Barbequing Wedding Cakes

Putting the icing on the cake

Putting the icing on the barbequed wedding cake

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, we have many different roles.  One day we are working on food security, the next we may be addressing water issues.  Today, however, I am baking cakes.  This might not sound like much but it is actually quite an achievement in its execution of the task and what it signifies in my standing in the community.

Last week, the grandmother of the bride approached me asking me to bake a cake for the upcoming wedding; a BIG cake.  I can only imagine the grandmother reassuring the bride, “nothing is too good for my girl; I’ll get the white woman to make a BIG cake for you!” I tried to explain that I don’t know if I would be able to make a big cake and showed her the pan that I have and warned it might not be very pretty.  Last year, a friend in the village asked us to make a wedding cake and we were only able to make a two layer cake and it all melted on the walk to the wedding.

I was extremely proud that the family felt comfortable enough to approach us to make this request and also did not expect us to just give them the cake; they were ready to contribute to help make it happen.  We then went through negotiations on their contribution.  The family has no money to help pay for the ingredients and didn’t have any eggs at that time so we finally agreed on one and a half buckets of sunflower seeds as compensation.  I then had to set off for the big town on bicycle, two hours round trip and then another two hour round trip car ride to buy the necessary ingredients; flour, eggs, sugar, butter, and icing sugar.

The day before the wedding was a frenzy of activity in the village.  This is the day that everyone gets together and has the big dance party.  It was  as if a holiday had been declared.  Men were out during the day playing soccer, women were off getting water and preparing some goodies to sell at the dance.  And Bobby and I were sitting in front of blazing flames on a 107 degree day baking 4 layers of cake.

First we had to gather some firewood to put in our cob oven that we built from mud and sand.  That means we rummage through the woodlands near our house gathering branches and twigs that have fallen and dragging them back to our house.  We then fired up the oven and waited for it to get to an appropriate temperature.  We are still learning with technique and we can’t seem to get it just right (although it is GREAT for pizzas!).   The oven was too hot and the first two cakes didn’t come out as well as I would have liked so we opted to go for our typical baking method with charcoal, essentially barbequing the cakes.  First, we put some large pieces of charcoal on the brazier and then I fill the largest frying pan I have with cake batter.  Then I place on top of this the largest cooking pot I have filled with hot coals.  Baking the four layers took most of the day and made me miss a modern kitchen as the dust blew dirt into my eyes and the flames scorched my skin.

On the wedding day, I assembled the cake the best I could. I made a simple vanilla frosting and filled each layer with strawberry jam, something most villagers will have never tasted.  It might not have been the prettiest dessert I’ve ever made but I guarantee it was the biggest cake this village has ever seen!  To transport the cake to the wedding, my host sister helped carry it and I held an umbrella over it to prevent it from melting like last year.  It seemed to do the trick and the cake arrived in good condition despite the temperature being over 100 degrees again.

Young dancers precede the bride and groom to the altar.

Young dancers precede the bride and groom to the altar.

When the procession was about to start, I was escorted to a great seat of honor; a bench with the village elders underneath a tarpaulin.  Well, half of me got to sit on that bench while the other half hung off but I baked the cake, I earned that seat!  At the wedding last year I was given a brick to sit on, which for a woman is still considered a great courtesy.  Women and children usually sit on the earth.

Then a car battery was attached to a radio and a ridiculously large speaker and Zambian pop music began blasting.  A procession of 8 young dancers dressed in what looked like school uniforms gyrated their way towards the tarpaulin with a very solemn looking bride and groom following.  In Zambian weddings, the couple is not to look at each other; in fact they pretend to blind.  The bride has a veil on and the groom wears sunglasses; which you absolutely can see though.  There is a helper there to show them where their seats are and to direct them to hold each other’s hand at appropriate times.  The bride and groom do not look up or show any sign of happiness; it would be inappropriate to do so.

There was an MC of sorts, not from our village, who directed the whole ceremony; a pastor came to deliver some prayers, parents and grandparents came up and gave some words of advice and then it was time for the cake.  The MC made a big deal to make sure that everyone knew I made the cake (and thus earn my seat) and then to everyone’s confusion started to speak in English.  One of my friends in the village interjected and explained in Tonga that he doesn’t have to do that, that I understand more than he thinks.  I was grateful for that public endorsement of undeserved competency.  They then turned on the music once again to mark the entrance of the cake.

The bride and groom getting their first taste of cake.

A young boy and girl, both about 12 years old approach the tarpaulin.  They each have chitenges, the African fabric, tied around their waists with the knots situated by their groins.  The boy carries the cake in and the girl following behind has the knife, dancing along the way.  Their dancing kicks up all of the dust around us and in the blazing sun, you see it all rise up like flames.  The cake was draped in a bright yellow doily, which I was actually thankful for because it hid any imperfection in the cake and I felt very proud at that moment.  The children set down the cake and knife and go into a small dance off, each one thrusting their pelvis and gyrating in competition with each other trying to make that knot bounce.  Villagers then dance their way up to the children and give small bills of money to them and have the chance to show their dancing skills also.  I remained firmly planted in my precious seat; to stand and dance would risk losing it.

It was then time to cut the cake.  The helper showed the bride and groom where the knife is, because they are blind from the sunglasses and veil and then guided their hands in cutting the cake and feeding each other a piece of cake.  The parents/grandparents were all then invited to get a piece of cake.  The helper broke it down into bite sized pieces.  I was worried then, thinking “But the strawberry filling! The icing! They won’t get a taste of it!” But I don’t think that mattered much.  As each of the elders got their bite sized morsel of cake, they each came up to me and shook my hand and gave thanks.  One little old lady heavily leaned on me while getting up around me to get her taste of cake, which normally would sound like a bad think but I was thrilled.  She didn’t tip-toe around me because I am the mukuwa, the white lady.  She treated me the same way she would have anybody else in the village.

It wasn’t my first wedding in the village and it wasn’t my first time baking a cake either but this day was special.  As I looked around the wedding party, nobody was paying attention to me.  Last year, everyone gawked and it was like they were looking at animals at the zoo.  This year, as I looked around I realized I knew most of the people there and they all knew me.  I was proud to be able to share a part of American wedding traditions to blend with the village Zambian ones.

