Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Punjabi Kurai

Kurai is the Punjabi word for 'girl' and this is the story of how I officially became a member of a local Punjabi family: a Punjabi Kurai. Jonathan too, of course, only I don't know the Punjabi word for boy, so... Punjabi Kurai, it is. There are moments in the last ten months of travelling that something so incredible has happened that it washes away every ounce of bitterness, frustration that has been building, and restores our faith in the goodness of people, in humility, in humanity (this is a bit melodramatic, but still somewhat true).

We were on the 640AM train from Delhi to Amritsar. Amritsar is famous for it's immaculate Golden Temple, a religious site where Sikh pilgrims come from all over to worship, and, also contrastingly, the 1919 massacre of thousands of Indians in Jallianalla Bagh, under General Dyer and the British Raj. The massacre is a major event in Indian history. It was one of the main motivations for Mohandas Gandhi to encourage a country-wide, non-violent, non-cooperation movement. A step in the direction of the country's independence.

In front of us, on the train, there was a family with two small kids. The little boy had huge brown, shiny eyes and long, thick eyelashes. He was adorable, looked about three years old and spent much of the eight hour train ride hanging over the back of his seat, watching and smiling at us. The friendly parents, Vikramjit and Raj, (we later learned) sparked up a conversation and before we knew it, we had plans to meet up the next day to visit the Golden Temple together. Who better to appreciate the spiritual centre of Sikh faith with, than Sikh people themselves?

The next day Vikramjit and Raj came to pick us up at our hotel and we headed into the temple. Vikramjit is extremely knowledgable and Jonathan and him were deep in conversation the whole afternoon. Raj and I talked more about everyday life in India, marriage and kids. 'Where do you get your milk from?' She asked me. At first I didn't really understand the question. Like, did my family have a cow? 'Um, from the store,' I answered. 'Why, where do you get your milk from?' I was now very curious. 'Oh the milk man delivers it fresh every morning! Two litres. We drink a lot of tea.' A milkman! How awesome is that?! Everything we chatted about was mutually fascinating, I think. She was interested in how Jonathan and I met and were married, and how did it all work without a dowry from my parents. What did we wear in Canada? What did we eat? Did we go to church? I was enthralled by her stories of their arranged marriage, and how herself and Vikramjit fell in love after they were married. Her previous work as a science teacher, their kids, family relations, their home office where Vikramjit is a dental surgeon... it was all so interesting!

First, we shared a meal in the free community kitchen, our private tour guides explaining everything. After circling the temple complex, Vikramjit made a donation to the temple and received a plate with huge dried leaves and a bowl made from a dry leaf with some brown, thick sticky stuff in it. Because we were making a donation we were allowed to go in a special line to enter the Golden Temple itself, on the boardwalk across the water. We were privileged, again, to be with Vikramjit and Raj because we were able to go up into the temple, as opposed to just skirting the edges as most tourists do. Upstairs, important gurus were chanting and people were gathered around reading prayers. On another floor a small band and singer were performing the beautiful music that was being piped through the speakers to the whole complex. Every detail of the interior of the temple was immaculate. No inch was left undecorated, no window wasn't perfectly trimmed. It was spectacular! We sat in the shade of the marble terrace and relaxed a while. Despite being monsoon, the sky was a clear blue and the sun was blazing. Thank the Sikhs for the free water stands in every corner. They really know how to take care of their pilgrims!

While we were sitting and enjoying the shade, view and company, Raj explained why this particular visit to the Golden Temple was so important to their family. Over three years ago, herself, Vikramjit and their baby daughter had come to the temple to pray for a son. God had blessed them with a son, their now three year old rascal, Rohan, and this has been their first opportunity to come to give thanks since Rohan's birth. Vikramjit and Raj live in the state of Madhya Pradesh, about a 24hour train ride away, so coming all the way to Punjab really is quite the trip. They were really happy to be here, and to have the opportunity to bathe in the lake surrounding the temple, known as the 'Pool of Immortality-Giving Nectar.'

For Vikramjit, visiting Punjab is like a homecoming, as he grew up very near Amritsar. In fact, they were staying with his family out in their village about 30km from the city. His parents no longer lived there, but his aunt, uncle and cousins do, with whom he is still very close. We didn't know it at the time, but his family was about to become ours as well.

Vikramjit, Raj and the kids were heading out to the Indo-Pakistan border at Wagha for the evening 'show' and they invited us to join. Of course! Omandeep, Vikramjit's cousin and high ranking officer with the Punjab police had taken time off work to come into town, pick us up and take us the 30km to the border. Omandeep was very friendly. 'Friends shouldn't be staying at a hotel, they should be staying with our family' he declared within minutes of us squashing into his backseat. One shouldn't argue with a police officer, so we accepted his invitation graciously. How exciting! How generous! We weaved in and out of traffic, honking and attempting to avoid wandering cows, dogs, motorbikes and children. 'Do you feel comfortable?' Raj whispered to me as we narrowly avoided sideswiping a family of goats. 'Sure, it's just like being in the car with my dad or uncle,' I joked. Plus, we were with a swerving, honking police officer, how much safer could we get? He probably did this all the time. Only faster. And with sirens.

