Monday, September 14, 2009

Balloons in the Breeze

I love to fly! I get a rush as the pilot throttles up the engines to lift thousands of pounds of steel and aluminium off the ground into the sky, and I love watching him bring the same plane to rest again in a squeal of tortured rubber down the middle of the strip of concrete. I recently had a vastly different “flying experience” at the Atlantic International Balloon Fiesta in Sussex, NB.

Coming back from an RV trip to Ontario we noted the Balloon festival in a New Brunswick Tourism Guide, and decided to go. We have a friend, Joan who is from Sussex, and after asking her about the festival we found ourselves not only with a guide to this New Brunswick town but also a place to stay for the weekend in her family homestead with her 91 year old mother.

Sussex is a vibrant, growing town in southern New Brunswick, surrounded by an active farming district. The town in just off the main highway between Moncton and Saint John. It acts as a hub for the surrounding area, and has a number of thriving industries keeping this maritime town growing where so many small towns are dying out at the expense of the large cities.

Arriving in Sussex early afternoon, we settled in and then left early to try to find a parking spot so Joan's mother would be able to see the balloons launch. She has lived in Sussex most of her life, but although the balloon festival has been taking place for over 20 years, she had never seen them close up. The volunteer at the “Handicapped Parking” entrance was sympathetic to Joan's stories, and we were able to get a spot for the car close enough that her mother could see the balloons launch without leaving the car.

Watching these balloons launch is an awe-inspiring experience. A field slowly filled with trucks and cars with trailers containing the balloons. As the time for the launch approached, the wicker baskets, large fans, and packaged balloons were pulled from the vehicles and began to appear around the field. After a couple of trial balloons (Always wondered where this expression originated) were launched to test the wind direction and speed, the real balloons were rolled out across the field, and large fans fired up to inflate them. As the crew held the bottoms of the envelopes open, these fans forced air in, slowly revealing the shape and colour of the balloons. The field, once a simple green ball field, suddenly came alive with a riot of colour as the balloons slowly rose from the ground. Once the balloon envelopes filled with air, the propane burners were fired up and the air inside is heated and expanded. With crew members holding and steadying the basket, the heated air pulls the acres of brightly coloured nylon upright revealing the final shapes and colours. All over the field, balloons of all colours and patterns appeared. Pilots and passengers scrambled into the baskets, and the heated air tugged the huge balloons out of the hands of the ground crews and into the sky. One after an other, over 25 brilliantly coloured balloons ascended into the warm evening sunshine and floated away in the breeze.

My goal for the festival was to take pictures of the balloons, but as I snapped hundreds of photos on Friday evening, I quickly decided that this was one experience that I had to see from the other side of the fence. I wanted to go up in one of the balloons, and immediately signed up for a flight the next morning. My wife was not so brave, suggesting that I try it first, and perhaps she would go another year. She did however encourage me to experience it.

Arriving at the field at 6:00 Saturday morning, we watched the sun come up on a lovely calm September morning – a perfect day for a balloon flight. Paying my fee, I was introduced to Derald Young of Damn Yankee Balloons, who was to be my pilot for the flight, and we walked over to the balloon being prepared by his ground crew, many of them volunteers from the Sussex area. I was introduced to three other passengers who were flying with me, a couple from Northern NB, and a woman from the US. Watching the basket being readied, it looked very small to hold us all. It was interesting to stand beside the balloon as it readied for the fight, and being able to look up into the envelope watching the heated air shimmer in the early morning sunshine as the balloon pulled itself upright was truly an incredible sight. I climbed into the basket along with the other three passangers, and sat on padded seats on top of the propane tanks, leaving Derald to stand between our legs. We were then joined by a crew member, another balloon pilot from California, helping Derald on this trip. We did all fit, and although accommodations were tight, I was expecting to have to stand, so it was crowded but comfortable.

The actual “take-off” couldn't be more different from an airplane; you could hardly feel the balloon leave the ground. One minute we were on the ground, the next we were floating into the air surrounded by other rainbow coloured airships, floating across the field, over the power-lines and houses of Sussex. On the ground, your balloon and those around you tower over you so you can see very little, but as you become airborne, the balloons space themselves out and the view of the other balloons as well as the countryside around surrounds you. No windows, no seat-belts, no aluminium shell, just the early morning sunshine and gentle breeze. On the ground the September morning was chilly, but once in the air it was lovely. The breeze that felt chilly on the ground was carrying us across the New Brunswick countryside, so we did not feel it.

As we settled into a gentle flight over the town of Sussex, across the Trans Canada Highway waving to stopped cars, and over the farms, fields, rivers and forests of southern New Brunswick, Derald answered questions and explained the art of balloon flight. Although he told us that he had almost no actual steering ability and we were completely at the mercy of the breeze, his ability to find the air currents that would move us where he wanted to go gave us all confidence in his ability. He explained that this particular location is popular because it always provided a variety of wind and air currents that allowed the pilots to control their balloon's flight. The pilots search for these air currents by changing elevations by heating or allowing the air to cool within the envelope. As we flew along, we watched balloons below us skimming across the cornfields so low they were “Tickling the tassels” or descending to “Touch & Go” on the water in a pond, while others soared high above us. We flew beside the building of a potash mine close enough that we could talk to the workers taking a break on the roof. We watched one balloon catch a current that took her directly across our path, and another neatly fly between two trees. The flight was mostly completely silent except for when the pilot fired up the propane burners to heat the air to make the balloon raise.