You wouldn’t think of baking cakes as having anything to do with the Peace Corps.  But it felt like this act on this day helped me reach Peace Corps’ mission of promoting peace and friendship in the world more than anything else I’ve done.  It exemplified and solidified my role in the community after being here for more than a year.  Peace and friendship never tasted so sweet!

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Living on Less Than $2 a Day

Our home for the next two years, rent free!

September 13, 2011

“Why go all the way to Africa when there are people in the U.S. that need help?”   We were asked this a few times before departing for Zambia in February, 2011.  We tried to explain the hardships of those who live under $2 a day but none of this fully sunk in even for ourselves until we began our life here in Zambia.

In Zambia, approximately 81.5% of the population lives off of less than $2 a day while 64.3% survives off of less than $1.25 a day.  What does that mean? How can they buy their food and their houses?  Well, the simple answer to that is that they don’t.   Rural Zambians live off of what the land can provide them.  There is no such thing as buying a house if you live in rural Zambia.  You go to the village headman, who is the Chief’s local representative, and simply ask for a piece of land.  Under the traditional land tenure system, there are no fees or taxes to pay.  Once you get your plot, you then dig up some clay, preferably from the nearest anthill, and then form and fire some bricks.  Then, dry and cut some long grass for the roof, cut some poles for support beams, and then harvest some “lozi” bark as twine to tie it all together and you have yourself a house!  Not a single nail or dollar is needed to build the basic village hut (unless you want a strong door or a lock).  Everything can be made from what the forest can provide and mortgages not required.  This is exactly the sort of house that we will live in for the next two years.

Rather than going to supermarkets to buy ingredients, villagers set out for the fields each day to grow their food.  About 9 months out of every year, the rural Zambian family is working on some part of the production of their staple food; corn, or maize.  Maize is life.  It is ground to a flour and then added to boiling water to make nshima and then served with some sort of vegetable grown in their garden.  Maize is even the main ingredient to the main beverage, cibwantu (for Tongas, munkoyo for Bembas) which is essentially a more watered down version of nshima but has some extra roots added for extra flavour.

If a family member is unwell and can’t work in the fields, the entire family’s well-being is at risk.  If there is a drought or plague of locusts, it can be devastating.  It isn’t just that they can lose money from not having crops to sell, the family’s entire food supply for the year is lost as well as seed for future planting.  The average family would not have the money to go and purchase food.  That $2 a day that people speak of goes to school fees for the kids, cooking oil, salt and soap.

Zambians often ask what the staple food is in America and what we grow.  They almost seem sorry for us when I explain that the average American doesn’t grow their own food but buys it in a store.  I don’t even try to explain people eating package dinners.  My host family burst into laughter when I explained after twenty minutes of chasing our dinner chicken in vain that I have never had to catch or kill a chicken before.

For the most part, I am in awe of rural Zambians.  They are a strong, resourceful and resilient people and most of the time, it is them helping us survive.  The greatest contribution we can make to these communities is our critical thinking and our abilities to research.  Last month, we were setting up a table to give a cheese making demonstration at an Under 5 clinic.  One of our counterparts came over to inform us the clinic was cancelled due to a funeral.  A toddler had died due to diarrhoea in the next village.  This village is fortunate enough to have a dam ensuring their water supply but the large number of cattle unfortunately contaminated the water during the dry season when levels are low.  People were drawing water from the dam without treating the water before consuming it.  So tragically, people die from something as treatable as diarrhoea, which in the U.S. would be nothing more than a mild inconvenience.  I have heard before that in developing countries, there is a preference for big families to keep the number of working hands numerous in case some die.  That is insinuating that people are planning for a family member to die.  That idea was blown out of the water when I was at the funeral.  Hearing the screams and wailing of the mother who lost her baby was absolutely heart wrenching.  While sitting in the women’s circle, I began to ask mothers about their water treatment; there is none.  I also learned that the clinic is about 10 kilometers away and children are sometimes brought after it is too late, as was the case with this child.

So this past week at the next Under 5 clinic, we have a session on water boiling and a recipe to mix their own oral rehydration salts to administer when the child first gets diarrhoea and then get their child to the clinic.  Here, diarrhoea is usually a symptom for something more severe like malaria (the biggest killer in Africa) or parasites.  This session we gave at the clinic was something small.  It required no funding and no resources other than Google (Google saving lives!) but that is just one instance out of many which reminds us of why we should be here helping people.  A little bit goes a long way.  We may never have another chance to work with a group of people that are so appreciative for our help ever again.

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Getting Started in the Village

Rasa teaching the villagers how to make cheese.

August 10, 2011

We have reached our 3 month mark of our service; 6 months now in country.  It has been amazingly and surprisingly busy.  The months of June and July passed in the blink of an eye and quite possibly we have achieved more in 3 months at site than our first year in the Philippines.

We have several projects going on right now.  First, we are conducting household interviews to gather baseline data and will formulate our work plan based on the findings.  On the days that we aren’t meeting with households we have been having cheese making demonstrations, working with 3 different dairy cooperatives to expand their product line, constructing a small earth dam, and linking with various organizations working in the province.

We feel very lucky to be placed where we are in Southern Province.  We are an hour bike ride one way to get to a vegetable market (this is close by Peace Corps Zambia standards) and then from there we are an hour bus ride in either direction to a larger towns.  Our village of Magalela has been extremely welcoming and even the milk centers in town have been very open and accommodating.  The word of our cheese, or cisyu ca makupa (relish of milk) as we are calling it in Tonga, has spread and since we arrived people have been asking us to hold cheese making demonstrations.  So far we have shown several families with dairy animals how to prepare and preserve the cheese.  We have created a Zambian style dish using the cheese (think paneer or queso blanco) which has been a big hit.  Many families here are receiving food aid and nearly all have cows.  They are milking but don’t know how to make any dairy products from it aside from drinking it and they have no way to store it.  By making cheese, we can preserve the nutrition that they derive from it for up to 6 months by storing it in brine; no refrigeration required.  100 grams of this kind of cheese can give approximately 20 grams of protein; comparable to chicken.  Families eat meat about twice a month and one chicken will feed upwards of 10 people.  So utilizing the milk this way can have a huge impact on the family’s nutrition and food security.

