Monday, August 23, 2010

Xiamen, China

 Our original destination for this trip was Fuzhou, China, but due to recent flooding there, the public health officials had their hands full, so the city was changed to Xiamen.
As it turned out, I think this was a much better city to visit. Xiamen is a tourist town on the coast with the cleanest air we have ever experienced within China. One can not help noticing on this map taken from a Chinese web site, that Taiwan is considered a province of China and not a separate country.

It is one of the major seaports since ancient times and boasts a wide gulf with deep water without freezing and silting. The name Xiamen means “a gate of China”.

We were there at the end of June and already the weather was hot during the day and warm at night. As a point of reference, the city is just a midge north of the tropic of cancer and is further south than any part of the continental United States. And it just occurs to me that the extremes of climate within China are much more severe than in the U.S.

We stay at the Wyndham Hotel, one of the finest in the city located facing the channel directly across from Gulangyu Island. Later we take a boat across the channel and visit there. It takes less time than the Star Ferry in Hong Kong to go between from a main land to an island. It is one of the high priority things to visit. 
 This a photo of the Wyndham Hotel lobby from the cocktail lounge area of the ground floor.

We were fed extremely well by our hosts which is normal, but the food here was much better than average. The banquet during the evening of the closing day of the conference was in a place right on the water, and I took this photo before I went in.

One of the days we are driven up the coast and can see Taiwan in the distance. The Beaches here are very nice, but not used much in the sense that they would be my Americans. I suspect most Chinese don’t know how to swim and Chinese people do anything to keep from getting darker. That and the fact they are more modest, does not conjure up an image of people laying on the beach in bikinis or even something more modest. They seem happy to walk along the water’s edge with their shoes off.
This is Taiwan in the background and me in the foreground.

One day we talk a boat ride very close to the shores of Taiwan. The day is hot, the boat is crowded, there are unruly children, and the loud speaker on the boat is way, way too loud. I took both hearing aids out and still it was an assault to my system. The Chinese language is brusque and the opposite of melodic and without periods of rest, I find it is just loud noise. Very tiring. I can see why loud noise is part of “enhanced interrogation techniques”. 
Here is a photo of a modern Chinese woman on the boat texting her friends.

The last tour of note was to Gulangyu Island. It got its present name from the huge reef surrounding it. When the tide comes in, the waves pound the reef and it sounds like the beating of a drum. The island came to be named 'Gulang'. Gu in Chinese means 'drum', and Lang, 'waves'.

During the later Ming Dynasty, the troops of national hero Zheng Chenggong were stationed here. After the Opium War in 1842, 13 countries including Great Britain, France and Japan established consulates, churches, and hospitals, turning the island into a common concession. In 1942, Japan occupied the island until the end of the War of Resistance against Japan.
Gulangyu Island has about 20,000 permanent residents, and only electric-powered vehicles are permitted on the island, so the environment is free from the noise and pollution cars. Many homes and gardens resemble classical European style architecture and it is also known as Piano Island.

Gulangyu's Piano Museum, opened in 2000, is comprised of two exhibition halls. The collection includes 30 pianos by renowned piano makers from Britain, France, the United States, Austria and Australia. The instruments are all over 100 years old. A large selection of miniature and custom pianos are also on display.

Before I realized that I was not supposed to take photos, I took a couple

We arrived home July 3rd and were glad to be able to enjoy Independence Day in this great country of ours. Nothing makes me appreciate our homeland more than being away from it and coming back home.

I Don't Have a Bucket List Yet--I'm Too Young

 Eight years ago, Jeff, one of my skiing friends, asked a group of his friends and acquaintances if they wanted to go ski diving with him. My first reaction was to say yes, but then I had a major conflict with the day chosen and had to cancel. I don’t even remember what the conflict was, but it had to be a major reason for I wanted the thrill and experience.

So this spring I saw Jeff at a ski club event, and asked told him I hoped he would try to organize another group. So he did and this time it would have taken a death in the family to keep me away.

