Monday, April 11, 2011

You`re So Clever

My vacation went well for the most part. Be prepared for a super long post -`re welcome. Kara and I hung around my island for a few days, resulting in an untimely spraining of her ankle walking down the steps of an island cemetery. That`s what you get for trying to photograph the dead. I am still convinced she was pushed. She also got a bad cold from the plane, making me want to spray everything down with lysol. After expressing my concern for her well-being, of course. In Ojika, we had my co-workers car to drive around in and hit up all the hot spots - the pot hole, the schools, the museum, etc., and luckily, we had perfect weather.

After Ojika, we took a ferry to the mainland and hopped on a shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. The bullet train is pretty amazing. It only took about 3 hours to get to Kyoto from Fukuoka. Mind you that that is covering half of the entire nation of Japan in 3 hours. Kyoto was beautiful, even though the cherry blossoms hadn`t opened yet. We saw several temples and ate our way through Japanese cuisine. Okonomiyaki, ramen (not the crappy 49 cent kind), kaiten sushi (or conveyor belt sushi), sashimi, domburi, and the list goes on. Japan really does have some of the most amazing food and fresh fish. You rarely have to worry about food poisoning.

In Kyoto, one of the neatest experiences was sitting at a small local bar, drinking a beer (Kara had a water since she was heavily medicated) and watching the cook make okonomiyaki right in front of us at the bar. Okonomiyaki is like a delicious vegetable pancake. Also, on the outskirts of Kyoto is a place called Arashiyama Monkey Park and you climb this steep mountain and when you get to the top, you get to feed monkeys! It was super cool to put pieces of apple into their grubby little hands - they felt like little human hands. They also had a presentation where they played can-can music and fed the monkeys peanuts.

After Kyoto, we headed to Hiroshima for a somber look at the Peace Park in commemoration of the atomic bomb. It was really interesting and sad wrapped into one. Amazingly, there are still two buildings standing from the bombing and we even went in one of them. After much debate, Hiroshima decided to keep the buildings standing as a reminder of the events. In fact, the most amazing building is a public exhibition hall that the bomb was dropped directly over. You can still see a twisted spiral stair case and you can see the cracks in the wall where the city has fought the building from crumbling.

Interestingly enough, Kara and I were sitting in the park after going to the museum when we were approached by two women who conversed with us a bit. I should have been suspicious because Japanese people don`t tend to approach strangers to chat. In fact, as soon as they said "have you heard the good news?" any normal person would have felt that light bulb go off. But we instead said "no, what news?" They were missionaries of some kind, spreading the word of god. After we had our Oprah ah-ha moment and politely declined, the women gave up on converting the only white people in the park to whatever form of evangelicalism to which she subscribes. Kara turned to me and declared "that`s terrible news."

After Hiroshima, we returned to Fukuoka for a night and did some laundry and cherry blossom-viewing and boarded a morning flight to Beijing. As soon as we stepped off the plane in Beijing, you could definitely tell the air quality was far poorer. After settling in at the hostel and a night`s rest, we booked a trip that took us around to the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Summer Palace. Note: never go on a planned tour to those places during a four-day public holiday unless you enjoy being pushed, crowded and just generally annoyed with the world. The Forbidden City was cool but it would have been more enjoyable had the crowd been smaller and less pushy.

The next day, we headed out to do some shopping. There was a gigantic computer center to get not-so-legit-but-probably-of-the-same-quality goods. They had everything and anything electronic in there and would call out as we walked past. "iPad?! Computer?!" They throw it out there expecting to get shut down so it was fun to see the looks on their faces when their calls actually caused us to turn into their stalls.

There is also a market called the Alien Street Market. When you enter, all the vendors are Chinese but almost all the customers are Russians. It`s strange to hear the Russian language at every turn. Russians make purchases in China, apparently, and then take the goods back to Russia to sell for a profit. Another market is the Silk Market, one of my favorite parts of the trip. At the Silk Market, they have everything - clothes, shoes, jewelry, and bags. We haggled and bargained with shop owners in the different stalls for a few hours - finding everything from "pearls" to odd-shaped cigarette lighters for friends (one was shaped like a chocolate bar, the other like a pack of marlboros).

