Saturday, 27 July 2013

Motorbikes, Ferries and Emotional Roller Coasters in the Greek Islands

One of the hardest things about keeping a blog is deciding what's worth posting. Ridiculous or not, one of my biggest frustrations has been the fact that so many of my entries are inspired by the kindness of others. Don't get me wrong. I will never get sick of friendly strangers, nor will I ever take their goodness for granted – not for a second. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had one good experience after another during a thirteen-month path that was wide open for mishap. A smart traveler should recognize and acknowledge good fortune, lest Mama Nasty, Good Luck's nemesis, decides to visit, bringing any of her favorite reminders to the ungrateful or unsuspecting traveler: Theo the Thief, Bobby Bad Weather, Calamity Carl, Donny Danger, Sammy Sicko, or anyone else from the Crisis Crew. So again, ungrateful I am not. 

Still, there comes a time when the trials and tribulations must be shared. So I'm going to put the bowl of cherries back in the fridge next to the peaches and cream, and tell you what has surprised me recently.

I spent last week on the island of Crete, a famous European vacation destination for who-knows-how-long. This is my first time in Greece, and prior to coming, I had always imagined it as a blue and white paradise where hairy donkeys and women quietly pass by white-washed walls and fat men chat and laugh loudly as they share olives and feta. I imagined striking up conversations with locals in restaurants and having a crush on the owner's son, who works all day long but smiles like he won the lottery when I walk in, and takes me out on his motorbike at night when he finishes his shift.

I didn't imagine that people could be so rude – or not that they could, but that they would be. I am shocked by the number of occasions on which I needed to ask a bus driver a simple question while boarding and was greeted with annoyance or impatience. In restaurants I sometimes found the staff to be unfriendly as well. The biggest shocker though, was how many fallen faces and lost smiles I was met with upon the moment I responded to the question “Where are you from?” It seemed that most of the times I admitted – because that feels like the right verb - being from the United States, I was received with disappointment or disgust. I became uncomfortable, intimidated, and when the dreaded question would resurface, as it often did, I was already prepared to hang my head and end what could have been a pleasant exchange.

One day I went for lunch with a Greek friend who I met earlier this year. We had a wonderful lunch. He was friends with the owner of the restaurant, who brought us plate after plate of specialties; stuffed aubergine, zucchini flowers, stewed vegetables and beans, rose wine and more. It was an incredible meal, and I was enjoying the company until the panna cotta came and my friend began to explain why he isn't sure he'd like to visit the U.S. I listened quietly for about five minutes as he described to me how the Jews are trying to control everything there and have too much power in large corporations. He explained that Greeks, especially in Crete, are well-aware of these and other things that the news doesn't show. I found myself wide-eyed and shaking my head, but somehow unable to find the right words. All I could say was that it wasn't true, and that it sounded like a very Nazi-like concern. (I also silently wondered if the word cretin is related to Crete...) So when I went to dinner alone the following evening and the waiter asked me, after ordering my food, if I was Jewish, I felt a surge of something heavy come over me like a lead blanket. It seemed that many of my conversations in Chania ended in me feeling sad. If American Jew wasn't a double-whammy before, it had certainly become one.

Needless to say, I felt that a physical move was necessary in order to achieve an emotional move. No matter how beautiful my surroundings, I was in a bad place and could feel Crete bringing me down. So on a bit of a whim, I decided to cut my time there short and head to another island. It could not have been a better move.

Because I arrived in Mykonos without having made any plans or doing any research, I did not have a place to stay or any idea what to do. Once again, Couch Surfing saved the day. Thanks to a few dedicated members of Mykonos' CS community, my arrival and transition to Mykonos were seamless. Arriving at the busy travel agency where my CS contact works, I had the most unexpected type of welcome. First Sakis told me to have a seat and he would find me a place to stay. So I sat down with one of his co-workers, Lefteris, a very friendly man with whom I then spent over an hour chatting. About ten or fifteen minutes into our conversation, he said, “Okay, you're from Boston and also live in Brasil, but what are your family's origins?” “Russian, I responded.” I could see that something registered as his eyes narrowed... “Wait – are you Jewish?” I paused, exhaling an audible sigh of defeat, and nodded my head. “Yeah.” He clapped his hands together and his face lit up. “I don't like to make generalizations because we're all individuals, you know. But I just love Jewish people! So smart! So logical!” He went on, and I listened, trying not to beam. He then proceeded to tell me how polite and pleasant American tourists were. In the time that I sat there and listened, this stranger restored something in my heart that I almost believed to be broken beyond repair.

Each day when I went into the center of Mykonos, I would visit them at the agency and we would sit and talk about many things. On my third day I needed to switch accommodation and it wasn't looking good. The weekend had arrived and all the hotels in the center were booked solid. I sat in the agency, concerned, trying to let go of the fact that on my second-to-last day in Mykonos, I would not be able to go make the most of the day because I needed to focus on finding a place to stay. Lefteris looked at my face and sympathized. “Come with me”, he said. I followed him as we crossed the square into a bakery. He told me about all the different desserts that were encased in the glass before us and told me to pick the one I wanted. I chose a piece of baklava, he ordered a piece of kadaifi, and we carried them back to the agency, sat and ate them and laughed.

