All posts by Matt H

Open to the Messages of Life

I know I know, I haven’t posted since China. I’m really not sure why, other than just not feeling it. In lieu of a full catch-up, I’ll just catch up what’s relevant to this story. 
I moved back home to LA and started a massage therapy program. In China, I just felt it was right, but now I’m beginning to understand why my intuition was telling me to go in this direction. It’s much more than just massage, it’s more of me putting myself in a situation that’s the most conducive to the next part of my personal growth.

Along with the massage, I’ve also started to work as a caregiver. We get paired with clients and visit them in their homes. My client is a mere 30 miles away, but since I sold my car, it actually takes me 2 or 3 hours, each way. I’ve done my best to love it though, especially with the level of exposure I get to people around LA. I feel more connected with the community and that’s what led to a few experiences I had last night that made this blog post necessary.

Last week, I was on my way home, on the second to last bus. Wait wait, first I have to say that during my commute, I try my best to stay off my phone and with all of my senses as fully engaged as possible. I especially enjoy watching people getting on and off of the bus. It’s very funny how few other people do that. So, it really catches my attention when someone is also more aware as well.

Anyway back to the story, on my way home. At the next stop, an old man comes on. He has a big gray beard that comes, in its own frazzely way, down to his chest. He’s wearing small Harry Potter spectacles (these definitely were too magical to be glasses!), and had a envelop, filled with papers, in his hand. More than his dumbledore appearance, the way he smiled and looked around really attracted my attention. I can’t stop looking at him.

I get up and go to sit next to him. Immediately we’re enveloped in conversation. The 40 minute bus ride goes by in a flash and from it I take a renewed passion to interact with the people around me.

I checked the bus times and knew this next bus transfer would be close, so off the bus I break into a run around the corner to catch my LAST bus home. No one is on the corner waiting, which usually means that I just missed a bus. Defeated, I sit down on the bench and see that I have 50 minutes until the next bus. I’m so close! But, it’s okay, I’ll take this opportunity for some patience practice.

I’m broken from my thought as a middle aged man comes up to me on my left. He asks me if he missed the bus. We relate over it being our last bus home and he tells me that he’s going to the bar across the street to get a beer as he waits. Still processing dumbledor’s spell, I tell him in a matter of fact way that I’ll join him.

Jonny stands about five eight with worn leathery skin and hands that look like they’re made of stone. He has a nice demeanor though, which makes me feel more comfortable with him. He ends up buying me the beer and telling me all about his carpentry business and his three sons, all around my age. He excitedly tells me he will travel to visit his middle son in Colorado for the winter holidays. I tell him a bit about my travels and chat the whole way back to the bus and all the way until he gets off the bus to get home.

A week goes by (hang in with me here, I’ll connect this all together) and I’m just approaching the stop for the second to last bus, the same one I took to Hogwarts last time. As I get to the stop, a big lady sitting on the bench turns around to yell at the group of people I’m walking with. She asks for a lighter and when no one responds, she starts to scream. I quickly dip by her radar and get close to the curb where the bus stops, which is also quite close to her. The crowd goes by, but she keeps screaming and even starts to spit. I can’t tell if it’s directed at me because none of it really makes sense. She’s just another one of the many crazy homeless people I see on my daily journey around the city.

I try to avoid her and just hope she’ll stop directing it toward me. She eventually does and just yells at nothing across the street, still all in words that don’t make much sense when put together. Then, an old man walks behind us and yells, just as loud at her, saying “Shut the fuck up, the police have been called and are on their way”, all of it definitely directed at her. This goes on for a few more minutes. She’s yelling across the street and the old man has now come over to my right, still yelling the same thing. I’m now sandwiched between these two people yelling, maybe at each other, so I take a few steps back and walk up the street to get away from that mess. As I’m passing her I take a good look at her face and see this ugly, twisted, red, exasperated look. I quickly look away to not attract her attention.perfect, now I’m far enough down to not be a casualty, but I’m in range to watch and make sure that nothing else happens.

A young athletic guy with dreadlocks walks by me and right toward the center of the war zone. I feel an urge to warn him, but I don’t. He stands almost directly in front of her and as expected, she starts to yell at him. He turns around and says a few things to her. He’s already definitely braver than I am. Then she says something about wanting a hug and the next time I glance over I see him going right for her. Oh great, this is it, someone is finally going to wack this lady. Now, I’m locked in on them to watch everything unfold. As he gets right up in front of her, he bends down and gives her a big hug. They stay embraced for what felt like an eternity, but was probably more like a few minutes. I can see him saying something to her and then they separate their bodies, but he keeps his hands holding hers. He holds her hands up and weaves his fingers in and out of hers, like they’re elementary school kids on the playground. I look at her face and to my surprise her expression has completely changed! The redness is gone and her eyes are sparkling. She’s smiling and even for a second, I can see her beauty coming out, right down from her soul. Now I have my shoulders turned toward them, watching in awe as this guys love totally transforms this woman in an instant.

The bus pulls up and everyone files on. I hang back to try and let this young guy go on before me. Instead the old man goes in front of me and just at the last second, he leans back and yells the same thing at the woman, one last time, as loud as he can. Then I start to usher him forward and as the young guy gets on after me, he leans back and tells the woman to have a wonderful night. At this point, she hasn’t yelled since he gave her the hug and I bet she got a real taste of the sanity she lost so long ago.

On that bus, I watch the guy as he sits in the old people section in the front. He sits right across from the old man who yelled and who is also now scowling at him. The young guy just responds with a big smile. Perfect reaction. This guy is my hero. Even though I normally try to avoid that area in the front of the bus reserved for old people, I sit next to him and talk to him. I tell him I saw what he did for that woman and I really appreciate people like him. I find out he’s a video producer from Nebraska who’s been moving around the country to get different perspectives on life. He’s only been in LA for less than a year. He ends up missing his stop because of our conversation and then quickly jumps off at the next stop.

It makes me feel inspired knowing there are such big hearted people out there. Especially in a time where the mass media bombards us with negative stimuli.

I get off that bus and wait for nearly 45 minutes for my last bus to get there. No beer this time and no Jonny anywhere in sight. I’ve sat here and waited for the bus since I met him and didn’t think about that night, but tonight is different because he’s on my mind. I just sit there and watch the road. After I get on the bus, I try to digest what just happened, so I pop my ear phones in, generally something I do every time on this last stretch home.

As I get into the neighborhood next to mine, I see an older man get on who has some crazy looking eye brow hair. I’m quite proud of it and quite jealous I don’t have an eye mane like that. Mines pretty healthy, but his is epic. Then, I look at him closer and think I’ve seen him before. I take off my hood and ear buds and realize, it’s Jonny! I can’t believe I’m seeing him again. We shake hands and he sits in the row of seats just in front of me.

He asks what I’m doing and I can smell the thick perfume of stale beer. He doesn’t seem like the alcoholic type to me, so my attention is a bit spiked. I ask him in return what he’s doing. He looks at me without saying anything. I’m quite used to this by now from my travels. I actually would do this for minutes with people sometimes as we were bargaining. So, don’t challenge my staring capabilities. I start to get an amused look on my face as he looks down to his seat. I wonder if he’s just too drunk or if he’s just one of those old guys who’s comfortable with silence. When he looks back up I can see something in his eyes that wipes the amused look right off my face.

I can see a deep sorrow in his eyes that reaches right down into my heart. He says just four words… “I lost a kid”.

When our eyes connect I can see tears welling up and I can’t take it, I have to look away or I’m going to start crying. He tells me that his middle son, the one who he was going to visit this winter, died on Sunday.

I didn’t know what to say, so I just got up and sat right next to him. I said I was so sorry for his loss, but I was thinking that I couldn’t imagine the pain he must be going through. I barely know this man, but I feel so connected to him right now, just barely touching in the cramped bus seats. I want to hug him, but instead I just stay there and hold the space for him as we both sit there in silence.

He breaks the silence telling me about his discussion with his friend about my travels. Then, he tells me how surprised he was that someone my age would have been so bold as to join him for a beer. The wizard definitely gave me more confidence, but it doesn’t seem so strange to me, I’d probably do that anywhere.

Then as to combat the urge to go back into his sorrowful thought patterns, he grabs my arm in excitement and tells me a story about mountain biking with his friends and then asks to exchange numbers with the hope that we might hit the trails together. I can tell he just wants to talk about anything else and I’m happy to be there in that way for him. I just wish I could be there longer. The next stop is his.

It’s interesting that both of these events happened within a few hours of each other and had such a profound effect on me. I see the messages from both, so related to each other. Life is screaming at me not to take advantage of the illusionary cushion of being young. For most that’s a reality, but Jonny reminded me that at any point none of us know if we’ll be on this earth for another 10 minutes or 10 years. The conviction for me to live fuller is strengthened knowing that there are so many people like that woman at the bus stop, who have lost their footing and just need a loving presence to remind them of what it feels like to truly be alive.

Advertisements

Pushed To The Edge

Now that I’ve settled into this new idea of going home, like clockwork I start to get annoyed with things around me and get a little bit impatient. There are some things about the culture here that infuriate me, but the kind of anger you might have for a loved one who keeps doing bad things to themselves. I honestly can’t stand the pressure that people feel here. Okay, maybe it’s just the reaction that everyone has toward it that gets me fired up. More so than any other culture I’ve experienced, these people are just running around in a vicious wheel that isn’t going anywhere useful and is just killing them in the process. If you’ve ever been to a busy street in New York City, you can close your eyes, forgetting the sound of people, and can feel the energy of the city. More so than other busy streets anywhere else. It’s really amazing. It’s the same in China, except when I close my eyes I can feel the tension in the air. With that said though, there are some people who are brave enough to take a breath and look around them to find out what’s best for them and ultimately the people around them. Some of those people are my closest friends here. One of them recently sent me this picture.

 

Girl on building

The first moment I lay eyes on it, I’m completely immersed. The way the dull surrounding colors emphasizes that girl’s dress, the way the big objects are contrasted with her small body, and the way she’s ever so slightly off to the left from center. I love photography and this picture is just so subtle and beautiful. Take a look at it yourself and study it and see if it captures you the same way it did to me.

Then, I start to look a bit closer at the picture. I can zoom in a bit on my phone and look at more of the details. I start to look at her and notice her expression looks like she’s almost possessed, like she’s in a dream and being taken there without control. I don’t know where it’s coming from exactly, but all of a sudden I get a deep feeling of nausea in my stomach. I look closer at her feet and notice that if her body was that small, the only way you could still see the tops of her shoes is if she’s really close to the edge of the building. Well, that’s kind of scary, why would she do that just for a nice picture? Then I take a look at her face again, but it just gets fuzzy when I try to get any more detail … Oh my God … I know what this picture is about and what she’s doing. I ask my friend who sent the picture and she confirms my suspicion. This is the last time this girl was seen alive, as right after this picture was taken, she jumped from that building to her death. I’m glad when I realize this that I’m alone because I can barely hold it together. My heart feels this heavy burden, like I was just given this news about a friend. I can’t help but cry for this girl, her family, and the rest of the country.

One of the reasons I pieced this together was because of the conversations I’ve had about this happening to other students. One of my friends, who went to one of the best Universities in China said that this happened in her school 5 or 10 times every year. They even nicknamed one building, “the suicide building”. After hearing this, I was outraged and asked other people if they’d heard of something similar. Unfortunately this story is all too common. The worst part is that people talk about it like it’s something out of anyone’s control. I never heard about any of this happening at my University and yet we still had suicide intervention speakers coming to talk to us. I’ll never forget what one speaker said in my health class. He survived a suicide attempt, jumping off of the Golden Gate Bridge, when he was just 17 and said that for an hour he was walking around the bridge crying his eyes out and if just one person had stopped to ask him what was wrong, he probably wouldn’t have jumped. His message to us was just to be there for people and be aware of people around you because you might recognize sometime when you can help someone in a small or big way. It makes me sad to hear that this situation exists here and yet there is no education about prevention, just a bombardment of talk about needing to continue work and become successful because that’s the only way forward.

If there was one way to put into words at why I feel attracted to China, it’s this situation. They have 5,000 years of tradition that teaches the people to understand their minds and body and how to express themselves through multiple different avenues that could be called the different Chinese arts. Yet, it seems as though people are forgetting those lessons and barreling toward the opposite end, with these terrible consequences to show for it all. I think if I start some kind of wellness, therapeutic or healing center, what better place to help people then a place where so many people feel that they have no other option in their lives, but to give up their hopes and dreams for the future. Whether it’s as simple as using the culture as an excuse not to challenge themselves or something as extreme as this girl in the picture, it’s hard to live in a place with this situation unless I’m doing something to make it better.

That really sent me over the edge of being negative about being here. I’m trying my best to digest this in a different way, but I need help from someone else on this one.

That’s when everything changed and will lead me now to witting about happy things. Through a family friend back home, I got in contact with an old professor from Beijing who is now living in the US. She comes back once a year and this time back she gave me a call so that we could go out and get dinner. One evening I travel to her house and meet her on the street before we walk up to her apartment together. I immediately get a good feeling about her, like she has grandmotherly love bubbling up from every pore. We get up to the apartment and her husband meets me and shakes my hand. He has the same wonderful happy old man aura about him. We go into their living room and all sit down. Their apartment is quaint and lovely, I don’t want to leave! Their English is really amazing, which comes as no surprise after I find out they’ve lived in the US for almost 40 years and have grandchildren who know less about their home than I do. We quickly hit it off talking about her mother’s painting, the way China used to be, and how they can’t stand where it’s gotten to now. In my darkest time relating to the Chinese culture, these two come in to save me and turn my gloom into optimism. We share laughs over the same complaints of how people are in the city. They even stop to greet their other elderly friend outside, both of them said hi and smiled right into each other’s faces. I was told by more people than I could count, that when I greet people and smile, they won’t understand because it’s not what they do in this culture. These two also complain about how people don’t pay attention to each other as they go around and then he talked about Beijing in the early 50’s when it was just farmland. I could listen to their stories for days.

We met her brother at dinner and she made him promise that he would take care of me here after they both go back to the US. The dinner was lovely too and we even finished with tea as they said, “there’s no rush just enjoy each other’s company”.

After these experiences I have to admit that I’m still haunted by that girl in the red dress. I can’t get it out of my head. But, I think it’s just a reminder, a sort of motivation, to remember to be aware of people around me, think of ways I can use my skills and experiences to at least help my good friends I’ve made here, always keep really old people, and really young for that matter, in my life, and instead of feeling tension or anger for people who are stuck in the viscous circle, just to remember that compassion, understanding, and love will be the only ways that I can help save the next girl in a red dress.

Coming Home

As the next trip, which is Visa-Trip-to-the-Border, comes around, I’m put into a reflective state. Well, that time has come again and I realized I haven’t been posting since the last trip.

There are a few good reasons for that. I really had something knocked sideways in me after that last border trip, as was quite evident in my writing. I couldn’t get my head straight enough to write a decent blog post.

A few weeks after I got back, I was talking to Kevin, the PhD student who is my biggest supporter here, and he told me that it’s best that I find something new and stop coming to the lab. Judging by the way the main professor keeps coaxing me to stay, I think this just came from Kevin as a friend, not as the professor’s right hand man. Anyway, what he said was probably going to be my plan anyway, but it still kind of knocked me from being sideways to being completely upside down.

I left the lab to walk around outside a bit before dinner time to just let things settle. After a few hours, in the middle of my dinner, I was hit with a really profound realization. I think it’s what I’ve been searching for this whole time I’ve been abroad, but certainly since I’ve been traveling through China.

I realized that I want to start my own “Wellness Center”, for the lack of a better word. I want to learn all kinds of healing modalities from around the world; including Chinese and Japanese medicine, Native American medicine, massage, psychology, nutrition, and yoga. I don’t want, and probably can’t even be, an expert in all of these. I just want to understand them enough to know how and what they can help heal in someone. Then, I can have those experts there or a genuine practitioner to refer people to. I really want to change how people think of these places from luxury treatments for middle to upper class people to a necessity that even people who thought they never had the time or money for it can still access it. I think those people are the ones that need this kind of attention the most.

Put all the specifics aside, I just want to start a place where everyone is really listened to, not just with the ears, but with the whole body, mind, and soul. There are not enough of those resources for poor people. I want my company to be a place where we live what we preach, where the janitor is just as important as the highest leadership position. I’ve heard that lesson before, but really learned it first hand in my job in Laos. Every morning I chatted with our maid in the kitchen before anyone else got to work. Our conversations revealed so much to me about our office from a perspective that was different from anyone else.

Like I said, the details will change quite a bit, especially as I start to learn some of these things and progress down this new path, but I just feel so relieved to at least have the foundation of an idea and a place to go next. I think I finally have something that I can pour myself into and really feel good about spending most of my day doing, knowing that it will lead me to my dreams.

So, after this realization, I kept thinking about options here and decided to learn massage first and use that as my foundation to make a living and still earn all the additional things I want later on.

The problem I keep running into with this is that the only real options for learning a variety of massage techniques here entails working at a spa. Not a bad way to hone my skills, but I don’t want to get stuck in doing that kind of work. So, I need a stronger and more diverse foundation, that way I can really go off and explore the different options. I found a few opportunities to learn Chinese medicine, but that’s even more specialized and I can see it leading me into the same traps.

As I’m thinking about all of this, it’s getting closer to the mark where I should buy the plane ticket home to get the best deal. I don’t know why I’m hesitating with buying the ticket home, but it’s funny that I also did the same thing with getting my international health insurance. I briefly consider going home on a one-way trip, but quickly dismiss that as just giving up on China. After all I’ve been here for about 7 months, which is just before the time where I start to get big rewards from all my hard work with language and cultural learning.

Then, in the midst of all the planning I find out that this girl, who captivated me from the beginning, isn’t interested in me, seemingly even just as a friend. I don’t know what’s a bigger blow, that I dedicated so much energy into developing something between us or that I really felt a deep confidence, deeper than anything I’ve felt before, that it was mutual and strong. Regardless of my hurt pride, I gained some valuable life lessons and probably deserved this because I’ve also selfishly lead other girls on, even though deep down I knew I wasn’t in it.

Then, like a hammer striking a gong, I think “maybe I should go home”. It’s hard for me to admit, but my sudden consideration of going home had a lot to do with this girl. So, as if to make the situation more embarrassing for myself, I realized that I was grasping things too much and trying to force the natural flow of my life into the directions that my brain thought would be best. Another big lesson for me. I need to work on my ability to let go and follow the natural bends in my life and not try to hold on to continuing in one direction just because I got comfortable or just because I have a superficial goal, like getting to the next step with Chinese.

Now with going home as a blaring option, I can really measure the benefits between my pursuit at home versus in China. I even make a list and start to tally reasons for both sides. I talk to my Dad and he give me good advice, that I should pick one option, set my mind to it, and see how it feels. Trust your gut, your instincts. If it feels good, it’s probably right. If it feels bad, try the other decision and see how that one feels.

So, I make my decision… I’m going home and I’m staying there. As the decision settles, I feel better and better about it. I add a few more things to the list and then forget completely about it, I’ve set my decision in stone, so there’s no need for a list.

Now my plan is to go home and study a variety of massage techniques close to home and do all the things I’ve been missing for the past three year journey abroad. It’s time to go home and I can’t be happier about it.

Like any place I’ve come and gone, I will miss China. Even maybe a little bit more than any place I’ve been to before. I don’t know if it’s because I feel that the time was cut a bit short or the feeling that I’ve had since I got here, that there’s something really special about China. Either way, it will be an attraction that will surely be tested with our coming separation.

Off To Mongolia

It’s that time again, 60 days and another trip to the boarder to reset my visa. It seems like this past 60 days went by so quickly, but when I think where I went and what I did, I feel the opposite. I feel more like, that was one hell of a 60 day period! The unfortunate part is that I’ve only been back from the last train trip for a few days and now I’m buying a ticket for another. I’m slightly at ease knowing this time I have a bed seat and the ride is only about 10 hours.

The ride turns out to be as uneventful as it sounds. I met a nice American family and, surprisingly, they’re the first Americans I’ve met since arriving at the farm in October. It feels really good to speak with another native English speaker again, especially those from the same background. It’s really tiring to speak to people with English as their second or third language, for a whole 5 months, who get what I say, but don’t really pick up on the subtleties. I love to play with language and when I’m not able to do that it bugs me. Part of the way through the train the family tells me about their awful journey on the train with no seat, for a whole four hours! I chuckle to myself and feel happy I wasn’t on one of the 50 hour trains with no seat, like the Chinese guy nearby probably had to bear. I guess the pain is really relative and anything more than a few hours on a train with your luggage and no seat isn’t going to be enjoyable.

This time I booked a cheap hostel ahead of time. I’m off the train and everything is going smoothly as I go right on over to check in. I enter a broken down shop front to find an old couple and their young son, about my age, all sitting in a bedroom the size of most bathrooms, watching TV together. They spring up and quickly start to help me. I get a good feeling from them as we chat and laugh together.

The father takes me up stairs to my room. I ask him for some hot water, knowing then that it will have been boiled and sterilized. As he leaves, I drop down my stuff and check out the situation. There are two beds, a seat, table, fan and air conditioning, and the funniest thing I’ve seen in a broken down hotel room… A brand new desktop computer. It’s by far the newest thing in the whole hostel and maybe even the city. I’ll skip the question about having wifi. The father comes back in the room with a giant thermos of hot water that probably holds more than a few liters and a drinking glass that is closer to the size of my pinky nail. He leaves and I tell them I’ll see them in the morning. I take off the top of the water and a plume of steam shoots up. I have to admit that I’m not a very experienced cook and didn’t pay much attention in my chemistry class, but I do remember that boiling an amount of water like this couldn’t have been prepared this quickly, but it seems as though they just took this off the fire a few seconds ago for me. I pour a glass, I mean a thimble, or drop, or whatever that amount of water equals, but it certainly can’t be called a glass.

I take off my jackets and go to sit down on the bed. Like most people do with beds, I more fall onto it, but remembering where I am, I quickly realize that was a bad idea. I try to spread out my weight, but it’s too late as my butt is the only thing that hits the bed, and I can hear something snap. I’m not sure what on me just gave out, but I know for sure that the bed is fine. I’ve never in my life felt a bed as hard as this one. I felt softer rocks! I grab all the bedding from the second bed and stack it on the first one. Okay, now it’s about as hard a rock. Perfect.

I get out my toothbrush and reach for the glass of water. I don’t know what comes first, dropping the glass or me screaming. They gave me a thermos of LAVA, not water! I managed to keep enough water to get my tooth brush wet. Down the hall in the shared bathroom area I brush my teeth in the detached sink and then go to pee in the toilet room. Someone pooped in the squatty toilet and left it there. I wonder how long that’s been there… Maybe since they last had tourists, which would have been this past summer. We’re just leaving winter now, so that’s a good signal for me to slowly back out of the room without moving to fast and disturbing the new species that have been breeding here.

Back in the room, I turn the light off to go to sleep and it actually gets brighter! There are so many neon sign boards outside that my room is now coated in that creepy fake pink color that is mostly associated with things people want to forget or will never admit knowing in the first place. I guess the florescent bulb was helping to block some of that terrible neon from the room. Good thing I had plenty of preparation for terrible sleeping situations in college. I curl up on my rock and am out like a light.

The next day, I’m off with a skip in my step. I think I’m really starting to figure this living in China thing out. I know how to master the trains, the living situations, and now the borders. I get to the border right when it opens at 8:30, I won’t forget that Chinese listening error I made last time. I can hear the word for “half” now like it was the rattle of a deadly snake.

After about 30 minutes of standing on the road, I start to second-guess that confidence that just helped me glide here. A guy comes and pulls over to take me and I end up not getting the best feeling, but talk him down on the price, so I get in. We just drive down closer to the border and get out of the car to wait for more to fill his car. Ugh, this is never going to happen. I waited here because I wanted to be in a different place, most people go up into town to line up for the jeeps. I was hoping to use my foreigner charm to cheat the system a bit. I get out of his car and try to flag down more passing by.

A few hours go by and now my lack of confidence has turned into desperation. I can’t help but think of the valuable hitchhiking time I’m missing. I keep comparing this to the last trip and thinking, that by this time I was already done and headed to the edge of town. That’s my first mistake. With my style of adventure through these places, I can’t get caught up in wishing I had the same success as before. If I do that, I’ll miss the beauty and unique situation I’m in right now, at this moment. That’s the amazing part of life, no matter how many times I do the same routine, there will always be something different, something that I can notice and learn from.

Shaken out of my dissapointment I see my guy turning around to pick me up. He says that two others are coming to meet us and then we’ll all go across. A woman pulls up in her car and after some arguing I agree just to pay her the full price to take me there and back. Whatever, I just want to get this done and back on the road to Beijing. If i can do this fast enough to get back to the same train station to avoid another hotel, it will have been worth not getting the reduced price. We set off and everything through the check points goes smoothly.

On the other side of the Mongolian check point she calls me over and asks for the money. I laugh and tell her, in Chinese, that I’ll pay her after she brings me back to the Chinese side. The only problem is that she speaks fewer Chinese words than I do, wow that’s quite a feat for someone living in China. She speaks a mix of terrible Chinese, Mongolian, and Russian. We have no choice resort to pointing and making little dancy motions. She takes me over to the side returning to China and points to a guy who, after they both point back to the Chinese side, ask for the money again. I almost give it to them and then the tourist scamming signal in my head is giving me a red alert. There’s no way I’m going to be tricked by something as obvious as this. I try to go back into the building to get my passport stamped out of Mongolia, but they are clearly distressed. I tell them that they should just wait and then as I’m walking away she tells me to pay the money to the guy. There we go, now we’re all happy.

Out of the building, I see the guy and go to get back into his jeep. Before I get in, he asks for the money. I tell him no and in Chinese explain that we still have another check point and then going back into the city before I will pay him any money. He doesn’t budge. He tells me that I have to pay him the money before we go. I can see him starting to lose his patience, but there’s no way that I’m going to let this guy get my money. He could just easily leave at the Chinese check point building and since they don’t let anyone walk across any part of the crossing, I’d have to pay someone else to take me the rest of the way. I know this trick, nice try. He walks around to other jeep drivers to tell them the situation, but like him, none of them speak Mandarin. Finally, there’s a Chinese guy that speaks both of our languages. He tells me what I already know and I say that I’m not going to pay until after the guy delivers me. That’s the way all unofficial transportation goes here. My driver guy completely loses his cool and holds up his hand close to my face and says something that sounds like a terribly pronounced “fuck you”. That’s all I needed for my adrenaline to start coursing through my body. His face is now screwed into a permanent scowl. Even if I knew this guy was going to take me back, I don’t feel safe anymore, so now I have a whole new reason not to go with him. I walk away a few steps and look around to see if there are any guards in the area. There are a few, but they’re all pathetically out of shape. I’m going to have to defend myself here.

When I start to turn around I see him coming up behind me and he lashes out to aggressively grab the strap of my backpack. He tries to throw me around, but I’m much bigger than he is. I spread out my center of gravity and start to plan exactly how I’m going to put an end to this. He’s leaving all his soft parts open and has no kind of stance to hold his balance if I decide to flip him onto the ground. I wait for him to make a move before I do anything, but he just pulls out his phone to call someone. I take a deep breath and ditch the idea of any kind of physical conflict. At the very least I don’t want to hurt anyone, even if he might be only a town drunk who no one likes. On the other hand, he could be the spoiled rich son of someone powerful, so I think getting out of this without a scratch is in my best interests. He finally lets go of my bag and I walk over to his car, give him the money, and he curses a few more times before we all get into the car.

The rest of the crossing goes smoothly and he even drives us all the way back to the center of town. I start to really feel bad about the whole situation. I want to say sorry as I get out, just to maybe help him release some of the tension I’ve caused him, but don’t know what language to speak and don’t have a Mongolian translation ability on my phone.

I just leave his car with a few things on my mind. I don’t really know how this border process works, but I do realize now that he was telling me that he paid the 100 to the woman and didn’t have enough to pay the guards to get back through the Chinese side. I was just worried about not falling into a tourist trap, but didn’t pick up on all the signs that told me that the situation was probably okay. It would be easy for me to blame him and just walk away from the situation, but I can’t help but feel guilty about disrupting the whole process and making him so angry. I want to leave everywhere I go with the people happier than before I got there. I think I’ve had a pretty good track record of that with my travels so far, but lost the battle on this one. I guess it’s just something to absorb and recognize next time I’m in a situation like that.

I get back to the edge of town and start to flag cars over. I’ve already waited longer than last time and fall back into the rut of comparing to the success I had before. I take a deep breath, look around at the beautiful scenery and try to just let everything go. A few minutes later, I’m really surprised when a woman pulls over to talk to me because I’ve never had a female by herself even give me more than a second glance when I’m hitchhiking and for good reason, I wouldn’t either. She gives me a quick ride up the road and I’m happy just to be away from the edge of town. Then, after another few minutes a pickup truck pulls over to take me another few kilometers down the road. Now I’m really off in the middle of nowhere. This is absolutely a perfect hitchhiking situation in my book.

Like clockwork, another few minutes go by and some guys pull over to get me. Three younger guys all jump out to clear out the fourth seat for me. I tell them I’m going to Beijing and they say that even though they won’t reach there, they’ll take on the way there. It’s nice to talk to people to understand the idea of hitchhiking. Most of my time is spent explaining that it’s okay that we don’t reach my destination, I just want to go a bit further down the road.

I find out that these guys are going to another province on the other side of Beijing and tell me that they’ll be able to bring me all the way back. Woah, this is the best situation I could possibly get from the Mongolian border! This is even better than last time… Wait, stop comparing, idiot!

We chat a bit and I quickly realize that these are good guys. We quickly get to the point of teasing each other and laughing at each others’ silliness. Again, I feel so blessed to find these people who I connect with so quickly. It really gives me hope for people after running into some like that jeep driver. It’s amazing to me how the ups and down of this kind of travel are like an exaggerated version of “normal” life and I really love every second. I get the chance to learn how to smooth out myself as I ride on both extremes. We stop quite a bit to get out and stretch and pee and I really like the relaxed feeling I get around these guys. I feel like I’m around my buddies back home. I don’t get that same kind of anxiety I get from most younger Chinese people, especially those in the cities. One time, we stop and even though I don’t feel like I have to pee I go over to try, just like my mom always told me after a long trip, but my feeling was correct. The main voice of the guys asks me if there was no pee and I laugh and tell him I couldn’t find any. It sounds so crude in Chinese, but much funnier than in English. They continue to tease me about that and I’m really appreciative of good friends who can tease each other, especially when they add me to the fun so quickly.

They end up driving me all the way to the subway station to take the rest of the way back to the farm where I’ll register my living arrangements with the local police. Every time I leave and come back I have to register where I’m staying. I was explained it’s China’s way of keeping track of their foreigners to make sure they are in safe situations. China would be missing out a lot if something happened to their expat community.

I get to the subway at about 7 and hurry all the way out to the end of the line where I will then take an hour long bus to get to the farm. After a few minutes not seeing the buses, I check the board and see that all my options stopped about an hour ago. I check my phone and see another option just one stop back on the subway. The subway is open until 11:30, so I don’t have to worry about that. After getting to the new spot I find out that those buses have also stopped. I talk to the farm woman, but she tells me to get a hotel and continue in the morning. If I were visiting the Lin farm, they would have already been here waiting for me, no questions asked. There’s something that feels really different here in Beijing and I don’t like it one bit.

I rush back down the subway at about 10:50, but the guard tells me that even though it’s not 11:30, the train won’t go all the way back to the school before it stops for the night. I take a deep sigh, try to think of someway out, but realize I have to give up and get a hotel. Exactly what I was trying to avoid. I go to the only hotel in the area and find out it’s nearly the price of my entire trip! At first I’m dissapointed, but then I figure after living so frugally the rest of the time, maybe it’s time to treat myself a little bit. A little bit is exactly what happens. The room is not even close to meeting the cost, but there’s nothing I can do now so I take a shower and fall fast asleep on a real, non-rock bed.

Train Trip to Beijing

I’m up early to get ready for this wonderfully awful train trip back to Beijing. Everything is the same. Same type of train, same times, and 21 hours of no seat. I have to say that even though I gained some good lessons on the way here, I’m feeling resistance to do this again.

 

An hour ahead of the departure time, I can see people start to line up, so I run up to join the growing crowd. Just as the workers are coming around to open the gates, I can see a scary look of determination on everyone’s face. The gates are open and BOOM everyone’s off like horses out of the starting gates. Somehow, I manage to squeeze in before the bulk of the crowd. After I get through the gate, I break out into a hurried jog. I start to laugh when everyone else does exactly the same, just at a slower pace. The laughing isn’t making this easy. I get around the corner to the train and see that we’re at car 10 and I need to go to car 1, all the way in the back of the train. I also notice that there are quite a few people who managed to get in front of me, so I pick up my pace and really start to run. No more laughing.

Okay, I can’t keep that up for long, the giggles return as I’m passing by people with too much luggage or those who are already too winded to continue. I tuck everything into my body and pick up my pace again, to the point of bounding down the track. I spot the guy in the front of the pack and am determined to beat him and everyone else onto the car. With about 100 meters left to the car, a worker holds up a loud speaker in our direction and the guy in front stops. I stop also within a few strides of him. Then, I catch a glimpse of someone who managed to get in front of us and is still running, right past that worker. Maybe this guy next to me just got tired. Either way, I’m far from tired and determined to get a place to sit, so I start to run right past the woman yelling and hop onto the train.

It even looks exactly like the last train, everything in the same place and I swear I can still see some of my battle wounds smeared on the walls. I skip past the entrance to get to the very back where there won’t be interruptions as people get on and off the car.

My heart sinks as I see a group of old people already spread out, claiming the exact spot I was headed for. I get close just to make sure and peal back at the sight of their scowls. I go back to the doors where I just entered to peak into car 2, but see piles of bags and people already set up. I want to go further down, but worry that there won’t be room or that the car 1 on my ticket is a fixed position. I double back and sit on the opposite door which I sat last time. However, this time I throw down my bags and immediately pull out my seat to make sure I spread out over enough room to be able to get some kind of stretching room. Success… Somewhat.

An old man pulls up next to me and sets his stuff in the same way. We’re occupying the same space that four of us did the last trip. He smiles and then we begin to talk a bit. When he answers me, he leans in so close that I’m afraid our eye lashes might tickle each other. Despite the total stiffness taking over my body, I manage to keep eye contact and enough attention to somewhat understand what he’s saying. When I ask him to repeat himself he get even closer and I can’t bear it, I have to lean back.

The trip starts and I feel really grateful that I don’t have to begin the trip with 5 hours of standing, like last time. Another old man comes up and kneels down to talk to the one sitting next to me. I turn completely in their direction to watch their interaction as closely as I can. Neither of them has an ounce of self-consciousness, so they don’t even notice that the three of our eye lashes are now almost touching. I don’t catch a lot of the slurred speech, but I do understand that the old man who is kneeling down keeps asking the other guy to repeat himself. The guy sitting is doing the same. I can hear them exchange a few, “I’m hearing you, but I don’t understand what you’re saying”. This is amazing! I think I was doing about as good as this new old guy was with communication. Okay, definitely not as good… This guy has the confidence not to lean back.

From my seat I’m able to get into the routine of sitting for an hour and then standing up for a nice stretch and half of the next hour standing. I do this a few times, who knows for how long, I’m scared to death to look at the clock. Then, the conductors come up to me and tell me something about a seat up in the front of the train. I ask them if I’ll be switching seats and they tell me no. I’m confused and they can see the look on my face, so they tell me to wait for a minute. I say thank you and then when they leave the old slurry man turns to me with an excited face and says that something will be really good for me. Okay, I’ve pieced enough of this together now to know that they’re not going to kick me off the Chinese-person-only train. It certainly seems that way at least, no trace of any foreigners.