The chase crew towing the trailer for the balloon has no more idea where the balloon is going than we do, and we followed their progress on the ground, driving ahead of us, watching us pass overhead and then moving on, trying to guess where we would land. After over an hour in the air, Darald started looking for a suitable place to put the balloon down. After rejecting a couple of fields, he announced he liked the gravel parking lot next to a building. The breeze would insure he stayed to the right of the power lines, and he should be to the left of the big yellow tractor. All four of us passengers were pretty confident up to this point, but when he informed us not to worry about the trees suddenly coming rather quickly towards us – that was all part of the plan; they were used to slow the final approach down a bit. “Hold on” he instructed. No need to worry, we gently brushed through the trees, and hit the parking lot with a little thump, bounced once and settled. Oops didn't see that dump truck entering the parking lot at the same time. Derald simply kept the balloon inflated above our heads until the load was dumped and then let the balloon envelope gently settle back to the ground guided by the chase crew who had arrived by this time. After packing the balloon back into the trailer, Derald broke out a bottle of Champaign to toast a successful flight – a tradition apparently started when early balloonists appeased angry landowners by sharing their bubbly after landing in the middle of a field. Asked if the local landowners minded the many balloons landing in the fields around Sussex, Derald explained that all balloons carried an additional bottle of wine that was given to the landowner and the festival organizers held a lottery where anyone who had a balloon land in their farm was given a chance to win a load of lime for their fields.

The balloons launched twice a day Friday, Saturday, & Sunday at 6:30 AM and 6:30 PM. But festival organizers had Craft Fairs, parades, skateboarding shows, “Show & Shine” car show organized to keep visitors busy and entertained throughout the weekend. This was an ideal weekend with near perfect weather for Balloons, but if the winds were too high or if it was raining, the balloons would not have been able to fly. The festival is in its 24th year and is growing, so the successful days must generally outnumber the bad weather. I certainly plan to return next year and will spread the word about this wonderful event. Maybe I can convince my wife to go up next year???

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Auchan Experience

No matter where you live you have to buy groceries, there are always local markets, but more and more we buy the necessities of life at a supermarket. When I first arrived in Suzhou, I walked down the street to a little market and a small grocery store for the essentials. You know orange juice, bread, eggs, beer, important items that civilized life requires. I was determined to cook my own meals and eat Chinese food, so I had to determine where everyone else shopped. Gordon, my roommate, another Canadian from Calgary came to my rescue and said, “No problem, you just need to have the Auchan Experience!”. He gave me directions and lent me his bike and I was off.

Now I have shopped in supermarkets all over the world, and seen some large stores, but this was without a doubt the biggest. It didn't look like much from the outside, and you couldn't see the actual store. You park on the ground floor and go up an escalator to the actual store. As you rise into the world of Auchan, your first sight is rows and rows or scooters for sale – I wondered where they all came from. Canadian Tire back home might have a few little motorcycles for sale, but here they have every possible size, colour and variety of Scooter (Or E-Bike I am told is the correct term). You have to walk a ways just to get into the store, but stepping inside you cannot help by be amazed at the size of this place. This being my first experience I walked right to one end to explore the whole thing. From all the way at one end you actually cannot see to the other end – it is too far away.

Ok, now, starting at one end they sell, computers, Televisions, washers, stoves, pots tents, plants , shoes, clothing, dog food, books, Cds & DVDs, bicycles, and . . . . . . oh, forget it , I think they sell everything, yes, there are the car parts, and the tools, and I still can't see the other end of the store. They don't have everything, and you can certainly find cheaper things on sale elsewhere, but in two months in China I can only think of one thing I couldn't get there, a roll of metal strapping to fix my bike, and it was available next door at the Chinese Home Depot B & Q (They even wear orange aprons).

Like Costco back home, this place is dangerous. You are always finding things you didn't realize you needed so badly. I found black cotton Chinese shoes for 10 RMB ($1.50), I found an electric kettle for 24 RMB ($6.00)I found some really nice journals – oops, I came here for groceries and I had to carry all this back on the bike; some of this stuff will have to wait.

When you actually get to the “grocery” section in Auchan, it is like entering a different world. Coming along the back of the store you come first to the meat department. There is an in-store butcher, so all the meat is fresh and packed in the store, but I had to go by looks, because there is no English on the packages. The first thing you notice is the variety of meat. They have way more “cuts than I was used to, and I quickly discovered that the Chinese eat the meat that us westerners throw away, and the lean cuts we favour back home are not popular. I could always get nice lean cuts of pork, beef or chicken, whereas the chicken necks, pig feet, beef intestines, or duck heads were usually pretty well picked over. Although there was always lots of choice on the shelves, the Chinese seem to prefer their meat fresher than fresh, and are willing to stand in long lines to get the butcher to cut something special for them. There was always a long line-up in front of the butcher, and walking by you could hear the customers yelling their orders at the cleaver wielding men behind the counter. They really do not waste anything, and it seems that the Chinese have found a tasty way to prepare any part of the animal. When I discovered the whole duck heads neatly packaged, I thought this must be purely a decorative item, but after questioning one of the teachers, I discovered that it is in fact a real treat – one however that I will pass on I think.

