Monday, December 12, 2011

Atlanta -- Day Four

My last day in Atlanta started pretty much the same as the last three.  Only difference being today I had to check out.  I left my luggage with the able-bodied concierge and off I went.  My goal was to be at the zoo at opening and hope that my panda pals were awake and entertaining visitors.  I would not be disappointed.

Once again I walked to the Civic Center bus stop and ran for the #32 bus, only to find it was going to sit there for about 20 minutes before leaving.  That always makes me feel silly for running for it, but hey, I burned off half a waffle doing that run.  Maybe.  The bus ride out only took about 20 minutes this time and now I  knew where to pull the cord to request the stop.  I was an old pro at this.  I walked over to the gate of the zoo and realized it opened at 9:30, not 9:00, so instead of being 20 minutes late, I was 10 minutes early.  I spent that time shivering in the cold (41 degrees) Atlanta morning.

After relinquishing my last CityPass ticket (I had used all five), I did some speed walking right to the panda area.  In the first outdoor enclosure was a male panda, but I wasn't sure who, either Yang Yang or Xi Lan.  It turned out that it was Yang Yang, who had very little interest in anything but munching bamboo much of the day.  Xi Lan was such an utter flirt and camera hog on Friday, it was sort of a bummer to learn his dad isn't the same.

But my reward was in the next outdoor enclosure, where I found mom Lun Lun and baby Po out and about.  Lun was eating and Po was wandering around.  For the next 90 minutes, I had these two all to myself, with the exception of a very nice and chatty volunteer.  I moved to the enclosed part of the panda area, and sat up against the glass of the outdoor enclosure.  When Lun and Po started walking around, they were literally on the other side of the glass.  I was lucky enough to have them pass close by (close enough to touch...well, but for the glass!) and both even stopped to look at me looking at them a couple times.  It was fabulous.  I learned a lot from the volunteer about this particular panda family and shared some of what I learned in China.  Finally around 11 or so, Po settled down for a nap, then Lun did too, so I moved on to visit other animals.

The tiger cubs were up next and they were really putting on a show.  As I approached their enclosure one of them was right at the glass and was licking it.  I caught him mid-lick and he put his paw up against the glass like he was saying hi.  He let me get pretty close before running off after his sister.  I am thrilled with my photos of them as well.  For a non-photographer, I did pretty well.

At 12:45, I ascertained that most of the other animals were inside and even papa panda Yang Yang was asleep.  There was no sense standing out in the cold waiting for animals to wake up, so I returned to the downtown area.  I was cold and hungry with lots of time to kill, so decided to have a big meal now and something smaller at the airport.  I got off the metro near Fox Theater and walked to Mary Mac's Tearoom, which Frommers calls and Atlanta institution. 

Mary Mac's is is a bit dated in decor but also in menu prices.  My meal was a whopping $11.  I had meatloaf with fried green tomatoes and sweet potato souffle and sweet tea.  I'd read about the sweet tea and decided to try it despite the fact that I don't actually like iced tea.  It was quite good, very sweetened (sugar!).  The meatloaf was fairly good, the fried green tomatoes were a bit weak but the highlight was the sweet potato souffle, which had marshmallows and brown sugar on top.  NICE!  My dessert choice (peanut butter pie) had just run out, but I was full, so I paid my tab and moved on.  I'd pass on Mary Mac's if I were to return to Atlanta.  It just paled in comparison to the other meals I'd had on this trip.

I really struggled deciding what to do with the rest of my day.  I had about 3 1/2 hours until I had to head to the airport.  Ultimately I paid another $26 to return to the aquarium.  I spent half my time watching the whale sharks in the big tank and the other half watching the belugas.  I stored up mental images for those times I need to relax and think of something zen.  These underwater beauties will do it.

At 5:15 I took the Metro back to the airport and was all checked in and eating a salad at my gate by 6:30.  Take off was at 7:30 and we had an early arrival back in Boston at 10 p.m.

All in all it was a great trip.  I'd definitely return to Atlanta for the zoo, the aquarium and the food.  Had I only visited the zoo and the aquarium once, the CityPass would have been a huge savings (I paid $69 for admission to sites that would have been $96 individually).  Sure, I may not have visited World of Coca Cola otherwise, but sine it was nearby and essentially free, why not?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Atlanta -- Day Three

Another night of solid sleep makes me wonder if I was running at a deficit or am just starting to unwind? Anyway, up at 8:00 and today I exercised some restraint at breakfast. I had the chef whip up some waffles and I had strawberries and pineapple, one cheese blintz, OJ and coffee. Miraculously, another carb-laden breakfast lasted me until well after 1:00. Those waffles were delectable. Very light and fluffy.

I headed out into a very cold Atlanta morning. Hey, I left Boston thinking it’d be warmer, why am I wrapping a scarf around my neck and hunkering down against the wind? I took the MARTA to Five Points and switched to the Blue Line to take me to the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site, which is on Auburn Avenue where he was born, preached and was buried from (and is still buried today). I went to the National Park Service’s information center, which had some interesting exhibits on his life and sermons. There was a LOT of video and photos I’d never seen before, as well as a theater that ran movies on his life. On the corner is the new Ebenezer Baptist Church which is across the street from the (now non-functioning) original. Next to that is the King Center where King’s and his wife Coretta’s tomb is outside. Up the street about a block is his birth home. This is the second time recently I’ve visited sites with the National Park Service (Philly was the other) and I’m impressed by how friendly and informative the rangers are. This was a good experience on its own. But something told me to go to church.

So just before 11 I headed into Ebenezer Baptist Church, where I was welcomed by a member. She handed me the program for today and asked me to complete a visitor’s card. I was led inside and I had my pick of seats among the congregants. Everyone made eye contact and smiled and welcomed me. I was quite obviously a visitor. The service started with lots of music and people standing to sway and wave their arms. The music was amazing, really very uplifting. Very early in the service, a member of the congregation stood at the mic and read out the names and hometowns of visitors. Oh good lord, there was a reason for filling out that card? When visitors heard their names, they were asked to stand and remain standing. Once all visitors were standing, the music started up again and the regular members all walked and greeted each visitor with a handshake and “God bless” or “Hallelujah” or “Happy Holidays”. I was blown away. Here I was, miles from home in a church not my own and I was made to feel welcome right away.

The pastor was energetic and inspiring. His sermon was based on a reading from Matthew where Joseph was told to take Jesus and Mary and flee from Bethlehem. If he had stayed in one place, Jesus may not have lived. The pastor wove that story into the moral that we must step outside of our comfort zone, that in order to fulfill our destiny we have to move on, but bearing in mind that however small it feels where we are now, from something small, something big can grow. Like Jesus growing from the animals’ trough in the manger to the cross. Those of you who know me know that I don’t consider myself terribly religious but for some reason these words rang true. After a few more songs and a benediction, the service ended, a very quick 2 hours later. I was glad I followed my whim, that was a memory made for certain.

I took the MARTA to the High Museum of Art, which I was hoping would have some of my favorite Impressionists on display and I was planning to pop into the Picasso to Warhol (from MOMA in NYC) exhibition. Alas, I only found one Monet and it was a canal view from Zaandam in Holland. I really should have remembered how much I cannot seem to appreciate modern art, because while I’m sure the exhibition was good – 14 artists selected by MOMA to be shown together in the south – I felt like I was drowning in art I just couldn’t “get”. I was also reminded how blessed we are in Boston to have the MFA with such a stellar collection.

Tired and cold, I headed back to the room to blog and email and warm up with a cappuccino. I canceled my pre-existing reservation for tonight to hopefully get into Pitty Pat’s Porch, a very popular Southern restaurant nearby. Here’s hoping…

Editing to add: I actually did make it to Pitty Pat's Porch.  They weren't very busy yet at 5:30 when I went by.  I thought for sure I'd be fighting to get in.  The server here was phenomenal too. I'm starting to think it's "just" southern hospitality and not that they're great servers!  Anyway, I started with a peach margarita which was fabulous and apparently bottomless and very strong on the spirits.  I had the fried green tomatoes (as usual, but I love them!) and a couple of wonderful, warm sweet potato muffins that came with the meal (instead of corn bread which I'd been expecting).  I had the Savannah crabcakes over grits, with a red pepper sauce lightly drizzled over it (can you tell this was to die for?).  With the entree, diners have access to the side bar, which is like a Southern style salad bar.  I skipped most of the salad fixings and instead tried things like macaroni salad, chicken salad and black-eyed peas (which seem more like beans?)  I managed to save enough room for a heavenly bowl of hot peach cobbler with cinnamon ice cream.  Sinful!  All this well worth the expectation!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Atlanta -- Day Two

I slept like a rock last night. I think the long weeks at work, the early wake up yesterday and all the activity outside yesterday ran me down. I woke at 7:45 and had my free breakfast downstairs in the hotel restaurant Sear. Let’s call it Carb-Fest 2011. It consisted of a cheese blintz, a sticky pecan roll, a buttermilk biscuit, oatmeal with maple syrup, one “high protein turkey sausage” and a bowl of strawberries and red grapefruit. I had two glasses of OJ and a cup of coffee. I didn’t think all the carbs would stick with me but I would manage to make it from 8:30 to 1:00 without feeling hungry at all!

I walked about 10 minutes from the hotel to Georgia Aquarium. I was looking forward to this but I had no idea that I would enjoy it as much as I did. The aquarium opened in 2007 (I think) and is really well laid out and executed. There are 5 areas you can visit: Ocean Explorer, River Scout, Cold Water Quest, Georgia Explorer and Tropical Diver. There is also a dolphin gallery where visitors can walk up to the side of a large tank to see a pair of dolphins swimming at eye level. This is in the same gallery as the Dolphin Tales show. Since I bought the City Pass, I got a free Quick Dip tour and access to the 4-D movie (which I skipped) and I paid extra for the Dolphin Tales show.