My desire really had nothing to do with a bucket list. I am not that old. My inspiration came from a woman I knew when I lived in Indiana. She told me she always wanted to parachute and after her husband died it seemed like one of the first things she did. She jumped tandem and told me all about it.
Then a few years later, my son Bil, jumped solo which required that he maneuver to the landing gear struts and jump from there. As much as I like to live on the edge sometimes, I will take pride that my son has surpassed me in still another way because I would just as soon not have to deal with how to get out of the plane.

Jeff and I leave from Montrose Harbor Yacht Club area just before 8 AM Saturday morning and drive for about 90 minutes to Sky Dive Chicago just across the Fox River near the town of Ottawa. We are joined by 7 others and once we all arrive, we stand in line to pay and receive about 8 pages of instructions and legal documents that require you to literally give up all legal recourse should anything, yes anything, happen that would cause injury or death.

Then we are led the training round, to watch our first set of instructions that would be repeated several times before our actual plunge out airplane at 13,000 feet. But before that, a video is started and we see a young man with a long grey beard tell us what the 8 pages of legal documents say in no uncertain terms. It you are injured or die, it is because you came here and willingly jumped out of a plane so don’t expect anything for us. It was a bit of sobering reality that nobody wanted to hear.

I mean, I got up early, traveled here, we are having great weather, and I am in a group where it would be slightly embarrassing to opt out at this point. What’s more I did a bungee jump where I had to jump by myself. The consequences from a mishap here are no worse and I am jumping with someone that also wants to live that really knows what they are doing.

When we pulled into the parking lot I was surprised by the number of people who came and also by the size of the place. Its one big hanger with lots of offices, bathrooms, instruction rooms, food service and eating area. It’s a miniature city. Also near by are trailers and camp grounds. Most of the instructors live a sizeable distance away and travel here for the weekends and stay in their trailers. There make about 7 jumps a day and some of them have been during it for a long, long time.

So, I actually felt safe.

I was advised that spending another $119 to have someone jump out with us a shoot a video, with some still pictures, would be worth the price. So I opted for this as did several others in our group. In fact our group was delayed for quite a while because there were a limited amount of video people and most of our group were having videos made so it took some maneuvering to get the personnel together. Here is our gang ready to board.
Finally when the time comes, we cram into the airplane equipped with a sliding door on the side. We sit nestled between each other’s legs and watch the altimeter as we approach our goal of 13,000 feet. During the ride we are given one final review of our task.

Here is my instructor Charles and I harnessed together next in line to jump.

My photographer Jenn, is a beautiful young 20 something year old woman. She goes ahead of us and hangs out on the side of the plane to capture the moment of no return.

I told myself I wouldn’t look down but I did anyway. My next task is to put both thumbs into the sides of my harness, then lean back as we go out.

 That’s the altimeter strapped to my wrist.

I think these shots are amazing. We are falling face up but not for long as Charles turns us face down and my job is to find the horizon, check my altimeter, then find the photographer.
Missions accomplished. Now we free fall for about 55 seconds.
It’s almost time to wave to indicate we are about to pull the chord.
I had trouble finding the orange knob to pull the chord so Charles is ready to pull. And just as he does, a second later I pull also.
This is the best part, the parachute opens.
Jenn continues down without us and shoots our landing.
As we approach the ground we stick out feet out in front of us and pull down hard on the toggles and sit gently down.
Wow! Good grief! That was awesome!

My legs are a little shaky as I walk to the hanger, but it soon passes.

This is Jeff and I after the jump.

That evening I woke up about 2:30 AM and as I was tried to go back to sleep my brain played the entire jump experience for me again from the time I got into the plane until this picture. It was another pleasant experience.

I plan to do it once more and next time I won’t have to mug for the photographer on the way down and think I will be able to better enjoy the free fall.


Sunday, June 20, 2010

Hoi An, Vietnam

 The Pilgrimage Village provided a car and driver for our 3 hour drive to the Nam Hi resort on the Cha Dai Beach fronting the South China Sea. During the war GI’s took R&R here and called it China Beach.

