Night Hiking

Seattle is not what you would call “warm” most of the year, but we do love our outdoor activities. For the last several years, I’ve been engaged in a swing shift job which keeps me indoors during the afternoons, evenings and weekends when most people like to enjoy the great outdoors after work and before bedtime. But now that summer has happened upon us, and the temperatures at midnight are above 45 degrees, I have taken up a new hobby: night hiking.

Remember when you were a teenager, and would relish the freedom to stay out after dark? Or better yet, when you’d sneak out of the house? Night hiking is like that. When I was in high school and couldn’t sleep, I’d creep out of the house and into the woods behind our yard, or go up to the front of the subdivision and climb the tall brick wall that bordered the main road. I’d just sit up there and listen to the sounds of the night and feel like I really owned my own space for once.

Now, there’s no one to tell me to go to bed, and I’m old enough that I’m not likely to get harassed for being a hoodlum. So there’s less illicit thrill in night hiking than there was in sneaking out after curfew. However, it does still elicit a wonderful sense of the strange yet calm. The boundaries and obligations of daytime occupations drift away, and the world is a magical place again.

There are really quite a large number of walking/biking trails around Seattle, and a tremendous number of parks (some of which are closed after 11pm,  most of which are not locked, but I would  never advocate any illegal activity, of course).

In the last several weeks we have gone to a  mountain trail in the Cougar/Squak Mountain area (flashlights are advised for emergencies, but if the moon is out, you can often see the path quite clearly without one), along the Inter-Urban trail in Shoreline, into a quiet still playground, and even a graveyard. Police might think its strange, but usually unless you’re drunk, loud or otherwise obviously breaking the law, they tend to be fairly cool when you explain its just a walk.

So the next time you’re wondering what to do with your night off, instead of heading to a bar/club/party, grab a good friend (and maybe a good bottle of wine), and put a tree line between yourself and civilization.

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Book Review: “Girls of Riyadh” by Rajaa Alsanea

I know there’s a lot of book reviews in a row, and I promise this isn’t a book review blog, it really is a travel blog. But right now, since I’m only getting ready to travel to Saudi Arabia, I’m sharing my preparations, which include reading a lot of books, watching a lot of films and documentaries, and filing a tremendous amount of official paperwork.

I finished this book in a single day because I could not put it down. I read it in my office between phone calls, at my regular Tuesday karaoke outing between songs (don’t judge). Only skipping reading while at the gym because I couldn’t hold the book steady while working out, I finished the last few chapters in bed.

This book is hailed by many reviewers as being “Sex in the City” in Riyadh, but I’ve never watched that show, so I have no idea how accurate that comparison is. All in all, I think I’m grateful for that, because I may have missed the deeper messages in the book if I was just looking for a sordid tale of Saudi sex life.

I am a little bit confused as to why my Saudi employers recommended this book to me as preparation for my move to the Kingdom a) because the book is banned in Saudi Arabia, and b) because it shows parts of life there that Saudis do not (as a rule) like to admit exists in public. The girls in the book are all upper class, and quite well off, so this isn’t necessarily a reflection of all economic strata of Saudi life. So I wonder, will my students be like these girls?

I found myself having imaginary conversations with Saudi women (and men) about my own values for love, dating, and marriage. I am a spinster in their eyes, an anathema or at very least an enigma. Yet, we are not so very different, for all that women’s lib has brought me. Perhaps this book can be a launch point for many real discussions once I settle in and make some Saudi friends.

On to the book.

downloadI’d like to recommend that anyone who wants to read this book get a good and thorough (mis) conception of Saudi life. Many things discussed in the book are only titillating in the context of a society that entirely bans the social interaction of men and women who are not family. In America, these kinds of romantic stories are common enough among middle school girls: texting or talking on the phone until dawn, showing off gifts from an admirer, even a timid first kiss!

