Using Public Transit in Europe

I am completely spoiled by Asian transit. In Korea, my transit pass is linked to my bank card and so I just tap to get on any bus/subway/train in any city in the whole country. Tourists can buy a transit card from any convenience store that will work the same way, and also let you buy things at most convenience stores like pre-paid debit cards. I kept my transit card from Japan and used it again 3 years later with no problems. Again, they work on all the transit country-wide. I knew that visiting 8 countries in Europe would mean I’d have to navigate multiple public transit systems, but I had no idea how complex they would actually be.

This post is part rant, and part hopefully useful information for future travelers who encounter the same obstacles I did.


Paris, France:

Paris has a huge subway system, and tickets are priced by zone. It’s a good idea to look at the map and decide what zones you actually need before you buy. Buying tickets one trip at a time is the most expensive way. You can also buy a ticket book for a slight discount, which is what I did my first visit that only lasted 2 days. This summer, I was in Paris for 6 days, and wanted a better option, and one that would include buses, not only the metro.

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In the end, I bought a week long transit pass for cheaper than the 5 day tourist pass. When I asked about it the teller told me there’s no benefit to the tourist pass, that it’s basically there to bilk tourists, and I should stick to the cheaper option. Most cities have some version of the tourist card which includes “unlimited transit” and a few free attractions or discounts, however every single one I checked into was not worth it. In order to actually save money, a person would have to be running around like crazy and do 4+ activities a day!

You can see there’s a spot for a photo there, so it’s a good idea to have one ready when you buy your card. The lady who was working when I bought mine said I could add the photo later, but advised me to carry my receipt with me in case the metro authority asked to see my card and to prove it was not stolen. No need to get a fancy passport photo made, however, you can make a photocopy of your passport or other ID and use that.


Belgium:

In Brussels I got a Mobib Card with ten trips which is cheaper than buying your each trip one at a time. I was able to buy it easily in the subway station nearest to my arrival spot. The tickets are per trip, regardless of distance, and that if you have to go above ground and pass back out of the ticket scanning devices, or use a tram, there’s no transfers. Most of the Metro stations have a way you can connect underground, but be sure you get out on the correct side of the train car, since in some cases one platform leads OUT and the other leads to connecting tracks, while at other stops, it’s all the same.

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It is also worth noting that the doors on the subway cars have to be manually activated. You have to tug the handle or it doesn’t open. I was a little panicked the first time thinking I couldn’t get on, but then I saw someone else open a door and followed suit. When in doubt, watch the locals.

The only downside is that the Mobib Card is exclusively for Brussels, and I needed to figure out transit again and again when I went out to nearby cities like Ghent and Antwerp.

In Ghent I could not find the tram for a while I thought about just taking a taxi from the train station to my boat but I did eventually find it, then realized I had no idea how to use it and no way to look that information up online since the SIM I bought in Paris wasn’t working in Belgium.

I managed to get change from a convenience store and buy a tram ticket at a machine near the stop, but I couldn’t find instructions on how to use it. I got on the tram with my ticket but didn’t see any place to use it so I just sat down. Of course I was doing it wrong but no one challenged me or corrected me. I’m sure if I didn’t look like a middle aged white tourist it could have gone differently. Although I did see a lot of barrier hoping in France….

In retrospect, I think the paper tickets have RF chips in them that you tap just like a plastic transit card. *shrug, they got my money anyway.

At the Ghent train station returning to Brussels, I got confused because it looked like nothing was going back to the “Midi station” in Brussels. It turns out that there are just too many languages in Brussels. Midi is the name I had seen in Brussels, but Zuid is another name for the same thing!!!

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Overall, I think the transit issues in Ghent would have been avoided if I’d had mobile data. I did wonder how people navigated these transit options before smart phones, but I also think the technology of the trans, trams and metros has upgraded from paying cash and paper tickets to having RF chips in tickets dispensed by a machine and read by another machine. It’s great automation until you don’t know how to use it.

In Antwerp I decided to walk. The places I wanted to see were all within 30 minutes walking of the main train station and I wasn’t in a hurry. As a result, I have no idea how the transit inside the city works. On my out, the trains were running late but the kind conductor lady helped me hop off and change to a faster train at one of the stops. The tickets are somewhat flexible as to which trains you use to get to your destination.20180712_124849


The Netherlands:

First, in Maastricht, the bus company that runs the bus between Lanaken and Maastricht is the Belgian company De Lijn, and I was able to buy a ticket at the Maastricht main station. The front of the buses had a space to insert the ticket and a date/time/remaining balance was printed on it each time. I think I ended up with about 0.60€ left unused on the ticket at the end of the week, but it was much easier than trying to buy a ticket every time.

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I needed a different transit card (the OV Card) to get around the city of Maastricht, but at least I was able to use that transit pass to buy my passage into Aachen. Once I figured out the basic system it was not too bad, and the people in the Maastricht station were quite helpful in getting me the best prices when I was getting my cards set up on the first day.

The only complaint is that because Lanaken and Maastricht are smaller towns, the buses do not run often and there is no metro at all. This requires more careful planning to get to and from places, to get back to my room at night, etc. It also requires more walking since bus stops are fewer and farther between than in big cities.

Later, in Den Haag

I need to preface this by saying Den Haag was the single WORST transit system I encountered in Europe. I was not a huge fan of Maastricht because the infrequent bus schedule, and that was not an issue in Den Haag, but what turned my brain completely inside out was the pay structure and it’s deep deep bias against foreigners. In the Netherlands, you can use the OV Card everywhere, so I was able to use the same card from Maastricht, which I thought would be a convenience…. ohhhhhh no.

When you ride in Den Haag, you have to tap in and out every time because the price of your trip is based on distance traveled; however, sometimes it double tapped or didn’t tap at all so I suddenly found myself completely out of credit on my OV card with no way to get more!

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There are almost no recharging kiosks for OV in Den Haag either. I found one in the grocery store near my Airbnb, but it wouldn’t take my credit card and the cashier didn’t seem to care much. She eventually just stopped trying to even speak English which was only annoying because everyone else there had been like “of course we speak flawless English!” So, it seemed a little implausible she is the only one who doesn’t…

I tried to use the OV website to find kiosks in my area, but the website map wasn’t working… of course.

I tried to go out anyway, thinking I’d just buy a ticket on the bus but they don’t take cash and a 1hr ticket is 3.50€! I’d end up paying 7€ to go out and get back? I left the bus with sticker shock and stood around cursing the entire transit system that had robbed my card and left me with no way to top up and charged exorbitant fees to get to a top up place. Finally I decided to take the tram back to the train station and sort it out. Then the ticket box on the tram refused to take my debit card! How is a person supposed to pay for this????

