Thursday, May 10, 2007

May 7 - Seaside Bike Trek

After knocking out my first of three comprehensive examinations, it was time to let off some steam. The exam had gone well, the day was one of the year’s most beautiful yet, and the idea of renting a bike for the afternoon seemed far too appealing.

So that’s exactly what I did. Along with the company of trusty roommate Alex Roche, we packed ourselves each a book bag with some water and laundry to drop off along the way. Just up past the beach behind our school are a bunch of bike rental shops. Its really funny, whereas two, three, and even four seater bicycles are seldom scene in the States, the Chinese love to make a day out biking and do it together. Bikers were out all along the seaside and I’m convinced that it was probably a 50/50 split on normal bikes vs multiple seating bikes. One of the highlights had to have been when I was biking along on my mountain bike and passed what turned out to be 3 smiling monks all peddling along on one bike.

When I rented the bike, I knew in my mind where I wanted to go. I wanted to be riding right up along the sea and beachfront. The only way to do this would be to use the boardwalk that goes for miles resting between outdoor, umbrella-filled cafes and the water.

With a few annoying stairs up and down now and then, the boardwalk was clearly not designed with a biker in mind. In fact, about halfway through our trek we came across a sign specifically stating that bikes weren’t to be used. Oops. While all the tourists road along the safe bike path, briefly glimpsing the water from time to time, Alex and I were riding nearly on top of the water and, on a few instances, through the beach and water itself. It was a much more satisfying experience and I’m glad we took the initiative to do it right. No worries, no one got upset with us. At most, we had some lightly entertained crowds at a few seaside joints watching us struggle to make our way through some tight spots between large, rocky cliffs and the ocean.

It was a beautiful day on a beautiful island. I also recently went to the major bookstore around here and was able to come across a few good looking books that revolve around Xiamen. One is written by a Professor who has been living here for the past 30 years or so, so I’m sure that one has a wealth of information. The other is written completely in Chinese, but has some beautiful, full color pictures that will also be good for sharing back home. See you all soon!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

We Had a Ball

Well, spring has sprung in Xiamen. If it wasn't for the constant shifts from rainy to hot, sunny days I would say its basically summer. The month has been filled with long days prepping finals papers and presentations.

Today was the first day it began to dawn on me that the school trip is nearing an end. Quite sad. One of my buddies celebrated his 21st today, and the lot of us got together to share a drink and meal with him. It was one of the few times the majority of the group was together at once, really helping to put the trip into perspective. In a word, its been amazing. As is said, one travels as much to find himself, as discover any foreign place.

Monday, April 9, 2007

A Summary of My Spring Break

This first week of April was a welcome rest from my constant traveling/schooling. While others took the week as an opportunity to travel around (some went to Tibet, Hong Kong, Tokyo etc...) I was about traveled out. So I (along with my friends Alex and Chas) took the week and "kept it local" as they say, recharging my batteries.

I will now fill each day with a short synopsis, giving a peak into the daily ongoings of my Spring Break.
Day 1 - The highlight of my first night on break was taking the time to visit a local bar that is actually owned by two sisters of which we've become friends with. I had never visited the bar before, but it turned out to be a nice, trendy little bar. The way it featured such bright, clean atmosphere, it almost felt more like it should be a coffee shop than a bar. But after a few drinks in me, it was clear that it most certianly was a bar in ever since of the word. Especially after we worked our way through some darts (just like home) and a few rounds of the very popular dice game Bo Bing (no so much like home).
Day 2 - My second day was the previously detailed Xiamen Marathon.
Day 3 - The last of the nice weather for break. If only I'd known the sun was about to disappear for the following week...instead of finding the beach, we treated ourselves to our favorite dumpling house. This place deserves a journal entry all its own, as its become one of my favorite little nooks in Xiamen and is frequented all too often by myself. In fact, I had lunch there again today. For a mere 6 Yuan (about 90 Cents) they will bring out a plate of 20 Dumplings for your eating pleasure. The dumplings come in all sorts of stuffings, the best I've discovered are the Mushroom and Egg Dumplings by far. Its a great little place that has treated me far too well, for far too cheap.

Day 4 - Monday's as usual, are my day's working at Common Talk. Not much went on this week as they had no new assignments. I edited some other work and wrote up an opinion piece on my experience as an English judge for their Speaking Contest. Hopefully that will be published in the near future.

Day 5 - One of our requirements by Prof. Grasso before leaving China is to visit the nearby city of Jie Mae. Its about an hour outside the city and is the home of one of China's greatest contributers to education. I visited his home which is now a museum as well as a park dedicated to his memory. The man was amazing and gave all of his time and energy to promotin and establishing better schooling throughout Southern China. I'm going to copy my Jie Mae write up to this blog probably in my next posting, so stay tuned to read more about the trip.

Day 6 - After our trip to Jie Mae, the weather had clearly taken a turn for the worse. No end was in sight and it was only getting colder and rainier day by day. This was the time to take advantage of my Nintendo Wii and truly just rest. We spent an undocumented amount of time in my room playing Madden NFL football, taking the Bears from Week 1 all the way to the second round of the playoffs...only to be utterly defeated at the hands of the @#$@#% Minneasota Vikings. Good times good times.

Day 8,9 - Gulanyu, the small little island only 10 minutes from my campus is a great get away for anyone looking for some peace and quiet. I'd visited a handful of times, but never actually stayed there. Alex and I made a point to find a good bed and breakfeast and really explore the island. No cars, motorcycles etc...are allowed on the island. Making it one of the most relaxed places you can find...anywhere. Beautiful scenery, beaches, and lots of quiant, old english architecture dominate the island. AKA Piano Island, Gulanyu used to be the home to all the englishmen who once inhabited and worked in Xiamen. Strangely enough, it features the most highly concentrated amount of piano's in the world. Who would think China of all places would hold that claim?

The night was ruled by a trip to KK, the number one dance club in Xiamen. Giant video screens, beautiful girls, rich businessmen, and the hottest music dominate the scene. The last time we tried to get in the club we were actually turned away as our dress code wasn't up to snuff. We didn't realize this was that sort of club. Despite its "high-maintenance" character, I actually spent no money while out. Its an amazing phenomena here in China, but, me being a westerner, I get treated to the equivalent of a blonde bombshell in any given bar in America. All my drinks are bought by Chinese eager to hang out with westerners and everyone's willing to have a conversation with you. Its a very new and strange phenomena to me, as I've never had DD breasts.

Friday, April 6, 2007


I kicked off my Spring Break with a phone call from one of my buddies at 8am reminding me it was time to wake up and head out to glimpse Xiamen’s biggest event of the year: the Xiamen Marathon.