That evening, Sakis told me I could stay at his home if I didn't mind being away from the center of town. He arranged a ride there for me since he had to stay at work, and I sat on the porch looking out at the sunset over the sea, wondering how I always manage to meet these guardian angels.

I wound up loving Mykonos so much that I changed the date of my departure from Greece. On the day that I did leave, I went to the agency to say goodbye to Sakis and Lefteris. They were the first people I met on the island, and I wanted them to be the last people I saw before leaving. After all, they played a key role in my positive state-of-mind since leaving Crete. I was planning to take the bus to the port, but Lefteris insisted on driving me to the ferry. Imagine such warmth and kindness from these two perfect strangers who so quickly became my friends!

On the ferry, I was lucky to find a cushioned bench that was long enough to lay down on in a curled-up position. The ride to Athens would be five hours long, and I was exhausted. Thirty or forty minutes into the ride and finally comfortable, the ferry made a stop at a small island and a surprisingly large mass of people boarded. Four older women, ranging from forty-five to near eighty appeared in the area where I lay and began squawking and fussing over the space I was occupying. I slowly sat up, asked them with a smile to just wait a moment for me to move my things, and watched as they all huffed in disapproval at my choice to lay on that bench. (I didn't realize the ferry would be making stops.) They didn't speak English, so all I could do was laugh off their admonishment as one by one, they put their things down and occupied every inch of the bench and its surroundings, leaving me squeezed tightly between them, journal in my lap.

They talked over me and I smiled. They passed things across my lap and I smiled. And then the eldest of the group with a raisin-like face, took out a box of food and put it on her lap. I motioned to the small piece of round table in front of me, offering her to switch seats. “Endaxi, endaxi” (that's okay) she replied. And then she cut up her crepe, and handed me a large piece in a napkin. I tried to thank her and decline, but she wouldn't have it. She pointed to her chest and said something I didn't understand, except for one word, which she repeated. “Mama”. I smiled and accepted her offering, and the woman on the other side of me patted my arm gently.

Two hours into the ride, the woman to my right moved over, insisting that I use the table to write instead of balancing my journal in my lap. Half an hour later she was offering me fresh bread. Three hours into the ride, I managed to understand that they were asking me if I'm married. When I said “No”, they all started clapping, patting me on the leg and saying “Bravo, bravo!” Smiling, the sun-dried woman pointed to her head, suggesting that I am smart, I think. Then she spoke to me again in Greek. The youngest woman translated. “Come and visit my home in Athens, she said.” and then the woman wrote down her name and phone number. Soon after, the ferry arrived at the port and they all hugged and kissed me goodbye and the elderly woman repeated her invitation.

These guardian angels...they're everywhere. 

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Sumo, Sakura and One Sensational Human in the Land of Impossibly Polite

I'm not a sushi fanatic. In fact, I'm supposed to stay away from seaweed because I have Graves' Disease. I know nothing about Anime or Manga, have a limited capacity for visiting temples, and I'm not crazy about tempura. To complete the picture, I've never really had the chance to become close to anyone Japanese, save Yokiko, a friend I made at summer camp when I was 8 or 9, and sadly never saw again after that August. I remember learning a lot of Japanese words with her because she hardly spoke any English. Yet somehow, we really managed to communicate and I felt quite close to her. Looking back, I'm not sure why the language barrier didn't seem to be that great an obstacle. Before we said goodbye she gave me a soft two-toned toy that snapped into the shape of two different animals that I kept for years. Was it that short-lived childhood connection that made me curious about Japan? I couldn't tell you the reason, but somehow I knew that if I ever went to the country, I would like it.

Part of my visit was planned around the sakura season, and walking through parks with thousands of pink cherry blossoms is a very special experience. I went when it was cloudy and quiet, and when the sky was blue and the late-day sun fell upon the grass and the trees. They were beautiful in all forms. The sakura season began early this year, and I was
there just in time for the last bloom of the nation. 

People say timing is everything, and as good luck would have it, the timing of my visit to Tokyo also meant that I would be present for opening day of their two-week sumo wrestling season. Could I possibly pass up such an opportunity? No, of course I could not. An unfamiliar stir filled me as I searched for my seat in the midst of the 9,999 others in the Ryogoku Sumo Dome. Everything was fascinating to me: the wrestlers' hair carefully styled into mages, professionally oiled, tied and folded on top of their head, the colors of the mawashi -or loin cloth-that they wore, the lengthy ritual stare-down that these men engaged in before exerting four hundred pounds of man power into a ten to twenty second match that would so greatly affect their future. I felt such a thrill each time they would slap their bellies and outer thighs and throw salt into the ring. A surge of excitement would burst through me when one of the opponents would lift the other by his mawashi and throw him to the floor. Everything about the experience was colossal. 

