Tuesday, January 31, 2012

In which I interview myself about 2011

Time for a 2011 recap as we head into 2012!  What do you mean, January 31st doesn't still count as "heading into 2012"? Whatever. It's still January, that's all I have to say. Oooh, not true! I also have to say, in my defense, that I have for the last three weeks been hanging out in places decidedly more concerned with the Chinese New Year than the January 1st new year. So I am entitled to only get around to doing this questionnaire, which I got from multiple bloggers, now. All right, let's look back:

1. What did you do in 2011 that you’d never done before?
A whole lot! I visited new places and flew around the world with Brian - I'd been alone on most of my previous long-haul flights in life (symbolism intended in that statement). Also, I finally won NaNoWriMo.

2. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
Apparently my resolutions for 2011 were to acquire the Southern belle ability to speak my mind or tell people off without "being angry," and to read more books and travel to more countries than I did in 2011. Well. I did in fact make my Goodreads goal of reading 44 books in 2011, check! I traveled to the same number of countries in 2011 as 2010 - four, but one of those I moved to (Korea), and I took two trips to another (Japan), so on the whole I think we can say I traveled more, since two of the 2010s (England and Ireland) were just stopovers anyway. (My other two 2011 countries were China and at the end there Cambodia.) As for the Southern belle ability, I still covet it, but there were multiple times -multiple!- in 2011 that I successfully bit my tongue when listening to someone and responded diplomatically instead of arguing. It's a start. 

Duh, of course I will make resolutions for 2012! Writing and exercising more, as usual. Four books per month.  Visit four more countries. And one more that I'm forgetting now. I'll think of it.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
My sister welcomed #4, Kristen, so of course that is the closest. Some friends gave birth, too! It was a good year for babies.  (I suppose that's what happens when the previous four years have all been spent attending multiple weddings)

4. Did anyone close to you die?

In 2011, no, although my family and I were still reeling in some ways from Grandpa’s late 2010 death.  Aaron, a good friend of Brian’s from Michigan, whom I got to know a little bit through Brian and his crew during the last couple years, also passed away.

5. What countries did you visit?
Well, Korea again, as we moved there on Jan 1, 2011. Japan (twice), China, and Cambodia.

6. What would you like to have in 2012 that you lacked in 2011?
Willpower, the ability to set boundaries and convey my sense of urgency without starting quarrels, and a way for full-time freelancers and independent contractors and unmarried people (i.e., me and thousands like me) to have health insurance that the rest of the U.S. has through their employers or spouses’ employers.

7. What dates from 2011 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
January 1 because Brian and I moved to Korea together. My birthday because it was a Friday the 13th, and those are my favorites! June 27th because my aforementioned niece was born on my friend Mo’s birthday. August 18th because we climbed Mt. Fuji. Actually, to be honest, that is more etched in my head as the Thursday of our week in Japan and I had to double check the date.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Mt. Fuji? Completing my teaching contract? Making myself act in a play again? Learning some Korean? Creating a book swap for Andong? I guess just coming back to live in Korea and having it work out really well. 

9. What was your biggest failure?
Demand Studios. I don’t want to talk about it.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
I was barely ever sick at all - one or two colds. Nothing at all like the first time I was in Korea! A few little minor injuries that would make me skip working out for a couple days.

11. What was the best thing you bought?
My Nike indoor exercise shoes for kickboxing class. I adore them with all of my being.

12. Where did most of your money go?
China. But not the way people in the U.S. funnel it to China, through WalMart. I mean directly on site! Well, and all the plane tickets I bought to various Chinese cities. 

13. What did you get really excited about?
China. And Japan. And galmegi.

14. What song will always remind you of 2011?
"Like a G6," "Please Be My Baby" (Britney), Rihanna's stupid sex in the air song, and anything else that played over and over and over at kickboxing. And I.U.!
15. Compared to this time last year, are you:
Happier or sadder?  I think about the same.
Thinner or fatter?  Unfortunately, about the same. I lost weight when we got to Korea, then gained it back. Brian cooks too much, too well. :)
Richer or poorer?
Just the eensiest bit richer. Only because I went from freelancing to having the teaching job, but really, just the teeniest little bit so don't get too excited, folks. (That means you, income-based student loan repayment.)

16. What do you wish you’d done more of?


17. What do you wish you’d done less of?

18. How did you spend Christmas?
On a plane. Seoul - Hong Kong - Bangkok - Phnom Penh, ending with a delightful Merry Christmas nightcap in a riverfront bar.  I love Phnom Penh, and I love Cambodia.

19. What was your favorite TV program?
Cuh-rim-i-nal Ma-eend-dz. That's how it's announced on Korean SkyHD TV, where Brian and I discovered it, learned to love it, and began craving it during 2011. We are so excited that there are still many more episodes for us to see!

