Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Where the Gods Live

I've been in China for over a month now, but I wanted to do a quick post about where TBB West was after we left Ecuador but before we arrived in Kunming.

In short, we hiked Machu Picchu!
Also, we learned to spell Machu Picchu.
But mostly the hiking part.

I've trekked before, at summer camp, but I've never trekked like this. Of the mountains along the Inca Trail, Andrew F said, "this is where the gods are", and it's easy to see why:
The ruins at Machu Picchu were by far the biggest and most complex, but they were also the most touristy, and after the relative solitude of the mountains (the Peruvian government limits the number of people who can hike the Inca Trail at one time), the city was too jam-packed. Still, it was impossible not to be impressed by the scale and intricacy of the place.
As far as the physical difficulty of the hike, it was tough, but the experience was so worth it. I would go again in a heartbeat, and only partially because of the delicious food waiting for us at the campsite at the end of each day. The whole week was amazing, and the hike was more fun than I ever thought I could have trudging up stairs. There were lots of smaller Inca ruins along the journey, and whenever you got tired of admiring those and the Andean scenery that surrounded them, you could strike up conversations with other hikers on the trail.

That's about it for our week in Peru-although during our days in Cusco, we did get to go to a chocolate museum, where we made our own chocolate and sampled an unhealthy amount of delicacies. Andrew K and I also stumbled upon some Inca ruins while wandering near Cusco one morning, and got a tour from a local stone carver.

What's that you say? You also want to see a picture of two grazing llamas from behind? Well, if you insist.

Farewell 'til next time.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Not Too Simple

I once heard a saying from a friend who had lived in Japan:

"When you've spent two weeks in Japan, you know all there is to know about the Japanese. After two months, you know a little less. And after you've lived in Japan for two years, you realize that you will never know anything about what it means to be Japanese."

Adjust the time frame and the country, and you have my China experience in a nutshell! I think that's part of why I haven't been blogging lately-everything here is so complex and overwhelming that I can barely wrap my head around it, much less write it up in snappy blog post format.

Let me explain what I mean. In Yunnan province (where I am staying) alone, 26 different recognized ethnic minorities co-exist. You can go to the largest market in Kunming, the Bird and Flower Market, and stroll past stalls of Miao jewelry next to Bai clothing stores, followed by rows of digital cameras and cellphones (and, furthermore, when you stop in at the Miao jewelry shop, the traditionally-robed proprietor will look up from his portable DVD player to greet you).

But even this situation has several hundred layers of nuance behind it. Ethnic minorities in China were once discriminated against severely, but are now encouraged to continue their cultural traditions-so long, of course, as they do so in a manner that is happy and tourist-friendly. Minority groups are granted some autonomy within their provinces, but they can most emphatically not become their own states, regardless of how much or little they have in common with the Han Chinese majority. So China celebrates its diversity, but with the primary goal of projecting an image of harmony that may or may not serve the best interests of the minorities themselves, who often struggle to preserve their traditional ways.

Then you have to wonder, what are 'traditional ways' anyhow, and why must the choice be between 'preserving' or 'exterminating' them, as opposed to letting cultures grow and change on their own? But in such an increasingly connected world, filled with societal pressures and misconceptions, what does 'on their own' even mean?

These are the sorts of questions that cloud my mind when I try to write blog posts. To make the matter even more complicated, the over 50 ethnic minorities in all of China (as opposed to just Yunnan province) represent only a fraction of the hundreds of groups that applied for minority status when the government began implementing special laws regarding the country's minorities. If your head is spinning, you're not alone.

Still, the vast diversity of China and Kunming does provide a certain serendipity to daily life. I can walk home past the half-butchered carcass of an unknown animal hanging in the street, and enter my host family's apartment to see their 15 year-old daughter, Ting ting (English name Sunny), browsing the web on her iPad. Experiences like that one make me realize that our day-to-day life in the United States is not the only model of modern existence. And if the smallest cotidian details of city streets vary so much in each country I visit, maybe the larger patterns that govern societies are also changeable and varied across the globe.

Anyway, if I can't explain the intricate web that is China in a few paragraphs, I can at least give you all a summary of what my daily life is like here.

Each morning after breakfast (I'm really starting to appreciate starting the day with a bowl of hot noodles) I walk 20 minutes to the university where we have Chinese class. Our teacher, Charles, has a store of patience matched only by the quantity of his varied talents (Palaeontology? Japanese? Photography? Check, check, and check.)

After class we have either a lecture, a seminar, or media project work time, followed by a leisurely lunch break. You can get seven fresh dumplings here for the equivalent of about one US dollar.

