Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Last Few Days......the month coming to an end

Well, they had been eating a whole lot of it, and now they have a whole new appreciation for it.........rice!  Each morning the students met for a breakfast of banana pancakes and toast, then headed out to a local rice paddy.  There they learned to pull stalks, pull rice, separate seeds.....all things I'm sure they never envisioned themselves doing!  Clothed in their rubber boots, straw hats, pants, and long sleeves to protect themselves from mosquitoes, it was HOT and the hard labor didn't help!  Brianna said it was so hot, you just pour sweat standing still.  She also mentioned a particular pesky problem....the presence of spiders....lots of them!  B, well, she HATES spiders!  A little farming experience, a little work on conquering your fear of spiders.....all while dripping in sweat!  Needless to say, of all the community service projects they did, this one was not her favorite.  I told her that although she wasn't necessarily enjoying it, she should go there with he eyes wide open and take it all in anyway....she promised she would.  She did love the village they were in.  She said it was beautiful, and peaceful there.

The early afternoons in Chengyang Dong brought them some down time where they had lunch and relaxed a little before heading to the local elementary school to teach English to the school children there.   According to the trip leaders, the group did an excellent job coming up with topics to teach, dividing up responsibilities, and implementing their ideas.  Working as a group, in and of itself, I'm sure has been a great learning experience.  Brianna was AMAZED by how smart the students were!!!  She was so surprised when two of the girls went up to the board and wrote a sentence, in English, complete with conjunctions and commas!  That is pretty amazing!

Evenings in this peaceful village where spent on the deck of their hotel, having dinner, reminiscing about their day, and playing some group games.

For the next part of their adventure, they boarded a bus, and took a five hour ride to Yangshou....a beautiful town with views of the Li River and karst topography.  Here they took a scenic bicycle ride, a bamboo raft ride down the Li River, and went on a morning hike to Moon Hill.  They even took a Chinese cooking class!

Ending their time in China, they headed back to Beijing to tour some more of China's famous sites.  They visited Tianamen Square, and the Forbidden City, places whose history Brianna is fascinated by but until now has only read about.  Their final night in China was spent having a celebratory meal, where they reflected back on their accomplishments, the memories they have made and friendships they've built over the past month.  With only ONE night left having to worry about eating or drinking something she shouldn't, poor Brianna got VERY sick!  Her phone call, so very much anticipated, brought me the voice I hadn't heard in two weeks......and it sounded awful!  By the time I talked to her she was doing a little better than she had during the night and her trip leader seemed to be taking very good care of her.  By the time she boarded the plane (which got delayed over four hours!) from Beijing to LA, she was feeling a little better, but not well.    Her text message upon landing in LA did bring me some comfort. She said she was feeling better, but had no appetite at all......I'll take that!

My next post will be after she arrives home!!!!  Be patient, it may take me a few days!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Truly Unique Experiences

Imagine getting to spend the day learning about, helping to take care of, and feeding these amazing creatures...

Brianna and the other students in her group spent the day at the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding.  The Research Base is a world class research facility, and panda conservation education center.  Established in 1987 with six pandas rescued from the wild, it is now home to 83 giant pandas.  While there the students watched a movie about Pandas and how to conserve them in the future, and also had the glorious task of cleaning up poop and bamboo!  Their efforts were rewarded with a rare opportunity to feed the panda cubs!!!!  Brianna seemed to be very excited about this experience, however I think she may have been equally excited by the fact that they had McD's for dinner that night!

After leaving Chengdu, they boarded a plane and headed to Guilin in Guangxi Province.  After a super late arrival due to some weather delays, they settled into their hotel for the night.  In the morning they took a three hour bus ride to Chengyang Dong, a small rice farming community that has survived on subsistence farming for centuries. On their way they stopped to purchase some straw hats and rubber boots (if you could hear me you'd know I'm laughing out loud now!). Here they will spend their mornings working side by side with local families helping to bring in this year's harvest.  Here's a little about where they are in the words of Scott von Eschen.....