The vegetables are wonderful in China. They are always so fresh and tasty; so much better than the ones that have to be shipped from Florida, Mexico or California all the way to my city in Canada. The variety is amazing with whole aisles of peppers, mushrooms and greens. Now if I could only figure out what everything was. The peppers, potatoes, broccoli, and the tomatoes I recognize, but what on earth is that white thing, and who knew they could grow beans that long. Those carrots have got to be Genetically modified – I have never seen a carrot so big! There is a whole aisle full of what looks like herbs, but I can't see or smell anything I recognize. I quickly decided that I would try something new every trip, and have brought home lots of mystery vegetables to be introduced to my stir fry, Chinese soup, or curry. Most have been very welcome additions to my diet.

Then there was the black wood ear fungus. One of the teachers, Catherine, gave me a recipe for lotus root with black wood ear fungus. Now that has got to be the least appetizing sounding item I have heard in a long time, but I trusted Catherine, and wanted to try her recipe. I however, had no idea what Lotus root in it's raw form looked like, and black wood ear fungus is definitely not on any grocer's shelf back home. Now Catherine offered to buy it for me, and her mom kindly picked up the lotus root, but I wanted to do this on my own. Once I knew what the Lotus root looked like, I was able to find it at Auchan, and low-and-behold, there right beside it was a package of decidedly fungusy looking stuff that actually resembled black ears. No matter how disgusting it looked I bought it, and brought it home. I took the label off, took a photo of it and sent the photo to Catherine asking if I got the right stuff. Unfortunately she did not get back to me in time, so I took a chance and following her recipe, cooked it all up for supper. Not too bad actually, and she e-mailed me back (after we had eaten it) to confirm that I had indeed purchased the right thing. When I get home I wonder what Pete Luckett will say when I ask him for black wood ear fungus?

The seafood department is not even close to the meat department so it took me a while to discover it. There is some frozen seafood, and you can buy very expensive salmon fillets, but there the familiar ends. All other fish is sold whole, and most is sold live. The seafood department is a series of large tanks full of live fish. Each tank has a nice dip net attached and you simply choose your seafood, scoop it up in the net, and put it in a bag. Don't worry it will stop thrashing around by the time you get to the check out. You can also buy live turtles, eels and frogs – and I don't think they are for pets (That's at the other end of the store). Just don't choose that one swimming upside down. My dear father did his duty and took me fishing long enough to discover that I found it boring, and we never got to the “cleaning the fish”, lessons, so I'm afraid that seafood will remain out of my diet until I get back to Nova Scotia.

Back home I always keep eggs in the fridge, and here I find myself with time to prepare large breakfasts every morning, so I needed some eggs. In Halifax I have a choice of white, brown or outrageously expensive organic eggs, but here in China I have to choose between probably 30 different varieties and packaging all at different prices. I'm afraid I stuck with what I know, and brought some nice brown eggs home. The most popular choice for the Chinese was the Fresh eggs bought from large bins full of straw and bought in bulk by the bag. There was always an Auchan employee selling bulk eggs, and I never saw the lineup to get them less than 50 people. One day the line to get fresh eggs stretched half the length of the store and turned the corner into the wine and beer section.

It is always entertaining to just wander around Auchan looking at things. You can buy seaweed Soda Crackers, orange juice with sparkles in it, or Cookies made with Onions. The choice of Soy sauce is mind boggling, and the snack section is a constant source of wonder. How about Vanilla Olives, Broad Bean Cookies, or Fresh Cucumber Pringles? I have also discovered that I have become part of the Auchan experience as well. I am always catching the Chinese peering into my cart to see what I am buying. They don't even try to hide it. It is no sideways peek, this is an intent examination of the contents of my baskets. “Lets see what those foolish foreigners eat?” I think in most cases they are probably disappointed, because I have made a point of buying Chinese style food, and I pass most of the “Western” section quite happily. I can however imagine them laughing at my selection of meats, “Looks like the foreigner couldn't find the chicken feet, necks or wings, he picked up the cheap old chicken breast instead, must be on a limited budget.”

Just getting around this store is an experience. At first I just picked up a basket, because I only ever bought enough to comfortably carry home on the bike, but I quickly discovered that no matter how much you buy, a cart is essential, because carrying the groceries is only it's secondary purpose. The main reason to use a cart, is for personal protection against other carts, so of course you can figure out the other purpose. Without a cart, you are constantly being run into by someone who wants something where you are standing. If you are standing where someone wants to go, they simply try to move you with their cart. There is no “Excuse me?” or “Opps, sorry!”, the world of Auchan, is a dog-eat-dog world, and the most aggressive shopping cart gets the best buys. I quickly adopted to this technique, and I must admit, I've gotten pretty good at it. I think even the little old ladies who used to take advantage of the unknowing foreigner to push me out of their way are impressed with my acquired technique of edging my cart in at 45 degrees to wedge them out of the way to get those promotional broad beans or oranges.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Humble Administrator?

