Monday, December 21, 2015

Christmas Killed My Life

I had been doing great! I had been running several mornings a week, and doing various other workout things. I had been studying Chinese diligently, reviewing vocabulary each day, and attending various study sessions with various different instructors. I had been getting into the Word each morning, pouring lots of time into conversation with God. I had been - for the most part - getting enough sleep, calmly grading papers and assignments at a reasonable pace, and maintaining the various relationships that I was a part of. Life was good and rich.

And then, my favorite time of the year arrived: the holiday season! Those weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, the feasts without end, the installation of Christmas lights and trees and other festive decor, Christmas music, Christmas neckties, red and green everywhere. Love it! It's so good! It's the most wonderful time of the year.

But, not this year.

Or maybe this happens every year, and I have just been in denial.

This year seemed to be a peak of sorts, a season that maxed me out more than past Decembers. There were several preventable but, at the same time, necessary factors. And there was the ultimate trump card: everything that contributed to the insane busy-ness of 2015's holiday season was fun, worth doing, and memorable.

What made Christmas completely wipe me out this year?

In general, there was more on my plate that usual. All good things, but...just more. There was an extra and very involved poetry translation unit that the eighth grade Chinese and English teachers collaborated on (that's eight teachers who didn't all speak the same language). Sweet! Stimulating! Creative! There was a charity concert that my friend Marina put on, and at which I played bass. Generous! Kind! Warm! There was my school's December Talent Show, which four students and I hosted as MC's. Engaging! Fun! Heavy! There was a youth group sleepover at my house, new instruments to be played, and birthday parties to get crazy at. Fun! Laughter! Time.

There were a few curve balls that were outside my control. The pollution in Beijing skyrocketed during December, and after one week of 600+ AQI levels, the city took half its cars off the road, gave employees the option of working from home, and shut schools down for two days, which I'm told had never happened before. The two days off were actually great; I caught up on a ton of work and had a chance to breathe (through a heavy mask, of course) in the middle of the mayhem. But, boy oh boy, did those days throw a wrench into my tightly-scheduled December lesson plans (and the projects progress report meeting that was cancelled two weeks in a row and that many students and teachers assumed to be cursed from above and below!).

My inability to say "no" to invitations and obligations was also a factor. Could I have opted out of some of the performances? Did I have to be a December Talent Show MC? Were the e-mails and schedule I put together and sent out for the poetry translation unit really necessary, or could someone else have done them? There will come a time when I politely decline such things in order to enjoy the season and perhaps life in general a little bit more. Apparently I've not yet reached that time. Although - obviously - I am the boss of my own schedule, and I just need to make the decision to tell people to take a hike when they ask me to do stuff.

There was also just plain Christmas in general. Which is always madness. Christmas gifts to buy for Ellen, for my family, for my homeroom's Secret Santa debacle, and for a white elephant gift exchange or two. Merry Christmas! Christmas parties to attend and enjoy, and to prepare for. Ho, ho, ho! A fusillade of Christmas performances with the BICF worship team, many at far away and difficult-to-find churches in western Beijing. Happy holidays! All good fun, all more fun.

Last, and best: Ellen and I got engaged! More on this in a later post. This was the most awesome and most significant event that took place in December and indeed, this year! More on this in a later post. I am not sorry at all about adding it to my or our busy schedules. More on this in a later post. I did reflect, though, and realize how I wasn't really able to celebrate the engagement to the fullest in the days after it happened because as soon as I got up the next morning, I had to dive headfirst back into the madness of Christmas season. There will be more about the engagement, though. In a later post.

As I write this, I am in transit from the frantic pace in very urban Beijing to the peaceful quiet of rural Rock Rapids, Iowa. I'm excited to spend some quality time with my family, chatting in the kitchen or while preparing a meal. I'm ready to quietly work on a puzzle, to go for a walk (in perfectly-clean air), and dive further into Henry David Thoreau and Sigund F. Olson, who write about the importance of solitude, of being still and enjoying quiet moments, and of the simple priorities of life.

And then, later, I'll head back to Beijing, and re-enter life there. Hopefully this Christmas season will have a lasting effect, one from which I learn a bit more about time, pace, and commitment. I want to get back to my exercise, to those Chinese characters that are waiting for me to learn them, to catching sunrises and sunsets, to still moments with God in the morning, uninterrupted and pure.

It's all in my hands; I have to decide to do it.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Hills Were Alive, in Yanqing

The hills were alive, with the sound of music,
With songs they had sung for a thousand years.
The hills filled our hearts, with the sound of music.
Our hearts wanted to sing every song they heard.