The conductors come back to fetch me and I quickly pack my stuff up and begin to follow them down the aisle. Last time on the train, I didn’t dare to get up and explore, so this is the first time that I left that little corridor. I really wish I hadn’t… Even with that time standing on the last train, it’s no where near as bad as the condition for those who didn’t get the door spot. I was really lucky to get that spot! I’m barely squeezing past people, more of a squish I’d say. That’s a squish for them not me, I’m twice as big as the people I’m passing. Thank you European traits! There are people standing everywhere and strewn about in every possible space of floor that’s left to occupy. It feels like I just entered the car where they keep the animals. This is embarrassing. It really makes my stomach turn. I can’t believe that people are being treated this way. My stomach goes back to normal when I get up to a group of men who all wildly greet me and push me down onto an empty seat next to them. I look back at everyone else stuck in their horrible situation… Suckers!

They hand me an a few oranges and begin to grill me. I hold my own for awhile until the guy talking starts to get too confident in my Chinese ability. He starts to speak quicker and with more of his Sichuan accent. They pronounce words different and even in some cases they will use entirely different terms. I’m no match as we soon all give up on this conversation.

They give up on the conversation with me, but among them, the conversation is just as lively as ever. I try to listen a bit, but I drift in an out. As they’re talking a young guy comes up to me and speaks English. I find out that he’s a first year at a military university. He looks like he just won the lottery with finding me on this train.

After some time, he invites me to go with him to eat at the canteen. Woah, I had no idea there was a canteen on the train. See, this is exactly what I missed by sitting in the same spot last time. I climb through the next train car with him and, in most cases, the people would have to get up, pack up their seat, and press themselves in to the other people lining the walls to let us by. I couldn’t imagine having that spot and having to do that for everyone that passed for the whole 21 hours. I guess it’s better than not having a seat at all. Since the military guy is young, Chinese,  and in obvious good physical shape, he’s left to stand the entire time. Now that’s real torture. No wonder he wants to go to the canteen. At least he’ll be able to sit down for an hour as we eat.

He orders and pays for our food. According to the Chinese culture he invited me, so that’s expected and if I offer, it’s puts distance between us by being to polite. Especially since this is the first time we’ve met. The food is pretty good for a train, but just coming from the farm, it’s like liking the carpet. I go back and my seat is immediately surrendered as the group beckons me to come back. I don’t know if it was just because we were in the canteen, but it suddenly feels more crowded then it did before. There’s someone standing just to my left, leaning on the head rest of my seat, so I have to lean up a bit. But, that’s no problem. There’s also someone sitting right in front of me on a small portable seat, so I’m not getting any leg room at all. Also, no biggie. There are some people to the right and left of that seat, so I can’t stretch out beyond the one in the middle. Still, nothing I can’t handle. The main guy who looks like the one who had the idea to bring me over and took the lead on all my questioning is also the one that won’t stop talking at a level that sounds like they’re having a heated debate. Good thing I can tune people out really well. Sitting in this position, I really feel immersed in this type of train travel in a way that I didn’t get to experience on the last trip. Even with those first 5 hours where I was standing, it wasn’t as intense as this. A few hours go by and nothing changes. I’m still packing in to the seat and the guy still won’t stop his rant. A few more hours go by and he’s completely chipped away at my patience. Now that I’m irritated, and the people around me start to bother me. I keep leaning my head back, and hitting the guy, and bouncing back up to an upright seated position. He never moves to give me more room. I start to feel my skin crawling from the inside out and every inch of my body is trying to scream at these assholes who won’t give me an inch of space! I can’t take this anymore! I’ve got to get up and get away from these people or I’m going to do something I regret. I look up the car to the canteen and see all those people who I made get up before, settled back down in their spots. I can’t bother them. I turn around and see the wild jungle that is our train car with people in every square inch they could fit, including some siting on the backs of the chairs. Then, I spot my military friend with his head phones in, still standing in the midst of the chaos. Suddenly my rampaging anxiousness melts away at the thought of how bad his experience must be right now. All I can think about is how the seat that I had first was much better than the situation that I’m in now, instead of about how everyone else around me is in a much worse predicament and the part that really gets me is that we’re all in it together.

That realization gets me to relax my mind and feel more connected to everyone around me. My body doesn’t want to lash out anymore, funny how all that is generated from the mind, not so much from the situation itself. Who knows how much more time goes by and then the guys who invited me over, goes up to talk to an attendant and ends up buying a bed to spend the rest of the 9 hours we have on the train. I’m tempted to do the same, but now I feel bad leaving all these people to wallow in this situation. I decide to stick it out in this seat position. Especially now that I can breathe a little bit.

Some middle aged guys come over and take the seat before anyone has time to take a breath. It’s a shame that they don’t give it to this young boy and his little sister, who’s been sprawled out over him and half way into the aisle the entire ride. An old guy comes to sit on that portable seat that’s right in front of me, and I can’t bare to sit here anymore as he’s crunched onto the seat, so I give him my seat and head for the canteen car. There was some extra space there that looks like it might have been off limits, but maybe I can use my foreigner charm to be there anyway. I get up to the car to find that other Chinese people had the same charming idea I had and now every corner is taken. Now I have absolutely no seat and have to stand. I spot my military friend and it seems like we both had the same idea. We stand around for a few hours before he gets me a seat. I’m not sure where he went, but I’m so tired, I can barely keep my head up. We’re sitting four to the table, just like I went out somewhere to eat with three other strangers. However, this time there will be no eating. The couple across from me collapse on each other and I put my head square down on the table and am out like a light. My friend wakes me back up and says that it’s time for me to get up. He tells me in an excited voice that even though we have to leave now we got a good four hours there. Four hours of solid table sleep, that’s what I’m talkin’ about! Since it’s still only six in the morning and I only got about four hours of sleep, I obviously am not feeling so happy at the moment. I ask the guy attendant behind me to open the door to the sleeper bed cabin, so I can use the bathroom there instead of climbing over all the people in the aisles back down toward the seated area. After I come back, I realize that the guy is so distracted he forgets to lock the door after me.

I get an idea and without telling my friend I pick up my bags and slip past the busy attendant into the sleeper section of the train. There’s got to be some empty spot I can take for the last few hours of the trip. We arrive at 8:30, but those two hours of sleep in a nice bed sounds amazing. I make it up a few cars and even pass some attendants who don’t seem the least bit interested in me or that I have all my luggage in my hands. Another good thing about being a foreigner, they all assume I belong in the fancy section. I finally see an open door with a woman who is packing her bags. I ask her if the empty bed is hers and she confirms and says she’ll get off the train at the next stop. I try to wait for her to finish packing, but more attendants are walking by and I don’t want them to come to try to help me and find out I shouldn’t be here. So, I throw my stuff up on the bed and at the first opportunity I jump up there, take my shoes off, and before my head can hit the amazingly soft bed, I’m out.

My alarm goes off at 8:15 and I get my things ready to get off the train. I head back down to the canteen and see my military friend standing in the same exact place. He sees me, smiles, and says that he thought I left already. I told him about going to get the bed and he said that he wouldn’t be allowed to do the same. I sit there for a second in guilty silence and then shrug and am still happy I made that decision to get those few hours of comfy sleep. He says the train will be delayed an hour, so he invites me to come sit with him on one of the canteen tables. He takes out a big bag of snacks and we eat one last time together. As the train is nearing the stop, I get my bags and he disappears in the opposite direction. I don’t dare go back down that crowded aisle, so I get off the train by the canteen and don’t catch a glimpse of my friend again. I’m a bit disappointed that I didn’t get to say goodbye to him, but am happy at the opportunity to meet such a kind person.

Off the train and onto the bus to get back to the school. Iftikhar also got back today, so I spend the rest of the day in the lab, insistent for him to get rest. I drop my stuff off in the lab and say hi to Kevin and feel good to see him again. Then, I go up to the lab with all the PhD students and feel a really cold reception. I haven’t been here for a month, but their reactions seem like I just came back from the bathroom. I have to admit, it feels really bad. This is exactly the opposite reception I get when I arrive at the Lin farm in Sichuan.

Linxi’s words about my strategy for living in Beijing are ringing in my ears as I’m thinking about why the hell I’m even here. It feels as though everyone is too busy here to care about each other, or at least just me. Maybe I’m just tired, but I feel quite bad about being back here.

Iftikhar comes down to the lab and he, Kevin, and I talk as he shares some things from Pakistan that he brought back. Then he tells me to come back to his room with him. He makes us tea and gives me some really delicious local Pakistani snacks. I see a couple of his friends and immediately feel so much better. Iftikhar and his Pakistani friends clearly aren’t as wrapped up in school or work and really care about each other. It makes me feel warm again and gives me hope for being back here again. Maybe there’s a big lesson about living in a place so emotionally cold. It makes me appreciate friends like Iftikhar, who without this experience, I might have under-appreciated our friendship.

IMG_0156

Here are the three amigos of my stay at the farm. That’s Stephane, the Belgian guy on the left and Nik, the Russian guy, on the other side. This was the day of the celebration where many of the surrounding villagers came for a celebration dinner and our job was to play security guard around the farm. It was always fun to spend time with these guys, especially when we found out that we all liked Indiana Jones, so we would all sing the song before drinking their local liquor or really with anything the three of us would do together.

IMG_0157

The three amigos went out to jam by the lake. We switched instruments between a guitar, harmonica, and drum. I lucked out that those three were the only ones I have any kind of experience with. These guys are a much different story. We eventually got interested in making sounds with anything we could find around us. We were shaking tree branches, blowing into partially filled beer bottles, and even trying to incorporate peeing into the lake. Everyone else thought we were drunk, but we were much closer to being stone cold sober. Our giggling and craziness, including these boxes on our heads, is just a sign of great friends. I’m going to miss these guys.

IMG_0158

The woman is Nik’s wife. Contrary to the box head picture, this was after quite a lot of wine. It was Stephane’s last night, so things got really silly. It started Indiana Jones themed and then somehow turned into an Ace Ventura inspired craziness.

IMG_0159

Here’s one from the National Park I forgot to include. I guess the locals put these tiny sticks to support these giant boulders as a way of asking for luck to have a strong back for tomorrow. Since they carry heavy baskets, supported only by one strap that comes up around their head, they have a big problem with strained back muscles. Ugh, duh, I could bring one Ghanaian woman here and fix their entire issue.

IMG_0160

I love to read signs and try to figure out the characters. This one is especially fun because it has a picture. Okay, I know right off the bat that the first two characters say to be careful, which matches the bright yellow and maybe even the triangle shape. The last character means place or location. Although, I have no idea what the third character is and thanks to Chinese, I have little resources to find out other than asking someone. I’m too stubborn for that so let’s try. Well judging by the picture, it’s telling me to be careful of giant penguins sneezing out wheelbarrows…on top of clouds? Yeah, that’s definitely it. I’m good at this Chinese thing, aren’t I?

IMG_0161

Today, it seems as though everyone has left the farm. I decide to leave a day earlier to see a friend in Chengdu, so I’m in the middle of drying my clothes when one of the Aunts comes in and tells me to hurry and help something before the rain starts. I hop into the back of this cart thing with the other volunteers to find a pile of knives. This pose then came about naturally. On the way to our destination, we were all joking about fighting for our farm in a cross-village knife fight. Then Nik said maybe we will go down and rob someone at the market and yell “give me one kilogram of those apples!” By the time we stopped we had gone through all the  possible silly situations we could imagine and my stomach hurt from laughing so hard. We got out to cut the roots off some vegetables to collect for dinner. Well that was way more boring, our ideas were much more creative.

IMG_0162

In Chengdu, I saw this three wheeled vehicle carrying all this crap and it’s little brother crammed in up there. Definitely a safe move.

IMG_0163

I also saw this sign in an outlying suburb of Chengdu. They are advertising expanding their green spaces in this quickly-expanding hi-rise city. I’m glad to see children playing, but it’s really dangerous for them to be sitting around a golf course. Especially when there’s a possibility of me playing there. Talk about having no clue what these two activities actually look like in practice.

IMG_0164

This is a picture of my first time going through the farm back in October. Rolling out the lawn in China. Never thought eh first time I’d do this would be here.

IMG_0165

Also from the wall building day back in October. I thought this one was a nice display of cross-cultural communication. Except that I was telling him that if he bends over a little I have to stick my butt out and fold in half. Okay, it was close enough.

 

 

What, Exactly, Is a Relationship?

 

 

 

I decided to leave the farm to give me a few days in Chengdu to see around the city and also to visit Jiaxin. Even thought I have two days to spend with her and another two to wrap things up on the farm, I feel deep down that I’m missing something very important.

During this past month on the farm, I got to know the only other family member who’s around my generation. First, I met Linzhao (but we just called him Lin, their family name) who I was in contact with about staying on the farm and who had been my main source of communication and connection with the family back in October. In October I also met Linxi, the other one around my age, who is the daughter of one of the other Uncles. She left the same day I got there, but my Italian friend talked about her a bit, so I got to know a few things about her. Now I’m back at the farm, and she is back from vacation and she is also the main organizer of the volunteers. After meeting her, it took a matter of minutes for us to start feeling comfortable with each other. I think it’s fascinating how a very few people I meet skip right past all the rigidity that comes with getting to know someone, as if we had been childhood friends being reunited after some years of separation. She and I are still getting to know each other from scratch, but there’s a part of me that feels already so connected to her. When I’m with her I feel the same as when I’m teasing with my family. There’s no doubt in my mind that we will continue to be close friends for a long time to come.

Okay, back to this feeling of missing something, despite my set plans to leave the farm. I realized that when Linxi left a day ago, I didn’t feel like I gave her a proper goodbye. We were all in a big group and I’m bad at goodbyes in general, especially when in a group setting. I don’t know how long it will be until I’m back on this farm or I get to see her again, so I want to try my best to see her again. I’m having this realization just before lunch and I make the decision to leave tomorrow, instead of the following day. With a new wind at my back, I throw my stuff in the washing machine and begin to scramble to get everything ready to leave tomorrow morning.

Before the end of the night, Nik gives me a bracelet that his wife normally makes for everyone before they leave the farm. I feel really special getting it from Nik and when he puts it on my wrist his wife asks what in the hell that black thing is in the middle. He looks at it for a second and then says “I dont know”, almost as if that part of the design fell from the ceiling and he didn’t notice it before. That perfectly describes Nik and I’m glad to get one more laugh with them before leaving the farm. Later that night they invite me to come anytime to their home in Russia which sounds like a whole new adventure.IMG_0174.JPG

The next morning Lin and I set out at 7:30, before any of the other volunteers are awake yet. My perfect plan of escape. Like I said, I really don’t like group goodbyes, especially when I’m the one leaving and we all already said what we wanted to last night. Nik has a good tradition of never saying goodbye to friends, just to have a good trip and that we’ll meet soon. I like that kind of parting.

On our way through town I pick up Stephane’s passport and get on the next train to Chengdu. In the middle of the trip, I find out that the day’s plan with Linxi has now extended to including Stephane as well. I like Stephane and the three of us together had a lot of good teasing time, but hanging out in a group pales in comparison to when I’m with someone one-on-one. With any of my good friends or family there’s something special about having just time between us two, I’m able to express myself more genuinely and it is my favorite way to spend time before or after a long time apart. I’m also disappointed because Stephane takes the teasing too far and ends up ruining the vulnerability that makes deep friendship so special. Just as I expected, that’s how the day went, but of course we still had a lot of fun. Still though, I didn’t feel like I got to part well with Linxi. I’m not sure there’s much I can do since my next two days are busy and then I only have a few hours in the morning before my train.

Stephane and I, after taking her back to her college, get out of the taxi early to race to the subway to find out that the last train already left and there are no buses left. (I have to add a funny note here that in Chinese you always put the subject and then the time frame directly following. For example you would say “I tomorrow will leave”. When I read this past sentence I thought wait having “Stephane and I” first sounds weird, but also correct, at least with Chinese. I manage to mix things up and be wrong with both the languages…) We’re 15km away and neither of us want to give in to taking a taxi that far. Finally, I met someone who will travel in the same stubborn way I travel! We walk a bit before it starts to rain, so we decide to hitchhike. We find an absolutely perfect spot with no foot traffic, protection from the rain, and plenty of room for the cars to stop for us. One minute later, a guy pulls over and we’re sitting inside a warm car on our way back to the hostel. Okay, the ride isn’t so perfect, he lets us out about 7 kilometers short, so we get out and end up walking the rest of the way. Good way to spend our last night together before parting.

The next day I’m up early and at Walmart to find a bottle of California wine to bring to Jiaxin’s parents. She told me to be there at 11 to be able to eat lunch with her parents. I get there and meet her at her mom’s office before her dad joins us across the street for lunch. I try to break the ice, but her parents seem really shy. I even use some of their local dialect that I picked up while on the farm. I get them to laugh a few times, but am not as successful as I’m used to being with being the only foreigner in a group of locals. I find out that this is the first time they’ve ever met a foreigner, so it makes a bit more sense now. After lunch, we go back to her mom’s office and not knowing when or how to give them the bottle of wine I give it to them then. Her mom races out of the office to get some local snack she brought back from her home town.

As we’re digesting our food and chatting, I find out that Jiaxin is not available to do anything tomorrow and maybe even forgot about our conversation, a few days ago, telling me she would be free that day. She doesn’t say anything about that, just that she’ll be busy. At first it feels really strange, but I realize that this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. When I first met her, I felt this connection I’ve never felt before after we both shared our unbelievably similar dreams for our future and her amazingly mature outlook on life. Besides those positives, I’ve been putting the resistance I feel from her in a box of “cultural differences”. I don’t even have the intention of dating her, I just simply want to be friends! This shouldn’t be so difficult… I have never experienced such complexity in friendships as I have since being in China. I don’t know why, but this day finally snapped me out of my idea of our friendship. I think it has to do with this comparative religion book I’ve been reading. I can’t help but think of the Daoist idea of going with “the flow” of life. In terms of growing our friendship, I’ve been swimming up stream. It’s time for me to turn down stream and just let things go. It’s much easier said then done because I still have my western upbringing yelling in my ear that if you want something you have to go out and make it happen and not to give up until the goal is realized. But, like I do so often with my lessons from abroad, I’m going to jump out of my comfort zone of thinking and into the opposite side to see how it feels. Even though I know the answer is somewhere in the middle, it helps me to look at it first from each of the perspectives. This turns out to be a blessing in disguise anyway because now I get to spend more time with Linxi and put my mind at rest with a better goodbye.

The whole rest of the day it’s raining, so Jiaxin and I stay inside and then her parents invite me to come back out with them to hotpot for dinner. This time it’s her mom, aunt, uncle, and two cousins. I can hear them asking questions about me, but can’t quite understand and instead of Jiaxin translating them to me, she must just be answering all of them for me. That’s either a good sign that she knows me well or that maybe she is just making things up. We go through the Chinese ritual of taking the best piece of food you find and giving it to someone else at the table. There are no thank you’s exchanged except for when I try to do the same. I guess they want me to feel comfortable. Well, I stick to their tradition and don’t use thank you. I learned it creates a distance between people and the act of generosity should just be done in return to show appreciation. At the end of dinner I thank them all again for the day and tell them it was great to meet them. Then Jiaxin and her two cousins drive me to the nearest subway to head back to the hostel.

The next day Linxi and I spend nearly 12 hours together and never did I feel like that wasn’t the exact place I should be. Again, it’s so rare and such a treasure that I found a connection like this coming back to the Lin farm. Her family is also quite traditional, so this is a good counterpoint to the difficulty I find in growing my relationships in Beijing. Near the end of our time together, she asked me about Beijing and I went on my routine of explaining the practical side of why I’m in that city. I talked about the opportunity it gave me to make connections with business professionals and other powerful people in the city in case I might need their help establishing myself later on in my journey through China. Sounds like networking 101 to me. Well, not to her. She gave me this strange look as if all of a sudden she didn’t recognize me anymore. That look was all I needed to completely stop me in my tracks. After some prodding, I finally got her to tell me that she didn’t like to hear that I would make relationships with people just for a possible benefit they might provide me in the future. She then questioned whether I was even interested in being her friend other than to learn Chinese. At first, I defended my position, but soon gave that up as her point hit me square in the middle of my heart. I explained to her that my entire education and professional experience has taught me about the importance of networking. I never thought twice about what the process looks like from the outside. I don’t know if either of our positions is 100% correct, but since I’ve been so rooted in my view, I’m going to jump to her side and try to justify why in the hell I would think that making relationships motivated by a potential benefit to me could be a good thing. I think it’s different if I’m in my line of work and meet people through the normal flow of things or if I want to get to know someone to see if there’s something we could share to make our work better. That networking seems more natural and rooted in good intention. However, I now see that pursuing a relationship with the main idea in my head that there could be a benefit to me is really sick in a way. That might very well be what I have to do to be the most successful, but it’s certainly not something I’m going to do as part of my path. I will try to keep looking at this issue from her perspective hopefully to uncover more of the nuances. I will be sure that any relationships I make are purely from the motivation in my heart that I want to help that person with what their doing or maybe just simply to see if that person would be suitable to share our lives as friends.

Back at her school we share noodles together and then she walks me out to the street to get home. Again, I’m bad at that moment of the goodbye, but I feel so much more relieved having spent the whole day together and going through a much slower process of sharing our “goodbye” all day long. In the taxi, I get to that awkward point of the goodbye and start to use Chinese because it feels more straightforward and really just because I have many less choices to be confused with using. Then, of course the car was just shifting forward and not leaving, so now we’re still just there in that moment that I’m so bad at handling. I catch a look from her that looks sort of like the beginning of crying, but then I become absorbed in a gaze with her where we don’t say anything, but just look at each other. I honestly have no idea how long we stayed in that locked gaze, but it seemed like time stopped as we communicated something to each other far deeper than words could attempt to convey. The taxi finally pulls away and as we go down the next street, the emotion hits me and I can feel the tears welling up inside of me.

Wow, I haven’t had that happen parting from someone, except for family of course, since I broke up with my girlfriend of two years. I never imagined when I made the decision to come back to the farm I would make a connection like this. A lot of really amazing things happened during my break, but I have to say that getting the chance to meet Linxi was by far the most meaningful. I feel so grateful for these experiences in my life. This is what life is all about.

Chinese National Park

At first I was just tagging along to what felt like someone else’s vacation. Then, I eventually settled into the idea this could also be my vacation. Wait, but I’m perpetually on vacation! Anyway, it’ll be Stephane, Linxi, her mom, and I going to a National Park in the beautiful western part of Sichuan, which has a heavy immigrant influence.

The ride there takes five hours through mountains. At one point, the driver stops to put chains on the tires so we don’t slide away into oblivion. We finally arrive and it’s nowhere near as cold as I thought it would be. In fact, it’s the warmest place I’ve been in awhile. We go to a hotel to sleep for the night and get ready for a full day of hiking tomorrow.

At about 8:30, we enter the Park right right after it opens and follow Stephane’s advice to take the bus all the way to the back of the Park to avoid the other tourists and then work our way back to the front. I’m glad he did some research, I would’ve just pointed in a direction and said uhh let’s go there.

Unfortunately his research didn’t say that a whole bus of Chinese tourists would have the same idea. We get off and in a slight panic, get ready to get the hell away from this giant crowd. Stephane and I agree we should walk fast to the absolute back of the path ahead of people to get some air.

The path is blocked off for winter… Now we have to make our way back to where we just got off, through the crowd on a narrow wooden plank that borders on just the edge of the nature. It would be preposterous if we actually had many paths that led us on the dirt and gave us some options.

Signs everywhere say don’t leave the wooden walkway. I feel like I’m in an amusement park, not a National Park. I had the idea that we would be able to just walk off on random paths and enjoy the landscape on our own. Not in China. Apparently most of the National Parks are this same way.

After about an hour of walking a little bit, we take the bus down one stop, and then repeat the same thing through the crowd of Chinese tourists, selfieing every possible place they can manage to scour. This is no fun and is really ruining this whole trip. Here are a few pictures I managed to get of the chaos. The second one you might have to look closely to see the bridge in the distance.

IMG_0154

IMG_0155
It seems like people just come here to squeeze themselves through the crowd up to the front where they can take a selfie making it look like they’re in the middle of nature, instead of actually going there themselves. I guess if all 1.4 billion of them wanted to do that, no one who have a national park to spare.

The crowds get even worse around lunch time, so we are determined to leave the path to find somewhere nice to sit and eat. Everywhere we explore has snow on the ground, so we keep walking until we get to the end of one of the paths. It’s fenced off, but we crouch and push our ways through a bushy area and back on the other side of the fence.

From there we walk down the path and stop at a bench next to the river to eat lunch, completely along. Aahhhh, it feels amazing to be off with nature again. I think if they made national parks like this in China people would be flocking from all over just to get this breath of fresh air. I don’t know though, it seems like their culture might not enjoy that, or else I’d expect to see a few other places made for that.

After lunch, we continue to walk down the path and see nothing but nature all around us. We’re still on a wood plank path, but I’ll settle for that as long as we can keep the Chinese tourists away. The timing of the seasons is really interesting because it’s not cold, but some areas don’t see much sun, so part of the time were walking through a few inches of snow and then the rest of the time we’re walking through what looks more like the dry and bare hills of Southern California.

We walk back most of the 3km and then I decide to head out early with Linxi and her mom. They’re tired and my empty stomach is making it hard to enjoy the rest of the walk.

That was certainly an interesting introduction to the Chinese National ark. I have to say, it’ll probably be my last one. I think we got really lucky being on our own. It’s not worth the ridiculously high prices to see amusement park nature.

Pictures, pictures, pictures

1
I’ve gotten into a routine on the farm of waking up and sitting by the lake to practice a little guitar and take in the beauty before I’m planted back in the concrete jungle.
2
Here’s a pretty typical breakfast when I eat in their family kitchen. The soup on the right is a mixture of ginger, wolfberry, dates, and their homemade delicious drown sugar.
3
As you can see, it’s freezing here. It feels colder than Beijing because there is no escape. The only place with heating is the kitchen, unlike Beijing, which has heating almost everywhere indoors. Ski coat, scarf, and cement stained work boots. I’m showing off my “American” skills. The rest of the volunteers here seemed to have skipped their interest in basketball.
4
Here is a typical dinner in the family kitchen. There are generally about 8 types of dishes and almost always, that includes a soup or two. There are always about 3 different kinds of meats. The best part of it all is that most of these ingredients come from the farm. Okay, time to dig in!
5
On this farm, they also grow their own grapes and make their own wine. It’s pretty good, a touch too sweet though. The other volunteers had an idea to beat the cold by heating the wine with a bunch of different kinds of fruit cut up. Okay, not exactly wine anymore, but it’s hot and good and of course filled with alcohol.
6
We spent the better part of the first two weeks I got here around their lake. Here’s what our hard work looks like at night. Good thing they celebrate this holiday for the better part of February and not just the night of the New Year.
7
Here are the lanterns on the lake next to the volunteers’ house. Ooh…shineyyyy!
8
Here two women are preparing food for the final day of the majority of the workers on the farm. They leave on February 2nd and then come back just before March. Each layer is filled with food and all are steamed at the same time.
9
Here is the other half of the cooking team chopping and preparing each layer to be steamed.
10
This fish was my favorite of all the dishes. They steamed it and added all kinds of spices. It was so tender, it flaked perfectly off the bone into my chopsticks. The workers here are treated amazingly well.
11
Here are the tables set up for the workers to start their feast.
12
While we finished setting up, they all sat out by the lake, enjoying tea and some snacks.
13
After eating quickly, the volunteers get up to make sure each table had enough of everything. There are another 10 tables through that door you can see way down on the left.
14
Here is another example of dinner after Nekoli made one of his extravagant fruit displays.
14a
Yet another dinner. I’m in love with this place.
15
Here we are on the New Year’s Eve. We stayed up to midnight watching their famous Gala on the TV and occasionally, we set off small fireworks. Then 10 minutes before we, along with every other person in China, set off all the fireworks we could get our hands on.
16
Here is an old Chinese Buddhist temple off in the countryside. We’re on our way to hike in some caves.
17
We spent the morning hiking through the mountainside of this village. I guess the caves will be saved for after lunch. This woman is preparing our lunch in a traditional style Chinese kitchen.
18
Before lunch is ready, I walk around the house.
19
Here is their backyard. Reminds me of Lord of the Rings.
20
Here is the amazingly fresh lunch they gave us. It was a feat just to stop eating.
21
Here is another picture of our lunch as we’re all eating.
22
Lunch ended and now it’s time to go into the caves. The first one we go down for about 30 minutes until it gets kind of hard to breathe. Then we head to a second cave where I literally thought I got stuck between these two rocks. It doesn’t help that I’m the biggest on of the group. For some reason, my complaining fell on deaf ears. The second one didn’t go so deep, but there were ROUSes that could climb the walls! (If you don’t know that acronym, you should catch up on your Princess Bride watching.)
23
Here is the view from the exit of the cave. Really beautiful and terrifying at the same time. My kind of adventure.
24
One night, their family took us out to hot pot, which is basically where a big group of people sit around a boiling pot of oil, that, in this region, is really spicy to the point where it numbs your mouth, and put all kinds of uncooked food in to be cooked, and then fished out with extra long chopsticks before eating. This particular hot pot they ordered had what seemed like every part of the pig and then confirmed that with the pig brain for dessert. For the sake of the story, I wish the taste was really different and interesting, but it was very similar to all the other innards.
25
One night we made dumplings from scratch. This was the final stage where we stuffed the filling and the sealed it. Hey, I’m thinking I’ve got this Chinese cooking thing down right about now.
26
Here’s the earlier stages where I was kneading the dough, pinching it off, and then rolling it out into circles for the fillings to be added. It’s definitely one of the easiest Chinese dishes to make, but there’s something really special about the process and how it brings a group of people together to make dinner. Even some of the men who never help with cooking came over to join in the fun.
27
For Valentine’s Day the family took us out to pick strawberries. The best part was that we could “taste test” them as we went. That meant that I was mostly eating and spending only a little time actually putting them in the basket.
28
Another beautiful sunrise over one of the farm’s many lakes.

Back To The Farm Life

Still fresh from the train, I arrive at the farm with Lin and head to the kitchen to put my bags down and get a bite to eat for lunch. I meet a Belgian guy named Stephen and also a Russian woman named Yu. After lunch, I make sure to stay active so I don’t give myself a chance to crash in the middle of the day and mess up my sleep schedule. So, I go out with the volunteers to hang lanterns for the New Year. I meet the last two volunteers, a Russian man named Nick and a Canadian woman named Clara. Another family member who I met very briefly during my last visit, Linxi, is the the leader of our volunteer group. She tells us what to do, when to do it, and helps us with anything that we might want.

The next morning, Linxi brings us all to a wedding of a close family friend. It takes us a few hours to walk there and then as we arrive at the house in the middle of this rural farm area, we instantly become the celebrities of the event. I can’t find the bride or groom anywhere. As long as they are paying attention to us, it’s okay. I mean, how important is a bride and groom at their…oh, wait. After being introduced and given tea, we join a group of people circled around a fire. It’s quite cold here, not like Beijing, but there isn’t much indoor heating, so we have little protection. Still no bride or groom. Maybe we’ll draw names out of a hat.

After a few hours, people start to gather toward the front of the house for the arrival of the bride and groom. Apparently they are on the third and most important day of their celebration. They pull up in a BMW and are instantly surrounded by people. Hey wait, what about us foreigners!? I was just starting to get used to all that attention again. How quickly fame flees.

cigarettes

There are enough cigarettes to choke a small army here, some chocolate, and in the red box is their local vodka-like alcohol called Bai Joe.

The couple is slowly making their way into the house and every time they stop, they throw red envelopes into the air. The envelopes have the Chinese character for happiness and are supposed to symbolize good luck for the New Year. Oh and did I mention they have money in them!? So, people are really aggressive and push each other to get as many as they can. I thought it was fun at first until some young men get too aggressive and push children and women aggressively out of the way. I just back off and watch. A few Yuan isn’t worth losing my dignity. Maybe I just don’t get it, but many people also back off and those guys are collecting almost all the envelopes, with not so much as a passing thought to turn around and give one to the small girl they almost just pushed off her feet.

Next, we go upstairs and the couple runs into their bedroom. Everyone is waiting outside the door and I get uncomfortable thinking that this maybe should be a time to have to themselves. Then, again, this is their third day of celebration, so maybe they are sick of each other already. Suddenly, some of the young men start banging on the door and next thing we know a red envelope slides under the door. (I’m thinking the note says, “Hey, I’m busy in here.”) One guy jumps down onto the ground and again knocks the kids away so he can get on all fours to collect all the envelopes coming through. (The next note says, “I’m the only one who is supposed to be banging here.”) (Then the next note says, “I am holding a loaded gun and will shoot the next person who bangs on my door.”) (Enough stupid jokes? Okay, back to the story)  It’s hard to keep laughing at it any more, these guys are more animal than man.

Eventually, the couple opens the door and, believe it or not,  everyone charges into the room and starts jumping on the balloon-filled floor. (At least I think they are balloons. Oh my god…safe sex is one thing, but this is clearly over-done.) This part is much more fun and because there’s no money involved, the kids are safe, if not slightly scarred from seeing a purple Teddy bear in a pink bed surrounded by multi-colored condoms.

balloons

Then back down to the yard where we take a table and begin to eat. The food is wonderful and after the tenth dish, some alcohol, and the dessert, I stretch back and let everything expand; I’m done. Well, clearly they’re not because they keep bringing out more dishes. They bring out so many more, the dessert seems more like an appetizer now. Each one is equally delicious and strange, so of course I have to at least try them.

more food

The dishes come so fast that some new dishes were set on top of others that we hadn’t finished yet. Finally it all comes to an end and we all go back to the fire to relax.

After a few more hours we walk back to the farm and buy some locally made cookies on the way with our new red envelope money.

