Hello Bohol: Food

My food post has expanded into two more bite-sized posts. In this one, I take a look at the everyday eats, markets, convenience stores, roadside chicken stands, unique food experiences, and lower cost restaurants. Just because it’s not gourmet doesn’t mean it’s not delicious! Interesting foods discovered include: not-milk but still dairy “fresh”, the lakatan banana, mulungway, water buffalo ice-cream, and maja blanca. Hope you’re hungry!


Don’t Drink the Milk

After discovering our limited food options upon arrival, I asked my trip buddy to stop at a store on the way from the airport. The taxi had to take her to a store on Bohol, because there is not a single “grocery store” on the island of Panglao. There are a plethora of tiny marts and open air markets, however. The next morning at breakfast, I noticed that the milk tasted a little odd. Not off, just strange, and I looked at the carton to find out what was going on. It turned out that the “Fresh Milk” for sale in the store was actually a reconstituted combination of milk products. I know that in some island countries, dairy is hard to come by in liquid form, because shipping it over is expensive, so they ship in powder and reconstitute it in local factories for distribution, but this was the first time I’d actually had any. It wasn’t … bad? It just didn’t really taste like milk.

The yogurt also had a slightly terrifying list of ingredients. I’ve tried to get less picky about my food since leaving Seattle, I know lots of places aren’t going to be up to the Bo-bo standards of organic/local/minimal processing, but yogurt has been one of the foods that has more often than not been wonderful, fresh, and local when I travel. It seems despite the huge number of cows I saw on the island, the dairy industry is still a few decades behind. So, no real coffee, and no real milk products… but the seafood, the pork, and the fresh fruit are outta sight.

Markets

20171001_112654.jpgI went to the Alona Market on the first day. It was a permanent structure where things like clothes and gadgets seemed to be on sale, but there were a riot of colored tents and awnings set up outdoors as well where vendors sold everything you could need on the island. Eggs, fish, meat… the smells assured me they were fresh. Fruits and vegetables. An infinity of flip flops and heaps of clothes. Electronics, swimming gear, DVDs, decorations, and although this was clearly a market for locals, there were a few souvenir type things as well. If I were staying long term on the island and needed to cook more than breakfasts or needed to replace a t-shirt or pair of sandals, it would be a great place to know about (especially in the absence of grocery stores), but for time it was mostly a curiosity, a fun thing to see as I explored my holiday surroundings.

On the way over to Chocolate Hills, I took a rest stop at another market in Baclayon, very similar to the Alona market, and got some pastries at a little bake shop. The Bohol pastries aren’t a patch on the Korean ones, but they were fresh and good, and extremely cheap. I never bought only one, but it seemed like one could fill a bag for less than a dollar. And it was nice to have something to munch on when felt hungry. Days later I realized that the market was next to one of the many churches on my to-see list, so I ended up going there more than once.

Sari Sari

This is the basic economic unit of Bohol. They are everywhere. Tiny shacks that sell snacks, drinks, and other things a household might need. It’s almost impossible to tell if they’re open because they have bars and grates on the windows. I had been avoiding them for that reason alone. I didn’t want to stop, get off the bike, walk over, then find out they were closed and try again at the next one. I’d been stopping at larger more obvious shops for snacks and drinks but way out here, I didn’t have the option. I’m also not sure how many of these are simply a shack in someone’s front yard where they sell random stuff to their neighbors.

Post holiday research reveals that these tiny ubiquitous shacks are known as sari sari (Tagalog for “sundry”), that the bars and grating look is normal, that they are generally family owned and operated from the family property, and that they make up 70% of the sale of manufactured consumer food products and account for about 13% of the GDP. They don’t all look like the little roadside shacks, some are larger or in conjunction with other vendors in the market areas. I’m not sure how many sari-sari I shopped at while I was there, but it’s nice to know I was contributing to the local economy when I did.

La Familia

One day of island exploring we found this little gem. It was getting on in the day and the weather in Panglao is hot and humid year round, so we decided it was time to find a place for lunch. After a little bit of being lost looking for a restaurant by sight, we finally consulted Google. It turns out there are a plethora of eateries along the roadside, but it’s hard to tell which ones are convenience stores, or take-aways, or sit down eateries, or even open just by looking while you’re driving by. I love trying local shops and restaurants, but I definitely wanted a sit down place to rest after our morning adventures.

