Tag Archive | festivals

Australia Part 2-Beautiful Brizzy

I continue with our drive up from Sydney to Cairns, which mostly consisted of stunning beaches one after another, and I apologize that I didn’t note down the names of all the beaches. We tried stopping off at a couple of points where locals assured us we would see whales, one of these was Woolgoola Headland, and you could just about see them with binoculars. But this just whetted our appetite – see Whale- watching later on.The one place that we spent a couple of days in and enjoyed immensely was Yamba at the mouth of the Clarence River Estuary. We stayed in the cute Yamba Beach Motel, which had everything that one needs for a comfortable stay and was reasonably priced by Australian standards. We then just wandered around the tiny town (lots of huge hills leading to the lighthouse) and took a book to read on the various beaches( one was called Pippi beach). Highly recommended. WE also had a very nice pint at the Pacific hotel, which has a splendid bar  overlooking the sea, and touts itself as “Australia’s best sited hotel”. Could not argue with them.

One final place I would like to mention that we enjoyed on the Central coast before we reached Brisbane was Dorrigo National Park. 

This lovely place is a short drive from Coffs Harbour and we spent a few happy hours strolling through the forest paths which are clearly signposted and not overly taxing. There is a short boardwalk at the beginning of the park and then a  few circular paths of varying  lengths, with waterfalls and so on. There is also a visitor centre where you can watch a short movie on the flora and fauna in the park. Our only problem was discovering that our car battery was flat when we returned from the walk (and of course it was a Sunday, our phone had no reception, which is common in isolated areas of Australia, and there was no internet reception either.) Fortunately a lovely couple in the car park came to our aid with jump leads and got us started up again.

It is really hard to get a sense of the rainforest from the photos, because the trees tower above and all around, so the photos really don’t capture the vastness of the experience.

On the way back to Coffs Harbour, the motel owner had suggested we stop at a quaint little town called Bellingen which we were passing through anyway. He specifically used the word “quaint”, adding that since I am from the UK I will understand. The town,set in farm land, with lots of horses and cows dotted around, was indeed quaint, with many interesting old buildings, and a museum, which sadly we did not manage to check out.

 

From Yamba we continued up the Pacific Highway to Brisbane. We had expectations of Melbourne and of Sydney, but Brisbane was a city about which we had heard very little. And we were blown away by it. Since we saw that we had plenty of days of our trip to make it up to Cairns, and had decided not to continue driving but to get there by plane, we decided to extend our stay in Brisbane and chill out a bit there, as moving every one or two days gets tiresome. As soon as we walked around in central Brisbane we felt at home. It’s hard to say exactly why. Our air bnb was in a wonderful quiet neighbourhood called Hawthorne, and came with a kitchen, garden, a swimming pool and a dog called Oscar. It was also 5 minutes walk from the Hawthorne Citycat Stop. Citycat is a ferryboat service that plies up and down the Brisbane river and is a far more useful form of transport than the bus.It runs frequently, and up until after midnight 7 days a week. All you need to use it is an electronic  Go Card that you top up with money as you go. It is the same card for buses, trains, ferries and trams. You can just get on it and go all the way up one end of the line and then back again for about $6.

We immediately bought our Go card and started exploring. The first part of the city that we discovered was the central area of the Queen Street Mall which we returned to many times during our stay. It was both relaxed and buzzing, full of life and great for people-watching but not in the way that large cities are. It was always fun to sit on a bench and watch people, and we also took a tour later on with a Brisbane Greeter, (volunteer guide) who introduced us to some less well-known corners of the city.

