Saturday, April 27, 2013

Culture Trip

Between April 22 and April, my school sent its students and teachers on culture trips to various parts of China. The year group of E9 went to Shandong province, which is around 500 kilometers southeast of Beijing. We visited the cities of Qufu (where Confucius abounded when alive), Tai An (which is where Mount Tai, a tall, famous mountain, lies), and Jinan (where a couchsurfer who stayed with me once was from). The trip was solid. I made a video, and it is below.


Friday, April 19, 2013

Right Now

Right now: …

In one minute: will have shifted slightly to the left

Right now: just farted, and regretting it

In one hour: leaving for worship team practice at church in Liangmaqiao

Right now: wondering how cold it is outside

In six hours: looking at cherry blossoms with Dawner in Yuyuantan Park

Right now: a little bit happy

In twelve hours: Harlem Shake birthday party

Right now: wishing I’d shut the window before going to bed last night

Tomorrow: jamming at church, getting two boxes of new contact lenses from some Korean couch surfer whom I’ve never met but whom I’m suddenly grossly indebted to

Right now: a little cold

Next week: hauling fifty-five students around Qufu and Mount Tai in Shandong Province, three hundred miles from Beijing, for my school’s culture trips

Right now: anticipating being tired all day

Next next week: flying to Dubai with Ramon and Nallely to ride camels, get tan, spend way more money than I’ll be comfortable with, and ascend one of the tallest buildings in the world.

Right now: listenin’ to "Dilla Joints" from The Roots and lovin’ it

Next month: receiving Nasty Nate, straight from Mallorca in Spain, indirectly from Rock Rapids, Iowa, in Beijing, for a spell

Right now: unshowered, unshaven, not changin’ clothes

Next summer: going to Xinjiang to hike around the Tianshan Mountains and be happy and free from work life

Right now: hoping the Twins aren’t in the cellar like they were the last time I checked

Next year: doin’ what I’m doing now, but with a fur fox skin…and perhaps a broken keyboard

Right now: …

One minute ago: farted again, didn’t regret it this time

Right now: thinkin’ about how nice it would be to Skype with my sister

One hour ago: not happy with the light pouring through my window onto my face

Right now: debating over whether to add a bunch of pictures to this post

Six hours ago: had a friendship-ending conversation with someone I really value

Right now: a little bit sad

Twelve hours ago: enjoyed a student council BBQ/dance party at my school

Right now: my tongue is locating pieces of meat still stuck in my teeth

Yesterday: sighed as my year group assembly was interrupted by a fire drill, organized hundreds of ID documents for students from said year group, beat the BWYA boys basketball team in the bi-annual teachers-students basketball game by an approximate score of 54-46

Right now: quite sore

Last week: completely immersed in culture trip preparation, except for nights of Dubai talk and a Korean dinner with my small group and a birthday party at a Malaysian restaurant, and a good day of church activities on Sunday, including Philip Yancey

Right now: shifting slightly to the right

Last last week: is freakin’ dead

Right now: having completed the shift, realizing that I am actually way more sore than I originally thought

Last month: was uncomfortably busy at times, especially with couch surfers and work, but kicked enough butt to be satisfying

Right now: pulling my large blanket all over me

Last winter: didn’t have enough snow

Right now: wishin’ I had a cat

Last year: David Emmert was here, and I miss him

Right now: looking forward

Right now: thinking about how, in addition to all of last week, my own desires can die and how God’s can flourish

Right now: moving to get up

Right now: …

Saturday, April 13, 2013

This Week Can Die

This week can die.

It was not that nothing good happened; there were some fine moments and nice experiences. Maybe too many. The fact was, there was just too much. And it sucked.

There were, of course, classes to be taught. Some research paper drafts to read, most of them late, and some poorly-planned lessons. Monday was business as usual, with small group the only addition to a normal school day. Tuesday was nothing too awful, either, until after school, when marking of the to-be-discussed-Personal Projects began, in a meeting. I had three documents – each over three thousand words – to mark, while everyone else had just one or two. Still, manageable.