I asked a ticket monitor about it because just at that moment I was feeling too honest to steal a ride. She directed me to the app where I bought a ticket then told me I didn’t need to ride all the way to the station I could just stop at Centrum and use the machine there. Great! Except when I got off to use it, it was out of order. I waited for the next tram and got on as my e-ticket was good for an hour, then realized it was going the wrong way, got off and waited again to go the other way. The only good news is they run every 10 minutes instead of 30 like in Maastricht.

I finally got to the train station and put more money on the card. I looked at my transactions history and realized that one point I was charged 4€ for a trip. If you tap in and don’t properly tap out, it’s 4€ no matter how far you go. That’s right, it costs more to mess up your transit card than to just buy the flat ticket. Gouge much?

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My tram ride back from the station? .90€! It cost me 3.50€ to go using the app, and 0.90€ to go using the card. It’s worth using the OV Card, it’s just hard to use correctly. Eventually, I was able to go online to the OV website and submit a request for a refund of the over-charges and it was granted, although I still had to get to the train station kiosk to actually claim the credit.

I specifically say it’s biased against foreigners because most people who live there have their OV linked to their bank account directly, and can easily contest overcharges or incorrect charges at their leisure without worrying about not being able to pay for a trip. Meanwhile, visitors who front load the cards can still contest overcharges, but have no recourse for getting to a charging kiosk if a mistake has drained our account.

Returning from Amsterdam

The OV card isn’t evil in and of itself. I had very little issue using it in Maastricht and Amsterdam. It was nice to be able to move from city to city without having to invest in yet more transit passes (glares at Belgium and France).

However, the vaunted European train system turned out to be a massive disappointment. I know I’m kinda old, but I remember when the dream was “get a Eurail pass and back pack around Europe for your gap year”. My parents had good things to say about the trains. The trains are 2-3x the cost of a bus in most places there. I expected the trains to be GOOD. It was not true.

I hopped on my train back to Den Haag thinking I’d had a wonderful if over-budget day and then about halfway back the train just stopped.

There was a problem with some other train stuck on the tracks (I heard because of the heat) and we sat there for about 90 minutes. The main problem with this is that I only had a small bottle of water, enough for the anticipated one hour journey but not longer after a long day in extreme heat (it was averaging 35-37C that week), and several alcohol drinks (wine with the cheese tasting, Bols distillery tour, and beer with dinner!). I even thought about buying a larger bottle in the train station and thought “no I’m ok, it’s not far.” FML.

There was a toilet in the train but no potable water. I tried to distract myself with Netflix, but I was getting insanely thirsty. We finally moved backwards to Harlem and I was told to ride to Leiden and transfer there to another train. My ticket would cover all my transfers to get me back to Den Haag, but nothing would make up for the extra hours added to what should have been a short and direct trip. At least I got to watch a beautiful sunset from the unmoving train?

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When we got to Harlem, my first priority was water and I even willing to buy some but by 10:30 at night, most places weren’t open (Europe closes at 8pm) and the one I went to wanted 2€ for a tiny bottle!!! I pulled up my reusable and asked about tap water. It’s safe to drink from the tap in Europe. The sales clerk looked at me like I had suggested eating his grandmother and said “it’s not free” with the most contempt I have ever heard in regards to being asked for water.


A Little Rant About Water

20180705_121804Ok, a business pays fees to have water, but there is no way customers are going to drink a tenth of what you use operating a food stand. Washing a single load of dishes is more water than all your customers could drink if you gave them each a cup. Water is basically free in a drinking capacity, and even if you wanted to charge me for using your tap water, 20-30¢ would way more than cover my water bottle and not be actual extortion. In a record setting heat wave. While the whole country is having train delays.

I know I was raised in the US where the first thing a waitress gives you is water and it’s bottomless and always free, but I’ve traveled a lot and never encountered such water stinginess as exists in Europe. I’ve also lived in places where the tap water is not safe and never had trouble buying drinking water at very reasonable prices, and many businesses still give away clean drinking water and public water fountains are available in parks and public spaces.

I thought France was stingy with the water but at least you could get it if you asked and in France and Belgium I was able to find some public drinking water (the photo above is a public drinking fountain in Paris). The rest of the time I filled my bottle in bathroom sinks… the bathrooms are very clean because there are no free bathrooms.

I just don’t understand the water hoarding going on here. I don’t think it would be hard to install cheap water stations like the paid public toilets to let people refill their own bottles and reduce plastic waste. If you must make people pay for water then keep it affordable. Besides, free water in tourist areas makes people stay longer. In the end the EU is calling for clean drinking water to be a human right, but F.U. if you’re travelling in a heat wave and get stuck when the infrastructure breaks!

End Rant.


Hamburg,  Germany:

I had been using Flix Bus to get between my main cities up to this point, and it’s about as advertised. It’s a cheap bus. There is usually a bathroom, and sometimes WiFi. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s ok. Additionally, it’s often less than half the cost of the trains. When it came to getting in and out of Germany, however, the costs were suddenly inverted and the train became the cheaper option by half. Germany + trains? That has to be efficient and on time right? Oh, stereotypes, you fail me again. The trains are expensive, overcrowded and often late. Take a bus.

The train ride on DB Bahn from Den Haag was long. It took three trains and I always had to be aware of my stop because there are lots and no one will tell you where to get off. There is no WiFi on the trains in Germany. And outside the main cities I didn’t get good reception either. There was some air-con on the trains but only between stops, so it would get hot again while people got on and off. By the time I got to Hamburg 7.5 hours later I was soaked in sweat and tired. 

The good news is HVV (the transit authority in Hamburg) is great! Although the website is total gibberish, I went to their office in the station as soon as my train arrived, and the kind woman behind the counter helped me figure out what zones the places I wanted to go were in and helped me to save money on the week long transit pass. It was a tremendous relief to have unlimited transit and not have to worry about tapping in and out and possibly running out of credit due to a computer error!

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In fact, there’s no RF readers or tapping in and out at all. The HVV transit pass is just piece of paper in a plastic sleeve that you can show to the bus driver or ticket checker and it’s all good. 

However! The one time I went outside my pass’s zone, I did have to buy a single use ticket. It was supposed to be cheaper this way… it turned out to be a royal pain. I still don’t know the correct way to buy a single use ticket across multiple zones. I thought I got the correct multi zone pass to head out to Blankenese, I got on the first leg ok, but the bus driver at Blankenese refused to let me on, saying I had purchased the ticket in the wrong zone. I don’t know if he was just being a jerk or what, because otherwise it seems I’d have to buy one ticket to get from downtown to Blankenese and then ANOTHER to get around Blankenese. I ended up walking to the beach.