Ok now, who ever heard of a “humble” administrator? Most of the administrators I had to work with were anything but “humble”. Now of course I'm not talking about School based administrators like principals and vice-principal, because they have no choice but to be humble, stuck between demanding teachers and demanding administrators. I guess it must be different here in China, because one of their most recommended attractions in Suzhou is this Humble Administrator's Garden. After visiting and enjoying Tiger Hill, I decided to go visit this garden while my daughter Alisha was here visiting me from Japan. She is a talented amateur photographer (Taught her all she knows), and I thought this might be a chance to go picture-taking with her.

The gardens of Suzhou vary in admission prices, and this one at 70 RMB is one of the most expensive, so you would expect it to be one of the best, and it lives up to all the expectations. We were even given a usable map with English as well as Chinese, making it much easier to find your way around. There are also signs throughout the garden telling you where you are, although I can't quite figure out why the red dots that locate your present position on the map were all rubbed out. Why do people have to actually touch the dot? It doesn't mean you are actually on the dot; you do not have to touch it to be there.

It is actually difficult to explore most of the Chinese gardens in any systematic fashion. I usually try to walk around the perimeter first to get an overall view and then explore the central areas, but as you walk around there are so many photographic opportunities that you are pulled in many directions. There is a lot packed into a small area in most of the gardens, as the original designers were careful to make the most of the space they had, carefully designing pleasurable retreats and vistas from what was there. Carefully placed pavilions, towers and halls provide restful places to contemplate and enjoy the ponds, trees and flowers on the garden. The focal point of the Humble Administrator's Garden is a central lake with many little islands, now connected by bridges and paths. There are a number of raised areas, usually occupied by “towers” to increase the viewing pleasure out across the garden.

The Humble Administrator was certain busy naming all of the building throughout the garden. You have the “House of Sweet-smelling rice”, the “Far away looking Pavilion”, the “Hall of Distant Fragrance”, the “Listening to the Sound of Rain Pavilion” and the “good for Both Families Pavilion”. Oh, and under the “Hall of 36 Pair of Mandarin Ducks” there really are ducks, but I didn't count to see if all 36 were in attendance that day. There are over 30 beautiful buildings each with fanciful names like this around the garden, and most are open to the public at least to view. In many of them you can sit and think about why they were named as they were – most are pretty obvious.

There is a lot to see in the Humble Administrator's Garden. Alisha and I spent the better part of a morning there, and we could have spent longer but we only had a day and a half to explore Suzhou, so we kept moving. Many people do exactly the opposite; they come here to sit and relax in the incredibly peaceful and serene surroundings. That was probably why the Administrator built the garden; as a retreat from the bureaucratic rat race of the Ming Dynasty 500 years ago. No wonder he was humble with this to come home to after a busy day at the office.

A week after visiting this garden I met a young man from London England who only had two days in Suzhou and he asked my advice about what to see in only a day, and I suggested that this garden was probably the one attraction he should not miss. It is very well maintained and a beautiful place to spend a day just slowly wandering around. My advice is to take your time, stop and sit, smell the sweet rice, and enjoy the distant fragrances. This is a tourist attraction that is best viewed at a leisurely pace. Alisha and I were constantly finding things to take pictures of, and we enjoyed talking about different views and perspectives on things in the garden. It always amazes me how many times we both decide to take a picture of the same thing. The really interesting thing is to watch the other tourists then try to figure out what on earth we both found so interesting in that roof-line or the shadows created by something. They see us both taking a picture of something they figure it must be significant, but they look and look without seeing what we saw.

After spending a day in The Humble Administrator's Garden, I can highly recommend it. In fact All senior administrators should have a garden like this to come home to. I don't know if they would all be “humble”, but being able to sit and relax in a place like this couldn't help but make them better Administrators. What a place to sit and contemplate the problems of your school, your city or your country.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Tiger Hill - Doing the "tourist thing"

I'm not much of a “touristy” tourist. If I read that something is THE place to visit in a city, I normally put it well down on my list of excursions. I just don't want to be go where all the other tourists go. In fact, often when telling locals about the places I have visited, I often get worried faces and expressions like “OHHHH we don't go there.”

It was like that here in China. I went shopping where the Chinese go shopping, and I wandered the same streets they did. Oh, I went to see the old historical part of Suzhou, and I went to the Bund in Shanghai, but I didn't go up in the Oriental Pearl Tower, and so far I had not visited any of Suzhou's famous gardens. Today however I gave in. The worn and very “Dog-eared” map I have been using to find my way around Suzhou, has on the cover a beautiful picture of Tiger Hill and a caption announcing “NO.1 sight of suzhou”, and a lot of the teachers I've been working with have also recommended this spot to me. I figured that on a Wednesday morning I might avoid the “tourists”, so I went to have a look. Of course in Suzhou, the “tourists” are mostly all just Chinese who are not from Suzhou. I'm not sure if the residents of Suzhou really consider me a tourist or not. I expect they just refer to me as “That crazy foreigner who takes pictures of doors.”

