Sunday, July 2, 2017

Goodbye and Thank You, China

Semester is over!
These past few hot and rainy weeks in Nanning, we've been preparing to leave. I have finished final exams, and most of our stuff--from lamps and cushions to blender and bikes--has new owners. Our friends will come to retrieve those things and say goodbye Friday morning before we head out to the airport.

Ten months we've been in China. It's the longest we've lived in one abode since launching our nomadic life 4 years ago. Life here has been charming and challenging. Sweet and soul-stretching. Exciting and unnerving.
campus lotus pond

If we were planning to stay here longer, I would embark on an immersion course in the language. The little bit of language study Dave and I did before coming wasn't nearly enough. At first it wasn't a problem. I am teaching in a university program that focuses on English, so we were surrounded by English-speaking Chinese people and ex-pats. Also, I made liberal use of my translation app.

You never know what you'll see when you're taking a stroll.
However, to be able to deeply connect to people--and to move around with ease--knowing more Chinese feels crucial. It got old relying on others to do some of the simplest things for us, like order take-out or buy a ticket to the movies.

Another challenge has been the food. While at first I fell in love with it, if I never see another dumpling, noodle or rice dish in my life I don't care! There is not enough variety in the diet for my taste. Well...there is variety if you're willing to eat mystery meat, duck feet, and organs. As Lee, Dave's 11-year-old tutee said, the Chinese eat everything.

Farmer's market butcher: you know it's fresh when...
We did enjoy our outings to the campus farmers market, a great place to buy fresh eggs, fruit and veggies at cheap prices. And we have found a few restaurants we like a lot...although our absolutely favorite one just closed down, perhaps a sign that our leave-taking is good timing.

The "egg lady" kindly posed for a picture.
Another sign may be the state of our apartment. It's a beautiful place with large rooms and bay windows (albeit barred) that look out over a lotus pond. And the ease of the 5-minute walk to class cannot be understated. However, Dave has named our bathroom "Little Shop of Horrors" because unidentified goop seeps from the ceiling down the walls. Sometimes we hear rats scurrying up there. And now when you run the water in the sink, it leaks onto the floor. Also, for months, water has been seeping through a wall in the office space. A maintenance crew came to look at it a few times, but apparently there is no remedy.
E-bike wackiness
This acceptance of things that my Western, middle-class culture might not endure has been part of the challenge and charm of China. There's a laid-back quality that's appealing. You even see it in the traffic. It might look chaotic, but generally people go quite slowly and weave around each other like a choreographed dance. That e-bike might be cutting off a bike or pedestrian, but everyone just sways one way or the other and doesn't change their pace. One move like that in California, and someone is likely to pull out a middle finger, if not a gun.
They take the afternoon siesta seriously here.
Today (Sunday) I was notified of a graduation ceremony Tuesday morning I'm required to attend. Two days notification of a major event would send many people I know into a tizzy. Here, two days is quite a bit of advance notice. I can't say I always go with the flow, but China has been teaching me to notice when I don't and what that says about me.

Popular in China!
Teaching in China has reached extremes of charm and challenge. The challenges have come with the bureaucratic minutia that I've alluded to in other entries and won't rehash here. Another challenge has been preparing lessons that build enough background knowledge of American culture so students can understand the material. In the course of teaching the book and film Wild, for example, I introduced the students to Adrienne Rich, Jerry Garcia, "therapist," Pacific Crest Trail, Minnesota, the term "beacon" as a light and a metaphor for a guidepost, and a few of Simon and Garfunkel's songs. There are always moments when I have to decide if I'm going to introduce a new term, drill down on one idea, or keep moving forward.

Whose name is whose?
For the most part, the students have been very patient with me! And I with them. We learn a lot from each other. And the notion that Chinese students are not "creative," I can now say with assurance, is bunk. They wrote some of the most wonderful poetry and memoir pieces. They created videos, sang songs, played music, and shared their visual art.

The student-created class magazine.
It's not that Chinese students aren't creative. It's that their middle school and high school years are drenched in study, with an eye to getting a good score on the gao kow, the 9-hour college entrance exam. Not many are encouraged in creative pursuits. But the human spirit being what it is, the students retain the impulse to create, to express their unique voices.
Students love these wacky phone apps!
Some admitted to me that they would like to pursue dancing, singing, acting and other arts but that their parents insisted they major in Economics or Engineering. I told these students that everyone has extra time: "Some play video games. Some play sports. You can use that time to write or dance or whatever it is you love." I gave the example of Khaled Hosseini who wrote The Kite Runner while working as a doctor, and William Carlos Williams who was also a doctor and a well-known poet.