The lights really went out on Wednesday night, when there were parent-teacher conferences from 4:30-8:00 p.m. But that was not enough time for me, the Community and Service Coordinator, so more meetings got scheduled for 4 p.m. Sadly, the last class on Wednesday is baseball, and the bus from baseball club doesn’t get back to the school until about 4, and then I have to put all the equipment away and, at least on this important day, change back into nice, formal teacher clothes. Also on this Wednesday, the bus driver hadn’t wanted to drive the baseball class at all; even though we were on the right bus, he said he wasn’t supposed to take the baseball class to the park where we always play, even though he did confirm that he was going to the park we play at. So when we finally did convince him to drive, he wasn’t in the mood to wait for Mr. Haysom’s girls soccer team, with whom we usually share the bus, so we left them behind, and I felt sort of guilty about that.

Alright, I felt extremely guilty about that. But I didn’t have time to feel guilty for long – just long enough to sprint to 7-11 and buy Mr. Haysom an “I’m Sorry” Snickers bar and some iced tea – because in addition to PTC starting at 4, every student in E10 was at that time presenting their Personal Projects, these huge, undefined projects that they work on – and we teachers supervise – all year long. So the presentations and the PTC coincided, which meant I could only dash out during a break and see one of the three students I supervised as he presented. At least he did well, and he gave me a shout.

Wednesday would seem to be the peak of the week, but Thursday offered little refuge, as literature pieces for the English department’s annual anthology were due fifth period. A bit of lunch time searching through student portfolios and a trip to the photocopy room solved this problem, but as soon as that meeting finished, it was off to practice a song with Ramon and a student for the daunting task that blanketed all of the preceding days with its pressure and lack of definition: the first-ever E9H coffee house, scheduled for Friday evening.

Months ago, my homeroom decided to host a coffee house; we planned to sell music and play delicious snacks to raise money and provide a place at which to hang out. This week, this Friday, it finally materialized. Ads were made ready for distribution – check out the video here – but during the day on Thursday, I was approached by students who were concerned about the event being held too late in the evening, 7 p.m.-9 p.m. Legit, but terribly late to make major changes. Nonetheless, the time was adjusted, new promotion was sent out, and my stress level rose. Ramon and I and the student did our practicing and were sort of ready, but my faith in the kids in charge of the event’s music, food, and decoration was less than the size of a mustard seed. I thought of little else while I rushed to make the C&S Weekly Update video on Thursday night, which was, I might add, a bit of alright.

Friday came, and though the looming coffee house took most of my attention, I had to give some also to the documents that the finance department needed distributed and that the cultural trip supervisor needed sent home, and then to the Personal Project presentation that the tenth grade students were to make for my E9 students during the first period of the day. And to the accompanying observation sheets that the same E9 students had been forced to fill out during Thursday’s lunchtime Personal Project exhibition by the same E10 students. And to the schedule for the E8 Science Fair that was interrupting afternoon classes, which didn’t affect me at all but did cause a boatload of questions that I didn’t know how to answer.

First period – extended homeroom – passed safely, as did my next English class from 9:50-11:00 a.m., even though the front desk started calling me at 10:57 because parents for another C&S meeting scheduled for 11:15 a.m. had arrived. By the time I got there, the MYP Coordinator had explained to the parents everything I’d intended to say. Fortunately, another set of parents were coming in at 11:30 for the same talk, so I didn’t completely waste my time by going there.

Of course the next three hours were blurry – a talk about next year’s contract, a 串 Friday meal with slightly higher irritation levels than normal, a visit to the aforementioned Science Fair – and then the coffee house started. 

I was anxious the whole time, but the event was a success, according to anyone trying to make me chill out. The people who usually didn’t do jack…didn’t do jack. The kids who usually step up and do amazing stuff – the girls selling coffee, cookies, brownies, and all other manner of baked delicacies – stepped up and did amazing stuff, with big smiles. There was the kid I put in charge of music, who failed to organize anything in any helpful way, but there was the huge stud who stepped up and ran the soundboard and the set list like it was his job. There were the Korean girls who usually just giggle and laugh and give high-fives suddenly on stage, singing their li’l hearts out. And, at the end, there were Ramon, a senior student, and I, playing the best rendition of Josh Garrels’ “Break Bread” that we’d ever put together. And that was that.

Friday night. The week was over, right? No. Hampering me all week was another activity, a trip to some fields in Ping Gu, north of Beijing. A student had organized this event as a community and service project, which was cool. But, all week – as she had the last three weeks – the kid needed to give me an update every single time she saw me or passed by my office, regardless of whether there was relevant information or not. I would not have cared except not enough students signed up for the trip (we went anyway) and it was not very clear what we’d be doing (we prepared soil and cooked a barbecue). So obviously I worried about that, too.