20. What were your favorite books of the year?
Reasonable Creatures by Katha Pollitt. Everyone should read this book. Everyone. Yes, you too. If you are reading my blog, you should read that book. Your friends who aren't reading my blog should read it as well, so buy an extra copy for one of them. Also, I loved Virginia Woolf's The Waves, Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down, W. Somerset Maugham's The Summing Up and Jose Saramago's Blindness. Do I need to note that none of these came out in 2011? 
21. What was your favorite music from this year?

Anything and everything, as long as we were singing it in the no-rae-bang!
22. What were your favorite films of the year?
If these count because I saw them in 2011: True Grit, Eat Pray Love, and The Green Zone.  Out of movies that came out in 2011, it would have to be Moneyball, because I don't think it's Super 8. I definitely didn't see enough movies this year.

23. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
It was a Friday the 13th, that's all that matters!  And I had a one-track mind: noraebang. 

24. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
More noraebang, Less of the b.s. noraebang resistance among the expat English teachers. It really bugs me when they do that. 

25. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2011?
 Outsourced! I finally accomplished my lifelong dream of getting a personal shopper to go buy clothes for me. Actually, it was just once, but Jody and Brian totally went around Seoul and scored me some shirts, dresses, skirts, etc. and all I had to do was pay them. I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do this all the time. I definitely want to repeat this in 2012. I am interested in having more/different/cuter clothes, but I am not interested in making the effort to pick them out. If I ever move to within striking distance of your city, do let me know if you are interested in my personal shopper position.
26. What kept you sane?

27. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2011.
We need to bring back protective tariffs in place of income taxes, and stop this love affair with free trade. I have learned an incredible lot about this from reading my prez bios (I'm now on #18, Grant.)  I wish Michael Moore, the #Occupy peeps, and other people who care about the disaster that is the U.S. would listen to my reason and start promoting this idea far and wide. National boundaries as jingoistic lines in the sand are stupid, but as a place to collect tariffs they are genius, because economically-tax wise we are all divided up by country, for convenience. If we have tariffs, then we can stop blabbering about tax cuts and increases all the time (freeing our government to actually get some work done), and greedy corporations can stop f***ing everyone up by taking all their jobs out of the country, because it would no longer be cheaper for the companies to do that, because they would have to actually fairly pay to bring all the stuff in. NO MORE FREE TRADE AGREEMENTS! I watched with interest as some in Korea tried to stop the Korea-U.S. FTA. Sigh. 

All righty then, so that's 2011. On to 2012! Or, you know. The rest of it. How was January for you? I missed a bunch of it on this blog because I was in China. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Si-a-me-ese, if you ple-ease

Tonight we went to dinner at another fabulous (and fabulously affordable!) little Thai restaurant, and we saw a Siamese cat.

Get it? A Siamese cat. We're in Thailand...which used to be... Get it?

It's so wonderful. I really don't know how Bangkok can ever top that, so we're off to Phuket tomorrow.

Things Suzanne Sugarbaker Might Say
Day 34 of our Southeast Asia Odyssey

So, there's a wonderful moment in the Designing Women episode in which Julia and Suzanne travel to Japan for a brief, specific task, which, if you know anything about the awesomeness that was Designing Women, you may remember and you can definitely appreciate. (If you don't know anything about the awesomeness that was Designing Women, hie thee to Netflix to remedy that, won't you?)

On the plane, the ever intelligent and earnestly sophisticated Julia says that in their brief time there she hopes that they get to see "the real Japan."

"Oh, I don't," Suzanne replies. Naturally, the crowd laughs because it's a typically unexpected-and-yet-expected-from-Suzanne response.  She goes on to explain, "I've noticed that whenever people talk about seeing 'the real' anything, what they really mean is 'hanging around with poor people.' I figure, I don't hang around with poor people at home, so why should I do so on vacation?"

I was thinking about Suzanne as we galavanted about the malls of Sukhumvit in Bangkok.  Now, I will say that we saw some interesting sites, like the greatest food court in the world (no, really! this incredible place with every possible kind of ethnic cuisine) and lots of shiny atrium space and gleaming glass and marble floors and so on and so on, with walkways and plazas and what have you. And, we eventually made our way to a fantastic bookstore full of a gazillion English language books where Brian and I spent several pleasant hours reading and browsing and he found an insanely great book about Thai hawkers' street food.  HOWEVER, it was just funny, for me, the loather of shopping and in particular shopping malls, that Bangkok's malls were not only the theme of our day but really its whole point and purpose.

As we were strolling from one glorious shopping paradise to another, I was thinking about how many places I've been in the world where I've inevitably been taken shopping. I particularly thought about the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, which everyone was so hopped up about -- the bazaar! the GRAND bazaar! grandest in the world! -- which was quite uninteresting because when I finally caved and checked it out it turned out to be, frankly, a mall.  I chuckled to myself today because in my head I sounded like Suzanne Sugarbaker, only my quick is distinctly un-Suzanne-like, because she adores shopping, but I could hear myself saying, "I've noticed that whenever people talk about seeing the 'central marketplace' anywhere, what they really mean is, let's go to the shopping mall. I figure, I don't go shopping at home, so why should I do so on vacation?"