Having never been to one before, I can’t really draw accurate comparisons between Xiamen’s and other city’s marathons. However, I can comment on the local’s high levels of enthusiasm. Going into its 5th year, the marathon has become a huge draw for local industry and is always listed as one of the major highlights Xiamen has to offer. In fact, the McDonald’s down the street has completely decorated its upstairs with giant pictures of past year’s marathons.

Some of the local friends I’ve made were actually participating in the event. None of them were trained for the professional 45 km run, but it was impressive to see these young locals being excited and proud to be taking time to run the initial 5k length. Outside of Mr. Ault, my badass High School chemistry teacher, I can’t think of a single person I know stateside who runs marathons for fun, while in my short time here I’ve met 4 people my age who are doing it, 3 of which are girls!

It’s an interesting note, and I think it’s a good example of what I mean when I say this marathon is a BIG DEAL here in Xiamen. The Chinese are active people by nature. I’ve yet to meet a person who drives their own car, they all rely on public transportation, bikes, and walking from place to place. I walk everywhere here and sometimes catch myself complaining, while the locals I’m with simply remind me, “but it’s good for you.” Judging from the extreme lack of overweight people here, I’m beginning to take their advice very seriously.

The marathon takes place on the main ring road that wraps itself around Xiamen (it is an island after all). Luckily, our campus is very near the water and it was only a 10 minute walk to the south gate where we could watch the runners go by. As you can see by the pictures, they just kept coming and coming. I’m going to try to find some official numbers, as I’m curious to compare how many participants their were as opposed to some of the larger marathons run in the states.

After watching that vantage point for awhile, the three of us grabbed a bus and headed to Jung Shan Road, one of the major shopping streets in Xiamen. We were there to investigate some pirated video game retailers and grab some brunch. While eating in this one cafeteria-like restaurant (famous for it’s Peanut Soup), we were lucky enough to catch the end of the marathon on tv.

The entire upstairs dining area was clamored around the television watching in anticipation. Two runners were out front with no one else in sight. One was a local runner, the other was an African runner. Talking with some friends before the start of the race, I had learned that in all 4 previous years, African runners had won first place. These runners are some of the best trained running machines in the world, and the Xiamen marathon is one of the highlights on their annual circuit.

So to see one Chinese person left running just a step in front of this expected winner was enough to get the locals in the restaurant very excited. We sat and took our time eating as we watched the final 3km on TV.

The Chinaman looked very tired, and on the verge of passing out, while the African looked almost bored and as if he may just be warming up. Maybe it was the legions of cheering fans running alongside the local, but somehow, in that final 1km stretch, the Chinaman managed to actually increase his lead over the favorite. It was a moving sight to see and very exciting for everyone involved.

When the new local champion crossed through the banner cheers shot up through our entire restaurant, as well as could be heard in the streets (televisions line the streets on Jung Shan Road). It was pretty moving and a very satisfying ending to a much hyped event. Although we couldn’t help but wonder if the African had been paid off by the government or something…haha no just kidding.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

English Speaking Contest

So I've been trying to get this post up for a few days now...but I haven't been able to access my blog for about 5 days. I was convinced that China had put a clamp on or something. But today, all is better and I figure I should throw a blog up quick before it happens again!

Last Sunday, I was outside my campus limits at 7:30 to be picked up by Common Talk's driver and head downtown. Instead of going to my regular office, I was headed off to another high rise where "EF: English First's" offices are. The two organizations are working in conjunction to conduct what is Common Talk's largest and most heavily promoted annual event: the Fujian Province English Speaking Contest.

I was asked to be a judge for the event, the youngest they've ever had. Its a serious event too. Last year they had over 4,000 contestants enter. It was myself and 5 other judges to handle the opening day's round.

Myself and one other gentleman were in charge of all the middle school student's. These kids ranged from 12-15 years old. Getting my own office, I would sit behind my desk while one student at a time would enter and have 60 seconds to give a rehearsed speech in english. The subject was "My Biggest Dream."

For me, it was a personally rewarding experience due in large part to the topic. I found it fascinating to hear what Chinese youth were most excited about for their futures. In some ways I was surprised by the differences, and in other ways intrigued at some similar answers I would expect from American kids. I personally oversaw probably 250 students by the end of a full 8 hour day of scoring. Talking to that many youth, certain trends showed.

Many of them wanted to be doctors, and I was surprised to see that the other most popular answer was becoming a reporter. Their dreams seemed very giving and surprisingly mature. This can be attributed to the way that Chinese culture puts so much emphasis on the community as opposed to the individual. Many young girls wanted to take their careers and go to the incredibly poor western provinces and provide aid. I was pleasantly taken to find that many boys were well aware of the environmental challenges now facing the world, and especially, their own country. They knew of troubles with their polluted rivers, specific events and areas in trouble, etc...

The day was enlightening, exciting, and a great overall learning experience for me. The only sad part was having to rank and score the students, as I could only pass about half of them. Of those passed, I should get to see them again in the upcoming 2nd round being held in mid-April. The final round will actually be televised throughout the province, and chances are, I wont be around to participate in that which is a shame.

More as it comes...

My two, very kind chief editors after a hard day's judging.

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Weekend in Beijing

This past weekend I had the opportunity to take my first flight across China completely on my own. Eckerd College's Choir group is touring China this week to participate in 4 perforamces over 10 days. One of my closest friends, Rebecca, was on the trip and worked out a way for me to hop up and visit for the weekend. I'm going to add more from my visit to Beijing once Becca emails me pictures, but in the meantime, here's an article I just finished for Common Talk based on my trip.

Tianjin Cultural Exchange
Jesse Johnson
March 19, 2007


An exciting and important cultural exchange took place in the northern city of Tianjin on March 17th. It involved a meeting between Tianjin University students and students from Eckerd College, a university located in the southern United States. The communication breakthrough came through a language that is universal to all people of all nations: music. Tianjin University invited Eckerd College's vocal choir to help kick off the opening ceremony for their 22nd Culture and Art Festival.

Eckerd College brought over 70 choir members and faculty to share the spotlight as honorary guests to China. They traveled from the university's campus in the state of Florida to take part in the event.

Featuring not only their talented vocal choir, Eckerd also boasts a unique musical team of ringers. The Eckerd Ringers are equipped and trained with special bells. Each bell rings in a very specific musical note, allowing the team of ¡°ringers¡± to perform some very intricate and pleasing musical tunes. With 56 bells total, this is certainly no simple task. As the ringers team is only a small portion of Eckerd's full choir, each ringer must be able to quickly move between multiple bells, as each of the ringers are responsible for specific sets of bells.

While all of the performances during the opening ceremony were of the highest quality, it was the Eckerd Ringers¡¯ performances that received the most enthusiastic response from the crowd in attendance. One Tianjin University student explained, "The bells are amazing. I've never seen anything like this before."