'So, how is Canada different than India?' Raj asked. I looked at Jonathan for help. He smirked at the cows wandering down the middle of the road. 'Where to begin?' he joked, smiling at little Rohan who was currently dancing on the centre console. Kids don't have to be in car seats, let alone wear seat belts, garbage gets thrown out the window, there appears to be no road rules whatsoever, the food is completely different, the clothes, the culture, the temperature... I could pick out a million different things in a five foot radius. Pretty much everything is different. It would have been a much, much shorter list to name things that were similar. And I don't even know what would make the list. It was a really hard question to answer, especially without coming across as though I was saying things in Canada were better, because that's not what I would mean. Just so, so different. 'Its really hard to explain, its just so different. Canada and India are both fantastic places, but for very different reasons. You'll just have to come and see for yourself,' I concluded. Raj agreed. Woohoo! Potential visitors!

After the border closing 'experience' which was interesting enough for its very own post (coming next) we headed back to Omandeep's house in the village. Our bags were still at the hotel and it would have been very far out of the way to go back into the city to get them, especially with the traffic. Raj promised that she would take care of everything we could need, and she did. The family wanted to cook us a special dinner, so we stopped a road-side butcher to pick up a chicken, and egg stall for eggs and a corner store for drinks. We stopped along the way for a chai. The Indian version of Timmys. 'I think, in India, tea is compulsory,' Vikramjit told us. We agreed.

Once in the village we stopped at the corner 'everything' store owned by Omandeep's wife. She had gotten bored of sitting at home while Omandeep was at work, policing all day, so she opened a corner store to keep herself busy. She loaded a bag with toothbrushes, soap and toiletries for us before we all headed back to the house. We had quite the welcoming party! Everyone had come out to meet us. There was Uncle and Auntie, the patriarch and matriarch of the family, two of their sons with their families and kids and a few other people who had come just for the party. It was a hub-ub of activity. Everyone was doing something. It reminded me a lot of our family gathering back home. The kitchen was a buzz with mouth watering smells wafting out from it, people were running around filling eachothers drinks and plates, there is laughter, chatting, kids are yelling, jumping and dancing, Gramma (Auntie in this case) is trying to make sure everyone has everything they could possibly want and more... Now this was something familiar. A warm, welcoming, loving, loud, kinda chaotic family, who really appreciates good food. Family, friends, food and tea do, it turns out, transcend boundaries of all sorts.

Everyone was so excited that we were there. Uncle spoke decent English so we even had the opportunity to talk to him and hear about his life, his career in the Indian army, his four successful sons and how he, himself started this little village where we were now all sitting. The kids were literally jumping off the walls (couches, and tables) with excitement. Especially after I brought out the camera. I sure know how to rile kids up just before bedtime. (You know you aren't a parent when...) It was almost midnight by the time the feast was ready. And, my was it delicious! A chicken dish, aloo paneer (potato and cheese), fresh chapati and completed with another round of, piping hot, spicy chai. Perfection. The kids were passed out on the bed in the screen room and we were given fresh clothes to change into. Raj handed me a Punjabi suit, with beautiful pink flowers on it. A suit which is a long, fitted shirt and comfy matching pants. I came out of the bathroom and was met with, surprisingly, a round of applause. 'Wow, you look like a real Punjabi Kurai!' Everyone exclaimed, smiling widely. 'Mr. Jon!' Uncle called, 'come over here and see your Punjabi kurai!' haha!

Raj loved the suit so much that she insisted on buying me one and having it tailored the next morning before we headed back to the city. Seriously, she is just so wonderful. And we were both pretty excited. She picked out a stunning white top suit with a colourful embroidered peacock on it and matching navy pants. When you buy the suit, it is just two pieces of material, not resembling wearable clothing at all. Then the magical tailor comes along. She arrived first thing in the morning and took about twenty measurements. Before we left at noon my very own punjabi suit had arrived. Fitting me perfectly in every way! Seriously, she was magic. 'Now I don't want this hanging in your closet,' Raj told me, 'I want you to wear it!' I promised I would. How could I not? I love it! If only it wasn't so perfect... what if I wreck it?

Vikramjit, Raj and Omandeep brought us to the road where we could catch a bus back into the city. They were leaving early the next morning and still had family to visit that afternoon. Still, I can't believe how infinitely lucky we were to have met Vikramjit, Raj and their family. We were welcomed so warmly, and immediately treated like one of the family...only royal! What an unforgettable experience. Before we left, we took some great pictures and were hugging everyone goodbye. It was hard to imagine that twenty-four hours earlier, we didn't know these people, and now we felt like family. When it was Aunties turn to hug me she grabbed my hand and pressed a bill into it. She was trying to give me money! Seriously, she was my Gramma. I got a little teary at the thought. It also made me realize that, being my Gramma, no matter how many times I tried to say no (and I tried), she wanted to give us this gift, and she was going to give it to us. Regardless of my squirming and protests. Even more than you don't argue with a Punjabi police officer, you don't argue with his mother. A Punjabi Gramma.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

City of Lakes

Punjab, India. Secretly, and selfishly, I've always wanted to see, in real life, a flooded street. The kind you see on the news where the cars are halfway under the water and random items are floating merrily along... How could it be? How could there really be that much water with no where to go? Enter Amritsar in monsoon.

