Sunday, December 5, 2010

Ms. Lemon

That's my new nickname (usually just "lemon", without the miss).

So to explain a bit- I came back to China to chaperone a trip that was organized by DCIS, my alma mater and former employer. I went to visit a few teacher at the school when I was home last summer and during a lovely brunch at Racine's, Cathy (one of my former teachers) and I
started talking about China. When she found out that I would be in China in the fall she insisted I talk to Melanie, who was organizing the trip- Cathy had been offered the chaperone gig, but didn't think she could do it and thought it would be perfect for me. I talked to Melanie and got the details- the trip would be three weeks long, two of those weeks in Kunming, Denver's sister city, where we would stay in host families and some of my expenses would be paid. All I had to do was meet them in Shanghai and be a responsible adult. The group was small, only 4 high school students (all of whom I knew well from when they were in 6th grade) one DU student who decided to tag along (who I also know fairly well) and Mel. The kids are great and require very little in the way of actual supervision and I would get a plane ticket home- sounds like a deal to me!

It has been a great deal so far. During the day we go to classes put on for us by the high school we are visiting (Kunming Foreign Language School). With the exception of Chinese Language, which is way over my head, the classes are great. We've learned a few Chinese songs and arts. The kids are having a great time with their host families as am I. I think the kids Chinese skills will have improved a great deal by the time they get home and I think my skills will have improved by more than 100%- from two words to maybe five :-).

I don't quite remember where the "lemon" moniker came from- probably some mispronunciation of my name by someone, but I think I like it- the Chinese pronunciation also seems to sound a lot like my actual name, so I think I'll have someone teach me the characters and just run with it. That's Ms. Lemon to you. . .

Chinese food

In the first two weeks I was in china I didn't have very much in the way of "authentic" Chinese food. It's hard when you are traveling alone to find good places and because Chinese food tends to be family style, when you are without a family to eat with, fast food is sometimes just an easier option. As a solo traveler, I found China to be a lot like Italy- you know there is good food everywhere if you just had a local to show you where it is!

Luckily, on his last leg of my trip with the DCIS students, I am staying with a host family (an English teacher) and have been taken out to eat many times. Also, the food that my host has cooked at home has been wonderful. Even the school lunches have been better than the Chinese food I found on my own.

Besides fast food, the chinese take on "western food" is sort of funny. My first host (I had to move because her father got sick and she needed to take care ofhim) was extremely worried about what I would eat. She bought a hilariously huge loaf of mediocre plain white bread- I was too polite to tell her that I didn't really like it. Even my second host, who has been to America and understands me a little bit better worried ceaselessly about what I was eating (especially for breakfast). Twice this week we were taken by the school principal to what he described as a "western style restaurant ". It turned out to be a sort of buffet with waiters roaming around
with various types of meat skewered on large swords. I think I would rather eat traditional Chinese food (although eating jello with chopsticks was fun). I love how the Chinese family style works. Depending on how many people you have, you order a ton of dishes (usually a few more than there are people) plus rice and soup and it goes on a rotating platter in the center and everyone grabs things as they go by. I love this because with a big enough group you are always
guaranteed to have a few things you like. I think, maybe because you tend to grab things just a few bites at a time, you tend to eat less this way (at least I think I do), but you also never leave the table feeling hungry. My favorite thing so far has been "hot pot"- basically there is a pot of hot soup that is set on a hot plate on or in the table. You order different meats, vegetables and noodles and then put them into the hot pot to cook. Then everyone reaches in with their chopsticks and grabs what they want (or what they can). All of this family style eating has really improved my chopstick skills. I was not too bad before as we used to practice with our Chinese take out lunches at school, but now I can even eat rice noodles with chopsticks, which is no easy task.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Karaoke

Last weekend I was invited to a weekend trip with a group of teachers to a hot springs in a town a few hours away. It seemed to be a bonding trip for the group of teachers that all teach one grade (junior 3, equivalent to about 9th grade). We started out on Saturday midday and after a lunch stop arrived in the early afternoon. After a short rest, everyone headed to the indoor pool to swim and relax. It was quite nice, with a few large pools of different levels and a wet and dry
sauna. Neither of the two English teachers I was with knew how to swim, so we had a funny afternoon while I (along with the PE teacher and some others) tried to teach them, without much success. The other highlight of the afternoon was the awkward match making that was
attempted by some of the teachers between me and the chemistry teacher, who was not bad looking and seemed sweet, but didn't speak any English and even though he was a chemistry teacher- I didn't feel any.

After dinner everyone split into two groups, one for karaoke and one for mahjong. I really wanted to play mahjong, and they even let me play one hand before they kicked me out to get down to the real business of playing. I think they thought it was cute- they played really fast, not like my friends. I probably could have caught up after a few hands. I was glad I went to watch anyway, since I saw the coolest thing ever- a self dealing mahjong table. A disk in the center of the table rises up and you push all the tiles into a drum below the table. The drum mixes the tiles and pushes them into slots, then the tiles rise up in perfect rows onto the table to form the wall. Magic!!! Anyway, they started to really play and I left, time for karaoke!

If you have ever done karaoke in Asia, then you know it is different than we do it at home. Instead of having to perform for the whole bar, you and your friends rent out a small room and you sing just for each-other. In a lot of ways this is better as people are leas nervous, but you do miss out on the great opportunity to make fun of strangers. . .

When we arrived the singing was already in full swing. A few of the group had great voices, a few didn't, but everyone had fun. One of the girls figured out how to find the English songs on the computer and I stated to look through them. I found what I expected- mostly. There was Madonna, Brittney, MichealJjackson- there were a few other random songs- they somehow convinced me to sing "My heart will go on". My big surprise came when I was scrolling through and saw a familiar title "Handlebars". I was overly excited and confused the Chinese teachers a
lot by trying to explain that I know the band. In fact there were two Flobots songs on the list and I (tried to) sang both of them. I had more success with Handlebars than with Rise since I know the rap part better (mostly on Rise I only know the "rise" chorus part). I asked one teacher to take my picture while I sang, but she was very confused (later I was able to explain why I wanted my picture with the video behind me). I'm still a little confused as to why there would have been two Flobots songs on the karaoke machine at a hotel at a hot springs in rural China- there are tons of English songs that are more famous or more popular that were not there, so I think that it must just be fate- whoever programed the machine is a Flobots fan, which is kind of awesome.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sleeping in airports

When I booked my tickets to and from Malaysia the only flights arrived at about very late (about 1:00AM). I spent some time online trying to figure out how to get from the airports in KL and Shanghai to the actual towns and where would be most convenient to stay. In this investigation I stumbled upon a great website: sleepinginairports.net.

For KL I found that it would be easy and not too expensive to just go to town and get to my hostel (and the ratings for sleeping in the airport there were not good). For Shanghai, since I was actually arriving in Hangzhou (about one hour by train or two hours by bus away from Shanghai center) with the late arrival it would be easier to just stay in the airport. Since the airport was new, there were no reviews, but I decided to chance it. I ended up finding a great spot- padded bench seats with no armrests, quiet, no people and with a power outlet close by. I watched a movie and then put on my face mask and went to sleep for about 5 hours. In the morning I found my way to the train and (after going to the wrong address once) checked in at the hotel where I would meet the students from Denver that would arrive later that night.

I spent a little bit of time adding my reviews to sleepinginairports.net for some of the airports I've been stuck in including Iceland, Amsterdam and Tirana. The website is great for those of us lucky enough to fly standby, but not lucky enough to make it out on the first try. My mom wished she had know about the site before they came to see me- it might have made their overnight in Seoul a bit more comfortable. This time in China was the first time I had chosen to sleep in the airport instead of just getting stuck there, but now with this site, I might be sleeping in airports on purpose more often.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Why not Malaysia?


