The Final Farewell

7 07 2011

So this is it. After approximately 495 days here in Asia, after 11 countries visited and tens of thousands of kilometers travelled, after 2 different jobs here in the Philippines, after meeting hundreds of people from all walks of life, after finding and falling madly in love with the girl of my dreams, after a few brutal illnesses, a broken toe, a near-fatal motorcycle crash, and a stolen camera, and, overall, after a wonderful, great, exciting, and challenging time in Asia, I will return to Vancouver on July 10, returning back to the ice-cold weather and ice-cold people of Canada, as well as the ice-cold reality of having to leave behind Gloria, the love of my life.

Let me backtrack now and talk about what’s happened here since my last post. Most of my time in the last few months was spent at work, at the Center for Advanced Philippine Studies, where I worked with them on a project they had that was funded by UNEP. My tasks involved researching on existing decentralized sanitation projects in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines, then culling out the key information of these projects into case study reports. These reports will be useful for future sanitation practitioners to allow them to find out the types of projects already implemented in their country, prevent any ‘reinventing the wheel’, and provide useful ‘lessons learned’ to apply to future work. I was also responsible for then organizing a project meeting on this work, to which we invited sanitation practitioners from all of the study countries, as well as Thailand, Korea, and Japan. This was a new challenge for me, as I had never organized an international meeting before, but everything went off perfectly. We had NGO people from Cambodia and Laos, government and NGO people from Vietnam, a professor from Thailand, UNEP and KOICA people from Japan and Korea (as the project managers and funders, respectively), we had lots of locals from Manila, including USAID, NGOs, government officials, and a lady from the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation. To cap it off, we hosted this at the World Bank Office in Manila so that their Water and Sanitation Program could be involved too. Our 2-day meeting was followed by a field visit to Bauang, La Union, where participants got to view the work of CAPS up there on installing ecological and decentralized sanitation systems.

Our meeting came at a fortuitous time, as many of the participants were already in town for the previous week’s events on sanitation, the first of which was the ADB 2nd Sanitation Dialogue – featuring high-level government/NGO people to engage in policy/finance-level discussions on sanitation – and the second of which was the IWA-BORDA Conference on Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems. I was lucky enough to get an invite to both of these events, through my boss, and they were really neat to attend, especially the ADB event, which was held at ADB Headquarters in Manila. I had wanted to go in the ADB HQ ever since I first walked past it, as huge international organizations really get me excited, so it was a pleasure to explore its hallowed halls, trade business cards, and even get up in front the 200+ big shots in the meeting hall and ask a couple questions. If you’ve never tried that at a big event like this, I would recommend it, as it turns you from a nobody during break times into someone people actually come up to and want to have a discussion with, which, of course, makes sense, since everyone comes to these things wanting to meet people, but at the same time, its difficult to approach a complete stranger for a discussion, so if you’ve already broken the ice by putting yourself out there, other people have a ‘way-in’ to talk with you.

Another neat event I got to tag along in was a study tour put on by the Villar Foundation to local sanitation practitioners in Las Pinas (a southern Manila town). We got to meet former Congresswoman Cynthia Villar, wife of former Presidential contender and Senator (and billionaire) Manny Villar, who toured us around to the project’s various livelihood projects that have helped to immensely clean up the Las Pinas River. Other participants included 2 former Philippine Ambassadors, a current Congresswoman, UN and ADB people, and various government and NGO people like myself. I impressed them all, of course, with my smooth Tagalog-speaking ability (ok, not *that* smooth, but I’d definitely call myself “intermediate” at the language now) and my constant gossiping about my love life with them!

Other than that though, life in Manila has basically been work and home. My tiny salary did not allow me to spend nights at clubs or take weekend trips, though I wouldn’t really have wanted to anyways. There is no doubt that living here, if you’re not fabulously rich, is difficult, due to the heat, air pollution, cockroach infestations, and general high level of noise, and I’m not at all sad to leave it behind. As acutely observed by a man from UNICEF that I met at the IWA-BORDA Conference (who has, amongst other places, worked in Somalia), Manila is challenging not because of culture shock but because of ‘urban shock’. The total lack of parks and ability to access nature has killed me more than any other comfort that I could want. I never had noticed it while travelling, because I always planned my routes so that after a big city I would visit somewhere out in the countryside to recharge myself, but here I didn’t have that option, and, thus, the thing I miss most about Vancouver is the lack of ability to, within 5 minutes of leaving my doorstep, be immersed in raw, wild nature.

The only other major thing to report is that Gloria and I rescued 2 sweet little kittens from the street behind our house and have been raising them for the last month. I was never really a cat person, after having a bad experience with one as a child, but these little bundles of energy have renewed my love for these creatures. Gloria will take them back with her to Mindanao and hopefully keep them healthy and happy there! (Edit: This has been updated since I drafted this blog, as Gloria brought home 3 more little babies she rescued off the street the other night! She will now have 5 cats to care for!)

So now onto the main event: Gloria. Yes, the sad truth is that she will not be accompanying me home to Canada. I sure wish she could, as I will weep like an absolute baby when we finally part ways (we’ve already been in tears on several occasions in anticipation of this farewell), but she needs her high school diploma first, just as I need my M.Sc. I guess I should mention that too – I accepted an offer from the University of East Anglia, in Norwich U.K., to do a 1 year M.Sc. in Climate Change and International Development, which includes a  short thesis and internship option, which I will certainly avail of. I think it should be a positive year at a school known for the strength of its climate research, which I hope will propel me to an eventual career in UNEP or UNFCCC, which would be awesome. Gloria, on the other hand, will probably need at least 2 years to do enough high school to get a diploma, as she only ever completed first year and has a lot to do (she has trouble doing even basic multiplication). I will, of course, support her as much as she needs it, which won’t be particularly easy when I myself will be moving into debt, but I’m happy to do it if it means that one day she’ll be able to work in whatever country it is that I’m working. We can both at least be happy that we spent 6 wonderful months together, during which time we travelled together, lived together, raised cats together, and did all those types of things that are supposed to ‘test’ a couple successfully (other than children, of course!). I can’t stop talking about my love for her – I’m sure any reader of this blog who I’ll meet when I get back will get an earful of it! – and I will most definitely return here as soon as I possibly can for her. In the meantime, at least we have Skype!

So, that’s it then folks. This blog is officially put to rest for the time being, though do keep your subscriptions to it active, as I may do a post or two once I arrive in the U.K. about how life is like there, in lieu of starting a whole new blog. I might also do a post putting up some of the videos I took with my camera, as there are some good ones. I hoped you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it and sharing my experiences with you all, especially the photos!

Turning 24 recently, and having a close friend from high school recently pass away, gives me heightened sense of the inevitable passage of time. I will likely be 26 before I see Gloria again, which is sobering. I encourage all of you to not be stagnant in your lives – if you are interested in pursuing something, get out there and do it! Travel, learn, love; I recommend all of them to all of you. I have no regrets of any aspect of this journey and if I died tomorrow, I would die knowing that I had a great time, learned a lot, experienced a lot, and even inspired a few people along the day!

Happy journeys!

– Julian


Interlude: The benefits of ‘washing’

7 05 2011

Basically ever since I arrived in the Philippines over a year ago and discovered this for the first time (thanks to Firth!), I’ve been wanting to do a blog post on the benefits of ass-washing, rather than wiping.

To all my friends in North America, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about, or, if you do, have already immediately written off my words as the babblings of a madman. But if you haven’t, then let me attempt to sell on the arguments supporting this wonderful lifestyle choice:

First, what do I mean by ass washing? – Ass washing can be defined as the use of water to clean one’s ass following defecation, rather than toilet paper. The two can also be used in combination (paper, followed by water), though to me this is the wimpy version and needs no further mentioning here.

How does one carry out the task of ass washing? – There a couple different methods. The first and most common (in terms of % of the world’s ass washing population who use it) is the simple scoop and bucket.

Using this method, one simply takes a scoop of water while sitting (or squatting), bends their torso forward, and pours it between their ass cheeks. I would usually do this three or four times (it sometimes takes a bit of maneuvering to get the water to wash over the anus itself). After this, I will do a subsequent pour, only this time I will also go in with my hand – pouring and wiping with my fingers at the same time. “WHAT?!”, you scream, as your conservative North American values (which are historically mainly influenced by conservative Christianity) kick in; “EWW, WHAT THE HELL, WIPING YOUR ASS WITH YOUR FINGERS IS GROSSSSSSSS”.

Ok, stop. Take a deep breath. A couple of facts need to be stated for you right now: 1) Unless you had half a log of shit hanging out of ass when you commenced the pouring activities (which you shouldn’t have.. ever…), the 3-4 pours that precede you going in with your hand already take 99% of anything on your anus away ; 2) When you go in with your hand, you’re simultaneously pouring water, so anything remaining that is loosened by your wiping movements will be washed away, not stick to your hand; 3) I’ve never once – ever – finished this operation and noticed any form of shit on my fingers. Never once. And even if I did, that’s what the adjacent sink and bar of soap are for; and 4) It’s your own fucking body. Grow up. What do you have to be scared of? Seriously, I’m sure some of you have engaged in anal sex at some point – is that really any different? In fact, it’s probably way, way grosser (I certainly have no desire to try it), so, if you have and yet won’t try this, you’re a hypocrite of the highest order.

Anyways, there is another, even easier way to engage in ass washing, and that is through the pressurized ass washing hose. This one makes your life way easier; just take the hose, hold it underneath you while aiming at your anus, and fire away. This hoses are usually pressurized enough that you don’t even need to go in with your hand to finish the job (though I still always do – why not?).

There is also, of course, the infamous bidet, as well as the similarly infamous super-complicated Japanese bidet toilet. Both of these are similarly easy – water on, wash, a finishing finger wipe, and you’re done.

Ok, you say, so you’ve told me how to do it, but why should I bother?

There are more good reasons than you might initially guess. Let me outline a few for you:

1. It’s cleaner and more hygienic. This is a proven fact. Firth mentioned to me in San Fernando before that he had actually read a scientific study analyzing bacterial counts in the underwear of washers and wipers. The underwear of washers was way cleaner. Why is this? The answer should be obvious. If you spill some mud on your floor, what works better at cleaning it up – attempting to wipe it up with a dry paper towel or hosing the area down with water? Water is nature’s ultimate cleaning agent. While toilet paper removes large fecal particles, it basically just smears the finer stuff around your anus until the next time you take a shower. (Not to mention those occasional shits that just seem to never come clean –  you wipe and wipe and wipe and just can’t get it finished.) Try this if you’re not convinced: Go a couple weeks without washing your ass when you’re in the shower – rely solely on toilet paper to clean it. Water, on the other hand, is your shower, right then and there. You could do the same experiment of not washing your ass in the shower for a week and have it emerge still totally clean if you’re a washer.

2. It saves you money and saves the environment. In North America, toilet paper is more expensive than water. This is a fact. So, every time you buy toilet paper, you’re basically throwing money away. Add to that the huge demand placed on our forests because of our desire for paper products. Most toilet paper is not made from recycled fibres, but from original trees. Why clearcut a forest to wipe our asses with when we could do the same task with just a couple litres of water?