We settled on a place called La Familia on the south end, quite near the church and watchtower. It’s not gourmet, but I ate there more than once because it was good food at a reasonable price, and while not air conditioned, it was comfortable. On my first visit, I got some watermelon juice and had to ask for no sugar. I learned that in the Philippines, all fruit juice will be mixed generously with sugar unless you ask for it not to be. This drink seemed to be fresh watermelon blended with ice into a kind of slushy, and I thought it was wonderful and refreshing without the extra sweetness. I also tried a satay burger, which was a regular hamburger served with satay sauce, and instead of ketchup, the fries came with a kind of sweet chili sauce that I was skeptical of at first, but soon devoured.

The second time I went we were too exhausted and hungry to research restaurant options so we went back to La Familia, knowing it was close to the hotel, good and well priced. I was still in my “try all the Filipino food” phase and after Googling a few new words on the menu, I settled on a chicken Tinola, which is a fairly famous Filipino ginger soup and could readily give pho a run for it’s money as my go to sick soup of preference if it existed where I live. A rich bone broth infused with ginger. My only complaint was that the soup was served so hot I couldn’t just guzzle the broth. I also ordered a club sandwiches for lunch the next day out on the boat.

The third time I popped over to La Familia for a refresher and decided to give the house milkshake a try. I don’t normally go in for banana flavored things. Artificial banana flavor terrifies me and I’m picky enough about real bananas to not risk it if there are options. However, after my run in with the Latakan (explanation further down), I was feeling very optimistic about a banana based drink here in Panglao. Not just a regular banana shake, it was made with graham crumbs and a touch of cinnamon. It was delightful, light, fluffy and a great blend of that creamy banana and other flavors that made me feel like I was drinking a pie.

While I was waiting for my shake, another expat struck up a conversation. I’d almost forgotten how that worked, since this was one of the few occasions on this trip I was on my own. It seems that people in pairs or groups just don’t get approached as much, but I love meeting new people, so I joined him for a chat and learned that he was called Bob, he was from the UK, and that he ran a local bar (the Ging Ging), which I never did get to try out. We talked about how we each came to be living abroad, and then we talked about the best food around. He also shared with me the best places from which to watch the sunset which led me to my second dinner at the Pearl.

Tres Ninas

After getting more accustomed to the bike, I decided to have another stab finding a roadside food stand to take something back to the room. In this endeavor, the night was my friend since only open places were lit up. I pulled into one of the larger lit up areas at what seemed to be a cluster of shops. One was selling meat on a stick, another seemed to be a place to sit and eat with drinks, and a third was selling beautiful rotisserie chickens. In less than two days on the island, I had seen dozens of chickens wandering around. Some totally free, some bound to a tree or hutch by a length of string. Either way, I felt confident the chicken I was looking at was local and free range, with no added hormones or chemicals… it went a long way in making up for the milk.

Tres Ninas is a chain of chicken stands. The one I went to is on the circumferential road on the east side just south of South Palms, but I spotted several others by the same name around the island.

Chocolate Hills

Initially we didn’t think that lunch at a major tourist stop was a good idea. These kinds of restaurants are often over priced and not even very good. Boy howdy I’ve rarely been so happy to be wrong.

Although the service and the food were slow (this is a fact of Bohol that we eventually came to accept, it’s a good idea to get to the restaurant, any restaurant, a good while before you’re too hungry) both turned out to be of excellent quality. Our server happily recommended dishes which turned out to be wonderful. We had bam-i (a kind of noodle dish) and lechon kawali (a crispy fried pork belly), with corn soup, and I had a calamansi iced tea which was strong, sweet and tart. We ate every bite, and it was the perfect amount. The whole lunch was less than 15$ (most of our meals were between 10-15$ for two, a couple splurges were in the 20-25 range. That’s not per person, that’s the whole thing and we ate good food).

The main advantage of the slow lunch service this day was that by the time we were finishing off the last bites, the rain had passed by and the sun had returned. The restaurant has large picture windows, so we watched the progress of the dark clouds the entire time we were eating. It was interesting to see them moving by so quickly.

The Dairy Box

On the way out of the adventure park, where the bumpy dirt road hit the highway, I spotted some signs for ice cream that led us just a few meters down the road to the Dairy Box.