The Philippines allows Americans to stay for 21 days without a visa which meant that I needed to leave by Nov. 9 or pay a big fee. I was meeting the group in China on Nov. 14. I had a few choices- I could go to China early and spend a few more days in Shanghai or I could go somewhere else entirely. With low cost carriers like Cebu Pacific, going from one country to another in SE Asia is pretty cheap and after looking into it I found that heading to someplace like Singapore for a few days wouldn't cost too much more than flying direct to China. But where to go?

When you are traveling, especially when staying in hostels, you meet all sorts of people and in this day and age with facebook and email it is easy to exchange info. It is not uncommon to spend a few days with someone and then leave them with that general invitation, "if you ever make it to Timbuktu (or where ever) on your travels, let me know and we can meet up!" I've given a lot of those invitations myself- "when you come to Denver look me up!". In a discussion with my mom about where to go she reminded me about the girls that we met in the hostel inNorway. One girl was from China and we missed each other when I was in Beijing because of the national holiday. The other girl is from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I sent her an email and she would be in KL at that time. With no better reason to go anywhere else, I booked a ticket to Malaysia. Why not?

KL is an interesting city. The skyline is dominated by huge skyscrapers mostly built in the past 10 years. But when you get closer to the ground, you find an interesting mix of cultures, with China town full of persuasive street vendors and family temples to head-covered Muslims and modern domed mosques to barefoot Hindu temples filled with flowers.

After a day in KL with Sum, I headed to the old capital Malacca. Here I stayed in a hostel and almost immediately after I arrived I was offered a bike ride around town. This was by far my most successful bike outing yet, mostly because I had a good bike and someone to teach me how to use it correctly. I have been thinking more and more about my options for when I get home and I think that biking is a better and better option. I really don't want to buy a car and I know that I will not have the money to do so for a while anyway. Anyway, I spent the day exploring Malacca and shopping. The next day I headed back to KL and straight to the airport for my flight back to China.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Bad day

Everyone has their bad days I suppose. Here's what mine looks like- me blubbering in the backseat of a Manila taxi. Why? I don't really know. I hadn't had a particularly hard day, but something about the driver trying to charge me 350 pesos for what I know is actually a 50 peso trip (if they use the meter) and I was willing to pay 150 pesos for (since that was literally all the money I had left). It just builds up and gets to you after a while. Part of it is that I can feel the end of the trip approaching and I have less patience for things. I'm over it, in fact I was over it 4 months ago when taxi drivers in Bulgaria were trying to rip me off, but I'm really over it now.

I think I'm ready to come home. My trip is almost over, and the last part, my return to China to meet some of my former students from DCIS is going to be great and different. Because of the nature of the trip, traveling with students, homestay, school visit etc, I won't have to deal with some of the frustrations of solo travel.

I've started counting down the days (25- but there is a good chance that you are reading this much later than it was written) and planning things for when I get home. I have a place to live, I hopefully have work (subbing) and I already have a party to go to on my first night home. This has been an amazing trip, but it will be amazing going home too.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sagada

Sagada may be the most laid back place I've been- ever. Set high in the mountains of the big island (Luzon) it is the type of place that you could see hippies getting stuck in and living there forever and everyone seems to have that "it's ok" slow paced vibe. When I arrived, unlike almost every tourist destination I've ever been to (and I've been to a lot) no one met the bus trying to sell rooms or tours or pearl necklaces. There seem to be a lot of tourists here, but it is apparently a slow enough season that you don't get the feeling of constantly running into people. In fact I think I might be the only guest in my hotel. The locals all seem to be taking it easy too- don't plan a trip up here if you want prompt service from anyone- I had to wake the tourist center guy from his mid-morning nap to set up my tour. Not that fast service is really a big deal- why are you in such a hurry anyway?



In Sagada I took a tour of some local caves. Not wanting to pay for the guide just for myself (cheaper if you have at least two people to split the cost) I waited in the tourist center for a long time (chill out kid) and finally met a Korean girl that was also alone and wanted to go to the caves. With a local guide, you descended down into to cavern several hundred feet to a few large chambers filled with interesting formations. My favorite was the rice field formation that looked just like the terraced rice fields that surrounded the area. There were also animal inspired formations (bear, elephant and snake) and the king and queen, which resembled certain parts of the human anatomy.

After my jaunt to Sagada I returned to Baguio "the summer capital" to spend one more night with my hosts there- a couple from Colorado that are teaching at an international school. I was able to talk to them about my plans for teaching when I go home- both of them got certified in Denver, Adam taught for three years at South and they lived in my neighborhood. It is always a bit funny to meet people when you are far from home and be able to talk about local politics and reminisce about your favorite places, like the Decker branch library.

I was sad to leave the Philippines- I had a really amazing time there, but I also know that unlike a lot of places I've visited, I have a permanent connection there.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Surfs up!



After my parents left, I headed up to Luzon (the big island) for a bit of couch surfing (with Philippines PCVs) and a bit of real surfing. You know like in the water. I am not particularly good at things in the water- growing up in Colorado and all that (I know, I know, there are a lot of people from Colorado that are good swimmers, I'm just not one of them!). Not that I can't swim, I can swim, I just feel more comfortable on snow skis than on water skis. Also, I learned to swim in a swimming pool, so the ocean is a totally different thing. I've never been particularly good at holding my breath and I don't like it when water gets in my eyes, especially salt water. In Bohol, my mom and I tried a bit of snorkeling- it didn't really take; I kept breathing in water and the flippers were hard to use. Its ok, I just know that water things arenot my sports. But that doesn't keep me from trying . . . I must just be a glutten forpunishment . . .

The thing is, that the Philippines is one of the cheapest places to learn to surf, so if I was going to fail miserably, I might as well be doing it for only $10 an hour instead of the $100 an hour I might pay in Hawaii . . . and it looks like fun, right?

I headed up to San Juan, the home of the Philippine surfers. As a whole, the islands (surprisingly) don't actually have too many good places to surf and the native people didn't
actually do it historically. Surfing is something brought by the Americans and still mostly done by foreigners (except the handful of local instructors that have capitalized on some good waves in this area).
I only had one day and the weather was not so great, but I decided to try anyway- I headed to the beach to seek out my teacher. The waves were big and there were not many people in the water. I finally found an instructor, but even I could tell that the waves on this beach were going to be too much for me. We tried anyway, but after about a half hour of me wiping out in huge waves, we gave up. He told me about a better spot further down the shore that had gentler waves that we could try after lunch- Well why didn't you tell me that before! After lunch we headed down to the "cement factory" where the waves were much better and tried again. After a few more wipeouts, I finally was able to stand up! Then I really got the hang of it and stood up three times in a row! After a couple more wipeouts and a couple more successful rides, I was beat. Surfing is hard! I knew that I would be sore the next day, and I was for sure. I have so much more respect for people that do this well- it is basically like doing push-ups over and over for hours (not to mention the beating you get when you wipeout). I think I'll watch Point Break and Blue Crush with a lot more respect from now on . . .

Monday, November 8, 2010

Would you like rice with that?


According to Filipinos, a meal without rice is not a meal at all. Even at KFC and McDonalds (which are as common here as in Kentucky I'd wager) you can get rice instead of fries or cole slaw. In Cebu i experienced the ingenious invention of "hanging rice" they put the uncooked rice into a pouch made of woven palm leaves, dip it in water to cook and voila! Personal sized portable rice packet!

This abundance of rice is something I've been experiencing my whole life at FACC (Filipino thanksgiving- turkey. . . with rice). Anyway, since I left Denver in August I think (it's hard to know for sure without access to a scale on a regular basis) that I had lost a few pounds. When I travel, I actually tend to eat a lot less and walk a lot more. The walking a lot is easy to explain, when you are traveling (at least the way I travel) all you tend to do is walk. I arrive in a new place and I walk around to get a feel, walk to where ever I'm staying (when I can) and a lot of my favorite travel activities involve walking (long hikes in the mountains- basically walking all day). But why don't I eat as much? For one thing, thinking about food all the time is exhausting when you are traveling- you need to constantly be finding new places, eating takes a lot of time and when I'm alone sometimes I just don't bother.