3. It makes your anus feel like a king. Do you suffer from hemorrhoids? Do you sometimes get a bleeding ass if you wipe too much in a day (say, for example, when you’ve got food poisoning and have to shit like 6 times in one day)? With toilet paper, the more you wipe, the more irritated your ass gets. Nothing is nastier than a bleeding anus, especially if you’re not finished wiping yet, and so then you’re smearing shit and blood together. Gross! But with washing, your ass will never, ever get irritated. I’ve had food poisoning a few times in Asia that resulted in me shitting several times in one day. With washing, my result was that, even after your 6th or 7th shit of the day, my anus felt great – no soreness, no blood (the rest of me felt terrible, but that’s besides the point). Can you really say that about toilet paper?

4. Its easier and faster than wiping. Another fact. With toilet paper, you’ve gotta pull the roll, take your squares, fold ’em up, wipe wipe wipe, drop, and repeat at least a couple more times. With washing, especially with a hose, you just take the hose, aim, squirt for maybe 5-10 seconds, do a brief clean-up wipe with your hand, and you’re done. BUT WAIT, you ask, HOW ABOUT THE FACT THAT I NOW HAVE A SOAKING WET ASS? , Well, yes. Yes you do. However, this is less of a problem than you might think. Before I stand up, I will usually brush my ass cheeks off to get large water particles off, then stand up, do sort of a brief ass shake, then pull my pants up. Sure, there are still a few errant drops, but they’re absorbed into your clothes in a minute or two, with no other sign of anything having ever happened to you. If you’re really that concerned, just buy yourself a dedicated ass-towel to put beside the toilet. As to your floor, yes, you may get some droplets onto it, but again, so? They’ll be dried up in a matter of minutes.

5. It makes flushing easier. Nothing is more embarrassing that clogging a toilet, especially if you’re at someone else’s house. Well, if you suddenly remove all the toilet paper from the flush, there’s a lot less volume to flush down, and a lot lower chance of a clog. Now, I know some people flush first before starting to wipe, then flush again. Ok, but then you’ve flushed twice, thereby wasting 20 odd litres of water.

6. It gives you confidence. Since ass-washing is such a rare thing to encounter in the Western World, the chances are that most people you meet are wipers. You can therefore make some pretty nice confidence-boosting assumptions when you, for example, walk into a club and see some gorgeous girls there or walk into an executive’s meeting and see all your high level bosses there. You, and only you, my friend, have the *cleanest* anus in the room. Yes, your anus is cleaner than that smoking hot broad’s; yes, your anus is cleaner than the Queen of England’s; yes, your anus is cleaner than President Obama’s (though he spent time in Indonesia, so he might be a washer, who knows). How cool is that?

7. It prepares you for travelling / You never have to worry about walking into a toilet and seeing an empty paper roll. There are probably more people in this world who wash than wipe. Much of Asia washes, as does some of the Middle East and possibly Africa. So, if you ever plan on travelling to these places, you will likely run into situations where the toilet you hope to shit in has no sight of any toilet paper. Heck, this can even happen anywhere in the Western World, if you’re unlucky enough to walk into a stall with no roll. When you’re a washer though, all you need is some sort of water pouring apparatus (which are usually present in Asian toilets, like the scoop above) and you’ve got yourself a clean ass anywhere, anytime.

8. It works for feminine hygiene too. I am under the impression that in North America, most women finish their urinations with a wipe of toilet paper. I can tell you here that Gloria simply uses a spray of our ass-washing hose. Again, your vagina will emerge much cleaner, as you’re not simply smearing the urine around, and, don’t worry, it will dry just as fast as your ass. (Or you could also have another dedicated vaginal drying towel, though that’s a bit excessive!)

I’ll close by saying that, once you start, you’ll never want to go back. Washing is addictively nice. I was forced to revert to wiping in China some times and hated every second of it – my ass was a shit-encrusted, bleeding mess. I’m sure yours is too right now. That’s gross dude. Seriously. You want to attract women/men? You want a faster and more efficient experience in the toilet? You want cleaner undies? – Switch to washing. It’s time you woke up to the age old practice that most of the world is already well-schooled in.

Please post your questions or concerns. I want to help you all as much as I can on your journeys toward washing freedom! Haha

Until next time.

Back to the Philippines

17 04 2011

So its been a long time since I’ve posted, and you may be wondering what exactly happened to me after Taiwan. Well, I returned to the Philippines of course! I’ve been living here about 3 months now with Gloria, the wonderful girlfriend I made before I originally left the last time. I’ve since found work, visited her family in Mindanao, taken business and leisure trips, learned lots of Tagalog, and learned lots more about what I like and dislike about this country.

Let’s back it up. On January 12th, I re-arrived back in Manila and b-lined it immediately north, on the 7 hour bus ride back up to San Fernando, where I fell into the arms of long awaited Gloria! We spent about a week or so in San Fernando, visiting old friends, doing some minor excursions, and pondering our future. I knew I wanted to start looking for short term employment here, as I didn’t want to go home in March (the date of expiry of my old plane ticket, and my only option if I couldn’t get any work, as I’d probably have been out of money by then), so I started emailing old contacts for ideas.

Not more than a couple days later, I had arranged myself an interview with the Center for Advanced Philippine Studies in Manila, thanks to a glowing reference from my old American colleague from USAID who had supervised our sanitation work before. We travelled down to Manila and I got the job: a 5 month contract to research and document cases of decentralized sanitation and ecological sanitation projects in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. While they could only pay me a Filipino salary (25,000 Pesos per month, like 500 bucks), I was nevertheless happy, as it meant it would be enough money to keep me here for that time being with Gloria.

However, they wanted me to start soon, on Feb. 1st, though Gloria had been yearning for me to take her to Mindanao so that she could visit her family (who she hadn’t seen in 8 years) for a few months at least. This ‘few months’ idea unfortunately couldn’t be, but we nevertheless agreed to do a hasty 8 day trip there. So, we raced back up to San Fernando, she packed her bags, I booked tickets, and we raced back down to Manila for the flight. The original idea was that we’d go 8 days, then she might stay longer while I came back to start work (but, of course, after being apart so long, she couldn’t bear to leave me again and so came back with me after those only 8 days).

The flight was fun, as she had never flown before and was, of course, scared! It was then a couple hour bus ride from Cagayan de Oro airport over to Iligan City, which we arrived at in the evening and where her parents were waiting for us. I figured there would be an emotional reunion after 8 years apart, but pretty much all they did was hug and start chatting/gossiping/arguing as if they had never been apart! Only in the Philippines..!

We spent that night in Iligan, then rejoined her family in the morning out in a small nearby town, about a 30 minute, 2 jeep, ride away. There was definitely some initial shock for me to come across their tiny, electricity/water-less shack and the volume of people inhabiting it (see photos below), but everyone was super nice and we luckily got put up in the somewhat less populated and more comfortable beach shack of Gloria’s aunt and uncle. Our days were spent mainly by Gloria catching up with her family (which seemed mainly to consist of fighting a lot!) and with seemingly simple tasks becoming major affairs – e.g. doing the wash was a hour-long affair at least, including walks over to the well and the various gossip that happened there (and Gloria insisted on doing it at least every other day); cooking food (especially dinner, when it was dark and there was only light from 2 little oil candles) always took a few hours (even if we were just making rice and a simple vegetable dish; which was the staple {with the veggies provided free from the nearby wild bushes} – most meat or fish was bought by me and not something they saw too often); and most days involved an hour or two trip into the nearby small town for provisioning or errands. On the remaining time we played on the beach, visited the gorgeous Maria Cristina Falls, Tinago Falls, another swimming river, a spring-fed swimming pool, Iligan City, and other such places (see photos below).

Needless to say, this was a part of the world that basically never saw foreigners, especially a young, tall, handsome white guy (their words, not mine!), so the number of “Hey Joe!”s (that also occurred occasionally elsewhere in this country) I received skyrocketed, and I usually had at least 5 or 10 children from the nearby fisherman’s village following us around. Any time we approached a school or market or other congregating place, most activity paused for a lot of open staring, and if I did anything unusual, such as carrying a 15kg bag of rice we bought by balancing it on my head through town – a la African woman style – I went from a minor celebrity to a major one!

The other funny story was on the first night in the village, we were going to take a shower, which is done at the communal well via bucket and scoop, and is always done in at least some clothing, unless you’re a small child. I knew clothes were suggested, but I had just been in Japan (where everyone is naked in the baths) and it was a quiet evening with only us at the well, so I stripped naked and bathed, all the while with Gloria and her relatives giggling fiercely and attempting to convince me to put clothes on. Word of it basically spread through the whole town the next day, and from then on I had a ‘family escort’ to the well each night, as it were, to ensure I kept some clothes on. (Filipino culture is religious conservative and so nudity is, of course, viewed as wrong, but I nevertheless had fun causing a scene!)

The other thing you might be wondering about is if I ever felt unsafe or if I ran into any Abu Sayyaf terrorists or anything. I can assure you I didn’t. While there was a good proportion of Muslims around, Iligan is still part of the Philippines and not “ARMM” (Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao), where most of the terrorist activity and kidnappings/etc. have occurred. While I probably wouldn’t want to walk around Iligan City at night alone (but I wouldn’t do that in many places anyways), I nevertheless felt safe throughout and think most of the fear is unjustified.

This leads me to my “pro-Muslim” rant, as it were. While there in Mindanao, I was disappointed to discover how many Christian Filipinos view their Muslim counterparts as “all evil” and other such close-minded prejudice. Even Gloria and her family basically hate them (though Gloria is softening a bit since I’ve started challenging her on this view every time she brings it up). While past violence and other isolated incidents (e.g. apparently the boss of Gloria’s dad is a Muslim and wasn’t paying Gloria’s dad his salary, therefore all Muslims are evil, right?) have certainly occurred, I would argue they have every reason to. You want to know why Abu Sayyaf exists? Because in this country, there is basically no effort made at all to engage Muslims in any form of society (who consist of 5% of the population). In 3+ months of watching Filipino T.V. every night, I’ve never once seen a Muslim on it in any way, shape, or form (other than one news segment highlighting “This crazy Muslim who lives in a pink house and everything she owns is pink!” with large emphasis placed on the MUSLIM portion of that). Is it any wonder Muslims in this country feel left out / second-class citizens? And for Filipinos outside of Mindanao, basically every single one of them I’ve met so far has recoiled in horror when I’ve told them that Gloria is from Mindanao (even “educated” Mayors/government workers/etc.), warning me to be careful of her/etc., and every time I have to smile and laugh and gently remind them that she’s Catholic, Iligan City is safe, Muslims aren’t all bad people, and that I’ve been to Mindanao and had a great time, even though I really just want to smack them for their close-minded ignorance. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of Islam either (but I’ll clarify that by saying I hate all religions equally), but if I was a Muslim in this country, I’d probably be sympathizing with Abu Sayyaf too, as the prejudice is just ridiculous.

So yeah, anyways, the 8 days we had in Mindanao were safe, happy, and, while ‘roughing it’, still loads of fun. I’d happily do it again!

After that, we returned to Manila and spent a long, hot day looking for a place to stay, which we eventually found. And a sweet one too. About a 30 minute walk from work (I do it for the exercise, its only like a 10 minute jeep ride), its fully furnished, complete with a guest bedroom, 2 toilets, kitchen, water filter, aircon, hot water for the shower (actually necessary, as it gets cold at night), a nice backyard, and in a peaceful and quiet neighbourhood. Unfortunately, it costs 300ish bucks a month, which leaves us only like 200 bucks a month for food (not much, even by Philippine standards), so I’ve had to dip into my dwindling pool of savings from time to time, but I’ll have enough to make it to July (the end of my contract) no problem.