Our hearts wanted to beat,
Like the wings of the birds that rise from the lake to the trees.
Our hearts wanted to sigh,
Like a chime that flies from a church on a breeze.

To laugh like a brook when it trips and falls over stones on its way,
To sing through the night, like a lark who is learning to pray.

We went to the hills when our hearts were lonely;
We knew we would hear what we'd heard before.

Our hearts were blessed with the sound of music.
And we'll sing once more.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Ten Moments from the West

National Holiday, 2015: Ellen and I Go to Visit Ellen's Family in Xinjiang

So there we were, mere minutes after being released from the airplane and then from a two-hour car ride from Urumqi Diwopu International Airport to Shihezi, when suddenly the trunk opened and I was instructed to carry a large, frothy lamb carcass up the stairs by its hind legs to its ultimate destinations: the frying pan, and then the stomachs of various members of Ellen's extended family, and my stomach, in the first moments that we met each other. A seemingly-quiet aunt pulled out a large hammer-ax and went to town on the carcass, more and more food kept getting made, Ellen kept pulling on the cheeks and nose and ears of her ninety-three-year-old grandpa, and I kept smiling and nodding and not really understanding...many of which were trends that continued.

So there we were, at every meal, stuffed to the gills with such a great variety of dishes that the mind recoils at the shocking realization that so many tastes exist and can manifest themselves on one table. Fortunately, the stomach - my stomach - did not recoil, as I found myself the guest of overwhelming culinary honor: there were chicken and vegetables dishes, potato dishes, tofu dishes, spicy shrimp dishes, breads of all shapes and sizes, beef stews, porridge, various vegetable dishes, pieces of meat on a plate, pieces of meat on a stick, fried bread, lamb legs, lamb chunks, rice of all sorts, dumplings, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (alright, let's be honest: I made those...Ellen's mom and cousin each put one down but declared them "too sweet"), noodle dishes, and probably just as many other dishes that escape my memory now. There was food, yes, in abundance, but there was also hospitality, care, love; Ellen's family and I couldn't talk very well - my bad, 我的错 - but they did an amazing job of making me feel super welcome, super taken-care-of, and super fat; someone was always prodding me to eat more than I ever thought I could. Breakfasts were so heavy that I rarely felt very hungry by lunch. But I always kept eating. And the family kept on showing me love.

So there we were, singing and dancing, dancing and singing. At one moment, we were in a karaoke room singing and clapping along to the oldest communist revolution songs you'd imagine exist; at another moment, we were singing Maroon 5 jams at the top of our lungs; at another moment, we were on the street, in the town square, late in the evening, getting instruction on how to dance like the locals. There was plenty of music on this trip, in all shapes and sizes. The karaoke sessions were intense. Ellen's mom has a knack for belting out songs from her youth at an incredible volume, and Ellen's cousin Shan Shan picked a variety of poppy modern songs for us to bounce around to. The night dancing was not as abundant but was much more appropriate for experiencing local culture; many Uyghur folks - the largest minority group in Xinjiang - were excited to see us arrive and offered to teach me (Ellen didn't need any instruction) on how to dance their best steps. I tried hard. We'll be back out there soon, spinning around and flipping our hands this way and that.

So there we were, at the Hui Minority Specialty Street, when suddenly we saw it: a camel. Yes, it was a two-humper, sleek and handsome. I tried to get on its back, but it was too tall, too high. So we went to eat a whole bunch of lamb, fried bread, and various other breakfast pastries, instead, and climbed a tower, and enjoyed life. Dotted throughout many a Chinese city is an "old town" area, where tradition and culture may still thrive, or where the tourism industry makes it seem like tradition and culture still thrive, while in's just some folks in costumes, some animals chained to fences, some entrepreneurs trying to make some cash. In Changji, the food was very real, and very delicious, and that was enough authenticity for me. Anytime there is a camel...