After a long train ride, from Delhi we arrived in Amritsar, home of the Sikh's famous Golden Temple. Throughout India so far, we have been blown away by people's friendliness and genuine interest in helping out us useless tourists wandering in the wrong direction (always). Even some rickshaw drivers have pointed us in the right direction after we've have declined their services. We met the most incredible, friendly family on the train into town as well, but more on them later. So, there we were, holding our Rough Guide map upside-down (we've decided to veer from the Lonely Planet as an experiment) and a friendly young woman approached us to see if we needed help. Usually, you can tell right off the bat, which people actually want to be helpful, and which people see you as an ATM. Being the former, the nice woman called a couple guesthouses from our guidebook for us, and then negotiated with no less than three cycle rickshaws before one finally agreed to take us down to the Golden Temple area for a price that she deemed acceptable: About one dollar. For one dollar, he was to cycle us and our luggage across town. Sounded like we were getting the better end of the deal! Especially after we turned around the corner and were met with a completely flooded street. The water was, no exaggeration, half way up car wheels. People were wading through the water almost to their knees. The flood didn't seem to slow anyone down in the least. Life went on, as usual; places to go, things to do. Bicycles pedaled by, scooters, cars, pedestrians, dogs, cows, garbage, all flowed along the street come river. Our cycle rickshaw had a lot to contend with, pulling not only our weight, but compounded by the resistance the water was putting up. We were grinning gleefully as we pedalled down the street, taking the spectacle in.

'Hello! Where are you from?' called a cyclist to our right. 'Canada!' we replied, as he cycled along side us, matching our pace. 'Ohhh! Beautiful Country! I've been! Welcome to the city of lakes!' he joked, motioning to the water-filled streets, laughing. We laughed along. Good one! City of Lakes! haha 'Where in Canada are you from? Toronto?' he asked. 'Close,' Jonathan replied, 'Niagara Falls!' The cyclist smiled at us. 'Ha! This is just like Niagara Fa...' SMASH! He didn't get to finish his sentence because he then rode into the back of a stopped garbage truck. Seriously, this happened. He wasn't hurt, thankfully. He wasn't going fast and the 'lake' broke his fall. He smiled and waved goodbye to us as our cycle rickshaw splashed past him. We never got the chance to ask, though. What was like Niagara Falls? Was he referring to the fast moving water, or tourists causing car accidents? haha

We found a passable guesthouse and headed for a walk through the old town surrounding the Golden Temple itself. We were surprised at just how friendly the people were. The narrow lanes were lined with shops selling colourful scarves, shawls and saris. What a backdrop! Their shop canopies stretched out so far that they just about met the canopies of the shops across the way. Everywhere it was possible, some colourful piece of material hung. It was like wandering through a kaleidoscope. Colours to the left, right and above. Everywhere. The smell of spicy, sweet chai wafted through the alleys. We followed our noses. Everyone wanted to say 'hello' just to say 'hello' and to shake our hands. Most importantly, they all had to know: 'Where are you coming from?' The alleys weren't flooded and the on-lookers were all very entertained that I was interested in taking photos of the main flooded streets from a dry vantage point. Wasn't this just how it was?

As the sun dropped lower in the sky we caught a glimpse of the tip of the gold of the namesake Golden Temple light up like a flame. The golden setting sun reflecting on the tiny slice of the golden temple that we could see from behind the gates was nothing short of spectacular. I had to see more. Not one to miss such an amazing photo op, we headed into the temple for the first time. The Golden Temple, is just that, a temple plated with actual gold. It just shines. It floats in the middle of a man-made lake/pool surrounded on all sides with a glossy white marble courtyard and wide gathering areas. For Sikhs there are 65 holy sites in the world, and one visit to the golden temple is akin to visiting all 65 of them! Needless to say, it is an important pilgrimage for any Sikh. The pilgrims themselves are in such high spirits, just because they are there, that it illuminates the entire atmosphere. Even if you were not remotely religious, it would be hard to imagine that anyone could be immune to the overwhelming feeling the peace, serenity and devotion here.

I would be lying if I said I didn't literally stop in my tracks and gape in awe when we rounded the entrance gate and I caught my first glimpse of the whole temple scene through the white arched marble, reflecting perfectly on the calm lake. Spectacular. Not often does architecture take my breath away. But the Golden Temple did. It was just stunning. Guru and devotees sing and chant live music the whole time from the inner sanctuary of the Golden Temple itself, and it is played throughout the temple, enriching the ambience further. The sun, the temples, the music, the people, the smiles... it was overwhelming, in a calm way.

Every person entering the temple must have a covered head. They provide bandana scarves at the entrance to lend, or, of course, you can bring your own. Sikh men never cut their hair, so they are always wearing a turban, or cap of sorts, and the women wear scarves. You must take off your shoes and leave them with a shoe attendant at the gate. They also have a place to store your bags, if necessary. You wash your hands, then walk through a shallow pool to wash your feet. A carpet leads around the courtyard to protect everyone's bare feet from the hot marble, and there is much shade for pilgrims to relax in. Every corner of the complex has a water station where everyone is offered free, cold water. On one side of the compound is a free kitchen. Yes, free (and VERY tasty) food! 24 hours a day, 365 days a year! The temple serves up at least 10,000 free meals a DAY! Oh, and there is free accommodation too, for anyone, and a free bus service to the train and bus stations! Oh. And all of this is run by volunteers and paid for by donations. Wow! Everyone is so welcoming and everything is free!

I know you are all wondering, so this is how the kitchen works. There is a constant rotation of people through the dining hall. You head up to the veranda whenever you please. On route you are handed a plate with divided sections, a bowl and a spoon, all from volunteers. Then you wait a few minutes for the previous diners to finish. When its your turn you move along with the crowd into the dining hall. Everyone quickly finds a seat, cross-legged on the floor. Volunteers come around and drop chapatis from above into your awaiting hands. Then buckets of dahl, sweet rice pudding and water are brought around and slopped, with amazing accuracy, from the ladle into the correct section of your divided plate or bowl. Seconds and thirds are brought around, and you eat until you've had your fill. After a short prayer of thanks, everyone eats together. On your way out you deposit your dishes into the correct bin. You pass the volunteer dish washers, probably about a hundred of them, and the the chefs, stirring table-size cauldrons of dahl, and finally the multitudes chopping garlic and peeling fragrant onions. All volunteers, giving to their community in faith. It brought tears to my eyes- literally. The onions were strong.

