Monday, November 29, 2004

From the Hills

The geckos are singing on the walls above my head and the frogs are croaking in the pond outside. It's nearly imposible to believe that yesterday I was in the steamy, crowded concrete jungle of Bangkok. Tonight I am in a community nestled in the hills outside of Chiang Rai in the north of Thailand. It's chilly and rain has been falling since the afternoon.

Last week my visa for India was finally processed. I accidently showed up one day late to pick it up and that led to a mini-crisis. It was not so easy for the embassy staff to locate my application amongst the tower piles of paper littering the floor and covering all the desks. Eventually it was found and my passport was taken away and given back again without any more problems. Free to leave Bangkok at last!

I'll be spending the next two weeks working on projects with The Mirror Art Group. The group works with the local hill tribe communities. They have a variety of interesting projects that I'm just learning about myself. You can learn more about the issues confronting Thailand's hill tribes and what Mirror Arts is doing to help by clicking on the link above.

While I'm here I'll be teaching some English classes and preparing materials for the other teachers to use. Tomorrow's big task is making alphabet flashcards. The students I'm meeting this weekend are just starting to learn the alphabet. They learned A-D last weekend and had E for homework. I'm planning to go over the lowercase letters for A-E and teach them the letter J. All the students have names that begin with J and so do I. Under the circumstances it seems like an important enough letter for us to skip ahead a little bit. Otherwise they can't make nametags and I won't remember who's who.

Time to sleep under the gecko chorus.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Waiting for Visas

The last couple of weeks in New Zealand passed in a blur. I drove a couple of thousand kilometers listening to nothing but homemade cassette tapes of the Black Eyed Peas and Coldplay. That's the downside of driving in a mountainous country with limited radio range. I did stop a couple of places along the way. The International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch was a good place to spend an afternoon watching videos about penguins and the poor souls left to overwinter at the research stations. Hamner Springs and it's thermal pools was a disappointment. I'm too spoiled by Japanese hot springs to appreciate hot water served up in a waterslide park.

One of the best experiences I had during the two months spent in New Zealand was swimming with dolphins off the coast of Kaikoura. After waiting half a day for the wind to die down enough to put boats out on the water, I boarded the ship that would carry a bunch of wet suited flipper wearing tourist out to where the dolphins had last been spotted. After an orientation where we were instructed on how to attract the wild dolphins to come over and check us out (dive down, swim in circles, make interesting noises) we were let loose into the ocean near a pod of dolphins. As soon as I was in the water and opened my eyes, there was a dolphin swimming under me. No time to be cold and no time to think about sharks. I sang my heart out to the dolphins and when I was in key and hitting high notes they would come over and swim in circles with me until I paused to catch my breath. Then they'd go off to look for something or someone more interesting.

Our group of swimmers was able to go into the water three times in different spots to swim with the dusky dolphins. Big pods can be found year round at Kaikoura. In the winter there are sometimes 1000 dolphins swimming in the bay. On the day I went (spring in the Southern Hemisphere) there were between 100-200 dolphins swimming in the water and jumping through the air. Visibility under water was 5-10 meters so it was only possible to see dolphins that were very close. Usually I saw nothing but bluegreen water. And then there would be a flash of grey as a dolphin or three would zoom under me and pause to swim in circles if they liked what I was singing. Sometimes I got tired and went quiet. The dolphins weren't coming so I would put my head out of the water and look for dorsal fins and other swimmers. It was hard to hear other people with my head in the water but with ears out and above the water it was hilarious to listen to all the bizarre noises coming from everyone's snorkels. Some people were singing like me. Others were booming, moaning, clicking, popping... And the dolphins seemed interested in all of it.

After Kaikoura there was a psycho guy in the dorm in Picton that I had a fight with. That was fun. I think I won.

Finally it was back to the North Island to see Mt. Taranaki (Mt. Fuji stand-in in The Last samurai) and to visit a great family that I had met the first week in New Zealand. Kay, Rich, Finn, and Sonia were very gracious hosts and it was fantastic to have an extremely verbal toddler to play with.

