Three Drinking Sessions

During midafternoon, the teahouse here is extremely peaceful. It’s off the beaten path, though there’s not much hustle to this small town in the first place. We sit outside, and I imagine writing here for hours on end, sipping a purple sweet potato latte, or buckwheat tea. I wonder if and when the place gets more customers in this old part of town, or if the locals prefer to frequent the more modern part of the city.

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Sweet potato latte

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The teahouse grounds

Later, the School Director takes us out to dinner on the edge of the island. We are seated outside with a view of the murky ocean, the same color as the sky so that it all blends together in an odd brownish-grey. It’s still a nice view. He shows us how we take out our shrink-wrapped place settings and rinse them with tea before using them. He says it’s the custom here, but not in other provinces; I wonder if that’s because the quality of the water used to wash the dishes here is worse than in other places, or if there is some historical tradition I fail to understand. I don’t really want to know. We open a bottle of wine and it takes a while before I learn the proper drinking custom: Wait for our host to raise his glass, clink our three vessels together, and down their contents in one shot. It’s not great wine, but it doesn’t seem that bad either – totally sip-able, but that’s not what we do. We raise our glasses again, toasting several times during the course of the meals as we drain the bottle among the three of us. We eat tiny spiced shrimp – eyeballs and all – as well as a flat fish that stares at us as we mutilate its body. All were most likely caught that day in the waters upon which we look. Two large fishing nets flank our patio. The white flesh of the fish is mild, but I can’t get myself to eat the gummy black-silver skin, so it remains at the bottom of my bowl, causing me to poke around it as I try to pick out the greens and slimy tofu with my chopsticks. I was full long ago, but the food is good, so I keep eating. Conversation is stilted and simplistic due to the language barrier, but food and wine make the evening smooth and relaxed.

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After the meal, Dave and I head into town and soon we are drinking beers like a typical expat. The many bottles that fill up the table come from China, New Zealand, USA. We are too drunk to sample the one from Japan and put it back into the cooler. It’s the last one of its kind in the whole province, and possibly in the country. It will most likely be bought by a young Chinese guy who will come here and order the most expensive thing in order to impress his girlfriend. Jeff, the owner, isn’t fond of having a lot of customers. He just wants a place to hang out, show off his latest brewing successes, and drink with a few paying friends. We are lucky enough to be among them, along with a man from Mongolia. He’s been hired by a French chemical company to study math theory. Why Tangjia, he doesn’t know. Why this company mystifies him as well. He pours himself another locally brewed beer from a tea kettle, as he tells his story of escaping his home country on horseback as a child, only to end up in the Netherlands. His Dutch accent throws me, as I’ve grown more accustomed to the Chinese accents that usually accompany the broken English I hear. I eat the sweet/salty peanuts on the table, and the pile of shells grows as we pass the time together. The evening ends when I can no longer hold my head up. As we look for a cab, we hear someone call out; an “unconventional” driver Dave has used before calls us over and we climb in. Not really an official cabbie, the young man hangs out late near the expat bars, looking to drive teachers home. We climb into his car and make our way back to the apartment. I’m grateful I’m not the one teaching tomorrow.

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Jeff, proud owner and brewer

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Day 2: Tiger Leaping Gorge: I hiked three hikes today

The uphill. Light rain – enough to keep the air cool and the gorge hidden. We begin to climb and start counting the infamous 28 bends, only to realize the teahouse stop is not only closed but also the signal to start the real ascent of the bends. More heavy breathing, and many short stops along the way. Red numbers painted on the rocks signal our progress – until #16. Then they seem to stop. We reach the summit which offers no view. Lisa says to take a picture would yield the same result as showing someone a white piece of paper. Still, going up was easier than I expected as the pink flowers that helped me so dearly yesterday were replaced by their vivid yellow sisters. I felt confident that I would make it the entire time.

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Soaking wet, we made it to the top! Trust me, this is the summit — the flag proves it!

Then came the downhill. Though the rain had stopped, it had left its treacherous mark. Mud and slippery rocks made up the narrow pathways we needed to descend. Out group naturally broke off into three again, and like the day before I was by myself in the middle of our sprawled pack. At least I knew there was someone behind me in case I fell, but there were many times that offered little comfort. Sometimes the path was no more than 8 inches wide, with a steep drop-off providing strong motivation not to slip on the shiny, wet rocks. I reminded myself I was out of shape. The pine smell was beautiful.