I started in River Scout, which was interesting with its albino alligators, piranha and otters but also because there was a running river overhead for most of the exhibit with river-dwelling fish, which was cool. I then went to the next gallery which was the Cold Water Quest and there I saw four beluga whales. I think I’d seen some at Mystic before but these were just exceptional. I love to be able to walk up to the side of the tanks and the animals are just swimming right by me. Or in this case the belugas were hanging out (literally) right in front of me. The volunteer guide there was really nice and we talked about the beluga. He said one female was pregnant for the first time, due in the spring. I found them just so zen to watch, the way they move so slowly, deliberately, like one large muscle contracting its way with the flow of the water. I came back to the beluga at least three times, I was that fascinated by them. In the same cold water exhibit were penguins and sea otters. The penguins were pretty cute, as they are.

The Quick Dip tour was worth it if only to get to the top of the Ocean Explorer tank and see how it works, how it’s filtered and how the giant whale sharks are fed. It was just fascinating. It also took us atop of River Scout, so we saw how the overhead river was designed and maintained.

Walking through the Ocean Explorer is really cool. The whale sharks are up to 24 feet long and just massive. They are so big that they cannot be taken out of the water because they rely on the buoyancy of the water to keep their body weight from crushing itself. Sort of freaky. I timed it to be there for the feeding of the whale sharks, during which the feeders get into rubber rafts with colored buckets on the end of poles. The whale sharks know “their” boat and the color of their bucket so they start flocking to them, as do hundreds of little fish. Believe it or not, an animal as big as the whale shark has a throat only the width of a quarter, so the feeders pour crill (really fine plankton, shrimp and chopped sardines) into its mouth, where the whale shark filters the water out and swallows the crill material. It is sort of a non-sequitur that an animal that big can’t eat anything bigger. I was really impressed.

The Tropical Diver exhibit had a large coral exhibit with fish, but to keep the coral alive, they had to simulate a wave crashing over it by forcing 6000 gallons of water across the reef every 2 minutes, so as to deliver much needed oxygen to the coral. It was extremely interesting to see the lengths the aquarium went to to simulate reality.

The Dolphin Tale show was really cheesy (with singing and over-acting characters) but it was neat to see what they could make the 11 dolphins do as tricks.

I finally left the aquarium at 12:30, over 3 hours after I arrived. I really had to restrain myself from a $250 “swim with belugas” experience. Being so mesmerized by then, it would have been cool, but I thought it rather impulsive. I could have probably taken another couple passes through my favorite exhibits, but I had two more stops I wanted to make today. I picked up a quick burrito at Baja Fresh and went to CNN. This was also on the City Pass. The Studio Tour was about an hour and took the group through the newsroom and showed us how some of the technical things work, like teleprompter, green screen and how the director cues up shots and segments for live tv. A lot of the CNN personalities I’m aware of don’t actually broadcast out of Atlanta, so no Anderson Cooper sightings, but Nancy Grace and Sanjay Gupta do work there, but not on Saturdays. It was pretty cool to see the studios and get behind the scenes though.

I passed through Centennial Olympic Park, which lies in the middle of all of these attractions. There are national flags of countries in the games and the Olympic fountain. As it was pretty darn cold out there today, not a lot of people were dabbling in the fountain. That was the area that had the bombing during the 1996 Olympics. Also on the way out to the zoo yesterday, the bus passed Turner Field, which was built for the games too. I think the torch for the flame is out that way as well.

My last stop of the day was World of Coca Cola. I hadn’t planned on visiting this but it was in the neighborhood and I still had time before dinner. It was hugely cheesy, as you might expect. The tour starts with an animated movie that has some sort of non-Coke related social message that already escapes me. Then visitors are let loose into the rest of the museum, which has exhibits on bottling, Coke paraphernalia (like old vending machines and merchandise from around the world), the polar bear (man in costume that was creepily realistic). Most of this was easily skippable since I am not terribly interested in Coke, but I did enjoy the theater that ran Coca Cola commercials through the years, many of which I remember, and ads from around the world. The fun part though was the tasting gallery, which had 64 Coke products from around the world to sample. They range from vile to sicky sweet to jealously delicious. I really liked the pineapple Fanta from Greece and the candy pine nut “Bibo” from South Africa. However, trying dozens of carbonated, full-sugared flavors in a relatively short period of time left me gassy and stuck in a sugar induced orbit. Yikes.

Dinner tonight was at Fandangles at the Sheraton Hotel. I will admit that the reason I chose it when researching restaurants on Open Table was for the appetizer. Frickles and Frings was a fried pickle, fried onion string, banana pepper basket that was quite simply to die for. I had a peach martini with them which was just wonderful. My main course was chicken and dumplings in a sage butter sauce. The dumplings were sweet potato gnocchi. Really very tasty. I was too full for dessert (as much as I wanted the peach cobbler) so I had a double chocolate martini (Godiva Chocolate Vodka and Godiva Chocolate Liqueur).

Overall I am enjoying Atlanta. I am finding the downtown area where I am staying to be really empty. I’m sure some of it has to do with it being the weekend and the off-season, but there are not a lot of people around here. The people I’ve talked to are very friendly and kind. The hostess and the waiter at the restaurant tonight called me Miss Amy. I think it’s funny. One thing though is that a lot of people are very slow paced and I am not. I find it hard to slow down. Surprise.

Early to bed tonight…not sure how or when to start the day tomorrow…High Museum of Art doesn’t open until noon.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Atlanta -- Day One

Up at 5 a.m. and at the airport by 7 a.m. Left the car at Park Shuttle & Fly again (as always) and had a Starbucks breakfast…hey it’s vacation.

Flight on Delta took off at 8:30 a.m. and we had a headwind most of the way so landed at 11:25. I killed the flight watching Real Housewives of NY on the iPod and reading magazines. The trip was completely uneventful and smooth.

I sat next to a guy who was apparently from the south and I said “huh?” or “excuse me?” when he spoke more than I ever have in any foreign country I’ve been to. What language are they speaking anyway?

It was a fairly easy but long walk to pick up luggage and then jump on the MARTA to downtown, which took about 20 minutes. I got off at Peachtree Center and it was not even a 3 minute walk to the Marriott Marquis, a massive tower in the middle of downtown. So far, so convenient. At check-in I agreed to a high floor and a $10 upgrade which will get me a city view. I ended up on the 43rd floor and am not disappointed. This is not the New York City skyline, but it’s still pretty darn nice. The room is large and the bed is huge and comfy. After a vertigo-inducing ride up in a glass elevator (yes, glass all the way up!) I find myself at the end of the hall, so this should be really quiet!

I grabbed a quick chicken salad sandwich in the deli in the lobby and ate by 1 and headed right out for Zoo Atlanta. I had to walk about 4 blocks to the Civic Center MARTA stop where I caught a bus to the zoo. For $2.50 (I bought a reloadable Breezecard for transit fares), it took about a half hour to get out to the zoo, but the bus dropped me right in front. I arrived just about 2:00 and ran to the ticket window. I bought a CityPass, which will get me into 5 sights in Atlanta for $69, but I planned to come back for most of the day Monday, so I paid to get into the zoo today too.

Of course, I ran directly to the pandas. The first enclosure had one male; it was just a matter of figuring out who it was, since I knew it was either older brother Xi Lan or dad Yang Yang. I watched him for a bit as he walked around the enclosure. The next enclosure had a sleeping panda on the play structure (who I quickly figured out was mom Lun Lun) and the 13 month old cub Po sound asleep down in the moat on the drain grate. I was so deflated. I waited so long to see him and he and his mom Lun Lun were asleep? I moved to the inside enclosure and found Yang Yang (known for the white patch on his back left paw) doing somersaults in his enclosure, which was really funny. So that meant if I was watching Yang Yang do somersaults, then the first guy I saw was Xi Lan. I went back and found him lounging against a rock like an old man in a recliner. He really responded to doting and attention. He reminded me so much of Lu Lu in China! After spending some time and taking some photos of the pandas who were awake, I went off to explore more of the zoo.

I found the tiger enclosure pretty nearby and saw the two tiger cubs born this summer. They were the size of small dogs but loaded with energy. Neither would sit still for long and they spent time chasing and pouncing on each other, climbing trees, running all around. They were just non-stop action. I also found one red panda (sleeping) and a male lion lounging on a rock. Since I plan to go back on Monday, I really focused on what was important to me now, which was the pandas and the tiger cubs.

The zoo is nice, really well landscaped and laid out. They have a nice assortment of animals and lots of snack bars and two big gift shops. But mid-day on a Friday in winter, I was nearly alone there. In fact, when I went back to the pandas, I was alone.

I finally got back to the pandas to find Po just having woken up. I couldn’t believe I was seeing my little rock star! Po and Lun were moved to their indoor enclosure, with the hammock that I see so often every day on panda cam. I sat on the floor right next to the glass and watched them both eat the bamboo and biscuits that the keepers had just left out for them. It was just amazing to be there watching them that close!

I decided to head back to downtown at 4:45. The bus came by 4:50 and I was back downtown at 5:25. I checked photos and email quickly before dinner and then headed to Sweet Georgia’s Juke Joint for dinner. At first I didn’t think I’d like the atmosphere because there was live music (Duh, it is a juke joint) but I ended up enjoying having something to watch while I ate. I had fried green tomatoes for appetizer, shrimp and grits for dinner and apple cinnamon bread pudding for dessert. I also had a Texas marga-tini for a drink. It was all really good. I could eat buttery grits all day, I think.

Exhausted, I hit bed early and dozed as I wrote this…Up early tomorrow for the aquarium.

Friday, November 25, 2011

How has China changed me?

How will China change me? What little piece of me needs to be adjusted, corrected, expanded, modified? What preconceived notions do I have that will be remedied? When I look back six months from now, how will my thinking have changed? I've been grappling with this over the weekend as my wait starts to dwindle and I start to think about actually being there as opposed to all that's done to get there.
Back in August, that was what I was thinking.  I was so unsure of what I was about to undertake and so influenced by what others had said that I was worried that this was all going to go horribly wrong.

