Wednesday, February 11, 2015

An update on Sylhet

If you read my post on Battling Bangladesh, you'll know that I was curious to find out more about the relationship between Sylhet and the UK. I don't know what I didn't think at  the time to just look it up. With the Internet, there's really no excuse to wait because it's not like you have to go and find an encyclopedia, but in any case, here I am posting about it several months later after reading through my post and reminding myself that I was curious about it. I'm not so fond of using Wikipedia as the most accurate source of information, but for general information, it's usually pretty good. So I found out that Sylhet is a lot more significant than I realised, historically speaking. And it isn't a floodplain, although there are definitely more things produced there due to their supply of water and the climate of that part of the country. An interesting read, and I highly recommend taking the time to do so--just because it's fun to know!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

First time in mainland China

Chrysanthemum tea
So I finally made it to the other most populous country in the world. It's vastly different from India, whose billion plus people all seem to be out in the streets; China appears to be so controlled and not chaotic at all. You don't get a real sense of the enormous population, though I supposed if we were in any event that draws a large crowd, it would be different. But I'm glad I finally got to go. Back in 2006, when I started blogging about my travels and travelling extensively alone, I was planning to go to China since my cousin lived there at the time, I had a friend living in another city teaching ESL, and yet another friend that was backpacking around Asia and was in China at the time. But I had issues with the Chinese Embassy giving me the runaround, so I never got a visa to go. In some ways, when you think of the human rights issues and what not, I wasn't interested in going to the country. On the other hand, there's good reasons to go and see a country with such ancient roots. I do want to see the western part of the country, specifically Urumqi and the Silk Road area. Maybe some day :o)

In any case, I didn't get a chance to do a lot of sightseeing there, being that I was on a work trip, but I did get to see a few things. I really enjoyed myself more than I imagined, and I found people there to be really warm and welcoming. The food was totally fine without anything too weird by my standards. In fact, I even found Shanghai area food to be a little dull and bland, though it wasn't un-tasty.

One new experience I had this time around was getting cheated royally by a taxi driver. Not that I haven't been taken advantage of before like most tourists in some parts, but this one was different. We were actually scammed. When we went to The Forbidden City, we grabbed a taxi to get to Tienanmen Square. That will always cost more because the drivers take advantage of the fact that you're desperate to find someone there. The driver wanted us to pay a ripe sum of RMB30, which is about $6, so we paid it knowing that there wasn't much we could do (most distances of 15km or more would cost us only about RMB20, and this time we were only going about 5km, but what can you do). So we hopped in. I sat in the front seat, and the driver gave me RMB70 in cash, I guess assuming I was going to give him a 100 bill. I did, and he checked it for validity in a UV light he had because counterfeit 100s are a big problem in China, as we were warned by the currency exchange kiosk in the Vancouver airport where we got our money. The driver told me it was a fake, and I told it couldn't be, and despite our argument, he insisted I give him the other 100 he saw in my wallet, so I did, and he told me it was fake, too. So my co-worker did the same thing with two 100s with the same result. I finally just gave him 30, which I had initially intended to do, and then we left when we got to our destination.

At that point, we walked around a bit and then went into a student art show where students from some university were selling their works. I don't know if they were for real, but the paintings were nice, so I bought a set of 4 hanging ones. My co-worker bought a small picture and tried to pay with her cash, and the people in the venue noticed they were fakes. And later when I tried to use one of my hundreds to pay the taxi driver back to the hotel, the driver told me my 100s were fake, too. We were baffled as to how it could have happened because our cash was good when we got it from the currency exchange. The driver actually spoke great English and explained to us that the other taxi guy probably gave us the old switcheroo and somehow exchanged our bills for fake ones with some slight of hand trick. I was not amused because I lost $40. If I had lots of money to spare, I wouldn't have been as annoyed, but that's a fair amount of cash, in my opinion. Regardless, it was too late. And I learned my lesson the hard way.

Outside of that, I really enjoyed my first trip to China. I also took advantage to find good quality tea and even developed a taste for puerh tea, which is different for me because normally I only enjoy black teas these days, but I've learned that if you have a really good quality tea, non-black teas can be great, too.

