While I’m posting about China and Xi’an, I want to mention the yummy traditional foods. I’ll keep this post brief, and allow Uwe’s photos from our visit to do the talking. Besides, my mouth keeps watering just looking at them.
In Xi’an’s historic Muslim quarter, vendors were baking, frying, steaming and cooking all sorts of delicious treats. These ranged from food that was deep fried in woks to marinated meats on skewers.
I couldn’t resist the piles of beautifully plaited and stamped breads,
as well as the stacks of sesame and bean paste desserts…
I injured my back through overwork, recklessness, and sheer, stupid, stubbornness. I was incapacitated for over two months. If only I hadn’t climbed the Great Wall of China after I first hurt myself. If only I’d slowed down, even just for a day or two, while we were traveling. If only….
But no. What are you suggesting, that I should have slowed down and maybe let myself miss something???
So now we were home, and I was down for the count. Have you ever experienced a herniated disk? Those of you who have know what kind of pain I’m talking about. Either give me the good drugs, or just shoot me now. At the doctor’s office I actually begged for pain killers.
The Frau Doktor’s brow furrowed. “You mean you want me to give you a prescription for something you can take as soon as you get home?” she asked slowly.
“No. I mean I want you to give me a shot of something, before I leave your office. Like, right now,” I whined. “And yes, I want you to give me a prescription for something I can take as soon as I get home, too!”
She obliged me. I was able to hobble the few blocks back to our apartment.
When I got there, I bargained with every god in every place in the world we’d ever visited. “Just let me not be crippled,” I prayed. “If I heal and can walk again, I promise I’ll do yoga – and tai chi – and stretching exercises – and aerobic workouts – and never ever ever overschedule myself, from now until the day I die.” Because if the pain didn’t stop, that day was going to be a whole lot sooner than I’d anticipated. This HURT.
It took two months before I got back to healthy. Thanks to the German mix of physical therapy, acupuncture, anti-inflammatory meds, x-rays, and yes, those really good drugs, I didn’t need to be killed and put out of my misery.
P.S.: I kept that bargain with the gods. Almost a decade later, I religously start every morning with a routine of yoga – tai chi – stretching – and aerobic exercise. Superwoman is retired, and she’s not returning. I cut back on the amount I’m willing (and able) to work doing massage therapy.
As the memory of the pain receded, I got my health back. And, dude, — I climbed the Great Wall of China!
I blame everything to do with my health on the Great Wall of China.
It’s a long story. In other words, it’s perfect for a blog post. It begins with a trip that started in Beijing and ended in Tokyo…
Uwe and I were going to be gone for more than a month, and that means all the people who come for massage therapy wanted to get in for a last appointment before I left. No problem, I worked longer hours with more sessions, I was Superwoman in those days, I never got sick and was pretty vain about how healthy and strong I was.
Was. The weekend before our trip I got a wild hair up my a** and voluntarily defrosted the freezer. Why, I have no idea.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. So I chipped away, contorted over the ice with a sharp tool and a bucket of steaming water all afternoon. I woke the next morning with a low back that was screaming, and no time to take off to rest it. Not with Asia waiting for us! We climbed on a series of planes and 20 hours later arrived in Beijing, my back sending out those periodic, pinging, you-are-going-to-be-sorry signals. Uwe and I like to see, um, absolutely everything when we visit a new place, so I figured I would rest my back in between sight-seeing at some point.
And then the next day we went to climb the Great Wall of China. Gentle readers, I tell you, I stood at the bottom of the stairs and looked UP.
I calculated the Wall’s height and the angle of the steps and knew I was going to regret this. In typical Campbell fashion my next thought was roughly, “You may never get another chance to climb the Great Wall. Suck up, shriner. Start climbing.” And I did.
We didn’t allow for much down time. Our entire trip was terrific, but somewhere in Japan I began to hear an alarming clicking sound when I moved: bony eminences rubbing against one another. Or something. I’d figure that problem out once we got home again.
Of course, once we got home, every single one of those massage patients who’d been counting down the days before I returned all wanted new appointments, and instead of resting I dived back into work with a vengeance. I was Superwoman, right?
NOTE: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz first appeared in print on 17 May, 1900; the film premiered on 12 August, 1939. Here is one of my very first posts, about author L. Frank Baum, bats, and monkeys…. — Jadi
Both sides of my family hail from the Northeast. We lived for a while in Cazenovia, one of the most beautiful small towns in upstate NY. Caz is just a few miles from Chittenango Falls, and that town was the birthplace of L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz.
