Friday, May 26, 2006

Look How Far I've Come

With our new recently-purchased scanner, Peter has been able to go through our old slides and negatives and transfer them into digital format - a great little activity for those long China evenings when there is nothing but Chinese movies on the TV, and the DVD player has quit working ...

So here's a little gem from 1971 when I spent some time in Papua New Guinea (that's just north of Australia) trying to discover whether I was suited to cross-cultural living ...

Ruth in png village

I remember this day. I was proudly wearing my new "scrubbed denim" jeans (which had a lovely soft-feeling surface), despite being told that such style of dress was unacceptable in this culture. When this picture was taken, I felt like I was the only one who was properly dressed. But when I stood up again after the picture, some of the older men kept coming up and rubbing their hands up and down on my thighs. I felt pretty uneasy about this, but presumed that (like me) they appreciated the texture of the material. It was a little later that I understood that showing the shape of my thighs (even inside jeans) was as good as being undressed, and this was why the old guys had become so excitable ...

And its interesting to compare it with this recent photo taken with the local (Chinese) women. I am older and wiser now, maybe... !

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Show Time

Today is Thursday, but I am happy and relaxed - and I even had a deep dream-free sleep last night - because I don't have to teach the kindy kids today!

I did it on Monday instead.

They were having a teachers' conference. Teachers from seven other kindies had come to see how it was done. I knew I should say, "NO! No way!" when I was asked to do a short demo lesson - "only 10 minutes" - but I am kind-hearted, and Ruby (the principal) pleaded with me, said it was very important to her, and I like Ruby. But inside I still knew it was a bad idea ...

I slept fitfully the night before, with dreams full of short people and finger puppets and sock snakes ...

Against my better judgment I took along my guitar as well. I had foolishly mentioned to Ruby that I have a guitar, and she had been keen for me to use it.

It was an exceptionally humid morning - not terribly hot, but very sweaty feeling, and threatening to rain. I set off in the taxi clutching my bag of goodies and my guitar, and with my stomach knotting and unknotting itself. The taxi ride was, as always, far too short, and I arrived far sooner than I wanted to be there.

The staff all looked exceptionally smart in their brand-new pale pink t-shirts - I felt clammy and crumpled before I even started. There was a camera crew hanging around near the front door - I smiled bleakly and sidled past them, stepping lightly over the huge pictorial world map on the floor, and then up the wooden stair-case with a different word and picture on the front of each step. I noticed Ruby had corrected the spelling error on one of the posters after I pointed it out to her - everything was perfect. Sure enough, the camera men were following me, and I tried not to puff too hard as I reached the top of the fourth flight of stairs.

I knew that I was to "warm up" in the first classroom, and then they would call me into the other class just before the demo. So I headed into the first classroom. All the little sweetie-pies were still sitting at their little grey tables finishing breakfast. They were wearing their tartan uniforms and were suffering in the humidity about as much as I was. The little girls kept grabbing at the crotch of their hot white tights and trying to hoist them up in very un-lady-like fashion. I waited while they finished up, each throwing their little metal mug into a big blue bucket and then pulling their chair into the circle. The teachers handed me a tiny grey chair so I could sit and wait. I noticed that for some reason the children were on coloured plastic stools instead of their usual chairs.

I went through all the usual songs and rhymes with the class - the kids had a lot of fun, and I was beginning to relax and enjoy myself. They loved singing "Alison's camel has 10 humps", and I taught them "She'll be coming round the mountain" with my guitar. Then I let some of them sit next to me and have a try at playing the guitar - when I put the guitar on their knees their eyes were barely visible over the top - which they all found highly amusing. Several times the children in the circle forgot that they were sitting on stools instead of chairs and suddenly disappeared over backwards - I found it amusing, but they didn't seem to think so ...

Then Ruby appeared and said, "Its nearly time, come and have a rest ..." and I went and stood, sweating, in the hallway for a while.

Then I headed into the classroom . The kids were just getting seated on their little chairs. I settled on my tiny chair at the front, and, as instructed, started with "5 little ducks" so that the lesson would be underway and the kids relaxed when "they" came in to watch.

Well, oddly enough, the kids DID noticed the fifty or so people - and cameras - that poured into the classroom a few seconds later. And they were completely spooked. I ended up doing a solo with the ducks, dragging the five finger-puppet-wearing participants back and forth across the front of the room with the help of the nervous Chinese teachers. I decided that I would move on to the camel song because I was confident that at least the kids would join in properly.