After China were stops in Singapore and Hong Kong. Not much to see there for me since most of it isn't new, so not too many photos from there. Above is a photo from one of the bays in Singapore that I never saw before. It's quite pretty when it's lit up at night, and we walked around after our event since it was outside the venue.

Here are the albums from my trip. Make sure to click on them to see the larger photos and not just the small thumbnail.

China 2014

Singapore Dec 2014

Monday, January 12, 2015

It's been a while...

I haven't posted much for quite sometime. I actually switched jobs, which still allows me to travel, but most of my trips were such that I didn't have a lot of time to take photos and really reflect on much. I've been to San Francisco and London and Asia so far. I'll do a separate post on Asia but just wanted to add a quick note about some of the things on my mind regarding people you meet when you travel.

While flying back from San Francisco, I had a layover in Phoenix and was seated next to a very talkative man from Fresno on his way to meet his girlfriend in San Diego after a series of cancelled and delayed flights and being rerouted on my flight. He was an interesting guy, telling me about his life growing up with his grandparents because his parents were in and out of jail on gang-related charges, both parents being members of a Mexican gang. He was the first of anyone in his family, since they immigrated from Mexico 3 generations before, to go to college, achieving not just one, but two degrees, all while living with a gay uncle and the partner of that uncle during his college years in the city where he went to school. (And if you're wondering why I know all this, it's because I have that look on my face that makes people want to tell me their life stories.)

Since the economic crisis hit the US, he's been underemployed when not unemployed and has had a hard time making ends meet. But when he was disembarking from the plane, he pulled out a Michael Kors handbag and told me it was a gift for his girlfriend. I asked him if it was a knock-off, and he confirmed that it was the real thing. It reminded me of a comment a friend made somewhat recently in that "luxury" has lost some of its meaning. We are told to believe that we all deserve a little luxury in our lives at any cost, and I think it's true that his is happening to us. Almost every female seems to have a designer label purse these days, regardless of her socioeconomic situation. I began to wonder if I was one of the few without such an item. I have some designer shoes that I bought at discount stores, which I think charged me a maximum of $60 because I would pay no more than that. And I once bought a knock-off Burberry purse in Indonesia that turned out to be crappy quality (though many aren't and probably depend more on where you buy them) because I liked the size and felt the colours were neutral enough for me to use it year round. I'm just not into purses.

In any case, it saddens me in a way because luxury is so relative. I look at the house that I live in, that I was able to buy last year, and know that I have electricity, plumbing, and heat. I've got lots of blankets and food and even a fireplace to keep me warm if the heat and electricity fail. And I have a yard that allows me to grow fruits and vegetables and a climate that is temperate enough that I know these plants will produce. If I think I'll have a period of no rain, I can turn on my tap and plug in my hose and water my plants if I need to. I may not have a Coach or Louis Vuitton handbag, but I do have what half the world doesn't, a life where many of my wants are met, let alone my basic needs. About 2.8 million people in the world live on less than $2 a day, according to the UN. If you're able to read this blog, it's probably because you are a millionaire like me, relative to what this other population has available to them. If that isn't luxury, I don't know what is.

Friday, September 12, 2014

New sights in India

Whenever I travel, people keep telling me to take lots of pictures. It makes sense some of the time, but a lot of the places I've had to travel to for work in the past few years have been the same places over and over again, and so there really isn't much to see that's new anymore. In India, for example, there are only so many photos of cows in the street or rickshaws or people hanging off trains or scooters that you can take before it becomes redundant, so I find I usually take a lot fewer photos than I used to. But whenever I get to go somewhere new, my shutter-happy finger takes off again, and I find myself wanting to snap a shot of everything I see, almost.

