Only Planet

One Child, One Year, One Planet. A family of three traveling around the world...

You can contact us at werkingwells (at) gmail . com

Monday, September 26, 2005

Beijing China: Ka-ching in Communist China!

Days are flying by while we are in Beijing. We try not to do too much, but find that there is always one more attraction to visit and getting there is always a time sink. We are relatively spoiled in Portland in that we can hop in our car and get to almost anywhere we’d want to be in less than 20 minutes. Here in Asia, it’s a different story. The cities are immense, kind of like in the LA area, and it doesn’t matter if you are taking a cab, subway or bus, it takes a long time to get anywhere.

One of our destinations was the Lama Temple, Yong He Gong, the largest Tibetan temple in Beijing. Before we get too “templed out” and start viewing all the temples in Asia as the Temple of Doom, we thought we’d try to see this one, when we still appreciate the awesome architecture and beauty. While I’ll save any political commentary for after we get out of China, take note that it is a beautiful place, made even more special by seeing the monks chanting their ancient scripts and the clouds of incense wafting past.

After visiting the temple we took a stroll in hutong. A hutong is a traditional Chinese neighborhood, usually a set of buildings built around a courtyard which interconnect with other buildings and courtyards. Some of these must date to before the Forbidden City was built because these places look ancient. Many are being razed down at an alarming rate due to modernization, which is sad because they are a living record of historical China. I’ve read that many Chinese don’t mind, since they would rather live in something that had central heat, air conditioning and decent plumbing (in many you have to walk down the block to use the public toilet), but it seems sad that there could be a day when hutongs no longer exist.
We’ve been good consumers here in China and have taken the Party’s command to go out and shop to heart. We’ve shopped the Panjiayuan Market (aka the dirt market) where vendors set up their wares every weekend, selling to 50,000 visitors a day. Amazing things can be bought there: cultural revolution memorabilia, large stone Buddhas, jewelry, reproduction Ming dynasty furniture, ceramics, posters and traditional handiwork, mass produced in China and often sold for ridiculously low prices. Andy gets into the swing of bargaining and can get some good prices on things. I tend to be a lot less aggressive and don’t want to dicker over what ends up in the end being about 50 cents, but after being in China for a couple of weeks, even I cringe when someone tries to offer me a t-shirt for 110 yuan ($14), knowing that I could get it for 8 ($1).
Andy had been saying that he needed to get a haircut, and we saw the perfect opportunity the other day. While I had visions of him contracting hepatitis B, tetanus, or—god forbid—AIDS should he get nicked with one of the barber’s blades, Andy calmly sat in the chair and came away relatively unscathed with a stylish haircut that cost him $2.50.
Yesterday we climbed around on the Great Wall (GW). It’s kind of a no-brainer to make the decision to climb the wall; after all, we’ve come all the way to China, and we could hear the chorus now: “You didn’t go to the Great Wall of China?” But getting there proved a bit more challenging. There are a few ways of getting to the Great Wall, which is an hour or two (depending upon which way you go) out of Beijing. The more traditional and easy route is to sign up with a bus tour, or go with the tour group you’re seeing China with, and go to Badaling. From what we’ve heard, Badaling is a the place to go if you want to see the Great Wall along with a million or so other tourists as you wind through the souvenir stalls, trip over guard rails and get pushed along with the crowd through the towers.

Another way you can see the GW is to hire your own private taxi, negotiate a price (we’ve heard that 400-500 yuan is fair) and go with your own agenda. A good idea, but seeing that we’ve yet to meet a taxi driver who spoke enough English to enter a negotiation, let alone a cab comfortable enough to travel an hour and a half with, and you get the picture: it wasn’t happening for us.