Tiger Hill isn't too hard to find. It is not far from the city centre, and considering that the part of Suzhou I have been living in is so flat, that the speed bumps are considered “hills”, this actual hill is pretty easy to spot. After locating it on my map, and using the excellent directions from the Teachers, I boarded the bus and was able to track my progress by watching the large leaning stone Pagoda on top of Tiger Hill grow larger out the bus window as I got closer.

It costs 60 YUAN admission, but it is worth it; there is a lot to see, and you can spend a better part of a day exploring the grounds. I do have one complaint, recommendation or observation however. Although the excellent signage around the grounds is all in English as well as Chinese, it really would have been useful to have an English brochure to follow. I was asked if I wanted an English guide, and I believe it was free, but I prefer to explore on my own, and the map on my ticket was only in Chinese. I've run into the same thing in the Tourist Information Centres – the sign over the door is in English, but do not expect to find any English information inside. I know there are not TOO many English tourists, but obviously if the signs and maps are in English, someone recognizes the need for it. It can;t be too hard to produce a few in English.

A large group of Chinese “tourists” were just entering the grounds at the same time as me, and as they all scrambled to get that perfect shot of the large Pagoda on top of the hill, I slipped quietly down a side path and started walking around the lovely paved walkways and forest paths around the base of the actual hill. I found a little pagoda hanging over the canal where I watched a woman cleaning out her mop across from the park. I walked through a lovely little Bamboo grove, and through I little tea house (I believe). I came upon a nice waterfall with a screaming little girl. I believe she was simply have a temper tantrum, because when her father pointed out that a very tall odd looking man with a beard was approaching, she shut up immediately. He probably threatened her with “The Hairy Scary Man” would get her if she didn't behave, but when I went up to her and said “Hello” and asked her why she was crying, she decided I wasn't so scary, and gladly shook my hand and posed for a lovely picture by the waterfall, giving me the obligatory “V” sign with her fingers – what is with that anyway?

After making my way all the way around the base of the hill, I started climbing up the paths and stairways to the top. As I climbed I came upon a museum of stone/rock sculptures, various houses and buildings all with interesting displays and explanations. I was fascinated by the different styles of carved wooden chairs in each building. There seemed to be a different style chair in each building. All through the park were beautiful gardens and peaceful areas to sit and just relax and contemplate life. I often saw people just sitting and reading, and some of the Teachers mentioned that they can purchase a “Garden Card” that gives then unlimited use of these attractions. I can see the value of this, as it would be a lovely place to visit just to have a peaceful place to relax.

Part way up the hill I came across a beautiful Bonsai garden with hundreds of potted trees displayed on pedestals. It was fascinating to see the many different trees trained and trimmed to beautiful shapes. You could see on many of the the wires forcing them into the desired shapes. This was probably my favourite part of Tiger Hill, and I spent an hour here all by myself wandering among the little trees admiring them. The bus load of Chinese tourists were obviously more interested in the pagoda, because I had the Bonsai garden almost completely to myself.

When I finally made it to the top of Tiger Hill, it was actually a bit anticlimactic. The large multi-storied pagoda is very spectacular, all made from stone and leaning slightly to one side, but it is closed to the public and you cannot climb it any more. The view from the top would have been speculator. I walked around taking a few shots from various angles, but it is actually quite difficult to take pictures of the pagoda because of all the trees around it. The nicest pictures are taken from other areas of the garden with the pagoda in the background. I should have realized that because that is exactly the shot displayed on the map that brought me here.

I enjoyed my visit to Tiger Hill, and now that I have seen how nice it is, I'm going to have to visit some of the other “Tourist” attractions around Suzhou to determine if Tiger Hill really is the 'No 1 sight of Suzhou”. I've heard that The Humble Administrator's Garden is lovely?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Doors of Suzhou

I have tried to tell you something about what I have been doing since I have retired, and I've told you about my trip to Sao Paulo, my trip to Montreal, and now all my adventures in Suzhou, China, but now I'm just going to indulge in one of my favourite photo adventures. I love old doors. I notice doors that have seen better days, that have become worn with weather and use, that have been patched and repaired. I stop and take pictures of these doors. I often stop and focus on the old hinges or the worn and battered locks holding the doors shut.

I started this one March walking around Ottawa. I went out for a walk just to take pictures, and I started noticing how many different doors there were on the old houses around where my son lived. I photographed them, thinking about making a photo montage of them for him, but I never got to finishing that project. I took pictures of doors in Montreal, and in Sao Paulo, but then I hit Campeche Mexico. As a World Heritage Site, the building have to be maintained in their original historical condition, so the old town is a treasure trove of old doors. I took so many pictures of the doors there.

When I came to Suzhou so soon after Mexico, my interest in old doors continued and as I wander around the older parts of this city, I continue to shoot the doors. Now in Mexico, people looked at me sort of funny when I would bend down blocking he narrow sidewalks to take a picture of an interesting lock on a door, but here in Suzhou, they always look at me funny, so it is not big deal when I see the Chinese people looking at me with amazement in their eyes. I can imagine them saying to themselves “What is that crazy foreigner taking a picture of?