Since then, we’ve basically just been living peacefully there. I go to work M-F, then we spend our evenings together watching t.v. and our weekends shopping for food and relaxing. Manila is a hideous city – huge and hard to get around – so we haven’t travelled around much of it yet. I really don’t see any point. There’s a nice market right near our place and there isn’t really anything else we need or want to be involved in, as we’re more than amply entertained in each other’s company! Seriously though, Manila is brutal. Its polluted (it has some of the world’s worst air quality and has really been affecting me – I’ve had to start wearing dust masks when outside), filthy, hot and crowded, and basically has no tourist sights worth seeing. While we’re based in Quezon City (within Metro Manila), the couple times I’ve had to actually go into Manila City itself to renew visas / etc., I hated every second of it. The place has literally the world’s highest concentration of people (more than 60,000 per square kilometer in some places!), stinks like high hell, has its streets, gutters, and rivers overloaded with trash and shit, and is crawling with some of the poorest (and filthiest) people you’ll ever see – bodies caked black in dirt, eating garbage, passing out on the sidewalks, shitting openly onto busy streets. Its brutal. There’s some of it here too in Quezon City (there’s some of it everywhere but the Central Business District of Makati, basically – where the place is crawling with soldiers, bomb sniffing dogs, and police escorts). I even had my nice digicamera stolen on a jeepney a month or so ago, picked out of my pocket, with the thief gone out of the jeep before I could realize it (and I’m someone who’s *very* aware of my belongings at all times, which is why I had never really lost anything or had anything stolen before in my entire trip). In short, I hate Manila and am proud of it. You don’t visit the Philippines to visit Manila. If you ever come to this country, stay the hell out of this city, seriously. Get on the first bus or flight you can out of it. Get out into the countryside, like San Fernando or Mindanao, that’s where the real Philippines lies. And that’s why we basically spend all our free time in our house!

My work’s been fine. We’re a small NGO, though with a fiscally smart boss who’s management is much more North American-style than City ENRO ever was, so our office is really nice and we even got to go on a free company vacation to 100 Islands (I had been before, if you recall, but still cool) on a recent weekend. The only problem is we’re located in a kind of residential area, so we don’t get any of those glorious snack vendors popping in our door like in SF. Besides that though, its cool – Everyone speaks to me in Tagalog, and I’ve taken it on to study it on my own time too, so by now I’m getting quite good at it. I can understand most conversations I hear (at least in getting the gist of them) and can communicate my thoughts basically. Still a long way to go, but at least I’m seeing nice results! Recently, I also got funding to go on a study trip for my work back up to San Fernando, where I spent a couple days re-meeting Firth (who’s still there! working with the Provincial Government on language conservation) and the new batch of interns, and getting toured around to our old project sites.

As for Gloria, she spent the first couple months looking for work here, but without a high school diploma (in case you forget her backstory – she left Mindanao to work in San Fernando at age 13) there was basically nothing for her other than 7-day per week, 12-hour per day jobs paying like 4 bucks a day. Since my whole reason for remaining here was to be with her, I certainly didn’t want her to do that, so now she’s hoping to enroll in some sort of high school completion course at the school near our house (this is a real thing run by the Dept. of Education, good for one year). She’ll start it here, then, when I have to go home in July, she’ll return to Mindanao and finish it there.

So wait, I’m coming home in July but she isn’t? Unfortunately, yes. I want to do a Master’s degree this coming Sept. (applications are underway), and see needs her high school diploma to ever be able to get a job overseas, and since neither of us have much money, I can’t support her in Canada/Europe while I do a Masters. Its alright though, while super sad, we’ll both wait for each other again, get our respective education, and I hope to return for her and take her to wherever it is my next job will be.

I’m really very much in love with her. She has been wonderful beyond my wildest dreams and really makes loving fun. We’ve been together now almost every minute of the day that I’m not in work, and yet we’ve barely had more than a few cases of minor frustration with each other, certainly never a fight. Part of that has to do with the wonderful Filipina trait of “tambo”, which basically is this: any time I do something that makes her feel even the slightest bit miffed or emotionally unappreciated, she’ll (and other Filipinas too, apparently, as there’s websites about this) put on a big show of getting all “HMPH!” like, and, to the untrained eye, seeming legitimately angry. However, this will be over and replaced with love and affection again sometimes in less than a few seconds (in the time it takes for me to crack a joke or something), other times in a few minutes (never more than a few minutes). What this does is allow any issue to be settled immediately and all emotions to be displayed in the open, so that nothing gets held back and nothing gets bottled up inside that could then explode later on in a typical North American rage. I love this and have started doing it too! Of course, that’s not the only reason we’re good together. We’re basically just very compatible people; we make each other laugh, we are totally comfortable around each other, and we help each other out (though she definitely does more of the housework, often threatening me physically if I even step near the dishes! – She’s a tough one!). She doesn’t speak a lot of English, but certainly has the basics, and with my improvements in Tagalog, we understand each other perfectly, usually using a nice mix of the two languages. The best part too is, she doesn’t ask too much. Obviously, I have more money than her (she, in fact, has none); and obviously her family always needs money (someone gets sick and needs medicine, its someone’s birthday party, whatever); yet she doesn’t ask too much of me, which is great. This can often be the biggest problem in an economically unequal intercultural relationship like this, as the person with money (me) isn’t always willing to help the family as much as he’s helping her (or even helping her – I certainly wouldn’t be keen on buying her a whole new wardrobe and other such frivolities). Luckily though, she knows this and, while we still have to deal with the money issue at times, she only asks occasionally and I’m usually comfortable with providing money for the things she asks for (e.g. sending her brother 60 bucks so he can come here to Manila and find a job and send money back home to the family; and, when I was in Mindanao, giving her family about 70 bucks for 6 months rent on a new, slightly improved shack nearby that had electricity, water, and a toilet!). So, happily, this hasn’t posed too much problem yet. In short, our relationship is exciting, always unexpected, and always keeping me happier than I’ve ever been, with no end in sight. The most common question – when’s the wedding? Well, not yet, but after we’ve finished our respective educations and all that, anything’s possible! 😉

To close this off I want to touch on some of my new / refined observations on Filipino culture in general that I’ve made since being back here – the things I like and things I dislike.

Let’s start with the likes. Filipinos are some of the easiest people in Asia to communicate effectively with. I think this is because of the myriad languages existing in this country and because of the fact that, while most people “know” Tagalog (the national language), they actually can’t speak it that fluently (i.e. their vocabulary is simple, due to it almost always being a second language). Though, because they generally don’t learn their native, regional language in schools, they’ll often only have a simple vocabulary in their native language as well. Basically this means much of their conversation uses simple, repeating words (in any language they use), and is easy to pick up once you get the basics. Or, even if you don’t have any basics, they’re totally cool with body language conversations or even just smiles (for those who don’t know much English, which is rare to begin with). This makes it a pleasure to communicate here, rather than a place like China, where body language isn’t understood, English isn’t understood, and people don’t generally have the patience to try to understand you.

Something else I’ve noticed that I hadn’t before is the very big difference between the different regional cultures of the Philippines, for example, the Ilocanos of the north, the Tagalogs of the middle, and the Visayans of the south (there are more, but let’s keep it simple for now). Keep in mind what I write it is *broad* stereotyping, but still based in some truth – witnessed both in my conversations with people and in their portrayals in the media. Before in SF, I figured the major difference between them all was language only, but there’s a lot more to it than that. For example, the pure Tagalogs can be very class-based – judgemental toward ‘lower’ classes and always following the sort of prescribed rules of behavior (showing respect to elders; asking the parent’s permission first to take their daughter on a date; etc., and thus are the subjects of lots of those ‘scandal’/’rich & poor’-type soap operas). The Visayans, on the other hand, are much more relaxed about these things, and much more open and bombastic in their emotions (like Gloria), which also helps to explain why a *lot* of the prostitutes found in any Philippine city will likely have originated from the Visayas. (I’m not implying Visayans are all in-born hookers, but rather that perhaps if you take two equally poor and desperate people, one Tagalog and one Visayan, the Tagalog’s more conservative and class-based nature would make them shy away from considering prostitution as an option). Ilocanos are perhaps more conservative still than Tagalogs, but less class-based. While I’ve still got lots to learn about the specifics behind these differences, its nonetheless an interesting observation I hadn’t made during my last stay here.

Finally, lets touch on some of the traits that I’ve really grown to dislike. The biggest one that’s jumped out at me since I’ve been back is the reactions of people shown when I walk around hand-in-hand with Gloria. It’s amazing how people change when they see you with a local girl on your arm. Whenever I walked around alone before (and now), reactions are usually friendly/curious, but when I walk around with Gloria, it seems like everyone turns into a total asshole. Stares become more open, especially directed at her; and the men will often yell out rude comments that they never had before. We’ve been catcalled, jeered at, and had various Tagalog comments yelled out that, while I didn’t understand, would often piss off Gloria and make her yell something mean back. The only one she’s translated for me so far was a recent one when two teen boys walked by and yelled to her in Tagalog, something along the lines of, “Hey girl how big is his dick?” (Thanks to the US porn industry, a lot of people are under the impression here that all foreigners have gargantuan penises – it was something Firth and I got asked before too). This sort of reaction really surprised and depressed me at first, as one of my favourite activities before had been the friendly greetings received while walking around, and now, with Gloria, they’ve all but ceased. I guess I can understand in a way, since so many gross old foreigners come here for wives and often leave abuse or bad memories behind, but I still don’t appreciate the reactions, and so its really made me turn inward again, such that I don’t bother even smiling at most people any more unless I’m walking alone, which is really a shame.

This is sort of the tip of the iceberg though. It makes you wonder what other prejudices and close-mindedness Filipinos are keeping behind their smile. Why would someone be friendly to me if I’m alone but jeer at me if they see me with a Filipina? Why would someone seem really friendly until I tell them Gloria’s from Mindanao, at which point they unleash a stream of prejudiced nonsense warnings at me? Why would they invite you, in a very friendly manner, for a shot of liquor that they were having when you passed by, only to, a few minutes later, demand that you then buy not just the next shot, but the next entire bottle or two, with a *big* scene being made if you don’t? (This was another thing I’ve discovered and have therefore since stopped partaking in). These reactions have unfortunately made me wary of that formerly welcoming smile I used to think was so unique and so much better than the ‘cold’ people of North America. While I won’t deny I still enjoy walking down the street more here than in North America (people do still say ‘hi’, even with Gloria, just not as many), the “exciting high” of it all has definitely faded, now that I know what’s going on behind the scenes.

I’m sure these same sorts of negative attributes would emerge if I spent enough time in the other SE Asian countries I loved too. Perhaps the cool people of Northern Burma would turn into assholes if I walked around with one of their girls on my arm too, who knows?, so I don’t necessarily blame the Philippines itself. And anyways, with the loss of some of these things I used to enjoy about this country, I’ve gained others, such as a much better ability to communicate like a Filipino, understand things in the Filipino context, and gain a deeper appreciation of the things I like about this place, so it all evens out. I hate some things about life in Canada, I hate some things about life here, that is inevitable and to be expected. Nothing will ever be a fairy tale, but I’m nevertheless still happy here and could do it again if I got another job here later in my life, no problem.