The trip went through several sea side and inlet fishing villages, then up a mountain pass along switch back roads before dropping down into Danang. Apparently there was a new tunnel through the mountain but we took the more scenic option and were rewarded in kind with spectacular visas of the sea crashing against steep cliffs and panoramic views of the coastline.

Finally as we near the resort, we arrive at a beach area and I hop out of the car to take a photo of Mother Buddha.
Our stay at the Nam Hai was wonderful. Our villa slopped from back to front with our bed in the middle, looking straight out to an unobstructed view of the beach, ocean, and mountains. Behind the bed is a day bed and bathtub finished in eggshell lacquer. However, with an outdoor shower surrounded by a privacy wall, the tub was forgotten as the chance to shower naked outdoors had much appeal to me. Also included were a flat screen TV, and iPod sound dock with Bose sound system station which we used frequently. At night, silk curtains were drawn around the bed and the shades pulled while two large candles provided enough light for excursions during the night.

Golf carts are used to whisk guests around and also included were free limo transfers to the airport, a personal butler, free mini bar, free breakfast, and free evening cocktails and canap├ęs. Using them all, helped to allay the high cost per night.

I took part in a yoga class in the early morning twice taught by a yoga master from Nepal. But before yoga class, we arose early to view the sun rise.
Twice we venture out of the resort to Hoi An, one of the must see places in Vietnam. In the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries it was the primary port and trading post in Vietnam particularly of ceramics from China. It is now an UNESCO World Heritage place It is now a quaint auto free village filled with shops and great restaurants. Lots of art and Judith bought a real nice piece to replace one of our prints in the living room. My favorite restaurant was the Mango Rooms which featured a cocktail of Mango juice, rum, and vodka.

One of the amazing sights was seeing the school children get out of school and flock to the shaved ice shop.
Here is a photo of me in a museum showing a model of an ancient ship.
From the quiet atmosphere of Hoi An, we fly into Ho Chi Minh City, a city of enterprise and activity.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Hue, Vietnam

We flew to Hue (pronounced Hway) from Hanoi into a very small airport and were picked up by hostess and driver to the Pilgrimage Village. The resort is outside the city and offers large villas, a friendly and efficient staff, and free van rides into town. The breakfast restaurant offered good food and balcony tables along side a large swimming pool. We used the outside tables and enjoyed the morning sun before it got hot. After the rainy and moderate temperatures of Hanoi and Halong Bay, Hue was a sharp contrast as normal temperatures during the afternoon were well into the 90’s, making shaded head wear a tourist necessity. Our evening meals were in the comfort of air conditioning at the more elaborate restaurant.

After getting organized and enjoying the resort, the next day we have arranged for a driver and English guide to tour the Citadel, Vietnam’s version of Beijing’s Imperial City.
Emperor Gia Long started construction in 1804 to house the royal family and household. There are three walled enclosures, the Exterior Enclosure or Citadel; the Yellow Enclosure; and within that; at the center is the Purple City where the emperor actually lived. A French military architect constructed it and the French, years later, destroyed it. A lot of it has been restored and work continues to this day. The most interesting thing about the day was hearing the English speaking guide give us a history lesson of the Vietnam War and how the Citadel fit into the war.

We asked him many questions and he shared much with us some candid observations among the most revealing was that the present government is very corrupt and he thinks Ho Chi Minh would encourage another revolution to replace the present government. One can see that he feels a sense of betrayal. It is his conversation with us that prompted me to review some of the important moments in the war.

This is a temple inside the Imperial City.

A bit of history--

The NVA (North Vietnam Army) attack began early on Jan.31, 1968 and by 0800, North Vietnamese troops raised the red and blue Viet Cong banner with its gold star over the Citadel flag tower. It was quite a shock to the allies. It was not until Feb. 24th, that the US Marines had finally prevailed and had retaken the Citadel and NVA flag.