On the way back from Blankenese, I decided to take the ferry, which was an excellent choice. It’s recommended to use the public transit ferry as a cheap tour of the Hamburg harbor and they’re not wrong. At 10.80€, it was certainly more expensive than using land transit, but much cheaper than a cruise up the Elbe with all the same wonderful views.

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Leaving Germany, the last train

The original train I booked with DB Bahn was a single train from Hamburg to Copenhagen on Saturday, but the heat wave in Germany was KILLING ME, so I changed to a Friday ticket instead and left a day early. The new train route had two transfers, each giving me less than 10 minutes to change trains. A situation I would have thought could only be offered if the trains were reasonably on time. Silly me!

My first train was 10 minutes late in arriving, but that was ok because my second train was 15 minutes late departing, so I did at least get on it. However, so did EVERYONE ELSE. I’ve seen less crowded trains in China. Oh, and the platform wasn’t clearly marked so, even though I was standing under the sign for my train, my train actually pulled up at a totally different part of the platform and we only realized it when the hordes of people started running past us to get to it.

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The first several cars were so full that I couldn’t even get in the door. I mean, seats all full, aisles all full, stairs all full, entryway all full, full. I finally found one car I could squeeze into and found myself standing on the stairs (with all my luggage) compressed by bodies. There was an option to buy a reserved seat on the website, but I thought it was just for if you wanted to be sure you and your group had seats together or if you wanted to be sure to get one of the ones with tables. I didn’t realize they oversold the trains by so much that it was the equivalent of the Beijing subway. If you find yourself forced to take a train in Europe, pay the extra 4$ to get a reserved seat or else be prepared to stand.

As the tiny stops went by, and people got on and off, I was shuffled off the stairs and into an actual compartment where a very kind man getting off at the next stop gave me his seat and I was able to rest at last. By about halfway, most of the standing people were gone or seated, but it was still ridiculous.

That train was, of course, also late to my second connection, and I missed my connecting train altogether. The conductor gave us instructions on where to find connecting trains to various destinations and I stepped out onto the platform to wait for the last train of the day. It was going to be about 20 minutes later than my first scheduled train, but I didn’t think that was too bad.

I met a young American lady, just graduated from college and off for her summer in Europe with her Eurail Pass and we got to chatting in the station. When we boarded the next train it seemed that too would be standing room only, and two bicycles blocked off 4 folding seats entirely.  Luckily, as the train filled up, and started moving, a kind lady pointed out that there were two empty seats after all and we rushed over to grab them gratefully.


Copenhagen, Denmark:

The train took 90 minutes longer to arrive than the one I was supposed to be on, and instead of arriving in Copenhagen around 10pm, it was almost midnight. I expected the train to let us out into a train station where I could find shops, an ATM, and ticket machines for the public transit system. Instead, the train let us off basically on the street. I had no idea which building was likely to contain the train station/atm/ticket machine so I began to cast about for any ticket machine at all.

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I found one at the bus stop but as far as I could tell, the only option I could do with a credit card was to buy the Rejsekort transit card. For this you must pay for the card (80kr), then pay a minimum of 100 danish krone as a balance. So it cost me about 24 euro to get a transit card. But it was midnight and I was exhausted so I just bought it and got on the bus. Being extra sure to tap out as I exited and see the fare, I was pleased to note that even the fairly long journey out to the diplomatic quarter was about 12 kr and figured I’d be able to use that 100kr for a while yet (foreshadowing!)

The Rejsekort transit card worked similarly to the Netherlands OV Card in that each trip required a tap in and out and money was deducted from the card. However! There are two types of cards, registered and unregistered. Guess what? Of course since I bought mine from a machine at midnight it was unregistered which meant I had to maintain a minimum balance of 70kr in order to USE the card. Please remember that the trip between our Airbnb and the main train terminal is only 12kr, so that’s a little more than 5 trips in and out of town that I have to load up and NEVER USE. I was not amused.


Gothenburg, Sweden:

The local transit company here is Västtrafik. The transit in Gothenburg is good, but Google Maps has the wrong names for almost everything, so it says “get on the 10 going to abc-Swedish name” but none of the bus stops match that name on the sign. You can’t just guess by which side of the street it’s on because they use bays to remove the transit from the flow of traffic (very cool idea) so the stops are all together on an island in the middle of the roads. They have stop letters, so Google could just say take the 10 from Bay A but no. I blame Google for this failure, not the city of Gothenburg. 

Most of my time in Sweden was in a rental car, but for the time I spent in Gothenburg before getting my car, I was able to use the public transit easily enough by purchasing a three day pass which included unlimited use of buses, trams, and ferries. This is especially worthwhile since the archipelago near Gothenburg are PHENOMENAL.

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Driving in Sweden was great. The roads are in good condition and the signs are very easy to follow. It is likely going to rank in my top 5 all time road trips. 10/10 would do again.

Even with the car, when I was in Stockholm, I opted to leave the rental at the hotel parking lot and take the bus around the city. In a surprising turn of absolute convenience, I downloaded the transit app on my phone and used that to buy my tickets for the day. I’m sure there are longer term options, but I was happy to just get the single use tickets since I was only using it for two trips and it was drastically cheaper than paying for parking.


Olso and Nesodden, Norway:

I was only in Norway because I was flying out of Oslo. My Airbnb was on Nesodden, one of the fjords a ferry ride away from Oslo. A single trip transit ticket is only good for an hour, but would take more than that to reach my Airbnb from the bus station where I arrived. Do I really have to buy two tickets for this? Turns out… no.

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I took the local bus to the ferry terminal, but the buses on the fjord considered anyone getting OFF a ferry to be transferring and did not require an additional ticket. Whew. The ferry tickets were only mildly confusing, and with minor investigative skills I was able to navigate the ticket kiosk at the ferry terminal.

Once the bus dropped me off at the stop closest to my Airbnb, I was truly worried however since it was very rural, with no signs of any ticket machines near the bus stop. I had no Norwegian cash on me and was not walking distance from anything. I tried to use the transit app for Oslo, but it refused to accept my Korean bank card OR my American credit card (which was a much bigger surprise). Unlike the ultra convenient Stockholm app, the Oslo app would only accept payment from a limited number of EU countries.

