A different way to travel

We arrived home a few days ago after spending Christmas with family on the BC coast but we aren’t here for long! It seems we dropped in just long enough to experience some of the coldest days this winter has had to offer. Is it any wonder that I’m happily digging out our summer wardrobe and exchanging the contents of our suitcase for beach wear?

Much of our international travel has been done by the seat of our pants with a Lonely Planet guide in hand. Before each trip, I did lots of research. We always had a general idea where we were going and what we wanted to do when we got there but the details unfolded as we went along. This has led to many adventures and unforgettable moments including traveling the length of Vietnam by overnight bus and arriving in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) late on New Years Eve without a hotel reservation, being caught up in local celebrations and even accepting a ride with a total stranger in China. I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything but this time I decided that I wanted something easier, a stress-free vacation that I didn’t have to plan myself. After the year we’ve just been through, all I want to do is kick back and relax in the sun!

In late November, we did something we’ve seldom done before. We sat down across the desk from a travel agent and told him that we didn’t really care where we ended up; we simply wanted to go somewhere warm with a beach! We also favoured an all-inclusive vacation; one where we didn’t have to find our own way around or wonder where our next meal was coming from. We gave him the window of time available between my various medical appointments and let him do the searching.

“Let’s find you a non-stop flight,” he suggested. Thinking back to the many hours we’ve spent in airports and our unplanned 24 hour layover in Houston on the way home from Costa Rica three years ago, I readily agreed. He gave us some options to think about and we settled on a resort on Mexico’s Caribbean coast near Playa del Carmen.

We won’t have internet and our cell phone will be turned off. We’ll have TV, of course, but I’m not sure that we’ll bother to turn it on. For a little while, the world will get along without us. I’ve told a few family members how to reach us in case of an emergency but I’m praying that there won’t be any crises while we’re gone.

I’m going to immerse myself in the moment, soak up some sunshine and enjoy time with my hubby who, by the way, officially became a senior citizen earlier this week! Hopefully I’ll have lots to blog about when we get back.

Cultural surprises

Sheila has been with us for over two weeks already but she continues to be amazed by something new almost every day. In her eyes, my kitchen is a magical place. Most of the small appliances and gadgets that we take for granted are brand new to her. Like most Chinese kitchens, the one in her parents’ home doesn’t have an oven let alone a toaster, a bread maker or a food processor. Her eyes nearly popped out of her head the first time she saw me using my electric knife!

It’s not only the appliances that surprise her, however. Most of our food is also new to her. Though she’s familiar with a lot of the ingredients, we cook them entirely differently and even I’ve been surprised at how many convenience foods I use. We tend to eat a healthy diet avoiding a lot of processed foods but I do depend on things like pancake mix that are completely foreign to her. Breakfast cereal is also something she’s never eaten before. So far, Harvest Crunch, a sweetened granola with coconut and almonds, is her favourite. She’s accustomed to a spicier diet than ours and the ketchup bottle has become her best friend. In fact, she’s dubbed herself a “ketchupholic”!

The rest of the house contained many surprises for her too. Not unexpectedly, even though I’d explained the bathroom to her the evening she arrived, it took a flooded floor to remind her that the shower curtain must be inside the tub when you take a shower! That’s a common blunder for Asians when they first arrive on our shores as an Asian bathroom is basically an oversized shower stall and bathtubs are not common in China.

Laundry brought more surprises. Though we had a fitted sheet on our bed in China, Sheila had never seen one until we stripped the beds to wash the sheets! She thought I must have sewn the elastic corners myself. (In case you were wondering, fitted sheets were actually invented by an African American lady named Bertha Berman in the 1950s.) The clothes dryer also fascinates her as clothing is hung to dry in China.

That brings me to a topic that has been a big surprise to Richard and I. When we lived in China, we were amazed to see people in the street wearing their pyjamas. What we didn’t realize until Sheila came to stay is that Chinese people wear their pyjamas whenever they’re at home! Sheila only dresses to go out and immediately changes back into pyjamas when she gets home. Of course, if you’re just stepping out to run a quick errand, why bother changing at all? Sheila has been out with me more than once now in her pjs and I finally understand why we saw people walking down Little Street dressed that way!

While we continue to learn much about Chinese life from Sheila, it’s definitely been fun looking at our own lives through the eyes of someone for whom almost everything is brand new!

The job that never ends!

We loved our jobs in China! By far the most fun was the time we spent with the students who were preparing to come to North America to study but this is definitely the first time we’ve brought a student home with us!