Learning new practices and ideas from one another is certainly the hope of any such international exchange. The American students were equally impressed by the performance of their Tianjin University peers. Tianjin's choir wowed the audience by exhibiting a very diverse set of songs. Each song managed to stand on its own as unique and memorable in their own right.

The Americans especially noted a beautiful solo by one of Tianjin's female vocalists. Dressed in a traditional white dress, she stepped to the front of the stage and took control of the room. All eyes (and ears) were on her as she sang.

Another unique aspect the US students appreciated was from Tianjin's final song. In a wild frenzy of an ending, the chorus soared, while a large drum clapped like thunder, leaving only silence in its wake. From the silence came the choir singing softly and using the snapping of their fingers to mimic a pleasant spring rainfall.

Despite their campuses being thousands of miles apart, Tianjin and Eckerd both share special stories linking the schools to Xiamen. One of Tianjin¡¯s choir boys grew up in Quan Zhou and has fond memories of Fujian Province. He loves Xiamen and would've loved attending XiaDa for schooling if he wasn't so intent on moving far from home to gain his independence. Tianjin's choir actually traveled to Xiamen just last year to attend a national music contest hosted in the city. The students of Tianjin refer to Xiamen in positive terms, not only for the city's natural splendor, but also because the school had good fortune at the contest, taking two awards home to Tianjin.

Eckerd College is currently working in a close relationship with Xiamen University, as the school has sent 12 students to study and live together on XiaDa's campus for the first time ever. Students from Eckerd have been living in Xiamen since February and will stay to finish their semester until May. "I never want to leave," says Eckerd College student Chas Macneil, referring to Xiamen's overall beauty.

Mr. Macneil may be on to something. It is stories like the interactions that were shared on March 17th in Tianjin that go to show how wonderful it is to discover the beauty each of us have, from east to west.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Busy as a Bumble Bee

Sorry for the delay of updates. Now that I'm back at Xiamen, all of the students have returned from their New Year's break and the semester has kicked into high gear. As I write this, its approaching midnight of what has already been another full day. But I read a short blurb from my little sister reminding me I need to keep this thing going, so without further ado, I shall attempt to spit a few words out.

The one major highlight of the past few weeks has been my new internship. Common Talk, the only english print, weekly newspaper in Xiamen (and the Fujian Province for that matter) has been kind enough to take me and Alex under their wing. Its a small, 8-page paper with a target market focusing on not only local expats but Chinese in their 20's and 30's who are interesting in improving/learning english.

We head to the office on Mondays after lunch, taking a 30 minute taxi ride across town to the 18th floor of the Xiamen Daily's headquarters. The Xiamen Daily is a massive print newspaper in Chinese, while Common Talk is a subdivision resting under the Daily's corporate span. Our two overseeing editors are very kind women who speak good english and seem very open to fresh ideas (as the paper is only in its 3rd year).

From Thursday through the weekend, Alex and I are on call to go conduct interviews that the paper lines up. Originally, I thought we would accompany one of the editors on these meetings as mere sidekicks who probably did nothing more than take notes and/or help with translation.

As I found out my very first weekend on the job, in actuality I get plenty of action. I got a call late Friday night from my editor, asking if I could be ready to meet her at the Xiamen International Conference Center by 10am the following morning. All I was told was that I would be interviewing the Mayor of an Italian city who was in town for some sort of "stone show," and to have a few questions prepared. I didn't have time to get a clearer idea, as I was in the middle of a bar (it was Friday afterall) with friends and loud music.

Well, that morning I drug myself out of bed, ran out and caught a cab. Handed my cell phone to the taxi driver with my editor on the other line to relay directions (I've found that is the most efficient and accurate method to reach my destinations). Little did I know I was on my way to what is the 4th largest marble, stone work trade show in the world (The largest in all of Asia).

And the mayor was from Carrara, Italy, the home of the marble Statue of David by Michelangelo. We got our press passes, headed into the showroom floor and tracked down the mayor. Little did I know, I would be taking the helm for the interview, as my editor told me up front she wanted me to write the article that would come of this.

So very exciting stuff. I was back in the dorm by 12:30pm with a pad of paper full of notes and an 800 word article to submit by 9am the next morning. I was pleased to learn that I would be writing for the "People" section which basically gets about the best positioning possible in the paper. The article fills up the entire centerfold page of the issue and is running tomorrow (Wednesday). I'll make sure to update this article with a picture of it when I get myself a copy.

Hopefully, they'll keep me busy with more work and bylines. Theres plenty else keeping me busy, what with 3 research papers coming up quick, a foreign language to learn and new Chinese friends to help me with such...More as it comes.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Spring Festival Trip part 2

Feb. 19 - Pandas and Roast Duck

Our final day in the capital was a visit to the Beijing Zoo. The highlight of their zoo is, of course, their panda exhibit. In fact, the last time I visited this zoo, our tour went directly to the panda exhibit only. But this time we scheduled ourselves a healthy hour and a half to wander the zoo on our own.

Alex, Myself, and my buddy Chas didn't waste much time at the Panda exhibit. They were all sleeping and being lazy. First we checked out the impressive lake/bird sanctuary near the zoo's entrance. For the extra hour we had, it was enough to get a decent impression of what the zoo has to offer. Its certainly no San Diego or Brookfield zoo, but the variety of animals is there. Some animals were very odd looking, 4 legged things that I had never seen nor recognized from any American zoo. I couldn't get a reliable name, as they were all writtein in Chinese and Pin Yin. The only thing I could tell, was that they were native to western China, as next to each name was a map of their natural habitat.

One I remember looked like a cross between a hog, a large dog's face, and something equally ugly. The monkeys were cool, but the gorilla house was especially sad looking. Pretty run down, dreary lighting, and a pair of depressed looking, massive Kongs.

Also different from last year was my Roast Duck experience. Roast Duck dinners are the most famous, traditional dinner developed in Beijing's traditions. Whereas last year I didn't enjoy the meal, I found this trip's to be a highlight lunch for the entire tour. New restaurant, lots of beer at noon, and a much better tasting duck helped to make this possibly the best meal of the trip.
Northern Chinese food differs much from its Southern brethren. I found that Beijing's meals were easily my favorite of the trip. The south prefer very sweet, lighter meals, where the north enjoys saltier, heavier meals.

I spent my free afternoon hunting the streets near our hotel for a guitar. I've always wanted a thing, hollow body jazz guitar and knew Xiamen didn't have any to offer. Drew, another traveling buddy , went with me, as he was curious about getting a bass for himself.

