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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Climb Dali

March 26 & 27. Now I’m starting to enjoy the continuous activities being planned for these last 2 weeks, which was what I had become accustomed to last month. We met with Adam and Dane, our rock climbing guides, at Adam’s house in Dali. It was only a 10 minute walk from Sunny Lodge, but after dragging a luggage bag packed with 4 months of clothing and materials through cramped, windy streets, I would consider it more of a hike. 
Adam, who lives in Dali with his wife and son, owns a rock climbing company called “Climb Dali”. Dane agreed to accompany him on this trip, although he doesn’t usually work for Adam. Both being expert and enthusiastic climbers, they wasted no time in fitting us with climbing shoes as soon as we arrived. Then we picked up some provisions for lunch (mostly peanut butter and bread) and packed into a taxi van.
The ride was only an hour long to Saoang and we were soon setting down our things in the hostel that we would be staying in tonight. Adam led the away from the hostel, trekking from the streets of Saoang to the trails on the surrounding mountain. As the bright, blood colored dirt was kicked up into my face, I turned my head and studied the surroundings. The trees had been replaced by rough, desert bush and cacti and instead of locals staring curiously at my pale figure, cows were munching on grass as their bells rattled against their hides. This mountain was significantly different from the mountain I had climbed in Dali, almost an exact opposite.
When we finally reached the ridge we would be climbing, Adam and Dane laid down the supplies and handed us harnesses. As we slid them and our climbing shoes on, Adam and Dane climbed the first ride to set up the anchors for the climb. The first one was extremely easy for Adam, who had not only climbed it almost 150 times, but had discovered and cleaned the route as well. He stated it was a good warm-up run, which was lucky for me because I hadn’t done any serious climbing since I was around 12 or 13. In fact, Adam told me, with an air of modesty and pride, that he had discovered and cleaned the entire ridge, totaling in about 50 routes.
So I was the first to climb the beginner route, but I found that it wasn’t difficult at all. It was more or less like climbing an indoor rock climbing wall and the climbing shoes made it that much easier. Their rubber traction allowed me to place my foot on the tiniest holds and stand their comfortably. While Erik belayed me, Dane and Adam set up a couple more routes for us. They all turned out to be relatively easy, but they were progressively more difficult. Some had a few difficult holds and others had ridges that you needed to climb up at a 150 degree angle, but there were several rest spots. When I repelled down on my last climb, I noticed that my knees were cut in several places and my fingers were numb with pain. I hadn’t even noticed my discomfort during the concentration of my 5 climbs.
We took a break after that, intent on eating our fill of peanut butter, bread, and apples. During this lazy period, I watched Adam climb a 5-11a route with awe (Dane described the grading system to me during our hike up the mountain). He placed his hands such unlikely holds and continuously lodged his feet in the smallest of cracks and juts. At one point he was almost directly upside down, climbing with all his strength and skill. As I watched him put one leg over another, I spotted a hold that looked dangerously crumbly. I was just about to warn him not to grab onto it when he lunged out and grasped the hold. It immediately shattered in an explosion of red rock and Adam fell towards the earth. Dane’s reflexes and superior experience was the only thing that saved Adam from death. He bounced literally 6 inches from the ground, but, thankfully, never made contact. Adam tried this route again, and when he finally reached the top, he came up with an appropriate name for the route: 6 inches from 6 feet under. That, I thought, clearly stated just how dangerous climbing can be. After all our fingers were nearly bleeding with the pain of climbing, we headed back down to the village for a dinner readily prepared at the hostel, a warm, welcoming shower, a wooden bed, and a roommate who snored relentlessly through the night.
The next day was one that I was not looking forward to. Although we did enjoy a kayaking adventure that occupied most of the morning, Christen left in the afternoon and the only other enjoyable part of the day was when I made the most of my last night in Dali. We went kayaking in groups of 3s and didn’t finish until noon. By far, the funniest part of the day was Leung teetering into his kayak (which he had never done before) until he sat, became situated by shifting his forcibly weight, and made the kayak flip completely upside down, which left him struggling under water. Thankfully, he was a capable swimmer and came up sputtering and shivering. He refused to continue after that.
Our car ride back to Dali wasn’t fun. We crammed into the largest van ­­­­­­­Saoang could provide, and even that was too small to occupy 7 people, 5 bags of luggage, and 7 backpacks. My afternoon in Dali was spent walking around with David and Christen, just making the most of the time left before we all parted our separate ways. All too soon, Christen was saying her goodbyes and I was telling her that I would see her back home. Leung took her to Kunming, which left Erik, David, and I to fend for ourselves for the next 24 hours.
We ate beef steaks at Café De Jack, ordering our favorite meal at our favorite western restaurant. Then we came back to Sunny Lodge, where Erik was forced to organize our receipts for the last month. Wanting to spend my time doing something, and because the prospect of doing nothing was unbearable, I suggested to David that we meet up with a few of the people we had met earlier at the Café. Probably because he was too exhausted, or because he was pondering his next month in Tanzania, David refused to accompany me. That didn’t deter me from going out however. I took a taxi to the café, which took longer than I thought because it is extremely difficult to use proper mandarin (all provinces have their own versions of mandarin) to explain where you are trying to go.
I arrived and hung out with everybody until most were forced to say goodnight due to their studies tomorrow morning. All except Amanda and me were left. She is 18 and doesn’t have a curfew, so we went out to Dali and spent the most of the night talking and playing pool at the Sunny Lodge. When Amanda finally said she had to leave, I walked back to the room, but found that it was empty. I peered through the window of my room and saw David and Erik dancing in the bar of the Sunny Lodge. Smiling to myself, and half wishing I was 18 so I could join them, I slipped into bed and fell asleep, probably with that same silly grin spread on my face.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Loss of Composure

March 24 & 25. I know I could stay here for 30 years and still not know everything about Kong Fu, the monk lifestyle, and the monastery itself. There is a plethora of knowledge to be gained here. It is so vast that sometimes I need to stop and calm the violent currents of information buzzing in my head. Learning Kong Fu is more about increasing and maintaining your balance than increasing your fighting skills. Although I’m sure it does help in self-defense, I doubt that if you displayed the different forms of Kong Fu in front of an opponent that he would be running away in fear by the end of the routine. During my last full day of lessons I gave it my all and pushed my muscles and strength to the limit, which seemed to impress the master, but it also made me thoroughly exhausted by the end of the day. I fell asleep at 7:30 that night, intending to take a well-earned nap, but instead I slipped into a deep, dreamless sleep.
The next day I was forced to take Tylenol in order to cope with the pain of walking. I had never felt more worn out in my life. I started the morning run early, intent on regaining some of the energy needed to get me through the half-day of Kong Fu. I chose a smaller rock than I ever had, now trying to preserve the energy I had just gained. When I arrived back at the temple I practiced every position I had been taught so far. By the time I had finished my routines, Master had come back from his run and he was ready to teach me additional steps in Kong Fu.
Then came the blissful sound of our cook banging on the breakfast bell. I was delighted to see the layout of the enormous sweet dumplings when I walked through the dining room door. I concentrated on nothing but eating my way through 5 of the heavenly treats. Afterwards, I slumped back upstairs and massaged my legs before the next round of exercise.
The next 2 hours of stretching went by in a hazy blur. I only remember following exactly what everyone else was doing. Wasting energy to even think would have been detrimental to my stretching, and Master must have guessed as much because he ended today’s session earlier. We had an hour to spare before lunch. I amused myself by playing with the kids on the outside exercise ground. There, we climbed trees and hung upside down from their pull-up bars. At one point they made a small ramp, where they would launch themselves off the ground and perform flips and kicks in the air. They tried every variation of their flips they could think of; they once wore pink glasses pretending to be airplane pilots, another time they held a stick and tried to draw a circle in the ground while doing a no handed cartwheel, and they even made me sit near the ramp before flipping clear over my head.
During lunch I was able to converse with everybody more than I had done during breakfast. This was our last meal before leaving the monastery, so I hungrily gobbled up every scrumptious morsel I could reach. Immediately after lunch Leung and Erik arrived in the taxi to pick us up. We were just about to say goodbye to Master when he stopped us and said “We must take pictures!” Leading us off to the outside terrace, he made us perform several poses in Kong Fu while he snapped away happily. Erik and Leung watched with grins on their faces, obviously amused to see Master so enthusiastic. Then we were allowed one picture with Master, the only picture we were ever able to get of him because he never allowed us before. It is strictly enforced to make sure the foreigners take one picture with Master and none of any other monks. It is also customary to not smile during these photos, but I couldn’t resist. While Christen and David stood beside him unsmiling, I stood in the back of the photo and grinned broadly as I put up surfer signs.
We said our goodbyes to Master and were just about to enter the van when I remembered something and ran back to the temple. I wanted to say one last goodbye to the monk children. I entered their room and narrowly missed a ninja star that was thrown towards the wall. They all laughed and yelled “Mi Ji!!!” (they flip the two words in my Chinese name sometimes). I said goodbye to each of them, but then one kid (who I nicknamed Godzilla) pulled out my camera and said “Picture!” I was stunned by his proposal, but nevertheless took the opportunity. I snagged a quick picture with them, although they barely cracked a smile during the photo, and ran back to the van.
We arrived back at the Sunny Lodge in Old Dali to spend the night there. I have already bought souvenirs and I have wandered almost every street in the town, so I doubt I will be going out anytime soon. I plan on relaxing in the sun and reading for most of the afternoon and maybe taking a shower (after not being able to take one after nearly 5 days). One thing is for certain, however. I am indefinitely inhaling a beef steak tonight.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Weapons of Flesh and Steel

