Posts Tagged ‘Cultural Experience’

Flying East to the West

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

The arrival at Beijing International airport was my third time in a Chinese airport (I had transited through Hong Kong International on my way to and from Lao 4 and 5 years earlier), and I went through the standard arrival procedures of checking my connecting ticket to LAX. This time things were a bit different, however, because Swine Flu was apparently on the mind of the Chinese government. Upon arrival all passengers were asked to fill out and sign a form saying that they were not suffering from any of the symptoms of the flu. Unfortunately, I have always suffered from allergies to airborne allergens and had been congested that day because of this. So, being the honest Mennonite that I am I dutifully checked the “Nasal Congestion” box and handed the form to the customs official along with my passport. This earned me a trip to a specially cordoned-off waiting area from which I watched all my fellow passengers pass by on their way into the international departures area. About 10 minutes later a man and woman in scrubs and white lab coats arrived with my form and the man started asking me some questions. “Where have you been traveling?” had a difficult and lengthy answer, but eventually we got around to the reason I had checked the “Nasal Congestion” box. The man spoke English fairly well so it was easy enough to explain about my allergies. “Ah, yes.” He said, “That’s alright.” Five minutes, several stamps, and a few signatures later I was on my way.

I had over 5 hours to kill before my plane to LAX left and I had decided that I would try to get out of the airport if at all possible. When we had been planning the trip we had decided against going to China because of a visa cost of over $400 per person. However, Matt had told me that he had met someone in Beijing who had been allowed to leave the airport for a few hours during his layover without a visa. This gave me an idea and as I talked to the customs official at arrivals I asked if it was possible to leave the airport for a little while before my flight left. He said yes and told me where I needed to go get out of the international terminal. So, when I finally saw the terminal entrance I walked toward it exuding as much confidence as I could muster. I was walked upstream through the flow of arriving Chinese travelers arriving at the arrival customs counters from the wrong side. I watched two stewardesses and a few captains walk out through a small gate along the right side of the room and headed that way. When I arrived, however, I was firmly but kindly stopped by a security guard who told me in Chinese and pantomime that I was going the wrong way and pointed me toward the departure lounge. I didn’t take no for an answer, however, and, apologizing to the guard, went to the nearest customs box. I politely got the attention of the young woman stamping passports and tried to explain my hopes and dreams of being able to walk around outside. All I succeeded in doing, unfortunately, was confusing her and so she made me understand that I was to wait there and she would call someone to help. A few minutes later a man who must have been a supervisor approached and in clear English asked me what the problem was. There was some hemming and hawing and a few more questions about reasons (”There are very nice restaurants in the departure lounge.”). But my polite persistence eventually won the day! The supervisor gave my passport to the young customs official to stamp and told me which monorail line to take and off I went.

For about 2 hours I walked the streets of Beijing in the area near the airport. It took about 20 minutes to get from the airport to a nearby market where I went to a bank and found that the ATM only offered currency in RMB (renminbi). I had literally never heard of the RMB and was expecting to withdraw Yuan. It was a good reminder that there is still a lot out there to learn. I did eventually learn that the RMB was the official name for the currency with the yuan being the name for the unit of currency. Anyway, I withdrew about 100 yuan and used it to buy some delicious Dragon Fruit, a pomello and a few other things for a nice picnic lunch in a small park from which I could watch Chinese life go by. The sounds of bicycles, pedal taxies, a few cars and busses and many voices in a language I didn’t understand made for an appropriate backdrop for my last day in Asia and my last “Cultural Experience” of the trip. With just an hour and a half to go I headed back to the airport and got through security and customs with few problems and prepared for a long plane flight to LAX.