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After my experience with the “fresh” milk the other morning, I wasn’t sure what to expect by way of any place called the Dairy Box, but I stopped to look and discovered to my delight a local sustainable livelihood program participant. The little shop was part of a movement by the government to help local businesses flourish, and so they partnered with nearby farmers to use the milk from the water buffalo nearby. There were signs showcasing the local small farmers and inside there was a plethora of dairy based treats. The ice cream was the main focus, but there were biscuits, milk candy, and snacks as well as flavored milk, yogurt and cheeses. Ok, yes, water buffalo milk, but I assure you it was delicious.

Dumaluan Beach Resort & the Lakatan Banana

There is a little grill and cocktail bar at Dumaluan which makes it especially appealing as a lazy hangout beach. I had made jokes with my sister before going that I would be on a beach with coconut drinks, but somehow I hadn’t had a single coconut based concoction up to this point. When I ordered my simple breakfast at the grill, I also got a coconut smoothie. The breakfast was simple: egg, sausage and rice, but cheap and filling. The smoothie was very clearly made from fresh coconut.

As the day wore on and we continued to nibble on snacks, I tried the fresh fruit plate. Normally I wouldn’t dedicate pages to a fruit place, but it was my first exposure to the unique Philippine banana: the lakatan.

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What I did not know about bananas… and to be honest, I probably still barely know anything. I’m used to the standard grocery store banana: the Cavendish. This type makes up something like 95% of the world’s bananas. I have always preferred to eat bananas when they’re a bright yellow with hints of green at the edges, and no brown at all. Everyone has a preference, but in my house, when the bananas got brown spots it’s time to make banana bread. I have a decades long aversion to golden yellow and brown bananas. I do not enjoy the mushy texture or the sickly sweet flavor at that stage in a Cavendish’s life. But, I do like banana bread, so there’s that. Based on my lifetime of banana monoculture, when I saw this little yellow and brown buddy on the fruit plate I was not at all interested… until it was peeled.

My expectation of a banana, even a very ripe one, is kind of off white inside, not unlike vanilla ice cream. This banana was a much deeper shade of cream, like “french vanilla” ice cream, or even custard. The only other time I’d seen that shade in a banana-like shape was in plantains, but it was clear from the easy peel and the total lack of cooking that this was no plantain. In addition to it’s beautiful color, the flesh of the fruit was bruise free. A Cavendish banana in that stage of ripening could be expected to have a light bruise or two and be very soft, but this banana was in perfect shape and still pleasantly firm. I decided to try a taste and was rewarded with the most and best in all that is banana. It was sweet, but not too sweet, and had little hints of tartness that I crave in my slightly green Cavendishes, but with a bonus creamy texture that I feel unable to describe without referencing dairy products. Why are these amazing fruits not the market standard? Probably something about shipping or they aren’t pretty enough. *sigh. If you’re ever in the Philippines, eat them.

River Cruise Lunch & Maja Blanca

20171006_111213 - CopyIt was not the best meal I had on the trip, but everything was good and it’s a buffet so you can eat as much as you like, as long as you don’t leave food on your plate (they charge 50p for leftovers to discourage food waste).

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I had more delicious pork adobo and an assortment of veggies and side dishes, but the star of the whole show was a little square of heaven called maja blanca. I had never seen or heard of this before, but I put one on my plate anyway, guessing it was a dessert, and so saving it for the end of my meal. It was easily the most amazing coconut cream anything I’ve ever had. So plain and unassuming, it was a white square that jiggled a little, which almost made me leave it behind as I’m not a huge gelatin fan. Instead I got three more squares! It’s just a coconut pudding, it’s thickened with cornstarch instead of gelatin, and maybe that made all the difference? It may also be made with condensed milk in addition to the coconut cream, and has a little sprinkling of toasted coconut on top. 10/10 would eat again.

Nikita’s Coffee Shop and Cafe

It is listed as being Western (esp British) breakfast food, well priced, and close to Alona without being on the main drag. Perfect for an early morning breakfast on my last day.