So there we were, on a boat, in the middle of an amazing park, so I thought that it would only be fitting to take an odd photograph, one in which I think I look like a vampire. There are various things about Chinese culture that I don't understand, or don't care for, or don't anticipate ever really getting into, but the culture of parks is one in which I want to retire. In Chinese parks there are always old people hanging out playing cards or a board game, or playing music, or dancing; I could watch them dance forever. There are weeping willows hanging over the canals and lake waters; there is bound to be a white Oriental-looking bridge at some point; there is probably someone singing karaoke somewhere. And then there are the pedal boats, in strange forms like swans or turtles or warships, not usually in tip-top condition but always available to rent for an hour or two. The steering is simple and slow, the pedaling usually isn't ideal - my feet almost smashed all over Ellen's mom's pant legs with every churn, and the speed is - wisely - as slow as an Eskimo chess match on a Tuesday. But those pedal boats somehow have my heart (I think maybe it can be traced back to one Sunday afternoon in Seoul); I could ride one calmly and uneventfully every day, and I would be happy. Even better to be on one with a beautiful lass, the lass's mom, and the lass's cousin.

So there we were, in the middle of a vineyard, under the hugest sky in the world, mountains out to the west, covered in snowy snow (the mountains, not the "we"), clumps of round and bursting maroon spheres everywhere, fresh dirt beneath our feet, boxes waiting to be filled with one of Xinjiang's most famous exports: grapes. Grapes, grapes. I ate at least seven thousand grapes out west on the trip, mostly while sitting around playing "Heads Up" or watching TV, sometimes while in transit. I also partook in one of the most Chinese traditions I can think of: hauling local food product en masse back to my home after a trip to share with friends and loved ones. I couldn't check it as luggage at the airport, so in order to bring this box of grapes the size of two Simons back home with me, I constructed a packaging-tape handle that would have made Red Green prouder than proud. It didn't break. There was no way it could break. Damaging these grapes was not an option (which made my trip back to Beijing stressful) because of this important fact: Ellen and I (and her uncle, and her uncle's friend) had picked the grapes ourselves. Which made my package of local food product infinitely more important and meaningful than the packages of local food product that all the other passengers on my plane hauled back home. Everyone else, I am sure, had merely purchased their local food product at some point during their time in Xinjiang, or even - gasp - at the airport, but we'd obtained those grapes with our own bare hands, out in the wilderness, under the hugest sky in the world, with mountains covered in snow to the west, dirt all over. Boxes. Spheres. Delicious food and ownership. We win.

So there we were, Ellen and I, and there they were: dinosaurs and their bones, in every shape and size you could imagine, in every pose and stance that the museum designers could imagine. For a random town that few "Take No Prisoners" blog readers will ever encounter or even hear about again in their miserable lives, Changji's dinosaur museum was pretty sweet: there were games and activities for kids, excellent architecture, a crappy gift shop (no museum is complete without one), a film (wouldn't recommend it), a wealth of dinosaur and prehistoric creature information, thorough documentation of China's extensive dinosaur fossil excavation, and of course lots and lots of bones. I was taken back in time to when I was a boy enthralled with every species of dinosaur, to the days when dinosaur posters adorned my room and plastic dinosaur beasts surrounded my bed and dinosaur puzzles and coloring books and videos were scattered around my family's house in Roseland, Minnesota. I even had dinosaur sheets. Thank you, Changji, for being destined for me prehistorically.

So there we were, not really able to talk because my Chinese is so bad, but brought together by relationship to and with Ellen, excited to meet each other because of the important roles we each play in Ellen's life and also because of the love of Jesus that we both share. The first meeting between Ellen's grandfather and me was punctuated by the chaotic party atmosphere of my first evening in Xinjiang, and the final one was characterized by silence...until we busted open a Bible and together read Psalm 23. Could I understand the Chinese characters on the page? No. Did I know all the Mandarin words that Ellen's grandfather read aloud? No! But did I recall each and every word that I had memorized from that passage of the Bible at some point in my elementary school years at Central Minnesota Christian School in Prinsburg, Minnesota? I did. So we read the Lord's word quietly, out loud, and together. And it was good. I hope that God was pleased to see one of his much older children and one of his not-very-old-but-slowly-advancing-in-years children reading his truth together. I liked it, at any rate.

So there I was, standing in a mall in Beijing, not quite sure which way to turn, because I'd never tried to tackle the Chinese tradition of giving gifts when visiting. I had a list to consult, and some advice from Ellen, but I'd never met most of the people I was shopping for. In the end, I may not have gotten enough gifts for everyone who should have received one (which means everyone I met! They were all so nice!), but the items I did bring were - I think - appropriate, fitting, and, if they weren't, Ellen's family was still cool enough to smile and happily accept any lame gifts I may have gotten them. The one I was the most excited about was the puzzle clock, which Ellen, her aunt, and I put together one afternoon and then mounted the next afternoon. There it hangs, in a nice white home in 兵团 142, near Shihezi, despite the fact that clocks are actually not polite to give as gifts because it is a reminder to the recipient that death is ticking and tocking toward him or her at all times.

