Passage to India

My mind wanders, back to the Mekong river and its source. I look across at the distant bank and see Thailand. The slow moving water has been to China, Myanmar and even parts of Tibet. And now, standing at it’s side I prepare to travel back to the country that almost took the lives of my brother and sisters.

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That Dam, Old Stupa, Vientiane, Laos

There are people here that spend their entire lives on the river, coming to land only to sell and trade. Their babies too young to swim are tied to the boat,  keeping them from falling in. The river is wide, and bamboo shacks built on piers can be found not far from the shore. In the late afternoon the river people can be seen pulling fish from nets and putting tarps over their boats.

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Huge landslide en-route to Vientiane, even motor cycles couldn’t get through.

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Vientiane, Laos city capital monument

I have been in Vientiane for three days, and am patiently waiting for my Indian visa. The jungle road to the city was extremely mountainous and on most days it never stopped raining. Many times I would have to stop pedaling and push through a muddy section of road, or carry Esperanza through a shallow river. In one area the entire mountain gave way and covered the road. Traffic was backed up for kilometers as no car or motorbike was able to pass. With a little effort I pushed through to the other side and watched the hundreds of people sitting in their vehicles waiting in the rain.

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Rice fields become part of the overflowed Mekong River.

Considering its status as the capital of Laos, Vientiane, as far as Asian cities goes, is rather quite. Rush hour brings loud, polluting motorbikes, and three wheeled “took tooks” driving on the sidewalks and into oncoming traffic. Wheeled carts selling fruit, meat and smoothies fill the sides of the roads and Buddhist monks wearing bright orange robes navigate their way across busy streets and intersections. Its complete chaos. Adding to traffic is a large percentage of overly cautious drivers performing 6 point turns in large intersections, parking lots and narrow drive ways. Sometimes drivers will stop in the middle of a narrow road and hold up traffic while they exit their car, make sure there is enough space. I brought up the subject with a few locals and was told that only 20% of the drivers in Laos have licenses.

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Dog meat jerky, wet market

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Wet market entrance

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Lao ladies squat on tables selling various parts of meat.

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Ornate carvings on temple doors.

My visa has be granted and by the time most of you read this I will be well on my way, via a 36 hour lay-over in Kuala Lumpur to New Delhi. As mentioned above, I am a bit reserved about India from my previous experience. In 1992 my family did a pilgrimage of the Buddhist holy sites in the north east of the country. We visited Varanasi, swam in the Ganges and traveled to Buddha’s enlightenment and birth place. Towards the end of the trip however my brother became seriously ill. Fever, diarrhea and nausea were so normal to all of us that we thought it would pass.  Weeks later, while en-route for America in Hong Kong, my mother took him to the hospital where he was diagnosed with Typhoid Fever. My two sisters soon followed. My older started felling really cold, even while taking a hot bath, and was soon lying beside my brother also having Typhoid, My little sister 2 years old at the time soon was diagnosed with Tuberculosis.

The Hong Kong infectious disease ward is not a pretty place, and my mother spent every day keeping them company, and at night sleeping on a wooden bench outside their door. I escaped the physical sickness but mentally became ill. For years afterwards I was completely paranoid of germs, illness and disease, I would sometimes wash my hands so many times that they would bleed. At 8 years old life seemed completely out of control. And it would take me several years to feel comfortable again with life.

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This picture was taken on 1992 pilgrimage to India.

These thoughts now echo in my mind as a prepare for the journey. I am stronger physically but mentally I worry about the fears returning. I will stay north and head to the holy Sikh region of Punjab before cycling the Himalayas to Nepal. Touch base again soon, I will reunite with my brother in Bhutan!

Days of Laos

I remember taking the over night boat from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, my family of 6 all sharing a small cabin with two 2 beds.
I remember being squeezed into the back of an Indian station wagon on pilgrimage in northern India, the 6 of us crammed in the back seat .
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One of the many Old Buddhist monasteries in Luang Prabang.