What have I learned about myself?  What has changed about the way I think?

Now that I have had time to think and clear my head of jetlag, I realize that I grew as a person and as a human being.  I think I overcame a lot of mental hurdles and challenges that were hurdles and challenges just in my own head.  Never in a million years would I have thought I'd survive squatty potties (I mean, really, I was wiping spattered pee off the inside of my legs...that was not exactly on my bucket list).  I took on the cuisine and not only survived, I actually enjoyed a lot of it; I ate hot and spicy, I tried to eat things I would never have tried at home and I managed to eat a sustainable diet, not just sample things to say I did so.  I saw little kids peeing on the steps of shops, on sidewalks, on front stoops.  I saw people working with tools and farming implements that were rendered obsolete in America sometime in the 1800s.  I'm not saying I necessarily processed all of this well, of course there was initially some shock, but this is why I travel.

I was much more tolerant than I expected.  I normally do not process pollution or crowds or less-than-ideal conditions well.  So either I didn't encounter pollution or crowds or less-than-ideal conditions as I had expected to, or they weren't that bad to begin with.  Or I just became more tolerant.

Eye opening experiences are generally mind-opening experiences.  The woman who was shucking corn by painstakingly picking it off the cob one kernel at a time? Sure, I actually did say that Kitchens Etc. has a kitchen tool for that and it's probably in my gadget drawer at home where it sits relatively unused.  But there's no Kitchens Etc. in China and certainly not in the back roads of Sichuan province.  This was the only way the woman knew how to do it, so that's how she was doing it.  Is there another way?  Perhaps for us.  But is our way better?  Who knows.

I also learned that there is joy to be found in small encounters and in surrounding myself with positive people.  Going into this trip, I thought that it might be nice to hold a panda and it might be fun to work with them, feed them, sit and watch them by the hour. Never did I realize how overcome with emotion I would be by feeling the heft of a squirmy one year old cub on my lap or being held captive by a handsome 15 year old male bear who I still swear to this day was flirting with me.  What gorgeous, gentle, sweet creatures they are and what a relaxing, joyous vibe do they give off.  I can think back to every encounter still, and smile.  I try to enjoy the smaller things to elicit that same feeling, like visiting zoos, museums, walking the beach, reveling in a little peace and quiet.  I know I don't have to go all the way to China to find a moment like that, but sometimes it's work to get there mentally.

Even more so though, I realized that traveling with a group of strangers ain't all bad.  In fact, our group was pretty darn amazing.  Everyone was so positive and upbeat and supportive and friendly.  As an uptight Yankee with a pretty pessimistic, cynical streak, I found it almost dream-like to spend almost 2 weeks with hardly a complaint, a negative vibe or a reason to see the glass as anything less than half full.  I've tried to carry that feeling over to my post-China life, ridding myself where I can of negativity, bad vibes and pessimism.  It's harder than I thought but overall a good practice.  I'd go so far as to say I'd definitely travel with another group, but I'm not sure I'll ever find another to top the "Best Tour Group Ever" that I found in China.  So to Dan, Naomi, Kim, Bev, Paula, Linda, Tracy, Margie and Marcia, I say thank you for being part of one of the best experiences of my life.  We all made this trip what it was!

Finally, and perhaps a little strange, I have an all new respect for the color red.  I hadn't realized while I was in China how pervasive it is and it becomes more apparent when I flip through the 2000+ photos I have, especially on the darker, rainier days it seems that the only color is red.  Now I can be drawn back to China any time I unexpectedly come across red like that, whether it's a flag, a lantern, a bright red jacket.  Funny how those things stay with you.

There are still too many snapshots like that that I have to process. I need to think about it all and let it sink in longer.  Already though, I feel stronger, I feel more open-minded.  China was as foreign a place as I have ever been but I took it on and survived, which, looking back now, I'm surprised I ever doubted myself.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Next Up: Atlanta

I don't know what hit me, but today I booked my next excursion.  I'd been throwing around a few European destinations and just want something quick and easy for right before Christmas.  Europe is running a bit too expensive for "quick and easy" right now.  So, Atlanta, tie up your pandas, I'm coming down!  The Atlanta Zoo has four pandas now, not to mention a new litter of tiger cubs, all of whom I watch religiously on the zoo webcams.  So that is the primary destination, as is Georgia Aquarium, CNN Headquarters and the Museum of High Art.  That's just what I know off the top of my head.

Interesting, I had no idea it is so cheap to fly to Atlanta, the fare was $150 total, and even a very good, centrally located hotel is $100 a night (AAA discount)???  Wow.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Philly In A Day - amybatt style

Last Saturday, I made the second in a series of one day jaunts to a major city in the Northeast.  As you may remember, I made a similar jaunt to Washington DC back in the spring (and will go again next month).  My purpose for these one-day trips is to take advantage of budget airfares and maximize the time on the ground.

As before, I booked Park Shuttle and Fly ahead and left my car there at 6:00 in the morning for a 7:15 flight on US Airways direct to Philadelphia.  The beauty of this strategy is that the PS&F Shuttle will take you directly to your terminal without having to pay for parking in the garages there (PS&F is only $16.50 for the day with a coupon) so right away, you have car to door service.  Having checked in online the day before, I could go right through security and to the gate.  I allowed plenty of time and enjoyed a Starbucks iced coffee and cinnamon scone while I waited for my flight to board.

I'd heard US Airways runs late frequently and was surprised that we took off almost on time.  That was balanced though, by seemingly endless circling around the airport in Philly before we landed, some 10 minutes late.  That delay was just enough for me to miss the 9:10 SEPTA train into Suburban Station, so rather than wait for the 9:40 train and lose time getting to the museum, I took a cab to Love Plaza for $32.  It took all of 15 minutes to get there.

I knew the Love logo statue is a famous Philly landmark and had planned to go there once I arrived at nearby Suburban Station, so I had the cab leave me there.  The park was smaller than I expected and it was quite quick to find the statue, which is also smaller than I imagined but still cool to see, propped up on a stand so that the Philadelphia Museum of Art and pretty Benjamin Franklin Parkway fall behind it as a back drop.  I ended up paying a homeless guy $1 to take my photo with the statue.  That was my only option as there seemed to be only homeless people in that area at that hour.  That done, I walked over to take photos of the pretty strikingly white City Hall and the "Your Move" statues (giant board game pieces) in the plaza across from City Hall.

From there, I walked up the parkway to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I had an 11:30 reservation for the Rembrandt exhibit there and wanted to see some of the permanent collection beforehand.  I made it easily by 10:00.  On the way down the parkway, I passed the now-closed-for-renovation Rodin Museum and the future site of the now-closed Barnes Collection.  Once both of those are open, this will truly be a museum mile to behold.  Again, this walk from the plaza to the museum was another case where the distance on the map seemed grossly exaggerated.  I found tucked to the side of the museum the statue of Rocky Balboa, who, in his first movie, famously ran up the steps to this museum.  I later learned that it was sculpted to live at the top of the steps, but the museum graciously declined that offer.  So I ran up the steps (not nearly as bad as climbing the Great Wall!) and entered the museum with my pre-paid admission ticket which I'd gotten online a few weeks ago; $25 for the exhibition and museum admission.

I spent about an hour and 15 minutes going through the European collection, as that most suited my tastes.  The museum has a nice collection of Monets, I think about 18 in total.  I'd seen a few at the Monet exhibit in Paris back in December, but it was nice to see them displayed here as the museum meant for them to be seen.  In particular I loved the Manne-Porte at Etretat, The Zuiderkerk, Amsterdam (Looking up the Groenburgwal) and Bend in the River Epte Near Giverny.  I also saw a great Vincent Van Gogh that I loved as well as an interesting, uncharacteristically large, uncharacteristically nude Large Bathers by Renoir.  I also took a pass through the earlier European gallery but wasn't terribly moved by anything I saw there.

A little after 11:00 I headed past the entrance to the Rembrandt exhibit and good thing I did, as the line was already forming for the 11:30 entry time.  I didn't get in until almost 11:45.  Despite the museum letting visitors in a trickle at a time, it was still a bit more crowded than I would have liked, but like any other exhibition I've been to, most visitors eventually peter out and lose steam by the end, so it was more comfortable the further into the exhibit I got.  The premise of the exhibition was that Rembrandt changed the way artists generally painted the visage of Jesus by creating his own style and manner of interpreting  Jesus.  Before this, artists ordinarily painted Jesus following the description set out in the Lentilus Letter (written by someone who'd actually seen Jesus) or on either of two cloths that retained the impression of Jesus' face while he was living (the Veil of Veronica and Mandylion).  Following those guidelines meant that all depictions of Jesus looked pretty much the same.  But Rembrandt injected a character and spirit into his versions of Jesus which made them live, and the way the paintings and drawings are displayed chronologically allows the viewer to see that transition quite easily.  Unfortunately, most of the drawings are very small and the large-scale nature of the exhibition made it hard to view them in a crowd so big, but the paintings were indicative on their own of Rembrandt's transformation.  Most striking, I thought, was a wall of nothing but paintings of the head of Jesus done either by Rembrandt himself or his studio, which reflects this new style and life-like quality over a series of very similar views and angles.

After the exhibition, I escaped a very crowded museum and boarded the Phlash bus ($2 per ride or all day access for $5), which took me to Reading Terminal Market, where I'd be meeting my friend Susan for lunch.  She wasn't there yet, so I popped into the Philadelphia Hard Rock Cafe and bought a City-T as I usually do.  We then walked to the market, which is a food market of just the best sort:  too much choice, lots of incredible smells and a very hungry belly.  Because we had a very rich meal planned for later, we both opted for a large salad bar place but splurged on a warm cookie right out of the oven at one of the bakeries.

