Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dancing in the Dark

After long enough in China even things that might strike other people as very odd don't seem so weird anymore. Take for example the phenomenon of older women getting together to do some Chinese form of line dancing on random street corners in the middle of the week. I see people doing some exercises also, though those tend to be slower. They seem to meet at some predetermined spot. It might be that some stores broadcast the music, since I never saw anyone with anything like a boom box, or they might just meet in convenient places. One place I always see them is right near the new Papa Johns, but they're definitely in other places around the city as well. It could have something to do with exorcise. The Chinese are rail thin but that seems to have more to do with not eating than with exercising because some of the exercises I've seen them do seem to be one step above sitting motionless. It also could be some sort of social event. I occasionally see old men and women dancing together, but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule, and I almost never see anyone talking. The most interesting possible reason is simply because they can. Dancing was banned as bourgeois according to one thing I read a factory worker told ABC in '78 that, "The Chinese need the right to free expression. But the thing we need most, and things I cherish most, is the right to dance." So maybe these people, all older, simply dance because they can.

Not sure about the new video. I had to try out some new video player and the government continues to fight with those capitalist roaders over at YouTube.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Yankee Radio

Ever since living in Belgium I've listened to a great deal of Yankee radio when it was the season. I've tried to listen to other sports on the radio but it just doesn't work. Basketball is just to frantic, they call out every pass until I tend to loose track of which team even has the ball, and football is too jarring with long periods of inaction followed by frantic action. Also with football you really need to be watching what everyone is doing not just the person with the ball. But baseball was built for radio. Pretty much only one thing is happening at the time whether it be the pitch or where the ball is going or how far the running is advancing. The pacing is more even which gives time for more stories and general commentary about the game. I have no idea how the Yankee commentators fill up three plus hours a game 162 games a year. I fist started to listen to the Yanks on the radio since I couldn't get them on the TV but I eventually found I liked it. I could do other things, like play games, while keeping one ear tuned to the broadcast. So now here in China I've found the the live streaming radio of the Yankees is one of those things that actually works here, in fact the quality has been really good.

It's funny how much I seek out US things sometimes in China. I look for any US stuff I can buy at Wal-Mart I eat a McDonalds even though I don't really like the food very much. Being far away doesn't always effect me on a day to day basis but it can be tough over time. Sometimes I just want things to work like they would in the US, even if only for a day or two. That's why I like listening to Yankee radio it brings me back to something that could not possibly be more American. The biggest problem is that with the 12 hour time difference the only games I can really listen to are 1 pm games, on at 1 am here, or 10 pm ones, 10 am. Most games are on at 7, which is just too early to get up, or 4, to far in between. On weekends though more games are played during the day so I can at least listen to some. It's always nice to hear "The Yankees win, The-e-e-e-e Yankees Win!"

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Long Day's Night

So some of the people back home I've talked to have asked essentially what do I do with all my time. I have classes for a very busy 10 hours, three days, a week so I'm a bit flushed with extra time. Monday is my busiest day I have 4 hours of class in the morning followed by two hours in the lat afternoon. Since I usually get on an odd sleep pattern on my four days off I rarely get more then three or four hours of sleep Sunday night so I go to bed early on Mondays. On Tuesdays I only have two hours in the morning then I meet up with Ken, Dave, Steve, and often Amy for lunch at the North Cafeteria in the school. The cafeteria has a bunch of different food vendors, actually it has two whole levels but apparently the lower one isn't as good. The students are around then also, they eat in about 15 minutes and the rush off so by the time we're done eating the place is empty besides a few brave couples who are sitting around. I then have a bunch of time in the afternoon before my tutoring session in the evening. Usually since I haven't studied Chinese as much as I should have during the week I try to cram some more in during this time. In the evening I meet Winter and Olivia, two of my students for an hour of touring. An hour may not seem like a lot but it's as much as I can handle.

On Wendsday I have classes in the morning again then a bunch of time before an evening class at Super. That's usually when I plan what I'm going to do at Super and do some blogging or other writing. After the classes at Super I sometimes have lunch with another America teacher there who is actually from near DC. On Thursday I usually sleep in until nearly time for my two o'clock tutoring session with Carrie then I have some more time before English Corner. Going shopping fits pretty well into this time period. English Corner lasts a little more than an hour, actually it lasts longer than that but I don't really like it, I never know what to say, so I only go for an hour and a half or so. After that we play poker which is mostly made fun by Steve's running commentary and constant belief that if he had just held onto those cards a little longer it would have worked out. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday I have essentially nothing scheduled. I spend a bunch of time walking around the school or the city. The students who see me walking around in odd places always give me weird looks. I also have a bunch of time to read, and of course play computer games.

So that's pretty much it. If it doesn't sound like a lot that's because it isn't. I pretty much have to find other stuff to do to amuse myself. Going around the city is more fun now that the weather is nicer. I'll also go down to see the gardens in a nearby city one of these weekends. I really just have quite a bit of time to read, write and watch TV. To my parents, and others, that may freak out that I have so much free time on my hands, though in this economic climate they're probably more envious than anything, I think this is, oddly enough, how you raised me. This isn't to say that both my parents don't work hard, I think my Dad's average answer time on an e-mail is 45 seconds, but I guess all that time spent in France rubbed off on me, there's a saying that goes, "The French work to live, but the Swiss live to work." I saw an interview with Cormac McCarthy where he was asked if he had any interesting odd jobs when he was younger. McCarthy said that he never really wanted to have a job and that he figured that if he worked hard enough at it he didn't have to. Who knows maybe some day I'll want to come from Neverland and have a real job, but right now I'm pretty happy doing whatever I want to do here in the workers paradise.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Fishing, or Cut the Bait

Since I only have 10 hours of class a week this semester I thought I'd try out working for one of the private language tutoring places in Changzhou just to see what it was like. A place called Supper called David to ask him to teach a class for two hours on Monday and Wednesday night. He could do Monday but not Wednesday so I volunteered to take the other day. This was apparently OK with them, I say apparently because before I showed up to teach the first class I never had any contact with anyone from the company. Ken and Dave have taken to calling the company Terrible instead of Super do to their various oddities and seeming inability to run a company, but honestly that doesn't seem all that different from anything else in China. I have a list in my head of things that demonstrate why China grows so fast, people working 14 hours a day 7 days a week, and thing that make me wonder how the country functions at all, not being able to buy train tickets more than seven days in advance and even then only from a city you are physically in. We're having some sort of English festival at the school now which involves various English competitions and speeches, I'll get to my speech in a post pretty soon, but the school constantly confuses the room or changes the day things are on without telling us. A huge number of the students never knew there were speeches by the English teachers.