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Local Lao lady prepares me Iced coffee in a bag with ice. 1/4 cup dark black grounds, 1/4 tsp tamarind, 1 cup sweetened condensed milk, and 1 large bag of ice. 5,000 kip ($0.75). A n hour earlier I ordered the same coffee at the same place for 10,000.

Many bordering countries are so similar that if it weren’t for the border you would never know that you were in a different country. Most of Europe is like this, however I remember Albania being a third world country in the middle of modern Europe. Once out of China, I found Laos to be quite different. Development ceased, roads became narrow; full of mud and pot holes and residences became jungle huts; devoid of electricity, built of bamboo and straw. Chinese villages are full of electronic shops selling cellphones and boutiques selling knockoff Levis, now I find the villages full of naked children playing in roadside runoff, and elders carrying dirt and sticks on water buffalo carts.

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Crossing an old bridge built for bikes and motorbikes. Skinny tires would easily get stuck in the seams of the boards.

The once cornucopia-like selection of vegetables and fruits, so prevalent in China, has also tapered down to a few wilted cucumbers, some yellowing egg plant and maybe a few bananas. The villagers here spend little time growing anything but rice, and supply the rest of their diet by hunting and scavenging in the jungle.
Meals usually consist of the plentiful and tasty glutinous sticky rice, (the rice is squeezed into a ball with your hand then dipped into the other dishes) and “jungle stuff”. The other day I was invited to an afternoon meal and the “jungle stuff” was the following: roasted rat, boiled river snails, BBQ toad, and wild mushrooms. (Roadside vendors often sell roasted bat, squirrel and bags of live insects for frying).

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Rice “steps”

The road brings me up and down steep mountains, occasionally passing steps of rice paddies. The jungle comes right up to the road and is so full of life. Each night I camp and I find my stuff completely engulfed by insects, ants, and rats. Midnight usually brings a storm and by morning there is nothing left untouched. My clothes, panniers and pretty much everything I own, never seems to dry and is spotted with black mold. Even the inside of my hat and handle bars are spotted. The heat too takes its toll making my skin red and itchy, and turning the few vegetables and fruit that I do find into mush.

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My guess is that this is the topography of the entire country.

The roads are empty during the hottest hours of the day, locals lounging in the shade or bathing in the rivers.  I pedal on trying to cover ground and my sweaty clothes begin to feel like a wet suit. The cash in my pockets can be “wrung-out” with sweat and my skin dries with a layer of salt. As tough as it is I feel privileged to be able to cycle every day with enough food and water and even a tent for camping in the jungle. I have found that a bottle of mineral water ($0.75) costs more than most villagers make in a day, and each day I drink 4-5 bottles. I see children with bellies swollen from starvation, and kids going through garbage looking for food to eat. Suffering is completely out in the open here.

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Local shrine for the dead.

The Mekong River begins at the boarder of China,Myanmar and Laos. The river sweeps south, designating the border with Myanmar, then Thailand before finally cutting through the country.  In the shape of a snake, it makes its way north east for a while before heading south again. It is in this snake-like loop where the river meets a tributary creating a small peninsula which became a historic city called Luang Prabang.Luang aerial Luang Prabang has an almost island feel with palm trees and a cool river breeze.  Historic colonial buildings, crispy French baguettes , and brick paved alleyways can be found between ancient Buddhist monasteries. Each day at dawn the Buddhist monks living walk the main street barefoot seeking alms. The city is quiet, peaceful and has been a good resting place the last few days. Yesterday I bonded with a couple from Chile, meditating in the monastery and practicing yoga in the park.

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UNESCO Buddhist Monastery Luang Prabang

 

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Quiet alley ways between monasteries.

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A good example of Laotian/Thai style architecture

It is a good day! I am on the move headed south. I move quick as I might have to spend several days in the Lao capital waiting for a multiple entry Indian visa. I head to Cambodia then Punjab in September.