At around 1:00, we go to a local middle and high school, where we split up into groups of two or three to teach classes of English language learners. The 60 student class size makes this fairly intimidating, but we are gradually discovering what techniques make for an effective and enjoyable lesson.

After teaching, we walk back to the university for media project time and lesson planning for the following day. Then we go our separate ways and I head back to my family's apartment to chill out, have dinner, and read.

So that's it for my average routine. Although I had some definite culture shock when we first arrived in Kunming, having a fun and set schedule has helped me feel more able to absorb the huge variety of sights and sounds here in China. And of course, Charles is always ready to help us with questions about both language and culture. On one of our first days here he explained to us that Chinese language is often awkward, dancing around strong expressions and substituting soft negations. For example, if I absolutely despise a dish at a restaurant, I "don't love it too much"; and if I give a blatantly wrong answer in class, it's “maybe not too correct”. This concept of linguistic side-stepping is not unheard of in English (ha!), but I explain it to you here because it is in this sense that I intend the title of this post. Perhaps you can now better understand what I mean when I say that China is Not Too Simple.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Weekends in Ecuador

There were five weekends during our time in Ecuador. On the first, we moved in with our host families in Los Naranjos. We also spent the second weekend hanging out with them!
My family lived in a fairly spacious, open wooden house.
This is the sitting area; to the left is the kitchen and to the right are the beds where we slept.
Here's Lisette, our gracious host mom, and four year-old Kiara:
This, however, is Kiara's more typical modus operandi:
That weekend we hung around the house, doing laundry with Lisette and playing with Kiara. Manuel, the father, has a weekend job at a radio station. I also went to a great community soccer game-we ended up playing Tsachilas versus gringos, which ended in a predictable but fun defeat on our part.

The next weekend, our whole group left Los Naranjos and traveled to the coast, to a fantastic and secluded beach in a place called Bahia de Caracas.
We didn't do much apart from relaxing, sleeping in tents, and playing in the sand, but I found myself struck by an artistic impulse:
This is a collage I made from debris, trash, shells etc that I found on the beach. It's a sea monster!

The rising tide eventually returned my work to the ocean.

The following weekend was our first IST, or Independent Student Travel. In each core country, we get a chance to split up into smaller groups of students and travel by ourselves wherever we want within the country. It's a fantastic opportunity to personalize the trip as well as to chill out.
For my Ecuador IST, Michele, Andrew, and I went to several villages along what's called the Quilatoa loop: a collection of towns near the Quilatoa volcanic crater lake.
Our first day was spent at the Quilatoa crater itself, which was absolutely phenomenal:
We hiked down to the lake, kayaked, and then rode hard-working horses back up to the top of the mountain. After lunch, we headed to our next day's location, Zumbahua.
Zumbahua (the pronunciation of which I mangled in several creative ways) is famous for its weekly markets, and rightly so! The market had everything from produce and grains to delicious if suspect street food to DVDs, clothing, and jewelry. I bought gifts for my host family but mostly just enjoyed wandering around.
The last town we went to was called Chugchilan, and while Chugchilan was a pleasant community, that's about all it was. The famed cloud forest turned out to be a two hour walk each way from the town itself, which we couldn't fit into our tight schedule. The other main attraction is the local cheese factory, which we did visit. However, after we paid a man named Dario $20 to drive us there, the factory turned out to mostly be two vats of milk in a room:
(At this point, clever readers will be asking, "What the hell did you expect, Alison? It's cheese. It's made of milk.". To those readers, I provide as a diversionary tactic this picture of one of the alpacas that stared at us while we stood awkwardly near the variously solidified forms of dairy.)
Dario had ended up driving away while we were looking at some mozzarella, so we bought half a wheel of cheese and walked through the mountains for a few hours eating it. Along with a volleyball game with some local Ecuadorians, that was about it for IST weekend-a fun and interesting time all around.
(But seriously, don't visit Chugchilan.)

Saturday of the last weekend was the day we left Los Naranjos. There was a huge party either to celebrate our time there or to celebrate our leaving (I like to think the former), and we played lots of traditional Tsachila games, like spear-throwing and tug-of-war. Then we danced late into the night-imagine speakers and a colored disco ball nestled beneath a bamboo thatched shelter.

