Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Day of Remembrance

11 years ago today the history of our country changed in a devastating and drastic way. As I sat in my 9th grade English class watching the twin towers crumble, I had no idea how significant that event would be in history and in my life.
Fast forward to 2012. I sat this morning, again watching those towers fall, but this time as a 1st grade teacher in Japan, on a military base. September 11th  has such a different, deeper meaning for me now. I remember with sadness the heroes who so bravely sacrificed their lives for each other that day, and the swelling of American pride that emerged from the rubble of the towers. Today my heart is heavy in remembrance for those lives lost, those left behind, and for the families who are still feeling the loss of life and presence of their loved ones who are off serving in the deployments that began as a result of that day. But in the midst of so much pain and fear, I remember feeling hope. I felt hope for humanity, as I recalled the firefighters fighting their way into burning buildings, policemen and volunteers scouring the wreckage for signs of life, the passengers on the hijacked planes, the bravery of the thousands of people within the towers, and the outpouring of American support after the attack. We are one country, full of diversity, but united. I love my country. I love it's colors, and my flag. As I experience so many cultures and people around Asia, I am humbled and so, so proud to be an American.
I also find myself thankful, because Turf finally made it home safely from Afghanistan three weeks  ago.
May we always remember September 11, 2001, and may we always remember the men and women who serve and give up their lives for our freedom and safety.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Hong Kong

My dad and Tami had a wonderful visit in Okinawa. We snorkeled and saw a lot that even I had not seen yet. Turf and I spent the first year (completely my own fault) visiting the inner island sites and historical places on Okinawa. While my dad was here we were able to go up North to Nago, visit Sesoko Island and Minna Jima island for some snorkeling, head down South to the Okinawa Naval Underground Headquarters and Peace Prayer Park, check out American Village, go camping at Okuma, and eat some great food- maybe some of the most consistent food they had on their whole trip to Asia :)
The last leg of their journey was a 4 day stay in Hong Kong, and I of course couldn't pass up the opportunity to join them! Any excuse to travel!
The first day we took the Star Ferry over to Hong Kong Island. We stayed on the opposite side of Victoria Harbor in Kowloon at the Salisbury YMCA. Yes, YMCA! It had a gorgeous view of the harbor and the symphony of lights show. 
My synopsis of Hong Kong: The skyline and views are incredible. There is so much to see and do, but honestly, after traveling around in Taipei, Tokyo, and Bangkok, the culture and things I'm seeing are very similar. Of course, there are differences, and I think Hong Kong was a great place to visit, but the highlight for me was definitely the skyline. Hong Kong has a great transportation system and has by far been the easiest for me to navigate. Lodging and food are out of this world expensive. 

 We then took a bus up a winding road to The Peak, which under clear conditions would have made for great views of Victoria Harbor. But honestly, when are there ever clear views in Hong Kong?! It was SO smoggy! From The Peak we took a thrilling (pretty much vertical) ride on the tram back down to Hong Kong and hopped on a bus to head to Stanley.
 Stanley was a great town and had some pretty cool market potential, although we were there before the markets opened. All along the shoreline were pubs and bars, which would have been a nice place to go with a group of friends on a Friday night.
 On our way back we captured some amazing shots of Hong Kong City illuminated at night. The city is gorgeous and the skyline is absolutely the biggest draw and the best part of Hong Kong.
View of Hong Kong from the Avenue of Stars

 We went to Nan Lian Garden, which was a nice escape from the madness of the city. The gardens were so peaceful and tranquil, and the contrast of the gardens along with the high rises and mountains was really cool to see.

 Right behind the gardens was the Chi Lin Nunnery. At this point, I am a bit numb to temples and shrines, but this place was gorgeous as well. The sound of the nuns singing their worships was so calming and I found myself thinking about how I had pictured Asia before living there. The sights, sounds, smells, and feel of this nunnery were exactly as I had imagined: cultural, powerful, and beautiful.

 We made our way through some interesting markets in Mong Kok. Again, at this point, all of the cities and markets in Asia are blending into one giant memory, and there is not much different about one from the other. This time, I did get to see some new markets that I hadn't yet seen in Taiwan, Thailand, or Japan. We visited the Flower market, which was amazing. I kept saying that Turf was lucky we don't live close to one, otherwise I'd expect fresh flowers weekly ;)
Really though, those people had a talent for creating bouquets of artwork. The colors and smells of the fresh flowers was amazing.
 We also visited the bird market, where dozens of birds await to entertain, and dozens more await adoption.
 On we went to the Ladies Market, which sold typical knock off items like watches, handbags, jewelry, etc. The Hong Kong people didn't bargain as much as the Thai people did, and were much more aggressive, so I left empty handed.
 We also saw a fish market. It looked like a giant street dedicated to selling supplies for outrageously intricate fish tanks. Tons of fish, sea plants, turtles, and props were being sold for excellent prices.