March 23. I started the morning with another glorious session of bell ringing and chanting. I curled up in the sanctuary of my covers and blasted music through my headphones in the hope of drowning out the noise. However, it was in vain. I could still feel the bell’s vibrations in my chest and it distracted me from my sleep. Groaning, I stood up and was immediately hit by a wave of pain. Every muscle in my body ached. They protested my slightest movements and I was forced to sit back down and massage the will to move into my body. I tried for a second time and to my relief the pain had receded slightly, yet was still ever present.
My morning run went well enough until, due to the urging of my Master, I carried a larger rock on my head than yesterday. It made my neck muscles burn more than ever and my head throbbed when I finally lay down the small boulder. Then, during the 30 minutes before breakfast, we were taught new segments of Kong Fu. It all seems to come together after a while and I become confused at times between one position and the next. Though, with plenty of practice, I’m sure I’ll be able to memorize them.
I devoured the breakfast of noodles, onions, carrots, and tofu. Again, I wasn’t disappointed, mainly due to the replacement of meat with tofu. I’m sure if the tofu was anything less than the quality it is now, I would be praying to Buddha to send me a steak. After breakfast we performed our stretches and various exercises. Even after one day I am able to remember most of the exercising positions, although I couldn’t execute them as vigorously as before. My muscles still shot a jolt of pain through my body during kicks and cartwheels. During this session I kept glancing over at one of the monk children who stood resolutely still with a 30 pound rock on his head. He constantly looked forward and his eyes never wandered. He stood as still as a statue for the entire 3 hours. I asked one of the other children what he was doing and his answer was short and contained copious amounts of disapproval. “His punishment for insulting Master.” He said. I didn’t inquire further on the subject.
Lunch was short today because I was still full from breakfast, but I still sat and waited for at least one person to finish their meal. Ella, a foreigner of about 21 years old, was the first to be finished and, following the rules of etiquette, we said “R Me Tofo.” to the Master and left together. After washing our bowls, Ella asked me if I wanted to see the rest of the temple. “There’s more than just this?” I asked as I gestured to our surroundings. Nodding, she led me outside and we walked about the property. There were several paths leading in almost every direction and she led me down the first one on the right. We came to a pond with a large blank, white wall except for a border of decorations and a single picture in the middle. Then we walked to a field for practicing Tai Chi and Kong Fu in the summer. From there she led me to the Master’s house, which was exceptionally decorated with gardens of beautiful spring flowers. Finally, we came to the main temple. I had suspected that the temple we resided in was the main one, but apparently not. The golden characters labeled it as such and the enormous golden statue that resided inside reinforced the fact. It was a gorgeous area. Even the temples shown in movies couldn’t compare with this one.
We passed the time talking and comparing stories of our travels until it was time to continue our training. I learned several more positions of Kong Fu. I wondered how many more positions were involved in it, because if there are several more than I doubt I will be able to memorize it in 5 days. The ones we had learned now almost took 5 minutes to complete. I politely asked Master to perform this segment of Kong Fu. He completed it in roughly a minute with incredibly fluid, yet powerful movements. I couldn’t even keep track of which positions he was doing, but it seemed as if we weren’t too far away from the end. Then we finished our training with stretches and push-ups (which they do with their fists here).
I was ravenous during dinner and ate everything in my bowl including all the leftovers on the table. Afterwards, Ella and her family had to leave for the next leg of their journey and I said my farewells to them all. Then, as I wandered around aimlessly for something to do, I ran into several of the monk children and they brought me into their room to talk about America. I was surprised to learn that they knew of Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Hulk, Transformers, and most every other superhero or action character I had grown up with. Hit with a spark of inspiration, I ran to my room and grabbed my iphone, some chocolate, and the ninja star. I first handed them the chocolate (although, just to make sure, I asked if they were vegans and they stated that they ate meat), which they loved and ate with a gleam of pleasure in their eyes. Then I gave them my ninja star, insisting that they keep it. It wasn’t very sharp and it could probably be of more use here. I also witness them practicing with swords so I think they can be cautious with the star. Then I let them play a racing game on my iphone. Taking turns, they played for almost 2 hours and refused to stop until my battery had burned out. I don’t mind however, it’s probably better that I don’t have it here. When darkness fell and they were forced to perform their ceremonies, I headed back to my room where I am now. Reflecting on the day, I decided it was definitely one of the top 10 days of my life, despite my aching muscles and the guilt of giving a weapon to a few 13 year olds.

Through the Halls of Buddha

March 22. *Dong* I jolted upright, delirious and alarmed. *Dong* Then the singing started and I looked out my window. *Dong* A monk garbed in blue robes was chanting and hammering a large bell with a log. *Dong* This must be the wakeup call I thought. *Dong*But as I looked outside, I reasoned that it must still be early. *Dong* Looking at my watch I saw that it was 5am! *Dong* Our morning run didn’t start until 6:30am. I crawled back into bed wanting another hours rest. *Dong*I never got back to sleep.
After counting down the seconds until 6:30, I finally stumbled out into the courtyard for the run. It was still indistinctly dark and I required a flashlight to get around this early. Dressed in a sweatshirt and sweatpants, we began our run out into the road. Most of the monks were running today, though I noticed several other foreigners running with us. All were women and their ages varied from around 21 to 55, yet they were all impressively agile. The run wasn’t an arduous one. We jogged for possibly 5 minutes before coming to a dried out river. A monk I had been running with picked up a large boulder and, with great, unexpected strength, put it atop his head where it balanced there. Without hesitation, he began to walk back up the road towards the temple. I was left gaping at the back of him. I chose my own rock, although it was smaller than his neck breaking bolder, and began to walk back to the temple as well. I slipped a few times, but generally the rock stayed balanced during its journey. I followed the line of monks balancing rocks atop their heads until they came to the temple, then they veered downhill to a neatly made rock path. They placed their heavy rocks in a precise pattern in order to form a walkway down the hill. I tried to place mine, but one monk took it from me, though not unkindly, and placed it himself. Then, stretching my neck muscles, I ran back up to the temple.
At the temple’s large front doors, we met the Master of Kong Fu and Tai Chi. He bowed and said “R Me Tofo.” We all responded with a bow and returned his “R Me Tofo.” (This was stated in the etiquette guide). He introduced himself as “Master” and we haven’t received a name beyond that. Speaking in decent English, he asked if we would rather practice Kong Fu or Tai Chi during our stay. The 3 of us chose Kong Fu. So he began teaching us the first movements of the martial art. We started with painful slowness and Master concentrated on perfecting the form of one movement before we began the next one. As to be expected in Kong Fu, there were several punching and pushing motions, but the most taxing positions required squats and lunges. I had not done either since I had left school and my muscles burned before long. Soon a layer of cool sweat soon coated us all as we practiced. The foreign Tai Chi students and the younger monk boys practiced alongside us. The monk children performed aerial kicks and flips with ease, and I was beyond impressed by their humility when it came to their abilities. No one competed with one another; on the contrary, most helped the less competent children to Master their practice. It made me feel slightly foolish remembering all I had done in high school when I had constantly tried to outstrip everyone in classwork and practices.
Suddenly Master called out that it was breakfast time. Starving, I ran to the kitchen. The cook handed the three of us bowls of our own, which we must wash and clean after every meal, as well as keep safe in our rooms. We sat down with Ella, one foreigner of about 21 who would be practicing Kong Fu with us. As explained in the etiquette, the Master must start eating before we could start. Our cook handed out 2 separate plates of giant dumplings and a bowl of what looked like rice porridge. It all smelled tantalizingly delicious. When the Master had exclaimed “R Me Tofo!” and bit into his food, I grabbed the first dumpling I set my eyes upon. The first was slightly salty with veggies and tofu inside, and the second was sweeter with crushed nuts and honey oozing from the dough. I ate at least 5, which was no easy feat due to their abnormal size.
After breakfast there was another round of lessons. We first stretched with our Master in a separate atrium that held several statues of different Masters and Buddhist guardians. Our Master shamed us all by stretching to the limits of the human body. He formed 200 degree angles with his splits and could put his head through his legs. Then we performed diverse exercises involving jump kicks, deliberate punches, cartwheels, and handsprings. Not wanting to offend our Master, who was very kind yet strict, we participated in all of the exercises, even if our backs smacked hard against the stone floor. The speed, agility, and stamina of the younger Buddhists astounded me. At one point a boy of 10 years old performed a no handed cartwheel flip! It was beyond anything I could have expected. The process of the exercises took longer than I thought because Master needed to show us the proper technique.
Too soon, 3 hours had passed and it was time for lunch. It was another delicious meal of tofu, rice, and various vegetables. I was beyond thirsty however, and resorted to drinking the steaming hot water they passed around, not caring weather my mouth burned or not. I left the table with David (you must leave the table in 2s and 3s) and said “R Me Tofo.” to each table. After cleaning our bowls and stowing them away safely, we played tag with a few of the monk children and I showed them a ninja star that I had kept in my bag. They took turns throwing it and each excited kid possessed deadly precision, though it was not unexpected.
While I was walking back to the room, Master called me to join him for some tea. It didn’t occur to me to refuse his request and I sat down with him at once. He drew out a large wooden wheel and smacked one side of it on the table. A part of the wheel shattered and he put a large chunk of the wood into a steaming pot of water. Only then did I realize that the wheel was made of compacted tea leaves. It wasn’t a strong or tasteful brew, but it filled you with immense energy. I felt like running a few miles afterwards. We talked of my Chinese lessons, his life at the temple, and my travels of the world. He spoke more English than I expected and was much more willing to converse in a friendly manner than during lessons. Then he clapped his hands and said “Lessons now.”
We finished up with a review of our Kong Fu positions and learned a new series of moves. Then came dinner, which was tofu bacon, rice, carrots, and peppermint soup. Immediately after dinner I dragged my feet up to my room. I only have the energy to type this post until I fall asleep, but hopefully I will be able to find a way to post these days while I am here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Racing With Time

