Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Snake alley...

Chinese and Japanese breakfast buffet was such a beautiful start to day 2.  I combined my breakfast with glorious coffee before heading out to meetings.  Each meeting offered tea or cake of some variety alongside the discussion of what our organisations did and possible ways of partnership.  At lunch, I was exhausted and drank all the Oolong tea I could.  By the first meeting of the afternoon, I went to pass my business card and realised my hands were shaking from all the caffeine and exhaustion.

We had two afternoon meetings, and then went to a famous tea house where we were interviewed for a prominent journal.  The tea master helped us to choose a tea and then performed the whole tea ceremony for us.  I had never before realised that there should be separate cups for smelling the tea and drinking the tea, as tea should be an experience enjoyed by as many senses as possible.  We had a quick dinner before we headed out for our final event of the day.

One of the organisations, Vision Youth Action, had organised a conference for us of 160 youth.  We had 2 hours to present and also for Q&A.  The questions were great, the facilitator prefaced her question by announcing that she intended to apply for Asia Pacific's summer camp next May.

We then went to visit Taiwan's famous 24 hour bookstore.  It is a beautiful, old bookstore and at 10pm was packed.  Apparently it's busiest time is between 3 and 6am as many youth meet there after clubbing to continue hanging out or to wait for the Metro to open at 6am.

The night before we had visited Longshan Temple.  It is a beautiful, old Buddhist temple with the main Buddha representative of mercy.  In the back were numerous gods to which people pray for wisdom, a large family, health, etcetera. We went afterwards to the nearby night market which is famous for it's - snakes!

Snake soup is a delicacy here; apparently quite good for the skin and also for the... man. There were also turtles to be had.  Turtle blood is supposed to be good for a cold or flu, and turtle meat for the... man. The turtles were fewer although we  did see a tray of dead turtles, de-shelled waiting to be cooked.  There were tons of snakes though.  Small snakes, large white pythons, some alone some in groups of a dozen or so.  What was somewhat sad was their food was kept nearby.  We saw cages of white rats, and even some white bunnies for the larger snakes.  I'm not sure why the food has to be white.  I didn't eat the snakes or turtles.

I did eat: shark's fin, shark's fin skin, bamboo mushroom, jellyfish, starfish, eel, eggs from a deep sea fish, and more... I also ate cold chicken that looked uncooked chopped through the skin, bones etc to be eaten with chopsticks.  I managed to eat less of that by pretending I couldn't get any more with chopsticks :p

Our final day we had one more meeting, then spoke to the Chinese Taipei Pacific Economic Cooperation Committee conference that was taking place.  We again had a great reception from the youth and I think Ren will have a lot of work to do! We then met up with some members of Taiwan's top fencing team for supper at the Panorama restaurant of Taipei 101.  We ate on the 85th floor and could see the farthest reaches of Taipei into the mountains.  

We returned to the hotel for our last night "wallowing in luxury" as has been so eloquently stated by one of WYA's board members, before we packed up all the soaps, slippers and other free items and headed back to Manila today.

I'm staying with Erika now, the first director of WYAAP and we're about to head out for a massage soon - woop woop!

Eating dream bubbles in Taipei!

Whew, the last week has been amazing. I need a book to encompass it all, and obviously haven't had the internet to tell about it. I'll begin by briefly recapping the WYAAP DDD conference. Huge success! The participants were all amazing, and after the certificates were given out and Ren had officially closed the conference they took the initiative to speak up, each one, and share their own experiences. It was amazing to hear of the friendships formed, and generosity of individual participants to others. They had bonded in a powerful way and I think most of them will remain involved with WYA and close to each other. Saturday we toured Tagaytay's volcano surrounded by a lake. The lake is the sunken volcano so you could say it is a lake within a volcano within a lake within a volcano. The days of the conference had been beautiful and sunny, the minute we arrived to the volcano it started to rain and once we had finished touring the volcano the day was sunny again. Regardless, I think I got some beautiful pictures - to be uploaded soon :)

Sunday, I played Ultimate again. The girls, over the course of one week, had improved so much. Especially the captain is an ultimate sponge. Anything I had done the last week she was already doing on Sunday. The pressure was on to perform well and only teach good habits. This is the rainy season, hence only a chilly 30+Celsius. I am definitely the only one on the field finding the temperatures and humidity difficult to play in. Thankfully by game two we had some light monsoon rains and I was able to start running a little closer to my usual speed and energy. We won both our games :) very exciting compared to the prior week's 3 losses. I also had a great time on defence as I got to poach in the back of the field and was able to knock down most throws thanks to my (rather substantial) height advantage.

Monday, Ren and I met for another 5am rendezvous to catch our flight to Taiwan. We were met at the airport by two members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and taken to our hotel. We stayed at the Howard Plaza Hotel - one of the nicest in Taipei as VIPs!!! We were each given our own room, with welcoming fruit basket, personalized stationery, L'Occitane bath products and the beautiful white bathrobes (as seen on tv/chick flick movies). We only had 20 minutes to soak it all in before we ate lunch downstairs with one of our two guides for our trip at one of the amazing hotel restaurants. Lunch was delicious and for desert we ate almond tofu. It is amazing! I will attempt to describe it...

You know those dreams you have where you are flying? Imagine that in the midst of this dream a large, fluffy bubble appears before you, you float towards the bubble and slowly take a big bite out of it. The bubble melts apart in your mouth leaving a delicious almond flavour behind. You continue to float on and feel yourself drawn towards the creamy bubbles floating in the distance to continue enjoying such a flavour.

In the afternoon we met with a research and youth empowerment organisation then with one of the ministers in MOFA to discuss WYA. For dinner, the NGO vice chair organised for CEO's of some of Taiwan's top NGO's to meet with us. He ended the meal by singing a song for us in 4 languages, he even had the music on his phone to demonstrate his karaoke prowess. Then, he demanded that each of us sing a song from our own cultures in return. Ren sang a Filipino love song, and I sang a Swahili song I remembered.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

WYAAP Decade of Dignity and Development Conference!