Here’s the Werking Wells way to see the GW. First, chose another section to visit. We chose, upon Andrea’s recommendation, to go to Mutianyu, which is about 2.5 hours outside of Beijing. Andy got on the internet and after spending a couple hours reading about possible ways to get there, found a company called and was able to get us a minivan tour with a guide for 190 yuan a piece. We shared the bus with our tour guide “Robin” and a British couple, Irene and Stuart, who all proved most agreeable companions. The wall was amazing. There were many towers to explore, and we could see the wall snaking off into the mountains. The most amazing thing about our visit to the GW was that there were sections where we were the ONLY people there. We explored for a couple of hours and then took the alpine slide (which is a lot like one we took in Colorado, minus the seat belts and other safety features) down the hill and met up with the others for our trip back to town. We thought the best way we could end the day was getting a foot massage, and after I called to make an appointment for Andy and me to get one, we heard a small tap on our door and two masseurs came into our room and gave us each a 45 minute foot massage. Total cost $6 for each!

Friday, September 23, 2005

Beijing China: Sprucing up for 2008

There’s always an incentive to pick up the house and perhaps remodel the bathroom when company you want to impress comes to town, and it's no exception here in Beijing, where the city is slated to host their first summer Olympics in 2008. While we’ve seen the Temple of Heaven and large chunks of the Forbidden City under scaffolding, it hasn’t taken away from the allure and grandeur that is Beijing. If you had to compare Beijing to Shanghai, using analogies of American cities, Shanghai is like NYC and LA with a bit of Vegas thrown in for good measure. The fast, financial heart, boasting incredible outwordly architecture. Whereas Beijing would be like Washington DC, with its wide boulevards and monuments everywhere-- except neither city is really its American counterpart, for they are uniquely China!

We arrived in Beijing at 7:26 am having taken the overnight train (Z8) from Shanghai, which was a novel experience. Dylan hopes to write about it in her blog, so we’ll save that story for her. Although Shanghai has a larger population, it feels more crowded here in Beijing. We tried to get in a line for a taxi from the train station, but the wait was literally over an hour long, so we jumped on the metro to get us anywhere out of the crowds. Yeah, right. Like that was possible. But we did manage to get a taxi which grossly overcharged us (we paid $6 instead of $1.25, the going rate) but got us to our hotel. After deciding upon a room and settling in, we knew we had to plan the next two steps of our China trip now, or we would be stranded in Beijing for weeks. October 1 is National Day in China, the day they commemorate Chairman Mao’s creation of the People’s Republic of China. Not only is the day itself a major holiday, the Chinese have stretched it out to a week long vacation where millions of Chinese decide to take to the roads at the exact same time!!! We were unable to get a train out of Beijing to Xian within a week of when we wanted to leave, but we are able to catch a plane out a few days before the holiday starts.

While we’ve been in China, two different friends have been in Beijing. We were not able to hook up with our friend Chris Johnson (who Loey met up with in Seoul last year) but we were able to spend our first evening and full day in Beijing with our friends Don and Nancy and their kids Jakob and Victoria. (Andy and Don went to high school together in Bozeman, went to Dartmouth at the same time and met their wives at the same baby government event in ’85! We like to joke that they have parallel lives.) Don and Nancy were in town after spending five weeks in China with their work, and it was a special treat to just hang out with them at a great restaurant they scoped out in their neighborhood, and spend an afternoon with them walking around the Summer Palace.
Yesterday (Friday here) we struck out on our own and visited Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City (which the Chinese are trying to get the world to call the Palace Museum). Tiananmen Square has become a bit more user friendly since Mao’s day, or even in 1989 when the image of a student facing down a tank was seared into the collective conscious. Today’s Tiananmen had a huge model of the city, decked out with hundreds of thousands of flowers and complete with windmills, which we thought were promoting alternative energy. Hundreds of tour groups with their flag waving guides were hanging out around the square and city (the majority being Chinese and other Asian groups, followed by the Europeans) and the presence of a couple guards did not diminish the festive, almost frenetic atmosphere of the world’s largest public square.
Okay, if you’ve seen the movie the Last Emperor, when two year old emperor Puyi walks out of the palace and a bazillion people prostrate themselves before him, you can get an idea of the size and scope of the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was built a few years before Columbus stumbled on the shores of America (1430) and was the exclusive conclave of a number of emperors. It boasts 800 buildings, over 9000 rooms and is the imperial heart of historic China. I told Dylan we were going to visit all 9000 rooms, which for some reason she didn’t think was funny. All in all very impressive, huge and a “must see” in China.
One of the things we wanted to try while in town was Peking Duck. Our helpful concierge made us reservations to the Qianmen Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant, the oldest and most famous duck restaurant in Beijing (they have a picture of Fidel Castro dining here, as well as George Bush Sr. poking a duck with his finger). It’s become a place for the tourists, and even the Lonely Planet says you have to be completely quackers to miss.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Shanghai China: “Psychos or drunkards without guardians are prohibited to take taxis.”