I was sad to say goodbye to my family in Los Naranjos, but the next week, we went to Peru, where we hung out in Cusco and hiked the Inca Trail. Blog post on that to come-it was amazing!
As I write I'm in Los Angeles, but tomorrow (technically today) we're flying to Shanghai and then to Kunming, China: our second core location.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Children at Play, or Kids These Days

The other thing that´s been on my mind in Los Naranjos (the village we stayed in) is the total shift in cultural knowledge-in this case, how traveling flips normal societal roles on their heads. When we are safely in our home culture, it is assumed that adults are more savvy than are children than are babies. But what about when we go somewhere new?
We are a group of high school graduates, all headed for college in the years to come. In Los Naranjos, however, we can´t figure out basic tasks like using the bathroom (you get a bucket of well water from outside and throw it in the toilet to flush) or walking home (take a right on the dirt road surrounded by plantain trees). Thrown into another culture, even the most well-educated students are as lost as toddlers (literally-my directions above are a bit tougher when you realize that all the roads are dirt roads surrounded by plantain trees).

By contrast, the actual toddlers here know exactly what is going on in any given situation. Kiara, the four year-old from my house, is a pretty normal kid, except that instead of going to daycare she runs around the plantain trees all day harassing my family´s chickens.
The truly astounding girls, though, are the three sisters who live in the center of town. Milena, Diana, and Anai are eight, six, and three years old respectively. But they wield machetes like pros. They took Sarah on a trip into the forest for cacao, using a machete to hack down the fruits from the top of a tree, then cracking them open and sharing them with all the students! They easily do laundry, paint hair with the traditional Tsachila achote dye, and shoo away hungry dogs. At the same time though, they are utterly normal kids. They love stealing our backpacks and playing with the puppies that were born during our first week in Los Naranjos. It´s amazing to see little children who are so fluent in a culture that I can never fully understand.

I will miss Kiara and those three girls a lot now that we´ve returned to Quito, but just spending time with them in Los Naranjos was as much of an education as speaking with the adults of the community.

Oh, I also want to say sorry for not including any pictures in these last few posts. I do have them on my camera, it´s just a hassle to transfer them from there to the computer to the blog. I promise to illustrate more later. Adios!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Giving Trees

Hey readers, long time no see.
For the last three weeks I’ve been living in the Tsachila community of Los Naranjos, which is about an hour from Santo Domingo, Ecuador.
I’ve been staying with an incredibly nice host family, consisting of a young couple and their four year-old daughter Kiara. In the afternoons Kiara bounces off the walls, but in the mornings she is usually too sleepy to say goodbye to Nicki and me when we leave for work.
Monday through Thursday mornings, we plant trees beside a river in a nearby town, as part of a reforestation project. The gist is this:
Years ago, the Ecuadorian government passed a law saying that any land that a farmer cultivated would henceforth belong to that farmer. The measure was probably well-intentioned, but it ended up giving farmers an incentive to clear every foot of land they could, prompting them to cut down the very trees that maintained the health of their local river. Residents of the area depended on the river for washing, bathing, irrigation, and sometimes drinking water.
In taking advantage of the new law, the local farmers destroyed the vegetation that was holding the soil of the riverbanks in place. Without plant roots, the sediments of the shoreline began to erode. Further, the water level of the river dropped, harming both the environment and the community-fish could no longer survive in some areas, so the Tsachila could no longer depend on them as a food source.
Every day our group carries baskets of saplings, digs holes, and plants trees along the edge of the river, with the goal of helping to restoring the river’s health.
It’s easy to conclude from their actions that the farmers or the Ecuadorian government areshort-sighted, and perhaps they were in the past. But the farmers who cleared the vegetation originally are now helping us replenish it by giving us access to their lands for reforestation.
We are usually plagued by thorn bushes and mosquitoes as we plant, so the project can sometimes be frustrating. But we only work in the mornings, and in the afternoons we return to Los Naranjos for lunch and seminars. In the evenings we hang out with our host families (Kiara’s favorite things to play with are her stuffed smurf doll and my electric toothbrush), and the next day we start all over again.
Everyone we’ve met here has been so friendly that it’s easy to imagine spending another month in Los Naranjos. Next week, though, we’re departing for Quito and traveling from there to Peru. After that, it’s off to China-I’ve never been to Asia, nor spent a month in a city, but if my experience in Kunming is anything like the time I’ve spent in Ecuador, I’m going to love it.
Ciao ‘til next time!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

While I Wandered

We're now almost done with our stay in Quito, Ecuador, and so many great things have happened that it's hard to list them all. We took Spanish lessons, learned about the project we will be doing with Yanapuma, toured a water treatment plant, and took salsa lessons.
One of my favorite activities came on Thursday morning, when we toured Quito's historic district. We saw a church that took 160 years to construct (it was gilded all over, which prompted Katherine to wonder, "How many people would Jesus have fed with the money it took to build this place?"), and at lunch, I ate cow's tongue (it tasted pretty much like regular beef) and had a delicious drink called Ponche. The best experience, though, was when we climbed the Basilica del Voto, a huge gothic cathedral built in 1892.