But back to Super for the moment I show up about 20 minutes early on the first day, in case their are forms they wanted me to fill out or they wanted to talk to me only to have them stunned that I showed up so early. Super is in the downtown area of Changzhou in a nice looking office with a etched glass sign with the companies logo, "Fishing, or cut the bait." Not only is this grammatically incorrect, I think "fish or cut the bait" would be better, but it doesn't actually mean anything. As I have gathered it this is close to come Chinese saying which I think means about the same as "Shit or get off the pot." Now this isn't just put up on some little sign it's etched into the fancy glass behind the main receptionist, at a place that supposed to teach English. The school has this same sort of problem. For the English festival there is a big sign reading, "Happy English, I'm Lovin' It," a combination of a phrase that doesn't make any sense and a McDonalds add. Even my first year students can correct this. How exactly does this happen then? I think it has something to do with the hierarchical nature of society in China and peoples unwillingness to question authority. If your boss comes up with a slogan you just go with it even if its terrible, you just can't really question him. No one thinks to get someone to proofread the giant banner before it's made. Decisions are made at the top with little or no input even if they're wrong.

The class at Super is OK but the levels are radically different. A few of the students are decent but many have basically no real English, way lower than my freshmen. I asked a lot of them on the first day why they wanted to learn English. A few had no response, one tried to see me sand paper by the truck load, and one had the dream of moving to Australia to be a barber. I think Australia is China idea of the beach resort get away, even though Sydney is about as far from Beijing as LA is. I mostly just do the same things I've done in my freshmen classes. I have a book too but I find it mostly pretty boring. One of the Super employees a guy names Jack sits in with me on the classes and helps translate things where there's just no real way I can communicate some directions to people with limited English.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Today's Class is Brought to you by the Letter 'W'

This semester in class I've been doing a number of things differently then last semester. Some of this is made possible by my students being just generally better than the ones I had last semester. They do what I say with more easily, talk very little when I'm talking, and just generally give more effort. This semester I've been focusing more on group activity's of various kinds. For example I might have them sit in rows facing one another and then give each two person group something to talk about like, would they rather have air conditioning in their rooms or a computer, hint the computer won in a landslide. After about three of four minutes I'd stop them and pick some people to have them tell me about what they were talking about. If any discussions come out of this I'd pursue it for a few minutes before going to the next topic. Then I'd have half the class move one desk down so that the groups would change up. It can create problems if people just spend all their time with the same little group. The students are generally pretty good about speaking only in English and stay mostly on topic. It can actually be pretty hard to hear exactly what people are saying some times since when everyone talking it creates a pretty loud din.

I've actually used various thing to create random groups. For large groups I just count off and have them sit with people of the same number. I can usually catch if they try to just sit with their friends. For smaller groups I have to get more creative. I had them line up once from oldest to youngest then pair every three of them into a group. I've also been revisiting some of the games and activities I liked a lot from last semester like having them preform scenes from movies. Ghost must have been on TV recently since I got no less then eight out of 30 groups doing it. It's very odd to see Whoopi Goldberg's role portrayed by a 60 pound Chinese girl. Not every thing I try works exactly. Boggle didn't go over so well since they were just able to come up with too many words to go over in a short time, also they kept trying to add words after the time had expired. I assigned them a project of coming up with a game for teaching English, they are education students after all and most of them will be teachers. It'll be interesting to see how that goes. I also have been much more on top of taking attendance every class. Even if I see that everyone is there it gives me a chance to go over the names as well as ask them to say something. I tend to write a letter, or group of letters, on the board and have everyone say a word beginning with that letter. I sometimes say "This class is brought to you by the letter ..." but I think I'm the only one who gets it.

Sometimes the students want to change their names but they tend to be way to shy to say anything about it. I only just found out yesterday that the student I'd been calling Nimo wanted to be called Rainbow instead. That's always the biggest problem with any Chinese students though is how shy they are. In my class that's going to England I've been trying to teach them how to write a paper after seeing how dismal most of the papers were. I told them to try and write short direct sentences, but they tell me their Chinese teachers give the opposite advice. "It will show our mastery of English" they say. That's my problem, they don't have a mastery of English writing longer sentences only draws attention to that fact. They also complain a lot about relatively short papers when I can bet they'll have to be writing a lot more next year. Honestly I'll be surprised if more than three make it. In fact even three could be a stretch. Sometimes that class seems like it just like a bus heading directly for a brick wall. I keep mentioning the wall but no one wants to get off. My only concern is that I seem to be driving the bus. I gave them another paper due next week, and I'll see how many even actually do it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Whether the Weather

Whether the weather be good, Whether the weather be not, Whether the weather be cold, Whether the weather be hot, Whatever the weather, we'll weather the weather, Whether we like it or not.

And I have to say that the weather here has been unbelievably changeable in the last few days. Two days ago it was raining but it was the sort of summer rain where it stays hot even though it is raining. Yesterday was so hot that I was melting in my room and the hotel even turned on the air conditioning. But today is cold enough that I may need a sweat shirt, and tomorrow may be air conditioning weather again. Even the students have begun changing from their winter cloths into something more appropriate, though even though it was sweltering yesterday I still saw people in jackets. I'm not sure if it's just me or if the pollution is really worse this semester. I was up early enough to see a sun rise, or I should say I stayed up late enough to see one, the other day and it was by far the worst sun rise I've ever seen. It went from dark, to sickeningly grey to a lighter shade of grey until it just sort of turned white. It stayed in this white fog until probably 11 in the morning when the sun finally climbed out of the haze that surrounds everything. Seeing the sunset also is a depressing experience since the sun just sort of sinks below this line where it becomes sort of a yellow ghost that you can barley see in the sky. The pollution also more or less swallows all the colors you might normally hope to see with sunrise or sunset.

I wonder if there is a generation of urban Chinese people who have never really seen a sunrise or sunset, only the grey of morning and evening. I've heard that in some parts of China, in sections of the South especially, that it is ever worse. Honestly part of me wants to go to see just how bad it can get. Are there places in China where you can never see the sun except behind a vale of smog? Dave and Ken tell me that at one mountain they went to hiking up early to see the sun rise was a big deal. I bet it's because people basically have never really seen it. At the beginning of the post I put a tongue twister I've been using them more and more this semester to help the students practice sounds they have trouble with. Honestly if the only thing I accomplish this semester is to get the students to say "th" words better I'll be happy. There are way too many people who have studied a lot of English going around saying "Sank you very much." The one I use most is "3,333 thirsty thieves thought they thrilled the throne on Thursday." When the students concentrate they get it pretty well though I get "Sanks" a lot at the end of class.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Can You Use Chopsticks?

