An Indian, a German and a Puerto Rican backpack in China Part 2

I’m hoping Part 1 led you to this piece. If not, you missed out on Disneyland, Hot Pots, crazy monkeys and a breath-taking hike. Oh; and several world wonders.

KUNGFU PANDAS

The most adorable part of our trip was heralded by black and white Asian balls of fur: Pandas. These creatures are terribly naughty, adorable and lazy. Consuming up to 40 kg of bamboo a day, it’s  a miracle they have time for anything else. But they do- an endless cycle of play for 5, lie exhausted for 10, eat for 15 and repeat.

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Chengdu had the largest Panda reserve in the world and the preservation work they do is commendable. The Pandas have a foxy looking cousin- the Red Pandas. Equally cute and constantly nibbling on pumpkin.

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We saw Pandas wrestle for a sleeping spot, itch their behinds on sticks, attempt to (successfully) pull down a tree-climbing neighbour and simply, quite clumsily fall flat- on face and back- from a creaking branch.

These creatures made our hearts sing and changed how we saw ourselves. J, K and N were now Master Panda, Baby Panda and Red Panda. Thereafter, we had many “Do a Panda” moments- lie on your back, eat, roll around and be cute. I couldn’t tell if onlookers (usually at train stations) were amused or mortified.

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ART & CULTURE

The Chinese have a flair for art- from architecture to music and dance. We had the privilege of a 90 minute Opera where talented artists put on the most amazing acts: a glass-shattering Opera singer, performers magically switching masks before you can blink- 15 masks in 10 seconds, puppetry, dance and shadow play.

The show filled not just our thirst for art, but also our very present physical hunger. Our cups overflowed with Jasmine tea- quite literally as the server used a long pipe attached to what looked like an oxygen tank on his back, to access remote cups. The point was filling the cups, not precision.  Bowls of sunflower seeds, wantons, dumplings and noodles (without surprises) kept us stuffed.

The place also offered back massages and ear-cleaning for a small fee. The massage tempted me but the look on the receiver’s face as metre long instruments penetrated their ears, made my decision for me. it wasn’t an option to have just the massage.

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BIG BUDDHA, BUDDHISM AND SHANGRILA

As you’ve gathered by now, China holds plenty of world records. One of them is an enormous 71 metre tall Buddha in Leshan, the tallest in the world. Built centuries ago, the sheer size is staggering. Getting there is also a mighty effort of surviving serpentine queues and feisty old ladies with no qualms about elbowing their way to the front of the line.

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We visited many Buddhist temples and were impressed by the calm and serenity they radiated. Halfway on our hike to Mount Emei we stayed at a Monastery whose head monk was delighted to “practice my English with the foreign people”. He was a darling.

The herculean Prayer Wheel in Shangrila required two dozen panting pullers to set it in motion. Atop a hill, accessed by a 100 breathless steps, the view is simply marvellous.

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You know how sometimes, when on a journey, you get truly and thoroughly disoriented? That happened to us 3 days after our original but cancelled flight, we landed in Shangrila. Fresh from our 3,100 metre hike, we had toned muscles, acclimatized lungs and supple limbs. Or so we thought.

5 metres out of the airport and we were gasping for air. Was it something on the plane? We refused to believe the altitude the phone proclaimed- 3,400 metre!

Totally unprepared, we let ourselves get lost in this picturesque town with Tibetan influence and dogs the size of cows. Oh, and Yaks. And Yak milk and meat. Delicious!

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After some confusion of believing we were in the North-West of China, we realized we were actually in the South-West! It was one of those disorienting but hilarious moments when you realize getting lost on a journey isn’t always bad if you can laugh about it and share it with friends.

LIFE LESSONS

As usual backpacking gave us; J, K and N aka Master Panda, Baby Panda and Red Panda; life lessons:

  1. Language is no barrier if you are willing to get creative. Limbs, grimaces, translation Apps and as often happened, involving a village. We sometimes had the whole restaurant, staff and customers help to order our food and even HOW to eat it.
  2. Food as we knew it was not even the tip of the universe as far as the Chinese are concerned. They can conjure food out of almost anything.
  3. Endless hiking and being on the road introduces you to muscles you didn’t know existed.
  4. After 48 hours in buses,trains and planes, a warm shower will make you cry.
  5. When stressed or in doubt, do a Panda!
  6. You don’t need much to be happy. Most of what you do fits in a backpack. And what doesn’t, is friends that make you believe life is worth it after all.

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We’re already looking for our next adventure. Any suggestions?