Thursday, January 26, 2012

"I can feel the devil walking next to me..."
Day 33 of our Southeast Asia Odyssey

Coming to you from Bangkok now...this is one of those epic cities, with one of those epically associated songs, i.e., the one from which I took the title of this post, that gets stuck in your head the entire time you are here. What's a person of my generation to do? You spend years of your life listening to the song on "Flashback Friday" lunch hours and the odd dance floor, and then here you finally are - of course "One Night in Bangkok" is going to be stuck in your head the entire time. You only wish that you could actually get a verse, or a bridge, or even the rest of the chorus stuck in there. Something besides "One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster...da duh duh da duh-duh..." and so on. Because, news flash: that "night in Bangkok" is actually depressing. Ain't no pearls in the nasty nightlife scene, and precious few oysters. But I will get to that in a second.

First, I must report that earlier today when I posted as my Facebook status that my generation is cursed to have that song play in our heads when we finally travel here (high five to those of you who quickly felt my pain with your Likes and Comments), Brian's response was not appreciation for my wit or sympathy for my predicament - oh no! His response: "It's not my generation."  My god. What a difference a few little years make. He is so not of the 80s in the way that I am. HOWEVER, I maintain that it has less to do with the actual age/few years than the fact that I have an older sister, but he has a younger brother. So on top of the few years, I skew older in things like music (having been influenced by, say, my sister's Whitney Houston-Wham!-Cyndi Lauper-cassette-buying ways) and Brian skews younger (90s rap, mostly).

We also have this conversation all the time when I reference The Brady Bunch  - because, yes, I do that all the time, as there is an appropriate Brady Bunch quote/anecdote for every life situation - and Brian reminds me that he and his brother did not grow up watching Brady Bunch reruns, to which the only sane reply is, naturally, their loss! - right? Somehow Brian doesn't quite understand how very much he is missing there. But he is in turn surprised that I didn't watch Saved by the Bell. Which, no. Not even the same league, OK.

ANYWAY. Back to Bangkok. Yes, I think the devil is walking here, and just down the street from where we're staying, in fact. OK, kidding! There is no devil, just the unfettered depravity of my fellow man. Wait, you ask, am I calling the old men who retire/visit/"tour" here,spending their nights purchasing bar girls and/or bar ladyboys, evil? Why, perhaps I am! Is that judgmental of me? Why yes, I do believe it is.  Soooo OK with being judgmental of these men. Soooo all kinds of OK with that.  I was actually horrified by what I saw last night in Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy.  And of course, it's not really the blatant or weird things that horrify you - it's the little things, like when you sit talking with your friends enjoying your beer, supposedly on this ironic "exploration" of the seedy randomness of Bangkok's red light district, and in your line of sight are the five or six young Thai women of the bar across the way, doing their thing, namely, waiting for foreigners with money to walk in, and then soon enough one does walk in, say, a 50- or 60-something man, white polo shirt, shorts, casual, and then he's taking her hand and smiling and they sit at a table, and ewwww! ewww! eww! the same things is happening thousands and thousands of times to all these young women and behind the curtains of these bars' doorways the "shows" are going on and the girls/ladyboys are wearing numbers so they can be picked out and requested like cattle or slaves in an auction...it's quite horrible. I wanted to be dutifully amused by the seedy part of the Bangkok scene, as one who grew up listening to "One Night in Bangkok" is supposed to be, but instead it really made me hate humanity. I mean, you know, more than usual.

The whole situation reminded me of something that happened in the 90s, back when I used to still hang around Mormons (instead of watching Saved by the Bell). So, when Schindler's List came out it got a lot of buzz, and then a lot praise, and then a lot of Oscar nominations, and so, you know, people wanted to see it. Even Mormons. Slight problem: Mormons aren't really "allowed" to watch R-rated movies. I mean, some don't really care, but some prophet or other said not to and it's a rule that a fair amount of them stick to, ESPECIALLY at BYU, which is where most of the ones I hung around at that time were. Specifically, this one fabulous English professor at BYU, Cecilia Konchar-Farr, who was questionably fired/not given tenure. Her last semester teaching there happened to be early 1994, as Schindler's List  was marching toward its victorious Oscar night, and many a curious BYU student really wanted to see it - heard it was so good - but it's rated R. So, then, the discussion always turns to why the movie is rated R. Like, is it full of the f-word? Violence? Naked people? Nudity is really a no-go for lots of these rule-abiding Mormons. (Have I mentioned that BYU's on-campus theater edits the R-rated movies before they are shown there for students?)  So Cecilia reports that yes, she did see Schindler's List over the weekend, and yes, it was great and fantastic and moving and meaningful and important and all that. Then, she says, in a moment filled with the logic and clarity that escape so many religious people so much of the time, that all this fuss about "Is there nudity? Is there a sex scene?" in it really seems to miss the point.  "It's the Holocaust," she says. "It is the murder of hundreds and thousands and millions of innocent people. Of COURSE it's a mature theme. Of COURSE it's rated R. But you're not worried about the savage, systematic persecution and murder of millions of people, you're worried about seeing someone naked?"