The girls may be catty, shallow, brainless and hopelessly in love, but they are loyal to one another in a way rarely seen in the West. What does this say about the way we compete for men? Is it that cultivating male friends makes women in the West less trusting of one another? Or is the Arabic language so ill equipped to express jealousy? I certainly do not know the answer, but if there’s a way to restore strong female bonds, cooperation, and genuinely being happy for each other when fortune comes our way without sacrificing our hard earned civil rights, I’m all for it.

In the beginning of the story, I found myself marveling at the daring and audacity of these young people, the way that they cleverly pursued romance in the face of their cultural restrictions. Then I became disgusted with the school girl crushes being described (not the least because they reminded me a bit of my own adolescence). And finally I came to see the beautiful subtlety that Alsanea used to create four (or 5 if you count the narrator) stunning avatars of women’s love.

They are Lamees: a model of blissful marriage to a first love, Gamrah: a cheating husband, and a tragic divorce resulting in single motherhood, Sadeem: who loves a man more than he loves her, and settles in the end for something safe, and Mashael (who I personally most identify with) who upon finding her first love not strong enough to fight his family to be with her, determines that she will not settle at all, and instead lives her life for herself.

I may be biased, after all, I am a “liberated Western woman”. Divorce is common in my family, and dependence on men has never been. I sometimes feel that the amount of time and effort women put into the pursuit of a husband is insane. However, I don’t think it is unique to Saudi culture. They are reflections of women everywhere, and I think women of any cultural background would find themselves and their friends echoed in the Girls of Riyadh.

Book Review: “Understanding Arabs” by Margaret K. Nydell

As I continue to work my way through my recommended reading materials in preparation for the move to Saudi Arabia, I bring you another review.

ua_5This is a simple and easy to read book. The writing style is not overly academic, and the pictures Nydel paints of the Arabic people and culture are quite vivid in the imagination. However, the depth of understanding of Arabic culture and history leaves something to be desired.

The first 10 chapters are almost like a step by step guide on how to understand, communicate with and even integrate into Arab culture. Behaviors and customs are explained clearly, and a solid list of do’s and don’t’s is presented. Nydel is clearly enamored of the Arabic cultures, and it shows in the unapologetic positivity of these chapters.

Chapter 11 addresses the differences between Islamism (extreme fundamentalists) and mainstream Islam, leading into  chapters 12-13 where Nydel takes up the task of explaining the anger and violence between Arabs and the West from both sides. She relies heavily on quotes from media outlets and statistics to demonstrate the points in as non-emotional a way as possible. While this is a stark contrast to the joy of the first 10 chapters, and did make this section more difficult to read, I can understand why she would handle such a delicate matter this way.

Chapters 14-16 are a breakdown of Arabic culture by region, and country. Wikipedia articles can tell you more about these countries history and current economic, social and political climate than the brief 1-2 page whitewashed versions presented by Nydell. I was really disappointed in the elementary school social studies approach to the region, especially after the first ten chapters of beautiful cultural presentation.

She finishes off with an Appendix on the Arabic Language, but again, much like her country by country analysis, the linguistic introduction does not tell you much that would be useful if you do not intend to study the language, and doesn’t tell you anything that a first year language book would not cover. Her information does not appear to be incorrect, merely superfluous.

Overall, the first ten chapters are great for anyone seeking to better understand the (pan-)Arabic culture in a positive light. I really enjoyed reading about the cultures and customs from the perspective of someone so clearly in love with them. If made a nice contrast to the negativity so often presented in Western media. However, the remainder of the book is really only useful to those who are complete newcomers to the study and understanding of the Middle East.

I especially do not understand why this book was recommended to me as a preparation to go to Saudi Arabia, as Nydell routinely reminds the reader that her descriptions of delightful Arabic culture exclude Saudi Arabia without being able to say what the culture is like there instead, and moreover that the brief section on Saudi Arabia in Chapter 16 demonstrates further her lack of knowledge, experience and enthusiasm for that country.

So, enjoy the book for what it is; give it to someone you know who needs a little mind opening about the region, but I wouldn’t rely on it for a guide to Saudi life, or deep political understanding of the current conflicts.