Rolling hills of tea plantations
This is what happened in Ooty. I arrived in the city of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, the first time I had been to that city and state before. From Coimbatore, you take about a 3 hour drive up to the city of Ooty, a hill station in the Nilgiri mountains. It's a beautiful road, and we set off in mid-afternoon for the drive. By the time we were heading up into the hills, dusk had started to fall and a full moon was coming out over the valley between the steep hills of Nilgiri tea plantations. The area is not that heavily populated, so you could see the stars in the sky, different constellations than what I get to see at home, and we passed various kinds of wildlife I'm not using to seeing, like baboons and a bison. I couldn't get photos of those, unfortunately, because they were on the wrong side of the road, and it was dark--and the darkness is dangerous because the road is quite narrow with several hairpin turns, and visibility is poor, so my chances of getting hit if I went out would have been huge, plus who wants to get out with wild monkeys around? It's just not safe!

In any case, the city and drive there and back are spectacular. Apparently you can take a train, too, which I imagine would be just as scenic and enjoyable, as long as you can stand the windy roads or tracks. The British established this city because the air is cool and fresh on account of the altitude, and some of the schools I visited were founded before Canada even became a country. Life there seems more tranquil and a lot less chaotic than in the large metropolises I normally go to. It looks like India, but you can see the British influence there more than in some other parts, perhaps, and you'll see more horses and donkeys just roaming about. I was also surprised to see a group of people riding English style down a street as well, properly attired and everything. That's not something you see everywhere in India!

Scenes around Ooty
Near to Ooty is a tiger reserve, and you can see elephants (in fact, there was an elephant crossing sign on the road from Ooty back to Coimbatore, though I don't know how they would get around the steep slopes), and other types of interesting wild animals--staying in your car, of course, like any safari in Africa. I wish I could have had time to go, but unfortunately, when you're travelling for work, you can't do stuff like that all the time.  I did, however, buy some tea as well as some sandalwood and eucalyptus oils, which are much cheaper there than anywhere because they produce it. And I bought some chocolate. For some reason, there are handmade chocolates for sale all over the city, and after tasting a free sample, I was surprised how tasty it was and bought some small packages from bulk to take home and share.

It's a beautiful trip, and the air and cleanliness reminded me of home. I guess I'm feeling a little homesick, too, so it made me start counting down the days until I'm home. Just one more week!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Battling Bangladesh

There are a number of battles here: climate, traffic, the dense population, politics, economics, and who knows what other battles go on.

The climate is hard if you don't like heat and humidity, but even if you do, and you're from here, you might be a farmer losing your crops to the severe flooding that has plagued a number of regions in this tiny but densely packed country. My flight made a stopover in Sylhet in the north (by the way, I've been advised never to fly Biman Bangladesh again for a variety of reasons! haha), and flying into the city, I couldn't figure out how there could be a city there, much less a runway--or even how anyone found enough dry land to live on because there was so much water. I know that there is lots of rice grown here, but people still need to sleep on something dry so they have enough strength to harvest it! To the north of Sylhet are some beautiful hills, and a wide river with silt and sand spreads out into these floodplains, if indeed, that's what they are. A lot of really well-to-do looking British citizens of Bangladeshi heritage got off here in Sylhet, which surprised me. I thought for sure they would be headed to Dhaka. Again, not much land to live on here, so I was surprised this was their destination. I've been told that there are lots of ties between this city and England and that a lot of the students from this city will go to do their higher studies in the UK. I'm not sure what the historical relationship is, but it's worth finding out.
It's not surprising to me that there have been predictions of Bangladesh slipping completely under water and climate change raises ocean levels. Where will these millions of people in the most densely populated country in the world go? Who will take them, or will it just be the rich that get out, and the rest drown because they were born poor? It's not a pleasant thought, and the prospect brings tears to my eyes.

Upon arrival at the airport, I had to wait a bit as I had opted to do the visa on arrival. I wish more countries would have this, although I suppose it would mean longer line-ups and waiting, as opposed to just sending in everything to an Embassy or Consulate and then having them send it back to you. No line-ups there, except for at the post office where you need to buy your courier envelopes. There were some Chinese travellers ahead of it, but they were at least all in one group, so that helped in a way because it wasn't a separate application process for each one. By the time I sifted through that, I thought for sure my luggage would be waiting for me. I'm sure I had taken at least 45 minutes to come out from immigration by the time all the processing was through. When I got to the baggage claim belt, it wasn't even moving, and luggage was yet to surface! I probably waited at least 15 minutes more. A young guy waiting near me said "Finally", when the conveyer belt started moving, "you have to wait at least an hour for the luggage to come out. So frustrating, but still we come!" I guess he was a local that had moved away, but it gave me a chuckle. The weird part is that once it started coming, it was so sparse. They emptied 3 separate truck loads, and the luggage came out so slowly. Finally mine came, and I was on my way to meet the hotel shuttle waiting for me.

