Friday, October 17, 2014

No Beach, No Cocktail, Then it Must be China

Visiting China is a many layered cultural immersion.  It is not a vacation.  I've drawn this distinction in the past - there are vacations (lolling on the beach, cocktails, cabanas) and then there are trips (National parks, rafting, Europe, - anything that involves learning and thinking beyond whether I want to swim in the pool or the ocean.) China is a trip and I mean in that in all of it's layered meaning.

When you arrive, you hit the ground running and you don't stop until crawling into bed for the day. Our first tour day began with a western breakfast at the hotel (and thank goodness for them - I'll explain in another post) and BAM we were headed to Tianenman Square followed by the Forbidden City, The Summer Palace of the Dragon Lady and finally, the Pearl Market before heading back to the hotel with enough time to change, go to dinner and then to the Peking Opera. To sum up the sights, all I can say is 1987 Student Uprising is not a topic of discussion and watch The Last Emperor (you will see the Forbidden city AND get a feel for the Dragon Lady).  What I really want to tell you is about the Opera because THAT was a trip.

We had VIP seating which meant we had a table upfront and we were served snacks and beer.  Our tour guide told us the opera was an old tradition and truly a cultural experience.  Then , he said he'd meet us at the door when it was over. . .he wasn't staying and now I know why.  Our opera was made up of 3 stories that had nothing to do with each other.  There was, for clarity, an electronic sign on one side of the stage that ran the dialogue and song (and I use that term loosely) in English and Chinese.  The second story, perhaps the most memorable was about a girl trying to catch up to her lover who was on a boat going down the river.  She hires a man of questionable character to taker her down the river after him and then spends 10 minutes singing, screaming and yelling for him to go faster so she can catch her lover.  That's it.  That and the instrumental.  Between the music and singing, I felt like this assault on my ears was akin to watching what happens in my brain when too many glasses of wine produce a hangover.  Here is a Link - you only need to watch the first minute - minute and a half to get the idea. It is no wonder our guide decided to find something else to do while we enjoyed the cultural experience.

Having a guide is beneficial for a number of reasons but, his ability to tell us in-depth history was a boon. . .until we realized not everything he (not just him - other guides we had, too) said seemed to stand to reason. It first occurred on our tour through a historic Hutong - a neighborhood that has remained untouched and is now preserved.  We walked past a charming mail box and he stopped us and said, "That is the oldest post box in China."  Many of us drank the koolaid but Moondoggy looked at the box and pointed to where above the slot it said LETTER in English, "But John," he said, "It says 'Letter'." To which our tour guide quickly changed the subject.

In Xian we saw the famous Terra Cotta Warriors.  There is nothing I can say to describe the magnitude of these clay men.  There are thousands.  They all have different faces.  It is simply overwhelming.  Our guide in Xian (along with John) was CiCi.  CiCi lived in Xian all of her life and was eager to share her city.  On the way to the warriors she told us the story of their discovery:

A farmer was digging a well when at about six feet down, he unearthed a head.  He thought he had dug up the devil and he was frightened.  So, he called the government knowing they would know what to do.  And they did.  They moved him out and built him a new home and started excavating. . . then, because this farmer now had nothing to do. . .they gave him a job. 


He is at the gift shop everyday to meet people (but no pictures unless you pay) and autograph a book about the warriors and their history.  So, we met the farmer and bought the book and had him sign it.  I mean, how many times do you get THAT opportunity?  We even bought the new updated version.  We know this because there was a yellow burst in the upper left hand corner that said "NEW".

Days later as we cruised the Yangtze River, we took an excursion up stream on the Shennong.  It was beautiful, hilly, lush and green.  Monkeys scurried along the river's edge and farmers worked their land.  There were soaring cliffs and caves along the route and high in the crags from time to time were coffins - yes the kind that hold dead people.  These coffins were perched in the crags balanced on two pieces of bamboo.  They were, our guide said, two thousand years old.  Well, looking at the coffins and the bamboo supporting them, it just didn't stand to reason so Moondoggy asked, "So those coffins have been up there for 2000 years?"  The stream guide replied, "They weigh 500 pounds and have been up there for 2000 years.   No one knows how they got them up there but it is believed being up there allowed them to be closer to God."  Which is another interesting anomaly because most Chinese are Buddhist or Taoists so. . . .  There is a picture attached of the coffin.  I'll let you be the judge - does it look like it has survived 2000 years of time, weather and seismic movement?