I mean, she makes a really good point, yes?

That's how I felt last night. Because, no lie, I got really kind of pissed off at one point and I kind of yelled at my drinking companions. I wanted to discuss endlessly just what motivates men to come to Bangkok and be horrible and depraved and purchase other humans, and at some point they got tired of my fascination with this subject that I could analyze and scrutinize for hours, and I was yelling and weeping and wailing and gnashing teeth (well, 2 or 3 of those anyway) and I looked like the jerk. Which, probably I was a jerk, because I was frustrated and furious and appalled and also just plain sad. I mean, I literally would just get tears in my beer when I stared across the road too long at the scene playing out in front of us. And nobody likes it when their drinking companion starts wailing and draws the other happy drinkers' attention. But part of me wanted to shout, "What's wrong with all of you [tourists/backpackers/business travelers/police/guidebooks]?! You're missing the point! Of COURSE I'm upset and volatile and crying and screaming and angry in a public place and embarrassing my friends. Why aren't all of YOU? You're not worried about thousands of young women who face such a dearth of life choices that this is their better/only career option, and you're not offended by the desperation emanating from these despicable men who buy the women, but it bothers you if I cry and rant about it in a bar, because that is unsophisticated and unbecoming and uncool?"

Yeah. Bangkok.

But I am actually really enjoying Thailand! Tomorrow I will blog about happier things!

"Not much between despair and ecstasy..."
- good ol' Murray Head and the ABBA guy and Tim Rice, who wrote the song

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Caught between a monk and a motorcycle
Day 32 of our Southeast Asia Odyssey

In Thailand, we women are not supposed to touch the monks. I mean, it's not that we go around touching monks in other countries, but here it's expressly stated a few places that women are totally not supposed to touch the monks, nor stand near enough to accidentally touch them, nor sit in the seats reserved for them on the bus/subway because that would apparently be kind of like touching them when they sit there later, I guess. Anyway, I've been keeping my distance from the orange-robe-clad guys, but I must say there is one thing in Thailand I would like to touch even less, and that is the burning hot tailpipe on the right side of every moto, the moto being the ubiquitous form of transport in Southeast Asia.

So, when one is walking down a crowded Bangkok street and one is moving to the right to avoid the oncoming monk but then one sees on one's right an oncoming moto, one has a decision to make, and this woman will totally veer into the monk, if that's what it takes to avoid sizzling leg flesh.

The Annual Oscar Nominations Post, 2012 Edition

You were worried, weren't you?  Afraid that I was so busy and so blogligent and so traveling-around-southeast-Asia that I was not going to post about the Oscar nominations?  Silly you. Never worry your poor little head about such a thing. High on the agenda for night one in Bangkok (see what I did there?) were the Oscar nominations! As we walked back from our first dinner in Thailand, we even saw TVs in bars tuned to the live announcement on CNN. I was so excited for the details, and not too surprised by any of them.

I am happy to note that I have seen four of the nominated films already, because the following stellar (ahem) flicks that graced our Andong, Korea cinema screens managed to score Oscar nods: Moneyball (good), The Help (not good, and sooooooverated), Harry Potter and the Eighth Adaptation of Seven Books, and let's not overlook Real Steel. I love those random categories -- in this case, Visual Effects --  that get a totally empty popcorn movie on the board. The Visual Effects category is particularly full of so-not-Oscar-movies-that-get-Oscar-nominations this year, also including Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, both of which also played in Andong but which I couldn't be bothered at all to go see. However, if Hugo doesn't grab this category -- and I truly have no idea what the chances are, being totally out of the Hugo  loop, other than what I've read in EW -- I'm really thinking Harry Potter Number 7 or 8 or Whatever might get this category, and possibly Art Direction, too, in a kind of cumulative thanks. You know, LOTR style. Not that the HP flicks are as good as the LOTR flicks, but you know what I mean.

OK, onto the acting and the other "big" categories!  You can be worried here about my abysmal percentage of nominees seen, because we flew out of Korea on Christmas Day, just in time to miss everything as we volunteered in Cambodia, cruised the Yangtze, and otherwise made ourselves wholly unable to watch movies for a month. ‘Zounds!  At least I saw Moneyball, though I have no belief whatsoever that Brad or Jonah will win. I have got to see The Artist - that is my must, and not just because of its two acting nominations. Also with two acting nods is Albert Nobbs, which I FINALLY saw a preview for the other day, causing me to ponder why the Academy gets really excited to nominate someone playing someone who's playing the other sex, a la Hilary Swank and stuff, but I will save that for another blog entry.