Bobby surveying the dam site using home made equipment.

The dam project has been a very big deal here.  We are in the South of the country with the Kalahari sands encroaching bit by bit.  It is DRY.  Being a traditional cattle society, there simply isn’t enough water to go around.  Dairy animals particularly need significant amounts of water each day to keep milk production up.  The village tried to build a dam previously using some logs and a plastic sheet.  Unfortunately, somebody was out hunting rabbits (looking for some protein) by burning grass to chase them out and the fire spread to dam.  It wasn’t the fire that destroyed it completely however, a lack of spillway and high rainfall led to all of their work being washed away.  Fortunately, Bobby’s engineering background is proving useful here.  He has gone through and done the proper calculations and we are doing some bush construction.  All of the village men come together twice a week with their hoes, shovels, and whatever other tool they have and chip away under Bobby’s guidance to make a proper dam.  This one should last 20 years and next dry season we will show them how to maintain the structure.

For the most part, we end each day feeling completely exhausted and fully satisfied with the work that we have accomplished.  But in the past few months we have both had our breakdowns.  Mine came first.  A member of the milk center had invited us to his village to do a cheese demonstration on the other side of Zimba.  Our round trip cycling time to this village is about 4 hours.  On our way there, the wind was pushing against us making for a slow and tiring ride.  About halfway to Zimba, Bobby got a flat tire and of course we didn’t have a pump.  We called our contact in the village to see if we could reschedule and he was very upset; apparently he had a crowd waiting.  I agreed that I was still on my way and that I would be in Zimba in the next 20 minutes to meet the person to escort us to the village.  I rode as fast as I could only to find that there wasn’t anybody in Zimba waiting.  I had to abandon Bobby on the sandy bush path just to come here to wait.  I killed time by chatting with the milk center’s manager.  Bobby arrived shortly after I did sprinting along with the bike.  I was shocked at how fast he got there, I thought he ran the whole way; turns out he got a hitch from the Chinese construction workers.

After waiting two and a half hours for our guide to show up, we were ready to give up, have lunch and then go home.  Just as we were about to walk into the snack shop, our contact showed up and insisted that we rush along to the village.  I was a little irritated about being forced to wait so long but I was more upset about missing lunch.  It is not a pretty sight if I go too long without food and cycling makes me ravenous.

When we arrived in the village, there was a group of women singing and dancing as a welcome.  It was the most moving moment I have experience in country.  We had a great reception and the demonstration was enthusiastically received.  We took our time to answer all of the questions and before we knew it, it was already 3pm which was our cutoff time to get back to our village before dark.  A family was just getting pots out to cook lunch for us but unfortunately we had to decline to make sure we had enough light to get home.

Being welcomed to a cheese-making demonstration with song and dance.

The cycle home was the worst part of the day.  I was exhausted from already cycling two hours and starving from not having eaten anything since 7 am.  The whole ride to Zimba seemed to be all uphill and sand.  Vehicles would pass every now and then giving me a full blast of sandy dirt in my face.  After one car, I just started sobbing uncontrollably.  I felt I couldn’t move another foot.  Bobby kept encouraging me by reminding me that we were only 10 minutes away from food and a little rest (LIAR!) before we start the last hour segment home.  I kept peddling and sobbing. I kept my head down low so that the locals hopefully wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes when I tried to greet them in-between sobs.  We finally got to Zimba and I devoured a chicken leg like an animal in one breath with oil dripping from my face and fingers.  That day had the highest and lowest point for me so far in our time here.

Bobby’s breakdown came during our war with the animals.  Not lions, elephants or other exotic animals that come to mind when thinking of Africa but livestock.  He has been trying everything to protect our garden against cows, goats, chickens, and pigs.  Our chicken house is then constantly under attack from the cows, goats, and dogs and then our seedlings are devoured by all of the above and also termites.  So this requires us to be constantly vigilant.

Laundry day came around.  Our seedlings were being stored in the laundry basin because termites were eating the cartons they are stored in, so I temporarily removed them and began washing away.  Almost simultaneously we had an attack from all fronts.  First a cow came and ate a pair of my wet underwear off the line in one gulp.  Normally we can do a little tug of war to retrieve our clothes so I ran after the cow in hopes it didn’t swallow yet.  While I was chasing the cow, our chicks went over to our chili and herb seedlings and had an all you can eat buffet and then literally just afterwards goats had gotten into our garden and knocked over our mini greenhouses (inverted plastic coke bottles).  Our host mom had been at our house checking in on us just after this all happened.  Bobby was in frenzy and ranting about our seedlings being destroyed.  I thought it was funny at first and tried to put it into perspective.  I told him that it is ok, we are not farmers and we don’t rely on those seedlings to survive (like people in the village do).  That incensed him saying that I never cared about our garden anyway.  I then realized he was having a moment and needed to cool off.

Frustrating bike rides and animal invasions continue.  We are getting numb to the stresses mostly because the rest of the rewards are so great.  When Bobby was first in Kenya somebody told him that “It’s not a safari if something doesn’t go wrong”.  Part of the excitement and memories will be around the bad moments and frustrations as well as the high points.  I just need to make sure I pack emergency snacks.

Posted in Zambia | 3 Comments

Popcorn, Banene, and the Iwes

Our Zambian grandmother also known as Banene

May 19,2011

During our first full week in the village, we have been getting used to how to prepare our food. Sounds simple but we have no refrigeration, no stove, and not even a table. We use coal or firewood to cook each meal. I personally don’t care for using firewood because the smoke really bothers my eyes and lungs. Regardless if it is coal or wood, they are both a challenge to light and take a while to get going before I can actually put a pot on top. If I had a watch or some way of telling time I could tell you how long it takes but time isn’t so important in the village anyhow.