 

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An Indian, a German & a Puerto Rican backpack in China Part 1

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I spent mine birthday in China- more specifically in Shanghai- and like a proper 31 year old, at Disneyland! ❤ Oh the joys of letting your inner child run wild to the adventures of Daisy, Mickey and the Lion King!

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Three of us- J, K and N backpacked through China for a whole two weeks and what a roller-coaster experience it was! I felt like a rag doll lost in stormy seas of countless moving human bodies; everywhere, at ALL times! At Disney I felt like a princess like one rightly should!

THE WONDER WALL

The Great Wall of 22,000 kms had us humbled and in awe of how far human capacity can stretch. Our awe soon morphed into an irresistible desire to strike yoga poses despite the pouring rain. The terrible weather meant we were relatively alone and that my friend, in a country of 1.3 billion is a priceless moment. After imposing skyscrapers, the Forbidden City and chaos of Beijing, the Wall was a breath of fresh air! You stop, take in the peace and work your magic. Rest assured, I was on cloud nine.

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SUNRISE AT THE GOLDEN SUMMIT

Our hiking instincts kicked in hard and fast when we decided to trek to the summit of Mount Emei at 3,100 metres. It was a grueling 11 hour, 15,000 stair affair. (The equivalent of around 380 stories) Yes, stairs! But don’t be fooled for a minute. They only go up. Higher and higher and never ending. You think you’re done but there’s always another stairway waiting to bite you in the bum. Well, in my case- the knees and the back too. While J happily skipped to the top like a mountain goat, K and I were like slow-motion figures creaking up the mountain with rickety bamboo sticks.

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As if this wasn’t tough enough, the climb has it’s homegrown brand of Scary-house. Huge, aggressive monkeys that jump out at you and go straight for whatever food/clothing/bags/camera/phone you made the mistake of carrying. After 11 hours of being on pins and needles, anticipating an attack; we made it safely to the top. I did however see a man get bitten on the ankle, another literally pushed over (he disrespected King Kong’s comfort zone, so he had it coming) and several others unceremoniously stripped off their food bags.

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All the trials and tribulations of the trail were a forgotten memory as we reached our goal.

5:45 am at the Golden Summit which houses the world’s highest Buddha: The massive statue is bathed in dark hues of pre-dawn hours. As light shyly breaks through cottony clouds, the statue shimmers to life. Crowds wait patiently for the young sun to show itself. While brilliant shades of purple, pink and yellow dance before our eyes, it seems like his majesty will not appear.

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Then suddenly, when we least expect it, a soft orange sphere bobs up in the distance. Thanks to our altitude, it’s almost as if we are watching sunrise unfold from the seats of the Gods.

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As the orange blob grows bigger and brighter, dazzling rays cascade upon us and we are soaked. Soaked in golden light, soaked in emotion and soaked in the simplistic beauty of a spectacular sunrise.

We cried.

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FANCY SOME DUCK’S BLOOD? 

My duo and I craved a warm beverage after the morning’s excitement. Now naturally, one thinks of tea or coffee. China taught me to think, live and eat out of the box. All we could find was steaming hot soup.

In all my travels thus far, I hadn’t come across a culture that explored, broke and relished the boundaries of food. The Chinese reign supreme at it. My dear palate and tummy had the time of their lives. It was usually a minute to minute decision to either churn and turn me green or to go for the Yum-card!

My system smiled in acceptance at fish and veggies in a Hot Pot (a Sichuan-special boiling concoction of spices, oils and water in which you cook your food at your table); gourmet quality Peking duck (relished with sugar, soy and an array of spices); cold noodles in Leshan, grilled Yak meat on sticks and a delicious egg/something pie in Shangrila.

What had me running for the hills was: Duck’s blood, baby chicks on skewers, pig’s elbow and; get ready for it…. Ox penis!

I stopped asking why.

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Between the three of us, J was the only one with working knowledge of Mandarin. So while his request for tea was sometimes understood as a plea for alcohol; he is the reason we sailed over the language barrier in what we thought was style…

However, we figured a new way of ordering once his vocabulary had reached it’s limits. We simply pointed to dishes on the menu. Of course we had fingers, toes and eyes crossed until the food arrived. 9 out of ten times our randomness paid off. The rest of the time, well…

THESE TECH-SAVVY CHINESE

The first time I was asked for a photograph, I was mighty confused which side of the camera to stand on. Soon I got used to posing with complete strangers and then, using J’s mandate, taking a picture on my phone of the surprised stranger. I guess the three of us together probably caught more than a passing glance. A Puerto rican, a German and an Indian backpacking through China

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Curious Chinese often asked how we know each other, whether we met on the road… When language permitted, we explained that two of us go back a decade as flatmates and best friends, two of us are married to each other and two of us are discovering how it is to get along like a house on fire. If language was not an option, we used hands, feet and faces.