There are lots of things to see in Brisbane- we particularly enjoyed the Southbank area and the Parklands- a long riverbank promenade that was built after the World Expo of 1988 and consists of a cultural precinct (Museums, art galleries, concert halls, theatres) a Nepali Peace Pagoda, grassy areas and free public swimming pools. There is also an Epicurious garden, where fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers are grown by volunteers, and distributed free to people. The Southbank was the location from which we watched the fantastic Riverfire firework display at the end of the Riverfire festival which happily coincided with our stay in Brisbane. This display was preceded by air displays by army helicopters and jets. It was a great day, no less impressive in that the crowds dispersed in a quiet and orderly fashion at the end. The festival also included lots of free performances all over the place, which added to our stay. We also enjoyed walking around Roma Street Parklands, another park area near to the second place we stayed Spring Hill Apartments. We wanted to add more days at the Airbnb but it was no longer available, so we took the apartment for a week, which was a bit pricy but also included a washing machine and dryer! The only drawback to this accommodation was that it was indeed at the top of a hill. But there was a free bus that stopped right outside the apartments, and deposited us in the city centre in less than 15 minutes. So as the Ozzies say “No worries”.

Other places we loved in Brisbane were the Botanical Gardens and the old Regent Theatre which is now a tourist office, but part of the interior of the old theatre has been preserved. Just travelling on the ferries up and down the river and looking at the iconic Story Bridge from different angles was great fun. WE were continually amazed that every time we went down town something was going on- one day they were distributing free ice cream in Queen Street; another day there was a farmers’ market next to Victoria Bridge; there were lots of free performances in the Mall area too- one day we saw a display of Aboriginal dancing there. Our stay was also enhanced by meeting up with our friend Steve from Virtual Tourist, and then Gary and Roger from Servas, all of whom came out for dinner with us. WE also made new friends in Vera and Paul, a lovely couple we met on a Saturday morning when we went to the Farmers’ Market at the PowerHouse  and who also met us for dinner another evening. All of these meetings impressed on me that nice as sightseeing may be, the really memorable parts of our travels are always the personal contacts we make with locals. The openness and warmth we received from all the Australians that we met was just phenomenal. So thanks Ozzies!

Then there was one of the highlights of our whole trip- whale watching at Redcliffe. After a lot of humming and ha-ing we decided to go for it. It’s after all one of those “once in a lifetime” things right? It’s expensive but definitely something to remember. I checked out various companies and found that the most highly recommended one was called, strangely enough, Brisbane Whale Watching , and it had tons of recommendations on Tripadvisor. They guaranteed that we would see whales. But I was not prepared for how many! We bought a package which included a pickup from a location near where we were staying, transfer by minibus to the cruise jetty, the hour or so  trip out to the bay near Moreton Island and a buffet lunch. We even had a brief look at Beegees Alley before boarding our boat.

Very soon after reaching the bay we immediately started seeing humpback whales and some even jumped up right near the boat.It was truly amazing, and it was important to stop taking pictures (most of which missed the whales jumping) and just look at these lovely creatures. I still did manage to get a few good shots though! Each time there was a sighting, the crew shouted 11 o’clock, or 3 o’clock, and everyone rushed to the appropriate location of the ship to see the whales. There was even a mum and baby but I didn’t manage to get a picture.

Finally it was time to leave wonderful Brisbane- so I will just leave you with a few more pictures before we head for our last stop in the trip- tropical Cairns, and the Great Barrier Reef.

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Monks on a bus and monkeys on the roof

Now I’ve got your attention. This had to be the title for this blog entry, especially after I saw the number of “likes” my monks on a bus photo got on Facebook. Here it is:

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Travelling to school

Anyway, how to sum up this crazy experience of a month teaching Buddhist monks in Bhiksu University, Sri Lanka? Was it what we had expected? Of course not! Things never are. On the plane over to Sri Lanka we again looked at each other wondering whether we were totally insane. How bad could it be, we thought? We had spoken via Skype to the Reverend Mediyawe Piyarathana, the English lecturer in charge of the program, and we had been interviewed by Paul Ellmes of http://www.giveafigvolunteering.com, who also lived there in the city, and seemed to be a nice, friendly chap.  Just for a month….. what could go wrong, we thought. Well one or two small inconveniences did occur. I hobbled home on crutches  with a sprained foot and a touch of gastroenteritis. Both of us were exhausted.. but to say that the month wasn’t the most fantastic experience would not  be doing it justice. Things are never straightforward when you fly halfway around the world. We certainly learnt as much from the monks as they did from us. But mostly not about meditation, Buddhist philosophy and so on, but more about how people are just people everywhere. The monks were all MA and PhD lecturers in Buddhist culture and philosophy, Sanskrit, comparative religions and other subjects. But they were above all lovely kind open-hearted people with whom we talked about anything and  everything in class.

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Our first colonial abode

The first few days after our arrival were the full moon festival or Poson. This meant that thousands of devotees, dressed in white, had flocked to the town to celebrate and visit the many holy places. Anuradhapura, a UNESCO heritage site,  is the old capital and a famous centre of Buddhist worship that houses the famous Boddhi Tree and many other important sites. Our Reverend took us to visit many of them, including  MahintaleRuwanwelisaya and Abhayagiri where we met the Chief Incumbent monk himself, and actually had tea at his house. He was a lovely laughing chap who had been to study in China so we exchanged a few Chinese words, which was all rather amusing. Anyone who entered the house bowed and kissed his feet, and we were directed to low stools while he sat on a higher chair. Apparently we were told by Paul that this monk is pretty much the second most important guy in the country after the President.

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Full moon celebrations at Mahintale

The Reverend took us to the holy sites to experience the tradition of dansale at the celebration. People had travelled from afar to cook meals and distribute them free to others. We saw huge lines of people waiting to receive meals, sweets and even free ice cream. The Rev took us in to eat something and (embarrassingly for us) passed in front of the whole line since he is a monk. It was useless to object. The monks are revered by all. This happened again in supermarket queues and elsewhere. Sometimes people would come up to him and hand him gifts in exchange for prayers and blessings.

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Family in dansale tent

One evening the Rev took us to visit a nunnery. The kids seemed quite well cared for and happy. The Reverend himself became a monk as his mother had to travel to work in Saudi Arabia and so she entrusted him to the monastery. He speaks to her frequently on the phone and doesn’t seem to have any problem with her decision. He loves his work helping people and is extremely devoted to the worshipers, and all the monks are very keen to help their devotees by giving them advice and hearing their problems. They help with all kinds of problems, and are always available to help in any way they can. The monks seem to have a far better life than many of the poor rural people and have a great education and live comfortably in their temples.

 

All in all, we were royally looked after during our whole stay. Everything was paid for by the University, including our board and lodging, and trips to Wilpattu Safari Park  and Sigiriya  Lion Rock (where I slipped and sprained my foot after managing to ascend and descend all the steps successfully) . The accommodation provided by the University was a little spartan: the initial place we were given looked amazing from the outside (a gorgeous old colonial building) but was somewhat run down inside, and had no hot water or functioning wifi. We therefore asked to move to a hotel but the inimitable Reverend Piyarathana who was responsible for us flatly refused and said he would find alternative accommodation. This proved to be the Vice Chancellor’s Lodge which was equally impressive from the outside, and actually did have hot water, good wifi and a/c. This is not to say that it was palatial, but it was okay. The original place came complete with a cook.So now we had no cook. “No problem “,said the Reverend. Every day he would send his chauffeur-driven car round to fetch us and transport us to Mango Mango, the local Indian restaurant where we could get good food just like in London!

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The Reverend’s driver Sisera enjoying his bettel

At night we heard jackals and dogs fighting outside, and monkeys jumping on the roof. There were loads of monkeys and wild dogs wandering around the campus. In fact I have never seen so many dogs in my life.Apparently because they are Buddhists, the inhabitants cannot get the dogs neutered, or do anything to deplete their numbers- many looked mangy and neglected- so sad. We also saw innumerable cows wandering around, mongoose and a snake .And one evening a tiny frog jumped out of the toilet!

