Silly String that you spray on your windows or indoor Nativities or whatever), and in order to get to the deep-fried deliciousness that awaited us, we had to get past the synthetic snowstorm first.

What ensued can be best described as a raging fake-snow fight, as CTLCers grabbed cans of the stuff proffered by delighted Chinese onlookers, and proceeded to have at the young men, who had until that point mostly just been ambushing unsuspecting pedestrians. The battle was fierce, wending its way up and down the plaza; some of us, after getting sprayed in the face and hair a few too many times, took refuge amongst a group of moto taxis away from the action, guarding the group’s beer and chewing the fat in a couple different dialects with the taxi drivers.

The rest of the night was much quieter; we returned to the hotel with our bounty and spent the evening wandering the halls to wish Merry Christmas to everyone. The Ed. Bureau had also given us goodie bags full of delights such as snap bracelets and bouncy balls that lit up on impact so there was, of course, an impromptu bouncy-ball bouncing tournament for a few moments down one of the halls. But most of us shuffled off to bed after that.

Christmas morning we checked out of the hotel and went back to (where else) McDonald’s for pancakes and hash browns; then after a brief shopping trip in Dongmen with a couple of buddies, I headed home to Skype with the folks from home for a bit. My actual Christmas dinner actually was quite nice– while grocery shopping I ran into a friend from the school, the piano teacher who showed me a traditional Chinese cold remedy when I was ill last October, and I invited her to share the beef stew I was making for dinner. We watched Disney’s “A Christmas Carol” in Chinese (that was interesting)  and finished with strawberries dipped in chocolate. It was an odd, but nice, Christmas.

Of course the next day I basically left China for about six hours, escaping to my family’s gathering in Vancouver via Skype. Though I was sort of the paraplegic in the corner (everyone had to come talk to me, as I couldn’t really walk around and mingle; also the whole webcam thing freaked my brother out which was pretty funny) it was really nice to get to see everyone, and my father even kindly placed a glass of Oregon pinot noir and a small plate of apple crisp or pie in front of me so I could (almost) participate in the culinary delights that I miss so much about home. I also got to virtually participate in rounds of Apples-to-Apples and Outburst courtesy my mother who would hold up my cards to the webcam and submit whatever I typed back to her. The wonders of technology.

This has gotten absurdly long, yet again– so I shall return quickly to talk about New Year’s, and then on to The Grand SE Asia Tour!

Turkey Day, China-style

Sorry this is so overdue y’all. Instead of going back and fixing, I left it as originally written so there’s a bit of temporal dislocation. Hopefully no one gets too disoriented.

As I have been teaching my students all week, most Americans celebrate the Day of Giving Thanks with feasts, family, friends and (of course) football.

However, on this continent we do things a little differently.

For starters, Thanksgiving is (obviously) not a recognized holiday, and most Chinese people only vaguely know that it exists. So no four-day weekend over here (which is probably a good thing, as they would make us do make-up classes for the next two Saturdays anyway; can’t have an actual day off ever). No, we got lucky though because it just so happens that this years’ Sports Days happened to fall right on Thursday and Friday this week, which means we had no class, and possibly one of the most hilarious events I have ever witnessed happening on the track, field, and courts just outside my door.

But that’s another post. This is the Thanksgiving post, in which I tell you about how all these little Western expat pilgrims cobbled together a (slightly bizarre) Thanksgiving Feast on the far shores of China, using microwaves, hot plates, toaster ovens, and whatever ingredients we could scrounge up in our friendly neighborhood Chinese grocery stores.

Okay, that is somewhat of an exaggeration. We do have international groceries here. They are expensive, and often not very convenient to get to, but they do exist for times when a person absolutely must have Italian herbs and Bisquick.