When we returned home, we got together with our neighbors, who had been to China in the early 2000s, to compare the experience.  At one point, during a discussion of the Terra Cotta Warriors, our neighbor disappeared and returned with a book she bought and yep. that's right, had signed by the farmer who discovered the first warrior.  

Her book, too, had the yellow burst in the upper left hand corner and the word "NEW" splashed across it.  Moreover, when we compared signatures - they were different.  Makes me wonder how many "farmers" they have and how many shifts of autograph sessions they hold? 

Because this was a trip and not a vacation (remember - no beach and no cocktail) what did I learn?  Don't believe anything you hear and only half of what you see.


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Bucket List: China or 17,000 steps through Beijing

The trip from California to Beijing was a two day ordeal that included a night in Chicago before a thirteen hour flight from Chicago to Beijing.  Chicago?  A chance to see at least one of my kids?  Hell, yes.  So, after a lunch with youngest son we headed for O'Hare and a 13 hour plane ride?  Most people shudder at the thought of thirteen hours in a plane - with good reason.  But, THIS was a Bucket List trip thus; we upgraded to First Class (thank goodness for frequent flier miles!) And, Oh My Gosh, the secrets they keep.  You can go online anywhere and get a look at the pods (here, let me help, First Class Pods) but what they don't tell you is you get to keep the pj's, slippers and toiletry bags and even the bedding, which includes sheets, pillows and blankets.  And along with the personal Purser, free flowing wine, booze and beverages. . . they offer HAND DIPPED ice cream sundaes with Haagen Daz ice cream.  It's possible they offer massage, manis and pedis as well, but it's a secret and I am now sworn to it.

So, thirteen hours later, we arrived in Beijing - and were met by our guide, John who informed us that the rest of the group would be arriving the next day.  They were, he said, a group of 14 who all knew one another.  This opened up many concerns we had not considered.  Who were they?  Where were they from? There were few western tourists in our hotel but there was a group of 14 Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters that had arrived - which, if they were our group would have made for some interesting group photos (See link) and as the only male, might've made Moondoggy feel uncomfortable.  There was also a group from New Zealand -  elderly, walker-pushing Kiwi's which would make for a slow trip.  Judging by our itinerary there wasn't going to be much down time.

Imagine our relief when, the next morning we met our group and found they were a bunch of Kansas City Midwesterners. They claimed to by 70ish but I didn't buy it.  Fact is, these people out energied me by a long shot. Among them, one of them was a travel agent (which was helpful), one retired dentist, one retired school secretary (and we all know they REALLY run the schools) and 2 retired teachers (a staple in any travel group).  And as always, there was one who had a naughty streak and she toured the whole of China wearing heels.  Betts, whom I often referred  to as "Betts in Heels" was a retired ER nurse and she approached China like a crouching tiger.  I saw this woman climb the Great Wall, navigate the uneven brick walkways and slick modern squares in heels and always with a smile.  Seriously, these people were game for anything so I had put on my Big Girl Panties and go with the flow.  Which brings me to my first observation: It is a wonder that the Chinese are not a dehydrated culture.  On any given day, I consume a good gallon of water (I live in the desert).  Our hotel room offered a complimentary 16 oz bottle of water every day - an amount I drink before coffee in the morning.  They are very clear, DO NOT DRINK WATER FROM THE TAP thus; bottled water was a requirement and after your complimentary bottle, you can purchase from the mini bar another bottle at a cost of about $12 a bottle.  Uhh, no.  So our first mission was to find bottled water at what was a Chinese version of 7-11.  A gallon of water cost $3 so I bought 3 and lugged them back to the room.  And it's a good thing I did because the second surprise was that meals came with your choice of beer, wine or water. . . in a 6 oz glass.  BUT JUST ONE GLASS.  Asking for more totally threw the wait staff off their game - even when we were clearly willing to pay.  It became our running joke - anything you want to drink is included.. . but just one glass.

I knew I was going to like this group after our first tour day in Beijing.  We had walked the length of Tienanmen Square, explored the entire Forbidden City and walked along the Long Corridor (that's what it is called, really) of the Summer Palace, learned more Chinese History than was packed into an entire semester of school and walked a total of 7 miles by the end of the day (and all of it with Betts in heels).  We had about an hour and half to rest up and get ready for a Peking Duck dinner.  Most people would head back to their rooms but not this group. . .they headed to the bar.  Yep, we all got along just fine.