So there we were, away from everything, in the middle of everything else, under the bluest sky we could ever want in a land far, far away from home. Or were we very near home? It didn't matter. We were together. Every morning, when I woke up hours before anyone else and sat in bed wondering if I should chance a trip to the bathroom or if someone else was in there and then if bumping into that someone would result in a disastrous, language-transcendent bathroom confusion that would result in not only a burst bladder but also relatives madder, which made me usually just stay in bed and read Jung Chang and Jon Holliday's biography of Mao Zedong...I would wait patiently for the angel Ellen to quietly creep into whatever room or space I slept in and brighten up the day. She always came to wake me up with a large smile on her face. She would, perhaps, let me wander and traverse the unknown later in the day, perhaps by sending me to the market with her mom, or some such adventure. But the best part of going to Xinjiang was hanging out with this foxy lady.

So there are no more words to be said, except that - of course - a blog post by some bearded caveman cannot do this trip justice. There were moments that I cannot try to document, that I would not feel right trying to recount. The value of understanding more about where Ellen was from and whom she was from added depth untold to our relationship. Just being together and knowing each other more deeply was, of course, the most important result of this journey. Fortunately, there will be more trips of this sort for quite a while to come.

Bonus photos:

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Bali Style

In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, on July 29, Ellen and I slipped quietly away from Wangjing in a taxi, went straight to the airport, flew in a big, white airplane to Hong Kong, bummed around one of the world's nicer airports for a seven-hour layover, and then, as night crept in upon that part of the world, we boarded another big, white airplane and took it straight south for 3,460 kilometers, until the plane landed in Denpasar, on the island of Bali, in Indonesia.

This blog post will explore and expostulate on the six days - in six short (read: "short") chapters - that Ellen and I spent in paradise. It will be long. Hopefully it will be stir jealousy in the hearts of the few readers who dare or care to read the many thousands of words describing the journey. So be get jealous reading this! is very long! Yes.

Fast facts on Bali:
  • It is an Indonesian island, two miles off the east coast of the most well-known Indonesian island, Java, where Jakarta is. 
  • It ain't huge; it's diamond-shaped and measures about 95 miles (163 kilometers) from west to east and 69 miles (112 kilometers) from north to south.
  • Most of the island's four million inhabitants are Balinese Hindu.
  • The biggest industry on Bali is tourism. 
  • APEC met in Bali in 2013!
  • There are several volcanoes on the island, as well as tons of beaches all over; there are also a handful of other islands that are under the geographical classification of being in Bali. 
  • Bali is eight degrees south of the equator, so the temperature is consistently between 70 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit year-round (which means the weather is amazing), although there is a rainy season.
  • Scads of friends, acquaintances, and even enemies - yes, mortal enemies! - of ours ranted and raved about this island; they could not stop sharing ideas, advice, suggestions, and praise about the hotels, local people, activities, and weather of Bali, nor could any online or Lonely Planet review.

Chapter 1: The Beach

The aforementioned flight from Hong Kong was supposed to land in Bali at 12:05 a.m. but didn't actually make it in until about 12:45 a.m., so by the time we collected our luggage, made it through customs, met the hotel's driver, were driven to the hotel, checked in, and actually laid down in a bed, it was 2:30 a.m. So we slept until 9 a.m. the next morning and barely made it to the continental buffet breakfast that ended at 10 a.m. Whoosh.

The hotel at which we roosted (not to be confused with "roasted," which I accidentally typed the first time) was called Amadea Villas and Resorts, and it was very nice. Its catchphrase is: "A peaceful oasis in Seminyak," and it was that; the town in which we stayed - Seminyak - was quite busy, full of shops and trendy restaurants and bars and other tourists and tons of locals supporting said tourists, so there was a lot going on. But the hotel was set back from the busy Jl. Laksmana thoroughfare; there was even a golf cart that would shuttle you to and from your room, if you so desired. Ellen and I did not desire to be shuttled, since the walk to our room was down a breezy, lush, quiet walkway overrun with green and flowers.

Amadea had many praise-worthy characteristics - its exhaustive and high-quality facilities, decent location, and tropical paradise decor - but what won my li'l heart over was the staff. Everyone always greeted us, everywhere we went, and anything we needed - booking stuff, sorting out our failed attempts at mailing postcards, leaving our luggage - was taken care of eagerly and happily. If a staff person knew who I was, he or she addressed me as "Mr. Reuben," which made me giggle because I am actually Mr. Haggar. Good stuff. We liked it a lot.