The US Marines found a harrowing house to house, bobby trap infested ordeal as they swept through every inch of the city. Armor and air strikes were very limited to do conditions and to keep casualties down. Allied forces were ordered not to bomb or shell the city, for fear of destroying the historic structures. Also, since it was monsoon season, it was virtually impossible for the U.S. forces to use air support. But as the intensity of the battle increased, the policy was eliminated. The communist forces were constantly using snipers, hidden inside buildings or in small holes, and prepared makeshift machine gun bunkers.

Communist forces suffered heavy losses in this battle, losing 5,133 men at Hue; about 3,000 more were estimated to be killed outside of the city. Basically its whole attack force was wiped out. Approximately 2,800 people killed by the NVA and VC simply because they were pro-allied. Mass graves of executed and other atrocities were unearthed. American losses were only 142.

What the NVA did win were the minds of Americans as the battle was carried on news casts every night. The carnage of the battle turned off many Americans. People watched the blood and napalm as they ate their dinner and from 1968 forward, public opinion only became more vocal against the war especially the young generation doing the fighting and dying. Rock culture permeated into the military to a large degree causing discipline and drug problems. The draft in America was immensely unpopular with many college age men leaving for Canada or getting out of the duty on claims of being a drug addict or homosexual.

Not all Americans were against the war, but the Battle of Hue was the turning point. Public opinion forced President Nixon to sue for peace 3 years later, after the treaty was broken and Americans had left, two more years later the war was over.

Our second day at Hue we took the van into town and hired a Tiger Dragon boat for a cruise up and down the Perfume River to observe river life and reaching the Thien Mu Pagoda before turning back.

Young boy shampooing his hair.

We reached the pagoda and saw the students coming out of classes.
  At the pagoda was the car that monk Thich Queng Duc used to drive to the spot in Saigon where he set himself on fire to protest the brutality South Vietnam president Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem had the backing of right wing Catholics in American, especially anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy, plus the Vatican, and was responsible for trying to oppress the majority Buddhists by denying them equal rights and killed many Buddhists. It was in every respect, a religious war. When Duc self immolated himself, President Kennedy started to withdraw support for Diem. Diem was assassinated 3 weeks before Kennedy on November 1, 1963.

The pagoda is often called the symbol of Hue and is the oldest religious structure in Vietnam, with construction started in 1601, with the bell tower built in 1864.

Upon arriving back to our villa, we enjoyed the spa and massages. I also practiced yoga there two mornings to start the day. This photo shows the entrance to the spa.

The next day we hired a car to drive us 3 hours through Danang to the World Heritage Site of Hoi An where we stayed at the nearby Nam Hai, the best luxury resort in Vietnam. Before leaving I took this photo.


Saturday, June 12, 2010


 I have given a lot of thought about fairness recently. It has to do with how much I enjoy my life now since I retired and re-married, compared to the struggles life presented me before.

Not that life before, was under constant stress or devoid of the good feelings I have more frequently now. But, the idea keeps creeping into my thoughts that that somehow I have earned every bit of my good feelings now present, by successfully, for the most part, working through my past tribulations, and it is only fair that I am receiving the benefits now.
Fair? How does fairness work? Let’s not get carried away here, David. Let’s look at this.
 Equality, justice, and social change all have their roots in our perceptions of fairness, and the very ability to perceive fairness is itself rooted in the behavior of our animal ancestors. It arises early in childhood, when it is echoed in the familiar cry of “That’s not fair.”

Sportsmanship, fair play, the Golden Rule, hard work is rewarded, charity towards others is returned in kind; these are all deeply steeped in our culture. I endorse these concepts and think I live by them, however imperfectly at times. I am a person that studies rules and insist that they be followed, and not violated because they would benefit me or my friends. And I could never be a politician.
But living in the world has taught me that fairness has no bearing on what happens to people. Disasters happen, greedy people succeed, stupid people are rewarded for their stupidity, loved ones are lost in wars that should never have taken place, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
 Religion tries to mediate by promises of an afterlife where good deeds are rewarded, but I don’t buy it. The idea there is a personal god that interferes in human activities has lead people to unknowingly support unimaginable evils. Given the powers and traits that a supreme being is supposed to possess, I find such a figment to be lacking fairness. And how can I accept a deity that doesn’t live up to my standards of fairness?