Friday, October 3, 2014

Bucket List: China

When my kids were growing up we tried fairly hard to give them a fully rounded life experience beyond the confines of Ogle County, Illinois.  We traveled often, trekking across the country to National parks, up and down both coasts, Alaska, Central America, the Caribbean and across Europe. We've snorkeled the Caribbean, zip lined through the rainforest, skied the Austrian Alps, climbed mountains, rode trains and flown in small 4 seater planes over glaciers.  In Europe we prided ourselves on navigating through the countries and their cities on our own.  We'd see the big tour buses pulling up to the sites, the people stumbling off wearing headphones and following their guide who usually carried an umbrella or a flag high in the air as they lead the line through the locale. We would snicker as we took our time, ambling on our own, feeling pity for the people forced to arrive and leave on a schedule. "I can't IMAGINE EVER traveling like that," I said, smug and self righteous.

We traveled to China recently; it was a tour.  We had a guide who carried a flag and we rode around on buses. We wore headsets that broadcast his running commentary on what we were seeing while we milled about the sites and we then we would get back on the bus.  In short, we were "those" people that I once loathed.  And you know what?  I'm not ashamed.

How was it? I never had to purchase an admission ticket.  I never had to stand in line to get in with the thousands of others who were visiting the same sights. I got detailed information on what I was seeing instead of having to stand at every sign and read the English translation. I didn't have to drive in the traffic nor navigate my way through a Chinese airport alone. And I never had to schlep my own luggage anywhere.  It was picked up from my room and reappeared at my next location without a hiccup - even when one of the flights was delayed by 13 hours.  That, alone, is worth its weight in rice. I can't imagine seeing all that we saw, flying around that country from city to city and cruising down the Yangtze without our guide.  His name was John and because of him, my view of guided tours has changed completely.  Well, it was him or I am just getting older.  The company was Avalon Waterways and yep, I'd do another tour with them.

My next several blog entries are going to be about this trip.  So, join me or not - it's up to you.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

You Can't Fight City Hall

When Moondoggy retired, he decided that in honor of leaving an atmosphere that was stress heavy and meticulous, he would endeavor to be kinder and gentler.  And, he will tell you he has been fairly successful, if you ask.  So, it was with a bit of shock that I watched him slowly get spun up about something as benign as a dog license.

As new residents in SoCal, we wanted to do what's right, be good citizens, and that included getting our two dogs properly licensed with the city.  So, after we took the dogs into the vet and got them all caught up on shots, we trotted across the street to the city hall to register them and get their licenses. Easy, right?  We had immediate proof of shots in hand, cash at the ready and the desire to do the right thing.  Except, that the city hall people don't care so much about the shots as they do about making sure the dogs are fixed.  For what it's worth, mine are both males and they have been neutered.  

The city hall employee, who, I am positive was sick the day they taught customer service at city hall school never even cracked a smile when she boldly said, 'I can't and won't license these dogs.  I need their official certification that they have been fixed."  Um, ok, how hard can that be, right?  They have been seen by the vet and she can confirm that have been neutered, so we trot back over and ask the vet for official certification of neutering.  The answer? "We can't give that to you because they weren't neutered here."  Moondoggy, still of the kinder and gentler demeanor says, "No, they were both neutered in Illinois but sense you have it on record here that they are in fact, unable to reproduce, can you give me something to take back to city hall?"  The simple answer was "no."  

Moondoggy has a vein the pops out of his forehead when he starts to get frustrated and it was throbbing by this point.  But, instead of getting worked up, we went home and called the vet in Illinois who happily volunteered to send whatever paperwork they had concerning our dogs.

That paperwork arrived yesterday so today we headed back to city hall ready to be good citizens.  Moondoggy waltzed in, proof of shots, and paperwork from Illinois that included the date and bill of Porter's( my 2 year old dog) surgery and a medical record for my 12 year old dog, Moose, that was labeled "neutered."  The same city hall lady who shunned us before took one look at the paper work and said, "those aren't official certificates of neutering."  Moondoggy kindly explained that Illinois does not have those certificates but this paperwork proved that both dogs had been fixed (one 12 years ago).  She glanced at them again and said that since there was a date of surgery and a bill that said "paid", she would license Porter because it proved we paid for it, but she could not license Moose.  The vein popped on Moondoggy's forehead but he took a deep breath and said,  "I don't have a receipt for a 12 year old surgery on my dog, but the paperwork clearly says he is neutered."  She indignantly drew herself up a few inches and replied as if it should be perfectly obvious, "But it doesn't show you paid for it."  The logic of that argument completely gobsmacked Moondoggy but he recovered brilliantly, "Ok," he said, "I need a one license for my dog Porter, please."  