China being extremely advanced in technology, had no shortage of translation Apps which our friendly waiters, drivers and hostel hosts regularly shoved under our chins.

I was struck by how little paper money I saw in China. 80% of payments are cashless, through Apps like We Chat and Ali Pay. Additionally,  everybody seems glued to their phones. Noses buried deep in virtual worlds, the masses looked like question mark figures in humble submission to hand-held addictions.

Perhaps a side-effect of so much technology?

….Check Part 2 to re-live the most adorable part of our journey……

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Zen at an intersection

It beats me why I chose this spot to zone out and zen in. In retrospect, perhaps because it’s a fitting analogy to my present status.
Today is day 1 of my 19th month in a new country. While I have a lot going for me, I also have a lot going against. I love Hamburg and the life it offers me, nonetheless there are constantly new hurdles I need to step over, sometimes stomp on or just let fly.

Take for instance Ms. Pretentious in my licensing exam class (in German) who made her disdain of my language very audible. Upon finding out I’m new (relatively) she switched gears and offered to coach me (at a ridiculous price) on my pronunciation. I, of course, happily let her know that she could go fly a kite. In not so many words as actions. Needless to say, she reverted to her former disdain.

Back to finding Zen. For many of us caught in the cross hairs of life; it’s easy to let chaos overwhelm. There’s many a contender vying for top peeve- boss, the absence of or the presence of a partner, a kid, family, money. There’s always illness, an addiction, pesky neighbours, the weather, you don’t need to look far.

So today after Ms. Pretentious grated my nerves once again, I let off steam by cycling a couple of kilometres and found myself sitting cross-legged on a park bench. The soothing hot chocolate in my hand manages to calm more than my hungry stomach.

The intersection is buzzing with traffic, cyclists whizz past, dogs are being walked, children are being cycle- trained and the occasional tramp gives me a curious look.

I find my ears tuning in to the cheerful cries of tiny birds. My nose picks up the scent of spicy chicken being roasted across the street​. My skin tingles in confusion, unable to decide if it feels warm or cold. For though the sun is shining, a cool breeze of 16°C takes over intermittently.

As I allow my senses to be soaked in the stimuli around me; I suddenly feel completely at peace. My heart no longer runs a race, my lungs breathe freely and deeply and the tension in my muscles slowly leaves.

The devil’s advocate in me gets vocal and asks- so how does this solve all of your other challenges

The Zen I’ve tapped into answers- it doesn’t. 

So this was an exercise in futility. 

Most certainly not. Now that I feel better, I deal better.

A barking dog breaks me out of this dialogue in my head and I notice how light I feel.

To some it might seem strange and silly. But to me, this was a lesson in Zen. A lesson in being fully present in the moment and realising that-

I dont need to have all the answers. Nor a problem free life. I just need to BE. Just be ME.

Food for my soul

Have you ever found yourself in a bowl of something delicious? Well, I sure have. Found myself I mean, in bowls of food. Both spiritually and literally. (Pun intended)

You have to admit that very often a taste of something that tingles those gustatory nerves makes you feel alive once more. Makes you want to step out into a different phase- whether new, bold, exciting or at the very least- into a satisfied, peaceful, post-prandial slumber.

I’ve just had a particularly discouraging day since my 16 months in Germany. I used the 6 km brisk walk home to burn through my bubbling frustration. However, my nose decided to lead me astray every few meters. It invariably caught the scent of freshly brewed coffee, tantalizing Mexican cuisine and pungent Indian curries. 3km into my furious walk and I succumbed to the not-so-subtle rumblings of my rather angry stomach. I jumped onto a train and headed straight to a little authentic Indian place called Badshah at Hansaplatz in Hamburg. As the name suggests, you are treated to food worthy of a king.


In the flurry of five minutes it took the friendly staff to get my order ready, familiar smells of home were already releasing the tense knots which were once my muscles. I did indeed find myself in this simply superb plate of Chole Bhature– red, hot chickpea curry relished with fried bread. (Here are more details for the curious and brave-hearted).

It amazed me how comfortable I felt in this chaotic, colourful, noisy place where Indians and non-Indians alike bonded over food. Most of the latter category, surrounded by piles of tissue to calm their shocked noses. For me, raw spice has the most soothing effect. Home truly is where the spice is!