In the end, I just went to the bus stop when it was time to leave and explained my situation to the driver. Of course he had a solution, and I was able to get to the ferry terminal, then from the Oslo side of the ferry, I was able to walk to the nearest train station that would take me to the airport…. where I promptly bought the wrong ticket.

Bus Terminal in Oslo, Norway (Oslo bussterminal) tickets (billettautomater) for Ruter nettbuss Bus4You IMG 6050

I’m still not sure I completely understand what happened. I went to a ticket kiosk and bought a ticket to the airport, then followed the signs and got on the train. There is no place to have the tickets checked on the way to getting on the train. Once I left the train at the airport, our tickets were checked on the way out. The ticket checker told me I had bought the wrong ticket, and that I’d bought the city public transit ticket, but gotten onto a private company express train (not clearly marked, and don’t check tickets on the way IN?). The money I’d spent went to the city transit authority (Ruter) and there was no way for the private train company to get it. I tried to offer to fix my mistake, but it seems there’s no way to fix it on the back end and she waved me on through exhorting me to pay more attention to the trains in future.

I would never have hopped on the wrong train intentionally, but it wouldn’t hurt if they had some kind of a barrier to scan tickets on the way in?


Moscow, Russia:

Ironically, as in counter to expectations, Moscow had the best running and least expensive public transit. I was only in Moscow for 20 hours, and I got a 24 hour unlimited pass for less than the cost of a single trip ticket in any European city. The ladies at the ticket counter spoke enough English for me to easily get the one I wanted.

I had a little trouble finding my first Metro station (I should have got a SIM card so my Map would work better) but once I realized what to look for in a Metro entrance, getting around Moscow was a breeze. The stations are so well labeled and the metro maps are clear (if you know how to read a metro map). Plus, Moscow is famous for it’s beautifully decorated stations. Even when I got lost because I read the stops wrong there were helpful people to turn me around and help me find my way.

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I also used the airport express train here which was crowded, but reasonably priced and running on time with no surprises. I guess there are some things communism does well?


I have come to realize that I’m a novelist, not a blogger. I think other people would have made each country a separate blog post in order to spread out the words, and get more posts out there. At 5200+ words, I gave some serious thought into dividing this post up into bite size chunks… but tbh, I’m not that thrilled to be writing about transit, and I’m mainly including it because these were hard won lessons that I hope can spare at least one other human my trials and tribulations. I also think it helps sometimes to see that the adventure life is not always one of joy and excitement, and that we must also contend with learning basic life skills over and over in each new place we visit.

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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.

Letters From China (First Month 2007)

As September 2007 continued I began to find my feet in China, getting the swing of things in the classroom and learning to navigate Beijing on my own. These letters include my trips into town, my adventures in coffee, my first bout of homesickness (maybe ever), and some glimpses into the lives of my Chinese students.


Sep 13, 2007 at 10:08pm

Sooo, today was kinda interesting. It started off with early morning downpours, and me having no umbrella. By the time I got to class I was totally soaked. Not too bad tho, it cleaned out the air a bit and cooled down a lot.

The power went out this afternoon.

And… drumroll please… I found a place that serves COFFEE here in Yanjiao! It took me a while to get across that I just wanted black coffee, since it was like a dessert shop and they did mochas and cappuccinos and the like, but in the end, I did get a real cup of coffee… not great, but real. I still intend to try to get some beans in the city so I can make my own, but it is nice to know there’s somewhere I can go nearby.

Sep 14, 2007 at 7:34pm

I’m sitting here grading homework, and I want to share what one of my students wrote. The assignment was to describe a person.

“When I am happy, I like a person who is of medium build, a little chubby. I think she is very optimistic, stoic and conservative. She likes reading, listening to music and so on. Sometimes she would write a very good passage.

But when I am sad, very sad, I begin to hate her. I think she is very pessimistic, stingy and grumpy. She always does something wrong which made a lot of person even her friends misunderstood her and dislike her.

I eagerly hope she can do everything carefully and become excellent. Because that person is me.”

The English is a little rough, but I think the message is amazing, so I had to share.

Sep 15, 2007 at 11:25pm

Today I finally felt well enough to do some exploring. We decided to go into Beijing. The bus ride takes about 40 minutes, but its reasonably comfortable, and really cheap, about 5 yuan¹ as opposed to say a taxi which would cost over 100. This lets us out at Dawanglu. There we discovered a Super Walmart center and a guy in a penguin suit.

After Walmart, where I was able to find actual coffee, though its very finely ground and a little acidic for my tastes (I may however have over-brewed it, due to its completely wrong grind for a french press, and since I have a whole bunch, I’ll keep trying to get the timing right), we got on the subway (3 yuan) http://www.urbanrail.net/as/beij/beijing.htm and went on the red line (see the link for a map²) from Dawanglu to Xidan where we found a huge mall and some interesting architecture.

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This mall looks a little like an American mall, but of course there’s lots of room for bargaining. We also found a Starbucks where I was able to purchase the aforementioned french press. We didn’t stay long because one of the guys was looking for a winter coat and we didn’t see many clothing stores there, but I want to go back and explore more… one of the nicest things about it was that no one was trying to sell me stuff actively, and later I’ll explain why that’s so nice³.

We then took the subway back to Yong’anli and the infamous Silk Market. The silk market is a huge multistory shopping complex made up of hundreds of stalls selling goods.

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Its a heavy bargaining experience. Erwin found a jacket he liked and argued the price from 2300 to 450 (300usd to 60). While this market has plenty of nice stuff for cheap if you argue well, the sales girls are really grabby, literally, they kept grabbing my arm to stop me and try to drag me to look at their stuff. Not all were like this, but enough that it got on my nerves. I’m sure I’ll go shopping there myself when I need winter things, but its really a high impact shopping experience.

We stopped at a cafe to refresh ourselves before the long trek home. Kevin had a sort of duh experience today. His water supply† at home ran out like 2 days ago and for whatever reason a new jug never arrived, so he basically stopped drinking water, and of course today, he got pretty sick… he’s fine now, and its probably just as well we had to come home early, cause I am totally wiped out. In the end, we took the subway back to Dawanglu, then the bus back home. So I shall leave this post with the final picture from the window of our bus.

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¹ Chinese currency has a lot of names… I was not consistent in how I called it because the Chinese themselves are not. RMB, Yuan, and Kuai (remember back then it was 7.5 RMB to 1USD)

² That link doesn’t work. Try this one. TheBeijing subway has gotten SO much bigger since then. There were 4 active lines and they were building the 5th for the Olympics… today there are 15. But you can still see the red line on the map.