At any rate, after we'd mowed down a heapload of breakfast foods, showered, and scoped out a map, Ellen and I headed to our main destination for the day: the beach. Our hotel was a fifteen-minute walk from the west coast of the island, where the beach stretched for miles in both directions.

What else can be said except that we owned the beach there, at Seminyak, for a good deal of the afternoon? There were people, but just the right amount; there were enough to let us know that we were in the right place but few enough that we could throw a Frisbee around with freedom unknown in Beijing. So we did, despite a balmy breeze that made our disc curve and bend impossibly, and that also dried me off incredibly quickly after I leaped into the waves of the Indian Ocean for a spell. We sat on some beach chairs under an umbrella and knew that if we had died then, we would have died happy.

And then we threw the Frisbee around some more!

A break from the beach resulted in a gelato and waffle stop at a gelato/Indian restaurant (Do these two things go together?), a venue to which we returned at least two other times. I had caramel syrup on my waffle. I had never had caramel syrup on a waffle before. But it's going to be difficult to return to maple syrup now.

Of course we went back to the beach...or the title of this day's chapter would not be "The Beach." The sun went down, the clouds lit up, and we sat and just drank it in. It's true that I could sit and watch the waves crash into the surf for  hours and be happy, and that the clouds in the stark blue sky were so much the opposite of what Beijing's sky had been like for the past month, but what made the beach even more beautiful - and made for some really neat pictures - was the water on the sand when the tide was out. There was a layer of water still on there, but it wasn't much more than a coating on the sand, and it reflected everything else beautifully. A mirror, some would say.

After the sun had gone down, we ate at one of the more mediocre of the restaurants in Seminyak and then returned to the hotel to sleep. For, despite having slept in and also having napped, we'd been up until 2:30 a.m. the night before, and we had big plans for the next morn: beach running and beach yoga.

Chapter 2: Things Done Next to the Ocean

At 6:30 a.m., Ellen's alarm rang. Soon we were scampering down to the aforementioned beach for exercise. The morning seemed stormy and gray, and pretty. We jogged south for a few kilometers. These beach jogs...there is a fine line to walk. Or to jog. Or whatever. You can't run in the soft, dry sand, or it's impossible to get anywhere. And you can't run in sand that is too wet, or over which the waves still lap. So the jog was nice, but it was kept interesting, by the beach, and the need for strategic step location.

Eventually we stopped and Ellen led a short yoga session. Again, the beach seemed idyllic, but reality imposed itself in the form of a sandy surface that proved troublesomely unstable, lots of people roaming by, and wild, curious dogs coming to try to do yoga with us. Nonetheless, we breathed and stretched for about thirty minutes before jogging back to the hotel for breakfast and a shower.

The next few hours were spent bumming around, and then we set out for a popular tourist destination: Tanah Lot, a temple a bit north up the shore from Seminyak. Tanah Lot is this temple built on some rocks that rise up from the sea a wee bit off the coast, which means is it picturesque and sought after by many a photographer. A taxi ride took forty-five minutes, and then we strolled through the walkway of vendors and shops to the actual temple.

Someone told us later that the evening on which we went to Tanah Lot - - July 31 - was one of two ceremony days on the island of Bali, a ceremony day on which everyone came to the temple and gave an offering. Excellent timing; I will take full credit for it, since Ellen has no VPN to access this blog! When we showed up, the music of the gamelan was playing, and it was beautiful. There were ten or fifteen men playing different instruments that blended together melodically, angelically, and just went on and on. I could have listened forever.

But I was distracted! By the crowds of Balinese people in traditional dress, bringing - sometimes balanced on their heads - different offerings of different sorts to the temple there by the sea. Families by the hundreds were there, relaxed and cheerful, to visit the temple. Ellen thought the smaller children, in their traditional garb, were beyond cute; she tried to put a few of them in her bag, but I stopped her. It's not right, Ellen.

We perused around by the temple, which was on a small, small island when the tide was high and which was on a big rock that could be climbed when the tide was low. Eventually the sun started to go down, so we camped out nearby and watched it sneak below the clouds and light the coast up with excellent, delicious colors of all kinds. It was good; there were Balinese families eating everywhere, all dressed up, everyone was quite happy, and the sun was bathing everyone in a peaceful glow. Loved it.

Then we returned to Seminyak, and we slept.

