Sunday, May 24, 2009

Clean Streets or Freedom of Speech?

FINALLY! At last I have managed to penetrate the "Great Firewall" that China has erected to censor information that may "pollute the minds of the people". Blogspot has recently been blocked, forcing me to download a program which uses a proxy server outside of China while simultaneously masking my IP address. Actually I don't understand what this program does, but for the first time in two weeks I am able to update. I wrote the post below about ten days ago, but it is still relevant. I hope to resume my weekly posting schedule, unless someone in the Chinese government internet police reads this and cuts me off from the net completely . . .

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Clean, orderly, busy, polite. Words that come to mind when attempting to describe my impression of China thus far. It is difficult to give an objective summary of China because I am constantly comparing it to India. If I had visited China first, I have no doubt that a different list of words would have come to mind. Compared to India, China is infinitely clean and orderly: there is no litter on the streets, the traffic actually obeys rules, and farm animals don't roam the city unattended. The buses and trains are irrationally punctual (to the minute) and people actually seem to respect lines in public places, rather than the Indian custom of elbowing one's way to the front of any would-be line. Despite these reassuring norms, traveling here is more difficult than in India for one simple reason – if you don't speak Chinese, communication is nearly impossible. I've been lucky enough to have Chinese speakers with me nearly every day, but I had a really difficult time trying to find Jess' apartment in Kunming without a handy Chinese speaking accomplice. After several sessions of charades and me butchering the Chinese pronunciation of some key words, a taxi driver finally delivered me to Jessica's apartment, which is more aptly described as a penthouse due to its luxuriousness and spaciousness).

Besides the order, cleanliness, and lack of English, the most striking feature of China to me is the ubiquitous marketing and consumerism on every corner. Communist China? Hardly. China is communist in name only. Kunming, a city of 5-6 million, has a Louis Vutton and a Versace retail store. The streets are full of luxury cars which would make any American jealous. Health care isn't even free for Chinese citizens, which to me is the bare minimum requirement for a nation to be considered even mildly socialist. The only aspect of the socio-political system in China which sets it apart from the US or other industrialized Western nations is the complete lack of political freedom. The atmosphere is not as repressive as I expected; crossing the border was a breeze, the police seem indifferent to foreigners, and book stores carry some fairly controversial titles. Of course any vocal criticism of the government can and will be met with swift and severe action. I tried to broach this subject with the students I worked with in Yangshuo and they all denied having any complaints about their government. This apparent unquestioning acceptance of authority is difficult for me to comprehend. Having been raised in a culture and a household that prides itself on questioning authority, I find it difficult to relate to people who accept authoritarian rule of their lives, restrictions on their access to information, and limitations to their participation in the political process. I realize that I may never be able to relate to the average Chinese citizen because their behavior and beliefs are the product of a completely different cultural system which is the result of 6,000 of history and philosophy of which I am wholly ignorant. I have only seen a very limited slice of this vast country, so I look forward to learning more and gaining some insight into the Chinese mindset over the coming weeks – all of which will be shared with you on this blog, of course.

It has been indescribably comforting to be back with Jess again after our second three and a half month separation; we have been spending the last few days catching up, relaxing, and enjoying Kunming's culinary offerings. We have only begun to plan out our Chinese and Kyrgyz itinerary for the next two months. My next post will be from Beijing! If there is a next post . . .

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Planning Your Escape

After talking to a friend the other day, I realized that although I've done a fair job of explaining why I decided to spend this year traveling and what I have been doing, I never really got around to explaining how I planned my travels. (Good point Zach) I have actually been meaning to write something, such as an article, for some sort of publication because I think this information is really timely – there are thousands of people graduating from high school and college in a month, but very few entry-level job openings. The silver lining of the grim economic situation is that it gives grads a good excuse to blow off the real-world for another year, and if I'm an expert on anything, it is blowing off the real-world of 9-5 jobs and bills.

I’ve probably explained most of this in previous posts, but that’s never stopped me before, so here it goes.