Book Review: “Saudi Arabia Exposed” by John R. Bradley

As a part of my preparation to move to Saudi Arabia this August, I have a reading list. I thought I might share my thoughts on these books as I finish them.

8466c060ada0d12b0946a110.LJohn R. Bradley’s Saudi Arabia Exposed has a very “expose” feel. There is a lot of focus on what goes on beneath the surface, both good and bad. You may feel like you need a map and a genealogical chart to make sense of some of what he says, but it is definitely a unique perspective, combining personal experience with historical/political journalism. Bradley himself is a journalist, and was the first Western journalist to be offered a residency in Saudi Arabia (instead of just a visitor’s visa).

I found myself on an emotional roller coaster of hope and despair as I read about improvements in education and minority rights, while at the same time seeing the violence, drug use, and oppression present; learning about the presence of gay clubs alongside the absolute absence of heterosexual dating opportunities; and observing the pure schizophrenia of the Saudi desire for fundamentalist Islam to provide meaning to their lives along side the prolific use of “western” vices such as alcohol and pornography.

One striking thing to bear in mind while reading this book is that it was researched, written and published in the years just after the September 11 attacks. Many of the events, policies, and social climates described are a decade old. This may not seem like much time, but consider how much has changed in these last 10 years. The book is still well worth reading for the recent history and the first hand stories of life in the Kingdom, one must simply bear in mind that the current state of KSA may be different from the “current” shown by Bradley.

Part One is primarily a background and introduction to the social and political landscape of modern day Saudi Arabia. Chapter one covers mainly Jeddah and the history of the Hijaz. Chapter two focuses mainly on Al-Jouf. Chapter three on Asir and fringe social groups/customs. Chapter four is dedicated mainly to the Shia minority. Chapter five focuses on the younger generation, and the issues of being raised by foreign servants, taught Wahhabism in school, and Western consumerism at home.

In each chapter there is a reasonable balance of the depiction of hope and violence as he examines the turbulent history of the Al-Saud/Wahabi regime. The liberal Saudis who wish to depart from Wahhabi religious rule into a more moderate and modern form of Islam are not made to seem like heroes, nor are those more conservative factions painted as villains, but rather Bradley shows the (recent) historical and political motivations behind the factions in KSA in such a way that make their actions comprehensible to outsiders.

There is even an analysis of the history of the bin-Laden family, and the impact of the September 11 attacks on the socio-cultural landscape of Saudi Arabia, which I found really nice, because American media tends to be very mono-focused about this incident, forgetting that the kinsmen and countrymen of the perpetrators were also devastated by what occurred.

Part One finishes off with a more bleak examination of the younger generation, exposing the contradictions in Wahabist teaching and Western indulgence present in the wealthy, as well as the general lack of preparedness by the youth for a global society. Bradley fears that such internal contradictions, paired with a lack of education in how to deal with them are leading the Saudi youth toward renewed fundamentalism, rather than liberty.

Part Two is a bit more of what is going on “right now”, being the early 2000’s. Chapter six is a stark look at the expat situation, including violence against Westerners and the exploitation of Asian and other “third world” blue collar workers. Chapter seven is an even darker look at the crime statistics including public beheadings, corruption, drug use and violent crimes. Chapter eight discusses the gender divide, delving into homosexual culture among men, and the struggle for women’s rights. Chapter nine is mainly about the media and journalism’s fight for free reporting. And chapter ten is a wrap up and forward look.

As I mentioned before, the immediacy of Part Two is somewhat diminished by the passage of the years since it’s publication, but still an interesting, albeit disturbing insight into the evolving Saudi landscape. Part Two is not for the faint of heart. Where Part One offered a fair balance of hope and cynicism, Part Two is exceptionally dark. I found myself turning to the internet frequently to see what if any changes for the better might have occurred since the 2005 publication, such as last year (2013)’s passage of the anti-domestic violence laws in Saudi, offering some relief to battered women where none had existed before. It is important not to overlook the problems within any society; however it is equally necessary to look at the progress, so don’t be afraid to scour the news or go to an expat forum and ask the people living there now how these things are playing out in the Kingdom today.