The walk to the historical area where we'd spend the rest of the day took about 20 minutes down Market Street.  As I'd never seen any of the historical sights, this was the crux of the visit.  I'd reserved a tour of Independence Hall, which was a good thing since even in mid-October, the tours still sold out that day.  After picking up our reserved tickets, we walked to the Christ Church burial ground, where Benjamin Franklin is buried.  For a small fee, we were able to enter the cemetery and find a few other signers of the Declaration of Independence as well as toss a penny (for "a penny saved is a penny earned") on Franklin's grave.  From there we visited the building that houses the Liberty Bell.  A fairly lengthy line outside this moved quickly (no admission fee, just a quick bag/security check) and we were inside and out again within 20 minutes.  The couple hundred feet leading from the entrance to the bell itself were full of educational exhibits about the bell and indeed liberty itself, but we skipped those to save time (3:45 tour across the street was approaching) and saw the Bell itself.  I was duly impressed, I must say.  It is polished to a dark copper shine and nicely set out on its own and given the spotlight, so to speak.  But again, without the lead up to it, it's really a quick photo stop.

Across the street we went through still another security check to get into Independence Hall.  The Park Ranger strongly suggested (no, mandated, let's be honest about that) that we arrive at least a half hour before our tour time, which meant after the security check we had a half hour to kill just sitting in the courtyard, which was pretty enough.  Independence Hall, however, is under scaffolding, so if you are hoping to see it any time soon, you're out of luck, but for a faded scrim that barely registers the facade over the scaffolding.  I had low expectations for the tour but the park ranger who led it was wonderful.  She was entertaining and provided the perfect amount of information and detail.  The most interesting room is the room where both the Declaration of Independence and, later, the Constitution were signed.  Of course everyone has seen this in paintings as as the park ranger reminded us more than once "just about anyone who was anyone was in this room to sign."  She also gave me pause because I'd never really thought about how much a risk all of them took in signing the Declaration, especially.  That equated to being a traitor to Great Britain, essentially, and was a big risk to both the signers' lives and that of their families.  Just something to think about...

After the tour we walked a bit more, passing Betsy Ross's house (notable really only in that it was her house) on the way to Elfreth's Alley, which is the oldest residential street (or something similar) in the US.  It consists of period-architecture so walking down the street is really like stepping back in time to the early 18th century.  That was actually pretty cool to see, if I'm being honest.

We then roamed around a bit, taking in some local indie music shops and other stores on the way to dinner, which I'd made reservations for at Alma de Cuba.  This was pretty nice for the pair of us who'd been schlepping on foot all over Philly all day, but very worth the wait.  The dark cozy atmosphere and big comfy chairs were just what we needed to kick back and enjoy good conversation and good food and drink.  We both started with a Suave Mojito, which is a must when the two of us hit a Cuban restaurant together (mostly in Miami!).  I had the chorizo sliders to start, which were two cute little tasty chorizo burgers with pickles and mustard.  We both had the vaca frita, which was a twice fried skirt steak with black beans, rice and a very tasty tomato "escabeche" which was like a sweet salsa.  We shared a plate of fried plantains.  All of this was just beyond description.  The steak was melt in your mouth delectable and I coul dhave eaten that escabeche on everything in my cupboard for the next month.  By now I'd moved on to a black cherry capirihna, which was really sweet but very tasty and much more potent than the mojito (what is "Brazilian Leblon Cachaca" anyway?  That was the liquor in this drink.)   Although we both thought we were done for, we were tempted by dessert.  I had the mocha tres leche cake and Susan had the dulce de leche crepes with smoked vanilla ice cream.  That smoking of the ice cream may have been the strangest but most experimental part of the meal...very interesting.

After lingering a bit longer over our drinks, we headed to Suburban Station.  I had a 10:45 flight home so took the 9:00 train back to the airport.  That took all of 20 minutes and cost $7, but those commuter trains make the ones I take every day in Boston look like Lamborghinis; man, they were old!  The flight left on time but experienced major turbulence and drifting on the landing (major understatement).  We landed at 11:30 and I summoned PS&F to take me back to my car.  Home by 12:45.

All in all, a great day with time well-spent both seeing the city and catching up with a good friend.

Next up, D.C. in a day!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Local Escape -- Degas and the Nude at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts

It's not often that I will unabashedly demand that people go see art that I like.  However, I just went to the members' preview for the latest exhibition at the MFA in Boston.  If you are anywhere near Boston in the next 4 months, get yourself to the exhibit "Degas and the Nude" at the Museum of Fine Arts. This is George Shackleford's last exhibit before he departs the MFA for Fort Worth (sniff, sniff!) and it's just wonderful. I went Friday night for member previews and was just blown away. There are over 80 pieces from painting to pastel to sketches and sculpture that mindfully trace how Degas worked with nudes throughout his career. I always get the audio guides, particularly for Shackleford's exhibitions, because they are so well done. This was no exception. He has a way of designing a show that just makes sense and tells the story. Even as a fan of Degas, I learned more than I expected and was sad when I'd reached the end. I will go again a couple times, I'm sure before the exhibit closes, but I was glad to have the relative peace and quiet of a near-empty gallery last week to enjoy this on my own!

What is striking though is that there are two other notable Degas exhibits on now as well, "Dancers at the Barre" at the Phillips Collection in DC, which I hope to see next month, and "Ballerinas Picturing Movement" at the Royal Academy in London which I'm itching to try to get to before December. That Degas was both so prolific and so accomplished with both the nude and ballerinas as his subjects that three significant exhibits can run around the world like this is exceptional.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Next up...

Finally I seem to have shaken the worst of the jetlag and almost feel normal again.  In order to fend off the inevitable post-trip depression I have booked two quick weekend getaways...hell, not weekend getaways, one day marathons, to big cities nearby.

In October, I'm zipping to Philadelphia for the day to see the exhibition Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  I fought off the urge to do this until I read the reviews of the exhibition; now I just have to go.  Not having been there before, I'm going to try to see some of historic Philadelphia as well before meeting an old friend for dinner and jetting home late evening.

In November, I'm zipping (again) to DC to visit the giant pandas, the new red panda cubs and my lion cubbies (before they get shipped off to breed in other zoos) at the National Zoo.  I may try to see the Sackler and Freer Galleries too, since I had my eyes opened to Asian art in China, but my other goal is to finally meet Bev, who went on the panda tour last year and was my lifeline in getting ready for my own China experience.  I suspect there will be a good meal involved there too, possibly something Spanish?

I am kicking other ideas around for early winter but it all depends on the financial damage I suffered in China (shopping tally still not yet calculated, I'm in denial) and how raise/bonus season goes at work.  I'm thinking maybe a long weekend in Atlanta, but who knows.  Thoughts for 2012 include Germany (Berlin/Dresden), Egypt, Peru or Turkey...but seeing the "walk with lions" tour in South Africa yesterday in my Facebook feed was mighty tempting!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

I held a panda!

As the fog of jetlag continues to wear off, I'm starting to realize what an absolutely incredible experience I was lucky enough to have in China.  As an animal lover, it would have been spectacular just to visit the two panda bases in China and see more pandas (more than 80 by our estimation) than most people see in a lifetime.  I mean, really, you see maybe two, or six, if you travel to DC and San Diego and visit the best zoos in the US.  We saw over 80!  That alone made the last two weeks a breathtaking experience.

Never in my adult life would I have even dreamt that I'd get to hold a panda though.  Living in such a litigious country as I do, the thought of even touching a panda is so verboten that I would never even consider it.  To be honest, the thought would never have even crossed my mind.  Going into the trip, my expectations were that I'd not only see more pandas than the average zoo-going American but that I might, just might, get closer too.  Even after doing some reading online and writing to others who had already done it, it still really hadn't fully sunken in that others had really up close experiences and that I could participate in these photo opps that they did too.  I just had no idea how profoundly it would strike me.

Holding a panda cub, or sitting with one while he munches away and I am able to rub his back, scratch his chin and look into his eyes, is like nothing else I've ever done.  There are just no words sufficient enough to convey how magical it was.  I've been fortunate enough to have had some pretty amazing travel experiences, but this one tops them all.  I look at the photos now and it feels like it was all a dream, but its one that can still make me smile.

Pinch me, I held a panda!

Thursday, September 22, 2011


I can say this now because I think I am finally over the hurdle...jetlag sucks.  And I'm not talking about the little speed bump we East Coasters get when we go to London and suffer the minor inconvenience of not being able to fall asleep there until midnight or wanting to sleep in that first day on the ground.  I'm talking "12 hours difference, my body thinks it's daylight when it's dark, I'm ravenously hungry at 2 a.m. and how many bad American informercials must I suffer through before I fall asleep" jetlag.

Before China (my version of "B.C."), jetlag was a speed bump for me, that is the best way to put it.  I'd force myself through that first day on the ground in Europe, get up at 8 a.m. the second day and be fine.  No harm, no foul, no medication required.  But going to China was not a speed bump, it was a shift in the tectonic plates in my brain.  I climbed into bed on the first night in Beijing, exhausted from 24+ hours of travel and our first group meal which was so blurred I can barely remember it now.  And there I was, staring at the ceiling for 8 hours.  I may have gotten snatches of sleep, but nothing that would allow me to feel either refreshed or that I had made any gains on the time difference.  That continued for 2 nights until I found drugs, thanks to a friendly pharmacist and physician in our group.  Once I started to catch up, the momentum built by a few nights of decent slumber got me over the hurdle, until I felt almost normal again on Saturday, when I was just 48 hours from going home and having to do it all over again.

My first night back in my own bed, I heard the town's church bells chime 1:00, 2:00, 3:00 and 4:00.  I decided to just lay in bed until daylight, and was astonished to wake again at 11:56 a.m.  I guess that makes sense as my body thought it had gone to sleep close to sundown in Beijing.  The next night it was more listening to the church bells, so I watched bad reality tv and informercials until sometime before 5:00 when I finally drifted off to sleep, only for the alarm to go off at 5:50 a.m. for work

Getting through work that day....argh.  Imagine, if you will, being unable to focus your eyes, let alone your mind.  Imagine that your head is being pulled by some magnetic force to the center of the earth and you can barely resist the pull.  Imagine that your cognitive skills are so muddied that you e-pay all your bills twice.  Yes, that was me.