Returning To My Chinese Family

Everything is packed, my stomach is stuffed full of breakfast, I have my back pack and duffel bags in hand, and now I’m headed out of campus to start my journey back to the Sichuan province, to the same farm where I started my Chinese experience.
On the road, I catch the first of two buses to the train station. It’s nearing 8, so I’m hoping I’ll just have to bear the tail-end of rush hour. My bus pulls up, shattering my hopes when I see the next buss stuffed full of sardines, I mean people. I hesitate, wondering if I should just wait for the next bus and then remember I’m in China and that means too many people and not enough bus. It’s time to get the half of my foot that will fit on to the bus entrance and hope the door doesn’t cut my body in half. Clearly my hesitation is showing how much of a rookie I am with buses at rush hour because people come in behind me and push me farther on so that now both my feet are on. As I’m passing the card scanner, I manage just to get it scanned in time before I’m pushed another three body lengths inside the small entrance area. Now I have both bags dangling from my body and just am barely holding onto them with the few fingers I could manage to extend free from the tangled mess. I press back on the crowd a bit so the girl in front of me doesn’t get completely compressed into the wall of the bus. She’s not screaming, so I figure it’s either fine or she’s just unable to make noise because I’m squeezing the air out of her. Either way, it’s not something I have to address at this moment.
More people get on at the next stop and we all press together even more. The good thing is that I’m not even holding my bags up anymore as the pressure of the crowd is keeping them suspended above the ground, but the bad thing is that I’m more concerned about this silently squished girl in front of me. The situation is rapidly moving up the “things I should address right now” list. Frantically, I look around for a way to relieve the pressure and find that, to my surprise, there’s actually quite a bit of room down the aisle toward the back of the bus. I start to press my way through and feel the weight of the bags return to my fingers. Now this causes a new problem because I can’t use the solid wall of body to hold me upright anymore. Oh and by the way, the bus drivers here are especially bad at either slamming on their gas or brake for no particular reason. I only have about 7 stops total, but at stop 4 my body starts to revolt against me. The people on either side are squeezing my shoulders inward, so I can’t stretch my body and stand straight. With all the weight from my bags it’s putting extra stress on my back and arms. I’m also still wearing my scarf and gloves, and by the time we pass stop 6, we’re stuck in traffic and I brake out into a dripping sweat.
Finally, we arrive and I literally pour out onto the street as I swipe my card to mark where I exit. If I forget that, then they would penalize me four or five times  the price at the next bus I enter and scan the same card. I get down, put my stuff down, take off my gloves, and check which bus I need to take next.
The next bus is only 4 stops and I’m able to stand straight and relax a bit. So much so that I let go of the top railing with my newly found good-posture-confidence. Like clockwork, the bus driver slams on the gas and and the bus takes off. Interestingly, my body seems to be happy right where it is, because it stays put, meaning that, even though I’m in the bus, it seems to be leaving without me. Before I know it, I’m moving toward the back of the bus.  I lower my center of gravity and end up on one foot, balancing with my duffel in my left hand and my right hand reaching out to brace myself against crashing into the girl next to me, just in case if he steps harder on the gas. She makes a loud noise because of my reaction, but I’m able to keep enough balance so I don’t end up crashing into her. Then I over-adjust and step on the woman’s ankle in the opposite direction, as I scramble to readjust my center of gravity. It’s a little like having a bowling ball in the trunk of your car. I apologize to both of them and then grab back onto the top railing again.  Again, proving how much of a rookie I am.
Next, we get off for the train station and I’m two hours early, so I decide to explore around. After seeing enough, I get to the platform with a little over 30 minutes to spare, which, according to my knowledge from riding the train to and from the Mongolian border, still gives me about a 20-minute cushion. Not here! People are already in a huge crowd to board. I quickly file in and walk all the way down to my train car, which is car 1, meant for the people who probably shouldn’t have gotten a ticket and certainly won’t get a seat. (That’s right, I’m on a 21-hour train ride with no chance of getting a seat.) But, because of the holiday, they generously allow us to squeeze ourselves between the chickens and goats. This time (their New Year) in China is the world’s biggest annual human migration when more than 2.9 billion passengers journey nationwide  for the 40 day period of the New Year festival- from January 24th until March 3rd. Because of that, I was forced to buy a STANDING ticket.
On car 1, I realize that I’m really late because the corners of the exit doors are already packed with people standing, and all the seats are full. I think I spot some room in the back, so I head back there only to find it’s next to the toilet and has absolutely no extra room, short of sleeping as the bathroom door mat. I head back to the place I entered to see if I can go up farther into other cars, but am soon stopped by the thick crowd of others trying to do the same.
I squeeze in next to the bathroom and then manage just to turn the corner to one of the exit doors. I’m squished in next to a young girl and guy who look like they’re college-aged. I somehow manage to set my bags down on the ground that barely has enough room for both my bags plus the constant stream of random roamers, people passing to smoke, or coming to use the bathroom. It just so happens that I can reach with one hand to grab the toilet door handle and grab the only ash tray in the area with my other hand. Which is worse, the smell of the bathroom or the smell of Chinese tobacco? I actually paid for this ticket.
I guess people must need to settle their nerves from being on the train for a whole 10 minutes because they’re all flocking to this spot, cigarette in hand. There’s also a constant stream of people pushing food carts and train attendants to keep the place in order.
Some people around us are sitting, but most of us are only able to stand. I get my feet positioned so I can lean against the wall and not have to put all my weight on my feet. I’m preparing myself to be in this position for the remaining 18 hours of this journey, although I can’t help but keep think “What the hell is going to happen when it gets to be nighttime?” There’s just no way I can stay like this the whole time, but I don’t see any other options available right now.
As we pass the four hour mark another man comes up to join us by the door. He puts his bag on top of mine and takes up the little room I had to adjust my feet. Who invited this guy? I figure a way to rest my body when I go from standing to leaning against the wall that I think I can keep up for quite a long time. At some point I’m going to have to use the small portable chair I brought and just pile the stuff on top of me. (This “chair” is made from two sticks of wood on each side, hinged in the middle with a screw, so that it opens into the shape of an X. On the top of the X is a small piece of cloth, the wood forming the legs of the chair and the cloth the seat. The width of the chair is equal to one of my butt cheeks. The height of the chair is just enough to keep me from sitting in the ever-growing liquid seeping from the bathroom.) The guy asks me in Chinese if I’m getting off the train and I’m not sure how to respond because my friends told me that this train goes nonstop to Chengdu, my final destination. I resist being sarcastic (“Yes sir, jumping off of a speeding train is better than spending one more minute with you”) and just pretend I didn’t quite understand him. Then after who knows how much time, the train actually does stop (oops) and then that guy and many others file off the train. Of course with the holiday, people are also filing onto the train.
With that guy now gone, I get some room to switch my foot position again, so I’m feeling like there’s a small hope I’ll make it out of this without going crazy. The young guy to my right doesn’t look like he’s doing too well as he’s been going back and forth between standing and crouched quite a bit. I offer him my chair, devising a plan for him to sit part of the time and then we can move my stuff so I can sit for awhile. He immediately rejects my plan, telling me that he’s getting off soon. (Wait. How many stops does this “non-stop” train make?) I nearly choke at the rejection of my offer. Wallowing in the destruction of my plan to sit, I notice a college student around the corner to my left, right next to the bathroom, who has her bag and rolling luggage and is constantly being bounced around as people try to get passed her in that busy hallway. I shift things around and manage to get her suitcase in front of me and get my bag on top of her suitcase. Now I get another inch and she can stay still for a bit, win win. Then, that young guy who refused my chair offer, leaves at the next stop. (It’s a good thing I didn’t take a “local” train or I’d still be in Beijing.)
I position myself so that I can quickly jump on that young guy’s spot as soon as the train is loaded again. Success. Now I’m in the same space that once had four of us, with one last young woman. I quickly spread out my stuff to make sure that people don’t stroll by and fill in the cracks with their crap. I get my seat out and when my butt hits it, I’m in total ecstasy. Being on my feet in general for 5 hours is much easier than standing in the same exact position with little option to adjust. Now I have enough room on the ground equal to four of my feet, side by side. But with the seat, I can put them in all kinds of positions, so I’m set. Maybe I’ll tap dance a little. Now I’m confident I can make it out of this, sanity intact, that is if I haven’t gone crazy already…
Now the hours seem to go much quicker because I’m not in agonizing pain. The train stops a few times, (yes, I’m still on the non-stop train to Chengdu), and the girl and I have to get up, but we’re both on the same page about keeping this spot for the two of us. When the sun starts to set I eat some fruit and snacks I brought along and get a bit sleepy. I put my head down on my knees and drift off a bit, only to wake up to spiking back pain.
I go in and out of waking up, to standing and getting back down, to scrunching down, and, only occasionally, sleeping. I shift stuff in one of my bags and ditch the chair to sit directly on my clothes-stuffed duffel. The seat put tension in my back and legs to hold it steady, but now sitting on the bag, I can really relax and enter another deep state of appreciation and relaxation. That puts me out for a few hours.
The girl in front of me gets off and that wakes me back up as people spill in to fill her spot. I find out we have about two hours until we arrive in Chengdu. My stuff is collected to let people off at the one hour left mark and then before I can set back up in my spot, a man comes back and ushers me to follow him. I’ve never seen him before, but an adventure sounds good right about now. We get a few spots back and then he takes my bags to fit around theirs and tells me to take a seat next to him.
I was just feeling like the last hour would be no problem and I’d just stand, but it’s really nice to get a cushy seat, even if it is only for a little bit. He drills me with Chinese and I hold my own for awhile, but he’s more curious than most, so we quickly reach the end of my ability and most of our conversation.
In the blink of an eye, the train is coming to a stop and we’re getting off. A few days ago, I set up to see my friend, the girl I really like, in Chengdu, which is also her home town. I turn my phone back on to find out her work plans changed and she’s not able to meet. At first, I feel really crappy, but quickly snap out of it to realize that there’s no use in feeling anything but hopeful, so I quickly bounce back and get ready to see my Chinese family again. I think it’s really important to feel like somewhere is my home in these new countries I travel to, and this farm is definitely the place for me in China.
Off the train I walk over to find the next ticket to the next large town over, closer to the farm I’ll be staying. Fluidly I get right onto the next train, in a seat this time, and message Lin that I’m on the train headed to their city. He tells me that he’s in town running errands and will be able to pick me up at the station to bring me to the farm. Perfect!
Off the train I’m walking through the station and get this strange feeling of tears welling up. I don’t feel sad or extraordinarily happy, so I’m a bit confused. Maybe it’s because this experience finally ended and I was able to just let it all, including not seeing my friend, just go. I think it’s more of a feeling of relief, probably also because I’m returning back to a place where the family really loves me for who I am and not anything else.
This train trip was exactly what I needed. It tested my patience and endurance and I remained mindful enough to understand how I react to situations, especially when they don’t exactly go my way. I have a lot to work on, but I feel a deep sense of appreciation for my progress in understanding myself for where I am and where I still plan to go. Sometimes it’s hard to explain to people why or what exactly I’m doing here in China, but this trip is exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for.

Slow Writings, Done Not So Slowly

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to continue my progress from the monastery visits, but in more of a practical way, something that is more communicable to other people. Sitting on a misty mountain top, constantly wrestling with the mind, sounds like a really inspiring movie-esque way to find a deep sense of satisfaction, but clearly not practical. So, just following some kind of inner compass I continue to be involved in everything that I get a sniff of as I’m going through my day around the University. One of the first things that led me to, was Chinese Calligraphy. The older PhD student in our lab, Zhang, is very knowledgeable about ancient Chinese traditions, especially when it comes to Chinese Calligraphy. It’s also convenient that we’ve become good friends.

 

I’ve also told him about this young woman who I’m, somehow, more and more interested in after every opportunity we have to spend time together. She also was a big part of getting my Calligraphy started. During our Chinese lesson, she brought in a brush pen and paper for me to practice. She wrote her name for me and said that two of the three characters that make up her name are very complicated. Perfect, a challenge and an opportunity to really impress her. I immediately ran back to Zhang and said that I wanted to continue to practice and I wanted to start with her name. I wanted to show my appreciation for her sitting down with me to really give it a try and more importantly to show her that I’m not just any other foreigner. So, each day that whole next week I took one of the characters and kept writing it over and over again. Zhang, would come in and look at what I’ve done, make some guttural sounds, nod, and then tell me how to adjust what I’m doing. I continued this until finally he said, “Yes, that’s it!” I would ask him, “So, it’s really beautiful?” He would smirk and then tell me that “For you, it’s very good.” Hey, what’s that supposed to mean!?

 

By Sunday in the afternoon I had finally finished all three characters and was racing to finish the project before my next Chinese lesson with this young woman, who, to avoid confusion, we can call by her English name, Annie. I never call her by that name, always by her Chinese name; I’m trying to be different, remember? But of course calling someone by their name in a different language is confusing, especially in Chinese. When you address people of higher rank you have to use a title with their name. But, the title comes after their name … my head is already spinning. To make it worse they also reversed the order of their names, putting their family name first. Anyway, she’s not my superior, so I can just call her without a title. Easy right? Not so much, because when you call someone by their surname and given names (most people have one or two given names), it puts a bit of a formality to it and creates a distance between you and them, on a personal level. So friends call each other just by their given names, but it only happens when friends are “very close” as I’ve been told. So after all that, I really actually don’t call her by either name, I just grunt and point. I might be a different foreigner, but I’m still a typical man.

 

So, here I am on Sunday with three torn out pieces of paper with the each of the best three characters I wrote to make up her name. I call Zhang over, in a slightly sweaty panic, to help me put this together for her. He immediately recognizes the look on my face and runs over, despite whatever, much less importantly, he might have been doing for his silly PhD. He gets a big piece of paper, a glue stick, and then starts to puts the words together, but in the same left to right format we do with our names. I groan and tell him I’m trying to go in the opposite direction of my culture, so I want them to go from top to bottom, or diagonally, or in a circle, okay, just do it the way Chinese people do it, and fast! He tells me that if it’s just a name, (which is never something that is written by itself in calligraphy), then it should go from left to right, surname to given names. The only time you would write a name from top to bottom is when it is accompanied by a poem or other work of art, which are traditionally written from top to bottom and right to left. Okay, that’s far ahead of my Calligraphy journey, so let’s do it the foreigner way. He looks at the paper from many different angles and then finally gets them placed down with the correct proportion or “gravity” as he puts it. Then we grab some books and let them sit on top of the work to flatten it out.

 

Finally, it comes time for class and since there were so many people around us I find some time to slip her the work and tell her to look at it later, like we’re in second grade and I just gave a crush a Valentine’s Day present. I didn’t mean it to be that way, but I also have no idea about the nuances of when to give someone a friendly gift. Anyway, she liked it or actually she was just really nice and burst out laughing when she saw its hideousness. Either way here’s a picture of what I finished:

 

1st calligraphy

 

Her name in Chinese in Pinyin is Dai4 Jia1 Xin1. The numbers are the tone markers to help us outsiders read their language. 4 is a falling tone, from high to low. 1 is a high, constant tone. (Good luck with that one.)

 

As I talked about in a post before I tracked down the ex-president of Peking University and ended up having dinner with him. He was a very kind and humble man, who really worked his way up from being hungry, every day, to being a famous person in Beijing and probably even all of China. We really connected when we talked about Calligraphy and he showed me some of his projects. Then, I showed him mine and told him about my week long fury to finish something decently good looking. Right after looking at the picture he blurted out “You’re a genius!” Maybe he was just being kind and maybe there’s also a little bit of natural talent coming from somewhere there. Either way the benefit I got from the process was enough to keep me coming for more. I got the same kind of relaxed release as when I was once decent at my yoga practice.

 

Naturally, I run back to Zhang and tell him that I want to try something more difficult. I want to find a subtly romantic poem about something searching and finding something wonderful. We finally pick an eight character poem from ancient China. He says that the poem has a very deep meaning to it that most people won’t understand, unless they really search hard for it or know a lot about the ancient culture. Since my girl writes her own poetry and has a traditional family background, I think she’ll be able to figure it out. The reason it’s so hard to understand is that back in the Han dynasty people used to write on bamboo as their paper, but it was very heavy to deliver, so they had to communicate their messages using as few characters as possible. I think this is where Chinese characters get their very deep meanings from. The people also used different meanings in their spoken Chinese, opposed to their written Chinese. Eventually they mended their more simple spoken Chinese to be used in every aspect, leaving the old written meanings, as the ancient past. Those meanings are what is represented in the poem I’m writing. Whoa, this is sounding way over my head here, good thing I have Zhang to help me through this navigation.

 

So now I’m writing this poem up to down, right to left, closer to the actual way I’m supposed to do things if I’m trying to embrace their culture. The difficult part about that is that not only does this now bring in the proportions of each character to each other, but it also brings in the challenge of doing it correctly for all eight characters. I can’t tell you how many times I got it down and then choked on the last character, a few times even the last stroke of that character. I practiced it for the better part of this past month. Because I’ve really gotten a hands-on experience of the practice, I’ve been able to talk to Zhang and make jokes about life, related back to calligraphy. I was talking with him about how to develop relationships with traditional Chinese women, so he started talking about calligraphy, but of course the double meaning was about her as well. He told me that every move needs to be done slowly and with total awareness. He said that when things are done in that way they are natural and only then, can the true beauty emerge. Something in what he said really struck me to the core, more than just with this young woman. I started to think about every other aspect of my life and thought that the key that I’ve been looking for is in doing things slowly. I’m not saying that I’m going to float through everything I do with no kind of purpose. I see it as more about the process of things themselves. I started to think back to going through things in my past and realized that I’m so focused on results in my life, that I have lost the focus of the importance of really enjoying and surrendering to the wonder that comes with just doing something and enjoying where I am with that at that moment. Whether it was learning guitar, a new language, or pursuing a beautiful woman, I was obsessed with reaching goals and spent too much time figuring out how to get there, instead of having a healthier, long-lasting, and slower approach to the development of something. Unfortunately rushing the process led to a lot of burned out interests. It clearly doesn’t apply to everything, like gluing that damn project together, “faster, class is in 30 minutes!”, but it’s something I’ll keep in mind going forward.

 

So, after the better part of a month, I’ve completed the poem and just in time to give it to Annie, I mean Ms. Dai, I mean Jia Xin…( I give up, grunting is suitable), as a present for Christmas. Anyway, here’s a picture of the finished work of something that might possibly be considered art. One funny side note is that when I was writing my name on the completed project, I spilled some ink (just below the third one on the left) and nearly screamed. I tried to wipe it and only made it worse, but decided that it’s not that big of a deal and maybe might add something to it. Zhang laughed at me and told me that it’s okay, it only slightly ruined it.

 

Calligraphy Poem

 

I gave her the poem and she said she couldn’t believe that I wrote it and it’s something so strange for a foreigner to know about or be able to do, ‘cha-ching’! Then, she proceeded to tell me the story of the author and about that time in China’s history. It’s amazing most people my age I talk to about the poem sort of know what it’s about, but more as a distant memory from a class they’ve nearly forgotten. She knew it like the back of her hand.

 

I just left everything the way it was with nothing more, just trying my best to be grateful for where I am, right now. I have a foggy idea and some much clearer desires for where things are headed, but at least for the moment I’m aware of my impatience to get to the next ‘rung’. Maybe someday, I’ll really be able to fully live the slow beautiful style of life.

The Blonde Mop In The Sea Of Black

Recently, I decided that it’s time to start creating my network with professionals in Beijing.

(I don’t know why someone made the city name one word. Bei means “North” and Jing means “capital”, so it should be Bei Jing. We wouldn’t write it in English as Northcapital. And…while I’m at it, don’t even get me started on my rant about it being spelt and pronounced as Peking either. I ran into similar issues when I was in Laos and also in Ghana. At first I thought the name differences might only frustrate admin people, but I think it’s a much bigger problem than that. It shows that no one, on either side, really listens well enough to the other side, even to get something as basic as this correct. I’ve been here for two months, can barely hold a conversation in Chinese, and I’m already picking this apart. So what’s to say about all the years that have been spent with these countries mixing in the international stage?)

I’ll cut the rant short here because I want to get onto the adventures I had today. It’s amazing how much energy I’ve been feeling lately. I’ve created a base of some really good friends, I found a woman that blows me away more and more every time I meet with her (taking that one very slowly), I’ve finally got a good workout routine again, and I feel like I’m finally able to have the time and resources to chase my dreams. Every day for the past few weeks, I’ve been waking up multiple times in the morning, wondering why my alarm hasn’t gone off yet. Then, when it’s time to get up, it’s like I hit the ejection seat to the day.

 

Okay, deep breath… I’m returning to Earth here… So, back to the “creating this network” thing. I decided to go to the big business district of Beijing and see what I bump into and if I could turn that into something. It sounds really crazy, but also wouldn’t be too different from what I’ve been doing and probably not as difficult as it sounds because there aren’t too many foreigners roaming around here. After all, how could walking around the business hub of the capital city in a country with 1.3 billion people be any different from hitchhiking on a desolate road near the bitterly cold Mongolia!? Oh, maybe it can because I just found out that there are actually 44,000 foreigners living in this business district area… Okay, new plan!

 

My Aunt Janis (Auntie Jannie) gave me a contact she had through her business career that I haven’t capitalized on yet. After my routines, I head out to Beijing University (called Peking University, but I warned you, don’t get me started on that!), the Harvard of Beijing, to speak with the former chemistry professor and president of the University, no big deal. I go up to the front gate and talk to a guard to ask if I can enter the gate. They’re checking IDs and only letting students through. He responds with saying that I can’t enter and then some reason that I don’t understand. Well, I was expecting the difficulty to happen a bit later, but I guess that’s it, no entry, story over…

 

Okay, maybe not. (What kind of story would that be?) I’m too stubborn for that to stop me, so I decide to follow the gate to the left of campus, down the road. I turn the corner and after a few minutes of walking I come up to a much smaller gate. I approach the guard with a big smile on my face, mostly thinking that if this guy doesn’t let me through then I’m going to go Kung Fu on his ass. Sorry, that was insensitive. I’ve actually learned that Kung Fu in ancient China was more like yoga, meant to help you with bodily awareness, rather than about fighting people. Nevertheless, if I struck a  Downward Dog he might laugh himself into a state of helplessness.

I greet him with a very polite address to strangers and then ask him about entering the gate. He asks for my school ID and then I tell him that I don’t have one. I make sure to hold eye contact with him the whole time and of course I continue to smile, thinking that if he rejects me that I’ll just keep walking down the gate until I find another gate. He looks down at his feet for a few seconds and then, without looking at me, ushers me through the gate with a hurried hand. I thank him and skip my way onto campus.

I ask a few students where the Chemistry department is and each time I get a blank stare and an “I have no idea what the hell this foreigner is trying to say” look. Finally, I meet a guy who speaks great English, you’d think I would’ve found one sooner considering these students are so damn smart. He tells me that the Chemistry department is actually just outside of campus across the street, literally feet from where I got off the bus. Maybe I should’ve looked into that before I decided to harass their guards. I go out the same way I came in and get the guards contact information, just because I have a funny feeling that I might need his help sometime in the future. I’m also interested in meeting people who aren’t glued to their rule book.

I get to the correct building, only to find out that it has a gate protected by keyed entry. Trying not to be too obvious I look around for another entrance. Then, I see a young student come out and open the gate… I quickly glide to the gate and make sure to look as natural as a glidey blonde-headed mop can look. I get in the building and go to the elevator. There, I ask a student where to find, uhh, oh god, how do I explain this one in simple English. Luckily he’s so concerned with helping me that he pulls me onto the elevator and explains to me that the whole building is the Chemistry department and I should know where I need to go. Good thing I wrote the Professor’s name down in Chinese in my phone. Looking at my phone, a third student comes over to help us.

The first guy gets off and tells me that the guy who just joined will show me where to go. We march down the hall and talk a little bit about the professor. He says that he has labs here with students and other professors, but my guy has already given his duties off to his apprentice. Wait, he already has an apprentice!? So much for my flowery daydreams about continuing this guy’s legacy. Good thing, I think I’d be a lousy president anyway. We get to his lab and after I give his apprentice a dirty look, I realize that he’s actually helping us to find my guy.

First, we’re told he’s in America, then it turns out that he’s just down the hall. Well, you know, they were close. I know, I’m just as confused as you are. However, this is helping me add humor to the situation and relax, which will be essential in the case that I actually do get to meet this guy today. My student-guide brings me to another professor and then takes his leave. This other professor also has great English and pulls out his phone to call directly to my guy. Now this is what I’m talking about! He tells me that my guy is busy, but we exchange information so I can set up the appointment on my own.

With a spring in my step I leave the building to head to talk to the second contact on my list, who happens to also be an old Chemistry professor, but I couldn’t find her on the internet, so I’m not sure at which level. My springiness abruptly turns into an arthritic joint when I get outside and realize that the only way I can get out is with a key card. I walk down the side of the building to see if there’s another way out and then on my way back to the gate I see some students, in the building, walking in step with me in the direction of the gate. They exit the building and then, without missing a beat, I fall in behind them as we all leave the gate together. That was almost too well planned, is this real? Or am I waiting for my alarm to go off again?

I know the next place is close and after asking for some directions find the big sign telling me I found the right place. Of course this place is also gated and guarded. I go up to the guard and go through the same routine as the last guard. This guy is asking more questions and I make sure to be as absolutely honest as possible. Maybe I got through to him or I was just talking long enough to melt the part of his brain that follows the rules because he stops me in mid-sentence and lets me go through the gate.

I find the building and from a distance I can see that this is another one with a keyed entry. I slow my pace down to make sure that I’m not waiting by the gate for someone to come to my rescue. Okay, someone is coming, but wait, I’m too far from the door! So, I pick up my pace in much less of a glidey way and more of an “I’ve really got to pee” kind of way. In the building, I find a directory and go immediately up to the admin floor of the building. I run into a guy in the hallway there who is one of the few people who probably could speak English, but insists we speak Chinese. After some stumbling and bumbling he tells me that he’ll take me somewhere he points and seeing the confusion on my face he manages to squeak out “human resources”. I excitedly tell him that’s perfect and follow him to be passed off to the HR guy. He looks at the name of my contact and tells me that it’s actually Yan, not Yuan. This is the problem with getting people’s name with their English equivalent, even though the Pinyin system in China is masterfully done, we foreigners will still find a way to screw it up. They tell me she was professor about 10 or 15 years ago and that matches perfectly with the person I know nothing about and probably didn’t just find. I tell them that’s exactly who I want and after they finish spitting out their laughter, the only form of contact they can find is the woman’s Wechat, which is the equivalent to Facebook. Great, I’m going to contact an old professor about being serious and explaining my future over a platform that has more types of emoticons than it has words in a language.

After that, I head back with more than enough to work with now. I even get a message from the first professor about using the Professor and Ex-President’s email. Okay, hard part over. Now, I just need to sit and talk with them in-person to explain who I am and my deepest dreams about the future in China.

Before the end of the night I also remember my last friends who picked me up on my hitchhiking to Beijing and bought me that expensive hotel and fancy duck dinner. I message the woman and she gives me some of their business contacts in Beijing, who I’ve already messaged and been set up with two different people who have invited me to a tea meeting. They have a third person, who I already met at the duck dinner, who will be coming back to Beijing to show me the ropes of his business.

Land of Clouds

I’ve officially been in China for sixty days, so that means it’s time for a run to the border. It’s the fastest and cheapest to go to Mongolia, so…off I go.

As far as I understand, which doesn’t go much past the end of my foot, I can take a train there and then after I arrive, I can get a train ticket back the next day. Easy enough.

The ride there lasts for about eleven hours. For the last bit of the trip, I talk to my other train-car mates who are both Mongolian women. They start putting on their warm clothes and getting ready, but I’m confused because it’s only ten PM and the schedule said we arrive closer to one AM. I repeat my clarification a few times and each time understand that they’re getting off earlier, but for some reason that’s confusing to me. I get back on the bed and soon after, a guard comes in and tells me to leave. I confirm to him, in Chinese, that we’ve arrived in Erlian, the border city.

I’m so confused about why the women would have left like that. I feel like someone is playing a bad joke on me. I stay near the train for a while to make sense of everything as the people from the train pour out of the gates leading outside of the station. After a few more minutes of checking my surroundings, I walk out to the street and there is no one around. Where did all those people from the train go? I talk to the station guard and he is giddy about being able to speak to a foreigner, that’ he’ll do anything to keep our conversation going. He walks me over to the ticket desk, which isn’t the spacious terminal I was hoping to be able to spend the night in, to get a ticket back the next day. The only train going back leaves in two days! Okay, this joke isn’t funny anymore. When is someone going to laugh and show me their return ticket, and the nice warm train terminal to sleep? I have to wait a whole extra day and then that ticket is still another two day roundabout journey, unlike my direct ride here.

Now giggling at this ridiculous situation, I tell them I’m going to come back to buy the ticket tomorrow. I’m determined to find another option in the meantime. I walk over to an international terminal, which is much closer to the size I was expecting, sit down with the guards, and watch as all twenty of them argue over my possibilities back to Beijing.

They tell me that I can go to a city just inside Mongolia and then get a direct train back tomorrow. That sounds like a good plan and a way to avoid the border jeep drivers that try to fool foreigners into paying more than necessary.

As I’m talking with everyone, one of the Mongolian women comes into the terminal, scurrying through security, and before I can say anything, I look back to her and she’s gone again. Okay, I think I know the culprit in this trick now. Maybe she’s a magician practicing a new illusion. I go through security and remember I added her on a social media app that allows calls. I’ll call her and see if my option in Mongolia is a good one. I’m brilliant! I open the app, and, of course, no trace of adding her just minutes ago.

With another, “What the hell?” chuckle, I head to the ticket window and see that she’s actually just inside talking to the clerk. Not much of an illusion; no wonder she’s still working on it. I find out there is no train back from that spot in Mongolia, so I decide to spend the night here and do my original back-and-forth-land-border-crossing plan.

I can’t stay at the terminal, mostly because it’s just too small and I’d be the only one here other than the guards. So, the Mongolian woman walks me through the abandoned street to find a hotel.

The next morning, I’m up at six to walk to the border and that gives me plenty of time before it opens, around eight. Before I leave, I put on both pair of long underwear and two pair of socks along with my ski coat, followed by thick jean material for extra warmth.

 

The sun hasn’t risen yet, but I’m completely warm, so I’m excited for the exploration walk to the border. I ask some people for directions and then find the obvious main road leading to the main destination, and probably the very purpose of this town’s existence. I walk by a park and hear people screaming, just like I heard at that park on my way from Sichuan to Beijing. This time I actually see a couple of people doing some arm swings while they yell, so it must be some kind of warm up exercise. Sounds fun because there is just enough violence, but no one is getting hurt. Especially me. Maybe I’ll try it another time because I’m on a mission here.

I hitch a ride to the border, which is only about half a kilometer away. Already, my feet are getting cold and I hope I can get my driver to give me a ride all the way through. No luck. He’s a worker and is going only to the gate, which I can’t enter because I’m too early.

Boarder Sunrise

I wait by the gate as the sun rises and as the wind goes from nonexistent to being able to knock me off balance if I’m not standing well. My feet start to get a lot colder, but I figure it’s almost eight, when the guard told me the gate would open. A few minutes past eight, I ask him to enter and he says it opens at half past. I tell him it’s my fault for not listening well and then tell him I’ll wait. This is all in Chinese, so I probably also messed up the tones and just insulted his mother.

It’s too cold to wait outside for another thirty minutes, so I go to a bus stop to sit down and put on my other three pair of socks. I get the first three on my right foot and then can barely get my foot back in my shoe. Before I start on my left foot, I realize my hands are stinging really bad and when I take a good look, they’re swollen and red. I just had them out for a minute to put the socks on! Somehow, I manage to get the rest of the socks on and then jump up to move around to let my hands and feet recover.

I’m now literally dancing with the wind as I leave one foot and float a few steps away before it blows me back to where I started. The guards must think I’m nuts. I don’t care, though, because now my big toes are throbbing worse than they have the entire time and this is after the socks are on. “It’s okay…just ten minutes left,” I say through chattering teeth.

The time comes, but when I talk to the guard, he tells me I can’t enter without being in a car. Are you kidding me? He didn’t tell me that the other ten times I asked about entering.

I walk back up the road and one of the old Russian jeeps, meant specifically for the border, pulls up to offer me a ride. He tells me I must pay him fifty Yuan, which is half of what I feared, so I hop in.

The whole process is easy and I catch another jeep on the way back that takes me all the way back into the middle of town. I’m back just twenty minutes past the time the only train would leave today. After some scrambling to figure out how to get to the train station, I drop that idea and get filled with energy to hitchhike. My body regains its warmth and I have a great backup plan if it doesn’t work, so I go for it.

Before I get on the road, I eat a huge meal to hold me over for the foreseeable future. It was so much food, I think I’m still full.

Mongolian Breakfast

As I walk toward the edge of town, I have a bit of a strut to my step. I really think I’ve figured this hitchhiking thing out by now. It’s been wildly successful in three different countries now, one of which was on a completely different continent. I go through my normal routine of finding that one road that leads out of town and getting far enough to be completely out of place to get people’s attention, but not far enough to put myself in any kind of danger. The last thing I would ever do hitchhiking is stick out my thumb. I think that evokes too many images in peoples’ minds from movies or stories. I think it would stir up that terrible image about the hitchhiker-killer movie they saw. So, instead, I still use the technique that I first developed in Ghana. I point down the road, as if I’m Babe Ruth calling my shot over the fence, and then with my palm down, wave my hand toward the ground. This seems to be an international signal to tell someone to stop. At the same time I try to think about how crazy I must look and how crazy I actually feel, and then that gets me to giggle to myself. That’s really about it. It’s not rocket science. Using that same routine, I get picked up within a half hour and the guy offers to take me to the linking town between trains I would have been on if I had caught the only morning train.

The first few hours of the ride are stunningly beautiful. The sun is out overhead of us, but there are clouds off in the horizon. It looks really strange, like all the clouds fell to the Earth.

Fallen Clouds I also notice that the wind is blowing the snow from the right side of the road to the left, creating white streaks across the ground. A few times, the wined would switch and the streaks would go with our car and it would look like we were driving through the clouds. I felt safe the whole time because the guy was driving very slowly. Cloud RoadAs we got farther, I realize that those aren’t clouds that fell to the ground. (I’m sure reading this you’re probably thinking, “Uh, duh”) Those lovely land clouds are actually the wind whipping up the snow in such a fury that it looks like a cloud. Soon, we enter that wind…

Cloud Storm There’s probably already a name for this, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it, so I’m calling it a cloud storm. Keep in mind that the sky above is still blue and I can still see the sun lower on the horizon, barely shining through. It’s a storm from the ground up. Everything about this trip is backwards.

We get a break in the storm and get some really beautiful scenery again.

Road to Nowhere Even the windmills aren’t moving in this intense win. I guess it’s all on the ground, or the sky, or wherever the hell we actually are. Maybe it’s a dream. I’ll take a picture anyway.

Windmills

 

Horsies

They’re furrier than normal, but those horses still look cold to me!

 

Just as the sun is setting we arrive in a town, outside of where I need to catch the train. He drops me off at the bus station and we part our ways. In the station, I find that there are no more buses today and I’ll have to wait until tomorrow. That means that after all that, I still will be getting on the same train that I hitchhiked to avoid waiting for. Again, I have a good backup plan here, so I go to the edge of town.

The wind is blowing so hard on my way there that I have to lean my body weight into my steps to make any kind of progress. This is not the same fun win I danced with at the border. This one wants to take off my head. I use some buildings by the edge of town to block the wind and start to flag down some cars. A guy pulls over and offers me a ride, but wants me to pay. With no idea how much the ride should be, I end up declining his offer, and I still have a few hours to find another ride. He comes by a few more times and the last time I start to feel a bit cold, so I give in and tell him I’ll pay him. I guess this ride would probably be close to the cost of a hotel and it would save me an entire day, so it’s set. He actually ends up giving me great practice for my Chinese because he’s really talkative and knows absolutely zero English. Having the attention span of a gold fish, I learned, as a child, to understand what people were saying, but listening to 1/10th of what they were actually saying. That skill has really come in handy since I’ve been traveling abroad and learning new languages, especially right now on this ride. I fake my way through most of our conversation by picking up on the few words I know and then responding with the Chinese I’m much more familiar with. A couple of times though, he catches on to my strategy and then I admit that I don’t understand at all. He’s good about trying to say things in different ways, so after a bit of struggle with his questions, we get to the point where I’m able to respond. I haven’t really put my Chinese to the test like this yet, so it feels good knowing I can hold my own. I had to ask for clarification quite a few times, but I was still able to answer most of his questions and keep the conversation going.

At the train station, I buy a ticket, but they had no beds available, just a seat. I had a bed going there but I didn’t want to sleep during the day, and now, on my way back, when I do want to sleep, I can only get a seat. Everything continues to be backwards and that makes me laugh at its ridiculousness. I go into a small grocery store to get some snacks before the ride and when I enter, everyone stops what they are doing to stare at me. I can even hear them comment about me, where I’m from, and what they think I’m doing. I break the tension when I talk to one of the ladies in Chinese and she nearly melts in her shoes. Her friends are all giggling in the background. At the cash register, I get the most attractive there and when I walk up she pumps her fist toward her friends. As we’re talking two more people come up really close, don’t say anything, and just watch me like they are examining a newly discovered species.

On my way back to the train station, I’d say at least half the people I pass give me a big smile and their best pronunciation of “Hello!” Each time, that was the only English word spoken, but I still appreciate the effort. In the station, I sit down and can see people all around looking at me and commenting to the people around them. One old man even stops before he enters a door and extends both his arms to usher me in first. Whoa, I haven’t seen anything close to this yet in China. A man and woman come to sit down and the man nudges her to sit down right next to me. I stop to look at the, but they’re painfully shy. At the first break in their conversation I turn and greet them both. That was all I needed to start the waterfall of Chinese that comes out of this woman’s mouth. She goes through that common script that I got used to in Ghana and it suddenly hits me that I’ve gone back into “Ghana mode”. The way people are acting around me has shocked my imagination like I’m back in my small village for the first time. As the three of us continue to talk, people start to come over and crowd around us. Again, they are not talking, just staring at me with mouths agape. They ask to see my passport and rapidly chatter at each page they flip through. The couple leave and so does the crowd. Then, a young man comes over to sit next to me an it seems as if he has been sitting there the entire time trying to build up the courage to make the move to approach me. I smile and start to converse with him. In the middle of our conversation, I notice a man across the hall who is staring at me, and when I look back, he doesn’t look away. I randomly look back at him and each time he is still staring at me. I finally forget about him, until he gets up and comes a few feet away from me to get a closer look at my face by leaning down to catch my gaze. He is acting like I’m something he doesn’t believe. Then, he turns around and sits back in his seat without saying one word!