I get asked if I can use chopsticks fairly regularly. I get asked this even by people who know that I've been in China for more than six months. Ken's response is "I'm alive aren't I," meaning that if we couldn't use chopsticks their'd be no way to live in China. I can't quite tell if the question is meant to convey they are surprised that an outsider would have any grip on Chinese culture or if they just assume that I am retarded. Of course I'm not as handy with chopsticks as someone who has been using them their entire life but I'm also not incredibly stupid, it's just not that hard. Mostly though I think it reflects an attitude that I've seen in other things where Chinese people are stunned if you can do anything Chinese. My very poor ability to speak Chinese is constantly praised as hardworking, when in fact on studying Chinese I'm anything but. People are amazed I can travel or really do anything else in China. Maybe it's the lack of much real contact with foreigners. If you grow up only subsumed in one culture the ability to be part of any other must seems very difficult. In fact I often think that's the single most important thing I do as a teacher is to introduce the students to some, any, aspect of American culture.

I don't really want to continue what I was talking about last entry, I've said all I have to say, but this e-mail I got from Teddy, a devoted reader of this blog, is just too funny to pass up:

Hello Danthemanstan,

Hope you had recovered from your stomach sickness.

Thanks to Liz’s blog, that I realized that you guys were taking advantage of me; and thanks to your blog, that I found that I had to support you to continue to take advantage of me unconditionally. I remember I wrote to Dave once and said:” just give me an order”. I think working in this position, order to me simply is not something "ignorant and vaguely offensive", but something can create an opportunity to cooperate and understand between each other. Im like all of you, hope to get feedbacks for what Im doing here. So I think an order is much better than no communication at all. Probably if I tell Liz that you and Ken would like to stay here for another year then she will have some new ideas. I’ve talked to Ken, Dave and Amy about this one week ago. That’s not a big deal. Take it easy! I’ve talked to Connie so she will send all of you a formal letter about the arrangement for May Day vocation, unfortunately still three days in total. Just continue your blog in an "ignorant and vaguely offensive" way. I love it! Take care!


-people being taken advantage of

Teddy mentions that I was sick. Even though my stomach has adjusted to the food for the most part I must have eaten something strange last week, not that that narrows it down much, because last Wednesday my stomach was killing me. It felt off for a few days after that too but I've felt better in the last couple of days. He also talks about May Day. We have three days off for May Day unfortunately they're a Friday, a Saturday, and a Sunday, so we won't really be able to go anywhere. I'm still interested in going to Korean, but I think I'll wait for a good deal on airfare. I have to give a speech on western culture next Monday and I still don't know what to talk on, I think Brian is doing music and Ken did intellectual property. So I'm open for any suggestion in the comments section. I can use Power Point but I'd prefer not to.

I'd also like to send people over to Ken's blog, linked on the left hand side for an incredibly funny post about a homework assignment he got from one of his students.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Why am I Here?

A few weeks ago we had dinner with a couple of friends of Amy's from orientation. We went to this really good South Korean restaurant that Carrie knew about. I'm not sure exactly what a North Korean restaurant would look like but I'd imagine you'd just starve while looking at a picture of "The Great Leader." One of Amy's friends writes a blog for CIEE. On it she had some not pretty critical remarks about me, Dave, and Ken. She doesn't call us out by name but it's pretty clear who she's talking about. Some of this might be a reaction to some joking around between Ken and Teddy. Ken's sense of humor can take a little getting used to and he was just jokingly ordering Teddy around at one point. Now I know it's a little long but I wanted to except what she said in its entirety so I could respond to it not because I'm just mad someone said something about me, but because I think her attitude is typical of the reaction of some expats that I find troubling:

Though the teachers' observations were hilarious and they had amusing anecdotes to share (student stalkers and the like), some of their remarks were somewhat ignorant and vaguely offensive. Basically their regards to the way certain things are done and some of the questions they asked, in a joking manner. In actuality, they could easily find the answers to these questions.

I suppose this is what I find most frustrating about some of the expats I’ve met. They believe that as Americans they should be treated as such; but my response to that is if you’re in China, maybe you should try to adapt to it. I feel like people like this come here not because they’re necessarily interested in learning about the place. It’s more to have a self-oriented adventure and take advantage of a third world country.

I miss America too. As far as fundamental beliefs are concerned, honesty is huge and this transcends American values, though this also aligns with those values. (I’m also insanely meticulous, if you couldn’t tell; this means I ask a lot of questions—hopefully this conveys interest in the culture though). I think it’s simply easier to go through minor unpleasantness in the short term than deal with a big, fat mess in the long term. Nevertheless, I want to show some respect for the way things are done and believe that these differences of opinion are wonderful; the world is a more complex and interesting place because of it.

Now we do certainly complain about things we don't like in China but I think the notion that this is somehow "ignorant and vaguely offensive" is preposterous. I think her attitude is fairly exemplary of a sort of cultural relativism that I find so troubling. Too many expats just seem to think that understand differences is the same thing as agreeing with them. I believe that since I've been in China I developed a much wider understand of why things are the way they are in China. China's obsession with tests doesn't come from nowhere. China ran what was essentially the worlds first meritocracy with promotions in civil service based on tests. This ingrained the tests first system they still have today into place. But that's not the same thing as accepting it. The huge focus on tests especially at the high school level hurts actual education. I've never seen students work so hard but accomplish so little actual learning. I think I have much greater understand also of why the government is as authoritarian as it is. China has a long history of powerful top down government. That doesn't mean I approve of it any more. Finally I also just going to call a spade a spade. The fact that I can only but train tickets 10 days in advance from that city I'm currently in is ridiculous no matter how you slice it.

She says that she wants to "respect the way things are done." I think this misses the point. Too many people believe that the fact that cultural differences should simply be respected without comment. In fact China propagates this very notion. They constantly rebuff any criticism of their action in Tibet by saying that it's none of anyone else's business what they do in their own country. But this is just wrong. The fact that China may have different standard or morals then the US doesn't make them both equal. Some things are just right and some things are just wrong. Moreover this very notion ignores minority descent. It assumes that cultures only have one position and we should just understand and accept it. I find it very interesting and try very hard to understand China, but that in no way mean I accept many of the things that go on here.

She also says we don't fit in enough. I find that literally laughable. I can do nothing else but stick out. Every where I go I'm stared at and people treat me really differently. If I go to some of the restaurant on campus sometimes the people running it will essentially put me first in line without asking me about it. People here seem to find everything I do either interesting or funny. I don't ask to be treated like an American in fact it would be a lot easier if people ignored me a little more. She also accuses us of "taking advantage of a third world country." This is maybe the most ludicrous statement of all. First I don't take advantage of anything. I have incredibly favorable work terms, but I never asked for them. I don't make my schedule or decided how many classes I teach. I try to do all the outside of class stuff to help my students. In fact we've probably done more with English corner, and things like the Halloween party then any teachers here before us. Also while part of China may be third world Jiangsu is certainly not. This is one of the richest areas anywhere in China. We are a hop skip and a jump from Shanghai and Nanjing. "Taking advantage of a third world country" makes it sound like we're here stealing cultural artifacts and enslaving the natives.