One afternoon I had a burning desire for popcorn. I spent the entire day talking about how wonderful and delicious popcorn would be and today we will enjoy the butter crunchy goodness. To perfectly complement the popcorn, we set up the cribbage set and then began to build what was our first entirely wood cooking fire. Children passing by were watching with curiosity as is true with everything that we do. I set the pot on top and the kernels started popping beautifully. I quickly then learned the problem with cooking with wood. The flames were so high that I couldn’t grab the handles of the pot without igniting my precious oven mitt. By the time the flames were low enough to retrieve the pot and only mildly burn ourselves, the popcorn was a bit too charred for my taste.

Round two. I decided to use my other cooking pot that has a longer handle. The flames were lower and everything seemed to be going well. Then we heard “Odi”, the request to enter. It was one of our banenes or grandmothers. Banene is an ancient woman who speaks very fast “deep” Tonga. We don’t really understand anything she says other than a word here or there but she really wants to make conversation. Based on the few words that I do understand, I think we are being reprimanded for something or another. For example, last time I think she scolded me for my stomach being empty which I took as not having children. Banene entered this time just as my popcorn was going. When elders enter, we are to give the proper greeting while clapping and kneeling. I figured it would take a while and so I took the popcorn off to try to avoid burning. While Banene was, I think, scolding us for not knowing more Tonga, we shared the slightly burned first batch with her. After a few minutes she is satisfied enough with the conversation and leaves. We then returned to our card game and the few glorious kernels that popped before she arrived. At that moment, those perfect kernels I had been dreaming about all day seemed well worth literally the afternoon’s effort.

Then, again we hear “Odi”. This time it was the Iwes (Iwe is a Bemba term for “you” without showing respect, usually used for dogs and children). The Iwes had seen us cooking before with the sticks in our fire and took it upon themselves to go out and gather some. They were all under 7 and they had their little arms loaded with sticks and small branches. Bobby and I look at eachother, touched by their thoughtfulness and he suggests that we give the kids the rest of our popcorn. I was a bit dissappointed because I had barely gotten 4 pieces throughout the whole ordeal but I was glad to hand over the bowl to the children. The eldest child took the bowl and sat down on the ground with it and shared it with the others until it was gone. Now we have plenty of wood thanks to to kids so there will be plenty of more popcorn in the future. Now at least I have the excuse that we should always have some popcorn on hand just in case of visiting Banenes or Iwes.

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Peace Corps Zambia PST

The stream/puddle we get to cross two times a day.

The stream/puddle we get to cross two times a day.

April 26, 2011

Chongwe, Zambia

In a little more than a week, we will be officially sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers.  A lot has happened in the past 11 weeks that we have been in country for our Pre-Service Training (PST).  We have learned to embrace eating nshima, lumps of boiled corn meal, and have reached a conversational level in Tonga; a language I didn’t even know existed until a few weeks ago.  For me, the days are filled with highs and lows which balance out to a nice happy medium by the end of the week.

During our time in Zambia, we will be working within the Linking Income, Food, and Environment (LIFE) Program.  Our training so far has focused mostly on farming and tree planting; who knew there were so many considerations to take when planting trees.  Of course, the methods and tools we practice in training are just a starting point and every community will have very different and specific needs.  A few weeks ago we got to visit the village where we will be living in Southern Province.  I felt like I hit the jackpot since our host parents are dairy farmers.  We get to enjoy fresh milk every single day.  Dairy products are the things that I missed most while in the Philippines.  Not even realizing we would be posted to a dairy area, I brought rennet tablets to make mozzarella cheese so that will actually come in very handy in our village.  I would joke before we left America that I was going to buy a milking cow and introduce our village to lactose intolerance.  Our village of Magalela, however, is well accustomed to dairy products.

Our schedule during training has been intense.  We are busy six days a week.  Most days we have language in the morning for four hours, have an hour break for lunch and then an hour to bicycle over to the training center for technical sessions in the afternoon.  The volunteers are spread out throughout Chongwe and stay with host families who speak the language that we are learning.  Many stay in their own mud huts on the compound; Bobby and I stay in a room in a larger house.  There is no electricity or running water, which isn’t entirely problematic but it is always wonderful to have electricity…it really is a marvelous invention.

Out of everything, the part I have the hardest time with is the bike ride.  We are only a few kilometers from the training grounds but it is up potholed, rocky hills with some massive puddles that always leave me covered in mud.  The first few weeks I was very timid about riding and would often curse (sometimes loudly) the “road”,  the holes, the rocks, the mud, and our fate for ending up in the one Peace Corps country that expects its volunteers to bicycle ridiculous distances on equally ridiculous roads.  I fell in a big hole that sent me flying off the bike on one of the first rides.  I was pretty banged up and it left me overly cautious for weeks.  Not to mention every now and then a kid pops out of a bush wanting a high-five, which I am not capable of going while clutching on to the handlebars for dear life.  Today one even hung on to the back rack, which seems like good fun but nearly made me crash.

Now after about 10 weeks of riding every day I am finally able to stop looking for the holes to avoid and can now look up and see the beautiful scenery.  Today, as I was admiring the emerald green fields and cornflower blue skies, I happily chirped a Tonga greeting to a woman and was immediately sobered when I noticed her eye was swollen shut from a black eye.

We are excited to finally wrap up PST and swear in as volunteers.  It is bitter sweet leaving all of the friends we have made here, both American and Zambian but we are looking forward to heading to our site.  We will have many more ups, downs and bitter sweet moments during our time here I’m sure but I hope to keep the happy medium going.

Posted in Zambia | 2 Comments

Venturing further into Tibet

July 29, 2010

Shigatse, Tibet

Today we left for Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet.  We had a long drive to reach it from Lhasa, about 7 hours.  Nobody was really looking forward to the drive, especially Alisa who was still not 100%.We would have rather spent the time in Lhasa instead but again we don’t have much flexibility because of the restrictions in Tibet.  Our guide needs to present the tickets and all receipts as proof that we actually went to each place on the itinerary and each day needs to be full to make sure we don’t have too much free time to investigate.