March 21. A hectic day was what I had to look forward to when I awoke this morning. I immediately dressed and showered, then set off into the markets to buy various souvenirs for my friends and family. I bought scarfs, ninja stars, incense, tea and several other items. The time I had spent practicing my bargaining skills had paid off, as well as my Chinese lessons, for I was usually able to cut the price down to a quarter of what the merchants originally gave. However, the bargaining took longer than I thought and it was almost noon before I had bought all the items I needed. I scarfed down a breakfast of eggs, bacon, bread, and cheese (which I made into a classic bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich) and drank a Chai tea, which brought new life back into my throbbing head.
From there I scrambled up my items and, with Leung’s help, shipped a package home. Even last month I had realized that my suitcase was bulging with unnecessary items so it was necessary to pay the 180 yen ($30) to send a package home. Almost an hour and a half had passed when the postwoman finally cleared all my items to be shipped away. I tore out of the post office with Leung on my heels and came to a barber shop. This took more time than normal because I was wary of the barbers in China, but again with Leung’s help I was able to get the exact cut that I wanted.
I ran back home and sent a few emails and had just finished when Erik told us that we needed to have dinner before heading to the monastery. We ate at Café De Jack again, which we eat half our meals from. I ordered a massive dinner, partly because I had only eaten one meal today, but mostly because the monastery only provides vegan food. I shoveled down a 9 inch pizza, a beefsteak with fries and an egg, and finished it off with a fresh oatmeal cookie from the bakery.
Beyond bloated, I lugged my suitcase onto a taxi and set out towards the monastery. It was only a bumpy 15 minute drive from Dali, but it was as secluded as any Buddhist temple. It was slightly dark when we arrived so I could only make out the outlines of the temple and the surrounding area. We walked down several steps and came through the opening of the large front doors. A boy no older than 13, wearing a headlamp, greeted us upon entering the temple and I introduced myself in Chinese saying Wo xing Mack, Wo jiao Jimmy. He laughed at my pronunciation and in good English said “Come this way everybody, you need to sign in.” I was slightly embarrassed to notice that his English is better than my Chinese. However, I studied for only 3 weeks where he has probably been studying for a few years.
The boy led us over to the sign-in book and we wrote down our information near candlelight. I even signed my name in Chinese, which pleased the boy. Then we were handed the temple etiquette, which was simple, yet strict. For example, it stated that no food can be left in your bowl; if you drop food you must eat it, no sexual contact, and above all no insulting the master. Leung and Erik wouldn’t be staying with us on this leg of the journey, though they probably will visit from time to time. So we said our farewells and it amused me to see Erik’s look of longing as he gazed around at the outlines of the surroundings.
 Then the boy led us to our rooms separately because the girls are not allowed to be in the boy’s dormitory and vice versa. As you may have guessed, there is no power in the temple and obviously no Wi-Fi, which might make blogging a bit tricky, but I will figure out something. The boy gave us a thermos of water and said goodnight. Thirsty, I gulped down some water, but gasped and sputtered when the boiling liquid ran down my throat. I guess that must be the way they purify the water here. I’m not going to complain. Better safe than sorry. We are now stretching out on our beds, eager to sleep so we can experience tomorrow, though the vegan meals might prove to be a heavy obstacle to overcome for 5 days.

The Little Things

March 15-20. For this post, I must start on the 20th, for the days beforehand were as continuous as ever, although I do need to explain why I never followed through with my taekwondo lessons. When I consulted with Erik on the subject, he explained that 5 days of this trip are dedicated to learning either Kung Fu or Tai Chi at a Buddhist temple. Therefore, I decided that since I had already paid for martial arts lessons I might as well not spend my money learning an entirely separate martial art. It was, however, the loss of another unique experience, but I’m sure the time spent in the temple will make up for it.
So the 20th was our last full, free day before the monastery, and I made sure it was worthwhile. Waking up to the bustle of the Saturday crowd, I awoke Christen and David and had a scrumptious breakfast at The Sweet Tooth. Breakfast consisted of savory blackberry pancakes and an enormous blackberry muffin. I was also able to stomach some coffee, which I have grown fond of since New Zealand, although plenty of sugar is a necessity.
Afterwards, our plan was to meet Erik and Leung at some stables a few blocks away from The Sweet Tooth. Leung, Erik, a raggedy, old man, and 4 small horses met us at the stables. Only Leung wanted to join on this ride, for it was his first time riding and Erik was busy with other demands. The old man greeted us with a toothless grin and, wasting no time, ushered us onto the horses. The horse stood no taller than my shoulder and I swung myself easily into the saddle. The “saddle” was a crude impression of a seat. It was made of wood and cushioned with a thick layer of Styrofoam. I felt that it would be cruel for the horse to have to bear my weight with only wood to comfort it. When I looked down I saw a layer of Styrofoam between the horse and the saddle, though it looked worn enough to be of barely any use.
When we were all situated on our horses and the toothless old man had comfortably loosened the stirrups, we set out on a leisurely walk towards the mountain. It was soon apparent that the horses weren’t bred for riding and I suspected they were mainly used as packhorses. The horses were hard to control as a rider, but the toothless old man barked orders every few seconds and they obediently followed them. Only David seemed to have full control of his horse, though he has been riding for 6 years.
We walked until we came to a dirt road. Then the toothless old man bellowed a command in Chinese and the horses sped off in a steady gallop. It caught me by surprise, but I had ridden before and I switched my rhythm without hesitation. Leung, however, was thrown off balance and nearly toppled over his horse’s neck. He screamed and tried to reign in his horse. The horse didn’t even respond and kept at its ground eating speed. The toothless old man boomed with laughter and ran to keep up with us. When he stopped the horses Leung was in a towering rage and almost walked home from there, but we were too far from home.
Contrary to what I believed, we only rode to the base of the mountain and then veered back towards the way we came. The entire ride took only an hour, but it was fun nonetheless. We passed through much of what we had seen when we had hiked the mountain with our teacher, but riding atop a horse made the journey much more exciting. We soon came back to the stables and patted our horses down before setting out to our next destination. From there we met Erik at a massage parlor. Our original plan was to relax and enjoy cheap oil massages, but that was until Erik pointed out their special on cupping.
Cupping is when a masseuse takes an ordinary, glass cup and, with the cup upside down, fills the cup with a flame. This in turn consumes all the oxygen inside and the masseuse quickly places the now flameless cup on your back, giving it a slight twist. As the suction causes your skin to try and fill every inch of the deoxygenated void, your body supposedly expels all its toxins through that suction. After 30 minutes of the hot cup sucking on your skin, the masseuse takes the cup off, leaving large, circular bruises that refuse to fade for days, or even weeks.
This special was only 25 yen per person. Erik suggested the idea, to which I responded “Party.” When else will I have the opportunity? Besides it was my last full day before the monastery. So our group, excluding Christen, was led to a room consisting of 3 lounges. Christen was led to a separate room for her cupping, for obvious reasons. The 3 of us, Leung didn’t want to try it, lay shirtless on the lounges. We talked excitedly, eager for the cupping to begin. 3 masseuses walked inside and lay 12 cups on the table beside me. I watched with slight apprehension as the masseuse grabbed the first cup and lit the inner air. He shoved it on so suddenly, I let out a groan of surprise and pain. The hot cup felt unpleasant and my skin immediately was taken up into the cup. He repeated the process 12 times until my skin was stretched so tight over my back, I thought it might split open. Then he laid a blanket over me and walked away, leaving me to squirm uncomfortably for the next 30 minutes.
As I lay in throbbing pain, I thought how uncomfortable it must be for someone to have an itch while they were feeling the sting of the suction. No sooner had the thought entered my mind when I yearned to scratch every part of my back. It was torturous to lay there unmoving, for if you moved, your back would change its posture and the suction would cease. Finally, after I had tried everything to distract myself from the irritation, the masseuse came back in and took the cups off my back. Afterwards, I sprang up and shook around, though I felt different than I had before. I felt full of energy and felt no pain anywhere on my body. I believe the sensation was caused by the pain I had felt earlier and not because my body was suddenly toxin free, but it was a pleasant feeling.
Erik and David stood up and shook themselves, but neither had expressions of relief on their faces. On the contrary, they both seemed disappointed. When I asked them how they felt, Erik replied “Well that was a rip-off.” Neither had felt anything during the cupping, yet both their backs looked as if they had been beaten. Pulling our shirts back on, we left the parlor. With sullen faces, the pair of them walked out towards the town and flagged down a taxi. David, for one, was eager to wash down his disappointment with the next scheduled event.
Last Saturday we had signed up for a baking lesson at the café. It was being taught by the American family that ran the place so it was easy to relay directions back and forth. We made the dough, kneaded the bread and churned out several dozen cinnamon rolls. It was a welcome change to laugh and joke with kids you are barely acquainted with. I had grown so accustomed to the presence of Erik, Leung, David and Christen and only then did I realize that it had been almost 3 weeks since I had met an English speaking person, save last Saturday. We again played cards and Apples to Apples while we enjoyed our cinnamon rolls.
As I licked the icing from my fingers, I pondered the happenings of today. I replayed everything that had happened and, subconsciously, I ordered them from favorite to least favorite. Surprisingly, my top choice was the present moment. I realized that I had forgotten to enjoy the small things in life and I was bent on enjoying momentous events. Of course, the last 2 months have been fun and momentous, but if you look back at all you can remember it’s the jokes you tell, the emotions you feel, and the people you share your life with that make those memories extraordinary. Sometimes, there is nothing better than enjoying your friends’ company while biting into a freshly baked cinnamon roll.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Peace, Apples, Yaks, and Corruption