This all does though raise the legitimate question of why I am here then. This is something my students bring up every semester at the beginning of class. I came to China to see something different. China may be one of the single most different countries from the US. I really had no idea what to expect when I showed up but I have been very pleasantly surprised. I care about my students a lot and especially with the ones going to England have really tried to help them out. I had no idea what I wanted to do long term when I graduated from college and right now I can't say I really know any better but seeing China right as it emerges onto the world stage is something that will stay with me forever. I really resent the notion that I'm just here to ignore the culture and take advantage of people.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Change Change Change

Ah it's so nice to have a post without a number in the title. The new semester has started at school, actually its been going on for some time now and number of things are different. For starters theirs been some personnel changes. Clark and his girlfriends have gone off to Shanghai where he now works for some sort of college their. He says it's more work but the pay is better. Jason is also gone to somewhere up North to study Chinese more. He spoke the most Chinese of any westerner I knew around here but he still had a lot more to learn. It's interesting that if you speak any Chinese at all all the Chinese people will come up and say how good you are, but the more you learn the more likely they are to tell you how far you have to go. The picture I have is of the stuff Jason left behind. Clark cleared out his place pretty good before he left but Jason seems to have just taken a few things and left everything else. The cleaning people took several days to clean out all the junk that he left behind and for a while a bunch of it was piled in the hall way. There was all sorts of stuff in that pile I even saw a mostly unopened bottle of anti-Malaria medication.

I've also started classes. I only have 10 hours, that's five classes, at the school. Three of my classes are freshmen education majors and they are just great. I've been doing a lot more group activities this semester and the students have really responded. They don't speak Chinese very much in class, though I still need to crack down more on it, and they are just really good at doing whatever I ask them to do. I've been taking attendance every day and I've had very few students miss any classes. I know some of the student's names though this seems to only create more problems as the others are unhappy I don't know theirs. I usually know the name of the class monitor and a few of the most outspoken students in each class. In my first class Kobe, I bet you can guess who he picked his name for, is the class monitor and one other boy took the name of Holly even after learning it was a girls name just to be a trouble maker. In the second class there is Winter, a guy who wanted a seasonal name and when I explained that Summer, Spring, and Autumn were girls names he went with Winter, who is one of my tutors. In my third class there is Echo who is about 4 foot 4 and the class monitor. She talks a lot but likes to joke around in Chinese too much.

I also have two classes of the same students going to England from last semester. One student is gone she apparently got married so she is no longer planning on going to England. She had pretty good English but was a bit of a complainer. There is also one new student Jaquelin who is pretty much tied with Rose for best student in the class. Carrie, Teddy's assistant and some times reader of this blog, is also planning on going but she doesn't come to my classes. Jaquelin, Rose, and Carrie all have good enough English to take classes in England but I'm still worried if even they can pass. I had them write papers and they complained bitterly about it and what they handed in was really bad. It would have been close to failing for a high school level paper and they are some how supposed to do post-graduate work.

I've also started to study Chinese more formally. I've got three tutors, actually four but two do it at the same time. It's definitely helpful to have a more structured approach to learning Chinese. There is one new English teacher here, Amy from Newfoundland. She lives in the apartment across the hall from me and there is a link now to her blog in my links section. The weather this semester hasn't been that cold, though it did rain a ton in March, and recently its turned really warm. I was finally able to buy a fan after being laughed at in two stores for trying to buy one out of season. Some things are difference but really most things are pretty much the same. The internet will not work for long stretches of time with no real reason. The school tells us incredibly late about any changes to class and the construction of the new library continues basically around the clock. It's nice to be back though.

Friday, April 10, 2009

30 Days on the Road - A Meta Post of my Long Strange Trip

This is the Meta Post for my 30 day trip. All the posts related to it are listed here in order for anyone who hasn't been following along and wants to brows through the trip.

I'm Back. I'm Alive. More to Come.

Day 1 - The Great Train Ride

Day 2 - Journey to the North

Day 3 - Cities of Ice

Day 4- Dog Eat Dog World

Day 5 - Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo

Day 6 - A Slow Day

Day 7 - It's OK to Sleep in a Chinese McDonalds

Day 8 - Home (sort of)

Day 9 - These Two Are Not Gay

Day 10 - Uncle Ho's Chicken

Day 11 - The Dissenter's Tour

Day 12 - Midnight Train to Georgia

Day 13 - Beach Town

Day 14 - You Haven't Lived Until You've seen Waltzing Matilda Preformed by a Vietnamese Boy Band

Day 15 - How Many Roads Must a Man Walk Down Before he Drives into the Sea?

Day 16 - A Room with a View

Day 17 - A Bat out of Hell

Day 18 - I Want to Ride My Bicycle (Not Really)

Day 19 - The Citadel

Day 20 - The Real New Year's Eve

Day 21 - Hue was Bombed on Tet

Day 22 - At Least We Only Tipped Him Half of What he Wanted

Day 23 - I Didn't Know that Rednecks Traveled

Day 24 - You Can Get Pretty Far with only a Picture and a Kindle

Day 25 - Pig in a Pot

Day 26 - With Apologies to Roald Dahl

Day 27 - Two Trips

Day 28 - Who Won the War?

Day 29 - Not Worth Dying for

Day 30 - A Good Picture

Day 30 - A Good Picture

This story actually happened the day before but I forgot about it and it's just too good to pass up. Me and Dave were walking in front of the KFC I which I took a picture of for the previous post when a women with selling pineapples came up to me. She had on one of those round and pointy hats that is traditionally associated with Vietnam. She had a long stick over one shoulder with a basket tied to each end when the pineapples she was selling were. She put the stick on my shoulder so that I could take a picture with it. Now I didn't really ask for this and I knew she was going to charge me for it but what the hell I thought it will make a good picture. As she was putting the pineapple holding stick on my arm another one of these pineapple women ran up to me and put another stick on my other arm and the hat on my head. Now these things are actually quite heavy so I had Dave take a picture quick before I gave it back. She said she wanted 100,000 dong which was way too much but I was in a good mood so I eventually agreed to give 50,000 to each of the women, I think they gave me some pineapple too. Now I had just recently gone to the ATM so the smallest bill I had was a 200,000. I gave it to the woman who pulled out a 100,000 as if she was going to give it back to me then handed it to the other woman and they ran off. Now these things they had on their shoulder were pretty heavy but they still managed to run pretty damn fast. I was also just so stunned by seeing these two little women race away with their pineapples in toe that I didn't do much. I was pretty pissed for the rest of the day but that is by far the oddest way I've ever been ripped off.

