Dreams of a Beached Cow

It was a dream — waking up and going to sleep to the slap of ocean waves, over-hydrating on fruit juices and cocktails, roasting under the sun next to thonged Russians, and silent disco-ing until dawn. It was a dream I was not at all ready to wake up from.

My last 10 days in India were spent on the beautiful crescent beach of Palolem in Goa, living in a beach hut 50 meters from the Arabian Sea. It was the epitome of relaxation and laziness, but also of rest and appreciation. Rest from the past 6 weeks of moving from city to city with a giant backpack. And appreciation of the coconut trees that lined the beach from one end to the other, the moon that glistened and lit our path home every night, the young chatty seasonal workers that came down to Goa for 6 months and up to Ladakh for another 6, the dogs that lounged by day and loyally guarded their territories by night, the sea of attractive half naked European men, and most of all, appreciation of how privileged I am to have had 10 days as a beached cow.

a beached cow

Every evening, Feven and I watched the sun set between two islands. By then, the moon would already be hanging above us, ushering us into yet another night of sipping down cocktails and dancing, before the sun would rise again to warn us that dreams were not forever.
I wish I had taken more photos, but when you live somewhere, you don’t feel the need to capture what you see everyday in photos. That teal hut, with its maroon walls, tarp ceiling, and cracked floorboards, was my home; I lived there. And that stretch of beach was my backyard. Waking up just before noon to walk a few meters to Royal Touch for brunch before finding my beach umbrella a few feet further, and a few feet from the Arabian Sea, was my morning routine. Around sunset Feven and I discussed where to have market price fish tandoori — at the movies or right on the beach? By nightfall, we were dancing the night away with the Swedish folks that apparently frequent Palolem. Following this routine forever might get redundant, but another month wouldn’t have hurt. Not one bit.
 
I am now as dark as the Cadbury chocolate bars Feven and I ate once a day as fuel to keep going. I am also peeling, writhing out of my old skin and into a new, refreshed and wiser skin. Whenever I look into the mirror and see nothing but the white around my pupils and bikini-covered areas, I think of all the purely good fun I had in Goa. I am also reminded that no dream is ever too big, that if you wanted to be a beached cow for 10 days in Goa, you can make it happen.

The People You Meet

You know when you meet people who, when you part, make you think Wow, he or she was just so awesome, and you know that in many years you will still remember him or her even if your time together was as short as a hour-long conversation? I felt that way about many people during my travels through Nepal. And as I travel more and more, I have come to realize that it’s the people that shape my memory of a place.

In my last post, I mentioned Bika, the 16 year-old henna artist who dreams of moving abroad and the German farmer, who arrived with only the clothes on his back, some books, a sleeping bag and plans to walk around Nepal for 4 months. And then there was an American nurse volunteering in a clinic in East Nepal with so much random knowledge, and a Texan practicing-Buddhist (but not a Buddhist), who has been on the road for the past 2 years carrying 2 small backpacks. In Pokhora, Feven and I spent a perfect day around town with a British lad, whose eyebrows raised 2 inches above his eyes every time he laughed at my corny jokes. He was so laid back and nonjudgmental it was comfortable to just be. In fact, it felt comfortable to just be with all of these people.

While sitting around a fire 1,700 meters in the mountains on New Year’s Eve, Feven and I met a Nepali guide from the Everest region. In just a span of an hour, this man named Kami taught us about Buddhism through his personal experiences and about the peaceful co-existence of Buddhism and Hinduism in Nepal (meanwhile, the Hindu guesthouse owner sat with us listening to Kami’s stories). He said that sometimes while listening to the teachings of lamas, he would be moved to tears, which subsequently moved me to tears. His passion and faith shined through his personal stories, and never did he preach to us about his religion, but rather shared, in every sense of the word, a significant part of his life with us, complete strangers.
If all the people I mentioned walked down the street together, onlookers would be sure to wonder what on earth could bring such different individuals together? We’d be a funny lookin’ bunch! This, by the way, is the problem, and it is a problem I have carried until this trip. Before meeting them, I had made preconceived judgements about each person; European with long hair and an earring? Hippie. Hip Brit with nice clothes? Snob. Nepali henna artist? Scam artist. It only took a few minutes to realize how wrong I was about each and every one of them, and worst of all, how judgmental am (was…). It is neither cliche nor an understatement to say that everyone is unique, because they truly are. It just takes a little time to get to know an individual.

