Tag Archives: Food

Travel Guide: Yunnan Province

I recently had the privilege to lead a group of grade 11 students on a week-long journey through Yunnan Province in southwestern China. As on the trip to Battambang, Cambodia that I led for this group as grade 10 students, we worked with the JUMP! Foundation, who continue to be my favorite people. They develop, design, and manage the program along with their partner schools and it’s an honor to work with them each year.

This trip was the first time many of our students experienced what it’s like to be a backpacker. We traveled with packs and on overnight trains, moving to multiple locations throughout the trip. There’s a lot of travel in one week because we spend the first and last days transitioning between planes, trains, and buses but it was a phenomenal experience. 

After a series of opening activities (JUMP! programs involve lots of running around and games, which are really fun, as well as group reflections that are valuable) and another bus ride, we arrived in our first base, Jianchuan.  The town itself is quite small and there was no restaurant in town large enough for all 63 of us so one of the restaurant families opened their courtyard and invited local chefs to cook the three meals we’d be eating there. The food we had all week was truly extraordinary and a major highlight for some of the students and even the staff.

JUMP! had told us about Bai, the minority group that we’d be spending much of our time with on the trip. China doesn’t have the best history in its treatment of minorities, but Bai language, culture, and style of dress remain vibrant and distinct. Learning about and from the Bai people began almost immediately. After some food and our first shower in 36 hours, we headed to a traditional pottery workshop and learned about the ancient art of black pottery that is famous in this region. Interestingly, it’s the use of pine wood in the kiln at the comparatively low temperature of 500°C that makes the pottery black. 

Walking through Jianchuan the next day was like going back in time. The main road of the ancient town was part of Tea Horse Caravan Road that connected to the Silk Road and although no longer a merchant spot, it’s still a functioning street.

Our morning activity was a scavenger hunt following a hand-drawn map through Jianchuan Old Town. We began at the central town square . . .

. . . with the goal of investigating the local economy . . . 

. . . a beautiful shrine . . .

. . . and a local park with pagodas.

From Jianchuan we headed to Shaxi where we’d spend the next three nights. Shaxi is a very small town and a bit like a fairytale. Like Jianchuan, it’s part of the Tea Horse Caravan Road, which is really cool. I even did some shopping there!

We had time to wander through town during our stay and it was so serene and beautiful. 

The countryside was equally beautiful and we went on a bike ride through the fields across the river.

In keeping with the connection to nature, we hiked Shi Bao Mountain the following day. It’s a beautiful pine forest with grottos, temples, and views of Shaxi and the fields beyond. My stereotypes of China had been fading since our arrival and I voiced that for the first time with my students up on the mountain. I wasn’t the only one thinking that way. 

At the summit, we had a picnic linch of the rice rolls and rice balls that we’d made that morning, which had been really fun.

Then we spent the rest of the day in a tiny Bai village, Bao Xiang Si-Shi Long. “Bai” means “white” and many of the homes and buildings were painted white and then decorated, which was quite charming.

Much of the afternoon was spent learning a song in the Bai language. Bai bears no similarity to Mandarin, so it was a challenge for everyone. Our hosts also taught us a traditional dance and performed it for us in full traditional dress at a bonfire later that evening. Two singers performed the song that we’d painstakingly learned after transliterating the Mandarin characters and then we tried to show them what we’d learned of their dance. Try is the key word here, but the Bai people have only recently started teaching their language to outsiders so it was an honor to be included.

A major endeavor during our time in Shaxi was a fascinating anthropology research project that had students learning about local concerns as a result of migration, modernization, and the mixing of immigrants to Shaxi and the Bai locals. Students then followed a hand-drawn map around town to conduct interviews, mostly in Mandarin, to ask a series of questions they’d devised to learn more about the problems. Then, they were tasked with coming up with viable solutions, which prompted excellent group discussions about the appropriateness of walking into a culture and trying to be of help. On the last day of the trip, students presented their proposals to each other and the group voted for three of the ten presentations to give to some of the locals they’d interviewed. I certainly learned a lot and I know the students did, too. And as always, food was a highlight.

The end of our interview day was one of my favorite experiences of the trip, probably because it was so simple. We went stargazing! We don’t see stars that often in Singapore because of light pollution and cloud cover, but the sky in Yunnan was clear and bright. It was cold, too, winter cold, but we headed to the rooftop of our hostel after dark to lie there and simply look up. We gazed in silence for a while and then played a game of “I Wonder”. At the end of the day, I wonder how we all happened to be there.

Our final activity the next afternoon was a really nice follow-up to the stargazing, meeting people, and group reflections that we’d done throughout the week. My group’s leader and I also taught a few meditation techniques that our students enjoyed. So when it came time to hike an hour through the rice fields for half an hour of silence and solitude, our students were ready and looking forward to reconnecting with themselves and how they’d changed during the week.

And all too soon, we were back on buses, the overnight train, and the plane home. As a staff, we high-fived at the happy faces and safe return. As an educator, I delighted in seeing my students grow and mature over the week, developing new friendships and connections with others. And as a person, I was happy with the crisp air, bright sunshine, learning, and laughter that made up every day.