With that I’ll leave you with the photos! I probably won’t update again until it’s time for me to say goodbye to the Philippines, as I anticipate mainly work from here on until July, but there will be at least one more update to this blog, so keep reading! Until next time..

Taiwan – Most decidedly *not* China

22 03 2011

Leaving Japan by plane from Osaka, I landed shortly afterwards in Taipei, Taiwan, the land I knew of only for its perpetually contentious politics, its electronics manufacturing, and it being the current home of my former school buddy Steven, whom I hadn’t seen in a few years and was excited to visit. As always when visiting a place without having a done a lot of research beforehand, I was pleasantly surprised by it all. Taiwan, in my opinion, was for me as different from mainland China as anywhere else I’ve been. Sure, people were speaking Mandarin, hotpot places were everywhere, and so forth, but it nevertheless had a very different feeling for me than similarly developed mainland Chinese cities (like Shanghai or Beijing). For one thing, the country is *way* cleaner. I never once saw someone spitting, air pollution is less, and, based on the fact that my bowels weren’t disrupted like they were in mainland China, I can only assume food hygiene is better too. There’s also a wider (relatively speaking) understanding of English, and slightly more use of it on signs, though I definitely still needed every word of Mandarin I could remember!

My stay in the country was painfully short (only 6 nights), but I was driven on by a greater force – that of my overwhelming desire to be reunited with my girlfriend in the Philippines. If not for that, I would’ve stayed longer and probably done Korea too, but alas, you can’t have it all, and I’m satisfied with my choices made!

Though brief, I pushed myself, as I always do, to get the most out of my time in Taiwan. While I unfortunately was stuck with downpours on basically every day I was there, I still managed to traverse a fair portion of Taipei, as well as do a day trip by train to the famous (read: insanely packed with local tourists on thousands of tour buses) Taroko Gorge on the very scenic east coast of the island, followed by a train-bound circumnavigation of the island (continuing down the east coast and coming back up to Taipei on the much more developed west coast) the next day. I spent some quality time with my buddy Steven as well, which included some hot pot outings, playing video games with him and his dorm mates on a night before their big medical exams (!!), and checking out the local night markets together. He also wrangled me a super sweet hotel to stay in while I was in Taipei, with a regular rate of about 130$ a night (including all-you-can-eat breakfast, which I certainly did), but reduced to only 30 bucks because I had a youth hostel card!

Overall, Taipei is a pretty nice city. While flaunting its first-world development (in terms of cleanliness, facility availability, etc.) it nevertheless retains the unpredictable Asian character that I love. It has some nice heritage buildings, some huge memorials/temples, Taipei 101, well laid-out MRT lines, and great night markets. It also had, while I was there, the International Flora Expo, which I didn’t even know existed, but which I was happy to check out, since I had missed the Shanghai Expo by a month. It wasn’t spectacular by any means, nor did it have as many flowers as I had anticipated, but it was still a decent way to spend a half-day.

I could never live here though, only because it lacks any and all international organizations (and so I’d be out of work!), which I was interested to discover. I always figured Taiwan or “Chinese Taipei” was at least a UN member somehow (they’ve got their own Olympic team, after all!), but it is instead one of the very very few states out there that has yet to be recognized by nearly every nation (except for a few small island states), due to mainland China’s insistence that other states may have formal diplomatic relations with only one of the two “Chinas” (Taiwan, in case you didn’t know, has the formal name, Republic of China, while mainland China’s formal name is the People’s Republic of China – not too dissimilar from the two competing Koreas {as an interesting aside though, even North Korea has UN membership, but not Taiwan!}). This means there aren’t even any Embassies in Taiwan, only “Trade Offices” (though they’re de-facto embassies). This lack of any international oversight on Taiwan troubled me / interested me, as the state is therefore not bound to any international law that’s ever been passed (Geneva Convention, Convention on Climate Change, whatever), and yet, it really doesn’t appear much different from states that are bound by these. Perhaps it informally maintains compliance or else risks informal punishments from other states, or perhaps it shows the lack of need for such international conventions, though I tend to favor the former idea over the latter!

At any rate, after an enjoyable 6 nights, I bid farewell to Steven and Taipei, and caught the jet back to Manila, back to my girlfriend! (This was in January, sorry for the 2 month delay! I’ll do a couple summary Philippine posts soon)

Check out the pics!

Japan – Just a bit too easy!

19 02 2011

Sorry for the incredibly long delay on this post – its been over a month since I’ve left Japan and am now back here in the Philippines with my girlfriend, whose presence back in my life explains the delay! 😉

Anyways, yeah, so I spent a over a month in Japan, the longest duration of any of the countries I visited, and, as you’d expect, I could write another monster post about it all, but instead I’ll keep the words short and just overwhelm you with photos instead, since I think Japan is better summed up visually than verbally. Not to mention the fact that everyone and his dog has written a book / made a movie / etc. etc. about Japanese culture to the point that our North American culture is saturated with it, so I don’t think most of you need any further introduction to this place!

My journey of Japan was divided into two sections – a whirlwind Shinkansen-powered trek across the four main islands for the first 21 days (the length of my Japan Rail Pass, which, for about 700 bucks, affords you unlimited access to all ‘medium’ and ‘slow’ speed Shinkansens for 21 days {no ‘high’ speed ones, though, really, the speeds on all aren’t any different, just the number of stations they stop at}, which is an INCREDIBLE value if you do it like me and take a train or two every other day {buying individual tickets probably would’ve cost me thousands of dollars, in comparison}), which was then followed by 13 days of slow-style exploration of the Tokyo environs, being based in Yokohama.

Sailing into Osaka Port on the 2 night ferry from Shanghai was a great way to enter the country. I then visited Kobe, Himeji Castle, Kyoto, Nara, Nagoya, Sapporo, Asahikawa, Otaru, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Aso Volcano (my favourite place, due to its raw natural quality), Beppu (my second favourite place, where I spent the whole day in various forms of spa baths), Matsuyama, Takamatsu, Okayama, and finished it off with Yokohama and Tokyo, including a visit to Nikko, before heading back to Osaka for a flight to Taiwan (my next blog post). In short, trekking across Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku, in that order, primarily via Shinkansen (and via a ferry between Beppu, on Kyushu, and Matsuyama, on Shikoku). It was a lot to see in a short time, but that’s the way I like to travel, so I have no regrets!

Japan is no doubt a stunningly beautiful country, with lots of gorgeous scenery, temples, and towns to soak up, though its prohibitive prices, introverted people, and general lack of risk meant that my time there was always comfortable, always on time, always broke, never bothered, never irritated, and therefore never challenged or excited!! That’s why I’ve titled this post as I have. To me, travelling is about stepping outside your comfort zone, immersing yourself in difference, and not knowing what awaits you around the next corner. With Japan though, you could always count on getting an excellent map of the town as soon as you stepped off the train, being immediately directed to an affordable hotel, finding convenience stores with a steady supply of cheap food, and never, ever feeling unsafe/suspicious of one’s motives/hassled/or anything else. This sounds nice at first, but, for me at least, it just meant that there wasn’t any challenge or anything new to discover at each place except its actual tourist sites. If you could map my emotional state through the Japan, it would basically be a flat line hovering around the “comfortable/’that’s nice'” area. After having been places where the opposite of this is true though (i.e. big highs followed by big lows), I’d go so far as to venture that a life in comfortable emotional neutrality, rather than being ideal, is instead self-destructive. It was a similar life that I lived before in North America, and one I don’t want to live again.

To put it bluntly, let me recite a note to myself that I wrote in my journal, as it sums this up well: “Maladjusted culture, as I think all introverted cultures are – they kill themselves and seek solace in fucked up shit because of lack of human contact, even if they wouldn’t diagnose that as the problem, same as me before in North America”

If you’ve known no other life than this, as I did before in North America, you think this is the only way societies function. I always had a yearning / unsettled feeling during my time in NA, though I didn’t know for what exactly -something like: all was not as it should be / is this really how its supposed to be? But, since I had no experience in extroverted cultures like in SE Asia, I didn’t realize that this difference alone could be responsible for so much of that unsettlement, and is, I believe, a main reason behind why there’s so many “fucked up” things going on in Japan (but also in North America, you just see it less because North America also includes a healthy mix of extrovert cultures that cover up the weird stuff being undertaken by the introvert cultures underneath the surface). To clarify, when I say “human contact” above, I don’t just mean the number of minutes per day you spend socializing, but instead what’s going on around you in the society. Think of it this way: When did you feel better about yourself – When you were on the streets of Vancouver during the Olympic parties, or when you sitting alone on a silent bus on a rainy, average day? – Unpredictable human activities going on around you is an energizing thing, and the more of it there is (even if you’re not participating in it), the more you focus on the happenings around you and the less you focus inward on the dark recesses of your own mind. Example: Walking down a street in Manila vs. Walking down a street in Osaka. – Manila: Bikes are flying by you, Jeepneys are spewing smoke in your direction, beggars are asking you for money, street vendors are selling mangoes/etc., the ambient smells change with every block, there are piles of dog (hopefully?) shit that you have to avoid, people are yelling hello to you, etc. etc. ; Osaka: There are very quiet vehicles passing by you slowly, there are well-dressed people walking silently past you and stopping to look both ways at all crosswalks, there are no street vendors, no piles of shit, no beggars, no changing smells, and certainly no people saying hello to you (ok, there are all of these things, but waaaay less). Now tell me which street you’d rather walk down – the safe, predictable one, or the exciting, unpredictable one? Maybe you can be a happy and healthy human being taking the safe one, but I think there’s a much higher probability of you becoming slightly insane and requiring similarly removed-from-basic-human-nature activities to make you happy, like going to a “grope bar”, where you can stand in a fake traincar and grope waitresses as if they were train riders… Normal? You decide.

Basically, in short, Japan made me question my desires for law school or development work. Why the fuck should I help turn Laos or the Philippines into the next Japan or next North America? Obviously there’s a lot of shades of gray to a question like that, but it is nevertheless something I’m wrestling with these days.