I stopped at CVS and begged the pharmacist for help.  He pointed me to melatonin and sent me on my way.  As darkness approached though, I felt better the later it got.  That makes sense, because my body was coming out of the sleep cycle I had been forcing it to resist all day.  I was tempted not to take the melatonin, because I felt so good compared to the daylight hours, but took it precisely for that reason; I was too keyed up to sleep.  Last thing I remembered, it was 9:37.  Next thing I knew it was 6:10 a.m.

Two more nights of melatonin, I think and I should be right as rain.  It'll be going with me on my next trip too, no sense in needless suffering.  Today I celebrate being over the hump.

Monday, September 19, 2011

China -- Day 11

Subtitled:  It's not goodbye, luggage resolution, going home

This morning I had my breakfast with Margie, Marcia and Tracy.  It was sort of sad to think that tomorrow we will all be back at our homes, going about our usual routines without each other’s company.  But it has been a good, no, awesome, ten days and we are all thankful for that, I know.

I had the usual breakfast at this hotel:  cocoa crispies, OJ, assorted pastries with peanut butter and jelly and today, homemade yogurt.  We agreed to meet for goodbyes shortly before our transfer took Marcia and me to the airport.

Regarding the suitcase crisis, I conferred with Dan and Naomi, who have also done a lot of world travel, and they agreed that I could probably get away with one very overweight bag.  I decided to gamble and gave my new second piece of luggage to Margie, who needed another carry-on.  I was hesitant to see what would happen when I tried to check my big sucker in.

Stanley arrived and so did our van.  Marcia and I said our goodbyes to Dan, Naomi, Margie and Tracy.  I really hope I get to see them all again somehow someday, even if it is not panda related.  For now I'd just like to think that it's not goodbye, but just so long until we see each other again.  I'd really like to think that.

The trip to the airport was quick and Stanley helped us check our bags in.  Miracle of miracles, my now 27.4 kg (60.28 lb) bag went through without so much of a second look, or surcharge!  Yee ha!  I skated through immigration and customs happy as a lark.  Honestly, I worry too much.  I know that.

The only flies in the ointment today were the four bottles of Gatorade I bought near the gate (after security) aren’t allowed on this flight, so I have nothing of my own to drink, and I’m left to the devices of the flight crew to keep me hydrated.  Bah.  And we departed nearly an hour late due to a “problem with the cockpit window”, but the pilot seems convinced we’ll only be 15 minutes or so late into San Francisco.  Go figure.

Our first meal was served and I inhaled the first Western food I have had in 11 days (ok, forget I told you about the McDonald’s cheeseburger!).  It probably wasn’t even very good, but it was beef in tomato sauce, some sort of au gratin potato, two little slivers of carrot, salad with thousand island dressing and some light lemon cake with raspberry sauce.  I did not leave a scrap of it.  I even ate the roll with butter.  Oh butter, how I have missed you!

I made it through that flight fine, the transfer at San Fran was fine until the Immigration officer said "Welcome home, young lady," which made me cry.  I'm not sure if those tears were because I'm tired and homesick or because I am old enough to be the officer's mother.  Young lady?  Yee ha!

The longest part of the trip home I have to say was San Fran to Boston.  That was interminable.  Full flight, annoying seat mate, impossible sleep, low battery on the iPod.

But finally, I was delivered home some 28 hours after I left Shanghai, greeted by another furry four-footed wonder who was happy to see me.  I'd do it all again in a minute...

Sunday, September 18, 2011

More random thoughts...

For some reason, I thought it made sense to get up at 6 a.m. I’m not sure why that was a good idea, as I don’t have to be out of here until 9:00. Hmmm. Because of that I am now coming up with more random notes.

On this trip, I was fortunate enough to keep my snarking skills in tact by practicing with one of the best from the Midwest. Dan, it turns out, shares my proclivity for poking fun at the insane comments and observations that we came across during the course of the trip. We both found it quite implausible that Chengdu was the equivalent of Paris in David’s mind, and would raise eyebrows every time David made that assertion. Another repeating theme that left us wondering was that it seemed that anything of Chinese origin was good for something. For example: jade cools your inner heat; the powder generated by rubbing two pearls together is good for circulation; Sichuan pepper cools you when it is hot out; this tea eliminates belly fat; this tea is especially good for “drunken time”.  If everything is good for something then I would think this is the healthiest people on earth.  Which leads me to my next point....

One other very easy target for us was a male habit of walking around wherever they are with the shirt lifted up to the breast bone, letting whatever belly they have hang out over their blet. We first saw this in Beijing and it was a recurring sight just about everywhere but Shanghai, so we both realized it was more than just an isolated occurrence. I think this is how Dan and I originally started snarking during this trip. He appreciated the wonder I shared aloud with him one day. I’m not sure whether these men think this is attractive, whether it’s an animalistic instinct to attract the ladies or truly just a cooling mechanism, but I am fairly certain this is not what my mother hopes I bring to Thanksgiving dinner.

Already I miss hearing David and Stanley say “citron paper”, especially now that I’ve realized that what they really mean is “Sichuan pepper”.

China is a honking society. They will honk in traffic, honk on empty roads, honk to pass you, honk while passing you, honk to warn you around a sharp corner, honk because they are about to run you down. It seems an odd but efficient method of communication. It’s like New York cabbies on steroids.

There’s neon and then there’s neon. The neon of Times Square, for example, is seizure inducing. It is meant to be crazy-ass in your face. The neon on the high rises in Shanghai is tasteful. It seems as if they meant it to be pretty and eye-pleasing. The tv tower projects rainbow colors that fade in and fade out. The Citi building is covered top to bottom with animated video. The bottle opener building is a gorgeous neon blue. Sure it’s all bright and you can probably see it from the moon, but not an assault on the brain in the least.

In my last hour in Shanghai I am going back and forth on whether to take the second piece of luggage at $200 or cram it all into the big bag and pay the weight overage of $100. I’m leaning toward the latter, but I’m afraid I’m missing something here. It seems too obvious.

Off to my last breakfast in China….talk to you from the US!

China -- Day 10

Subtitled: Peanut butter, (More) Retail Therapy, Oh What a Skyline and Solving the Baggage Crisis

After nearly 10 ½ hours of sleep last night, I hit the breakfast buffet and was excited to see cereal on the menu here, as well as peanut butter. Peanut butter is something I’d started craving about 2 days ago and I made sure to indulge. After a large glass of OJ and two cups of coffee, we were off for a very long day in Shanghai.

Our first stop was the French Concession. Here we saw the spot where the Chinese Communist Party first met and walked around to enjoy the very quiet (hey, it was 8:30 a.m.) tree-lined neighborhood. Who knew that such pretty trees were grown in the center of a large city? The architecture seemed to be a sort of fusion of a bit western and asian. We walked through some narrow streets and areas with shops and restaurants. I indulged in a caramel macchiato from Starbucks. I figured I’d made it this far with my digestive system in tact, might as well risk it all on the last day.

Our next stop was a silk factory. I’d been a bit indifferent about the silk stop, and I think many can attest to the fact that I had no interest in buying anything. Well, my Bank of America Mastercard was left a puddle of melted plastic there. After looking at all the hard work that goes into harvesting the cocoon and how they meld the single threads into eight more more to get something durable, and how the cocoons are stretched, well, who wouldn’t want to support all that effort? In the end, I bought a silk comforter and duvet set, a silk jacket and a silk blouse, plus a couple of table runners for home. Good lord, my luggage crisis (you might remember I was 6 pounds over coming from Chengdu) just went into DEFCON 3. But I’d worry about that later.

After I bounced the Chinese economy further through the roof, we moved on to The Bund. Driving in from the airport last night I could see that Shanghai was different than any place else we had been so far. Despite being utterly exhausted, I was sort of excited by the fact that I was in another of the world’s greatest cities. Stanley said that Beijing is China’s history and Shanghai is its future. That much is pretty obvious. This area is notable because the buildings on one side of the river are all old and established, and face the slap in the face contrast of the financial district across the river, all flashy brand new skyscrapers that seem to all have once been the tallest buildings in the world. I love this. I love big cities. I love gorgeous skylines. I love nice, sunny, warm autumn day. So today I was hitting the jackpot on all counts. The skyline here is incredible. It is also less than 30 years old and because it was built on farmland is also already sinking. But that won’t stop the Chinese, who are actively building what will be (when it is done) the world’s tallest building. Until another is built to top that.

A side note about all this construction: I mentioned earlier all the cranes I was seeing. As we left the hotel this morning and drove down a block nearby that tended to be mostly residential and light commercial, Stanley said that the entire block was being taken for new construction. “Come back in two years and this will all be very tall buildings,” he said. I have to wonder what that does to the morale of citizens to constantly be displaced for things like Olympic stadiums, river gorges and skyscrapers.

Anyway, my favorite buildings were the tv tower, which looks like three fuschia colored pearls stuck on an upright pole, if that makes sense and one building they call the bottle opener, because it has an opening at the top that looks like could pop the cap off a beer.

Our next stop would be lunch. This would be the most accessible meal we’ve had so far, with either dishes we’ve had several times and tolerated well on this trip, or actual dishes we’ve had in Chinese restaurants at home. I wish I could remember specifics, I know the tomato and egg dish returned, which we all devoured. But after a while one lazy susan filled with 20 dishes starts to blend in with another. I ate happily, but Linda and I still found room for a Magnum ice cream bar afterwards.