And I was right, I had their attention focused back on me, despite the huge TV camera being held at knee-height (their face level) and moved along the row, inches from their pudgy cheeks. But the song is long, by the time we had gone from "10 humps" down to "no humps ... so Alison has a horse of course!" I was sweating and exhausted in the worst possible way ... and my audience was beginning to look bored.

Quickly settling the kids, I grabbed the guitar and launched into "Yay-yay-yippee-yippee-yay ..." I could feel that my hoarse, tired voice was out of tune, and my guitar had gone slightly out of tune since the first class. After the first couple of messed-up sounding verses I was oddly distressed to see them all tromping back out - I wanted to call them back, "no, don't go, I haven't finished, I can do better ...!" But sanity prevailed and I let them go.

When I got outside again it was raining and there was a cool breeze blowing - where was that breeze half an hour ago?

Now it will be another week before I have to come up with some more new ideas to entertain and hopefully teach the little darlings.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Socking it to them

You know when you travel on Singapore Airlines, especially if you travel on one of their delightful night flights, they remind you that you should not take your shoes off during the flight ... your feet swell, and then you can't get your shoes back on, so I'm told. And then they come around and give you a little plastic bag containing an "Amenity Kit". Inside the kit there is a little toothbrush and a tiny tube of toothpaste - great idea - and a pair of socks.

sock kit

The socks even have a special non-slip section - so you can slip them on and pad around in them - ? Without taking your shoes off - ?

Obviously I have been missing something here. There is some other purpose for these socks. Maybe they are not socks at all. We have been on a few Singapore flights now, so I have quite a collection of them.

Time to teach the Little Emperors a lesson

So when yet another kindy lesson swung around, and I was searching for a new and interesting way to keep them entertained and maybe even teach them a few words of English along the way ...

How about some sock puppets? A few well-placed buttons, and voila!

sock snake

One friendly little snock sake - er, sake snock, Sooky the sock snake ... or some such.

And did the kiddies love it? They squealed with delight, and some of them even held up a pudgy finger for the snake to 'bite' or maybe it was more of a suck. Sooky tried to give some of them a kiss on their peachy little cheeks, and they weren't too sure about that.

But then, when they discovered that I had a whole lot of Sookies in my bag, and I let a few of them try putting their short little arms inside and terrorise their classmates with them, it was too good to be true.

Sooky snake

Sssssso. Did they learn any words? Aw, what does it matter. They had fun, ay.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Common Sense

Part of the fun of living in a culture that is totally different from our own is the difference. Every day we see things that make us shake our heads in disbelief - like every time we venture onto a roadway - and shrug our shoulders in resignation - like when we try to 'join a queue', in this place where a large proportion of the population "just don't get it" (either by choice or inexperience).

But every now and then we are pleasantly surprised by a little something, and we wonder "now why on earth don't we do that back home?"

We chose a rainy day to go shopping last week - they were all rainy - and I carefully slipped into dark coloured clothing rather than the white jeans I was wearing. We headed off armed with our umbrellas - useful for protection in a number of ways. It was pretty splashy out there, and the umbrellas only really keep the water off the very top of our heads. On the bus we were marveling at the wetness underfoot, the floor was positively sloshing from the drips of many feet and umbrellas.

But as we entered the supermarket, the water on the floor was noticeably absent. And not just because of the generous and effective doormat by the entrance. Just inside the door stood a little lady with a shopping trolley full of plastic bags - who knows what her motivation was, maybe she was an exceptionally clever person whose job normally would have been to mop the floors - opening the plastic bags one by one and holding them out to customers as they entered to pop their umbrella and/or wet raincoat into. She was dexterous and efficient, causing no hold-up whatsoever, and the floor was dry and clean.

Oh, here's Wuxi city on a dry day ...

wuxi city

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Messing About in Boats

family fishing

In my first ever English class in China I let each of the students ask me a question (in their very best English), and one of the things they all wanted to know was: What is the best thing about China? What do I like about China - why I came, what I came to see and experience. I told them the people are surely the most interesting thing about this massive country. They wouldn't believe me, acted as if I was lying, kept asking me again and again. I'm still not sure what the "right" answer was, maybe "the temples"??

So, in our trip up the Yangtse River - which we have found out really means "alligator" river, while the Chinese actually call it "Chang Jiang" - 'because it is so long' ... we really wanted to see the people who live in/on/around/next to/by the river.

We were a little surprised that we saw no one swimming in the river, not a single naked urchin - although one of the other passengers said they saw a couple of small boys. Would that be because of the alligators - of which we saw not a one.