One student last semester told me he wanted to be a filmmaker but his parents were making him become an accountant. After offering him the both/and spiel, I emphasized how lucky he is that today's technology makes filmmaking easier and cheaper than ever before. A few weeks ago, he sped up to me on his e-bike proclaiming, "Kate! Kate! I want to tell you, I'm making a movie! A full-length film. My friends and I wrote the screenplay." His eyes were alive with joy. If that's a mark I leave behind, what more could I ask?
Tina and me with smoothies, post-yoga.
China has left its mark on me, an impact that I probably won't fully process for a while. The biggest one has been my connection with Tina, our student assistant whom--as you know if you've been reading this blog--has become like a daughter to us. Leaving her is going to be rough. We have asked her to join us next month for a week in Bali. I'm praying her parents will allow it so we will squeeze out a bit more time together.

Dave and I would have loved to have traveled more in China while we were here. However, my breaks fell on Chinese holidays, which would mean traveling with crowds of millions. Also, there was the language issue as well as the fact that traveling in China is more expensive than traveling in S.E. Asia, which is deliriously cheap.

On my last break we slipped away for a few days to a resort in Malaysia.
Sepang, Malaysia
When we embarked on our experiment of living nomadically, I could not have foreseen all the incredible things we've experienced this year. Now we are headed for 2 months of travel in Indonesia and a month in Thailand, where I will run a writing retreat.

Thank you, China. I have a feeling we will return one day to explore more of what you have to offer.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Dreaming about a Writing Retreat?

Dream writing spot
I've always dreamed of teaching at an exotic writing retreat. But for some reason my dream wasn't coming true by just sitting around waiting for someone to offer me free round-trip tickets to teach in Bora Bora.

Then I met writer and charismatic Renaissance man Brian Gruber, who happens to live in one of the most beautiful places I've been: the Thai island of Koh Phangan. Brian's the kind of guy who does crazy shit like travelling to Afghanistan, Iraq, Nicaragua (and other locales) without a predetermined itinerary or lodging, serendipitously finding places to stay and people to interview regarding how they feel about the U.S.'s military interventions in their countries. Such brazen actions led to his most recent book, WAR: The Afterparty.

Turned out he, too, had thoughts of running writing retreats--and after a few chats over meals, we set the wheels in motion.

Retreat Hosts
We decided to call it "Write Your Story in Paradise." Yes, "paradise" is a well-worn trope for tropical places, but in this case, it really fits. Check out this drone footage of the island:

Brian was able to score The Sanctuary, the best resort on the island. Think upscale bohemian with private beach, beautiful and unique accommodations, great food, yoga, meditation, and spa.

Lodging includes beautiful outdoor spaces.
And, incredibly, he was able to talk The Sanctuary into offering people 3 extra free nights if they sign up by June 15. That means, writers can arrive September 6 and just enjoy the resort until the workshops begin September 9-15.

Approaching The Sanctuary.

It was important to both of us that the experience be empowering, even transformational. As highlighted in our title ("Tell Your Story in Paradise"), Toni Morrison's words were our guide:

"If there's a book that you want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."

We also wanted novice and experienced writers to be welcome. Fortunately, that's my wheelhouse. For years I've been teaching writing in university classes and workshops to diverse groups with all levels of experience, age, and backgrounds. I developed a program intended to inspire and instruct. Topics include:

* How to Believe in Your Writing
* Writing & the Unconscious
* Read Like a Writer
* Best Openings & Characterization
* Setting & Point of View
* Scene & Summary
* How to Keep Going

We're also offering 1:1 manuscript consulting, Reading Circles (where writers can share what they are working on), and plenty of time for reflection and discussion. Writers will also have lots of time to write. 
The Sanctuary restaurant
Developing this retreat has stretched me. I didn't know I was capable of creating such an experience. In fact, as much as I talked about wanting to do it, I think I feared dealing with the logistics and minutiae. Having great partners in Brian and Dave (who is a marvelous consultant on the project) makes all the difference.

But this is the most important thing: Saying yes, jumping off the cliff, and knowing that my wings will unfold. I've been learning that over and over again in our nomadic life. My brain surgery taught me that, too. And now I'm seeing this approach to life can work with other dreams as well.
Dave in the heavenly waters of Koh Phangan.
For more information about the retreat, check out our Facebook page or my website.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Winding Down in China...and a Trip to Pattaya

Lotus pond at sunset. (One of Dave's masterpieces.)
Life continues here in China through that different set of eyes I grow when I know something is temporary.

Of course, everything is temporary.

But what I mean is this: I've decided not to renew my contract. We'll be leaving China in less than 2 months.