There’s not really “breakfast food” in Korea. The Koreans eat things like kimbap, or soup and rice, and that’s fine, but sometimes you just miss the heck outta bacon and eggs. I am very nearly ashamed to admit that I get breakfast at McDonald’s here, but it’s that or bus an hour to the expat bars on the beach. Anywho, there I was, enjoying my bacon and eggs and toast and coffee. It was already the fastest restaurant service I’d experienced in Bohol, and I was well satisfied with the price and portions of the morning’s special, when a middle aged British gentleman came out to apologize to me for how long the order had taken. This was David, the owner, and I hurried to reassure him that the wait had hardly been anything at all (especially in comparison to every other restaurant in Bohol). He was only slightly mollified and it was obvious that he felt his short-staffed cafe wasn’t living up to his own personal standards.

We chatted a bit more and he asked me if I’d made it out to the “virgin island” (the name of one of the island tour stops). I hadn’t, nor had I any real plans to because my research on the island hopping tours had turned me off of that option. He then told me that a nearby church runs free shuttle boats out to the island, since it’s a religious monument, and that it was a very lovely half day trip. I was both excited to hear the news, but also a bit sad, since my day plans were already spoken for, and it was my last day. Of course I could have changed, but … well, waterfalls. Plus, I hadn’t really gotten dressed or sun screened for another boat ride that might finish cooking me. The choices we make. Nonetheless, since I also wish I’d found Nikita’s Cafe earlier in my meal options, I can heartily recommend anyone to stop by for a meal and get the details on the free church boat trip.

Be Patient, Be Kind

Every time I said please or thank you with a smile, the people serving me seemed both surprised and happy. It made me think about the way that tourists I’d seen were treating the locals in the service industry. I know in many places I’ve lived that Filipinos are 3rd class workers, given the worst jobs and little to no protections. I thought of the woman I met in the Madina airport, of the nurses in Saudi hospitals who were getting yelled at for doing their jobs. Of the men who do back breaking labor and live in curfew controlled dorms and the women who clean rich people’s homes while trying not to get raped by their teenage sons (or grown fathers). Even expat restaurant owners were being treated with a level of ingratitude by the tourists here, and the locals had it worse, but no one could complain or stop serving because their livelihood depends on visitors.

I try my best to be gracious and polite wherever I can, but it struck me that here in the Philippines, my pleases and thank yous were really truly appreciated by people who were so often being at best tersely given orders and at worst being yelled at or demeaned. I did not find anyone here to be lazy, rude, or anything less than gracious and helpful. There’s no excuse for the way they are treated. Follow the golden rule, be patient, be kind, and enjoy some of the warmest people and best food you can find.


Panglao has an amazing array of food, including gourmet quality restaurants with very low price tags. In part two of Bohol: Food, I’ve compiled all the fancier restaurants I visited, but don’t worry, the dress code is still beach casual. 

Letters from China (Queen’s Village 2007)

In October of 2007 I was invited to visit a small village near the university where I was teaching. This remains on of the most unique experiences I’ve had while living and traveling abroad. I was able to see parts of China that foreigners simply don’t visit. I was welcomed into their homes, and allowed not only to observe their way of life, but live it myself for a couple of days. I don’t where Queen is right now, and I don’t even know the name of her hometown, but I hope that she and they are doing well and can understand the impact they had on my life as an early traveler.


Oct 26, 2007 at 3:36pm

This weekend (Oct. 19-21) I went to a small farming village at the invitation of one of my students. Her English name is Queen. She is a sophomore (second year at university). She is 20 years old, and she is one of only 4 people in her generation from her village to go to college. She is also the first person in her family to pursue higher education. Her older brother didn’t even go to high school, and is now the only veterinarian for the whole area. Her family farm grows mainly corn which brings in about 1000$ USD per year. Her family grows its own vegetables and fruits in their yards, things like potatoes, turnips, cabbage, apples, pears, grapes and a kind of date called a jujube, mostly foods that can be stored, dried, pickled etc. There is only one store in the village to buy other goods, and most people simply eat what they produce or buy from each other what they need. They also have their own goats for milk and chickens for eggs, and one of her grandmothers even has bees for honey (they sent me home with coke bottle full).

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The Plumbing

The village does not have indoor plumbing, and while this may seem entertaining in an outhouse kind of way, they also don’t have running water indoors. There is a spigot in the yard that only works for one hour a day, since the government is restricting the water in the name of conservation. The northeast of China is very dry. So her family has to collect all the water they will use for the day during that hour. They collect it in a large basin and several buckets, and if they run out there is no way to get more. This means any cooking, washing or drinking they want to do requires them to get a measured amount of water from the daily store to use, heat it over a wood stove (more on that later), use for whatever purpose and then carry it out (no drains in the house either) to dump in the yard (don’t waste water that can help the crops).