Somehow this sign, which we read in one of our cabs, seems befitting for Shanghai, the Pearl of the Orient, Paris of the East; where anything that makes money goes. This is modern China, a go-go city that has a long history steeped in illegal, illicit and just plain illogical behavior, where communism appears to be eclipsed by capitalism. It seems that most tourists either bypass or give short shrift to Shanghai for the more historically rich cities of Beijing and Xian, yet we are not disappointed that we are spending a considerable amount of time in China’s largest city.

Shopping seems to be a favorite pastime here, and why not? With every type of market, from open air stands to the poshest air conditioned malls, anything can be had for a price, and it’s often a very low one. On our second full day in Shanghai we met Andrea, Priscilla and Roger at the Peace Hotel which sits on the Bund, Shanghai’s most famous street. During the 1930’s and 1940’s expats would hang out in the jazz bar or sip cocktails on the roof garden watching the river and, in later times, soldiers pass them by. Today we could stroll along the street, admiring the views across the river of the postmodern skyline, dominated by the Oriental Pearl TV tower, which contrasted with the art deco buildings on the Bund, built by foreigners who made their fortunes in Shanghai. Then we went to a cloth market, where you can choose fabrics and have custom-made clothes created within days. Loey found some embroidered silk that is being made into a hip length coat for mere dollars, and Andy found many people vying to make him a suit, and chose a custom-tailored wool/cashmere model that will cost about $50.

We also cruised the Xiangyang market, where any kind of knock-off product can be found for cheap. The vendors are especially aggressive and come up to you saying, “Mister, watch, Rolex, you want?” or “DVD’s, Game Boy, souvenirs, we have, you come and offer price.” We told Dylan that we didn’t want to buy anything and so she was our front person, fending off the sellers.
Vendor: “You want purse, Coach?”
Dylan: “No”
Vendor: “Pen, mont blanc?”
Dylan “No”
Vendor: trying to make eye contact
Dylan: “No, no, no, no!”
You get the picture. She was saying no before they could even ask, and we were cracking up, as well as some of the people selling stuff, at her cool ability to Just Say NO!!!

Speaking of DVD’s, it’s totally possible to get the newest releases from someone who has set up shop on the street. These are movies now in the theatres: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Batman Begins, and Madagascar can be had for about 10 yuan ($1.25) apiece. We were able to check out a copy of Batman Begins at our lodging; the entire movie was in Russian, while the English subtitles were for an entirely different show! I guess you get what you pay for.

We’ve also been to a great performance of the Shanghai Acrobatics Troupe,

strolled through the Shanghai museum, visited the Yuyuan Gardens,

where we got the best dumplings in Shanghai,

and ate at a Uighur (pronounced wee-ger, in far northwest China) restaurant which featured camel’s hoof and sheeps' eyeballs on the menu!