My sisters and I first saw The Wizard of Oz film on an old black and white television set we called Lucille. Lucille was temperamental (“Dad! Lucille’s on the fritz again!”), but her screen was big.
It was years before I finally saw The Wizard of Oz on a color television. How I gasped when Dorothy opened that door and stepped out into Munchkin Land! But in color or black and white, to this day I don’t much like monkeys.
Some years ago my husband and I traveled to Bali. The Balinese fill their temples with statues of the strange half-bird, half-god creature known as Garuda, a lion-like Barong, lots of sinuous snakes, and Hanuman the monkey god. The cultural heart of Bali is Ubud, home to the Monkey Forest which contains the Monkey Temple. I wrapped a sarong around my waist before we entered to show respect, and I know I was curious as to what we’d find.
The temple grounds were filled – no, overrun – with crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) monkeys. Dozens of them rested on the platforms to the Pura Dalem Agung Padangtegal temple. Many more watched us from up in the canopy of thick jungle trees and vines. But worst of all, a horde of monkeys scampered our way as we drew near. They were used to people and accustomed to visitors who bring them food. We walked slowly, not making any sudden movements, keeping our arms stretched out with our hands opened. I hoped my empty palms signaled: no food here!
I breathed a huge sigh of relief when we left the grounds. But I wonder about the sanity (to say nothing of the later health) of tourists who bring bananas and fruit to hand to the macaques. Those critters are feral!
Bali has another disturbing indigenous species: bats.
A huge colony of the largest fruit eating bats I have ever seen, all with wingspans of an easy three feet, hung upside down in a very tall tree. I was horrified by their size.
Then they began flying. In the middle of the day. Bright tropical sun highlighted the reddish membranes of their webbed skins. They flew in loops, more and more gigantic bats, circling lower. I began to feel dizzy as a scratchy voice in my head murmured, “I’ll get you, my little pretty …”
Macaques and bats had morphed together into L. Frank Baum’s flying monkeys. Never underestimate the power of imagination in children…or adults. That movie scene still haunts me. Like I said, to this day I don’t much like monkeys.
NOTE: Today marks the beginning of the 5 day festival of the Vietnamese goddess Bà Chúa Xứ. In her honor I am reprinting my original post about her cult. —Jadi
To see the Mekong Delta on our own by boat proved complicated and required more time than we had. We signed on instead for a tour. We were lucky: only a young couple from Holland had signed up as well.
Travel by boat we did! We took long boats, short boats, boats powered by motors or by human arms. We visited floating markets and stumbled into a tourism promotion festival going on in Chau Doc.
For me the highlight was the festival for Bà Chúa Xứ, the Lady of the Realm on the border to Cambodia. The shrine to Bà Chúa Xứ houses the most important cult in southern Vietnam.
We had the really good luck to visit Bà Chúa Xứ’s temple during the holiest period of the year. Her three-day festival starts at the beginning of the rainy season on the twenty-third day of the fourth lunar month.
The Lady of the Realm protects female entepreneurs (important in a country like Vietnam where women play a major role in small family businesses). Bà Chúa Xứ’s cult has a fascinating belief in both fecundity and the capacity of the goddess to multiply all that she touches — including money.
If you invoke Bà Chúa Xứ’s help, you must make a pilgrimage to thank your benefactress for her assistance. (She is remorseless to those who betray her favor!) Traditionally men need to spend 9 years making an annual pilgrimage, and 7 years are required of women.
In the courtyard before her temple, spirit money is burned in huge vats.
I wanted to make an offering inside the temple and decided to brave the crowds.
I joined the slow moving throngs and we inched our way forward. All around me pilgrims carried tall flowers,
and men bore platters with decorated sacrifices of whole pigs on their shoulders.
People bought baskets filled with offerings of fruit,
and still others carried lit sticks of incense, held high.
The crowds were so thick that I was concerned someone would set my hair on fire!
Once I was inside the temple I managed to make my way up to Bà Chúa Xứ’s altar. Each day in progressive rituals her image is washed and cleaned. On this day, old women were changing her robes. I was unable to get close enough though, and made my offering later out in the (relatively) less-crowded courtyard.
The goddess originally resided on the top of Sam Mountain; her image is popularly thought to have grown from the stones of the landscape.
She wished to be worshipped and caused the locals to move her statue down to Vĩnh Tế village, where her temple still stands today.
I was surprised and moved to realize that her image had mass and strength rather than simple beauty. Some reports state that her statue is a female Shiva (Khmer). Other sources equate her with the queen Thien Y A Na (Cham), the goddess Tin Hau (Chinese), and the Lady Buddha (India). Bà Chúa Xứ is also named The Black Lady, and I see a likeness to Christianity’s Black Madonna.