We saw lots and lots of bridges, magnificent and amazing structures thrown across all sorts of divides. This one spans the river at Yichang, where we stopped to look at the temple.

bridge at yichang

This magnificent red structure is one of the many we cruised under.

red bridge

This one is ready for the river when it rises. And obviously the owner of the piece of land next to the bridge decided to raise the land rather than lose it.

bridge across gully

When you look along the gullies and through the bridges, there are more bridges.


Some just span valleys that are too steep to traverse otherwise.

high bridge

I felt quite excited when I saw this one, because I have always wondered how on earth they build the bridges - a bit like the spider that used to spin its web right across our back yard.

bridge construction

But of course all of the bridge builders are simply making it possible to avoid the river and the alligators. We did see some people living on the river itself.

The harbours of the cities are full of all sorts of little boats zooming around. And when the big cruise ships loaded with wealthy tourists dock, the little people race to line the pathway and the pontoons with goods to sell. Some of them have learnt the phrase "maybe later" and probably have no idea what it means because they call it out to the tourists as they hurry past to board their tour bus.

busy boats

There are a lot of different types of local ferries, picking up people from the water's edge.

local ferry

There are speedy ways to travel, like the frequent hydrofoils.


The cruise ships come in many varied sizes and shapes - we even saw one that was like a huge dragon - and they seem to huddle together for protection.

cruise boat huddle

In the smaller gorges we saw a lot of these little high-speed boats, they look like they might be jet boats.

small ferry

And then there are the family sized boats, pulling in their fishing nets.

family boat

The river was remarkably clean, considering the amount of use it gets. And, of course, its kept clean the way cities and streets are - people picking up rubbish.

river cleaners

Its a magnificent river, and the three gorges project is a phenomenal undertaking. Of course most Chinese people have never been to see it, could never afford a cruise like we went on.

Monday, May 8, 2006

Gorgeous Gorges

I had been looking forward to some clean mountain air to fill my lungs with ... but of course the river is heavily used for transport and so is full of diesel-fume-belching vehicles. Still, smog causes beautiful sunrises!


Most of the time, away from the main cities, the fumes weren't so bad - it was just plain misty, as you would expect with mountains and rivers.

misty mountains

The mountains are steep and rugged, even though a large part of them is now hidden beneath the water. (At this place there was a cablecar, you can just see the cars above the wisps of mist.)

Often it was hard to see the tops of the surrounding mountains through the clouds and mist.

rugged mountains

All along the river the houses were built up away from the water, everyone is getting ready for the final stages of the river flooding when the dam is finished in 2009.

house levels

There are frequent signs, telling where the water will rise to next, in October (the lower sign) and where the final level should be. The lower levels read 156.3 metres (above the original water level) and the upper ones are 175 metres.

water levels

It was fun to look at the houses and judge which ones - still inhabited and with delightful gardens down to the water's edge - were in fact doomed and the owners were just trying to use up the last moments with one last crop.

We saw whole new cities perched on the tops of mountains - the original city lies beneath the water, a rather eerie thought that makes us think of the movie "Waterworld".

fengdu on mountain

This city is preparing for the next rise, this open area is where they have removed the buildings in preparation.

city removed

Doomed Bridge

We had to get off our large cruiser for an excursion through the "lesser gorges". As we rode a ferry boat under this magnificent bridge we were told it was built in 1988 but was destined to be demolished very soon - as soon as its replacement higher up was finished - because the final water level would be only ten metres below the bridge (preventing ships from passing under).

doomed bridge

Monkeys Sink Ferry

The ferry was fully loaded, and the loud speakers were blaring information about the gorge we were passing through. A bilingual guide was walking around on the deck talking to each English-speaker in turn and explaining what was coming up. We were all staring hard at the river banks looking for the promised monkeys.

Suddenly someone saw one. A shout went up, and to my amazement everyone rushed to that side of the boat. I was imagining the headlines in the papers ... but, really, the ferry didn't seem to list at all.

All the same, when I later caught sight of these monkeys I quietly pointed them out to Peter, but no one else.


River Raft Rides

We had been told (but were unable to confirm it on our Chinese language itinerary) that we would be taking raft rides. As we reached the end of "Misty Gorge" and the river was narrower we were bundled into these smaller boats - it was the closest we came to a 'raft'.

river 'raft'

They called this one "Emerald Gorge", and the water certainly was an amazing colour.

emerald gorge

The waterway was quite narrow, and echoed the strange sounds of the "ethnic singers" that were around every bend with their megaphones.

ethnic singers

Here the air was much cleaner, the water crystal clear, and the scenery glorious.

water curtain

All-in-all it made for a delightfully relaxing day out.


