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.


Southern Hospitality Widespread in Guizhou Province

The people of Guizhou province are the friendliest, most hospitable and generous individuals I have ever met in China. This observation is even clearer now that I’m back in Beijing, where everyone snarls at one another. Could be southern hospitality like in the States, though I wonder if I’d ever feel comfortable enough to ask a stranger to use their toilet in Texas…Probably not.

I was hiking down a hill toward a small village in Langdong when typical bouts of stomachache set in — bathroom emergency. The first house my friend, Yoyo, and I came across we asked to use the bathroom. Not only did the grandfather agree to let me let my bowels loose in his home (excuse the graphics!),  he also provided generous amounts of toilet paper!! This, being in a place where public bathrooms still charge tourists and everyone carries toilet paper on them at all times (except me because I always forget)!  I was so grateful I didn’t even mind the snorting hog in the next pen.

On my way out, the grandfather invited me and Yoyo to stay for breakfast with him and his grandson. We courteously refused — we wanted to witness the process of making handmade tofu at another home in the village — but we sat for a little while.

    

I was invited to “sit a while” by numerous neighborly strangers throughout Guizhou. I experienced a similar kind of welcomeness in Morocco where I was constantly invited to have tea and stay for free  in peoples’ homes. Sometimes yes, the hosts had intentions of making money. But in one of China’s poorest provinces, how could I not buy the handmade batik (wax art on cloth) that the nice lady overcharged my American companion for and then for which she offered me a “local” price? Especially after she voluntarily showed us around her ancient stone village?

Though Guizhou is home to many ethnic minority groups, I spent most of my time in Qiandongnan Prefecture where Miao villages are predominant. We saw people, most noticeably women because of their dress, from other minority groups such as Dong and Gejia, but most were Miao (Hmong).

When I told a Beijinger that I spent time in Miao villages, she remarked that Miao women are very beautiful. It’s true. Miao people have different features from Han (the majority–I’m Han). They have big, deep-set eyes and creased eyelids (now available via a simple surgical procedure), and their skin is darker from the powerful southern sun. Their costumes vary from region to region, as well as by age. In Huangping, for example, older women wear plain, bun-shaped hats while younger women wear more colorful ones. Old women just wrap towels around their heads, and instead of flowery garments, they wear undecorated royal blue robes. In Kaili, Leishan, Langde and Xijiang, women wear their hair in buns on the top of their heads, often supported by black yarn to resemble more hair. They decorate their hair with fake flowers and colorful pins and a special comb, but with different details from village to village.

Huangping

 Leishan

Photo credit: Judy Manton

Langde

(2nd photo credit: Judy Manton)

And how ’bout this fine gentleman sporting a Soviet winter hat in the middle of summer?

Stone Village, Anshun

Whole elaborate outfits are only worn for festivals. Women spend lots of time and money — often thousands and thousands of Yuan — embroidering, sewing, pleating and decorating these garments by hand. A small piece of hand-embroidery is worth hundreds, even thousands, of Yuan because it is so meticulous.

The silver they wear around their necks, on their heads and in their ears weigh a lot. But silver is believed to cast away evil spirits, so people always wear it, most often as a bracelet. Naturally, I bought one for myself.  I like to think that the silver not only protects me from evil, but also connects me to Guizhou.

It’s a relief to know that there are still people in China who are kind, un-abrasive, patient, and honest. I’ve been in Beijing for 3 days now and already feel anger and frustration in the pit of my stomach because people here can be so cold, which is ironic because it’s steaming outside.


Getting there is half the fun!

Remember the 11-day traffic jam in China 2 years ago?  I wasn’t there — thank goodness — but I felt an ounce of fear last night that something similar would happen to me on my way from the airport in Guiyang to Huangping, where I am comfortably air-conditioned now. After 2 hours of racing (I’m talkin’ The Fast and the Furious) through the windy mountainous roads, we came to a halt. For the next 2 hours. By the time we were rolling again, it was already 8:30 pm and would be another 2 hours before dinner. Oh, what’s a 4-hour delay??

(Indiscreetly peeing roadside.)

We were dropped off at the side of a highway (the first time was at a fork in the road), walked through a toll booth with our luggage, only to be picked up by another manic driver who would fly us to dinner, and eventually to our hotel. We were going 60 on roads that would’ve been marked 20 in the US.

One of our drivers (the one who was going to drop us off at the fork in the road). He was all drive, no talk (except when he got a phonecall, which was quite often).

I am safe and sound in Huangping county now, where it’s humid and grey and surrounded by green hills. The majority of the population here are Miao, people from one of the largest ethnic minorities of China.

The locals are very friendly and don’t stare rudely (as they do in Beijing) at the American teacher in our group, a 70-something lady from Jersey who has been teaching English in various countries for over 32 years. But she happens to love Guizhou–its terrain, the Miao and Dong people–so here she is again to train local/rural English teachers on developing their own teaching methods, and I am here to assist.

Nothing spectacular has happened yet, but getting here was certainly half the fun–if you’re into adrenaline rushes from near-death fright.