In the morning I had arranged for a cab to the airport and even though I was paranoid that I was going to get ripped off it was fine. The airport was pretty small and I actually had trouble finding somewhere to exchange my last Vietnamese currency. The flight was in two parts with the first stopping at Guangzhou. Guangzhou is a city really close to Hong Kong in one of the first areas of China to benefit from their embrace of capitalism. The airport there was huge and it took me about an hour to find the place where I had to get the boarding pass for the second leg of my flight then get back to my gate. The people traveling were mostly Chinese but decidedly on the upper class end of the spectrum. In fact almost everyone in the airport was sporting a lot nicer stuff than I was. Both flights were uneventful and I arrived in Shanghai on time. I arrived though in the smaller airport so it took forever to find where I needed to go to get the bus to the train station. I needed to call Steve in the end and have him talk to one of the people there who showed me what bus to get on. The bus was really slow and it took more than an hour to get to the train station. I got a ticket for the next train, which was a few hours off and just sat around for a while. Finally I got on the train and made it back to Changzhou with no problems.

The whole trip was a really amazing experience. Going from the frigid North of Harbin to the tropical climate of Ho Chi Minh City. I traveled through some really interesting places and meet some really nice people, and only got ripped off about three times. I've been trying to think what will stick with me the most and I think that it will be waking up on the overnight bus and looking out my window and seeing the sun just coming up in one of the most beautiful valleys I've ever seen. I was awake really late one night here recently and I saw the sun come up, or more accurately I didn't. I saw it go from dark, to grey, to sickly grey, to sort of white, to bright white and finally at around noon I saw the sun emerge out of the haze over head. It was nice to spend some time in a place with some much natural beauty and so much less pollution.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Day 29 - Not Worth Dying for

The little section of Hanoi we were in was actually quite interesting. It was a pretty old section of the city hence the streets were windy and came back in on themselves in weird and unexpected ways. Dave wanted to try some local beer that was mostly famous for being unbelievably cheap. We wandered around for a while until we found some section of the city that was known to sell it. We sat at a restaurant and had some lunch while Dave drank some of it. I noticed at this restaurant, and in fact at others as well, that once the main lunch period was over the kitchen staff and most of the waiters would come out and push a bunch of the tables together to have their own lunch. I know people who work in restaurants the US eat also but I've never seen them all eating together like that. As we left the restaurant and walked down the street by some amazing stroke of coincidence we saw the person who owned the used book shop we had visited in Hoi An. He was sitting with some other former customer he had recognized having a drink when we walked past. We sat down with him on the street corner bar having some drinks for a while. He told us he had just come up for the day on some sort of legal matter. After sitting with him for a while we kept wandering around the city.

I saw some pretty odd things for sale my favorite though where these sort of funerary plaques that were designed to hold the picture of dead loved ones. The thing though is that they had all sort of stand in pictures and dates on them. The single best one had a picture of Britney Spears in it, along with several saints and a bunch of Vietnamese writing. After that we headed off to see Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh had requested that his body be cremated so of course upon his death they had him preserved, though they apparently have to send his body to Russia for three months a year for maintenance, and built him an enormous mausoleum. I've never been quite sure why Communist countries like to have their leads dead bodies on display, especially when the leaders tend to request that they not do this. One person suggested to me that it might be because without a state religion the leader sort of take the place of a God as a symbol to be revered. The entrance to the mausoleum area was pretty far from the actual entrance to allow for about five security check points. Mostly it seemed they just wanted to make sure that you didn't have a camera. Just because Ho Chi Minh's body is a tourist attraction is no reason to acknowledge that it is a tourist attraction.

After that we walked in a double file line for a few hundred yards until we came to the entrance to the actual mausoleum. We had to wait there for a bit because it seemed some VIP was coming through, though no one important enough that I would recognize him. When we finally got in we walked through a couple of long hallways and up some stairs past stone faced guards until we came to the main room. The place was all actually quite cold and the room with his body was the coldest. The body was in a area separated off from the rest of the room by what I can best describe as a mote with a number of guards in it. There were also a few other guards in the room looking carefully over everyone as if some one was going to try to steal his body. People moved very quickly through the room so I probably was in there for less than two minutes. The body itself was just laid out in a sort of glass tomb. It essentially looked like wax. Now I have nothing to compare the body of a person dead for close to 50 years to so I don't know how good he should have looked. Honestly with the look I got he very well could have been manufactured by Madame Tussauds, but judging from some of the wax figures I saw at the tunnels they're not good enough at making wax figures to pull this off.

If it sounds like I'm treating this like an attraction at Disney World, it because I am. I suppose you could say something about honoring a leader or some such, but the whole place just has an otherworldly aura. No matter how serious you try to make it displaying the body of a person whose been dead for half a century is always going to be closer to haunted house than museum. It was just creepy. Hell, I even think wakes were they display the bodies are creepy and they haven't been dead nearly as long. Nearby there was the was an old French estate that had been taken over by the Communists and used as a sort of presidential house for a while. Ho Chi Minh himself though had lived in a small house nearby in what can only be described as a good PR move. We looked around the area, even seeing Ho Chi Minh's garage, with what I presumed were Ho Chi Minh's cars, but very little was explained in any language and we were a little to Ho Chi Minh'd out to go to the Ho Chi Minh museum, though I did get an ice cream that seemed strangely devoid of Ho Chi Minh's picture.

Later in the day we got some tickets to a water puppet show. Water puppets were a sort of puppetry that became popular in rice paddies. Basically they are puppets on long sticks that are supposed to act out various stories. The book was pretty big on it mentioning every place in the whole country you could go to see this, but saying that it was generally best in Hanoi. One thing we read on it talked about how the puppeteers tended to die very young since they would contract all sorts of water borne illnesses. After seeing the show I can simply say that it's an art form not worth dying for. The opening, partially captured on the video below wasn't bad, but the rest was just pretty damn bland. A puppet would come out then another one, they'd dance around for a bit and go away. Even when I knew, from the book, what story they were referencing it was dull. The music was basically uninspired and repetitive. The whole thing also seemed like it would have been much more interesting in if I could have seen the puppeteers at work since I was ofter wondering how exactly they got it to do this or that. Mostly it just seemed reminiscent of things I did with little plastic GI Joes when I was four. The running joke became that if Ken and Dave moved their train they might just be able to squeeze in another water puppet show.

Sorry if the video doesn't work YouTube is still blocked in China because, well the Communist Party sees no reason to explain itself to the likes of you, but given that this could go on for a while I posted this anyways. Flickr's been working funny tonight, so who knows if the government is having one of its temper tantrums. Also this is not quite the end there's one more day and a wrap up coming.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Day 28 - Who Won the War?