Now I'm in Bangkok, trying to get all my visas sorted out for the next round of travel. I made a big mistake by not applying for a 60 day tourist visa for Thailand. Upon arrival at the airport I could only get a 30 day travel visa. Since I'm here for 62 days I'll have to leave the country twice before my scheduled flight to India in January. Not only that, my current visa will expire two days before Chris arrives to meet me for Christmas. Excellent timing on my part! So now instead of doing some volunteer work, it looks like I am going to have to get myself across the border into Laos. This has to happen sometime after the big Asian summit that will close down the Laotian borders but sometime before my visa expires. Feeling a little bit of red-tape stress...

This morning I spent a few hours at the Indian Embassy so that I could submit an application to visit India in January. After a week I have to go back with my passport to see if the application has been accepted. If that goes ahead, there will be another day sitting in the waiting room until the passport is returned with a visa attached inside. Some days I am tired of traveling around and trying to get things lined up to go travel to the next places. This is one of these days.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Five Dollar Thoughts

I like money. Seems like an obvious thing to say, but I like it for a reason unrelated to it's cash value. Money can be beautiful. Australia has gorgeous coins with engravings of kangaroos and echidnas. Japan has an elegant 2000 yen bill (which no one uses...) showing a scene from world's first novel, The Tale of Genji, on one side and an ancient Okinawan gate on the other. My favorite currency in New Zealand is the five dollar bill. I love having penguins in my pocket.

It wasn't on purpose, but this week has turned into a very NZ$5 kind of week. On one side of the yellow and orange five dollar bill is an etching of Sir Edmund Hillary and the summit of Mt. Everest. On the back is an image of a hoiho or yellow-eyed penguin, giant seaweed, and assorted random plants that are probably important.

In Dunedin, the Otago Museum is hosting a special exhibition on Sir Hillary. It starts out with his life as a beekeeper in northern New Zealand, follows his climbing exploits as he and Tenzing Norgay become the first men on the summit of Mt. Everest, and ends with information on the philanthropical projects initiated by his Himalayan Trust organization. In spite of my post-election depression, I made myself leave the hostel and wander downtown to see the exhibition before leaving town.

The rolling hills of the east coast of New Zealand's are not so spectacular after passing through the snow capped alps of the west coast. The drama of the glaciers and the fiords of the west seem so far away. One of the most intense experiences I've had while traveling here was a full day hike on a glacier. Around the city of Dunedin there is some interesting marine life, but mostly there are vast expanses of sheep. I hadn't expected in Dunedin to recapture the feeling of traveling on a river of ice.

Hillary and other climbers trained on the glaciers of New Zealand to prepare for the Khumbu ice fall at Everest and once on Everest itself, one man wrote his impressions.

Their way was through a chaos of ice, a labyrinth of tottering ice blocks on ground that was never sure, climbing steep walls with fixed ropes, passing innumerable crevasses which widened and changed daily as the ice ground its way down the glacier below. - Alf Gregory

The guided glacier hike I went on was not particularly dangerous. We had a guide who led the way and cut steps in the ice. I was right up behind the guide nearly the whole time, stepping where he stepped. I wouldn't have been so closely up his butt if it weren't for the woman the night before who warned that a man in her hiking group had stepped into a hole and sunk up to his neck in icy water.

Sometimes our guide had to go ahead of us and check to see if the path we were following was still navigable. The glacier is moving constantly and crevasses open and close. Our guide had been off the glacier for five days and warned us that we would pass through a tight stretch of ice walls. Being right behind him, I had nowhere to go when he got stuck between the two walls. Meanwhile, all the other hikers had piled up behind me. The ice had moved so much in five days that our guide was taken by surprise. Until he could pry himself out, I stood and thought about the fact that the walls were moving slowly closer all the time. It was like in movies where two walls slide together to crush the people inside, ala Star Wars. Finally our guide wiggled out of some of his equipment and was able to slide through. He found a different route to return by.

At some places we had to cross crevasses on bridges made out of aluminum ladders. The guide would check and triple check the bridges to make sure they would hold. The only way I could make myself go across the chasm was to look straight ahead. Looking down made my stomach curl up into a tight knot. Another group's guide liked to drop stones down into the crevasses. We could hear the stone bouncing off the ice walls as it went down down down. Sometimes the rock would fall and the sounds would continue for so long that it was disturbing to think about.