After the Jinsha Museum experience in Chengdu, which was right after lunch and left most of us in a coma, we were afraid we would suffer the same fate at the Shanghai Museum. To the contrary, this ended up being one of the most amazing museums I have visited. It is logically split into sections for paintings, sculpture, calligraphy, bronze, ceramics, coins. As Ping Ping, our local guide (who was with us for the first three stops then disappeared at the museum never to be seen again) suggested, I started at the top floor and worked down. We were given only 75 minutes on our own, so I made a point to see the Chinese painting and calligraphy first, and that ate up nearly 40 minutes. I could easily have spent a half day here, but instead had to speed walk through the porcelain (I loved the Ming dynasty porcelain) and the bronze work. I absolutely adored the calligraphy section though, which traced how the art of writing Chinese characters changed with each dynasty. There were actually artists who were considered masters of this art and it showed. It was all just beautiful.

Next we moved on to the Yuyuan Garden, which is the best example of southern Chinese style gardens. Stanley did a great job explaining to us the elements of feng shui here, like putting a large stone in between the entrance and the courtyard to keep the energy in; making foot bridges zig and zag “to keep things interesting”, how rocks were meant to look like clouds or mountains or both, so that visitors could feel like they are escaping to a different part of the world when they visited the garden. It really did evoke a peaceful atmosphere, but for the throngs of crowds parading through it. I think I’d go back early in the day to try to see it less crowded. If I were staying here and had more time, that is…

Stanley surprised us next and took us to a Chinese tea tasting ceremony. This was in a small teahouse upstairs in the neighborhood near the garden and it had a spectacular view of the skyline from up there. The tea ceremony was nice because we got to sample about 6 teas we hadn’t had, and it was all prepared by a tea master who knew how to properly steep and pour the tea. Personally I liked the lychee black tea the best but I’m not really a tea drinker to begin with, so I didn’t know what was “good” and what wasn’t. It was a nice surprise from Stanley and I think we all enjoyed it.

We were allowed to roam around for about an hour before dinner. This was sort of unusual because I felt like we’d really been kept on a short leash most of the tour. What was funny was that I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t really want to shop, was running low on batteries for the camera (seriously, about 1500 shots this trip!) and was just mentally on overload. So I did what any other girl in my situation would do, I went to Starbucks and bought an iced hibiscus mango tea and then to McDonald’s and ate a cheeseburger. In one day, all food cravings were satisfied!

That snack did not stop me, however, from eating with the group at our farewell dinner. The restaurant was right outside the garden and we knew we were in for a good meal when we saw photos that proved that both Fidel Castro and Bill Clinton ate there. Now there’s a pair of fascinating diners! This would be our last lazy susan meal and it was quite good. Now that the best part of the trip is over, I got a little more risky in what I ate, so I tried some seafood in the form of crystal shrimp and sweet and sour fish. I’d purposely avoided seafood and meat most of the trip just in case it made me sick, so now was the time to catch up. There was a spicy chicken and cashew dish that was great and a smokey sweet bean dumpling that was interesting. Stanley bought us another bottle of red wine, this one a bit sweeter than the last, and it was delicious.

Stanley rounded us up and piled us on the bus for one last time. He told us sincerely that we were a great group and he enjoyed his time with us. He says he doesn’t say that to every group, but who knows. I think for the most part we were a great group. I had fun and learned something from everyone and certainly enjoyed mucking out cages and snarking it up with them. Some of us hit the bar in the hotel for one more drink, but not before I stopped in the lobby shop and paid $35 for a second checked bag. There was no way I was going to make it with all this stuff and one suitcase without either paying serious overage or doing the “redistribute and rebalance your dirty laundry at the check-in counter” dance. This way it’s all going home, I’ll just have to pay to check a second bag.

So now I’m packed and ready to go, except for what I’ll be throwing out tomorrow and the electronics that are charging.  But damn, I just looked it up and an extra checked bag on United is $200?  Maybe this expense will curb my trip shopping in the future!!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

China -- Day 9

Subtitled: No rooster, wedding crashers, turbulence abounds

Today was the latest we have been able to sleep so far. The wake-up call was at 7:30 but I really didn’t have to be up until well after 8:00. It felt good to stay put and lounge a bit before breakfast. I finally managed to have a really good night’s sleep which I attribute both to finally adjusting to the time difference as well as shutting my window. That may seem strange, but after the big cities, it was nice to be up on a hill away from city noise, so I’d been sleeping with my window open. No window, no rooster, so I made it through to nearly 7 before I started to want to wake up. Take that, rooster buddy.

Breakfast at the hotel was better once we managed to actually let the buffet open before we invaded it before we jetted off to Bifengxia the first two mornings here. There wasn’t too much more on offer, but the OJ went from steaming hot to actually cold. The coffee here was interesting, already milked and sugared for us on the hot plate. It was good, but I like my coffee sweetened. The only other add to the buffet this morning were fried dough type bits, which could have used some cinnamon and sugar but I made do with the bright red jelly meant for toast.

We have nearly three hours to get to Chengdu to catch our flight to Shanghai at 3:20. On the way to the airport we stopped at a large banquet restaurant (with many rooms to serve large parties as well as smaller groups of diners like ours). This was the closest to Chinese food in America I have seen, with something like chicken fingers available. I had probably my last of the Ma Po Tofu only instead of tofu it was veggies. There was also a slightly spicy beef dish that tasted good. But again it was an exercise in more than 15 dishes all being spun about on the lazy susan and was way more food than all of us combined can eat.

The fun part of the meal though was when we crashed a traditional Chinese wedding being held near us in the restaurant. It was gorgeous, with all the bright red and gold decorations. There was a very loud officiant using a microphone who sounded to me a lot like the host of Iron Chef. The bride was dressed in traditional dress and headpiece and stood at the back of the room covering her face with a fan until she arrived at the side of her groom. There was a whole lot of bowing to each other, offering of tassels and sharing of food, all prompted by the bellowing officiant (remember, here louder is better) and very ceremonious, thundering piped-in music. It was interesting to see and cheap entertainment for the last half of our lunch hour.

On the way to the airport, David told us he enjoyed our time with him and gave us each a small panda pin as a gift. “It is cheap but it comes from the heart,” he said. Then, like he did when he picked us up, he sang again. He chose John Denver’s “Country Roads Take Me Home” and also “Leaving On a Jet Plane”. I don’t know what got into me other than fatigue and homesickness, but I will admit to shedding more than a couple tears.

Our flight out of Chengdu left an hour late, so the impromptu river cruise Stanley suggested earlier was nixed in favor of more sleep. We had a hellaciously turbulent half hour during the flight and I think all of us were hot, tired and in need of alone time. Stanley made the call to cancel the river cruise on his own, so maybe even he is feeling fatigued.

Once the plane landed, I noticed the crew all lined up in the center aisle and bowed to us. I hadn’t noticed that on any of the other domestic flights (all on Chinese carriers) here, so maybe it’s only done after near death experiences like the one we had cruising through that turbulence.

We were talking amongst ourselves and I think what is tiring about this trip is not just the physical moving about but also the constant overload of our senses. Everything we see, we hear, we taste is new and needs to be processed. I think that interrupts our normal rest and sleep patterns, as there’s been no “off” switch since we got here. I just need to make it through one more day…

So while I killed time on a bus, I thought of more random things that I’ve forgotten about in all that I’ve already written:

In Xi’an, I bought a book and had it signed by one of the farmers who discovered the Terra Cotta Warriors. When he discovered them while he dug a well on his land back in the 70s, the government gave him some obscene amount of money, like $30, to get him off the land so it could be excavated further and, as we know now, convert it into a tourist destination. Now though, he is sitting in the gift shop signing books and I’m sure reaping some reward for it.

At the start of the trip, Stanley asked us to give him the US equivalent of $8 per person per day to cover tips during the course of the trip. My first response was that everything I had read to prepare for China indicated that tipping is illegal. But as the week wore on and I saw these guides bending over backwards to accommodate us, it felt criminal that that was all we gave them.

Along that same vein, when four of us told David yesterday that we wanted to do the play with pandas photo opportunity again, he was surprised. “1000 yuan, you know?” he said. That is $150 which for them is about what they get paid in a month. And the four of us did it four times in a week. I felt almost gluttonous at that point, if that makes sense. It made me wonder what they think of Americans like us who seem to come here and cavalierly throw our money around like that. To me, it was part of the experience and a memory I would never want to forget, so if I have the wherewithal to do it, I will. But part of me did feel almost guilty when David was so incredulous that we would pay for that again.

As he gave us the itinerary for Shanghai tomorrow, Stanley just uttered the understatement of the tour: “This tour is not for your relax (sic), this tour is for you to see as much as you could.” I mean really, I like to jam-pack my days when I travel, but even I am starting to be run down from this schedule.

When checking in at Chengdu, I noted my luggage is 23.2 kilos, which is about 51 pounds. I think I need to shed 6 pounds before I head home on United. Gulp.

All along the roadsides in rural Sichuan province, I started to notice in the driveways in front of homes on which the residents would spread grain or rice or corn out and leave it to dry in the sun. That, and they would hang hundreds of ears of corn from their homes to dry. I asked David and he said they do that to preserve it for the winter, usually for farm animal but sometimes for themselves. I found it hard to believe that many will strip the corn kernels from the cob by hand one painstaking kernel at a time; if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I would not have believed it.

While I’m in no race to get home, I will say that I eagerly await the time when I enter a bathroom and don’t wonder if it’s Western or squatty and whether I need to bring my own toilet paper or not and whether I can flush it or throw it in the waste basket when I’m done. I’ve adapted well, but see, these are the sorts of things we take for granted and don’t need to mentally process at home. Here, even going to the bathroom or brushing your teeth (DON’T use the water!) can have serious consequences.

All of us have been trying Chinese ice cream wherever we see a freezer case full of it. In Bifengxia, Dan found the best ice cream bar ever: some sort of chocolate covered heath ice cream with little chocolate balls embedded in it and a marshmallow center. At the Chendgu airport, Paula found an oatmeal ice cream covered in dark chocolate. It is good to travel with people with such excellent taste in the finer things!

That’s it for Saturday….full day in Shanghai tomorrow!