Today is day 2 of WYA Asia Pacific's Decade of Dignity and Development conference celebrating WYA's 10 years of existence with the specific theme of Good Governance and Marginalisation. There are 35 participants from the Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Brazil.  Speakers are from India, the Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia. The conference venue is a center a few hours outside of Manila near a famous volcano within a lake - Taal volcano.  

It is a beautiful area and a beautiful center. The facilities are incredible; nice rooms, sound system, lounge area, great food and even a videoke room.  Most of the participants took advantage of the videoke lounge last night! They're really great, as Ren said, they're so quiet during the conferences and then very active and spontaneous participants during team dynamic activities. It truly is an Asian conference as English is not the first language to a single participant yet it is the working language of everyone here.  So we have participants communicating with English they are uncertain about with other participants who are also uncomfortable speaking English - yet they're all soaking in the information and becoming friends.

The speakers come from a variety of backgrounds.  We had a representative from Gawad Kalinga, Ashoka, a woman from Mindanao speaking about her organisation which promotes peace, professors on various topics, a humanitarian and even someone presenting on sustainable (and profitable) sanitation projects for the destitute poor, among others. The schedule is online if you're curious... The speaker for sanitation has an incredible organisation called Sulabh International which utilizes technology to provide clean and energy efficient toilets to poor communities and also offers jobs to former women scavengers in the process.  They've instituted training opportunities and rehabilitation programs for the women to move into society.

Yesterday evening we had a bonfire and played some games.  The penalty for losing the game was that one participant had to bum-spell World Youth Alliance  - in cursive! Very entertaining... and another participant sang "Heal the World" disco style while periodically attempting to moonwalk - it was the only Michael Jackson signature move he could think of...

Tonight we had a cultural night and showed the videos each region prepared for WYA's 10th Anniversary.  One of Gabby's friends is a professional singer and performed a number of traditional Filipino songs, musicals, broadway and even opera for us.  She has a beautiful voice.  Ren was MCing the night.  We've discussed that she doesn't find herself funny, even though she is incapable of speaking without cracking whole crowds up.  Later in the evening, as she spoke of what motivates her and Des to keep working at the most difficult times, which are the youth who are working alongside and the ones we still need to reach out to, she choked up.  She signalled to Des to help, but only choked up more with her partner at her side. I stole the mic for a few moments to allow her to recover.

It was powerful for all the participants to see someone they all admire, and who is so upbeat have an emotional moment about what all this means to her.  Many of them left the center speaking about how strong of an impact it made on them.

We have one and a half days left, I hope the conference continues to be as successful as it is so far!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Yet another 5am departure... yesterday we flew to Cebu.  There is a great group of WYA committee members there who arranged for us to speak at two different universities and also to visit a Gawad Kalinga site.

We arrived around 8 and stopped by McDonalds for breakfast.  I've eaten more McDonalds here in Asia than I have in the past few years in New York! The breakfast options here come with rice, aside from the usual egg McMuffin. Upon arrival at the airport I learned that Ferdinand Magellan was killed there by the reigning chief of the time, Lapu-Lapu.  We visited the site where Magellan planted a cross years ago in commemoration of baptising 400 of the indigenous people. 

For lunch I ate my first sisig.  Sisig is a dish made of pork meat, specifically the face of the pig.  Apparently they carve the skin off the pig's face, boil the face, chop it into pieces and fry it.  This particular dish also came with pig's liver.  Despite the lovely description and I'm sure how appetising it sounds I wasn't a huge fan and needed help from the others to finish it.

Gawad Kalinga is an organisation which works to transform slums into communities and empowers those living in poverty to improve their lives.  Late afternoon we stopped by one community on the outskirts of Cebu.  We were supposed to receive a brief tour of the site and meet some of the key people there.  We did, I also got distracted by an absolutely gorgeously fat baby and spent most of my time there playing with it, speaking with the mom and some other adults and being stared at by the kids. 

Whenever I'm in situations of poverty time soars by.  I want to get to know each person; to help the adults care for their families, to help the kids and youth reach their dreams, and to ensure the babies are nourished and played with so they can grow to their full potential. Just as we were becoming comfortable chatting I was dragged away as we had to catch our flight.

En route to the airport we stopped for some traditional Cebuanese bbq and another mango shake - I just can't get enough!!! We also took some pictures at the main mall and Ren cracked up at what she called my "acrobatics" in attempting to get a good shot.

Today, I slept in till 9am! Longest sleep I've had in weeks and met Cathy for brunch.  I had an entire day to catch up with Cathy and relax.  To celebrate I took a jeepney back to Des' place, two actually, and then walked quite a distance after my stop as I probably hadn't got on the right ones in the first place.  Today has been beautiful.  Tomorrow is yet another 5am departure as we meet the DDD participants early and drive together to our conference venue.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ultimate Frisbee Tournament in Manila!!!

Yesterday, during WYA AP's General Assembly I met a WYA member and former intern who plays Ultimate here in Manila. There was a tournament today in the South and I joined her team! The tournament is ongoing for the next few Sundays leading up to the start of Monsoon League in mid-August. The team is composed of players who've started within the last few weeks to few months, making me the Ultimate Ancient on the team.

We played 3 games, with a one hour break between each game. There is a guy's team also as part of their club and we would alternate field time with the guys. It worked perfectly as we would cheer for them, then they would cheer for us. It also worked perfectly as I didn't bring any cleats, and one of the guys had cleats my size! So his cleats played six games, while we each played 3, and by the end of game 2 we were sharing foot sweat and the cleats were pretty gross!