Its a place you could spend hours. Sitting by the lake, talking with the pilgrims, enjoying the peace, taking it all in. In frantic, loud, chaotic India, the Golden Temple is an absolute piece of heaven.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

NEPAL: Where straight men can-oodle and cows rule the road

We made it to Kathmandu! This is quite a bit more impressive than it sounds, considering apparently China Eastern Airlines renamed our flight MU3610 to The Magical Mystery Flight. Of course, they didn't tell us that. Other things they neglected to mention: That they changed the gate number (twice), that we were delayed, when we were boarding, that we were boarding, why our flight info was going to disappear from every board in the lounge fifteen minutes before our flight was scheduled to depart, never to reappear, anywhere, ever again, not even at the gate we were actually boarding at. Oh, and that every info screen in the departure lounge preferred to show useless ARRIVAL info instead of anything remotely related to departing. We were in the DEPARTURE lounge!! Jeez!

Anyways, yay for Nepal! Kathmandu, Nepal's Capital, is a fascinating place. So far, I would say it is one of our very favourite major cities...ever. I have no idea how it manages it, but Kathmandu is somehow as relaxed, friendly and unassuming as it is frantic, confusing, congested, loud and polluted. It is a colourful and intoxicating overload to every one of your senses. Huge (sacred) cows wander willy nilly down crowded streets and yesterday a monkey was playing in the electrical wires strung above the main street. Everything is bright with colours: the saris, scarves, buildings, spices, shops, flowers... It is a world away from anywhere we have been. And the food... my oh my. We love Indian food, and it turns out that Nepali food is very similar. I want everything on the menu, and so much of it is vegetarian! And the chai. I've been floating around in a sea of chai on a piping hot, fresh naan bread ever since we landed here. Delicious!

Oh! And pretty much everyone speaks English! What a huge, HUGE relief for us, coming from three months of hand signalling. For example, yesterday we went far, far off the tourist trail to a mall to see if we could catch the new Harry Potter flick. Along the way we stopped at a small cafe where they not only had an English menu, but they all spoke perfect English AND were able to give us directions! And then, I bought a Nepali shirt from a street vendor, and I could actually communicate with them. Size, cost, colour! And THEN we got to the theatre box office and were able to find out that the movie was sold out, but more importantly, when it was playing, how much it cost, where we could sit (you choose actual seats), and procure tickets!! So EASY! Its hard to express just how nice it is to be able to communicate in even the simplest of situations. Besides the ease of this, it really adds an interesting social depth to travelling.

We took a cooking class the other day, hoping to learn the secrets of some of these delicious dishes. When we went in to inquiry about the course, we were looking for a few important bits of information. Maybe more than cost, more than menu, more than length of time, we wanted to see the cook. There is a saying, "Never trust a skinny chef." We merely wanted to see if we could be confident that what she would teach us would be tasty. Our soon-to-be cooking instructor looked like a Nepali Mama Cass: by this standard, she was possibly the most trustworthy chef in Kathmandu. We knew delicious food was in our future.

It was just us and Mama Nepali in her tiny kitchen, grating garlic and steaming chickpeas. The restaurant has no running water and a total of three burners! The things people make work in these parts would be unfathomable to us at home. That being said, we cooked up some of the more tastey food we have had in Kathmandu in this little kitchen. The 'chef' who learned to cook soley from watching her mother didn't measure a single ingredient. A handful of this, spoon of that, bowl of the other thing. She didn't glance at a clock even once (there wasn't a clock), and still the food being cooked under the opaque lid of the pot was perfect when she removed the lid. She knew the exact moment that the naan dough was kneaded sufficiently because it was 'sticky and soft.' Then, she expertly tossed a small ball of dough back and forth between her hands and somehow, magically it seemed, a perfectly round, flat piece of dough was formed! It looked so easy. Even I could do it, I thought. Until I tried it myself, of course, at which time, the dough which was meant to morph into a perfectly shaped portion of naan, actually turned into a holey, irregular mess which more resembled a deformed stick man than anything remotely consistently shaped. Hmm. Maybe we will leave the hard stuff to the pro. I frantically copied down everything Mama Nepali did when making the dishes. Maybe, just maybe, we will be able to create something kinda delicious from my notes...

Oh, one more interesting tibit about Kathmandu. They have a living goddess! Meaning, a goddess who is, reincarnated, and alive. There are actually these living goddesses all over Nepal, but the most important one lives in a palace in Durbar Square, the main square of Kathmandu. There are a few stories as to how this goddess came to be, living in Kathmandu. She is a young girl
People. If you kill a cow in Nepal, you go to jail!

PS. Happy belated Birthday, Kristine!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Rock Candy

Yangshuo holds so many good memories for us. For two weeks, it was our base and thanks to a few fantastic people, it felt like home.

Atilla and Candy, the couchsurfers I mentioned in a previous blog were so wonderful to us, and we really do owe a lot of great experiences to them. Not only did they set us up with Zhou Yue English College, but they also included us in so many of their fun adventures. They showed us the best swimming hole, the best steam buns, the best place for an evening tea, and the best ay to loose two pounds before seven am, by huffing your way up a mountain for jaw-dropping views. They took us out into the un-touristed countryside as bike tour guides, showed us around expert bonsai collections and generally made us feel very comfortable, welcome and included.

