Roaming America’s South West

Road tripping is my absolute favourite way to travel.  When you take a tour, you are stuck following around a tour guide.  Similarly, when you take a train or a bus, you can’t choose when you stop and every moment is planned.  Road trips allow freedom and independence.  Road trips in North America are ESPECIALLY fantastic, because language barriers aren’t an issue and you generally know what to expect.  Someday, I plan to write all about the 2 weeks road trip Dave and I took right before we left for Guiyang, but today, I’m going to write about the 4 days we spent travelling the South-western United States!

IMG_9970
Spoiler:  It was one VERY beautiful roadtrip!!!

Leaving Nevada

We began our trip in Nevada, a couple of days after Jeff and Liz’s wedding.  We rented a car from Budget, which we actually regret.  We got on the road 2 hours late because they didn’t have a car ready for us when we arrived (we pre-booked, in case you’re wondering). After we started to make a bit of a stink, they actually called a car over from the airport location so that we could go on our way.  The real kicker is that they charged us EXTRA when we returned the car back at the airport location because it wasn’t the original place where we booked it…

Budget
When I asked Dave why he didn’t push for a discount after they made us wait 2 hours for our car, he told me that the receptionist was so snarky and slow that he was sure she’d just make us wait longer.  I’d pass on Budget in Las Vegas…

I’d recommend Fox Renta Car instead, which is who my brother and sister in law rent from when they’re down in the Nevada area.  I wish I’d known about them ahead of time.  They seem to be a lot more customer service oriented.  Either way… we DID get on the road eventually…

Zion National Park

IMG_0002

Although it took a while to get going, we arrived at Zion National Park with enough time to enjoy some views.

IMG_9846
Views like this 🙂

Just outside of the park, there is a small town called Springdale.  Utah does National Parks right…instead of driving into the park and trying to find parking (which is limited), you can take a shuttle directly from Springdale!  We didn’t actually realize this, so we drove into the park ourselves, but we definitely made use of the free shuttle buses to get around within the park.

 

While on the shuttle, we learned about the park and saw some gorgeous sights.  We were especially happy to have the shuttle service because we only had about 2 hours to see the park, which is not nearly enough time to really appreciate the magnificent landscapes of Zion Canyon.  By using the shuttle service, we were able to hop on and off to see specific areas of the park.

My favourite tours are ones where I learn things about the surrounding area.  Zion did this very well.   While the bus is driving around the park, there is a recording that teaches you about the geological history of the area.  We learned that Utah gets monsoons, that flash floods are responsible for the beautiful scenery.  We also learned that different types of rock account for the various colours we saw within the park.

IMG_9848
A perfect example of colour diversity at Zion Canyon

We eventually wound up at the base of the canyon, where we could see the river that formed this beautiful area.  Although it doesn’t look like much, the Virgin River is responsible for wearing down the rocks that surrounded us.

On our drive out, the sun finally began to shine, and that’s when I was able to capture the true beauty of Zion National Park.

 

Zion had one final gem to show us before we made our way to Cedar City for the night.  The Checkerboard Mesa was quite a spectacular view, so we got out and took some final pictures of the area before moving on.

Bryce Canyon

bryce-canyon-national-park-ga1

The following day, we continued onto Bryce Canyon; our second stop in Utah.  Bryce is a lot like Zion, in that it has gorgeous rock formations and beautiful scenery.  Somehow, though, I think it manages to be even MORE beautiful!  The colours at Bryce Canyon are stunning and I couldn’t possibly take enough pictures.

We decided to hike into the canyon because we had more time than we had at Zion.  I ended up with some of the most beautiful pictures I’ve ever taken.

It seemed like the further we went into the Canyon, the more colourful it became.  The hoodoos (odd rock formations) really blew us away!  When I started doing research on the canyon for this blog post, I learned that Bryce Canyon actually has the largest collection of Hoodoos in the entire world!

Unfortunately, we did eventually have to turn around.  Although we’d planned a 5 mile hike, we only brought enough water for a 2 mile hike.  We made it to the base of the canyon and then had to turn around.  Still the views were gorgeous on the way back up (which is lucky because I needed something to distract me from how thirsty I was!!)!!

Onto Arizona

The following morning, we left Panguitch for Arizona.  On the way, we stopped at The Rock Stop, a little store we’d discovered on our way to Bryce Canyon.  The owner is one of the only people in Southern Utah to sell coffee, so if you’re down that way, be sure to check him out!!!  He makes a mean iced latte, and sells all sorts of rocks and fossils.  We picked up gifts for our nephews, and my brother while we were there, and had a few great chats with the owner.

footer-unmerged
Pictured here:  One of the only places to find coffee in Utah!  Mormons typically don’t drink caffeine, so it’s tough to find your fix.  This little shop is well worth the stop!!

The other cool little stop we made was a preview to the Hoover Dam.  Glen Canyon Dam is much smaller, but beautiful.  We took some time to check it out and stretch our legs during this rather long part of our road trip.

Finally, after about 6 hours of driving, we made it to the mother of all Canyons:  The Grand Canyon.

IMG_0160

The thing that we found most striking about the Grand Canyon is how big it is.  It isn’t as colourful as Zion and it doesn’t have Bryce’s Hoodoos, but it’s so massive…it’s truly spectacular to see.