This is the rainy season here, meaning the temperature is mild by Manila standards but still in the 30's (Celsius) plus humidity. I also haven't played Ultimate since early May and am wickedly out of shape/fat after a few weeks of eating Asian food. Thankfully I did have experience to comepensate for my heat/fitness drawbacks. During the warmup they decided that I would be handler. As that is a position I am always trying to get better at, I happily obliged. The games were fun, the girls on the team have great spirit, acknowledge that they're playing to gain experience and were so happy to have me playing with them. The first game we played we had a few competitive points although we lost by a rather large amount. The second game we played, the girls had poor spirit. They would double team, stall count fast, and not give disc space - then call foul on me if I touched them. Even if we were both 10 feet away from the disc... They were obviously also a new team, but not one with such great spirit as my team. The final game we played the defending champs for Manila and the girls were good. It was great to play against a team with flow, great throws and solid defence. A bit discouraging as the game ended in 20 minutes with a score of 11 - 0 but I will admit I made enough mistakes on my own that I wasn't a huge asset to the team to compensate for any lack of experience or skill.

One of the guys from the team then drove me to WYA AP's office for a meeting this evening to finalise plans for the Decade of Dignity and Development Conference which begins on Wednesday. He even invited me to join Tuesday evening for practice for a different team which is apparently much more competitive, so I may :)

Tomorrow, Ren and I travel to Cebu, just for the day and meet with WYA members there.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Scuba Diving in Batangas

430am Des drove me to the bus.  After a 2 hour bus ride I switched to a jeepney for 30 minutes and then a tricycle.  Tricycles are basically motorcycles with a little box sidecar.  I ducked inside the tricycle - made for Filipino sized people, and had to sit with my bum slid to the edge of the seat, my knees tucked to my chin and my head alternating from one side to the other to prevent concussions for the next 30 minutes.  I arrived to Aquaventure by 830 ready for an exciting day of diving ahead.

Turned out, the guy who had promised to make all the arrangements hadn't even told them I was arriving. Long story short - thanks to his (lying? forgetfulness?) I ended up paying double what I'd expected to pay! I was so upset. The first day I ended up going out alone in my own boat with a guide.  The boats are like really long, wooden canoes with outriggers.  Apparently they never sink as they're made of wood.  So if you get swamped by a wave, you just end up sitting in water up to your waist until rescued.  

As it is typhoon season here, there was rain pretty continuously and some rather large waves.  I went for my first dive around 11am, the guys take care of all your equipment for you - it's rather an easy way to dive :) The boat sat about 5 meters out from shore so it wouldn't break on the rocks and we waded out between waves to get onto the boat.  Thankfully the water is warm. The waves on the way out made for an exciting ride as we'd ride a wave to the top and then plunge straight into the trough before heading up the next one.  The outriggers are brilliant as they balance the boat to prevent tipping or we'd have capsized a few meters away from shore.  The divesite was in a little cove so the waves were much smaller. The water was a bit churned up and there wasn't much sun, but the diving was still incredible.
I saw two sea turtles - apparently in the Philippines they don't like getting their shells scratched the way they do in Australia, so with the second turtle I rubbed his shell a bit and then held on for the ride! I also saw baracudas, tons of sea cucumbers - I was tempted to take on back onto the boat for supper - and all of Nemo's fish friends.  There was a huge circle of Jack fish, the fish on Finding Nemo who make the shapes for Dori, I watched for a long while hoping they'd perform for me but I guess I don't speak Jack well enough... My guide also captured Nemo from his anemone home and tried to pass him to me, but Nemo is amazingly quick and I coudn't get him.  I was nervous to catch him myself as I knew anemone's are poisonous but apparently it doesn't hurt humans.  I touched the anemone trying to capture him myself and it jumps out to stick to my hands, but doesn't hurt, it's mostly just startling.

Apparently the Philippines, and Batangas specifically, has some of the highest marine biodiversity in the world and I believe it.  There were so many more fish, nudibranchs and other marine species than at the Great Barrier Reef!

I spent the afternoon sleeping as the waves were too high for more dives, then chatted late into the night with a family that was staying there and one of the dive instructors.  The next day, two guys showed up for diving so I was able to share a boat with them which drastically reduced my costs. The waves were even higher than the day before combined with heavy rains.  I had to face into the rains and see where we were going or I would have fallen out of the boat.  My eyes hurt so much that I eventually put on my mask, as did another guy, and we joked that we should get all our gear on in case we fell out so we were prepared.

The divesite was beautiful!  My dive buddy was like a kid in a candy store; touching, poking and playing with everything he saw.  We saw a couple moray eels and in a rock next to them I also found a white moray eel with brown spots.  We saw the biggest lion fish I've ever seen, maybe a foot around with fins fully extended, and also a squid. There was one anemone growing out of what looked like a green pudgy vase and when we poked it, it was like a silky fabric rather than a rigid coral. We saw some really large, purple nudibranchs that were a couple inches long with bright yellow horns. I also saw one fish with a large eye spot painted on it's tail fin and teeny real eyes, it is the first one of those I've ever seen diving. One thing we saw, and thankfully didn't touch was a fire urchin.  There were a couple that were round on top, had purple spikes coming out in ridges and yellow spikes around it's bottom.  We were curious and tried to get it to move but thankfully had the sense not to touch it! I even saw a sea cucumber eating for the first time, it moved so slowly over the coral and extended teeny little fins from underneath it to eat bits from on top of the coral by moving it's fins back underneath it.

Between dives we anchored in a little cove and went snorkelling as we couldn't get enough of the water!  On the way back, the waves were with us which made for a much smoother ride, and the boat man was excellent.  He would idle the motor until a really large wave came then rev it up so we would surf the wave for quite a ways, then catch the next one.  It was incredibly cool surfing a wave in a boat.

Diving wasn't nearly long enough, my first dive I ran out of air rather quickly but by my fourth dive I was able to maintain neutral buoyancy, turn and swim more sharply and conserve air much better.  If I hadn't been cheated by who I thought would help me, I would try to sneak in another day of diving, but my funds are dry... Thankfully the family I met at the resort was driving back to Manila the same afternoon I was and gave me a lift.  It was so nice, as otherwise I would have had to walk along the road until I encountered a tricycle - which could have been a few hours!