"What," she asked, "about the other dog?"

"Moose?  I don't need a license for him, he's a cat."

Monday, August 4, 2014

I Don't Know Why I Swallowed The Fly

Summer in the midwest means mosquitoes - swarms of them.  Some people wear bug spray, some fog their yards and some just don't go outside.  Upon moving west to the desert, I waved goodbye to the national bird of the midwest and haven't looked back. I've even been kind of smug about it, sitting outside in the evenings smirking at the lack of mosquito company.  Well, it appears that karma has caught up to me and she's thrown down the gauntlet.

I don't battle mosquitoes here.  No, instead I battle flies. Ordinary houseflies that have been bred to be bold, pesky and prolific.They say that the perfect storm of location (across from agricultural fields, a few miles from the Polo grounds, on a golf course) coupled with an overly humid summer has created a mass swarm of flies that seem to like my yard.  I know I'm not alone because neighbors and friends have commented about them, too, but it seems like I have the yard all the flies flock to just like the one house in the neighborhood where all the kids played.

As I said, these flies are bold, they aren't put off by swatting.  So, I have launched an all out assault and I'm here to tell you what has worked. . .and what hasn't.

My first line of defense was bug spray.  Not wanting to douse myself with untold quantities of DEET every day, I did some research and came up with a formula that isn't as dangerous.  It involves a magic mix of Avon's Skin So Soft Bathe Oil (bought off Amazon) with vinegar, water and eucalyptus and Lavender essential oils (also Amazon).  And it works, too . . .except that I have to bath in the stuff and it is oil. . .which is oily and, well, at least it smells good.

I looked into the old bag of pennies in water.  The reflection of pennies in water throw off the fly's directional compass. Fail.
I tried planting mint around the backyard. Fail (anyone need some mint?? I have plenty now.)
I tucked dryer sheets in the cushions of the outdoor furniture and laid them out on tables around the yard. Meh.
I tried Citronella candles.  Mild success but I think that's because I killed one fly and left it next to the burning candle to serve as an example to the others.
I tried an electric fly swatter.  (Don't ask but it does involve a very satisfying zap and sizzle if you hit a fly). Amazon Prime!

We tried fly traps (Amazon again).  Bags filled with something that smells like rotting fish guts that ended up attracting every fly in the county to my yard.  Fail.

We found a highly touted Maxforce Fly Spot Bait. . .a mixture you spray where flies congregate, attracts them and kills them in 60 seconds.  Amazon reviews were impressive.  I watched as flies started milling around the areas we sprayed acting all nonchalant, then dying, sometimes mid-air and falling to the ground.  It was great. . . for about 2 hours and then it was like we never sprayed.

The flies love us and so does Amazon.

Finally, We heard that flies don't like fans because they disturb the flight pattern.  So, we bought one.  And this is what I've finally figured out: If I spray myself with my magic mix, wear a sequined outfit or swim suit and tuck a little dryer sheet in my top, sit with the fan facing me while holding a can of Black Flag for good measure, I can go about 10 minutes before the flies figure it out.  

Truth be told, I don't believe these flies are really flies. I think they are drones and if that is the case, the next time they start flying around me they'd better be carrying my next Amazon order.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Let Us Pray

A while back. . . like over a year ago, I made a blog entry concerning my views on politics and God.  I won't rehash either but, it serves this entry to know that I do believe in God.  That is to say, I believe in God but I don't necessarily believe in religion and the by-product of it all is that I am having a crisis of prayer.

I'm not looking for debate on whether prayer is good or helpful.  I'm not looking for specific instructions on how to pray either because that seems to be from where my problems stem.

My church classes, both as a child and an adult, taught me that God is all knowing and all forgiving.  God makes the plan and as Christians, we live to honor His name in our actions. Ideally, we are to offer ourselves every day to Him and ask Him to use us to do His work.  I accept that.  I also accept that in bad times, He always provides a gift.  So, in considering the above, this is where my crisis of prayer comes into play.