With a horrifying three acting nominees we have The Help.  Sheesh. I suppose this is as good of a time as any to complain about its Best Picture nomination. UGH! It's this year's The Blind Side, only based on a much worse book. The Help is about the most overrated thing around, when it's not busy being factually incorrect and/or just plain offensive. And just like with Doubt the other year, the world is going gaga over Viola Davis and I don't see it! To be honest, I thought the actress who played the other maid, not Viola's or Octavia's but the one who wants to send her sons to college and gets fired by self-righteous what's-her-name, had some of the most compelling acting. I mean, Viola Davis is fine...but...I just don't get the fuss. Octavia Spencer is apparently the total front runner for Supporting Actress, and I am so utterly bored with foregone conclusions in that category. I realllllllllly want me an upset in that category to liven things up. Enough that I will pull for Melissa McCarthy, even though I didn't see Bridesmaids and have absolutely zero desire to do so, even with it having a "major" nomination.

Before I leave the actresses behind, let me also register my contempt for Rooney Mara's nomination because a.) speaking of massively overrated books, but more importantly b.) there was already a Swedish movie and the U.S. just sucks for having to make its own, and Noomi Rapace was clearly recognized for being awesome in it and is now even making Hollywood movies, so even more reason to be all whatever about Rooney Mara, and by the way does anyone else think its weird how weird and weirdly similar their names are, with lots of the same letters and stuff?

Here was a pleasant surprise: The Tree of Life. Let me just say that I suck for not seeing this (and A Better Life, and maybe some other movies about Life I can't think of now) because they played in Daegu. Not Andong, but Daegu, where we spent many weekends -- sigh. I suck. And The Tree of Life got nominated for Directing, too, which shows it is a real Best Picture nomination, and not one of the extra ones now that we can have more than five. *cough* like The Help *cough*  The Descendants is playing in Thailand and I totally hope to get on that soon, and on the War Horse, too. But I'm thinking The Artist  might win this category, really. Remember this is based on my speculation only, but that's where my money is, today anyway. I will reevaluate that bet when I am more than 2/9 of the way through that category.

I could see Midnight in Paris maybe possibly winning Original Screenplay.

You know who it will totally suck to be on Oscar night? The Original Song loser. There are only TWO nominees in that category this year! That is seriously messed up. The Muppets and Rio. (Yes, both played in Korea. No, I didn't see them.)

Yeah, so basically to sum up, I have seen hardly anything but I liked Moneyball  OK, hated The Help, and will get right on The Descendants, The Artist, War Horse, Beginners, and all the other movies I've been wanting to see for months as I have read about them in EW and yet somehow managed to be anywhere but at a multiplex.

What are your favorites/surprises/snubs?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Off the beaten China path?
Day 30 of our southeast Asia odyssey

It's funny, because it's all relative. I mean, anyone who has traveled extensively in China would laugh at the idea that Brian and I got off the beaten path there on our recent travels. But compared to, quite frankly, the vast majority of people we know, we have now seen more of China than they have seen or might ever see. Weird to think about that.

Anyway, January 23rd was our last full day in Guangzhou, bringing our central-south China whirlwind to an end. Some of my overall impressions of our two January weeks in China:

*What the hell did I just eat?

*Despite all the naysayers and the lack of train ticket availability, we were quite happy to have been there for part of the Chinese New Year/Spring Festival, particularly the happy frenzies of blocked-off-to-cars street parties and lots of dragons everywhere.

*I'm really, really, really sick of being cold, in that miserably gray cool-but-not-freezing way, with no central heat anywhere.

*Woo-hoo to Wuhan! (Perhaps not coincidentally, the one place we slept in a warm hotel room.)

*There's nothing like reading a book about the Yangtze River while in a boat cruising down the Yangtze River.

*I am determined to learn and conquer this language. Maybe more than one of them, as I was kind of diggint the Cantonese more than the Mandarin at the end  of our trip. One of the main reasons I consider taking an English teaching job in China is so I can have a go at really learning to speak some sort of Chinese language.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Yang-tizzy
Days 23-25 of our southeast Asia odyssey

The Yangzi River. So mighty, compelling, pivotal...such power to fascinate, not to mention to lure national and international trade that countries will fight over.  Brian and I succeeded in our goal of cruising on the Yangzi (aka Yangtze) River through the Three Gorges. We were bound and determined to do this, and we made it happen on our second trip to China. What a river it is!

I also managed to delight myself almost beyond recognition by reading Simon Winchester's The River at the Center of the World, which chronicles his Yangtze journey, while we were on the river! So meta! So inspiring! And informative, too.