Today WYA AP had a General Assembly with about 20 members and many intern and staff alumni.  It was my first opportunity to see many of my friends in the Philippines.  I spoke about WYA's understanding of dignity and the projects going on in the regions.  Ren added in a twist for Q&A and put me in the hot seat where they could ask anything - her suggestion was about my love life... they asked about how I came to understand dignity and also about how they could get more involved.  Thankfully they didn't ask about my love life, although as a few jokingly referred to it, and it is a short answer, I told them.  None!

Some of the old interns joined us for lunch then I spent the afternoon with Tam catching up. So good! We were both able to chat about where our passions have brought us in life, and the difficulty in explaining to people who haven't shared our experiences or have chosen a corporate life.  Our afternoon finished at Jollibee with a phenomenal merchandising idea - to be revealed only when ready... orders will be accepted :)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Funky Foods

Yesterday evening Ren and I had two meeting scheduled for the same ice cream place.  Both meetings went elsewhere after the initial contact.  The first, we sat outside nearby and chatted.  The setting was lovely, a teeny breeze, hot, surrounded by bushes and flowers.  For our second meeting, the guy wants WYA to speak at a conference in a few months and drove us to where the proposed venue is. He brought us inside to wander around, it's quite a nice location except freezing!  I don't understand it, all these people are supposed to be from tropical countries and used to the heat.  Instead, they all like their air temperature so cold that I could happily bundle up under a few blankets attempting to stay warm.

We went to a nearby outdoor food market, a wet market, meaning the food is fresh. The first item I saw on the menu, after squid, was frog!  I pointed it out thinking they would share my joy at seeing a menu listing 4 ways to cook frog, instead they ordered it for me.  I then pointed out the sea cucumber options thinking surely they would see the humour in that, and also ended up having that ordered for me to taste.  I was so nervous! Especially for the sea cucumber as my only prior exposure to it was scuba diving in Australia and it feels like it's made of styrofoam...
The frog legs were actually pretty good, I ate a few.  They taste a bit like chicken, but with the consistency of crab meat - they're much softer than chicken.  Sea cucumber tastes like unflavoured jello.  It's pretty tasteless and has a similar consistency to jello - not bad, although the appearance is like mushroom on the inside and spotted, lumpy, or striped on the outside so I didn't eat as much sea cucumber as I did frog's legs.

Apparently it is said that the Chinese eat everything that flies - except for airplanes, and everything with 4 legs - except for the table. After supper, as were discussing varieties of food in different places they told me about the Century Egg. The century egg is preserved in different acids and vinegars for 100 days, and then consumed. Apparently it's a delicacy.  The egg after 100 days is black. The yolk looks like bird droppings, and the white looks like black rum jello shooters :p

I ate half the egg, before I felt nauseous and had to stop.  The taste isn't so bad, but the texture and appearance are horrible and I excused myself as it was my third unusual food I'd eaten that night, so felt less obligated to finish it.
Today we had a few more meetings, flew back to Manila, and I've just finalised plans for scuba diving a few hours south of Manila tomorrow.  I'll be away from internet for the next few days - don't miss me (my writing) anymore than you miss my physical presence :)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Singapore :)

Saturday night Ren and I flew to Manila.  I spent Sunday with Des' family.  We went to lunch together, it's a family tradition which they allowed me to crash... and in good Filipino hospitality style they absolutely stuffed me!  Even hours later for supper I was full - proof that I was really stuffed.  We spent the afternoon, between meals, wandering through the Greenhills mall shopping at the pearl market.  Thankfully I was able to bargain and didn't get slapped once!  It really restored my faith in bargaining. I had the true Pinoy experience of visiting 3 malls in one day; one for lunch, one in the afternoon and one for supper.  As Des put it "malling is their favourite past-time"  a good indicator being that the noun is now an adjective.

Early Monday morning Ren and I flew to Singapore.  We are staying outside of the downtown area, and far from the shopping malls - hence off the tourist map.  Our one skill so far is a remarkable ability to get lost, despite the clarity of Singapore's transit system. We went for lunch at a street food place nearby and had plans to wander Orchard Road which is apparently famous for its - drum roll please - malls! I've had a bit of a cold over the past week though, and as much as I do love shopping :p I spent the afternoon sleeping.  Best nap ever! I drooled ;)

We had a meeting with some students at the National University of Singapore last night.  We were told our meeting location was close to NUS, we thought we were across the street from NUS as there is a big sign across the street from us and we're staying in student housing.  Apparently we're by the NUS law campus - as our bus ride was a good 20 minutes even if we hadn't got lost...

Today we met with the National Youth Achievement Award program and the National Youth Council.  Both organisations were very receptive to WYA's work and mission and eager to put us in touch with the youth they work with.  I definitely think we can begin to have a presence here.  Especially as Singapore is a wealthy, ageing country so they especially wish to encourage everything youth there would be great support for any young people who wanted to start WYA up here.

This evening we have a couple more meetings with different students and youth groups, and tomorrow we meet with the Muslim and Buddhist youth groups; in different meetings.  Ren is absolutely crazy, she takes pictures of everywhere we go, everything we eat, and is in 90% of her pictures.  She's started taking some pictures with me in it, as she can't understand what the purpose of taking a picture is, if you're not in the picture - unless it's of the food which you're about to eat or have just eaten.  We've been polling people of various nationalities and it seems to be a western/asian conflict in picture taking philosophy.