Chapter 3 - Ubud

On the third day, we boarded a small van and shipped out into the interior of the island, to a place called Ubud. While Seminyak - where we stayed the first two nights - was described in our Lonely Planet guide as "flash, brash, phoney, and filled with bony models" (which makes me wonder why I booked a hotel for six nights there) and "a very dynamic place, home to dozens of restaurants and clubs and a wealth of creative shops and galleries," Ubud is described as "artful, creative, and serene," "a feast for the soul." So we went.

It's true that on the way, our driver dude stopped at a temple and said, "Check out this traditional dance!" So Ellen and I paid to enter, and we viewed an interesting but confusing dramatic performance by a barong (a mythical lion spirit), several wild characters, lots of yelling, and excellent music. To put this question to rest: yes, there was a castration involved in the performance's plot. The best part of the drama was the gamelan music that accompanied the dance. The show was visually and aurally lovely, but the plot didn't make a lot of sense. We shrugged and smiled and got back into the small van.

And went on to Ubud! As we neared, it became obvious that this place was more in touch with older, traditional Balinese culture; every house seemed to have a small temple area attached to it and was designed in a tasteful, older style of dark orange and black brick. There was vegetation all over as well, and every establishment seemed infused with character.

Ellen and I had headed to Ubud with no lodgings booked and only a rough plan of what to do. The main things on the agenda were a volcano sunrise hike (with Ubud as a starting point) and to wander around the town for hours. But after wandering around the town for only minutes, we found a place - among the scads of small travel agent booths - that could make our volcano sunrise hike dream come true. The dude there also said he had a room for rent, so we had a look and decided to stay there. So a half hour after showing up, the pieces were quickly put in place for us to kick butt in Ubud.

Our room was someone's guest room and was great. The house seemed like an embodiment of the town: really neat, interesting decor, clean, and in sync with the general vibe in Ubud. So we were happy.

Soon we set off to accomplish the second item on our agenda: wander around Ubud. We did just that, sauntering through souvenir markets, moseying through li'l art galleries, consuming frozen yogurt, bumming around in quiet cafes for hours, and enjoying the music of a local primary school marching band. Sadly, we did not make it into the monkey sanctuary, despite walking past it multiple times, but it was a nice, relaxing afternoon and evening of just hanging out, looking at stuff, and laughing.

Then night came, and we slept.

Chapter 4 - Mount Batur

But we did not sleep for long.

Because at 1:40 a.m., Ellen's alarm clock rang, and we armed ourselves - insufficiently - for a hike up a volcano to see the sunrise.

Around 2:15 a.m. some dude in a van - there were always dudes in vans here, in Bali - showed up at our guestroom - "Grey House" - to whisk us off to Mount Batur, some twenty miles (as the crow flies) north of Ubud. A few other tourists joined us in the van, and around 4:00 a.m. we were dropped off in a parking lot near the foot of the 1,717-meter-high volcano, Gunung Batur. The volcano last erupted in 2000, and there were several spots from which we could see steam emitting. Apparently there are also spots where lava is still coming out - sadly, these were not places we visited on our hike. Mount Batur is also located within a much bigger crater.

Our guide gave us flashlights and we were off, though it was at least a half-hour walk on level ground before we started going up. Our team of four included Ellen, me, and two women whose home countries we couldn't determine but whose senses of humor we enjoyed; we stuck together in the midst of the hundreds of other tourists and locals (apparently there were many of them because it was Sunday, a weekend day). In the dark night, everyone with their flashlights formed a snake of little light points up the side of the mountain.

Was the hike tough? It wasn't particularly difficult; just a very clear, rocky trail that was somewhat steep. Ellen's flashlight's batteries were basically dead after twenty minutes, so we sort of shared light. It was quite cool temperature-wise at the beginning, and during the actual hike I felt fairly comfortable, but this definitely didn't last forever. The last third of the hike was very loose scree, at least at certain points, so the final push was probably the hardest. But we were spurred onward by the appearance of an orange line on the horizon, so we hurried onward.

At the top! The guide had somehow saved us a bench to sit on, so we sat there for an hour and watched the sky lighten up. Neither Ellen nor I wore enough clothing: she had jeans and a t-shirt and some light scarfy thing that was meant to be beautiful but not warm; I had shorts and a long-sleeved thermal undershirt (thank you, Rune!), and neither of these outfits kept us warm at all. I also had to pee like crazy, but there were herds of people everywhere.