A few more, less explosive, observations on Japan: 1) There basically isn’t a single trash can on a street anywhere in the country, which makes throwing garbage away that you may have accumulated a serious effort – Often forcing you into stores or malls to try and find a trash can. The reason for this is that Japanese people never eat and walk, don’t chew gum, and basically don’t do anything else that might produce garbage while walking, so why bother having trash cans for that silly foreigner who wanted to eat his bento box on the park bench, instead of in the convenience store itself??  ;  2) The culture of introversion is so prevalent that all ‘reserved’ train tickets are booked by the computer so that each window seat in a car fills up first, so as to only ‘force’ 2 people to sit beside each other if the car gets busier than that!!  ;  3) Japanese vending machines, and indeed Japanese culture itself, was lower tech than I had figured. No, there really aren’t any streetside vending machines that make a bowl of udon soup for you, or sell you convenience store essentials or anything like that. Occasionally hotels have ones that sell instant noodles or frozen food that it then proceeds to microwave, but don’t get your hopes up! , Same for technology elsewhere – Their cell phones are pretty low-tech (I know – I bought one), their automated toilets are cool but aren’t that hard to figure out, and their internet cafes are overpriced, overprivate, and overly strict places that don’t allow LAN gaming or Skype usage (aren’t those the only reason to go to net cafe in the first place!?).  ;  4) Japanese women probably wear the shortest skirts known to man, even starting at childhood ages! While its great eye-candy, its similarly pretty unsettling to see a 5 year old girl wearing one too – perhaps another catalyst for the abundant culture of perversion?  ;  5) There were a surprising number of jazz cafes and jazz music on offer throughout the country, which was nice to experience! Jazz isn’t even on the radar in NA for the most part  ;  6) A prime irritant for me, here and worldwide, is the “restoration” of old ruins / heritage places. Ok, if it gets a crack that threatens its collapse or something, sure you can put a new concrete beam in to hold it up, but come on, when you rebuild something from scratch and call it a tourist attraction, whats the value of it? So many of the Japanese castles were completely rebuilt in the middle 1900s, it makes you question what exactly you’re doing looking at it. You might as well just go look at an office building from the same era, other than that it looks a bit prettier! I, personally at least, would much prefer to see a pile of old rocks than a shining new castle complete with elevator!  ;  7) Here’s a gruesome example of Japanese adherence to rules even in the face of overwhelming logic or money: I wanted to get the lens of my Samsung (i.e. a Japanese camera) camera fixed (a minor issue with it not retracting into the camera properly – probably easy to fix) while I was in Tokyo. So I went to its world-famous electronics district, Akihabara, went into a huge electronics store with a really big repair section, and handed them my camera. They took it away for a minute, then came back and said “Sorry sir, this is a North American model, we don’t have the books on fixing them”. Seriously?? I’m sure the lens retracting mechanism works the same on most cameras – you could at least try! How is it possible that a tiny, shitty looking camera shop in Vietnam could take my camera apart, clean some dust off the lens, and put it back together in less than 10 minutes, whereas the world famous electronic gurus the Japanese won’t even touch it?

I’ll end here now and leave you to enjoy the photos (which are very nice). I don’t want to give the impression that I disliked my time in Japan, because it was indeed enjoyable, but its similarity to my time in North America just left me troubled throughout the experience and gave me the observations and conclusions that I left with you above. But, by all means, you should still visit! The ultra-structured world of a Japanese garden, even if a manifestation of the introverted cultural aspects I dislike, will still make you marvel at its peacefulness. I will say, though, that I think its a shame that the North American world has become SO enamored by all things Japanese, at the expense of all the other Asian cultures. In my view, every Asian culture (or world culture, for that matter) deserves equal exploration and interest. I’d love to see equal numbers of each country’s restaurants in Vancouver, for example, rather than just a million Japanese places and one or two lonely Vietnamese places. And how about some Philippine T.V. to go alongside the pervasive Japanese anime and movies? … Wait.. nevermind, that’s a terrible idea.. Philippine t.v. is brutally awful. haha! 😀

Enjoy the pics!

China – A rough place for the solo traveller

30 12 2010

(Just like China and its population, this post clocks in at a massive 9500 words, plus 279 photos, so I would suggest *not* attempting to read it all in one sitting!)

I had no doubt in my mind, when I crossed the border from Northern Vietnam into South-Western China’s Yunnan Province, that one ‘phase’ of my journey was over and that China would be a different world entirely. However, even with this attitude, I was not at all prepared for the culture shock that cold, stern China had in store for me after coming from the warm and inviting lands of Southeast Asia.

I spent 1 month in China, covering huge distances (going basically from one corner of the country to the other), learning lots, and having great times and bad times, so I feel at least moderately qualified to give the recommendation that China is most certainly not for everyone and that you should think carefully about your travel desires before launching into it.

At the end of the day, I rather disliked my time in China, for a large number of reasons I’ll highlight, and I’d predict that those travelling similarly to myself (i.e. on the cheap, solo, and not fluent in Mandarin) would, by and large, emerge with a similar view of the place.

As rooted into the culture by their ancient dynasties and their Confucianistic beliefs, China is not a particularly ‘welcoming’ place for strangers (consider the Great Wall, as an historical example). Though I’ve since realized that my stranger interactions weren’t too much different from those I’d have in North America (which is why I don’t particularly like this aspect of North America either!), at the time it was like being plunged from a warm and wonderful sauna (i.e. the people of Southeast Asia) into sub-zero arctic waters (i.e. the people of China). While this inward-looking attitude has preserved the wonderfully rich historical culture of arts, music, etc. in China (which I won’t dispute – Chinese history, calligraphy, ceramics, music, architecture, martial arts, etc. are all rich and exciting), it certainly hasn’t created a place that is easily accessible to the casual traveller.

All of a sudden, I went from a world of being smiled at on the street, being able to laugh with and strike up broken English/whichever SE Asian language conversations with random people along your way (without any fear of judgement), being able to comport myself with the innocence of one who knows that, at worst, he’s seen as a walking wallet, and, at best, seen as an immediate friend (both of which will get you people to talk to!), to China, where I can probably count the number of spontaneous smiles I got from passing strangers in the entire month on my hands and toes, where the blank-faced and incredibly open stares – and open gossip – that were directed at me frequently gave me serious self-consciousness and frustration over why said stares never revealed their intentions or became greetings or smiles! (I’ll describe particularly frustrating examples below), and where I could spend an entire day without conversation of any sort (or, if there was conversation, it was impatient/humourless/spoken rapidly in Mandarin and met with utter confusion when I could not understand it and asked for it to be said another way or drawn in a picture/and entirely unimpressed with any and all attempts I made to learn and speak Mandarin {I did pretty well at it, too, though, at one point, for the first time ever, it got openly criticized by a Chinese man who basically said ”your Chinese is as bad as my English!”}).

(A side note on language: Chinese people, on the whole, speak less English than anywhere else I’ve been, including now here in Japan. Even major tourist sites often lack the most basic English signage, including in Olympic/Expo-host cities Beijing and Shanghai, and, unlike other Southeast Asians, they really have a lot of trouble cross-culturally communicating – they generally won’t rephrase things / simplify their words / speak more slowly / mimic or draw the concept or item they’re trying to communicate / just laugh and be content in the lack of understanding, etc., nor do they understand your requests for them to do so and view as strange your attempts to communicate your ideas using these methods! So in this way it really is like entering a different world, where all the ways you’ve learned to communicate are null and void! The only nice thing about it was that, because their English is so lacking, I was able to save a tonne of money on tourist site entrance fees by asking for the ‘student price’ [usually like 50-60% of the normal rate] and giving them my driver’s license [which, quite clearly, says ‘DRIVERS LICENSE’ in big letters on the front!] – no one ever batted an eyelash, even in Beijing and Shanghai!! As well, as I mentioned above, they really don’t stroke your ego at all when it comes to your Chinese language ability [and, for me, praise at my progress serves as a big incentive to want to learn more]. An example of this was a Pakistani guy I met on a train from Beijing to Tai Shan. He was totally fluent in Mandarin, came on the train, sat down, and started chatting with his neighbours. Normally, if someone pulled this off anywhere else in Southeast Asia, the locals would be nearly pissing themselves from excitement over how well the foreigner has learned their language, but here, no one even batted an eyelash! In the couple hours or so I shared the train with them, I heard one person say to another, casually, something along the lines of ‘he’s good, eh?’, but that was it. Maybe some people would like this ‘you’re nothing special’ type of doing things, but for me, if I go to the huge effort of learning a language, I want my reward to be the surprise and smiles [and therefore friendships/discounts/etc.] from the locals, or else why did I even bother? One other, jarring, note: in the Northeastern regions [didn’t hear it in the South], one of the most common words in Mandarin [the word for ‘that’ or ‘that one’] is pronounced exactly as ‘niggah’. It must be pretty shocking for someone who’s black to come to Beijing or something, get on a subway, and hear nothing but niggah this, niggah that, niggah niggah niggah! Its bizarre!).

Anyways, I know, of course, why all this is the way it is, though it doesn’t mean I like it. The Chinese are a highly family and friend-oriented people, relying heavily on family status/face-saving and the ‘guanxi’ principle, where friends and family help each other out reciprocally and whenever in need, probably having evolved from the country’s tumultuous history and huge population. This principle hit me hardest when I had my few experiences of getting into a ‘group’ (i.e. not being a labelled stranger), during which times I was suddenly hit with incredible waves of genuine friendliness and generosity that totally blew me away (and made the subsequent ‘low’ of travelling on and becoming a stranger again all the more punishing). When not in any sort of group though – as is the case during solo travel – you’re in for a rough time. For example, the majority of Chinese meals are taken in, and designed for, banquet-style group form, meaning that street food is rare and that most of the ‘local specialties you have to try’ (or even just most of the normal dishes – are you really going to go in a restaurant and order a group-sized/meant-for-sharing plate of nothing but steamed bak choy?) can’t really be tried unless you want to embarrass yourself or waste a lot of food while spending a lot of money (e.g. hot pot – socially, NO ONE goes to hot pot alone, nevermind that, even if you did, you’d still have to deal with its massive size and price by yourself), and therefore you’re stuck eating noodle soup or fried rice or other ‘solo foods’ (there aren’t many more than that!) in a shitty canteen, or eating a bowl of ubiquitous instant noodles.

Speaking of ‘shitty’ canteens, you’ve probably heard your share of tales of the infamous Chinese uncleanliness and street spitting and such. They are, entirely, true. Spitting is indeed rampant and practiced by everyone from the old woman right down to the hottest teen girl on her way to the club, though it didn’t bother me as much as I thought (it just meant you couldn’t ever put anything you valued down on the ground!). What did bother me though was the often horrendous air pollution (I often couldn’t see further than 3 or 4 blocks in a city, not to mention that a full one third of the entire world’s daily consumption of cigarettes is consumed by Chinese people in every single indoor and outdoor place in the country!) as well as the utterly, utterly foul bathroom habits that the majority of the Chinese keep. Unlike SE Asia, where the majority of toilets at least have water to wash yourself (a far more hygienic option than toilet paper anyways!), the vast majority of Chinese toilets lack any sort of water or paper, and while you’d hope folks who proceed to make use of these facilities would bring their own cleaning devices, there is nothing more disconcerting than arriving into a toilet and seeing an unflushed deposit in the bowl without any trace of wiping paper on or near it (very common)! So… what, are you just getting right back up, no cleaning whatsoever?? To make matters worse, children – who, as predominantly only children in ”one child policy” China, are absolutely doled upon and are swaddling, spoiled rotten little things that can get away with murder – are, as part of this doling upon, basically allowed to shit and piss anywhere they want at anytime they want. In fact, it is so ingrained and widespread that all children’s pants are made with a hole in the bottom, allowing the permanently bare-assed child to just squat and go without a second’s hesitation or fussing. I saw a child shitting in the dead center of a busy sidewalk in Kunming, I saw a mother holding her child in half squat on her knees while sitting on a chair in the street in Dali with a pile of shit lying on the asphalt underneath, I saw children pissing down the cracks of a manhole cover in Tiananmen Square (while a girl I met in Chengdu told me she saw a grown man shitting in front of an army guard in Tiananmen, and I believe her), and I even saw a child just start to piss in the lobby of the Shanghai Museum (mother only managed to get a plastic bag under his dick after he was halfway through, while she left the poor staff attendant to wipe up the mess). Sorry to be blunt, but what the FUCK??!? Is there a ban on diapers or something? It certainly can’t be an affordability thing, given that even poor SE Asians were wrapping up their babies in diapers! I remain convinced that this adult and child culture of filthy shitting is the reason why I suffered two horrendous bouts of food poisoning during my month in China, both lasting around 4 days and knocking me out of my socks more substantially than anything I had suffered in SE Asia up to that point (in 8 months, I had basically only had 2 minor, 1 day cases of food poisoning, yet in China – I essentially had 8 full days of it!). While I’m sure each country I’ve been in has taken a few days off my life, China’s probably taken months of it off!!