Singapore is really beautiful!  Flying in, the water was so clear and aqua I just wanted to go swimming.  The weather here is nice too, hotter than Hong Kong and Manila but not as hot as Bangkok.  Bangkok has been, by far, the hottest place I've visited so far.  Since I also stayed there sharing a non air-conditioned washroom, dorm and transportation every other place I visit seems cold.  Transportation is air-conditioned, buildings are air-conditioned and my room in each place has been air-conditioned.  Ren is finding the heat much hotter than me, and we compromised last night on the air-conditioning as I wanted it at a cozy 29 Celsius and she wanted it at a maximum of 25 Celsius.

Friday, July 10, 2009

购物!食物! Shopping! Food!

Our hostel is located in Causeway Bay, also the heartland of shopping for all of Hong Kong.  Hong Kong has shopping everywhere. Shopping is entertainment, relaxation, necessity, socialising, envy and basically what there is to do in Hong Kong.  Eating is the break between shopping and the fuel to continue. I read through a tourist guide; in the Heritage section was a listing for a "new" heritage site.  The site of some old building, but now when you go there is a shopping mall! You can view all of Hong Kong from the "Peak" shopping mall included, and I discovered this evening that City University of Hong Kong has a shopping mall attached to it.  Imagine - you're shopping for new shoes, wander into the next room and are stuck in the middle of a history class!
The stores are amazing.  Most of them are the expensive western stores.  There is Swarovski, Banana Republic, Longchamps and then Asian stores scattered amongst.  I have a few new favorites like Giordano and Bossini which sell very cool clothes.  Happiness is all the rage, with brands like smileyworld and slogans like Cheer You Up on the clothes.  As one explanatory brochure put it; with the global financial crisis, and H1N1 virus "You're down and you can't take it anymore? Don't be... cheery designs... to really pump up the volume of positive energy." Love it - you're depressed? Come shop!

Today we had a meeting with Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups.  The woman we met was quite impressive, she had a very clear passion for youth and a great understanding of the struggles and opportunities for Hong Kong youth.  We had an inkling that she was impressive and discovered later on some of her many accomplishments.  I look forward to working with her, and she was excited to work with us.
We then met with two youth for supper who will be flying to the Philippines for the Asia Pacific Decade of Dignity and Development Conference in a week.  They also were quite interesting and we were able to learn about their culture and will continue the discussion in Tagaytay. We trusted them to order for us and enjoyed some delicious authentic Chinese food as a result - so good... mmm, I could go back right now and eat it all over again!  We had fried race cakes, chicken and flour skin (with sesame sauce and tasted SO much better than it sounds) Szichuan style noodles (with peanut sauce), dim sum, and drunken chicken (soaked in Chinese wine), with bean curd puffs for dessert.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

pictures now in :)

Hong Kong!

Yesterday I went for one last session of Thai stretching - it seems so long ago.  I bumped into some of my fellow massage students - took a few more pictures with them, and then waited for 30 minutes alone at the dock to catch a boat back.  Normally the water taxis go every 15 minutes and there are crowds, but apparently at 930am all the businesspeople are at work and no tourists are awake yet.

I flew Emirates to Hong Kong.  I love emirates, it is one of the few airlines where they still have good food, offer blankets and a large selection of movies.  I nearly got through Slumdog millionaire before landing - only about 20 minutes left.

I arrived at the airport picked up some tourist maps to help find my way to the hostel and changed my money.  Ren had sent me the cost of the buses which were either 21 or 41 dollars.  I'd been thinking it was super expensive until I remembered the exchange rate is 7 HKG to 1 USD.  I got off the bus and ended up wandering in a large circle attempting to find the hostel.  I was a few blocks away and asked a guy for help.  He didn't speak much English but was incredibly kind.  He walked with me for 15 minutes, left me at a corner at one point to ask for directions, called the hostel, waited with me until the hostel owner came for me, and then gave me some lychees he had as he left!

Ren and I went for supper nearby - rice and pork, followed by an ice cream crepe while wandering around.  All of Hong Kong is shops and food.  "As seen on tv..." the buildings are incredibly tall, the ground floors have everything from Swarovski to Club Monaco to Giordano to little boutiques that sell the latest in shoe, clothing, jewelery and hair fashions. Sprinkled liberally between are restaurants and dessert places. Most of the stores have glittery or electric signs which make all the streets light up at night - coupled with intensive air-conditioning and open doors, even walking outside isn't so bad as there is so much residual air-conditioning in the streets.

Today we had a meeting with youth from the Hong Kong Climate Change Coalition.  Three officers of the group met with us and we had a great discussion with them about what WYA is, our position on responsible stewardship and possibilities to work together.  They really liked the idea of dignity, and incorporating it into their work on climate change - environment with the person at the center.  We then went for a 4 hour lunch with the two guys as the girl had to catch an afternoon flight to Australia.
It was great, our conversations ranged from photography styles; do you like to be in the photo or not while travelling, to discussions of global poverty, it's implications and what needs to be done in addressing it.  We finally left, took a bus back and are relaxing in our room before we go out for - you'll never guess...

... more food! (I knew you'd never guess, so I'm telling you!)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Asala - Dharma Day

This morning I woke up early to try and make it to Wat Pho temple for their 8am stretching session.  I just missed a boat so only arrived for the final few stretches and to receive green tea :)  On the way into Wat Pho, I ran into my massage instructor who was surprised to see me, and at the class was one of the girls I'd learned massage with also there.  Then, as I was leaving I bumped into another guy who'd been studying at Wat Pho but in a different course - Bangkok suddenly felt small!