Technology is everywhere in Japan – although wi-fi connections surprisingly are not - and even the simplest things become both confusing and exciting as a result. On my first night in Tokyo, I needed to order and pay for my meal on a small machine on the wall, which I would do again numerous times. Does it seem like a trivial detail? Try using one of these when you don't read know how to read Hiragana. 

The Japanese take comfort and cleanliness very seriously, and this means that toilets, too, are part of the high-tec experience. Most have a panel of options: a heated seat, a bidet function with various positions for males and females (which I accidentally tested, hence discovering the wet backpack option). You can choose your preferred water pressure, sound effects to inspire your pee, or music to distract those in neighboring stalls from hearing you make a deposit. Ah, the choices! I can also confidently say that Japan is the only country I have ever been where there is a toilet everywhere. You will never have to worry in case of an emergency, for a bathroom is never far, always accessible, and infallibly clean. Rubbish bins may be hard to find in places where you would expect to see them, but a toilet – never. 

In many ways I had a stereotypical tourist visit to Japan. I hiked around mountains and lakes in the national parks of Hokkaido and sang my heart out with some fellow compatriots during my first-ever karaoke in Kyoto, a night that came complete with an unexpected geisha spotting. I stayed a few days at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn with a futon bed and tatami floors in an onsen village in Nagano. Guests here spend their entire visit in a yukata, a light robe that facilitates bathing in the hot springs with other guests of the same gender. The experience also meant trying a fifteen-course meal prepared by the family who runs the inn. 

I found the general population to be impossibly polite, no matter where I went; the bowing, the smiles, the formality. And because this stood out so much, it caused me to wonder how there can simultaneously be so many women quite dedicated to tantalizing men with their short skirts and provocative legwear in a place that one might define as the epitome of proper. In a nation where they have punctuality, formality and order down to a science, it came as quite a shock to learn that Japan is the only country in the world where one can buy used panties from a vending machine. Go figure. 

It took me an awfully long time to collect my thoughts on my three weeks in Japan, I could likely go on and on about the things that make the country amusing, fun, confusing and a great place to visit or even live. But in the end, what I really want is to acknowledge and give thanks to one specific person, and that is my friend Tomoko. We met on my very first day and she greeted me with a big hug, and shared her home with me for an entire week.

During that time we shared so many things. We went to dinner parties and restaurants where she introduced me to friends and colleagues and took me to various parts of Tokyo. We attended the sumo wrestling event together, a first for both of us. She gave me impromptu Japanese lessons using a small dry-erase board and left little notes for me in both languages each morning before she went to work. We spent evenings listening to music, talking or just relaxing. We took walks together, laughed a lot, and even discussed deep and difficult pieces of our lives. 

Whenever I would wonder something out loud (as I often do), Tomoko, ipad in hand, would have an answer to my ponderation within twenty seconds. It got to the point where I had to keep myself from thinking out loud or I'd feel like I was putting her to work. She had a solution for everything and an answer to every question, often times accompanied by a print-out! When I left for Tokyo, she even created little cards for me with several Japanese sentences she knew I would need, including the pronunciation of each sentence written in English. “No seaweed or onion, please.” “Is there wi-fi here?” “I don't eat beef.” and more. This gesture was one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. I was so moved by her concern for me being able to communicate my needs. To put the icing on the cake, in one short week she had gotten to know me well enough that she knew exactly what to put on those cards...and she laminated them!

When I returned from the weeks I spent visiting parks, temples, mountains and onsens, I came back to stay with Tomoko again, and there's no other way I would have preferred to end my time in Japan. It's amazing how close you can feel to a person in a short period of time if you both open your heart.

I may not be able to say that I made much progress with sushi or tempura, and I continue to have a limited interest in temples, but my appreciation for Japanese culture has grown immensely, thanks to the chance I was given to become close to someone from Japan. Most importantly, Tomoko helped me to affirm that short-lived connections can make all the difference in the world, and are worth keeping for a lifetime. I don't know how I knew I would like Japan so much, but I'm so glad I wasn't wrong. 

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Where Do Manners Come From and How Much Do They Matter?

 China really distinguished itself from any other experience I have had. It was a combination of the exotic and often unidentifiable foods, the customs and mode of dress, the sing-songy Mandarin language and the amount of difficulty I had understanding and making myself understood.
It's true that I already wrote about China, but these moments left such an impression on me that I decided they deserved their own post. After all, in a country as huge and unusual as China, how could one lonely post possibly do justice to a culture so complex?

It started in Beijing. I was sitting in a restaurant, perusing a menu full of pictures with Chinese titles below each dish and the occasional English translation. Dare I order the “spicy boiling frogs”? The “mixed bacteria fresh soup lamb clay pot”? I had a lot of questions. I just wasn't sure how to go about asking them to the non-English-speaking waiter who also happened to be nowhere in sight.

FU YUEN!” the man at the table next to me suddenly shouted, startling me out of my battle with the menu. I was astonished by his volume. Fortunately, however, a waiter came over to his table, and I was then able to get his attention and request some much-needed assistance. This episode repeated itself in one restaurant after another, until I discovered that in many places, if you do not bellow for the waiter, you may be sitting there an awfully long time. Going to visit China? Learn the word for waiter and prepare your lungs.

