Being Above Ground in Fujian: A Travelogue


Very unique. Not like being above ground in other places.

DAY ONE: took the metro to the far corner of Shanghai to fly SHA>>XMN. Just the journey to the airport itself took nearly two hours. Shangers is ridiculously large. Man sitting opposite me clipped his fingernails directly onto the floor. As one does on the subway.

Flight was comfortable, minimal amounts of stares directed at the tall white person sitting 24C.

Continue reading “Being Above Ground in Fujian: A Travelogue”

Advertisements

What to Ask Someone Who’s Just Been Abroad


Please, ask about anything other than how it was.

Whether you meet someone after they completed an exciting trip, or you’re the relative or friend of someone who has just been abroad, you’re probably eager to ask all about it. Just know that someone who has been abroad will get asked mostly the same questions: “How was it?” and “Did you have a great time?” or “Did you see [insert stereotypical noun pertaining to that location]?” and “Do you miss it?”

This is like the jet-lag of all conversations: it puts you to sleep and you just want to get past it because it’s annoying and exhausting.

Continue reading “What to Ask Someone Who’s Just Been Abroad”

Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province


Sunshowers in China’s inimitable tea capital.

Without a doubt, it will start raining while you search for the aptly underwhelming Old Dragon Well, the namesake of Hangzhou’s most famous export: Longjing tea (龙井茶//long2jing3 cha2). However, you’ll find a place to stop for lunch and a couple cups of tea because of the fickle weather. Whether you’re a beginner or connoisseur, you’ll recognize that the Dragon Well tea is incomparable. Surprisingly full-bodied (sweet, slightly nutty) with pleasant earthy and floral undertones, Longjing tea is considered by some to be the best green tea in the world.

Old Dragon Well

Several legends connect the now world-famous Longjing tea to Emperor Qianlong. While in Hangzhou, the Emperor visited the Hugong Temple on Lion Peak Mountain (狮峰山//shi1feng1shan1) and was presented a cup of Longjing produced from 18 trees near the temple. He was so impressed that he conferred them the honor of 贡茶//gong4cha2, or imperial status tea (also, tribute tea). Tea is still produced from those 18 trees and is sold for more money per gram than gold.¹

The famous West Lake that inspired artists and emperors is very much “an idealized fusion between humans and nature.”² The tiles below depict the bridges and boats that allow visitors to themselves become a part of this beautiful fantasy.

If China is the green tea capital of the world, then Hangzhou is the capital of capitals. Any trip there would be incomplete without traversing the tea-growing hills east of the West Lake and seeing the Lion Peak Mountain itself. Green leaves, whose precise preparation contributes to its celebrated status as much as its remarkable flavor, are arranged in terraced rows of hedges to soak in the sun and rain. Their fate is a kettle of boiled water halfway around the world.

On Earth: Leaving Here


What a year it’s been.

Around this time last summer I gave up a teaching assistantship in Austria to come to Shanghai and learn Mandarin. Never would’ve guessed that I would get to see more of this country than my own, meet some incredible people, flip my brain upside on a daily basis learning this language, and understand myself a whole lot better than when I boarded the plane at LAX.

Continue reading “On Earth: Leaving Here”

Phonsavan, Laos


Phonsavan, Laos — small town of Xieng Kouang county in Lower North Laos with residents who own hotels, restaurants, and businesses. The town’s central road is lined with auto parts stores and repair shops servicing the big rigs, trucks, and vans bound for the dusty distance. Cheap and delicious bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwich) made with fresh baked bread is available near the long-distance bus station.

Plain of Jars — where enigmatic past meets ever-changing present. Thousands of Iron Age stone jars dot the landscape just as bomb craters and trenches mar it. If it was a race of giants that made the jars or if the jars were fired in a nearby cave/kiln, scholars haven’t yet decided.¹ The Plain is surreal in its beauty: an endless parade of dreamlike clouds float above the thin dirt paths and hazy hills. Sparse, knotted trees and goldenrod low-brush complete the scene.

UXO — unexploded ordnance. That is: bombs, cluster munitions, shells/artillery projectiles, grenades, missiles, etc. that “did not explode when they were fired or dropped and still pose a risk of detonation, even many decades after they were used or discarded.”² Countless of these deadly weapons still linger in the towns and fields where they fell, left to decay and incapacitate innocents. Unexploded ordnance is the traumatizing legacy of American bombing raids during the CIA’s “Secret War.”

Amputated limbs and mangled bodies and literally millions of bombs indelibly and profoundly scarring the landscape might not be the first things one thinks of when visiting this place. Sleepy Phonsavan is surrounded by slow hills and plains that hyper-contrast the pastel blue sky. These plains are captivating. They defy definition.

But clouds as thick as memory pass overhead; many farmers in Laos continue to work in the same fields where bombs crippled them and blinded their children.

The Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme (UXO LAO) and Mines Advisory Group (MAG) work to make it possible for locals to live on their land safely. As of 2016, UXO LAO has removed over 1.4 million UXOs throughout the country and MAG has cleared 47 million square meters of cluster munitions and other ordnance leftover from US bombing during the Secret War. MAG estimates it has helped over one million people directly.

The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (more commonly known by its acronym, COPE) and its medical partners do incredible work custom-making prosthetic limbs for victims of unexploded ordnance. The COPE Visitor Center in Vientiane is a worthwhile visit with thoughtful exhibits and excellent informational videos about the ongoing UXO problem in Laos. The Center hosted President Obama during his visit to the country in September 2016.

In a nation characterized by its confluence of plains, hills, rivers, and peoples, the Plain of Jars is particularly striking. Parts of Laotian legend persist in these monolith vessels. Despite the place’s undeniable beauty, however, I wish I had been more cognizant of the UXO issue when I visited. Laos has the unfortunate title of being the most bombed country in the world per capita,³ but I was too enraptured by the dream of being there that I forgot about the nightmare that so clearly lingers.

Given the history of US military involvement in this region, I hope to be more purposeful in my actions as an American traveler. I ask my readers to join me in honoring victims of war by acting with intention and making a small donation to UXO LAO, MAG America, or COPE.

Thank you for your support.

The Two Rivers of Luang Prabang, Laos


Evening, approaching the Mekong/Nam Khan confluence.

Tucked in the far back corner of an outdated sleeper bus headed toward Luang Prabang, an impatient American passenger searched through the dirty window for a sign — any sign — that might suggest an end to his 27-hour journey from Kunming, China.

Bumpy, unpaved dirt roads had led him here: cramped and sweaty, peering into the darkening of North Laos. His bus, now hurtling at about 45mph on a thin, one and a half-lane highway in dusk, couldn’t arrive fast enough. A series of yellow-white lights off the left-hand side of the bus peeked through the blanket black night; the passenger blinked back at the shy lights. Air whistled through his opened window, damp like breath. Two left turns separated by a stretch of road resulted in a bus station where he alighted.

Shoving his shoulders back and stretching his arms into the sky, he stepped into the blacked-out indigo-blue of Luang Prabang.

Continue reading “The Two Rivers of Luang Prabang, Laos”

Travel, in Quotation Marks


[Bilbo] often used to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep and every path was its tributary. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to.”

– J.R.R. Tolkien in The Fellowship of the Ring