River to Laos

A boat built of plywood and bamboo reeds takes me down river to the Laos border. I have slowly observed the culture in southern China become more and more exotic with Buddhist architecture and jungle created cuisine of sticky rice and fermented foods wrapped in banana leafs. It is unbearably hot, and the long days on the bike leave me completely exhausted.

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Heading south, in the distance Laos.

Each night in a stagnant tent I await a small breeze to cool my sweating body. Morning brings the sound of  monkeys, birds and the ever-present cicadas in the canopy above.

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 Riverman

Laos will be a mountainous, jungle with Buddhist culture at its core surrounded by communist rule. A lot like China but with a deep rooted history in the ancient Theravada Buddhist practice. (China is predominantly Mahayana Buddhist). I look forward to offering alms to monastics and carefully finding a place to sleeping under large banyan trees.(The country still has thousands lands of active land mines left from the Vietnam war).

Tobacco, Tea and an Asian Monsoon

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Yunnan’s most popular past time smoking tobacco. Local with water pipe.

The landscape has become one large dense jungle. With strength, plots are cleared away for tobacco, rice and corn. I watch as locals spend hours working in the field, under a hot humid sun, standing bare foot in mud.  I am invited for lunch and given a bowl of rice, some salted vegetables.Cigarettes pass from hand to hand to mine, a smile and then a puff. A cup of Pu’er fermented tea. The sky grows dark, thunder, then a strong down pour. Lightning flashes. The road becomes one large mud puddle, and the mountains begin to wash away, dirt moves, rocks tumble and cars stop. I am on the remotest of roads heading toward the Laos border. If it is not food or tobacco growing then it is tea as I am about 200 km from the famous city of Pu’Er (one of China’s most popular teas sold in small to large “cakes”).

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Locals and dog sorting tobacco for smoke house.

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Human bush

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This lady was carrying a large stack of invasive ferns 3 km home to be used as fuel.

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Rubber tree. First time seeing one of these. The sap is collected below in a small bucket. The dry sap is rubber, which makes me wonder why we don’t have more white tires.

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Local roadside pineapples. So sweet and ripe that you can eat the heart.

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Long muddy puddles full of leeches. I gather speed, lift my feet in the air and hope that there are no deep spots. You are actually supposed to “push” a leech off with your finger nails rather than use a lighter, which may result in blood poisoning.

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Mud. 

 

Making Sense

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Wei Shan, old city.

48 hours, 4 buses, 3 trains, 1 plane and 6 hours of sleep. I am now back where I left the trail; Southern Yunnan. Two weeks in Guangzhou and 1 week in Hong Kong is long enough to forget the offensive social norms prevalent in China. I returned to find a world of spitting, boisterous cellphone conversations and excessive pushing and shoving while waiting in lines.

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Smiling Dog, old man prepares festive paper kites

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Local man tells me it takes three hours to make this festive wooden post.

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Local cuisine, rice wrapped spicy tofu.

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Hua Jiao, the essential “Ma” spice. Local food in the western provinces is often described as being “Ma La” a peppery, spicy flavor that sometimes leaves a numb sensation in your mouth.

China is, and always is an adventure. Full of friendly faces and strange smells, I am glad to be back. It will take me more than a week to reach the Laos border as I plan to visit the famous tea city of Pu’er and explore the Buddhist monasteries in Xishuangbanna.

Chinese customs, extended family and a trip to the psychiatric hospital

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Guangzhou family reunion.  From bottom right: 3 rd aunt, her husband, Mun Mun (my cousin), her baby Hey Hey, 1st aunt, 2 aunts husband, 2 aunt, Hong Yin (my cousin), Stephanie (my cousin to my right(s) wife), and Mr. Choi.

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My first encounter with my Chinese family came a month after being born. I am (far left) five days younger than my cousin Mun Mun (far right). My first aunt (second from right) escaped China with her husband in 1972 spending 2 nights on a makeshift raft in the South China sea. Her daily wage in China before escaping was 0.15 yuan, (1 egg cost 0.50 yuan) she arrived in Hong Kong to make 27 yuan a day.

