Monday, December 29, 2008

The Magical Kingdom

Once upon a time, there was a kingdom that was full of beauty and magic. It was a land of ancient stone temples shaded by enormous trees, where monkeys played and cicadas made sounds like a million tiny tinkling bells. It was a country of farmers spending their days growing rice in tranquil paddies, sunlit and green, patrolled by swarms of scarlet dragonflies. A place of shimmering blue lakes dotted with gigantic water lilies of vermilion and fuchsia. When night fell on the kingdom, mysterious flowers bloomed, sending their perfume out into the night to attract equally mysterious pollinators. Bats swooped through the starry sky, and geckos climbed up walls and ceilings making little squeaking sounds as they dined on mosquitoes. Scribes wrote in beautiful flowing script. Artists danced, sang, and wove beautiful bolts of cloth.

But not too long ago, everything changed. Sadness and misery came to the kingdom in the form of a terrible army. When the soldiers took control of the land, many people died in battle or because they had no rice to eat. Some were forced to work so hard that they lay down in the rice fields and never got up again. Families were fearful, and many tears were shed. But the people of the kingdom were strong, and after many struggles, they finally were able to send the evil army away. The war ended, and the people were once again able to grow their rice in peace. The children could smile, too because the soldiers were gone and they did not need to be afraid any more. Although the kingdom is still rather poor, the people who live there are generous and enduring. They laugh a lot now and have hope for the future.

Although this kingdom sounds like it comes from a fairy tale, it is a very real country that I was lucky enough to be able to visit. It is called Cambodia.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bike Ride to the Beach

I was so excited when I woke up this morning. Today was the day that I was going for a trip through the highlands and down to the coast--on the back of a motorbike! Many families have bicycles, but motorbikes are the number one method of transport in most of Vietnam. Families like them because they don't use much gasoline, are easy to fix, and are a quick way to get to wherever you want to go. And because private cars are almost nonexistent in Vietnam, motor bikes rule the road. My guide, known to everyone as Titi, handed me my helmet, and we were on our way! We started out in Dalat, in the central highlands of Vietnam, where it is cool and foggy. As we traveled down the mountain we were treated to some beautiful scenery, groves of pine trees, serene lakes, and spectacular waterfalls. It felt wonderful to be riding out in the open air! Titi also took me to visit several small factories, which were very interesting to me, because although there are some large plants in Vietnam, almost everything is made by hand in mom-and-pop operations, and for the most part, people buy what is made locally. We saw carpenters carving elaborate chairs by hand, silk being unraveled from cocoons and spun into thread, tofu being pressed into molds, and even a nun in a Buddhist temple rolling sweet smelling incense onto sticks, with a young novice of about 11 years old looking on and smiling. As we got farther down the mountain we saw a family in traditional black robes and conical hats harvesting rice. As they moved through the fields cutting the rice, tying it in neat bundles, putting the rice in bags and carrying it on their heads so gracefully, it looked like a beautifully choreographed dance whose origins reached back thousands of years. Farther down the road we saw other families transporting rice on ox carts. On this part of the road there were cows, goats and ducks, but very few people. We went over one last hill, and from far away, I could see the South China Sea and Mui Ne beach, our destination. As we rounded a curve in the road, my jaw dropped open at the sight of the sand. It was red! I felt like I had landed on Mars, and expected at any moment to be greeted by little green men, like in those old science fiction movies. Instead, I was greeted by the local children who encouraged me to rent a toboggan and slide down the dunes, however, after seven hours on a motorbike I had a serious case of "numb bum" and declined.