My gaze lingers a little bit longer on the lotus pond, on the grandpa doing tai chi, on the kids playing basketball, on the innumerable cute babies and glowing pregnant women. Have I mentioned there's a baby boom here?
Nanning at night
And the things that bother me are easier to let go. The occasional cockroach. The water leaking through the wall in the guest room. Not being able to access certain websites because my VPN's not working. The way a "simple" trip to the bank inevitably takes an hour, or two. Soon...not my problem!

In the larger scheme, those things don't really matter anyway. Nomadic life constantly schools me. It reminds me what matters most. For example:

Friends from China, Singapore, Russia, the U.S. and England.
People. And by that, I mean love.

It's incredible to think about how less than a year ago, I didn't even know these people were walking the Earth. And now we've shared many wonderful experiences, such as Dave's surprise birthday party. Paul and Mike played guitars. Daria, keyboard. Ricky, flute. And I debuted on ukulele, playing "Heart of Gold" while Tina (our Chinese "daughter") and her friend (my yoga student) Jennifer did a dance.

One of Dave's most treasured relationships here is with Lee, the 11-year-old he tutors twice a week.

Lee is whip-smart. He wants to go to university in America. Dave's pretty sure their relationship will continue. Of course that's how we feel about Tina, too. When I told her we were leaving, she broke out into tears. And then I did. It's going to be rough saying goodbye in July, but I will make sure it's more like "until we meet again." Because we will. I want to bring her to Mexico to visit us when she graduates. And if she gets married, I don't care where we are or what we are doing, we will be at her wedding.

Eating Korean food (bibimbop) in China, one of our favorite restaurants near campus.
One of our goals in coming to China was to explore S.E. Asia. Ten months in, and we've been fortunate to experience CambodiaVietnamThailand and Malaysia.  My holidays and the incredibly cheap Air Asia flights have made it possible. Our most recent trip was to Pattaya, Thailand. We'd been warned about Pattaya's sleaze factor. However, Dave did the research and discovered an area just outside the main part of Pattaya called Jomtien, which turned out to be perfect for us.

Heaven = a foot massage on the beach.
Our hotel was in a gay area, which felt comfortable and fun. I loved the flamboyant greeting we received from a front desk clerk as we walked in.
One of the two pools at Agate Boutique Hotel that has rooms at about 35 bucks a night.
At the beach, we chatted with some guys from England who come regularly to Jomtien. I also noticed a young Russian couple; one of the guys had this tattoo on his chest: "Only God can judge me." Especially poignant given what has been happening to queer people in Chechnya.

We spent time wandering around Jomtien's charming streets, happening across some great finds, like Sketchbook Art Café...
...and street carts selling all kinds of treats.

fruit cart
We love Thai food. And like most of S.E. Asia, the tropical fruit is amazing. Dave went crazy for the pad see ew, a dish of thick noodles, veggies and a savory sauce. However, after all this time in China, I'm a bit noodled-and-riced out. Which was why I was thrilled by the many choices of relatively inexpensive and delicious Western food in Jomtien. I ate Caesar salads galore and vanilla soft-serves in waffle cones. We also found a place that made amazing meat and fruit pies.
Walking Street before things really get going.
One evening we ventured into downtown Pattaya. To get there, we braved a hop-on taxi: a truck where people pile onto bench seats in the truck-bed or hang off the back as overflow, which was what Dave had to do. Every time the truck jerked to a stop, I thought he might go flying off. Fortunately, he has a strong grip.

We spent a few hours moseying up and down infamous Walking Street, which is a raucous array of crazy sights and sounds. It's like Vegas on acid, without the overt gambling. We passed mostly bars, restaurants, bar girls, a few people in wild costumes, and the occasional guy trying to get us to see a Ping-Pong-vagina show. We'd heard there was some good live music on the strip, but at 8:30 p.m., no bands were yet playing. And we were ready to go back to the relative peace and quiet of Jomtien.
Dave dove the Hardeep WWII wreck.
One day we took a diving and snorkel tour to the Samae San islands, about 45 minutes south of Pattaya. The experience affirmed and intensified my love for Thailand.

Speaking of September, I will be co-hosting a writing retreat on Koh Phangan. It's an incredible place, and that's no hyperbole. Neither is our title: Write Your Story in Paradise. I know "paradise" is a well-worn phrase, but The Sanctuary resort where we are holding the event fits the bill, in my humble opinion. The experience promises to be transformational. If you'd like to join us, check out our Facebook page.