Friday, September 16, 2011

China -- Day 8

Subtitled: I Found My Man, This Is What Plastic Is For, All In The Name Of Tai

It rained last night and when I say rain, I mean torrentially raining. I laid awake for a while last night listening to it and prayed that it would stop before we had to volunteer today. And my prayers were answered. It stopped raining but did not clear up for most of the day. In fact, heading higher into the mountains the fog and mist was heavier (every time I rode into those mountains and saw the peaks shrouded in fog, I thought “Gorillas in the Mist” for some reason). We had the same breakfast as the day before and hit the road at 7:15. On the way up the mountain we got stuck behind a trash truck that refused to move. After trying to squeeze by without mashing mirrors for quite some time, our guide got out and argued demonstratively for a bit with the driver of the truck and finally convinced him to move in a bit so that we would not plummet down the side of the mountain. This was one of those roads only wide enough for maybe 1 ½ normal sized cars, not a bus and a truck. And there was no guardrail to keep us up, only a sure-death plummet down on our side. So that was why we were all late for work. I swear.

Something happened overnight and the four of us did not get split up and we were assigned to a new keeper, who I think introduced himself as Mr. Chang. It was funny calling him that as he appeared to be all of 20 years old; all of us could have been his mother. Anyway, Mr. Chang seemed to want to practice his halting English on us and also didn’t mind waiting while we ran amok taking pictures when we probably shouldn’t have. It was nice having a rapport with him though because we could ask him about the pandas rather than feeling like we were an imposition simply by asking simple questions.

Each time we entered a panda house for the first time of the day, it was always interesting to see how the pandas would greet you. They hadn’t seen humans overnight and were also probably hungry and ready for some treats. Most of the time they came to sit on their butts, legs out, right near the enclosure’s bars. They’d hold on to the bars or stick a paw out. One we saw this morning was up on his hind legs, holding the bars with his front paws, and rocking side to side, one foot to the other, head back in the air. I’d seen the pandas on panda cam do this before and it was sort of neat to see it up close.

We cleaned four of the enclosures we did yesterday. You might remember that I managed to dodge the poop scooping simply by having exceptional broom skills. No such luck today. And the enclosure I got to clean was Lu Lu’s, who apparently is the Ace #1 Pooper at BiFengXia. I was surprised he was still standing when I finally saw him; it appeared as if he’d imploded. And just to properly indoctrinate me into poop scooping, I reached down to pick up a long stalk of bamboo and the other end got stuck under the edge of the bars and when it flicked back, it flicked you-know-what all in my direction. Joy. I let it get to me for all of 30 seconds, didn’t care what hardened in my hair for the rest of the day and went on to the next cage. I can assure you, nothing will faze me now that I’ve cleaned Lu Lu’s cage.

Mr. Chang also had me clear off the outside enclosure for Lu Lu, which meant removing the bamboo from yesterday, cleaning up the poop and then hauling in new bamboo for the day. It was actually really satisfying to visit him later in the day and see him out there on his patio enjoying the bamboo. It was still clean out there then, but I’m sure he’ll waste no time messing it up. Lu Lu got up to return to his inside enclosure while we were watching him, but somehow I used some panda whisperer skills to convince him to stay with us and pose for photos. I won’t say I guilted him into it, but….I did scoop his poop! He indulged us for about 5 minutes, then gave us a bleat and went inside. And that was it for me and Lu Lu until I went back to say good bye later in the day.

We each got to feed pandas again this morning, having cut up more panda cake for them this morning. The keeper knew how many grams each panda was supposed to get, so we had to eyeball the loaf, cut it down to what we thought was correct and weigh it. We got pretty close most of the time. The keeper uses the panda cake sometimes to lure the panda in and out of the different parts of the enclosure, always sliding closed and locking a door behind them to keep them separate from us.

When Mr. Chang cut us loose from our morning duties, David took us back up to the 2 year olds’ area for another “play with pandas”session. Even though I hadn’t taken the cash out of the ATM for a third paid session here, I whipped out my credit card and signed right up. Experiences like this, that only happen once in a lifetime, are exactly what the plastic is for. We gowned up and got in line. While we were waiting, we could see the four pandas that they had chosen for us, and they could see us. I think they are well aware that any time non-keepers show up in hospital gowns, they’re going to get snacks. They were climbing all over each other and up and down the bars between them and us, they were obviously so excited. I could hear the little bleat of the guy I sat with yesterday and hoped I could get my hands on him first again today. And I did. He wasn’t hard to spot because he was already talking away. I sat down sort of next to and behind him and just started to pat his neck and back. I talked to him and he was chatting away back at me. I made a point this time to really take it in, look at his eyes, look at his fur, remember how it feels. It is just such an incredible thing to be that close and have them be so gentle and cute. I believe in storing up memories to pull out and savor when I need it the most, and every encounter I’ve had with a panda here is one of them, but this little guy really won me over. I asked the keeper on the way out what his name is, and she said Xiang Riu, I believe. All I know is that I found my man. I’m smitten!

Once we were done hanging with the two year olds, David whisked us off to lunch again in the employee dining hall. Today we had something similar, starting with a tomato and egg drop soup, a pork stir fry, lima beans of some sort with chicken, a hot cabbage slaw and rice. Again it was interesting to see all of the employees come with their own bowls, get them filled at the window, sit with us to eat and then go outside to the sinks to clean them up.

After lunch we went back to the panda kindergarten where I got to see the nursery worker de-poop the infant panda. She held him belly up and started to stimulate his lower region by rubbing it with a wet cotton ball. Then she tapped that area and all of a sudden he started to clear his bowels. I won’t go into much more detail than that, but I did take video of it. The poor guy really looked more comfortable once that was done for him; he’d looked a bit agitated just before that.

The other team of volunteers from our group was assigned to the temporary enclosures that are housing the pandas rescued from the Wolong base during the earthquake of 2008. There they saw a mother panda with a one year old cub who had not been separated from her as most of the cubs already have been. Our team of volunteers really wanted to see them both, so Stanley made a point of taking us up there on the way back to our jobs. Unfortunately we found the mom but no baby. But at this point, our cup already runneth so far over, it was hard for me to be disappointed.

Our afternoon volunteering didn’t consist of much but hauling some fresh bamboo in and talking some more to Lu Lu. We asked the keeper about him, and he said he is 15 years old and has always lived at BFX. I think he said he’d fathered some cubs, but I can’t be sure with Mr Chang’s English.

There was a whole lot of confusion about how the day was to end. David came to get us at 2:30 for a “ceremony” up at the main entrance at 3:00. We were supposed to be back for the last feeding at 3:30. We took the buggy up to the main entrance and quickly surmised that the ceremony was to honor a contributor to the facility and it would be all done in Chinese (obviously) so it would be of almost no value to us to see. Others in the group were still really desperate to get a glimpse of Tai Shan, who’d been practically hidden when we went up to Leopard Mountain the day before. We managed to convince David and Stanley to take us up there one more time. Since all employees were at the ceremony, we had to walk from the main gate. At David’s pace, we did it in about 20 minutes: 10 minutes to the kindergarten and 10 more to the repatriated pandas.

On the way, I stopped our group to show them Lu Lu, since some of them didn’t work with him like I did. He was still eating bamboo, only this kind he was stripping the leaves off with his mouth (with the leaves all pointing in the same direction!) and once he had a dozen or so leaves all lined up in the corner of his mouth, he use his hand to twist them into a cigar shape, and he’d bite of chunks of the cigar and eat them. It is all really very scientific, and he has it down to a science, to be able to pick up stalks of bamboo and strip the leaves off, skillfully leaving the twig that attaches the leaf to the stalk intact! I bid Lu Lu a fond farewell and told him to be a little kinder with his poop production with his next volunteer, and we continued our walk up to Leopard Mountain.

When we first arrived, Tai Shan was right where we left him yesterday. And even when the keepers came to bring him and his neighbor Fu Long biscuits, he didn’t move. After a bit, he crept up two steps so we could see more of him, but he was still dozing away. Finally he got up, went into his enclosure (where we ran to the front window to peer in at him). He thought about his biscuit for a few minutes and then brought it outside. Tai sat upright on the step, one paw on his knee, the other holding the biscuit to his lips where he licked it absentmindedly for about 10 minutes, giving us ample time to snap about 50 photos. Then as soon as he’d had enough, he dropped the biscuit and went back to his spot. And that was the end of the Tai Shan show. Now that everyone was satisfied (David let us stay past 4:00 because I think he knew he’d have an uprising on his hands if he tried to make the group leave) we could leave. While we waited for a buggy to bring us back to the entrance, I went over to say goodbye to Fu Long. He was the first adult I saw when I arrived on Wednesday and it felt right to see him last too. We also caught a glimpse of Mei Sheng doing his tree climbing routine again, climbing nearly three stories up a tree, to then perch himself precariously in the fork of a branch for a nap. I honestly don’t know how these pandas balance and don’t accidentally fall out of the trees while they sleep!

We left Bifengxia for the last time. Last time on this trip, that is.

Dinner tonight was in the hotel restaurant again. Stanley helped us order. Since I was the only spicy chick there, we didn’t order spicy. We had kung pao chicken, two plates of Sichuan green beans with chicken, the fried sticy rice sticks that we also had last night and a big order of fried rice. With beer for some and Sprite for others, the whole thing came to 24 yuan or $4 a person. What a bargain!

I noticed that on the way back on the bus I started thinking about packing for home. I think mentally I’ve made the transition and am ready to head back. Tomorrow is mostly a travel day (2 ½ hours to Chengdu then a 3 hour flight to Shanghai) and we have Sunday to see Shanghai and that is it. I can’t believe I’m at this point already!

Not sure if there will be an update tomorrow…nothing but travel, I think.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

China -- Day 7

Subtitled:  Who Knew They Look Into Your Eyes, Mr Hard To Get, A Nice Chinese Red Wine

Today would be our first official day volunteering at Bifengxia. We got our wake up call at 6:15 in order to be on the bus by 7:15 and working by 8:15. Last night I managed to sleep most of the night in good order until the loudest rooster in the universe started to crow at 4:30 a.m. I just can’t win here when it comes to getting some sleep!