March 10-15. Five days has passed since I have written a blog post. During this time only 3 large events, worthy enough to be written about I mean, have occurred. I won’t describe each day, because it might bore you into a deep sleep, but I will share each happening chronologically as well as some minor experiences with you. I also wanted to explain why I haven’t updated everyone on each day as I had done in New Zealand and Fiji. Not every day is as large of an adventure as it was last month, but it is an adventure none the less. There is a peace in China, which I am grateful for, that did not exist in New Zealand and trying to communicate that peace through words would be near impossible, I think. I don’t understand it myself, but the peace comforts me and provides me with the time to observe my surroundings. I also must confess that I possessed little desire to blog in the past few days and, not wanting to write something I wasn’t proud of, I followed my instincts. If that weren’t enough, I am still sick since March 9. I still wretch after certain meals, however it is infrequent and my joints aren’t in constant pain.
The last 2 days of class, before the weekend, went without any notable incidents. During my off hours, I read my Lord of the Rings Trilogy book and walked about town. I don’t bother with the shops anymore; I have bought souvenirs for all my friends and family. Mostly, I observe the people, the differences between my customs and theirs, and the environment. Plugging in my headphones, I walk down the endless road of Old Dali. Instead of using my sense of sound, I use my eyes and nose to discover aspects about the town. As I watch the shopkeepers working on their crafts outside their shops, I can smell the fresh sweetbread being pulled out of the oven across the street. The inroad river tumbles across the rocks, while cigarette smoke forms clouds around me. And as old women badger me, asking if I “smoke the ganja”, cheap incense palpably lingers, trying to counteract the cigarette smoke. The list goes on and on. It isn’t a complete experience without being able to hear my surroundings, but I feel they would distract me from the niceties. The hawking of people about to spit, the constant drum of hammers striking anvils, music blaring from all directions, and the honking of car horns all around me are quite unappealing in my opinion. Even the garbage truck, which plays an ancient Chinese melody to tell people to put out their garbage, has lost its splendor.
The last night before the weekend, we decided to spend our night at a local, western café near the University. We had heard it was one of the most fun places to be on a weekday. We arrived to see it packed with people, all playing board games or PlayStation. It wasn’t what some people would call “a night out” because they didn’t serve beer and there wasn’t a woofer pounding in your ear, but it was fun none the less. Christen, David, and I met up with several kids from the U.S. whose parents, on a whim, had packed up one week and moved to Old Dali to run this café. It was strange to actually have a normal conversation with people you didn’t know intimately, but it was a welcome change. Amanda, Johnny, and Brittany were all our age and Ben and Henry were several years younger. They seemed as pleased as we were to spend time with people from back home. After several hours of Apples to Apples, we were already making plans to hang out again. The café also had a baking class on Thursday at 7pm, which we all eagerly signed up for. We relished any opportunity to keep ourselves busy during off hours. Only at 1am were we forced to leave the comfortable coffee shop and head home for the night.
So when the weekend was upon us, Erik suggested that we take a trip to Lijiang, a town about 3 hours away from Old Dali. I wasn’t yet bored of Dali, but I was more than willing to see other Chinese towns. At 9am the next morning, we were being swept away on a train towards Lijiang. I didn’t expect the train to be luxurious, but I didn’t expect it to be from the 1970s either. The paint was peeling, there were cramped compartments with small beds as seats, and the bathrooms reeked as if they had not been cleaned since the day they had been made. When I surfaced from the train station, green faced and wobbling, a cab driver greeted me and drove us to Meadow Lodge, where we would be staying for the night. I slunk into the bed as I slammed my backpack down, but Leung was there as quick as a flash. He ripped off the covers from my body and in a stern tone informed us that we were going to lunch. Against every instinct of my being and with my body fighting the movements, I shuffled out of bed and went downstairs.
The streets in Lijiang reminded me of the streets of Venice. They were cramped and windy. Even a small river of water ran the length of the roads. Shops clustered the sides and it was obvious that Lijiang caters specifically to tourists, even more so than Old Dali. Since Lijiang is near mountains, they pride themselves in their herding of Yaks. Instead of ice cream shops, there are Yak meat corner markets and Yak yogurt is advertised everywhere. I didn’t have the stomach to try the meat, but the yogurt was extremely tasty. The same goods that are found in Old Dali can be found in Lijiang, so there was no need to buy anything. Our time was better spent wandering the crowded streets and seeing several spectacular sights that were exclusive to Lijiang. The mountains held an ethereal beauty when set against the background of this busy tourist town. Chinese Plum Blossoms litter the streets, adding to the attractiveness. In the town square, there were several local men garbed in mountain clothing and riding horses packed with pots, pans, sleeping bags, and a musket. They were clearly there for tourists to take pictures with them, but they were still entertaining to watch. Other people try to take advantage of the tourist’s eagerness to spend money by allowing you to hold an eagle or play with a monkey, which you must pay for of course.
Before we knew it, dinner was upon us. Nobody wanted western food, except me, and I wasn’t going to be the odd man out for this meal. Coming across a street lined with food we all took our pick and made our own combinations. I went for 3 pieces of sizzling bacon with savory spices, a freshly baked roll of bread, miniature skewered eggs, and a bag of seasoned almonds. It was all delicious and I ate it down to the last crumbs of the almonds. After dinner, we walked down the “Red Light District” of Lijiang. All the bars were packed with people. We sat down at the most “American friendly” bar and the others ordered drinks. We thought it was “American friendly” because it played the most modern music, where the others played club music from back in the 1990s. It seemed that we were the celebrities of the bar because countless people asked to take pictures with us asked us all to dance. However, we ended up clearing the dance floor due to our more modern dances. I don’t know if the locals were impressed or disgusted by our moves, it was hard to make out their expressions, but we had fun all the same. At 12am we walked back to the room, exhausted from the night’s events and eager to lie in our comfortable, heated beds (every bed that I have slept in so far has had a heated blanket).
I didn’t sleep much that night. I became violently sick again, probably because of dinner. Nobody else reacted the same, so maybe it’s just my own body. I barely slept that night and in the morning, I was beyond exhaustion. I wanted something substantial in my stomach, so I ate 2 enormous pancakes and munched on fruit for breakfast. Our train left at 11am and it was tough to remember the ride. I was slightly disoriented and slept most of the time.
The next day we had class and I was looking forward to it, specifically the afternoon session. We planned to hike to a waterfall with our teacher and her friend. Supposedly, it was a 30 minute hike from the school. We, however, spent over 4 hours trekking the mountain behind the university in search of the waterfall. We began the hike at 2pm, immediately after lunch. We walked uphill towards the Tea House, where we had spent our first few nights in Dali. The teacher wasted no time and put us to the test, making us converse with her in Chinese. Effortlessly, we came to the back of the Tea House and found the path up the mountain. There was a guard stationed at the entrance. His only job was to make sure that we signed a sheet of paper saying that we had visited during the specific time. I believe it was in case someone came looking for us, so they could prove we had passed through that side of the mountain.
The hike began leisurely, with a slight uphill walk through the forest. We passed countless graves, extravagantly decorated with red and gold dragons and beautifully neat Mandarin writing. Rushing water could be heard close by and soon we came to the river. We thought we had come to the waterfall, but all we could see were tiny cliffs that made water fall 3 feet to the ground. That couldn’t be it we reasoned and kept walking. As we kept on marching, our teacher described many aspects of the forest to us in Mandarin, but I could only understand fragments of her speech. Occasionally she would joke with her friend, while Christen, David, and I would exchange clueless expressions. After about an hour however, we lost sight of the graves and the path became windy and treacherous. It sometimes sloped at a possible 75 degree angle, forcing us to climb the path as if it were a ladder. Our teacher gave up trying to teach us Chinese, but I doubt she could have continued if she had wanted to. We panted with the effort of climbing the mountain and our faces glistened with sweat. Our minds were bent on reaching an opening in the tree line, where we would see the fruits of our efforts. After another hour of hiking we came to a large, paved road meant for walking around the mountains. It was glorious to see how far we had hiked. We weren’t 300 feet from the top and the whole landscape, from the mountains across the lake to the undeveloped villages surrounding Dali was open to us.
Walking slowly, I enjoyed every breath of fresh air and every mile I could see, which I valued as much as a gleaming gold trophy. As we all blissfully stared out in the open, policemen on bikes surrounded us. Only after they spoke to us did we realize they were there. Angrily, they asked what we were doing up here. Our teacher and her friend explained that we were hiking. Then one man yelled at our teachers and went off in a rage. Our 2 parties went back and forth and Christen, David and I looked at each other in alarm. After 20 minutes of frantic bantering, our teacher handed the policeman 50 yen and he handed us 5 blank pieces of paper which he had stamped with the date. Then, as suddenly as they had arrived, they sped off. Our teacher later explained to us that the policeman were asking if we had tickets allowing us to climb the mountain and after noticing that we didn’t he refused to let us go back down without payment. She told us it was a trick, meant to siphon money from foreigners and you needed no tickets to climb the mountain. It was the first time I had witnessed corruption in China and it unnerved me. Everyone seemed so friendly to us, almost to the point of annoyance. This, however, changed my perspective on this region, though it was probably exclusive to the mountain range. We paid the teacher back the money she had spent on our behalf. I wasn’t upset about losing 10 yen. That’s less than 2 American dollars, but it didn’t make me feel better about the situation.
We were then forced to walk down the mountain because our teacher refused to stay after that incident. I couldn’t help agreeing. It was bitingly cold up there, even when I had on 3 layers. The weather seems to be getting colder while we stay here. At the moment it is 43 degrees and it snowed in Kunming recently, so 3 layers were vital during the hike. The walk down took half the time as the walk up, which is not unusual. Yet, it was no less uncomfortable. My toes kept getting slammed into the tops of my shoes and I could feel blisters forming on my feet. We kept getting lost and taking alternate trails as David led us through the mountain with an air of confidence that suggested he was part GPS. We ended up arriving too far left of our original location, which was a serious problem. A 10 foot wall had been built to separate the 2 sides. David and I could have easily climbed over it, but the girls were not as willing. Christen, losing her temper, snapped at David and berated him for leading us this way. David went silent and tried to find an alternate route, though he didn’t succeed. After several minutes of debate, we were forced to push the girls over the wall.
When we finally arrived back at the University, there was an air of scorn and I plugged in my earphones, ignoring the constant sniping between the 2 of them. The teacher said farewell with her friend and we took the bus back home. After a 5 yen footbath and a hot shower, we were rejuvenated enough to eat dinner, then slide into bed. The night was cold and unfriendly and I was grateful for the heated blanket. I felt sheltered and content under in my sanctuary of covers and barely noticed the piercing notes of the karaoke outside my door as I drifted off into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Blighted Experience

