Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Boston, Berlin; Tomay-to, tomah-to

I arrived in Berlin late last night, and the first things I saw when I got into the train station were:

a) An advertisement for the Blue Man Group
b) A Dunkin Donuts

So I had a moment of Boston nostalgia around these two originals my hometown-- It's easy these days, since I love New England fall dearly. But... then I forged ahead into the unbelievably complicated S-Bahn-U-Bahn metro system, which puts dear old Boston to shame (there are something like 25 lines!) and remembered what city I was in, after all.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

So what do you do?/Oh yeah, I wait tables, too

My perfect 5 minutes from today: seeing a street musician in a cafe by the Vltava river sing "Bohemian Like You" by the Dandy Warhols. The night was unseasonably warm, the lights were coming off the river, the amazing Prague castle towered in the background-- and I giggled, because I am a huge nerd and hearing this song while actually in Bohemia was just too excellent.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Another unit in my "rewind" series, giving you a taste of my trips until such time as I can post more in detail (likely when I return to the states)...

Arriving in Yunnan province, China (in early April) was different than most of the other arrivals on my trip-- for me it was a real homecoming, as long-time readers of this blog know. I spent almost 6 months in Yunnan during university studying Mandarin; learning about Chinese history, religion, and economics; and doing anthropology research for my undergraduate thesis in Anthropology, which focused on the storytelling traditions of the Lisu indigenous group in northwest Yunnan. The entirety of my visit to Yunnan this time around had a nostalgic, affectionate feel, as I revisited old haunts, met old friends and, in the last section, took my parents to meet some of the people who opened their homes and lives to me during my research.

*I spent almost a week in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, but it wasn't a particularly eventful week. I had lunch with old teachers; saw one of my friends from the semester abroad, Mike, who was in town doing research on a Fulbright grant; spent an inordinate amount of time in my old favorite restaurants and cafes (most significantly Salvador's, the best western-style coffee shop in the city, which had been the victim of a terrorist attack since my last visit.) I stayed in Mike's apartment for the duration of my visit, but he had to go back to the US unexpectedly to look at graduate schools. It turned out to be a great set up, though, as I caught the first serious cold of my entire trip and was basically flat on my back for most of the week, sleeping and watching internet TV but not having to worry about getting anyone else sick or dealing with a hotel staff/ loud hostelmates.

On campus at Yunnan Normal University, my home for spring semester 2007
Once I started feeling better, I made my way to Zhongdian (also known in Tibetan as Gyelthang), a tourist boomtown on the edge of the Tibetan world, only a short trip from the border of the TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region). I had been for a brief trip with my classmates during the semester abroad and had been deeply affected by the atmosphere, which truly is different than anywhere else, and the mix of cultures I learned about during our stay. My entry from that time ("Kham is Calm," which can be found in the 2007 archive of this blog) marveled at the amazing serenity I felt while exploring the Songzanlin monastery outside of town. I returned to Zhongdian hoping to reclaim that feeling and delve a little bit deeper into the world whose surface I had only brushed three years ago.

*I stayed in a guesthouse belonging to a bicultural couple, Mattieu and Kersan, he from Belgium, she from a Tibetan settlement a couple of hours north toward the border, who were friendly and very interesting to talk to. The guesthouse was beautiful, and every morning their cook/helper made me a traditional Tibetan breakfast of flatbread with honey, yogurt, fruit, and (instead of butter tea) coffee. I would sit out in the brisk spring sunshine enjoying the view of the new temple and town rooftops before starting my day.

*I went to visit that new temple, which the people of Zhongdian erected after their town because something of a tourist mecca, and took a spin around the largest prayer wheel in the world. Afterward, I happened get into a long conversation with one of the monks. He asked me a lot of questions about American life and told me about what it's like to be a monk and about his home life.

The largest prayer wheel in the world Prayer flags against a backdrop of spring cherry blossoms *I went back to Songzanlin Monastery, which had changed a great deal (including the addition of a large and obtrusive tourist gate and a price hike) but was still equally affecting and beautiful inside. There I made friends with a pair of monks, one young and one old, who told me they were grandfather and grandson. They were delighted to talk to me, the younger taking my camera for a spin around the prayer hall and the older admiring my girth (the subject of much unfortunate admiration in that part of the world) and engaging me in a simple political discussion. When I told him I was American, he smiled. "Bush, Dalai Lama" he said happily, showing me two clasped hands. "England, Dalai Lama; France, Dalai Lama"-- the clasped hands again. Then his expression darkened. "China, Dalai Lama," he said, and his fist drove into his open hand.