One day my Finnish host and I decided to do some touristy things. We visited the Summer Palace and then we headed over to the Beijing Zoo. To our dismay, most of the animals' living spaces were devastatingly tiny and poorly kept. But the biggest shocker was the behavior of the Chinese visitors, who were constantly found feeding Doritos and cheese puff-like snacks to unsuspecting gnus, deer and any other animals to which they could get close enough. At one point, we found a large crowd of visitors hovering over the black bears, laughing and talking animatedly. As we got closer, we saw that the guy standing closest to the bear, about twenty feet above, was pouring Coca-Cola its mouth, sometimes spilling it on the bear's head and fur as the crowd laughed along. Next to him was a sign written in both English and Chinese. “Please do not feed me. It can give me stomach problems.” My host was brave enough to speak up against this disgusting behavior. I wondered how many times a day these animals unknowingly suffered this type of maltreatment.

We left the zoo and decided it was time for me to try Peking duck. I'm not a vegetarian, but I've never enjoyed making the connection between what I'm eating and what its name was. So you can imagine the initial apprehension when the waiters called us over to watch them cut the duck - apparently an expectation in Beijing – and then brought the meat over to the table with the head served on its own plate. (Insert wince.)

With respect to food, I believe American society does what it can not to force us into facing our own behavior if it could be interpreted as unpleasant. Fish is usually served as a filet. We don't want to see the head. We don't put chicken feet into a soup, because despite the flavor it will give, it will also act as a reminder that this was once a living creature. Many people also feel that seeing these things is gross and possibly even savage.

And speaking of savage, let's talk about buses. The Great Wall was a special place, but the real adventure was getting on a bus to go back home. There was a giant crowd waiting to go back to Beijing, and although the bus stop was clearly marked, there was no single-file line, and when the buses came, they didn't stop at the indicated point. Instead, when people saw the bus coming, they would begin to charge in masses of over fifty. The bus would veer out of the way, and the mass would follow it, trying to get as close as possible to its doors. When it would come to a complete stop (wherever it decided to), people would push each other until they made their way up the steps. I figured I would let them fumble over each other and I'd wait for the next bus. I watched this happen four times before I finally realized I wasn't going to have a choice. Bracing myself, I pressed the “Go, go Gadget elbows!” button behind my ear, and Chinese-style, pushed my way into the sardine can. For the first time ever on a crowded bus, I genuinely worried that I might arrive home with a cracked rib or two...and then wondered if my head would be served on a separate plate from my ribs.

Yunnan was a whole 'nother level of strange when it came to manners and expectations, the first real surprise taking place on a bus. Two friends and I were on our way to a lake for a relaxing afternoon when I suddenly sensed the unpleasantly familiar smell of smoke. I turned around to find the man two seats back taking a drag from his cigarette as his ~five-year old stared out the window next to him. I whipped back around to my friend and questioned this, unable to believe what I was seeing. “You can smoke on BUSES?!” “People do”, she said. She then pointed to a sign at the front. “No smoking. But really, no smoking.” she translated. For the next twelve days, I would find that every restaurant and many buses were full of smokers. It didn't matter what the signs instructed.

One day a very playful, non-English-speaking man on a bus offered me one of his cigarettes. I accepted it, and when he lifted his lighter to my cigarette, I pointed to the no-smoking sign, smiled, and made a “Wait” gesture with my hand. He gave me a thumbs up and decided to wait too. SCORE!

Inevitably, bathrooms and bowels always make their way into travel stories, especially when they're about Asia or Africa, and I'd hate to disappoint... Chinese toilets are typically a porcelain rectangular hole over which you squat, and either have a standard flush lever or you dump water into them. This is an upgrade from many African “bathrooms” (think hole in the ground into which you throw dirt), so the only thing I had to keep in mind was not to let my pants touch the porcelain or the area around it. But China surprised me once I arrived in Yunnan. I will never forget the first moment I walked into the bathroom to find a row of females squatting over their porcelain rectangle, some even scrolling through their phones checking messages while doing so! NO DOORS! Hesitantly and with my eyes fixed on the floor, I found a free rectangle as quickly as I could, hastily and nervously squatting over it, wondering if anyone was looking around singing, “One of these things is not like the other” to herself. As I exited the bathroom - pant bottoms likely stained with other people's pee - I suddenly understood the popularity skinny jeans. The Chinese probably invented them.

I'm not sure how potty training works in China, because many babies don't wear diapers. Yes, you heard me. Frederick's of Hollywood, rethink your audience! Now there's crotchless pants for babies! No need for the hassle of unsnapping a onesy. No more boatloads of money spent on Huggies. With new crotchless pants for babies, you can hold your baby or squat your toddler over any gutter, patch of grass, river, or anywhere you see fit. No trash can necessary! A health hazzard you say? Come on! This is China! Beijing's air quality index regularly breaks 300. People hock loogies both outdoors and IN on the regular. You aren't really worried about a little baby shit, are you?