All these people above taught me something valuable about life. I can’t pinpoint exactly what those things are, but what I learned about them and from them as individuals–their unselfishness, openness, generosity, kindness and universalism–impacted me in a large way, edging me to self-reflect and think about what it means to be human. Who knows if I’ll ever see these people again–some more likely than others–but no matter, they are instilled in my memory, and I thank them for making Nepal as special and memorable as it was.


How do you do, Kathmandu!

I am sitting on a rooftop in Varanasi, India, inhaling dust and chai, and reminiscing my time in Nepal. In just 10 short days, I learned so much from so many different people from all walks of life. I still can’t believe what a thoroughly awesome experience Nepal was. A big chunk of that owes to the fact that all the Nepali people I came across were genuinely kind, open-hearted and so full of life, and I felt welcomed.

Feven and I arrived in Nepal with absolutely no expectations but the eagerness to be out of Beijing. We had done little research on the country as the bulk of our travels this winter would be spent in India; Nepal was just a stopover. We obtained our luggage and visas within 30 minutes on arrival in the unlit immigration hall. It was a breeze. Little did we know this would reflect our next 10 days in Nepal.

Durbar Square

We exited the airport already with a new friend, a German farmer, and together were greeted by a rush of enthusiastic taxi and tuktuk drivers. There also happened to be a fiery red sun setting over the mountain across from where we stood. We stepped into a miniature cab to take us into the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu, down narrow lanes, past goats, past barefoot children and elders, past a zillion signs advertising language and study abroad programs in countries from Japan to Latvia.

Our hostel was located right outside Thamel, a maze-like neighborhood lined with souvenir and trekking shops for tourists. One could not walk down the skinny lanes without nearly getting run over by motorbikes, nor without receiving offers of hashish. We settled on Thakali Thali (dal baht) for dinner at “Kathmandu’s best Thakali House”, one of several million; a curry, dal baht (lentils), stir-fried green, pickles, and a heap of rice served on a large round metal tray. The highlight of this dish came with the unexpected second-helping of each item, including another helping of white rice. All-you-can-eat, no complaints here!

On our second day in Kathmandu, the German farmer, an American volunteer nurse, plus Feven and I headed towards Boudhanath, a beautiful and holy white Buddhist stupa to which devout followers make their pilgrimage from mountains away. There were little and old monks chanting, and men and women from different countries prostrating under Buddha’s eyes, or walking clock-wise around the stupa spinning the prayer wheels. Tibetan prayer flags stretched from every corner to the tower of the stupa, adding color to the otherwise simple structure.

Boudhanath

A surprising but lovely fact about Boudhanath, and I realized reflected in Nepali society in general, was that regardless of it being a Buddhist temple, Hindus and Buddhists alike worshipped together. There was a small section at the entrance of the stupa with Hindu gods and decorations. Earlier we had passed a temple with a sign that read, “Followers of all faiths welcome.” And at the Royal Palace Museum we saw signs that labeled resting areas not for the disabled, but for the “differentlyabled.” How inclusive and loving to all! That explains another sign I read on the mountain during my trek in the Annapurnas–N-E-P-A-L: Never Ending Peace And Love. Amen sister.

One evening, on our way home after a 10-hour stroll in Kathmandu, we were approached by a super outgoing Nepali girl. Her name was Bika, she was 16, supposedly spoke 20 languages, including perfect Chinese, English and German, and was a henna artist by trade. She was also HILARIOUS. At first, I was cautious of being “too friendly” in case she turned out to just want our money (which happened a lot in Sri Lanka). But after a few laughs, she just handed us her hand-made business card and told us to call her if we ever wanted henna done. We bumped into her again on the following night, and this time I did get henna done. Alas’, overpriced, but so worth it.

Bika had joined me and a group of other travelers for dinner, but she was noticeably uncomfortable. At one point, I asked her if she wanted to study abroad someday since she spoke so many languages. She said she would love to go to Australia or China. I gave her my contact information and told her to contact me if she ever did come to China. During this exchange, I noticed that her eyes got watery, and she became quiet and subdued and didn’t look up at me or laugh as she usually did. I couldn’t help but feel sad for her, wondering if her fate had been predetermined.