To give you an idea of scale, here are some comparisons:

Zion Canyon:  15 miles long – 1/2 mile deep

Bryce Canyon: 12 miles long – 1/2 mile deep (in it’s largest area)

Grand Canyon:  277  miles long – 1 mile (and a bit) deep

That’s a lot of canyon!!!  It really never seemed to end!

3078-004-9B8860F2
Once more, this entire canyon was formed by water.  Unfortunately, we didn’t really have the time to hike into the Canyon, so we didn’t personally get to see the River up close.

Although there are several places you can see the Canyon (some viewpoints are only a few hours away from Vegas), we chose to see the South Rim near Flagstaff, Arizona.  The South Rim is known for spectacular views.  We were on the eastern part of the South Rim, which is important to note.  The area near Las Vegas is also the South Rim, but it’s hours from where we were.

Grand-Canyon-National-Park-map.mediumthumb
The blue star is where most people go see the Canyon (closest to Las Vegas and where you can see the glass bridge). We were where the red star is, in the Arizona portion of the Canyon

Unfortunately, we were both pretty tuckered out at this point (and overheating), so we didn’t do any hiking, but we’d love to go back some day and see more of The Grand Canyon.  With 277 miles to explore, I don’t think I could see it all in a lifetime!!!

The Hoover Dam

Map_Hoover_Dam1

Our final stop of the road trip was to see one of the greatest engineering accomplishments in American history:  The Hoover Dam.  The dam lays on the boarder between Arizona and Nevada and is now nearly 100 years old.  It was built during the Great Depression as a way to control water flow into the area, with an added bonus of providing electricity to the surrounding area.  This dam made it possible for people to make use of an otherwise useless portion of land, and it was quite the thing to see!

While we were there, the temperature was hovering around 47 degrees Celsius, so we took cover in the visitor center, where we learned about the dam’s history and functions.

There were plenty of displays set up and you could learn something no matter what happens to interest you .  Dave was fascinated with the engineering and wanted to learn more about how the dam works, but I focused on the history of the dam and what it meant for the country. (Read the captions on the following pictures for more info)

Eventually, it was time to drop off our rental car and head to McCarran airport for our 8pm flight.   We arrived in Winnipeg sunburned and pretty sore from our travels, but it was a worthwhile experience, to say the least!

9fb2eb462d3bea74e7b549e58c30afab--cityscapes-nice-city (1)
Winnipeg’s Skyline

***A Note to My Fellow Nomads***

If you’re thinking of taking a trip like ours, I had Dave make a map of our journey.  We spent 2 full days on the road plus 2 half days.  If it had been possible, I would have added an extra 2 days so we could have hiked in Zion and the Grand Canyon as well.  I’d also have brought a hat on our hike in Bryce as well as additional water.  Our drive looked like this:

Day 1:  Vegas to Zion – Roughly 2.5 hours.  Stayed in Cedar City – 1.5 hours from Zion. (You can stay closer to Zion, but prices drop significantly if you drive a bit towards Bryce)

Day 2: Cedar City to Bryce – 1.5 hours.  We stayed in Penguitch (about a half hour away)

Day 3:  Penguitch to The South Rim of the Grand Canyon – 5 hours.  We then drove to Flagstaff for the night – 1.5 hours)

Day 4:  Flagstaff to Vegas (with a pit stop at the Hoover Dam).  Flagstaff to Dam – 3.5 hours.  Dam to Vegas – Less than an hour

Total Driving:  Around 16 hours in 4 days.  Doable, with PLENTY to see along the way!

roadtrip

I’ll be back soon with stories about our stay in Canada!

Viva Las Vegas

Las Vegas…the home of gambling, nightlife and buffets.  Before heading to Manitoba for our annual visit, Dave and I had a 10 day detour planned that involved seeing two of our good friends get married in Sin City.  Vegas was quite a change from the usual travelling we do (everyone speaks English there, for one…), so I thought it would be fun to write about our experiences.

Dave and I arrived in Vegas on a hot summer afternoon.  I suppose that is a little repetitive, because “Vegas” and “hot” are fairly synonymous!  The temperature was averaging around 40-45 degrees Celsius while we were there, with 5-10% humidity!  My hair wouldn’t curl, my lips were so chapped they were bleeding and I was pounding back water like it was going out of style.  Vegas took some getting used to…

FB_IMG_1501617194184
We were all DYING in this picture! We were directly in the sun. Notice the squinting!!!

Luckily for me, Dave had a lot of work to do so we were able to stay inside (with the AC on!) until about 5pm every day.  I don’t handle heat well, so I was more than happy to spend the time indoors, prepping for next semester.  As the afternoon came to a close, we’d leave our apartment and head out to see the sights…and the lights!

Las Vegas….home of Heat, Sights and Lights!

 

Neither Dave or I are really into gambling (I hate seeing my money disappear without at least making an awesome memory…), but we still spent our fair share of time in the casinos.  They are far more spectacular than I expected them to be, and I have to admit, I enjoyed them much more than I thought I would.  The architecture at Caesar’s Palace was out of this world, and the canals along the Venetian were gorgeous.

And of course, no trip to Vegas is complete without a stop by the Belagio (and its fountains!).  We stopped by the fountains a few times.  They’re just so beautiful!  The hotel is also quite nice, although we didn’t spend a tonne of time going through it.

We did spend a bit of time in New York New York (yes…twice), but not so much for the casino as for for the show we saw there…

Las Vegas:  home of Show girls, Show-offs and Shows!

