The Definition of Summer

What is your definition of summer? Is there something special you eat or somewhere you always visit?

For most families living in the Midwest, the pinnacle of summer is the pool. It’s a fun, cheap way to keep cool for families and especially kids. That what I learned today. Pools are full of children. And could definitely use more diversity (including the lifeguards). Oh and you can completely dry off in under 10 minutes when the sun’s out and it’s 97 F out.


The Definition of Summer


A couple weeks ago, I visited a village named 水头村 (Water Head/Source Village) on the outskirts of Beijing, China.  It was a beautiful drive past the Great Wall and up well paved roads around tight mountain bends and breathtaking scenery.  However, it was a very long drive and we literally kept going until the road’s end.  When there was nowhere else to go, we reached the village.

Leaving the car, I felt like I had stepped into a ghost town. The village seemed huddled together and each house almost seemed to sit on top of its neighbor on the sloping hill. While small, the houses looked well-kept and quaint, with many gardens out front. The air was clear, the mountains painted a nice picture in the background, but not a single person could be seen in the streets.IMG_5105After timidly knocking on the closest home, we were led by an older lady to 李恩宗’s (Li En Zong) house.  李恩宗 greeted us happily and his wife quickly busied herself with setting out lunch even though we’d eaten on the way.  They were both around 60 years old and seemed very easy going and satisfied.  Their house was long but well-lit with seemingly three rooms; the entry way/kitchen where a huge wok called a 灶 (zao) stood in the corner, another room behind it, and the bedroom/living room.  Easily the largest room in the house, it was also the brightest.  Windows along the wall allowed light to flow in.  They were covered with thin white paper, many of which were ripped.  The opposite wall was decorated with pictures of loved ones and posters.  In the corner stood a table with our lunch and stools around it and next to it was a TV, bookshelf, and wardrobe.  A huge bed called a (kang) lined the wall and took up most of the space.  Underneath it, heat from the neighboring stove would flow in to keep the bed warm in the winter.

IMG_5101The house was nicely decorated and homey, complete with electric lights and a TV.  李恩宗 talked about how the reason that the village was so quiet was because almost everyone had moved away and many of the houses were actually abandoned.  Everyone who stayed behind were older and therefore less willing to start a new life somewhere else.  The work was still hard and there was a drought, but this was their home.  However, 李恩宗 did mention that his son and his family would come to visit from time to time.

After a while, we decided to visit the village’s namesake: the water source only a short hike away.  On the way there, we saw more empty buildings and no people.  李恩宗 occasionally pointed out a plant that had special properties or was especially delicious.  My uncle mentioned how we had seen a decent amount of tourists while driving through the mountains.  It was almost a tragedy that none of them came here because the area had truly spectacular scenery and some of the largest, prettiest wild flowers I had ever seen.  But while the vegetation all around us was a deep green, not a single water body could be seen and that’s what 李恩宗 said attracted the crowds.  They wanted lakes and rivers.  李恩宗 explained that while a stream used to run down the mountains, it has long since and now we could only somewhat hear a faint trickle.  When we reached the spring itself, it was black, completely unmoving, and surrounded by mosquitoes.  It was hard to imagine that at one point, even Beijing had used this water source.  Looking up, we could see the yellow rocks marked in one area by white where a waterfall had long ago run down.  It was sad that we’d missed its prime.


IMG_5166Walking back to the car, it looked like it was finally going to rain.  We came across the first two people in the village besides 李恩宗 and his wife.  They were large circular straw hats and were plowing the field.  One pushed the metal plow as the other acted as a mule pulling it along.  They didn’t look down about the work and joked a little with 李恩宗.

IMG_5193Visiting my first Chinese village, it struck me how similar not only people are across the world, but entire communities.   One of the problems that a previous professor of mine, Charles Piot, was trying to solve in Farandé, Togo was how to deal with the flight of the youth and how to make them stay in the village.  The reasoning is identical: why stay in a place to be a poor farmer when you can get rich quick in the city without breaking a sweat?  It’s sad to think that some societies may be disappearing forever but for the families involved, it must be nerve wracking to go out and seek your fortune but exciting when you win it.

I was also once again captivated by the happiness and generosity of 李恩宗 and his wife.  Although they had running water and electricity, village life cannot compete with the extravagance or luxuries of a city.  But they seemed happy.  They shared their stories and food with strangers through only a connection of a friend of a friend and welcomed them into their home.  Many times in cities (whether it be New York or Beijing), I am flabbergasted by how rude some people can be.  Everyone busies on their way and tries to make the least connection possible with the strangers around them.  It seems that time and again I see that people with the least are willing to give the most.  And it’s not with a Bill Gates philanthropist flair or an American post-disaster guilt.  It’s just sharing.