Humanity for Sale

The last moments in Kathmandu were spent on the balcony of our hostel, chatting about life. We came from Germany, China, America, Ethiopia, Israel and England, but something brought each of us to Nepal, and we would each leave with something unique and special to us. For me, I left Nepal with the reminder of what humanity is, or at least what it ought to be. I’ll have to save the elaboration in another post, as well as the stories from other parts of Nepal I visited.


What is Happenning in Istanbul?

Originally posted on İnsanlik Hali:

To my friends who live outside of Turkey:

I am writing to let you know what is going on in Istanbul for the last five days. I personally have to write this because at the time of my writing most of the media sources are shut down by the government and the word of mouth and the internet are the only ways left for us to explain ourselves and call for help and support.

Last week of May 2013 a group of people most of whom did not belong to any specific organization or ideology got together in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Among them there were many of my friends and yoga students. Their reason was simple: To prevent and protest the upcoming demolishing of the park for the sake of building yet another shopping mall at very center of the city. There are numerous shopping malls in Istanbul, at least…

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Sunshiney Day

It’s one of those days where everything is dandy and not necessarily coming up roses, but pretty yellow weeds.

My view

The sun is up, the sky is blue, the pollen content is off the charts, the wind is strong and all the girls (including me) have to hold down their skirts because they didn’t wear the right underwear today.

I’m enjoying a very romantic moment by myself, waiting for my department’s International Friendship Day Picnic (yes, do laugh at this!), sitting in a little park on campus next to running water from a man-made pond, pondering the meaning of friendship and wondering if there will be enough food at the picnic. 

What a perfect afternoon…

**SNEEZE** 


Two Weeks in Malaysia and Sri Lanka

These past two weeks of island-hopping in Malaysia and scrambling around in Sri Lanka felt like months I had been out of China. Now I have returned to Beijing tanned and exhausted, but still, good times never last long enough. 

First stop: Malaysia

Feven and I spent a week on two islands in Malaysia — Pulau Penang and Langkawi. Islanders everywhere are generally Bob-Marley-loving, friendly people, but I felt it was especially true in Malaysia. Locals were surprisingly gracious to foreigners; they smiled, they were willing to give directions, and most satisfyingly, they didn’t give “tourist prices” (at least not that I was aware of). Best of all, Penang with its array of cuisines was absolute heaven for a food-junkie like myself. Let’s just say I’m all curried out…

One of the best things about traveling is meeting new people and being totally incapsulated by their stories as well as their ability to drop everything and travel for months and even years. Feven and I met a group of backpackers in Malaysia which consisted of 7 people (including us) from 7 different countries with diverse backgrounds and personalities. But the desire to see the world brought us together, squeezed in a car, touring Langkawi, enjoying one another’s companies and the island’s relatively untainted natural landscape. 

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The most unforgettable site was 700 meters high up in the mountains (thank goodness for cable cars) watching the sun set over an island in Thailand, and then getting engulfed by clouds. 

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As soon as Feven and I arrived back in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, to catch our flight to Sri Lanka, the contrast between the bustling city and the chilled island life was scarily drastic. But I suppose that’s true all over the world. 

Next stop: Sri Lanka 

Eight days was not nearly enough to see all that I wanted to see in this tiny island country. Between ancient cities, wildlife, the hill country, tea plantations, and beaches, Feven and I made tough choices to squeeze in as much as we possibly could. That resulted in cutting most hikes out and breezing down to Unawatuna beach for a couple days of rest and relaxation before returning to reality. 

Sri Lanka was an interesting experience for me and a particularly tiring one. I thought the Chinese were bad when it came to haggling, but OH MY WORD Sri Lankans were 10x worse!!! Unlike Malaysia, everything was at tourist prices, even the so-called “local prices.” Don’t even get me started on tuk-tuk drivers who depend on commission and will take you anywhere except where you asked to go. 

Most of the people we came across were men, usually because they worked as tour guides, in the guesthouses, as tuk-tuk drivers. Very rarely did women speak to us, and those who did could not speak much English. At first, the persistent haggling drove me to the point where I did not want to speak with any local men because I couldn’t trust them (i.e. our hotel manager insisted that we avoid the southern coast because of flooding and heavy rains and suggested we head over to Trimcomalee in the northeast instead, but we arrived to sunshine and perfect waves in Unawatuna; the ticket salesman at the train station sold us tickets at 100 rupees more than the listed price; a “monk” brought me and Feven to the altar and pressured us to donate money; on and on and on). Later, I relaxed and began to find their ridiculous schemes quite laughable. Simply ignoring them helped too. 