³ I did not ever explain that. In China (and oh so many places in the developing world) visiting (white) people are assumed to be richy richersons and someone always has a hand out or is trying to sell you something useless and overpriced. Often a simple “no thanks” in the local language is enough, but I’ve had people on the street grab my bags or even my arm before trying to get me to buy. It was very overwhelming before I learned how to deal with it.

†Do not drink the tap water. 

Sep 16, 2007 at 10:56pm

To paraphrase Rob, I finally hit the wall. It really hit me where I am and how long I’m going to be here, and the fact that I sat in my apartment today and couldn’t talk to any of you because you were all gone, just made it that much harder. Don’t get me wrong, I know it was Saturday night and all, but I went out to Beijing yesterday instead of chatting with ppl, and I’ve been kind of scarce on contact this last week anyway, and I keep looking at this board hoping someone will have put up something while I was asleep or away, and its happening less and less…

I realise you’re all going on with your lives and that I’m not as much a part of them as I was 3 weeks ago, and there’s a definite tendency for “out of sight out of mind” but when I was talking to you all, at least someone, every day, I wasn’t lonely, and I felt like I could DO this. But today, for the first time, I began to wonder if I really can.

So, I guess I’m just asking that you try not to let me be out of mind, just because I’m out of sight. I don’t think I can do this without your help, all of you. I’m gonna try to shift the Beijing outings to Sundays (your Saturdays), to make it easier. Google Talk has a free voice talk function that all you need is a cheap mic to use, and I can’t tell you how much it helps to hear your voices.

I’ve never really been “homesick” before, because having moved so much as a kid, I never really felt like I had a home, and when I left Memphis, I was only leaving a few people behind, and I could always just call them if I missed them. But I’m homesick now, for Seattle, and while I can’t be there, and you can’t be here, if we can meet out in Cyberspace its not as bad.

P.S. Its not really the city I’m homesick for, but the people who made it a home, the ability to walk down the street to hang out at Belinda’s or drive over the water to Toni’s or just hang out and shoot the breeze after game. The closest I can get to that here is talking online, and that I need more than coffee or pine scent or home-cooking. I think its important for me to be ok with the accommodations, food and entertainment that China has to offer, because trying to make my life here like Seattle not only defeats the purpose of being here, but just highlights the differences and reminds me how hard it is to bring that here. Things are just things, but people are irreplaceable.

Post by Ross on Sep 19, 2007 at 7:09am

Weeeeee’re off to see the Chairman, the most respectable Chairman of OZ!

We hear he has some wonderful Chi, if ever some Chi there waaaas!

If ever oh ever a respectable worker there was, the Chairman of OZ is one because. Because, because, because, because, becaaaaause!

Because of the glorious wealth and respect in common effort to the workers he does!(doo da da da dum da doom, da!)¹

¹Nearly everything here is something I wrote, but I just couldn’t leave this creative comment out.

Sep 19, 2007 at 6:11pm

As part of teaching conversational English, I give the kids¹ little activities to do. Today was a talk show, the topic of which was “teens and their parents”. While several of the skits were standard fare: “dad won’t let me date”, “mom treats me like a child” etc. One group had a fantastically Jerry Springer-like show.

It started out with the “mother” bursting into tears (real ham acting sobs) and relating the deep tragedy of her husband disappearing from their life when her daughter was only 6 and their mother/daughter relationship is now suffering.

The “daughter” then breaks in to tell her side, the relationship isn’t bad because the father left, its bad because she is a lesbian and her mother refuses to let her marry the woman she loves!

It further develops that, although she has become a lesbian because of her deep distrust and hatred for men (causing the male “host” to back up a bit), she truly loves the woman she is with.

The only un-Springer-like action is that after the psychologist has told the mother that her daughter’s sexual preference is a result of a combination of genetics and environment, and she must support her daughter (nice and liberal), the mother and daughter make up in another flood of hamitup tears.

The skit was funny and socially relevant and very creative. It really is amazing to watch these young people grow and change.

¹ “kids” = university students, ages 18-22

Sep 21, 2007 at 1:27pm

With my cold finally gone (well mostly) and the beautiful weather, I finally got off my butt and took some pictures of the campus. Be warned, there are a lot of them¹.

We begin our virtual tour today with an aerial view of campus in order to give you a big picture from which to put the details in perspective. I went to the ninth floor of a teaching building in the middle of campus and took pics starting from the south, moving west, north,  and east.

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Now you have the 180 aerial tour, lets move onto the ground. From the south view, you can see the zigzag looking bushes, the red potted flowers and the cactus garden.

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Next, we’ll take a look inside the class building from which I took the pics. First is the view of the building from the south, standing on the same road bordered by the zigzag bushes, then some classrooms and the stairwell.

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…a public toilet and some chalkboard art.

Next we shall move to the north, and see the basketball courts, the fantastic concrete pingpong tables and some more chalkboard art.

Now to the east, a sight not easily visible in the tall view because of trees, but nice nonetheless: A fountain (not currently flowing) and some student dorms.

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And as we move to the southeast, we find a lovey garden path and gazeebo.

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Interesting architecture, well sort of, I have no idea what this smokestack thing is for, but hey, its a feature.

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The main south gate into campus (the one I come in thru every day).

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this garden is near my apt. on south campus

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Now for the entertaining bits. I’ve mentioned to a few people the amazingly big and architecturally inclined spiders here, and while I can’t get a web to show up on my camera, I thought these pics might give you some idea of what I’m talking about. The spiders themselves are about 2 inches (including legs) and the webs are usually 3-4 feet in diameter. The webs are not as patterned as say an orb spider, but they tend to be three dimensional, being a few inches deep in addition to the many feet wide. Thankfully, there are enough regular cleaning staff that no webs ever wind up on the paths, but they can be seen from the road. The pictures below are of a spider perched in his web (not one dangling in midair). You can just see the edges of the trees he has built his web between, and these are TREES not bushes, the whole thing was about 8 feet in the air. The thumbnails do not do it justice, since the spider is a little black dot, so I suggest to those who really want the full effect to go get the full size pics.

73 freaky spider 3.jpgAnd last but not least, the army kids. Some of you may be aware that military participation is mandatory in China. So all the freshmen, rather than starting their classes, are participating in military training, which seems to consist mostly of learning how to march in formation. They have been shouting outside the classrooms all week, and I often have to yell to be heard over them in class. I took some pictures of their drilling practices, and tonight I’m going to some kind of show which is being held in the football field (apparently that they’ve been preparing for, hence the yelling), that thing that looks like a bunch of colored squared on the north west corner of campus is actually a football field that they’ve covered with a plastic tarp and chairs. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you, the People’s Army…

Peace out!