After three weeks in the country and plenty of observation, I understood why so many visitors to China have been shocked and have even described the Chinese as having bad manners. Most of the moments that stood out the most were those in which I found myself wide-eyed or suspiciously raising my eyebrows in reaction to these behaviors that just wouldn't fly in other countries. But because of a rip in my pants in Hong Kong, I rethought the whole issue.

You see, it was my last pair of pants, and the hostel staff had accidentally shrunk them in the dryer. When I put them on and leaned forward to grab something, they split immediately, tearing a gigantic hole from the seat down to the crotch. I ran out to buy new pants (yes, I changed first, thank you) and brought them back to the hostel where they had assured me they could hem them right away. I tried them on, but there was no mirror, so I was unsure if I had folded them at the right length for hemming. I asked the young lady from the hostel for assistance, to which she replied, “I don't think it's very polite of you to ask me to do that.” Immediately embarrassed, I apologized profusely and explained to her that in the United States and in Brasil, it is often the seamstress who helps fold the pant leg before hemming. But her response really caused me to think.

Who's to decide what's to be considered “bad manners” and what's not, and where do they earn that right? Who gets to determine that waiting for restaurant staff to come to you is superior to beckoning your waiter with a shout? Yes, it's true that some common Chinese behaviors may not be the healthiest choice, but they are societal practices, deeply-rooted and widely accepted. So while one can fairly argue that it's not nice to push people or to poop and pee in public, the more important piece is remembering that when you're a visitor somewhere, your job is to accept and understand how things are done. It doesn't have to be your preference, but live and let live. If we all did everything the same way, Earth would be an awfully boring planet.


I was shocked to find this sign...right above a TOILET. 

China's way of recognizing that there may be an issue...

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

As Far As It Gets

The sun will go down in another hour or so. It's the same time of day my brother and I would cruise around our neighborhood on our Diamondback dirtbikes, enjoying the taste of young freedom before our mother would call us home for dinner. Here on a concrete square on the other side of the world, in between the buildings of Kunming in the Yunnan province of China, young children with basketballs, slingshots and plastic bows and arrows giggle and jump all over each other. Their mothers haven't called them inside yet.

I've been in China for three weeks now - country number 57 of my lifetime. I remember while planning my trip, my cousin told me, “China might be the only place I've ever been where you may seriously need a guide.” His words remained in my head as I deplaned in Beijing, wondering what awaited me. Hong Kong hadn't been too difficult, but I knew mainland was likely to be another story. And since I'm here to tell stories...

April 18th, 2013

The difficulty didn't take long to present itself as I punched my pin into the ATM keypad and up came several options, all written in Chinese. I looked around and summoned the nearest person in hopes that she might be able to guide me through the options. She shook her head and shrugged in apology. This was the first time of MANY that I would find myself surrounded by the proverbial language barrier. After a lap around the airport to locate the one English-option ATM, it was time to get moving. So imagine my surprise as I arrived at the dark, empty ticket booth of Airport Express, the train I counted on taking to my accommodation. Apparently, it stopped running at the same time my plane landed. Time to queue for a taxi, right? Well, my taxi driver did not understand a lick of English, the language in which my address was written. Needless to say, my turbulent arrival in Beijing was an excellent introduction to what was to come.

I decided my first day in Beijing should be low-key. I would run some much-needed errands at the nearby mall, enjoy a nice meal, and do some research on the city to decide how I would like to spend the following days. I passed a Starbucks and MacDonald's on my way into the mall, and laughed a bit to myself at how many westerners sat inside. “Why do people travel all the way across the world and choose the same hang-outs they have back home?” I wondered. I've always thought that was a little bit ridiculous.

Two hours and seven unsuccessful attempts to eat lunch later, I found myself at the Starbucks counter, pointing to a tuna sandwich with an answer to my question and an unavoidable breath of laughter escaping my nose. Not only were there no English menus in any of the restaurants I went to, but I was also unable to identify enough of the ingredients in the pictures I saw to be sure I wasn't ordering beef, pork or something else that would scare the lights out of me when I found it in my soup. I had some humble pie for dessert.

I did eventually find some menus with “Chinglish”, and reading them often brought me to tears with laughter. Skype conversations with my parents almost always included me repeating what I read on a menu, eliciting an eruption of my mother's contagious laughter.
"Sauce detonation cowboy bone sand pot rice"... ?

Food never ceased to be an issue for me. I'm not a vegetarian,but I don't eat red meat, pork or onions and I don't enjoy fried food...and I came to CHINA! (Insert very sarcastic tone and rolling eyes.) No matter how carefully I studied Mandarin food vocabulary, there were often surprises. It took about ten days before I concluded that it would be “Socialismo, pork or muerte!” I bid farewell to my dreams of fresh fruit and yogurt for breakfast and accepted that rice noodle or pork dumpling soup would be my new morning companion. I can't say that I got used to all of the things I saw on menus and on display. Even high-end restaurants offered fried dragonflies, grubs and other insects, and you can believe that I developed lightning-fast dexterity for page-turning when I would stumble upon the pictures of these options.