The Glorious 35th of May

No that’s not a typo in the title. I’m talking about June 4th using the oblique reference some Chinese satirically use to avoid drawing unwanted government attention to their discussion of the pro-democracy protests on that day 25 years ago. Also with a little nod to Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch thrown in for good measure. Also, yes I know I’m a few days late, but the last several days have been so full of thoughts and news and reflections that it took me some time to get my own in order.

The iconic image of the young man standing in front of the oncoming tanks is known to many, but the details of what happened that day are not often focused on. This post is just my own musings on the situation, and not really meant to be a history lesson. Fortunately, there are a ton of retrospectives out there right now, so google to your hearts content for the official history or just click here for a short sweet version with videos.

My Impressions of the Square

06-entry to Forbidden CityThe first time I went to China,  I visited the square on my last week there in the summer of 2005. The square was very open, ringed by government buildings, the tomb of Mao, and the Forbidden City, the giant expanse of red brick was scarcely broken up at all. The streets around the square are major roads, and there were only a few places where one could cross them, but the important thing here is, one could cross the roads and enter the square at pretty much any point.05 - Olympic countdown There were underground passages into the square. I actually thought at the time that these were kind of cool, because it seemed safer for the huge mass of pedestrian traffic to not have to deal with street lights and cross walks.Oh, I can’t forget to mention the Olympic countdown clocks, which were counting down the subsequent three years until the Beijing Olympics.

My last visit was in 2012, after the Olympic updates and security increases, and now the square is entirely enclosed by a permanent fence and can only be entered via the underground tunnels which now include security guards and x-ray machines that make TSA look wimpy. Additionally, food trucks, extra architecture and gardening, and huge giant massive televisions screens have been installed in the square, breaking up the previously wide open space, and pretty much destroying the awesome impact of standing in the world’s largest public square. Here’s the same statue in 2005 and 2012, you can see the added fences and hedges, and the two television screens that break the whole square up.

All of this increased security and breaking up of the landscape is designed specifically to prevent the use of the square as a platform for public protest, while keeping it a bustling tourist attraction.

So What About the Massacre?

This is a little trickier. I don’t actually remember when I learned about it first. I think we talked about it in school when it happened, but Chinese culture and history is not widely taught in America, so it was never more than mentioned.  I did spend some time studying in grad school while I was researching the Falun Gong, because the 10th anniversary played a role in the 1999 crackdown on that group. What I do remember, is that I never for a moment doubted that this was a stunning act of violence that resulted in thousands of deaths and arrests of those who wanted to bring democracy to their country.

On the 4th, one of my former professors from the UW who is still on my FB posted some of his own pictures and journal entries from the event. You see, he had been there. Seeing someone I know in the midst of all that was really quite surreal. And his journal entries gave an extremely personal view of the violence, speaking of the rusted skeletons of army trucks on fire, the bullet holes in the glass of the subway station, and bicycles pancake-flattened like cartoons after having been run over by the tanks.

This made me think about my own experience with the youth of China while I was teaching at a college near Beijing in 2007. I have no idea how the topic came up, maybe we were discussing rights and freedoms. The Chinese students were very proud of all the rights they have as Chinese citizens, but the right to assembly and peaceful protest still don’t exist there. Then all of a sudden, we’re talking about the pro-democracy protests in 1989. I’m curious what the students think of it, do they even know it happened? Because of the internet, it is difficult to keep certain things from the tech-savvy Chinese youth, and they had all seen the iconic tank-man photo. However, they argued, since the tanks had stopped and not run the man over, it was a peaceful protest and no one died.

Relying on the notion that few Chinese would take the time and energy to go through proxy websites (circumventing the Great Firewall of China) to read English language historical accounts, the government acknowledged the photo, but changed the narrative around it. I was completely stunned. I couldn’t formulate a response to this argument, which was probably just as well, because trying to convince my class of the real history could have gotten me fired or even deported. Yeah, free speech is totally a thing there.