 The symphony of lights happens every night at 8:00pm. We were lucky enough to be able to watch it right from our hotel window. It was beautiful. The symphony incorporates 5 themes shown to celebrate the energy, spirit, and diversity of Hong Kong: The awakening, the energy, the heritage, the partnership, and the celebration themes.
 On our final day we took a cable car ride up into the mountains to see the Tian Tan Buddha, a giant bronze Buddha perched on top of these incredible mountains. I used to love thrill rides and adventures, but I completely chickened out on this cable car ride, y'all! The thing lasted about 25 minutes and all I could think about was plummeting to my death. Aside from the fear, the views were gorgeous. We saw hiking trails all along the mountains below, and it looked like it could take someone days to walk around and see everything during the hike.

Tian Tin Buddha

Now, at the risk of sounding completely racist, I'm going to throw this out there just so everyone knows it's not all butterflies and rainbows. I really dislike the vast majority of Chinese people I have met throughout my travels. I have found them to be rude, pushy, loud, obnoxious, arrogant, and shady. The people in Hong Kong were better, but the more I am around Chinese people (from China....not Chinese people in the States), the more I dislike them. I think the government of China is power hungry and will stop at nothing to become the world's biggest super power, which they are working towards right now. The government is currently trying to impose a national curriculum in Hong Kong, something the Hong Kong people are extremely upset about. The thought is that the national curriculum will essentially "brainwash" students into following a certain party of Chinese leadership through propaganda in the curriculum. The curriculum will be mandatory from elementary-high school levels and the teachers will be given a scripted curriculum and supplied materials to teach with. As if that isn't enough, everything, EVERYTHING we have in the US is made in China. They essentially own us. I'm going to step off my soap box now, but traveling throughout Asia always makes me appreciate the Japanese people so much more, and makes me feel so blessed to have grown up in America.

It was an amazing trip and I'm so glad I got to spend more time with my dad and Tami. Thank y'all for coming out to visit me in Asia! I can't wait to see you guys again!

Adventures in Thailand: Bangkok

Our final leg of the journey was in Bangkok, Thailand. Bangkok was a crazy change from Phuket and Chiang Mai. The hustle and bustle of the city life was amazing, and we got to see some of the best sites in Bangkok. Our first stop was the imperial palace.
Thailand is an interesting country. They claim to be "democratic", yet there are many scandalous secrets within the government and royal family. The country is also sensored: they face jail time if they speak ill of the royal family, they are not allowed to watch some movies, including The King and I, because it is a movie about one of the former kings, but is based around a love story. Our tour guide became really uncomfortable answering our questions about the royal family-they have to be very careful to always talk about them in a positive light.

Imperial Palace

It was amazing to see some of the housing that people lived in in Bangkok, and incredibly humbling. Houses balanced on teetering stilts sticking out from the mucky river. It was amazing the stilts weren't rotting away, and the houses collapsing into the river. It made me feel very lucky to have grown up in America (a feeling I get the longer I spend in Asia).
River Tour
Aside from the dangerous housing, the river itself was very unfortunate. It was murky and brown with dead fish scattered around. Cat fish are abundant in the river, and fisherman often fish in this river to sell at the markets. Our tour guide told us the fish caught in this river are usually placed in a fresh water tank for around 3 days to "clean" before they are killed and eaten. Still, super yuck.
Houses on stilts in the river

Wat Arun

The steep climb up Wat Arun

View of Bangkok

 We visited the train market on our second day. This was another appalling thing for me to experience. Dozens of small, Thai shops littered the sides of the tracks selling everything from herbs and garlic to eggs, vegetables, and lots and lots of meat. The smells were nauseating, a terrible mixture of dead fish flesh, pork, and irony blood. I had to plug my nose about half way through to escape the stench. The sights of the conditions of the market were even more disturbing. Flys buzzed frantically around the meat, which sat sans ice in the hot, sweaty heat, being touched barehanded by the owners of the market and the customers who passed. Everything was in close proximity to the dirty ground, as well as the train tracks, which emitted cloudy gasses and fumes and kicked up dust as the train passed through.
All in all, a great experience. One that made me especially thankful for clean butcher shops.

 Our final tour was to the floating market, a must see in Bangkok. We piled into the boat and took off to  float lazily around the market. The laziness only lasted about an hour because we arrived early. The market was soon swarming with people in boats, all trying to pass each other and bargain on the sides of the river. I tried a coconut drink, because I have seen them all over Asia. It was extremely disappointing, and the taste was somewhere between milky, watery, and grassy. Yuck. We had gotten our fix of shopping, so we just toured the market and did a lot of people watching.
 Our guide took us to this factory that makes caramels from coconut. They boil it for quite some time and wait for it to caramelize, then they stir it rapidly using this giant stirring stick. I got to try and it was hard work :)

 Finally, we took off to a tower to see the city view from above. Our experience at the tower wasn't great, as they charged us a lot of money to buy a ticket to the top and our "free drink" turned out to be a soda or juice, but the views were still incredible!