¹ So many more pictures. If you want to see more, check out the album on Facebook (where picture storage is free).

Sep 28, 2007 at 2:40pm

I’m a little behind in posts this week, but I finally got the pics off my camera, so here we go. I moved my weekly exploration outing to Sunday (rather than Sat) to better coincide with chatting and game times in Seattle.

After my last trip into Beijing being so hectic, I was planning a nice relaxing day of browsing through one of the quieter shopping centers, however, this did not turn out to be the case. Adam, the anime fanboy foreign teacher here, heard of my planned outing and asked to come along. I agreed and expressed my desires for a quiet shopping trip, alas, it was not to be. After only a few minutes at the shopping center I scouted out last time (the one under the big glass cone in the previous pics), Adam wanted to show me a nearby center he’d been to before… OK… so we hit the streets. Where I saw some interesting signs, and a few examples of native wildlife.

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When we finally found his shopping center, he decided he was hungry, and asked if I’d rather go to MacDonald’s or KFC. Grrr. After waiting for him to get American junk food, I finally found a street vendor and got some REALLY tasty squid in a sauce that tasted a bit like bbq and cocktail sauce mixed together, and some grilled mutton with what tasted like cumin and cinnamon for spices.

We went into the shopping center. I found a nice Tiffany knock off chain for the pendant Miriam gave me (BTW I get compliments on that pendant, and one of the other teachers wants to know if that company has a website). I captured an interesting example of Chinese fashion, and spent a lot of time waiting around the geek area of the mall while Adam perused the entire anime toys/keepsakes collection.

Finally nearing the end of my energy and my patience, we sojourned to Starbucks and had a short break before getting back on the subway to head to a bar where one of Adam’s “friends” was DJing. The bar is called Club Obiwan, and I didn’t get any pics of the interior, cause I was tired and grumpy when we showed up, in no small part because the directions were vague and we got a little lost looking for it. But it turned out to be a really neat place, most of the clientele were ex-pats, westerners living in Beijing. I had a Mojito which was very refreshing and had a basil undertone to it, and there was free BBQ. The theme of the evening being reggae; it was not Chinese bbq. I think it was supposed to be Jamaican, but it was very mild, and oh so tasty. The music was also very nice, being that breed of reggae that is more chill out than rock out. Here is the view from the rooftop dining area.

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We totally cheated and took a taxi back to the bus stop, but it was worth it not to have to face the subway at the end of such a long day.

On Tuesday, all the teachers had to go back into Beijing to file for our residence permits, which ordinarily would not bear a place in a post, but on the way home we passed a mule drawn cart, and I had to share.

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Reflections?

I can see how much my approach to photos and descriptions has changed in 10 years. Clearly, I used to rely on the photos to tell the story, only explaining enough for context. These days I find I really enjoy describing what I see, as so often my experiences simply can’t be captured on camera, but are a blend of all the senses and of my feelings. Subsequently, I write much longer posts, but then the photos can support my story rather than the other way around.

I can also see how what I look for first in a new country hasn’t changed too much: coffee, a good place to shop for the necessities, and the best places to get local food. I haven’t focused as much on my school here in Korea, but I think that has more to do with the fact that it’s not ok to put other people’s children online without permission and I’m teaching actual kids instead of young adult “kids”. But, if it’s something you’d like to hear about, I could certainly work on a school/work post for Korea, too.

Finally, I’ve become much more self conscious about taking photos of people, no matter what age. I suspect that living in Saudi and travelling in the Middle East made me this way, since there is is at best rude and at worst illegal to take or post pictures with faces in them without permission. I don’t know if that’s something I want to change or not, yet, but it’s interesting to think about. As always, thanks for reading! 🙂

Ten Days in New Zealand: An Overview

Having spent the last few days recovering from the cold I managed to give myself at the end of my trip, I’m now feeling much better and ready to tackle the slightly overwhelming task of writing about these 10 awe inspiring, action packed days and the truly daunting goal of winnowing down the over 2000 photos I took into something that is beautiful and interesting rather than something that resembles the family holiday slide show from hell. As you can imagine, this might take me a bit of time. Furthermore, I’m starting school again this week, and I have an upcoming long weekend trip to Jeju Island. I also don’t want to dump a novel on you all at once. So, be patient. The stories will come, and they will be no less wonderful just because you read them a few weeks or even a few months after they happened.


My Route:

I made a little road map to show you the relatively small section of NZ I managed to explore, and here’s the basic itinerary. (As they get written, I’ll be linking the full story to each counterpart in the short list below).

NZ drive map (1)

Day 0: Auckland (arrival, rental car, sleep)
Day 1: Auckland (Onehunga), Piha (black sand beach), drove to Dargaville (sleep)
Day 2: Waipoua Forest (giant Kauri trees), drove to Piahia (sleep)
Day 3: Piahia (Bay of Islands, dolphins!, Haruru Falls), drove to Whangarei (sleep)
Day 4: Whangarei Falls, Waipu Caves, drove to Hot Water Beach (midnight low tide)
Day 5: Hot Water Beach, Cathedral Cove, drove to Rotorua (sleep)
Day 6: Wai-O-Tapu – hot springs (Kerosene Creek, Hot & Cold, Waterfall Spout Bath)
Day 7: Rotorua (Saturday market, Kuirau Park), Wai-O-Tapu (geothermal park), Maori
Day 8: Wai-O-Tapu (hot springs), Matamata (Hobbiton), drove to Waitomo (stars!)
Day 9: Waitomo (glowworm caves, black water rafting), drove to Auckland
Day 10: Auckland (shopping, Planetarium, Cornwall Park, One Tree Hill), Airport

It was a jam-packed holiday to be sure. I intend to breakdown the stories based on geographical region and/or type of activity, therefore while it will mostly be in order, it’s not a strict blow by blow of the 10 days. In the remainder of this post, I want to share a few interesting things I learned about New Zealand that are useful if you want to travel there and are just generally neat.

Tipping:

This bizarrely internationally inconsistent cultural habit changes drastically from country to country and making a mistake while you’re visiting can be awkward or even offensive. Quick guide to NZ tipping is that you don’t. It’s not a tipping culture except…

1) let taxi driver’s keep the small change. It’s not precisely a “tip” it’s just inconvenient to make them dig out exact change.

2) similarly, tip jars if present in cafes are not looking for anything more than the small change (under 1$).