Much to my surprise, my affair with exotic food for the day was not done. Friends from an old language class invited me to L’Amira– a Syrian restaurant (a stone’s throw away from Badshah’s).

We had many bowls of yum to find ourselves in. My favourite was once again a chickpea based dish called Fatteh.

My Syrian friends, as is custom back home, broke into song once we finished our meal. Needless to say, the Germans around us raised more than just their eyebrows. It wasn’t difficult to read their minds- “These crazy foreigners!”

Oh, how my spirits soared!

Happy and sleepy, my body set out to digest my soul food and I made my groggy way home. I climbed under the sheets and as expected, my big disappointment from earlier in the day came back to bite me in the bum. Sad and down but once again, saved by my nose. It picked up the aroma of comfort -fresh mint tea this time, served with a big hug from the hubby. What a darling I thought!

Only now, as I lie awake with the events of the day coursing through my mind and tummy; I wonder what the mint tea was really meant for. To comfort a sorrowful wife or to protect from the cheerful effect of one too many chickpeas?

Let’s say I don’t want to know.

PS- go get your fill of chickpea goodness if you are close to either of these two places. Maybe just not both on the same day. 😉

 

 

Indian Hamburg-er turns one

“Life’s too short to learn German.” Dear Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Richard Porson and whoever else thinks so; I disagree.

Today I have been here (Germany) for a year. Incidentally, my inconvenient marriage also just turned one. Feels like yesterday that I threw a fit at the airport in India when I was told my luggage was overweight. The drama queen in me surfaced and I quickly convinced those kind officials to let a girl leaving home for a foreign land, take her few kilos of ‘extra’ along.

Freshly married, handsome husband in tow, I set foot into Hamburg, bleary-eyed and freezing because my world had just gotten about 30 degrees colder. What Hamburg threw in my face as less than welcoming weather, it made up in the Christmas spirit. I felt like I was in a Harry Potter wonder world.

Magical little Christmas markets peeped from every corner, lights twinkled everywhere, tinsel shimmered and street musicians seemed to be caroling permanently. What a delight! The aroma of warm croissants, cinnamon cookies and apple crisps filled the wintry air.

Two days later, my globe-trotting Hubby had an overnight business trip. While I have no qualms about living alone, my adventurous spirit was suddenly cowering in the corner when I realized even ordering a coffee was a challenge. Yikes, I had to face the language beast!

Despite a dozen mirror-practices, my coffee ordering watered down to a clumsy show of dumb-charades and mumbled English. Gosh, as a language enthusiast that could survive in six others, was I embarrassed!

I was keenly interested in learning German and armed myself with Duolingo once I bumped into my future Husband on a midnight train. How quickly that changed when the German Government said that in order to get a marriage visa, I HAD to have a basic A1 level in German! The audacity! All because I am a non-EU, Indian Passport holder. Such an inconvenience!

It helped that I was crazily in love. I my wonderful teachers through a Indo-German Stammtisch/Meeting and managed to pass the daunting A1 exam. Little did I know there was a series of more exams to come. And a looooong series at that.

After my failed attempts at ordering coffee, understanding changes in train schedules (a journey of 2 minutes took 20) and finding my way to and from work (I lost my lingual and thus geographical way every day for 30 days), I was frustrated to say the least.

My dear Husband constantly apologized for his difficult mother-tongue and tried his best to keep his feisty wife happy. We agreed an integration course was in order and soon I found myself on a mind-your-language set. With colleagues from Russia, Turkey, Kosovo, Africa, Italy, Spain, America and France, this was my best German learning experience thus far! Our teachers were unbelievably creative and entertaining. We had one class at a Christmas market, over Glühwein (Hot red wine drunk traditionally at Christmas and Winter time). Needless to say, the wine didn’t do much for our grammar but our confidence levels were soaring higher than Santa flying over the town hall. The course was over all too soon and I skipped A2 and received a B1 which I was very proud of.

Just to bring these language levels in perspective, here’s what this mumbo jumbo of alphabets and numbers means:

Basic Speaker: A1 Beginner, A2 Elementary

Independent Speaker: B1 Intermediate, B2 Upper intermediate

Proficient Speaker: C1 Effective Operational Proficiency or advanced, C2 Mastery or proficiency- native speaker level

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I soon realized that while a B1 was enough to apply for a German passport (thanks, but no thanks), it was a far cry from enabling me to work in my profession- namely that of a Homoeopathic Doctor.