But in the Philippines with my parents things are different. First, I'm with my parents and it's not good for them to skip meals. Second, we have been staying with friends of theirs- in Davao, with their Peace Corps family and in Bohol and Cebu with family of friends from Denver. They don't let me skip meals- good Filipino cooking doesn't let me eat light . . . lots of rice with every meal. Thanks to my wonderful hosts in the RP any pounds lost have all come back! Talk about lost and found . . .


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Patring


Now, about Patring. Patring was a teenaged girl that lived with my parents the whole time that they were in the Philippines, the two years in Davao and the year and a half on Bohol. When I was younger, that didn't seem too strange- that was just how it was. But as I grew up it started to seem more strange- we don't even have a housekeeper now! When I joined the Peace Corps myself, I started to seem even more strange. They had a housekeeper? And Peace Corps paid for that? Of course it is not strange in the Filipino context, I don't think they intended to have a housekeeper, but they did and it became part of their Filipino normal. My mom wrote about how Patring came into their lives (and about the dogs and cats that kept them company too):

http://mindanoinday.blogspot.com/2008/03/of-girls-and-dogs-and-cats.html

So the first thing we did in the morning after arriving in Davao was go and visit Patring. We found her at home, in the house across the road from her clinic. She is not practicing right now since she has been having problems with her eyes lately. Because (I think) of the visit a few years ago, this was not the tearful homecoming that they probably had then, but it was emotional nonetheless. Patring is exceptionally sweet and I can see why my parents loved her so much. She came with us for a few hours and met us again when we went to the beach.

For me, more than any other person, Patring was the one that I had an image in my head about. In some ways, she is the Philippines for me.

And she is beautiful.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A whole new family





(My Filipino cousins)

(Nang Tita, my Filipino grandma)

(my mom with her sisters)
While growing up, I always understood a couple things about their time in the Davao: they had their own house, but they lived in the family "compound" of a family and they had a teenage girl that lived with them as their "helper". These things became a lot more real to me when we arrived in Davao. First, the family, I will get to Patring in a later post . . .

We were picked up from the airport by Tombok, one of the little sisters of the Agton family. When my parents lived there, they were adopted by Mnang Tita and Mnoy Juanito (mnang and mnoy being honorifics for respected community members) who were a teacher and banker respectively who had 7 children between the ages of 9 and 18. Of these children, one has since passed away (along with his father) and one (the oldest daughter) lives in New Jersey. The others all live with or near their mother who recently celebrated her 80th birthday surrounded by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But I figured all this out later. Over the nextfew days I would be introduced to a dizzying array of family members (not to mention all of the families of Juanito's brothers and sisters whom we didn't really meet, but occasionally talked about).

Immediately I knew this was a special family when I met Mama Tita. She is everything I would want to be when I'm 80- strong, opinionated and sharp. She is still very much in charge of the family and she has to stay sharp to keep control over the masses.

Jojo, Bobong, Nimrod, Tombok and Nene (in case you are wondering, nicknames are very common- I'm no sure of everyone's real name, but Nene is actually Jane, for example) all welcomed my parents as if they were very a respected Aunt and Uncle. The kids, were a little slower to warm up to me, but soon I had made good friends with my new "cousins" especially KJ and Shingay (also nicknames of course). Over he next few days we were taken all around the city by various family members- up to the Eden nature park with Bok and Nene, to the Philippine Eagle sanctuary and People's Park by Nimrod and to the beach with half the family. Jojo and Bong were mostly busy with their own things- Jojo raises cocks for fighting (a long held Filipino tradition) and Bong was running in the local election (against his aunt and at least one cousin) for the neighborhood council. I get the feeling that no matter who you voted for, they might be related somehow, or at least someone's god parent or something- it's that kind of place and that kind of family.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Typhoon!

Ok, not really, I missed the typhoon by a bit and just caught the tail end of it passing over Manila, which meant heavy rains on the day I arrived. I had hoped to only have to stay in Manila one night, but as my parents had to stop overnight in California and Korea in order to get here (standby travel sometimes means sleeping on a bench in the Seoul airport. . . ) I had a full day and two nights.The weather cleared in the morning (no typhoon for you!) and so I went out to explore Manila. As big cites go, it is hectic and crowed. I've found that while I certain cites are visitor cities and certain cities are livable cities and a few are both, some cities are neither (Tirana)and I think this is Manila too. That said I had an ok day walking around. When I was in thepark, I happened upon a rehearsal for some sort of performance that was going on later.

I went to get a late lunch and then came back to watch the show. It turned out to be a festival for indigenous people and there were over thirty groups from all over the country. Some of them had fantastic costumes and beautiful instruments and weapons (I wonder, do spears have to go in your checked luggage if they are part of your indigenous costume?). There was a parade in the park and then each group introduced themselves with a very short dance. This was followed by longer performances by a few of the groups.

After the first group, it started raining and the audience went up on the stage (the only part of the amphitheater covered) and watched the next groups.

If I understand things correctly (which I'm not always sure that I do) this was an opening ceremony and the different groups were going to perform at different venues (schools etc) over the next few days. After he slightly interrupted performance I took my first jeepney ride back to the hostel to wait for my parents. They finally arrived in the morning and we got the frak out of Manila and headed down to Davao.

Sent from my iPod

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Hong Kong



Hong Kong is the best of both worlds- Chinese tradition, British efficiency. I made the mistake of not really planning ahead for Hong Kong, but unlike most of the places I've travelled this isn't a very good idea- accommodation as a rule, isn't cheap and if it is cheap it's either not so good or can't be booked last minute. . . I was saved from a cockroach hostel (or $30 a night) by Ian, a Brit living on Hong Kong island teaching Spanish at a private school. He had just started his fall break and was leaving to take his vacation in the Philippines on the same day that I was- perfect. Since he was on holiday, he had time to hang out and show me the city. Together we explored the perfectly planned colonies streets and climbed to the top of Victoria peak to see the whole place. Hong Kong is modern and efficient, but still feels just enough Asian to be charming. I'm not defending colonialism, but it sure was nice to have a taxi driver actually use the meter.On my second day there, Ian and I ventured out to one of the smaller islands, had a seafood lunch and hiked around the tiny island to a deserted (but unfortunately very dirty) beach. We hiked back to the other side to swim instead in the immaculately kept public beach near the village.

On my third day I ventured out on my own to go to see "the big Buddha" on Lantau island. The best part was actually the cable car ride up the mountain. Far below the car (you could pay extra for a glass bottomed car- I didn't) you could see a trail snaking it's way up and around the hills. From the cable car you could see the new airport- built to replace the old one that used to jut out into the bay and that required planes to maneuver through the skyscrapers in order to land- my mom described feeling like the plane's wings might get caught on the laundry lines hung off of the buildings as it landed. . . At the end of the cable car journey there was a tourist village (sole purpose- sell souvenirs) a monastery and as promised a really big Buddha up on a hill. It was a very dramatic placement and impressive. Of course in addition to the British efficiency, Hong Kong has also mastered the tourist sell. While the big Buddha was impressive, it also felt a little like Buddhist DisneyLand (and you can visit Mickey and his friends at Hong Kong DisneyLand just one metro stop away from Buddha) there was a multimedia "walk with Buddha" experience and some sort of monkey theater show, neither of which I did. In fact I is kind of incredible to me how so many countries have managed to make money off their religion. Anyway. . .