March 8 & 9. It was especially difficult to wake up this morning due to the past 2 days of sleeping in. Erik needed to yell at us before we awoke and, with a start, we realized we had slept through part of our class. We hastily threw on our clothes, packed our bags, and grabbed a handful of dumplings. My body denied the prospect of eating more pork, so I decided on eating the vegetarian dumplings. They weren’t the same, but they had a certain tang to them that I could now taste with the absence of meat.
                In class, I suggested that we focus more on conversation than writing Mandarin. It’s not as if I wasn’t eager to be able to write the Chinese characters, quite the contrary. I did however, know that we only had 3 weeks to study the language and if it was a choice between speaking and writing, I was inclined to choose the former. The teacher agreed with her normal, patient attitude and began to write all our Mandarin out into Pinion. It made the class much easier and I was able to pick up words from last class that I had forgotten. We learned to ask for directions and keep small talk with locals. We still stutter with the pronunciation and the tones force you to move painfully slow, but it was necessary. I couldn’t afford to confuse one tone with another and accidentally say something rude.
                After our classes, Erik excitedly told us that he had signed us up for dumpling making classes at the Sunny Lodge. We were all for it, especially if it meant staying close to home. We arrived at the Sunny Lodge to find 2 tables set with all the materials needed for dumplings. They had flour, pork, carrots, salads, sauces, water, and plenty other ingredients I couldn’t recognize. The hotel owner, who speaks very good English, showed us how to knead the dough to the perfect consistency. My hands slipped up and she needed to correct my form several times, but in the end I had created a decent lump of dough. From there, we cut the vegetables and mixed half with the chopped pork, and the other half into a vegetarian filling. Soy sauce was mixed into the filling to make the ingredients stick to one another. We then took the dough and ripped off small sections, which we rolled with pins to make perfectly circular and thin discs. Cupping one hand gently, with the circlets inside, we put our desired filling in the center of the dough. Then, ever so slightly, I folded one corner to the other and then pressed the two opposite ends against the filling. Afterwards, I pinched each fold until it resembled a local Dali dumpling. I say “resembled” for lack of a better word, because my first dumplings didn’t come close to the masterpieces that the hotel owner was churning out, but after 2 dozen or so I was deemed passable.
                The elderly and the young, the fat and the skinny, and the tall and the short all turned up to make dumplings with “the foreigners.” There were several variations of shapes and sizes, that all looked extravagant compared to our creations. We soon had at least 300 dumplings, enough to feed the entire hotel, and then some. I felt slightly queasy when I saw them all in a row, but kept my poise as we steamed the numerous racks. An hour later, they called us back into the kitchen. All 300+ dumplings had been cooked and were steaming softly on their racks. It was an intoxicating smell that brought back memories of the multiple native meals I have eaten here. I had to fi1ght yet again to keep from getting sick.
                We all crowded around the trays, ready to eat. I, however, wasn’t particularly hungry, but I was willing to try at least one. The hotel owner yelled “Kanpai!” which suited the occasion, for we all shoved an entire dumpling into our mouths. Almost immediately after I had swallowed the dumpling, I felt it rising in my throat again. I excused myself from the circle and went back to the room, where I vomited. It wasn’t that the dumplings tasted horrible. I just felt sick to my stomach. The prospect of eating anything revolted me at that point, and my body craved for a soft bed. I ended up sleeping out in the courtyard, where there is a comfortable sofa that met my desires.
                The next day proved to be a dreadful one. I couldn’t even force myself to get to class. I was violently sick half the day and in pain for the rest. My joints ached and I felt exhausted beyond reason. During lunch time, my mind dictated my body and blocked out the pain momentarily so I could get a small amount of food. If I ate more local food, or even thought about it, I would become sick again. I ended up buying bananas and apples from a street vendor and washed them with my water bottle. I had a craving for nutrition, but it was in vain. The fruit came up just as it hit my stomach.
                Erik deduced that it was a stomach bug, something that had not been caused by the local food. The local food is much healthier than any of the preserved meals you would buy in the United States. I was grateful for his reasoning because I didn’t want the diet of my cultural experience to consist of only western food. I am still reluctant to eat the food here, only because my mind tells me that I will become sick again if I eat it. I’m taking it slow and hopefully soon, I will be able to stomach the local food long enough to enjoy it again.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Untouched China