When I met the hotel shuttle greeter, he told me we would have to wait a bit before we leave because of the hartal. Did I mention that yet, that there was a strong possibility there would be violent protests known as hartal upon my arrival? That was just great timing. The last few trips I've taken, some sort of natural disaster occurred. In light of there not being one this trip, I guess I had to have a man-made disaster of a sort. Thankfully it was short-lived, and I could accomplish the rest of my work tasks here, but things were looking pretty iffy at one point. Our shuttle couldn't arrive too soon--as we neared the hotel, a group of protesters were making their way down the road, and if we had arrived even a minute later, we might have had to wait for the parade to pass before we were able to even get into the hotel. I was thankful we could get in right away. I had already been travelling for nearly 29 hours by the time we reached the hotel. There were threats of it happening again two days after I arrived, but I'm glad it didn't end up coming to fruition. Once was enough for me!

One of the things I love about Dhaka is the colourful decoration of the rickshaws. I saw a great book on them at one of the school libraries a couple of years ago, and unfortunately I can't find anything like it at home. The book must have been a local publication. I was so disappointed. They're much prettier than anywhere else I've seen them, so I wanted to have some sort of keepsake with them. Oh well! I was able to get a somewhat decent photo of some of them. I took another couple of random street shots, one of which was to highlight what the buses look like there. Most of them look like they will fall apart at any moment and look like pieces of scrap metal welded together. One of the colleagues I was with told me they might be made from re-purposed ship materials as there was a huge shipping industry there, so we're not sure. Only we agreed that the buses looked frightening.

One thing I really wish is that I could speak the local language so I could go out and do more things. It's not really a tourist location by any means, so it's difficult to get around, and a person could probably get lost easily in such a large, populated, chaotic place. I don't really feel like I've got to know the country or the city. I just stay there and work. I'm in India now. I arrived this evening, but I already can't wait to get back home again. Even in India, I'm in some new cities, and even now being in Kolkata, though I've been here before, I still won't really have time to see anything, I don't think. It's all work and no fun!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Poetry from Swaziland part 6 (final poem)

Gugu Mdluli
November 18, 2011 at 1:53pm
Shelling ears of mealies 
Long dried, far from their vast green

Ping-pinging kernel after kernel
Into a red-petaled enamel basin.

Absent fingers churn out
Thought-images of hot weeks in December
spent among trees and grasshoppers.
Sing-song sashays through sibilant grass.

Ticking and tocking memories
Flicking them one after the other
Into one waiting bowl.

Time held in cobs and rows -
A stuttering trance
Of dusty barefoot days
at my grandmother's.

Guava trees wild, yellow-green
Climbed, raided.
The glorious return home with the biggest, juiciest,
yellowest of the fruit.

An isolated patch of cropped, cool grass
from which we watched night fall -
the leisurely sinking of the sun, beyond those dry hills.
Then star-studded blackness.

The long, wistful howling of mongrel dogs
with forgotten names and old eyes

Slow SiSwati stories. A candle
burns until dawn.
A mass of skimny limbs tangled - the owners picked off by sleep
one by one.

Tick, ping, tock, ping
Shelling mealies.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Poetry from Swaziland part 5

Gugu Mdluli
November 18, 2011 at 1:19pm
he sees nothing strange
in the undiluted warmth that -
when in my mind images dance
of his lollipop-delicious mouth -
traverses my vein-rivers red
and visits my sky blue summers.

awed but not unmanned
by my smiling brown stare
that -
in unbottled wonder -
says every day:
i adore you.

he is for me.