Careful readers will notice that I'm interchanging the spellings Yangzi and Yangtze. I mean, they're both approximations using a different alphabet, and the new system of romanization of Chinese words renders some of them differently than the old long familiar spellings. I must confess to preferring Yangtze, if only because of Thirteen Ways to Sink a Sub, a book I read during elementary school that was all the rage when it came to our library, with waiting lists and everyone clamoring to be next in line. In that book's opening chapter, the boys and girls are headed to school and a few students will be giving some sort of class presentation that day about China and the Yangtze, but one of the little third(?) graders -- or fourth? -- pronounces it "Yang-tizzy."  That book was really the first time I encountered the Yangtze, and I learned a thing or two, in the way that you do when you read intermediate fiction and the authors sneak in worldly facts that I sometimes wonder if I would have learned any other way. By the way, it's still spelled Yangtze in lots of places, including the Yangtze River Hostel where we stayed in Chongqing for 2 nights before departing on our cruise.

I should clarify here that I use the term "cruise" loosely. We were actually on a Chinese traveling boat filled with people going home for the Chinese New Year big holiday period. It was the extremely low season, being not just January and cold and drizzly but also heading into the holiday when the entire country shuts down (and leading up to which the entire country is busily migrating back home, wherever that home may be). We did not take a luxury cruise geared toward foreigners (mostly Westerners) or even a touristy Chinese boat. We had a very simple two bed cabin and announcements in Chinese and a restaurant that wasn't always open and a heater that didn't work (China really hates me when it comes to heat, seriously) and quite frankly we would have not had much of a clue of what was happening, ever, were it not for our random new friend across the hall who just so happened to be from California, cruising with his mother, and totally bi-lingual and fluent. Our hero!

Actually, we did manage to figure out a few things, namely, when it was worth it to brave the drizzly misty cold to go stand on the tiny front deck (a few feet away from our door) to behold the Gorges. And behold we did. As you may know if you ever read any news about anything beyond the U.S. talking heads parade of bullshit rhetoric and terrible reality show celebrities, the Three Gorges Dam in China is like this huge monstrosity of an accomplishment that has irrevocably altered the landscape, displaced people, provided gobs of energy, cost a lot of money, attracted controversy but also investors from around the world, etc. Well, we got to see it!  At the end of our cruise, we took a little side trip. But during the cruise, we got to gaze at the gorges that have started to fill up with water behind the dam, and we got to ponder their beauty that still exists even if someone somewhere says I should have seen it sooner, and I got to read so much history as Simon traveled in his book the length of the river, while I glimpsed just that portion of it, and I thought about how the Yangtze is so much bigger than me.

Rivers are cool. I could go on a tear reading literature about people journeying up and down the world's mighty rivers. I've read Huckleberry Finn and Heart of Darkness and now Simon Winchester's Yangtze odyssey. But rivers don't just take people to different places; they take society and civilization to different places.

Monday, January 16, 2012

All the TP in China
Day 23 of our (kind of southeast) Asia odyssey

So, one thing about China is that you have to bring tissue along with you to a lot of public bathrooms. Not all, but, you know, it's better to be safe than sorry. This isn't really that big a deal, in the traveling scheme of things (for example, there are multiple other China bathroom issues I would address long before plentiful toilet paper restocking) but it's something to keep in mind, and widely known/advised among travelers. Carry toilet tissue with you everywhere.

Well, there we were in Chongqing (aka as Chungking back in the day) and I headed to the post office to ship off to Arizona some t-shirts I had purchased in Cambodia for my nieces and nephews but didn't have time to mail from Siem Reap. The people in the Chongqing post office were very helpful and nice despite my terrible language barrier and everything went off without a hitch. But here's the funny part: first, I took my t-shirts over to the packing table where a postal worker found an appropriate-sized box and packing materials. And there she was, stuffing the remaining space in the box  -- with toilet paper! 

She just busted a roll of it out from under her little packing counter and pulled off wads to pack them into the box. You know the drill; you've probably seen it done with newspaper or plastic in the U.S. But in Chongqing? Toilet paper.  There's never any toilet paper to be had IN THE BATHROOMS...because apparently it is all at the post office.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Jianshui is cute
Days 19-21 of our southeast Asia odyssey

Lonely Planet China says that whatever amount of time you've planned to spend in Yunnan province, double it. We thought we were giving ourselves lots of days, but we still should have doubled them, if nothing else because of the schlepping and bus journeys and whatnot involved in getting from Kunming to outlying places. Although we barely made a dent in all there is to see and do in Yunnan, at least we got a glimpse to whet our appetite for future China travels.

On Thursday we took the bus a couple of hours south of Kunming to Jianshui, a little town with cute streets, old architecture, cobblestones, a huge Confucian temple (my boy Confucius! I've learned a bit about him during this Asia stint), a cool city gate with a tea house on the second floor, and loads of street side barbecue, including grilled tofu and goat cheese everywhere.  Let me just say right now that I adore the goat cheese and would double my time in Yunnan for the sole purpose of doubling the amount of grilled goat cheese I could eat.

As usual, we couldn't speak a lick of Mandarin despite our gallant efforts and phrasebook. The tones are just beyond me but I am determined to master these tonal Chinese languages, I'm telling you. Anyway, despite our lack of skill we procured a lovely hotel room (with a bathroom door, thank you very much), and all I wanted to do was sit in our cute courtyard and drink tea and other refreshing beverages, but we had walking around to do, so we did some of that, too.