March 6 & 7. Today was our first weekend day, which meant sleeping in until 11am. The morning air was my only alarm and I enjoyed its touch as I blearily opened my eyes. The sound of the active town washed over me as I swung my feet out of bed. I showered with a happiness that I had not felt since Fiji and nearly jogged to breakfast with contentment.
We ate at a western style breakfast house. Surprisingly, it held its promise of “tasting like western food.” Most of the “western” restaurants we have been to either held a slight taste of local food or just served Chinese food with a western look. After a meal of eggs, bacon, bread, cheese, and chai tea, we discussed the plans for the day. We settled on biking out to the coast, which would hopefully provide us with a view of the suburbs.
The actual act of renting a bike took longer than I expected. Leung haggled with every dealer and was never satisfied with any price. After 5 different rental shops and at least 40 attempts to drop the price, Erik shoved money into Leung’s hand, obviously frustrated enough to surrender to the price. The bikes were of good quality, but I knew the small seats would hurt our butts given enough time.
The streets were hard to navigate through because the majority of locals seemed to disregard the fact that they might be run over. The cars didn’t help either. They honked constantly, even when we were clearly out of their way. They must have been thinking we would purposefully swerve into oncoming traffic, although that thought never crossed my mind. Finally, we hit the open road, where there were more horse drawn carriages than cars. The road went in a straight line for miles until it met the coast. We subconsciously raced each other as if there was some prize at the end of the road. Oddly enough, the view of the coast was reward enough for our efforts. The boats looked like floating Chinese temples and the lake looked vast and untouched. There were several street vendors nearby and we stopped for a snack of sundried tomatoes and fresh almonds. I have never liked tomatoes, but these were like candy and I was helpless to their sweet taste.
We rode on for several more miles, looping around the countryside until I could cover the entire campus of the university with one thumb. There were rice fields all around us as we pedaled. It was shocking to see that most of the villages surrounding Dali were so undeveloped. Dali’s modern influence didn’t stretch even a few miles in any given direction. It was like stepping back in time. The people harvested crops or groomed their horses. I even saw a few practicing archery.
Leung didn’t stop riding until it was sundown. We saw so much of the countryside in such a short time that it was hard to remember most of the gorgeous sites. 5 hours later, when we were hungry and exhausted, we arrived back at the hotel. I winced as I dismounted my bike. My butt and legs were sore to the bone. We didn’t delay in our movements, however. After showering quickly, we set out for dinner. Dumplings and noodles were tonight’s meal and I scarfed it down with animalistic vigor. Too comfortable to move our feet, we stayed at the restaurant and listened to the karaoke I had despised since tonight. They usually played late into the night and most of the singers, I’m assuming, had never been on the receiving end of their songs, for if they had they wouldn’t have sang at all. Later on, we dragged our feet back home and hit the bed, without even noticing that it was barely cushioned.
The following day was another weekend day. I didn’t have anything to do and nothing was planned. I spent most of the day resting or walking solo around town. I practiced my Mandarin here and there. Also, I bargained for many souvenirs. I had no intent to actually buy anything, but I mentally noted the given prices down for a later date. I also caught up on all the homework I had left for today. It wasn’t exactly fun, but the challenge was welcome. I hadn’t had to strain my brain to learn anything substantial in a long time. Other than that, it was an ordinary day in Old Dali.

Monday, March 7, 2011


March 5. The days grow ever more continuous during class days. It’s a positive repetitiveness, but it sometimes leaves me craving to travel more. Mandarin is as difficult as ever, but I am concentrating intently during lessons and thoroughly completing my homework (which is now present). Christen quickly rose to the top of the class and is now the teacher’s pet, though not without reason. She studied Mandarin for 2 years when she was in high school, which leaves David and I at a disadvantage. We have also moved our housing to the Sunny Lodge in the town of Old Dali. It’s much cozier than staying at the University. They have softer beds and sympathize more with tourists than locals. The owner here speaks excellent English and is helpful whenever we need to know our way about the town. Two cute, friendly dogs also stroll around the property, which I see as an added bonus. Maybe I will have to break up these continuous days with a few Taekwondo lessons in the afternoons, but for now, I am content.
Photos of China have finally been uploaded to my Picasa slideshow! Sorry for the wait.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Tones are Everything

                March 3 & 4. Classes started this morning at 8:30am. I woke up to another glorious, but bitingly cold morning. The temperature change is drastic between Fiji and China. I can no longer wear shorts and I constantly need a sweatshirt. It’s to be expected, however, because this is China’s winter season. Breakfast was made by the dorm staff. A warm bowl of meat and vegetable noodles greeted me as I sat down to eat. They also served us hot milk, which went surprisingly well with the meal. After breakfast, we quickly went back to our room to grab pens and notebooks and then we trekked down to class. The campus seems even larger than it had done when we were driving through it. We are at the top of the University and class is held at the bottom entrance. It takes 30 minutes to hike down to class. Erik and Leung accompanied us the entire way, but Anna had left that morning to go into Shanghai.
                Our class building is the main building and is the largest. Leung, who had gone to school here, had to guide us through the halls and doors until we wound up at room 4-19. Our teacher was waiting inside and got up to shake our hands. I could already tell that she has a very limited knowledge of English, but, as Erik had explained, that comes as an advantage because this way you must immerse yourself completely in the Chinese Language. We were handed textbooks and sat down as she pointed to the first 3 chairs. It was only the 4 of us in the classroom. The textbooks are labeled Elementary Grade 1. When you’re a high school graduate and you’re handed an Elementary book, you have the feeling that you’re slightly moronic. She wrote her name in Mandarin on the board and repeated it out loud. It is so hard to pronounce that I can’t even try to communicate it through my blog.
                Then, class started. We began with the simplest words, like Ni Hao and Xie Xie, but then progressed to tones. There are 4 tones in the Chinese language and each can change the meaning of the word. Ma (in Chinese) has 4 meanings: horse, scold, mum, or numb each depending on which tone you say it in. The first 3 hours weren’t difficult and I felt that learning Mandarin isn’t as hard as everyone states it is. That was my first big mistake.
                I wasn’t hungry for lunch today, but went with everyone all the same. There is a small main street on campus that is lined with several restaurants and tourist shops. Leung recommended a restaurant, which he said serves the greatest fish in Dali. I’m not a huge fan of fish, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try some more local food. Circular tables made up most of the space in the restaurant, with little room to slide in and out of your seat. A revolving centerpiece was used to pass items across the table and is used in most of the restaurants that I have been to so far. The fish, vegetables, and rice came out almost at once and the owner shook the hand of Leung vigorously. Obviously, they were good friends. The fish wasn’t chopped up into friendly pieces that you would normally see, but it came as the entire fish. Even the scales needed peeling back in order to access the meat. There were also several small bones that you had to look out for. The fish, however, was one of the best I’ve ever tasted. It had a slight spicy, barbeque flavor to it that made us devour it to the last morsel. The skeletal fish, with only its head and tail still intact, lay before us, while the rice and vegetables had been scoffed down.
Leung’s friend, who teaches Taekwondo, showed for the last hour before class and offered to teach me Taekwondo self-defense. I was all for it, but David and Christen were hesitant. I wanted to start straight away, but he hadn’t taught lessons in over 5 years. He explained that he needed to draw up a class schedule before we could start. We decided that in the next few days I could start my lessons. With nothing left to do and little time before our second part of Chinese lessons began, we headed back to class. It was only an hour long and consisted of us reviewing our past lesson. We weren’t given homework, thankfully. I had too much writing to do before I could dedicate more focus to Mandarin.
I felt sluggish and tired after many days of too much Chinese food and too little exercise. Don’t get me wrong, the food here is incomparable, but that’s the problem. You can’t stop eating. So I forced myself to run around the soccer field until I felt safe enough to eat dinner. After dinner, however, I was back at square 1. We had more dumplings that night. The skinny ones are my favorite, but the fatter ones are like donuts. You eat them until you throw up. I crawled into bed that night, grateful for some escape from the tempting aromas of food.
The next day was almost exactly the same as the last. However, we learned how to introduce ourselves in Chinese and were thrown into vocabulary that sent my head spinning. Any other language and I would be able to follow the class with ease. For Mandarin you have to translate the characters into Chinese words and then translate them into English words. It’s rigorous and time consuming. I spent the afternoon writing again and finally caught up to date on all my blog posts. We even had dumplings for dinner. I swear, if I eat anymore dumplings I will come back wrapped in dough with a pork center.
Thanks for the patience concerning my posts. Hopefully these last few entries make up for the wait. Also, thanks for all the comments; they make every post worth it.