Three of my former students are now in Ontario enrolled in ESL programs at their colleges of choice and preparing to enter regular studies there in January. Since they arrived in Canada, I’ve spent lots of time communicating with them via email, Facebook and Skype, consoling and encouraging the one who is having a very difficult time adjusting, cheering on the other two, answering questions and helping them find information on everything from yoga classes to how to make healthy bagged lunches!

Sheila is my fourth student to arrive in Canada and she’s presently sound asleep in our guest bedroom! We picked her up at the Edmonton airport last night after her long flight from China and she’ll be with us for just over five weeks. On January 2, she’ll fly to Windsor, Ontario to begin her studies at St. Clair College.

We encouraged all of our students to spend their first month or two in Canada in a home stay setting to help them adjust to Canadian life and to allow them to practice their English in a home where they would be immersed in the language. Sadly, both girls who chose that option found themselves in homes that didn’t meet our expectations; homes where they were left to fend for themselves and not incorporated into a family atmosphere. They probably would have done just as well or better living in a dorm. That’s not the sort of experience we want to give Sheila!

I’ve waited to start decorating the house and doing my Christmas baking until Sheila’s arrival so that she can join in all the fun. After all, this will be her very first Christmas! The whole family is coming home this year so she’ll experience all the noise and fun of a family celebration.

In the meantime, there are lots of other things we want to show her; simple things like a typical Canadian grocery store and things we take for granted such as how to use the myriad of small appliances on my kitchen counter. There are places we want to take her like West Edmonton Mall and sights we want her to see like the spectacular Rocky Mountains. We’ve also arranged for her to be able to visit our local high school to see and experience how different it is from schools in China.

Before we embark on a whirlwind of activity, however, we’d better let her sleep awhile longer and give her a chance to start getting over her jet lag!

with Sheila in China

with Sheila in China

Two questions

Whenever we arrive home from one of our overseas adventures, we face the same two questions and this time has been no exception.

  • Are you happy to be home?

My stock answer is “It’s always nice to come home!”

As much as I enjoyed China, I am happy to be back in Canada. We are so blessed and we take so much for granted here. I’m happy to be back where the air is clean. China burns roughly as much coal as the rest of the world combined and one of those smokestacks was practically outside our window. According to a recent study, pollution from burning coal has reduced the life expectancy of the 500 million people living in northern China by five years!

I’m very happy to have my kitchen back. Cooking on a single burner got old fast! I’m even happy to have extra people to cook for. We have a young family staying with us for a little while until their house is ready to move into.

Shopping at the street market was exciting at first but the novelty soon wore off and I’m happy to be wheeling my grocery cart through the aisles of my local grocery store again. I can read all the labels and I know where to find the things I want. Heck, I even know what everything is and I don’t have to look past the pig feet and the chicken feet to find the ground beef!

Of course, the best thing about any place is the people and we’re definitely happy to be closer to family and friends again. In fact, we already spent several days in Calgary with our daughter and her growing family last week. It was especially exciting for me to be able to accompany her to an ultrasound appointment where I got my first glimpse of our next grandchild! “Baby Pea”, so called because at just six week’s gestation he/she looked like a little pea with a heartbeat, is due in mid March.

And then there’s the other question…

  • What’s next?

People started asking this one before our suitcases were unpacked and we’d fully emerged from the fog of jet lag! The answer is simple… we have no idea!

We do have a couple of feelers out concerning possible short term mission opportunities but it’s far too soon to know if either of those will pan out. There’s a great big world out there and far too much of it that we haven’t seen yet so I’m sure we’ll figure it out. In the meantime, we’re off to Family Camp at Camp Harmattan next week where we’ll park the trailer beside the Little Red Deer River and enjoy a week of fun and fellowship. Then, toward the end of August, we’ll head for the BC coast where we’ll spend some time with my parents, our oldest son and our other set of grandchildren.

Home is a good place to come back to but as everyone in our small community knows, those DeBocks don’t stay home very long!

Real China

There’s China that the tourists see and then, just a few metres away, there’s real China. One of our table mates on our Yangtze River cruise, who had been to Beijing and Xi’an just as we had, mentioned that he was surprised at how clean and modern China was. That’s because you haven’t seen the real China, we told him.