Next to this razzle-dazzle of shopping exists some abject poverty. In Shanghai you don’t hide the poor people in poor parts of town like we can in the U.S. Right next to our very comfortable “luxury” apartment building is a semi-vacant lot. It looks like most of the buildings were razed so that a new building could be built on the lot. However, on the edges of this lot are a few half-standing buildings that look like they were bombed out or something, and people are living in these places. There can’t be electricity or water, and since half of the walls are gone, there is no insulation from the weather. We’ve watched children running around these buildings and people bathing out of buckets. We’ve seen people going through the trash the minute we threw away something and last night I gave some money to a woman who was begging while carrying an infant. What is depressing is that we know this is not the worst poverty we will encounter, and that while these buildings are totally unfit as homes, when they do build here, these people will lose even these meager structures to protect them.

It’s hard to believe that we’ve been gone for just a month. On most days it feels like we’ve been traveling for years and we hope that given the length of time that we are in China, as well as on the road, we can slow down and just savor local life a bit more. We’re headed for Beijing next, and the weather is supposed to be much more comfortable there (about 22C [70F] instead of 34C [95F] here in Shanghai), so we’re looking forward to spending more time outside with local people and less time tring to find air conditioning.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Shanghai China: On a Slow Boat

Forget SARS, Avian Bird Flu or even death by Drunken Noodle. What we fear might kill us in China is the traffic, both in the car and as a pedestrian! We’ve crammed more into 24 hours in China than it feels like we did in the past two weeks! Monday we arrived at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport and were greeted by our friend Kara’s brother Tom and his wife Andrea. Tom and Andrea are from Vancouver Washington and Boise Idaho, respectively, but they’ve lived in Shanghai for the past seven years and navigate the language, city and cars like locals. They and their adorable baby Roger (15 months old) are helping us get acclimated not only to Shanghai but to China. After getting settled into our 1 bedroom apartment at the World Union, a serviced apartment building (our room is costing us a cool 600 yuan per night—about $75—but that comes with a washer and dryer, kitchen, TV, DVD player, sporadic maid service and a fantastic location—not a bad deal), we headed for some dim sum a short drive away. We savored bao, fried wontons, shrimp dumplings, noodles, and more dishes than I can remember. Dylan’s comment was that it was the best Chinese food she’s ever eaten, which is kind of funny since she’s really getting it from China! After a great dinner and fun visit, we made plans to get together in the morning with Andrea and her mom Priscilla (who is visiting). Andrea had reserved a van and private driver so that we could go visit a small town in the country.

Shanghai is just across the East China Sea from Japan and Korea and is a city split east and west by the Huangpu River. Lakes and canals frame the outlaying areas, and through many searches on the internet and her own research, Andrea found a small “authentic” canal town, as opposed to the more popular touristed towns with canals like Suzhou, all of which bill themselves the Venice of the Orient. We were all set to go, but first we had to get there. This was the first time Andy, Dylan and I have really experienced third world traffic, and at moments we felt not only exhiliaration, but sheer terror. Not used to the constant honking, cars using lane markers as mere suggestions rather than rules, and seeing the shoulder of the freeway used as a third lane, we couldn’t stop shaking our head in disbelief. But it wasn’t until we got off the freeway and started driving the rural roads, that we looked at each other and said, well Toto, we’re not in Portland anymore! About an hour on the road, our driver started stopping people and asking them for directions to get us closer to the town we wanted to see. This didn’t seem to be a problem until he would stop in the middle of the left side of a narrow 2-lane road and a truck would be bearing down on us. Add the fact that the road was half ripped up (or perhaps it was half newly finished), and drivers were weaving in and out on one lane, avoiding the man pouring hot tar to seal the new concrete joints out of his teakettle, and we knew that no matter what greeted us at the end, the journey was already worth writing home about. We must note that we did not have seat belts, which is not unusual for cars anywhere outside of the U.S.