The next day we did some sight seeing around Hanoi. I first went over to a travel agent who was just down the street from our hotel to look at what was the best way to get back to Changzhou. I had originally wanted to go to Hong Kong on the way back but I was getting sort of travel fatigued so I decided to just go right home. I first thought that I'd have to take the train into China then get a flight to Shanghai, but the travel agent was able to find me a pretty good deal on a flight from Hanoi to Shanghai. The only worrying part was that I had to get a paper ticket and pay in cash. The place seemed reputable but handing over that much cash made me squirm. Ken had apparently reacted badly to something he ate in the last 24 hours and was throwing up about every 30 minuted. Considering that I would have been dragging myself to a hospital by then he was holding up pretty well. We went over to a big lake near where we were staying. I think it was the same lake the McCain crashed his plane into during the war. There was a little temple on a lake in the middle and we went over to it. The temple was fairly standard fair except that because of its central location there were easily as many tourists and people actually praying, actually there were probably more tourists.

The most interesting thing at the temple was a big, I guess you could call it a cauldron filled with what seemed like sand with as many incense sticks as people could cram into it. I guess I just don't really get the point of everyone going up and burning a ton of incense at the same time. The lake as nice and there were these really big balloons hovering over it tied to posts on the side of the lake. According to legend there are giant turtles that live in the lake and you would never believe it looking at the water, and apparently most people didn't believe it until the found a giant turtle there one day, whose body is now on display in the temple. After this Ken wasn't feeling well still so he went to a store and got some antibiotics recommended by the guide book. He felt somewhat better eventually but spent most of the afternoon in the room. Me and Dave went to some sort of temple of knowledge that was very highly recommended by the guide but seemed to lack almost any distinct characteristic, it didn't even have the body of a giant turtle, though there were some sculptures.

We passed by a KFC, not nearly a common a sight as they are in China but this was still at least the second one I'd seen. Even odder than it is to be in Hanoi not that long after the US fought a endless war there was the sight of seeing such symbols of the US. A major part of the rational for the war was that if Vietnam became Communist it would give rise to more Communism in South East Asia. And oddly enough the war itself was probably a big factor that turned Laos Communist, but the rest never really panned out. Communist countries turned out to be just as nationalistic as anyone else. The Vietnamese may not have wanted the US running things but they were never on the best terms with Cambodia or China, they fought a short war with both not long after the end of the US war there. But of all the dooms day predictions of countries turning Communist it seems Communism itself has turned Capitalist. Everywhere you turn in Vietnam there are monument to the war but who really won the war when there is a KFC in downtown Hanoi? Isn't this now famously thrown out as the signal for victory in Iraq, a McDonalds in Baghdad.

I had an argument once with a professor about the nature of the US. I claimed that the influence of US culture now rivaled that of Greek culture in Antiquity. The Greeks despite never exactly being the strongest bunch in any place but Greece had most of their culture adopted wholesale by the Romans and spread through out the world. The professor thought the comparison was ridiculous since what I was talking about was what he dubbed "low culture." We don't spread are architecture, I don't think anyone's written an Epic Poem about America, and the thing we seem to fail at the most is spreading democracy, but America culture is still everywhere. It's actually really hard to see until you're outside of the US. First and foremost are our businesses. If the US is an empire it's not a military one but an economic one. US tanks may never have gotten anywhere close to Hanoi but KFC seems to be an unstoppable force. What movies people see and talk about world wide seem to comprise 90% American movies with a sprinkling of something local. US celebrities are automatically world wide stars. I may not know who the president of Vietnam is but they all know about Obama, I even had one of my classes in China quote "Yes we can" as the punch line to a joke. America really is sort of omnipresent in the world. So I ask even if people were getting shoved off the last helicopter out of Vietnam 40 years ago who really one when KFC can set up shop in Hanoi?

Me and Dave had a bunch of time on our hands so we headed over to the infamous Hanoi Hilton, the jail in downtown Hanoi that so famously held US PoWs during the war. About half of it has been torn down and turned into a rather large hotel. You would never know the grounds of the hotel had been part of the prison since a road has been built to separate them. What was left of the prison had been converted into a museum about the prison's history mostly focusing on when it was used by the French to hold Vietnamese prisoners. There were wax figure displays of prisoners shackled in place, though oddly the wax figures sort of looked like they were having a good time to me, their expressions seemed pretty peaceful and they were mostly just talking to one another. The most interesting section of the prison though was the part about the American PoWs. It was mostly interesting in that it was essentially straight propaganda. The US prisoners during the war were torture to extract false confessions while the Vietnamese showed the world pictures that seemed to suggest that they were well treated. There is one famous picture of McCain supposedly receiving good medical attention, only he was receiving medical attention for injures suffered at the hands of the prison guards.

This propaganda was essentially the only thing on display. There was picture after picture of the "happy" prisoners playing basketball and what not. It was actually a little sickening after seeing all the information they had on US war crimes to see history just so blatantly white washed. Maybe the oddest moment was the section on anti-war protests in the US during the Vietnam war. As Dave noted what was not pictures was the Vietnamese protesting anything. They also had several displays devoted to McCain in particular. There were a number pictures of an older McCain revisiting the prison looking at pictures of his younger self. There is also what is supposedly his flight suit, which bares a plaque stating that he is running for president. I wonder how they would have reacted if he had won. Most people didn't really talk about it besides to something generically positive about Obama. One taxi driver expressed some generally negative impression of McCain. I find it hard ot imagine that people there would have embraced a US president who was partially famous for fighting a war against that country.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Day 27 - Two Trips

I got up fairly early the next morning so that I could make sure I got to the airport in plenty of time. I went and had breakfast at the Scandinavian Bakery again, this time I got a bagel which was actually pretty close to how a bagel is supposed to taste. I wandered around for a while until I got an OK price on a taxi. I actually missed the moto taxis form Vietnam because since it was only me I could have saved a good bit by taking one. All the taxis in Laos have this printed up fair list, which the book helpfully informed me was fake. If I hadn't known in advance though I probably would have bought it since it was lamented any everything. I got to the airport pretty fast since Vientiane doesn't exactly have a lot of traffic. The airport was really small only a couple of gates. The area whit the counters was sort of segregated off from the rest of the airport and when I walked over to it a guard stopped me and asked for my ticket. I was pretty confused and tried to point out that the place where I would go to get my ticket was right behind her. Another American woman who was stopped produced a print out receipt and that was good enough for them. I didn't have anything like that though so I just tried to keep pointing out that I had to go over there to get my ticket. I'm not sure that she had any idea what I was saying and when I finally said e-ticket another guard just waved me through.