Mui Ne Beach
We got back on the motorbike, rounded another curve, and drove into a funky little town. The road, which Titi explained to me was only three years old, was lined with piles of coconut shells, fruit and snack stands, seafood restaurants, and a few hotels in between. And what was that smell? Fish sauce! Mui Ne is famous for making that condiment that Vietnamese cooks love, and all along the road I saw ceramic crocks chock full of the fishy stuff. Early the next morning, I sat by the ocean and watched the families set out their nets, paddling out in their perfectly round wooden basket boats. I kept expecting the boats to capsize, but they never did. In the evenings, the families would form a perfectly straight line and work together to pull the nets in, looking like they were playing tug-of-war with the ocean. The tiny silvery fish they caught would then be loaded into baskets and made into fish sauce in the local factories. The South China Sea holds many other treasures, too. Squid, snails, sea urchins, clams, mussels, shrimp, oysters and octopi are all caught by the local fisher families in pretty boats painted a light blue. Needless to say, barbecued, stir-fried, stewed or grilled, the fish here is absolutely yummy. I found pretty shells of many colors sizes and patterns washed up on shore as well, and if I sat perfectly still, shy little crabs would come scurrying out of their holes in the sand. I really enjoyed swimming here because the water is warm and calm. When it was time to leave the beach and head for Ho Chi Minh City, it was very hard to tear myself out of the water, and I could here my mother's voice very clearly, saying, "Catherine Mary, you come out of the water right now!" Some things never change.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hello from Hanoi!

Beep, Beep! Ding, Ding! Vroom, Vroom! "Buy Bananas, Madame?"
These are the sounds of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. Vietnam is a country in Southeast Asia, bordered by China, Laos and Cambodia. Hanoi is the largest city in the northern part of the country, a fascinating city with narrow, winding streets, tall, ornate houses in every color of the rainbow, and lots and lots of zooming, honking motorbikes. Street vendors wander the streets with their bamboo poles and baskets selling fruit, brooms, baskets, name it! There are also cyclos, three wheeled bicycles with seats that you can hire for short trips around the city. There is a a lot to do in Hanoi: two beautiful lakes to walk around, several museums, and a unique puppet theater featuring floating marionettes. There is also an enormous city market that sells everything from designer purses to motorcycle parts.
The food here is excellent too. A favorite dish here is pho, a noodle soup made with beef, chicken, or veggies that is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Vietnam has a long coastline and several rivers so there is plenty of fresh seafood, too. Step out of Hanoi and you will be treated to incredible sights of natural beauty. Vietnam is amazingly green, with lush rice fields and gardens everywhere. Many Northern Vietnamese people are farmers, and the warm climate and abundant rainfall make a perfect climate for growing rice.

A Voyage on Halong Bay
One of the most beautiful places in Vietnam and arguably the world, is the stunning Halong Bay. The Lonely Planet Guide states that "words alone cannot do justice to the natural wonder that is Halong Bay," and I wholeheartedly agree. The towering islands, glassy blue water and isolated sandy beaches took my breath away. Halong means "descending dragon" and the gray limestone rocks that jut out of the bay do indeed look like a dragon's scales. I also really enjoyed watching all the boat traffic on this busy bay. Fishing boats, both large and small, medium sized boats delivering water and goods, and tourist boats like ours all sailed by. Halong Bay also has many fascinating "floating villages" of brightly painted houses sitting right on top of the water. The residents make their living from the sea, either by fishing for themselves, catching fish to sell at market, or fish farming. One home we visited raised cuttlefish, catfish, crabs and shrimp right in their (watery) front yard! I especially liked the "floating convenience stores," boats filled to the brim with everything from sodas and snacks to playing cards and pens. These strong women rowed their boats to the villages and alongside other boats selling their wares.