3) exceptional service – if you feel like a waitperson has just gone above and beyond, leaving a tip is a way of thanking them for that, but it is not expected at most restaurants or meals.

4) fancy restaurants – I didn’t go to one, but I hear a 10% is standard at these. Every place I ate at did not have a tip line on the credit card slip, thus it was actually impossible for me to leave a tip if I wasn’t paying in cash. Maybe big fancy places are different, I can’t say.

While I do cough up the cash where tipping is standard (don’t even get me started on tips as wages), I prefer non-tipping cultures because there is no awkward math or trying to judge my server’s performance. I typically find that I get better service when tips aren’t on the line because my servers aren’t busy calculating which of their tables is going to make them the most money. Plus, having done food service before, I’m convinced tip wages are some kind of anxiety induced torture because staff never know how much money they’ll actually make. So just be polite and courteous to your servers, say please and thank you and don’t worry about dangling a financial reward in front of them for doing their job well.

Driving:

For some reason, despite all the research that I did before going to New Zealand, I did not realize that they drove on the left until the day before I got on the plane. I even read about NZ traffic laws because I planned to rent a car and drive around, but somehow the government sponsored website failed to put that in an obvious place. As a result, when I landed in Auckland and got the shuttle to my rental car company, I was frantically trying to watch the traffic and the driver as closely as possible. On top of that, it was dark by the time I got my car, so I had to navigate my way to my airbnb in this backwards car on the wrong side of the road and in the dark. I do not think I have gripped a steering wheel that hard in years.

It turns out the hardest part of driving on the left isn’t the left lane, it’s the car itself because the driver’s seat is now in the right and everything is backwards. The turn signal and windshield wipers are reversed. I cannot tell you how many times I accidentally turned on my wipers while trying to signal. The gearshift is on the left. Thankfully, I had an automatic and the only times I was shifting were in parking lots, but I often found myself reaching for a steering column mounted shift that simply wasn’t there because my muscle memory found that to be the default when there was no gearshift to my right. Good news, gas and brake were still the same, otherwise I might have had some nasty accidents.

Driving on the left is mostly just a matter of staying in your lane. If you’ve ever driven in a multi lane highway, you’ll have experience with driving on the left as the passing lane (although here the left is the slow lane and the right is passing only). Oncoming traffic was terrifying for the first two days, and I spent about 4-5 days chanting “left, left, left” to myself every time I made a turn to help me land in the correct lane on the other side of the intersection. NZ doesn’t have many of “highways” as we think of them in America or even Europe. Much of the country is made of tiny winding wooded mountainous treks. It was a relief to get out of Auckland and have less traffic, but it was a whole new challenge to drive down roads that twisted with scant visibility and narrow lanes that ended in cliff-sides or sheer drops. I pulled over frequently. Partly because a line of impatient Kiwi drivers behind me wanted to go faster than I felt safe driving, but largely because the scenery in NZ is incredibly breathtaking, and I needed to stop driving so I could look at it properly.

There are a preponderance of roundabouts. All the roundabouts. I usually only saw “intersections” in the more pastoral areas. In anywhere with civilization, the preferred interchange was the roundabout. These were quite intimidating at first because there are no stop indicators, only “give way” or yields. You have to check to your right to see if anyone is already there, then go. Then count exits to find yours and trust that everyone else is going to yield to you once you’re in the roundabout. I made several mistakes, but no crashes.

Lastly: one lane bridges… I don’t know why. Maybe it’s too much infrastructure? Maybe the bridges were built at a time when all the roads were one lane? Maybe kiwis just like driving dangerously? I lost count of how many one lane bridges I crossed. There are helpful signs that tell you which lane has right of way. It’s based on who has better visibility of the bridge. If you can see the bridge, you have to give way.  Only once did I have someone fail to yield to me when they should have, I assume another visitor confused by the rules, but I managed to stop in time.

As crazy as all of these things seemed when I started my journey, by the time I got to the end, I was entirely adjusted. I found myself driving at (or just above) the speed limit on those curvy roads. I barely slowed entering roundabouts with no oncoming cars. I learned how to pass the other slow drivers on the road, and was able to confidently navigate Auckland by the time I returned there on day 10. I met other travelers who were busing it, and a few who had rented campers. It became apparent that the busing travelers were highly limited in schedule and in events. They had to rely on tour groups to go anywhere outside the cities. I think the camper might be the best way to go, being able to park in free parking lots (of which there are many) and cheap campsites wherever you like is liberating, but I got turned off RVs when my dad explained the septic tank process. I think for my short trip the car was ideal. There are hostels near every point of interest that are cheap enough and I still had the freedom to track down some out of the way places at some less popular times. Conclusion? Driving on the left is challenging but worth it for New Zealand.

Insurance:

Ok, insurance isn’t exciting or glamorous, but most of us know it’s an important part of travelling because you never want to find yourself far from home with no way to pay for any liability you may incur due to accident or injury. Turns out NZ is one of the most traveler friendly nations in terms of coverage, so if you’re tired of expensive traveler’s insurance, this might be a good alternative.

Fortunately, I did not have any need to visit the healthcare system in New Zealand, but I did learn while I was preparing my travel plans (including insurance) that all accidental injury (regardless of the Darwinian nature of the cause or who is at fault) is 100% covered for anyone in NZ. ‘Anyone in NZ’ doesn’t just mean residents, but literally if you are injured in NZ, the government will pay for the healthcare you need. Obviously there are some limits, like long term care which you would get in your home country if you’re just visiting, but it was still good to know that if I got into a car accident or slipped and fell in a stream and broke my arm or something similar, that at very least the financial side of my imaginary tragedy would not be a burden.

Canadians reading this are probably going ‘well, duh’, because you guys never worry about healthcare costs it seems, but the Americans will get it. Accidental injury is one of the great banes of our existence where a trip to the ER can wind up costing thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. I often get some kind of traveler’s insurance that will keep me from bankruptcy and get me back to my country of residence for real care, but those policies don’t cover too much and can still leave you with poor care choices and large bills.

It’s never fun to have to limit your adventurous activities for fear of medical bills and thanks to the NZ government, I didn’t have to! Of course, I still didn’t want any broken bones. I was careful, but it was a serious relief to know that I was covered.