Toward the end of our first day in Beijing, our tour guide dropped us off at a marketplace. It turned out to be a tourist trap selling low quality, over-priced goods and souvenirs; not at all the sort of place where real Chinese people shop. It held little interest for us so after relaxing for a little while in a nearby Starbucks, we went for a walk. Down a narrow alley, less than a block from the glitzy market, I stopped to use a public bathroom. It consisted of several metal squat toilets set into a cement floor. That’s all! No cubicles, no sinks, nothing but the squatty potties! I was about to take a picture when a local lady walked in so I hastily shoved my camera back into my purse and left. She was surprised enough to see a foreigner there; I wasn’t sure she’d appreciate or understand me taking a photo! That’s real China.

Later, as I mentioned in my last post, we spent an evening strolling East Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s famous shopping street. The crowds enjoying the music, action and glittering lights along this popular shopping strip were largely a mix of Chinese and foreign tourists. I doubt that many of the foreigners had any idea what they’d find if they wandered just one block to either side of the street they were on.

When we exited the subway, we accidentally took a wrong turn and found ourselves walking parallel to East Nanjing Road, one block over from where we intended to be. There it was dark and dirty and we had to walk around piles of old broken building material. It looked as if several places were being torn down or renovated. That didn’t bother me but the two men sleeping on the sidewalk in their underwear did! I’m pretty sure they were both breathing but I didn’t actually hang around to find out. That was the first and only time in our almost five months in China that I wasn’t entirely sure how safe we were but that’s real China.

Don’t get me wrong! We loved our time in China. It was an amazing adventure and I don’t regret one moment of the time we spent there but I wouldn’t want anyone to get the false impression that China is the shining face that it tries to put on for the rest of the world. It’s not third world but it still has a long way to go. As long as you’re willing to accept it for what it is, warts and all, it’s very easy to love though especially since its people are so warm and friendly toward its foreign guests.

Shanghai, city of contrasts!

When we went to China, Shanghai wasn’t high on our list of places to visit. As you can probably guess by now, we’re fascinated by history and culture and I viewed Shanghai, with its population of 23.5 million people, as little more than a massive modern city. The only thing that actually drew us to Shanghai as a possible place to visit was the fact that we had friends living there. We got to know the Kawabatas when we attended the same church during our year in Japan and Itoshi was transferred to Shanghai not long after we left that country in 2009.

When we discovered that the tour that included everything we most wanted to see in China ended in Shanghai, we decided to go there after all. We timed it so that we’d finish our tour on a Friday afternoon and then spend the weekend with our friends before flying back to Canada from there.

As time went by, I became more excited about seeing Shanghai. I looked forward to seeing the contrast between the old and traditional in Beijing and the new and modern in Shanghai. Little did I know that I would see both in Shanghai. It is truly a city of contrasts!

Our Lonely Planet guidebook suggests that “Shanghai is best seen as an epilogue to your China experience” and I’m glad we saw it that way. It also refers to Shanghai as “the future that China has long been waiting for”.

Our tour began at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall which gave us a good overview of the city both past and present before we began to explore it. With its massive model of the city and its dizzying 3D wrap around virtual tour in which we seemed to float over the metropolis, we soon felt as if we were no longer strangers there. Historic photos, maps and dioramas gave us a picture of its colourful past. Our next stop was the 88 storey Jinmao Tower for an amazing bird’s eye view of the city.

After lunch, we were off to the most traditionally Chinese part of Shanghai where we toured the classical Yu Garden, founded by the Pan family, rich Ming dynasty officials in the 1500s. Afterward, we relaxed over coffee at Starbucks in the middle of the adjacent and very crowded bazaar area with its many tacky tourist shops and outdoor vendors.

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The building under construction in the background will be the world’s tallest when it’s finished.

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Our evening was free so we took the subway from our hotel to East Nanjing Road, one of the most famous and crowded shopping streets in China. The pedestrian street was a glowing forest of neon lights and crowded with people. It was a vibrant and noisy hub of activity with people strolling, singing, and dancing while others hawked their goods. We even joined one of the groups for an old time waltz!

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The next morning we were back on East Nanjing Road to see it in the daylight and do a bit of shopping. Look very closely and you’ll see the same KFC and McDonalds signs in both photos!

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From there, it was an easy walk to the Bund where we strolled along the riverfront in awe of the contrast between the two sides of the river. On our side stood stately very European looking buildings. Symbolic of the city’s colonial past, they once housed Shanghai’s most powerful banks and trading houses. Today, the Bund is a designer retail and dining area with some of the city’s most exclusive boutiques, restaurants and hotels. Across the river, is the futuristic skyline of the Pudong New Area looking like the set for a science fiction movie. Thirty years ago, that area was still farmland.