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. -John Muir

Travel Guide: Hanoi x2

Two and some years ago, I explored Hanoi with my dad when he came to visit. We spent a few days there before going to Hoi An to relax from the hustle and bustle that characterizes Vietnam’s capital city. This time around, I was travelling with my sister and we spent a total of three nights in Hanoi, bookending a trip north to Sapa (as a respite from Hanoi’s hustle and bustle). I really enjoyed being back in the city and showing my sister some places that I remembered. The weather was completely different this time around and far more enjoyable now, during Hanoi’s winter, than it was in the summer. We were able to do so much more walking because the air was (relatively) fresh and cool.

We arrived in Hanoi on Christmas Eve and found the city even busier than usual. Crossing the street is an activity of its own in Vietnam and the closed streets, parading Christmas celebrants complete with costumes (my sister likened it to Halloween), and jazzy Christmas concert (we actually heard a rendition of “happy birthday, Jesus”) made it more challenging than usual.

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St. Joseph’s Cathedral

One of the things I really love about Hanoi is that the Old Quarter and French Quarter, though adjacent to each other and both quite small, feel like completely different cities. We spent time every day in the Old Quarter, which I think is the more fascinating:

 

Needing quiet, however, I wandered the French Quarter by myself the morning of our last day in Hanoi:

 

There’s an excellent café culture of Hanoi and coffee was a highlight of every day. Vietnamese coffee is served in tiny cups and I rather enjoyed visiting two cafés in quick succession.

Though we spent most of our time just wandering, my sister had told me that she really wanted to visit temples on her trip to Asia and Hanoi did not disappoint. There are Buddhist temples everywhere and it’s perfectly acceptable to stop in. We entered several instead of just passing by, especially at the beginning of our trip when it was all new:

 

Hanoi also has some very famous temples that I was more than happy to visit again. The first of these was Ngoc Son Temple, located on Hoan Kiem Lake, the center of Hanoi:

 

To get there, you need to cross Huc Bridge, which is cool because it’s red. I did take a photo during the day but this one was better:

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Turtle Tower is another Hanoi landmark, also located on Hoan Kiem Lake, but is inaccessible:

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My favorite temple in Hanoi is the Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius 1,000 years ago. I love it because in addition to being really beautiful, it is dedicated to learning (my favorite thing!). It contains massive carved turtles listing the names of students who passed state exams. Unfortunately, I was dissatisfied with all of my turtle pictures, but the Temple of Literature is still really pretty:

 

We also visited the Hanoi Citadel, which was new to me. The citadel is really more of a palace; it was the residence of Vietnamese royalty until the nineteenth century. It was lovely to walk through the grounds and see several small museum exhibits of artifacts found during various excavations. There was also an exhibit on the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese call America’s War, as I learned when I visited Ho Chi Minh City) that was interesting because it portrays a different war than the one I studied in school.

 

Although I don’t have any pictures to prove it, we also went to a water puppet show, which was the other new activity for me! Water puppetry originated in the wet rice fields in Vietnam and now is performed on stage by puppeteers hidden behind a screen. They control the puppets on very long poles while standing waist-deep in water. The shows depict scenes of traditional Vietnamese life and are accompanied by singers and an orchestra playing traditional instruments. We didn’t understand the words but we understood the ideas and enjoyed it very much.

Again, no pictures to prove it, but we ate very well. There was far more vegetarian street food available in Hanoi this time than I remember from last time (or maybe I’ve gotten better at looking) and all of it was delicious! The only disappointment was not being able to find vegetarian pho, which seems to be everywhere but Vietnam.

From Hanoi, we took a sleeper train northwest to Sapa, which is up in the mountains and very close to the border with China. More on that soon!

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Love people. Cook them tasty food.

Today was the kind of day that I describe as quiet but very, very loud. Quiet because I didn’t venture more than a few kilometers from home and loud because my thoughts have been racing. There aren’t many days like these.

It’s the end of the calendar year, which means that nearly every conversation I’ve had over the last few days has led inevitably to a discussion of who’s staying or going at work. Who has resigned their contracts, who has decided to move on at the end of the school year, who’s attending which job fair, who has signed up with which recruitment agency. Who’s moving on, adventuring elsewhere, pursuing different dreams.

Even though they’re commonplace and repetitive, these conversations leave me very sad because saying goodbye is hard, and it doesn’t help to think that it’s six months away.

I went for a run today in the rain – on purpose. I figured that if I was going to cry, I might as well do it when the sky was crying, too. But I ended up laughing because I was squinting to see, jumping to avoid puddles, and absolutely soaked about two minutes in. And while laughing, I realized that I had a choice.

I could be sad because people were leaving, or I could be happy for the times we’ve spent together, the ways we’ve known each other, the laughter and ideas and conversations that we’ve shared.

And I realized it was okay to feel sad, but that the sadness would never be stronger than the joy I have felt around the friends that I’ll be sending down new roads when the time comes. Basking in that joy is what allows me to feel sadness and that’s okay, too.

My mum has a dishtowel that aptly sums up my philosophy towards the people in my life. “Love people,” it says. “Cook them tasty food.”

I’m bringing gingersnaps to work tomorrow.