I board the train at 10 PM and luckily no one is sitting next to me, so I’m able to put my bag on the seat and pass out. After the train I took in Thailand, I’m much more used to this and fall fast asleep. The only difference with China, that I hope I never get used to, is the amount of smoking. I can’t stand the smoking here and if I were to get up and walk out or tell someone not to do it, I would fail at fostering any relationships with men over the age of thirty. As far as my experience goes, nearly all of them smoke and not in moderation.

 

I arrive in Beijin at 4 AM and wait for the subway to open at 5, where I take it back to school. I get to the room and get ready to pass out for a few hours before finding that someone is sleeping in my bed.  Goldilocks? From start to finish, this experience is backward and I guess I should have expected something like this. By the end of this, I want to learn how to find comfort in a life absent of my usual routines and comforts. Either that, or I’ll go crazy and leave here screaming. I guess we’ll see soon enough.

 

 

More and More Beijing

The more immersed I become in my new life in Beijing, the deeper my appreciation and love for the situation grows. Things are far from perfect and even when the situation seems to get worse, I’ve been learning to adapt quickly  and find out how I can take advantage of the new limits and benefits of the new situation. I think I’ve been decent at that process in the past, but this time I don’t have any kind of base comfort to fall back upon. I’m just here suspended in my situations and when something changes, it affects everything. It’s been fertile ground to really analyze my habits and continue to understand myself. Exactly what I was looking for when I made the decision to drop comforts and support to come to China.

I met a young freshman girl in the cafeteria one day and she caught my attention because her English skills are legendary. I’m able to speak with her at normal native speed, which hasn’t been the case for any of my local friends from Ghana, Laos, or here in China. Recently I accompanied her on a school project in the downtown area. She was going to interview an old man who makes fancy pens… Sounds like an adventure to me. Well, he didn’t want to interview, so somehow I ended up becoming her interview subject. The subject started as my ability to adapt to new cultures and turned into me trying to verbalize my purpose in life. It got really deep and it was interesting to hear a little bit of her perspective through her continued probing and clarification for her class project. It was certainly a nice reminder of why I’m here and got me to think of some things in a new perspective.
I was talking with one of the PhD students on the research team, whose name is Kevin. He’s my main contact to the professor and is the main guy who stayed in contact from our first meeting at the farm. He has learned a lot about traditional Chinese culture and he can see the hunger in my eyes when he starts to open up about his perspective. That combination has lead to some really long conversations. Unfortunately, a common theme of our discussions has been that he can’t really explain the essence what he’s trying to say in English. He says it doesn’t really capture the meaning, but he certainly tries hard, at the very least, to introduce it to me. He gave me advice for learning the language and culture as a whole and repeated many times that the heart or soul of what I’m after lies in the understanding of the calligraphy. It goes past communication and approaches the realm of an art masterpiece. Even though he said the next part didn’t represent what he was trying to say, he said that each character in the calligraphy has it’s own gravity that gives each character its own identity, even separate from the same character written in a different way. He also told me that you can look back through the calligraphy in the past and understand ancient culture in that way. I guess I could try to make some comparisons with ancient European art, but I think I’ll try to keep the comparisons to a minimum, so I can keep myself open to learning something completely new. This will be something that I might not understand until I’ve mastered everything else about the everyday Chinese culture, but for now it’s something interesting to ponder and put in the backseat of my awareness.
Some other random things I’ve picked up on about the culture: It is considered very rude to reach to the food in the middle of the table and carry it all the way back to your bowl in front of you. The proper way to do it is to take your bowl with you so there’s no chance you’ll drop and waste food. Also, it’s very rude to reach into the common plate of food with rice stuck to your chopsticks.
The education system is very similar to our elementary, junior/senior high school, except they use the British terms here. It’s been a common theme to hear that students from elementary through high school will go to school at six in the morning and stay at school until about ten at night. Sometimes they have to stay after school to do their “homework” with the teachers, so the teachers can make sure its done. Then students will get home to eat at ten and continuing to study until between midnight and two in the morning. Through that crazy schedule, the curriculum teaches the students to study, memorize, and regurgitate. There is almost nothing to do with creativity. Creativity is seen as something that is just too slow to wait for; the idea is that if you can copy and start producing now, you can make money and be successful.
The majority of Chinese people, especially young people, love America. I heard the opposite before coming and everywhere I’ve been has proven that the love is strong and I’ve certainly benefited from my blond mop and blue eyes.
Ping Pong is actually a Chinese word and is pronounced more like Ping Pang. Yes, I can hear you saying “uhh, duh”, but I wasn’t sure, okay!
I met with that attractive young woman who shamed me at ping pong. This time we met for badminton. I got to practice with my lab team just a few days before and I found my strength in the game. I don’t quite understand the finesse shots yet, but when the ball goes above my head I can smash it down like it’s as natural as breathing. It’s almost literally the same motion as throwing a pitch in baseball, combined a little bit with the angle of the racket from tennis. It took me about three hits to start smashing it twice as hard as anyone we were playing with.
Anyway, back to this attractive woman. I warned her that I wouldn’t be going easy when we played, mostly as a joke because from the Ping Pang, she was the only one going easy. Just like the Ping Pang, she was able to pick me apart. She made the mistake of leaving the ball up too high a few times, but she was masterful at avoiding my strengths. Just like in our Ping Pang games, I was able to communicate with her through our playing that didn’t require any words and ended up in us both giggling uncontrollably. It’s an amazing feeling to connect with people at that level and find a good sports friend. Especially since she’s a dainty little thing, but can still kick my butt!
She also blew me away when she said that she defied her parents wishes (as you already know, that’s extremely uncommon in China) to come to Beijing to study Industrial Design. Her passion is to find a field within the study of design where she can create new things and explore her creative side. She also has a very traditional family, so she has the perfect balance of knowledge of her own culture, but the courage to challenge other’s expectations and follow her dreams.  She’s also one of the only people who isn’t overly aggressive about speaking everything in English to me. She actually takes the time to repeat things in Chinese to make sure I understood well. I still can’t believe how quickly I’m finding such great people.
My Chinese is progressing much better now, but still not at the phase I would like to see. I’m figuring out how to approach people here and make friends, so soon I might have the issue of having too many. I think having Chinese people around me all the time is really the key to what I’m after. It’s just uncommon and not seen as something foreigners want to do. I’ll change that pretty quickly.
china1
The campus is looking really beautiful as the last leaves are falling from the passing few weeks of fall.
China2
One of my favorite parts of walking around the city is to see how people manage waiting at a crosswalk….meaning they don’t. They slowly walk into the road, blocking off lane by lane as they can’t bare to wait the last twenty seconds before the light changes. Some people, like the one in this picture, even cross diagonally
China 4
The professor of our research group took us to a private lunch when one of his old friends came to visit. It was so fancy we had a bottle of red wine and were served by the manager of the restaurant up in a private room on the top floor.
China5
They have vending machines here that actually squeeze fresh orange juice into a cup for you!

Introduction to Beijing Life

I’ve been in Beijing not even for a full two weeks, but it feels more like I’m approaching the two month mark. I have to say, the first week was the hardest adjustment I’ve ever had to face in a new place. I had this expectation that this is now the third time in a row where I’ve started over in a new culture and that I should be three times more efficient at immersing myself. I was so focused with competing against myself, I lost some of the enjoyment I found before from this process. It bothered me so much, I couldn’t even bear to write a blog post.
I overlooked the wonderful things I had already. For instance, I got to be a roommate with a Pakistan man named Iftikhar. He’s been very generous and concerned with making me comfortable at every aspect of our life. He’s also the only other English speaker on our research team, so our lives are intertwined in many ways. He’s said many times that anything in his room is mine and he doesn’t want anything in return except for my friendship. It’s been interesting to learn about his culture and his Muslim religion. He and his other Pakistani friends are passionate about defending the image of their religion, it’s sad to see they have to do that, but also a unique experience for me to see firsthand. I keep telling them that I lived with a Muslim woman in Ghana and understand the beauty of their religion, but we still have some great debates about why that’s true.
My daily routine hasn’t changed. I help with research from 8-12 and then spend the majority of the rest of my day practicing Chinese. The difficulty I faced with immersing myself in Chinese was really shocking at first. When I finally did get the rare opportunity, it was squandered at my terrible listening ability. I’ve joined a weekend study group and joined a few clubs on campus to see if I can try and change that soon.
People keep asking me about the tourist places I’ve visited already and they can barely believe me when I say I’m not interested. However, I’ve been interested in exploring the other college campuses. I’ve visited about five of the top ones in the area, but they all pale in comparison to Peking University. It’s consistently the highest ranked university in China and is probably along the lines of Hardvard or Oxford. The campus was mindbogglingly beautiful and still held onto some of the really complex and mysterious parts of the ancient Chinese culture. One part of campus I found was this still pond where the city sounds couldn’t reach and as I stood there with my eyes closed, all I could here was the chirping of the birds and breeze rustling the nearby leaves. It was amazing to have that experience being so close to the middle of this giant city.
Here are some pictures of the campus I found interesting.
16A4FC08-AAA3-48E0-9950-39302F36C730A4CD52CB-8618-47B0-9AB8-469090193808
A6C00425-F238-4885-BFAB-6B550F7F311155BB6036-0FCC-4AC7-B6C1-3E85093800AD
2F282897-D666-4817-A11B-778BF45CC2AD1FC37FBB-6624-4A33-835C-071FCE268E70
DF48A0E6-6510-4473-8E50-B16CB698625B691EC0A5-C647-41E8-9F67-B213A897AF21
A560D5C5-7771-41D2-8185-803FEF3AE82696B0CC9B-2953-4EEF-9368-6D7A3ED49F98
I’ve been doing a lot of research about life here as well. There’s a US doctor who has a health blog about living in Beijing. He focuses a lot on the atmosphere and I’ve learned that if I’m going to be here I need to wear a mask most days and buy some special plants for the room to help process some of those particulates and fill the room with fresh oxygen at night. I guess it’s a comfort sacrifice to live here, but it’s reassuring to know that I can still be healthy while being here, even if it looks a bit strange.
DE66F1D1-4EC1-4097-BD66-6224316E233EB8C2125B-BFDC-43C3-B758-1952A23C062B
Okay, maybe my face is the strange part.
I’ve also met some really good Chinese friends as well. My research partners are are really great people. I got to play ping pong with a few of the best and was able to hold my own and get some compliments. I’m not very good at hitting good shots, but I can return most of what comes at me. My strategy has just been to get them to go left and right until they get tired. Yes, they actually get tired playing ping pong, that doesn’t make sense to me. They’re not good enough to put enough spin on it anyway, although I’m sure some of the people at this school could make it so I wouldn’t even connect. The same group also played badminton and for my second time playing I still really love playing. It’s also closer to tennis and racquetball, so I can hold my own much better. Separate from my research team, I met this young woman who was the best ping pong player I’ve ever seen. She had to play down to me and I didn’t know if I was going to explode with laughter or shame. I’ve never met a woman, let alone an attractive one, who can beat me at any racket sport. She’s apparently just as good at badminton, so we’ll see how it goes when we play something a little more familiar to me. Apparently she also plays basketball against guys and is a dancer. Uh oh, I need to watch myself here. At the very least she will be a very good sports partner.
I’ve also had a chance to meet two Ghanaian men, one from Kumasi, which is the big city right next to where I lived. It was amazing to get to speak Twi with them again. My brain was a bit confused with Lao and Chinese getting in the way, but I was able to have the basic conversation. I still have the snap handshake down as well. The guy from Kumasi called to me as I was walking away with “me pacho”, which is an interjection, meaning something like please look here and I felt myself flash right back to the feeling of Ghanaian life. It’s fun, but that’s not why I’m here, so I’ll still be focusing on immersing myself in the Chinese life.
Even though I was against starting my Chinese experience like this, I’m finding that this is such a richer experience than I imagined. My next plans are to get back into some routines that I miss like a stable exercise routine and exploring different art forms. First, I’ll start to explore the Chinese character writing and maybe even find some people equally passionate about photography and music, so I can keep learning from experts. More updates soon.

A Complete Reversal of My So-Called Plans

It hasn’t even been a week since arriving at the Beijing farm and yet it feels more like it’s approaching a month.
For a few days I settled into the routine of starting work around seven. Most of the crops on the farm are in a greenhouse, so the walk there is quite cold, but then everyone takes their jackets off inside. Never were two periods of work with the crops the same. I spent time trimming tomato plants, tying string to support the straight upward growth, and hung sticky paper for flies. Multiple times I helped weigh and sort vegetables for their delivery program.
Then, the weekend came and the owner, a middle-aged woman named Sammy, came with her two kids. She tells me on Saturday that some of her friends from the agricultural university in downtown Beijing are coming to visit. One of them is the Dean of Agricultural Science Department and the rest are PhD students. The Dean is a typical business man type. He’s big, has a barreling deep voice, and sits with his feet up, cigarette in his hand, and has everyone’s undivided attention. He doesn’t intimidate me in the least, but he does interest me, so I take every chance to talk with him.
By the end of the day Saturday the Dean invites me to come to live at the university and work on their team’s project. I figure that I will at least go to visit and check things out.
Literally, the next day, Sammy tells me that her cousin, working on the farm, is going for errands in Beijing and can drive me there. Woah! I thought I’d be going in maybe two or three weeks. Good thing I don’t actually have any real plans. I get my stuff together and before I know it, we’re stuck in the midday rush hour on our way to the city.
It’s interesting to see the suburb turn into big city buildings as we get closer and closer to the heart of the city. Also, the other interesting thing that really stands out is that even when we’re in the midst of the big buildings, there is still so much green space. More green space than I’ve ever seen in a city. The city is laid out and measured in rings. Each new ring added says, in Chinese terms,how much bigger the city has gotten. I think there are five or six here. Within ring three they’re not allowed to have skyscrapers at a certain height, so most of the big business operations are held out near the fourth ring. That’s exactly where he drops me off.
Not interested at all in this section of the city, I hit the subway and with my new found knowledge of the system. It’s quite easy to navigate the subway because the Chinese is spelled out phonetically with their Pinyin system along side English for the meanings.
I arrive at the campus to meet one of the PhD students who takes me down to their lab. Down there, the other PhD student, Kevin, introduces me to their work and calls the last PhD student of this specific group, named Iftikhar. He’s a Pakistani and the only other foreigner of the group. We go out to get dinner and then I end up spending the night in an extra bed at the Chinese dorm. Just like a Chinese kitchen, everything is absolutely filthy and not just they-haven’t-cleaned-for-a-month dirty. It’s more like spots that haven’t been cleaned for ten years have grown new organisms that have become mobile and attacked the rest of the area. The next morning I tell them that I want to go now to run a few errands around the city before going back to the farm. They’ve been very hospitable, but I just don’t feel very good about joining the project. I think the farm will be better for my Chinese learning and rest of life activities. Sammy ends up coming to campus at noon, so I decide to at least wait for her.
She takes me to a Chinese business style meeting between faculty and donor from outside the campus. First we all go into an empty room where everyone stands and talks about something, completely in Chinese. A young reporter from the school come sin to take pictures of everything.
Then, we go up stairs to a nice boardroom where everyone takes a seat. Unlike the normal head of the room at the end of the rectangular table, the boss sits square in the middle of the table. I watched everyone as the meeting goes on and then abruptly, without any smooth transition, the leader makes a loud guttural noise and everyone stands up.
Back down to that same empty room, some people start to bring in office furniture and they all argue and tweak the layout of the room. Layout is important to function, but I had no idea it had this kind of importance here. They would have a ten minute conversation over a few inch difference in positioning. I guess this has something to do with the feng shui style of decorating.
After the meeting is concluded some of us go back to the house of one of the bosses from the meeting. He shows us around his beautifully decorated three story apartment. Each new wall has a different collection of ancient Chinese cultural items. Some guy I’ve never seen before, on the first floor, appears out of thin air with a pot of tea in his hand. He pours me a normal, tall water glass of the tea. It’s a perfect temperature, just below being too hot to drink. It’s a perfect amount of tea flavor to water ratio. I’m not thirsty or particularly a tea drinker, but after about four glasses I figure I should slow down before the long drive back to the farm. This is by far the best tea I’ve ever had. As far as my tea ignorance can tell, this is the perfect cup of tea.
We get back on the road and head back to the farm. About an hour and a half later, it feels good to step back on the farm ground and not have fallen into that situation that seemed awfully like a trap to help some PhD students with their research. As the night goes on, the woman decides to stay and I’m yet again frustrated with my Chinese practice. The woman keeps undermining my attempt to speak and the others don’t give me a chance to find the right correct way to express myself.
After dinner, I lie in bed thinking about my predicament. I think I’m too early in my language learning to be so immersed. At this stage I need someone who will give me the time to call up that memory of the vocabulary and piece it together. It’s not fair to put that on the few people that are here at the farm who don’t speak English. I also can’t speak enough to prove that woman wrong that I can understand, just not express myself well enough yet to answer. Maybe being on that collage campus will give me the situation I need to learn at this stage. I will unfortunately have to be wrapped in English for the research assistance part, but I have a population of 30,000 students that I can go from student to student finding people who will hang with me and help me through this stage to becoming more conversational. I can’t help but think through all these options, so much so that it’s keeping me from sleeping.

1,700 km, 4 days, and 1 Yuan later

The next morning starts slowly. I know they’re going to pick me up at ten, so on my schedule that’s like a whole day’s worth of time after I wake up. At least my room has its own modem and wifi connection, yes one not shared with anyone else, I know this is fancy, so I can watch videos and indulge in that for a bit.
With my room, I get a buffet breakfast as well, so I’m excited to see what that could possibly mean in China. In the capital of Laos, that mean two scrambled eggs and two pieces of Wonder Bread. Based on the fancyness of the hotel, I know this will be  much better, but probably still misunderstood cross culturally.
Well, on the elevator doors I can see I was at least right about the fancy decoration. However, I was very wrong about the buffet. First of all, it’s just past starting time and it’s full stocked and waiting for me. It’s starts with soups, steamed buns, dumplings, and foreign pastries, goes through the regular meals like eggs, meat, and vegetables, all the way down to the fruit, yogurt, pancakes, and smoothies.
After trying a bit of everything at breakfast and some more relaxing, I head down to the lobby to meet the young couple. We go across town and I soon find out the wife isn’t going and instead one of the guys from last night’s dinner will be driving the husband and me. They are passing by Beijing for Business in Mongolia.
About 100 km outside of Beijing we stop for lunch and eat these wonderful little sandwiches with meat and peppers. There’s a plate of veggies in the middle of the table that we all eat with our chopsticks hand, opposite of the sandwich hand. The guy driving is holding the sandwich with his chopsticks and I just I laugh as that’s way past my ability. I’m pretty good, but not that good.
Since these guys don’t have a Beijing license plate, they can’t enter the city, so the husband buys me a bus ticket and talks to the driver to make sure they drop me off at the subway station. I thank both guys and head off, on my own again, to Beijing.
I squeeze down the rows with my bags and then of course I get the one seat in the back with the least amount of lap space, so my bags are stacked on my lap and spilling into the people around me. The old guy to my right is clearly pissed off and tells me to put my stuff in the tiny little purse sized overhead compartment. I tell him in Chinese it won’t go, but get no more than a snort. I’m making city friends quickly it seems. Maybe I’m meant to stay out in the farm area. They’re playing a Jackie Chan movie on the screen, so I’m captivated the whole ride and barely forget to look at the scenery. I knew Jackie Chan was famous first in China and then second in the US, but it’s strange to see him speaking Chinese with my new perspective on the language. I just know him as the goofy Chinese guy with the accent from Rush Hour.
An hour later and the bus assistant tells me to get off the bus and points straight. I understand them talking to each other trying to guess if I’m from England, they talk about me not being able to understand, and then…I’m not able to understand the rest. I guess they’re right about one thing.
I get off and go down the direction he pointed, but ask a woman at the news stand to make sure. I get out “I want to go to the subway” and then she ushers me off before I can finish my sentence. This is going to be harder than I thought to practice this language. I get to the end of the street and ask another man who actually takes me a few blocks over over to the doorway and tells me to go inside for the subway.
I have the directions to the farm printed on my paper in Chinese and English so I can just show people and let them figure out how to help me. That’s exactly what I do with the subway person and they ask for seven Yuan, which is just over a dollar. Sounds about right to me, but what do I know?
It’s about three in the afternoon, so I pick up the pace to make sure I miss the awful sounding rush hour situation here. I’ve been scarred by those Internet videos of people being shoved into trains.
I get off and on several lines and ask more people than I can count and several hours later make it to the last stop on the subway. Now it’s time to figure out which bus to take. I ask the first people, who look like students, but they’re so embarrassed to talk to a foreigner that they can’t even face my direction and can barely manage to make a sound. A taxi driver comes over and asks if I want a ride and I immediately get into my mode to deal with them of not paying much attention to them at all. To my surprise he actually tells me where to wait and which bus to take. I’m so used to the overly aggressive taxis in Ghana and tuk tuk drivers in Laos, but at least this one in China is totally different.
I ask another young guy and he confirms that same bus number as the taxi driver. I have to chase the bus down past the crowd with several people, but I manage to beat them there and squeeze into the crowded bus. I ask more people and eventually get the bus driver on my side to let me out at the right stop.
The scenery is going from suburbs to much less sparse farm-style housing. On a not-so-populated corner it’s my stop and I get off with another guy from the bus. I still don’t have a SIM card to make calls so I call to him with “hello” and then “neehow”, (Mandarin for hello) but get no response. I get closer and he looks over his shoulder like I’m the killer in a scary movie and picks up his pace. Alright, I’m not playing this game. So, I stop on the corner and see another young guy waiting on the curb. I go up to him and he gives me a much warmer welcome. I call the person I’m supposed to be meeting, but he’s speaking so fast that I hand the guy his phone and tell him to tell the person on the phone that I’ve arrived here already.
He hangs up the phone and then tells me to “deung”. Okay, that either means that things went well or he just told me he’s about to kill me. I take a step back as the new victim in this horror film and then remember deung means to wait. So, I ask “should I deung here?” and he confirms.
I talk some more with this guy and before aI know it someone pulls up on a scooter to get me. I start to walk before he pulls up in front of me and tells me to get on. Right then I realize how obese this guy is and the laughably small scooter I’m about to join him on. With some wobbles we make it down the road and then turn off behind some gates onto a dirt path. At a bend in the path, he falls to the left, but my rigid lack of trust already had my left leg ready to catch us before we both fall in the mud. I get off and suggest walking, but he doesn’t listen, or understand, either way I’m back on this damn bike.
Just a few more feet we stop and get off to enter a giant greenhouse roof with smaller rooms and a courtyard underneath. The guy shows me to my room, gives me bedding, a big thing of hot water, and a cup. Then I follow him to a room where an old woman and middle aged man are sorting vegetables into boxes. My guy sits down and starts reading things off as the other collect vegetables and throw them in the boxes. Work starts quickly here.
I grab some lids and help as much as I can without really understanding anything that’s going on.
We finish and now it’s time for dinner. I follow the old woman over to the kitchen and watch her boil some potatoes and fry some vegetable dishes. She and I sit down and are alone together. She gives me a shallow pasta bowl of hot water and we’re set to eat. This is certainly more simple than the last farm. That’s exactly what I was looking for though, so I’m feeling very satisfied.
I go to my room and get quickly under the covers of my bed because it’s already much colder than I’ve felt since being here. The quilt is thick though, so once that heat pocket is formed I’m out like a light.
I can’t believe that I made it the whole 1,700 km to Beijing city by hitchhiking. In total I spent one Yuan, which is about fifteens cents. I don’t think I wrote it, but at the toll booth where those police gave me the oat food and apples, an old woman came up to me and gave me a ten yuan bill. I couldn’t understand her, so I have no idea what she said when she gave it to me. Maybe she said, “Here young man. Take this used toilet paper that looks like Chinese money and carefully dispose of it. Or you will die.” Then, I spent two Yuan on water and the rest on that subway and bus ride. Other than that, I had plenty of water and food for the entire four day journey, stayed in a five star hotel, enjoyed a  Beijing duck dinner with fancy “wine”, traveled one hundred kilometers by bus and the other sixteen hundred by hitchhiking, all off of the generosity of total strangers. This really is a special place and my luck is unbelievable. Sweet dreams.

Pictures From Down On The Farm

1

  2

Here are all the foreigners in our straw house on the farm. Some local university students came to visit the farm and joined us for a long conversation of sharing our cultures.

3

One morning we were tasked to clean their kitchen after they ripped out all the cabinets. It’s so interesting to see the Chinese perspective on what is okay to be dirty. Many of the people working in the fields wear nice clothes, some even wear sport coats. The kitchen, however, is a place that isn’t very high on the cleaning priority. There were all kinds of species of bugs and several coating of grease everywhere. I was quite glad to get done with that job.

4

Here we’re bagging peanuts.

5

Okay… I’m mostly watching the bagging process. It’s important to have moral support.

6

My last afternoon of work we collected grapes in many of their mini fields around the farm.

7

Walking back after a tough few hours of test tasting grapes.

8

We’re all walking as a group to go eat in the farm canteen.

9

The next day the university students visited, we visited them at their school and they took us out to a popular meal in China called hot pot. This one is specifically called the Sichuan Hot Pot and is known to be very spicy. It’s basically a giant pot of boiling red oil with all kinds of meats inside. You order raw things and then put them in to cook.

10

Here we’re in the library learning about Chinese calligraphy and art. The calligraphy has three kinds. One very neat and easy to read, one very sloppy and quickly written, and the last is in the middle of those two. The art doesn’t have much detail, but instead is supposed to be appreciated as a whole piece.

11

Time to pose with our student hosts.

12

We’re eating hot pot here. Since it’s a common occurrence that people will take pictures of us, the response is to take out a phone and take a picture f that Chinese person.

13

That’s Lin on the left. He’s our main helper on the farm. His English is very good and everyone else’s is pretty much nonexistent.

14

Some old building from Beijing.

15

I didn’t do to well with the whole peace sign thing

.16

At the school we played badminton for a few hours and these are all the ones who put up a fight. The Italian guy in the green and I were on the same team most of the time and had quite a long winning streak. We were quite proud to beat Chinese people at badminton, ping pong was a different story.

17

On our way out of the badminton court we see these people doing a strange tossing back and forth with these rackets and balls. We ask them to teach us. They didn’t know the name in English, but it has something to do with Taichi. You’re supposed to use the motion of the ball and angle the racket so you toss it back and forth in a beautiful flowing motion. Well, the Chinese students did it beautifully, I couldn’t make it look very natural.

18

They would practice by swinging their arm back and forth while keeping the ball glued to the racket.

Starting On The Ground, Ending In The Clouds

I’m woken up a few times during the night to some popping like fireworks off in the distance, but I’m close to a city, so don’t think much of it. I had set my alarm for half past six, thinking I’ll have plenty of time to get my stuff together before it gets too late, just like when I got up yesterday morning. I don’t make it to my alarm as I’m startled awake to a man screaming near my tent, but far enough away that I’m not too worried. I sit there for a few minutes to try to orient myself and then I hear someone else in another direction scream much louder than the last.
Okay, now I’m worried. Especially since the sun is already illuminating my tent and it’s not much past six. I hop up, stick my feet out the front of my tent and put on my shoes. I always set up the little triangle of extra cover in the front of my tent for my shoes to stay outside, but protected from view. As my shoes are almost on I hear two more people screaming. What in the hell is going on around me and where did I set up in the middle of last night!? I slowly emerge from my tent to see two people walking down a path, not far from my tent, through the very slight cover from the trees. To the right of them I can see some other people stretching. Like land mines exploding, I can hear more people screaming in new directions. No one around is directly paying attention to me, so I quickly start to wrap things up. In a few minutes my tent is away and I’m crouched down brushing my teeth. It probably looks more like I’m answering nature’s call in a very natural way, which might actually be more normal to see in a park than someone brushing their teeth.
With both my bags I cut through the trees to get away from that section of path and sit at a bus stop seat facing the toll parking lot. Over an apple and some of that oat bar stuff the policeman gave me I try to figure things out. Some people pass by me in more workout clothes, so I guess either this is a special day or this is the only green space in this city and screaming is a Chinese version of a cup of coffee in the morning.
I walk over to the toll station and try to read the highway signs. None of them mention Beijing, but one does say a town that I recognize is sort of in that direction. I sit down and pull out my China map to check things out. The highway goes either up and way left of Beijing or just under it. I pick the one just under and try to start flagging cars down on the highway side of the toll gate. No police come this time to talk to me. A man does stop on his scooter and says something about not being able to have a car pick me up here. I laugh and ask if he’s really about to get onto the 140km/h highway with a scooter, but there is something lost there as he nods and drives off. I get off that part of the road quickly and then go over to the winding on-ramp where I will stand to flag down cars. The on-ramp is ridiculously over-sized for some reason, so I feel this will be a good place (that seven semis could all pull over at the same time) to consider picking me up. A car pulls over with some young men and they tell me none of these roads will go to the city I picked from the map. I’m pretty sure the sign was right and I matched the Chinese pinyin romanization to the English on the map to make sure. They point to their nice GPS in the car and explain to me why it will go around where I want to go.
I take that as a sign and go back down to the toll station where I stop at the police box to ask which way to go. They confirm the sign is right, but say this toll station isn’t good to get a car. The woman tells me that her friend will come pick me up and drop me off at hdshluiebx. I missed the last part, but the dropping me off part sounds good, so I agree to wait.
Some traffic police pull up and one with good English steps forward to talk to me. He says that the next toll station is much bigger and will be a better place to find a car to Beijing or the city that I picked just below. On the ride, that same cop shows me some pictures of his German friend like he’s showing me a prized possession. I switch the subject to the hitchhiking and it being okay to find a car to the next nearest city and he finished my sentence of them piecing the rides together to get to Beijing. I’m feeling good to have him on my side to explain this to the next group of toll people.
At the new toll booth they drop me off, quickly talk to one of the traffic cops, and then take off. This new guy is a little slow, it seems, to catch on to anything. When I don’t understand him, he repeats what he’s saying much louder and faster. He’s not angry and I think he’s honestly trying to help, but he just doesn’t get what I’m doing at all. I go past him to start flagging cars down.
This is about ten times bigger than any other toll stations I’ve been to, and cars are coming from every direction, all crisscrossing each other. This is total mayhem. I pick the section to the left by the big trucks. I’m getting no luck and those who do talk to me are going in the wrong direction. I really don’t like the toll hitchhiking. Unless it’s just a continuation on the same road, it’s too hard to determine where everyone’s going and since this is an odds game, adding a bunch of other entrances and destinations isn’t helping my cause.
I go up to the toll booths to be met and stopped by two women. They’re no fun and aren’t interested in helping me at all. They are equally as bad as the police booth guy at communicating with someone that doesn’t have the same slurred native language. Looks like I’m going to have to just find any ride possible to get away from this crazy situation.
A few more hours go by and I’ve tried everything. I moved spots and approached people in everyday I could imagine. Nearing the afternoon, I feel totally defeated. I’m so close to Beijing I can taste it and it’s driving me crazy! I also don’t see anyway out of this situation, so I’m giving up and getting a train the rest of the way. This just isn’t worth it anymore.
I go over to the yelling guy and ask him for the train station and point around, trying to lead him to give me some body action to help my understanding. Again, he responds with something that doesn’t involve any sign of directions and he makes no body motions.
Before I totally lose it, I just cross the toll station and take the pedestrian path toward anywhere but this station. The path is so long I can’t even see where it ends. I start to think of the path like this hitchhiking journey and then totally reverse my thinking. I’m so close to Beijing, there’s no way I’m giving up now. I’ve got to follow this through. I look over at the on ramp and see that it curls to the right around a grassy and lightly wooded area. I back up a few steps and see that there’s one entrance there from this side of the toll gate and it’s exactly half way between the toll people and the police box. I’m going for it.
I walk back the way I came trying to make it seem like I just peed, whatever that would actually look like. Maybe I’ll check my zipper half way over. On the other side, I walk down a path to an unused old police box and then turn around the fence and I’m in the field. I’m not going to look back and make sure I turn corners in the trees to make sure those lazy people wouldn’t even think of following me. I pass by some workers, but don’t make eye contact. I’m on a mission here. Que the Rocky music. Okay, it’s no where near that dramatic, I just broke through some frustration.
At the road I find a wide open section where the on ramp lanes connect to the rest and begin my flagging. I’m in a bit of a rush here in case any of those guys decide to peek their heads out of the station road to see if I’m out here. Within minutes someone pulls over and I already know where they’re going because it’s all down one road. I just have to tell them the city name and ask to take me as far as they can. If only I had just learned from yesterday and just started this way today. Either way it’s a lesson I won’t soon forget.
They drop me off only about ten kilometers down the road, but at a perfect spot to flag cars. The road is very wide, with plenty of room for me to stand far away from the cars, in the shade, but still in sight. There’s also plenty of room behind me for them to pull over.
Even though this spot seems perfect, it’s taking awhile to get anyone to react. I look at one as it passes to make sure it doesn’t stop and as I do I catch a car out of the corner of my eye that’s already stopped, with a guy behind it waving at me. Wait, aren’t I supposed to wave them down?
Since I’m so far away and so happy for the ride I lift my duffle, tuck it into my chest, and run down the road toward them. The guy goes back to the car and actually opens the trunk for me to store my bags. I get in and realize I’m in a SUV Mercedes. Jackpot.
I can’t quite get the city name out as the guy finishes my sentence, saying that they’re going to the same place. In the car I go through the hitchhiking not paying for the ride routine and the man driving waves me off. The woman in the passenger seat asks me some questions and then we soon reach the end of my Chinese ability and resort to laughing.
The woman uses her phone to translate some more complicated stuff, but everything else is wrestled with through their bad English and my bad Chinese. I also can really notice a difference in their accent from even the town we just left. They have a much deeper “r” sound, probably closest to what pirates say in the movies “arrr matey”. The woman tells me that they live in this next city and also have a farm there. They give me some water, Pringles knockoffs, and the best apple I’ve had in a very long time. She said they got it from a mountain orchard they visited. Wow, they’re already giving me so much and so kind with the way they communicate and show interest in my story.
Outside of the town, the woman shows me a translated message that says they want to buy me a train ticket to Beijing from their town. This is seeming really familiar to that first couple who picked me up by the Laos boarder. It’s amazing how kind some of these young wealthy Chinese couples are. Then she shows me a message that they also offer to have me go to dinner with them and spend the night there and then go with them to Beijing the next day. They are continuing from that town to Beijing and then Mongolia for business. I couldn’t imagine missing the opportunity to get to know their family and possibly open up another option for my farming network.
We get into town and it’s the same crazy traffic as the town from yesterday. The traffic doesn’t move for awhile and then when it finally does inch forward everyone is cutting each other off and zipping through anywhere they can fit. We stop at a place for what the woman says to be a snack. They order a maybe five different dishes including assorted meats, two kinds of soups, some gelatinous thing with no translation, vegetables, and a beer for me. Everyone is full and half of the food is still there, but we’re on the move anyway. It feels so strange to me to leave so much food there, but they seemed fine with doing that.
Back in the car, the woman’s phone reads that they’ll leave me at my hotel to rest and then pick me up at six for a Beijing Duck dinner (it’s not pronounced Peking duck. It’s named after the city, which used to be romanticized as Peking and then later updated to the more accurate spelling of Beijing.)
We get to one hotel, but they don’t have the ability to take foreigners, so we head across town to a giant building with International Hotel written on the front. The front door is a giant revolving door that leads to at least four well dressed people waiting to greet us. Everything is shiny and looks like it’s lined with gold. There are all different kinds of display cases with expensive things and large art pieces on the walls. Maybe they try very hard on the entrance for the foreigners and then it’s just a normal hotel the rest of the way. The pit of my stomach is feeling guilty that it might not change. The woman takes the lead and talks to the people at the counter before pulling out her credit card and getting me all set for the night. We walk over to the elevator and it doesn’t work for half a second, so a woman pops up out of nowhere to help us. Up to the eight floor and I was right, the floor layout is just as magnificent as the lobby. She leaves me at my room with instructions to be ready at six for dinner.
I open the door to a huge room with two beds and every amenity you might be given in any five star hotel. I’m in total disbelief that I go from the last two nights in my tent to spending the last one in such luxury.
I spend most of the time messing with little gadgets and features in the room and make sure to shower and shave before dinner. Even the shower is all fancy with multiple shower heads and more kinds of soap then I knew existed.
I go back down at six to meet the couple. We enter the traffic jam that is Chinese rush hour and in about thirty minutes make it the two blocks to dinner. I follow the woman while the man runs next door. We go past the open seating, up stairs, and into a private room where a few of her friends are waiting. We sit at a large white cloth table with a giant revolving glass table in the middle of the cloth table part. Some servers come in and bring a few different kind of dishes. The husband who was driving come in with two bottles of “Buy Joe” (that’s my best phonetic spelling of the name in Chinese) or Chinese wine. I think there’s something lost in translation there because its strength and taste is more like vodka. Then, a chef comes in to cut the duck there and serve the table. Whoa, this is fancy! Throughout the dinner the men all cheers someone else directly and then those two people take a swig. I take it easy not knowing the strength of the finer hard alcohol here. Then, I’m not even kidding you, we’re served … orange chicken! So all those people who say orange chicken is a bad imitation of Chinese food, haven’t really been to China. The taste is pretty close as well, but even at home the taste varies from place to place. With that said, there’s no doubt orange chicken is real Chinese dish. Toward the end they serve these wonderful steamed meat buns and some yams that are claimed to be medicinal. I’m sitting next to the wife who checked me into the hotel and she keeps typing things in her phone to fill me in on what’s going on, such a wonderful gesture, even though I’m mostly used to being totally lost by now.
We finish dinner and they take me back to the hotel where I fall fast asleep in the bed made of cloud-like material. I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been so far on this journey. It doesn’t even seem real when I think about how all of it came about. China is completely different than I ever expected it to be in regards to the generosity of the people and their passion to show that to the rest of the world.