Oh well, Enjoy the old doors of Suzhou. Let me know if you like them and I'll post some of the wonderful doors I shot in Campeche.

And this is only a few of them!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Teaching English in China

My trip to China came about because I was asked to do some Teacher Training for Chinese Teachers who teach English to students here in Suzhou. After a month, I have gotten to know some of them very well. They have been teaching me to cook Chinese food, they have been giving me instructions to interesting places to visit, and they have been trying to teach me a few word of Chinese. I have developed a great deal of respect for these teachers and the great job they are doing under difficult circumstances.

There are a number of factors that make their job very hard. As I work with them every week I am learning as much about the Chinese system as they are about the Canadian. Officially my job was to help them better understand the Canadian system of education, and to give them some strategies to help them teach English, but I quickly learned that there was a lot more to it than that.

The biggest difficulty they have is their own mastery of English. I had some of them tell me that I was the first foreigner they have spoken to. All their English was learned in public school and and in college afterwards, and some of them learned it all from Chinese teachers. This situation is made worse, because once they start teaching, these young students become their only source of English conversation. They tell me that they are actually losing a lot of their English skills because of lack of practice. They have no one to speak to except the students who are themselves just learning. In order for some of the Teachers to understand me I have had to modify the way I speak to such a degree that during a Skype call home, my wife asked me why I was speaking to her like she was in grade one? The teachers have had to do this even more severely in their classrooms to accommodate their students , and they are losing the skills they developed in college.

The lack of English outside of schools creates another serious problem. The students have no real reason to learn English. They have no place to practice, and they see no need to learn it. The need is there though and getting more obvious all the time. I look around and see the biggest new apartment building and the biggest office towers advertising with English as prominent as Chinese, so just as the developers see the coming of the foreign boom to China and the need for English as a common language, I see that these students going through the schools now are going to need English to succeed in the International world that China is gearing up to exploit. The students, like children anywhere, do not see this. They speak Chinese everywhere they go. Other than to say “Hello” to the few foreigners and then run away giggling when we answer, they see no practical reason to learn or use English. To them they are studying English only to pass the exams. The students that do master English either because their parents pressure them, or someone else motivated them, are going to be the ones making the big salaries, driving the fancy cars, and living in the English named luxury apartments complexes . The lack of interest in English makes it terribly hard for the teachers to motivate the students to learn. At least ESL (English Second Language) learners in Canada are confronted constantly by the need to learn English to communicate, but here students just cannot see the need for English. Oh, the sign says "WET PAINT", but I didn't even need English to know that.

Lack of resources is the other major difficulty faced by these teachers. Their job is teaching English, but in most cases they are given standard exercises books, based primarily on Grammar. As I discussed the way reading was taught in canada with guided reading programs and explained about the hundreds of levered books needed in my little school of 300 students, I discovered that these teachers had no actual English books outside of the Exercise books. I explained the proven importance of reading aloud to students, but they explained they had no good books to read to their students. I discussed the importance of independent reading and was told the students had not books to read unless their parents bought some. When you realize that the schools here are between 1500 and 2000 students, you realize that it is almost impossible to do anything quickly about this. I thought I would be able to pick up books here, but there are none to be had anywhere. Even major book stores carry few if any English books. Even if teachers wanted to slowly build up a library, they are unable to get the books. I felt so bad about those hundreds of old children's novels I remember sitting in storage rooms because they were “old” and teachers didn't want to use them any any more.

Speaking to education officials in China, I realize that they recognize the difficulties these teachers are dealing with, and are trying to take steps to solve some of these problems, but they are such complex issues that it will take a long time to find solutions. Unfortunately the solutions may be too late for many of the students struggling to learn English in schools today. I think China recognizes the need to graduate an effective body of students able to function in the English speaking Global economic world that is coming to China, but they are still struggling to find the best way to do it. I like to think that in some small way I am over here helping with this.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Pictures of People

I take hundreds of photographs when I travel, and already on this trip to China I have close to 1000 pictures. I take pictures of scenery, sunsets, cars, and doors and windows (Stay tuned for a post on that), but I do not take a lot of pictures of people. My wife gets annoyed at me because I have to be reminded to even get her in some of our “holiday snaps”. Here in China I have actually done a better job at this, thanks to one of the teachers in one of my classes.

I asked all the teachers to e-mail me a little bit of information about themselves, and I asked for a picture of them so I could try to get to know them all. I started noticing a lot of pictures of the teachers and their children, but never was there any husbands in the photos. In fact often there was not even a husband mentioned. I couldn't help but wonder about this, but I was sort of afraid to ask. Why were there no husbands? Was this something I could ask, or should I just keep quiet about it? Was there a cultural thing I wasn't understanding?

Finally one teacher sent me a lovely picture of her, her daughter, her Mother, and her “husband's” mother. No husband, but at last he was sort of mentioned if only off-handed. I decided to e-mail her back and ask?