Additionally, all rental car companies must provide basic car insurance with every rental. You can’t decline the basic insurance (although you can choose the included basic over the extra cost comprehensive). This matters for a few reasons. One, lots of credit cards offer insurance if you pay for the rental on the card and decline the optional insurance. I spent some time trying to get a manager at Visa to confirm with me that the insurance in NZ isn’t optional and wouldn’t count against my Visa based car insurance (which would then basically cover damage to the car or other property, but not medical bills). Two, because of the accidental medical coverage, car insurance doesn’t need to include medical. Any injury sustained in a car accident will already be covered. Three, if you’re leaving the cities, you will scratch that car. The damage from small scratches from branches on the side of the road or stones thrown up from the car ahead of you are small and easily covered by the basic insurance and because everyone has it, the rental companies don’t stress trying to get a couple hundred extra dollars out of you for a scratch on the paint.

I’m afraid if your stuff gets stolen or broken, NZ doesn’t cover you for that, but I’ve found often renter’s or homeowner’s insurance has an option to cover your belongings while you’re on the road and sometimes the flight insurance will cover belongings for the duration of the holiday.

Water:

Not the drinking water (though that’s fine too), but the ocean, lakes and rivers. The vast majority of water in NZ is considered public. Water doesn’t belong to anyone. This has actually caused some controversy with the Maori population who lay claim to some bodies of water and the rest of the NZ government who say that water cannot be owned. Take a moment to savor the idea that water cannot be owned and then go write a letter to your congressman about Nestle buying up all the clean water in North America so they can sell it back to us in plastic bottles. The issues with Maori are complex and involve things like land use rights, fishing rights, and mineral rights that give them more exclusive access to waterways in some places, but not actual ownership of the water.

In addition, there is a piece of land called the “Queen’s Chain” which exists around most waterways (sometimes it does not due to environmental or safety reasons to restrict public access, and there’s still about 30% of the coastline the government is working to get back in the public domain, again, it’s complicated). The Queen’s Chain is 20m of land on one or both sides of a waterway that are public land, free to access assuming you don’t have to tromp through private property to get there. I’m told sometimes the farmers get stroppy (with shotguns) about backpackers and kayakers who are following a stream or river from a public access point into their land, so it does pay to be aware of where your river goes if that’s your plan.  If you want to read more about the laws, you can do so here.

The upshot of all these laws is that there are almost no privately owned resorts, country clubs or homes that get restricted access to a beach, river, lake or hot spring. How cool is that? I’ve been to many coastal areas with beautiful beaches that have just been developed to death because hotels can charge big bucks for access to their private beach. When I lived in Florida, the small stretch of beach that didn’t cost an arm and a leg to get into was limited and often overcrowded. In tropical paradises in the Caribbean, beaches have become little more than oceanfront bars. In Dubai they are oceanfront dance clubs. In Washington state, when we want to go to a hot spring or waterfall that’s undeveloped, we have to go into a state or national park and hike for several km. In NZ, however, these things are all near roadways with easy public access and safe off road parking. Many of them are even handicapped accessible.

Many of the astonishing places I visited on this holiday were only possible for me to see because of these laws concerning waterways and the land near them. If there were a hot spring on a beach in the US it would be a private resort charging guests hundreds of dollars for the experience, but in NZ it was totally free and natural with no looming 30 story hotels and no one selling margaritas above the high tide line, just a well-heeled campsite on the other side of the highway, a few private homes scattered through the hills, a quaint local cafe, and an art gallery. Similarly, Rotorua has fancy spas that filter the natural mineral water for clean and landscaped soaking experiences, which is fine, but less than 30 minutes out of town I was able to visit 3 natural hot pools in one day and spend a couple hours in each with no rigorous hiking or exorbitant fees.

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I support paying reasonable fees to maintain public land (taxes, anyone?). I happily paid my annual public park fee in Washington when I lived there (about 30$ for all access). What I can’t get behind is the total commercialization of natural beauty.  I’m not saying visiting cities or man-made wonders isn’t worthwhile too (goodness knows, I go to ancient ruins and modern amenities all the time) but it doesn’t replace a natural experience. The earth is our home and it is full of wonders that we cannot create nor replicate. Of course sometimes that means you’ll get dirty, or get a few bug bites, but it’s worth it and you get to come home to a hot shower after all because that’s the balance. Flushing toilets and hot water can coexist in a world with fresh rain-forests and pristine beaches.  New Zealand’s water laws don’t just protect the water, but much of the land around it, preserving the environment and giving us access to nature’s best features. I think a few other countries could take notes.

Lord of the Rings & Hobbits:

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All 6 films were made in New Zealand (in case you were living under a rock). Many natural features of the land are now famous Middle Earth landmarks. Most of those beautiful panoramic views were real, and not computer generated. It’s quite popular for Tolkien fans to make a pilgrimage from movie site to movie site. Most of the landscape has been carefully returned  to its wild state so you won’t see the Hall of Rohan at Edoras or the Last Homely House at Rivendell. However, walking around the bush in NZ made me feel like an adventurer in Middle Earth more often than not (the rest of the time, I felt like I was in Jurassic Park, more on that later). I also got more excited than I truly care to admit when I realized I could see “Mt. Doom” from the park in Wai-O-Tapu. I didn’t do much LOTR location viewing because most of the sets are actually further south than I ventured on my short trip, but it was fun to go to Hobbiton and see the Shire and I hope that I get to do more of the mountains and forests when I make it back to see the South Island.

Fern Gully:

Yes, that tree-hugging animated feature from the early 1990’s was based on the forests of New Zealand. Both the Maori and the British settlers contributed to a massive deforestation of New Zealand. Estimated to have dropped from 80% to 50% under Maori stewardship and then to as low as 20% under British/Kiwi stewardship, the forests of New Zealand have been under attack for nearly 1000 years. Up until 1985 deforestation was actually encouraged and subsidized by the government. However, the Department of Conservation was finally established and now native forests are protected, making up to about 15% of the land, and a further 15% are replanted forests (some of which are still logged for timber, but at a sustainable growth rate that will continue to increase forestation over time).

As a side note, Batty Coda (the insane bat voiced by Robin Williams) represents the only native land mammal in New Zealand. All other land mammals presently there were imported for fur, meat or milk. The Maori people thought of bats as a type of bird that represented knowledge and wisdom and incorporated it into their tattoos. You can see lots of NZ plant life as well as other unique New Zealand creatures in the movie including the large gecko that tries to eat Zack and the cave full of glow worms that Crystal and Jack go to be romantic in.

Whether Kiwi attitudes toward logging and preservation were impacted by Fern Gully or not, conservation has now become a significant part of life and government in NZ. With care and attention, the beautiful forests and natural landscapes that I was privileged to travel through will exist and grow richer in the decades to come.

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I hope this whets your appetite for more tales from New Zealand. I’ll be working diligently to get the rest of the posts up in the coming weeks. Thanks for reading 🙂