The trip was remarkable only for the length of time it took and the packed 747 on which it took place. I chatted a bit with a Chinese family returning to their home in LA and an American business man who had been working in Beijing for a few weeks and then everyone settled down to some fitful, airplane sleep. As we approached LA many hours later, I spend the last 20 minutes of the flight looking out of the window, watching the coastline of my home country approach after 4 months away. The city bustled with cars, and few bicycles or pedestrians could been seen from the air. Roads were clean and it seemed like ads plastered every visible inch. Just before our gentle landing I caught a glimpse of a flaming hillside and billows of smoke just outside the city. The huge forest fires I had read about while waiting for departure.

A uniformed, American customs official kindly welcomed me home and, after picking up my bag I walked outside into the warm, California air. Waiting me were my girlfriend Rachel, my sister Elizabeth, and my Great-uncle Ned. Elizabeth, Rachel, my brother Levi and roommate Chris had all taken a trip through the American Southwest to pick me up. They had stopped at Ned and Marge’s house and then come to pick me up. It was nice to see some familiar faces after almost two weeks on my own and Ned and Marge prepared a wonderful supper for us during which all of us talked about our adventures.

My time overseas had ended but I still had a few days of adventure driving back across the US before the trip would be at an end.

Turkish Delight

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

I (Matt) navigated us to the Turkish border the morning of the eighteenth and remained reading in the car while Dan ventured into the offices to assess the costs of entry. He believed the man behind the counter at the border to say it would cost 50 each for a visa. He walked to the ATM and withdrew 100 Euro. He walked back to the man and learned they required Turkish Lira. He walked back to the ATM and exchanged the money into Lira. He walked back to the man and learned they only required 15 Lira each. Let me interject here and tell you that it’s really difficult to differentiate between 15 and 50 in foreign accents. We’ve experienced this several times on the trip, including the time when I insulted a t-shirt vendor at the U2 concert. In my defense, the t-shirt was only worth 15 Euro to me. Dan continued walking, returning to the border checkpoint with our visas before being informed of the required 40 Euro Turkish insurance for our car. He walked to another counter, bought that, and returned to the checkpoint. Daniel drove us into Turkey, delighted to be in Turkey and also off his feet. “To Istanbul!” we almost literally exclaimed.

Once in the city, we sat in a traffic jam off the Bosphorus for an hour before finding parking near the towering Hagia Sophia. We walked across the old city in search of an ATM. Only later did we realize we has walked past half a dozen. Dan must have wanted to walk a little more that day. I’m kidding, but at least we saw more of Istanbul. With our money, we tried to decipher our map and ended up at the Archeology Museums. A few Lera and we wandered the incredible collection of over one million objects from nearly every civilization in history. Istanbul, the bridge between the East and the West, has collected so many impressive artifacts from both sides. These included Hellenistic gravestones with concise, wonderful inscriptions like: “Marcus Flavius, he who caused no harm, farewell.” We also saw the oldest known peace treaty in the world, the Kadesh Peace Treaty, signed between Ramesses II of Egypt and Hattusili III of the Hittite Empire in 1258 B.C. There were some 800 thousand Ottoman coins, seals, decorations and medals. There were even artifacts with crazy-small inscriptions from the early civilizations of Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Arabia and Egypt, a few dating as far back as 5000 B.C. Delightfully mind-boggling dates. We walked back between the Hagia Sophia and the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (aka Blue Mosque) and found a hotel for the night. A room to ourselves, a warm shower, free parking across the street, free wi-fi access, a fan, clean sheets, comfortable pillows, a small breakfast, and the comfort of relaxing : $25. The ability to look out our room’s fourth floor window, across to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, practically on either side : priceless and delightful.

We walked to the Istanbul Strait for some Turkish coffee and a bottle of water to wash it down. Seriously. I jokingly called it motor oil. Not really, but it was certainly of a similar consistency, really thick and strong. Daniel liked it. Cultural experience. Back at the hotel I called my parents on Skype and Interneted late into the night. The soothing piano music from the restaurant below our window was silent be the time I finally signed off and fell happily asleep, clean body in a clean bed. I mention clean because I hadn’t had a shower since that Monday and had sweat a lot in the week’s summer heat. Another delightful shower in the morning and we left by 11 for church. Over the next two hours were involved in an accident and lost several times.