A visit to Sapa
Another memorable trip I took from Hanoi was a three-day hike through the villages of the H'mong, Tay and Dzay people near Sapa. Our journey began on the night train from Hanoi to Sapa, where I slept (sort of) on the top berth of a sleeping car shaking, twisting and turning its way up a steep mountain (I could almost hear the train saying "I think I can, I think I can...") When I awoke, we were in the mountain town of Sapa, where I ate a nice breakfast and met our guide, a woman from one of the local villages named Zoa, who greeted me wearing her traditional clothing of indigo embroidered cloth and elaborate silver earrings. We started our trek right away and were greeted by the local children who were very outgoing and friendly. The terrain was rough going at times, very rocky and steep with a couple of rickety bamboo bridge crossings, but the scenery was beautiful: terraced rice paddies full of frolicking ducks, spectacular waterfalls, and tidy farms with pigs, chickens, and water buffalo. Many families also had gardens growing cassava, sweet potatoes and indigo. At about 4 Pm we arrived in a the pretty village of Tavan and were greeted warmly by our host, Mrs. Sun. Since my pants were covered in mud from the trek, I bought a pair of traditional Hmong pants from a local woman whose hands seemed permanently stained blue from the indigo dye. Mrs. Sun prepared us a delicious dinner of fish, chicken, tofu and vegetables cooked over a wood fire. Tired from the trek, I went upstairs to Mrs. Sun's sleeping loft and fell asleep right away. The next morning we got off to an early start and saw more incredible scenery, most of it pretty, but some of it sad, such as the new graves of an elderly couple whose house was washed away in a recent flood. Farming rice is very hard work and people who live in these hills are culturally rich but economically poor; however, families like Mrs. Sun's make a little bit of extra money by opening their homes to ecotourists. As we walked along the trail past more villages, I got several thumbs up signs and giggles from villagers who thought it was funny to see a foreigner wearing "their" pants. When we arrived in Ban Ho Village, we took a dip in a local hot spring and met Mrs. Tho, who lived in a beautiful bamboo house on stilts, and sat by her fire and enjoyed another fine meal. Our hosts did not speak English, but fortunately Zoa was able to translate. The next day the trek was shorter. After eating breakfast on Mrs. Tho's porch, which had a spectacular view of the valley below, we crossed over a river where we saw a man taking bamboo to market by lashing the poles together and riding the bamboo down the rapids! We also saw the lovely "La Vie" Waterfall. We hiked back to Ban Ho, said goodbye to Mrs. Tho, and took a jeep back up to Sapa where we caught the train back to Hanoi. If I had to describe Vietnam in one word, it would be this: Wow.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Boat Ride Down the Yangzi River

As a little girl, I was enchanted by the story of Ping, a mischievous little duck who lived on "a wise-eyed boat on the Yangzi River in China", so I was very excited as I got ready to travel down that very river myself. The Yangzi, at over 6000 km in length, is the third largest river in the world. Our journey begins in Chongqing, a steep, hilly city that reminds me of San Francisco (only much, much larger). The bus ride to the dock goes through narrow, winding streets, surrounded on all sides by brand new tall buildings. Chongqing is growing very fast because many of the families displaced by the Three Gorges Dam Project have been relocated here (more about that later). Around sunset, we take a funicular railway car down a steep slope to the dock to board the ship. As soon as I get settled in my cozy cabin, I go upstairs to the top deck to look at the view. The bright and colorful lights of Chongqing reflected in the river at night make for a beautiful scene. Later that night we set sail, and I fall asleep quickly, rocked to sleep by one of the world's great rivers. The next day after breakfast I go up on deck to look at the scenery, which is beautiful. Red earth, terraced green farmland and mysterious caves. There is a lot of boat traffic on the river. We pass large container ships that look like the ones we see passing through the Golden Gate, barges carrying gravel and coal, and small traditional fishing boats trailing their nets. Many pleasure boats go by too, full of tourists from China and all over the world. The boat is rocking me to sleep again, it's time to go to bed...
The next day, after breakfast, we get ready to pass through the famous Three Gorges of the Yangzi River. I scurry up to the top deck to look at the view and it really is lovely. Arching gray limestone cliffs, tall evergreen trees, and the river water is a mossy green. Here there are no other boats, and we seem to have the river all to ourselves. It is peaceful, quite and still, and I pass the day just watching the land go by.
The following day, we get off the boat for a sampan ride down Shennong Stream. We are helped onto the boat by three boatmen who paddle and pole the boats with long wooden sticks. When the water gets shallow, they go ashore and tow us with ropes. It is very hard work! But later I found out that these men bought their boats together and formed a cooperative business, so they get to keep all the money they make. I like that idea. The stream is clean and fresh, and runs through the beautiful limestone cliffs that are all around the river. While they paddle, the men sing us traditional boating songs and point out sights on the way, like the ancient burial sites of the Ba people, who laid their dead to rest in wooden caskets in the limestone caves high up in the mountains. If I look carefully, I can see some of them. How did they get those coffins way up there? Nobody knows. We also see the ruins of an ancient temple to one of the local gods. Out of the corner of my eye I see something moving on the rocks...monkeys! Troops of Rhesus monkeys live in these hills too. We say goodbye to the boatmen and get back on our larger boat. Tonight we pass the Three Gorges Dam.