09a84389d53efc35e83bc57a33016733--vintage-advertisements-vintage-ads

With so many different shows to see in Vegas, it’s nearly impossible to choose just one!  Celine Dion, Brittany Spears and Donny and Marie Osmond all have permanent residencies there, and there are countless other musical performances coming and going out of Vegas in any given month.  While we were there we saw ads for everyone from the Backstreet Boys, to Elton John, to Mariah Carey.

And if music isn’t what you’re into, you can see comedians, magicians, dancers and so much more!  Blue Man Group is a popular show, and David Copperfield tickets sell for big bucks!  There are also exhibits to see, such as Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, The Bodies Exhibit and a sort of museum full of artifacts from the Titanic.

Of course, you can’t talk about Vegas without bringing up one particular group of performers that defy gravity and wow audiences all over the world.  Cirque de Soleil has 6 shows that run in Vegas daily.  Dave and I always loved going to see Cirque when they came through Winnipeg when we lived in Manitoba, so I got smart and bought him tickets to a show for his birthday!  There were so many to choose from, but ultimately, I chose Zumanity, because it was the most ‘Vegasy’ of the shows we could have seen.  Cirque did not let us down.  We loved the show and wished we’d had the time (and money!) to have seen Ka or O as well.  Maybe the opportunity will arise some time in the future.  I sure hope so!

Freemont is also a great stop if you want a fun time.  There are free concerts there all the time.  The night we arrived, Anne Wilson was performing, but we missed it because Jet Lag sucks.  The night we were down on Freemont, Good Charlotte was playing.  There are plenty of other things to do on Freemont as well.  You can stop and take photos with buskers, see contortionists and even zipline above the historic road!

There you have it:  Vegas:  Home of bright lights, a surplus of shows and hellish heat.   We had a great time during our week there, and our road trip was even better!  Stay tuned for more on that!

 

Beautiful Suzhou – Snaps from the City

In a week from today, we will begin our trip back to Canada for the summer!  First, we’ll be stopping by Las Vegas to see some friends get married (more on that next week!) and we also have plans to drive around the area a bit to see The Grand Canyon in all its glory. We were originally planning to take a 10 day road trip back to Manitoba, but those plans fell through when we learned that the car rental alone would cost us $1500.  So, instead, we’re going to take a camping trip at our favourite park (Rushing River in Ontario) while we’re back.

 

I am excited to cook over the fire, and wake up to the sound of loons, but mostly I look forward to the smell of fresh air and being surrounded by trees.  I miss the smell of trees a lot.  I actually played a gig a few weeks back at a large park just outside of Shanghai.  It was the most grass I’d seen in about a year.  Since then, I’ve been dying to get back into the Canadian wilderness.

 

That’s not to say I don’t love Suzhou though!  Lately, it’s been quite rainy, but for about a month before the rain hit, we had gorgeous clear skies and (mostly) clean air.  I took advantage of that time to snap some shots of the city we currently call home.  I thought people might like to see Suzhou the way I see it.

 

Suzhou has plenty of beautiful parks and gardens.  I know I’ve posted some of these pictures of them before, but they’re just so pretty, I have to show you again!

 

Suzhou also has some interesting architecture outside of their gardens.  For some reason I don’t understand, China is obsessed with creating replicas of famous buildings from around the world.  Beijing has a replica of Sydney Opera House, and Shanghai has its very own copy of the Eiffel Tower, and Suzhou apparently, didn’t want to feel left out.  So they made a replica of London Bridge (sort of).

 

There are definitely some inaccuracies, but over all, it looks pretty cool.  The bridge is mostly used for wedding pictures, and the surrounding area has plenty of places for photo-ops.

 

Although Suzhou is pretty during the day, I find this water-town most beautiful at night.   Dave and I have spent many evenings walking around, taking pictures of the high-rises that are popping up all around SIP (we live in Suzhou Industrial Park).   I love the way the buildings here are all lit up.

 

The canals are also gorgeous at night.  The reflections from the buildings give them a dream-like feel.

 

Of course, Xinghai Square is such a buzz of lights and traffic, it makes for some very interesting night photos as well.

 

The city recently replaced the lights along the street outside of our apartment complex, which was a nice change.  The old ones, though pretty, were getting pretty rusty, but the new ones are nice and bright white.

 

Central park is also very pretty at night.  We often walk through there on our way to (or from) one of our favourite restaurants:  Lu Yu.  They specialize in a type of roast fish that’s unlike any fish you’ve ever eaten in your life.

riverside_grilled_fish_566x424_fillbg_88cea81f46
Kao Yu:  It tastes better than it looks!

Kao Yu has actually become a bit of a weekly tradition we have with some friends.  We walk down there (it’s about a half hour walk each way), and meet up to discuss our weeks and enjoy some good food and draft beer.  The walk there takes us through Suzhou’s Central Park, and I’ve brought my camera along a few times now.

But as much as we like Kao Yu, there is one restaurant in Suzhou we love even more.  A few months back, we told our bilingual friend, Kevin, that if he could find us a restaurant that makes Guizhou food (the province where we lived prior to moving to Suzhou), that we would take him there for dinner.  We’ve gone there pretty much every week since he found it.  We’ve brought countless friends and even people visiting from America and Argentina…every person we’ve brought has been floored by how good the food is!

In addition to the food and the company being so great at 去贵州, the view is also pretty spectacular.  We usually sit outside, across from the little island near Suzhou University.