 

Around a bend I saw our group leaders stopped, admiring the view. We had descended far enough that the clouds were above us, and the gorge made an appearance, the Yangtze River rushing below. I caught up with them, but then stayed behind to take more pictures that didn’t come close to capturing the textures, depth, and complexities of reality.

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Trust me again. It’s super cool.

Alone again, I slowly made my way down dirt paths, bamboo-covered paths, and rock “paths.” I thought my legs were going to give out. The painted red arrows assured me I was going in the right direction even when the paths vanished – not even burro droppings made it clear which way I should go. I could no longer hear my friends – or anyone for that matter – ahead or behind. For awhile it felt like Oregon, though, with pines and rhododendrons lining the path. I looked down at the hiking skirt I wore, once owned by my friend who is now gone. Alone, I was surrounded by familiar halfway around the world. Not alone, just by myself.

I reached Tea Horse Guest House, our chosen spot for lunch only a few minutes behind the leaders. I could have sworn they were miles ahead. Ten minutes later, we were all together. The trailers weren’t so far behind after all. We ate amazing food, my favorite dishes being the broccoli and yak (yum!), and warmed ourselves with the tea that greets us at every stop. Sated, we put our packs back on and walked the last leg of the day’s journey. There was sun and baby goats. The paths were still narrow, but the terrain flat. We tended to stick together as a larger group. The mountains met us at every turn. Sun, scenery, and company all together as we reached our stopping place for the night. My legs are wobbly, but I’m energized. The view from the room is as breathtaking as it was from the trail. Still, electricity is reserved for later, and once again I handwrite this documentation of the day.

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The view! From our room!

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Farmers working below our room.

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View from the deck.

I give thanks to all three legs of today’s trek and the gifts they brought. And now it’s time for a beer.

Note: I didn’t write anything about Day 3. Rest assured, we made it safely. The terrain was mostly flat and the weather was nice. There were more super-cute baby goats.

Seven days

I sit on my couch and watch NFL playoffs, exhausted, feeling my immune system fighting against the push I gave this week. I actually fought writing this post, part of me too tired to do it, but knowing that the words would keep floating in my head until they made their way through my keyboard and onto the screen. My wonderful seven days, where I was able to experience so many loves, refused to remain silent, wanting to be boasted to the world (and deservedly so).

Last Sunday morning, I woke up to a miraculous view as Seattle welcomed a rare sunny day in the middle of winter.

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I could stare at this all day, every day.

Then, my friend and I were off to a bar to watch the home team come up victorious on an improbable last-second play. The crowd erupted in the excitement of playoff football, strangers celebrating together as sports fans do. I high-fived the young man who shared our crowded table even though I was secretly rooting for the other team. The pure joy caught me, too.

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It’s not difficult to figure out where this bar’s allegiances lay.

No sooner was the winner declared than it was time to go visit a friend from far away. Reconnecting with someone from Korea – someone I wasn’t sure I would ever see again. Yet, here I was, seeing her twice since I left the country. Tea, girl talk, and a late lunch of authentic Vietnamese food in a strip mall passed the hours too quickly and it was time to go back to Portland. I wonder when/if I will see her again as she heads back to her home in Iksan. I arrive back, and it’s time to unpack and repack for the next trip.

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I miss this sassy lady already!

Off to Enterprise, OR for a work-related site visit – perhaps the one time I will see real snow this season. The road dangerous, but my colleague skilled at navigating our route through the elements. The clinic visit was informative, as I learn more about the healthcare system everyday I work this job. Evenings we were treated to beers from the local brewpub – ones that could only be had as a reward for making it all the way out to eastern Oregon. The hotel had an indoor pool and hot tub for two nights of relaxation. It took a few days, but on our last morning there, the sun came out and we were able to see the mountains as we headed back. I learned that the billion-dollar Powerball winners live in California, Florida, and a small town in Tennessee three times as big as where I was staying. I won’t be retiring soon.

snow in Enterprise

We drove through this…

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…to get to this.