**If you want to see beautiful photography of Guizhou, check out John Fanai’s site.**


It’s Been a While, Crocodile

Apologies for the hiatus. I’m sure you’ve all been suffering since my last post…from the heat of course! It appears that a heat wave has swept across the globe, or at least in all the areas I’ve been visiting, rendering me into delirium — hence the corny humor (you must think I live in a tropical climate).

I returned to Beijing a couple of days ago to unwelcoming heat, humidity and smog. It thunder-stormed last night, which normally clears up the sky the next day, but not this time. The dense smog is here to stay, hovering above this crowded city like Dementors. At least there’s a bit of breeze this morning. How refreshing.

In just a few hours I will be flying out to Guizhou, a province in southern China that is rarely sunny, has ample rainfall, and is at its hottest in July. But don’t let my whining fool you, I am very excited for this 3-week teaching (ESL) trip!

More good news, I finally caved in to paying for a VPN service so I can access WordPress, Facebook, Youtube and the likes in order to keep up with you fine people.

I’m keeping this post short, but there’s lots to come because I have lots to tell you from my visit to New York and what’s to come in Guizhou. Stay tuned!

Hope all of you have been well and your joints not too swollen (from the heat)!

And now, some eye-candy:

Image

To my instagram/facebook followers: You will see many repeats! Sorry!


Brooklyn, The Place Where People Say Hello

I have been in New York City for 2 weeks now, visiting friends and places I’ve missed in the past 9 months of living in Beijing.

As happy as I am to be surrounded by friends again, I can’t help but feel out of place here. Feeling out of place in the city I considered “home” is a truly shitty situation to be in when I only have 2 months to re-immerse. Perhaps it’s counter culture shock, or I feel lost because I can’t remember the name of every station and connecting line of every subway train, or maybe I’ve just changed a lot. I can’t pinpoint the exact reason for this strange feeling, but it better go away soon because I’d like to enjoy myself thoroughly this vacation.

Now how about the good stuff. Well as the title of this post says, Brooklyn is a place where people say hello and it’s awesome! I’ve done a lot of strolling these past few weeks, reacquainting with my old neighborhood. During these strolls, countless people said hi, waved, smiled, nodded, said hello in Chinese, cat called. One guy, middle-aged, waved hello and said hi to every single person he walked past, including people in cars. A little boy with long, curly blonde hair ran past an elderly man sitting on a lawn chair in front of his Park Slope apartment on a busy sidewalk yelling HELLLLOOO! These are just two instances of friendly greetings that put a gigantic smile on my face.

When I was walking up 2nd Ave. in Manhattan, I noticed a short, Latino man karate-chopping some scaffolds. I gave him a smile, acknowledging his Jackie Chan-equivalent skillz and continued on. Then I heard, “China (‘chee-na’), China, do you like to eat?” to which I responded, “YEAH I like to eat (duh!!!)” “You wanna get some lunch with me? Or some coffee? I’d like to buy you something to eat.” “Oh, no thank you, I just ate. Look at my leftovers! Maybe another time.” “Alright…another time baby.”

At the Delicate Steve show last night at Mercury Lounge, somebody mistook me for the Asian keyboardist of the opening band, People Get Ready. I was chatting about China with a bouncer I used to know from my days of frequenting bars. The bouncer had just said something about me wearing all red (haha, China, Communist, get it?), when another dude interrupted to ask me something. I thought he asked, “Are you a spy???” thinking maybe he was just chiming in on our China conversation, so I said, hahaha yes, I AM a spy! He was like, huh? Well, did you? Did I what? DID YOU JUST PLAY? I finally understood he thought I was the girl from People Get Ready. No siree, I know all of us Asians look exactly the same and I’m flattered you thought I was her because she was beautiful and hip, but unfortunately I am not her. I am Emily He, queen of all that is good and holy.

I’m sitting in a sunny cafe called Tiny Cup drinking delicious Counter Culture coffee (HOW IRONIC) and life is good. My mind is all over the place, likely from too much caffeine in one sitting. The brownstones on all the tree-lined streets and people hanging out on their stoops are so Brooklyn-y. Drinking coffee, listening to indie music and blogging on my Mac is so Brooklyn-y. Mommies pushing their babies around, mail-men and -women chatting with the locals and kids running through the streets after school is all so Brooklyn-y. Everything takes time. It’s going to take time for me to get back in the swing of what it means to be Brooklyn. But wait, I think what I loved most about Brooklyn is that everyone can be exactly who they are and still find their niche or niches or even complete isolation if that’s what they want.

So, I need to let down my hair (after I get my haircut tomorrow!) and just be myself and embrace every moment I have in this awesome city I once, and still can, call home. Oooooh, optimism is a good feeling. It’s good to be back.

 

 


The Brief Adventures of Lucia and Emily in China

These past few weeks with Lucia have been some of the best since I began my new life in China. For one, it’s always great to have close friends around. And second, I haven’t laughed so much in months! Too bad the expression “time flies when you’re having fun” is true because she’s gone now.