Of course, I’m not the only one that’s caught on that Suzhou is an incredibly photographic city.  My friend, Kevin, also enjoys taking photos of this gorgeous place we all call home.  I asked him if I could include some of his shots, and he kindly said I could. Here they are:

That’s all for this post!  I’ll be back soon with an update on life here.  We’ve been so incredibly busy lately!  There are plenty of stories to come!

See you soon!

Skipping Over to Seoul

After my last post, I’m sure many of you are wondering why Dave and I choose to stay in such a polluted country (we both ended up with chest colds after that sandstorm, by the way…).  Well, there are plenty of reasons.

  1. The cost of living is low and salaries are high
  2. Suzhou is a gorgeous city where there is lots to see and do
  3. Living in China provides challenges that make life a lot more interesting
  4. Working in China as a teacher, I’m able to make a huge impact.  It’s a great feeling
  5. The holidays……3.5 months per year, to be exact….
china_national_day
China loves its parties!!

In addition to summer holidays, I also get 5 weeks for Spring Festival, a week for National Day and several small holidays throughout the year as well.  Tomb Sweeping is a yearly cultural holiday that takes place in March/April.  I had 3 days off, so Dave and I decided to hop on over to Seoul.

1632_w
Seoul was just of of many options we had for this short little holiday.  We also considered Japan and Taiwan, but it came down to flight costs.  Even during the  holiday, tickets were very reasonable!

It only takes about an hour and a half to fly to Seoul, but when you add in train-rides to Shanghai, plus the drive from Seoul’s airport to downtown, we really didn’t have a whole lot of time to see the sights.  Still, we made the most of the 36 hours we had!!!

 

dmz25
Much to Dave’s chagrin, we weren’t able to visit the neutral zone between North and South Korea.  Personally, I’d be happy to go my whole life without seeing North Korea…

As always, we found a hotel close to the metro line, and found our way around the city that way.  Metros are great because you can get from one end of the city to another in so much less time than it takes to drive.  Unfortunately, Metros are also terrible in Asia, because their maps sometimes look like this:

seoulsublet_subwaymap2
If I’d been alone, I would have spent about 20 of my 36 hours in Seoul just trying to find my stop.  Luckily, Dave is weirdly good at this stuff!

Many people go to Seoul for the shopping or the vibrant night life, but Dave and I aren’t big into either of those things.  Instead, we head for Namsan Park and Mountain, where we were able to see Seoul Tower and a beautiful panorama of the city.

IMG_8624
Our view from the cable car

A ‘bonus’ sight Dave and I saw while on Namsan mountain were Seoul’s Love Locks.  The idea is simple:  if you love someone, get a padlock, engrave your names onto it, lock it to a bridge and throw away the key.  This action is suppose to signify that you are bound to a person forever.  Of course, 1 or 2 of these locks wouldn’t really be noteworthy, but all around the world, couples are creating mass displays with their ‘love locks’.

Love_padlocks_on_the_Butchers'_Bridge_(Ljubljana)
Sweet, right?

Sure, it’s a romantic idea…but it’s also become a bit of a problem in some parts of the world!  Paris once had the world’s most famous collection of love locks, but officials had to remove the locks off of Pont de Arts bridge because the weight of them was going to cause the bridge to collapse!   The problem was so extreme that the additional weight on the bridge was the equivalent of 20 elephants!

logo-for-blog-copy
If you ever see a sign like this, you’ll now understand why

Love Locks have been around for ages, all over the world.  They were made most famous in Paris, but their origins trace back to China and Siberia as well.  Seoul has quite an impressive display, and officials there were prepared there.  They created places for the locks to be placed that were actually designed to hold the weight.  The displays were lovely.

I spent quite a bit of time looking at those locks….they were really quite impressive.  They seem colourful from afar, but up close, you can see that there are actually quite a few old and rusted locks among the shiny new ones.  I guess displays like this don’t happen over night!

When we were done at Namsan, we decided to visit one of Seoul’s many parks.  We chose 1 park specifically because of its many Geo Caches.  Dave and I each found a couple, and we enjoyed a lovely walk among the budding trees.

There were some interesting sculptures in the park as well.

We spent both our evenings in Seoul enjoying fantastic Korean food!  I wouldn’t say South Korea is the best place to visit for vegetarians, but if you like meat, this is the place for you!  Meat is grilled fresh right in front of you, and when it’s done, you wrap it in a piece of leaf lettuce, along with Kim Chi and whatever other little dishes they give you.  It’s some of the freshest, healthiest tasting food I’ve ever had!

I’m a little sad we didn’t have more time to see some of the rest of South Korea, but I can say without a doubt that Dave and I will be heading back that way again some time soon. Korea is absolutely lovely.  The people are friendly and helpful, the service industry is WAY more customer service based than China’s and the city, in general, is very organized!

Seoul02
Unfortunately, I didn’t take this picture, but I wanted you to see Seoul at its most beautiful and my camera just can’t capture a photo like this!

In fact, I saw something on our last night there that even puts Canada to shame!  I noticed a stack of free post cards at our hostel and picked one up.  It turns out that the South Korean government provides postage-paid postcards so that visitors can alert officials of any problems they had in the city!  A program like that would be INVALUABLE in cities like Shanghai or Beijing, where your first experience is often being ripped off by a taxi driver!

Stay tuned!  I’ve got plenty more planned for my next few posts!