In the meantime, I will do my best to relish our remaining time in China. We may have a lot of plans ahead of us, but this moment is where it's at. It's all we really have.

teaching yoga in China

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Chiang Mai & Kuala Lumpur

Getting this close to an elephant in an open space, not a zoo, was like a dream. But I was wide awake. It happened at northern Thailand's Elephant Nature Park, "an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center." Better name? Elephant heaven.

Some of these elephants limp on a foot mangled by a landmine. A number are blind due to--get this--tourist flashbulbs in zoos and circuses. Many have other problems as a result of being "broken" in order to be ridden. This is a brutal practice. Nothing like breaking a horse. It involves ripping the babies away from their mothers, beating them, inducing pain in a variety of ways... Google it, if you can stomach it. Now that I'm aware, I would never ride an elephant.
We got in the water with them!
I did, however, caress a few that are used to humans. And it was divine. Elephants are walking paradoxes: Gentle giants. Rough skin, tender heart. We have a lot to learn from them--for example, not demonizing one group for the abject behavior of a few.

Most of the mahouts who work with elephants are born into mahout families. The control of elephants through abuse is a tradition. And a vocation. Elephant Nature Park re-trains mahouts and gives them jobs. These guys do a ton of work around the park (along with armies of volunteers), and can even build relationships with the unruly bulls tourists are not allowed to get near. The mahouts learn how to use food, not pain, to coerce the animals to move to the watering hole or feeding platform.

I swear these sweet beasts are thrilled to be living on this beautiful property. They smile. They playfully throw dirt into the air. They roll in the mud and prance in the river. Finally, they are free. No more cages, no more abuse, no more isolation, no more chains.

We got to the elephants from Chiang Mai, a groovy, ex-pat friendly, yoga-fied city filled with beautiful parks, temples, and street food galore. My former SJSU student, Sarah, now lives and teaches there. She landed in Chiang Mai after a year of travel throughout India and S.E. Asia. We have in common the travel-the-world-and-write gene.

Hanging with Sarah at a temple.

Chiang Mai street food

Sunday market...hard to see the wares it was so crowded.
Evidence of Chinese New Year in Chiang Mai.
As much as I enjoyed exploring the city, I was having island withdrawals. A little city goes a long way. And there was more to come: Kuala Lumpur, or KL, for the last few days before we had to wing back to Nanning.

Speaking of wings...our first KL stop was the Bird Park--a public aviary that was much groovier than I'd imagined such a place could be.

Someone wants my coconut.
I'm not a fan of seeing birds in cages, so what a delight to experience free-rangers of all shapes, colors and sizes.
Thousands of birds in the trees, walking along the grounds, floating in the various bodies of water.  A few were in pens, notably the ostriches. When we got close to feed them through a slice in the fence, the fierce way they grabbed the greens, coupled with their I-could-slice-you-up clawed feet, made it clear why they couldn't be running around terrorizing tourists. Ideally they would be out on the range in Africa terrorizing the lizards they eat.

KL has a hop-on, hop-off bus. Pay one price and you can tour around the city, lingering wherever you like and climbing back on when the next bus comes every 30 minutes. We checked out Chinatown (not worth your time unless you want to buy a fake brand-name watch or shirt), Little India (lots of color, nice vibe), the Petronas Towers (the tallest twin towers in the world), and a lot of other interesting architecture.




Our hotel was just a couple of blocks from a massive night street food scene. We waded through thousands of people, checking out stalls and open air restaurants with gargantuan menus representing food of many SE Asian nations. My favorite treat: deep fried banana.

We were also close to a pub street that, at night, rolled back its sidewalks to Vegas-esque pandemonium. We found a street corner café and enjoyed floating on a local trio's sweet three-part harmonies. Our last night we stumbled across, of all things, a fantastic German restaurant. Eating a luscious salad and potato pancakes, soaked in a magical ambiance, I had a feeling we could be in anywhere in the world. Every so often that surreal feeling of transcending time and space envelopes me while traveling. In this case it was aided by a German beer the size of a toddler.

I write this four weeks later, buried in my second semester of teaching in China. Whether or not we will stay here for another year is central to our conversations these days. The university has sent me a contract and is nudging me to sign it. I have yet to take up my pen.