Old Dali

                March 2. Waking in China at 7:30 has its advantages. I was able to watch the sunrise from my window. It was gorgeous to see the sun’s silhouette crawling up the peak of a distant mountain. When it reached the top, it seemed to pause for a few seconds in a triumphant stance. We didn’t need to get up at any particular time today, but I was wide awake and ready for another adventure, which I had become accustomed to last month. I walked out of the room and was surprised to see Anna on the balcony with 3 cups of green tea. She offered one to me with her motherly smile and brought one in for David, but set it by his bed. She exited the room and started giving me details about what not to do in China. For instance, you’re not supposed to touch someone’s head. It’s considered extremely rude. Don’t put your chopsticks into your bowl as you set them down. Always put them across the edges. Lastly, never accuse someone of staring at you because it is perfectly normal to stare at a foreigner here. She didn’t need to tell me this last rule, but I humored her all the same.
                After I had talked with Anna some more about China, David had finally woken up. He was in a good mood and ready for a meal, as I was. 10am was checkout time here, and we doubted that we could make it back after breakfast in time. We checked out and put our belongings into Anna’s room (who would be staying another night), but I took my backpack. I’m not taking any chances here when there is plenty of thieving.
                Old Dali is a beautiful city with plenty of activities to do during down time. There are massage parlors, horseback riding, hiking, and Taekwondo lessons. I wanted to do them all today, but Anna had different plans for us. We were shown the city and how to get to specific landmarks in case we ever got lost or separated. She also showed us where to buy snacks and any supplies we might need. I could tell she was doing it out of her good nature, but it was slightly unnecessary. I wondered if she was accustomed to high school students and my beliefs were confirmed as she told me she usually led the summer high school Rustic Pathways programs.
                During this tour of the city, we picked up some dumplings along the way for breakfast. They were delicious and came in 2 varieties. One was skinny and longer, more like the dumplings seen in America. The other was fatter and much doughier. Anna showed us how to make the perfect sauce for dumplings, with 1/8 soy sauce, 7/8 vinegar, and a dash of chilies. I could have eaten them until I burst. I began to wonder how healthy they were and voiced my concern to Anna. She told me that the ingredients were locally harvested and grown so it would be much better than any Chinese food bought in the States. On that note, I ate them greedily.
                We walked around town a bit more and saw many stray dogs and puppies. It was sad, but they seemed well fed. At noon we had to meet up with Erik, Leung, and Christen for lunch so we stayed in town and explored it thoroughly. I was excited to see Christen and to have someone close on this trip.
                Café de Jack was the meeting place, and it was a western style food restaurant. We met the rest of our group and I was right in believing that my spirits would rise at the sight of my cousin. She was perfect for this situation. Someone I could talk too freely, but not someone who would latch onto me like a lifeline. She handled the situation perfectly. David introduced himself and everyone started talking to her about themselves. Immediately, I could see that she would be a great fit for this trip.
                I ordered a burger because I missed the taste and scent of American beef. Yet, I was slightly disappointed. Something of the Chinese food lingered upon the burger’s taste and scent and the fries were soft and undercooked. I tried to enjoy the meal, but it was difficult. After lunch, we went back to the hotel to pick up our luggage. From there we took a taxi to Dali University. Oddly enough we didn’t go through the main entrance, but through a side street. We wound our way up to the top of the hill overlooking the University. The campus is enormous, with many modern buildings and dorms. There is little grass around the roads, but when we came to the place where we will be staying, we were awed to see miles of tea gardens stretched out before us.
                The dorm rooms that we are staying at for the first 3 nights are very comfortable looking, much more so than the previous hotels at least. The beds are slightly more comfortable and the surrounding decorations are beautifully native to the culture here. We have all stretched out on our beds and are relaxing before we set out for dinner. Hopefully it will be better than lunch.

A Foreigner

March 1. I awoke stiff necked, bleary eyed, and troubled this morning. It was strange to wake up knowing only one person near me. I showered for what felt like the first time in a week. It brought a new feeling of warmth and comfort to my body and I felt a little better as I waited for Leung and David to wake up. I sat down on the uncushioned sofa with a groan and watched TV to take my mind off my discomfort. There are 50 channels in Kunming and over half feature a military program. The rest are either soap operas or plays that seem slightly silly to watch, from the eyes of a foreigner that is. The only channel I felt some relation to was the one playing Spongebob Squarepants in Chinese, which took no less enjoyment out of the show.
                When Leung and David finally awoke, I greeted them only halfheartedly. After they were ready to leave, we headed downstairs for breakfast. We walked down at 8am and the concierge told us we didn’t need to check out until 11am, so we had some time to kill. Striding out the door, Leung, David, and I entered the morning world of China. There were masses of people going this way and that. Some were conversing with shop merchants; others were working outside their perspective shops, and the rest rushed furiously to begin their day jobs. Leung knew the city surprisingly well and led us through many back alleys and side streets where we came to a small, but friendly American café. He explained that we would have plenty of time for Chinese breakfast later on and that we should enjoy some bacon while we can. I ordered eggs, bacon, potatoes, a bagel, and chai tea. It was all delicious and brought even more life back in me than the shower had.
                After breakfast we walked slightly in the direction of the hotel, but zigzagged through many streets with makeshift shops. We learned to bargain from Leung and he taught us the best way to communicate with the shop owners. The world has one universal language: numbers. He handed us both a pen and paper and told us to bargain whatever item we wanted down to a quarter of the price. Since I had forgotten my sleeping bag in the Hong Kong airport (the first item I have lost all month) I entered an outdoors shop. The owner rushed towards me and asked what I would like (or at least I guessed he asked that). I pointed to the smallest sleeping bag I could find and asked for the price. His asking price was 100 yen (roughly $17 US). I wrote down half that on my pad. He seemed to consider for a moment then nodded. I took out my money and faked to show I only had 25 yen. I showed him the money and he shook his head in disgust. In response, I turned and walked straight out the door. He yelled me back furiously and snatched the money out of my hand, while at the same time shoving the sleeping bag angrily into my hands. Grinning to myself, I walked away with Leung and David.
                We spent the rest of our time peering into several shops, while rarely buying anything because we would feel terrible if we asked for more money on our first day in China. I came back to the hotel feeling happier then when I had left. I had one idea formed in my mind: “China might not be so bad after all.” So we packed our things together and walked out the door. We looked ridiculous as we walked down the streets, with our backpacks on the front of our bodies and David and I staring suspiciously at anyone who passed too close to us. The bus stop to Dali was a 45 minute walk, but we decided to take cabs instead. Even cab prices can be bargained in China. Leung passed up several expensive cabs (taking much longer than 45 minutes), but then came to a completely ordinary car, parked on the side of the road, and asked for a ride. They bargained a price and Leung agreed. Perplexed, I threw my luggage into the trunk and slid into the car. Only when I asked did Leung tell me that some people are private taxi drivers who sit on the curb all day looking for fares.
                So we came to the bus stop and were immediately greeted by Anna, the Rustic Pathways China director. You could instantly sense her good nature and her innocent demeanor gave her a motherly aura. She hugged us both, waving our handshakes away. Leung caught us off guard as he said goodbye to us and we shouted why he had to leave. I had grown accustomed to his presence, even in the past day. His bouncy attitude and constant smile were infectious. He said not to worry, however. That he would see us within 2 days because he needed to pick up Christen and Erik. Relieved, I started to feel hunger pangs again. We bought local Chinese snacks for the bus ride while Anna bought our bus tickets. The snacks were exotic and I was willing to try most, except for chicken feet and packaged eels. We bought vanilla tootsie rolls, fake Oreos, crackers, bread, and corn chips. We met up with Anna and she looked over our snacks with an approving gaze. Then we walked through the ticket barrier and security machine.
The station was just as packed as the city had been. People still wore flu masks, while some led sheep and caged chickens around. So it seems understandable why some people would wear masks. The security checkpoint was a joke. The metal detector didn’t work (I know because I had my phone, my belt, and my camera on my person when I walked through) and the security officer didn’t even bother looking at the screen for the x-ray machine while our bags were passing through. In fact, I doubt there was even anything on the screen. We piled onto the bus, but it wasn’t crowded. I was able to stretch out in the back and before I knew it, I fell fast asleep.
I was awoken by the bus as it came to a screeching halt directly in front of the hotel we were staying at tonight. It was called Sam’s Hotel in old Dali and was surprisingly rustic, yet comfortable. Sam, who knew very good English, welcomed us with 3 steaming cups of green tea as we dragged our luggage into reception. The warm liquid felt welcome after a long bus ride and was unsurprisingly bitter. When I asked for sugar, Sam just laughed at me and strode away to get our keys. He was nice enough to see that we were not in the mood for any talking. Even though we had done almost nothing today, we were drained from the travels. He said he would order noodles for us and have them sent up to our rooms. We thanked him graciously and lugged our baggage upstairs.
The room resembled much of our previous night’s room. The shower was slightly moldy and there was no shower curtain. The beds were as stiff as ever and the TV had not one American friendly channel. I talked with David for the rest of the night and we stopped for a while to eat our noodles, which were good enough to make up for the room. David fell asleep mid conversation and I cracked one of the first genuine smiles since I had left New Zealand. It was time for me to go to sleep as well and with that, I crawled into bed and tried to make an adequately comfortable mattress. I didn’t succeed however, and fell asleep grimacing.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