Another great person we met through couchsurfing was Mila, a Malaysian living in Yangshuo. We met up at a local pub with Mila and a bunch of her friends, for 'quiz night' and had a great time. Mila was so friendly, welcoming and funny. It felt like we spent the whole night laughing! She was even nice enough to invite us back for the next weeks quiz night, even though our answers to the quiz questions were almost all very wrong. Who actually knows what 'jpeg' stands for anyways? More importantly, who needs to know? People who want to win quiz nights, I suppose.

While volunteering at Zhou Yue, we also had the privilege of meeting Mark and Rachael, a great American couple on a five week Chinese adventure. We had a great time hanging out with them and chatting about travel, life and books. Its great when you meet people that you feel like you connect with right away. Rachael gave Jonathan a book called 'Born to Run,' and he devoured it. I read it after as well. It was a super interesting read, and we would recommend it. The story inspired him to take up jogging, something that I never imagined him doing. Shocking, right Cathy and Gord? He even dragged me on a jog once. (Once.) If we thought people were starring before, it was nothing compared to when we bounced by, heaving. Guess this running thing needs some practice.

Again, thanks to Atilla, Candy, Mila, Mark and Rachael. We can't imagine Yangshuo without you! We sincerely hope that our paths will cross again! Soon!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

'My Heart Will Go On'.. and other Chinese Favourites

Down in Guangxi Province, in Southern China is the wonderful tourist mecca of Yangshuo. It is dubbed the 'English Corner of China,' and with good reason. Yangshuo, with its fantastic scenery, western comforts and plethora of English Schools has been a popular spot for foreign tourists since the '80s when it was the backpacker hangout. When word got out about how fabulous this backwater town was, inevitably the town's popularity grew past the backpacker crowd to include just about everyone and their mother, both foreign and Chinese. Usually this alone would be a reason to cross a place off our 'to-visit' list. Over-touristed places can rarely deliver on the reasons they became popular in the first place. Our guidebook suggested that if you were after the sublime scenery as opposed to the 'banana-oreo-peanut butter milkshakes' (or something) to consider staying out in the countryside. But, no, as I mentioned in a few previous blogs we were looking for a 'banana-oreo-peanut butter' type experience at this point. Because, really, if they had peanut butter, they were bound to have decent toilets, right? Well, that was my (disturbing) train of thought anyways. We were so looking forward to Yanghsuo that I began to really worry that it couldn't possibly live up to the oasis it was in my head. Locals that speak English, food variety, good value accommodation, bike paths through spectacular mountain-scape that require no sweaty hill climbing... It couldn't possibly have it all.

Ohhh, but it did. And more.

The people who we really owe our fantastic Yangshuo experience to are a local Hungarian-Chinese couple, Atilla and Candy, whom we met through couchsurfing. And no, Atilla wasn't even the Han (pronounced 'Hun') of the pair, much to the chagrin of Jonathan's nickname scheming mind! Atilla is an English teacher at one of the biggest English Colleges in Yangshuo: Zhou Yue English College. If we volunteered a mere two hours a night to chat with a small English class, then the school would provide free lunch, dinner and a room! What a deal! In the end, we only took advantage of the free dinner, but for any traveller whose budget needs a break, its a really great offer. The students at Zhou Yue are all adults and very, VERY dedicated to learning English. They are from all over China, and have quit their jobs to improve their English. They want better jobs and more opportunities and see English as an essential skill. Their day starts at 8am and the learning doesn't stop until 8:30pm! As with our other volunteering experiences, we really feel as though we got much more out of our time with the students than they could have possibly gotten from us.

Our weekday evenings started with dinner at 530pm. We joined the students at big round tables in the dining hall and tried our very best to keep up with their swift chopstick mastery. They eat SO fast. Within twenty minutes the students would be gone and only us volunteers would be left, overwhelmed by the whirlwind, wondering what happened to all that food that had been piled on the table mere moments earlier. It vanished. By the last week, one of the students, Gunner, who had taken a particular liking to Jonathan (don't they all?) had decided that he was going to personally make sure that Jonathan left the dinner table full. Usually only two of the five dishes on the table were vegetarian. In China, the dishes are set in the middle of the table. Everyone has a small bowl of rice in front of them and uses the chopsticks to pick the food from the communal dishes, a bite or two at a time and put it into their rice bowl. Gunner didn't like that Jonathan only got to pick from two of the fast-disappearing dishes. How could he get enough? Gunner would get extra little bowls for Jonathan and fill them with the vegetarian dishes and put them in front of Jonathan. He would then instruct the rest of the table that they were only to eat from Jonathan's dishes as a last choice, if they happened to still be hungry when all the other food on the table was gone. It was really sweet, and really funny.

The most amazing thing for us was actually being able to communicate with Chinese people. After dinner all the volunteers were sent to different classes, armed with a nightly topic with the only instructions being to 'just talk.' It could have been a painful and awkward two hours, but it never was. The minutes flew by and by 830 I was making lists of all the questions and topics I wanted to discuss the next night with my next group of victims..ahem, students. We had come half way across the world to visit China and because of our lack of Chinese and their lack of English, we hadn't really had the opportunity to communicate with many folks, expect one couple we met in Fenghuang. Until now. Every night for two hours we sat in different classrooms and discussed various topics with the students. They got to practice their speaking and listening to our different accents and we got to hear so many fascinating opinions, life stories, insights and legends of the Chinese.