The first part of the journey was uneventful and we just watched the scenery until we got to Yamdruk Lake.  We stopped at the summit of Kamba-la pass (4700m or 15,419 feet) and took some photos of the lake, yaks, baby goats, etc.  The elevation was much higher there and I felt too lightheaded to get out and walk much.  Alisa was curled up in the back of the van, clearly suffering.  Every person was looking at me and gesturing that she needs to drink.  I tried unsuccessfully to coax, plead, and force her to drink as she didn’t even feel well enough to do that.  We brought 3 canisters of oxygen with us and we started taking some to prepare for the higher pass coming up.  The tanks unfortunately didn’t come with masks; just a little tube with a nozzle at the end.  We hooked the little tank up for Alisa but she still didn’t seem to improve much.

When we reached the highest pass, we stopped for lunch.  Alisa laid down at one of the tables not able to eat or drink.  A man approached and offered his help.  He is a guide for National Geographic photographers and just came back from a photo shoot at Mount Everest.  He got a proper oxygen tank and mask out of his vehicle and began giving her hot sugared water.  She began to feel a bit better so I ordered some vegetable soup for her.  The rest of us had finished our lunch and her soup still didn’t arrive.  She then felt nauseous and unfortunately the toilet was downstairs, which was even difficult for me to get down without getting lightheaded; I can’t imagine what it felt like for her.  I helped her down the stairs into the bathroom and she became very ill.  I took her soup to pour the broth into a plastic bottle and get got her into the van straight away to try to get to lower elevation.

She only got worse in the car.  The highest pass was 5580 meter or 18,307 feet.  I tried every tactic to get her to take in liquids.  Every now she would take a sip but unfortunately she needed liters of liquids, which just wasn’t going to happen.  Ange and Chantal are both medical professionals and there wasn’t even that much that they could do at that point for her if she couldn’t ingest any water.  We basically needed to get her to a hospital.  Ange and I sat in the backseat with her trying to hold her steady as we wound through the mountain roads.  We applied cold compresses, trying to help her control her breathing, and hopefully getting her to drink something.  Ange said it reminded him of his time as an army doctor in Vietnam.  After a while of holding her legs, I inevitably got motion sickness and spent a while gagging with my head out the window.  Finally, we were getting low enough in elevation and closer to Shigatse which is where we were going to spend the night.

Just as we were about 40k from Shigatse, we were pulled over by the police for speeding.  Of course, they were Chinese police and were belligerent to our Tibetan driver.  They kept us for a long while and we all started panicking because we had to get Alisa down in altitude and to a hospital or at the minimum a pharmacy and Chantal could administer an IV for Alisa.  The police still kept us there despite the driver explaining that a passenger was ill and we were trying to get treatment for her.

We ended up first calling the American Embassy and then the Australian Embassy to have them intervene on our behalf and make the police let us pass.  The driver was only speeding to try to get help for her and the longer they hold us, the worse she will get.  After what seemed like an eternity, they police let us go giving the driver a hefty fine and was ordered to attend driving school.  When we arrived in Shigatse we went straight to the hospital.  A doctor there spoke some English and examined Alisa.  Her oxygen levels were only about 50 when they should be 100 and she was dehydrated.  Ange and the doctor agreed on a course of treatment, we went to the pharmacy to purchase new needles and order the medicines and they got started right away.

We were lead to a room upstairs.  The hospital wasn’t very big or full.  We had the room to ourselves.  I stayed behind in the hospital with Alisa while the others went with to register with the local authorities and to bring our things to the hotel.    Chantal gave me a brief rundown of what the doctors should be doing and warnings of what to keep an eye out for.  I am a person who normally feints in hospitals so I was pretty nervous about having to watch over her treatment.  Ange and Chantal told me that they would “piggyback” the iv, antibiotics, and the potassium and estimated the treatment should be done around 11pm.  So we had about 6 hours to kill.  I climbed in bed with Alisa and got out the laptop to watch a movie.  Bobby and the driver came back and brought some fruits and juice for her and she finally drank for the first time in a day.  She downed an entire bottle in what seemed a single gulp.

They left again to get some dinner and brought back glorious thukpa noodles.  They start with one ball of dough and stretch out the entire thing to make one long continuous noodle. I would have like to see them in action to try to replicate that at home.  After a while another patient entered the room and so we needed to give up the bed that Bobby and I had been sitting on while Alisa slept.  The nurses simply smoothed out the stained sheets we were sitting on and the patient went right in.  At least they laid down a covering for Alisa first.  This patient was a middle school English teacher from Chongqing.

After nearly 5 hours Alisa’s IV was finished.  I ran downstairs to tell the doctor that she is done and then they came back with two more little glass bottles.  So apparently that bottle wasn’t piggybacked after all and now we needed to wait for these next two bottles to be administered intravenously.  Bobby and the driver went to the hotel to get some sleep and I stayed to watch over her drips.  There was no call button so I had to run down the stairs to the doctor’s area to alert them when anything happened.  Around midnight all of the bottles were done and I went down the stairs to get the doctor once more.  When they returned, I was sure that they would discharge her but they instead brought a great big bottle of milky white potassium.  I was aggravated because here I thought that they kept the IV on the super slow drip was because if they administer potassium too rapidly it can cause a burning sensation. So the regular IV which should have taken any time at all ended up taking 5 hours for no good reason.  The English teacher finished her treatment and the staff encouraged me to take a rest in her bed.  That basically told me not to expect to get out of here anytime soon.

I straightened out the used hospital sheets and fell asleep for a while until they woke me up to go pay.  I stumbled around looking for my shoes, careful to avoid the medical waste on the floor and ran down the stairs once again.  The night in the hospital and all of her needles and medications cost 639 yuan, nearly all the money I had (roughly $100 US).  I got the bed free of charge.  I had no idea where we were staying and had no way of reaching anyone.  The doctor fortuitously had gotten the contact information for the driver and he came to get us.  It was past 3 am by the time we got to the hotel.  And that was the time I spent the night in a Tibetan hospital…

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The Potala Palace

The former seat of the Dalai Lama, the Potala Palace.

July 28, 2010

Lhasa, Tibet

One of the stipulations of being granted the permit to enter Tibet was that we must have a tour and that we cannot enter monasteries without a guide.  Our visit to the Potala Palace has been registered since yesterday.  We needed to have our tickets, permits, passports, and appointment in order to enter the building.  Once we were inside, we were only given one hour exactly to visit and then have to leave the building.  The Chinese tourists get a slightly longer visit.