 

 

Smog and Sandstorms

Dave and I had plans today to explore the city.  Suzhou recently opened its 3rd metro line, and it has made all sorts of local attractions easier to get to.  We thought exploring the city and getting some more photos would be a grand way to spend the day…but then the smog came…

I realized while talking to my family this morning that many of the people back home can’t even begin to understand what pollution is all about and the many ways it impacts our lives here, so I thought it might make for an interesting article.

**Note** Very few pictures in this article will be my own…they’ve mostly been borrowed from the internet.  If I did take the picture, I’ll indicate it in the caption

Our Global Pollution Problem

Pollution is a problem all over the world.  In India, I saw unbelievable amounts of garbage on the road, and I brushed my teeth with bottled water to avoid getting sick from the tap water.

BN-OJ027_POLDET_G_20160607063315
The firework displays during Diwali this year set off the AQI scale to more than 1000 and put the country in a state of emergency.   For comparison, Toronto’s current AQI is 17

Although much better than India and China, Vietnam also has some pretty terrible pollution problems.  The number of motorcyles on the road leave your lungs pretty sore by the end of a day sight-seeing in HoChiMin City.  Phu Quoc is also a giant dumping ground for garbage.

Even in the beautiful Caribbean, you can find all sorts of pollution issues.  Water there is generally unsafe to drink, and although resorts do a good job of keeping their shores clean, the same can’t be said in other areas of the country.

Water Pollution image in Haina, Dominican Republic - water pollution images -2
This was taken in Haina, Dominican Republic

Pollution is a problem globally, there’s no doubt.   I look forward to my time in Canada every year.  The fresh air smells so fantastic, and even in the heart of Winnipeg, I’ve never smelt the tinny scent of PM2.5.  Yet…where do you think this picture was taken?

First-Nation-in-Ontarios-Chemical-Valley-affected-by-pollutants
This is in Sarnia, Ontario, where First Nations residents in a nearby town are suffering from the effects of this pollution.

What I’m trying to say here is that pollution is an issue everywhere.  If you’re lucky enough to never have seen anything like this with your own eyes, you are a minority on this planet and this is a case where being a minority is a good thing…

The Lingo

In Guizhou (the Chinese province where we lived prior to moving to Suzhou), the pollution isn’t so bad.  That’s not to say the air was perfect there (because it’s such a poor province, many of the vehicles on the road are old and blow large amounts of black exhaust), but we never needed masks or felt like our health was at risk.

map
Guiyang is in the green zone in central China (the one surrounded by beige zones).  Shanghai and Suzhou is in an orange zone.

In Suzhou, things are different.  We are only about 100km west of Shanghai, so we get a lot of our pollution from the factories out that way.  On a bad day, our AQI level will go up to 200 or occasionally 300.  During the current sandstorm, we are sitting somewhere between 450 and 600 on the AQI scale.  What exactly does that mean, you might ask?

mmexport1494048171224
This was today’s reading in Suzhou.  596 is the highest I’ve ever seen it here

AQI is the global term that indicates how clean the air is in any particular place.  Air Quality Index becomes a very important part of your life when you live in a city with a pollution problem.  Most people have apps on their phones that tell them whether they should wear a mask outside.  I don’t use an app because I have an easier way to tell. Suzhou’s iconic Pants Building is within eyesight of my apartment.  I make a point of looking out the window every day, and I can usually tell how bad the pollution is by how clearly I can see the pants building.

suzhou-pollution-2
Dave took these pictures last year.  Today looks a lot like the picture on the right

Something else people are aware of here in Suzhou are the different KINDS of pollution. I’ll begin explaining this with a story…

Last year, one of my jobs as a teacher was to help students prepare for their IGCSE spoken exams.  To do that, I met with students individually, gave them a topic and had them tell me what they could about that topic.  The topic I chose one day was ‘The Environment’.  One girl really impressed me, as she started rattling off different types of air pollution (PM2.5, PM10 etc.).  I was FLOORED that she knew those terms.  I had only lived in Suzhou for a few months at that point.

Now, these terms are part of my regular vocabulary.   I frequently say things like ‘PM2.5 levels are brutal this week’, or ‘well this stand storm is mostly bringing in PM10 particles, which aren’t QUITE so bad’.   All this ‘PM’ talk refers to the size of the particles.  PM10 particles are slightly bigger, but equally as harmful as PM2.5.  Both get trapped in your lungs and build up over time and both are linked to lung cancer, lung disease and even brain issues.   Of course, living in China for a short-term period doesn’t mean that I’ll come home with lung cancer, but the elderly in China really do suffer.

 

The Effects

Pollution is more than just something you see on the news.  It’s something that is real and it affects a large portion of the world on a day to day basis.  Here are some of the ways it effects me:

  1. I sometimes need to wear a mask to go outside
  2. I constantly worry about the quality of air in my home and at work
  3. I spend hundreds of dollars every year on filters and machines designed to clean my air
  4. I have had a lung infection so bad that I needed to be on 4 different medications to get better.  I was using an asthma puffer for 3 months after that infection.
  5. Colds last longer and are much more severe than they are elsewhere I’ve lived
  6. If I don’t ride my e-bike for a few days, I will get dust on my pants when I sit down.
  7. I dry my clothes in my bathroom because if I dry them outside, they’ll be dirty by the time I wear them again (most people in China don’t have clothes dryers)
  8. Hanging onto a railing as I climb up or down outdoor stairs will leave me with dirty hands.
  9. I go into coughing fits when I go to a country with clean air.  My lungs literally try and eject the garbage that has built up over the months.
  10. After a particularly dusty day, I’ll wake up with build up in my eyes and a bit of a sore throat.
  11. When the PM2.5 is especially bad (usually in January or February), you can actually taste metal in the air.
  12. I often worry about the long-term health hazards of pollution.  The obvious ones don’t worry me as much (lung cancer, emphysema etc.) but after recently discovering that PM2.5 is connected to alzymers disease, I’ve been in a constant state of worrying about the health of my brain.
1gxEWn.So.91
You can always tell if a car in a parking lot hasn’t been driven in a while….the dust builds up over time.  Similarly, it’s important to keep your apartment well maintained, because dust collects inside too