I can't say enough good things about our experience at Zhou Yue. We talked to real people about what it was like to work in Chinese factories, the conditions, the pay, the hours, the clients. We talked about Chinese geography and all the small towns or ginormous cities the students came from. We talked about politics, religion, food and family. We covered life aspirations, marriage, kids and the generation gap between young adults and their parents. We discussed China's one child policy, it's 52 minority groups, its 1.3 billion strong population and the languages that all these people speak. For example, every person spoke a local dialect from their village (they are so modest that they don't even consider this a language, since its not usable outside their village) and Chinese (Mandarin), many spoke Cantonese and now English as well. 'How many languages do you speak?' they asked me. 'One, just English' I said. 'One and a half if you are willing to be generous enough to count my smattering of French,' I added to make myself feel better. 'No, but what about your mother tongue?' They asked, like I didn't quite get their question. 'No, just English,' I confirmed, 'That is my mother tongue.' 'No,' they persisted, 'Like what language did your parents teach you in your town when you were a child. What do they speak in your town?' And so on. I think by the time I left that night they still weren't sure if I was still just pulling their leg, trying to hide some dialect of secret obscure 'Canadiana Canoe' language from them or something. We talked about travel, how hard it is for Chinese to obtain passports, and what they think of the ballooning western influence. They were fascinated by every detail of our lives. Where we worked, how many people were in our family, how much money we made, what kind of car we drove, why we came to China, where we came from, where we were going, did we like Chinese food, what do people eat in Canada, do they like Chinese food, what is this 'Chinatown' they have heard about, what did we think of China before we came here, what do we think about it now, could we speak Chinese, did we think it would be hard to learn, why are my eyes green, were my parent's eyes green, what about my sister's, no, why not? Most importantly, did we like the movie 'Titanic' and did we know every word to Celine's classic 'My heart will go on?' (Seriously, they are obsessed with this movie and this song). Romantics, all of them. When we told them that James Cameron, the director of the film was from our home town and that Celine was a fellow Canadian we were pretty much promoted to celebrities ourselves. Who'd have thought... only in China. haha

PS. Just an update on our postal situation: So far four of the five packages have made it safely home, and the only one that hasn't, isn't due to arrive until next month, so we still have high hopes for that one too! (ya!) Thanks for those who let me know that their China postcards have been arriving! That's exciting. Turns out the stamps do work! Now just for some Nepal arrivals. I wonder as well, Gina, where does this lost mail go? I mean, it must be somewhere...

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Walk like a Tibetan

Xiahe, (or Labrang, as the Tibetans call it) the town that gave us the boot, despite the drama, was a fantastic place. A town of little more than one main street, Xiahe had all the elements that makes a town one of our choice places: affordable accomodation, good, cheap food, comfortable temperature, interesting culture, and easily accessible nature for hiking.
Xiahe's population, according to our guidebook is fifty percent Tibetan. The town is built around the large, active Labrang monastery, home to around 1200 crimson clad monks.

Xiahe is a busy place in the summer. Colourful, traditional Tibetan pilgrims from the rural countryside arrive by the truckload to pray at the monastery. Its amazing to see. Most of the worshipers spend time everyday walking the 'kora' (pilgrim path), a 3km path that rings the monastery, lined with 1174 colourful prayer wheels. Most simply walk, spinning the prayer wheels as they pass, but some prostrate themselves on the ground, with every step- the entire way around! Tibetans are fascinating to me. The way they dress, their faith, the colours, their smiles.. Most female Tibetans wear a skirt, which looks like a solid colour blanket has been wrapped around their waists and secured in a huge, lumpy fold with a belt lined with gold medallions. Their long black hair is always swiped off their face either tied into a low bun, or two (very long) braids which are tied together at the bottom. They wear fantastic turquoise and orange clunky jewellery, which compliments their skin tone and look perfectly. Their facial features are big and beautiful, and their skin is dark, flawless and smooth. Their cheeks are literally rosy all the time- natural blush! Except for the older Tibetans, of course, whose faces are so wonderfully weathered and wrinkled and almost always smiling. Babies are slung around the backs of their mothers and bounce along happily for the ride, taking in the world with wide, black eyes.

One of our favourite things to do in Xiahe was to join the pilgrims in walking the kora.  I spent most of the time practicing my local Tibetan. 'Cho Day Mo?,' (How do you do?) I would recite to almost every person we passed, just hoping to be rewarded with a big ol' Tibetan smile- because when a Tibetan smiles at you, really, there's nothing like it. Its worth the effort. Its an ear-to-ear, full-on delight. Gold teeth glimmer, their eyes shine, their whole face becomes a part of the smile. Its so genuine. They are actually happy just to be smiling at you. Its like a little ball of happiness floats out of them and pops, with surprising impact- into your chest. Its one of the most amazing half second experiences I can think of- or maybe I've just been drinking a little too much yak milk by accident...

One of the favourite things for elderly Tibetan woman to do, while walking the kora, is to swat at wandering goats, sheep and dogs with their canes. They just love it. While everyone else is gathered around, watching two mountain goats battle it out by smashing each other, head on, with their horns, and old lady will no doubt sweep in a break up the party with her crooked walking stick, all the while, not missing a beat on the prayer beads she is fingering with her free hand! haha

The Tibetans are inquisitive. There were quite a few student artists in town sketching the beautiful surrounds and people. Almost always the students sketchbooks would be surrounded by Tibetans watching, amazed, as the student sketched their friend, a chapel, or a couple goats. There was one particularly interested Tibetan man who stood and watched, smiling widely, showing off his gold teeth the whole time. When he noticed us watching him watch the artist, his smile got even wide (somehow) and he started snapping pics of us with his cell phone camera, and tried to convince the artist that she should sketch us instead!