Some other observations:

– For the self-proclaimed ‘country of bicycles’, I barely saw any! Motorbikes were common and cars are everywhere, so I guess the formerly ubiquitous bike is on the decline – I’ve actually seen far more here in Japan than anywhere in China!

– No offense, but basically every city and town in the country stinks. I suppose its just generally poor sewer systems, but the strange thing is that no other country in Southeast Asia smelled this way – they certainly had their fare share of sewage stink, but it was a different, less common, and less putrid stench than the one fully permeating China from the lowliest village right up to the doorstep of Shanghai’s ultra-expensive Park Hyatt hotel! If the food poisoning wasn’t enough to make you lose your appetite, this certainly was!

– The ‘Great Firewall’ is still ubiquitous and makes your life pretty shitty. No Facebook, no youtube, no blog (which explains these delayed posts!), and sometimes not even gmail/Google!

– Two aspects of Chinese culture I loathe: 1) incredible focus on materialism (big cars, big homes, big spending is the ideal life, so much so that it’s ingrained in their writing – take a walk around any Chinatown in the world, for example, and see how many times you see words like ‘luck’, ‘prosperity’, and ‘fortune’ in the name of like every restaurant or shop!) and, 2) an unwritten rule that food must be left behind at any meal, or else your host will think you’re still hungry. I absolutely hate wasting food – there’s no environmental crime that can be more easily avoided than unnecessary waste, so it totally infuriated me to see, for example, two young women come into a restaurant, order like 10 dishes, gingerly pick at a couple of them for awhile, then leave the rest behind! Arrghh, why!?

– Three other strange traits of Chinese that I observed frequently enough to have confidence in ascribing them to the general population: 1) they often talk incredibly loudly – basically yelling – no matter the location or circumstances, 2) they take forever to take a photograph (quite literally! I think perhaps this is due to the fact that many ‘new middle class’ in China probably just got their first digital camera and aren’t quite sure how to use them yet!), and 3) they often walk as though completely unaware of the trajectories of others. That is, for example, if you’re walking one way beside a wall and a couple is walking towards you in the other direction, it would normally be on their onus to move slightly to allow you to proceed along the wall, since you can’t exactly move slightly due to the presence of said wall! However, they won’t. So you’ll just collide and have to push past each other! Sometimes there doesn’t even have to be a wall – I was walking through an empty gravel field one time in a perfectly straight and predictable trajectory while a couple was coming towards me at a diagonal angle (the only 2 people nearby). I was set to pass slightly in front of them, though it was gonna be close. I kept my trajectory, figuring they’d just angle slightly to avoid me, but instead the girl basically just walked straight into my backpack and got smacked by it pretty hard! (I certainly didn’t turn to apologize for such idiocy, though I think they were expecting it!). Absolutely bizarre!

– BUT, in counter to all this: the scenery is unbeatable, as you might expect for a country as large as Canada. Huge mountains (Himalayas, for that matter), vast rivers, bamboo forests, huge numbers of ancient temples/carvings/walls/statues, deserts, ocean, and much more. And, for most of these places, just literally stepping off the tour-group trail will immerse you in silence and raw nature that can be incredibly powerful!

All right, enough introductions, let’s talk about where I actually went now! From Northern Vietnam, I crossed the border by foot into a Chinese town called Hekou, where I spent the afternoon exploring all the new and exciting things for sale in convenience stores, had a crazy old Chinese ‘army guy’ (he claimed) attempt to talk to me for a long time about how he was in the town to get laid (I think that’s what he meant with his furious humping motions!), and eating one of my few delicious Chinese meals (fresh handmade dumplings and claypot casserole). I then caught a night bus to my first big city, Kunming, which I arrived at in the dark and freezing cold morning and proceeded to get talked into an expensive taxi ride that I thought was a hotel service vehicle! After finding a hostel (I mainly relied on hostels in China, as much as I dislike the concept of being around other foreigners, due to their being the only places with reliable internet access and easy-to-find signs!), I spent 2 days in Kunming, which surprised me (as did other Chinese cities) with its oddly quiet (even though its got a massive population) and clean streets (due to China’s huge employment of street sweepers). I didn’t intend to spend 2 days there, as it didn’t have any major sites to see, but I started getting my first bout of food poisoning on the 2nd day and there was only 1 train per day to my next destination, Dali – a pretty, though massively touristy (with Chinese), heritage town. The train ride and first day in Dali were pretty horrendous, filled with me being sick from both ends and not seeing much, though I had recovered enough on the morning of the second day to take a cablecar trip up a big local mountain range, which had stunning cliff trails you could walk along and was basically deserted. I started feeling sick on the descent, but pushed it aside and walked across town to check out the huge nearby lake. It was a mixed blessing, as I met my first bunch of very friendly young Chinese students who wanted to chat, though, simultaneously, my urge to vomit reached boiling point. I held it in until the girls said goodbye and walked away, at which point I immediately vomited over the side of the dock we were on, after which point the remaining boys (who hadn’t talked to me yet) expressed their sympathies and we talked a bit more before I had to excuse myself again and go running to find a toilet for my oncoming diarrhea. It was incredibly frustrating to have to so hastily leave new friends (an incredibly rare thing to have happen in the first place in China) because of illness and it definitely lowered my mood!

With my ambitious travel schedule looming though, I couldn’t afford any more recovery time in Dali, so the next day I caught a bus for a short journey to Lijiang City, another super touristy, but very pretty, UNESCO heritage town. The weather was glorious, the start of the Himalayas were visible in the distance and I was feeling a bit better, though still didn’t find any of the kind-of-gross-looking Southern Chinese cuisine appealing (this coming from a guy who ate balut in the Phils!). I spent the day wandering the town and finding out information for my highly anticipated next step – a hike through the world’s narrowest gorge – the Tiger Leaping Gorge of the Yangtze River. While an established thing to do, I was questioning whether my weakened body could handle the climbs involved and what the status of the area actually was, as it was ‘officially closed’ due to landslides, though I discovered that this only applied to the low road, not the high hiking path, and simply meant that there would be fewer tourists and no entry fee! So, the next day I stocked up on water and food, left the majority of my luggage in storage at my hotel in Lijiang, and proceeded to catch the bus to the Gorge, where I had planned to start the ”8 to 10 hour” hike in to the small village at the other side of the Gorge around 3pm, spend the night at a guesthouse that was supposed to be an hour or two along the way, then finish the rest the next day and taxi back to the entrance. However, things didn’t go quite as planned. With lots of energy, I began walking down the road from the bus, looking for the high trail entrance, which was supposed to be beside a school. I never saw a school though and walked for like 30 minutes along the low road, practically into the mouth of the Gorge before finally giving up on my search for said entrance and asking for directions from some road workers, who didn’t give any useful information, and then from a roadside restaurant, whose owner pointed up a tiny path behind her house that basically rose almost vertically. I rapidly gave up on that ascent, not wanting to get lost, and emerged back onto the road just as a car passed that happened to be owned by the manager of one of the guesthouses in the village at the end of the Gorge. Seeing a lone white guy where he wasn’t supposed to be, she stopped and offered me a ride into the village (at a price, albeit not too high of one), telling me that the high trail entrance was way back at the start and I had missed it. At this point, it was nearly 4pm and I wouldn’t have been able to backtrack and get up the trail far enough to reach the first guesthouse before dark, so I accepted the ride, which took us along the ‘officially closed’ low road and that consisted of almost entirely driving over rocky soil from landslides, rather than the asphalt which presumably lay somewhere underneath, though it was perfectly safe and lots of road crews were at work in what is probably their never-ending struggle against the Gorge. I spent a peaceful night in the tiny village, with glorious views of the stars and deep silence all around, though now I was faced with having to do the entire ”8 to 10 hour” hike back the next day, instead of having it punctuated over 2 days, if I wanted to stick to my itinerary. So I was up early and out at the crack of dawn, this time having more luck in finding the start of the high trail in the reverse direction! It was a tough climb up for the first hour or so, but after that point the trail flattened out somewhat and basically became a high version of the road, albeit narrower! There were plenty of arrows along the way to mark the path and I only got lost once for 30 mins or so by taking a wrong path when crossing through one of the handful of small villages along the way. The weather was great, the views were astounding, and I only passed a few other folks on the trail. And I didn’t have to worry about time either, as the hike only took me around 6 hours, with the whole day taking 8 hours due to stopping for meals, getting lost, and chatting with an American guy for awhile, so I was comfortably able to finish and get back to Lijiang for the evening. Considering that not 2 days prior I was a food-poisoned mess, I was impressed with my recovery ability and totally blown away by how amazing of an experience the hike was – truly one of China’s best!

Unfortunately, the high was short-lived, as the next day I had to suffer a 12 hour bus ride along terrible roads across Southern Yunnan province, in order to reach a train station in the city of Panzhihua that could take me to Chengdu, my next destination. The bus was full enough that I was relegated to the ticket taker’s seat (and had to get up and fold up the seat any time someone got on or off), beside the driver, though it was actually neat, as I had the best views through the forward windows of the incredible mountains and valleys that we passed through in the morning, as well as the horrendous and totally uncalled for traffic jams in the middle of nowhere that resulted from truck drivers lining up for gas at stations that didn’t seem to have any and parking their trucks all over the road, totally uncaring about where other drivers were supposed to go! As the day progressed, the landscape got shittier and shittier, as we entered a seriously industrial area of nuclear plants, coal plants, and various other heavy industry whose trucks left the road in absolute tatters and the air so thick with smog that you could barely see across the street! As well, lunch, taken at a roadside canteen the bus pulled up to, was one of the nastiest meals I’ve eaten, consisting of some intestine that literally tasted like shit and other not-too-pleasant tasting dishes. Needless to say, I was growing pretty despondent about Chinese cuisine! Upon finally arriving into Panzhihua, a foully polluted river city, I caught a minibus to the train station, only to discover that there were apparently no trains that night for Chengdu, so had to take an expensive night bus instead, which I arrived at to find a full bus waiting for me alone (the train guy had called ahead and told the bus to wait) and I hadn’t eaten in hours, though luckily the bus was waiting at another roadside canteen whose tastier food I had to swallow down in seconds before taking off again! Once on the bus, I had the humorously ironic experience of taking off my shoes, only to have the Chinese woman in the bed next to me absolutely freak out about the smell of my feet (admittedly pretty horrendous) and move herself to a different bed. I just laughed at her, saying loudly in English (not caring if she understood), ”THIS IS CHINA!”, basically implying that the filth of the place should justify my smelly feet, haha!