It is hard to recognize the city that has been my family home for so long. In the last 5 years the city has grown to a population of over 15 million, with a skyline similar to Hong Kong. visit. Public transportation marvels that of the west with 10 subway lines, designated bus lanes and river boats. Fancy western cars fill the streets, sidewalks and parking lots, and Chinese labors brave the streets on vintage bicycles carrying tools. A city that was once terribly loud, always dirty and constantly under-construction has developed into a place where I find myself in admiration. Clean streets, quiet parks, and the constantly flow of the beautiful Pearl River. There is something here that, even though may look different tells me I am home.

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My Grandfather and grandmother, 2nd and 3rd aunt. Their marriage was arranged in the village of Lo Hou 3 hours from Guangzhou. They moved to Guangzhou when my father was almost kidnapped in 1949.  My grandmother had over 16 children, 5 survived.

One of the beautiful things about Guangzhou is that if you wander away from the city center you can still find small local neighborhoods that take you back to the past. Small alleys with herb shops, tea houses and wet markets. Old men wait on wooden benches for a shave at the local barber, kids play with rusted metal pipes chasing stray dogs and old women gossip sitting on small stools in the shade. This is what I love about Guangzhou, the old and new come together and keep life interesting.

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Pearl River, Guangzhou sunset.

To be quite honest my Chinese family has always been dominated by my father. His role as the eldest son supporting his starving family from abroad is never forgotten and during his lifetime his family has always been subservient to him. Now, with him gone, they are no longer overshadowed and outspoken, and for the first time in 32 years I can really get to know who they are.

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Earlier trip to China (1992). Center my cousin Mun Mun, my young Mom, my two sisters and me.

The elder generation (my 3 aunts, uncle and their husbands) have not changed much. Prices of vegetables, and where to buy the best pork still make up the majority of conversations. Childish arguing between my second and third aunt is very common and the other day I listened to them argue over about what type of soy sauce is best with certain types of fish. I find them happy, loving and extremely dedicated to my health and well-being. My second aunt, after working and living as a laborer most her life has found herself quite wealthy with the support of her two children. I find her surfing the internet on her I-pad and planning trips to Thailand and Japan.

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Mun Mun, M and I. Late night Guangzhou transit.

The older generation has since retired, and now my generation is the work and money force in the household. In most households children will continue to live with their parents until marriage, and even after marriage the mans parents will live with his wife (leaving the wife’s parents to live alone). Working, like in America, is the most important thing other than eating well and taking the appropriate medicine when sick. I find my cousins busy developing business connections or continuing a 10 year career at a bank or foreign company. There is a large discrepancy between careers of men and women in China. My male cousin is a “high rolling” Real Estate investor and bank finance manager who climbed the success ladder from a small, starting temporary position. My two female cousins however, Mun Mun and Hong Yin have been working the same job and position for over ten years with little more than a small raise every other year. Mun Mun is somewhat of a black sheep in the family as she recently divorced and is now individually taking care of their baby. This puts an extensive burden on my 3 aunt and her husband as they care for the baby on weekdays. I see unhappiness, and difficulty for the first time in their family relationship.

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My three Guangzhou cousins, Hong Yin, Mun Mun and Gin Jite.

It is now, with the burden of family support, choice of a spouse and thoughts of retirement that I really get to know the faces I have grown up with. No more are we silently waiting at the table to be spoken to or absent from the deliberation process. The elders look to us for the plan and wait for us to decide. In some ways being here is a glimpse of the future, I still have time to decide, but for my family the road ahead seems already decided.

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Playing ball with Mun Mun and my 3 aunt. Circa late 80’s.