We are back in the land of the yak. I was super excited about this when we saw our first yaks grazing at side of the highway on the bus ride in. Yaks, as I've mentioned before- are just so entertaining, in their yakky way. But then, I realized, yaks = yak milk. 'Is your milk tea made with yak milk?' I asked the server at our restaurant. 'Of course,' he answered like I had asked him if the grass was green. Darn. Yak milk is, well, for a lack of better words - yakky. Anyways, many more things are available to buy in Xiahe, besides yak products. Tibetan clothes and jewellery, monk robes and boots, Tibetan bread with bright yellow colouring, various knick knacks, toilet paper, and Chips'Ahoy chewy chocolate chip cookies. We didn't suffer.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Dear Canada Post...

Good news: Another eighty (yes, 80) postcards have been written, addressed and are all ready to be sent from the wonderful country of Nepal to all you! Woohoo! Now for the bad news: If you happen to be one of the seventy (yes, 70) Canadian recipients, don't go popping those champagne bottles just yet. Again, our arch nemisis, the Canada Post Strike has reared its ugly head. And, oh yes, I know that the postal strike has been over for a good month now. Unfortunately, no one else has got the memo. We trucked down to the Kathmandu Post Office, conveniently located between our guesthouse and the movie theatre showing the new Harry Potter in 3D. (Now, there's something to celebrate!) The entrance to the Capital city's main post office is, of course, hidden down an alley, behind a building, in the exact opposite direction that the big red arrow labelled in capital letters: 'STAMPS' is pointing. Obviously. 'Namaste! Seven stamps for Europe, one for New Zealand, two for the US and seventy for Canada, please,' I requested. The post man looked at me over his wire rim glasses. 'No Canada,' he said. ER. Not, this again! In China, they refused to mail our package to Canada, and we had to carry the postcards around for weeks looking for a post office that would accept our postcards, as 'the stamps don't work.' Its getting to be really frustrating. Seriously. We just wrote seventy post cards! The hand cramp has barely subsided and now Mr. Postman is telling me it was all a big waste of time! 'Why no Canada?' I asked, just for the fun of it. 'There are troubles in Canada,' Mr.Postman informs me. I almost smiled. Troubles? Isn't that term reserved for Northern Ireland? ER. 'The stupid post strike is OVER! For a MONTH at least!,' I want to yell. I don't, because it wouldn't make a difference. The only bright side to this is that we are saving ourselves from licking the back of seventy Nepali stamps... for now.

The new plan is to hunt around the tourist postcard shops for one that may have seventy stamps hanging about. You never know. And then we will drop our sizable stack of cards into a postbox and pray for some sort of heavenly intervention (a postal intervention (whatever that might be) would even do!), or maybe even just a memo from Canada Post to the rest of the world. 'Dear World: Please stop torturing Kristen and send the stupid postcards, already. Love, Canada Post.' A little dramatic? Perhaps. I'll accept the criticism if someone will just mail my postcards. Do you know how long it takes to individually select, write and address eighty postcards? About five ginormous pots of chai- as an estimate. haha Don't get me wrong, I love shopping for things (even postcards) and we like writing them too... when there is a possibility that they might actually make it to their recipients.

So, complaining aside, if any of our fellow Canadian residents actually receive a postcard from China or Nepal, let us know! If you haven't received a postcard from us from anywhere, then we don't have your address- send it our way and we will hook you up... assuming, of course that some country we visit in the next five months will agree to mail anything to Canada. Fingers crossed.

So, all this whining to 'mail' this message:

Dear Countries of the World: Canada Post is no longer on strike!

Dear Canada Post: Kindly inform the countries of the world that you are no longer on strike! Please. Pretty Please. With stamps on top?

Knock on wood: I hope this annoyance does not jinx the arrival of any of our current/future packages. So far, we have been very lucky- four out of the five packages we've sent have safely arrived home...on a positive note.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Gettin' the Boot

So. Surely you've heard of (or perhaps even experienced) getting kicked out of a bar, or a party, or, if you've been really naughty, out of an entire country, but how about getting kicked out of a city? Well, not surprisingly, that's how they roll over here in China. We are in the charming Tibetan town of Xiahe, (sometimes referred to as Labrang, after the town's Tibetan monastery) out in the high Tibetan plateau- and we have really been enjoying the town's laid back atmosphere- until this morning, that is. We went for breakfast and then trucked down to the bus station to buy a bus ticket to our next town for tomorrow. We jostled and pushed the old people with pointy elbows, as you do here, because, why wait in line when you can push? Why does everyone think that their tickets are more important than everyone else's? We left the bus station with significantly less patience and slightly bruised ribs. Sigh. Why, China, why? We did manage to procure a couple overpriced bus tickets in the process though (but don't get me started on Mrs. Rip Off behind the ticket counter).

We stopped back in at our hotel to grab some water for our hike up into the foothills. 'So, the police came by,' the Tibtan hotel proprietor, Thering started with. Always a comforting way to be greeted. Immediately my heart started to beat a bit quicker. Scenarios ran through my head. Now what had we done? Had they overheard us talking about the ridiculous Tibet-China relations? Were we complaining about the nonsensical bureaucracy too loudly? Too often? Too truthfully? Not paid enough stupendous entry fees? Had they randomly decided to cancel our visa (that they had already short- changed us on?) Had I actually given that lady in the bus station a bloody nose? (haha- no, I was just dreaming that I could have... right?).