I arrived in Chengdu the next morning, a city uncomfortably similar to Kunming, and spent 2 days there, the first of which was spent wandering the town and checking out its couple historic areas. On the second, I caught a tourist bus out to the nearby world famous panda sanctuary (which just made news again recently upon discovering a reliable remedy to the panda’s terrible reproductive success, which will make successfully raising cubs for reintroduction much easier). On the way, I met a friendly lady from the Netherlands and we toured the panda site together, which had lots of pandas, indeed, including the cute red pandas (which look more like racoons/huge squirrels than bears), and was surprisingly quiet from tourists. Our bus ride back to town was classic though – we, and a bunch of Chinese, had waited a while for the bus to arrive, and when we saw it approaching, all the Chinese who had been milling about started to get anxious and crowd around the bus stop sign – fair enough – though when the bus pulled up, and pulled up slightly past the sign, there was a literal stampede of people to get into the door first. I’ve never seen anything quite so ridiculous. Here we all are, a number of people far fewer than would take to actually fill up the bus (so there was no need to worry about getting on), in the middle of the countryside, and yet little old Chinese women were elbowing each other and almost physically pushing each other over just to get into the bus!! Its completely insane, and yet it happens like this everywhere! Meanwhile, the Dutch lady and I waited and laughed until everyone else had boarded, then calmly walked on and sat down, no fuss needed! I had told the Dutch lady earlier that, since Chengdu is in Sichuan province and is famous for hot pot, I wanted to try it, though wanted a companion in doing so, due to the social implications I mentioned above! She agreed happily, so when we arrived back in town, we went for some delicious hot pot and beers that capped off a fairly decent day!

Before my next big destination, Chongqing for a Yangtze Three Gorges cruise, I decided to take a couple day trips to other parts of Sichuan province. The first day I headed down from Chengdu to Leshan, home to the world’s largest carved Buddha, which I spent the afternoon exploring. It was, indeed, massive and was coupled with some pretty temples, though it was of course incredibly touristy and my mood was pretty low due to my receiving of a tonne of the aforementioned blank stares while I wandered around here! After seeing the sights, I caught an evening bus to the town of Yibin, a long and bumpy ride, so that I could visit the Shunan Bamboo Sea (aka Forest) the next day. This was one of those places that had sounded really cool to me in the guidebook but didn’t have a lot of information associated with it. I wasn’t sure about the bus situation to the forest from Yibin nor about what I’d do once actually there, but I nevertheless headed to the bus station the next morning hoping for the best. At first, a taxi driver outside nearly convinced to take his overpriced trip, claiming that there weren’t any buses and no transportation within the site itself, but luckily I checked with the station anyways and found that there was indeed a bus out there, so I bought a ticket and got on, only to discover during the journey from the friendly guy beside me that every other person on the bus was part of a tour group heading to the site (so I guess the taxi driver was kind of right). There were a couple other girls on the bus who could speak some English and they convinced me that I should pay a bit more and come on the tour too, since I would otherwise be unceremoniously dumped at the entry gate and would have to walk around the park (a big place). My acceptance was definitely one of the smarter decisions I’ve made, as I got to experience a Chinese tour from the inside. While I certainly didn’t understand a word the guide said at each site, the area needed no explanations. It was absolutely gorgeous – a thin fog hung over the area, in which thousands of acres of nothing but bamboo swayed silently in the breeze. We toured a bamboo museum, walked a few lovely trails through the forest and along a cliff that was covered in old carvings and Buddhas, and shared quite possibly one of the best meals I ate in China – a huge banquet of bamboo and local mushroom dishes that was absolutely exquisite and, of course, made better by the friendly company around me. For once, I saw Chinese people open up, I was part of ‘the group’, as I mentioned before, and everyone was smiling at me, we were laughing together and sharing the beauty together. As an outsider, Chinese tour groups are a dreaded thing you might encounter anywhere else in the world that will surely ruin the peace and quiet you had been enjoying, but actually being in one is a totally different experience – things are made easy for you, you’re whisked effortlessly to all the sites, served wonderful food, and make lovely friends! This experience, and a similar one I’ll relate shortly with my Yangtze River cruise, are why I’d recommend you travel China in a Chinese tour group as much as possible, if you plan on going! Yes, everyone wants to ‘get off the trail’ and have personal, unique experiences, but there really is something to be said about touring China the Chinese way – if only for the people for you meet (which won’t otherwise happen)!

Once we got back to Yibin, my new friends helped me find a hotel and helped me get a morning train ticket to Chongqing, though the only tickets remaining were the infamous ”wuzou”, or standing class. Since the ride was due to take 8.5 hours or so, I wasn’t looking forward to the idea of standing that long, needless to say! Luckily though, almost as soon as I boarded the grubby third class carriage the next morning (at which point the entire carriage stopped what they were doing and stared!) I was offered a seat by a guy who was getting off soon, and my ‘high’ from the previous day continued fairly well, as my neighbouring seat mates attempted some conversation and this crazy guy a few rows back kept coming up to my area and entertaining us all with singing and jokes and general strange extrovertedness! He even gave me peanuts, an apple, and some beers for no reason! He eventually got off and said goodbye, only to be replaced by some curious students whose English was terrible but who wanted to try nonetheless, so I had a couple exhausting hours with them trying to understand each other! When we finally arrived in Chongqing, one of them brought me to the bus I needed to take and even paid my fare before sending me on my way! Again, needless to say, I was feeling good about this sudden hospitality from all these Chinese people!

I didn’t stay long in Chongqing – the world’s largest metropolitan area (though, again, the streets seemed fairly quiet downtown and pollution wasn’t as horrendous as I’d expected) – only 1 night in a hostel, where I booked my Three Gorges cruise on an all-Chinese boat (the lady, of course, tried to talk me out of that and take the foreigner boat for 10 times the price! yeah right!). I walked around the riverfront and stocked up on cheap food for the boat ride, then joined the tour on the next day. Because it was only a 2 night tour, we were first shuttled by bus a few hours down the river to the town of Wanzhou, where we boarded our boat in the evening, a decent 4 story thing with maybe 150 – 200 people, a nice viewing deck and with my third class cabin consisting of 6 bunks, which I shared with a very friendly family of 5. We then proceeded to cruise to our first stop, an old and famous temple that had actually been relocated brick by brick to a new site because of the Three Gorges Dam flooding. Bizarrely enough, this tour was scheduled for like 11:30pm! It was quite surreal to be piling off a boat, past active souvenir vendors, with 150 other people to walk around a dark temple at midnight! We were then awoken early the next morning for a tour around another historic temple town area, though I didn’t pay for that optional tour, so I just wandered around the town we had docked at while everyone else was off touring. When they returned a couple hours later, we set sail for the first gorge, which was glorious. Again, as has been my luck through most of this trip, the weather was wonderful and everyone spilled out onto the viewing deck to snap photos. Although the Gorge apparently wasn’t as narrow or pretty as it used to be, due to the rise in water levels, it still packed a punch! It was around this time that the people of the boat started warming up to me and it wasn’t long before I was experiencing more classic ‘in-group’ hospitality! After the first gorge, the boat docked again and we all piled off to get on a smaller boat for a cruise up and down the ‘mini Three Gorges’, which I didn’t even know existed, but which were even more beautiful than the first main gorge – they were incredibly narrow and tall and covered with brilliant reds and oranges of autumn colours as the sun shone on. It really was majestic! We cruised up to a small temple, then to an area where we got onto little motorboats and a guide narrated the scenery in story form, though I unfortunately couldn’t understand a word they said, but everyone else seemed to enjoy it! Once we got back to the boat, it was reaching evening and while we were then to sail through the 2nd and 3rd gorges, I didn’t end up seeing much of it, as I met a friendly doctor guy from Northern China who could speak some French and who invited me to dinner in his room with his two female friends, whereupon we had fun communicating in broken French/Chinese/English all mixed up together! He fed well too, with crabs, meats, and fish (and a tonne of spirits! – China’s favourite version of alcohol) being pretty much all there was (not even any rice! But this is the sign of opulence – rice and noodles and such are considered fillers and aren’t usually served in formal banquets, so they say). The next day, we were up early again to board motorized dragon boats and get whipped along the river to this floating stage and walkway thing in the middle of nowhere, where we walked on this floating bridge down a small fork of the river and proceeded to be entertained by this half hour play with a whole bunch of actors that was likely about some historical figure from the area or something, I couldn’t really understand it! Back on the boat, I spent the final cruising hours on the deck playing with a cute little girl whose family I had made friends with and who proceeded to give me a huge pile of snacks as we played! It was then time to say goodbye to the boat as we pulled up at the Three Gorges Dam and proceeded to get on buses that shuttled us around to three different viewing areas, which gave a cool insight on the dam, though there wasn’t a lot written in English, nor any ‘before and after’ comparison shots, which I had been hoping for – probably too politically sensitive. With this wonderful trip over, it was back to reality as I faced another brutal journey for Xi’an, my next stop, which involved a late night bus ride for 4 hours to the city of Wuhan, where we arrived at midnight, so that I could catch a 3am train to Xi’an, which then took 13 hours! There’s no denying that China’s a big place! Unfortunately, the emotional high I had from these few days of great tours and friendly people soon returned to its prior low state and stayed that way until my departure, as my remaining destinations unfortunately didn’t offer me many more opportunities for personal interactions.

I arrived, finally, to Xi’an after those 13 hours to an absolutely seething train station – the busiest I’ve seen anywhere, crammed inside and outside with some of the roughest looking peasants I’ve seen anywhere too! Even though I went immediately to buy my ticket to Beijing for 2 days later, apparently every train was already sold out except the first class of the most expensive express train! (Cost me 80 bucks! Probably could’ve flown for less!). After that pandemonium, I spent the next day exploring around Xi’an city, which has a wonderful Muslim Quarter with abundant street food and some great canteens where I proceeded to stuff my face with ‘lamian’ (those famous pulled, handmade noodles). I also was the object of attention to 3 incredibly persistent young teen girls who followed me for awhile as I was walking before working up the nerve to talk to me, and then proceeded to follow me up to the Xi’an city wall (a huge old wall surrounding the downtown), where we rented bikes and rode around it, and then followed me halfway across the city to a big pagoda where we looked around and I bought them some candied fruits on sticks to reward their persistence, haha! Finally I had to beg them off, as I had arranged to meet a guy I had met in the hostel, who teaches English in the city, for dinner in the Muslim Quarter, where he was going to show me a nice dumpling restaurant. In truth, it was a bit overpriced and nothing special, but we had a good chat regardless! The next day I did the ubiquitous tour out to the Terracotta Warriors site, which surprised me in its unfinished-ness! There’s a reason you only ever really see the warriors in a couple of angles in photographs, because while there are indeed thousands of them, most are still unexcavated! The punch was also diminished somewhat by learning that the excavated ones were, by and large, not excavated in their current form (I figured they’d just chipped away and unearthed these great statues), but were mainly found in broken pieces and then put back together!