Random conversation with Ian (now you see why we got along so well): where did he name for turkeys come from? Turkeys are native to North America. We call them after a country in the Middle East, in Russian they are called индюк (indook) thinking they came from India, in several languages it is hindi for similar reasons, in Spanish they are called peru (at least they got the right hemisphere.) In light of this, I think I like the Albanians name the best- they came from somewhere over the seas and they didn't speculate on where, hence gjell deti- the rooster of the sea.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The prettiest part of China



After so many people in Beijing and Xi'an (not to mention all the pollution) the countryside near Guilin was a welcome respite. I had heard from multiple sources that this was one of the prettiest parts of the country. It did not disappoint. From the "dragons backbone" rice terraces to the strange and beautiful hills along the Li river, it was a gorgeous place. I only wish I had more than three days.

On the first day I went with a Dutch girl that I met in the train station (and who saved me from having to sit in a hard seat for 27 hours by letting me sleep in her bed for a few hours on he train!) to the rice terraces. We decided to take the four to six hour (according to the guide

book) hike over the mountain from one side of the area to the other. I imagine that you could make the hike in four hours if: you didn't stop at all to eat or take pictures, you were in really good shape and you didn't get lost. We did not meet any of these conditions. It took us more like six hours. Six hours and fifteen minutes. We started at about 11:00 and arrived at about

5:15. Unfortunately for us the last bus left at 5:00. Darn those extra fifteen minutes! We got a taxi to the next town where we barely (by literally getting out and running to the bus) we did catch the last bus back to Guilin. Even with this rush at the end, it was a great day. The rice terraces were fantastic and nearly empty- just what I needed after the crush of people in Beijing and Xi'an. I had a great time with Soenita, one of the few single female travelers I've met on this trip (in Asia anyway- I met lots more in Europe). We had a great conversation about traveling solo (among many other topics over six hours). Neither of us probably would have taken this hike on our own and it was nice to have someone to talk to.

On the second day I took a bamboo raft down the Li river to the town of Yangshuo. Here, I rented a bike for my most successful bicycle outing yet- a ride in the countryside. I passed bemused (or confused) villagers and almost no other tourists. Unfortunately my time was too short as I arrived in the afternoon and didn't want to be caught alone in the country after dark- especially since I figured out later that I had been traveling down a completely different road than I had originally intended (I apparently have very little sense of direction. I blame this on growing up in Colorado- it was too easy there: mountains=west). If I could go back and replan my trip a bit, I would have spent more time in this area and at least two nights in Yangshuo itself. As it was I only spent an afternoon there and headed back to Guilin in the evening.

I spent the third day taking it easy in Guilin. Like it's surroundings, the city of Guilin is a gem. With the river winding through town, an easy walking center and randomly beautiful hills, the only downside was that you had to pay to enter the parks (I didn't bother).

In the evening, I caught an overnight bus to Shenzhen, the city on the Chinese side of the Hong Kong "border". The bus was interesting- instead of seats, it had three rows of bunk beds running the length of the bus (maybe 24 beds in all?). The beds were not enclosed and left little room for rolling over- a strange experience, but much better than a hard seat!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Lost and found

An inevitable part of travel is losing things. When you are packing up and changing locations every few days a few things left behind or misplaced are inevitable. Unlike when you lose things at home it can be hard to find them again since usually by the time you figure out that whatever you lost was missing you have moved on to the next place. I had been doing pretty well on this trip, as far as I can remember I didn't lose anything important from Albania to Colorado. In Russia the only thing lost was a Russian phrase book, which although I would have liked to keep it, it wasn't really a big deal since I lost it right before I left Russia. But this week I lost three things that I'm upset a bit about. First, I got to Hong Kong and realized that when I did laundry in Guilin somehow a pair of my pants didn't make it back in my bag. I wouldn't have been too bothered if I had lost a t-shirt or pair of socks, but of all the items of clothing to lose, pants are the most annoying. First, they are the most expensive, these particular pants being REI travel pants with the zip off leg- not cheap. Second, while I have a few t-shirts, I only have two pairs of pants with me since in general they don't need to be washed as much and I can wear them a few days in a row. Third, I like most women I know usually have a hard time finding pants that I like and that fit me well. These were pants that I liked, that fit me well an were perfect for travel since they are lightweight, quick drying and become shorts (handy!). I emailed the hostel in the vain hope that they might have found them and can send them to me somehow (when I go back to China in a few weeks). I'm not holding out much hope.

The second lost item of the week happened in the Hong Kong airport. I lost my water bottle. I know what you are thinking "water bottle? Big deal!" but this one was kind of a big deal actually. It was an impulse REI purchase when I was home and it is a pretty cool bottle- it has an internal water filter, making any water you put in safe for drinking, but it is the same size and weight as your average nalgene. This means that all across Russia and Asia I was able to fill up my magic bottle from the tap (or well or stream, what have you) instead of buying bottled water every day. So I was not only saving money, but saving the planet too. The bottle probably already paid for itself in the bottled water that I didn't have to buy. I lost it somewhere between security and the plane. I know I had it at security because they made me dump out the last bit of water that was in it before I went through. I then clipped it to the outside of my bag. When I got on the plane I noticed that it was gone, but since I was already on the plane there was not much to be done. I asked the flight attendant to ask the gate agent to look around the boarding area, but they didn't see it. The funny thing is that the filter itself was not in the bottle (I had taken it out since hong kong water is good) but without the bottle, I can't use the filter!

The third thing I lost was completely my fault- I forgot to check to make sure that I put my leatherman tool (a gift from my friend Melissa to replace the pocket knife that I lost when we were in Romania last summer) into my checked baggage. In the airport in Manila it showed up on the x-ray but through some sort of magic sweet talk I managed to get through. But then it fell out of my bag sometime later (I think when my dad put my bag into the overhead compartment). It may still show up somewhere- I thought I lost it last year at Outdoor Ambassadors camp but it turned up a week later in another pocket of my backpack.

Usually when I lose things I'm only ever mad at myself, since usually it is my own fault (like forgetting my pants in the laundry room). I do believe that there is lost and found karma- I did spend five years working at a movie theatre benefiting occasionally from the lost and found gods (I once got a palm pilot that someone hadn't claimed after a few months). I just hope that someone deserving finds my lost stuff and appreciates it as much as I did.

UPDATE: the hostel found my pants! They will send them to me when I go back to China next month! If you ever go to China make sure to visit Wada Hostel in Guilin. It is probably one of the best hostels I've stayed at and it is in a really beautiful part of the country. And they have the best staff EVER!

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Biking in China- day two

Xi'an seemed like the perfect place to try again to bike around. My couchsurfing host, Tyler loaned me his bike for the day. It started out great- while busy, the streets are nowhere near as crazy as Beijing. Unfortunately, very early into my day I made a silly mistake by trying to pass a rickshaw and ended up hitting my handlebars and falling. I scraped my knee a bit and jammed two of my fingers in the fall. After a few minutes of self pity an a few tears, I picked myself up and dusted myself off and continued. Needless to say though, my heart (and hand) weren't quite in it for the rest of the day. I stopped not long after for some shopping and then sat in a park for another rest. I did manage to make it back to Tyler's house in one piece with no more incidents. When they say it's as easy as riding a bike, I don't think they were talking about bike riding in China. . .

Friday, October 22, 2010

Brave?

I met a colleague of my host, Tyler, in Xi'an- she took us out to dinner for my first "hot pot" experience. She kept telling me how brave she thought I was. This is something that I hear from a lot of people on my travels. I guess because I was traveling by myself, away from my friends and family in a strange country. I don't really think of myself as "brave". Is riding the train across two continents or biking through the Chinese countryside alone brave? Some would call it brave, I suppose that some would call it stupid and I just call it beautiful and fantastic. I don't think of what I am doing as brave because I have always seen travel as exciting and normal, not usually dangerous. And now more than ever before, I think you have to be even less brave to travel alone because it is so easy.