Twice we were told to go ahead along the trail while the guide was occupied with other duties. I was at the front and so I went forward while everyone else followed. We were supposed to go ahead just up to the next turning and wait there for the guide. It seems like a straightforward thing to do. We followed a path through the towering ice blocks, only walking a few meters, but both times we quickly got to a place where we couldn't go forward. We would wait and call for the guide to come check to see how we were doing. He would come and shake his head, asking if we planned to jump over the yawning crevasse that blocked our way. Then he would lead us back to where we had gone wrong and we would continue to follow him. Originally we had been so complacent following in the guide's footsteps. How could you get lost on the glacier? Just keep moving forward and up along the valley. Yep. It turns out that it really takes only about 15 seconds to get lost. Without our guide we would never find our way out again.

Back to the Everest exhibition, Hillary and Tenzing reached the summit and the rest is history. Both men were honored and Hillary became internationally known as a climbing hero. He continued his climbing career and worked in Antarctica. What is not so well known is that Sir Hillary has continued to be active in the lives of the sherpas who helped his expedition reach the summit. The Himalayan Trust that Hillary established has built hospitals, schools and initiated various projects based on requests from the sherpa people.

The importance of goodwill is frequently overlooked or ignored. Whereas gratitude has something of inequality about it, goodwill is an active and growing idea that a proud man need not feel ashamed to entertain. The basic fact is that people create goodwill - money cannot do it on its own. - Sir Edmund Hillary

Many things have more value than money. Nicely put by a man whose own portrait decorates New Zealand currency.

Looking at the reverse of the five dollar bill, there is an engraving of the world's rarest penguin, the yellow-eyed. These birds can be found along the coast of New Zealand's South Island and one of the reasons the birds are so rare is that their coastal habitat is disappearing. People are building homes and clearing vegetation for farmland and the penguin has fewer and fewer locations in which to nest.

The town of Oamaru is known for its colonies of yellow-eyed and little blue penguins. For two nights I went to watch penguins come ashore from the sea. The yellow-eyed penguins emerge from the ocean anytime from the late afternoon onward. They waddle along the beach and hop their way up the vegetation covered hills until reaching their nests. The blue penguins, on the other hand, gather together in "rafts" off-shore, waiting for darkness. When they feel confident, they arrive in groups on the beach and head for their nests.

It's possible to go to the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony for penguin watching complete with grand stand viewing. One little penguin got lost and came wandering up into the grand stand. Passing within a meter of where we were sitting, I wanted to reach out, grab him, and run. Not a good method of wildlife conservation, but the penguin was so cute that it was hard to resist.... Apparently they bite. Hard.

All of these penguin encounters and the Hillary exhibition have made me think a lot about Antarctica. It's not so far away from here. It was my obsession when I was 13. Somehow, some way, I would like to go there someday. Soon I'll do one of the next best things. Christchurch is home to the International Antarctic Centre. I'm going to spend the day there and pretend that I'm actually a few thousand kilometers further south.

Time to hand over a couple of five dollar bills so I can pay for using this computer. The colony of penguins in my wallet is becoming increasingly endangered.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Oprah 2008...

Yesterday I spent most of the New Zealand afternoon and evening in front of the television, watching the US election returns as they came in. Everyone in the hostel gave their condolences as it became clear that we were going to have four more years of George W. Maybe I've been outside of the US for so long that I can't understand the choices made there anymore. If I can't understand home, how can friends and family at home understand what's going on in the world outside? There needs to be a little more mutual education going on.

So, I'm going to make an effort to sit down and write on a regular basis. I've got notebooks full of notes on the last several months, and maybe I can play a little catch up on all the things that happened in China, Australia, and New Zealand... That's the optimist speaking. The realist knows that the only way to sit and write about everything is to get locked in a dark room for several months. That's not likely to happen so I'll just have to be more disciplined from now on. You all hve permission to give me a hard time if I don't keep up with the postings.

Yesterday at the Cadbury factory in Dunedin, I saw a chocolate waterfall and learned that the average US citizen eats 13 kilos (28.6 lbs.) of chocolate annually. Plans for today are to avoid television news coverage, look for penguins at sunset, and eat at least double my daily chocolate ration.