Come Saturday, the trip went fairly well. The bus took the twenty-six of us out there, we went and hoed up a field, yelled about doing it over in a more thorough way, went to eat but got super lost in doing so, and then came home. The trip was documented way better than the dirt was turned up or than the meat was cooked.

I am sure that you are sitting there in your comfortable recliner near the fire (if you are in Iowa) or near the open window and its fresh breeze (if you are in Beijing)(no, wait, reading this blog is not so easy in Beijing) or near the bomb shelter (if you are in Seoul) thinking, “Your week wasn’t that bad, Reub!” But, there was more. In addition to all these actual things that were happening, I continued battling a sinus infection that spewed phlegm of every color into my sink each morning. There was also the normal fatigue of the week, which involves me going to bed nice and late around 11:30 p.m. but waking up when the sun peeks its little head up in Beijing around 5:30…or earlier, as of late. And there was the fact that it was fairly cold and windy in Beijing all week – which I can deal with – but every indoor space seemed to be twice as cold – which was harder to handle. And there was also this weird relationship tiff between a coworker and I that sort of weighed on me. So I had her killed.

Just kidding! But there was more still. From last Friday, April 5, to this past Thursday, the 11th, there was a couple from the U.K. surfing my…foldout bed. Now, do not get me wrong: I greatly enjoy having people stay with me, and this couple was hilarious, fun, and generous to no end: they laughed and joked almost 100% of the time, they had laminated pictures of their cat with them for their year-long journey through every single place east of London, they packed me lunch multiple days of the week – which seriously saved me a few times, and they came and hung out with my coworkers and I many a night. That being said, you know how when you have had a long day – not to mention a long week – and you just want to go home and be alone and do nothing? It is not as easy when you feel obligated, merely by the situation, to entertain and be positive and sort of happy. Needless to say, almost every day, I just wanted to crawl into my bed and think about moss, but I had to hang out. I know this sounds awful. But it was just one more thing.

And the guy surfer’s haircut clogged my bathroom sink drain.

But, then, I got home today from the Ping Gu field trip, and I cleaned up my house and wrote a long e-mail to my brother and unclogged the drain (and got a text message from some girl I have never met – like, I seriously do not know where she got my phone number - who wants to hang out tomorrow? Whack.) and felt better. Because Beijing hadn’t gotten bombed with an ice storm but has, in fact, scored some gorgeous weather. And because this week, this one that made me want to move to Alaska as soon as possible, this one that caused some of my hairs to turn gray and quickened my trek toward the grave, is over. And soon, a new week will start, and it will go better and smoother.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Istanbul 2.0

Chinese New Year. 2013. Went to Turkey for most of February. Dug it. Here's the Feb. 18-22 part.

Let me tell you about what kicked butt in Istanbul the second time I went there, with Dawna the African vagabond, on the way out of Turkey. This go-round there was no holding back like there was the first time, when I had to restrain myself from checking out all the good stuff because I’d be revisiting Istanbul with Dawna. This time was the time to pull out all the stops. Just like I am on this post. Just like I am in this picture.

Exploring the city with Dawna kicked butt. We are of course solid friends in real life, but I knew Dawna was an awesome companion for fake, traveling life as well. We want to see and do similar things, we are both fairly flexible and relaxed (unless we get on the wrong ferry three times and are about to miss transcontinental flights as a consequence), and we both like to sometimes laugh. So I knew – we knew – that going through Istanbul together would kick butt for days.

The Aya Sofya (also known, for some reason, as the Hagia Sofia) kicked butt. It was located in Sultanahmet, which is the central part of the main peninsula of the city and the home to most of the big tourist attractions. Since everything was squashed together there, we figured we’d own as much as we could on the Tuesday we were there, and the Aya Sofya was the first thing we toured. Apparently at one time it was the largest enclosed space in the world. The building was built and destroyed three times over; it also was originally a church and then was turned into a mosque and then finally into a museum. There are plans to make it a Buddhist temple in the coming years.

The Hippodrome kicked butt. Not as much butt as some of the other attractions, but butt nonetheless. And it would have kicked more butt had the chariot races that had originally been held there were still happening. The H-Dome was essentially a long plaza that ran through this attraction-littered area; on its surface were three different phallic structures, photographs of which lie below in respective order. First is the Egyptian Obelisk; it used to be sixty meters tall but broke when shipped. Then comes the Serpentine Column; it originated in Delphi at the Temple of Apollo. Last is the Column of Constantine; my guide book says that it is “a 32-metre-high column of little or no decorative or practical worth.” Agreed.