The 25th Anniversary

All over the news, all over the net, trending in social media in Hong Kong, Taiwan and all over the world except in China. Back to the Great Firewall of China, the government actually banned the use of certain words for the day, including the word “today”. The internet police (yeah that’s a thing) managed to get each offensive reference to the date off the net in about ten minutes.  However, according to the BBC China Trending Editor (how do you get this job title?) the Chinese who wanted to commemorate the event did so by referencing the musical Les Miserables, specifically the Finale.

That’s right, the modern Chinese pro-democracy movement is looking to the French struggle for democracy as a means of discussing their own plight. And while I am sad that my students didn’t seem to know what had happened in their country less than two decades before, I am heartened by the number of people in China and around the world that have taken the time to remember what happens when people stand up for a government that they want, instead of one that is forced on them. We are seeing this every day in the Arab Spring, in Thailand, and other places where the quest for self-governance becomes violent, and now we know we’re seeing it on a quieter scale through the global community on the internet.

This afternoon, while listening to NPR, I heard the story of Ko Jimmy and Nilar Thein. They were pro-democracy activists in Myanmar (nee Burma) who started protesting in 1988, and were arrested and spent many years in prison. The military dictatorship they were fighting against finally ended in 2011, and they (along with hundreds of other political prisoners) were freed in 2012. Ko and Nilar were greeted as heroes. Maybe one day, the thousands who lost their lives and freedom at Tiananmen 25 years ago will be remembered by everyone as fondly.

My Walking Shoes

Tonight I went out for a stroll among the local parks. We found a playground and a bog. There’s something really magical about public parks at night. Lit only by the reflection of the city lights off the clouds, they are tiny little oasis of beauty and solitude. On my way back home, I found myself looking at my feet. This is not something I do often, as I was taught to look up while walking, especially at night, however within the safety of my locked apartment building on the way to my door, I looked down and saw my walking shoes.

wpid-20140605_031219.jpgMy walking shoe of choice is the high-top, black and white, converse. I have loved this shoe since high school, and have probably owned 5-6 pairs since then. I don’t wear them unless I’m planning on doing more walking than from the apartment to the car to the office because I really love taking my shoes off whenever I possibly can, which includes at home and under my desk at work. Sometimes, they live in my car so I can take spontaneous walks. Tonight, I put them on to leave the house, because I knew that we were going in search of the really neat looking playground I spotted last week during the day.

Perhaps because of a somewhat reflective and poetic state of mind brought about by the summer night’s air and the croaking of frogs mingled with the whooshing of cars, I noticed how completely dingy my shoes had become. And then I really thought about that dirt… all the places that dirt has come from. The craggy steps of Huashan, the lava tube caves beneath St. Helen’s, the mulch of the giant Redwood forests, cities, countries, farms, fields, caves, and mountains… my shoes are colored with the grime of wonders.

What color are your walking shoes? What scuffs and stains and ground in dirt from your adventures are they carrying. These shoes do not merely protect our feet, or convey us to our destination. They are a legacy in grime of every great moment they carried you to.

So the next time you put on your walking shoes, stop for a moment. Appreciate that dirt, and remember where it came from, how it got there, and how each step in your journey has colored you with wonders too.

Three Faces of the Great Wall

There are dozens of places you can visit the Great Wall if you are in China. Many of the most convenient are within a day trip of Beijing. Each time I have traveled to Beijing, I’ve taken one of these day trips to a different spot: Mutianyu, Huangyaguan, and Jiankou. Each of them has something different and interesting to offer, and are all a great way to spend a day. These aren’t the complete stories of each adventure, but rather a side by side view of all three.

Brief Words of Advice

Hire a “private taxi”. Many websites tell you how you can take a bus out to the sites, and you can, but  its hard to explore properly when you have to be worried about catching the bus back. Also, the buses are way overcrowded and you might wait a long time to board, which is just less time for exploring. Private taxis are basically those who own their own car and are willing to be your driver for the day for a set price. Make sure to negotiate the price ahead of time, and don’t pay them until you’re all done. To give you some basic idea of a fair price, in 2005 we paid 500RMB, in 2012 we paid 600RMB. The drivers take you out, wait for you in the parking lot all day, and return you to your evening destination.