In the morning on a boat floating down the Li river outside Guilin I had a discussion with an Australian guy who is traveling from Australia to Europe by land and sea. We talked about how the Internet had changed so much about travel. Just a few years ago, you had to rely on guidebooks for info, which could be incorrect or out of date. A few years before that there weren't even very many reliable guidebooks for many places. Other than this, you had tourism centers and travel agencies or just randomly arriving at a hostel. Now it is all different. You can go on one of several websites (I like hostelbookers.com) and look at lots of options with price comparison and reviews of guests. I almost never arrive at a destination without a prior reservation and all the info I need about where I'm going. In fact it is actually becoming harder to travel in a new way- it is easier to travel, but harder to have an adventure.

Last year I read a few books by Paul Thereux in which he traveled long distances mostly by train including across Europe and Asia and then back on the trans-Siberian in "The Great Railway Bazaar" and a year traveling China by train in "Riding the Iron Rooster". His world was a completely different place than the one I am traveling in. When he was in China, he was escorted by a government "tour guide" and struggled vainly to leave him behind and travel on his own. Now independent travel in China is easier than ever with many places geared towards the young, independent backpacker with hostels, cheap tours and English speaking staff. I was, in fact, a bit nervous about traveling alone in China, much more so than I had been about going across Europe and Russia by myself since I do speak (enough) Russian and knew I could get by in a pinch. China has been harder, since Chinese is harder and not too much is translated, but so far I haven't had too much trouble. The biggest issue I've had so far was my hard seat train tickets and I don't think knowing Chinese would have helped me too much (only a few million less people or not coming to china on a holiday would make a difference there).

I'm not really sure what "brave" is. I'm adventurous maybe, curious for sure. But mostly I'm just trying to see the world. . .

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Hard class

I meant to book a sleeper, but I somehow ended up with a "hard seat". On the wrong day and to the wrong station (right city, just outside of town). My lesson learned from this- check three times that they understand what you want- even when you think that the person you are talking to speaks English . . . and don't try to travel in china during a national holiday.

So a "hard seat," not a sleeper and therefore, no sleep. Just me, one other American guy and about 100 Chinese people for 15 hours. The other American guy abandoned me to check out the dining car- he heard that if you slip the attendant a few bills they will let you stay there overnight. By the time I got uncomfortable enough to join him, the dining car was locked and any chance I had was gone. So I contorted myself into a somewhat comfortable position just like all my hard seat companions. On the bright-side, I did have a seat- when we left Beijing there were people standing and sitting in the aisles, although it seemed that most of these people had somewhere to sit by morning. This train continued on for another 18 hours to Chengdu and I just can't imagine another night like that. While the Chinese trains are certainly cheaper, I appreciate the Russian trains- I don't even think it is possible to just have a seat (no bed) on trips longer than 12 hours.

If there are no sleeper compartments available for my next section (24 hours to Guilin) I think I might just fly . . .

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The great wall and all that jazz


(yep, that's me on the Great Wall)

What can you say about the Great Wall, really? Didn't they kind of say it all when they named it "Great"? I decided to take a tour offered by my hostel that would go to the "secret" wall- a part hopefully not covered in tourists and crawling in souvenir stalls. They delivered on the promise and we arrived at a beautiful section of the wall not far from the most touristy bit (with the cable car up and slide down) that was only partially restored and beautifully empty. It also turned out to be a fantastic day with relatively clear skies (only a mild pollution haze) and you could see quite a way in every direction.

It was a fun trip, I spiny most of the day hiking with a pair of British sisters who are English teachers not far from Beijing and in the city for the holiday. There is not much to say except that we climbed up, walked for a bit, took pictures walked back and climbed down. Climbed the Great Wall- check.

Travel in big cities (and any major tourist destination) often feels like a rather endless series of checklists: Great Wall- check, Summer Palace- check, Temple of Heaven- check, Chinese acrobats- check, etc. I feel like I try not to just "do" the checklist, for a lot of reasons. One, I can't really afford it; if I did everything listed in the Lonely Planet, I would be completely broke by now. I think, also that the best times I've had on this trip have been when I got off the checklist- usually with couhsurfers and PCVs. For me it is somehow easier to skip some of the attractions if I have someone to walk around town with- and when I do see things, it doesn't feel quite so listy since I'm sharing it with someone.

Anyway, checked off a lot of things from the list in Beijing. . . Up next, something that has been on my list for a long time: Terra-cotta warriors in Xi'an!

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Blocked

I had heard that there were a few websites (most importantly for me- facebook) that were blocked in china. I also heard that there were ways to get around the blocking. So far I haven't been able to do that since I don't know how to get a proxy server on my iPod. I imagine I'll be able to use someone computer over the next few days to get to all the banned sites. Shh. I won't tell if you won't.

When I arrived in Beijing I found two more important sites blocked- blogger and wikipedia. Blogger is a problem for obvious reasons- while I have been using e-mail publishing on my blog since I got my iPod (because I can draft a post when offline) I still had to log on to actually publish the post and this is not possible here. I thought the fact that wikipedia was blocked especially ironic since they have this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_websites_blocked_in_the_People's_Republic_of_China

I presume that they are listed, but I don't know since I can't open the page to check it out. If not someone should update it. :-).

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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

When in Rome . . .


(me with my bike in a park in Beijing)
Or rather when in China, do as the Chinese do. . .

After spending my first day in Beijing walking and finding that the crowds were terrible and the distances long, I took the advice of the guidebook and rented a bike from my hostel for the day. Although there are still plenty of bikes on the Beijing streets, cars are more and more common, making traffic pretty horrible and becoming more dangerous for the bikers. Now, I haven't ridden a bike in years and between that and in general being a bit out of shape, I started out slow. Of course I couldn't really start out too slow since I had to get through the traffic in central Beijing around Tienanmen square right off the bat- surviving that, I made my way along some of the bike roads and hutongs (alleys) north to the drum and bell towers. I had fun exploring Beijing this way, but it was very stressful and there were several times that I had to dismount in order to get through big crowds and not run over small children or grandmothers. I managed to make it back to my hostel in the afternoon without getting hit by a bus and without hitting any pedestrians (at least not hard). I was sore and tired and happy to be in one piece.

While it is certainly faster than walking, I don't really see myself as a "bike" person. My friends Chris and Courtney are taking a several month bike trip through the middle east right now and while I love reading about their trip and it seems like they are having a great time, I just don't know if I could do it. I saw a lot of the people in Beijing zipping around on little motor bikes and scooters and I think that maybe I could do THAT. I am faced with the problem of transportation for when I get back to Denver in a few months. I would love to live without a car, but a few hinges make that hard- first as I plan on subbing for at least a few months, I will need flexibility that buses and biking just cant offer. Second, I'll be getting back in winter and a bike (or even a scooter) wouldn't be a reliable option for at least a few months. I guess I'll figure that all out when the time comes. . .

Monday, October 4, 2010

The ger life


(Caitlin and I outside "Dublin Round")
One of he quintessential things to in Mongolia is to stay in a ger (yurt). The easiest way to do this is to pay for a tour that takes you to an "authentic" ger camp. But since I'm not generally for the easy way, I didn't do this. Instead I found a PCV that lives in a real life ger. In case you don't know, a ger is a Mongolian felt tent- usually used by the nomadic herdsman. In modern day Mongolia, many people live in more permanent abodes: apartments, brick houses etc., but many people still live in movable gers and many also live in semi-permanent gers in neighborhoods of towns and cities. Caitlin's ger is like this- she lives in the yard of a Mongolian family's house. Her ger- Dublin Round (probably the best ger in Mongolia)- is pretty great. It is about 12 feet across with furniture all around the edges and a wood (or coal or dung) stove in the middle of the circle that vents out the hole in the roof. She has no running water and has to go a few times a week to the end of her street to fill up a large plastic container for her water needs. She does have electricity and even Internet. Imagine, Internet in a felt tent!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A word on . . .


Couchsurfing. This is why I love couchsurfing- when you stay with someone, you get a slice of their life, whether it is meeting some Hare Krishna or spending the afternoon in the jacuzzi of the guest house of the president of Mongolia. Sure there are temples and museums, but could you ever get an experience like his staying in a hostel? I didn't think so- just sayin. . .