Of course the answer was simple. Her reply was short and to-the-point. There is never any husband in the picture, because he is always taking the picture. There are lots of pictures with the husbands, but it is the Teachers then taking the pictures themselves, so since I wanted a picture of them, I got the ones without the husbands. Duhhhh????

From then on, my mission was to take as many pictures of families, so they didn't have to have photos with one absent family member. As I explore the city, every time I see a husband taking a photo of his family, I stop and ask if I can take a picture for them with all of them in it. I've become pretty at explaining this with gestures and slow English, and most people really appreciate it. I also found out that although very few Chinese speak very much English, they all seem to know the phrase “Thank you very much”.

I have also noticed that I am a favouite subject of pictures. Many times I catch people sneaking photos of the strange foreigner with a beard and big hat. When I catch them doing this I stop them and then insist that I pose with them and then ask them to pose for a picture with my camera. In Shanghai we met three lovely young people with excellent English who we chatted with for a long time because they wanted a picture with me.

As a result of this, I find that I am actually taking more pictures of people in other situations, and I even have quite a few shots of my wife while she was visiting.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Suzhou (苏州市) – the older city

If you have been following my Blog, you have been reading all about modern Suzhou, and the area I am living in is between 10 and 15 years old, but there has actually been an established community in Suzhou for at least 2500 years. Coming from Canada, where a building is considered old if it is 200 years old, it is hard to comprehend something that old. Suzhou is actually one of the oldest cities in the area. After exploring the “new” area close to my new Chinese apartment, I decided to expand my excursions, and hopped on a bus to see what the rest of this interesting city is like.

The further west I went the more you could see things aging. Even the bus stops changed from shiny silver things with stylish curved plastic roofs to wooden structures with the typical tiled roofs with curved pointed corners we expect from China architecture.

Referring to my handy “What's ON in Suzhou” calendar with it's nice English map, I first headed to an area identified as pedestrian only across the Wai Chen He River. Getting off the bus at TGI Fridays (So much for Historical), I wandered into the area. It is very easy to get twisted around in this area as you follow interesting shopping areas, or go off down side streets in search of that interesting photo. Keep your wits about you; it is easy to get lost, because although most streets are labelled in Chinese and English, sometimes it is hard to find signs and sometimes the names vary slightly from the names on the maps.

This area is certainly interesting, but it is a strange mix of old and new, and is very commercial, with MacDonalds, KFC, and hundreds of Chinese stores. There are many old buildings, but also many new ones. I wandered here for a while, finally coming across a Temple with an amazing crowd of people. It was a weekend and it seems everyone came down here. Very few of them seem to be here for the temple however, as the big draw seems to just be the crowd itself. Everywhere you look there are vendors selling meat on a stick, and the Chinese cannot seem to get enough of it. There were places where the ground was covered with sticks from these popular treats, I'm not sure what they were. Some looked like squid, but others seemed to be chicken. I'm afraid I didn't get up the courage to do an actual “Taste-test”. There were so many people there it was almost impossible to get from one side of the area to the other. With so many people all crowded together here I picked up another titbit of information. I noticed that black seems to be the most popular colour for clothes. You don't really notice it normally, but in the crowd like this the popularity of black clothes really stood out.

I tired of fighting the crowd after a while, and headed down one of the many little side streets branching off from the central areas. These are really little more than lanes, and there is no room for cars to pass, and some are too narrow for cars at all. The scooters however continue to silently careen down even the narrowest passage, beeping frantically as they get close to move you out of their way. Walking down these narrow lanes you begin to see the older Suzhou. Old masonry buildings mostly painted white many years ago , with the tiled roofs often with weeds growing in the joints, and low doors revealed houses, tiny stores, fruit stands bike repair shops, and even a beauty shop with one chair and a lady getting her hair done. I don't think many tourists venture down these tiny streets, so although I was getting used to the stares, these people seemed really amused with this strange foreigner with the beard and the hat walking by their windows and doors.

I came out on one of the many canals running all through Suzhou, but this one finally was accessible. The buildings on one side were built close to the canal, with a paved walkway wide enough to ride a bike between them and the canal and you could walk along beside the canal. Crossing he many bridges spanning the canal brought you back into another business district with a busy street full of cars, so I walked back along he canal to try to find the bus back home.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Driving in China

As a long time “car-nut”, I always notice the particular vehicles in the countries I visit. I filled a media card in Cuba taking pictures of all the old cars, I enjoyed the old Volkswagens in Brazil and Mexico, and was fascinated by the way Japan has embraced the downsized cars, as well as their unique “Chopperized” scooters. I had not idea what to expect in China.

The first thing I noticed is that there are NO old cars at all. Everything is relatively new, I'd say most are less that five years old. I thought I might see some older communist era vehicles, or some older Japanese cars, but everything is new. This might be because I am living in a very modern area with lots of upwardly mobile successful people, who can afford new cars, but you would think there would be an occasional old car. The other thing is that there is very little individualization of cars. I do not see many options added, fancy paint, racing wheels – no customs at all. Really, other than seeing some models I have not seen before, the automotive scene in China is pretty boring.