This trip reinforced for me what I love best about travel: experiencing new things. That may sound self-evident. But it took me into my fifth decade to live the nomadic existence I always dreamed of. I'm not sure I'm ready to stay in one place longer than a year. A zillion possibilities are swirling about, shining like the universe's bling.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Koh Phangan and Koh Tao: Thailand, Part 1 (and a little more of China, too)

Happy New Year
It's surreal to be in China with all that is happening in the U.S. Places of worship being burned? Refugees targeted? Immigrants banned? Russian intrigue? White nationalism? Whose country are we talking about?
I'm concerned about my friends who are complaining about physical illness as a result of the barrage of news. Don't make yourselves sick, you compassionate badasses and change-makers. We need you. As Krista Tippett writes in Becoming Wise, "We create transformative, resilient new realities by becoming transformed, resilient people."
And please don't apologize on social media for posting positive things. Life is multi-faceted. If we're going to be the change we want to see, we also need to be the light we want to see.
All of this makes me ultra-aware of how privileged I am to be able to travel freely. When the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) break occurred, we hit the road with Tina (our Chinese "daughter") her friend Rose, our colleague Michele, and her husband, Joshua. As usual, everywhere we went, people wanted to take pictures with us. But Joshua--a Ugandan reggae artist--was the real star, especially with young guys who thought he was the coolest ever.

we real cool
A 4-hour bus ride from Nanning took us to Detian waterfall, billed as the fourth largest transnational waterfall. In the picture below, the left part of the falls is in Vietnam, and the right in China.

On the boat ride, we got close enough to feel the spray.
The next day we explored Tongling Grand Canyon, which felt like Pirates of the Caribbean, complete with multicolored lighting--proof that "cheesy" and "sublime" don't have to cancel each other out.

When we emerged from the cave, we faced a stunning sight: one of the tallest waterfalls in Asia.
And we hiked around the back of it.
After this two-day excursion, we did a quick turnaround at our apartment and headed out for a month to Thailand, by way of Malaysia. Flying through Kuala Lumpur turned out to be about half the price of a direct flight to Bangkok. Work it right, and Air Asia is so inexpensive; we spent only $300 on five flights.

First stop: Koh Phangan, a Thai island. Hard to argue with a place that looks like this:

To say it's stunning is to understate. As much as I enjoyed (for the most part) my semester teaching, I found it exhausting. This island was the perfect antidote. Dave's college buddy, Mark, met us there. It's a thrill to watch Mark's renaissance. He suffered from a major medical trauma, and has now bounced back and is living large. You can see in his eyes and hear in his ebullient patter a joie de vivre laced with his signature wit. We got right in the swing with lots of good island food...

Mark with a whole snapper.
and drink...
Yes, you can find shroom shakes in a place well-known for its raging Full Moon parties.
We also got to meet in the flesh Brian, one of my many Facebook pals. Currently living on Koh Phangan, he's a traveler and writer, too--and one of those great conversationalists who knows something about everything.

Brian ferrying me around on the island's most popular transport.
We didn't have much on our agenda other than a little exploring, cheap beach massages, yoga, and swimming. That is, until Mark roped us into checking out another part of the island for a dance party--in a place called "Eden," no less. A DJ, Mark is a music connoisseur, always in search of an inspired scene.

To get to Eden, you go by way Sanctuary. (Clearly, the names of these places are intended to lull you there--but they aren't misnomers.) There's no riding a motorbike to get to this part of the island; you must hop on a long tail boat. All able-bodied brawn is enlisted in helping shove it off the sand and into the waves.

Sanctuary is a spa resort with a beautiful open-air restaurant nestled in the rocky face of a cliff. We ate some of their delicious raw food specialties, watching the sunset. Mark chatted up a woman who was there from New York for a five-day cleanse. When he offered her some of his "happy fungus" shake, she eagerly broke her fast with a chug.

We made our way to Eden, shakily clambering up rocks along a crumbling path, our only light source my phone. A heroic ascent and descent revealed the scene of Mark's dreams: electronica on a cliff, waves roiling below, the dance floor lit up with psychedelic lights and a wide array of dancers, eccentric in movement and dress. We boogied for hours. My high came not from substances but this wild life. It was like dancing on another planet.

A few days later, we headed by inter-island ferry to Koh Tao. With lots of macho, tatted diver dudes walking around and a more touristy vibe, Koh Tao has a rougher edge. But soon I found a beautiful yoga studio nestled in the rainforest and a great place to have breakfast afterward, my feet in the sand.

Dave hung out underwater with a turtle while I did yoga.
And we enjoyed street food galore.

But the real sweet spot of Koh Tao is its world-class snorkeling. Mark treated us to a private boat for a full day, just the three of us with two Thai guys who knew all the great spots. It was heartening to see so much magnificent healthy coral and huge schools of multicolored fish.

Mark and me
Our pimped-up ride.
After two weeks, I wasn't ready to say goodbye to the islands. So I said "hasta luego"--as we had a plane to catch to Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand--which I will share about soon.

In the meantime, I send my love to my friends in America and abroad. These are critical, historical times. As the Indigo Girls sing:

"If the world is night, shine my life like a light."

Koh Tao sunset