Tuesday, October 28, 2014

When Halloween Goes Global

My sister called the other day to share her latest assessment of life, as we do with each other from time to, when she stumbled upon a subject so glorious I just could not let it go. And because it would be poor form to not give credit to the genius who conceived this gem, I have to give a shout out to my sister’s highly revered
hairdresser – Tammy.

There was this costume party coming up and a group of women were discussing what to wear when Tammy suggested they all dress as GIRL SCOUTS! Not just any girl scout mind you, but as COUGAR GIRL SCOUTS! They would all wear their
uniforms with enough cleavage and bra showing to have no mistaking the intent. They would wear a sash that contained different levels of achievement badges (the “Walk of Shame” badge, the “Triple Play” badge and, of course, “Proper Condom
Application” badge) and carry canteens filled with. . .wait for it. . .  Cosmopolitans! Their troop number? 69!

When I heard this, I howled. But, I could not just enjoy the laugh for the moment because the scope of this is priceless. Let’s drop the “girl” part, because face it, none of us look 10 anymore. Let’s call ourselves Cougar Scouts. And let’s forgo the traditional scout uniform and get a little creative. I, myself, have always coveted the
white patent leather go-go boots from the early ‘70’s so I think they should be the official footwear. I also like a cute tennis skirt with built in panties, after all, we may be cougar’s but we are not easy so it will take some fancy talking to get to the goodies. Any color is acceptable but it must be paired with a black tank top. I mean
we are hot – temperature hot that is, and we are NOT going to be burdened by unnecessary layering. Besides, black is slimming. To accessorize the ensemble, we need a belt – animal print of course, a matching wristlet to carry lipstick, compact and cab fare. Good scouts do carry canteens and they should be filled at all times
with the beverage of choice (mine is red wine) and instead of binoculars, I suggest blinged-out cheater glasses. If you really want to carry something more binocularly, how about a View Master with a picture wheel of gorgeous men? Brownies wore
beanies, Girl Scouts wore berets, Cougar Scouts will wear a scarf as a headband (with or without a Hollywood Bump It and fake hair) and, of course, a tiara for formal meetings. Meetings will be established by each troop with an annual meeting in either Florida or California on alternate years with an optional spa visit mid year.
We could sing altered camp song's:

Do your boobs hang low, do they wobble too and fro
Can you tie 'em in a knot, can you tie 'em in a bow Can you throw 'em over your shoulder like a continental soldier Do your boobs hang low-
Ok - now in rounds. . .

Forget Halloween, I see this as a national club with troops not only in every state, but every town across the U.S. This could be huge! But what about troop dues, you ask? There aren't any. Hell, we already paid ‘em!

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.