Today is a holiday in Thailand.  It commemorates the day when Buddha emerged from two months of fasting in which he had discovered the middle way and preached it to the the other monks.  The middle way is the philosophy that goodness comes not from pure ascetisim, nor from full allowance of sensuality but from a middle ground between the two. At this time Buddha also presented the 4 truths, the fourth of which is the 8 ways to live a good life. 
It so happens that this festival also marks the start of the rainy season which lasts about two months.  Apparently Buddha asked his monks to not wander throughout the countryside during this time, as traditionally it was when the farmers worked their fields, to prevent the monks from trampling the crops. Now, the monks remain within the temple during this time - only emerging to beg for food.  It is also customary that men become monks at some point in their life and many boys do so during this time.  It is a time when the monks really focus on prayer and study.
The temple of Wat Pho and Wat Arun were packed today, not just with the usual tourists, but also with Thai people bringing gifts and performing ceremonies.  By the time I reached Wat Arun mid-afternoon I was so tired I sat near to the activities the monks had set up and watched.  They were so kind and made an effort to include me, bringing me water and explaining the activities to me.  One tradition is to write your name and wish on a piece of wax, then dip it into a pot already full of melted wax.  You then take a dipper and put a few spoonfuls of the wax into a tall cylindrical container.  This then cools to become the large candles in the temples.  The monk explained to me that Buddhists write what they will do over the next few months, kind of a new year's resolution.  There are also tiles you can write on which then go on the roofs of the temples as they need more tiles.
There is one temple where it is customary to bring a candle, a white flower (don't know what it's called) and incense and to walk around it praying.  People were doing that all day, and in the evening when the monsoon rains started up they continued to walk around - some even without umbrellas!

Between Wat Pho and Wat Arun I visited Pratunam market to buy gifts.  From all my research it seemed to be the cheapest market in Bangkok where even wholesale buyers go for good deals.  The prices quoted to me were so ridiculously high, and people would not go down.  I walked away from so many stalls as they refused to drop their prices at all.  In one place, the woman quoted the most outrageously high price for little wallets and when I asked her for a discount she asked me what my price was - so I quoted a ridiculously low price back to her.  She went berserk!  She started screaming at me calling me crazy "You crazy! that crazy price! you crazy!" and slapped me!!! My first instinct was to punch her in the mouth and break her teeth, my second was to bring in the police for assault.  

Since I promote human dignity, I couldn't in good conscience punch her - even though I think it would have been good for her. Knowing, and having experienced that the police here are corrupt, I had to accept option two would be useless and possibly detrimental to me. So, I stared at her and quite sternly told her not to touch me. Then I walked away while she continued to scream at me.  There were lots of beautiful items in the stalls in that row, but I couldn't stop at any of the places I was so embarrassed.  

After that, I was too nervous to bargain - I've never been slapped while attempting to bargain before and was quite shaken up. What was saddest of all, was that the prices I managed to bargain down to - after a lot of effort on my part in each place - when I returned to Wat Pho, those were the same prices labeled on the streets, and the women lowered their prices much more reasonably even from that.  I don't think I'll ever return to that market again...

I did have a couple nice experiences at the market.  I was starving and discovered the food places where those working the stalls eat.  The woman didn't speak any English so I ordered by making animal sounds and she would point to different items and make animal sounds.  The food was delicious and quite cheap.  Then I found a man selling Thai desserts with his family behind him, he also didn't speak any English, so I started saying Thai numbers so he could tell me the price in Thai.  He and his family got so excited they started rattling off sentences and invited me to eat with them.  Since numbers, hello and thank you are all I know, I thanked them for their invitation and left.

I then returned to Wat Pho this evening to catch the festivities by night. There are hallways with dozens of Buddha statues lined against the wall.  Many people had set up mats, and were settling in for the night, I wasn't able to figure out what that was for. I really like the Wat Pho area.  It is the place I know best in Bangkok - but it seems every time I leave that area I get massively lost, meet crazy or corrupt people or otherwise have some unpleasant experience. 
On the holiday commemorating Buddha first preaching about the righteous way, I've met both people who live it and people who demonstrate why it is needed...

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Wat Po Chetawan Thai massage therapist!

That's me - it's official! I received my certificate yesterday.  We had a practical exam where we massaged another student, but it was someone from the other class which definitely put the pressure on.  Thankfully the guy I massaged was very nice, I forgot a couple steps and he positioned his body to remind me :)  I did the same for him though, so it all worked out in the end! You all know what your birthday gifts will be from now on, and be grateful.  A full Thai massage takes 1.5 - 2 hours.  At a spa you would be paying a LOT!
I also invested in massage pants - the pants traditionally worn in Thailand and still worn by Thai massage therapists.  They are loose, comfy, light, and very brightly patterned!  I wore them around all day yesterday and a few people working at street stands smiled or demonstrated that they approved of my clothing choice.  A few of them just laughed at me.  I fully intend to wear them for giving massages, I'm not sure I'll have the courage to wear them publicly outside of Thailand though :)

To celebrate I had supper with the guy in my class near his hostel at Khao San road.  I hadn't realised how lucky my desire to save money had made me.  I booked my hostel as it is the cheapest I could find in Bangkok at 130 baht/night (~$4 USD). It is in the business district of Bangkok and there are no other hostels nearby.  I've really been able to eat genuine Thai food off the streets and see Bangkok the way the Thais do. At Khao San road, it's like the Vegas or Times Square of Bangkok.  There are hostels everywhere, and all the massage places, food stands, clothing stalls, etcetera cater to the tourists. Everything is in English, everyone speaks English. The only Thais I saw worked there... It was good to see that - it's the famous backpacker hangout and obviously has incredible night life, and then so nice to return to my hostel in a neighbourhood that shuts down at night and is full of life during the day.