Not Exactly Going To My Plans

I get up at about 5 AM to get everything packed up. I can still see around because of the light from the passing trucks and the spot still looks as great as it did last night. Everything is packed up in about 5 minutes and I head to the road. It’s still dark and a bit misty, so I avoid hitchhiking and the stereotypical horror movie setting. There’s a path that follows next to the road, so I start to walk to get some exercise. I really thought hitchhiking would be more exercise than it has been. Maybe that’s just because everything in Ghana was more exercise and hitchhiking there was just part of that.
After a few hours of walking, the sun starts to illuminate the road enough for the creepiness of me to ask for a ride wears off. It might be the fog, but I thought the sun rose earlier than seven in the morning. I decide to walk a bit further until there’s more light, but my plans change when a trucker pulls over up the road.
I run up to his truck and hop in to be met with a weathered face and a big grin. I go through my routine of where I’m going and my expectations not to pay for the ride. He, just like most of the others, waves the possibility off like I’m bringing up something again that was already agreed on in the past. He hands me a water and were on our way. It seems like it’s customary to give me something to drink when I get picked up. I have one from the rest stop yesterday, but I take his offer and save it for the rest of the day. He then tells me to eat some of the oranges he has strewn about the cab. He tells me that he’s going to deliver them and then something else I don’t understand. Maybe the second part was that they,re laced with poison for his brother on the Throne. Either way I tried them and their freshness is irresistible. He keeps telling me to eat more and I gladly accept.
About just thirty minutes up the road, he drops me off at his turn off from the highway and tells me to take another three oranges for the road. I thank him again and then get back on the side of the road to pick up another ride.
The next ride I get is a small van filled with three young-to-middle aged men. I’m thrown back a bit at how loud they are as they rapidly spit out their questions. My Chinese already isn’t good, and this isn’t helping. The driver keeps laughing at me and then commenting to his friends after I don’t understand. Even though they seem like jerks, I assume they’re being nice and laugh along with them. Every time the driver talks to me he sounds like he’s yelling at the top of his lungs. They want to bring me to a train station, but I insist that I want to stay on the road. He gets the point and drops me off at their off ramp.
I walk a bit down the road on the shoulder of the highway. There’s plenty of space and then it gets to a bridge where the space reduces quite a bit. Some traffic police pick me up there and tell me I shouldn’t be on the side of the highway. I realize that was pretty stupid, from now on I’ll just stay on the wide part and stand still to catch the ride.
The cop in the passenger seat can barely keep a straight face as he’s drilling me with questions. We all end up laughing together and getting a few pictures before they drop me off at a toll booth entrance to that same highway.
As expected two of the female the toll booth attendants walk over to me giggling to each other. They say they want to help me find a ride. They take me to their booth, offer me water, and then one of the guys makes me a sign on card board with the main road and an arrow pointing to the characters for Beijing. I feel really uneasy about the look of the cardboard. Maybe this would work in a society more familiar with hitchhiking, but I have a feeling it’s not formal enough here. Keep in mind I’m wearing a collared shirt, made sure my boots and clothes were cleaned, and hair not frazzled around.
Again I use my strategy of reading responses with and without the sign and it seems like more people react to my method. Then two traffic police from up the road come over to help me. They offer me water and a snack from the back of their motor bike. I’m a bit hungrier than I thought so I eat the dense oat-bar-like snack down quickly. He grabs the whole bag from his friend and gives it to me and says he’s going to get me some apples.
One of the policemen takes some pictures as the other one is fetching me the apples. An old woman comes up and gives me the apples and then stays with a group on the side of the road to watch me. I appreciate the policemen’s help, but they keep getting in the way of my flagging people down. They are either standing too close or also trying to get people to stop. This is that invasion of privacy thing I want to avoid with the hitchhiking. I go back to the toll booth to get on the other side, just like I did at the beginning. The guy who made me the sign says I can’t be on the highway and that side of the toll road counts as the highway. These guys are following their traffic-cop book too closely here. Before I stupidly walked on the side of the road, I had plenty of real police pass me on the highway and not even slow down for a better look.
He tells me to go back to where I was and not use the method I was using, but instead use his method. He says I should stand with the sign at my chest and my thumb out, like I’m a hitchhiking statue. I think this guy has watched too many movies because there’s no way I would even pick anyone up like that.
He tells the other toll police to walk me back and help me. Oh great, just what I needed. Again, he’s just making my mission harder. Also all the people who do stop for me are going in the opposite direction. Even though this traffic cop is helping me, I start to get really frustrated with him and really this whole situation. I know how to do this and where to stand to make this go much quicker, but they’re not making that possible. The second traffic cop, who gave me the food and water, comes over and I tell him this method doesn’t look like it’s working and I just want to go out on the highway. He says that’s against the rules. He’s using his phone translator at this point because I wouldn’t have known what against the rules is in Chinese. Then as he’s talking to me he tells me a Beijing license plate just drove by and that really shot my hopes down. I could’ve gone the whole rest of the thousand kilometers if I was able to use my method, not surrounded by these people.
As I look to the last hope of the Beijing license plate drive away, I see some of the toll operators out of their booth and one hurriedly walking toward me. She waves me over, so I start to jog over. She says they found someone to take me to a town very far away, about half way to Beijing. The guy at the booth tells me to hurry, so I break out in a run toward the car. I thank the toll guys and get in my new ride.
There are two young guys up front of the car. I tell them my plan, but don’t show them my not paying line because I’m just happy to get out of there. I’ll pay if I have to at this point. I started at that toll booth at seven and am now just leaving at almost eleven.
The guys give me some flavored water drink and we head on our way. The younger guy in the passenger seat resorts to using his phone translator after I say I don’t understand too many times. He tells me they have to go to another town for work before continuing along the road. I’m tempted to get out here after only a few kilometers to hitch again on the highway, but I decide to go with them and embrace the adventure.
A few hours later we pull up to a middle shop for lunch. They order some weird green noodles in a plain broth. I scarf them down and then they tell me not to worry about paying. Back on the road for another hour we reach a big city where the driver is swerving and slamming on his breaks to make it just a few cars further in the traffic. This is exactly why I’m not interested in staying in any of the big cities here. We stop so they can go into a few stores and do whatever it is that they do. I use that time to people watch. The city smells like sewage everywhere, so I’m glad when we move spots.
They pick up another guy who sits in the back with me and now my mind is racing. This isn’t exactly what I thought they meant and his translator makes it sound like their plans changed and they’ll just take me back to the highway. I agree and figure that at least I got to see some new places. They drop me off at the toll gate and we talk with the toll police about getting to Beijing. He said not from here, so we get back in. I keep repeating that I just want to get back to that main highway we started on that goes straight to Beijing. The young guy uses his translator and says they have to go to the mountains and don’t want to make me wait before then they travel really far back on that road. He’s stopped using the translator and says that they’ll have to go very far and I just say that it’s okay as long as it’s still on my road. I’m not sure what conclusion we reach, but the driver tears off on the road.
We go back through that same toll gate and then through some freeways before we start to climb a hill. I’m still waiting for them to just drop me off at the highway where I can just find another ride. Higher and higher we climb and then we pull over so everyone can get out. I realize now that we must be at the mountain. Got it, I’m going on another errand with them.
I was wrong about one thing though, we just stop for a pee break. Back in and more climbing. Now we’re really going up a mountain. It starts to get a lot colder, but the car helps circulate our body heat. We eventually stop climbing and my head is racing again. I’m thinking they picked up this third guy because he’s a little bigger than the other two and that’s the only way they thought they could overpower me. The two in the front don’t look like they’ve done anything physical for a very long time. I’m frustrated because I’m not informed of the plans other than we’re going to the mountains. What the hell does that mean!? Do they have a body in the trunk to get rid of? I can feel how uncomfortable my whole body is, so I just close my eyes and take some deep breaths. This is a big part of why I’m traveling like this. I want to look at how I respond when things don’t go my way and learn how to better go with the flow and just enjoy the adventure. It’s also interesting how when things don’t go my way, I immediately assume the worst of these guys.
We pass by a small two-lane Main Street town and keep continuing back off into the middle of seemingly nowhere. Another ten minutes and we reach many more buildings than I’ve seen since their work trips. There are people out everywhere and nice cars driving all around us. We make a u turn and stop on the side of the street of this bustling little mountain town. They grab their work stuff, get out, and leave the car running for me. I guess this was their last work errand. The guy in the back grabs his bag and tells me good bye. The two guys get back in and hand me a pita bread thing filled with an amazing sautéed mix of beef and vegetables. The younger guy turns around and says now we’re headed to go “very far”. We head back out of that small mountain town on the same road we entered. Oh okay, I see what going to the mountain means now. With a tasty snack and a clearer direction I feel a lot better now. They’re not going to leave me on the side of a cliff, there’s no body in the trunk, and their other friend was a really nice guy. I was definitely overreacting.
We connect back to the main Beijing road and I really start to feel good about the progress. It’s about eight now and I was worrying that entire day wasn’t going to have any mileage, or I guess kilomerage where I am.
I try to stay awake on the highway, but it’s really difficult. I watch the signs and realize that the name of the town they’re going to is the same two words that also means “really far” in Chinese. Now that I think of it, the tones are quite different. Now I understand why the guy kept telling me they’re going to that place and my “it’s not a problem, I want to go far” answer wasn’t making much sense.
I explain to them that I’ll want to stop and camp on the side of the road and that I’ll tell them when I see a good spot. It’s about half past ten now, so it’s hard to really see the side of the road. I can see that great fence and some space next to the road, so I tell them it’s time to stop, just about 20 km outside of their big city. They say something about doing something else is better and I say that’s okay. They bring me to a big toll station and tell me to go and camp back in the wooded area right nearby.
I hop out and thank them for everything. The driver gives me his card and without asking for anything else in return they say goodbye and drive off. I take a path that looks lie one in a park back a little ways and then find a perfect spot, slightly lit, for me to set up my tent. Because my tent is freestanding, I can’t pick it up after its set up and move it wherever I want. I move it back into the shadow of a tee and climb in for the night

On The Road Again

I’m packed and full from breakfast, so now all I’m waiting for is Lin’s uncle to give me a ride out of the farm. They’re very aware of what my plan means to hitchhike because I say, “I want to go to the highway”, but they bring me all the way up to the front of the toll gate. I read a little bit about hitchhiking in China and this way was by far the most recommended.
He drops me off in front of the gate and I give some room for people to stop before starting to flag them down. I think I got too comfortable at the farm because I’m filled with nervousness. Maybe it’s the daunting 1,700 Km trip I have ahead of me.
I’m still sticking with the hand motion, down, like I’m slapping a table, and a point to the sky and in the direction of the road. Maybe the pointing is too Ghanaian though. In Ghana, that’s the way to signal to the public buses which one should stop, otherwise they won’t be happy if you stop them from pointing in the wrong direction or they’ll make a hand motion asking what you want if you just motion them to stop. Probably not the best plan here, but it feels natural, so I’ll stick with it for now.
It’s been about 20 minutes and I’m not getting any responses. I can tell it’s a good spot if I at least get waved off. A negative response is better than nothing. Nothing to me means they’re not even considering it for whatever reason. So, I pass the toll gate and try on the other side. I hope as the cars start back up, they’ll be more zoned into the road. Within the first few people I’m already getting some negative responses, so that’s promising.
After about five minutes I can see two policemen way off in the distance walking in my direction, so I prepare myself for them. I’ve read and heard stories of them helping, so I have that mind state as the first one approaches me. The second one hangs back a few steps and then pulls out a camera to take pictures of us talking. I can already tell this is going to be a good interaction.
We chat a bit, get some close-up photos and then he tells me to come back to the gate and that he wants to help me. His English is quite good, so I’m able to really explain my goal. He talks to the first truck passing and then asks if it’s okay that I only go to the next province, about 4 hours away. I climb into the truck to be met by two men with huge smiles. Well, that was pretty easy.
The truck drivers don’t speak a word of English, so after we get through the basic Chinese I know, we just resort to smiles and laughing. They give me an orange juice and a water to make sure that I’m okay.
I start to drift in and out of consciousness and the guy sitting in the middle asks if I want to sleep in the bed, right there in the cab. Knowing I’ll be camping, I want to make myself as tired as possible so I’ll have a chance to sleep wherever I end up.
After a while, I guess we’re at the new town because they stop just after the toll place and tell me to get out with them. All I can understand is that their friend will help me. They pass me off to the police booth where those guys then grill me to find out what I’m doing. They keep telling me that the small cars and trucks won’t want to pick me up, so they’ll flag down a bus for me.
Slowly, more and more police come over to join in on the way-too-over-complicated situation. We finally get to a point where a bus will take me, at no charge, the 300km to the next big town.
I get on the bus to meet a grinning driver and confused passengers. Many of them just woke up from the commotion and I think don’t quite believe they’re seeing a foreigner. I squeeze to the back and plop down in a seat with about four inches of room in front of my chest.
With about 100 km left to the town I decide to get off the bus at a rest stop. It’s getting close to nighttime and I don’t want to be stuck on the bus or in the town after dark. I want to get my tent set up before it’s too dark, so I think it’ll be easier if I get another ride with a passenger car.
I head for the exit road and pass right by the group of police to make sure it’s okay. They don’t understand what I’m saying, so they pull out their phones and we communicate through a translator app. The one with the app says he wants to help me find a ride.
I appreciate the help, but he approaches cars in such an awkward way when they’re parked that it makes me feel like this is too much a violation of people’s privacy. I like the side of the road because it’s not too forward and it gives people a chance to make their own unforced decision. I keep bringing up that I want to go to the side of the road, but he always says that people won’t be interested in stopping that way.
After his patience is gone from all the rejections he finally agrees that I can try the road if I want. I get just far enough up for people to see me and think about pulling over, and I stand just on the side of the entry road to the highway. The first car that comes up the road stops and the guy tells me to get in as he is also going to the next big town. I turn to the policemen and wave my goodbye. I’m not sure who is more surprised that I got that ride faster.
This ride is in a nice SUV and the guy is playing some really good American songs. I’m feeling better and better about ditching that cramped bus. We talk a little bit and I explain to him my plan of sleeping on the side of the highway with my tent. He agrees to let me down whenever I think it’s a good spot.
It’s about fifteen to six now and I’m getting anxious to find a spot before it gets dark. I keep scanning the side of the road and then find what looks like a great spot. I tell him to pull over and he immediately stops. I hop out of the car, thank him again, and hop over the side railing and down the grass hill on the side of the road.
This spot is even more perfect than I thought it was from the car. The hill slopes down just enough for me not to be seen, but still close enough to get the light from the passing cars. At the bottom of the decline it gets flat just enough to fit my tent and then goes back up on the other side, where it meets a barbed wire fence between my spot and an untouched woodland. The fence enclosed me against the road, so I don’t have to worry about any animals or people bothering me from that direction.
Just as the sun is starting to set, I get my tent totally set up. I’m inside and ready for sleep just as it gets dark. I wish all my tent nights could be this perfect. I try to meditate a little bit before bed since it’s so early, but I don’t stay awake for long.

Farmin’ China

This volunteer exchange system that I’m doing is basically set up so that you help out for 4 hours a day in return for accommodation and three meals a day. The first few days were more like 6 hours of work, planting vegetables. In return we got so much more than promised. They pretty much treat us as part of the family, which includes access to their kitchen, laundry stuff, and lightening-fast WiFi. I guess could probably squeeze out a few additional hours of work. The other great part of this volunteer network is that there are loads of farms to choose from in every province of China.
At the farm, we got a chance to cook meals from our countries to show a cultural exchange of food recipes. The two Italians are up first. Staying here longer is getting more and more tempting. They cook three different kinds of pastas that are obviously all amazing. One night we combined nationalities when the Americans made sloppy joe, British guy made chips, and the Hungarian woman made dessert.
So far for work I’ve planted garlic, cleaned old taro plants from a field, planted various green leafy vegetables, carefully extracted roses from one bed and planted them in various other places, and helped with the construction of a wall. The wall construction was my favorite. There’s something really special about touching the earth and planting the beginnings of beauty or food, but getting to really work hard and feel exhausted is the much more rewarding to me. The planting is nice to do between construction days when I’m letting my body repair itself. The construction days are a mandatory 8 hours of work that, once started on a certain day, has to be finished through that day. There are so few hands to help that if one person stops midday, it will really throw off the efficiency. The whole eight hours I was lifting giant rocks with my hands and carrying small cement buckets and lifting them up to the workers on the wall. I made sure to pace myself with the rocks, but the cement buckets were deceptively heavy and ended up almost finishing me off during the last hour. I’m on my second day of rest and think I might just barely be ready for it again on the third.
The family has also taken us out of the farm for different cultural experiences. We sang karaoke one night and another day we visited a Buddhist temple.
I’ve been practicing some Mandarin, but as I said before it’s an uphill battle being around so many foreigners and Chinese people who speak a completely different dialect. The family has been really good about trying to help, but it’s not natural for them and my goal is total immersion. I’ve found that the only way to get the experience I’m looking for is to go to a farm in the rural part of Beijing. So, I’ve been spending a lot of my free time finding new hosts.
mushroomsI forgot to post this before. Before leaving Laos we went to a friends farm where she showed us her mushroom grow room.
 noodles
Here we’re on the farm making noodles from scratch. We started by rolling out individual noodles until the grandma came and showed us how to roll a big pizza shaped piece of dough, fold it over, and then cut it with a knife. She did in 5 minutes what four of us did in 30. Thanks grandma.
karaoke
Here’s the karaoke bar. It’s a small place with individual private rooms where we sit on a comfy couch, snack, and sing our heads off. I didn’t really get into it … Until the queen songs came on, then I was sold on the whole thing.
buddah
 There were tons of statues that I suppose were different Buddhas. It was fun to compare all the different expressions on their faces.
nature
Despite all the development this piece of nature is still holding on. I’m not even sure how this is possible because we’re very high off the earth.
stairway
Throughout the temple there were plenty of stairways like this that lured you around each corner. I could’ve spent another week there poking around the corners of the compound.
chanting
I came across some lay people chanting to these two monks, standing on the left.
buddah phone
Apparently even Buddhas are sometimes glued to their phones.

Arrival At The Farm

At four in the morning, I’m startled awake to the sudden chattering of an oncoming crowd. It must be time for the morning flights. I roll over to face the seat and get a few more hours of sleep, but I remember that luxury isn’t available right now. I sit up with the last few remaining other sleepers in this section. I think everyone just had the same realization.
I gather my things and head down to the bathroom where I shave and brush my teeth. Since I’m in the heart of Chengdu, a very big city, I decide just to get public transportation to get out of here and away from the pollution that comes with these big cities. Waiting to hitchhike on the side of a rural country road sounds much more appealing than in a hazy city street.
First I try the train station in the airport. At the ticket desk I find out that the ticket to the closest city doesn’t leave until the afternoon, so I try to ask him about the ticket for the next closest city. Before I can finish a man behind me starts to push me out of the way because apparently I’ve been taking too long. I’m not looking for a fight and I have time to figure this out, so I just let them go by. One of the guys in line hangs back after getting his ticket and asks me, in English, if I need help. I explain my dilemma and then he talks in rapid Chinese with the ticket guy for a few minutes. I don’t pick up on any of the cascading sounds. He tells me that if I want to leave in the morning I should go to the bus station. He wishes me luck and I thank him for his help. If I had gotten caught up in my anger for that impatient old man, I probably wouldn’t have discovered this much more patient and helpful person.
 I get to the bus station just after it opens to buy my ticket to a city called Mianyang. I have a few hours until it leaves, so I put my bag down on the seat next to me and catch up on a little more sleep. Then, on the bus I try my best to get a good view of Chengdu, but soon fall back asleep.
We pull into the bus station and now my next step is to find a bus that goes to a town called Jiuling, which is where I’ll be staying on the farm. I can’t even find a station among all the buses and people, so I head straight to an office with the only English lettering in the whole city, which says “transportation relations”. I don’t know what that even means, but I do have a piece of paper with Chinese explaining my destination.
Immediately after I enter the small bungalo, two men stop what they’re doing to look at me. I tell them in my broken Chinese what I’m looking for. They look at me puzzled, so I give in and hand them the paper. The guy who grabbed the paper asks something, but I don’t understand a word, so I just laugh and give him the same blank stare back. Then he says something I do understand, about me hearing him and not understanding. I confirm and tell him I don’t understand. I’m hoping they’ll just point in a direction, so I start to wave my hands around to try and continue the momentum. The guy with a paper gives me a look like he’s too busy for me and hands me the paper back. The second guy, a young man in a police uniform, steps up and grabs the paper.
He speaks to me in words and hand gestures, telling me to follow him. I follow him out the door and in a half jog as we quickly pass through a swarm of people and buses. He takes me into the station and walks up to the front of the line, and leans across the counter and yells to the woman behind the desk. He turns around and says something that I guess is about the price. I ask him to repeat and think he’s saying it’ll be 40, so I pull out a 50. He shakes his head and pokes his head into my wallet himself and pulls out a 10. Ooh he was saying 7 in Chinese, which kind of sounded like the combination for 40 in Lao. This transition phase between switching my brain from hearing one language to the next is really difficult for me. I can go between a new language and English quite easily,but between two languages I’m learning makes things really confusing. During my time with the truckers in Laos I kept thinking I was hearing them speak Lao and got excited, before realizing it was just a similar sound drowned in the unfamiliar Chinese.
We leave the ticket desk and he walks me all the way up to the bus and tells the driver where to drop me off. I thank him as he busily fades back into the passing crowd. I get a seat up front to make sure I can easily talk to the driver and see the road, not that either of those things could actually help me, but it makes me a little more comfortable.
Now I’m fully alert as I think about a plan to find Lin, the guy who I’ve been talking to from the farm. They stop the bus and the driver tells me this is my stop. Now I’m standing on the side of a busy road with no idea where to start. I walk over to an old couple at a shop next to me, but they’re not interested in helping.
I cross the street and instead of continuing down the big road, I walk down the side street, headed to the mountains. I figure the big road will take me to the next town, where as the small side street will take me deeper into this current one. Hopefully it’s Jiuling.
I walk straight, my favorite direction, down the side street, with the slight feeling of doubt scratching at the back of my mind. A few blocks down I start to peak into stores trying to assess who looks most like they’d help me. I find a woman with her son in a phone shop, bingo. I get in and try to explain myself, but I’m really not doing well with this Chinese thing. I hand her the paper and say “I go friend” and beat on my chest with a simultaneous grunt. I think I’d do better speaking Chinese to monkeys.
She tells me to sit down and to use her phone to call the number so have written down. I talk with Lin and he tells me to stay there to wait for a motorbike to pick me up. The woman’s son brings me over a cup of water and she tells me to sit and wait here. A few minutes later an old man with a dirty sport coat is here to pick me up. I thank the woman and head across the street to get on.
The bike is completely different from what I’m used to. The seat in the back is actually big enough for my entire butt, the foot part is like a giant pedal that supports my entire foot, and there’s an upright cage part in the back that gives me the support of feeling like there’s no chance I’ll slide off the back on a quick acceleration. Those are all pretty much the opposite of every bike I’ve ridden in Laos.
We drive over rolling hills, through a beautiful country side. No skyscrapers or smog in sight. This is exactly the part of China I was hoping to discover. We go through a big property, some farm area, through some gates, and stop in front of a few small houses. Immediately I’m greeted by a dog barking and charging me. A young man and a middle aged woman react instantly to stop the dog, and greet me. Judging by his great English, the young man must be Lin. I find out the woman is his mom. They show me into a kitchen area where five other foreigners are eating around a circular table. My heart sinks.
By the ad I had a feeling this place would have some foreigners, but I was still hoping I’d get past that and spend my time immersed in the life of the Chinese family. Trying to get over the crushing feeling in my heart I get to know everyone around the table. There’s another American, Englishman, Hungarian, and two Italians. I eat some wonderful rice and pumpkin mixture with some really juicy apples and pears. Mmm pears, oh how I’ve missed you … Okay, maybe I can get past the foreigner thing.
Lin shows me to where I’ll sleep, in a straw house with the other foreigners. Then we walk around the farm and he explains to me their vision. They want to create a place where they farm in harmony with the environment. That means that there’s a lot of space around the farm that isn’t pushed as hard as it could be for maximum yield, but in return it’s improving the health of the land and the entire local ecosystem.
I spend the rest of the day settling into the place and getting to know my international roommates. I get a great feeling from being here, around these kind people and natural environment, but I can feel deep down this isn’t what I’ve been looking for. I’m not quite sure I understand it yet beyond the feeling. I’ll spend some time to make sure before I consider moving again. At least for now, I’ll have to suffer through an unlimited supply of perfectly ripe pear and pumpkin rice. So far, life is really hard here in China.

Generosity From a Complete Stranger

Even though I set my alarm for six, I stir a few times and then out of pure excitement get up about twenty minutes early. Everything packs away easily in about ten minutes. I walk by my friends’ trucks, but they’re all still resting. I’d sleep in too if I were stuck at a truck station for a few days.
I decide to walk the four kilometers to the boarder check points. Okay, that plan soon changes as I don’t want to waste my energy.  I find a good spot to flag people over and the first one I get is a Lao guy. I explain to him that I don’t have much money for the ride and hope I can just go for the short distance with him to the other side. He says I do have money and if I’m not paying them Im not riding. I very politely thank him and wish him luck as he pulls away. Back to walking.
A bit further down the road a guy on a motorcycle picks me up and waves off the idea of me paying. Or maybe he was telling me that my charades skills are awful and I should just stop. Either way I got on. Around that next corner some elephants come out of the bushes with big chains around their necks and each with a man on their neck. What in the hell kind of boarder crossing is this!?
He drops me off at a food place and I decide to stop for a bite before continuing. I try to ask the woman, in Chinese, if I can pay with the Lao money. She doesn’t understand a word I’m saying and just serves me anyway. I’m not technically in China yet, so they’re bound to take the Lao money.
She tells me to go to the cashier inside and I pull out a ten thousand bill, which would be a typical amount to pay for breakfast in Laos. She says something I don’t understand, so I pull out another five thousand. She isn’t taking the money, so I still think it must not be enough. Wow, that was an expensive bowl of soup. Then, some women in line to pay for their things start to chime in. I don’t know what they’re joining in about, but it sounds pretty intense. I pull out a twenty thousand bill to just end the issue and get on with it. The woman takes the ten thousand and says something along the lines of that’s enough for the food. Then they keep talking and one of the women in line walks over and starts going through the money in my wallet while it’s still in my hands. I don’t have much left in there, so I just let her do her thing and laugh at how amazingly inappropriate this would be anywhere else I’ve been. They take another Jill out of my wallet and the extra I gave for the food and hand it to the cashier. Still confused and amused I just watch them and wait for some kind of explanation. The cashier hands me back money, that I guess equates with the Lao money, in the Chinese currency. They tell me that the boarder people won’t take the Lao money.
I leave the food place not having really any idea what just happened, but I think they were trying to help me out. Well, at least I have some Chinese money now, so I continue down the road to the boarder. On the other side of the street there is a duty free shop that is literally the size of a mall. Then there are a few hotels that’s are more like mini skyscrapers. I’m beginning to see some of the Chinese magnificent development I’ve heard so much about and I’m still not even there yet.
I get to the Lao side and the woman, after looking at my visa, shakes her hand and tells me I can’t go to China. Trying not to overreact, give the furrowed brow look of confusion. She was just speaking Chinese to the last people, so I’m not even sure if she’s Lao. She calls her colleague to see if he can speak English, but she does it speaking Lao. I respond that I can speak Lao and ask what’s the problem. She says my visa is expired already. I explain to her that it’s good until 2025 and then she shakes her head yes and starts to laugh. She tells me she can’t read English very well. On the way out I figure out that even though she was speaking Chinese, she probably can’t read it and since the visa is in English and Chinese, she probably just saw the start date and assumed it was the end one.
The Chinese side is a magnificent building. It’s a huge archway that is beautiful and quite a feat of human engineering. The inside is extremely efficient as well. I enter my information in on a computer and use their high quality ball point pens to fill out a few remaining rules. This is a stark contrast from the desks with broke or missing pens I’ve seen in Ghana, Thailand, and Laos. Even the guard at the desk seems more concerned about his job. He’s on point and takes such a long time to compare me with my picture he makes me nervous. He’s beginning to convince me that I have a fake passport. He goes through and verifies what seems like every bit of information on my passport and visa. It’s quite different from the pen and paper track record they keep in Laos. He ushers me through and for the third time I put my bag through an X-ray machine.
The town on the other side is the nicest looking boarder town I’ve ever seen. The ones I’m use to seem more like they’re there for utility and not for lure. This one has brick streets leading to the sides of town and the buildings makes me feel more like I’m in Europe than in China.
I find a money exchanger and then head to the end of town ready to set off on the long road ahead. I have the order of towns I’ll be traveling to, a few key phrases, and the specific directions to the farm.
I get to the end of town and find a perfect place to flag down cars. It’s just at the end of the buildings, right before it turns into highway, I’m in the shade, and I’m placed to give people enough time to consider giving me a ride and then a huge space ahead of me for them to pull over. Just then I start to wonder why I was avoiding private cars and just going for people driving for their job. So, I wave down a few cars and about 5 minutes later a small sedan comes to a very quick stop. I’m thinking they’re either eager to pick me up or get out and yell at me.
A young woman comes out of the passenger seat and opens the door behind her seat and begins to clear out their stuff. I greet her as I come up and she gives me a greeting and a warm smile in return. She tells me to get in the car. As I enter I smile and greet the young man driving and he gives me the same warm reception.
I go through my routine of telling them I’m going down this road to the next big town called Kunming. Then I start to go through my speech of not paying for the ride and the guy cuts me off assuming I’m saying something else. I give him the Chinese lettering and after a quick glance he answers in English with a no problem.
The guy in the front speaks a little English, so he asks me my name and where exactly In going. They also give me some bananas and water. This already seems like a good first hitchhike in China. I have 700 kilometers to go to get to the first big town on my list. They tell me they’re not going all the way there, but they’ll take me to the farthest point before they turn off.
The young guy, named Pang, is driving really fast. Faster than I’ve been in a car for a long time. He averages around 80km per hour and sometimes peaks around 100. He’s also swerving between lanes to pass the much slower cars in our lane of the two lane highway. We stop a few times to use the bathroom and the second time they even buy me a few hot dogs and give me a packaged pie to eat.
Pang asks how I will continue on my way and I tell him I’ll just keep doing the same thing that I did with them. He doesn’t respond, but instead a starts talking back and forth with Ju, his wife. Then he asks if I am interested in taking the train. I hesitate with the answer because his English probably isn’t good enough to understand. I try my best anyway and then again, no response. He tells me that he wants to buy me the train ticket and asks if I will receive his gift. Even though my plan is to hitch, there’s no way I could turn down such a generous offer.
About 200 km outside of the big city in the area, he tells me that the train will take too long and he would prefer to get me a plane to Chengdu, which is right next to my final destination. I’m shocked just that they’re driving me the 700 km to this town, but it’s hard to imagine a complete stranger would then buy me a plane ticket without asking for anything in return. We can’t even have enough of a conversation for him to know who I am. This is the opposite experience I thought I would have hitch hiking through China.
At about 8 we get to the airport and I leave Pang so Ju can take me in and make sure to get the ticket. I thank her a few times and then tell her goodbye. They didn’t get any of my information or ask anything about compensation. I’m still astonished at their overwhelming kindness toward a complete stranger. This is exactly the experience I was looking for with this way of traveling. It’s such a wonderful feeling to find such goodness in humanity, despite the messages being fed to me by all different kinds of media, mostly from the west.
The airport looks like a giant piece of art. The ceiling has a hypnotic white curtain look, which all flows so elegantly to a point down the middle, like I’m in a three dimensional triangle. There are these golden ribbon looking pieces that wind and weave around keeping my next craned and my body bumping into just about everyone I pass. Good thing this culture doesn’t really have a sense of personal space.
At midnight I board the plane and just an hour and a half later I’ve arrived in the Chengdu airport. I get my bag and then ask about the hotel in the airport. It’s about fifty dollars, so my only option will be to go to town. Since I want to get an early start that option also doesn’t make sense since because after the cost hotel and transportation, it won’t be worth it to get just a few hours of sleep. So, I head to the departure section of the airport and go to the benches where there are already about ten Chinese people sprawled out on a whole row prepared to sleep until a more decent time in the morning. I find my spot in the back, take off my shoes, and make sure I set up my stuff so the only way it could be opened is if someone moved me. Despite the not so comfortable position, I fall asleep very quickly and stay that way for the rest of the early morning.