Three Gorges Dam
This dam is one of the largest engineering projects in the history of the world, and also one of the most controversial. The Chinese government built the dam for two reasons: to control flooding and to provide electricity for China's growing population. With 1.3 billion people, China is the most populous country in the world. That means one billion TV's, hair dryers, and computers, and they all need electricity to run. The force of the water running down the dam runs turbines to produce the electricity that the Chinese people need. Additionally, the Yangzi is known for severe floods that can ruin crops and wash houses away, and building the dam will help alleviate this problem. However, damming a large river like the Yangzi has a downside, too. About 1 million people have had to leave their homes because after the dam is completed next year their homes will be underwater. Although the Chinese government will provide new housing for them, many are unhappy to have to leave their homes, especially farmers whose families have lived on the same land for generations. Most people are being located to cities like Chongqing, and it can be hard to adjust to city living if you have lived on a farm all your life. The ecosystem is a concern too. Some environmentalists say that stopping the flow of the river will cause sewage and garbage to accumulate behind the dam, and fish will die because they cannot cross over the dam to spawn and lay eggs. The government has relocated the fish, but like humans, fish sometimes have trouble adjusting to a new environment. Many people in China say this dam is necessary, but others say it will do more harm than good. What do you think?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Jou Sahn from Guangzhou, China!

"Jou Sahn" is how people greet each other in Guangzhou, and it means "Good Morning". Guangzhou City is sometimes called Canton by people who speak English, and the local language here is Cantonese. Mandarin, the national language of China is also spoken in Guangzhou. Did you know that there are many different variations of spoken Chinese, but only one writing system? It's true. And instead of using an alphabet, as we do in America and Europe, the Chinese have a character, or picture word, for every word they write. Learning to write Chinese takes a lot of hard work! The Cantonese language has a very familiar sound to me because it is widely spoken in San Francisco. Immigrants from around Guangzhou have been coming to San Francisco for over 100 years, and have brought their language with them. Because I worked in a bilingual preschool for five years, I know a few phrases in Cantonese (including the all-important "where's the bathroom"). The smells here are familiar too; incense, roast meat, and the indescribable tang of the herbal medicine shop. This morning, I followed my nose to the outdoor market and found the herb and spice bazaar. The market is devoted to the sale of herbs, and the aroma is incredible. Cooking spices like star anise and saffron, herbs for traditional Chinese medicine such as astragalus and ginseng, and various herbs for making tea are all for sale. Since the market takes up an entire city block, I spent almost the entire morning winding my way through the narrow alleys, sniffing to my heart's content. There are lots of other things for sale in the market: fruits and vegetables, bonsai trees, eggs, meat, and even pets! (the puppies here are adorable!) There is a big pedestrian mall near the old market, and lots of people come out at night to eat, shop, or just hang out. They also love to show off their dogs: poodles, pomeranians and pekinese pups are all proudly paraded at the pedestrian mall. Guangzhou has an amazing Buddhist Temple filled with beautiful statues of Buddha and the Goddess of Mercy, Quan Yin. Nearby Shamian Island is a quiet green oasis where one can sit by the water and escape the hustle and bustle of the city. I honestly had no idea what to expect from Guangzhou, because it had always been described to me as a factory town. People do work hard here, but they clearly know how to have fun. I am having fun in Guangzhou too!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Ni Hao from China!
"Ni Hao" is how you greet people in China, and it means "are you well?". "Wa hen hao", I am very well, because I am in Shanghai, the largest city in China, with a population of 18 million people. San Francisco has only 1 million! This city is big, busy and crowded, and reminds me somewhat of New York. It's a city of charming brick houses on tiny lanes, and also of spectacular skyscrapers. New skyscrapers are going up all over China, especially in Shanghai and the capital city of Beijing, and everywhere I go in China I see older buildings being torn down and replaced by brand new high rises. As anyone who has seen the famous Water Cube and Bird's Nest on TV can guess, the architecture here is dazzling. Each new building that goes up seems to be more outrageous than the last. Some of the more unusual buildings have nicknames like the Bottle Opener, Dragon's Head, and Pair of Pants because of their interesting shapes. Some buildings even boast giant video screens.