One day of work in Portland which featured lots of writing and struggling with data on difficult topics. Speaking my mind when things didn’t feel right, I was both firm and tentative in expressing my thoughts on a project I feel deserves more authenticity than the quick-fix it was being given. I struggled through tough conversations without sacrifice. Celebrated the end of the day by buying my plane tickets to China in April, and then settled in for a night filled with bad TV and good food. Leftovers are never to be taken for granted; stews taste better days later.

The weekend immediately followed and consisted of some volunteer work tearing down an adult entertainment establishment that will someday be replaced by a community center. Over 25,000 square feet of red, white, and black décor. Tearing up over-worn carpet and removing nails from 2x4s that will gain new life somewhere presumably happier. Taking a sledge hammer to the bar area was extra satisfying – shards of tile tumbled to the ground and drywall simply fell away with every swing, perfected from my softball days. I was sore and it felt great.

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Goodbye, Sugar Shack! Though that cheetah *is* something to behold.

That night I met up with a friend to see The Book of Mormon. We arrived at the theater several hours early to enter a lottery for cheap tickets. We were the first names drawn, and for less than half price ended up in the second row – close enough to see the actors’ facial expressions and even when they sprayed their lines. I forgot how much I love musicals and though I could vow to see them more often, I’m not so sure that will happen, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Reflecting on this past week, it’s easy to see how I’m the luckiest woman in the world.

In search of my people

In some ways I’m having a hard time adjusting to back to Portland (have I said this before? It feels like I have, which means it was, and still is, true). It’s cold here, and today is one of those stereotypical/prototypical Pacific Northwest days where it’s grey but not quite rainy. Mother Nature is misting down upon us like spray from a tongue raspberry – mocking me for leaving the warmth of the sun behind. Dave and the others say it’s unbearably hot in Rustaq now – 30 degrees warmer than here. In the flat we once shared with the aircon running. Outside, their centigrade temperature of blazing heat almost matches the Fahrenheit number here in Oregon. But I don’t care; I would rather be there. I haven’t felt warm all day. At least if I’m going to feel cold, I should be able to enjoy the hockey playoffs. No point in being cold without hockey.

Even though I’m back in North America, I live in a city that could not care less about the NHL*. A sad mismatch in my relationship with the city I call home. In fact, I almost didn’t move here because of its lack of hockey culture, considering Phoenix a better option with its sun and Coyotes. Yet, when the time came, I pointed my loaded-down car north instead of south as I drove out of the Bay Area, California – home of the San Jose Sharks.

I caught a glimpse of the good life in the three-plus months I lived in Toronto. There, after dinner with family, I would walk down to the local bar to watch the rest of the game. The first period was watched in the condo, and during first intermission I would hurry down the street to my choice of three bars showing the game. If I walked during the middle of a period, I could tell when there was a change in score based on the cheers or groans coming from the apartments above. Everyone in the whole city was watching. Inside, I would find a spot at the bar, or accept standing room only. Almost all of the screens would be on the game (except for the occasional lone one in the corner that would be tuned into curling, or perhaps the World Series). This is what home feels like, even though I dare to admit I was usually rooting for whoever was playing the Leafs.

Here, where the closest NHL team is hundreds of miles away and not even from this country, basketball dominates sports bar screens – despite the fact that the Trail Blazers were knocked out of the first round. Only four teams left in hockey, and no one cares. I found one bar that shows games – sometimes with sound! – while another one treats it the way Canada treated the World Series, hiding it in the corner, embarrassed to admit it exists. The rest don’t even do that.

I did find a bar dedicated to hockey, but it’s in Seattle. The Angry Beaver is 100% hockey – no NBA playoffs or even a lone curling match. Just Molson on tap, poutine, and ice on the screens. I wish there was a bar like this in Portland, especially now that the finals are about to begin. While I don’t really care about either team playing for the Cup this year, I am going to make an effort to go down to the one bar there and pray for sound. I’m sure there will be others like me, who prefer a rink to a court any and every time. Perhaps there will be a small community that comes out of the woodwork. We shall find each other, cheering or groaning at a score change. Just like everyone in Canada – only our beers will taste better.

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Believe it or not, this is not Toronto. Unfortunately, it’s not Portland either. Welcome to the Angry Beaver in Seattle.

 

*Yes, I know Portland has the Winterhawks and they are very good, losing in the finals this season to the Kelowna Rockets. Not interested. I have been to a couple of games and I prefer a higher level of play when I watch hockey. Sorry.