My Beijing 2015

After visiting Beijing many times, I’ve now gone to nearly every major tourist attraction. Here’s a list of the ones I visited this year in order of how much I enjoyed them.

1. Summer Palace (颐和园) – Empress Cixi bankrupted the Chinese navy to build this. It’s so big we didn’t even get to go everywhere!
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2. Forbidden City (故宫): It’s ancient.
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3. Shi Cha Hai (什刹海)A pretty place for boating.
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4. Lama Temple (雍和宫): Real monks walking around and incense to burn!
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5. Wang Fu Jing (王府井): A swanky area.
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6. Nan Luo Gu Xiang (南锣鼓巷): An old alley lined with cutsey (and not so cutsey) shops
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7. Tian Yi (天意): A big shopping center with everything from batteries to clothes for cheap.  Sort of like a giant Wal Mart but with individual market stalls and haggling.
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8. Pan Jia Yuan (潘家园): An antiques market. My uncle said it’s the best place to get ripped off.
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Notable Mention: Hai Di Lao Restaurant (海底捞火锅). It was a hot pot restaurant with complimentary fruit and where you could make your own sauce! And if you order noodles they come out and make it right in front of you twirling and dancing with music! It had the best service ever. Everywhere else in Beijing the workers were straight up rude but these waitresses and waiters delivered food seconds after you ordered, delivered hot hand towels four or five times, and even gave my grandma gifts upon leaving!IMG_7467

My Beijing 2015

Zhang Jia Jie

Over a long weekend, I took a train from Beijing to Zhang Jia Jie (張家界) and back. There, in Hunan, is the world heritage site that inspired James Cameron’s floating mountains in Avatar.

The train was overcrowded although fairly comfortable. While I understand that China is the most populous country in the world, I never expected there to be so much crowding to get both on and off the trains. Queues are very much unheard of in the train stations and everyone just mobs the entry and exit clutching their tickets and loved ones. We slept in beds stacked three high in which only the bottom bunk was high enough to comfortably sit and talk in. I also glimpsed a non-overnight car and it was a confused muddle of too many people standing and sitting in overcrowded seats.

Thankfully, we traveled with a small tour group; only seven people plus our tour guide. We started in Phoenix City (凤凰县), an “old” village purposefully built rustically to attract tourists. There the streets were also overcrowded. However, the view from the Red Bridge (红桥) and the lights at night was very pretty.IMG_6275Next we visited a town inhabited by the Miao (苗) people, an ethnic minority. It too was built purposefully rustic at first glance but a few minutes’ walk past the first bridge revealed modern buildings and cars.


Finally we arrived in Zhang Jia Jie’s Forest Park and walked on a clear day at the foot of several rock pillars hundreds of meters tall. We saw several monkeys being fed scraps by tourists. I tried to take a video but I must have appeared too keen to a small monkey because suddenly a larger one (most likely its mother) came up and scratched the back of my leg! So now I’ve been attacked by monkeys twice, both in China.


The next morning we went to Bao Feng Hu (宝峰湖) with black swans and went along the water on a short boat ride. Along the way, two singers, a man or Ah Ge (ah ge) and a woman or Ah Mei (ah mei) greeted us with songs. Our tour guide explained that if you see someone you like, you sing them a song and if they respond and the songs match, the two of you get married. Two of the louder guys on my boat tried impressing the Ah Mei but couldn’t string even one line of lyrics together.


That afternoon we went up Bai Long Dian Ti (百龙电梯) a gigantic elevator built on the face of the mountain to see the rocks from above. The most crowded place there was the mountain where they had filmed Avatar and had even placed a replica ikran on the spot. However, all of the mountains looked equally beautiful and awe inspiring. The coolest thing we saw was a natural bridge that had formed between two mountains and overgrown with the most lush greenery and plants. We rode a cable car down and it was amazing to see how tall each rock was and how alone they all stood. I wish I knew more about geology to understand how they were formed.


As much as I enjoy history, the natural beauty of Zhang Jia Jie was by far my favorite part of the trip. However, I was a little disappointed that it drizzled the entirety of the second day. It was a pity the fog prevented us from seeing past a few of the closest rocks. They looked massive and I’m sure seeing an unobstructed view of all of them would have been a spectacular view. Before we left the park, we walked a path along a small but long, winding stream. The trees were very green and beautiful and where they opened, you could see the tops of the rocks and the names that had been given to each some long time ago.