Getting 18 million people to and from these huge buildings where they work every day is a daunting task, and cars are very expensive in Shanghai, so many people commute by bicycle and motor bike. Even the busiest streets here and in Beijing have dedicated bicycle lanes, helping bike commuters to keep safe. Traffic cops are everywhere, making sure people obey the rules. These two cities also have world-class public transit systems, cheap, clean and efficient. As I write, Shanghai is in the process of building its fifth subway line, and a high speed rail line linking Beijing and Shanghai is almost complete. I admire the Chinese for their commitment to public and alternative transit. Our country would do well to follow their example.

People in Shanghai are friendly and surprisingly laid-back for a city so large. The locals love to snack, and there is a candy store or dumpling stand on practically every corner. Roasted chestnuts and baked yams are very popular too. Of course, the national drink of China is tea, but because Shanghai has a strong European influence, coffee is popular too. American fast food chains such as Mc Donald's and KFC are visible as well, but according to one person I spoke with are not as popular as they were when they first arrived around 20 years ago.

Shanghai is a major shopping destination for foreign tourists as well as people from other parts of China. Big shopping malls, small boutiques, and outdoor bazaars are all here. For sheer excitement, Shanghai can't be beat.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Bye Bye, Big Apple

As I get ready to leave New York and head for Asia, I have been looking back on my wonderful time in New York. I have had a chance to catch up on my reading, see friends and family, and visit some of the attractions that make New York such a great place to visit.

The Bronx Zoo
Leapin' Lemurs! The Bronx Zoo has a new Madagascar exhibit that is really informative and fun. There are many different Madacascan animals there: Fossa, ring-tailed mongoose, hissing cockroaches, snakes, and of course, lemurs. The exhibit has several different types of those adorable primates including sifakas, ringtails and the tiny, shy mouse lemurs. There is also information about Madagascar's unique ecology as well as explanations of the ways that the Zoo is helping to conserve the endangered lemurs' habitat. Having grown up in the Bronx myself, I was so proud to see my borough's own zoo hosting this excellent exhibit.

The United Nations
Located on First Avenue right on the East River, the UN was created to help nations to solve their conflicts peacefully. Representatives from almost every country in the world come to this building to discuss how to prevent war, end world hunger, and keep the world's children healthy. To me, the UN represents the ability that we humans have to "use our words" to help create a world where all people are treated with fairness and respect.

The New York Subways
A city under a city, the subway system moves vast numbers of people around the city every day. The system is a huge labyrinth of tunnels and trains filled with commuters rushing to work, tourists deciphering maps, and shoppers carrying enormous bags. On any given day there are always performers who play on the platforms for donations. Steel drum music from Trinidad, hip-hop dancing, South American flute music, and a classical string quartet playing opera are just some of the things I saw on my subway trips. When the trains went above ground in The Bronx and Queens, I got a bird's eye view of the city that was really spectacular. Many people in New York do not own cars because the subway system is all they need to get around.