The language barrier presented itself again and again, sometimes at moments most unexpected. Chinese women use pads, not tampons, and just like back home, there are several types from which to choose. The differences described on the packages aren't particularly clear to a non Mandarin-speaker. All I could do was laugh when I discovered I would need to learn the Mandarin word for “underwear store” so I could purchase some new drawers to fit the diaper-sized pads I had accidentally purchased.

My Chinese adventure changed quite a bit when I travelled to the southwestern province of Yunnan, down near the Tibetan border. Back in October I became quite close with a Shanghainese girl who I spent two weeks trekking with in Nepal, and we agreed to travel together for part of my time in China. Once we met up, I not only understood menu options, but was able to ask the million questions I had about this culture that was so foreign to me. One day we were taking a walk in Shangri-La (which, by the way, Chinese spell “Xianggelila” in Engrish.) I was excited to find a popcorn vendor and bought a big bag so Maggie, her friend and I could share it. Both of them declined when I offered the bag. “Aren't you afraid to have so much popcorn?”, Maggie asked. “Uh, no. Why?” “Because you can get cancer.” Her friend nodded in solemn agreement. It's amazing what you learn about different beliefs when you spend time away from home.

We had a lot of good laughs, sometimes because of my developing Chinese, and other times because of Maggie's explanations. One afternoon in Lijiang I saw an interesting-looking menu written in Mandarin outside a cafe. I asked Maggie what it said. “They have different types of wine.” she explained. She pointed to one of the options. “This one is to celebrate losing your vaginity!” she exclaimed. Aaaaaand a new word was born.

I've always gotten a thrill out of visiting places that feel different from home, and China was no disappointment. I'll admit that I won't miss having rice noodle soup for breakfast, and that on our last morning in Yunnan when I told Maggie I wouldn't mind having something different and maybe healthy, I didn't even bother to argue when she led me into MacDonald's for an Egg McMuffin. It somehow seemed significant – like my trip to China had come full circle.

On my last evening in Beijing, I thought about it all. China was a fascinating, confusing, dirty, hilarious test of patience. I loved it all and I was ready to go. I packed up my bag, went down to the nearest soup joint and ordered pork wontons like a well-adjusted visitor...and spent the next fifteen minutes picking out the large chunks of beef hidden in between the pork. China itself is like one big wonton, full of surprises.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Is "American Polyglot" an Oxymoron? ...I Think Not

I'm easily excited by visiting non-English-speaking destinations. There's a thrill for me in functioning in another language. I suppose it's a bit like getting continuous positive reinforcement. Think about it. The people with whom you are communicating are reassuring you that you have properly learned a language you have taken the time to study hard, simply by understanding you. It can feel rewarding in the same way it felt as a child when the teacher handed back a quiz that said, “Great job!” at the top in red cursive.

When I was six years old, I began to study Hebrew. I remember I had this hologram ruler with the Hebrew alphabet on it. I would hold that blue, green and orange ruler in my hands, staring at it as the letters changed from one form to another as I moved it ever-so-slightly. I would write my name from right to left as I had been taught, staring at it, unexplainably giddy knowing that this was still my name, but I could express it in a another way, using what felt like a special type of code. As I child, I believe that I grew to enjoy studying Hebrew because I liked the idea of being a code breaker. At temple, I would follow the service in my own prayer book , tracing the words with my pointer finger, reading each word just a fraction of a second before the rabbi or cantor pronounced it.

Strangely, at the time I didn't recognize that I enjoyed foreign language, so when I got to seventh grade and began studying French and hated it, it didn't seem surprising to me. My teacher often seemed fed-up with the group of twelve-year-olds in our class. I'm pretty sure we were jerks and I'm equally as sure that he was burnt out, but I don't know which came first, the chicken or the egg. I just know that by the end of eighth grade with the same teacher, I still didn't understand the concept of verb conjugation, and while I could produce a short, two-man conversation in French that I had learned by rote, I hated my experience and thought I hated French.

When I got to high school and sat down in Mrs. Brigham's classroom, French changed forever. Here was this fantastic Belgian woman, who seemed excited to be standing before this group of teenagers who had chosen to study her native language! She approached us with enthusiasm, wanted us to love French, and gave us the tools we needed to learn it well. She found ways to teach us about circumlocution, telling us to “talk around it” when we didn't know the exact word for what we wanted to say. She helped us to practice a more authentic French accent by modeling the position with her own lips and reminding us to “tighten [our] jaw”. When a fellow student would intentionally butcher the beautiful sound of French into his own rendition - a combo of an American accent mixed with the frequent addition of o's on the end of words to remind her that he had previously been an (unsuccessful) student of Spanish - she still managed to smile, passing a test of patience that even I was failing.