Chongqing is the end of the line for the cruise ships - or the beginning if you choose one of the quicker cruises coming down-river.

It is "one of the three furnaces on the Yangtse River", being surrounded on three sides by mountains that prevent breezes. So its hot and humid. They will tell you that the girls have exceptionally beautiful skin, because of the humidity, and they are all very slim from endlessly climbing up and down hills. Likewise the men are supposed to be strong, healthy and naturally handsome ...

going ashore

Going ashore involves crossing a long series of pontoons and gang-planks - at least until the river level rises. The air is misty, and there are warning signs about slippery roads and paths because of the fog and rain.

The roads are narrower than in other Chinese cities, because there are no bike lanes ... because there are no bikes (well, actually, we did see ONE) and no trikes and very few motorbikes. Besides being narrow, the roads were windy and hilly, and quite tricky to negotiate.

chongqing cabs

The taxis are all bright yellow, being manufactured right here in Chongqing. In fact, the vehicle industry is very strong here, and we passed a great many ships loaded with cars, vans and trucks on their way down the river.

Our tour guide told us that until 1980 this (27 metre tall) monument in the city centre was the tallest building around, because nothing was allowed to be taller then it.

chongqing memorial

Now it is dwarfed by skyscrapers. She also told us that because the tall apartment buildings are built on the hillsides, many of them get away with having no elevator even though they are about ten stories high (the law says anything over seven stories must have an elevator) by having a walkway joining the building to the roadway on the hillside at about the fifth floor which then counts as the first floor.

It was still the May holidays when we were there, so the city was extremely crowded.

chongqing crowds

We found a quiet shady spot to wait for our bus. These men were apparently carpenters sitting around waiting for work. While we were there a lady came by and quite a few of them picked up their saws and went with her.


These two likely looking lads were part of the local army of carriers who make up for the lack of trikes and motor-trikes that are used for transport in other flatter cities.

stick-stick waiting

The loads they can transport on their bamboo sticks are quite incredible.

stick carrying

And when the load is just too heavy they can share it with a friend.

stick sharing

We saw many other things being transported on peoples' backs as well. This man had a TV to move.

carry tv

There are several old prisons in the hills around Chongqing where the revolutionary martyrs spent their last days during the civil war. They are very dark, sad places with lists of names and old photos.

torture room

And of course the torture chamber still with the implements and the furniture that were used.

Sunday, May 7, 2006


It was hot and humid in Yichang, and the tour group had not really got to know each other yet, and the last thing we wanted was to stop and see a temple ...

temple on cliff

We went for a bit of a walk along this pathway cut into the river cliff - we saw pathways like this all along the river in the next few days.

Then we were all glad of a chance to wash our faces and hands in some fresh spring water that we drew from a little well with a metal bucket, and then we rested and watched a bit of a shadow puppet play.

shadow puppets

Dam it all

We went to see the dam - still being built, not due to be finished until 2009. We were expecting to be very impressed. We had even been told we would see a lot of military personnel there (and even a missile) protecting it.


But what with the murk, and the crowds (it was May holiday Tuesday), it was a bit of a damp squib. Even our guide was quite overwhelmed by the crowds and didn't attempt to show us much or explain anything - we didn't even try to go in the museum place - she just gave us a few minutes free time and then we wandered through the maze of buses in the parking lot until we found ours.

blow up people

I don't have any idea what was the significance of these tall fellows. They were blowing around crazily in the wind. There was also a big blow-up chap a bit like "Bob, the Builder" who was walking around mingling with the crowd but we didn't get near him.

Lock up

To get from one side of the dam to the other the ships (and there are hundreds of them) go through a "two-way five-step lock". We boarded the ship on the lower side, and so we had the pleasure of this three-hour process.

Here we are just entering the first of the five locks. You can see the water level on the outside (left) and then how high the water will be once it rises on the other side of the gates.

entering lock

Entering the first lock was the slowest part. Eight boats/ships crammed in together.

lock jam in

And then the huge gates slowing closed.

lock doors

The ships each tied up to the bollocks in slots in the sides of the lock. As soon as the water started to rise (quite quickly) the place was filled with an eerie screeching sound of these bollocks sliding up in the slots.

lock bollock

Three hours and four more locks later, and more than a hundred metres higher, the ships come pouring out of the lock.

leaving locks

Yep, imagine what the fumes were like inside the locks!