I was also surprised at the amount of cars from Europe. I would have expected lots of Toyota, Honda Nissan, Mazda, and Hyundai, but although there are lots of the Asian brands, the Europeans certainly seem to have the market share. Almost all the taxies are Volkswagens, and the brands Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagens, Peugeot, and Citroen all seem to do well here. I saw one Cadillac, one Chevrolet, but all kinds of Buick – what is that all about? There were also some brands I did not recognize, assuming them to be home grown Chinese makes.

Now if the vehicles are not particularly exciting, I'd say driving certainly is. The road system is really very good, and their traffic lights are the best I have ever seen. Every light has a counter, that tells you exactly how many seconds you have remaining to get through the intersection. This makes it easy to know how long you have to wait for the light to change. Even the turning arrows have separate counters. Those red lights back home seem to take forever to change, but here I see that the longest you have to wait is about 30 seconds. Now this is a good idea – no actually it is a great idea, but it would help if the drivers actually followed the lights. Because you can see when the light is gong to change, drivers leave early, and many keep coming through the light even thought they can see they only have 2 seconds left. Fortunately I did not see much speeding, which is good, because there was lots of very slow drivers. I suspect that there are many new drivers who are not really that confident, so they drive slowly. Parking is obviously not included in any of he driving lessons. Drivers park anywhere, often double parking, and parking on the wrong way on a one way street – did he back all the way down there? Corners seem to be a favourite place to park; just nose into the curb and get out. Perhaps it is then harder for anyone to park behind you.

The horn seems to be the most important part of vehicles here in China. Everyone makes maximum use of their horns to warn people where they want to go. When overtaking another vehicle, they lay on the horn to get the slower vehicle to move out of the way, and even if they are turning on a red light, they blast the horn if someone is in their way. Of course the interesting thing is that because everyone is constantly blowing their horn, no one listens to them. On a bus ride from the airport, the driver would madly flash his lights and blast the horn when a vehicle was in his lane, but he always had to change lanes and find a way around, because I never saw anyone actually respond to the horns. It just seems to be habit now.

Drivers do not seem to look where they are going. When they want to pull into the road they just pull out. I have almost hit a couple of cars while riding a bike, as they turned corners or pulled out of driveways, and the rule of “catch the driver's eye” is useless, because they all just seem to look only forward. I noticed this particularly when walking. Even if you have a “walk” signal, drivers will look straight ahead, ignoring pedestrians. The “walk” signals certainly do not mean it is safe to cross.

Now if the cars are not particularly interesting, the scooters and bicycles more than make up for them. Here is where you see the old vehicles. There are probably more scooters in China than there are cars, and the variety is amazing. You can buy them for less than $1000.00 and they come in every imaginable colour from pink to lime green. Most of them are electric, and there are very few gas motorcycles. They vary from simple bicycles with electric motors added, to fancy high end models with plastic wind shields & skirts, wooden floorboards, and chrome wrap-a-round bumpers. You see anyone riding them, from young people, to grandmothers, city workers, to business women in fancy suits and high heels. They do not drive on the main roads, sharing special lanes with bicycles, and I don't even think they need to be licensed or registered, as they all seem to have the licence plates I saw on the showroom models.

One of the first things you learn when arriving in China is to watch out for the scooters. Pedestrians have to be very careful. Crossing a road involved first getting across the bicycle/scooter lane before you can even think about the cars. These scooters run so quietly you cannot hear them coming, and they can go quite fast. In addition, they do not seem to follow any traffic rules. They go through red lights, turn against the lights, and even drive down the bike lane on the wrong side of the road. Looking at the condition of some of them I'd say this is a problem for them as well – many are scraped, bent, cracked, and dented. Looking over the rows of them locked up in parking areas all over the city, very few are without some damage.

I brought my international driver's licence, thinking I might want to rent a car. I think for now I'll stick to two feet.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Update on the Suzhou NIght Lights

Well, the more time I spend here in China, the more I am surprised. Just when I think I know something I find out I was wrong. It has happened again.

I went out on a nice evening with my telephoto lens on my camera to get some better pictures of the lights on the top of all the building. Some of these apartment
complexes are so tall you need a long lens to get a picture of the top floors. It was a lovely warm evening and I walked down to the bridge over Jin Ji Lake thinking I'd get a few photos of the bridge, as it ia also all illuminated like so much else.

I got some great shots, and was going to edit my post on the lights with some better shots. I started back at about 8:55 pm, and at 9:00, suddenly I noticed it was darker. I looked around and realized that the streetlight had gone from five bulbs to just one - so much for no light burning out. I thought. Then I noticed that the b
lue strip along the top of the apartments beside me was gone. Then as I watched, all over the city, the lights on top of the building were going out.

Now the powers that are in charge of the lighting of Suzhou could have read my Blog, and decided t
hat my suggestion that it was a bit of a waste was a valid one, and decided to turn everything out, but I suspect that this display is only on late at night on the weekends, and goes out every night at 9:00 to conserve power.

I apologize to the Suzhou Light & Power folks. I now see that this beautiful display of lighting is only on during peek hours when everyone can enjoy. Once again I am surprised at how this city has been carefully planned for the enjoyment of the residents, and the nightlight are just one more part of that plan.