The culture of sport

I first tried to understand cricket in the early 90s, after graduating from college. I was one of the managers of the intramural department at my alma mater, and a bunch of us who worked there decided to figure out how cricket worked. The World Cup was broadcast on ESPN2 at some ungodly hour when all other sports were off the air, so it gained our attention. Beers in hand, we would gather round a small screen in a dorm room (it took me a while to break free from my ties there) and watch. And wonder. We were all sports fans and also referees, familiar with the most obscure rules of soccer, flag football, basketball, and even baseball – cricket’s alleged relative – yet still we could not figure out what the hell was going on. It didn’t stop us from watching though. Every night, we would sit in front of the television for a few hours and excitedly share some theory as to why a player did or didn’t run, or hit the ball, or do something. We never figured out when it was another batter’s or the other team’s turn. Instead, we would watch every night until it was time to sleep. I don’t remember rooting or following specific teams. I don’t remember any specific matchups. That time was about getting together and trying to understand the game. We were determined, but unsuccessful.

Over twenty years later (ACK!), and I am touring New Zealand’s South Island. My time there was particularly lonely, only partially by design. I went there to reflect, but learned that there is only so long I can do that; I am simply not meant to travel alone. By the time I hit Dunedin, I was in need of company and superficial thought. Not knowing a soul, I did what I tend to do when alone on the road; I found a local bar and wandered in. When possible, I try to find a sports bar, because it seems acceptable to grab a beer and watch the game on one’s own. For some reason it seems a lot less pathetic than watching a sitcom rerun by yourself while drinking in a public place.

The sport of choice that night was cricket – The Black Caps were hosting Team India (the Men in Blue) and it was apparent that this was a big matchup. Perfect. I ordered a Kilkenny poured just right and settled in among the many glued to the screen. My understanding of the game had not miraculously improved through maturity, so I was just as lost as I had been in that dorm room. This time, however, I was in a room full of people who had the answers. During breaks I started to ask about the basic rules. My gender and accent pretty much pegged me as a novice and several men seemed to take not just joy, but pride in explaining what the hell was going on. I learned that runs happen when the two players made it from one wicket to the other. Over the barrier meant six runs; hitting it meant four. I knew that one team batted completely before the next team got their turn. I walked back to my hotel room buzzed and happy at watching a sport among sports fans. The game had ended in a tie, which seemed to please the crowd.

About a year later Oman becomes my next destination that includes cricket lessons. My new friends include a Kiwi and a Pakistani, and it’s another World Cup year, so cricket is in the air. I enthusiastically agree to watch matches with them whenever I can, which usually requires getting up at some horribly early hour and stumbling over to the Pakistani’s flat since he was the one who shelled out for a large-screen TV and paid the streaming fee for all the games. We set up camping chairs in his common room to accommodate the six of us (an Italian and two additional Americans make up the complete crew). Our host lessens the pain of the hour by making amazing omelets seasoned with masala and ginger, served with Nescafé’. Dave brings his mosquito racket, dubbed the Mosquito Killing Machine (or MKM-48), as the little bug bastards have a way of inviting themselves as well. On teaching days we stay as long as we can until it’s time for our first classes. On weekends, Dave and I bring bloody Mary fixings and we stay the full 6-8 hours of the match; the Kiwi brings beer. There are no ties in this tournament.

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Pakistani omelet and the Black Caps

 

I ask tons of questions in the beginning as I watch the matches. We witness India, South Africa, and West Indies fall to Pakistan, Australia, and New Zealand. Then the Black Caps take out Pakistan and Oceania comprises the final; the fact that they are co-hosting this tournament adds to the drama. While watching the games I learn the strategies; I can differentiate between good and bad pitches; I begin to understand terms like angler, boundary, Yorker, bail, and over. I can even string the terms together, “He hit a Yorker over the boundary to end the over,” and actually know what I’m talking about. Australia ends up winning the Cup, much to the dismay of my Kiwi friend and the rest of us who cheered the Black Caps on unanimously, especially once Pakistan lost in the semis. Given that both teams lost to Oz during the tournament, I see Australia as the eleven to root against forever.

I am a sports fan. This part of me has provided the opportunity to connect with people in and from different places, and has introduced me to cultural aspects of a place that I wouldn’t have normally witnessed. Very little brings a group of people together the way a sporting event does. The beer helps, too.