I have a system when I bargain. I set the bar low, work up maybe a little and then when they don`t agree to my price, I act like that`s my final offer and pretend like I`m leaving. They then become desperate, grab my arm and beg me not to leave, giving it to me for my price. A girl was practically skiing across the floor as she held onto my arm to keep me from leaving. It really brought me back to the market in Mozambique and haggling over the used clothing markets and street jewelry. The workers were working hard at their trade, buttering up customers "OOOH! You`re so clever!" Kara, however, was horrible at bargaining. This was the discussion I overheard.

Silk Scarf Seller: I will give you for 1500 yuan.
Kara: That`s too much.
Silk Scarf Seller: Not too much.
Kara: That`s half my mortgage.
Silk Scarf Seller: (blank, confused face and pause) How much you want for?
Kara: Well, I would pay like 500 but I know that`s just way too low for you.

It was hard to keep myself from physically shaking my head in disappointment. It`s also hard to signal to another person what to do when the sellers speak such good English. I am convinced that some of those market sellers could get a much better job with the high level of English they have learned from hawking badminton birdie cigarette lighters in the Silk Market. But the women in the market were a lot of fun to talk to, bringing up their families and talking about their lives. Although they quote really high prices, I have a lot of respect for people with those jobs because they know how to turn on the charm. And Kara did slowly begin to improve her bargaining skills.

We also climbed on the Great Wall. Even the best workout video of Billy Blanks or Jillian doing upper cuts and high kicks couldn`t match the burn and sweat that results from walking along the Great Wall at Mutianyu. It was incredibly beautiful (minus the pollution-laden haze that settled above the mountains). The best part, besides pretending to be Jaden Smith in the Karate Kid in pictures, was tobaganing down from the hill. Yes, you get to ride a tobagan down! Best ride ever. I loved it so much I was willing to overlook getting a mouthful of a dirty "slow down!" flag hanging above the track in my mouth. And we also met a nice South African girl and discussed our love of various reality TV shows for an hour or so.

The next day was, by far, the most depressing part of Beijing. We went to Tiananmen Square. Setting aside the massacre of pro-democracy protestors there, as soon as you step into Tiananmen, you can feel the weight of communism - particularly as you are barked at to check your bags at the locker building across the street. You see old men wearing similar older navy blue clothes and hats buying flowers to set at the memorial of Mao. There are numerous security checks, regular and plain clothed police men and giant TV screens promoting the splendor of China like a Disney Epcot video. We went to see Mao mostly out of a desire to see the macabre display of his embalmed body in a glass case in a glass room with armed guards. His body is covered except for his face, which had a bright orange light shining on it. The man has been re-embalmed and re-made up every year since his death in 1976, resulting in a plastic looking exterior. And once in the memorial, in front of Mao, you are not allowed to talk or take pictures. It was one of the most bizarre experiences I have ever had.

Later in the day, we headed to the Olympic Stadium to look inside the Birds Nest and the Water Cube, even though I didn`t catch a minute of the 2008 Beijing Olympics because I was in Mozambique at the time. I don`t personally care much for the Olympics but Kara was excited to see it all.

We went to see the Aquarium and pandas at the Beijing Zoo. Now, mind you, the zoo itself is pretty depressing. The conditions of the animals is less than clean and spacious. The animals look miserable. The Aquarium is well-built and organized but they also appear to never clean their dolphin tanks or create the space needed for the animals to swim around. After the zoo and Kara bought her panda umbrella, we headed to a spa to get a facials and a foot rub. It was nice to be in a pleasant, clean space, getting my pores cleansed. I have never done it before and was suprised by the painful part where they dig into your skin so much that your face begins to feel like swiss cheese.

Chinese food in China is, surprisingly, not that impressive. A lot of peppers but not a lot of taste. What we ate is something you could easily find at a Chinese buffet anywhere in Wisconsin. We had given up on the food for intestinal and taste bud reasons, so after an excellent dinner of Belgian food, we headed to an acrobats show to see Chinese youth contorting their bodies and flipping in ways Americans could never accomplish. It was definitely worth the ticket to watch the performance despite the poor access to taxi cabs.

And now I am home again! It feels great to be back in quiet Ojika, with the new school year just starting. On Friday, all the students and teachers on the island are going on a hike - hopefully there are no stairs involved.

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