The architecture was amazing, but the first interesting moment for me came when I saw the door:
It's not the best quality photograph, but the engraving depicts a robed Spaniard blessing (and presumably converting) a kneeling Native American. Kinda says it all, doesn't it?
Anyway, we climbed up to the very top of the bell tower, which had an amazing view:
We could see buses and cars, as well as dozens of uniformed schoolchildren scattered in courtyards across the city. In the background of the second picture, you can see a few of the amazing mountains that surround Quito. The city is built far up onto their slopes.
The bell tower at the cathedral was covered in interesting graffiti. Climbing to the top of the Basilica was definitely an exertion (there was an elevator, but that's not for hardcore TBB types like us), so I got to wondering: when they've hiked up all those steps, what do people write?
Some folks just went for the classics:
Jose, Sanoy were here 1999
While others just admired the view:
There were languages from many places...

But love, of course, is universal:
You are the light that illuminates my life, you are the best of woman, I love you.
Fat man, I love you. From black girl.
("Gordo" and "negro" are sometimes used as terms of endearment in Ecuador!)
Quite a few inscriptions had an artistic flair:

And some were funny:
Spotted two-thirds of the way up: "From here he didn't attempt to climb any farther."
While some were sad:
"These nights when you are not here... (something I don't know) I feel terrible."
Here's one for my mom, who hates misplaced apostrophes.
And here's one that just caught my eye.
Anyway, tomorrow we are leaving Quito to head out to the Tsachila village where we will be spending the next few weeks. We won't have internet access, and even sending postcards might be iffy, but if you email me when I'm there I will absolutely respond when I get back. As they say in Ecuador, ciao!
(No, really. They say that here.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

We arrived in Quito, Ecuador today, and we will be staying here for about four days (got to start my malaria meds tomorrow...).
This marks my first time crossing the equator, because Quito is in the Southern Hemisphere! Quito is also quite high up-a few people had some altitude sickness, but a meeting with Yanapuma, our partner NGO, combined with a delicious dinner helped us regain our strength.
Anyway, what's on my mind right now is the way we as travelers bring our culture with us. For example, as I type, we are in one of the hostel rooms discussing characters from Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Narnia, and Twilight (we're determining which characters each of us would be).
That's in many ways a good thing, because we have each other for company when the journey gets stressful. We were all exhausted from travel earlier today, but now we can feed off each other's enthusiasm. And Quito at night isn't the sort of cultural experience any of us signed for.
However, carrying American values and popular culture with us when we visit other countries can also harm our experiences there. With our upcoming Ecuador homestays, where most of us will be living with another TBB student with a host family, we have to be careful that we don't cling to the familiar (our fellow student) at the expense of the amazing new knowledge that will surround us (our host family and the village). Our information sessions with Yanapuma over the next few days will give us some cultural background on Ecuador and the T'sachila people, but only firsthand experience with the community will truly open our minds to other cultures.
Once we are in the village, I won't have as frequent internet access, so I may take a while to respond to emails. I am having tons of fun, but of course I miss you all.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Costa Rica Pictures

Well, okay, this one's not Costa Rica... But I thought I'd start from our departure and work chronologically forward.
In Lindsay's honor, a horse in the town we're staying at in Costa Rica.
I'm going to post the pictures from surfing separately, because they're not on my camera and have to go through a different upload process.
The beautiful view as we drove to the ziplines.
A view from below of one of the ziplining platforms.
After the ziplines, there was a giant rope swing that we could go on.
Here I am preparing to swing (not to mention rocking my new TBB shirt).
And here I am swinging-it was amazing.
Lastly, a neat but as yet unidentified animal that we saw near the rope swing.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Surf, Spanish, and the Fourth Roommate

Hola from Costa Rica.
Since I last wrote, we've arrived at the hostel where we are staying for the majority of orientation. The rooms and the food are in a battle with the people and the beach to see which is most awesome! Yesterday we went surfing, which was great, and even wiping out was fun.