This hotel, Moonstar Hotel, is on one of the highest hills in Ya’an. It is so isolated that walking to Ya’an for a night out or even for dinner or the supermarket is just out of the question. The hotel has its own restaurant though and we ate there last night; another lazy susan meal with dish after dish of interesting or wonderful things. I am in love with what I think is called Ma Po Tofu, which is a really hot and spicy tofu and meat dish. I put it over sticky rice and it is quite a meal.

Anyway, the restaurant doesn’t open for breakfast until 7 so that left us little time to eat this morning, but we managed to sneak in early. Since I just can’t stomach noodles, rice or anything Chinese at that hour, I hit the pastry table and had something that looked like jelly roll, two shortbread cookies and toast with some sort of fruit flavored gel. The chef showed up and fried eggs for all of us. I’m still wondering about the orange juice (like Tang at this hotel) that was boiling hot. Hmmmm.

We made it to BFX and got split into two groups, one of four and one of six. I volunteered to get off at the first stop with Bev, Tracy and Kim. They then split the four of us to work with other volunteers, for some reason. This proved problematic later in the day when the other volunteers seemed to be getting special treatment from their keeper, but the keeper Kim and I worked with seemed nice enough for sure and treated us well. We got paired with two girls from Ireland who were here to work for two weeks.

It was time to don our keeper clothes (ok, I’ll admit I put the jumpsuit on in the bus) and get to work. First stop was an enclosure that needed to be mucked out. Each enclosure holds two pandas separated from each other by a wall inside and fence outside. They are indoors overnight, so we first cleaned the outside, scooping up any poop and cleaning up the shedded outer layers of bamboo that the panda had eaten on his patio the day before. Then we pulled weeds on the patio, swept everything up and dumped it into big buckets. The keeper would then transition the panda outside, locking us back inside, pushing panda out and locking it outside. We’d then sweep and de-poop the inside of the enclosure. It was not sunny but it was about 80 and humid and I broke a sweat fast. We’d lay out fresh bamboo for the day and off we’d go to do another. We did enclosures this morning and helped with another one, getting done about 10:00. Then we got to take a break until 11 but Stanley and David had arranged for us to sit for another photo with a 1 year old panda and play in the kindergarten with 2 year old pandas, so off we went for that.

I am, apparently, an expert sweeper. I somehow managed to avoid scooping poop if only because I can sweep with these bundles of sticks they call brooms here. I swept the fronts of a couple enclosures as well as a long path from the main road up to an enclosure. It felt good to break a sweat but I do wish I’d gotten to do something else.

The whole time you are cleaning within eyeshot of a panda, there is a very good chance they are watching you. We were outside the first couple of enclosures and I was down pulling weeds on the floor and I’d look up and the panda would be inside at the round door watching me, as if it were overseeing the whole thing. I will say, it was satisfying to go back by the places that we cleaned during the morning and see them enjoying their newly laid bamboo and freshly cleaned and weeded terrace!

What really amazed me is how the pandas respond to their keeper. One female panda, Ho Bao, was way out in her enclosure, high up in a tree. Apparently she’d been there all day yesterday and they couldn’t get her down last night either. Her keeper didn’t seem concerned at first, but when he stood for almost 15 minutes calling her name and she didn’t come down, he started to tell the other keepers about her. What was fascinating though is that when he called her, she lifted her head and looked in his direction, so she knew he was calling her. Not that she was going to come to him, but she obviously realized she was being called. All of the pandas, when being summoned in or out, respond to their names.

The difference between this photo shoot and the one at Chengdu is that the panda does not sit on your lap. They brought out a little one and put him on a set of chairs (that so closely resembled a bus station!). One by one we each got to go sit with the panda and pat him while he was occupied by a carrot or cookie. The encounter lasted all of 30 seconds this time (rather than a minute in Chengdu) but this time I managed to get video. It was not as overwhelming emotionally this time because I was prepared for it all. I just remember patting him and looking into his eyes as he ate away. I also scratched his neck and his chin when he lifted his head up. The whole thing went by so fast though it seems like a dream.

Very quickly we got driven up to another panda kindergarten, different from the one yesterday. This one was for the 2 year olds. We were gowned up again and led into a courtyard where four pandas sat munching away eagerly on their panda biscuits. I moved towards one panda that was sort of off on his own and got to know him. This was just an amazing experience because I could spend three minutes getting to know this panda. What was just amazing about it is I did nothing but rub his back and scratch the back of his neck and talk to him and every few bites he’d squeak at me, like we were conversing. And when he turned to look at me, he made eye contact with me. I told Suzanne about it and she smiled and said that that was very common.

Right after that, David took us to the keepers’ dining hall, where he had arranged for us to have lunch. For 20 yuan (about $3.50) we had about five courses. It was all traditional Chinese but it was good and cheap and we didn’t have to go too far for it. What was interesting though was seeing how it worked for them. Each employee brings their own bowl, goes up to the buffet window and all five courses are served into the bowl. The employees all eat in the dining hall and when they are done, they go outside to communal sinks, scrape off the leftovers into a slop bucket and wash the dishes in the sink. It was actually sort of cool to see the behind the scenes action. Suzanne told us they don’t get paid much but they do get room and board on site.

After lunch with two hours to kill until we were needed back with our keeper, one member of our group convinced David to take us up to the mountain where the repatriated pandas are, specifically with an eye toward seeing Tai Shan, the panda born in DC. We made the long and winding trek there in the buggy (large golf cart) only to find that Tai Shan had hidden himself away behind a wall, but ever the diva, he did stick his head and one paw out when we called his name. I got to revisit his neighbor, Fu Long, who is just one of the most photographic pandas ever, especially when he sticks his uniquely white foot out. We also saw Mei Sheng roaming up in the hills amidst the grass. I think there is already a movement underfoot to get back there tomorrow in order to see Tai out and about rather than sticking his ears out from behind a wall!

Around 2:00 we went back to our assigned teams. The Irish girls we were teamed with showed us how to cut up the panda cakes, which to me seem a lot like Irish brown bread. David said we could try it, but I was still pretty full from lunch. We then went to visit the four pandas under our care to watch the keepers weigh them. They called to them and threw piece of apple and carrot on the large platform scale. The pandas being pandas, were interested in the food and would climb up to get weighed. Our pandas ranged from 125 kg to 94 kg. It seemed like the lower weighing pandas got the bonus of getting panda bread, which we got to feed them. It was the first time I got to feed a panda. Our keeper warned us in the morning to stay back about 3 feet, hold it out to them and when it seems like they have it in their mouth, let go so they won’t bite further down toward your fingers. With that in mind, I lifted some panda cake to the panda and he took it. I might have gotten a little too close on the second piece because I came away with panda drool all over two fingers. I’ll never wash that hand again….!

The last thing we did before the day was out was put fresh bamboo in the enclosures for the overnight. A few of the pandas got bamboo shoots as well, which I also got to hand feed them. There is just something so awe inspiring to have an animal like this take food from your hand and eat it while looking you in the eye the whole time. I really felt like I did something to make their day better today.

We left tired from being hot and on our feet all day. The work wasn’t necessarily hard but it was a long day to be outside in humid mountain air.

Dinner was not part of the tour package but because we are so far from the city, Stanley met those of us who were interested and took us to the hotel restaurant to help us order. I split a Ma Po Tofu and rice with Kim and a bottle of Great Wall Cabernet Sauvignon with Linda. I also had an interesting little fried rice cake too. All in it was about $17 per person before the wine.

After a long day, it’ll be nice to go to bed to the sound of a gentle rain…hopefully it stops before morning and I don’t hear the local cock crow again tomorrow!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

China -- More random notes

I had over three hours today on the bus, so I caught up on my blogs and put together more random notes.  Unfortunately it doesn't appear that I have access to Facebook from here, so you have been spared nearly 140 shots of baby pandas!  This and the next two blogs are new as of early on 9/14.

More random notes...
David said this morning that the day rarely dawns sunny here in Chengdu but when it does people usually call up their friends and go to a tea house to enjoy the nice morning. I’m wondering how that sort of spontaneity meshes with a work schedule…

On the flight over, the guy I sat with told me a story about capital punishment in China. He said that if prisoners are on death row and they don’t need to be made an example of, they would be fed extremely well and made to be fit so that they are in the best shape for organ donation. How creepy is that?

David told us the most popular US singers in China are Karen Carpenter, John Denver and Michael Jackson. Now there’s a trifecta!

After we saw the wealth of archeological treasures at Jinsha, Paula told me that she had asked Stanley about all the development in Beijing for the Olympics and if they had encountered anything like those digs that would have held up development. His reply was “we had a schedule”. So I am guessing that if anything like that was found, it was just built over. Paula had a good point that most of this sort of exploration started well after the Cultural Revolution so the Chinese are probably still figuring out all of things like the Jinsha site they could be doing but weren’t allowed to previously.

David is extremely proud of his hometown of Chendgu and home province of Sichuan. Whenever he introduces a sight or opportunity to us, he points out how unique it is and how much we are going to like it. When Dan said that he’d already seen face-changing at a theater in Beijing, David made him confess which show was better. Dan of course said the one in Chengdu was, and David acted as if this were a personal victory for him. At one point during the day, David told me that there are many similarities between Paris and Chengdu: the teahouse lined river, the wealth of museums and culture, the slowness of it all. I really have to take exception to the comparison because while on paper that may be true, Chengdu is about as far from Paris as I’ve ever been, both literally and figuratively.

One other thing that is acceptable here is when desperate mothers try to play matchmaker for their unmarried sons. Stanley told us that in the park near Temple of Heaven, we may see mother sitting with photos of their son, a description about him (think “Looking for Love” ads) and a phone number or QQ (like Facebook or Twitter) address for him. We didn’t see that at Temple of Heaven but we did see it in the big park in Chengdu. All over a row of bushes were pinned these handwritten missives which were basically “take my son, please” requests!