To The Border In One Hitch

The feeling of being back home was there the entire stay. I never really had a plan, but when people asked, I just picked a day I’d be moving on. People kept coming up with things we had to do before I left for China. And I was enjoying everything too much to go.
Finally, it’s Monday and I feel like it’s time to start the journey. I say one last goodbye to friends and then leave with a PoP (Pencils of Promise) car, headed to a town just on the edge of where tourists normally roam in Luang Prabang. After a few beers and a second breakfast, that Lanoys orders, I start walking down the road. I peed twice before leaving, but I’m a bit worried about breaking the seal before a long drive to China.
Down the road a bit I get far enough away from houses and stop at part of the road with a steep incline. My thought is that the incline will make it easier for people to make the decision to stop for me. I skip waving at the private cars and start with a small truck they usually use here for delivering water containers. He waves me off and, even though it’s a rejection, I feel good knowing he at least acknowledged me. Next is a big red truck with Chinese lettering. I start waving plenty ahead of time to make sure he has time to think and use the hill to stop.
It works as pulls to the side of the road. I’ve been waving at people for less than 5 minutes! This is a good sign, or maybe one that my luck will run out early. I open the door, throw my stuff up, and climb my way into the cab. In Lao, I ask if he can speak it, but he waves me off. Then I ask the same in English. Neither of them is a go. Then I ask in the few Chinese words I know if he’s going to China. Immediately, his face brightens up and he confirms he’s going to China. I get excited, but remember my ride to Luang Prabamg, so I read off my a paper I printed Chinese characters and the pronunciation for telling him I won’t pay him for the ride. Before I can finish by asking if it’s alright, he waves me off with that same universal sign of “don’t worry about it”.
As we drive on the road full of construction he points down and says that Chinese people made this road. That’s about all we say for the next few hours. Of course, the beer comes back, knocking on my door, and when the traffic stops I tell him I’m going to pee on the side of the road. I half expect he’s going to just drive off with my bags in the truck, but I have all my valuables with me and I think bringing my stuff down would be a big disconnect with our trust. My instinct has felt good about this one from the beginning. Just as I finish, the cars start back up and the line in front of us is leaving in a hurry. Good thing I’m wearing my good shoes because I’m running back over the uneven debris-scattered dirt and then make a leap from the curb to get back on his truck. I am clearly overreacting because he still doesn’t move even after I get back in. He waits for some of the smaller traffic to go first before we start again.
He offers me water and a smoke. Even though I don’t smoke, I appreciate the offer. Another few hours later, he pulls off the side of the road and says in Chinese that we’re going to eat. My preparation is really coming in handy so far.
Off the truck he yells at some other trucks to line up behind him. As they get down, they all come over to join my driver. Each one of them gives me a big smile when they see me. I can tell they’re asking about me, but it’s way over my head. One of them takes an extra liking to me and gets real close to my face as he asks where I’m from. I tell him I’m from America. Again, all stuff I can understand from my studying.
At the restaurant my guy tells me to sit down at a table with a spinning glass table in the middle and only enough room for a small bowl on the edges, where it doesn’t spin. Even more come to sit and total we make about 10 people. The guy that took a liking to me and a slightly older looking guy who could be his brother sit next to me and ask me some more questions. I’m only able to pick up on a few and we just end up laughing at our lack of communication.
The food comes and one guy yells something as the rest scramble to the table. There’s tea on the edge, a bowl of steamed rice making a rotation by hand and about 10 different kind of food in the middle. I wait for everyone else to start to be polite and also to make sure I don’t offend anyone. I also researched this part of the culture and pay close attention to what In doing to not offend anyone. I think really the big ones were to wait for the eldest person to a start and never to stick chopsticks points into the bowl of rice, as it symbolizes a ceremony they do for someone who has died.
During the meal they are all telling me to get more food and specifically which ones more of. Some of them take initiative to being rice over and scoop it into my bowel. A guy next to me keeps taking things off the center and putting it into my bowl. That’s another sign of respect in the culture that I read about.
After the meal the same guy yells again and everyone gets up to leave. I guess he’s the time keeper of the group. I also read that if friends go out to dinner one will take the bill, instead of splitting it amongst each person. One of the women in the group pays, but I still ask my guy if I can contribute. He gives me the same hand wave as before.
As we load back into the truck, the guy who took interest in me jumps up to sit in between the driver and me. We look at each other, but remember there’s not much hope past the communication we’ve already gone through, so we just giggle.
After another few hours we stop over to pump what I think is water into the truck. I jump out to stretch and then the guy in the middle gives me some sweet popcorn snack. Back on the road for another few hours and now it’s starting to get close to nighttime. We arrive in Udomsai, a big stop on the road to China, and all outside of the trucks, talking in a big group, they tell me we’ll stop here for the night. We get back in the truck to drive I guess to a guest house, but we end up eating again. I’m still full from the last two times I ate!
This time I feel much more comfortable with the group, so I go through the whole routine with them. Everyone one goes up to what looks like a freezer shelf in the grocery store with tons of different kind of vegetables and raw meat. They all bicker at once as they figure out what to get. One of the guys keeps telling me to pick some, but I don’t know what half of it is and don’t want to ruin the delicate balance Chinese people try to attain each time they order a group meal. From my research before, it sounds like quite an interesting science.
Then, we sit down to eat and the two guys who seem to want to talk to me the most sit on either side. They ask me more questions and I remember some more of my vocabulary to be able to answer. He types what he’s saying on the phone in Chinese and since most of my studying was recognizing characters, I get excited as I’m able to understand the intricacies of his question. He can see my excitement, so he rushes to type more.
The food arrives and this time I am more aggressive about grabbing food. Even with that the guys on my either side and putting all kinds of pieces on my plate. Again, I’m really full as the time keeps yells to mark our departure. Outside one of the guys puts his arm around me and hanging on me, tells me something like he’s glad I’m here.
Back in the truck with only the original driver we start back on the road. We pass by the farthest part of town I’ve explored before and then leave the downtown area. I’m thinking that they’re just smart at picking a place farther away from town. He leans over to tell me something about China that I don’t understand. I just nod because I’ll be following their leads anyway.
We drive out of town for an hour and now it’s about 1030, so I’m fading in and out of consciousness. I want to be awake while this guy works so hard, but the lack of sleep and it being past my normal bedtime are making it difficult.
I’m jolted from a half sleep-drool as our truck jolts to a stop on the side of the road, followed by our 5 truck posse. All the men get out and help my guy to fix the problem. I guess it’s a good idea to travel in a group like this for exactly this reason. One of them might know a lot more about fixing one part than another of them might.
I get some time to brush my teeth, stretch my legs, and watch them work on something behind the wheel. Then, we all jump back in and continue on our way. Finally, at around midnight, we pull into a truck park. The driver tells me that we’re right next to the boarder and we’ll cross tomorrow after some sleep. He tells me to go stay in the guesthouse just down the road because his truck is too small for two to sleep. He tells me to be back at 3 am to continue. Wow, that doesn’t seem like much of a plan to sleep.
Standing in front of the guest house I realize this is going against my rules, so I go back to ask the truck park guard if I can sleep in my tent. I pull out the picture of a tent I printed and explain I want to go I between their trucks on the dirt. He says no, but something about me doing something else. After they all talk about my options, the guard asks if I can speak Lao. I’ve been around these Chinese guys all day and they are speaking Chinese to the guard, so that option completely escaped my head.
Speaking to him in Lao, I find out that the truck drivers won’t be leaving for three days as their registration goes through, not three in the morning departure. Ooh, whoops. He also tells me that it’s fine if I use my tent, but not by the trucks. I thank all the truck drivers before leaving them for the night. I can’t believe their kindness the whole time and that it took me just one hitch to get all the way to the Chinese boarder.
A younger guard brings me over to a cement area to use my tent. As I’m unloading he brings me over a broom to clean the area and shows me the bathrooms. I feel good knowing both of them will be patrolling all night. Good thing Aaron gave me his sleeping pad because there’s no way I would have gotten any sleep on the hard concrete.

Staying with a Retreat Buddy, Making it Back Home

The last day of the retreat we’re allowed to speak again, so I talked with the only other foreigner there. I find out that he’s been traveling to China since the 80s, his son worked in Business in China, he’s lived in Laos for 15 years, taught university classes on the same subject I studied in school, he loves to travel off the beaten path, and he’s very concerned with his physical and mental health. It’s strange how much we have in common and yet we’re almost 50 years apart in age.

Since he’s headed back the same way I’m going, through Vientiane, I ask him for a ride. He says it’s fine as long as I don’t mind going on a few errands along the way. It was a nice adventure to see his usual places to shop in Thailand and to hear about his experiences of living in the area for so long. We also had some long discussions about America when he was a child and America now. I’ve heard a lot of those stories from my dad, but it was nice to hear a different perspective.

We get to Vientiane at 2, giving me  enough time to figure out how to get out of the city before nightfall. In the middle of my planning he offers me to stay at his house with him and his wife. I immediately accept.

Their hospitality the rest of the night and next morning is more than I could have imagined from a friend, let alone someone I barely know. I find out he got his PhD in neurophysiology, so we had some interesting conversations about consciousness and spirituality to close out the night.

The next morning he drives me across town where I check my email at a local coffee shop and start the journey that much closer to the main road going north. I start out walking at nine. 

Almost to the ends of the town, where the farm area starts, I stop to rest in the shade. I’m not tired yet, but I’m pretty sweaty and I haven’t given waving people down a good chance yet. My strategy is signaling to people by doing their prayer looking greeting and then pointing off in the distance down the road. I get a lot of people waving me off, which I see is a good sign. I’d be more worried if everyone just looked at me confused or tried to avoid any interaction at all.

Finally, after a short 20 minutes a truck driver waves me forward to where he eventually stops on the side of the road. I open the door and no one is in the drivers seat. Woah, I know it’s hot, but I didn’t think the hallucinations would start for a lot longer. Then he comes around the door and asks me where I’m going. He says he can’t take me that far, but he wants to help flag down one of the air conditioned band people take as an alternative to the buses. I tell him thanks, but I don’t have much money to be doing that and I’m mostly interested in the experience of trying to ask for a ride from someone like him. He doesn’t listen to me and insists to flag someone down. Then, we go back to the truck and he tells me to get in the passenger seat. He offers to drive me as far as he’s going, where it will be easier to find someone to take me. 

Back at the door I crank my neck back to look up into the seat which is probably seven feet high. I’ve hit choked with trucks like this quite a bit in Ghana, so I know the routine. I throw my bags up on the seat, put one hand on the door, the other on the seat for stability, and then look for the steps to get off the ground a bit before yanking myself up the rest of the way. The problem with this truck is that all the steps are broken off. Well, good thing I just spent 10 intensive days with my legs stretched and folded like a pretzel. So, I lean back slightly and then kick my right leg up to my shoulders to the lowest part of the door opening I could step onto. With a little push from my left leg I’m able to just get enough momentum to them pull myself all the way up. 

Not far down that road, we pull over next to a gas station where he reminds me for the fifth time that I should drink water to make sure I’m hydrated. Maybe he’s concerned at all the sweat. Lao people don’t sweat quite as much in a full workout as I do sometimes just breathing in this humidity. He tells me to wait in the cab of the truck. Then, he comes back and tells me to come sit in the shade where he put a seat and helped me carry my bags. Then, he gives me a giant cold bottle of water and tells me to drink more. I thank him and take the seat.

Not much longer, a van going to Vang Vieng (about half way to Luang Prabang) pulls up. He negotiates with the driver to lower my price and then when they settle, he pays the driver. Wow, this guy must be the kindest person I’ve met in a long time. He doesn’t even know anything about me and he goes to these lengths to help. This is a great example of one lesson I’m looking for, traveling the way I am. Right when I felt like I wouldn’t get a ride at all, this guy comes and does so much for me, far more than I asked for or felt comfortable receiving.

In Vang Vieng, I get to the end of town again and get some food before continuing in the direction of Luang Prabang. I didn’t think I’d make it, but if I can get a ride by five, I should get there by nine. I agreed that if I didn’t get a ride at five then I would go to the temple to spend the night. 

I find a shady spot right in front of a big pothole, where people will have to slow down. A couple in their house behind me bring out a chair and insist that I sit down and wait. The woman is very nice and VERY interested in what I’m doing. She keeps asking me again and again to make sure she heard me correctly. It seems that every time I go to wave someone down, she says they won’t be interested in picking me up. After an hour her constant bickering starts to get to me. Her negativity is now starting to make me think the same way. She keeps telling me to sit down and wait for the bus to come by. I try to be as respectful as possible to her generous offer. I can feel my demeanor change as I feel like I’m not going to get my way. Again, this is just another important lesson I wanted to get from this type of travel. Whether I get my way or not, I want to just accept it and be satisfied with the situation.

 Just past four, a guy in a minivan asks if I’m going to Luang Prabang and then pulls over. As I’m walking to the car I can feel my whole demeanor change and I can’t help contain my huge grin. Not only did I do it, but I proved negative nancy over there wrong. This is just another lesson I’m trying to take from the travel. When I do get my way, I want to feel the same way as when I don’t, always satisfied with the situation, not elated or frustrated. 

When I get to the van, he even gets out to open up the passenger doors for me and cleans off the seats. I find out that’s literally his job, to drive around rich foreigners, so it makes sense why he’d act like that. He said he just dropped some off and now he’s on his way back home. I thank him for picking me up and explain a bit what I’m doing.

I appreciate how safely he drives the whole time and we end up getting into town around eight. Right before he drops me off he asks me for some money and says it’s only half the price he’d normally charge. The argument of him going home whether he picked me up or not went through my head, but I feel like it’s my fault for not talking about the payment when I got in the car. I give him the money and just take this as a good lesson for rides in the future. 

As it really hits me that I’m back I feel an overwhelming sense that I’m home. I’ve been here for a year now and besides for the house I grew up in, have the most connection to this place. I was connected to Ghana, but was ready to leave by the end and didn’t get the chance to visit again. So, the feeling of this being home is the strongest I’ve felt to a particular place in a long time. I wasn’t sure if I’d stop here or not, but I’m really glad now that I’m here to spend the next few days. 

What I Took from the Retreat, Jumping Out of the Loop

For me, a big part of these experiences is how I’ve internalized the practice and of course to pick it apart in order to prove why it didn’t meet my expectations.

This retreat was no different. I wrote down that analysis with small scribbles that ended up taking about 5, A4 sized pages (they’re longer than the common letter size in the US). Even with all that I had to pick the most important information in order not to publish a novel.

After I get the rest of the stories written in my phone, I feel like I should wait to type out the lengthy analysis. Maybe just to ruminate further and discover more inconsistencies and incompatibilities. Then, as I’m watching the last discourse Goenka gives, I feel like none of my analysis matters at all. The way I analyze these techniques and traditions is no different from what I’m complaining about. I think the theme of my rants are about staying true the essence of the spiritual search and not getting caught up the ego and comparisons, but really the way I’ve looked at the experiences only perpetuates that same line of thinking.

Instead, I want to just take what did work, incorporate it into my approach, and then move on with my search. At least at this point in my life, the only thing I’m interested in is finding what works for me and just following my intuition when I think it doesn’t.

My thinking has changed from wrong and right to this way and that way. Instead of looking at the difference as a hindrance, if they don’t work for me at that moment, I’ll just store it in my experience and see if maybe it will come back up to help me in the future.

Retreat Schedule, Some Interesting Experiences

Okay, here’s the deal, I’m going to explain the structure of the retreat and then cover some of my experiences. Then, next post I’ll cover the most important of all … My opinion of the thing as a whole.

So, this retreat is all about A type of meditation called Vipassana. I first heard about this specific retreat back in my fourth year of college, before my passion for learning about spirituality was on my life compass. It caught my eye for some reason, but I never followed up. Then, flashing way forward, this thing keeps coming back up during my exploration of Buddhism and meditation. It keeps being brought up by respected people in every part of my life. Finally, I get the point the universe was trying to send to me and sign up for this course which geographically and timing-wise fits perfectly in with my plans.
The practice is broken up into three parts, all at first playing as an important foundation for the next pillar, but in the end having equal importance.

First, is morality. Like I said, there are very specific strict rules, which all play into the morality, but I think it is all summed up well as increase your actions and thought that bring peace and harmony to the world and decrease those that do the opposite.
The next pillar, is concentration. I think this one is straightforward enough.

The last one, is wisdom. It’s broken into three increasingly important parts. The first part, is the wisdom when information is passed to you. Second, is when you intellectually understand that information. Finally, your wisdom is complete when it turns into experiential knowledge, passing beyond our normal conventions of communication.

The course warns you before coming and the whole way through to maintain the moral rules. The first three days of the course are spent building concentration by watching your breath coming in and out of your nose. Then, on the fourth day, Goenka says the real practice begins. He teaches wisdom through watching sensations throughout your body and keeping the understanding that they’re all impermanent. The goal is to try to experience subtler and subtler sensations with the yard stick of progress being your ability to hold equanimity for each sensation, whether good, bad, or neutral. 
Now for the daily routine. Everyone hing is started and ended with a bell. Wake up at four. Four-thirty there is a two-hour session in the hall for sleeping, I mean meditating, in your own room. Then, breakfast and some relaxation time. Then, group meditation in the hall, 10-minute break, followed by an hour and a half meditation in the hall or at your own place. The sessions like this, which follow group sessions usually have some kind of instruction in the beginning and then they leave you to meditate there or back in your room. Next, is lunch and an hour slot where anyone can schedule one-on-one interviews with the teachers. After that, there’s two one and a half hour sessions sandwiching an hour group session. 10 minute breaks separate these three. Then, afternoon tea time, followed by an hour group meditation session. Finally there is a discourse/Dhamma Talk, which consists of Goenka talking on a video for just over an hour, all followed by a group meditation for the remaining time until nine. Then it’s last minute questions for anyone to ask the teacher in the group setting before everyone goes to sleep.

Okay, now to get to my experiences. As with all of these types of retreats and intensive experiences, I dive right into everything head first and follow the directions exactly.

On day one, before we end the group session, right before the discourse, I already have tears running down my face. The timing for this retreat right after my time in Laos and before my next adventure in China couldn’t be a better time to help me digest this huge change in my life, more so than I had previously expected. This is the same as anytime where I’m able to be alone in order process my thoughts and experiences; some things come rushing up to the surface in a hurry. The first thing that just came up is my journey into China and how it all scares me to death. Partially because of the travel, but I think mostly because of the deeper goals I have for finding a better direction at least for my purpose in life and continuing my spiritual search for the understanding, as Goenka puts it, at the experiential level. Later that night, I go to bed feeling much better at just being aware that I had those worries buried down deep somewhere.

The second night, right around the same time, I have tears running down my face, yet again. I’m really on a roll here. This time though, for a different reason, which I’ve had come up and tried to process before. This time I feel a deep sadness, contrasted to the fear I felt yesterday. The sadness is coming from being thousands of miles away from my family and closest friends. I don’t feel lonely, I feel like I’m missing out. Missing out on us getting older and not getting to share those experiences in an intimate way. This feeling came up a few times in Laos and is by far the hardest part about living abroad. Then, the feeling hits me harder when I realize it’s a big part of why I’m here. Talk about a catch-22! It makes me think of a line from Austin Powers that I love, when fat bastard says “I eat because I’m unhappy … And I’m unhappy because I eat”. As silly as that line is, I think clinging and attachment for me really looks like that. There are things that I do that I know in that moment will perpetuate my unhappiness, there are things I’ve done in both the past and projections of things to the future that I don’t know how to detach from. But, back to my trip; on the other hand, I know in the bottom of my heart that this trip is exactly what I need above all else. I’m sacrificing this time away from those dearest to me, in order to be able to spend the rest the time I will have to spend with them in the fullest, most attentive and loving way possible. I also want to inspire them and anyone else I meet along the way to follow their hearts and not worry about checking the sequential boxes cultural has laid out for us. It will certainly be interesting to see how everything develops.

The days are passing quickly and around the middle of the time through I have this pervasive energy and sense of readiness for my trip around China. I will keep trying here, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ve done enough secluded reflection and now it’s time to go try it out and start a new chapter in my life. I think this will be the last meditation retreat I will attend for awhile. Not because they don’t work for me, but because I feel I’ve had meditation instruction overload and it’s time to turn it into experiential understanding, when it becomes apart of you and the understanding goes beyond our conventions of explanation. Something that you just know, but can’t capture the essence of in any other way. I always like the example here of explaining color to someone who’s been blind from birth. Unless the other person has experienced color them self, it’s not possible to explain other than referencing that experience.

Another conclusion that I’ve been dancing around for awhile, I’ve now solidified from my experience with this retreat. I think the problem with the way meditation is taught is that it has to be a form of self-torment, that’s not supposed to be fun. What one considers to be self-torment, another could really enjoy. For instance, I’m sure that a lot of people don’t enjoy Bikram yoga (sometimes called hot yoga, but don’t get me started on that rant). Even though some might consider it a form of self-torment, I loved it more than any other physical exercise I’ve tried. It had the whole package I was looking for and after I invested myself in it I was at a peak of my physical and mental conditioning. Another experience I had was on a summer conference about service learning with an organization that I loved from every pore of my skin. The workshop about reflection, which was my best and favorite part about leading those trips, I had the single most profound experience of my life. I’ve been obsessed with it ever since and from what I’ve found, it’s close to what scientists have studied with concert pianists, called the flow state. They enter this zone where it’s like they’re work is flowing through them, almost like they’re possessed and it’s coming from somewhere else entirely. In that workshop I felt a feeling of elation and like I had a team of writers in another room sending me ideas. Well, my second half of college, I spent with most of time with my very musically talented friends. I learned so much about how to listen, play, and discover music in things I never imagined as being musical; I also discovered a hidden talent and passion for music. It also dawned on me how it had always been there in my life, just never recognized in the same way. I would always be beat boxing, making silly voices, or trying to impersonate sounds around me. This even came up when I was staying at the monastery in Thailand where I would come back from a daydream to find my self in the middle of a beat box or drumming session, which was very against the rules. At this current retreat I bent one of the rings on the cheap close hanger rack and found out I could change the tone and make a clothes rack piano. I had to suppress that to make sure no one would put a Buddha curse on me. One of the meditation sessions in my room, I got into the meditation posture with my back supported, and then put on one of my favorite songs through my head phones. My goal was to be totally immersed in listening to every part of the music and nothing else. After a ten day meditation retreat I think I can keep my attention fixed for a three-minute song. At the end of the song, a fully developed new travel project popped into my head. I didn’t think about any of the parts of the plan prior and was totally immersed in the song, so I wasn’t daydreaming. It was the only experience the whole time where I had spontaneous creativity and it felt wonderful. All these teachers say to follow experiential evidence and that’s enough for me to keep looking for a style of meditation that fits me.

Regardless of what Goenka or any other spiritual teacher I’ve come across has said, the next stage of my development won’t be just with my legs crossed and eyes closed. That will certainly be a part of it, but I know that the real experience will come from going out and living it. Finally, likely blog name suggests, I don’t see this next adventure and development being the final product of anything. I expect this kind of exploration will last for the rest of my life, I just think this next stride will be a particularly important foundation for making this kind of exploration one that will also support me in a practical and conventional way.

Get to the Retreat, Ready for the Torment

With the wonderful feeling of not waking up to an alarm clock, I begin to stir when I hear the distinctive song of the morning birds. Other than the dogs and a few times to turn over I slept well through the whole night. 

My eyes are wide open as I emerge from the tent, half expecting the dogs to have outsmarted me, waiting in silence. I adjust quickly to the soft morning light and am filled with energy for the impending adventure. Oh wait, I still have most of the day to wait at the train station. Okay, I better calm my energy down. It only takes a few minutes to get off the tent rain cover and pack the rest back down to its packaged size. I’m stopped dead in my tracks when I hear a pack of dogs barking in the distance. I focus and realize it’s really far away and they’re probably on their same morning routines, as in Laos, when they go around to all the dogs in the neighborhood to fight and mate. Still though, this could mean the same pack from last night is on the move, so I better get out of here quickly.

With 99% packed away, there’s a problem. My tent and rain fly don’t fit back into the tent pouch. It’s not even close, as there is still half of it hanging out and the pouch completely full. Still worried about the dogs, I just throw it all back into the bag to just figure it out later. 
Back at the station I hang around for awhile before noticing a set of stairs that I haven’t seen anyone use. Naturally, I head right up to explore. Most of it is empty, with the look of and expected expansion. There are a few offices with some people doing desk work and then I find a bathroom that’s empty, free, and clean. Totally opposite from the other bathrooms anywhere near by. There, I get ready for the day and then head back out to the main road for some breakfast. I follow some truckers across the busy main road to a food stand on the other side. Forgetting completely where I am, I go right back into Lao mode. I get rice, vegetables, and meat and am slightly disappointed at how much it was until I remember when I’m eating that I’m paying in Bhat, not Kip (money in Laos. I end up spending slightly less than a dollar for all that wonderful tasty and fresh food. I keep forgetting how much cheaper Thailand is than Laos. At least in this case it’s about half as much as I’d pay in Laos for the same thing.

Back at the station I wait out the rest of the day with not much excitement other than some good people watching. The retreat people show up right on time and we all file into a taxi to head to the even smaller town where I’ll be sitting in isolation for the next 10 days.
After about 30 minutes of driving off into farm area, we get off in the middle of what looks like a big farm with a small house in the middle. There’s still lots of forest, so It’s hard to see much around.
I enter the building labeled registration where everyone fills out some papers and give up their iDs, wallets, and phones.

The only instruction I get is to walk down the path and find room A4. I hear a bell and guess to go back where we just were. There, we get some orientation stuff and are fed a meal. The next bell we’re told to go to the meditation hall. 

At the hall, everyone is split in half, men on one side and women on the other. We’re all facing the front where there is a male and female leader both facing each other, toward the middle of the room. Lastly, there is a male and female teacher sitting up on an elevated platform, facing everyone else. The instruction from the teachers is in Thai and the female group leader does all the English translation.
After a quick group meditation, a few of the men head over to a smaller room with chairs set up in front of a TV. There, Goenka, the teacher of this course, tells us about the course. 10 days, no talking, 2 meals and one snack a day, follow the strict moral rules, and follow the daily schedule. That’s about it and then we all go back to our rooms for the night.

A Long Time at the Station, My First Night in the Tent

I milk the time I have with all the amenities I need and duck out by check out at 12. I walk a few miles, get something to eat, and then get back to the station. I’m back somewhere around 2 and now I have just over a day until they come to pick me up.

Two young women come up to me at one point and ask if they can get their picture with me. I expect this in Ghana, but forgot this is actually quite common in Thailand. It seems strange since there are so many other foreigners here. I guess those foreigners don’t travel outside of the big cities often.

At one point, a Thai monk comes up to me and asks me where I’m going. His Thai is different than I’m used to, so it’s really hard to understand anything he’s saying. It still hasn’t failed that he can understand my Lao, now with a spattering of the Thai side of the differences between the two languages. He shows me a map of Thailand and says he’s from the very southern part, which probably explains his different dialect. I don’t really know how to understand this meditation retreat, so I just tell him that In going to practice sitting meditation. Then, without any notice, he just leaves and continues to walk around the station. Well, bye buddy.

After some more time of people watching, the same monk comes back up to me. Before he speaks he holds his finger up with an angry face and I can already sense the lecture coming. He starts speaking fast and forcefully, so I make sure to sit up and pay close attention, but I only catch something about sitting meditation, a negative, and a list of other words I don’t understand, all followed by “samadhi”, which means concentration, or meditation, when followed by a word like sit or stand. Then, again without a word he turns around to get a taxi and leave for good. I think he was trying to tell me that I need to practice all kinds of meditation and not just to focus on the sitting aspect. Or in Thai, the word for meditation is actually and insult to the persons mother. The latter would make much more sense with the sudden anger and to be fair, I did say it first.
It’s now around nightfall, so I leave the station to go to the small road that leads back to the main one. On the way back in I say a potential camping spot and want to go give it a try. I wait on the side of the road for the cars to stop enough so I can briskly walk over.

I make my break for it and make it behind the big bushy tree before any cars come by. I crouch down real low because there’s much less cover than it appeared from the roadside. If I stand, then both sides of the traffic would see me. I make sure I’m level with the cover and then begin to get out the tent and set up. I make sure everything is slightly on the side of the outbound traffic. I figure the people leaving just saw this place so they’re thinking more about their travel than looking around and the people coming into the station and trying to figure out where they are and are more likely to scan the area. Because I’m crouching and my legs are about as flexible as to iron rods, I start to pour sweat. I don’t want my tent to be covered I swear the first time I use it and the cover of nightfall is almost here, so I pull out my poncho and sit down in the grass.

As I’m sitting and looking off into the open field, opposite of the road, a dog peaks his head above the brush line and starts to bark at me. I’m not sure if it’s more of a howl or a bark and he’s far enough away from me, so I ignore him and get back to the set up. Just like when I practiced in the hotel room in Europe, it goes up in minutes. I put the cover on top, called the rain fly, because it’s been off-and-on raining since I got to the station. Without the rain fly I’d get immediately soaked from the air vents all over. It also gives me some space in front of the tent to let my dirty shoes sit in front f the tent, yet still be protected from the elements or anyone’s sight. I take out the sleeping pad that Aaron gave me, but I think there’s not enough room with both of my bags. There probably is enough room, but I’m too tired to figure that out right now and the grassy patch I’m on is quite cushy. Even though I’m excited and scared at doing this for the first time, the exhaustion from travel takes the upper hand.

With no idea how long I’ve been asleep, I wake up in the darkness of night to footsteps approaching my tent. They sound too quick to be human, so I don’t worry too much. All of a sudden they come to a stop, now about three feet from my head. The rainfall has no kind of see through part and makes the tent completely watertight, so this thing and I have no chance of seeing each other, just sounds and smells. As I begin to notice even the symphony of night insects is quieter than normal, the silence is shattered.
That same distinctive howl-bark I heard when I was setting up the tent comes from where the footsteps stopped. I nearly jump straight up in the air. With his barking, two more sets of barking now approach from the left side of my body. Within seconds of those, yet another two sets of barking come from below my feet. I close my eyes and concentrate on the different types of barking to count about five dogs. They’ve now completely cornered my tent to the bushy tree I set up to hide behind.
Now I’m scared stiff. I try to stay perfectly still to not show any sign of aggression toward them and to let my mind race for a plan. From my experience with wild dogs in Ghana and Laos, I’ve learned that most dogs in this situation are just ‘beating their chests’ and if you don’t show to be a threat to their territory, then they’ll soon get bored of you and leave you alone. That’s my plan, so I concentrate on laying perfectly still.

After about 20 minutes, a few of the dogs leave in the direction of the small road. My plan is working, I’m beginning to relax a bit more. Then eventually the rest of them leave and move on to something else in the distance. That stubborn dog with the howl-bark hangs around longer with less and less interested barking as more time goes without me moving. Eventually, he leaves and they move on to barking at something else in the distance. Again, the stubborn dog comes back as if he’s trying to prove to his friends he really did see something. He only lasts a few minutes this time and then when the symphony of bugs start up again, I’m able to fall back asleep.

Back to Thailand, Up to the Retreat

Fresh, well slept, and stuff full of food from the Europe trip, I get into the Bangkok airport at about ten in the morning. Now is the start of the real journey.

I rearrange my stuff in my bags, put on my money belt, and am ready to set off. I planned on doing the whole thing out of my backpack, but I don’t have anywhere to fasten the tent without damaging the backpack straps. Those are just a little important. So, I have the tent and a few other things for cushion in a small red duffel bag. Thanks to the advice from a good friend and my living-on-the-road mentor, Aaron, I have a money belt for the majority of my valuable stuff. It’s going right around my waist, next to my groin. I plan to only have it off for short periods to shower, otherwise it won’t move from that spot. I’m sure it’ll smell very nice by the end of the trip.

I ride the metro from the airport all the way to the northern tip of the city. I also make sure to use the metro cashiers to break down all the rest of my Bhat bills. I’m headed to a small town to attend a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat and don’t want to get stuck paying for my 10 Bhat handful of rice with a 1,000 Bhat bill. The person would probably just laugh and then pull out a weapon and tell me to back away slowly. 

Off the metro, I ask people how to get to the main road that takes me straight up the middle of the country. It goes through some major towns and then connects into Laos, right at the Capital, Vientiane. I figure they’re will be plenty of diverse traffic to use for my hitchhiking plans. I’m especially not worried because I also have about two and a half days to travel what an eight-hour bus trip should take.
It’s now two in the afternoon and I’m getting slightly worried about getting out of the city to find somewhere to set up my tent and sleep. I’ve asked all kinds of people from street vendors, to taxi drivers, and to students and I get the same directions to get to the bus station instead of the road I want. 

I go to the bus station anyway to see if maybe I can get to one of the first few towns along the road. I describe the road to the woman behind the ticket desk and ask for names of the first few towns along that road. She responds by asking me where I’m going and without thinking I blurt out Khon Kaen (which is my final d detonation. She tells me to pay 250 Bhat for the ticket and it leaves at three. I laugh and then tell her “wait, wait, that’s not where I’m going NOW.” She gives me a blank look. This trip is having a bit of a harder start than I expected. I repeat the question and she crinkles her eye brows, in a slightly impatient look, and then asks me where I want to go. I laugh again, but this time just I’m just releasing steam from my frustration. I can tell she picked up on that, so I just take a deep breath, try again in a different way to ask the same thing. Let’s say what her response was together … “Where do you want to go?” If you’ve seen the movie True Lies, then you know that scene where Arnold punches that guy in the car, but it ends up being a daydream. Yup, I just did the same thing.
Totally fresh out of the one lousy idea I had, I just give in and tell her to give me the damn bus ticket, I mean the lovely bus ticket. This could of all been avoided if I knew the word for hitchhiking in Lao, but the way my luck is going that would probably be the one the Thai people can’t understand.

The bus is leaving at three and she tells me it takes 6 hours. Kind of pushing it, but not too bad to still figure out my t my plan. On the ride I try my absolute best to keep myself awake, so I have some chance of sleeping in a tent, on the side of the road, for the first time. As we approach sunset, I’m fully awake now spotting potential camping spots far away enough from the road.

For some reason unknown to me, I ride all the way to the station and we don’t get in until 11. Okay, I’m all for adventure, but finding my first camping spot at night and jets aged seems like a recipe for trouble. Instead, I get a taxi to the nearest hotel. I’m doing well with my rules on this adventure, aren’t I?

Brugges, Belgium

We get into Brugges late and head out for dinner. Our hotel suggests a “local” feeling place. I know nothing about the authenticity of this place, but it certainly feels local. The searing is cramped and it feels more like we’re inside someone’s house rather than a restaurant.

  
I order their famous beer and it comes out on its own table and special metal holder. The guy goes through his sacred beer routine popping the cork and poring my glass. I’m not sure if it’s the 13% alcohol in the beer, but there’s a nice feeling I get from Belgium that I didn’t get in France. France feels more fancy, where as Belgium feels more like home.

  
I tell my mom I want to get up at sunrise to walk around town and to my surprise, she is excited to join.

  
It seems that there are bikes perched all over the city.

  
There are small canals that run through the city and many rustic little bridges to go with them.

  
There’s something about the old town feel here that is different from those in the French countryside. It seems more just a part of life, opposed to a tourist spect oval in France, but that’s just my biased opinion.

     
Is the sign saying no bikes on the road, or maybe they can’t cross each other, I think it’s that they can’t go left and then turn around and go right.

  
Okay this part seems like an added tourist scheme. They have swans all around the canals. They’re beautiful, at a distance, until I get closer to hear their gross spit hocking sounds and see that they’re the size of a dog. 

  
Their doors a just a bit over-the-top here. I think this one leads to a toilet. 

  
A cute way to tell people to slow down… Or that they should fasten their luggage tightly. Okay, it’s definitely about keeping your eyes on the road. I think it will lead to more distraction than anything. I was just walking and still almost ended up in the canal as puppy-swan food. 

  
This seems like a good view to shoot for in a personal office space. 

  
To escape the crowds, we go to a local brewery through this door that is just barely wider than my shoulders. There’s a bustling crowd on the street and then no one inside this alley way. I guess they didn’t think to try to squeeze in sideways.

A Not-So-Small Town Called Reims

From the burgundy region we head to the Champaign region and specifically to a town called Reims. the pronunciation sounds something like Rance, with the guttural French r to start things off. We thought it would be similar in size to Beaune, but it turns out to be much larger and actually a thriving college town. College and champaign sounds like a big head ache for the students and everyone else who has to deal with them.