In the summer they have a building in the yard they can take showers in (see picture below, its the building next to the doghouse), but since there is no way to heat the water for the shower, they don’t take showers in the winter, but rather heat up some water and use a basin to wash their hands, face and feet. There is a hotel in the village (apparently owned by one of her cousins, it specializes in offering city folk a real rural experience: Dude Ranch Chinese style), and every so often they go there to use the hot water showers in the winter, but it’s a special occasion.

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The lack of indoor plumbing extends to toilets as well, in the northwest corner of the yard (the least auspicious area in accordance with feng shui, I kid you not, and so the best place for a toilet). The building is brick (left), and the toilet is a rectangular hole in the ground (right), no porcelain here, that drains into a hole beside the building where the waste is collected for use as fertilizer. We stayed in two different houses the two nights I was there, and the first (her mother’s) had a nice clean toilet area, which I have a picture of, and the second (one of her grandmother’s) was pretty gross, covered in fecal matter and obviously not regularly cleaned (I have spared the world this image and have no photos of it).

The Electricity

There is some, but like the water it is limited. There is power for the lights, and they have TVs, satellite dishes, DVD players etc that they can run. Some of them also have a few electric cooking devices, like a rice cooker or hot plate. However, there are no stoves and no electric heating. The houses have large glass windows that collect and focus sunlight during the winter. People live on the sunny side of the house in the winter and move to the shady side in the summer, so the houses are built in mirror images. The main beds are made of brick. They run from one wall to the other and basically act as a horizontal chimney carrying heat from the wood stove to the real chimney in the outer wall. The bed stays very warm this way, and the whole family gathers in this room in the evening to eat dinner, watch TV, play cards etc where its warm. I was given this room to sleep in as the honored guest, and the family all slept together in another room. The stoves are fire, the fuel is whatever they can find, sticks and twigs from the orchard trees, dried chaff and stalks from the corn or other crops, etc.

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The climate in the northeast of China is very dry and very cold. It’s not the Gobi desert or anything, but it is very dry. The natural vegetation and the rock formations are very similar to the scrub-lands of southwest America, but its not as warm. If you could take a small rural town from the poorest part of Mississippi or Louisiana and move it out of the wetlands into the arid high plateaus of Arizona you might have an idea of what this place was like.

The Journey

We left Yanjiao about 1030 am. We took the 930 bus to the main terminal at Dawanglu, which is in the southeast corner of Beijing, out around the 3rd ring road¹. This is my normal route into Beijing and it takes about 40 minutes. We picked up some breakfast there, something a little like an egg mcmuffin, but fried. Then we got on the subway to go to Jishuitan, which is on the northwest corner of the second line (also the second ring road). This took about 30 minutes. Then we walked over to the bus station, passing one of the many old city gates, and got on the 919 to go to Yan Qiao. The mountains are apparently called the Yan Mountains, so many of the small towns start with “Yan”.

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We passed by many sites of the Great Wall, including Badaling, which is the most famous, and we paused for a brief rest stop and I think to change drivers, and I took some more photos of the wall.

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After about an hour and a half we arrived at the town, we took a little ride around the town square and went to the park.

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Then we flagged down a private cab (a guy with a van who doesn’t work for any taxi company) and my student negotiated a price for him to drive us to her village. The driver initially offered to take us for 13 Yuan, but later changed his mind, charging us only 3 and telling Queen to “take good care of the foreigner”. It took us about another 20-30 minutes to get to her village gate. As long as we remained in the Beijing zone, the roads were good, but as soon as we crossed the border into Hebei province, the roads became a mess of potholes and bad roadwork.

¹Beijing is an autonomous zone, a city without a province, like Washington D.C. is a city without a state. The city is zoned by the “ring roads“, which are just what they sound like. I only knew 5 at the time, apparently there are 7 now. It basically tells you how far from the city center you are.