We got off to a surprisingly organized start, with a sign-up sheet sent via e-mail list from our fearless leaders, which predicted starvation and doom for anyone who didn’t contribute to the meal. The sign-up sheet began filling out nicely, with folks offering to do mashed potatoes, stuffings, green beans of various preparations– all the requisite Thanksgiving meal foods, along with the folks who volunteered paper plates and bottles of cola. Then folk started getting creative. Chili was added to the list; someone volunteered risotto. Suddenly we had a curry happening, and promises of a Snicker’s-bar Divinity salad. This began to happen as people looked around their supermarkets and looked around their kitchens and realized that it was just not going to be possible to bake a casserole, and also brussells sprouts do not exist in Southern China. A week out, and suddenly it was the smorgasboard of Odd Foreign Food– and it all sounded delicious.

As previously mentioned, we had nominal work days Thursday and Friday– the students were competing in their sports activities, but the teachers were all required to be there anyway. So on Thanksgiving day proper, my evening consisted of scrounged-up leftovers (seared chicken in marinara sauce over a baked potato, surprisingly delicious) and a whole lot of old episodes of Star Trek on Youtube.

So fast-forward to Saturday, when our big CTLC party would be happening. I had been asked (manhandled, really) to do stuffing for the day, so I got myself together at about 8am and started frying up bits of bacon and mirepoix. The cooking instruments found in my kitchen are as follows: a hot plate whose settings are OFF and CHARRED with not much in between, a toaster oven the size of a postage stamp, a smallish soup pot and a non-stick frying pan, and aluminium foil. Also a microwave, but I forwent it in favor of actually cooking things. Basically I spent roughly half an hour actually making the stuffing in my frying pan, and then it took me almost 3 hours to bake it off in small batches on aluminium foil in my toaster oven. By the time I finished baking the last batch, I didn’t even really want to see how cold the initial batch had become. Which was okay, because then my day involved a 2-hour trek via public transit to the school where we were holding the party anyway, so the expectation was that all the food would be cold on arrival as it were.

Turns out the smorgasboard was even stranger upon actually beholding it than it had sounded via e-mail. Folks were bringing mashed potatoes in rice cookers, an assortment of Chinese breads, not a few styrofoam containers of chao mian (aka chow mein) and jiaozi dumplings, the aforementioned Snickers divinity thing which turned out to be, essentially, a Snickers bar and cut-up orange segments in what seemed to be Cool Whip, though where they would have gotten a hold of that I have no idea– and about a dozen roast chickens. Let’s talk about the chickens for a minute: apparently there is one single farm near Shanghai which handles the turkey market for foreigners around the holidays. Evidently turkey is not a meat that is consumed by most Chinese people. At all. So this one farm in Shanghai gets business from all the waiguos at Thanksgiving– talk about a niche market.

However, this year, the turkeys were “broken.”

I don’t actually know what this means. (None of us do.) Our national coordinator was on the phone with this farm about a month in advance of Thanksgiving, getting our order all placed and ready. About 2 weeks before Thanksgiving, she called them to check in, and after a fairly long and involved conversation with the representative, all she could get out of it was that the turkeys were in some way “broken” (huai le) and that there would be no gobblers for us at our Thanksgiving feast. I suppose we could have looked into further, but being the resilient expats we are, instead we had whole-roasted chickens which sort of tasted like turkey anyway; I mean, at some point, who cares? It was an odd enough meal as it was. Side note– when I say “whole-roasted” I do in fact mean whole-roasted; I was given a bag of chicken at the end of the night because the girls who had brought it were staying with me, and inside the bag we found a chicken head and a couple of chicken feet, as well as an entire chicken carcass which had been fairly well-stripped of its meat. It’s too bad my soup pot is so small, because I could have made so much chicken stock. Also, carrying a bag full of chicken carcass home at rush hour on the bus was maybe not the strangest thing I have ever done, but it’s close up there.

So that, ladies and gentlemen, is Turkey Day, China-style. The boys went out to play some football afterward just to have a little taste of tradition, and we did actually manage to have some apple and pumpkin pies provided by a CTLCer who has invested in an oven (they disappeared VERY quickly); and the Thanksgiving food-coma definitely struck us all with a vengeance. In all, a strange but successful day.