I had the laptop in my lap, trying to navigate from the Google map, turning right onto a busy Istanbul road, stuck behind a bus, signaled, and when I thought we were clear, Dan pulled around the bus. Halfway into our lane, a taxi whipped around the corner and slid its right, rear wheel well across front, left bumper. Dan pulled off to the side of the road and jumped out to face the less-than-delighted taxi driver. The traffic cops arrived soon and it took an hour to sort out paperwork and work out blame for the accident. An officer assured Dan we were innocent and we left with a photocopy of the taxi driver’s insurance information. We continued to struggle to navigate the city for the next hour, getting “stuck” in a tiny back ally when it suddenly dead-ended and we didn’t have room to turn the Passat around. A woman came out of her apartment and shared laughter with us and with another woman until a man arrived to move his van, letting us out. A couple more narrow roads, steep slopes, navigation in reverse, automotive showdowns, and we found a parking garage and walked to the Dutch Embassy and it’s service in Turkish and English. We attempted to sing along with the Turkish worship music and a man translated the lesson, delivered by four Turkish men. We left the delightful service and were served some coconut, chocolate, and pistachio-flavored Turkish Delight.

We finally visited the Hagia Sophia, the largest cathedral in the world for a thousand years after its completion in 537 A.D. Byzantine Emperor Justinian ordered its construction and proclaimed of the rich decoration, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” The Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453 and converted the building into a mosque. The Christian features were replaced by Islamic, four minarets were built outside, and many of the mosaics were eventually plastered over. We toured the building, now a museum, enjoying its incredible Byzantine architecture of uncovered mosaics and massive marble pillars and ornamentation. I’m not sure, but Solomon would have probably been delighted. The main columns, each over 65 feet of granite weighing 70 tons, support the 102 feet wide central dome 182 feet above the floor. Not of Solomon’s wisdom but we were delighted. We retraced our steps westward towards Bulgaria.

Matt

Milan

Friday, July 24th, 2009

This trip so far has been quite laissez-faire when it comes to scheduling. We had planned out all of our necessary stops, transportation, and various events in advance, so we could get the best prices and know where we needed to be when. The rest of the trip, however, had been planned as we went—the flexibility the car gave us and the reason we were able to see so many things off the beaten path. One of the certain dates (08/07), however, was a concert of the band U2 in Milan, Italy. That concert coincided with Dan’s departure on a train to Frankfurt from whence his plane would leave the next day.

We arrived about midday on the 8th and set about trying to locate a train station where we could buy tickets (a mission complicated by the fact that the entire center of the city seemed under construction and very few of the streets seemed to be named, or at least have signs). We found one train station, discovered we couldn’t get the international tickets there, and sought out the main station where Dan and I when to purchase his tickets to Frankfurt-am-Maine while David and Matt waited in the car, parked on the road with hazards blinking. No one seemed bothered, Italian road-rules are rather lax.

Our concert was at 2000 and we had to pick up our tickets by 1930. Time was flying by. We didn’t know exactly where the stadium (San Siro) was in relation to the center of the city, but, after asking a few friendly locals discovered it was a 5 minute, cheap metro ride from the station just in front of the main train station. Matt and Dan set out to find some pizza for Dan’s Final Supper while David went to print off our concert ticket confirmation from a local internet shop so we could actually get our tickets that evening. I stayed with the car, parked temporarily by a little green area next to the train station. It was about 1830.

David returned shortly and told me that he didn’t know all the details but Dawn, his girlfriends’ mom, had been struck by lightening. I said a short prayer for Dawn and the family. Matt arrived and led us to the pizza place.

We enjoyed the delicious slices of fresh, Italian pizza, proclaimed the Italians the best chefs in the world and then grabbed Dan’s things to get him to the station. It was 1915. We said goodbye hurriedly, prayed for Dan’s safety, our own continued trip, and Dawn and her family. Then, we booked it to the metro.