Today and tomorrow are holidays here.  They are to celebrate the start of the rainy season and the last days the monks wander around freely.  During the monsoon season it is a time of prayer for them, and they leave the temples only to beg food. Apparently it used to be customary for every boy to become a monk for a period of time, and often they would join the monks at the temples during this time so that the country would all celebrate.  At least in Bangkok that is no longer the case, I've heard it is still common practice in rural areas.
Although I love the food here, I've also had some uncomfortable experiences.  Two days ago, I ate lunch with my classmates near to our school.  I ordered bamboo chicken, which was delicious and very spicy.  Three bites into the meal my face was red, I had to suck in air between bites to prevent my mouth from burning up. Halfway through I couldn't continue and asked the woman for some extra rice to soothe my mouth.  It helped a bit, then another woman came over and dumped some juice over my rice which looked like pork drippings.  It was delicious, very sweet, and worked beautifully.  I've now discovered that sweet counters spicy and was able to finish my meal thanks to her help.
Later, I bought some samosas at the side of the road for a snack.  I bit into one, and wasn't quite sure what the taste was.  I got halfway through before I was able to identify the meat - tongue, fat, entrails, etcetera.  So gross!  Thankfully I'd also purchased lychees so I ate a dozen of them to get rid of the taste. I also ate pad thai and said yes to seafood in it - assuming of course that it would be shrimp.  There was one shrimp, there was also quite a bit of calamari - with the heads still attached! I've never eaten squid before with the dude looking at me as I munched through his delicious body.  There were also tiny little orange shrimps throughout - shells and all.  They're actually quite flavourful, I ate one on its own and the taste was really strong, but mixed with the noodle they're quite good. 

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The kindness of strangers

When I arrived back to my hostel this afternoon I searched for the key to my lock and couldn't find it.  Until I looked up and saw it sticking out of my lock, draped around my locker door handle, not locking my locker! I nearly had a heart attack until I peaked inside and saw that not a single item was missing!!! Funnily enough, the dorm room had been locked today for the first time since I'd been here.  I can only assume that my roommates saw my stupidity and locked the room to protect my stuff.  I am lucky...

Last night, I met up with Andreas and we took a bus over to chinatown where we'd also heard there was a late-night clothing market.  We heard correctly, it didn't even begin until midnight!  We ate some delicious food, wandered around and then headed over to Lumphini park and night market.  We got off at the stop with all the malls - which it turned out was about an hours walk from the night market.  By the time we got close we saw a sign for it saying it was 700 meters away.  My flip flops are super comfy, but not for cross-city treks. We were so close we kept going.  Lumphini bazaar is a great place; there was a live singer with hundreds of seats/tables for people to sit and eat and drink.  Then the market goes on forever.  We barely entered despite over an hour of exploring as the stalls are so closely packed and full of beautiful items.  

It was great to catch up with Andreas.  He arrived a few days before me so is also still exploring Bangkok.  He plans to live here for a year or so though, and has been learning Thai as fast as he can.  It was great as he would use a few phrases to ask people for directions or to order food.  It was also good to see him and catch up.  After the night market, I decided to take a tuk tuk home.  I knew it wasn't a long trip, but didn't have the map clear in my mind.  I bargained the driver down to half his starting price so that Andreas called me Donald Trump.  
Bangkok is so beautiful.  Being July, it is overrun by European tourists and backpackers.  Thankfully, by choosing the cheapest hostel I could find I also chose a hostel far from backpacker central.  I'm in the heart of the business and jewellery district.  Each morning I walk past rows of delicious breakfast foods, pastries and fruits.  Once my massage course is over I'm going to have to spend a morning eating something from every stand. Last night, as I was wandering around for hours, I was so excited to know that today I would be giving/getting massages all day and all my soreness would be mashed out of me.  Now, the thought of leaving the course and going without massages for months is just so sad.  Thankfully I'll be in the Philippines soon and can get a massage there!

Apparently Bangkok is sometimes referred to as the Venice of Asia.  There are canals along many streets and many grates/streets cover the river flowing underneath.  There are some beautiful old, historic buildings and the culture here is so rich.  I love the custom of people bowing as they greet each other, and the politeness with which even goods and money are exchanged as they take the money with both hands.  We pray each morning before the class begins to ask that we give a massage with the proper temperament, and also that no evil will enter either us or the person receiving the massage.  There are temples and little shrines to Buddha down every street and even in front of the malls.  People will stop and pray at the street shrines, lighting incense and bowing.

I took a picture last night of a shrine to Buddha outside a mall.  Between the two shrines is a huge banner declaring a 50% sale. I'll post it once I have the chance to upload my pictures.

Pung ni pop can (see you tomorrow)

Where to begin? I took another tuk tuk yesterday from the water taxi to Brioni factory, where I was getting a dress made.  Three drivers were aghast at the price I quoted and roared off, only one listened and agreed to take me for 30 baht - the same I had paid the day before. He asked if I minded stopping at some place so he could get petrol.  Faced with the option (I thought) of stopping briefly or stalling somewhere I agreed.  Turns out, he took me to another clothing place where I had to go in and wander around for a few minutes so he could get a petrol coupon from them... I have no objection to helping the guy get free gas - except I wish I'd thought to then have my trip for free!

I discovered that a former WYA intern, Andreas Pergher, is also in Bangkok and we'd agree to meet at 6pm at my hostel.  I was left with 30 minutes to get back so stopped for a quick bite at a street stand. The menu options were all in Thai so I asked for the soup that was being prepared. They were all very kind, one girl brought me a glass of ice water and the cook kept checking to see if I enjoyed his soup.  I did, except for all the fat stuck to every piece of meat, and the myriad pieces of chopped tongue.  There is something not right about having cooked tastebuds in your soup.
Tuk tuk drivers are used to scamming tourists.  Even though I offered the same price to take me back to the hostel (for less than half the distance) they all refused.  So I resorted to asking motorcycle drivers, via a corrupt cop who laughed at me when I tried to bargain and told me my price was crazy... I was in the same area I'd spent 2 hours trying to escape from the day before and wasn't willing to do the same again.  Finally I met a kind woman who told me which bus to get on.  She didn't speak any English but I'd learned and brought a card from the hostel with it's name and address written in Thai for future adventures.  

We got on the same bus and after a while she realised it wasn't actually going past my hostel.  She was incredibly kind though, got off the bus with me and walked me the 10 minutes to my hostel - completely out of her way - as she felt responsible to get me home safely.  I have definitely noticed that the Thai people are, for the most part, incredibly kind.  I also have a bag from the Wat Pho massage school which helps a great deal in people offering more tips as they're excited I'm studying at their best massage school.