Once we arrived in the small town (I hate to give the name away, it’s not in the Lonely Planet, and it’s such a find), we bid farewell to the driver for the rest of the afternoon and went in search of a bathroom. But first we walked through a large building housing a market that had tubs of snakes, crabs, fish and frogs, trying to make their escape from certain death; butchers with chopped up pieces of what I can only guess were pigs, tons of vegetables and counters topped with huge bags of loose teas and jars of pickled vegetables. Dylan was freaking out about the smells (I didn’t show her the snakes), and we got our first glimpse of what a celebrity baby Roger is in China (with his blond hair and big eyes, riding in a high-tech backpack, he’s like a magnet for all the older people in the area).

After finding the bathrooms (essentially tiled troughs in the ground which we had to pay a cool 4 cents to use), we hired bicycle rickshaws to take us to the canals.

The canals, the 500 year old bridge(s) crossing them and the rows of tiny houses, beautiful, yet simple and so poor inside—it’s hard to believe that these same smiling people live in them—were just amazing.

We ducked into tiny courtyards that surprised us with amazing artwork and statues, shopped for some souvenirs that may have been created by the person who was selling them, and had a yummy lunch by the canal, then took a boat trip along one of the main waterways.

After wandering around the town for a few hours, we found different rickshaw drivers to carry us back to the van and started our 2+ hour journey back to Shanghai. Back in Shanghai , the three of us bid farewell to Andrea and her mom, with plans to meet up the next day on the Bund to explore the fabric market. We went out to dinner to the same place we went the night before, but to do that we had to walk there. This is when we started fearing for our lives as pedestrians. After a few scary crossings, dodging cars, bikes and scooters (the walk sign was on for us!!) we were determined to take a taxi back because Dylan was a inch from being killed and did not want to cross another street in Asia, but after waiting 20 minutes for an empty one to pass us, we gave up and walked back to our place, where we ended a well-traveled day.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The things we carried, then sent home

If you’ve been wondering whether that is the same black, green or pink shirt I’ve been wearing in all of the photos we’ve posted, the answer is yes. We left Portland with just the packs on our backs, but boy were they heavy. Andy’s weighed in at 44 lbs [20 kg], Loey’s at 26lbs [12 kg], and Dylan 18lbs [8 kg]. By the time we reached the airport (Portland’s!) we knew we had to lighten the load somehow. But how? It seemed through the process of packing again and again we had gotten down to just the bare minimums. But there was no way we could carry these loads through the streets of Tokyo, let alone through the rest of our trip. So, in three 10 lb [4.5 kg] loads, mixed in with the souvenirs, we’ve managed to mail home the following items that were in our packs:

  • GPS receiver
  • geocaching toys/stamps
  • 2 AA rechargeable batteries
  • Andy’s blue pants
  • 2 pr A’s socks
  • Loey’s black pants
  • Hairbrush
  • D’s spirograph
  • Castle In the Air book
  • Sushi playing cards
  • 3 small Nalgene bottles
  • The Good Earth book
  • Milo’s gift certificate
  • Andy’s blue oxford shirt
  • Loey’s tan skirt
  • Mouse for computer
  • D’s popper toys
  • Peak flow meter for asthma
  • Aerochamber for use with Qvar
  • Packing bag for day pack
  • Make-up bag
  • 1 pr L’s socks
  • L’s black cardigan sweater
  • A’s brown v-neck sweater
  • Japan Lonely Planet
  • Tokyo Lonely Planet
  • Korea Lonely Planet
  • L’s sarong
  • Loey’s Keens (shoes)
  • Andy’s white long-sleeve dress shirt
  • The Hobbit
  • Small black purse/day bag

So what are we still lugging around that weighs so much?
Andy is carrying 40 lbs [18 kg], (not a big drop, but he’s picked up a lot from Loey and Dylan’s bag) which includes:

  • A laptop computer
  • Plug-in and all paraphenalia for computer
  • Cellphone
  • Battery charger for camera
  • First aid kit
  • Medications
  • Allergy drugs
  • Laundry soap and sink stopper
  • Dylan’s homeschooling stuff
  • Packets of important documents
  • Padlock
  • 2 guidebooks
  • 1 date book
  • 3 journals
  • 2 fiction books
  • 1 pr long pants
  • 3 pair shorts (one is a swimsuit)
  • 3 t-shirts
  • 1 short sleeved, 1 long sleeved button-up shirt
  • 1 rain jacket
  • Tevas
  • Walking shoes
  • 6 pr socks and undies
  • Toiletry kit
  • Wallet with CD computer backups
  • Backpack for day tripping

Loey is now carrying 22 lbs [10 kg], her stuff includes:

  • 3 sleep sacks
  • 1 swimsuit
  • 2 pr pants
  • 2 pr shorts
  • 5 short sleeved t-shirts
  • 1 long sleeved t-shirt
  • Loey & Dylan’s rain coats
  • 1 pr. Birkenstocks
  • 1 pr walking shoes
  • Dylan’s Keens
  • Toiletry kit
  • Bag of ziploc bags
  • Gifts for people we meet on the road
  • 6 pr. Undies, 6 bras, 4 pr socks
  • Pair of shoelaces
  • Bandana
  • Office (a ziploc bag with sharpie marker, scissors, scotch tape, safety pin, rubberband, and 2 pens)
  • Camera
  • Lovely lavender sachet to make it all smell good

Dylan’s back is weighing in at a more manageable 11 lbs [5 kg]. She is schlepping around:

  • 2 pr pants
  • 2 skorts
  • 1 pr shorts
  • 4 short sleeved t-shirts
  • 1 long sleeved t-shirt
  • 1 tank top
  • 1 light cardigan
  • 1 nightshirt
  • 1 swimsuit & goggles
  • 6 pr undies
  • 4 pr of socks.
  • Flip flops (she wears her walking shoes when carrying the pack)
  • Tolietry kit
  • Tiny bag of toys (uno cards, deck of cards, travel rats, cat’s cradle string, Totoro)
  • Book & handwriting book

The most amazing thing is that through all of our moves since June the only things we’ve lost (knock on wood) are one of Dylan’s favorite socks & Loey’s watch.
Stuff bought on the road is being shipped home with our stuff we’ve decided we can’t carry.

Seoul, South Korea: All roads lead to Seoul—ours has been a rocky one!

All roads, tracks and flights in South Korea lead to Seoul. This ultra-huge, fairly modern city is the heart and (soul?) of South Korea and half of the country’s population lives in the greater Seoul area. Last year I (Loey) traveled to Korea for two weeks for the first international gathering of Korean adoptees hosted in the motherland. During that time I was able to visit the Gyeongbuk Palace, some temples, Namdemun Gate, and many sights around the city. Andy had been to Seoul a couple years ago for business, but only for a couple of days, and we’ve never traveled in the city together. We had hoped to take Dylan around for some sightseeing, but after some pretty hard and fast traveling in Japan, we watched Dylan hit a wall with her patience for the grownups, and so decided to take a break from being tourists while in Seoul.

It all started in Busan, when after a particularly brutal game of Uno, Dylan came sobbing to me with the following complaints:
1-She hates being on company behavior at strangers’ homes.
2-She hates that we and the other families think that she’s going to be friends with another kid that she’s never even met.
3-She hates that we are ALWAYS on the move.
4-She misses her friends and her house.
5-She hates this trip and feels kidnapped.
6-She hates being constantly jostled and knocked about by the local Koreans, with no apologies coming forth.
And finally:
7-She hates being constantly touched and petted by the locals. (At this I told her that she is like a cute bunny rabbit that people want to pet, and her response was that “maybe a bunny rabbit doesn’t want to be petted!”)

Throughout this entire process—selling the house, long trips to Colorado and Montana, moving from house to house in Portland and even traveling through Japan— Dylan has been a real trooper and has made an occasional complaint, but never lost it quite like this. While we knew that it might happen, the timing was a little uncomfortable since we were staying with people, and we just tried to calm her down, hug her and talk her off the roof. I think she has absolutely valid points and so we left for Seoul with the plan of taking some serious R&R, no sightseeing, just lounging around in the luxury of our room at the Sofitel, with a few shopping trips for necessary items, like books and a birthday gift for her cousin.