So where does that leave me? How do I justify feeling so blessed now?

I believe there are no answers as there are no answers to many things it life or what happens when someone’s life ends. Just accept the things that brought me here and know that everything counts.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Every tourist to Vietnam should include an overnight stay on a boat in Halong Bay. From Hanoi, the trip is about 3 hours, but once out of the city, the highway is reasonably free of traffic. We hired a driver to avoid being stuck in a van subject to a schedule of when to leave and return.

Along the way, I am fascinated by the new Vietnamese houses along the road.

In many of these houses, the bottom floor serves as either a shop or a garage with the living done further up. Almost all are 3 stories high. The newer ones are usually quite attractive with wooden doors and attractively trimmed with colorful paint. The number of new houses I saw along the way is evident that economic development is doing well within the country.

When ever one travels along a tourist route, it is almost certain that the driver will stop where a WC can be used if desired and shop for silk and other items indigenous to the country. We are very wary of spending money for items that are very attractive, because we are always concerned about how to transport anything back in our suit cases. Nevertheless, Judith bought some coffee table/serving dishes for future gift giving and I bought an embroidered panel that I am still wondering how to display it. Some of the embroidering was simply breathe taking and is a big cottage industry judging from the number of young people engaged in producing some very high quality work.

The signs told us the proceeds are used to fund orphanages.

We welcomed reaching out destination and had some time to stretch and drink a diet Coke, which are plentiful throughout Vietnam. We quickly see that there will be only 3 other people on our boat. Our large cabin is at the front of the boat and affords ultimate privacy with lounge chairs on our private balcony.

There are more people traveling as staff than passengers for a Thursday overnight stay, but the crew said the boat is booked full for the weekend.
We lunch on board after getting settled in our cabin. The galley is well appointed and the food is delicious. In the evening the French captain comes to every table to chat temporarily leaving his young Vietnamese girl friend. He spoke English very well with just a trace of French accent, helping to add an exotic favor to our conversation and the boat’s atmosphere.

We discover that the five star Emeraude is modeled in the tradition of the single wheel steamboat of the colonial era. The original Emeraude was one of the flotillas owned by the Roque family who left Bordeaux in 1858 in search of fame and fortune. The fleet cruised along Indochina waterways and Halong Bay in the olden days. The original Emeraude sank in the Bay in 1937. Using advanced techniques, French architects painstakingly modeled the new vessel from old photos and drawings found at the Paris' Maritime Museum.

Halong Bay is a Unesco World Heritage Site (and one of the 1000 things to see before you die) so capitalistic competition has come here with several newer and more attractive boats visible on the waters.
But the Emeraude has its own grand style and a well trained staff. We would recommend this cruise ship to anyone.

The boat is geared to act as a cruise ship with a list of activities, including an excursion to a cave, kayaking, swimming off the rear of the boat, the making of spring rolls, and showing the movie “Indochine” in the evening. As we have been through a number of limestone caves in the past, we choose to have massages while the other 3 passengers went through the cave.

I am making a spring roll here after watching the head chef making a couple of them. Mine were not as pretty, but just as tasty. This is something to try at home, if you can find the thin rice wrappings.
The chef also demonstrated how to make a rose by pealing a tomato and how to make a turkey from a tomato. The turkey is on the left. Making a rose is really pretty easy but I might need a refresher course on the turkey.

Sitting on a private balcony, cruising through Halong Bay with a refreshing drink on hand, has to be a tourist’s dream.

Here are some of my better photos.

The ships anchored in a cove at night.
This was a majestic, mystical experience. How lucky I am to be living my life like this.

Back to Hanoi the next morning and on to Hue the next day.