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Saturday, October 2, 2010

I found the foreigners


I found the foreigners- they are in second class. For the trip to Ulaanbaator, there were no third class seats available for the days I wanted to travel so I had to pay the extra money to be confined in a small compartment with three other people and loud rude foreigners next door. . .
In fact, the whole car is made up of foreigners. It seems that there is one normal train a day that crosses the border and in fact for several hours on either side of the border, it is disconnected and all alone (it is very weird to see your train car sitting by itself on the tracks, not connected to anything). And there are no third class seats because there is no third class- or first class for that matter. Just our lonely second class. For the border stop (long!) all of us forieners got off the train and sat chatting on the platform- it reminded me a bit of the people I met in waiting in the Amsterdam airport.

It feels weird to be leaving Russia. I don't think I'm ready, I just feel like I'm starting to understand things a bit and remember words that were lodged in the back of my brain. In Mongolia and China I will back at square one, not understanding anything people say, only worse off than in Russia because I've never studied Mongolian or Chinese.

I am really excited about Mongolia and I wish that I had planned a little bit longer there. I am planing on staying with a few Peace Corps Volunteers, which I think will be awesome as always. I have also started to map out my time in China, which is a challenge because it is just so much that it is hard to decided where to even start. I feel like I almost have to just open my guide book at random and visit where ever my finger lands, but of course that would be a bit silly. Really that is all that I have been doing so far and it has seemed to work out ok . . . Anyway, the trip goes on!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Lake baikal


Fall may not be the obvious time to come to a place like Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest lake in the world- its too cold to swim (although I gather that even in the summer the water is pretty frigid) but not yet cold enough to drive on the frozen lake and ice fish. But I think that this was actually a great time to come- it's not too cold yet to not want to go outside, but there aren't a million tourists crowding the beach. And the foliage is turning. I love the fall and the changing of leaves. I think it is one of natures coolest shows and riding around the lake on the old Cirkumbaikal railway I was captured by the golden hues of the changing birches. I stayed for one night in a tiny village called Old Angasolka. I was the only foreigner in the village for the night and it was exactly what I wanted. There is one guy who speaks English ok and his girlfriend a little. I talked with him for a long time about Russia, America, Albania, brain-drain, development and tourism. He showed me some great pictures that were taken on boating, biking and climbing trips around the region, plus a funny video that included skiing an skating on the frozen lake and some crazy ice swimming (with a mad dash to the sauna). It makes me want to come back in the summer and even more to come back in the winter. One thing that is really great about Baikal, especially compared to the horribly done development of some aspects of tourism in Albania, is how simple and conciensiously the tourism here has been developed. There are twice weekly tourist trains that go along the old railroad stopping many times along the way- on this route there are no big hotels, only scattered campsites and small settlements of camps and guesthouses. The big hotels are concentrated in a few towns, or more in the city of Irkutsk a few hours away, making the lakeside quiet and peaceful. And since this is the most inhabited part of the lake I imagine that the rest of the lake is even more quiet and peaceful.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

I love the train


I really do. If I had to rank my favorite modes of transport for long distance travel I would have to say: train, plane, car, bus, furgon- and the car only goes above the bus if I'm driving or in the front seat. I love taking the train though. One thing that I was most disappointed by in Albania is there (nearly) non-existent train system meaning that I had to take furgons or buses everywhere. I wish the train system was better in the US. I think my next big trip might even be to go across America by train- so much better than a road trip . . .

In Russia I love third class. You may think I'm crazy (the Russians usually do- so far I've been the only foreigner I've seen in third class). But let me explain. On long distance trains, first class is a compartment with two beds, second class has four and third class has no compartments, just 54 beds arranged in sets of six in an open carriage. If I could afford first class and it was with someone I know, then that wouldn't be so bad. Again, with people I know then second class isn't horrible, except that with people you don't know (or know but don't like) or when it is hot, second class can be unbearable. You feel trapped in your compartment, there is no space to move around, you are always in someones way and it can get stiflingly hot. Third class however, is perfect for people that don't care too much about privacy and want a little room to maneuver. I like to think of it like a big moving hostel. As long as you have your earplugs and sleeping mask, then you are golden! Except for Moscow to St. Petersburg (hot, uncomfortable) I have been in third class so far on this trip. Unfortunately I have two upcoming long rides (Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaator to Beijing) in second class. The third class either doesn't exist or was sold out when I got my tickets. I just hope it's not hot. . .

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Hanging out with HareKrishna in Siberia


No seriously. This is one of those moments when you look at your life and think "what is going on here?" as I sit on the living room floor of a real live Russian Hare Krishna and all the other Russians around me chant in Sanskrit. I got here through couchsurfing- my host for the two days in Novosibirsk is chanting quietly next to me. It is clear that she is new to all this too; it seems that when she came back to Russia after eight years in the US she had become a vegetarian and was looking for some like minded people in her home town. She found the Hare Krishna and has started to spend time with them. On the day that I arrived, they had a guest also arriving. He is a British man that has spent much of the past ten years traveling around Russia and other places bringing the word of Krishna to the people. We met him and talked to him a bit and he did a talk about (I assume) life, god and all that good stuff - mostly in Russia (after all the chanting in Sanskrit). It was not what I was expecting in Siberia, but this is the fun of couchsurfing. My host, Marina, was a great girl, and in addition to introducing me to her enlightened friends, she also took me to meet her (truly adorable) parents and we baked cookies at her house. I wouldn't really say that I saw a lot of Novosibirsk (that's New Siberia to you), but what I did see actually reminded me a bit of Denver. It is about the same size and pretty much smack dab in the middle of the country (there is in fact a church there dedicated to the center of Russia). We went to a small art museum and walked around town. My time was too short to really get a feel for the city, and before too long I was back on the train . . .

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Trans-sib section one . . . Yekaterinburg


I got on my second Russian train in St. Petersburg for the first section of my trans-Siberian adventure. The trip from St. Petersburg to Yekaterinburg is the longest section I have planned for the trip, nearly 40 hours. I stocked up on train food and headed out in the afternoon. Two nights of sleeping, eating, reading and staring out the window into the expanse of Russia, I arrived in Yekaterinburg- the last city of European Russia.

I had sent out a few couchsurfing requests before leaving and I actually got two responses so I had to choose between them. They both seemed like great hosts and like interesting people that I would get along with. I decided to stay with Yulia, because she had responded first, but I sent a message to Tanya to see if we could still get together.

With my two hosts, I ended up having two different and rewarding experiences in Yekaterinburg. I spent the first part of my first day exploring the city with Tanya- she is hoping to become a tour guide, so she looks at couchsurfing as good practice. Later in the afternoon I met up with Yulia and got to hang out with her and some of he friends. Yulia works at the university in the study abroad office. Right now there are not many foreigners studying in Yekaterinburg but that she is trying to change this and also encouraging Russian students to go abroad. Yulia is also working to increase volunteerism in her town- partly by volunteering herself and encouraging others to volunteer as well. She was very interested in what I was doing in Albania. The next morning I went with her to a fundraising event that she was helping with for an organization that works with downs syndrome children. It was great to see her and this organization and the work that they are doing.

In the afternoon I met up with Tanya again for tea and cake and then we went to see an art instillation at a factory near her house. The instillation, made up of several different light effects and video instillation's was really interesting. They somehow got permission to put lights up on several out of use parts of the factory, including a 'tetris' game on a smoke stack and a thunder and lightning display on one of the huge cooling towers. I'm not sure that I 'got' all of the instillations (do we ever really 'get' modern art), but I appreciated the exhibition. Much like the event in the morning, I am always happy when people are doing SOMETHING, especially since in Albania it was hard to find people that were doing innovative, interesting and important things. We finished the evening with a movie at Tanya's friends house and then she took me back to Yulia's. At Yulia's I was reminded again that things are still in progress in Russia when the elevator didn't work and we had to climb up 14 floors to her apartment. Overall, an interesting time in Yekaterinburg . . .