Dressed in traditional Korean hanboks--like Loey's hair?

I have had my own frustrations while being in Seoul. Never more than here have I wished to have blonde hair, blue eyes and be five feet tall! I think non-Koreans here can be afforded the luxury of not being able to speak the language and having problems negotiating the city, because everyone sees them as what they are—foreign visitors—and either accords them the respect offered to a guest from out of town or (the more likely response) politely ignoring them. For me, though, I get exasperation or confusion. I look like everyone else, so why don’t I speak the language? If I start an interaction with the Korean greeting “Anyeong Haseyo,” I immediately get spoken to in Korean (makes sense) but no matter how much I protest that I know nothing beyond hello and goodbye, many storekeepers, especially the older ones, just start talking louder.

While in Seoul, we got the tragic news that a brother of a dear friend of ours died in a hang gliding accident. He was only 33, and it came as a complete shock and senseless tragedy. We knew that our lengthy travels would mean we may be gone for some very good things that we would want to share with our friends and family as well as some very bad things, but this was totally unexpected.

There were some highlights in Seoul. We spent an enjoyable day at Lotte World, the largest indoor amusement park in the world (or so it claims), walked around the Olympic Park, had an wonderful lunch with Dr. Choi, who we met in Portland when we hosted him for dinner through the World Affairs Council and discovered small shops in Insadong, Itaewon, and Namdemun.

Andy and Dr. Choi enjoying a traditional Korean meal

On Monday we fly to Shanghai China. I’ve had a few trepidations about travel in China: the language barrier, the chances of picking up SARS or avian flu, and the crowds, but we know the sights are going to be fantastic and hope the weather continues to cool down. We may have trouble posting our blog in China, since the government has cracked down on access to blogspot. We will either try to post via email, send e-mails to Andy’s dad to post (last we heard Bozeman was pretty open to the internet!), or wait till we get out of the country. I think you can still send us regular e-mails, although any coming to us in pig latin might raise suspicions.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Busan South Korea: Depending Upon the Kindness of Strangers

Here's how to break up the monotony of staying in hotels, and ease the challenges of navigating a strange new city, while having more in-depth conversations with the locals: take a note from Blanche DuBois and depend upon the kindness of strangers, visiting people in their homes! We decided that we would try to stay with some families while in Busan South Korea, since there were a large number of Servas members willing to host families. We also had no idea of how we wanted to spend our time in Busan since we didn't know what the sights were, so it seemed to be not only a good time, but a good city, to ask the locals show us the sights. We stayed with three different families and had three very unique experiences of Busan Korea.

Highlights of Busan:
* Kim Joong-Young and his family taking us to a restaurant featuring samgyeopsal ( a bacon-type pork grilled at the table with garlic, mushrooms and sprouts and eaten inside large lettuce leaves)

* Climbing 250 steps to the Busan Tower where we got a 360 degree view of the city and harbor at night
* Seeing foot-long prawns, fresh caught eels and Korean delicacies sold by vendors on the streets
* Making kim bap (Korean sushi) with Kim Kyoung-Ja
* Walking along Haeundae beach collecting beach glass and beautiful shells
* Dylan and Cherry Kim playing piano and making friends.

* Enjoying an outdoor picnic with Roh D-Young and his wife Mira and son Jake and getting to cook samgyeopsal while sitting on a huge rock

* Dyeing a Travel Rat flag and seeing rice growing up close at a cultural museum
* Making homemade kimchi!

We had a fun time in Busan, participating in the lives of residents of three different areas of the city. We're so glad that we had the opportunity to meet everyone and are indebted to them for their hospitality and generosity.