In church I was taught to pray specifically.  "Dear Lord, we pray that you guide the captain, the co-captain and the navigator of this plane.  We pray that you are with the mechanics as they ensure the safety of the craft.  We pray this in God's name. Amen."  That's pretty specific; a targeted prayer . . . except that it flies in the face of the whole acceptance of "God makes the plan" part.  No amount of praying is going to change the course of His plan, right? So why are we praying?

On a daily basis, friends ask for prayers, sometimes for sick loved ones, sometimes for healing, sometimes for something more tangible like getting a job or a part in a play.  And I dutifully respond - "Praying", "On it" and I expend energy on whatever was requested.  But what if what is being asked is not in His plan?  What if His plan is to NOT let the asker get the job, or (hard to accept) not recover from an illness?

Prayer warriors,  prayer chains, prayer groups; prayer is a common bond among many.  Our beliefs might be 180 out from one another in many subjects but we come together in prayer.  The question, though, that keeps going through my head is this: If God is perfect and He made the plan, then aren't our prayer efforts in groups or alone really just collective wishing?  And if having faith means, at its core, that I trust that His plan is perfect even when is seems utterly horrendous, then isn't praying for a change like saying, "I don't like what your doing and I want it to go this way instead?" And isn't that line of thinking the opposite of believing in God is all about? Specific, targeted prayer flies in the face of Faith. It seems to me that the prayer should be more along the lines of "Please allow me to accept what is happening" or "Thank you for this difficult situation because I know You have a gift for me in all of this." I struggle with this daily, trying to realign my thoughts and prayers to be less specific, less about what I/we/others are asking for and more about how to find the Easter Egg, if you will, in what is happening around me.  What would Jesus do?

I'm seriously looking for input here, in fact, I've been praying about it. Anyone want to weigh in?

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Lucy and Ethel or a Reasonable Facsimile

Before my children grew up and moved out and we moved on, one of my best friends (known in our house as My Cindy) happened to live next door.  The close proximity and fact that our kids were best friends provided countless opportunities for us to hang around one another.  Many was the day where one of us would say, "Hey! I was thinking about doing X, come with me. .. help me. . .whatever."  And sometimes (most times), the ideas seemed a little crazy to the outside world.  Somewhere there is a home movie taken by a family who came to a New Years Party My Cindy and I threw for the millennium.  And sometime during the evening after a lot of champagne, she talked me into photo bombing - even before it was a thing - their home movie of this party.  So, as we danced around the dance floor, we maneuvered ourselves in front of the video camera and Cindy whispered, up close to the lens, "Riley (name of the camera holder's son), Date my daughter. . . .Erica M." and then we danced away without the camera man really even noticing (until they viewed the video at home. . .with their family.)  It was antics like that that earned us the nicknames of Lucy and Ethel.  We interchanged who was who depending on the situation and who had the hair-brained idea.  Although I maintain I was Ethel way more often!

One of the things I miss, having moved away, are my Lucy and Ethel days. So, when Moondoggy asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I said I wanted a spa day and I wanted him to join me.  I showed him the website of Two Bunch Palms Spa and left the room.  He gave me that "Lucy????  What are you planning?? " look but 20 minutes later he emerged from the den and said, "You're booked."

"Just me?" I asked.

He huffed and conceded, "No. . .both of us.  Mud baths, herbal wraps with facial and massage, mineral spring soak and lunch."  I was elated!  Him?  He was being a good sport but, joy!  I had an Ethel

When we arrived, we were given robes and lead to the hot spring to soak before our mud bath.  "Can't we just stay here?"Moondoggy asked as we basked in the hot mineral spring. Nope.

Our therapist met us and led us to our own private hut with two tubs brimming with hot peat mud, instructed us to get naked and climb in, wiggling ourselves deep into the mud. "This is disgusting," Moondoggy murmured as he lowered himself into the tub.  I ignored him and let the warmth and weight of the mud blanket me.  And then it got quiet.  We lay there submerged up to our necks in mud with occasional sips of water provided by out therapist who held the glass and gently placed the straws to our lips.  Not a word was spoken until the therapist informed us we had 5 minutes left.  Then, out of the mouth of my ever complaining Ethel who was simply being a good sport for my birthday came this, "I don't want to get out."

By the time the herb wrap and facial with massage was started, he was like an old pro.  As we lay there on separate tables allowing the herbal oil soak into our newly massaged bodies, I said, "Thanks, Ethel, for doing this.  I've had fun."

His response, "Shhhh.  Don't harsh my mellow."  I fear he may become a Lucy.