Pollution levels are a constant presence in my life.  I need to know when they’re high so I can turn on my air purifier.  I also need to know about the air quality so that I know when it’s appropriate for me to partake in one of my favourite pastimes: walking.

walking-burns-more-calories-than-you-thought

Since I was just a little girl, I’ve always loved walked.  It started with walks around the block with my Pepere, and it evolved into walking my dog in the forest trails of St. Malo Provincial Park.  When I moved to Guiyang, walking was one of the ways I dealt with the stress of living in such a difficult city.  In Suzhou…taking a walk is off the table some days.

How We Get Through It

On days like today, we mostly stay indoors.  At home, we have 2 air purifiers, so we definitely have those running while we’re in the apartment.  My classrooms also have air purifiers, but unfortunately, my school doesn’t see an advantage to making sure our offices also have clean air.  Air purifiers can be a bit pricey and they seem to become obsolete frequently, making it impossible to find a new filter for a device you purchased only 6 months before.  Our solution has been SmartAir Purifiers…they’re a small company that make purifiers that work well, for only 600rmb (most other purifiers that do a decent job cost up to 5000rmb…).  If you’re living in mainland China, check out their website.  They’re well worth the money.

How This Effects YOU

If you’re reading this from Canada, you might be thinking that I’m crazy for choosing to live here.  I know the risks, but I still take them.  There are risks living in Manitoba as well.  Hitting the ditch in a snow storm, or sliding into oncoming traffic during winter/spring is every bit as much of a risk as living somewhere where pollution is a problem.  I check the PM2.5 levels the same as you check the temperature to know how many sweaters you should wear under your parka.

1
Seeing smashed up cars in Manitoba is normal.  I was involved in 2 ice-related accidents in 2012 alone.  I hate driving in Winter far more than I hate PM2.5

You may also be thinking that countries like China and India are poorly managed and that if they ‘got their acts together’, this wouldn’t be an issue.  But let me ask you this….

Where are the majority of your ‘things’ made?  The truth of the matter is that we export our pollution to China to cut costs.  One of the reasons things are cheaper coming from China is because health and safety standards aren’t as big of a deal here….it’s something to think about before you shop at places like Walmart, Superstore or other ‘low cost’ chains.  You’re paying 50 cents less, but the global environment is suffering.

Furthermore…we live in a very wasteful world.  I recently got into a heated debate about the use of paper cups in the office.  I think they should be banned, whereas other people really like their convenience.  What’s important to remember is that by using disposable items (on a regular basis), you’re contributing to our landfill problems, as well as creating a need for more factories in the world.  For more information on that, I found this nifty article written by Time Magazine called ‘Throwaway Living’.  Be sure to check it out if you’re interested in the topic.

mmexport1493625925800
If hearing about this very sad state of affairs has depressed you, here is a picture of Poe to help you feel happy again. 

PS..I know it’s been a while, but I have 3 posts in the works:

  • Our weekend in Seoul
  • Catching up on Life in Suzhou
  • Beautiful Suzhou (I’ve been on a picture taking mission lately)

Sun Sets & Sea Food – Our Week in Phu Quoc

After being on the road for 3 weeks, we decided to make our final week on holidays a relaxing one.  There are plenty of beaches in the area, but we decided on Phu Quoc (pronounced “foo quack”) because of its (relatively) empty beaches and island allure.

img_7815
Try and resist this allure!

About Phu Quoc

Located just south of Cambodia, Phu Quoc is a Vietnamese island in the gulf of Thailand. Famous for its fish oil and pepper exports, Phu Quoc is an up and coming city in South East Asia.

Although the island still has a ways to go to reach Phuket-type status, it’s clear that the Phu Quoc is being developed.  One of the main activities to do on the island is to explore by motorcycle.  We spent several afternoons cruising around (which is how I got the wicked tan I’m now sporting!!) and we pulled over more than once to check out the resorts that are popping up all over the island.

We were told by one American man who now calls Phu Quoc home, that 80% of the island’s development has occurred in the last 2 years!!  The hotel we stayed at only came up about a month ago, so we were two of the first people to stay in that bungalow!

The Problem with Phu Quoc

The Vietnamese government aspires to make this tiny island as popular of a tourist spot as Thailand’s Phuket, though I can’t imagine that happening in the near future.   Because the island is developing so quickly, the city is haven’t a hard time keeping up with the changes.   Garbage is a MASSIVE problem on the island, and more than once, our experiences in Phu Quoc were made less-awesome by the stink of rotting food or the sight of fighting rats.  If Vietnam is going to succeed in making this place another Phuket, they need to get a handle on these issues, and quickly!!