Don’t bother going to Badaling. Every tour group in China goes there. It is like the Disney of the Great Wall, and is only good for snapping a pic and buying a t-shirt. It was renovated for Nixon’s visit, and again for the Olympics in 2008. It is crowded, inauthentic, crowded, and full of people trying to sell you overpriced junk. No matter what your personal goals are, I guarantee there is a better section of the Great Wall for you to experience than this one.

Mutianyu & the Ming Tombs

My very first trip to China in 2005, after my contract in Jinan was over, I went up to spend a week with a friend from school in Beijing. Of course, I wanted to go to the Great Wall, so my friend arranged a private taxi to take us to Mutianyu. Despite the fact that it was summer, there were very few tourists at this location, we basically had the wall to ourselves aside from the occasional vendor. We chose to go up the side without the slide, but I have to admit, this is the first part of the Wall I want to take my niece and nephew to, because what kid doesn’t want to slide down the Great Wall of China?

The far side was less developed. It felt almost surreal to be in such a huge space with so few people in it after the last two months that I had spent being constantly crowded by the Chinese. When we reached the end of the open path, we could see beyond the fence that trees had grown up in the wall beyond, and what had once been a symbol of Imperial power, was being reclaimed by the mountain.

One of the great things about Mutianyu (aside from the slide) is its proximity to the Ming Tombs. Many Chinese Imperial families had elaborate tombs, and the Ming are no exception. This is a neat underground tour of the actual tomb, and some above ground museums and gardens. It is definitely worth the stop over if you’re heading to Mutianyu.

Huangyaguan & Guancheng

In 2007, I was working for a state run school, and they decided to take all us expat teachers out to the Great Wall for a day in the early fall. This was the only trip I took as part of such a large group, but it was ok because it was just teachers from my school. The school got us a little charter bus, and off we went.

At the base of the Wall there is a little town where we ate lunch, and there was also a series of beautiful gardens and a museum. This kind of thing is really the proof that not all sections of the Great Wall are the same. While the Wall itself can be slightly repetitive, especially in the well restored areas, these little gems are well worth making multiple Wall excursions, or at very least, carefully choosing which experience you want to have.

The gardens included a stele garden, a maze based on the Bagua (eight diagrams), and a miniature replica of the Great Wall.

The Wall is steep, and the views are lovely. Like many areas of the Wall, the further you get from the entry point, the less well restored it is. If you have the patience and stamina to keep walking you will get to some very different stone work that is the work of dynasties long past, and be rewarded with a view of miles of wall in either direction.

Jiankou

In 2012, I took some friends to China for the first time. Like all first time visitors, the Great Wall was a priority, but they were polite enough to want to make sure I got to see something new. We decided on Jiankou because it was described as being the wildest and least restored part of the Great Wall within a day trip of Beijing. Words like “dangerous” and “experienced hikers” appealed to us. And boy is it worth it.

This is just one more reason to hire private taxis. The driver we hired knew a “secret spot” basically where he and some other drivers were (presumably) bribing local officials to bring tourists into this closed off section of the wall. There are publicly open sections of Jiankou, but our driver asked if we wanted a more restored or more wild experience. Wild, of course, we replied! And so we had a wonderful, private  expanse of Wall that had been unrestored for at least 100 years, if not more.

Huge swathes of the Wall had simply collapsed down the side of the mountain. Stairs were no more than a shamble of blocks. Trees had grown up in the pathways, leaving us with thin, single file paths through the foliage. It was breathtaking. Not a single restaurant or vendor to be found, so make sure you pack plenty of water and snacks.

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Each one of these journeys was amazing and offered a completely different view of China’s history and achievements. So, if the Great Wall is on your bucket list, I hope this helps you make the most of it.