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Peter's great city

Raining again in St. Petersburg- time to get lost in the Hermitage museum? I think so . . .

This may be the most impressive art museum that I have ever been to (or rather been to and been able to appreciate, since I went to the Louvre when I was 12 and don't really remember anything but he Mona Lisa). It was room after room after room of masters and greats and then a few more rooms. In fact, the rooms themselves were a big part of the attraction- painted ceilings, gilded decorations, mosaic parquet floors- incredible. I could have wandered around for days- I was only able to listen to about half of the audio-guide selections.

You would think that after the Hermitage and winter palace, anything else would be a disappointment, until you saw the Summer palace- Peterhof. Smaller, but no less or ornate, the real attraction at Peterhof is not the palace at all, but the fountains. Word just can't describe- you just need pictures.



St. Petersburg may be one of my new favorite cities. I appreciate the unified architecture and beautiful planned canals. It feels put together, but not forced. I spent about two days just walking around and around and around. The buildings are beautiful, inside and out. Even the hostel I stayed in the first few days had these beautiful decorated ceilings! I think that St. Petersburg could be a city that I could live in . . . the cities I could live in keep piling up . . .

Thursday, September 23, 2010

More on Moscow


Moscow is not just expensive, it is also pretty great. A lot of people told me that a few days in Moscow would probably be enough, and they were right, but I had a pretty good few days. Since I left Albania this is the longest that I have been in any one place (except Denver and that doesn't really count). I don't actually like the hit and run approach to travel that I did in the early summer, but because of time constraints it was what it was. Even though I usually felt rushed, I knew it could be worse- we were constantly seeing tour groups on crazy fast super tours- follow the group, stay in line, ok next country! While I appreciate the ease and convenience of tours like that, I don't really think they are generally right for me- even if I could afford them. Anyway, so having five days in one place was kind of a treat. You get some time to get used to things, to back to things and not feel rushed.

The jet-lag hit me hard the first day and I opted for taking it a bit easy- I walked around town a bit and when it started to rain, I headed back to my hostel and took a nap. There would be time enough. On the second day I hooked up with an Aussia from my hostel and we went and saw the jewels of the empire at the Kremlin. The next day we went up to the university on the hill above the city for a great view and spent the one once day I had in Moscow walking all around the city.

Probably my favorite thing that I did the whole time I was there (and the cheapest) was tour the metro. The Moscow metro was built in the 1930s at the height of Stalinist Russia. He made the Metro stations "peoples palaces" and filled them with marble, statues, mosaics and frescos. I spent about 6 hours going around the four oldest (and most ornate) lines. It was the perfect way to spend a rainy day- warm under the streets.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

How to survive Moscow on less than $50 a day

Moscow is expensive. Maybe not quite as expensive as Oslo, but in Oslo I had a free place to stay and my mom to help out with the bills. Here, I've just got some random guys I met in the hostel and unfortunately they are not bankrolling my trip. Because of my fated standby disaster out of Amsterdam and the resulting $1000 plane ticket, I am significantly above my budget for the six month trip. When I was home I also had to spend some money on essentials like a dentist appointment (hopefully being reimbursed by PC) and contact lenses. Luckily when I was home l didn't have to spend too much on food since some of my great friends treated me to much needed Mexican food.

Anyway, it turns out that Moscow on the cheap is a bit hard. I wasn't able to couchsurf here since I didn't know when I would arrive, so right away $15 goes to the hostel every day (and that is a steal, believe me!). Food gets a bit pricey, even stuff in the grocery store blew my mind ($14 for a block of Parmesan cheese! Crazy!). But with good shopping, it can be done. It is also possible to eat reasonably out if you stick to mostly fast/street food and cafeteria style places, but figure at least $20 a day (unless you want to eat more than one full meal, then you might be talking $30).

The most expensive things in Moscow, really though, are of course the things it is hard to pass up as a foreign tourist and they know it! The museums, churches and souvenirs are crazy. Today I paid about $35 to get into the Kremlin (cathedrals and armory). It was impressive, but it sure made me long for a free Saturday at the DAM.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

America- for reals this time


So what is the most surreal thing that you can think of doing a few hours after landing at home for the first time in over two years? How about your 10 year high school reunion? Yeah, that would be pretty strange.

I was on the ground less than 24 hours when I headed to the West side for a blast from the past. A year ago, I didn't even think that the reunion would happen much less that I would be home for it. When I got the invitation in February, I was surprised. As far as I know, no West High class has had an official reunion since a least 2003, and I didn't really have faith that the class of 2000 would pull it out. But wonders never cease and our intrepid head girl got all organized and put it together- from Texas no less. I was hoping to have a couple of days to rest, but because of our travel delays, I ended up with less than 24 hours in Denver before the reunion. As a consequence I was in a bit o' shock and a bit o' jet lag.

The reunion itself was nice. There were not too many people there, since there is an a bit of a catch 22 involved in event planning- the more people that come, the cheaper the tickets, but since the tickets were going to be expensive less people came . . . Anyway, it was not super well attended (maybe 30 people out of a class of 300), but it was nice nonetheless. Many of the people there had been following me on facebook and so knew some of what I had been doing, but it was really the first time I got to go through the 20 questions about my last two years (with a few more for the other 8 since graduation).

With the reunion out of the way, I got ready for the main event, the real reason I came home and another totally surreal experience Nichole's wedding.

Regular readers may remember in my pre-PC days (there was a time before Albania?!?!?) that I lived with my friend Nichole for two years. We had been best friends since high school and when she finished college and moved home, we decided to move in with each other. For most of the two years, things were great and we had a great time. Right at the end, things sort of fell apart and we had a bit of a falling out- I won't go in to details, but just say that it took us some time to get back to ok. But we did, get back to ok that is. And when she announce her wedding plans, I decided that this was an event that I didn't want to miss. I know that she would have understood- I was going to be in Russia or some such place, but I didn't want to miss it. I have missed a lot of things in the lives of people I care about since I left, including about a million weddings (or at least 8) and several babies being born. I didn't want to miss this one and I
also hadn't been home in two years- I missed America.

The wedding was actually about four days of different celebrations- bachlorette party, rehearsal BBQ, ceremony and reception. This wasn't really a traditional wedding in some ways- like the rehearsal BBQ and the fact that the reception was at a brew-pub on a Thursday. The ceremony was very Nichole with lots of singing and readings and her and Daryn (that would be her husband) who are both religious scholars obviously had a lot to do with the ceremony. I was not a bridesmaid, which was probably for the best since her colors were yellow and red and I don't look good in yellow- instead I wore a purple dress that I found while my mom and I were stuck in Amsterdam.

The first few days home were a bit crazy and now are a bit of a blur. I guess I had a little culture shock- big moments I remember are seeing my sisters daughters (who have started to become like real people!) and driving again and then coffee, coffee, coffee (and also food, food, food-kind of like Albania when you come to think of it). For a good week, I avoided grocery stores of any kind- and when I finally went in one I had a clear mission- chicken, which actually was hard- do you know how many kinds of chicken there are?!?! But besides these kind of physical shocks, it
was kind of an awkward amount of time- three weeks. It was enough time that I started to get used to things again and got to see most of my friends. It was enough time to eat chipotle, to see a bad movie in 3-D and to have a few days to relax. It wasn't enough time to feel quite normal again. I wasn't working and at some point you hit a wall about what to do everyday. I of course left getting ready for Russia and Asia until the last minute. I was busy, but there was no routine, so I know that it's not like normal. Before I had too much time to get bored though, I was getting on a plane for Moscow- and I made it on the first flight out- no getting stuck in DC!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

America! Almost . . . (stuck in an airport or two)


As you may know, my mom works for Skywest, which is one of the small, regional airlines that flies United Express and Delta Connect. If you don't know anything about the airport business (like me) it is all rather confusing. There are all these small airlines (some with only a few planes) that contract to do flights for the big guys out of all the small airports like Rapid City and Aspen. So my mom works for one of these companies out of Denver. They do all of the United Express flights out of DIA- to places like Rapid City and Aspen . . . She is a gate agent and I think that she loves her job. She gets to talk to people all day and meet all sorts of different folks, which makes her happy. Occasionally (like with any job) things get tough, especially when there is a blizzard in Denver. But unlike her former profession (middle school math teacher) the stress only lasts for a few minutes or hours and the upset people get on planes and out of her hair- she doesn't have to take work home with her. Plus, the benefits are pretty good- as a United Express carrier, Skywest employees have United flight benefits, although with some restrictions (we'll get to that later). Since my mom started working for Skywest a few years ago my parents have been able to take a few good trips including a visit to me in Albania last year.