That evening I took my unwanted first-class train to Beijing, though I didn’t get to enjoy the experience, as I started feeling ill again during the ride and had a feverish night. I arrived to a bitingly cold Beijing, with a rough wind making things worse. After finding a hostel, I headed to a nearby mall to watch the newly released Harry Potter and then headed up to the Olympic Park area to check out the Birds Nest Stadium and Water Cube. There was no food anywhere around the area though and it was incredibly cold and I was feeling increasingly worse, so I left as quickly as I arrived to head down to Tiananmen Square. Surprisingly for me though, I arrived too late (at just after 5pm) and the square was closed! I had no idea it closed, and was surprised by the major amount of military presence all around the area – I always thought it was just a big open area, but I guess in China, even big open areas get controlled if they have a history of protests! The annoyance about the closure too was that I had to take a massive detour (we’re talking kilometers here) to get around to the other side of the square so that I could go check out the Beijing concert hall, to which I arrived just in time to get a ticket for an incredibly enjoyable classical concert by the Beijing symphony (though the program was all in Mandarin, so I’m still not sure of some of the pieces they played!). During intermission I met some friendly English-speaking Beijing ladies who were (for once!) impressed at my Mandarin ability (or at least they made it seem that way!). The illness was getting worse though and I struggled to stay awake from utter exhaustion, which didn’t abate after another fitful night’s sleep. I nevertheless spent an appetite-less morning touring around the Summer Palace, a pleasant former Imperial retreat outside the city, followed by walking around a pleasant ‘hutong’ area of the city (i.e old neighbourhoods with a distinctive style of traditional home, more and more of which are being torn down in favour of new development). After basically not eating all day, illness started hitting my bowels in the evening while I was on a hilltop getting views of the city. I still felt the need to find some food though, so, after a couple failed searches, decided to head for a tourist street that supposedly had a nice nightly food market. By this point, I was utterly exhausted (both from the illness and the huge distances I covered on foot that day – Beijing is a BIG place), depressed about finding myself without any socializing again (after my highs of the aforementioned tours), and generally down on life, so, of course, this was just the start to possibility the worst few hours of my trip to date.

It started fine enough. On the way to the tourist street, I took a rest for a minute on a bus bench and was sitting there despondently when I heard a pleasant female voice behind me say something like, ”Do you need some help?”. I turned to see a friendly-looking young Chinese guy and girl and proceeded to exchange friendly banter with them for a few minutes, saying how I was just resting, talking about Beijing, and having them say they were ‘headed to a bar for some drinks, would you like to come with us?’. I politely declined, saying I wanted to head to the night market for some food, to which they responded favourably by offering to come along. Alright, no problems there, the ball’s in my court, right? I had no reason to be concerned, so we headed together to the night market, which wasn’t actually that impressive – just a few stalls mainly selling things a tourist might want to eat (e.g. scorpions on sticks and other exotic stuff like that), but I nonetheless got some dumplings and noodles and was going to start eating them when the girl said, ”Oh you can’t eat standing up, its cold out here! Come on, there’s a place across the street here we can sit down and have some drinks and they’ll let you eat your food, no problem!”. Alright, fair enough, makes sense. So I followed them across the street, and (this is where my senses should have kicked in, though they unfortunately didn’t) through a jewelery store and up a flight of stairs at the back of the store up to a second floor teahouse, where we were led to a windowless private room (!!). I thought this a bit strange at the time, but not malicious. We then took a look at the drink menus – and the prices were ludicrous! Basically everything was its normal price multiplied by 10 (i.e. a cup of tea was not 5 RMB but 50, etc.). Even this didn’t really perturb me though, I just thought, ‘Damn, pricey place, I guess I’ll just get one beer and nurse it all night’, nor was I perturbed when they ordered a whole pot (which is expensive even in normal places) of tea, along with a plate of oranges and crackers, and later, a glass of wine for her. All the while, we were having wonderful conversation, my food poisoning was momentarily forgotten, and I was just happy to have new friends again. We talked innocently, without anything said ever tipping me off to anything darker about these two nice young people, for at least an hour and a half before they said that they had to go, as they were getting up early to visit the Great Wall the next day (their original story was that they were visiting from Harbin, in the north). So then the bill came, and it suddenly hit me like a 10 tonne truck that I just got big time scammed. The bill was for 1,100 RMB (almost 200 bucks for one pot of tea, one beer, 6 tiny mandarins, 6 packages of crackers, and one glass of wine). And before I got any ideas about suggesting that we ‘go Dutch’ on the bill, the girl immediately stated with a smirk on her face that ‘in China, girls don’t pay! Thanks!’. But their act was so solid that, to counter any opposition I may have had to that, the guy slapped down 400RMB, saying, ‘Sorry man that’s all I have left, can you pay the rest’? I didn’t exactly have many options, being in a windowless upstairs room, alone, and having memory of the fact that there was a decent-sized dude who was manning the desk when we walked in, not to mention having painful memory of the huge warning note posted in my hostel saying BE WARY OF TEAHOUSE SCAMMERS!, so I paid up, after which the couple immediately began making consoling noises about ‘yeah that was pricey wasn’t it?’ and ‘here, take the rest of these oranges!’ and other such shit. Nevertheless, I kept the conversation going as though nothing happened and we took our leave of each other just as pleasantly as we had met. To say that I was beating myself up after that experience would be an understatement, though I suppose my depressed and ill state, coupled with the fact that I was sitting down, is what made me vulnerable, as, immediately after I said goodbye to the scammers and started walking down the street again, a couple more young ladies came up to me and tried the same innocent conversation and invitation, though this time, because I was walking, their pleas had an air of desperation and so I could immediately detect the scam. The shitty-ness of the evening didn’t end there though, as once I returned back to the hostel I was hit with the full wave of the food poisoning that had been festering in me since the Xi’an train ride and I proceeded to have a basically sleepless night spent on the toilet, followed by a morning of apologizing to my dorm mates! To say my mood was ‘rock bottom’ that evening/night would be an understatement!

Regardless of my physical state, I headed out the next morning to tour Tiananmen Square, Mao’s Mausoleum, and the Forbidden City, followed later by the Temple of Heaven, all of which were impressive and pleasant, though obviously hampered somewhat by my weak physical state and low mood! I felt a bit better the next day though, when I took the bus out to the Badaling Great Wall, the touristy section, though it was quiet that day, due to the absolutely freezing wind that was ripping across the area (coldest place I’ve been to date). I had wanted to do a strenuous hike in one of the other, quieter areas of the wall, but obviously my weakened body precluded that. Nevertheless, even this restored and ‘safe’ wall section was exciting and gave some great views, so I wasn’t too saddened by the loss! That evening, I went and tried the famous Beijing roast duck at a huge famous restaurant for it that can seat something like 2000 people, though, honestly, I didn’t much care for it – too dry!

I took it easy the next day until the evening, when I caught a train to my most anticipated destination in China – Tai Shan Mountain – China’s holiest mountain, that I had an intense excitement to climb. It was on this train ride that I met that aforementioned Pakistani guy whose Chinese fluency impressed no one but me and also illustrated an example of the bizarre way a Chinese person might relate to you. When it was nearing time for me to get off the train, I asked the Pakistani guy to ask the people in the seat beside me (who hadn’t looked at me the whole ride, even though they had asked him questions about me, which he subsequently related to me and which I subsequently answered directly to the people asking and answered in Mandarin [though still didn’t receive any looks or smiles]) if they knew of any hotels in Tai Shan city, as they were disembarking there as well. After some protracted discussion among themselves and the Pakistani guy, and a few phone calls to hotels, the Pakistani guy finally translated for me that yes, they knew, and they would take me there and show me and help me out. Oh… really? Wow, that’s nice of you, considering you’ve never looked or smiled at me this whole time!! I don’t understand!?! And so we proceeded to get off the train and I followed them to the hotel, where they bargained me down a discount and left with finally a smile to me. I really couldn’t understand it, like, they were clearly friendly people who were curious about me, and yet never initiated any real contact with me nor responded positively when I had made initial overtures early on in the train ride by smiling and answering their indirect questions to the Pakistani guy directly back at them!?

And I guess that’s the thing, I just don’t like it. I don’ t like this way of interacting! Screw face-saving, guanxi, or whatever it is, just smile at me, dammit!

Luckily, my next day of conquering Tai Shan fully lived up to my expectations and put me in a good mood, regardless of how strange my relations with other Chinese people might be. It was a tough but pretty hike up an estimated 6000 stairs (so says the book, I certainly wasn’t counting!), past vendors selling energy drinks, little temples, and not that many tourists, especially in the lower half, since there’s a ‘cheat’ route where you can take a bus up to the halfway point and start the hike from there instead, which the vast majority of Chinese tourists were doing – wussys! (The truly sedentary can take a cable car all the way to the top!) The last bit was the toughest, as the wind picked up, the temperature dropped rapidly, and the stairs grew incredibly steep, but the feeling of accomplishment upon getting up them was wonderful, though it was sobering to find an entire town at the top! (I can’t imagine the rough time those poor guys must’ve had carrying it all up!) The descent was even tougher, as it turned my legs to jelly from all the stairs, though at the halfway point, I carried on down via a different, deserted path that led through pleasant autumn forest down to a couple other attractions at the base, including some nice pools along the river. And as fast as it started, it was over and I was back on a train to Shanghai, my final stop before I was to catch a 2 night passenger ferry on Nov. 30 for Japan, though not before I experienced another sterling example of messed-up Chinese social relations. While waiting for the train in Tai Shan terminal, I had bought a pomelo (like a big grapefruit) and was proceeding to open it up and eat it when I started hearing progressively rising laughter from a young couple sitting in the row of seats across from me and slightly down the row. I had seen them glancing in my direction for awhile, but once I pulled out the fruit, they basically just went into suppressed hysterics. Any move I made with the fruit saw a spike in laughter volume – peeled a section, hysterics, took a bite, hysterics, spit out a seed, hysterics! At first I was glancing in their direction and smiling, hoping we could all share a few laughs at my expense (which I’m cool with, but at least engage me first before laughing at me!), but every time I looked their way they looked the other way and suppressed their incredibly obvious laughter, so I went back to the fruit only to feel their eyes and laughter on me again. This continued for basically the 20 or more minutes it took me to eat the thing, by the end of which I was incredibly frustrated by the whole affair. Bah! I was happy to leave them behind when my train pulled up, needless to say!

While I unfortunately missed the end of the World Expo by a month, Shanghai was still a pleasant place with a very different feel than the rest of China. By that I mean a much more ‘developed world’ feel, for both the infrastructure and the people. Shanghai architecture was incredible – nearly every new skyscraper had something interesting and eye-catching about it, not to mention the uber-iconic Oriental Pearl Tower, now paired with two more iconic super skyscrapers resembling a pen and a bottle opener and home to Shanghai’s fanciest hotels and world’s highest observation deck (100 stories), which I paid the hefty fee to go up, but which was well worth it. I spent 3 nights in Shanghai, during which time I wandered the Bund – the city’s iconic waterfront featuring a tonne of historic, Western-style architecture – as well as most of the rest of downtown. I toured the city’s interesting urban planning center, the famous Yu classical Chinese garden, and the incredibly impressive Shanghai museum, which contained tens of thousands of priceless bronzes, ceramics, sculptures, etc. with free admission! It was, I suppose, a decent way to leave China behind, which I was certainly anxious to do!

I guess my final thought on China is just that its interesting how, even though I was raised in ‘Hongcouver’, as I once heard it dubbed, and practically grew up in Chinese restaurants, I could still be thrown so off-guard by the real China and so displeased by it all. I suppose that could be because, a) the majority of Vancouver Chinese are Cantonese, whose delicious food exists only in the area around Hong Kong, which I didn’t get a chance to visit, and b) I would never have noticed the Chinese mannerisms in Vancouver, since all strangers in Vancouver are cold to you and I always just thought that that was how it was everywhere! Perhaps if I had visited China before visiting anywhere else or before living in the Philippines I would have emerged with a more favourable view of it, but, of course, once I’ve had a metaphorical taste of something amazing (Southeast Asia), all the rest will seem sub-par in comparison. Probably why I’m heading back to the Philippines after I’m done here in Japan! 🙂

Enough talk now, here’s a whole tonne of photos!