February 28. Ben, Jade, Erik, David, and I were the only ones on the bus. As I looked around, I felt that half of me was missing. Not wanting to talk to anyone, I plugged in my headphones and stared out the window. Looking back, it seems unreal. I said “see you later” to Jade and Ben (who was staying another 2 weeks in Fiji). I don’t remember much of getting to the plane after that. Whether from exhaustion or depression, I couldn’t tell. Maybe it was a combination of both.
My first flight was to Hong Kong and the plane was packed accordingly. I felt more foreign than any other time and knew this next month would be nothing but that feeling. Even in Fiji there were people who spoke English and shared most of our customs. I was thrown into a dizzying culture shock. I stumbled over to my seat. When I sat down, the person next to me (who was of Asian descent) stared at me. He didn’t stop staring for at least 5 minutes. I wanted to confront him. I wasn’t in the mood. Then I remembered something that Erik had said about their customs. “Staring isn’t offensive in China and because you’re a foreigner, you’ll get it a lot.” I bit back my retort and stared resolutely ahead of me. I just put in my headphones and closed my eyes. I felt an overwhelming sense of exhaustion, and the grief was nearly as bad. Not wanting to feel anything, I fell asleep.
I woke up when someone poked me asking if I wanted lunch. I refused the food, although I hadn’t eaten anything in about 12 hours. I don’t think my stomach could have handled it. The person next to me had left his seat and had joined his friends who were watching the inflight movie. I stretched out, with my back against the window. I reflected on the past month. I didn’t think about what we had done, I didn’t want to relive anything of February, but I thought about how it affected me.
In high school I was slightly self-conscious and didn’t fit the day to day life. The continued monotony was draining me of who I was. I was never me during those years. I was always trying to please people’s opinions of me. Now I am myself. For one of the first times I feel completely comfortable in my shoes. My confidence surpasses even my fears, because I haven’t felt any fear since I jumped the Nevis. It’s not a cocky confidence, but one that I can use to make the best of the moments around me and make the most of the time I have. I was sometimes afraid to be criticized for some actions that I did, while I was at home that is. Now I know that those who criticize you aren’t worth a single glance. I was glad to be mature, immature, or just whatever whenever I wanted. I also know how I’m a stubborn guy, sticking to what I believe is right, and how sometimes I have to work hard at some things, whether it’s jumping off the Nevis or being thrown into a group of 11 strangers, but I know that it’s even harder to make me give up. I’ve also realized that family is one of the most important aspects of life. Whether it’s the family you develop within the span of a month or the family you have back home, they’re all vital. My brother is someone who I used to take for granted and get in constant fights with, but now, more than anyone, I wish he was here to experience all this with me, not only as my brother, but as a best friend.
Coming out of my reverie I saw that the next meal had started. I hadn’t realized how long I had been sitting there. Maybe I had even fallen asleep. I was slightly hungrier and wearily took my food. I don’t usually eat the airplane food, but it felt good to feel something other than pressure in my stomach.
About an hour later, the plane had landed. We had about 3 hours until our flight to Kunming so I Skyped my family back home, wanting to feel some connection to someone I knew. It made the next 3 hours a bit easier. David and Erik were with me, but out of all the people on the last trip I had gotten to know them the least. Then the flight to Kunming was upon me and it was just David and I (Erik couldn’t get a flight until the next day).
A tidal wave of realization hit me as I was walking with David. It was just us 2 now. I did have my cousin coming in the next 2 days, but I couldn’t even fathom that fact until I actually saw her. I laughed falsely at any jokes he threw out, but inside I was far from laughing. I didn’t say much during the flight or through customs. I think David knew what was going through my head and I think much of the same thing was going through his. He didn’t talk about much, except joke occasionally, and I was grateful for it. After customs we set our stuff down and sat for a long time, waiting for our pickup.
 Finally, Leung came to pick us up. He was a welcome change to the atmosphere. Leung is a 26 year old, small, Cambodian man. He has a great attitude to life and rarely stops smiling. He knows 5 languages (French, Cambodian, Chinese, English, and Cantonese) and is a master of Kong Fu. He led us out apologizing furiously for being late, telling us how much traffic there had been. We got out to the street, and not until then did I realize that it was nighttime. It took about an hour to grab a taxi outside the airport. None of us were aggressive enough to step in front of a person who had stolen the taxi we had just waved down. When we finally got one, we drove 2 hours to the hotel. The city was so chaotic. Mopeds zipped wherever they wanted, car lanes were strictly disregarded, and people ran across the street without warning. I was surprised to see plenty of locals driving brand new Bentleys and Mercedes. From all that I had learned about a communist country, there should be an even distribution of wealth, but that clearly did not exist here. The language barrier was another huge shock. Everything was in Mandarin, and, to me, that looked as welcome as graffiti.
 In the dead of night, we arrived at the hotel and checked in. Without elevators, we climbed 6 flights of stairs with our luggage and came to the room. I threw my luggage down and launched myself into the bed. Bad idea. The Chinese like hard, stiff beds that resemble the comfort of a wooden floor. The crash shook the room and smashed my chest with plenty of force. In order to make for a more comforting sleep, I took as many blankets as I could find and made a makeshift mattress. David didn’t seem to care about the bed and fell asleep immediately. After I was thoroughly satisfied with my bedding, I lay down and slept peacefully.
Sorry about the delay in all the posts. It was hard to find time to blog in the last few days when all I wanted to do was spend time with my group. Here in China, there is internet everywhere, but I wasn’t able to blog until I bought a VPN in order to access my blog sight, which is blocked here. Thanks for the patience. Look out tomorrow morning, because I will be fully up to date by then.

The End of the Beginning

February 27. I didn’t even realize it was the last day until Erik had mentioned it. I wish he hadn’t. I became subdued when I remembered that this month must come to an end. Yet again, I had to fight the gloom and make the most of this last day. Most of the group woke up much later than usual, most not even caring weather it was breakfast or not. Some people were in random hammocks and others were in different beds, while the rest had either been led to their beds or had miraculously found their own way. Nobody really cared what we did today, so most of us packed our things, checked out of the room, and laid on the beach while we waited for the boat to bring us back. Personally, I read in the shade of a palm tree, still exhausted from the night before, and laughed with everyone else about last night.  A few people went kayaking, but since I had drained my cash and didn’t feel up to ANY physical activity, I didn’t join them.
                The boat came at 3pm, yet I, at least, was hoping for it to have crashed on the way. The trip back to the eco lodge went by in a blur. I don’t remember much. I mainly talked in order to get my mind off of the rapidly approaching next day. As we pulled into the eco lodge, I wondered vaguely where the day had gone.
                The eco lodge overlooks a soccer field, where a game was being played when we arrived. Brian, Steren, Ben, Andrew, Claire, Olivia, and I joined in on the game. I hadn’t played a game of soccer since freshman year of high school, yet I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. All the Fijian players were as well built as any Fijian and their skill at soccer matched their physique. Brian and Claire were assigned to one team, while the rest of us were assigned to the other. Then the game started… if you could call it a real game of soccer. There was little coordination between sides and Fijian players often expectantly switched sides. I still don’t understand the reasoning behind it, but it effectively made the game confusing. I played midfield, or at least I would say I did, because players frequently switched not only sides, but positions. The locals kicked the ball with deliberate force in any direction, thus I took a few punts to the chest, though not as many as Andrew. He took around 5, but never faltered in his game. The only thing I can compare him to is a brick wall. Everybody played to their best efforts and I have to give some props to Steren, who played goalie. I’m not sure if he played soccer in high school, but he was a fearless keeper. I don’t know who won and I don’t think I cared, but it was exactly what I needed to raise my spirits.
                We had dinner afterwards. It was nothing special, yet it was no less delicious. Oro and the others at the eco lodge provided us with a goodbye kava ceremony. I couldn’t be rude and not take a last bowl of kava. So I grit my teeth and drank down my last bowl of dirt water, hopefully forever. The rest of the night was spent talking, and most of us talked late into the night. Claire didn’t have to leave the next day, but the day after. Understandably she didn’t want to wake up at 5am to say goodbye to those of us who were leaving at that time. I said “see you later” and hugged quickly. It’s a lot easier to say “see you later” than it is to say “goodbye.” The rest of us didn’t get to sleep until 3am. I only got an hour of sleep before being woken up by Erik. At that moment I hated everything about him.
                I quickly threw everything together and said “see you later” to Steren and Andrew who were still half asleep. I put my stuff on the bus in a hazy state, still exhausted from almost no sleep. Ariana, Brian, and Olivia got up to see us off and I had to put on another false smile. Oro and the rest of the staff were up as well and I said my farewells to them. I think I’ll miss Oro the most out of the house staff. Good thing I got his Facebook. And then all too soon, I was off.