The streets lined with music stores were chock full of people and clsed off to cars thanks to the Chinese New Year. Of all the stores, there was literally only one guitar that stood out as one that fullfilled my dreams and could be proud of. They had rip off Gibsons etc...but I wanted legit. Only problem was, the legit PV guitar was listed at 3,000 RMB. But two hours of haggling, 1 walk away from the store, and a lot of acting and debate later and the price had dropped to 1,600 RMB with a hard case thrown in. With an exchange rate of US$1 = 7.7 RMB that works out to...just a hair over $200. This same model guitar in the US probably retails for $400. Not too shabby. Not to mention a hard case that was thrown in for free usually would cost 50-70$ by itself.

On another note, the Chinese New Year on the night of the 17th was like nothing I've seen/heard before. They may not have the best quality fireworks (as they big ones usually explode before clearing the 2o some story buildings) But it seems every person in the city of 18 million are launching bombs for 12 hours straight. It actually went on for the entire trip, but those first hours from midnight to 6 in the morning were literally non stop. They didn't have any single, planned fireworks show, just regular citizens on every street corner and parking lot blowing things up.

It seriously sounded like a war zone. I thought I was in Beirut or something. IThat same night, I also got to play guitar in the same hole-in-the-wall bar as last year. Instead of Andy Oswald (my good friend from last years trip) on the drums, I had the priviledge of jamming with a 50-something year old Swiss man who told me it was his first time playing in 25 years. The 15 or so Swiss present were all raucous, drunk, loud and fun. He was a ton of fun to perform with, even when he stumbled and dropped a drum stick mid-song. Just a good party.
Mao's Mosoleum

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Xin Nian Hao - Spring Festival Travel

After only 2 weeks in Xiamen, it was time for the Chinese New Year. Its the Chinese equivalent to our Christmas/New Years holidays. Also known as the Spring Festival, the official length of the event is 15 days. So while I have been attending my classes, only 5% of the local 30,000 students have been on campus. They were all on break until the conclusion of Spring Festival. With this in mind, Eckerd and Xiada worked out a deal where our troop of 12 students would travel for 9 days through some of China's most important cities.

Following the structure proven successful in last year's Semester in Asia program, we visited the capital of Beijing, the ancient capital of Xi'an, and one of the premier economic hubs of the world, Shanghai.

I traveled light during the trek and opted not to drag my laptop with me. Instead, I kept a handwritten journal as required by our course leader Professor Grasso. So I'll be posting numerous days worth of travel in what will probably broken up by only a handful of actual blog postings. The first of which is my thoughts and experiences in Beijing...

BEIJING: February 16-20th

DAY 1 - February 16

Beijing's literal translation is "Northern Capital." Judging by the drastic change in temperature (its now peaking in the mid 40's) as well as the absense of greenery, Beijing seems to remember everything I remember it for last time. But that's not really a fair way to put it, other than the Chicagoesque scenery and weather, Bejing is an amazing place to visit.

After a delayed flight, which was explained by personel as everything from weather to conjested air traffic, we finally were back en route to the "heart of China," as our guide Mike put it.

Day 1 in Bejing could easily be summed up as the day of nostalgia. Before even boarding our Xiamen Airlines carrier, my buddy Galway was clearing space for us to play Chinese hackey-sack ala our trip from a year ago. Its the little things, like us falling into line behind the guidance of Mike's yellow flag that gave me a kick this first day back. Each time we'd go out in one of these big cities, the guides always carry a bright flag for us to follow like a flock of ducklings.
Its not quite as embarassing as some of the domestic Chinese tourists who all wear matching, brightly colored baseball caps to find their way through the masses.

Now I truly felt like I was back "in the saddle." From there was the bus rides I learned to love. Even if they're kind of like the shopping carts...They're not always the most comfortable things, the tour guide in front usually has to fiddle with the microphone settings and such, but its all good. Its an amazing thing for me to be living out this trip again, as it certainly qualifies as a "once in a lifetime" trip.

The best part was not only revisiting sites and maybe experiencing them in a more relaxed way, but also seeing new things that were originally overlooked. Thanks to the Chinese New Year, much of Beijing and its sides are relatively emptied. Following tradition, many of the people in the cities leave during the holidays to return to their hometowns and families.

Whereas Tianamen Square was a mad house last year, this time we were able to enjoy it with ease. At one end of the giant city square is Chairmen Mao's resting mosoleum. His final resting place usually has a three hour line in front of it, but this time we were able to view his body within 10 minutes.

Its perfectly maintained, resting in a giant empty room with stern faced gaurds overlooking his glass encased coffin. A soft light shines on Mao's face and, at first, looks as if his body is a replica with a jackolantern for a head. But as I walked silently by his resting body it became clear that it was his actual face being highlighted.

Our first evening consisted of a 1 hour traditional Beijing Opera performance. Their are only three places that still practice the show, one of which is attached to the hotel we stayed at. Two stories are told over the hour with an intermission in between. The first story was of an emperor and his interactions with his favorite concubine while his undermanned army was under seige. The concubine kills herswelf so aso not to distract the emperor from his own survival, regarding the iminent invasion that was about to come down on him and his nation. A tradtional tragedy from Chinese history.

DAY 3 - February 18

This marked my return to the Great Wall. An hour drive out of the city at the crack of dawn helped our tour bus be the first to arrive at the scene. There are a handful of spots outside the city that are designated as sites for visitors to climb, but the one Grasso takes us to is considered the most rewarding of them all.

In order to understand my experience climbing the wall, its important my history with such. The wall had my number last year. It was a rough climb to the top, and I ended up throwing up only after I reached the top. The section of wall we climb is roughly 2,500 jagged, uneven steps to the top. Needless to say, not everyone makes the complete climb. Its quick to reveal what level of shape you're in. Thisyear, I'd already spent plenty of time playing hours of basketball everyday for the past 2 weeks in Xiamen which definatly helped.

Not only did I reach the top, I was the first of the group to reach the top. Our bus was the earliest to arrive at the walls base, so it was especially rewarding to reach the summit. I was completely by myself and able to take in the view/accomplishment. It was a very rewarding experience. Following not far behind was my travel partner Alex Roche and Prof Grasso.

That was just the warm up for the day, as plenty of steps and walking lied ahead. After the Great Wall, we visited the Ming Tombs, a sprawling grave at the mountains base. Its a scenic walk, highlighted by a large, cavernous underground palace complete with a throne room.

As if that wasn't enough, we then moved on to the Summer Palace. The site in Beijing where the emperors would spend much of their time during the hotter months. A large, manmade lake (in the shape of a giant peach symbolizing completion) helped to create a cool breeze for the park. Highlights include the Marble Boat, a decent sized foothill to climb thats well worth the view. Tour shops selling scrolls, books, and other trinkets are speckled throughout the park as well. Its a beautiful place and one of my favorite sites throughout all of Beijing.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Xiamen in a Nutshell

I thought I’d take some time to familiarize everyone with my new residence, Xiamen. For Dr. Grasso’s Chinese Seminar course, the first thing we had to do was round up specific information in our teams. Each team was assigned a different subject, either Xiamen in general, Xiamen University, and China as a whole. The following list is information gathered on the area that should help give an idea as to what sort of place Xiamen is.