A “5 minute metro trip” turned into half an hour as we realised that we had completely misunderstood the friendly locals. The trip felt interminable. It was 1920… 1930, the deadline had passed… 1945… We got out of the metro and had a 10 minute jog/walk to the stadium. It was 1955. We ran into the stadium area, found the ticket booth, got our tickets (thankfully still available) and made our way into the stadium. It was 2015. After a mad dash to find our section and our seats and an almost interminable climb up the spiral ramps, we reached our designated section and finally sat down. It was 2030 and all we had missed was the opening act, “Snow Patrol.”

We joined in a competitive wave (one section gets the wave going and whichever section lets the wave die gets booed mercilessly by the entire stadium), and Matt made friends with his neighbor from Switzerland, a fellow named Guy. The U2 concert was unbelievable. I’ve never seen such stage artistry in my life. The entire stadium was dwarfed by a giant cross between an octopus and an alien landing craft which encompassed the stage. The players were introduced: Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, Jr., The Edge, and Bono. The songs included a number from their new album (No Line on the Horizon) as well as some older ones. David knew them all, Matt knew most of them, I knew many. One apropos song was “Where the Streets Have No Name,” especially given our difficulty finding the train station earlier that day.

We left the concert at about 2330 and we were energised, Matt bought a t-shirt, while I hung out waiting by the door and somehow we lost David. Matt and I lost our way on the streets of Milan for about an hour and a half eventually making our way to the metro station, which was closed for the night. It was about 0130. We waited for a while hunting around the area thinking David would probably have hung out there waiting, but we couldn’t find him and assumed he had caught the last train out at 0100. We found a good map on the back of a bus stop and started to make our way to the car. We did eventually arrive, about 3 hours later at around 0400, Matt crashed in the passenger’s seat and I slept fitfully in the driver’s seat.

At about 0700, I got up, munched on some bread and drank some water in the gathering daylight. I stood for a while outside the car watching the sun rise over buildings and nameless streets of Milan. As I stood there, David walked around the corner of the train station and we hailed each other and exchanged stories. David, after being separated from Matt and I had made his way to the metro station getting there just after the last train left and had spent the night sleeping alternately on a nearby park bench (where he was when we had been looking in the area for him) and in the metro station when it reopened. He made his way back and arrived in good spirits but, like Matt and I, quite tired. We crawled into the car and caught a few more hours of needed sleep.

Later that morning, after we had all gotten some sleep, David checked his email once more and got the bad news that Dawn had not improved and wasn’t expected to live. He decided to fly home to support Amber and do what he could for the family, a decision Matt and I understood and supported. We spent the rest of the day with David alternately on the phone, using the internet, and repacking his things with Matt and I reorganizing the car for life with two, not four, people and making some meals. Our final meal with David was a spaghetti dish and some popcorn with seasoning salt prepared over our little stove. We took David to the airport, wished him well and again said a quick prayer for his safety and for Dawn’s family.

That evening was a quiet one for Matt and I as we drove to Venice. We pondered the changes in our trip and how insignificant those were in comparison to other changes that take place just as suddenly.

The Lowlands

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

Between the two fields, we awoke Wednesday morning (19/5) had some Harvest Morn bars and packed up our stuff. David had slept outside the night before so his sleeping bag was a bit damp, but it was a bright morning and we soon had everything dried out. So, we started north toward Brussels.

The Belgian countryside is quite nice, but rather unremarkable. Rolling hills and fields, lots of agriculture, and small farming towns. Politically, the country is a bit divided, but not violently so. The conflict centers around Belgium’s relationship with their neighbors. With French and Walloon (a French dialect) spoken in the south and Flemish (a Dutch dialect) in the north, there is sometimes a pull by the French-speaking areas to tighten their relationship with France. A few years ago, a francophilic member of government accidentally sang the French national anthem instead of the Belgian national anthem in front of the press and caused an uproar.