  
I have absolutely zero interest in seeing the churches here, but we go because my mom wants to see some. They’re definitely beautiful and this stain glass window proves to make the visit worth it.

  
Later that night I have a salmon dish with a wonderful creamy white sauce, all over some kind of small brown rice. I’m in heaven!

  
Then to try and get anywhere close to the salmon we top off the dinner with this peach custard thing.

  
One of my big goals was to try real French press coffee, which I think is just all of their coffee here. Whenever I would ask, people would just give me a blank stare and point me to a coffee shop. This particular breakfast was extra pleasing actually seeing the big coffee press and getting to do it myself.

  
As you’d expect, we go on a Chanpagne tour. The only problem is that the English ones were sold out, so we joined a French one. My mom can understand what they’re saying, but I know no French and would probably only think of Chinese words if I even tried.

  
Further along the tour I drift away from the group to take some pictures. I have no idea what this is and I’m not allowed to ask in English, so you’ll have to just keeping wondering with me.

  
Train rides in Europe are really awful. For some reason it felt a bit different from the train to Bangkok…

Now we’re done with France and headed to back to Belgium, to a small town called Brugges (yes, the one from the movie with Colin Farrell). 

A Small Town Called Beaune

Next on our trip through the French countryside is a small town called Beaune. It’s located in the Burgandy region, which produces fabulous light wines. This is the French home for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. 

     
So, naturally we take a wine tour and of course that takes us inside of a cave. The people here really take their wine seriously. I’m used to wine tasting in California where people ride a thin line between a tasting and a party. Here, many of the local French people will spit out the wine, they barely talk above a whisper, and I think I saw the crack of a smile once, or maybe that was just gas.

  
There are lots of really old dusty bottles down in these caves. All I’m thinking is “ooh yes old, but when do we drink it?”

  Then there are old ones that they look like they’re holding onto for a special occasion.

 

  Some of the wine is even held behind lock and key. I can’t tell if that’s more enchanting or creepy. Either way I’m more than ready to taste now, so I’m quickly leaving the dungeon.
 
Finally, we get to the tasting room. They have candles on the tables to use to get a good look at the color of the wine. I think the depth of color has to do something with the age, but I can’t see mine because it’s already in my stomach.

Paris, France

From Brussels, we take the train to Paris, France. We spend 3 days exploring the city.

  
We’re now in the Paris Nord (North) train station. This sign sums up my journey up quite well between the French, English, and Chinese welcome.

  
We tour the Luve and I think these two woman sum up the whole experience quite well. It’s beautiful and a must-visit, but prepare for a whirlwind of sights, stories, and crowds. 

  
Drinking wine, eating cheese, butter, and bread on the side of a Paris street is an amazing experience. The food is great and the people watching is unforgettable.

  
We go to some famous artists gardens. No idea what his name was, just some French dude who painted nature. I’m excited to go explore his expression through the beauty of his garden.

  
I’m feeling like I’m connecting with the flowers, but haven’t quite found the picture I’m looking for.

  
Aaaha, I found it and captured it as best as I could. At first I was proud of this shot and then the more I thought of it I realized with the beautify of this garden, I probably could have tripped and accidentally taken a picture this beautiful. 

  
Okay okay, enough flowers, time for more coffee already. Capucino please, make the whip cream homemade.

  
Another famous persons garden, blah blah. I do find an interesting fun-house mirror though.

  
Dinner at a fancy French restaurant with… A toster on the table? Yup, they want us to have the freshest toast possibly to compliment our meals. Interesting idea.

  
Crispy duck Confit, one of the best meals the whole time. Black mushrooms and potatoes to compliment. So fried and crispy and so tender and succulent. I won’t forget this one for quite awhile. 

  
This is the roof of one of those crazy Paris art museums. It looks more like a painting or drawing than something real. Everyone’s looking at the Mona Lisa and I can’t take my eyes off of the ceiling. I’m good at this whole art thing, aren’t I?

  
One last French Breakfast in Paris before we head to the country side. French toast, baguette, yogurt and fruit, OJ, and coffee. I’m in morning heaven. 

Brussels, Belgium

Here’s some things I thought were picture worthy during my trip to Brussels, Belgium. 

   
I heard that Belgium waffles weren’t a legitimate thing. To be fair these are probably somewhere between a waffle and a piece of cake. Either way, they’re delicious.

  
I still have no idea what the hell these things are. Some strange Belgian sweets.

  
I heard the streets here invited you to just go another block to see what’s around that corner. I could’ve kept going around the corner for the whole trip. 

  
We’re not technically in Paris yet, but crossings and coffee couldn’t wait for us to get there. 

  
Apparently there’s a statue called Manakin Pis in Brussels. It’s a famous statue that was apparently passed to France and back. It’s normally a naked child peeing, but like this one, it’s dressed up on holidays. I guess it’s their big national joke. I don’t know, I don’t really get it.

  
We caved and actually bought a waffle. This one has Belgian chocolate and caramel. Mmmm

  
Buildings like this surround the main Square in Brussels. They’re mostly government buildings.

     
Today there is a beer festival that’s referred to as the Octoberfest of Belgium. They take it so seriously that each beer maker comes in, by horse and carriage, as part of a parade. 

   
I like beer and have respect for Belian beer, but this is a bit over the top. I’m ready to start drinking already!

  

  
On our break from the beer, I trail off from my mom midsentence and end up, nose pressed to the glass of this beautiful site. 

   
I don’t know if it was the beer or too many chocolate cherries, but that ceiling is really beautiful. After looking up for too long and losing my balance, I pull out my phone and pretend I’m just shfting to get a better shot. 

   
I’m trying to get a shot of the enchanting alley ways here and then get frustrated when this guy comes into my shot. Then I realize he’s actually perfect in my shot because he has the same exact reaction I have to each new alley I find. 

   
There’s a church in the late day light. I think the darkness of the church and the beauty of everything around it is quite symbolic of what I’m noticing so far in Europe. I’ll have a good rant about this later.

  
 Dessert after dinner is homemade ice cream and creme brûlée. A wonderful start to my food journey through this part of Europe.

  
On the walk home from dinner we walk by a castle tower that looked like it was quite a battle to keep here. The modern hotel is built enveloping the old traditional part of town.

Pictures Stealing My Spotlight

The saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is clearly a relative statement. In my case, it would take more like 10,000 words to produce the same worth. So, to spare you from reading a novel, I’ll use pictures to tell the story of my trip through Europe.

I have to admit, it’s impossible for me to keep my opinion to myself, so I’ll have to add a few words along the way.

Wait a second, before I start Europe I have a few last things I gotta get in about Bangkok.   

  
This mall was all around not very special until I looked up. The bathroom sign made me laugh and then wonder some. The sign for the ladies room looks normal, but the man looks like he’s doing something grotesque. Probably quite accurate.
     
Ronald is very culturally sensitive.
     
And a flirt?
     
The bathroom sign is very cute and probably what everyone is doing who’s looking for it.

Then with the picture just to the right, I don’t understand why that guy is running away from grass blowing in the wind… Must be a Thai thing.

Next up is Brussels, Belgium!

My Loop Around Bangkok

The next morning I’m up at 6 when Emily leaves for work. She still left me the key and told me that her condo is open to me anytime. That’s a very generous offer, but I’m too excited to explore to stay around much longer. I check out the view from her balcony as I wash a few smelly things I wore through my bus/train journey. The view makes me forget all about the smell and that’s saying a lot.

 

I have a general plan and a few things to see as recommendations from Emily as well as Karin and Aaron (friends from Laos). I go straight north from the condo to eventually reach a small river that people actually use on their commute. The big river I was on yesterday has commuters too, but also has many other types of travelers that this one doesn’t have.

On the way, I stop at a place where I see people cooking food fresh next to the street. A really nice middle aged couple attentively see what I want right after I poke my head in their grill area to see what they’re cooking.

I just point at what their cooking and say I want that with a little bit of the spice. Either all those words are the same from Lao to Thai or the pointing was enough because the guy nods in assurance and quickly ushers me to a seat. The food is fresh, makes me full, is cooked by a nice genuine Thai couple, and comes to be 40 baht, which is just over a dollar. It’s definitely not as expensive or fancy as a coffee shop, but like my choice on the train, doing things like the locals gives me such a rich experience and an in depth look into their daily life that it’s worth more than all the other benefits combined with the fancier options.

I continue to head up the street and ask a few people, who I suppose are too shy to even speak with me. They don’t look at me and barley form an answer. It looks like they’re being rude, but I doubt that as I’ve run into this before in Laos and seen them come around after getting more comfortable with me. Some people don’t find joy in giggling and figuring out our gaps in language and understanding and that’s fine, so I just smile, thank them, and move on.

Then there are those people who seem like they’ll do anything. I stop by a mechanic shop where two old men, covered in grease, are resting by the sidewalk. We exchange looks and I already have a good feeling about them. River in Thai isn’t the same as in Lao, so I’m stuck having to resort to charades. Then they stop a guy in a business suit and he uses his broken English to tell me I have about two more kilometers down the road. After realizing I’ve orchestrated the whole side of the street to helping me find this river, I thank them and head on my way.
I like this street I’ve been walking on because it’s more like an inner city neighborhood than a tourist street. There is no stop to the traffic barreling down the wide road next to people working their ordinary jobs on either sides.

I get to a bridge and think that it’s probably passing over the river I’m looking for, so I go to the right, underneath the bridge. It’s a little bit sketchy, but after a quick look around and some stubbornness to find the river, I continue.

I find an old hut right on the edge of the river and investigate to see if I can ask someone for directions. I peak in and lock eyes with an old woman sitting on the floor. I smile and give her the polite bow. She comes to the door and we talk a bit about how to get there. I don’t really understand other than to cross the bridge. I’m hoping there’s a lot of detail I missed there that will take me right to the boat. She stops a young man who tells me in English that I should cross the bridge. Well, there we go, it’s pretty vague, but I can always just ask the next person on the other side.

Under the bridge on the next side there’s a police man who literally jumps out of his seat to help me. He only speaks Thai, but the words for 4 way intersection and turn left are the same. It’s really nice to get someone who can actually give decent directions, opposed to most who just say, “keep going that way”.

Not long after, I find the larger part of the same river I already passed and wait to board the next boat. I feel like I’m next in line to ride Pirates of the Carribean at Disneyland. The walls, covered in vines, are high on either side and turn almost immediately, inviting their passengers to come take a look.

I ask a young man who tells me how to get to China town, my next destination. Even though I was there yesterday, I want to go back and give it a better chance now that I don’t have my bag.
The boat pulls up already totally packed with people. I grab a rope and slide myself between the bulging crowd and the edge of the boat. I’m not normally freaked out by crowds, but this is pushing it. Directly behind and to the left of my head there are wooden parts of the boat and to the right is a plastic shield protecting us from the gross river water, cornering my head behind the guy in front of me. I have to try to tilt my head at an angle so I don’t wipe my snot on the back of his head. At some points along the ride he shifts a little bit and I have to squish my head even more to not get a mouth full of hair. I start to get frustrated that he can’t just inch forward a little bit to get out of my way. Getting over the urge to shove him away from me, I start to enjoy the ride. There are broken down docks at each stop, which are clearly just for locals, and despite the plastic shield, the disgusting runoff from the city that seeps into this river is splashing up onto my face. Hey this is probably the best way I could build up my resistances again after all those antibiotics I took for my ear.

The crowd eventually thins and then I get to my stop. I get off and start to ask people which direction I should go. I want to buy some pineapple, but I’m always worried about buying from genuine people. I’m trying to think how I could do that, so the last fruit stand on the corner, I stop to ask for directions to China town. The woman lights up when she realizes she can understand me and then her husband jumps in to help. The three of us quickly go from directions to where I came from and what I’m doing here in Thailand. Well, that was pretty easy. They’re definitely the fruit people I’m looking for, so I get a big bag to eat on the way.


On the same street with all the fruit, they pull up in a truck to drop off gigantic jack fruits. I have to stop and get a picture, I’m in heaven. They also drop off these weird black circles in the middle of the street, which coincidently look like my finger over the camera lense…

Feeling up from the whole journey this morning and getting my fruit, I engage a little more with the Tuk Tuk driver across the street than I normally would. Normally they ask if I want a ride and I just shake my head. This time we spark a conversation and then he forgets about the ride altogether. We start to talk about me knowing Thai and I go through the schpeal of just knowing Lao. We continue and go through the same thing of him asking me why I’m not married and how the women are in Laos.

I never realized this before talking with a good friend, but I think sometimes when I speak Lao or Twi I take on a different persona. When I’m talking with men I tend to be a bit more macho than I normally would. When I speak with women, I’m much more flirtatious. Not really flirtatious like wanting to date them, but more just teasing with them. I’m not sure why I do it. Maybe it’s because I feel like there’s a bit of a “mask” over the subtle meanings of the English and I’m just saying things for the basic meaning they have and don’t have the time or brain capacity to over analyze what I’m saying. I think for both of those examples I really think about the consequence of what I’m saying and instead, with another language, I adapt and am just more interested in making the person feel good in that moment. I think that over-analyzation thing I do in English for what I and others say is not always a good thing. It’s nice to be free of that and just speak in a way that makes sense in that moment. I think the importance of meaning comes with the way we do things, more so than with the way we speak. I don’t know though, maybe that just sounds crazy.

Then the taxi driver calls some young woman over to come talk to me. I’m kind of worried because I immediately suspect he’s going to try to set us up together. She comes over and he says that she’s from Laos. We start to talk about that and it’s wonderful to actually understand everything someone is saying again. I quickly fall back into the Lao expressions and feel happy knowing it isn’t falling on deaf ears.

I keep walking down the street, determined for China town. Right as I think I get off track, a nice looking old gentleman walks out of a bank, so I ask him where to go. I learned the Thai word for China Town now, so just ask him using that and the Thai vocabulary I’ve been picking up. He stops and thinks for a second and then responds in English “Oh yes, China town”. He tells me it’s very far and then proceeds to act out how to get there. His actions are very flamboyant and he starts to make me giggle even though I don’t think he knows he’s being funny. Then he tells me to come over and get on his motorbike. Without hesitation, I take the offer to be driven there.

We get off onto the main road and then immediately turn off onto side roads. He seems like he really knows what he’s doing. Then we drive through a market street and people start to yell out to him from every direction. He responds to them in English which gets me to keep laughing. Especially since I find out he’s lived in Thailand his whole life.

After some more bobbing and weaving through the market, he stops and tells me to get off and keep going straight and I’ll be right there. I thank him and continue on my way.

My goal now with China town is to go down the small side streets and try to really immerse myself in the atmosphere. I take the first side street I see. It doesn’t take long for my expectations to be crushed. Most of the signs I pass by are all three Thai, English, and Chinese. Also most of the people Im passing are speaking Thai or the few times I interact with people, just in English. Their English is better than most Thai people’s. I wanted to enter the side streets and totally forget that I’m in Thailand. I wanted to see all kinds of crazy Chinese street delicacies, hear only Chinese, and only see the Chinese culture.


Here’s a strong old Chinese shrine I found in the middle of the market. Apparently when the first Chinese people came here they built this to ask for prosperity with their new lives in Thailand. I don’t know, it looks quite ugly and cluttered to me.

My disappointment also makes me realize that my feet hurt and I’m going to need an hour or so to regenerate for the second half of the day. My next stop is the main tourist street that Emily suggested I visit. I find a motorcycle taxi guy and decide to give that adventure another chance.

Before we get on the motorcycle, he hands me a helmet. I laugh because it’s more like a bike helmet than a motorcycle helmet. It also only fits the back half of my head. I tell him my head is too big for his helmet and he tells me it’s not a problem. I’m not sure what that really means, but I’m suspicious he just called me fat. He immediately breaks off like the gun shot just went off to start the race. I’m still not sure who he thought he was racing, but I’m very confident that my guy won. We tear down the street and this guy makes no hesitation to swerve between cars, curbs, crosswalks, and children. At one point we raced to the very edge of the street to beat the impending crowd closing off the cross walk. All of the people coming from the right saw him, but there’s one guy crossing from the left and of course he’s looking in the opposite way of traffic and looks like he’s leaning into the street to start to cross. None of that phases my guy and my whole body tenses for this idiot to cross in front of us at the last second. We squeeze by untouched. Phew. Then he goes up on the side walk and goes around those bars that come down to block cars going into parking lots. Now we’re racing behind a building with yet more oblivious vehicles and pedestrians. We blast through and then around the car blocking bar on the other side and right past the policeman sitting there to stop people from doing that exact thing. Although, I’m not worried because by the time his brain realized what we were doing, we are already in the street and quickly leaving his sight.

I get to the tourist street, have a beer, and then get the hell out of there. I get the creeps realizing that when Thai people see me they think I’m a tourist like these people. They’re all very young and are clearly looking for the party to start.

I walk down the popular temple street, where there are also all the big government buildings.


Not that government people are favored, but it might be overkill to have 4 crains working on the same thing.

Next I head back to stop at what is claimed, the largest mall in the world.


I’m always fascinated to see the different levels of development, so after poking my head around I find this street right next to the giant mega malls. These were probably put here for the workers selling the Armani bags.

The night wraps quickly as I head back to meet Emily for dinner. We share some really great travel stories and musings on life. Again, this contrast to the rest of the day makes me want to continue to explore Couchsurfing with each new place I visit.

A Long First Day in Bangkok

Around 5:00 AM, the train pulls into the Bangkok station and I’m excited because the delayed departure didn’t affect my original plan.

 This is the main train station in Bangkok. 

As we pull into the station, reality slaps me in the face in the form of an odor that’s been brewing on my body for about 2 days now. It’s time to figure this out.

At the very least I’ll find a bathroom to wash my face and brush my teeth. I find a sign in the station that says bathroom/shower, so I’ve got the minimum covered. I’m mostly intrigued to see what they define as shower. To my surprise, and slight disappointment (for further adventure), the showers are actually quite nice and give a ton of room, so I decide to go for it. 

In the shower box, I realize that I was so plagued by my decision whether to actually try it that I forgot to get soap. Since it’s 5am I’m not even sure where I could have bought some anyway.
The shower still feels really refreshing even if it is just a rinse. Now, I’m changed and ready to set out for China town.

I ask some sweepers on the street because they’re the only people out and I get pretty good directions. I also find that I’m able to speak Lao and the people still understand enough to hold a conversation. That makes sense to me in the northern part of Thailand because it’s so close to Laos and part of it used to be owned by Laos, but it surprises me it’s still this way down in Bangkok. Good thing because it would be a lot harder to do anything if I couldn’t speak to them at all.

  Think I found China town yet?

I walk around the main street going through China town, but not inside the side street markets because of my back pack.

  
It’s the first day back to school and I’m happy to use a trail of students as my shield to make the seemingly non-stop stream of traffic come to a halt. The only issue is that I hang back to take the picture and have to run the last few steps as the traffic light goes green again and people come screaming off the line to see who will be the first to get the bonus points of running me over. 

I keep walking to other places in the area I was told to see. I see a statue my friend said to take a look at, then go into the flower market.

  Yeah yeah cool stuff, wonderful history, okay I’m ready to keep exploring.

Everyone is still setting a lot of it up, so it’s interesting to see them all before their beautiful touristy covers are ready. There’s also lots of fruit to look at, so I’m more than entertained. I walk to the nearby pier.

 I’m surrounded by local Thai culture, with monks, people on their way to work, and Thai language being spat from every direction. I see a Starbucks that throws my brain into confused spirals. The blend of the Thai culture and the impending globalization a are fascinating. 

At the pier I find a boat that takes people down part of the city. It seems that there are mainly three types of boats on the river. There are the barges delivering huge amounts of goods, tourist boats giving commentary of the scenery, and the boat Im on, which is full of locals on their daily commute. There’s a nice view of the Bangkok skyline along the way.

  

I get off at a main railway entrance to make some sort of a circle to go back up closer to the neighborhood where I’ll be meeting my host for the next few nights. 

The doors for the metro open and it’s already packed with people, but I squeeze on anyway. I feel like I’ve seen these videos before in the crazy rush hour trains in China and Japan. I’m pressed up against everyone around me and try to keep and equal resistance back so I’m not squished back into the exit door. Oh great, I look over and there’s a big sign that says don’t lean of the door. I spin my bag to front and lean all parts of my body against the people to make sure I stay on the train car. I want to take a picture to document this, but that’s probably not the safest thing to do my first day in Bangkok.
I get off a few stops from my host and explore the main mall street of Bangkok. I go to one that claims to have a “trendy jet setter” theme, whatever that means.

Well I find out quickly that it means that there are 6 floors, each one dedicated to a different country. It sounds like an interesting idea, so I bite and decide to explore each floor. I could see this place would be amazing for those people who like international clothing designers. But, I could really care less, so I was more looking at the people around and of course the food. I think the French people would throw up if they see the Starbucks on their floor. 
After leaving the mall, my feet are hurting again, so I sit on the side of the street and do more people watching. 

Then, I walk down a famous street for new hip stuff and get pretty bored pretty fast. I do stop to eat a couple of delicious pastries and then move on.

It comes to 530, so I find the place I’ll be staying at with Emily, the couch surfer host. 

I don’t have a SIM card for my phone here, my feet are just about worn out, and I keep being told to go back in the opposite direction I just came from when I ask people. At this point I’m wondering if the problem is her directions. Of course it can’t be my ability to follow directions.

A few streets over I find some geeky looking guy who speaks very good English. That pretty much hits on all the criteria I have for a good guide. I’m also relieved because he points at a skyscraper and says it’s that one. That’s much more tangible than “uhh yeah it’s just two more blocks that way.” 

The nerd was right and to my relief I get to settle down a bit. As always, I was correct with the directions! She told me to look for a big sign saying life condo. The life condo sign only covers 98% the largest building face on the block. If it covered the whole thing, I’d still only give her half a point. It also only says life, no condo to be found … So, I feel my stupidity has now officially confirmed. 

As I come into view, a black woman gets up at the same time and we catch each other’s glance, but I think it must just be a weird coincidence. Then she comes over behind me to walk in same two big front doors. My Imagination is now going wild and my James Bond instincts are kicking in. 

I look in the reflection of the metal next to the door and can see her staring right at me. I did have a feeling that couch surfing was just a way to kidnap backpackers. Makes sense to me.

I wait until I hear the rippling of the wind past her outstretched karate chop directed at my neck to throw a deflection, secure my grip onto her arm, drop my knee, and flip her over my body, face first into the tile floor. Body guard number one, taken care of.

I come to from my day dream as she catches up to me and says my name and tells me she’s Emily’s friend. Okay, much less exotic than my daydream, but I’m glad I won’t have to use my Walther PP7. 

Emily comes down and we immediately jump on the same wave length. We relax in her beautiful condo and she tells me about everything she owns and how I’m welcome to it all. We instantly share passions about traveling abroad and starting some kind of extended adventure from work. She tells me she has plans for dinner with some friends and hands me her condo key in the case we separate on the way back.

We go out to dinner with her henchman and another friend. The henchman, who I’ll call Ashley so I can stop beating the James Bond joke to death, asks if I want to take a motorbike and without hesitation I say yes. I thought she’d be driving for some reason, but quickly find out we’re taking a motorcycle taxi. 
You can tell the motorcycle taxis as groups of people on the most busy corners in Bangkok who wear an orange vest with a yellow taxi sign on their chest. It’s a little more expensive than the car taxi, but I’m excited for the adventure. 

I feel pretty confident with all the times riding motorbikes on the bad roads in Laos. This can’t be much worse than that, right?

The guy immediately shoots off and I nearly fly off the back of the bike. People in Laos don’t drive this fast from a dead stop. We cut through traffic and then come to a hard stop in the front of an impatient crowd of rush hour waiting for the light to change. The red lights here count down until they turn green again. That’s a terrible idea because at about 5 seconds left my guy lets off the breaks and we drift into the intersection. He checks both ways, to be a responsible driver, before he tears off through the soon-to-be green light. 

This time I’m ready holding tight to the back of the motorbike. We pass Ashley and her bike like they’re standing still. We weave between cars on all sides of the lane, including the bike lanes on the shoulder. I speak Lao to him and tease him that he’s driving like a maniac. He laughs and says his friend is just slow. I’m not sure if he means his friend driving Ashley because everyone seems like they could fit the description of “his friend”. 

White knuckled and windswept, we finally get to a side road and then find the place for dinner. That was terrifying and so dangerous, but way too much fun. I couldn’t imagine telling one of these guys I’m in a hurry, he might press a button that springs wings. I’ll save that for next Bangkok trip.

We eat Mexican, margaritas, and then go to a rooftop bar that has free drinks for woman every week. Damnit, I knew when I was getting rid of my stuff in Laos I should’ve held onto my dress. 

We go up so high in the elevator that my ears pop. This is the real deal. I quickly shuffle to the deck where I hope no one will see the plaid shorts I’m wearing. The view is beautiful and the rest of the night consists of great conversation and travel stories. This right here makes couch surfing worth it.

  

Vientiane to Bangkok, Riding with the Goats

The bus arrives in Vientiane at 8:30 AM, almost exactly a 12 hour trip. After getting off, I skip past all the annoying Tuk Tuk drivers that swarm the bus. Then, all the other falang  (foreigners) from the bus file onto the Tuk Tuk and I get as far away as I can, so I don’t get sucked in to the same trap.

I walk toward the front of the station toward the street and I ask two guys which way to the morning market bus station. They point the way and then I tell them I’ll walk and catch the city bus on the way. I’ve found that’s the cheapest and most convenient way to get around Vientiane. They tell me that I have to go back to the station I just came from to catch that bus and they can see disappointment on my face. Stubbornly, I keep pushing the idea of catching the bus on the route to town. I know there’s got to be a more convenient local way to do things, so I’m going to find out how I can join. After some more back-and-forth, he says to get in his truck and he’ll take me there. Apparently he’s going to the same place. I guess being annoyingly persistent can pay off some times.

I think I really get these kinds of lucky rewards because not only am I a foreigner, but I’m clearly not just a tourist, as I prove when we speak  Lao with each other. That niche between being a local and a foreign tourist is the one where people treat me most like a human and want to have those real interactions that I’m looking for on these adventures. There’s no doubt it’s my favorite way to travel and I’m addicted to it.

After I get to the morning market and buy a bus ticket, I go to a local coffee shop to get a snack, coffee, and a nicer bathroom to brush my teeth before continuing the journey. I know of a place that has private bathrooms. It would be a little strange to do that in a public one. I’m not sure I’m ready for that kind of guerrilla travel living yet. 

Then, I catch a bus from Vientiane to a big city in Thailand called Udon Thani. I get in to Udon at about 1 and then go immediately to check the train schedule. There are basically three trains that leave at night and each are a different class level. Class 1 is upscale and class 3 is where they keep the goats.

I want to get to Bangkok early, to see the hustle and bustle of the morning, so I decide to go for the earliest train, which will get in at 5 AM. Also, mostly for the adventure, I’ll be in the billy section … Sorry, that was a bad one.

Now I have about 6 hours until the train leaves, so I go to mall I passed on the way to walk around. 

It’s huge! I try to explore an entire  floor, but they have this continuity to them that makes it too daunting, plus all of the stores look exactly the same. 

Each new story I scale, the more it seems to keep going up and up! As I’m just about to give up on sumiting, I get to the top and there is full movie theater, bowling alley, and ice skating rink. This is by far the largest mall I’ve ever seen and I’m not even in Bangkok yet. I go back down and walk around little more before my feet hurt too bad to continue. I think my shoes were on too tight because it wore down one specific spot.

I go back and wait at the station for a few hours. There’s a crazy guy near me who keeps talking to himself. For some reason, I keep forgetting he’s crazy so I turn when it sounds like it’s directed at me. I hope he doesn’t see that as an invitation to chat.

I get up to walk around an open mall area next to the station to keep making my legs tired so I will avoid all possibility of them being jumpy on the train. I didn’t get to brush my teeth last night before the Laos bus, but I can’t do that two nights in a row, so I go into the public bathroom at the mall and decide to do it there at the sink. I feel really awkward, like everyone who sees me is judging me. I probably just shouldn’t care, but this one is something I’ll have to try a few more times before it feels okay. 

I head back to the station to wait for the rest of the time. The train is 40 minutes late, so I’m a little worried about my plan to get there as the sun and locals start their day. 

Finally on the bus, I find my seat, which consists of two hard bench seats pointed toward each other. This is intended to seat 4 people. The room between isn’t enough for two Thai people, let along my awkward gangly legs. 

I try to get sleep, but no luck, as you’d probably imagine. The guy diagonally across from my bench spot is out like a light and spilling over into all three of our spaces. I’m not sure if I’m more frustrated with him being rude or because that asshole is already asleep. Okay, maybe I just answered that. Either way, the added tension is making it literally impossible to sleep. 

Then, every 20 minutes, there’s a guy that will walk down the middle aisle yelling for the same people to buy the same damn products. He’s relentless, but so are we. I want to do some kind of rally cry to boycot this guy until he leaves. My revolutionaries fail me when he brings a big thermos of boiling water and the portable cups of instant noodles. Touché guy, his rally worked much better as people jump all over it, perpetuating his cries to buy his things. Maybe I’ll take some of his stuff and try to sell things as well, that’ll show him. 

As if that isn’t enough to battle the possibility of my sleep, we stop frequently at each station to pick people up and drop some off. That part isn’t too bad, but then a ticket guy from the front comes down the aisle making a loud metal clinking sound with his whole puncher. The worst part about that is that it reminds me of the guys who would walk around town making the same noise with their nail clippers in Ghana. 

I’m far from done with the rediculous distractions. One stop, we are ambushed as 100s of people flush on and pillage the aisles trying to sell there various goods. This is so abrupt and so random that now I’m just laughing. This psychological warfare is brilliant! They can see my anger beginning to get so consistent that it starts to lead to a yawn and then BAM!

After the dust settles, I notice a man lying on the ground at the front of the car. He’s either been trampled by the stampede of sellers or maybe he’s in a salt coma from the noodles. Either way, I’m jealous that he managed to escape consciousness. He has no idea what my restlessly jumpy legs and mind are going through. 

There’s an open bench next to him and I consider going for it a few times, but decide I need to tough it out and gather some lessons in how I react to discomfort. After all, if I just give in and don’t reflect, there will have been no purpose to this adventure. 

Eventually, one of the train staffs pokes at him and then once he’s confirmed alive, he’s told to take the open bench I was eyeing. I immediately regret my decision and realize that maybe the biggest lesson of all is that I’m an idiot.

Well, there’s no chance of sleep now, so I start to reflect and realize that I can’t sleep because of my own mental resistance and nothing to do with my physical surroundings… Okay, maybe slightly from the surroundings. That’s proven because plenty of people around are able to sleep. I also notice I’m frustrated with things I shouldn’t be, just because of this situation. For instance I’ve been plotting on the best way to “accidentally” kick that guy, across from my bench, who’s now been asleep for 100% of the time. Definitely something to keep on my radar as I’m on my journey through China. 

The guy directly next to me leaves around 1am and then I move my bag down on the seat, lie my head down and immediately pass out.

From there my sleep stays deep and steady, but I remember waking up once when all these people around me were up and making some kind of commotion. I just remembering wondering why everything was so loud and then I went back under. I can normally sleep through a lot, but I think I just leveled this ability up. I got the few lessons and adventures I was looking for. 

Sleeper Bus to Vientiane

The last day of work went at lightning speed. The PoP staff all had lunch together at the office and then the day ended with everyone giving me hugs and taking some last second pictures. I feel sad to leave Laos, but it’s different than when I left Ghana because I already have my next adventure set, so I’m also excited to start something new, instead of having the added anxiety of being home and having to figure things out. I’m sure this is something I’ll continue to process for a while. It’ll probably hit me more once I settle into some kind f a routine again in China.

After work I go to the bus station to get the sleeper bus, which leaves at 830, 3 hours away still. There’s no way I’m going to wait here for that long. I pull out my phone to give Aaron a buzz. Oh right, the  phone I was using belonged to PoP. I’m still able to walk all the way back to their house in 15 minutes. I get in one last going away dinner and beer with Aaron and then head back to the station.

I put my bag underneath the bus and hung around  to make extra jokes about them not letting thieves take my bag. It seems to work as the guy tells his friend to look at my bag again and make sure. Hopefully that making sure isn’t them now planning to steal it.

I put my shoes in a small plastic bag. As I would expect, my size 12 shoes are spilling out of the top. I balance my bag on one shoulder and hug the bag of muddy shoes to my chest and go up onto the second floor of the beds. Okay, that’s a lie, they definitely aren’t beds. I’d say more like a floor mat.

There’s another person on my bed, I mean mat. I was warned about this before and have already played the worst case senarios in my head. I quickly introduce myself and try to get on his good side. He turns out to be a nice guy, so that’ll hopefully eliminate enough worry to sleep.

The pad is made for a person who is max 5’8″, so I can’t really fall asleep and 45 minutes in they’re already starting the pee breaks. Really!? Didn’t their mom teach them better to pee before leaving the house on a long trip. It was like a final parade before leaving mine. My mom would annoy us until we at least tried even if we didn’t feel like we had to and it seemed like even if there was no thought of the bathroom, I was still able to pee a little but and make the ride much smoother. Again, one of those things that seemed so annoying as a kid, but now I’m so grateful I had a mom aware enough to force me to learn.

At about 2:30 am we stop to eat food. This is something that sounds the like worst possible idea on an overnight trip somewhere. I never wake up for midnight snacks and just because I’m sleeping in a different place won’t change that. It doesn’t make any sense why these people should be hungry at this time and why they would just want to keep sleeping. I’m not happy at all this is set in our schedule. We get out of the bus and eat a meal that is some crappy excuse for noodle soup. Then we get back on the bus and I have to admit I get the best 4 hours of sleep during the whole trip. Everyone is full, so they’re all asleep and not thinking “oh gosh, it’s been 15 minutes, it’s probably time to pee again”. I also felt like I was a little hungry when we got off. I can’t explain it and it makes no logical sense, but it’s how I felt. I also figure a way to slightly prop my head and feet so I can be as closes to stretched as I can. It would work perfectly if the two people on the same mat could spoon, but since I just met this guy, I don’t want to freak him out. I wake up at one point and we’re just about as close to spooning we could be without actually touching. I think getting comfortable on this ride is a struggle for both of us.

I manage to get a solid four or five hours of sleep before waking up to see the entrance to Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

My Last Laos Post

The last few weeks have been a frenzy of activity preparing for my departure from PoP and Laos. The office had a Bawsee for me, the programs team took me out to a special thank you dinner, everyday at work I’ve been racing through last minute projects and preparing for my role’s transition, and also outside of work I’ve been preparing for my next adventures.

Tonight will be my last night at Sakura, as tomorrow after work I will begin to head down to Bangkok. I’ll be taking several overnight buses to Bangkok, where I will then stay with someone on the couch surfer network. Finally, I’ll take a plane from Bangkok to Brussels, where I’ll meet my mom for the start of a wonderful vacation.

Next time I update on here I’ll fill in any adventures along the way and then start my new segment, under the China heading, from Brussels. I won’t actually be in China yet, but to me it’s just really the start of that whole new adventure.   



Of course I’d discover this a week before I leave. There’s a woman right outside of Sakura who makes fresh banana chips and fried banana breading.

 
Here’s some of the food from my Bawsee. The closest dish consists of fried vegetables with some kind of orange sauce. Next up is a stir fried dish with frog meat, mmm. Top left is a kind of homage curry-like dish that has heart potatoes and big pieces of meat. Then the soup to the right has some kind of white floaty thing and seaweed-like vegetable floating at the top.

 
Of course there’s kareokee after all the dancing. I normally go home before this point in the party, but this time I stayed. People are mostly just drinking and singing, with no one left on the dance floor. This is Bay. He’s the admin/HR/finance manager of the office. He has a heart made of gold and a goofy personality that I’ll miss a lot.


There’s one last birthday in the office before I leave and you can see where my focus is stuck. It’ll be the last time I’ll eat the delicious carrot cake made by a local bakery here.