At the check in counter they were able to get me a ticket with no further hassle. I went over to another part of the airport and got a water, which for a second I though I had way over paid for until I examined my change more closely. A number of the bills in Laos look really similar even to someone like me who is used to foreign currency. To make matters worse they have the number written in the bill in both Laotian and in Western numbers. The problem being that Laotian numbers look pretty similar but are still different. A 10,000 kip bill basically looks like it says 50,000 on it and so on. I went over to the boarding area passing through the worlds smallest visa/security/stamping place of any airport I'd ever seen. To see who had actually show up for the flight they didn't have some fancy shamancy computer system just a guy with a marker noting who had passed through security. I was sitting in the waiting area for a while just watching people come and go, there were probably more foreigners in there then Laotians, when a person from the airport came up to me. Now they didn't do anything fancy like make an announcement a guy just walked up to me and said, "Mr. Davis?"

I honestly now believe that the fact that I had an electronic ticket had sent the whole airport into a tizzy. From the confused guard to this guy who wanted me to come back past security to the airlines office so they could take down more info. I had bought this ticket using Laos Airlines own website, which looked like it was 15 years old. The person took me down to their office and made a photo copy of my passport and credit card for reasons I can't fathom. I would be worried about them stealing the information but I saw the copy they made and it's completely unreadable. My credit card is pretty old, actually I'll need a new one in a month or so, and some of the numbers are a little warn down, so the copy showed essentially nothing. Combine this with the fact that they make passport hard to copy on purpose and they just essentially ended up with two pieces of paper with dark smudges on them. They let me go back past security, who were a little surprised to see me again. The plane itself was an old looking jet propeller plane. One of the airports in Laos is supposed to have incredible views when you leave but it wasn't this one. It was mostly clear but I didn't seem much besides some green mountains far below. The trip was really short, even though it took Ken and Dave about 24 hours on the bus.

The guide book warmed repeatedly that the Hanoi airport was a big place for ripoffs especially when it came to taxis back into the city so I was really on the lookout. It did mention that there were shuttle buses run for only about a dollar into the city, though they only took you to one area. I found one and asked the driver about six times how much it was. Finally satisfied that it was only a dollar I waited until it filled up and we headed into town. It was actually a pretty long ride into town and I was glad I had found this buss. Eventually people started getting off but I was still pretty turned around. I asked the driver at one point if I should get off but he said no. Eventually when everyone else was off they took me to some hotel, which was not at all unexpected. I got into a little argument with them when they wanted two dollars for taking me all the way to the hotel, honestly I was still a little sore about the last time I'd gotten ripped off. I just eventually paid them two dollars and walked away from the hotel as fast as possible. I was trying to find a hotel listed in the book in an area of town know for it windy streets but I gave up when I became totally lost. I knew what 10 block radius I was in but I was having a really hard time figuring out where exactly I was.

I eventually just went into one that look OK and got a room which was about a six floor walk up. The room looked a little dingy but was generally clean and I never saw any critters in there. Next to the room was a ladder leading up to some sort of attic where some one with at least a few cats clearly lived. The people at the hotel were nice enough to let me use their computer for about three hours while I waited for Ken and Dave. I e-mailed them the location of the hotel and the idea was they would find an internet cafe and meet up with me. I went out and had dinner at an OK restaurant nearby and when I came back Ken and Dave had shown up. It was already evening by then and they just went and had some dinner. Now how exactly they got to Hanoi is another story one that I think is best told by this excerpt from Ken's blog re-posted here with thanks to Ken:


What a journey. That’s about all I can say. I am now in Hanoi, we made it here, found Danthemanstan via email, and had a delightful dinner at a restaurant that is located in a restored old house. The process of getting here was quite the experience though. All in all, the trip took 26 hours from when we were picked up at our hotel to the time we arrived at the bus station here in Hanoi. Our bus was probably moving for only 13 or 14 hours of the trip. This isn’t exactly what I would consider an efficient ratio when traveling.

The trip got off to what I later realized was a very typical start. We got on a mini-bus because it showed up to where we were, and the driver said “bus to Hanoi?” This took us to a very shady looking bus barn/repair shop where we loaded a bus. One of the staff members actually said that he wanted the foreigners to sit in the back because we would be “better protected in a crash.” Apparently it’s okay for the Lao to die in a crash, but not the tourists. Needless to say, such a warning doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the safety of the journey. We then went to the main bus station, where we waited (on and off the bus) for three hours before we actually left. Why we couldn’t have just been told to be at the bus station at that time, instead of wasting four hours going to the edge of town, is simply beyond me. The rest of the trip followed this pattern: frequent, long, unexplained stops. Each stop was long enough for a slow, sit down dinner, which of course wasn’t what any of the passengers were looking for. My trip was made even less enjoyable by the two men in front of me. They were two older European men, one a Swede and the other I think Italian. Not only did they lean their seats all the way back almost the entire ride, but also both had bad body odor (the Swede was just plain repugnant). I couldn’t ever get comfortable enough to gain much sleep, but so is life on the Viang Chan-Hanoi bus route. I chatted with a very nice Irish couple that was almost done wrapping up a three-continent, seven-month world tour.

The main event of the trip was the border crossing. It was an absolute mess. This occurred between 6:45 and 10:00 AM. Yes, it took more than three hours. The Lao side wasn’t bad, just quite odd. I honestly couldn’t believe it when we entered the building, but candles lit the entire building. I don’t know how all the passports, forms, or money being exchanged didn’t catch on fire, (as like China, lines don’t exist, just pushy mobs). Now, the lack of electricity (or use of it) is made even more odd by the fact that hydroelectric power is a huge industry in Laos, and counts among its biggest exports. But we got the stamps in a relatively quick manner, after paying the weekend fee, which apparently only applies to foreigners. The Vietnamese side was another story. Apparently the bus company doesn’t really care if the border isn’t open when the bus gets to the border (I guess it fits with its ‘inefficiency’ policy). So we waited almost two hours for the Vietnamese border office to open, and by then there were four or five busloads of people waiting to get their passports stamped. As a result, it took quite awhile to make our way to the front of the mob. We slipped some money into our passports (because everyone else did, and the guidebook said a “stamp fee” was common) but I’m not really sure if it was necessary, or even did any good. So go ‘official’ processes in Vietnam. Once across the border though, our trip picked up speed and we did most of the 13 hours of driving. The trip was quite the experience, but not one I am looking to repeat any time soon. I certainly wouldn’t give it anything close to a thumbs up, but it certainly broadened my horizons, which is always a good thing.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Day 26 - With Apologies to Roald Dahl

Ken and Dave had to leave the next day for their 24 hour bus ride to Hanoi, but I was flying the next afternoon so we would get their at close to the same time. The bus though wasn't until later in the day so we had a lot of time to look around Vientiane before they had to go. We went to get some breakfast at a little bakery right on one of the main squares called the Scandinavia Bakery. I think it may have been part of some chain I have never heard of, but it was really good. They had sandwiches and all sort of things made with really good bread that just tasted better than any sandwiches I've had in a long time. The weather was also fantastic. It had been too hot at some points but we were now about half way up Vietnam and it was still warm, short and t-shirts weather, but it wasn't really hot anymore. We were located right in what was pretty much the center of the city so we decided to go walk to see a temple that was famous for having something like 10,000 depictions of Buddha in it. I think I tend to be more interested in temples and what not then Ken and Dave so we didn't see a lot of them on the trip but this one was pretty interesting. It was a short walk down from the breakfast place along a fairly big street. One thing that was immediately apparent was how unlike in Vietnam the people who were trying to sell you junk weren't particularly pushy. In Vietnam there was almost nothing you could say to dissuade people but in Laos if you just shook your head they would give up and go back to relaxing. Laos is just a much more laid back country.