Again my apologies for being SO VERY BEHIND. Next up, Christmas in China– then I’m going to be taking a break again whilst I go travelling through SE Asia for a month; but my intention is to get back on the horse in full force for the spring term. Back soon!

End of Hiatus

Hey all–

So I’ve been pretty absent around here lately; my apologies. I owe you pretty much the entire holiday season. Those posts are (rapidly) forthcoming, but this is a stand-in post to tell you that I’m still here and will catch you up soon.

Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

Why China is Weird, Part 4

I saw a sign while walking around the Botanical Gardens in Hong Kong which read: “Beware of Pond.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I acknowledge the fact that ponds are indeed a public menace and should be accorded all due caution. But really– this particular water feature was perhaps six feet in diameter, a breathtaking 4-6 inches in depth, and featured a rather prominent fountain. It would have been hard to miss. (I would like to note now that this “Beware of Pond” sign does not appear anywhere about the large and fearsome koi pond at the very center of the Gardens. Madness!) The only explanation I can surmise is that this particular pond has a mischievous or even malevolent streak, and that it snares unsuspecting passers-by with its seemingly harmless mien only to… dampen their ankles? Oh, the horror…

Ahem. Forgive my flight of fancy. It’s been a while since I’ve done a “Why China is Weird” post and the return has made me somewhat whimsical. No offense is meant to anyone who has, in fact, suffered trauma at the hands–er, something– of a pernicious puddle.

That same day I meandered homeward on the MTR, book in hand and casually reading. The woman sitting across from me had caught my attention when she boarded the train, as she was carrying a bag full of whole fish–something silver and largish– and what appeared to be melted ice. Evidently, I thought, she had been carrying the bag of fish around for quite a ways.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the train hit an incline and all of a sudden the fish began flopping violently inside the plastic bag; it occured to me then that the bag had not ever contained ice, it was just enough water to cover the fish and allow them to breathe. When the train started pulling uphill, it displaced the water just enough to worry one of the poor creatures, which panicked and made its anxiety known in an impressive acrobatic display. The woman carrying the bag adjusted it and the fish relaxed once more, but now I could see its mouth working against the side of the plastic. That was going to be a seriously fresh meal.

Hardly an hour later, I had passed through customs and was safely back on the Shenzhen side. Book still in hand, I waited patiently for my bus to arrive; the stop I was at was in full sun and a bit sweltering, so the other two people who were waiting had taken shelter in the shade behind the big plastic timetables. (If I hadn’t mentioned this already, Chinese people are notoriously afraid of a suntan.) At some point, a woman emerged from behind the bus stop to hail a taxi cab; she didn’t have long to wait, as one pulled up with alacrity (as they do in Shenzhen). The woman spoke for a moment with the driver, then headed back behind the shelter. Intrigued, I watched as she emerged a moment later with two birdcages containing live birds in her hands, which she then proceeded to place into the trunk of the taxi cab. It was a little bit of a production, actually, because one of the cages was rather tall and wouldn’t fit, so the cabbie got out and started gesticulating and they finally came to the conclusion that they would just leave the trunk open. So off they drove, two birdcages in the open trunk of a cab down on of the busy arterial roads of Shenzhen.

One last tidbit for you, and then I must get on with my Saturday. Whilst I was walking to the grocery store with my neighbor one night, she suddenly clasped at my arm and made a strange sound like a strangled laugh. I looked up to see what was the matter, and there, walking past us, was a man who was wearing a waist-length jacket– and absolutely nothing else. Just lettin’ it all hang out. Stephanie and I just sort of looked on in horror as he passed, and then burst into giggles after rounding the corner. When we told this story to someone who had returned from the previous year, he said, “Oh yeah, that happens sometimes… Public indecency isn’t really enforced at all.” I mean, naked children in public are one thing. Pantsless men? only in China…