Queen’s Family Home

We were dropped off at the gate and walked from there to her mother’s home. The streets within the village were more like dirt alleys, filled with rubble and trash. The homes were fairly old, most having an outer wall, a large yard used as a vegetable garden and a reasonably large home, which often housed 3 generations.

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Queen was very eager to show off the brick bed I described earlier, which was in the main bedroom.

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There were bright posters in many rooms which I was told are renewed at the spring festival and symbolize good fortune and fertility. I also took a look at the kitchens (both) to see the wood stoves that fed heat into the beds.

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Her mother was quite gracious. I was offered grapes and jujubes (the fruit not the candy, it’s a little like a date, but drier) from their garden as well as tea to drink. After a while, Queen wanted to wander over to her Grandmother’s house (for the sake of argument, since I honestly lost track of relatives, we’l just call this one Grandmother 1). It was a short walk, during which I was stared at by everyone we passed. Her grandmother, grandfather, aunt and uncle greeted us and I was plied with apples and haw fruit from their garden. Haw is a small red fruit with soft tart flesh; you might be able to find some candy or tea of that flavor in an Asian import store.

The people in Queen’s village don’t speak “putonghua” the common standard Mandarin Chinese, but rather a local dialect that I couldn’t understand at all. However, she’s a good student and was able to act as a translator for her family and me.

After a visit there, we headed back to her mother’s, stopping at the general store on the way back to pick up some snacks and packaged meat (kind of like Spam, but not in a can). Her mother prepared a nice dinner for us. We had sweet potato and rice porridge, a dish of potatoes and turnips, some candied almonds, and some mild pickled peppers her grandmother had sent back with us. Everything we ate except the meat was grown in her family’s gardens. Oh, and there was fresh goat’s milk from the goats in the back yard as well as a kind of strong clear alcohol that her mother soaked fruit in to make a tasty drink. I swear I ate until I was stuffed and her mother complained that I didn’t eat anything!

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Two of her young cousins came over after dinner and we all sat on the brick bed chatting and watching TV. Queen made her cousins speak slowly in putonghua to see if I could translate for myself. This seemed to amuse them for a while. I saw a beautiful show on TV of a troupe of dancers, all deaf and mute, doing a tribute to Guan Yin. They lined up behind one another and made elaborate patterns with their arms to imitate the multi armed statues of the goddess.

When it was time for bed, they set me up with plenty of blankets, made sure I had food and water in case I got hungry or thirsty in the middle of the night, and left a bucket so I wouldn’t have to brave the freezing outdoors to get to the outhouse.

Despite the bitter cold outside, the bed stayed warm, if terribly hard. I slept fairly well, though I woke up a little stiff. Breakfast was more fresh goats milk, some steamed eggs (which by the way had green shells, a nice pale sea-foam green, which I can only attribute to the breed of chicken, since I know the eggs were fresh since the chickens were also in the backyard)…anyway, this means I ate green eggs and spam for breakfast, I told Queen about Dr. Seuss and recited what I could remember of the poem which she seemed very interested in. There was also a nice pickled cabbage dish, almonds leftover from dinner and possibly some other things, it kind of blurs together.

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Local Schools

After breakfast we took a walk to the local schools. Queen told me that very few of the students finish middle school. The classes are too crowded and all the good teachers have left for better jobs. Many of the boys wander the streets during the day rather than going to school. Their parents don’t want them to get outside jobs at that age, but don’t make them go to class. When they grow up they will be manual laborers, working in the fields or building roads, earning only a few hundred Yuan a month.

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The children in the school were excited to see me, I may not have mentioned, but I was the first foreigner to ever visit this village. Queen herself was bursting with pride to be walking beside me and translating for me. The head of the kindergarten wanted to take pictures of me in his school, I hesitate to imagine that soon there will be pictures of me proudly displayed there, although I did nothing more than walk through it.

It was so strange to see all those bright and curious faces and know that most of them would never leave the 50 mile radius of their increasingly poor and dry county; would never see the world; would never even finish a basic education, and that for many of them, the few minutes that I was in their school was the only time they might ever see someone from another country not on TV.

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We returned to her mother’s house where an uncle picked us up in his truck to drive us to grandmother 2’s house a ways away. I will continue the story in another post, since there’s a character limit here. Tune in next time for the continuation of the Village Excusion!