The Confucian temple and the Zhu family garden were the highlights of the sights, both of which had lots of wandering around with buildings and water upon which to gaze, in their separate ways. As was typical of our China trip, there was rain at some point to plague us, but not all day, thankfully.

All in all, I recommend a jaunt to Jianshui next time you are in Kunming. Message me privately if you would like to be forewarned about the horrible rest stop bathrooms your bus will stop at along the way. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

But I hate spring!
Days 17-19 of our southeast Asian odyssey

They call Kunming, China the city of eternal spring.  I'm sure you can all guess what I think about that.  Actually, though, Kunming was OK, if not particularly warm. It's kind of off in the southwest of China, and we headed there after finishing our Habitat project and travels in Cambodia. We stayed at the Kunming Cloudland Hostel, which I would highly recommend for location, common area, food, bar, and so on - but NOT if you are planning to stay in a private double room with someone else (you know - it being a DOUBLE room and all)! Because the private bathroom in said room? Has no door. Just a curtain. No thanks, Cloudland. Here's the thing: I could actually blog on and on about the many varied bathroom facility issues of our China trip but I won't because I am not interested in reading about bathrooms on other people's blogs, and I am going to blog unto others as I would have them blog unto me.

So, Kunming. The city is really under construction right now. It kind of reminded me of Phoenix, only more springlike, and more tall buildings. In Kunming, I really started realizing how when you're riding in a car on a freeway, driving around a random Chinese city, it's much more like being in a random new place in the U.S. than being in a random new place anywhere else in Asia - it's just a big country/spread out thing.  Until you see a written sign, you could so be on a road trip in the U.S. pulling into a new place in a state you've never been, but where the streetlights and overpasses and whatnot are never really that different.

High/lowlights of Kunming included:

*The big park - Green Lake Park. As the name implies, it's green and it has a lake. Lots of strolling, pedestrians, musicians, recreation, activity, little bridges, pavilions, birds, people watching. This was not far from where we stayed, and I'm really glad we checked it out one afternoon.

*The Lonely Planet China Yunnan Province chapter needs some serious updating. We had the hardest time finding recommended restaurants and bars, and it could use more maps, too.

*Interesting travelers pass through there, some of them headed to Tibet. I want to be a traveler headed to Tibet next time I'm in Kunming.

*Walking the market between the two old pagodas was pretty visually cool.

From Kunming, we were hoping to do a bunch of exploring around Yunnan Province, but ended up not doing our first choice (the Yuanyang rice terraces) and so the next day we headed south to the small but architecturally cute Jianshui instead. At least the Cloudland Hostel was cool enough to keep our bags for a couple days so we could hop the bus with just backpacks. Although our two-month Southeast Asia and southern-eastern Asia odyssey is an awesome undertaking, the worst thing about traveling for two months to three countries with extremely different climates (winter vs. tropics) and extremely different work projects (Habitat/construction vs. CELTA course business casual, plus walking shoes AND beach shoes) is that we had to bring a lot of different clothes just to cover all the minimum requirements for dressing in each place. And I'm really sick of dragging around my beloved big orange heavy bag.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Days 15-16 of our Southeast Asia Odyssey

After our fine feathered Habitat friends flew away to their various homes and/or next destinations (mostly Thailand, and a few Korea layovers), Brian and I still had time in Siem Reap. There was an official group visit to Angkor Wat and a few other temples on Saturday, and then on Sunday and Monday, Brian and I rented bikes for two glorious days of riding around seeing even more Angkor stuff. I LOVED THIS.

Granted, I like bicycling anyway, but Angkor is perfect for it! It's just a few minutes from where we were staying in Siem Reap, and the roads are flat, and paved. It's too much to see multiple temples walking, so without a tour bus, guide, or paying for an all-day tuk-tuk, biking is the way to go! Tattoo this on your brain now, just in case you ever end up in Cambodia: if you go to Siem Reap, bike Angkor!

Even though we were incredibly sad to leave Siem Reap and Cambodia, we were happy to have had such a glorious time there and to thoroughly enjoy our Angkor days -- and, I might add, to get some wonderful exercise amid all the food we ate during our two weeks + in Cambodia.

Maybe one day I will even post some pictures...

Friday, January 06, 2012

Habitat Awesomeness in Siem Reap
Days 8-14 of our Southeast Asian Odyssey

What an amazing Habitat for Humanity project! Brian and I joined a team led by Carla and Surayyah, two fantastic Global Village trip leaders who did a lot to facilitate a great trip, group bonding, hard work, flexibility, interesting cultural experiences...it was all kinds of fabulous.