We were all a little worried about getting up all of the stairs to reach the top of the complex in the half hour allotted since the altitude makes any kind of activity more challenging.  We have all been moving a bit slower than usual.  However, walking up the stairs wasn’t a problem and we made it up in good time.  Many people, Tibetan and Chinese, would greet us as we walked up.  Tibetans would give huge smiles and some of the older ladies would give me the unique Tibetan tongue greeting and some of the Chinese tourist wanted to take pictures with us.  The guards took our water bottles away at the entry and unfortunately took Alisa’s bottle of oxygen as she still wasn’t feeling well.   When we got inside we were able to buy more water but sadly, no oxygen.

There weren’t many foreign tourists there, mostly Chinese and Tibetan pilgrims.  It was really moving watching the Tibetans.  There was one man carrying an elderly woman on his back, possibly his grandmother, to reach the highest and most sacred part of the temple.  I would well up with tears each time I saw him, he must have been carrying her on his back for hours; I never once saw him put her down.  Another man was walking accompanying an elderly family member.  While we were walking up some of the stairs, she stumbled and I helped catch her to regain her balance.  He spoke some English and asked me where I am from.  I told him I am American and he seemed pleased.  I saw him again later and greeted his grandmother in Tibetan (Tashi dele), later he came and gave Ange a blue prayer scarf which our guide said was a very special blessing.

A courtyard within the Potala Palace

For the most part, as with all of the places we have visited so far, I found the Potala Palace to be very moving and spiritual experience which was only briefly interrupted by the overly powerful loudspeakers that some of the Chinese guides used to communicate with their large groups.  Surprisingly, foreign tourists get Tibetan guides ( I had been concerned that we wouldn’t be permitted to interact with any Tibetans) and Chinese tourist get Chinese guides.  We would catch Tashi occasionally shaking his head  as we passed a group of Chinese. The guides tell very different stories than the Tibetans would and have very different explanations.  The Chinese see themselves as liberators of a backwards people and the Tibetans see the Chinese as occupiers.  I found it insulting for the Chinese tourist to come and visit not only what had been the seat of power of a nation that they have forcibly annexed but also one that is considered sacred and hallowed to many.  I was surprised that for the most part, the Tibetans who were on pilgrimage didn’t pay the Chinese any mind but went out of their way to warmly greet the foreigners.

After finishing our hour inside, we set off for a quick lunch and then to the more recently build Summer Palace.  After nearly half a century in exile, the staff still lovingly maintains the flowers that are the Dalai Lama’s favorite.  Much of the interior was in more modern fitting (circa 1950s) rather than the monasteries and palace which have stayed much the same throughout the centuries.  A Chinese tourist who had been in the group just ahead of us stayed behind to ask our guide to confirm something.  The Chinese guide was telling the group how silly it was that there was a radio in the palace since there was no electricity.  Our guide informed him that there certainly was electricity at that time.  The Chinese credit themselves for bringing all modern things to Tibet; electricity, roads, schools.  They claim that they liberated the Tibetans from serfdom and poverty.  So if the Dalai Lama was able to have electricity pre-Chinese, that would contradict what they believe about the Tibet.

Later in the afternoon, we went to the Tibetan Museum, which was like being smacked in the face with propaganda.  By the main entrance they have in large red letters “TIBET 1959-2010”.  It celebrated the years of occupation as if it was commemorating the years of their nation.  My jaw dropped when I saw that.  On the top floor they had scale models of buildings that the Chinese government is planning on constructing here.  I could not keep the tears from welling up in my eyes seeing these ridiculous contemporary designs that will inevitably replace the stunning traditional Tibetan buildings that the locals so lovingly maintain.  I watched as Chinese tourists looking at the models, nodding with big grins at the “future” of Tibet’s progress and development thanks to their Chinese benefactors. All I could see in those plans was the eradication of the Tibetan culture and the destruction of this special, beautiful land to become nothing more than another modern, polluted Chinese city.  What a helpless feeling, knowing that it is unlikely to change until it is too late.  The Chinese have proven they have no qualms about destroying all that is old to bring in “better” modern things.  The Tibetans are a peaceful, welcoming people and it saddens me that these very admirable traits are potentially what have led to their subjugation.

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Lhasa, Tibet

Storm clouds moving in over the Jokhang Temple.

July 27, 2010

Lhasa, Tibet

At long last we are in Tibet.  Last time we were in China, we wanted to come here but couldn’t  arrange the permits in time.   We were well prepared and had laid the groundwork months in advance.  We left later than we planned as there was a minor hiccup in our papers.  Somehow, the passport that was given for Ange’s permit was not the one that had his Chinese visa and we had to postpone our trip a few days to have everything corrected.  We were unable to get seats all together for the two day train ride up and so we opted to fly in.  We landed yesterday in Lhasa and were met at the airport by our guide Tashi.  Our hotel is a beautiful old house that is intricately painted in the Tibetan style.  I think we were all pretty in awe of it.  I was concerned about how much success the Chinese had in trying to eradicate Tibetan culture.  The drive in to Lhasa made me a bit nervous when we passed through the periphery of the city through the Chinese districts and there was little to distinguish it from any other modern section of a Chinese city other than the fresh air.  But in the old district, it is still very much Tibetan.

I’ve been feeling a little lightheaded from the altitude and have to pace myself while walking.  They say that you have to drink a lot of water so I am forcing water down my throat every chance I get.  Alisa has not been feeling well and ended up needing to lay down in a back room in the restaurant we ate at last night.  She started a course of medication to treat altitude sickness and also got a small oxygen canister from the hotel.

Young Tibetans prostrate at the Drepung MonasteryToday is our first day to do sightseeing around town. Our first guide Tashi was unable to join us today and so his good friend and guide Tashi (#2) accompanied us.  Our first stop was to the Drepung Monastery just outside of Lhasa.  It was built in the 15th Century and has been maintained beautifully.  It is still very much a functioning monastery with monks living on the grounds (albeit a fraction of what it could be) and pilgrims coming to pray at the complex.  The Tibetans are such a devout people, I don’t think the Chinese government could ever successfully ban religious worship (even if they try to ban the reverence of the Dalai Lama).  Some pilgrims make their way to the holy sites by sliding on the floor using blocks of wood strapped to their hands, fully prostrate chanting prayers the entire way.  It reminded me of performing a “sun salutation” in yoga.  I found the dedication, stamina, and humility of the progression of two young boys particularly moving.  I couldn’t imagine children in America doing anything of the sort.  I couldn’t imagine myself doing that either; I would probably get past one stretch, become tired of all of the down, slide, up, chant and opt to bring some extra butter for the candles instead.