I think Sri Lanka is in an awkward in-between phase of increasing tourism and lagging infrastructure to host. It was awesome to be able to travel from place to place on public transportation with the locals at (mostly) local prices, but once I, the tourist, arrived at a popular tourist site, I’d pay up to sometimes 200 more than the local counterpart for admission. Of course it is wonderful that locals should not have to pay ridiculous admission fees to visit places within their own country, but when I’m ushered to the booth that says “Tickets for Foreigners”, am told to pay 2000 rupees to enter Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage when the Sri Lankan at the local booth paid 100, am tricked into paying another 1000 rupees to the staff who just offered to take my photo with the elephants, and then spot the “Foreigners Only” restroom…well, talk about segregation! 2000 rupees, or $15, is not a lot, but it adds up and worst of all, it gives you a feeling that it is unfair to have to give significantly more just for being a foreigner. And that in turn might drive (poorer/backpacking) visitors away in the long run.

On a positive note, there were parts of Sri Lanka that were absolutely stunning (including the elephant orphanage)!

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If there’s one thing I loved most about Sri Lanka it would be the train rides, particularly the one along the southwestern coast. Just like in the movies, I rode those trains hanging out the doorletting the salty wind sweep up my bangs. It was a glorious feeling. Even when I got an orange thrown at me from a group of boys hanging by the train tracks. 

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Unawatuna, a beach town off the southern coast of the island, was the perfect place to end our Sri Lanka adventure. Feven and I stayed in a fancy little hotel called Banana Garden at one end of the U-shaped beach, literally right on the water during high tide. Thanks to monsoon season, we were the only guests and we felt like royalty! It was such a wonderful stay that I left them a good review on Trip Advisor! Waking up and falling asleep to the sound heavy ocean waves felt like a dream that I didn’t want to wake up from. But alas, all good things come to an end. 

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It’s difficult for me to sum up how I feel about Sri Lanka. I guess it’s somewhat of a love-hate relationship (hate the incessant haggling, love the natural beauty) but if I ever have the chance to go back, I would definitely say yes because there is SOOO much more to see. 

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The China Train

To sum up what I’ve learned in less than two semesters of grad school in China; Studying development in a (developing) country where censorship, hypocrisy and saving-face are embedded in daily life is like falling asleep on the 1 train from Manhattan headed to Brooklyn, only to find out when you wake up that you’re back in Times Square because in fact, the 1 train doesn’t go to Brooklyn at all — the 2 and 3 do, but they’re on the all red line. Basically, the ride was a big fat waste of time and in the end, you end up where you started but angrier.

Here’s the thing about studying development in China; it’s paradoxical. “Chinese Development”, synonymous with economic growth, means only one thing: increase of wealth. But who does the wealth belong to? Let’s sweep that question under the table…

I’m currently taking a Research Design & Thesis Writing course in which the professor warned us against choosing “sensitive” topics to research. “Sensitive” here means anything negatively related to the government. Don’t even think about bringing up the terms “democracy” and “revolution” in a dinner conversation with Chinese officials (unless you’re praising the Cultural Revolution). They’ll eat you alive and feed your bones to the dogs, and then eat them too.

My professor’s specific example of a “sensitive” topic was the Diaoyudao/Senkaku Islands dispute. She is not incorrect to say that finding objective information on the conflict would be difficult in China, and I agree that presenting such a thesis topic to a panel of Chinese professors (many of whom are party members) may arouse uneasiness, but discouraging a group of progressive graduate students of international development from researching issues that are”too sensitive” is both infuriating and laughable.

Tsinghua University is a top-ranking institution and my department is even partnered with the likes of Harvard Kennedy School — impressive, no? — but now that I’m within the institution, it is disgusting how much propaganda and image-building I see the administration feed to its students and the public. Everything looks so good on paper. Our course syllabi look awesome and our professors are famous and award-winning! But as soon as they power on those PPTs (powerpoints) and start lecturing, it’s all China Dream China Dream China Dream. Whose China Dream? Who does the China Dream serve and how? Is the China Dream realizable? These are questions that we scrape the surface of, but no real answer is ever given.

China has come a long, long way since its Opening Up, but its development path is headed in the wrong direction. And just like that 1 train, the China-train might get to the end of the line and turn right on back to Tiananmen Square.


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