I have had two conversations in Spanish.
One was with Ronald, one of the surf instructors. We were walking up to a waterfall to swim, and he said that if you hike further into the jungle, you have to check the weather beforehand. It takes five or six hours to get there (we just hiked a few minutes, not to the real forest), and if it rains while you are traveling, the rivers can swell up and wash you away. Even though he's a surf instructor, he told me that he has only been surfing for a little while-he grew up in a town further inland, which made getting to the beach a hassle, and he moved to this town about 9 years ago.
I'm normally not good at striking up conversations with strangers, so it was really cool to speak with a local-the stuff he told me was really just basic facts, but that's exactly the kind of things that we as foreigners are completely unfamiliar with. Coming from a suburban town, I have mostly encountered people who have followed roughly similar life paths to my own, so I'm hoping that interacting with people from around the world will let me encounter new lifestyles and understand the day-to-day routines of the places we visit. In some ways, the small details like my chat with Ronald will make the trip complete.
Oh, and as for the waterfall, it was beautiful! The swimming was so great and we saw howler monkeys on the way down to the water.
My second conversation in Spanish was actually first chronologically.
The group is spread out across a couple of rooms here at the hostel, and my roommates are Lizzie and Michele. We pretty much have a party all the time, so our first day at the hostel was great.
Then we meet the fourth roommate. The bat was about three inches long with a wingspan of about six inches, but when it flew around, I think it managed to take up most of the room on its own. I was busy practicing my cowering, so I couldn't gauge anything too precisely, but the bat did a few frantic, panicky laps of the room and then vanished.
I think it was Zelda Jafar (as we named him)'s elusiveness that made him so interesting-other rooms had had bat incidents, but theirs had left fairly promptly, which Jafar declined to do.
Michele and I were there when he appeared, and we did what every good child of the nineties would do, which is google the problem. Reassuring phrases like "the bat will not turn on you" were counterbalanced by our fear of rabies, so we then did what any good TBB student would do, which is go outside to the other building and yell loudly for the Program Leaders.
Their thorough search of our room revealed no trace of Jafar, so once we determined that Jafar was not a safety hazard (in the words of fellow student Ben, "You probably won't get bitten, because they're fruit bats, and you're like... not fruits." Thanks Ben.), we went to bed. Clicking sounds in the night told us that our guest was still present, a suspicion that was confirmed when I saw him fluttering around again in the early hours of the morning.
Mostly we were good sports about it, even when Jafar left his excrement all over the room, and Stephen arranged for our rooms to be cleaned every day to minimize the problem.
Anyway, the Spanish conversation came in when I tried to explain our problem to the man running the hotel. Halfway through the first sentence I realized I had no idea how to say 'bat' in Spanish, so I explained to the man that there was a "bird of the night" in our room (for those curious, it turns out bat is murcielago). He gave me a weird look but I think he got my drift; but there wasn't much he could do about the problem since there weren't any empty rooms.
Jafar's presence made opening the door an adventure-would he be there? Had he brought friends for a bat party, or decided to start a multigenerational bat family in the shower?-but by the second night our extra roomie appeared to have left.
So that was my first Spanish conversation: an attempt to explain to a kind Costa Rican man our adventures with Zelda Jafar, bird of the night.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Costa Rica

After that uncreative but geographically informative post title...
We arrived in CR last night and so far everyone is getting along great. Everyone in the group is super nice.
We haven't done much yet but I figured I'd take advantage of the internet access to post (also I'm bored because I thought it was 8 00 when it's actually 7 00). I can't find the colon on this keyboard because most of the punctuation marks don't match up with what is printed on the keys.
Apparently there is beach-going in our future, so that should be fun. More when possible!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Hello World

How does one start a blog post? Let's go with "Hi all".

I am currently breaking my own cardinal rule, which is "only write when you have something to say", but I felt that it would be odd to send people a link to a site with nothing written on it, so I decided to write a post. I'll sum a few things up.

I'm Alison and I'm writing this blog about my upcoming gap year experience. On Wednesday a group of fellow students and I will head off to spend eight months doing a program with the nonprofit Thinking Beyond Borders. It is a fantastic trip involving several different countries, the four core nations being Ecuador, China, India, and South Africa. In each location, we will live in homestays, do a community service project, and learn about development issues faced by the community we are living in. You can learn more information at the link above.

I have done some traveling with my family, but never anything like this (I've never even been to South America, Asia, or Africa), so needless to say I am both nervous and excited.

My goals with this blog are to both create a record of my trip and to keep in touch with my friends and family back home. I'm hoping that the process of writing will make me feel connected to the people I miss and also be something for me to reread after the trip is over. Posts will likely be a mixture of daily life description (pictures of where I am and what I am doing, etc) as well any interesting thoughts I have (seeing so many different cultures should inspire at least a few).

When you hear from me next, I will probably be posting from Costa Rica, where the other kids in the program and I will be having our orientation (oh yeah...).

Farewell till then,