Xiamen Info

- Amoi is the old name for Xiamen (Located in the Fujian Province)
- For more info on Xiamen, a good site to visit is It is maintained by the wife of a professor here at Xiada (Xiamen University).
- Xiamen is an island in a sub-tropical climate, resting within the monsoon season belt.

City History

- Major trading post during western imperialism
- Gulanyu is small island, within a 2 minute ferry ride from Xiamen Island
- Was famous for settlement by westerners. Beautiful gardens, courtyards etc…
Gulanyu AKA Piano Island (Highest concentration of piano’s in the world)

o Architecture = combo of traditional Chinese, british colonial, and modern skyscrapers

o Fujian Province is one of China’s richest thanks to trade, int’l airport etc…

o One of China’s 5 original Special Economic Zones from the 1980’s
- Allowing for foreign direct investment from an early start

Xiamen University (Xiada)

- Designated as one of China’s “Key Universities”
- Allows for priority, extra funding and choice in student selection
- Top 10% of schools nationwide
- Key Schools get to give invitation only to students
- Only Key school in a special economic zone.

Students & Faculty

- Over 30,000 students

- 40% of faculty have their Doctorate or equivalent
o 32% of which received degrees abroad and returned
o 1,200 International students
o Over 80 Research facilities
o 4,000 staff on campus
o Home to largest Taiwan Research Institute

Well that’s Xiamen by the numbers. Its an amazing place, small mountains are to my rooms back, the ocean and beach are only a 15 minute walk away, and the students are very kind.

Two nights a week, Chinese and foreigners meet at a place called “English Square” to exchange ideas, practice each other’s languages, etc…Its only a block down from the hotel I’m staying in and is great. Now that the numbers and specifics of the place are out of the way, I’ll start posting more interesting, personal experiences with the city.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

BACK IN THE . . . P.R.C (People's Republic of China)

One week and counting in Xiamen, (pronounced Shaman) China. I haven’t had to time to maintain the blog as often as preferred this first week, as I have been very busy getting settled. Getting from India to Xiamen was no simple little jump.

My first connection was waiting four hours away in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia. I had a few hours to kill there. Luckily, the place was much cleaner than Delhi’s rotten airport. In fact, the airport had banners posted advertising its success in winning a worldwide competition as the “world’s best airport 2006.” No gimmick, its top notch.

From there I had another 3 hour jump over to Hong Kong. What a tease, Xiamen is only a 1 hour flight north of Hong Kong, yet I had to sit at the HK Airport for over 5 hours waiting for my connection. Ahh! Alex and I had left Delhi at 11pm Friday night, and had yet to find any real sleep. I had watched the most amazing sunrise of my life (no exaggeration) from Malaysia’s airport. It was one of those huge fireballs you see in National Geographic documentary’s about Africa, only this time it came rolling out from behind some rolling mountains. As beautiful as it was, it served as a reminder that I had yet to get any shuteye, and the day was upon us.
After the dreadful waiting in Hong Kong, our little skip over to Xiamen was short and sweet. By the time I had just closed my eyes and begun to nod off, I felt a huge jolt. Fearful, as it would have been a nervously serious air bubble, it turned out it was actually the feel of our wheels touching down in Xiamen.

My camera is busted, or I’d be posting some pictures to accompany. Somehow, my camera was only willing to work up to the very final days of India…bizarre. I will be borrowing a friends in the meantime, so I can better show my new home for the next 4 months: Xiamen, China.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Sacred Rapids

Hello hello, I'm now safely in Xiamen, China. It was a long, tiring string of flights but now I just appreciate my bed that much more. Not much has happened yet, we had an official campus tour today which was nice. The campus is huge, supporting over 30,000 students in attendance. Our International Exchange Home is near the main gate which is nice. My room is on the 6th floor and is a basic hotel room. Of course, it doesnt look much like a hotel room now. Within our first 10 minutes, Alex and I had rearranged the beds, tv, and desk in a way that is much more homelike. More on Xiamen when things begin happening.

As for Rishikesh...after our ride to the top of the mountain, we through our stuff in our room and were met within the hour by a truck full of locals and a river raft. We had met the guide on a pitstop going up the mountain and made the deal. For 700 Rupees (Roughly $23 US) he rounded up some coworkers and a few of the local kids to help guide us down the rapids. They put Alex and I in the front which was great, and let us on an hour long ride down the Ganges River.

The river water is about as cold as possible, as it is all recently melted glacier and snow caps. It was fun for a first timer like myself, as the rapids were considered category 3s. We caught a good drenching of ice cold holy water and had a handful of harry moments filled with good laughs.

An equally pleasant part of our trip was the ride our guide offered us after we reached the end. He was happy to give us a life back up the mountain side on his 200cc motorcycle. No towels, just a sip of hot tea before we left was all we had to help us through the cold. But it was strangely relaxing and less scary than the initial taxi ride. It was getting late and there was hardly any traffic. The moon was near full and bright white, lighting our path as we winded up the mountainside. Looking down I could see its reflection in the river hundreds of feet below.

It was great to get back to the Glass House. Unlike most hotels, our room was its own seperate little cottage with a front porch and incredibly large bathroom. And thankfully, the shower water was quick to get up to a heated temperature!

Our Rishikesh trip was the perfect ending to an invigorating and once in a lifetime type of trip. India was full of surprises, colors, people, and none of it would have been possible without the help of a loving family and friends, thank you to all!

From here on out, my focus is schooling in China. My first class is tomorrow morning, "Modernization and Economic Development." It is taught by a local Xiamen Professor and should be very interesting. I will continue to update my blog here as much as the rest of the trip.

Keeping an eye on home and my interest in journalism, I found this blog entry regarding the current state of our media and the ethics that it is obligated to uphold very interesting. It is worth checking out as it effects each and all of us.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Holy City in the Mountains

Hello everyone! I'm sitting stuck on a 5 hour layover in Hong Kong waiting to board the third and final connecting flight that will finally get me to Xiamen, China for the semester. Xiamen is only a 1 hour flight north of Hong Kong, so this final layover is quite the tease as I have been hopping planes for what will be 19 hours...phew.

So while I'm catching my breath I thought I should get a final India post up. I mean, I really have to since the highlight of the entire month came on the last two days in the country.

I have been sitting on a train ticket to the city of Rishikesh for about a week, waiting to head towards the Himilaya Mountains foothills. It was a 5 hour train ride from Delhi to Hagiwar, another city resting on the holy Gangas River. From there, Alex and I negotiated our way to a taxi driver who would take us another 2 hours north, through Rishikesh and up the mountain to our reserved hotel, The Glass House.