Although we had heard that there was a hurricane in the USA, we only realized the full impact of the damage that Hurricane Katrina wrought while watching CNN Asia in Busan. All of our hosts were concerned that we had family or friends in the area, and wanted to know if they were okay. Although the US seems so far away in distance and time, we share their worry about the conditions in the New Orleans area and hope that more relief resources are mobilized for a speedy recovery and a long-term fix for the poverty and threat of flood in the southeast.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Hiroshima & Fukuoka Japan: Sayonara!

Here's a little secret about long term travel. It is often the sights that you go to see, but it's the people you remember. This is true for us as we leave Japan with a fond farewell.

Sixty years ago this month, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on a civilian population, effectively destroying the city of Hiroshima and providing the penultimate event leading to the end of World War II. This we all know from history books. We went to Hiroshima to see how the city (and Japan) commemorated this, as well as what it's like in Hiroshima today. What we saw was a vibrant, very much alive, industrial city. The Peace Museum has a fantastic exhibit that talks about Japan's role in World War II, life in Hiroshima before the war, the bombing itself and the recovery and rebuilding of the city. We've been to Pearl Harbor, I (Loey) have been to a concentration camp in Mauthausen Austria, and having come to Hiroshima we can only say that war seems pretty pointless and horrific. It seems that the leaders usually retreat unscathed and the true brunt of the devastation is always borne by the people going about their daily lives.

Before coming to Hiroshima, I had read about the World Friendship Center and booked us a room there during our stay. The WFC has been around for decades, and is run by a volunteer couple from the US, serving a two year term. The center facilitates discussions with the residents of Hiroshima and also provides a resource for travelers. We met Don and Pauline Hess from Virginia who were three months into their term. They were friendly hosts, who provided us with great conversation and French toast! They also arranged a short tour of the peace park with a Japanese volunteer, who taught us a lot about the monuments.

The amazing thing about Hiroshima is how thoroughly the city has recovered. Were it not for the peace park, monuments and museums, Hiroshima would look almost indistinguishable from most other Japanese industrial towns. Just a block from the "A-bomb dome," there's a big shopping street with lots of young people going in and out of the McDonald's, Nike, record and clothing stores. It all seems so normal until you step out into the middle of the park and realize that sixty years ago the space that's presently open was filled with homes and businesses just as dense as the surrounding neighborhood and it was all destroyed in an instant, with over 350,000 dying because of the explosion. It was a very depressing place, but also one of hope, as we saw all the paper cranes sent by people from around the world as wishes for peace.

When we started telling people about our travel plans, our friends Tori and Glen told us about Servas, and suggested that we look into it. Servas is an organization that believes that it is possible to facilitate world peace through short homestays, the theory being that it's harder to support bombing a country when you have such fond memories of the people who hosted you. It seemed appropriate after visiting Hiroshima to e-mail some Servas members in Fukuoka and see if anyone was available to host us.

Why Fukuoka? While sitting in the relative comfort of our home, we were looking at a world map, and asked ourselves what would be the most creative way to get from Japan to Korea. Hey, we thought, they look close together: why not take a ferry? We discovered that a hydrofoil leaves from Fukuoka Japan to Busan Korea everyday, and so our choice was made, we would leave Japan from Fukuoka. Fukuoka is home to one of the largest ports in Japan, the largest city on the Japanese island of Kyushu, Canal City (a really fun huge mall) and our host, Masatoshi Yonenaga. Masa is an English teacher at Kurume technical high school, about 30 km south of Fukuoka. We had a wonderful time visiting with our host for a day, while we went to one of his high school English classes. We were actually the featured guests for his class and were invited to talk about our trip and answer questions they had about the U.S.

Later we went out to dinner with his wife Motoko and 9 year old son Kazuano. They took us to a restaurant that featured organic foods, and we had great conversations and an impromptu origami lesson, where we learned to fold paper cranes. With a fond farewell, we bid the Yonenagas and Japan sayonara.