Tomorrow I test to pass my massage course.  I'm so nervous, there is so much to learn.  Apart from the sequence of steps there are body positions which go with each movement. We're graded on our body position, on knowing the steps, on giving a good massage and on our manner.  We also need to know basic contra-indications, etc.
I'm going to miss going every day.  The teachers are so kind, and have taken to hitting (lightly and friendly) my massage partner any time he does something he shouldn't, with a pillow, their hand, or whatever is handy.  Then they'll fall on me laughing as his reactions crack them up. As they're instructing the Thai girl I've also started to learn a few numbers in Thai.  Once they realised I was paying attention they've gone out of their way to teach me a little more.  I've now learned to count to 10 (although I don't remember...) and some other phrases - note the Thai phrase as the title?!?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Another smouldering hot day, I'm now up to knowing 3 of the 5 steps of basic Thai massage and my thumbs are very sore! Class is so delightful, all day we practice massaging each other so when another person is giving the massage I am getting one!  It's funny though, Thai massage is very deep tissue so by the end of today I was extra sensitive in a few places and had to have very light pressure applied :p

After class I was determined to find some Thai clothes.  Cotton shows the sweat too much... and I don't fit into the clothes they sell on the street because as one girl put it - "oh no, you are a very large size, you need to get clothes custom made..." Another guy was determined to sell me his "one size fits all" pants even after I showed him I was one size too large for them - his flattery wasn't enough though. So I was sent off to a clothing factory where they custom make suits, dresses, etc. WAY out of my price range! 

I thought I'd watched where the tuk tuk took me and decided to walk back. What should have been a 30 minute walk became 3 hours.  I hadn't calculated on few/no street signs, the few street signs being written in Thai (different alphabet in case you didn't know that...) and multiple 12 lane intersections. After a couple hours I was so hungry I ate some food at a little street stand.  The guy pointed to different ingredients and I either shook my head or nodded at each one.  
I then spent forever trying to flag down another tuk tuk and trying to a) explain where I wanted to go as few tuk tuk drivers read English and b) negotiating to a price I was willing to pay.  I was clearly lost and a foreigner, so even though I knew I was only a few minutes walk away I couldn't find it on my own they had full opportunity to jack up their prices.  Thankfully I finally found one who would take me, although I felt a little better as even he got lost twice on the way back to the hostel and had to stop and look at my map. 

Now for a relaxing evening, getting some work done, and another early day tomorrow. If I get to the Wat Pho for 730am I can participate in their stretching exercises - normally not even an option but perhaps I will take advantage of jetlag :)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Welcome to ประเทศไทย (Thailand)

It's so much fun to be a foreigner. There is always the danger of getting ripped off, kidnapped, taken advantage of or getting lost but there are just so many perks.  The first and most obvious one being, you are the oddball in a place that has existed with its traditions, language, food, etc for a very long time.  So you get to wander around admiring new things, taking pictures of peoples houses and neighbourhood and sometimes even the people :)  

Yesterday I arrived to Bangkok around noon and took a water taxi up Bangkok's central river to find the Wat Pho Massage school.  It costs 13 baht for the water taxi (about 40 cents USD).  There are some beautiful parts to Bangkok, and also some very poor parts.  Especially lining the river are some of the nicest hotels - Mandarin Oriental - and many shacks.  This morning I passed a man bathing in the river.  The river is a murky greeny brown with branches and other debris floating in it, and no clarity.  I had to admire his efforts as he dumped river water on him for the few minutes it took the boat to pass and he was still washing as he went out of sight.

Bangkok is swelteringly hot, and I wish I could shower every few minutes... I need to! It's 30+ Celsius and exceedingly humid.  I'm on the lookout now for some light, Thai clothes as I've wandered around visibly sweaty for the last two days which is not a good look.  Today, at noon, I wandered around the Wat Pho temple.  It is incredibly beautiful.  The reclining Buddha is enormous, gold and takes up the whole temple. It's too big to even fit into one picture so I'll have to paste a bunch together to give any sort of idea of how he looks. My favourite part of the Buddha has got to be his feet.  The bottoms are covered in designs made of mother of pearl.  The walls of the temple are also illustrated with pictures.  I assume they are stories of the Buddha's life, but I only had an hour so need to learn a lot more.  There are numerous temples scattered around the big temple and each one is so intricately carved that I could easily spend a day staring at them all.  There are also gardens and fountains with statues, and some real, live Buddhist monks. I had to say that, it is actually really cool to see them throughout the city.

One monk was seated under a tree in a prayerful pose, and the scene was so beautiful I wanted to take his photo.  I asked him and he smiled for me to take the picture. I felt somewhat bad taking pictures of it all, as it is a temple and many people were there praying at the various Buddha statues.  Obviously the monks are part of the "scenery" if you're a tourist, but for them it is their religion and they are simply there to pray or study or do whatever it is they do - I have a LOT to learn  :p  

Today, I started my Thai massage course.  There are three of us in the course; a guy from South Africa, a Thai girl and myself.  We started this morning observing as the teacher performed step 1 of Thai massage on the guy.  We then spent the afternoon practicing on each other.  It's actually quite difficult and intricate, and we have only learned one stage of the whole massage.  A great deal of it comes down to practice though, so over the next 4 days I hope to become quite comfortable with it all.  We learned by watching the teacher perform the massage and doing the same steps.  I received one massage on my right side and then one full massage.  The guy from South Africa received 4 massages on his right side, he was thinking of going to get a massage tonight and asking them to just massage his left side twice to attempt to even himself out...

I'll upload photos soon - probably in Manila.  I'm nervous to bust out all my technology while I'm still at the hostel as I'd hate to get it stolen.  I'm off now to eat some supper - food here is good, but I am starving!  Now that I've entered an air-conditioned room some of my appetite has returned.