Bà Chúa Xứ is a powerful deity protecting and bestowing prosperity on her people in the Mekong Delta. In such a fertile area it makes sense to believe in a benevolent, generous goddess.
When we visit the temples in Laos, we often see monks tying special white cotton strings to the wrist of a person’s right hand. Sometimes the monk ties connecting strings to whole groups of people. What are they, and what was the significance? The answer, it turns out, varies in the different regions of Laos (as well as the Sipsong Panna autonomous prefecture of the Tai Lü in the extreme south of Yunnan, China, and Northern and Isan Thai cultures) and depends on time and place….
The strings are tied in the Baci ceremony, and the meaning depends on the occasion. Take weddings, for instance. According to an old Laotian legend, the cotton threads are tied to ensure a happy marriage. We each have a tree in the heavenly garden, and that tree has branches intertwined with your predestined partner. When our trees come to this earthly existence, the cotton threads binding them are cut and we’re born separated and alone. If you can find your soul mate again after searching for him or her, at your marriage you are rejoined by retying the thread.
But in Laos, threads are also tied on newborn babies and their mothers , or on people going home or departing from home, which explained the many men, women, and children with these bracelets we saw at airports. The ceremony is performed for specific events in a life: success, health (both for the cured and the sick), and annual festivals like the sacred Wax Castle Procession in Vientiane (we witnessed a high number of Baci ceremonies during that time).  The ceremony is done after a death, too, to bring back any wandering, missing spirits and reinforce the harmony of the surviving family members.
The entire ceremony is rich is symbolism. The white color means purity, and the strings are believed to bind the 32 kwan, organs or parts to the soul, to prevent them from wandering away. (The Baci ceremony is also known by the term su kwan, “calling of the soul”.)  When kwan wander away from your body, this creates an imbalance in the soul that may lead to illness and bad luck.
The ceremonies take place in Buddhist temples, but kwan and the Baci ceremony predate Buddhism.  I’ve had strings tied to my right wrist in Buddhist and Hindu temples from Thailand to India, but have never taken part in a Baci ceremony. Regardless, the white bracelet should be worn for at least three days. Then the threads can be unknotted or allowed to fall off on their own, but should never be cut.
NOTES:  A Baci ceremony for new mothers and their babies is performed to welcome the baby, and to recall any kwan that may have wandered off from the mother during the birth.  The Wax Castle Procession falls on an especially auspicious lunar calendar date: the full moon of the seventh lunar month.  Concept of Kwan: Kwan are components of the soul but have a more abstract meaning than this. The kwan have been variously described by Westerners as: “vital forces, giving harmony and balance to the body, or part of it”, “the private reality of the body, inherent in the life of men and animals from the moment of their birth,” and simply as “vital breath”. – Pom Outama Khampradith, Bounheng Inversin, and Tiao Nithakhong Somsanith, writing for Lao Heritage Foundation.  Check out my posts about the Rocket Festival we saw on our first trip to Laos!
P.S: Baci in Italian means kisses, and it’s an awesome chocolate candy that contains a whole hazelnut at the center.
This is the third and final installment of my posts on the Bun Bang Fai, the Rocket Fest that takes place to usher in the rainy season all over Laos and parts of Thailand. We literally stumbled into the Bun Bang Fai on our first visit to Laos…
This 3-day festival celebrates the start of the rainy season by shooting rockets off into the heavens.  Teams compete for awards with home made rockets. HOME MADE.
Take a moment to contemplate that fact.
Contestant teams have to tie their home made rockets to shoot off…. from a bamboo tower.
Each team is required to climb the scaffolding, tie and light the rocket themselves. Take another moment and contemplate that fact. While you’re at it, please pray that the rockets head up in the sky and not down into the watching crowds….
The bringing in of the rockets is part of the entertainment. The festivities include plenty of face paint, dressing up in women’s clothing and lots of gleeful music.
Oh yeah: and plenty of alcohol. During the festival there’s lots of dancing and singing, bands perform, and the road is lined with make shift stands, set up by people to sell food and goods.
The bamboo scaffold for shooting the rockets was set up a goodly ways away from the crowds (no doubt due to past experience). You need a spot in a clearing with no ground vegetation.
But what a terrific way to mark the change of seasons: throw a village party, give out some prizes (and these were significant: our guide told us a new house and a water buffalo were among the prizes to be awarded), and shoot off some fireworks. Just make sure that they’re home made, by a team of you and your friends.