 
Here’s the dinner the program’s team held for me. I had to do something to offset the seriousness that comes with selfies here in Laos.

 
We all had multiple of those sugary cocktail drinks, beer, and more food then I thought could possibly fit in my stomach. By the end my stomach was sending me emergency signals to stop or it was going to hit the ejection button.

 
One thing people do in Laos to be polite is to come over and hand you a piece of food. I remember this first happening at a school opening celebration. It was strange at first, but I learned to appreciate the generousity that drove the action. Some of the programs staff came over to make these kinds of offerings to me during my celebration dinner. A few of them had been drinking quite a bit and came over with spoon fills of ice cream. I was laughing so hard I nearly inhaled the ice cream. I’m really going to miss this team.

Celebration Dinner

A big part of our struggle working here in Laos is getting approval from the governement. The first big step is getting that approval from the national government office. We accomplished that already and spent a better part of my internship getting approval at the provincial level. Before you start drooling, I’ll get to the interesting part here. I’m warning you now though that the rest is kind of gross and I’ll warn you before the really bad parts.

Tonight we’re having a staff dinner celebrating our anniversary of the agreement with the national government. So, of course that means we gotta go out and get a few live ducks. Some of the staff, generally those who grew up in the country side and are used to this, will take them out back to kill and prepare them.

Naturally, it would be crazy to waste food, so as they cut the neck, someone is standing with a bowl to catch the blood. I didn’t see it this time, but I’ve seen it plenty of times already. I think the pigs are the worst because of the sound and filth. Also because I saw the most greusome killing I’ve ever seen with a pig.

This would be a good time to plug your ears and yell la la la la la la and skip the next paragraph.

The pig is tied to a post and with the rope attached to its leg and pulled tight, it’s fully sprawled out belly flat on the ground. It’s totally given up on life. Then the men grab it and there’s a sudden explosion of life. This is the moment it’s been waiting for. “Act like you’ve given up and then when those stupid humans untie me I’ll make a break for it.” Nice try little piggy, this isn’t their first rodeo… or pig killing. Either way, they’ve already eaten your whole family. Hoisting it by the legs they lie it on a table. I look away and start to walk that way and then feel guilty that I’ll be enjoying eating that pig later so I can at least watch it die in order to feed us. I’m back now watching, but as one guy walks over with a knife my knees start to get weak. Before this I’d seen chickens, pigs, ducks, and cows all killed. This one was different somehow. Maybe because I gave it a personality when I imagined it talking to the humans and then I explained to it the reality of the situation. The guy with the knife holds the head and then stics the knife right into the neck. Okay, not so bad, I’m getting strength back to not have to hold onto the wall. Then he hooks the motion to get the knife behind something and to slice it as the knife comes out. Between my trembling eyes and the knife protrudes a giant cylindrical object. It’s almost half the size of the pigs neck and I guess it’s the whole wind pipe. Then the knife breaks back through with it, what looks like a fire hose of blood. The pigs screams its last as it also ejects all the poop it was saving to trip the humans as they chased it on its escape. I don’t turn my head as I watch the scene unfold. My legs dipped as I temporarily passed out on the ropes, but I recovered and there was no KO awarded. Since then I started to pay more attention to the pig killings. Wow, that sentence sounds really creepy. It’s a way of life though and if you eat pork, someone had to do it, so I figure why not learn about it. One of my colleagues does it much better as he just puts a little bit of the knife into the perfect spot and twists the knife and it’s just so much more humane.

Anyway, I don’t see the duck killing tonight. I do know from seeing it before that after they catch the blood they immediately start to stir it and add a lot of salt. I think to slow down the coagulation. They also prepared soup and a spicy curry-like dish.

Here’s one of the plates of blood.


This is after people have been eating it, so it doesn’t look so nice. Normally there’s a beautiful bed of greens and peanuts on top. Then there’s a bowl of limes served next to it so you can squirt some line of your spoon full of blood to either add flavor or kill off some of the bad things that’ll make you sick.

Then, like in the picture, people start to eat it and push the stuff around. I had a few bites. I think it’s good! Although I’m a little afraid it’ll turn me into Duckula. Sorry, that was a bad one, I know. The blood tastes a bit spicy, sour from the lime, and more like the other herbs they add then what you’d imagine blood would taste like. The really gross part is that as it sits on the table, it starts to coagulate. You can see the coagulated part on the left and the I part that hasn’t on the right.

It’s strange, but hey people love it here. Or at least the duck blood. The other ones are questionable.

Well, here’s to another spoon full of animal blood.

Hey, What’s in the Bag?

As usual, people trickle into the office in the morning. My seat is in the biggest room in the office, which is also connected to the front door. I like to spend most mornings greeting people and chatting as we all get ready for work.

People will come in with all kinds of weird things and I’ve taken it for granted, just as a normal everyday thing. For some reason this morning some people are huddled in the corner all looking in a bag. I thought if it interests them, I’ll definitely want to see it and hey, why not take a picture too. 

  
It looks like some kind of seed or beans. But, why would that be so interesting. I move in for a closer look…

  
Okay, now it doesn’t look like either, but I still can’t tell. Maybe a rocky soil? I ask Leevong to show me so I can get a closeup look and picture. 

  
They’re some kind of bug that they only know the name of in Lao. As I’m now this close an awful smell wafts up and envelops me. From the smell of it, they’ve been dead for awhile now. 

Khampat, the one who brought them in, takes the bag into the kitchen. Thank the lord because working all day with that smell next to me would not happen.

The grossness only continues from here… About 10 minutes before lunch, Khampat disappears into the kitchen to fry the bugs in oil. It doesn’t make the smell any better and allows it to soil the air throughout the bottom floor of the office. I go in and turn on fans and try to run back out into the other room before passing out. 

Our wonderful lunch of beautiful colors and smells comes and we all sit down to eat with a big plate of the bugs right there next to the actual food.

I get over it and focus on enjoying my food and the rarity of this experience. It’s definitely gross, but it’s something so different from anything I’m used to, so I’m having fun with all these new adventures.

Here a picture of the tasty food I talk about so much.

  
This is lunch for about 10 people. The big bowl with the orange liquid is an amazing local curry. The yellow thing directly below is shredded naw mai… I mean bamboo. I rarely talked about bamboo before coming here, so it just took me a while to remember the name in English. I find that happens a lot for the new experiences and food I have here. It’s kind of cool, except that when I leave here I’ll only be able to talk to myself… Which I do anyway, so nothing’s new. The thing just to the left of the bamboo are glass noodles and chicken. All the rest are combinations of more vegetables and meats than I know how to identify. I do know it’s all delicious and now it’s time to dig in!

The Typical Lao Party

My office recently had a going away ritual for Leslie, our overall manager of country operations and Michael, our new CEO. This same ritual is done for anyone who is leaving on a long trip. It’s also done in the local culture all the time for other important events. It basically symbolizes good luck in the future.

Or at least that’s how it’s “culturally” explained. Maybe some people put a big emphasis on that, but for me and many others, it’s mostly just a big party with all of your closest friends in the same room.

I’m not sure how these things for for other people in Laos, but for our office, no matter the circumstance, there seems to be a strong pattern. It also rings true for all the weddings, school openings, and baby parties I’ve been to outside of our office. I think of it as the Lao version of a house party.

First, everyone waits around on the outer edges of the room as people slowly set up for the ritual part. There’s usually a thing of atrociously fake plastic flowers in the middle of a small round stand, which is all on a large siting mat. Then about 30 minutes past the agreed starting time, everyone’s ready and the people receiving the blessing put a scarf shaped piece of really nice silk material diagonally around their body. We go through the chanting, everyone tries to stay awake, and then after a few minutes everyone gets up to tie white strings around the people’s wrists who are receiving the blessing. A blessing is said when the string is tied. Then some more chanting, before finally the main orchestrator, which is just basically anyone who knows the Pali language part of the ritual, gives the newly blessed people some chicken, rice, local sweets, and a glass of beer. Boom, 20 minutes and it’s all over.

Now people quickly clear away the crap on the floor in the way of us really starting the party.

Long tables are set up and everyone pitches in to bring food evenly spread out along the table. The goal is that everyone will be in reach of every different kind of dish. Yeah, it gets quite crowded.

  Our coworkers made all the food this time. Sometimes we order the food, but it’s no where near as good as when they make it. Everyone’s a chef it seems. The white styrofoam has sticky rice packed inside. I’m not sure who started the fad of the styrofoam, but it seems to be popular at all the parties I’ve seen. The ceranwrap is to keep bugs off the food. That make sense to me at a wedding where there are hundreds of people and some tables might not be occupied for a few hours. Im not sure it’s much more than a deterrent for people starting to eat when used at these small gatherings. Then of course there’s the finishing touches of the toilet paper sitting next to your dinner. Hey, sometimes the food is so good people might want to ignore the call of nature… Probably a bad joke before eating food, but I can’t help it, that’s what they get for leading my mind in that direction.In the flurry of all this, some people have also set up a keyboard, guitar, and a speaker on loud with the knob to increase echo stuck on max. Literally stuck, whenever I turn it down so we can actually understand what they’re saying, it’s almost instantly turned back up. The same is done for speeches.

Everyone digs in and the room is the quietest it will be all night. Even the band is eating, so they just put on a loop of the most basic computerized music you could imagine. People are so occupied, the beer is still in the case, which is quite the statement here.

   

As people stuff the last amounts of food that could possibly fit in their stomachs, there’s a noticeable shift in the atmosphere. Some people start to get up and visit other tables and give cheers to make sure everyone has had their quota of beer. 

  
The gradual change then becomes like the flip of a switch when those bowls with the beer on top is brought out. It signifies the start of the band, loud voices, and most of the people getting out of their seats. It’s also the start of a very fun and somewhat disturbing Lao drinking game.

  
Uh oh more people are catching on and coming over to join in the festivities. Some one reaches in and presses the two bowls together as they shake the contents inside.

  
Then the top is taken off and a skinless chicken head is left there with its beak pointing in a direction. Who ever it points at has to drink a beer and then shake the chicken head to find the next victim.

  
Here’s a closer look at the chicken head. 

  
After the first few times the yelling precedes the chicken heads victim chugging their beer, almost everyone in the room has roamed over to get in on the action. Some are clapping to the, now very loud, music and others are intent on keeping the game and the energy going.

  
Now everyone’s really into it. Whenever the chicken head is revealed people will scream and make sure everyone knows who the victim is. Sometimes it gets close, so these judges are important the the integrity of the chicken head.

  
Our CEO even jumps in. Yup, we have some pretty cool bosses.

  
There’s Khamhoung, the life of every party, determining the next victim.

  
I try to get up close to get another shot of the chicken head and its revealed to be pointing at me! Well, too bad I’m taking two different kinds of antibiotics and loads of Advil. I like my kidneys the way they are thank you.

  
The chicken head game peaks in excient as Leslie starts to shake the head. It’s pointing at Lanoy down there and everyone goes absolutely wild. They have a fun relationship nah up where they tease each other a lot, so it just adds to everything.

  
The excitement dies as fast as it was born and now it’s time for the next part of the oh so common Lao party. The tables are moved to the sides of the room to create a big space in the middle. 

  
Of course for dancing. Some grabs the microphone and starts calling people up to start the first round. All danced are done in rounds with the start and end to each song. The men form a circle on the inside, facing out. The women form one on the outside, facing in. People pair up and give a respectful now to eachother before starting. Then everyone one goes around in the circle and moves their hands in a sort of circle formation, while gently bouncing their bodies. The hand movement are very intricate and something I will never fully understand. Even some Lao people are very bad at doing it. It’s beautiful to see some of the women who has perfected the art.

  
There’s more of the dancing.

  
You can even see the extensive band set up in the back here. Axel, Karins adorable 

  
Then there’s a part where the dancing gets a bit riskay as the men and women make smaller circles and pass through the opposite part where only the opposite sex should be dancing.

  
The dancing continues and then begins to slow down. As expert partiers the Lao people are, they then switch up the dancing style. Now only a few people go to the center of the room and start what I can only partially relate to line dancing. There are a few basic moves that everyone lines up to do. Then more people join as they build confidence. I don’t have any pictures of this part because I was dancing in all the different kinds of those dances. They’re really a blast. Then I find someone to take me home early because my ear is hurting beyond the point where I can still concentrate and enjoy myself. 

I get one more picture on the way out as the rest of the party is beginning to slow finally. 

  

I CAN HEAR AGAIN… Oh Right, Don’t Need to Yell Anymore

After the trip to the meditation center, I got back on Sunday night, ready to start back into work on Monday. I’ll rest for the night and then go to the clinic to get my ears fixed after work on Monday. Some of my colleagues know of a woman who studied medicine in France, otherwise I would go to Thailand…or let me ears rot. There’s no way I’m going to go to any of the local doctors after the mishandling of my friend Gom. This is certainly less serious than his accident, but I wont trust them any where the delicate parts inside of my ear.

I go to the clinic on Monday and it’s packed, so I leave and decide to come back the next day. Same thing on Tuesday! Wednesday I leave work a little bit early and get there ahead of the crowd. She sees me first and as I expected goes to check my ears, but tells me she can’t see anything because they’re blocked. Okay, she’s passed the idiot test, now let’s get on to how we can fix it. She tells me that the inner parts of my ear are red and she thinks that they’re infected. She pulls out the ear instrument and shows me the “puss” that came out of my ear. I’m no doctor, but I definitely know what ear wax looks like… I’m glad I have my mom to ask for advice with all of this stuff. Everything I’ve read online said that the big signs of infected ears are pain or discharge of fluid, which I have neither of. I tell her I don’t want to take antibiotics, but just want my ears flushed. She says that she can’t do that there and just to take the antibiotics. She says if it’s not better by the end of the week she will personally take me to the hospital and get it sorted out. I appreciate her offer, but I’m sticking to my guns on not seeing any local doctors here. It’s out of the question.

I take her medicine and Andrea, my boss, suggests to go to the local children’s hospital and see if they have just a few minutes to irrigate my ear. It’s the only place in town with foreign doctors. I head there and wrestle with people for a few hours before the Australian doctor comes out to talk to me. Everyone was telling me they only treat children there. Yeah well if they don’t listen to me, then I’m going to start acting like a child, so they better just help me now. He finally comes out and listens to me patiently. He then tells me they don’t do ear irrigation there and I’ll have to go to another foreign trained doctor in town. He also tells me to stay away from the local doctors here at the hospital. I thank him and then leave to call his lead. As I’m leaving I stick my tongue out at the people who were giving me a hard time to prove to them my maturity level is far below most of their patients.

The number doesn’t work… Brainstorming at home I realize that some of my colleagues are in Sweden, so I ask them to bring me a home irrigation kit. They’ll be home just after the weekend. Wonderful, I feel so relieved. Also after some debates with my mom I finally cave and start to take the antibiotics, despite not having any signs of needing them.

I get the medicine Monday morning at work and rush home to try it out. It works like a charm, I can finally hear again! It’s been about three weeks of constant cloggage and it feels so strange to have them unclogged. I feel like everything I’m doing is too loud. It rains the next morning on my way to work, but luckily stops before I start to walk. It’s amazing to be able to hear everything on my walk again so clearly. After I get through the market part of my walk, I’m walking through a more bushy area and all of the insects and frogs sound like a symphony playing beautiful music to my every step. I’m in total amazement at the sounds that I have taken for granted for so long and will soon take or granted again. It’s nice to have this little wake up call though.

The idiot that I am, I stop taking the antibiotics short of the week because, like I said before, there are no signs of infection from what I read on the internet and the internet is always right!

Thursday rolls around… and as everyone everyone has already probably guessed, except for me, I get a mild pain in my ear, but ignore it and concentrate on how the busy schedule at work. Walking home that evening it gets worse. Then at about 7:30 as I’m winding down for the night, it gets even worse. I call the doctor I saw before and go to see her. Feeling like an idiot for stopping the antibiotics I go in to her office with an embarrassed look on my face. She lectures me, twice, about stopping the regiment. Then she looks in my ear and to prove her brilliance, declares she can see everything. Gosh, she is really amazing isn’t she? Then she gives me stronger antibiotics and tells me to take them.

Friday, the next day, my ears get bad again during the daytime. They get even worse at night, and peak right before I go to bed. I take two 200mg ibuprofen pills before getting home, take too more before I go to bed, and then after a few hours of sleepless agony, I take another two pills. I also get in the shower and try to flush my ears again, thinking something is in there. With no luck, I finally dull the pain enough to pass out.

Now, up to this morning, on Saturday, the pain comes right back and makes it really difficult to focus on anything. Worried that a Men in Black alien is in my ear and about to take over my brain, I call Andrea. She says that we’ll probably have to go to Bangkok to get it dealt with if it doesn’t get better by the morning. I call my mom because she has more experience selling these drugs then that doctor, who studied in Oz, has been alive. My worry is deflated when she tells me that I have an outer infection in my ear and I just need to take drops to cure it. Now, I’m going to search all over the city to find those drops so I can stop this excruciating pain. This pain is much worse than any ailments I had when I was in Ghana, including the Malaria.

So, things I’ve learned from doing just about everything wrong (However, I don’t actually know anything about this and am the worst example you could follow, so don’t actually take this advice, or if you do, only claim it was from me if it worked):

  • If you’re going to flush your ears to clean the wax, use a drying agent to dry up the moisture deep in your ear. That is one of the main causes of the infection I have.
  • Even if a doctor is claimed to be good and has studied in some magical place, check with more people about their advice.
  • Maybe the most obvious one of all, don’t stop taking your antibiotics, even if you thought you started them for no reason.
  • If you are taking pain medication at a high dose, without being prescribed, take Ibuprofen because taking too high a dose of Tylenol could do permanent damage to your liver (like I said, don’t follow this advice, just use it as one of your many references)
  • Lastly, the aliens from Men and Black clearly aren’t going to stay in your ears… They have much smarter people to inhabit.

A Much Needed Rant, Practice in My Room, and a Speech in Lao

This morning I have coffee wit my neighbor again. The crazy-eyed old man is sitting there with us as well. I catch a few words about him talking about practicing inside a room. He’s so defensive it’s palpable. Defensiveness is only going to make me pick it apart further, so it’s not helping his case. I stop listening to him and just focus on the sounds of the morning. That’s one great thing about not being that great at Lao, is that when I don’t want to try hard to translate, it’s easy to zone out when someone is talking.

The morning session goes by fine as usual. The overly talkative woman is leading it and even with the morning routines, she’s talking way more than the other leaders did the previous mornings. I was thinking about how ridiculous it is that she talks through all the exercises where we’re supposed to be building mindfulness. I see this like being in class, let’s say learning math. We’re all trying to learn a new concept and after listening to the lecture, we get some exercises to try ourselves. When we’re working through new problems, the teacher is up at the front of class lecturing about the theory of math and how it is could help you in your daily life. Well, that’s great at a different time, but how are we supposed to solve a new problem, if we’re not given the space to think about it.

This woman has got me in the mood, so I feel like this is a good time for a rant… I’ve been here for a week anyway, so it’s about time I talk about how they’re doing it all wrong: Every morning, we chant about consuming food in moderation, but if you look at the teachers, most of them are overweight to the point of being very unhealthy. They’re not like a naturally large person, who might be big, but still exercises and is in good health. This is proven to me when we do morning exercises, which isn’t much more vigorous than simple arm waving and body rotations. Some of the teachers have to pause because they’re so out of breath. It’s somehow similar to Tai Chi, so I can understand if it makes them warm and a little sweaty, but swinging their arm around like a windmill shouldn’t make them pant. I’m not against anyone here being fat, but why are the leaders then telling the audience how they should live their life differently, if those teachers aren’t even living the way their preaching. Also, how are they going to teach something as wholesome as spirituality, if they can’t even get their outer health in order.

We also talk a lot about equanimity, which basically means loving everyone the same amount. This is one that has bothered me in every organized Buddhist group that I’ve taken part. Every organized practice I’ve been apart of, we do bowing three times, to the Buddha, the Dharmma, and the Sangha. I think the special homage it these things still fits within the equanimity. The Buddha is inside of everyone and everything and can be realized by everyone. So we’re basically worshiping something that is inside of all of us. The Dharma, which is the path laid out by the Buddha, can be followed by anyone. The Sangha is specifically those people along our path who help us to progress spiritually. That could even be interpreted as the people doing bad things giving us lessons on how to live the right way, so that pretty much involves everyone we come in contact with. For me, all three of those make sense and I think are wonderful things to pay special attention. BUT, this place also adds two more bows for our teachers and for our parents. Aaalright, this is where things start to get a bit fuzzy for me. First of all, teachers and parents should be included in our chant for the Sanha, so we’re technically bowing to them twice. I could do the famous George Carlin routine where I narrow all these separate commandments down to one, but I’ll let them keep the first three. The added two are in trouble though. Okay, I also think that back to the equanimity thing that we shouldn’t pay special attention to our teachers, if we’re also going to preach generating equal feeling toward all. That goes hand in hand with the second extra bowing to parents. Don’t get me wrong I love my parents and I’m not sure if I could feel equanimity between them and other people, but I’m also not the one all hyped up about this equanimity thing. I guess my point about all of this is that I understand paying extra respects to special people in our lives who really help us above and beyond others and I also buy into the idea of trying to love every person, but I think it should be updated so two really large parts of the practice aren’t contradicting each other.

With everything that I’ve learned about Buddhism these contradictions come up and makes me wonder how I could ever follow such a practice. Before I got so deeply immersed in Buddhism I always understood it as a kind of add-on religion and one that you might be able to take piece from. Well, sorry to say, but if people take piece from them and don’t follow the others, then they’re not considered to be Buddhist here. Once someone gets involved enough to regularly go to the temple and join in these group chants, then they’re repeating and agreeing to what they’re chanting. I don’t see anyone go there and then for the reincarnation part sit to the side because they don’t want to pick that part to practice. No, it’s just like every other organized religious group, when you’re in, you’re in the whole thing. Naturally, when I get in, I start to look around and then I start to notice things that don’t make any sense. Instead of becoming complacent, I ask questions and then get nipped at. That means that I’m either going to stay there and rattle the cage or I’m going to get out and find something else that makes me more comfortable.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have great respect for Buddhism and all other religions, but like every religion I’ve ever investigated, they have the stench of people’s egos. I also still have immense respect for those people who can be apart of these religious groups and ignore the parts I can’t seem to get around and try their best to use those groups as their vehicle to being a good person. I think that’s much harder than my approach and I’ll never turn my nose up to it. It’s just different. I really think all of it’s wonderful, but with that said, I’m not going to miss an opportunity to poke fun at any approach, including my own.

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, breakfast is over and my plan is to practice on my own during the two middle sessions of the day and then join everyone at the session at the end of the day. I’m kind of excited to see people’s reactions at my plan, especially that crazy-eyed old man. I don’t normally like to rattle the cage for no reason, but maybe this will help someone jump outside of their box for a bit and at the very least it will let me practice in a more conducive way for my own predispositions.

IMG_0852

Also, of course in the middle of meditation I thought, “oh, I have to get a picture of that!” I’m having way too much fun exploring this new photography thing. I’ve always thought it would be interesting, but never knew I would enjoy it this much. I’ll be really excited to keep developing my skills as I go through China.

The sessions on my own go well. I’m starting to let it sink really deep with the meaning of quality practice. More and more I’m able to look at my effort and understand when I’m not really trying, but instead just sitting there letting the time go by. Noting substantial came from those sitting sessions, other than a clear understanding of how I need to change my practice going forward. I’m also okay with not making big strides with my meditation. I know that this will be something I will stick with for the long haul, so it is more important for me now to set up something that I can sustain and keep holding myself accountable for making those small bits of progress. The most difficult part of that is that after each of those bits, nothing really has changed. It can be really disheartening, until I will someday understand that thousands of those little progressions will then lead up to having the kind of understanding of life that I’m looking for.

This is my last night here and everyone knows. I told everyone already that I’m leaving in the morning, so there’s no surprise. Apparently Saturday is also a big day when people from outside come to chant and meditate, so there are probably close to 400 people in the meditation hall. I sit up front as usual with my neighbor. He tells me that I should go up and speak in front of everyone to tell them how this place has helped me and how I feel now. I kind of laugh it off not thinking that is a normal thing to do. Most people who go up to the front seem like they’re talking about issues in their life and asking people to pray for them. During the meditation part one of the teachers at the front reads something off of a paper and then says my Lao name, Boonme, and then asks me if that’s actually my name. He goes back to talking some more and then my neighbor goes up front. Now, I’m realizing that I’ll actually be up there next, I start to plan what I’m going to say. They have translators, but there’s no way I’m going to miss this opportunity to speak Lao in front of all these people. It’s probably bigger than any crowd I’ve given a speech in English, let alone a language I have just barely over a conversational grasp with. I use it in work meetings quite a bit, but that also involves a lot of hand waving and probably a very crude use of the language. The people up here use much fancier language, which I have learned, but haven’t had time to practice.

My neighbor is done and then they tell me it’s my time. I go up there and do the three prostrations to the Buddha statue. I don’t if that’s right because he says something about me doing it and laughs, but I’d rather do slightly too much, then not enough. I turn around and grab the microphone and begin to address the crowd…. The mic isn’t working! He tells me I need to switch it on first. Was that the Lao version of a prank or am I just that much of an idiot? I’ll go for the idiot. My plan is to throw in little jokes and lead up to one big finale punch line, that might be a little risky, but again, there’s no way I can miss this opportunity. I start by greeting everyone and then introducing myself with the flowery formal language. I guess it’s also a way to sound like I have more humility in front of the religious setting. People already start giggling and I can see people trying to adjust themselves to get a better look. People are supposed to have their eyes closed and meditate, but that’s all gone out the door. I thank everyone for me being there and allowing me to stay. I tell everyone how long I’ve been here and how I’ve felt in the beginning and middle. I slip in some more silly words that I learned in the office in those descriptions and get people to continuously giggle through the whole thing. I’m also thinking that there’s a huge chance that they’re just giggling at how funny I sound and that no one can actually understand me. I also keep forgetting to use the proper language, so I’m reverting back to the normal way, which here apparently makes me sound full of my self. Well, I suppose that a bit true, so what the hell. Then I work my way through the experience and tell them that after all this work and effort “I feel”… then I pause for a second and look around the room… “like my legs really hurt”. Okay, that was clearly much funnier in my head, but hey I got some extra giggles. Then I tell them that I’m just joking and go back to being serious the rest of the speech, thanking them again for taking care of me and being wonderful people. I was trying to lighten up the room and not make my speech as serious as 100% of the people who come up here who look like they’re going to cry or scream. I suppose this is a pretty serious thing though and I hope I’m not going to hell for making some fun. It’s okay, I’ll be able to sleep well knowing I went through with it and made a few hundred people laugh. Once again, I love doing things in a second language because it makes me so much more charming and funny than I could ever be in English. I take no credit for that and give it all to being an awkward white man.

The rest of the session flew by and then it was time to go to sleep for the last time at this place. That’s a lot easier than it sounds. Every other night I fell asleep almost before my head hit the pillow, but tonight I’ve been up for a few hours with sleepiness nowhere in sight. It’s probably a combination of the excitement from the speech and knowing I’ll be traveling tomorrow.

Practicing on My Own, Crazy Eyed Old Man, Too Much Talking

I wake up a few times throughout the night, still fearing the possibility of sleeping through my alarm.

After a quick shower my neighbor calls me over to have some coffee and tea. I like hanging around him the most because we talk a little bit when we feel like it and then just sit there in silence. I really enjoy that and I think it’s something that my generation feels is a bad thing.

We go to the session and my legs are still a bit ouchy from yesterday, so I try to take it easy to make sure I make it through all the sessions today. I’m thinking about just resting during one of the afternoon sessions.  The session went fine, but still not back to that same level of relaxation. I do get to the point where one of my dreams comes rushing right back to my memory, as clear as yesterday’s lunch (I have much better of food than most things). That’s also something strange that’s happened to me ever since I first started meditation and I’m not sure exactly why or if there’s any significance there. For some reason, with out trying, when I first start to meditate well (whatever that actually means), dreams will fly back as if I just remembered that I need to do an errand.

Breakfast is nice because I sit with the older people as usual (they talk less while eating and I like that) and after they get up no one joins me again. I’m not against socializing, but it’s really nice to get a break and eat a meal by myself. Especially since I’m treated like a celebrity here.

The session after breakfast is normal, but my legs are still hurting quite a bit. I guess that’s what I get for practicing a religion in a country that is mostly used to sitting on the floor. The floor sitting culture is changing a bit now, but the older generations, especially those who haven’t been exposed to much outside of Laos, don’t understand why everyone doesn’t have the same flexibility as them.

At lunch I decide that I’m going to rest in my room during the next session and then join everyone again after dinner for the evening session with the long sitting meditation. I return back to my room and lock it from the inside. Now there’s only me and this very distracted mind of mine. I start just by lying down and letting my body rest. Before long, I start to drift, probably mostly because of the meal I just ate, so I get up and stretch a bit. Then I bring a chair into the room and meditate there for awhile. I take out my phone and listen to a few dharma talks before going back to the chair. From there Im fully awake, so I can lie on the ground without any sleepiness. I keep doing this in a cyclical pattern and really try to understand the process that happens from when I’m “in the moment” to when I’m lost in my thoughts. It’s a battle, but I begin to relax to the point where I can feel the tightness in my chest again. I can feel it exactly where my heart is in my chest. The three hours fly by and I can hear people outside, so that must mean it’s time for dinner. I feel relaxed, but nothing else noticeable. I’m happy with the progress I’ve made and I think the relaxation is an essential first step, so that’s all I expected.

Then, when I get to the food hall I  really notice a subtle difference I couldn’t before. I feel just slightly lighter and more relaxed than I did, even just at breakfast. Even talking to people I feel a light, but steady confidence I didn’t feel before. This is the kind of response I look for from meditation. Feelings like this tell me I’m doing the right thing and makes me want to continue. I’m not expecting to levitate or read people’s minds, but I am expecting some kind of positive feedback and this feeling is exactly what I’m looking for.

Walking back from lunch I see my neighbor and greet him as I pass. A few feet away, one of the other old guys who I see at my neighbors drinking coffee a lot says he didn’t see me in the meditation hall. I told him I was practicing in my room. They didn’t quite understand my Lao, so my neighbor walks closer to join the conversation. Then they get what I said and the old guys demeanor completely changes as he turns into a crazy eye (quite literally, I didn’t know if he was looking at me or if I was even addressing me), mean old man. I look back at my neighbor and I catch a smirk on his face that looked like he was thinking “oh great, here we go again”. My neighbor then started walking back to his hut. My ability to read his reaction was something profoundly deep I can’t quite explain. I think it’s really funny when sometimes I meet people and without really even knowing them for long, I feel so connected to them. If was trying to find any empirical evidence to point toward reincarnation that would be the one I’d use. I felt like just in the look he gave, we just had a conversation and I completely understood what he was trying to get across to me.

The crazy old man keeps talking to me and tells me I should go to the meditation hall to practice. I tell him that I understand, but my legs hurt and I want to sit in a chair in my room to rest my legs. As if my words were just the passing wind, he keeps repeating himself about the meditation hall being the source of feeling good. I find it impossible to have a reasonable discussion with religious people like this. I’ve found these types of people in America, Ghana, and here. I guess anywhere there are religious groups there’ll be religious nuts. The part that bothers me is that these people are then around long enough to become respected leaders (like this crazy eyed guy talking to me now) and then take younger, more impressionable people to spread their ideologies. As if I needed another, this is just more reassurance that not joining a religion is the correct path for me.

The nighttime session was frustrating again because that same damn woman from last night would stop talking during the whole meditation. We constantly chant about restraining ourselves and talking is listed as one of the big parts. She’s breaking the precept right in front of everyone, RIGHT AFTER saying them together with everyone. Okay okay, I could also see the arguement that she’s just giving guidance in the form of a Dharma talk. That’s fine, but the talk doesn’t have to be for an hour and I think there should be some time of silence to absorb it all. Meditation is also hard enough trying to control my own mental chatter, it doesn’t help for this woman to be adding another level of difficulty. Time finally gives in the theunrelenting woman and we all leave for sleep. I get back and pass out immediately.

An Old Batting Lesson, On the Rise

 I wake up on my own about 15 minutes before my alarm, worried that I slept through it again. I adjusted the volume and added my iPhone asbackup. 

Even though I was only lightly sleeping in fear of missing the alarm again, I get up feeling pretty good. After a shower, my neighbor calls me over for coffee and tea. He has some other friends already over there. He likes to make me a cup of the instant packet coffee and a cup of his tea. He thinks the tea clears the palate I suppose. I’m not sure if it’s the generosity of him and his friends or the tinsy bit of coffee, but I get into the morning session feeling better than I have the whole time. 

During the session there are no realizations or breakthroughs, but just little progress of pushing myself a bit harder to deal with the distractions of my mind. I really feel like that’s what meditation is all about (not that I actually know at all about how it’s successful), instead of being about whatever most people tell me to do. I hear the same thing over and over again: “Watch your breath, focus on your sensation, watch your emotions.” I think that’s all part of it, but totally missing the point of why were told to watch those things. Watching those things might cause wonderful feelings if done correctly, but I can’t believe they’ll help in the longrun or at all when real life hits. I believe the most important part is about dealing with resistance. Will I let something tighten me up or will I stay loose and let it flow by. I can be mindful of something as it happens and be either tight and resistant or loose and accepting. I believe being mindful of something is the final step. My latest thesis is that the real difficult part of this journey and where the real change comes from is how I react to that distraction when it comes up. Then, I can continue watching it and understanding its nature.

That takes me to the session following breakfast where I get back to that level of relaxation I had in the temple in Thailand. (Temple here also means monastery) I know because I can feel that subtle tightness in my chest that underlies my daily life of distraction. I get there by remembering what Bill, my old batting coach, would tell me. I swear he has been more help than all the readings and spiritual leaders I’ve learned about. He basically just told me to relax and swing the bat. His instructions were simple and left so much personal adjustment to me. I would do what he said and hit the ball hard into the net. He would respond everytime, “nope, you didn’t relax”. At first it was funny and then it got frustrating because he kept saying the same thing, even though I was hitting the ball well. It’s almost as if he knew somehow the inner working of my body and could tell I was still holding tension. After him continually nagging me, I finally, in spite of him, relax so much I thought the bat might fly out of my hand, just to show him his instructions are ridiculous and counterintuitive. The result of my “over relaxation” was actually a perfect snapping line drive right down the middle. Which in baseball terms (at least the old-school style when everyone wasn’t steroided up) is the perfect hit. Bill just sat there with his arrogant, but well earned, grin on his face. My dad and I were giddy with excitement after the lesson and often still bring that up today. I’ll never forget that moment for as long as I live. 

Again and again, I keep relearning that lesson. I’m still so resistant to it because I still believe in some ways it’s preposterous. I’ve been stuck on the thought “If I’m going to do something I’ve got to try hard and push through it!”. Everything I’ve learned from school and my culture and even meditation teachers have reinforced the same thing. I remembered that batting lesson today and it brings me further into the meditation to feel that very subtle tightness in my chest. I know I hold onto things and have an issue with letting them go, but it’s much different knowing that and being able to feel where it’s all stored. The feeling is especially emphasized when I know that same stress is the cause of the heart disease that runs in my family. 

It’s time for lunch already, but I feel good now having made a tiny bit of progress and having Bill on my shoulder for the next few days.

The part about all of this that makes me want to scream, is that for the next two sessions I didn’t get back to that same level of progress. By the night session, my legs were done and I was defeated and frustrated. I almost got up and walked out when one of the teachers wouldn’t stop talking through the microphone. She wasn’t even doing a guided meditation, just repeating the exact same stuff about living life that we literally just chanted about as a group. I did make it the whole time and immediately went back and passed right out.

   
 It’s been overcast or a little rainy everyday. I’m happy for that because otherwise it’s really hot and humid.