Oct 26, 2007 at 3:57pm

When we left off, an uncle picked us up in his truck to drive us to grandmother 2’s house a ways away. I do believe that the truck had no shocks at all, the roads were bumpy beyond belief, and sometimes there wasn’t a road, at least not what we would call one. There were certainly no traffic laws, and people simply drove wherever they could.

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This turned out to be quite a distance. On the way we drove past an interstate under construction, where I was informed that the government had taken up farmland to build a highway for the Olympics. We also passed a large metal statue of a hand holding a wine bottle, seemingly in triumph, a tribute to the wine of the region, which I have still never tried.

The Other Grandparents

Grandmother 2 lived in an older and less orderly village. The amenities were a good deal dirtier. The number of times I silently thanked my mother for teaching me how to be a gracious guest were countless. The yard was sort of a garden, and of course there were goats, fruit trees and even some beehives, well boxes of bees anyway.

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We walked around the village a bit, saw the main streets and the aqueduct which also doubles as a washing machine.

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Then her cousin came to pick us up and take us to some of the “sights”. There was a stage that the Beijing (Peiking) Opera apparently performs on during the spring festival.

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Is That a Town or a Film Set?

We went next to an old ruined village near the lake that has become a popular site for film directors. Apparently about half the ruin is authentic and the other half has been built over time by various film crews. I walked over a very rickety bridge, and was reassured that in the film, soldiers had run over it, but given what I know about film, this is not actually reassuring.

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Hostessing: Chinese Grandmother Style

We returned to her grandmother 2’s house, and the family picked up a chicken to serve with dinner, another nod to the guest of honor, as meat does not usually feature in their diet very much. A small swarm of relatives joined us, and I was ushered in to eat, at first alone, but I expressed they should join me; Queen said they were too shy to, but got them in anyway. They were also constantly pressing food on me, since both before and after dinner they made sure there were always snacks of fruit and bread nearby, and at dinner they constantly urged me to eat more.

They were also constantly worried I was too cold. They were amazed that I could use chopsticks. They were worried that Queen wouldn’t think of things I might need. They were generally very kind if somewhat fussy hosts.

After dinner, we gathered again on the brick bed, the kids worked on homework, I got a chance to look at some of their books. A few more people came and went, including her brother. As I became sleepy, they decided to evacuate to let me sleep. Queen told me that her family thought it might be rude to leave me to sleep alone, since the custom there is for the family to sleep together for warmth, but thankfully she was able to assure them that I would not be offended.

Again, they made sure I had food, tea, blankets and a bucket before leaving, and I headed into a fitful night’s sleep, punctuated by a nocturnal goat and a lonely puppy. I had no idea up until this point that goats were the least bit nocturnal, nor was I aware that any animal not in some kind of serious distress could make noise that constantly for that long.

A Sunday Morning Stroll

I gave up on sleeping around 7am, got dressed and found a corner of the garden to brush my teeth in (remember, no sinks), had a cup of tea and headed out for a pre-breakfast stroll thru the village. On the way we passed a sign, which I was told was put there by the government to entreat people not to follow Falun Gong, and those of you who have talked to me at all in the last 3 years know that this has been a bit of an interest of mine¹, so I was unable to resist the temptation to engage in conversation when I discovered that all the tales I had read of Chinese propaganda were true.

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They were told that FLG followers committed suicide and killed people. She was angry that the US wouldn’t turn over Li Hongzhi (the leader) to the Chinese government, and simply seemed to have a block on the idea that the facts might have been distorted. I tried to explain the concept of independent studies, and that thus far the Chinese had not allowed us to conduct one. I told her that FLG practitioners in other countries were peaceful (if a little noisy), and she was amazed there were practitioners in other countries, which just goes to highlight the lack of information available, since in America, one only has to do a google search to find thousands of mentions in the news².

She also told me that prior to the ban, her mother had been a member, though they had renounced it when the government turned against it. All in all, it was illuminating. It took me a long time to convince her that I didn’t like or agree with Li or FLG, but that I respected their right to believe as they wanted. She argued that China had plenty of religious choices; I said 5 is not plenty. She said more religions cause more conflict, I said, no, pluralism decreases violence. It was interesting.

Anywho. There was a lovely breakfast, egg fried rice, more veggies and a kind of spicy mutton stew. Afterward we set out to climb the small mountain behind the house. There was a ladder going partway up the wall in the back, from which you could reach the road at the base of the mountain, and I was much mocked for not wanting to climb the wall, steep and without secure footing as it was, so we walked around.