We had no problems on the trip, everything went as planned with plenty of pleaseant surprises along the way. The ride up the mountain was more thrilling than any roller coaster ride at Six Flags. The road barely fits 2 vehicles at a time, and often is only made for one direction at a time. Pot holes rule the half paved, half washed out road only adding more difficulty to the trek. But the scariest parts are the blind turns, and they come often. The driver would fly at probably 5o kilometers an hour, winding up the mountain path, approaching these sharply blind turns blaring his horn. Blowing the horn is the only way to alert possible oncoming traffic of your presence. No music plays, the drivers window is down, and he goes into military focus mode.

Alex and I sat in the back seat with our hearts racing, clinging to the "ohshit" handle that came in more than handy during this ride. Besides the blind turns, oncoming mac sized trucks, local motorbikers, and rock slides (yea, traffic was backed up on the way back down because a bulldozer was busy removing a rock slide that had covered the road) the other doozy was when you looked out your passenger window. More often that not, it was a beautiful view of Himalayas foothills and the flowing Gangas river, but look a little closer to the road and its clear that the car is always mere feet from certain death. The cliffs are steep drop offs in the hundreds of feet, the kind where no seatbelt will help (oh, that didn't matter because our taxi cab had no seatbelts).

Once to the hotel at the top, we were river rafting right back down to the bottom within the hour. More on that, and the subsequent motorcycle ride back up the mountain later...

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Indian Ear Exam

This post is regarding my doctor's visit back on the 29th. I haven't had time to get the story up til now thanks to a side trip to the holy city of Rishikash. Watch for a post going up in the near future about that awesome trek.

Now to my doctor story. To set that stage, I've had ongoing problems with my left ear since late November. I've had several doctors visits regarding what started as a simple ear infection. The eardrops I had been described before leaving the US had been tearing up the outside of my ear and appearing to do more harm than good. Finally, seeing no end in site, I lined up an appointment with a local Indian doctor who runs an office out of his home (as is quite normal for many surgeons, salesmen, etc...).

The first meeting was about a week and a half ago. He took a look, said there was far too much swelling and mucus to make out a clear site of my eardrum. With a quick prescription I was out of his office and told to return in a week when the antianflamitory had done its job.

The 29th, I returned. This time, instead of a quick seat in his office, I was taken back to a surgery room for an ear canal cleaning, audiogram, and full doctors visit. Luckily, my travel partner Alex, was able to tag along with camera in hand.

For a westerner used to American doctor's offices, the initial impression of the surgery room was quite a shocker. I have to admit, my heart started beating a bit faster. I know this for fact, because they hooked me up to a pulse monitor. I was running just above 60 when I arrived, and by the end of the session was running at about 20 extra beats a minute.

As you can see in the photos, the room was very bare. From my position on the very sad looking surgery table, I could see loose electrical wires hanging from the ceiling, many of the towels and even the sheets on me looked...a bit on the unsanitary side. I don't want to say that for certain, as I'm sure they wash them regulary, but they certainly were old and had seen better days (pre stain days I hope).

As scary as it all appeared, the doctor was more than adequate for his job. I wasn't worried about him at all. He cleaned out my ear, which desperately needed it according to Alex, who was allowed to look through the lens down my ear canal.

My ear is still infected and the ear drum is very red and irritated. The doctor put me on two different two week prescriptions and gave me an audiogram to test my hearing. The news wasnt great but not bad: my damaged left ear is hearing about 10 decibals less than my right. But, according to the doctors, this is minimal and will improve as the eardrums irritation subsides.

The total experience cost me 4,000 rupees...or roughly $80 US dollars to include the visit, cleaning procedure, prescriptions and audiogram. Not bad, as you can't put a price on your hearing.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Keep on Keepin on

The last few days have been busy ones. Successful and insightful interviews one day after the other. First, I had the opportunity to sit down with the ACS Chief (American Citizens Services). He's the guy that gets to deal with US citizens who get themselves into jams while they are in India. This can mean criminal issues, natural disasters, indingent citizens or severe health issues. He had all sorts of far out stories to illustrate just how poorly prepared some visitors are. Just last week they actually got a call about some American arrested in a northern province for running stark naked down the villages mainstreet.

The following day was the big catch though. Reed was able to arrange what was originally scheduled to be about a 10 minute private interview with just me, Alex and the US Ambassador to India. Needless to say, a big deal. The Ambassador was a gratious, thoughtful, and incredibly intelligent person.

A native of Rockford, he showcased his sharp memory from the start when he recalled specific details of his visit to Lasalle/Peru back when he was QB for his highschool football team, "I remember looking at their (LP's) defensive frontline and noticing...most of them were missing teeth. They were a tough bunch of boys."

That got my attention early on. He is one of those men who carries himself with a firm, enchanting charisma, looking through you with a rare set of steely eyes. It was an amazing conversation that turned out to go over 30 minutes in length, a compliment to Alex and I, as he turned away his anxious secretary multiple times.

As for today, I'm sitting here (11 pm) still stuffed from dinner. Reed took us out to eat at a trendy restobar not far from the house, called Punjab by Nature.

I'm stuffed because we gorged on a delicious mix of garlic and butter naan along with a giant leg of lamb. Between the three of us, I'm ashamed to admit we were still unable to pick the bones completely clean. It was just so much!

More as it comes...

Monday, January 22, 2007

A Southern Indian Lunch

Yesterday afternoon, my brother Reed took us for a drive downtown to an area of Delhi called Connaught Place. Its a very busy area of the city where a lot of hotels, markets, and nightlife reside.
We went in search of a restaurant recomended in the Foder's Travel Guide. We found it on the first floor of the Janpur Hotel, a restaurant specializing in Southern Indian cuisine. Much like the US, foods vary dramatically from region to region. This was my first taste of India's South, and it was pretty good!
The large order you see on Reed's plate is called a "Paper Dosa." Alex's plate has a coconut Dosa as well. The meal on my plate is called a uttapam, which in my case was a mix of vegetable, coconut, and onion. We splite the three different orders equally and gave them all tries.

Upon Reed's making clear, all three orders came with plenty of spice and were all pretty good. I think we all agreed that the Coconut Dosa reigned king though. With some extra coconut spice to spread on everything in sight, we were able to pillage the place and leave the plates empty in probably no less than 10 minutes. Ahhhh a true Southern Indian meal!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Chillin at the Taj

January 16 Alex and I got up at 5am. Not even the crack of dawn, as the sun wouldn't rise for atleast another hour and a half. Our destination was Agra, a city 2 hours away by train. Agra is the home of the Taj Mahal. The entire day was great, we saw a lot of city sites in addition to the Taj including the old Indian capital fortress.