For lunch we were invited to Tashi #2’s home.  He also had the beautifully painted interiors which were lovingly done by his uncle.  We started with the butter tea, dried cheese and yak meat.  It was surprising how many similarities there are between Tibetan and Mongolian cultures.  I know that there had been exchanges.  Tibet had once been under the Mongolian Empire and the Mongolian renaissance man Zanabazar had spent a good deal of time in Tibet as it was the center of their religious world and brought back many ideas.  I think another big part of it has to do with both cultures also maintaining their traditional nomadic lifestyles.

After our lunch, we continued on to the Jokhang Temple in the center of Lhasa.  We were dropped off near the Barkhor; a loop of streets around the main square and temple.  Throngs of Tibetans come here to worship and circulate clockwise in the Barkhor circuit chanting and praying before they enter the Jokhang temple.  Aside from seeing a large mass of traditionally dressed Tibetans moving as a single unit, the other surprising thing was to witness the strong Chinese military presence.  Every square and every other street has a military post with a few soldiers, all of whom were ethnic Chinese/Han.   The Barkhor in particular is a heavily patrolled area.   I found the military presence intimidating at times but it dissipated immediate when I was greeted by or interacted with a Tibetan.  It is a tough contest between the Philippines, Syria, and Tibet but I think the Tibetans may take the prize for being the most welcoming people I have ever encountered.  We worked our way through the peaceful, chanting crowd and draconian soldiers and made our way into the temple.

I was absolutely awestruck when we entered inside.   When I thought that the Drepung Monastery was well preserved, the 1300 year old Jokhang temple has surpassed it.  The walls are beautifully painted with scenes illustrating the story of how and why the temple was built.  The murals are in excellent condition despite constantly being near smoky candles and incense.  We were told that the monks periodically lacquer over the painting to protect it.  The only light inside the temple comes from the doorway and the huge candles lit throughout the interior that create a warm golden glow.  Large golden goblets are filled with butter (rather than wax) by worshippers who ensure the flames never extinguish.

We followed the crowd up the stairs to the rooftop to the soundtrack of chanting worshippers and could see the golden spires of the Jokhang temple and the Potala Palace in the near distance with rain clouds gathering.  I can’t put into words the emotions that were welling up inside of me at that time, nor can I fully understand why.  Perhaps it was the sheer beauty of the scene; the architecture, the people, the sounds of their devotion.  I was so thrilled and thankful that I finally made it to Tibet.

Standing on top of the Jokhang Temple with a view of the Potala Palace.

It began to rain, which didn’t deter us much, but more importantly this was our afternoon designated for shopping and we just needed to dart across the Barkhor to the large shop where we will find everything we need.  I’ve been waiting many years to come to Tibet to do some jewelry shopping and have regretted since 2008 not buying the Tibetan jewelry I found in Nepal.  Inside the store they have fake marked prices.  When I was talking with a sales person about the unrealistic prices they explained that they put the prices very high because the Chinese tourists expect to bargain hard and feel like they are getting a big discount.  I personally would have rather have saved all that time and just have a reasonable price from the get-go.  I already knew what I needed to pay based on the prices for Tibetan things in Nepal so it was a little frustrating spending the few hours there waiting until they finally agreed to the prices that I know I need to pay.  Alisa and I picked out a few small things and Ange and Chantal ended up having some things shipped back to the States for them.  We spent several hours in the shop and I think they kept it open late just for us.  We all enjoyed it though; the staff was very kind and accommodating and there were so many beautiful things to gawk at.

Dinner was pretty late tonight since we spent so many hours shopping.  We went to a spot just off the Barkhor where we can do some people watching.  It was there that I realized that we weren’t the only ones observing the locals.  When I went to the bathroom, I turned to flush and got a glimpse out the window.  On the roof of the next building to us, I saw a sniper with a helmet and padding on pacing and observing the people down below.  It saddened me to see the constant reminder that such a peaceful people are oppressed in such a way.   I am actually shocked to see that Tibetans have still been able to retain so much of their culture considering they have been occupied by China since 1950s. I am particularly looking forward to seeing the former residence of the Dalai Lama tomorrow, the Potala Palace.

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The Great Wall Caper

Alisa and I made it up just fine thanks to our Kung Fu training.

July 22, 2010


For my birthday we arranged for transportation so Bobby, Alisa, and I can camp on a “wild wall”, one of the sections of the Great Wall of China that is not restored.  We spent the morning putting together our packs so that we had just enough for the night and nothing more since we had to carry it all up.  We wanted to be sure that our packs were as light as possible.

It only took about two hours to reach the wild wall and I slept most of the way.  When we arrived at the site, we strapped on our packs and started up the trail leading us to the wall.  On our first visit to China together, Bobby and I went to the Great Wall at Simitai, which is known for being very steep.  This section was not nearly as severe in its angles but the climb was arduous due to the weather.  It was well over 35 degrees Celsius, full humid and the smog was so thick that we could barely see the next section of the wall in front of us.   The smog was what really got me.  It made it difficult to breathe and I was pretty dizzy and dry heaving.  What a difference the weather and air quality makes.  Just last week we climbed far more steep steps very easily going up to the Soviet Monument in Ulaanbataar.

We got up to the platform where we planned to spend the night and set up our little camp.  We ate our sandwiches for dinner and passed time playing cards and listening to music on my ipod.  At first Bobby slept outside the tent in the open air and Alisa and I were inside. He gave up after a few hours when all of the mosquitoes started attacking him.  Bobby set the alarm on our telephone to go off at 4:45 so we could watch the sunrise.