The Yerebatan Sarnıçı kicked a gratuitous amount of butt. It is a huge cistern under the earth. It once supplied the Great Palace, a structure that no longer exists, and Topkapı Palace, more about which will be written later, with water from the Belgrade Forest, which is a long ways away. There are allegedly 80,000 cubic meters of water in the cistern, along with 336 support columns and two Medusa heads. The atmosphere was quiet (if we stayed away from the large Asian tour groups) and a bit eerie. I would love to decorate my home in the style of the Yerebatan.

The mosaic museum kicked butt. It was simple and quiet compared to the madness of the other world-renowned attractions nearby. The mosaics were from the aforementioned Great Palace, which is no more. There was an upper and lower level, which was helpful because some of the mosaics were fairly large. They were well done. I’d never want to put one together, though.

The Blue Mosque – Sultanahmet Camii - kicked some butt; it could have kicked more if people who talked inside had acid thrown on them, but, alas, it was the noisiest mosque in the world. And a mosque it was. Not much more. Huge, beautiful, but similar in appearance to the other mosques I saw in Turkey. It is the most famous mosque in the city, perhaps because of its unrivaled size and budget at the time of construction. Otherwise, though, it was a just busy and large. I wouldn’t go there to pray if I was a Muslim.

A mosque that kicked more butt than the Blue was the Süleymaniye Mosque complex, which wasn’t in Sultanahmet. Süleymaniye was beautiful in every way that Big Blue was, but it was much quieter (and colder), so it was easier to sit down and chill out for a bit. Awesome. Apparently the dude who was the architect of Süleymaniye, Mimar Sinan, was incredibly skilled and famous, quite industrious (he built over five hundred buildings), and now resides in a tomb on the grounds of this mosque, as does the sultan after whom the thing was named.

All the other random crap we saw as we explored the aforementioned sites on that one Tuesday kicked butt also. We randomly ventured through the Grand Bazaar, which is, not surprisingly, an enormous market; we scampered past the Column of Constantine, which commemorates the city’s dedication to the Roman empire in 330 A.D.; we wandered past Istanbul University, which was not open to us even though we are incredibly academic; we strolled somberly through the mausoleum of Sultan Mahmut II, and it was indeed solemn; we took a nice picture in Taksim Square, which seems like a big deal according to the guide book (the square, not the pictures) but isn’t, really; we rocked down İstiklâl Caddesi and got delicious ice cream there; we stopped to peer up at Galata Tower, which I’d been up earlier in my life, and we did it all…on Tuesday. And…it kicked butt.

Column o’ Constantine

Istanbul University

The Mausoleum of Sultan Mahmut II

Taksim Square

İstiklâl Caddesi

Galata Tower

On Wednesday we ventured into the enormous Topkapı Palace, and it kicked butt. Maybe not enough justify its exorbitant entry fee, though. Nor did the fact that no pictures were allowed kick butt, although that saves you, the hurried reader, quite a bit of time, I think. The palace complex was the political center of the Ottoman Empire for almost four centuries. It is now a museum. It is very famous. And, it is quite big. Six pages of the rubbish guidebook that I got for Turkey were dedicated to it. At first we paraded through room after room, looking at old clothes, jewelry, boxes of things, and household items from the royalty that ruled the empire. I wasn’t overly impressed. Then we moved on to the area in which the relics were housed. Inside were tufts of Mohammed’s beard, a footprint of his, perhaps a staff, and a bunch of other articles that used to belong to Biblical and Islamic figures. We spent the most time here, reading about these people; it was interesting seeing how Muslims viewed some of the men that Christians and Jews consider integral to their faiths. Following the relics room, of course, was a room of weapons of all shapes, sizes and colors. There were swords that were bigger than me. In this room I got all sorts of new ideas for killing people. Watch out. There was also an exhibit from China at Topkapı, which was weird. I felt followed. So did Dawna.

Connected to Topkapı Palace, or within it, perhaps, was The Harem. As you’d guess, this was where the sultan’s ladies hung out. Sort of an eerie place, and the whole time I just pictured hordes of beautiful women lounging around, playing in the pool, looking out the windows longingly, or taking cute selfies with their iPhones…no, no, wait, that was every single tourist visiting the day we were there. We wandered through and liked the interior design, but there wasn’t much else.