At the end of the day our driver took us off the tourist's beaten path. Behind the Taj Mahal is a large, currently dried up river basin where excess waters from the monsoon season surge by. We were fortunate enough to be taken there, where it was only us and a handful of locals who walked the river basin and were able to get a completely unique view of the Taj Mahal for sunset. It was the perfect ending to a day in which we not only got to see the Taj Mahal's marble appearance in the morning light, but also its changed hue at sunset. No doubt, it was a very busy, very satisfying day.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Delhi Downtime

The past 48 hours have been fever ridden accompanied by it's good friend, Mr. Upset Stomach. Its been a bummer, as I intended to have hailed a Tuk Tuk (A three wheeled scooter that seats two with a tent pitched over it) and visited some famous memorials and tombs. Namely, Hamiyans Tomb, which shares much in common with the artchitecture of the Taj Mahal. No worries, delays should be expected on such a trip I suppose.

I'm feeling much better today though. I'm in the process of securing a train ticket to the city of Agra, about a four hour train ride south of Delhi. Agra is the site of the Taj Mahal as well as some other landmarks of equal interest including a massive fortress built by a past Moghul emperor. If all goes well, my next post should be an update from Agra. More as it comes.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Heart of Delhi

Today was our first day completely on our own. Reed was at the embassy, Christian went from school to a friends house, leaving Angie the opportunity to relax and have some of her girlfriends over to share some wine. With that in mind, Alex and I took advantage and got up early to go explore the city.

Namely, Old Delhi, a district in the northwest portion of the city featuring very few things that have changed over the past few hundred years. It took about 40 minutes for our driver to get us across town.

During the ride, we finally came across our first heavy traffic that decided to share the road with some cows. One decided to leave a cow-pie between a pair of cars in front of us. I later learned that there isnt much worry about the roads being overrun with dung thanks to a little kown fact: the dung is a popular commodity. Children and beggars who already walk the traffic lanes looking for aid often make cleaning up the cow or camel's mess a priority.

Once enough of the excrement is gathered, it is dried and then sold cheaply as a substitute for firewood to India's poor. It is a sad truth, but much of the population here survives within very harsh conditions. The dried dung is often the only means to produce heat for these people.

Once I arrived at Old Delhi, I was able to witness many of the very citizens who probably must make use of such measures. The easiest way to enter and get out of Old Delhi is to make use of the one of the two serious landmarks that rest at the perimeter of the area. There is the amazingly huge, 17th Century imperial capital known as the Red Fort and across the street rests Jama Masjid, India's (and one of the world's) largest and most breathtaking mosques. Realizing that the sprawling Red Fort could take up and afternoon all by itself, Alex and I decided to save that tour for a future date.

Our driver dropped us off literally at the foot of the mosque's entryway. This being my first experience with a Islamic house of worship, I'll be forever spoiled. I doubt I will ever again visit a mosque on par with this landmark. Completed in 1656, the mosque took 6 years to build with the use of 5,000 builders. The mosque is made of beautiful red sandstone and marble with towers stretching over 200 feet into the air. Resting between the climbing towers is the massive, onion shaped dome which is the anchor to the entire site.

Upon our arrival, we climbed the stone steps leading up to the mosque. At the top, it became clear that before we entered the mosque's sprawling courtyard we would need to remove our shoes. Carrying them with us, we entered. We didn't actually go into the main building under the dome, nor climb any of the towers. I only later learned that this would have been perfectly acceptable after a short purification ceremony.

When I return to visit the Red Fort, I'll probably go back and make the climb as I was made to understand that the view from the towers is the only way to truly appreciate the architecture. Instead, Alex and I stayed in the main central courtyard. Don't think courtyard like a park with grass, this was all still very much a part of the mosque, completely made of carved sandstone and marble. The courtyard is probably about 3 football fields in size and provides the space needed for the masses to come during prayer hours. When we first walked through one could see maybe a few dozen people near the front of the mosque with their prayer rugs, but on our first attempt to cross back through we were quickly informed that the mosque was closed for about 45 minutes for afternoon prayer.

While the mosque and Red Fort are amazing structures filled with a richness of history and reverence, the rest of Old Delhi lies in complete contrast. The city streets were the craziest I have ever seen, moreso than any wild west film. The streets are packed with people, rick-shaws, bicycles, mopeds, the occasional large animal such as a horse or donkey, all crammed into these thin streets. The sides of the streets are crammed with all sorts of market fronts selling everything from local foods to handmade tin (not just a claim, as I would watch a young boy heating a piece over a small fire while perfecting his families' age old craft), to burkas and jewelry.

I really had to be on my toes while getting through the market, lest I get my foot ran over by a biker or get knocked down. My first monkey siting was today as well. A pair of the little chimps were spotted making there way across some really sad looking telephone wires crossing the rooftops.

For those who arrive at New Delhi seeking something exotic and are perhaps let down compared to the tales they may have heard, Old Delhi is the place that fulfills the word foreign in every sense of the word.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

New Adventures in New Delhi

January 8, 2007

Its official, I’m now on the ground in India. It’s been a long time coming, as I’ve always seen myself someday visiting this part of the world.

Staying at my brother Reed’s place is going to be great. The house is much larger than anticipated and is beautiful besides. There is a lot of history and character that resides at this home. When we first pulled up, Reed was explaining to me that it was his understanding that the house was designed years ago by a renowned British architect from the Raj period. I’m going to try to dig up some more information.

The hours after our arrival consisted of lots of relaxation and downtime. The jet had landed by 7:06 am and Alex and I were passed out in our beds by 9:30. Up until that point, I hadn’t slept more than 2 of the past 48 hours. I really hadn’t slept since our last night in Amsterdam.
Naps, time changes, and travel have thrown my body completely out of whack. I crashed for bed my first night here looking forward to sleeping in, instead, I’m sitting here at 7am writing this blog! I’m not worried though, as I do have 3 solid weeks to catch my breath before having to get on another airline. That fact alone should help me sleep better.

My sister-in-law, Angie, is going to take us out this afternoon and start to acquaint us with the area. We might hit up a market as well as visit the embassy (Reed’s home is actually off base).

I have a feeling India has a lot to show me, and today is the day I begin to discover just what those things are.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

An Interesting Detour

We got our morning call at 7:45 bright and early. I'm probably running on 2 or 3 hours of sleep thanks to an over extended nap I allowed myself when we first arrived in Frankfurt. After a quick shower I was good to go though.

After a much needed full buffett breakfeast, we pointed ourselves towards the Frankfurt Airport. It was a little nerve racking what with the slow moving security line and the realization we were embarking on our first Arabic flight carrier.

Gulf Air treated us well and made for a hassle-free landing. Here are some interesting notes I jotted down during the flight:
  • Large, Airbus 340 featuring tv's in each seat.

  • Remote controls are attached by wire to the armrests.