Our 20 or so fellow team members made up one of the greatest Habitat groups or any hard-working team I've ever joined! The volunteers were "the usual" in some ways for a Habitat trip, as I have started to notice certain recurring character types on my Habitat builds: the thirtysomething professional single woman, the married/partnered couple with previous building experience back home, the bubbly one who is friendly to everyone, the single Canadian guy, the middle aged or slightly older hilarious man with interesting world experiences, etc. On my previous Habitat trips, I have been part of 12-member teams, but this group was bigger (22, I think?), so there was definitely variety. Everyone really worked and played well together. 

Our local Siem Reap Habitat affiliate people were great, too. The rep who worked with us was helpful and on the ball, and the two translators were nice and fun and friendly. As I mentioned, we were split into two basic groups, wood house and brick house, for the week, but we were walking distance from the other work site in the village. At the end of the week we also had a chance to visit the temple and the school in the village, and we pitched in together and bought a swingset to donate to the school. That was a highlight of the trip. The kids are just awesome. Seriously, like every Cambodian kid we encountered was awesome.

That includes, by the way, the kids for whom you feel pity and on whose behalf you feel anger: the ones who are hawking books, postcards, scarves, and whatever else can be sold on the streets, beaches, temple entrance steps, etc. It's one thing to feel sorry for them and buy something because they are charming, but working on the streets keeps them out of school and while it may seem like a necessary quick fix (i.e., they have no money/food) it is actually worse for the long run if they don't get educated (i.e., child sex trafficking is the all-too-common fate in Cambodia). So, don't buy from the kids in Cambodia, even when they count to ten for you in ten different languages or surprise you with their wit.

There are a bazillion NGO people helping out there, and we had up close encounters with two: the Land Mine Museum, and Green Star restaurant. We dined one night as a team at Green Star, where the profits go to an organization that helps get the kids off the streets, addresses the abuse in their family situations, and employs said people at a living wage, as well as assisting with training and education. The Australian man who runs the place talked to us about it before our delicious dinner. (By the way, dinner in Cambodia was always delicious. I absolutely loved eating there.) The museum had a U.S. man, of similar age (baby boomer) and manner as the Aussie, who got intrigued, came to Cambodia , and isn't leaving any time soon. This guy was from California (in fact, his cell phone played the USC fight song for its ring tone! Fight on! and kudos to Brian for hearing it first before we had even entered the place), ex-military, now working with an amazing ex-military-ex-child-soldier Cambodian man whose life work is now de-mining the country, including some mines he himself was forced to help place back in the Khmer Rouge day. This museum also helps educate kids, and provides an orphange-home for some, plus education.

Well, those are some of the basics about our experience. I will try to get some pictures of the village and houses posted here right away!

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Building in Siem Reap
The Southeast Asia Odyssey Continues

I apologize for not blogging often during this week as we build in Cambodia with Habitat for Humanity on our Global Village trip. I want to again thank the wonderful friends and family who donated to Habitat to help make our trip possible. I have not been online much at all this week, but here is the basic situation: Our team of volunteers is divided into two groups. My group works on a house made of wood, so there is lots of sawing, hammering, nailing, and painting, much of it done while precariously perched on makeshift scaffolding. Brian's team works on the brick house, a five or so minute walk away through the village. We all meet together at "our" house for lunch. The team leaders are great and do creative things to help us get to know one another. It is surprisingly not that hot while we are working, and our hotel is rather nice. Because the cost of living is so cheap in Cambodia, and because there are many many many hotels for the on-the-rise tourism industry in Siem Reap, we are able to stay at a good place, a bit more comfortable (and bigger) than my accommodations on previous Habitat builds. There are massively cute children at our worksite who are all smiles, like many people in Cambodia. All in all, it is shaping up to be a great experience.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

New Year in Siem Reap
Day 8 of our Southeast Asia odyssey

Happy New Year! Do you know where Siem Reap's biggest party is? Well, I do now. It is on Pub Street, in a restaurant/market/nightlife area just across the cutest little river bridge ever from our hotel, and boy did we do it up to ring in 2012. Brian and I saw a little bit of the street party set-up while we ate lunch earlier on Saturday, and then after our first dinner with fellow Habitat for Humanity build team members, a few of us headed out to celebrate New Year's Eve with the masses. The entire city of Siem Reap must have been there, plus foreigners galore. There were crowds, dancing, packed streets, pubs, balconies, beer for $1, kegs, random flashback tunes, shots of something pink to drink, dancing to Khmer songs in an electric slide-like group movement, fireworks above the river, lit up bridges, lanterns in the water, illegal fireworks shot from the crowd, smoke, more tunes, more beer, all kinds of good stuff, and it was all just lively and fun.

January 1 was a great day. I approve of 2012!  Our Habitat for Humanity team is a great group of 21 people (I think) plus our leaders and the local affiliate employee and volunteers. I am so excited about this project and about everything I have been learning about Cambodia, its history, its people, the Khmer culture, the language, the history and historical influences...it's all so wonderful. I think I should have regular enough wi-fi this week to keep you updated as our build progresses.

I love new years and starting new projects and new good things!