At the monastery
Grandfather and grandson
*During my first trip to I had met several members of Khampa Caravan, a Tibetan-run tour company that ensures that the money from its tours goes straight to the Tibetan community in the area (rather than opportunistic businesspeople who have flocked to the city to take advantage of the tourist boom.) I decided I wanted to make a day trip into the countryside outside of Zhongdian, and Khampa Caravan seemed like a good place to start. I contacted the company, and in the course of deciding on a drive north toward Deqin I made friends with the Caravan with whom I was corresponding, whose name was Dolma.

One Dolma rounded up several of her Tibetan friends, and we all drank strong Tibetan wine and talked into the night as the Lhasa Cafe emptied around us. During my first trip to Zhongdian I had met a few Tibetans who I was told had been educated in India, but I never really thought about what this meant. Discussing my new friends' life histories, however, I started to understand the amazing strength Tibetan refugees in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces must have. Each of the men pictured below left his home in the Chinese countryside between age 11 and 13. He took a bus to Lhasa (3 days), then walked-- yes, walked-- over the Himalayas for 17 more, often with no food and little to drink. He then had to sneak over the border into Nepal, bus to the Indian border, and hope to claim refugee status there. If he succeeded, he could stay in India until his education was complete 5-10 years later, never seeing his family and recieving letters a few times a year if he was lucky. If he didn't (as in the case of the gentleman in the middle of this picture), he would be sent back to Lhasa, where he would have to start the 17-day walk all over again.

As the liquor flowed, we began trading songs and stories from our respective cultures. The cafe was empty by this time, and I got goose bumps as the voices of my new friends, strong with drink, soared in unfamiliar melodies punctuated by whoops and handclaps. (I will be sure to post some of these stories, and possibly a video with one song in the "real" entry on Zhongdian later this year.)

My new Tibetan friends

My day trip up near Deqin was wonderful. The weather was gorgeous, the scenery stunning, and my guide well informed. We drove first up a major pass overlooking Napa Lake, then down to what locals call a "hot" valley, where prosperous artisan villages create amazing crafts, from cast iron pots of wooden sculpture to beautiful brasswork. The enormous traditional houses were bordered with cacti, certainly not an item I had had on my list of "things you would find in Tibet." The amazing day, which deserves its own entry, ended with a tortuous drive to an ancient monastery and a beautiful nunnery.

Napa lake in the spring
*Giving in to the impulse I would be fighting (and still am) for many months to do and see everything possible, no matter the stress, I arranged before I left Zhongdian to participate in a short (very short) "homestay experience." The program, new for its type in Zhongdian, was a form of ecotourism, connecting me with a farmer in a very small village outside town. He picked me up and drove me through countryside teeming with yaks and goats to his house, where I met his family, learned about his enormous 3-floor wooden house (which he built himself, over 2 years), and ate fried potatoes and butter tea. It was a too-brief, but despite the squeeze I had to make in order to catch my sleeper bus that night, a peek into daily life untainted by mass tourism (thought certainly tourism in some way) was well worth the effort

The unbelievably adorable daughter of the man at my brief homestay outside ZhongdianNujiang

I had to catch said sleeper bus because... I was due to meet my parents in Dali, 8 hours away, the next morning! Dedicated readers of this blog will be familiar with the Nujiang valley, where I did the anthropology research that made up my undergraduate thesis. I was very excited to return 2 years later, with my parents in tow. I missed the place and wanted to experience it again. More importantly, I missed the friends I had made during the tumultuous but incredibly rewarding time I spent there. And I was thrilled that I had the opportunity to share my unique experience, and this side of China (which few people get to see) with my parents-- in short, to introduce my American family to their and Pumi and Lisu alternates.

After an exhausting but amazing trek up the valley from Dali (10 hours in a van, but what scenery!) we spent my mother's 60th birthday in Fugong, the geographic and culture center of the Lisu tribe in Yunnan. I took my parents to the market, walked them around town, and introduced them to Mr and Mrs X, who had nursed me to back to health when I had fallen ill with dysentary 2 years prior. Things went similarly wonderfully south in Liuku. After my cell phone was stolen in Taiwan, and all my Chinese contact information with it, I had been sure I would not be able to track down the numbers of all the friends I made in Nujiang. But a mixture of luck and guanxi (the complicated net of Chinese reciprocity that connects everyone socially and practically) connected me with everyone I could have hoped to see. The reunions were truly lovely.