Every day we went off to class either by tuk- tuk (called a three-wheeler in Sri Lanka) or on the school bus together with all the monks. Class was from 8 till 11.30am with a 30 minute tea break , and again in the afternoon from 13.00 till 16.30 with a similar break. In the break we got tea, bananas, and a host of other (mainly spicy) unidentifiable foods. We did find it amusing to see a load of saffron robed monks all sitting around munching on their bananas. In class we did much the same as in any oral class I have ever taught- debates, discussions, pair work etc, on any topic we wished. The monks were lively , highly knowledgeable and fun to work with. We had internet and projector in the classroom and as much photocopied material as we needed.

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Monks in class

After our 20 days teaching were up we were presented with a gold- plated award for our work, and the students got certificates for completing the course. Many students had come over to visit me while I was laid up  with the  sprained foot, and had presented me with gifts such as home made curd, sliced bread, marmite (!) , fruits and other goodies.  Our next door neighbour monk, also called Piyarathana (and hence christened by me Piyarathana number 2) came over and brought us many fruits, and on our last evening invited us into his place for a cooked meal, which he cooked personally.They were all incredibly kind and hospitable and I will miss them all.

We then had 3 days at the beach resort of Trincomalee on the north east coast,where we relaxed and took a sailing boat to see dolphins, and visited the historic site of Fort Frederick. This was a nice way to wind down our trip, and then finally we spent two nights in Colombo, where unfortunately we couldn’t see much due to my sprained foot, but we did see the Galle Fort promenade, which was enjoyable.

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Fishermen on beach at Trincomalee

So if this has piqued your appetite and you are interested in teaching in Sri Lanka please contact Paul Ellmes at http://giveafigvolunteering.com/ or the Revered Mediyawe Piyarathana at revpiyarathana@busl.ac.lk  or on Skype at piyarathana78. You too can have an unforgettable experience and do something worthwhile!

NOTE: Paul Ellmes says that in future all accommodation arrangements will be taken care of by his organization so I am sure all will run smoothly! So go ahead and message him on his webpage. You will have a fantastic time!

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View from the top of the Sigiriya Lion Rock Palace

 

 

 

Weekend trip to Chongwu-with a slightly unpleasant ending

I don’t really believe in premonitions.However this weekend was certainly a weird one.It seemed to get off on the wrong foot smehow and things didn’t really work out so brillliantly.This is what happened.

This weekend was an extended one as the Qing Ming Tomb Sweeping ) Festival meant that we didn’t have to work on Monday. So we decided to go with our friends Hamburger and Sue to Quanzhou, a city about one hour’s bus ride away from Xiamen.We had visited there last year but there were a couple of places I still wanted to see there.Hamby’s grandmother lives in Quanzhou.She raised him in his teens and he went to High school there.He had not been back for a couple of years so decided to go too. Sue lives in another city about 2 hours’ drive from Quanzhou but said she could come over to meet us on the Sunday and the four  of us would travel together to Chongwu,a fishing village about an hour away from Quanzhou.

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D and Fisherwomen

So on Saturday,we took a bus from Xiamen to Quanzhou with Hamburger,and checked into a hotel just across the street from Hamburger’s grandma’s place.We then went by bus together to visit Qinguan Mountain , a famous site in Quanzhou topped by a huge statue of Lao Zi. The weather was pleasant, we had a nice stroll up the top of the mountain and saw lots of other tourists taking pictures and were only disturbed by a woman wailing at one point.Then some man came up and told her to be quiet,and that it was not suitable to wail in a public tourist site.On QIng Ming people are supposed to go and sweep the tombs of deceased family members and decorate them with fresh flowers.Hamburger said that sometimes people bury their relatives in the park, even though it isn’t strictly allowed,but that maybe they were very rich and had somehow managed to do that!.