  • Over 20 channels to choose from

  • I wathed a Rolling Stones documentary as well as Johnny Cash's Walk the Line

  • Last channel displays alternating maps with flight status while Muslim prayer songs play

  • First music station (not on tv) is also prayers

  • Temperature of cabin during flight went from chilly to uncomfortably warm

  • Temp. Control is not a priority here or in Germany for that matter

  • Germans have no A/C in the summer, considered unneccessary

I'm now sitting in the airport at Bahrain. We have a 5 hour layover here and its been interesting. The few hours already spent here have been some of the most interesting on this trip yet. If for no other reason, my curiousity.

The overwhelming majority of people are Muslim. Most dress in traditional garb, some have very specific outfits and I suspect that they are religious clerics of some sort. The exchange rate was a big surprise. I was expecting favorable rates for the US dollar, but was surprised to discover that that 1 Bahrainian Dinar is the equivalent of 2.65 US dollars. Here are Alex and I thinking we'll kill five hours eating like kings, instead we're still holding off until our stomachs can growl no more.

The gift shop is full of assorted locally made items that are quite unique to the area. Everything from handmade prayer rugs to high-quality metal oil lamps (yes, many resemble Alladins') abound in the gift shop. I haven't purchased anything yet, but am considering a few neat little items.

So we sit, observe and...wait. And then we go to New Delhi!

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Take the A-Train

Well today was no messing around. Alex and I have found time for fun and adventure, but come travel day, we go into our serious mode. We spent the evening of the 4th briskly walking up and down the side streets peeking in coffee shop doors looking for internet access. Before the evening was over we were at a small snack bar ordering "Kip Corn" which I think is some sort of breaded chicken sausage. For 2 Euros, I've quickly found that they make a good cheap snack, as well as a cheap entry fee into a wifi enabled diner.

One kip corn and ice cream bar later, and we had sketched out our rough plan for arriving in Germany. Extremely budgeted, tired, and lacking time to get some key information, Alex and I decided we'd have to visit Heidleburg on the next lap.

We purchased our train tickets a day in advance (the 4th) and were packed and ready to get up early our final morning in Amsterdam. Everything went off without a hitch. While our STA didn't appear to do us much good, (all discounted 2nd class tickets were sold through at the train station) we were able to catch a good special on the 1st class seats. Instead of paying a whopping 112Euro per 2nd class ticket, I purchased a 90Euro ticket for 1st class. The deal had something to do with a second purchased ticket being at half off. I'm fairly sure STA had absolutely no dealing in this, as I was never asked to show my card. STA hasn't done anything for us outside of purchasing our original tickets.

Regardless, today's arrival in Frankfurt has gone much smoother than our initial entry into Europe. We arrived at the train station a healthy 45minutes before departure, and enjoyed our discounted 1st class, 4 hour ride to Frankfurt. Instead of riding the train all the way to Central Station, we instead got off at the Airport station and, after a few questions to the locals, found our way to the hotel information desk.

From there, its been pie. We have ourselves a full sized, Courtyard Marriot room for our final European evening. As full of character as my Amsterdam cell was, a large bed full of clean sheets accompanying a hot shower is just what I needed. The internet isn't free, but hey, nothings perfect.

After a quick detour in Bahrain, its off to New Delhi tomorrow.

Friday, January 5, 2007

The only right way to experience Amsterdam

Forget about the canal tours that supposedly show you everything Amsterdam has to offer. If one wants to get intimate with the city, without literally walking the entire limits, than renting a bicycle is the only way to go.

For 12.75 Euros Mac Bikes will rent out a quality bicycle for a 24 hour period.
The bikes are designed by a local who builds them each himself. A top notch design, I complimented them on prior to being told the story behind who makes them.

The manager, sweeping his arm towards a cluster of a clearly different, no longer used model, said, "we used to buy, you know, big name bikes," than he nodded towards ours, "but a guy that lives here in town came to us with his own design and people have loved them." How much have they loved them? The local bike smith has contracted over 200 bikes from that one single Mac Bikes store.

While they all are the same in design and share red as the dominant color, each bicycle has its own name painted in white along the frame. Alex road a bike by the name of Hey Billie while I was fortunate enough to receive Elle.

Elle and Hey Billie would be the only accompaniments to most of me and Alex’s adventures. We originally rented the bikes with the main purpose of finding our way across town to reach our Student Travel Administration’s local office. After getting lost several times and asking many a polite local for directions, we finally found the STA office…only to find it closed.
Never to be discouraged, we took our newly prized bikes and began to focus more on enjoying the ride than reaching a particular end goal. The canals that lace themselves throughout the central city are aligned in such a way that one can use them to quickly orient oneself with a general point in the city. With the canals as our aid, Alex and I traced them down through all sorts of thin cobble stone streets, teaming with people on foot, bike, and car, all sharing the road at the same time.

It really is a hoot but it’s important to be attentive. The rules are simple enough and after some careful observation one can easily jump in and get along well. We made our way further out, leaving the canals behind. We were heading to the outskirts of our centrally themed tourist map, looking for a cluster of top tier museums.

Before we reached the Van Gogh museum though, we came across Vondel Park. Overdue for a breather from the traffic, we made what turned out to be a shortcut as we detoured through a large gate and into the park. Vondel Park is much larger than one expects. After biking down the entry trail a ways, the park opens up and suddenly there is a large pond filled with ducks, lots of men and women walking their neatly trimmed dogs. The park, in and of itself, was a great part of the city that we had not originally planned to visit. Renting the bikes not only got us to the Van Gogh museum, but many an unexpected adventure as well.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Less is more in Amsterdam

For people in Amsterdam, they have seemingly turned their back on the assumed necessity that a modern society must also be fast-paced.

Houses are like gingerbread homes. The overwhelming majority of people appear healthy and subscribe to a unique, picturesque winter image. Scarves, wool coats, boots, and that "only-in-the-Netherlands" froline face dominates the scene. They ride their bicycles from one gingerbread home to another. The city has aged beautifully, with huge cathedrals and castles along the lines of a modern Madison Square Garden.

I feel under dressed at all times with my Nike sneakers, discount jeans, and Aerpostale sweater.
Everyone rides bikes. Bycycling, something most societies consider something to be left for children and professionals, are ridden hear by everyone. Bikers get their own lane in the all brick and cobblestone roads. Cars are basically smaller, sometimes to extreme portions, and will literally roll up and have small parking spaces on the sidewalks.

It is understood that bikers basically stop for no one. The bike ride we took today was reminiscent of our rides through Yangshuo. It was fast-paced and by far the best way to get around. Some bikes were specially designed to hold groceries and the like, while tricycles could sometimes be seen with a father pulling his wife and daughter along in the backseat.

The city has a lot more going for it than the typically discussed "Red Light District." Next up, Germany.