Between our time in Beijing, we spent 9 days in 3 other cities — Hong Kong, Yangshuo and Guilin. For budgeting purposes, we took trains, buses, and a boat between cities, totaling 66 hours of travel time. It was definitely not a trip you take with a difficult person or a person without a sense of humor. Lucky for Lucia, there wasn’t a moment that I wanted to kill her, except when she ate all the Ferrero Rochers.

One thing I love about traveling is eating as much as I want without worrying about weight gain. In Hong Kong where my mom has excellent connections (the kind with $$), Lucia and I were treated like princesses. We had our own driver, Willie, and we ate like Greek gods. Buffet-ing, dim-summing, seafooding…I literally could not have asked for more or I would’ve keeled over and died from overeating. In Yangshuo and Guilin, no longer royal, we gorged on street food and noodles while avoiding horse and dog meat. The ramen, chocolates, cookies, tea eggs, chips and McDonald’s we ate on train/bus/boat rides were just food for survival.

How did all this food digest you might ask? Well, the 5.5 hour-long bike ride through the countryside of Yangshuo certainly helped (the most exercise either one of us has had in light years). Racing through Ocean Park in Hong Kong and aimlessly wandering around rainy Guilin also made a difference to my digestive track.

Princess Emily having breakfast in Yangshuo.

Instead of boring you with all the nitty-gritty details of my trip, I’ll just tell you the highlights of each city. You’re welcome.

Hong Kong

Far beyond my expectations, this city is just perfect. From the movies (like Rush Hour 2) I thought Hong Kong was just another city. But OH MY WORD the views were incredible! 

The jade-colored water between the green hills and the wild monkeys with pink butts and nipples and mansions on hilltops and flowing traffic and random temples spotted throughout the city and beaches, all in one small place. It is a perfect balance of nature and city, traditional and contemporary. Though Hong Kong is known to the Chinese as shopping-haven, Lucia and I preferred the spectacular views and roller coasters. I must admit the most memorable part of Hong Kong, besides the food, was Ocean Park, an amusement park on a hill. We had so. much. fun.

Next up, we took this pimped out sleeper bus which blared house music 8 hours to Yangshuo:

Yangshuo

This was my favorite part of the trip.  When we stepped out of the bus, half-asleep and worried we’d left something behind after scrambling out of there at 5:30 in the morning, we looked up to find that we were surrounded by pointy hills (karst peaks).

And that’s the center of town! Can you imagine what the countryside looks like?! Well you don’t have to. Just look below!

Those hills plus the Li River equals stunning scenery that is rural China.

Because it was early March when the rains and fog are amidst, there were far less tourists than normal, much to our advantage.  Lucia and I could ride our bikes for miles and miles without having to share the road with other tourists. We didn’t take “the road less traveled” — we followed a Lonely Planet route — but it was still the best ride of my life.

As Lucia and I were biking through one of many farm villages, Lucia’s impossible shoelaces got stuck in the gears. It was a heaven-sent pause because out came three little girls running towards us and plopped down with books and pencils in hand. Knowing me, a teacher, kid-lover, and Ms. Emotional-to-anything-slightly-moving, Lucia had to tell me not to cry at the sight of this absurd cuteness. The girl in the middle was reading her English alphabet picture book upside down!

We were also greeted by other kids yelling “HELLO! HELLO! HELLO!” most likely at Lucia, who’s white, but I yelled back too. At one point we took the wrong road and geared off to find a pretty elderly lady with two long grey braids sitting on a bamboo raft by the river as her cows grazed the field nearby. I asked her for directions but it was difficult to understand the local dialect so she walked us to the correct path. She was a beautiful lady, inside and out!

We spent the rest of the time in Yangshuo strolling around and taking in the surrounding beauty. Two days later we were off to Guilin in a boat carrying Chinese and foreign tourists up against the currents of Li River. Along the way, we passed picturesque and widely photographed landscapes. While Lucia spent most of the ride with her nose in Jane Austen with throbbing heartaches for Mr. Darcy, I got wet taking a million photos of the passing views.

Four hours and two bus rides later we were in Guilin.

Guilin

Well, because Lucia and I were all boated-out, we decided to stay away from the highly regarded boat tours. Instead, we spent most of our time eating and wandering the city center, but our day and a half in Guilin dragged on because of the bad weather. This was the least exciting part of the trip because, surprisingly and much to my disappointment, it was just another city with not much to see except the Sun and Moon Pagodas.

Lucky for me and Lucia, we only had to share our cabin for half the ride back to Beijing, except we arrived 2 hours late in the middle of the night to freezing cold and sleet.

The train cabin we shared with 4 other rotating people from Beijing to Hong Kong.

That was my trip in a nutshell. I have much more to tell and show you, but I’ll save it for another time.

Overall, Lucia and I had a fabulous time and I’m sad she’s gone. But I have many good memories and photographs to prove it. I will definitely return to Hong Kong and Yanshuo in the future, but I’ll wait till the weather is nicer. And for you to get here. Anyone up for a 28 hour train ride?