I studied French right through the end of high school, enjoying it more and more each year. When the opportunity arose to stay with a family in France during my junior year, I jumped on it. I had a feeling it was going to be wonderful - I had no idea it would be life-changing. In the weeks I spent in that lovely home in a Parisienne suburb, something extraordinary took place. I began to dream in French, think in French and felt a constant sense of joy that I had never before experienced. It hit me one day after a long afternoon at Versailles with some fellow French students. I had spent the whole day chatting with David (that's Da-VEED, not DAY-vid), a French boy who was hosting one of my American peers. After heading “home” that evening, I was reflecting on my day and the many things about which we had spoken. Suddenly I realized that among our topics – castles, relationships, school, public transportation and gastrointestinal problems – we had talked about all of it in French. How had I managed that? Somehow, I had become very competent in French! I was reeling!

When freshman year of college rolled around and it was time to choose my courses, I was rocked by the idea that I could study other languages in addition to the French I had studied in class, and the Portuguese I had been informally learning with my Brasilian friend and her family. By the end of college, I had taken courses in French, Hebrew, Portuguese, Spanish and Japanese, and lived in Brasil and El Salvador. My simple American life had gradually been transformed into a multi-lingual life that had taught me about people all over the world. The more places I visited, the more I realized how valuable it was to be able to communicate with people in each country. 

There are approximately 21 Spanish-speaking, 33 French-speaking and 9 Portuguese-speaking nations. When I think about how many doors have been opened in my life due to being able to speak these languages, I am eternally grateful to the many enthusiastic language teachers I have been fortunate enough to have had, and to the many good citizens of the countries I have visited who have welcomed me with open arms, taught me about the place in which they live and helped me further my passion as a citizen of the world.

If you are a parent, may I encourage you to teach your children the value of really learning another language? It's not always easy and I recognize that not everyone is as receptive as I came to be, but there are things you can do to cultivate interest in language, and there's no better time than when children are still young. There are online games, Global Child programs, Rosetta Stone, and often there is community involvement that will teach them to appreciate other languages and cultures. In the end, it will mean contributing to filling our world with not just tolerant but compassionate, interested individuals, and a greater possibility of world peace, one step at a time. 

Monday, 15 April 2013

Cuba: A Caribbean Conundrum

I woke up from my dream and opened my eyes to find myself still dreaming. The dimly-lit bedroom boasted gaudy decorations, a thin, satiny-lime colored bedspread beneath me and lacy curtains that opened to reveal the same dull green wall – a windowless, high-ceilinged space. Outside my room voices conversed calmly in the same Cuban Spanish that rolled off the tongues of actors in movies I once rented in efforts to better understand the island that was such a mystery to me.

I always wanted to see Cuba. It struck me as a vibrant place, full of musicians, poets, dancers, painters – creative minds everywhere you turn. Every Cuban I had ever met emanated a special type of energy and cause me a great deal of curiosity. Yet as an American citizen, I knew that a visit was basically out of the possibilities. Aside from it being illegal unless granted special permission, there seemed to be too many obstacles and potential repercussions. So off Cuba went to the back burner and where it remained a distant dream for years.

As the plane took off, I sat quiet but excited, unable to believe that I was on my way to Havana. I re-read the stub from my boarding pass to confirm that it was really happening. What had I gotten myself into? Was I truly prepared to spend three weeks in Cuba? I had made no reservation and had no idea where I would sleep. Would it matter? Should I have made some type of plan? Less than two hours after take-off we had already touched down in Havana. My heart beat accelerated. This was it... I was in Cuba!

I followed signs until I made my way to immigration and stepped into one of the many lines. I watched and waited, the lines barely advancing in the ten minutes I stood there, when a handsome man in civilian clothing approached me and asked to see my documents. When I handed him my United States passport, he looked at it briefly and asked me to follow him. I tried not to allow my nerves to take control of my expression, yet I couldn't help but wonder if it was already over before it had even begun. I was lead to a separate area for interrogation, and answered the twenty-minute series of questions with a measured level of calm. My smile betrayed everything I was truly feeling as I watched him jot down all of my responses as well as my passport details. He finally explained to me that he works for the police and it is his job to help monitor who's entering the country and to understand their intentions. After going through ten more nerve-racking minutes in customs, I was done. Stepping out of the airport, I found myself smiling from ear to ear. I had really pulled it off.

It took no time at all to discover that Havana is peppered with hustlers and characters in every direction, and the city is positively pulsating with an energy all its own. Too many seconds of eye contact and suddenly you have ignited someone's hopes and dreams, and as a single female traveler, the grand majority of this energy seems to manifests itself in the form of optimistic men suddenly materializing before you to launch their spiel in hopes of stopping you dead in your path. “Ay princesa, I will cook for you, wash and iron, clean the house. I'm your slave!” Their comments and approaches to unaccompanied foreign women occur with a frequency so alarming, that it almost seems to be a social obligation.