My uncle (my fathers little brother) has always been a mystery to me. In his early twenties he was an officer in the Communist Red Guard, and may have been responsible for the internment and death of many Chinese libertarians. Later in life he became mentally unstable, and at one point attacked my grandmother, blinding her in one eye. He was then committed to a psychiatric ward, where he has lived since. In Chinese culture mental illness is a sign of weakness and instability within ones family, as a result I spent much of my life unaware of his existence. Years later I would see his photo, notice the resemblance, and seek out to meet him.

My first meeting came last weekend, when I went to the Guangzhou Psychiatric hospital with my 3 aunt. He is no well over 70 years old, and am told that in his old age and continued illness has given up speaking. An old three-story building on the outskirts of the city, large banyan trees and an open asphalt parking lot. We found the hospital completely understaffed, leaving over 150 patients to the care of 3 nurses, in one large caged room.

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A post card my father sent his family in the early 1970’s. He mentions the words “Disco” and “Punk”.

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A letter written to my fathers best friend shortly after having my sister, 1981 .

Climbing the stairs to the third floor we were  brought to an extremely noisy environment; yelling, screaming, and the sound of furniture being dragged across the floor. I looked through the metal barred door to see a room full of men wearing stripped uniforms and plastic hand bands identifying the person as well as illness; (Many of the bands simply read: name, mentally ill.
There was no long pause, or stillness as I waited, outside the caged room. Only chaos. I watched as mothers, sisters and brothers waited for their loved ones to greet them. Most seemed complacent, and some barely seemed understand what was happening.

“Wong”

I heard someone shout and a skinny old man, with head slopped down was brought to greet us. His body was slumped and his head seemed to hang forward as he walked towards us. There was an unmistakable resemblance to my father and I couldn’t help but start to cry. He sat down, with his head looking down and began smoking a cigarette that was given to him. He smoked fast and seemed to inhale a complete cigarette in one breath. Sometimes he would only smoke half before tossing it on the floor and motioning for a new one. He smoked and ate the food my aunt had prepared, always looking down without saying anything. I sat at his side and lit his tobacco while listening to my aunt ask him if he wanted another. His toothless mouth chewed, muffins, dumplings, soup. No, no soup today he shook his head as I offered it to him. He talks to no one, has no friends and spends all day alone in the corner of the large room. Another man wearing a stripped uniform reaches down and picks up the half smoked cigarettes left from my uncle. He tosses them towards the cage and the skinny white arms of the patients reach for the tobacco.

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Dinner with my fathers best friend, Kit (far right). They both planned to escape China together but he wanted to wait for his pay check, he never made it.

“Uncle” I think to myself. What is going on in your head? I wish I could talk to your or tell you not to worry.

Then……as quickly as he came, he stood up and walked back into the holding room. He neither looked back nor seemed to notice my presence.

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2006, last trip to China before my grandmother passed.

I have unexpectedly fallen for a local Cantonese girl. It is not the touch but rather its extended absence that makes a union special. As I write this I am already many miles away in Hong Kong, and the distance will only continue to grow.

I am spending the weekend with my aunt and friends in Hong Kong before heading back to Yunnan on Tuesday.

 

 

 

 

Travel Update: Southeast Asia

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Lijiang nightscape, minutes before thunderstorm

By tomorrow evening I will be in my family’s home city of Guangzhou. I will spend at least a week visiting aunts, uncles and cousins before returning to Yunnan by train. The final destination of my fathers ashes is a bit uncertain, as I am currently thinking about taking them back to America. In the last two months in China, I have realized my father is more of an American than Chinese, and his home is with us in California, not is a small village that will eventually become a shopping mall. I will see how things go when I arrive in Guangzhou, and make the trip to the village.

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One of the only peaceful places in the city of Dali, small local pier.

Returning to Yunnan I will make my way through southeast Asia, and plan to cross into north east India via Myanmar. From India I have a formal invitation to visit the Kingdom of Bhutan where I plan to help the Transportation Bureau promote cycling as a means of local transport. It may be the end of the road from there, I don’t usually like planning so far ahead but there is a lot of red tape with visas and permits.