To Do in Phu Quoc

I have to admit, there isn’t a tonne to actually DO in Phu Quoc.  We spent a day snorkeling, which was alright, but nothing compared to the Caribbean.  We visited a park and we did some geo-caching, but as far as activities go, there isn’t a lot set up yet.

We found some ‘ruins’ on Dave’s e-map that we decided to check out.  The ruins themselves weren’t all that interesting, but the trip there was!!

The ruins are located on a small island, so we needed to walk across a pretty rickety looking bridge to get there.  In reality, we could have probably just walked across (the water wasn’t deep), but where would the fun be in that?

We also had to walk through some jungle to get there.  We’d heard some stories about vipers, cobras and scorpions being on the island, so I’m not going to lie…I was a bit of an anxiety case going through that very un-kept trail!!!

Our Favourite Activities

So, Phu Quoc isn’t the place to go if you like having busy and adventurous holidays.  Lucky for us, I do a lot of reading when planning trips and I already knew that.  This was actually a perfect destination for us, because all we really wanted from the island were some comfortable beaches, some beautiful sun sets and some fantastic sea food.  Phu Quoc offered all 3 of these in big ways.

img_7968

Beaches

There are several beaches in Phu Quoc, but our favourite was Long Beach.  It isn’t as beautiful as the south beach, perhaps, but it was empty, close to our hotel and the prices were reasonable for renting lounge chairs.  We spent several afternoons soaking up the rays, swimming in the ocean, and meeting sweet dogs!

There was one dog in particular that I really fell in love with.  She had 4 small puppies to take care of, and all of the tourists just loved them to bits.  They always had someone to play with, which left their mum time to scrounge for food around the beach (her owners clearly didn’t feed her properly).  She was a pretty good thief too!  We saw her take off with a couple of sandwiches and at one point, I shooed her away from the massage lady’s bag because she was trying to steal some steamed buns.  The sweet massage lady thanked me, looked at the dog, and ended up giving her the buns anyway.  Definitely a good person in my books!!

Seafood (and dessert!!)

There was only 1 day the entire week that Dave and I didn’t enjoy seafood with our dinner, and that was the night we went out for Indian food (which was also VERY good!).  There is fresh fish, shrimp, crab, lobster and SO much more to eat on the island!  If you go to one of the restaurants in Duong Dong, you can get pretty fresh stuff, but the best seafood is found at the night market.

We got to try several new dishes we’d never tried before.  My favourite was the sea urchin, but the cuttlefish and eel (a different variety than we’ve had in the past) were also very good!  We also enjoyed some fantastic fire garlic snails, shrimp and crab.  The options were both endless and delicious!

If seafood isn’t your thing, there are plenty of tasty desserts to try as well!  We tried this one snack that’s super popular in Vietnam right now.  I have no idea what it’s called, but I’ll refer to it as a ‘coconut rice cake thingy’.

Here’s  a video of her working with the sugar…

My absolute favourite dessert of the vacation was a neat sort of ice cream they make on the island.  Apparently it’s a Thai dessert, though I never saw it there.  First, they put which ever flavours you want onto a big frozen piece of metal (think Marble Slab or Stone Cold Creamery).  Then, they add cream.

This is when they get to work…

When they are done you have a delicious ice cream treat to enjoy!

img_8063

Sunsets

We saw great sunsets most of our nights in Phu Quoc, but I only had my camera for 2 of them.  The first was on an empty beach near a mini-fishing village.

Pollution and buildings make it impossible for us to see the sun actually set in China, which is why we were so excited to see the sun go down properly on vacation.  We stayed out until it had disappeared below the horizon.  It made for some pretty spectacular shots with my Canon!!

Our second sunset was at Duong Dong Pier, near the Dinh Cao Rock Temple, by the night market.

Once more, we waited until the sun completely set, and I ended up with some of the best pictures I’ve ever taken.  It was quite windy out so we were getting some small waves coming in, so I wound up sitting down on the pier, and waited for the right moments to get some pretty cool shots!!

My favourite shot of the week…

img_8229

I also managed to get a pretty gorgeous shot of the moon once it came up…

img_8356

That’s it for Phu Quoc!  I have 2 more posts planned about our overall experiences in Laos and Vietnam, so stay tuned!  I should be back soon!!!

 

Pondering Perspectives

I have always loved being a student.  As stressful as it was finishing my degree a few years back, I felt so incredibly motivated while I was at the University of Winnipeg.  My major was in English Writing & Literature, but I took classes in Anthropology, Classical History, Drama, Psychology, Astronomy and so much more.  These classes taught me about the world, taught me to think and dig for information and most importantly, they taught me that there is always more to learn!

hb_98-8-13_av1
Classical History, for example, taught me that pottery is actually fascinating (if it was made by the Greeks, anyway!)

There are 2 classes that I feel really changed the way I see the world.  The first one was Physiological Psychology.  In this class, I learned about the different structures of the brain and what they are responsible for.  I also learned what happens when you damage those areas of the brain and I learned a lot about mental illness as a result.  Now, 4 years later, a month doesn’t go by when I don’t either think about or discuss things I learned in that class.   I finished Physio Psych with the worst grade of my degree, but it was one of the most eye-opening courses I ever took.

mentalhealth

The other class that changed my perspectives was a random elective course I chose to fill out my semester.  I literally chose it because it was available in a convenient time slot, but by the time the first lesson was finished, I was hooked and knew I wouldn’t be skipping my Tuesday night 6pm lessons.  “Needs of Refugees” was all about refugee crises around the world.