As we were coming up to the temple we came by what was apparently the residence of the president of Laos. It was mostly notable for not being all that well guarded. There was a car entrance that it seemed was almost unguarded and the whole thing looked more or less inviting. That's always something I notice about America, all our important buildings are guarded like castles, but in most other countries they just sort of hang out and assume no ones really going to bother them. The temple its self was pretty interesting. Around the outside were these walls with thousands upon thousands of little alcoves in them. In each alcove was a Buddha statue. The Buddha statues were in various states of disrepair, but the whole effect actually made it more interesting by making it look more authentic. There were also some very interesting sculptures of various terrifying looking sea creatures. The main temple, besides having a bigger Buddha, which frankly every temple has, had a old fresco of some sort of scene whose meaning was totally lost on me but was very pretty anyways. Nearby the temple was an old monument of some sort that looked like it was mostly destroyed in the past but was still kept for historical reasons. The guide book said that according to legend that when the city was invaded a dragon that lived under the monument appeared and defended the city, though it seems to have failed at protecting the monument itself.

We got a ride in some sort of open air taxi not unlike the things that I saw in Bangkok. This taxi though seemed to be struggling to get us there. The three of us in it didn't come anywhere close to filling it up we some some with about 12 locals in them, though the three of us probably weighed as much as five or six locals. Also we weren't exactly going up hill. At most we were on a small gradual incline that I almost wouldn't have noticed if the taxi wasn't struggling so hard to get us there. Honestly I've seen people in China peddle taxis with more horse power than this. Finally he just managed to get us to a central Buddhist structure that you could see for some distance thanks to its golden dome. When we got there I had to go to the bathroom, paying a small fee to a person who may have in reality just been standing there having no connection with the bathroom at all. When I got out the place seemed to be closed and there was a sign on the door to that effect. We stood there for a moment deciding where to go next until we discovered that people were in fact still going in and out. I'm not sure why this exactly was allowed but sure enough we essentially knocked on the door and they let us in. Inside was, well, unimpressive. The structure looked much less impressive the closer we got to it until the gold paints just seemed to be chipping everywhere. It was big certainly but lacked the detail we had seen in a lot of the earlier places.

We then headed off to a big Arc de Triomphe sort of structure in the middle of town. It was nick named "The Vertical Runway" since the money for the construction had been given to the government of Laos by the US during the Vietnam war for them to add another runway to the airport, but in a fit of what can only be described as innovative city planning, the Laotians elected to build a gigantic monument with it instead. I'm not even sure what that symbolizes. Wasteful government spending? Putting art over practicality? Thumbing their nose at the US? Or they just really wanted a big Arc de Triomphe and though that this was their only opportunity. The arch also had a series of stores in it selling all sort of tourist crap on every level, which honestly isn't that surprising in this part of the world. The top offered a view of the city which was less than impressive. There was just essentially nothing to see but some neighborhoods and some small buildings. Vientiane, despite being the capitol of Laos is more on par with Wollongong than DC. The last thing we saw that day was also probably the most interesting. I had heard of park somewhat outside the city that was supposed to have all sort of wired sculptures in it and after a while I was able to convince Dave and Ken to go.

We took the bus that the book recommended, despite being able to find no other proof that this was in fact the right bus. I'm not sure what exactly we would have done had the bus been taking us completely in the wrong direction but it got us there in the end. The place we ended up was a sort of sculpture park built by some religious order all supposedly by blind people under the direction of a mystic. There was a small fee to go in and another fee to use a camera, not that I think they had any way of checking up on if you used a camera once you were inside. Most of the park was covered in big sculptures of terrifying deities that more or less resembled Hindu art besides a gigantic reclining Buddha. The oddest piece though was a big hallow shepere with a tree coming out of it, all made on concrete like everything in the park, which was supposed to symbolize heaven and hell. You could enter the sphere through a gaping hole in a huge mouth at the bottom and climb up though a series of stair cases to the top where you emerged at the top of the sphere reminiscent of James and the Giant Peach. If instead of flying that giant peach to England James and flow it to Hell, this is sort of what it would have looked like. Inside there were all sort of ghoulish looking statues and what not and it sort of took on a maze like effect. Add to that the fact that the whole thing was supposed to have been built by blind people and I was a little worried the whole thing was going to come down on my head. On the top I constantly felt like I was about to fall off and could barley get up the near to stand up.

Back on solid ground we caught a bus back toward the city again by mostly sticking out our thumbs. Back in the city I moved to a slightly nicer hotel for the last night spending something like the shocking price of $22. I wanted a room with a bath tub but the only one they had open like that was for three people. Seeing that I was about to leave they offered me that room for the single person price so I ended up with a room with three beds despite Ken and Dave being on a bus. The person at the counter took so long filling out some forms when I came in that I was worried I would miss dinner with the American guy and Canadian girl from the previous night. I meet up with the Canadian girl, but the American guy was late so we just sat around and talked for a while. Ken and Dave had gotten the sense that she might be a missionary from the way she was dodgy about what she did in China so I pressed her on it. She said that she wasn't but something about her answers were still evasive. Finally I just asked who she worked for and she simply refused to tell me. I asked her a couple of times if she minded if I asked some more questions and she said she didn't so I continued to press her on it. What really got me was just how good she was at not answering my question.

Most people if you press them on something long enough will give you some sort of an answer or let something slip, but she was very steadfast. In about a thirty minute conversation all I was able to gather was that the organization she worked for was known to the Chinese government but she still wouldn't tell me the name. I pressed her on why if the government knew who they were she still wouldn't tell me if they weren't missionaries. She essentially seemed to indicate that they were probably tied into some organization that the Chinese government wouldn't be so OK with. The other clue I noticed is that she used the term "mercy work" to refer to non-religious things done by religious organization which seems like a pretty specialized term to use if you're not usually connected with them. Whoever she worked for they really must have drilled it into her head not to say anything. We eventually met up with the American guy and went to the French restaurant from the other night which turned out to be really, really good. It was even better than the one in Nanjing, though it was also a good bit more expensive.