'The police came by and said I had to kick all foreigners out of the hotel- right now,' Thering informed us grimly. We stared at him blank faced. This was a new (especially ridiculous) one. We both blanked out and just stood there, blinking at poor Thering. He waited for a few moments. 'Do you understand?' He finally asked. 'Ummmm?' My blood pressure was rising. Especially after our near brawl just trying to get stupid bus tickets, I was not in the mood for this. I tried to take a deep breath, but I think it just made the steam visibly blow out of my ears. 'Of course, I refused,' Thering continued, 'But they aren't happy. I don't know what will happen now. Not even the local police officer knew why I had to kick you out.' I was about to burst, my (miniscule amount) of patience completely dissolved. 'Here's an idea! Why don't you call that police officer back down here and he can explain to me himself where, exactly he would like us to go right now, and how he would like us to get there!!' We had already paid for the night at the hotel AND as I might have mentioned, bought a bus ticket for the next morning. 'Oh and he can pay us back for the hotel room and tickets!' If the police wanted us to go somewhere then they better be ready to play taxi. Of course, I didn't say any of this. Because Jonathan said, 'Ok, well we will go for a walk, and hopefully you'll know more when we get back.' Sigh. Apparently my husband had other plans for the night, besides me sitting in some dirty Chinese jail cell.

I was seeing everything in red, and not the Communist Party of China shade either. We needed some fresh air and a bit of empty space away from the polluted, exhaust-fumed main street. We hiked up into the beautiful green foothills and found a perfectly peaceful spot to sit and decompress, breathe some relatively fresh air, and just enjoy where we were. By the time we got back to town, a few hours later, we felt ready to handle whatever shenanigans that we were unwillingly about to be part of. We turned a corner around a monastery and noticed three uniformed military officers. We stopped dead. Should we hide? Just stroll past nonchalantly? Pretend that we were Tibetan (haha)? We looked around. No cover except maybe if we crouched behind that goat eating plastic in the corner. Darn. Having never been in such a situation, we weren't sure what our appropriate action should be. Thankfully, before we did anything too embarrassing, the three officers hailed a cab and hopped in, apparently not concerned about us at all. Phew. The world doesn't revolve around us, we realize again. (As an aside, China has achieved an impressive degree of efficiency in handing out this helpful reminder to us). Then we noticed a few other foreigners mingling about. That was good news for us. We were still a bit bewildered though. What the heck was going on? This is nuts. Are we actually going to get kicked out of here?

Back in our hotel's tea house we finally caught wind of the (rumored) scoop. The Panchen Lama was coming to town! I'm sure you all know who the Panchen Lama is, but the cursory explanation on Wikipedia is disturbing, yet still somewhat entertaining: "The Panchen Lama is the highest ranking Lama after the Dalai Lama in the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism of (the sect which controlled western Tibet from the 16th Century until the forceful imposition of Chinese rule in 1951). The present (11th) incarnation of the Panchen Lama is a matter of controversy: the People's Republic of China asserts it is Qoigyijabu (Gyancain Norbu), while the current Dalai Lam, Tenzin Gyatso, name Gedhun Choekya Nyima on May 14, 1995. The latter vanished from public eye shortly after being name, aged six. Chinese authorities stated that Gedhun had been taken into protective custody and is not safe, but there is no information regarding from what, or from whom, he must be protected, where he is being held, or under what conditions." (

As another aside, whether you have an interest in Tibetan Buddhism or not, we would really encourage you to read a small bit of background on the social and political tensions regarding at least this particular issue in Sino-Tibetan relations. Anyone who has written an academic essay since Wikipedia has been available online knows that the website is only a starting point into issues, but it is a helpful start, nonetheless. Here is the Wikipedia article on the Dalai Lama-appointed Panchen Lama and here is the article on the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama. If something in these short articles fires you up, find out more!

So, the Dalai Lama has chosen the next Panchen, but China has taken it upon themselves to pick a different one. 'Sorry Mr. Lama, you have chosen your people's leader incorrectly. We are the Chinese government, we know better.' And 'poof' the Panchen Lama chosen by the Dalai Lama himself disappears. Just as an 'entertaining' aside, the Panchen Lama is usually chosen by the Dalai Lama after an extensive, complicated, long process. The Chinese-chosen Panchen Lama's name was chosen out of a 'golden urn' (aka: hat) from a handful of pre-approved people. Jeez. Like someone from somewhere said 'why read fiction when reality is so entertaining.' I guess it will be easier to control Tibetans if you hand picked their leader. Crazy, right?

So anyways, apparently the (fake) Panchen Lama was coming to town and the police wanted all the foreigners out. Maybe they were going to roll him in with tanks? Maybe they didn't want any foreigners to see him? Maybe they figured the Tibetans would protest or stage some sort of opposition to their future, Chinese-chosen leader? Maybe China didn't want foreigners to see how the police deal with rowdy Tibetans? I have no idea. But whatever their reasoning - we were out of there. Gettin' the Boot. ASAP. Well, they were kind enough to let us stay that night, at least. Maybe because there was enough of us foreigners there to put up a significant fuss that they didn't want to deal with. But first thing the next morning, we all had to leave. It was all just so...China. Again this country has evoked in us intense, overwhelmingly, contradictory feelings. China is fantastic, frustrating, fascinating and infuriating, and it somehow manages to be all this and more, at the exact same time.

p.s Happy Birthday Lise!!
p.p.s. Happy 300 days of travel to us! Can you believe it?!

pps Have a safe flight home, Looch. We'll be thinking about you and all the fun being had at Lingermore this week!