So out we set again, looking and finding the right course- scarily termed “Medizinische Fachsprache” or Technical Medical language. Now I no longer had to deal with coffee vendors and local transport, but Government officials. With no more Husband’s apron strings to hold on to, I set out, quavering heart and all, to meet the lady in charge of my case. What I was essentially applying for, was a year long course sponsored by the government, to the tune of 7000 Euros. Terrified she’d say no, it took me a minute to realize that in the 60 seconds it took to calm my wildly beating heart, she had just approved my application! Wow! I said a quick “Danke schön” and raced out lest she changed her mind.

Day 1 of the course for me and day 8 for the rest: 8 hours of intensive medical German and I was struggling to keep up with all the new words flying across the room. I understood 2%. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that they let me postpone the B2 exam which was a criteria to take the course. The deal was that I’d take the B2 exam during the medicine language course.

The teacher wanted feedback after a week with the class and to my horror the first thing I heard was, “This course is too easy, we need something more challenging.” I could have thrown my shoe at her. Here I was, falling off and clawing desperately to stay on this speeding language train and she says, “Huh! Not fast enough.” I sobbed that night begging my stars not to have to go back. But I did. And I had nightmares for the whole 3 months.

The grammar cases of Nominative and Accusative did little to ease my dread of Dative and Genitive. Trust me, it is far worse than it sounds. And as if these 4 strange cases were not trouble enough, German has the distinction of having a gender for every noun. English has none of this, but the other languages I speak do- Portuguese, Hindi, Konkani- so I could make my peace with male and female. But surprise surprise, German has a neutral gender too. So while I could get why woman was female (die Frau) and man was male (der Mann), why in the world was girl (das Mädchen) neutral?! Just like my cutlery was also tri-gendered: a female fork, a male spoon and a neutral knife. (die Gabel, der Löffel, das Messer). I quickly learnt to accept things I cannot change. My Husband also learnt, the hard way, that sometimes he just had to hold my hand and tell me things would be okay even if he didn’t know.

My 90 days of hell paid off and I had both B2 and C1 skills (also in medical language) and was gearing to get my hands or should I say mouth dirty, with a 6-month internship. The experience has been nothing short of amazing. Between my administration job with Homoeopaths without Borders and this Praktikum as a Homoeopath, I have had the opportunity to misunderstand and be misunderstood,  work with Refugees, fight in a foreign language, make new friends, communicate with 10 year olds who think the world of my chocolate skin, spend agonizing hours translating and composing emails and most rewarding of all; to have recently been able to translate for a Pakistani patient from Hindi to German. My brain tap danced between the two tongues but I finally felt a deep sense of satisfaction at knowing the language. I could make a difference.

Two hours of dinner and conversation with a colleague and my husband, brought up a very unusual side to language learning that I hadn’t realized existed. My husband and I, for reasons of history, efficiency and comfort; had thus far communicated in English with each other. But come my colleague, I switched to German and thought nothing of it until he left. My husband had the look of someone that just saw a cow jump over the moon. “How do you know so much German honey? I don’t know who you are anymore. I need to get to know you in German!” It’s somehow weird now for me to talk to my colleagues in English although both parties know the language well enough. Once you meet/ get to know someone in one particular language, it’s strange to switch to another. Try it.

My husband and I now easily switch between the two, partly thanks to my family in-love/law that speaks only German and my will to integrate. In fact, we now switch fast and often enough to thoroughly confuse someone listening. I’m sure my family will not be amused when we meet this Christmas.

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Many have questioned my decision to move, knowing fully well that it involved re-ordering, re-arranging and turning everything upside down. Even to the extent of having to re-learn, in German, my almost decade long education in Homoeopathy. For what it’s worth, here is how I see it:

I like challenges. My dream of being a global citizen wouldn’t kick off from the comforts of home. And oh how I miss it sometimes! Someday I will have half German children, or a child (quick edit so the Husband isn’t nervous), and I want to know the culture, language and background they inherit from their father. It is important to me. For those already asking, “What about the Indian half of their heritage?”, the Husband has already lived in, sweated for and fallen in love with India. He has promised to work harder on the language side of affairs but it suffices to say, he had, up until a year ago, more experience with my side of the world than vice versa. Well now, it’s game on! I dare say I’m ahead. Yes, yes I know it’s not a competition; but nonetheless, I won! 😉

After exactly 365 days here, riding emotional, lingual and weather rollercoasters, I must say this about Hamburg, Ich bin bis über beide Ohren verliebt! Translated word for word: I’m over both ears in love!

Although I disagree with Twain, Wilde and Porson, I wholeheartedly agree with the genius who said, “Tell someone you love them today. But SHOUT it at them in German, because life is also terrifying and confusing!”

ICH LIEBE DICH!! ❤