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Statue of Lao Zi

He went to have dinner at his grandma’s house and we went out to my favourite Japanese noodle restaurant chain,Ajisen..We had intended to meet up later to go out for a drink but he later said that his grandma was kind of upset so he wanted to spend some time with her.

Next morning we met up at the bus station to travel to Chongwu.I had wanted to visit this place as I had heard it had an ancient fortress and fishing village and I wanted to see a bit of “real China”. I think in retrospect I regret that! The journey there was easy enough but on arrival we found a one-horse sort of town,a bit dilapidated looking and rough around the edges.It was EXTREMELY windy and not really that pleasant to walk around.It looked sort of like the “end of the line” or the last frontier.We had tickets back to Xiamen only at 8pm and I already felt somehow apprehensive.What the hell would we do in this place until 8pm? Anyway we set off to see the old fortress.First we sampled the local delicacy – fish rolls.You can have it fried or microwaved.The fried one looked like chips and the other one looked like Chinese gefilte fish.It was NOT a very memorable experience.

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Fish Rolls

Next we walked through some rather pretty gardens with many statues depicting characters from Chinese literature,and with a view out over the sea,which was quite grey and stormy.We then walked down to the beach and up to the old wall.Most of the wall,which purported to be 14th Century looked to be completely reconstructed, and in fact there was not a whole lot to see there.But walking along the beach and clowning around a bit with Sue and Hamby was quite fun.

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Hamburger and friend

After we had eaten our lunch at a local place Sue had to get her bus back to Quanzhou and then we asked Hamburger if we couldh’t change our bus tickets to go first to Quanzhou too and then back to Xiamen,instead of waiting until 8pm to return.He said we should try.So that was when things got really bad. We exchanged our tickets and went to get the Quanzhou bus.There was no real bus station,just a huge crowd of people standing on the road waiting for the bus which nearly crushed people as it came in.The mob of people then rushed to board the bus (there were no assigned seats ) and pushed and jostled their way on,squashing people in the process. We couldn’t get on the first bus,and another one drove in after about 10 minutes.But as we waited Danny discovered that his wallet had been stolen from his back pocket (yes ,yes we know you aren’t supposed to put ith there!).We got onto the next bus but the whole experience was really not that pleasant.The trip had been ok but certainly not one of the most amazing places we had been in China and we could have done without that experience.
WE got back home to Jimei at around 9.30pm exhausted and a bit peeved.It was,of course,drizzling.We then had to call the bank in Israel to cancel our visa card and the bank in China to cancel our withdrawal card here.We now have various other bureaucratic things that need fixing as a result of the theft,but after all, it could have ended worse,right?

Have you ever been pickpocketed abroad? I am sure you have,, please feel free to comment.(but not to tell us we are idiots,we already know that)

 

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Fishing Boat, Chongwu

 

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Sea at Chongwu

 

Mid Autumn Festival (the bigger picture for my bro)

Well today’s post will be a little cultural/anthropological in orientation as my brother read my blog and complained it was too personal and focused on food and trivial details.So today I want to give a bit of background on the current holiday in China,which is called the Mid Autumn Festival.This festival is a popular harvest festival celebrated by Chinese people on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the Lunar Calendar. It is also known as “Mooncake Festival”, Lantern Festival” or “Moon Festival”.It is customary at this time to visit your family and friends and to eat a celebratory meal,and to go to beautiful places to look at the full moon.Since it is a National cultural heritage holiday there is an official holiday so that people can travel and visit their relatives.But in Xiamen where we live,there is a special tradition which is only observed here.IT is called “Bobing” and it is a kind of gambling game.

“WE experienced it for the time last year,when our university took us (all the foreign teachers and some Chinese ones) to a lovely five-star hotel.There we were given a buffet lunch and then after that we went upstairs to some tables,where we rolled six dice in a porcelain bowl.The rules are a little complicated but basically the number four is your friend.According to the number of fours that you throw you can win prizes.