Nonetheless, being at the top of the volcano for the sun's emergence was stunning. Amazing colors, sailing clouds, mysterious silhouettes, the formation of the world revealed minute by minute. The hike was worth it, the cold was worth it, the damage I inflicted on my bladder was worth it.

At the moment the sun was about to reveal its shining face, I could stand it no longer; the guide took me to a relatively secluded place (not secluded enough for some American woman who, ironically, lived in Suzhou - a city in China - to not exchange snide remarks with me while I urinated) to relieve myself, so I watched the sun come up - which was incredible - in the act of emptying my bladder. It was the most beautiful pee ever.

After a while, the guide took us down, and we joined the hundreds of others descending. A brief stopped at a sulfur vent, a small cave temple, and a monkey hangout delayed our descent a bit. Walking down was picturesque as well; the outer rim of the crater in which the Batur mountain sat was cloaked in clouds, there was a lava field that we couldn't see in the dark at the foot of Batur, and another nearby mountain - Mount Abang - provided a beautiful view for the jaunt down the volcano.

Unbeknownst to Ellen and me, our volcano trip package also included a stop at a coffee plantation, so before returning to Ubud and to our guesthouse, our hiking group took a quick tour of some Balinese coffee-producing facilities, which was sort of interesting. The most interesting part of the Bali coffee culture is, of course, luwak coffee. A "luwak" is a small, cat-like creature ("But it's not a cat," the coffee tour guide reminded us) that eats coffee beans, digests them, and defecates them, at which point the beans are collected and processed into coffee grounds. And then drunk by humans later. Yes. We didn't drink any, although in hindsight I wish I had; instead we sampled strawberry coffee, ginger coffee, spicy coffee, Bali coffee, vanilla coffee, cocoa, and various other forms of this beverage that I don't really care for at all.

The tour driver dropped us at our guesthouse at about 11:00 a.m. We'd been awake for over nine hours by this point, and it felt like the day should be nearing its end. But it wasn't. After a shower and a nap, Ellen and I continued with more of the same from the day before: wandering around Ubud, eating awesome food, and enjoying a beautiful town. Eventually, we solicited the services of one of the aforementioned vans that served as taxis to everywhere on Bali and were shuttled back to Seminyak, where we whittled away the final few hours of an intensely-long day eating Japanese food and unwinding.

And then we slept.

Chapter 5 - Wiped Out

Once upon a time, Ellen and I were both younger, more vibrant, more full of life. But now, we are older; gray hairs attack our heads, naps become more attractive, and late nights impact us for days on end. Such was the case now, the Monday after rising at 1:40 a.m. and hiking thousands of meters in the dark. We were a little pooped.

We ate breakfast but then just lounged around by the hotel's pool. Eventually Ellen took a full-scale nap, and I took a half-scale nap and went for a walk. But the majority of the day was spent on or near a bed, which was fine.

But that doesn't mean we did nothing on this, the second-to-last of our days in paradise! Around 3:00 p.m. I rallied the troops (read: Ellen) and we went to eat gelato and waffles. Again. If you are ever tired, depressed, or not feeling up for much (this is for you, Twins fans!), go get some gelato and waffles. Your mood will improve greatly.

It wasn't that the gelato and the waffles weren't enough, but Ellen suggested we get massages, which is a thing to do - regardless of whether you like it or not - in southeast Asia. So some Indonesians massaged our feet for an hour, and Ellen taught them some Chinese, and I laughed and felt better about my own terrible Mandarin. A few weeks prior, I'd made my parents hike on the Great Wall twelve hours after arriving in Beijing, at the moment the jet lag was the worst. Later, my dad (in order to get out of shopping with my mom and me) had a foot massage; he stated that he should have had the massage the day after the Great Wall hike. Similarly, Ellen and I should have had our feet massaged right after we'd hiked up Mount Batur; stress and fatigue would have flitted away immediately. Nonetheless, the massage was a nice choice, and I didn't laugh but one tickled laugh as my toes got yanked.

We then returned to the beach for the last luscious sunset of the trip. I could watch it everyday. The clouds look awesome, the colors are out of this world, and the reflection on the water makes you completely forget that in a few days, you need to give a three-hour, full-scale, interactive presentation on the MYP personal project and community project to a staff of disbelievers, many of whom will be jet-lagged, all of whom will be uninterested. So, we liked the sunsets in Bali a lot. A lot, a lot.