I'm sure the most common reason people choose not to travel for an extended period of time, besides fear and inertia, is that they think it will cost a fortune. Although it does require some saving, a trip like mine is surprisingly affordable. My entire trip, including all airfare, hotels, food, buses, visas, medicines – everything – was about $5,000. That may look like a lot of money, but that was everything I will spend for an entire year - can you live in the US for a year on $5,000? Probably not without canceling your cell phone, living with your parents, eating way too much noodle soup, and riding a bicycle everywhere. I saved enough for this trip in a year while making an embarrassingly small amount of money per hour in a social service job, so anyone can do it. Besides the five grand, my largest investment into the trip was time; I spent many, many hours researching volunteer sites, browsing Google Earth, and tweaking my spreadsheet budget. Planning was key, but it doesn't take any specific skills or knowledge, just an internet connection and some free-time.

My original plan involved going overland from London to Beijing to Kyrgyzstan with no air travel, not for any practical reason, I just thought it was a cool idea. This plan turned out to be impractical for two reasons; 1) traveling through the Middle East is really difficult (think Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan) 2) Western Europe would have sucked away my budget in a matter of weeks. This is the trick to making a year abroad affordable – avoid expensive countries. A day in London or Paris costs as much as a few weeks in India or China – no exaggeration. When I was putting my budget together I realized that I had to bypass almost all of Europe, which is why when I flew into London I didn't even leave the airport, I just camped out on uncomfortable airport furniture and waited for my flight to Bulgaria, the most budget-friendly destination in Europe with easy access to Turkey and Georgia.

Another key to keeping the year affordable was cutting down on food and accommodation expenses. Since the whole purpose of my trip was to volunteer at a variety of worthy organizations, this part was easy. Well, not easy since most organizations that host volunteers charge for the privilege. In theory I have no problem with this arrangement, really it is quite fair for a non-profit organization to expect volunteers to cover their food and lodging expenses, but I simply couldn't afford to pay to volunteer, so I only chose organizations which provide free food and accommodation in exchange for my work. WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is one of the best organizations offering a simple exchange of room and board for volunteer work. WWOOF has member farms in nearly every country in the world, and it was through WWOOF that I ended up building a straw-bale house in Bulgaria and helping kids with disabilities in Georgia. I came across the rest of my volunteer sites through good ol' fashioned Googling, lots and lots of Googling. I realize not every shares my interests, but since most people live in a house of some kind, eat food daily, and will someday have children, there are lots of volunteer opportunities (building, farming, and working with kids) which are relevant to everyone.

Between volunteer gigs, Couchsurfing is a really cool way to avoid paying for a hotel room. This is just a website (kind of like Facebook, except it actually has a purpose) which matches hosts with guests. No money changes hands, it is just expected that those who host will eventually be guests and vice-versa. Last year Jess and I hosted a few surfers in Missoula, so this year I'm doing the surfing – just next week I'm staying two nights at a guy's house in Hong Kong. Not only will I save a fair bit of money, but I get to stay with a local who knows the best places to eat, shop, explore, etc. Couchsurfing and volunteering are great for saving money, but it isn’t necessary to completely avoid the occasional luxury, especially in more affordable places. Jess and I didn’t couchsurf or volunteer for five out of the six weeks she was in India; we stayed in moderately priced (dirt-cheap by American standards) hotels in really beautiful places, ate in restaurants at least twice a day, and did a fair amount of shopping. As I look back, those five weeks without volunteering or staying in other people’s homes were integral in keeping my sanity, but by the end I was ready to be cheap and productive again.

That's really it. Anyone can put together a trip of a lifetime; it just takes a lot of time and less money than most people spend on gas and vehicle maintenance each year. I think it's worth every penny, and the real-world will always be waiting for you when you get back.

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I'm still enjoying the easy-going expat lifestyle here in Yangshuo. My days have been filled with biking, hiking, climbing, swimming and lots of ping-pong games at the school with the Chinese students. I may not learn much Chinese while I'm here, but at least I'll come away with some Pong skills. I only have five more days here and then I head to Kunming to meet Jess!!! Finally!!