Belgium is also the seat of government for the EU which has its quite impressive and modern headquarters in Brussels. We parked in Brussels near the center of town and visited the main market square, surrounded by beautiful, tall buildings, and visited Manneken Pis, a small, eternally urinating statue. We then sauntered through town past the national library, the palace and the surrounding park and arrived at EU headquarters. The headquarters complex is a feat of modern engineering. Not as ostentatious as, say, the Scottish Parliament building, but impressive nonetheless. In the first courtyard, the four surrounding buildings are connected by a raised, circular walkway. In that courtyard is the main entrance and also an information center. We explored the outside of the building then headed back to the center of town where we had seen a waffle shop.

Belgian waffles are an experience unlike any other. The mass-produced Eggo contrivances pale to cardboard in comparison with real, hand-made Belgian waffles drizzled with chocolate or strawberry or piled high with whipped-cream or fruit. One by one we went up to the little window and ordered our treats. Mine with chocolate; Matt’s with kiwi, strawberry, and banana slices; David’s with strawberries; and Dan had two: one powdered sugar and one chocolate. After his first, Dan exclaimed “I will never look at waffles the same” and promptly bought another.

Dan and I had recently read an “historical” article in our favorite satirical newspaper (The Onion) about how Belgians had halted World War II German advances by serving the attacking forces waffles until they could attack no more. We were certainly fully satiated by these delicious morsels, partly because our appetites have shrunk from not feeding ourselves as often or as much as we had at home, but also because Belgian waffles are rightfully famous.

Anyway, after our confection break we piled back into our mud-covered, semi-stunning Passat and headed toward Amsterdam by way of Antwerpen. We didn’t have a lot of time so we just stopped to send and receive some emails and Matt and I each ordered a half-pint of famous Belgian beer each. Matt did not enjoy the taste of his, but did appreciate the experience. I, however, had ordered one brewed by the Belgian Trappist Monks of Grimbergen since 1128 and enjoyed it quite a bit.

At that point David got an email inviting us to join the youth group at in Bad Pyrmont for hamburgers “American Style”. That event, however, was to take place on Thursday evening at 17:00 and we hadn’t planned on being in Bad Pyrmont until Wednesday so, we had to book it. We left that afternoon and got into Amsterdam early that evening.

Amsterdam is a city with the feel of a small town. We pulled in the day before a national holiday (although we didn’t know it at the time) and the streets at 22:30 were full of families on bikes, couples walking hand-in-hand along the canals, and groups of friends relaxing at outdoor cafés. There were a few street performers out, and hundreds and hundreds of bicycles. We saw the Anne Frank house, the national museum, the Hotel America, and generally took in the feel of the town. We left late that night and went north along the Noord-Holland peninsula toward Friesland. We camped that evening at a parking spot just off the road.

The next day we spent the day driving through northern and eastern Netherlands seeing the dikes, windmills (most of which were modern wind generators, but there were a few old-style mixed in). We stopped at a small town called Oldeberkoop (founded in 1105), visited the local church (built in 1125), saw a county fair, and watched some handball games at a sports camp. Then, we were on our way again. We passed into Germany an hour or so later driving straight to Münster.

Münster is the city where, during the Anabaptist reformation, several Anabaptists set up a small kingdom, took biblical names and proclaimed themselves prophets. They then proceeded to rule with impunity from biblical laws killing people who rejected their claims and, when the city was besieged, led the men in a brutal fight. This led to a shortage of men and polygamy broke out. All in all a bad situation, and really not very good for Anabaptists or Christian witness. In the end, when the besieging army finally broke through, the bodies of the three leaders were hung in cages from the tower of the town church and the cages remain to this day. A rather gruesome history, but a nice city.

From Münster we went northwest toward Bad Pyrmont and, after being thrown off our route by construction twice, we eventually made it into town and, using a stray wifi signal eventually worked out where David’s friends lived and made it there at about 17:45, just 45 minutes late.

Daniel Z