In truth, the gelato/waffle place was also an Indian restaurant, so after the final awesome sunset, Ellen and I returned to the gelato/waffle/Indian restaurant and had a delicious meal of butter chick and lamb curry. I'm getting hungry now just remembering it.

Then we went back to the hotel, and we slept.

Chapter 6 - Waterbom

This final day's plan was simple: after we ate, packed up, and checked out, a taxi took us to a water park named Waterbom. This water park has the #1 ranking on Trip Advisor for things to do in Bali (which I thought was a little weird). Its brochure claimed that it was the #1 water park in Asia on Trip Advisor as well. The park's website includes several other awards as well. Thus, Ellen and I figured it would be a good way to end our time on this mythical jungle island.

Waterbom was pretty sweet. As a person who appreciates excellent organization, I enjoyed the amount of resources dedicated to informing park-goers and making sure they knew what they needed to know, where they could go, and what options there were. I had three wristbands on at all times: one's barcode was connected to my monetary funds, so if I wanted to buy some food or drinks or something, the cashier could scan my monetary fund wristband barcode, so I didn't have to carry paper money into the water park. The second wristband was for our locker, at which you could rent towels and other essentials. A person could just show up empty-handed at Waterbom and rent almost everything he/she needed. The third wristband was thrust upon me as Ellen and I emerged from one ride; some dude with a camera said, "Smile!" and took a picture or two of us; he then slapped the third wristband upon me and explained that at the end, all the pictures taken of us could be viewed and purchased via this third wristband. Throughout the day, other photographers took pictures of us and then scanned the wristband, so at the end of the day, we could see and/or purchase photos of ourselves in Waterbom. Slick.

There were maps everywhere. There were inner tube stations galore. There were food and snack stalls stocked with every sort of cuisine you'd ever want. There were bars. There were super clear directions to guide ride-goers into the right lines, up the right stairs, and to the right places. There were Waterbom personnel everywhere, smiling huge smiles, telling jokes, providing information, shaking hands and giving high-fives.

And of course, there were water slides.

It would be dumb for me to write about each water slide at Waterbom. I will - as a blogger who loves to write about dumb stuff - tell you about them in general, at least. The slides were awesome, especially late in the day, when there were barely any other folks in line. The lines, though, were quite manageable for a #1-rated water park; the longest we waited was twenty minutes for one ride, and all the other waits were negligible. The slides all had names like "Double Trouble," "Twin Racers," "Smash Down 2.0," "Constrictor," and "Python." They did things like fling you and your ride-mates backwards in the dark, round and round and round in a huge bowl-like slide until you reached the bottom, down a nearly vertical drop out of one slide and on to slide straight up an inclined wall face as you came out of your vertical drop, and place you on a glass pane and suddenly drop you down into an intensely wet and winding slide of water. So, the rides were sweet.

To balance out the adrenaline, there was also a lazy river. We rode in a lazy river for a while as well.

It was good. It was real good. It was warm but not incredibly hot, and a surprising amount of the time we spent out of the water was spent in the shade, whether it was from trees or the stairs from the line above. I'd go back.

But, eventually, we had to leave. There isn't a lot more to tell, except that we showered and ate some Greek food and at 10:45 p.m. headed to the airport and flew back to China. The final evening was spent writing postcards and arranging our bags just so and complaining about how humid, polluted, and full of people who weren't as warm or hospitable as the Balinese folks we'd been surrounded by all week Beijing would be when we got back. It was a saddening thought. I think I have never been so unexcited about returning from a trip in my life.

So that was it. A good, good week of living in paradise. Everyone who'd praised Bali had been completely justified; Ellen noted that we moved from the camp of people who'd never been to Bali to the camp of people who will now - whenever Bali comes up in conversation - sing its praises to no end. I will recommend our hotel and many of the activities that we did. I think that, in hindsight, we should have spent a day or two less in Seminyak - there's nothing to do there but go to the beach, eat Western food, get massages, and go shopping - and spent a day or two more in Ubud - we wanted to do some painting lessons, go to the monkey park (okay, only I wanted to go there...), and just hang out more in that neat li'l place. I think it would have been fun to have rented scooters, too. Everything else we did - spend lots of time at the beach and at cafes, hike up the volcano, enjoy Waterbom, check out Tanah Lot - was excellent.

Of course, spending awesome quality time with Ellen was amazing, as well! She's fun, assertive, pretty, and eager to try anything (except monkey parks). Always good to go have adventures of any kind together, for some shared memories, some deeper understanding of each other, and some smiles and laughs. Let's go somewhere again soon, girlfriend!