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Perhaps the most amazing building we saw in Shanghai was the one where our friend, Itoshi, works where we were dropped off at the end of our tour of China!

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Yangtze River cruise

Other than our overnight boat trip on Halong Bay in Vietnam on Christmas Day 2009, Richard and I had never been on a cruise until our recent voyage down the Yangtze River. On July 7, we flew from Xi’an to Chongqing where we were supposed to board the MV Jenna, the largest Victoria Cruises five star luxury ship to ply the waters of the mighty Yangtze. Unfortunately, the Jenna was unable to dock at Chongqing due to unusually high water levels so we were bussed an hour and a half downstream to Fuling where we boarded shortly before dusk. After settling into our cabin and exploring the ship, we sat on our little balcony enjoying the night air until everyone was on board and the ship set sail at 11:00 p.m.

There were 380 something passengers onboard. Most were Chinese but there was also a group of Taiwanese travelling together as well as a group from the University of Virginia that included retired American astronaut, Kathryn Thornton, veteran of four space flights and now a member of the UVA faculty. We were one of four couples referred to as the “independents” because we weren’t part of a larger group. The eight of us were table mates and were together on all three shore excursions because, though we represented Switzerland, France, Portugal and Canada, we shared the ability to communicate in English.

We struck up an instant friendship with Carla and Francisco, the Portuguese couple who actually reside in Macao. We shared so many values and interests in common that we could have happily spent the entire cruise sitting on one of our adjoining balconies talking! We didn’t do that though as the ship presented us with a busy schedule for each of our three days onboard.

Though I thought about it, I didn’t actually make it to any of the early morning tai chi sessions and we certainly didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to watch movies in our comfortable cabin. After all, we could do that at home! We did take in two very informative sessions with our river guide, Luther Zou, who shared not only an introduction to the Yangtze and the famed Three Gorges but also a fascinating glimpse into his life as a country boy growing up on a Chinese farm. We enjoyed sumptuous meals, took in two evening shows put on by the multi-talented ship’s staff and of course, spent lots of time on deck enjoying the magnificent scenery as we passed through the gorges. We can only imagine how much more spectacular they must have been before the Three Gorges Dam caused the upstream water level to rise more than 300 feet forming a 600 km long reservoir. Above the high water line along the river’s bank, we saw many of the relocation villages built to house many of the approximately 1.24 million people whose homes were submerged by the rising water. More than 1000 archeological sites were also flooded. Some cultural and historic relics were moved to higher ground but others have been lost for all time.

The dam has had a positive impact not only as the world’s largest hydroelectric project but also providing flood control downstream and improving navigation on the river but I wonder what its long term negative impact might be. How might the astronomical weight of that much water affect the earth’s surface? We saw evidence of several landslides along the river banks and I’ve read that the dam, built in the western section of Xiling Gorge, sits on a seismic fault!

We enjoyed all three shore excursions. The first day we climbed the steep incline to the temple area on the top of Ming Mountain. Known as the City of Ghosts, it pays tribute to the King of the Underworld. Though I found that concept a bit disturbing, the outing was fun and once again I was thankful that the 67 stairs up to our fifth floor apartment in Dalian had prepared my legs well for such activities! The second day’s excursion was by far our favourite. We first boarded smaller ferries for a trip up Shennong Stream, a picturesque tributary of the Yangtze, and then downsized to smaller sampans to travel even further upstream. The scenery was truly spectacular. After staying up very late that night to watch from the deck as the Jenna passed through the first of the ship locks at the Three Gorges Dam, we rose early the next morning to visit the dam.

After returning to the ship and passing through the eastern section of the third gorge, we enjoyed a final meal onboard then disembarked at Yichang where many of us were taken to the airport to catch the same flight to Shanghai. It was there that we had to say a sad farewell to our new friends. Even when we’re surrounded by some of the world’s most stunning scenery, life is still about people and ours have definitely been enriched by our time with Carla and Fransisco!

Qutang Gorge

Qutang Gorge

Wu Gorge

Wu Gorge

Pictures hardly do justice to the beauty that surrounded us!

Pictures hardly do justice to the beauty that surrounded us!

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Sampan on Shennong Stream

Our new friends

Our new friends

Eastern portion of Xiling Gorge

Eastern portion of Xiling Gorge

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