Explanation as follows:(skip if you aren’t interested in the details)

“The 300-year-old custom of mooncake gambling dates back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The inventor, Zheng Chenggong (1624-62), a general of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), stationed his army in Xiamen. Zheng was determined to recover Taiwan, which was occupied by Dutch invaders since 1624.

When every Mid-Autumn Festival came, the soldiers naturally missed their families but fought with heroical determination to drive off the aggressors.

General Zheng and his lower officer Hong Xu invented mooncake gambling to help relieve homesickness among the troops.

The gambling game has six ranks of awards, which are named as the winners in ancient imperial examinations, and has 63 different sized mooncakes as prizes.

From the lowest to the highest, the titles of six ranks are Xiucai (the one who passed the examination at the county level), Juren (a successful candidate at the provincial level), Jinshi (a successful candidate in the highest imperial examination), Tanhua, Bangyan and Zhuangyuan (respectively the number three to number one winners in the imperial examination at the presence of the emperor).

Game players throw the dice by turns. Different pips they count win the player a relevant “title” and corresponding type of mooncakes.”

In simple language:-

If you get a six on all the dice you get the jackpot.If you get 1 through 6 that is the highest score.But even if you only throw two ro three fours,you can win something.So we all went home with tubes of toothpaste,soap ,blankets,boxes of mooncakes and other prizes.

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Mooncakes

This year we were informed that due to budget cuts and suchlike from the Government we were not able to go to a hotel so we only did the gambling game in a room at the University,and the prizes were only mooncakes from small to large.But when I got home I was invited by a neighbour, whose husband is a University teacher,to the neiighbourhood  Bobing game downstairs outside our building.There the residents had clubbed together to buy various prizes and there were two tables of gamblers,one for kids and one for adults.I joined in there but didn’t win anything.It was great to watch the faces of the kids as we all threw the dice in turn.

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Our neighbour’s daughter Ray shaking the dice

Yesterday we went for a walk around Jimei (our neighbourhood) and checked out the new Wanda Shopping Mall that has opened here.It was being built when we left for the summer holidays and now it is open and was buzzing with people because of the holiday.It has 4 floors,one floor completely devoted to restaurants,and there was a sort of traditional dance show  going on when we arrived,but I think it was just an ad for a cellphone company or something.Anyway,the mall has an IMAX cinema complex,Haagen Dasz ice cream and all the usual Chinese -American favourites ie Pizza Hut,McDonalds and so on.But it looks very upscale and expensive.IT is also spotlessly clean (for now!)

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Dance show at the Mall

 

We also met up again with our friends Jennifer and Hamburger last week and went with them to Jiageng Stadium near our house where there was a very silly exhibition of trick art or 3 D pictures where you can insert yourself into the picture and take a photo.This is kind of childish but amusing fun especially if you have small kids or friends who behave like kids.We took lots of silly photos,and it felt good to be back with our Xiamen friends again.There are quite a few new teachers at XMUT,and we have not had time to make everyone’s acquaintance yet.I hope we will have the opportunity to do that,once the holidays are over.Next week is National Week and we have 8 days off so we are off to Taiwan -t’s kind of like the Rosh Hashana-Yom Kippur-Succot period in Israel when you can’t really get anything done until after the festivals.So far the classes I have seen have been very nice and with quite a high level of English.More after Taiwan!

 

The Cheesecake Festival

Had a nice Shavuot- went to dinner at our Rehovot relatives. Fantastic food and really nice atmosphere.We also had friends over for dinner at the weekend.We made too much food but that was ok, now we have a full fridge for the rest of the week.
Last night we went to see “Before the devil knows you’re dead”.Not a particularly pleasant movie, but definitely well-produced and acted. More food for thought than I originally thought, and Philip Seymour Hoffman was outstanding as the evil brother.
Found some great videos on Eflclassroom.2.0 and so I will put a few on here now and again.