54ff15ded377f-ghk-scheduling-secrets-02-s2
It looks like I have a 1 hour block free Tuesday afternoons…that can’t be right…oh no wait, I have 3 hours of work to cram in that space!!!

The focus of the class was mostly on the process these people go through to get placement in other countries.  I had 2 professors for that class.  One of my profs was a woman who had spent months abroad working in refugee camps in Palestine, Kenya and a few others I can no longer remember.  The other professor was a Somali man who had fled Mogadishu with his family when he was a child.

dadaab-aerial
This is DaDaab refugee camp in Kenya.  When my prof fled Mogadishu as a child, he was actually separated from his family and captured by rebel soldiers.  He was forced to work as a child soldier for 2 years before he was finally able to escape.  He fled to DaDaab, where he found the rest of his family.  Many years later, he was given a place in Canada, where he has become a productive member of society.  His story is not one I will ever be able to forget.

Through this class, I met several refugees, all from different conflicts and different areas of the world.  I met a woman who had to flee Iraq because her husband had been arrested and the government was coming after her next so she had to flee with her two teenage sons.   I met a woman from Myranmar who had fled years ago, who began her own small weaving business in Winnipeg.

Lotus and Silk Weaving
Burmese weaving is quite the art form!

I also interviewed a man from the Congo.  He was angry.  He’d been in Canada for more than 10 years when I met him.  He’d been struggling for a decade to find a suitable job, but because he’d been living in a refugee camp for the better part of his life, he had little education and few skills.  It frustrated him that he had so little opportunities in Canada.  Still, at the end of the interview, he took a moment to clarify that although he was angry, he was also grateful.  He told me he’d rather have no opportunities in Canada than to wake up to the sound of bombs back in The Congo.  He taught me a lesson about gratitude.

121123110824-congo-crowds-fleeing-horizontal-large-gallery
Yeah, Canadian winters don’t seem so bad…

If you have me as a friend on Facebook, you know how I feel about helping Refugees.  You also know how I feel about mental illness and trying to fight past the taboos that prevent people from getting help.  I didn’t always care about these things.  I’m sure that I’ve made thoughtless comments about mental health through the years.  I know that there was a point in my life where I never really even thought about what a refugee even was.

only_in_canada_-_rebuttal_for_refugee_claimants_credit_silvia_daddario_and_students
Now I do my best to stop bad information from spreading, and correct that information whenever I can.  

But school isn’t the only place where my perspectives have shifted. Travelling has taught me so much about the world.  Since moving to Guiyang in 2014, I’ve learned about what it means to be an ethical tourist, I’ve seen real poverty and I’ve spent a great deal of time educating myself about the history of South East Asia and India (something never covered in my high school history courses…).

IMG_5239
Learning about the Khmer Rouge was the first of many eye-opening experiences I’ve had in the past few years.

Of course, being in Vietnam has also given me some new perspectives.  I knew about the Vietnam war.  I knew about the draft, the protests and I knew about the fight against communism.  I had never really considered what all this meant for people on the other side of the ocean though…

Now, I’m not here to say that the Vietnamese didn’t do awful things to American soldiers, but when you see things that that happened to the people here, you can’t help but wonder how Vietnam could have possibly deserved the war crimes they endured during that horrible war.  Napalm, agent orange and mass bombing campaigns nearly destroyed the country and even today you can see victims of Agent Orange.  The chemical created genetic defects that are still being passed onto the current generation. It’s pretty awful stuff.

It’s easy for people in North America to shrug off the Vietnam war because it was so long ago now, but in Vietnam, the war still affects people.  There are still bombs all over the country that never detonated properly during the war.  Every year, people lose limbs and lives because of these UXOs.

img_7042

We visited the War Remnents museum when we were in Saigon, and learned about the war through pictures as well as through a few displays.  Horrible stuff was done here.

We also made a short visit to the Phu Quoc prison, where thousands of enemy soldiers were kept during the war.  The first thing both Dave and I noticed was how much the prison looked like a concentration camp.

But Vietnam was not the only country affected by the Vietnam War…

Laos is often forgotten during discussions about that 20 year war.  I’ve mentioned in other posts that Laos is the most bombed country in the world.  We learned more about what that actually means at the UXO museum in Luang Prabang.

img_6979
A map showing the most heavily bombed areas of Laos

America dropped  260 million cluster bombs  on Laos over the course of 580,000 bombing missions. This is equivalent to a planeload of bombs being unloaded every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.   There are still 78 million bombs in Laos, that need to be detonated, and as you can imagine, this caused a lot of problems from this developing nation.

The UXO museum was quite an experience…In addition to having a wide variety of bombs on display, there were a few videos to watch and lots of information of how the UXOs still affect Laos today.

I guess what I’m getting at with all of this is that there’s always more to know.  There’s so much happening all over the world right now…I feel like the best thing any of us can do is to educate ourselves.  After all, how can you really have an opinion about things when you only ever hear 1/2 of the story.

img_6976
The number of people injured and killed by bombs just in Luang Prabang’s province every year

I know that when I have kids, I will encourage them to travel.  You can learn about so much more than food and temples when you’re in another country.

img_6989
You can also learn a real sense of gratitude when you see these things.   Parents have so much less to worry about in North America…

So there you have it…those are my two cents.

Next, I’ll be writing about our week on the island of Phu Quoc!  Stay tuned!!!