The New York Times
I am lucky enough to have a cousin who works at The New York Times. Richard is on the editorial board of the newspaper, which means he is one of the people who decides what opinions the newspaper will publish. (In addition to news stories, most newspapers also publish editorials, which are the opinions of the writers). It is an important job, because millions of people read The Times every day, and they respect the paper's ideas very much. The New York Times building is of course, in Times Square, and is brand new, with lots of windows and sweeping views of the city. He showed me his office and the rooms where people talk (and sometimes argue) about what to put in the paper every day. Richard and his colleagues work very hard bringing the news to us.

The Theater
Many plays, musicals and theater productions get their start in New York, and the Theater is famous here. Every time I come here I try to see a play or musical. On my last visit I saw The Lion King, but this time I saw something very different. Fela! is a musical about a day in the life of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a musician from Nigeria who created a brand new genre of music. By starting with traditional Yoruban chants and adding African drum rhythms and a funky horn section influenced by the music of James Brown, Fela came up with something electrifying and completely new. Fela's music was often critical of the Nigerian Government, so he was continually harassed my the military and arrested several times. Even though he recently passed away, Fela's music continues to be very popular in Africa and all over the world. The music, story and costumes had me riveted for the entire performance. I would not recommend this musical for children, but adults, if it comes to your city, see it. It was incredible.

Socrates Sculpture Park
New York has lots of beautiful parks. Central Park, Riverside and Prospect Parks are all well-known , even to those who don't live here. One Saturday, however, I found a park in Queens that really impressed me. Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City is right on the East River, and is a large green space containing many three-dimensional works of art by several local artists. The sculptures are made of wood, metal, concrete and found objects, and one artist had created an installation of a solar-powered kiln to dry wood. SS park is a fun place to visit, especially in the summer when you can admire the sculptures and escape the summer heat.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Traveling with Euphoria

I admit it, I was a little bit apprehensive. My beloved 16 year old cat, Euphoria had never been on an airplane before. I'm very lucky that my mom agreed to take care of her while I traveled. However, mom lives in New York, and we needed to take a plane to get there. When Susie came to take me to the airport, and it was time to put kitty in her carrier, I tried to act nonchalant and pretend I was just reaching down to pet her. Cats are smart, though, and Euphoria knew very well what I was trying to do. After several minutes of an exhausting game of hide and seek, I was finally able to wrestle her into the carrier. What happened next was very surprising. Euphoria sniffed around and then just curled up peacefully in her carrier! No crying, peeing or struggling to get out. She seemed perfectly tranquil and content all through the check-in routine too, even when I had to take her out of the carrier so she wouldn't be x-rayed. During the six-hour plane ride, she slept most of the time, only rising a few times to sniff and stretch. I was very proud (and surprised) at her calm behavior. The only explanation I have for her perfect deportment is this: She must have been relieved that this was not a trip to the veterinarian.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

New York City

My Journey begins in New York, where I was born. I arrived in New York around midnight, crossing the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan high above the East River. The skyscrapers looked as if they were made of shiny new Legos decorated with bright twinkling lights reflected in the water below. New York City is a huge place, with a population of about 10 million people. Although many people equate New York City with Manhattan, The City is so big that it is divided into 5 separate counties, also known as boroughs. They are the Bronx, Brooklyn, the island of Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island. When people visit New York, they often go to Manhattan because 5th Avenue, Times Square, and Central Park are all in Manhattan. However, the Brooklyn Bridge, Yankee Stadium, Prospect Park and the Bronx Zoo are in the Bronx and Brooklyn. To visit the most ethnically diverse county in the United States (and maybe the world) take a subway ride to Queens. Famous chef and New York resident Anthony Bourdain likes to eat there because he says that there is such a huge variety of good inexpensive food from countries all over the world. I agree with him. Delicious food from everywhere in the world can be found in New York, because this city attracts immigrants from all over the earth. People have come to New York for over 100 years to escape poverty, hunger or war in their home countries, bringing their recipes with them. Lucky New Yorkers get to taste food from every cuisine in the world without ever leaving home.