The Land Walls of Theodosius II kicked butt. They were our Thursday project. We basically got out of the metro and walked along them for two kilometers. The walls are 6.5 kilometers long and were started in the 5th century A.D. to keep Attila the Hun out of Istanbul. Every citizen in the city was required to help build. It would have been a great community and service project.

At the southern end of Theodosius’s walls lies Yedikule. It means “Seven Towers,” and it’s a castle. And Dawna and I liked it a lot. It was maybe the coolest thing I saw in Istanbul. There was no one there, there were tons of different places to explore within it, but it wasn’t too huge. And so much of the city and the nearby sea could be seen. So I will write less and include more pictures.

The transportation in Istanbul kicked butt. While there, we took trains, buses, at least one dolmuş, and ferries. The metro tram was cheap and easy, and it cut through everywhere we wanted to go, for the most part. The metro bus, which I felt quite well acclimated with from my February 2-3 Istanbul experience, was incredibly quick, as it operated on a single lane dedicated exclusively to…metro buses! The dolmuşes – small vans that drove a set route – got us where we needed to go, every time. But the best was the commuter ferry. The guy we stayed with lived on the Asian side of Istanbul, on the east side of the Bosphorous, and the all the crap we wanted to take pictures of was on the European side, west of the Bosphorous. I thought that this could be a problem, but our host lived five minutes from a commuter ferry station. Riding this boat across the Bosphorous was cheaper than any other transportation mode, and we could see the city from it. And it landed right where we wanted to go, every time. And food and drinks were served on it. And, and, and…it was just right. Here we are on the ferry itself. See the thrill in our mugs.

The food in Istabul kicked too much butt to be properly put into words. But we took zero pictures of the food. So I will attempt nonetheless. On Tuesday we consumed pastries smothered in Nutella, and sahlep, and then the best falafel wraps I have ever had in my life, and then mantı and some eggplant cream dish. And it was good. On Wednesday our host took us out to breakfast and here is where my limited English words really do fail. Borek…cheese and potatoes and spinach in some sort of flaky, crispy bread. This dish that Dawna and I thought was 라면but was just egg and tomato and cheese. Turkish tea. Everywhere, Turkish tea. Chicken kebabs. More sahlep. Huge potatoes with every single topping you could imagine. Rakı and cheese and other snackie snacks. It was so good. I don’t usually give a crap about food when I travel, but this trip made me pay attention to what I was putting in my mouth. Since no pictures were taken of our food, here is a picture of some pigeons eating bread by the Column of Constantine. It was bread similar to the huge, fresh loaf that we got from the bakery below our host’s place on Tuesday and messily devoured.

Our hosts kicked butt. We stayed with a couch surfer named Koray and his girlfriend whose name I know I am going to slaughter, even if it is just in spelling: Göksun. Whatever. They were both awesome. Koray worked on a computer from home, so he was fairly available for the aforementioned amazing meals. His girlfriend Göksun was a lawyer. Neither were from Istanbul but both had lots of interesting thoughts to share on the ol’ place and on Turkey in general. Very relaxed, very laid back, and fun, dry humor characterized both of these two solid folks. Good times staying with them! Again, no pictures were taken of Koray and Göksun, so here is a picture of Dawna sleeping on their couch.

Then on Thursday, we hectically got to the airport and left Istanbul. Dawna’s flight left at 7 p.m., so she left, and I went and ate iskender kebab and discovered what had been happening on the internet all through my time in Turkey: the Harlem Shake. Thank you, Josh Kim. And then I flew back to Beijing.

Istanbul. Sweet city. It reminded me of Beijing in that there were massive, famous sites there, things you had to see or you wouldn’t be able to say you went to Istanbul. And we saw those. But there is more to Istanbul, a thousand cool places to eat or have a drink, a party scene we didn’t see at all, a sprawl of urban housing that few tourists probably ever experience. There are islands nearby that would be amazing to explore, there are other places in the general vicinity – the Black Sea? – that could be super interesting. But we only had a few days.

That being said, Istanbul was quite easy and quite enjoyable to roll through. We saw awesome stuff, met awesome people, had awesome conversations. Key components to a good trip.

This was the end of a three-week blaze through Turkey for me. It was the first time I’d taken that long of a trip period, I think, and it was also such a tight concentration on one culture while breaking completely from the one in which I lived. The time was long enough to see a lot of life in Turkey; it was not too long so that I felt like I lived there or was completely invested. A good length of time. With a thousand fun, meaningful experiences, with people who will remain forever important to me.