The biggest issue with employee flight benefits is that you have to fly standby or space available- basically, you don't know if you have a seat until usually a few minutes before the plane is ready to take off, since you can only get a seat if the flight is not sold out or people miss the plane. This can be stressful and sometimes on busy routes you can end up waiting for several flights until you get on. I have spent a night in an airport more than once because I didn't get on a flight. But usually, you eventually make it to your destination.

I'm telling you all this because when my mom decided to meet me in Norway, it was of course understood that we would fly back to America together on her passes. Since I am no longer her dependent (too old, :-( ) I can only fly on companion or "buddy" passes. These passes have some restrictions. First, I can only fly on United, where my mom and dad can fly on United plus several other airlines that they have agreements on. Second, since my mom works for Skywest, she is technically not a United employee and therefore is considered "other airline employee" even when flying on United. Third, there are occasionally embargoes and blackouts for unaccompanied companions and employees of other airlines.

Originally, we planned on flying to Frankfurt from Oslo since as the biggest United hub in Europe it has the most daily flights back to the US. I even bought a ticket to get to Germany. So much for my planning ahead, United placed an embargo on Frankfurt and several other cities for the month of August- exactly when we wanted to fly. I took the Frankfurt ticket as a loss and got a ticket to Amsterdam, the closest city not under the embargo.

We had no problem getting to Amsterdam- I had a ticket and my mom got on the same flight with plenty of seats. The flights didn't look good out of Amsterdam, but there was nothing to do but go and see what would happen. We didn't get on either flight out the first day. We got a hotel room for the night and went into town, ready to return to the airport in the morning and see if we would have better luck.

In the airport the next morning, we met the standby crew- nearly 40 people waiting to get on the two flights out. The flights were heavily oversold and with the embargo, everyone was trying to get out of Amsterdam. We had not met all these people the day before since when we arrived from Oslo we went directly to the gate- they were still all outside in the check-in area and they would only let people go through security if it seemed like they might get on the flight. It didn't look good. We were on the bottom half of the list (the list is arranged based on seniority) and some people higher than us had been waiting for several days. There was even one mother and son that had been there for nearly two weeks! We weighed our options- my mom needed to be at work on Friday (now Wednesday), a hotel room was $100 a night, plus food and other expenses- a ticket through Iceland was $1000 (cheapest last minute ticket available).

We were going to Iceland.

We were not the only people to have come up with this plan. It turned out that there were about 6 or 7 of the stand-by crew that were on our flight to New York and I think many more that ended up on the flight to Boston. We were lucky to get the tickets at all and really have to thank the lady at the Iceland Air desk in Amsterdam for her magic fingers that got my mom's ticket. We met our new friends at the gate and went to Reykjavik. Unfortunately, the layover was akwardly timed- 11 hours, but arriving in the middle of the night, so we didn't leave the airport. We found a quiet corner and slept a few hours- by the way, the Reykjavik airport is a great place to have a long layover; they have comfortable benches without armrests, they are not too busy, so there are no announcements late at night and pretty much you can sleep. We woke up to find the airport sacked in with fog, but no worries, our plane was a bit late, but not too bad. We got to New York and then had to work on how to get the rest of the way to Denver.

As we arrived in New York in the afternoon, our options were not very good for getting out. But I had planned ahead and called my good friends Will and Wendi (RPCVs Albania G11) who are now living near Columbia where Wendi is going to grad school. A new found benefit of service is that as people have returned to the States they have spread out to the far corners of this great country and now I have good friends to call on in almost every major city . . . So we headed to Harlem and crashed on the couch (and floor). In the morning we got up early and headed to LaGuardia where we tried again. Because of a canceled flight to Chicago (and it being a weekend) we weren't looking too good. After three flights, we started to look at out options. My mom could try to get on a flight with another company if they had space, but this was harder since she hadn't planned for this (how could you plan for this!) and she was supposed to buy travel vouchers ahead of time to fly on other airlines. We headed over to the other terminal to see what we could gather from Delta, JetBlue and Frontier. It looked like there were seats available on two flights to Denver on JetBlue (direct from JFK and one through Boston). I bought a full fare ticket on the direct flight and my mom got a stand-by voucher for the Boston flight (it had more seats open).

We got home.

Denver at last.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Norway in a nutshell



Let me tell you, Norway has this tourism thing down. We bought a tour called "Norway in a Nutshell" that included train tickets and a boat ride. It was not cheap, and maybe if my mom hadn't come with me, I wouldn't have done it, but it was really nice. On the first day we took the train to Myrdal-on a glacier halfway to Bergen- and then switched to the Flam railway. The Flam line descends several thousand feet very quickly through a series of long tunnels, including one which does a 180 degree corkscrew inside the mountain. This section of the trip is gorgeous- ok every part of the trip was pretty spectacular- with a series of high waterfalls. We arrived in Flam in the early afternoon and went to find our accommodations for the night- a tent in the campground. As this tour is very popular in the summer, it was hard to find places to stay (and especially places we could afford) in Flam, the only hostel was full several weeks ahead- so we
borrowed a tent. Now, over the past few months I have slept in some great place and some not so great; since we also had ground pads and sleeping bags, this was actually not that bad for me. I would even say that I was more comfortable than in the hostel in Kiev (horrible bed!). For my mom though, it was a bit hard. My mom is an experienced camper, but in the past fee years, she has had a camp bed or has slept in our camper-van when we have gone camping. The other problem came when we actually tried to put up the tent. As Tor was using their
tent for a boys weekend, we borrowed an old tent from his family. An old tent with missing poles and no instructions. I've put up a lot of tents, but this one was a puzzle- there was a frost line that we decided to ignore and in better weather we may have ignored the rain fly as well, but since it had been raining off and on we couldn't risk that. We got the main part of the tent up and eventually rigged the rain fly so that it was covering most of the tent and not touching it. It wasn't pretty, but when it did inevitably rain that night we stayed dry. My mom was a bit sore the next day, but I slept great . . .

The morning found us and we packed up for the main event- a ferry ride on a fjord. I had never really known what a fjord was before- I was expecting a sort of craggy outcropping, but what it really is is a sort of finger of ocean that juts inland- like he opposite of a peninsula. Anyway, the boat trip took us from Flam which is at one end of the fjord up and down to another fjord and then we got on a bus to go to Voss.

Voss was a nice town with a pretty church and if I hadn't been raining, a lovely mountain lake to swim in. In fact we did see a few people swimming, but they were crazy- it was cold! In Voss we stayed in a nice hostel and in the morning we caught our train back to Oslo.

In Oslo, we got an "Oslo pass" one ticket to cover all the attractions in the city (seriously could they make being a tourist any easier?). The highlight was probably the folk museum where we saw a traditional dance performance and a gorgeous wooden church. Another highlight was the Nobel museum with an exhibit on South Africa.

Our week in Norway was over too soon, but I was excited to get on my way to my next destination: HOME! See you in Denver . . .