Before the alarm even went off, I awoke to a rattling sound and screaming.  Our whole tent was shaking and hearing all the screaming.  I sprang up looking from Bobby to Alisa in between bursts of shrieking to try to understand what is happening.  Bobby bolted out of the tent and I immediately followed.  It took a second to get out since half of the tent had collapsed.  I still didn’t know what was happening, I just started following Bobby as he was running down the wall. I had a scarf that was tied around my waist since it was so hot but that fell off at one point so I was running down the wall barefoot and with no pants on after this mysterious thing.  When Bobby started shouting “PASSPORTS”, it finally hit me that our bags were stolen.  I was still running, my bare feet were burning from the impact with the ancient stones.  I then recalled that our passports were safely locked in our bags at the hostel.

I then began to shout to Bobby, who was much further up than me to stop running, we didn’t bring our passports.  I was more worried about him getting hurt; either his already poor knees or any conflict with the robbers.  He kept on with his pursuit.  At that point, I turned around and headed back to our little camp and checked on Alisa, put on some pants and gathered what was left of our belongings.  We were really shaken up.  I put the remainder of our things in the remaining backpack, strapped it to me and picked up a bottle of insect repellant that had fallen out of the stolen bags to use as protection. It wasn’t likely that they would return but if they did I was fully prepared to give them a big puff in the eyes with the repellant.

Have no fear; my 20% deet will protect us!

Bobby came back after a while, drenched in sweat and had little white flowers all over him.  He had only seen the back of one guy dressed in black running but had no bags. So there was more than one person involved.  We were all eager to just get out of there and all grabbed stuff and began to leave.  As we approached the watchtower, we noticed a fresh bottle of water that hadn’t been there last night.  I climbed the ladder up, armed with my improvised mace to see if I would find our bags stashed up there, which they weren’t.  When we exited the door of the watchtower, we spotted a lone backpack laying against the wall.  I got closer to inspect the bag to see if it was one of ours, which it wasn’t, and then saw a Westerner walking our way.  This man was in better luck than us because this bag was indeed his and they only snatched his ipod but left his passport.

While speaking with this couple, the watchtower man came up to us shouting something.  We were warned ahead of time that he is a bit nutty and charges 2 yuan to climb the ladder.  He was coming to collect the fee since I climbed the ladder looking for our stolen things.  We were all stunned though by the fact that he was sweating bullets, dressed in black, had the same white flowers all in his hair that Bobby did and also came from the same area as the perpetrators darted off to.

The other Westerner who had his bag stolen spoke Chinese and helped us deal with this guy.  He explained that we had our bags stolen but this man was still asking us for money.  We tried explaining again that we have nothing to pay him because our bags were stolen.  He then asked us where we are from and when we replied America, he said in English “Sorry”, shook Bobby’s hand, and darted off back to his tower.  I felt like it took us only a few minutes to hike down the wall and get back to the street.  It was just such a shame that this had to happen, mostly because nearly everyone has been so lovely and I hate having to feel suspicious of everyone then.  As we were coming down, many Chinese were then starting their way up and there were many warm exchanges of Ni hao.

We spent the rest of our day in our hostel room in Beijing watching their dvd collection as a distraction.  I lost my favorite day backpack which they no longer make, my ipod, our cellphone (which we’ve had since the Philippines in 2004), a deck of cards, a head lamp, and Alisa’s wallet which fortunately had only a small amount of money in it.  Instead of getting presents on my birthday I ended up losing my things to some thieves.  Xie xie!

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Riding the Trans-Siberian Train

July 17, 2010


Our train ride from Mongolia to China really couldn’t have gone any better.  Our friend dropped us off at the train station with our gigantic bags (filled with carpets, tea sets, and paintings) and saw us off.  I was giddy when I actually saw the condition of the train.  Not only were we in a room with only 4 beds that were spotlessly clean, we had only 3 people in it so the fourth bed was there to accommodate our bags.  If we were actually 4 in the cabin, I would have had to spent the entire ride curled up against our rolled Kazakh rug. I just couldn’t believe our luck.  I’ve been very concerned about how we will manage with two very full backpacks, two full day pack, and our large rolled carpet.  I spent the first several hours just giggling with delight every time I discovered something new on the train. A restaurant car!  Clean bathrooms!! TOILET PAPER….for FREE!!!

We spent the first few hours chatting with our cabin mate, a Singaporean Australian, and watching the last of the beautiful Mongolian scenery pass by.  Late at night we reached the actual border and it was a bizarre sight.  Chinese officers in full dress uniform were saluting the train as we pulled in and full patriotic music blared from the speakers.  We were held at the station for a few hours as each carriage got a slight adjustment.  From what I understand, the tracks in China are different from those in Mongolia and so each carriage is raised and given the necessary adjustments while all of the passengers stay onboard.   The rest of the trip we were just amazed at the difference between the Mongolian side and the Chinese sky.  It was shocking how quickly we lost that big, blue Mongolian sky with the vast steppes to the grey, smoggy skies concealing dense Chinese “villages”.  When we actually arrived in Beijing’s train station, it quite literally must have had more people in it than all of Ulaan Bataar.

Emerging from the train station, we were in the thick of the crowded Beijing that we recalled from our last time here in 2002…only smoggier, hotter, and more humid.  We were impatient to wait on the official taxi stand because our overweight backpacks were unbearable in the weather and our tempers were short.  We are always very impatient after long hauls.  Our other options to get to the hotel were to take the metro which was a huge unknown on how many stairs and walking we would need to do with the packs on or to deal with the con-artist cabbies.  While bickering with some of the cab drivers a beggar woman with who had no fingers came up to me and began to poke me with the remnants of a digit to beg.   I gestured to her with my open empty hands to try to show that I had nothing to give and was then humbled since I have all my fingers.  I was proud in a strange way because a few years ago dealing with people who have been disfigured would have made me feint.  I guess all of these years abroad have desensitized me.

Fairly quickly, I was able to negotiate a price for a ride and we were able to get dropped off at the hostel with no trouble.  We arrived at the hostel and immediately put our carpet and one bag in storage and felt a huge sense of relief.  We had a few hours to clean up and rest before Bobby’s parents arrived and then enjoy some beautiful Chinese food.

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