It only rained heavily on our last day when we visited a house supposedly older than the Forbidden City. We also saw a 1,300 year old turtle who, I believe, must be very sad now in his captive life after a thousand years of freedom. All in all, we wre fortunate with the dfwerweather. Apparently we had just missed out on the storms right before arriving at Zhang Jia Jie and we left right after learning about the boat that overturned in the Yangtze River. So far, they’ve only found a handful of the more than 400 passengers on board.

Zhang Jia Jie

A week in Peru

After a fantastic trip up to Machu Picchu, we started our “real” field trip in Peru.  We spent a day in Machu Picchu and explored a cathedral & the San Pedro market that sold everything from souvenirs and crafts to dead meat to live fruit to cooked food.  The next day, we visited a series of ruins including Saqsaywaman (complete with rock slide!), Pisac, and Moray.  We also got to visit the salt mines at Maras and Ollantaytambo ruins — both very unique and great experiences!  Of all of these, Pisac was definitely my favorite.  Our bus dropped us off at the top and then we hiked down to the town of Pisac and all around us were rolling hills, beautiful skies, and ancient ruins.  It was most likely one of the best 360* view I’ve seen in a long time.  A word of caution though: at one point, my foot slipped off the path and if it hadn’t been for the railing, things could have ended differently for me and that cliff.

Finally, on the fourth day, we were ready to head to the Amazon.  We woke up at 3am to start our full day trip into the jungle.  We drove over the Andes Mountains (up past 5000 m) and down into the Rio Madre de Dios region to get on a boat to get on a taxi to get on another boat to get to our first lodge.  While the bus ride went relatively smooth with only the winding highway to worry about (that and the fact that there were no restrooms), the taxi rides were much more interesting.  We crossed over many intriguing bridges that seemed no more than a few crisscrossed boards and, in some cases, makeshift log bridges with gaps that apparently only looked big enough for a tire to sink through (but our cars always got over them safely)

We then took two long boats on the river to get around.  The boats could sit around 10-12 people with four rows of three.  The seats were comfortable, surprisingly provided life jackets, and even had a tarp above to shade from the sun.  However, even though the boat was powered by a motor, it still took us more than 10 hours to go upstream and reach our final destination for the night.  Thankfully, the lodge and dining area were very nice, enclosed, and even had outlets and electricity.  Although we found a few frog friends in the bathroom, I was surprised such nice living quarters existed in the Amazon.

The next day, we took a boat to our final destination deep in Manu National Rainforest.  These cabin-bungalows were very basic, made of wood and mesh windows, and a separate facility for showers and toilets with brown water pumped from the river.  We stopped by the ranger station before arriving and around dusk, went for an evening boat ride for some wildlife spotting.  We did the same thing the next morning before sunrise, drifting along the oxbow lake.  We saw black caiman (a type of crocodile), spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, giant otters, and a gazillion bird species for which I could never keep the names straight.  I do remember that one of the most common birds was called a chicken and had a blue mohawk and glistening wings with a variety of colors.  Later, we also saw capybera, wooly monkeys, tarantulas, pirrhana, macaws, parrots, pirrhana, and even the illustrious, oh-so-hard to spot sloth.

My favorite activity while we were out there was climbing the largest tree I had ever seen and looking down on the rainforest canopy.  One of my least favorite activities was spending 6 hours at the clay lick waiting for macaws to come to the lick and eat the clay.  Our guides, Jose and Darwin (who, by the way, were AMAZING!), explained that they do this to help digest many of the poisonous berries that the birds eat.  However, it took them forever to fly down.  If there is one bird that is cautious, it is the macaw.  Or should I say macaws because macaws are monogamous and always fly with at least one other macaw (cue the aww’s).  Plus their feathers are brilliantly red.  Anyways, it took them forever to get to the lick so meanwhile our group ate pancakes, napped, solved logic puzzles, and painted tropical tattoos on ourself (Jose made the dye out of a special berry).

Before flying back to the US, we stopped in Puerto Maldanado.  Puerto is a very small city with unfortunately not much to do for tourists.  We left in the late afternoon and everything had gone rather smoothly flight wise until our TA’s bookbag was stolen at Lima airport.  Since he was Belgium and not a US citizen, the most valuable thing in his bag was his Visa papers and we were afraid he would not be allowed to renter the US.  However, our professor (being the important man he is) somehow got him through security and he is now safe, happy with a new $1000 camera, although sad without the 999 photos he took in Peru.

All in all, I could not have asked for a better spring break trip.  This trip helped me accomplish a lot of firsts: visiting the Amazon Rainforest, visiting South America, seeing wild monkeys, shooting a traditional bow and arrow, trying exotic fruits from the tree… But I’m most proud to say that I’ve now set foot on 6 different continents!  The only one left is Anarctica — and you bet I’ll be going there soon. 😉

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A week in Peru