The mountain had some goat trails, but for the main part, we picked our way upwards thru steep shifting gravel and spiky scrub plants. The view from the top, however, was expansive. It’s hard to tell from the photos, but you could make out the main mountain range, the lake and the railroad. Queen told me that when she was a little girl she could often see the Great Wall on those mountains clearly, but the pollution has now become such that you can only occasionally see the mountains at all.

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¹When this was written, I had only just finished my MA and my thesis was on the Falun Gong. The upshot is that any of my friends who held still for more than a minute over the last 18 months had been regaled with my research findings. Short version: it’s a cult based in Qi Gong practice (like Tai Chi) started in China in the 90’s, first embraced by the government, but banned in ’99. The leader lives in New York and directs his followers from there. Most people around the world who practice it are only aware of the exercise aspect, not too many people read far enough to get to the aliens with bone noses, the demons who want our bodies, and the leader’s determined efforts to take down the Communist government of China. It’s a major controversy in China. Followers are imprisoned, allegedly tortured and possibly even used as unwilling organ donors for transplant tourism. It’s a mess. You can start with Wikipedia, but the rabbit hole is deep.

²Still. I just looked and there are news articles as recent as a few days old. It looks like the controversy is still on.

Getting Back

Her cousin came back to get us, and drove us to a place where we could catch a ride back to the bus stop. This ride included driving on the still under construction highway, battling non-paved roads and trying to get around construction crews. We stuffed into a van with 8 other people and wended our way on the back roads to avoid the traffic jam caused by the fact that due to some visiting dignitaries in Beijing, trucks were not allowed into the city (makes a motorcade block seem like nothing).

The rest of the trip back was uneventful. I would like to add, however, that throughout the whole weekend, Queen and I had a number of very deep discussions on the differences between China and America. I not only learned a great deal, as she was pleased to tell me the history and conditions of the many places and people we saw, but I was deeply impressed with her mind. It was obvious that even though she had been taught how to feel about certain things by the message of the party, that did not stop her from thinking about other things once they were presented to her.

*(please take a moment to go and look at the photo album, as this is an environment most people will never see in person or even in a National Geographic. My photos may not be travel magazine quality, but this village is off the map, and only seems only to be known to the families who live there. I store my albums on Facebook because the free storage space is limited on WordPress.)

Reflections *(2007)

All in all, the trip had a profound affect on me. What I saw, what I learned, there is nothing to compare with it in all my other experiences and I hope I will never forget it. I know its impossible to relay the depth of the experience, there is nothing you can read or even see in a photograph that compares to being there, but I hope that in some way this sharing of my experience has impacted some of you as well.

That I am living in a country where less than 100 miles from a city that rivals New York there is such amazing poverty, devastatingly poor education and tragically low standards of living is so mind blowing I still don’t think I get it, and this wasn’t anywhere NEAR the poorest part of China. And yet, despite these conditions, the people are kind to foreigners, proud of their achievements and their nation, and hopeful for the future of their children and it was able to produce this girl I met, who is brilliant and motivated. And not only does this girl have the desire and ability to go to college, to get a master’s degree and even to study overseas, her greatest ambition is not to flee to a big city and a high salary job, but to return to her village after all that and help the next generation to produce more people like her.

There is so much I could not include here, and already its 6 pages long, so I’m stopping, but I’ll be putting up the pen pal lists soon, and all I can say is that I encourage you to meet one of these students, not just to enrich their lives, but to enrich your own, because they are amazing.


Reflections 2017

It was and still is one of the best experiences. It opened my eyes to things going on not only in China, but around the world and in my own country too. It’s so easy for people in the cities (or in moderately well-off rural areas) to forget that millions or even billions of people on Earth still live in these conditions or worse. I have seen people around the world struggling to make a living, struggling to get an education, struggling to make a better life for the generation after them. And yet, most of those people have been the kindest and most generous. 

As much as I love gaping at the wonders of nature, or history, or even of the modern world, nothing in my travels can ever compare to the simple experience of sharing time with another person, whether it is an hour, a day, or a year. I never want to give up seeking out the wonders of the world, but I never want to forget that one of those wonders is human beings themselves.