One evening three of us were walking home, all women, one of us Cuban. After the third comment made by a passer-by, I turned to our Cuban friend, who happens to look like a foreigner, and asked her, “How do you stand it?” “It's intolerable”, she replied, “but at least you know you exist”. My feelings about these “piropos” went through phases. In the beginning, I was simply surprised by them. Occasionally they were creative or dramatic enough that I was shocked into laughing, and as I battled not to, I felt the feminists of the world staring down upon me, shaking their heads in disdain. The comments were never of a sexual nature and were always clearly intended as compliments, but after a while, it became exhausting. While most of these men were between their 20's and 40's, some were well into their 70's! One day my friend and I were going to buy some ice cream and a little 8-year-old-looking boy and his friend called down from the truck on which they stood. “¡Mami! ¡Qué liiiiinda!” one shouted. Flabbergasted, I couldn't even find the words to respond. We knew they were simply practicing what they saw every day, and what to them, probably defined being a man, but it seemed so wrong. I found that by the end of the visit, I was no longer capable of accepting compliments. I couldn't believe them anymore.

Hugo Chávez's death brought a mandatory, week-long mourning period upon Cuba. Banners went up, murals were painted in his honor and celebrations of all kinds were banned. So on the day this was announced, I decided to spend some quiet time writing amongst the plants. And what did I happen upon? A park teeming with life. On one side, a group of more than twenty men gathered, aged thirty to sixty, arguing passionately with each other... They raised their voices, used their hands, flailed their arms, got in one another's face. About what? Baseball! I stood there for a while and just watched, containing my laughter, but not my giant smile.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the park, transvestites! A whole corner of the park was simply humming with theatrical individuals; some were wearing skinny jeans, ruffled shirts and hushpuppies while others wore mini-skirts or short-shorts and tube tops, hair flowing down to the visible crack of their brown behinds, sucking on red lollipops. I later found out this was Central Park, but I think it should be called Ambiguity Park. The men looked like women, some women had mustaches, skater-looking guys were greeting transvestites with kisses on the cheek and the gay men were hitting on women passing by. I could not have imagined a more confusing scenario.

Fascinated, I befriended several members of the LGBT community in Havana, and spent hours talking with them about their lives and Cuba's progressive attitude. Havana for me was a whole new level of impressive. It was heart-warming, really, that a LGBT community could not only exist but thrive in most machista country I have ever visited. I will never forget Raúl, our cab driver in Trinidad province, who further reinforced my faith in this coexistence. When I asked him if he had children, he responded, “I've got three. I have two sons and a gay son. He's my little girl. You should see him. He's just beautiful. He's got long, shiny hair, a beautiful woman's body, and real style.” We talked all about his relationship with his son, and I left the cab beaming. An old-school Cuban man and his family show full love and support to his transvestite son. There's hope for the world.

Writing about my visit to Cuba has been one of the toughest tasks I've had in a while. It's true that the country is fantastically beautiful. The countryside is flowery and picturesque. I loved riding a bike all around the tobacco fields, rivers and mogotes of Viñales and walking down the colorful, colonial, cobblestone streets of Trinidad. I love seeing boys improvising a game of baseball with a piece of pipe or wood and a bottle cap. I love that it's impossible to confuse Cuba with anywhere else because there are '57 Chevys and a thousand other brilliantly painted old cars and old buildings everywhere you look. I have never been anywhere else in my life with as many cello, guitar, trumpet, percussion and flute players gracing as many cafes and corners. And I will never forget the excitement I felt when I told my friend Rafa, “Hey! I love this song!” by Buena Vista Social Club, and walked into the next room to find the band standing there, playing live before my eyes.

The mogotes and tobacco fields of Viñales

The tough thing about Cuba is there's so many secrets. Despite how energetic, friendly and flirty the people are, each conversation always has similar boundaries. If you converse with them enough, you will eventually notice there is a fear of sharing too much information. I'm a curious person to begin with, and “interview” turned out to be a scary word for most Cubans I spoke with. In the end, they always seemed concerned with what I might do with the answers they gave me, or who might find out we had been chatting. This was without me even touching politics. This was true not only of discussing life, but also the simpler things. For example, I don't like to feel like a typical tourist, and I do everything I can to integrate myself into each place I visit, but Cuba has a palpable barrier that takes time to chip away at. It took me a while to learn, for example, that there are sometimes two separate menus in restaurants – same options, completely different prices, and plenty of businesses intended for Cubans that visitors can also access, but only if they can discover them. In the end, it felt like the island of Figure-It-Out-If-You-Can. I can only imagine what it would be like to try to understand Cuba without speaking Spanish!

Leaving Cuba reminded me of Chinese food. There were certain moments when I looked forward to it, but mostly it was something I didn't want. I felt that I left when I was just beginning to crack its shell. It was an overwhelming visit that took me close to a month to process. I learned and saw so much in such a short period of time, that I'm still collecting my thoughts, still reflecting on how different the island is from the technology-consumed, capitalist society to which I am accustomed. And I think we need reminders like that or we'll take everything for granted...our internet, our wide array of food options, our cars and our walk-in closets. I won't say that Cuba is for everyone, but if you're ready for some eye-opening in a land that sometimes seems frozen in time, it's a wondrous place to explore.