Lisu with their bags and baskets in Fugong

My Fugong Family meets my real family-- Mr and Mrs X, me, and my parents

Nujiang scenery
*The highlight of the Nujiang trip was a 2-day stay with the Xiong family outside Lanping. Long time readers will remember Limei, my Pumi translator who attached herself to me during my stay in Liuku and with whom I stayed in the countryside at the very end of my time in Yunnan. Limei's family had long been inviting mine to come and visit, and this was an experience I wanted my family to have. So this time I brought my parents, too-- and an important gift, a sit-walker for Limei's mother, who is unable to walk due to debilitating arthritis.

Those two days were powerful in a way I'm not sure I can explain, especially not in a round-up format like this one. In depth description will have to wait until the full-length entries. But suffice to say that living with a peasant family for 48 hours was a remarkable experience for my parents (and for me, too, although I knew what to expect.) We ate meals cooked over an open fire from chickens slaughtered hours before; we slept in the simple wooden house lined with newspapers; we peed in the potato fields. At night a group of Pumi from the village descended, curious to see the visitors, and after many rice wine toasts took to singing and dancing around the fire and insisting that we join them. And the family was so, so grateful for the walker. They cannot treatment or surgery for Mrs. Xiong, who suffers terribly and gets around by dragging wooden stool across the ground. When I left, they called me their seventh child. "You are our American family now," were their parting words.

Dinner with the Xiong family

Xiong life
Our blended family together (My parents and I are wearing the traditional clothes we were given as gifts)
Mrs. Xiong playing a traditional Pumi instrument

*Our last stop was Lanping, where we arrived in time for the Sunday market, an amazing blend of vegetables, medicinal herbs that Yi and Hmong women bring from the high mountains, trinkets, practical items, and exotics (like jade from Burma.) A visit to the market was one of my favorite parts of a weekend in Lanping, and it was wonderful to be able to share this with my mother, who came along to wander.

Burmese jade traders
Some of the wares(note the porcupine quills)

I think these women are Yi, although they might be Hmong-- some kind of hill tribe wearing head gear I'd never seen before
We were reluctant to leave the market, but time was short-- we were due at the Dali airport to leave for Vietnam!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Today, which I spent wandering the lovely streets of Vienna, Austria, marks 8 months of traveling for me, the 66% mark. It was a good day to reflect on my travels in the larger picture, and there's something on that topic that's worth saying.

I've met a lot of people during these 8 months and a lot of travelers. And I've talked to even more travelers than that, through internet forums, Twitter, etc. Many of these travelers spoke about fatigue, about burning out. Three, four months, they'd say, then they need a break. They get exhausted. They stop enjoying themselves. They are homesick or culturesick or actually sick.

But here's the thing: 8 months in, I still get a travel high every day. Literally, a day rarely goes by without at least one five minute period when I can't wipe a goofy, profoundly content smile off my face; when I am just so damn glad that I am where I am doing what I'm doing. Tonight I had a light dinner--cheese and ham toast and a tiny mocha, sweet and strong, at a gorgeous Viennese cafe that also happened to be one of the sets used in "Before Sunrise" (which is one of my favorite movies.) The atmosphere of the cafe was so perfect, and when I came out into the lane there were all sorts of other open air cafes packed with people eating and drinking beer and chatting. The sky was glowing with the last part of sunset, and when I got to my metro stop there was a free wine drinking event happening sponsored by a bank and someone just... poured me a glass of wine for standing and gaping at it all, smiling goofily, like I always do.

I sometimes think that I've been happier this year, even with just these daily bursts of travel high, then I was for a long time in my life before. That might be true, and it might be that I can't compare lives that are so profoundly different. But keeping in mind this legendary travel fatigue that I just don't feel and these daily sublime moments, here's something important: I know this is the right thing for me to be doing this year. Readers that know me are aware that this trip might not have happened if I had not had a series of failures Spring 2008, several fellowships that fell through just before the last step. Yes, I sometimes think about what would have happened if I had surmounted those last obstacles that kept me from a Watson or a Fulbright. I don't doubt I would have had amazing adventures on those paths as well, but when I go down that road I don't wish for anything different than what I've made for myself this year. And for me, the perpetually regretful, the one alwazs wondering what if, that is no small thing.

Eight months in. I have ups and downs, sometimes big ones. I had a short period this summer where I was happy but missing that everyday high, but something in Turkey brought it back for me. I'm looking into these last four months now, with trepidation, sure. It won't be easy, it will be tiring, it might be lonely or disappointing. But I'm so glad I'm here.