"Daybreaks around the world are remarkably similar. Dark, dark silence followed by the distant call of a too early rising rooster, a creak of a door, the echo of a dog barking across the valley. The soft glow of morning begins to bath the homes in color, in seconds transforming them from black and white to technicolor. The village slowly emerges with the cry of a baby, and the whispered farewell of a worker’s early departure for a day of toil.

I’ve just watched Chengyang Dong emerge from darkness. It reminds me of so may other dawns I’ve experienced around the world: Costa Rica, Fiji, Tanzania, Guatemala, Tahiti, Thailand, Phillipines, Greece, Belize. The cultures might be dramatically different, but the way they greet each day in the same.

Chengyang Dong is a treasure of a town. Imagine a Hollywood movie set depicting life in a 16th century Chinese village tucked high in the mountains and you can get a sense of this place. Labyrinth-like passageways lined with multi-storied wooden homes–pigs and ducks living at ground level, the families living above them. A river, the center of everything here, winds through the village bringing life.

Water wheels line the river’s banks to feed the rice paddies. Small holding ponds are built to raise fish for their meals. Women and children wash themselves and their clothes in the river.

Everywhere we go there is a giggle at our passing, a delighted “Ni Hau” or “hello” followed by a laugh. The people are incredibly friendly–not many outsiders make it to their town and they are curious and gracious and welcoming. Tiny kids follow us through the streets wanting their picture taken and are delighted to see their image in the viewfinder.

This is a farming community, with rice as the main crop. Everywhere you look are terraced rice paddies belonging to individual families.

We’ve come at harvest season and the fields are filled with families irrigating, cutting, reaping, harvesting and drying their rice. The people work incredibly hard. Their incentive is obvious. Their rice yield now will feed their families until the next harvest in May. If they come up short, they go hungry."

In the afternoons the group will be working in a local primary school teaching English.  According to their trip leaders Brianna's group worked hard last night preparing for their time at the school, coming up with lots of creative ideas for teaching. They are reportedly very anxious to try them out!  The students there walk to school from villages as far as four hours away, and therefore spend weeknights boarding in the dormitories. School hours are from 7:55 in the morning to 8:20 at night!   As part of their experience, Brianna's group will spend a night in the dorms. All students, many of the very same age, yet living very different lives.  I wonder what each side will take away from their experience together...what lessons will be learned. 

Word from Brianna is that she's feeling much better since leaving Tibet and returning to a normal altitude.  I was worried about how sick she was feeling, but really felt she'd be back to normal once the altitude wasn't an issue any more.  One week from tomorrow, we'll be returning to the airport to get her.  Ella, who can now talk about Brianna without crying, is planning all sorts of things for her return.  Things like balloons, and streamers, and a wide assortment of favorite foods!  She even has suggestions on how the food should be displayed across the counters! And of course, I'm not allowed to breathe a word of her cuteness....because she wants it to be a surprise :)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Where in the Brianna?

For three days, the students of Brianna's group worked with the children at Jatson Chumig School and Orphanage. The orphanage was established in 1993 and is  home to over 150 orphaned girls and boys.  Here's what Scott von Eschen, president of ARCC had to say while there on a scouting trip:

"Some orphanages are depressing…Jatson is just the opposite. There is so much life and energy here and the kids are so cute. It was so inspiring walking from classroom to classroom, meeting the kids, watching them working so hard at their lessons. You’d never know that they had suffered through some of the worst things anyone, let alone children, can go through."

Brianna seemed to really enjoy her time there.  She said that the children were all very cute, and she was surprised by how smart they were, and how quickly they learned.  On their last day the children all sang a song for them :)  Resilient is really the only word I can think of.  Children, who have gone through more than they should have and more than any one of us can imagine, and yet they smile, they sing, and they work hard.

After completing their time at Jatson, the group took a three hour drive up to the holy Namtso Lake where they were able to catch the stunning sunset over the mountains.  Also referred to as "Heavenly Lake", it is the highest salt water lake in the world. Unfortunately, this meant that they were at an altitude about 3,000 feet higher than in Lhasa, an unfortunately this seemed to have a negative effect on Brianna :(  She had a headache and was nauseous, apparently suffering from some mild altitude sickness.  Still, she tried to enjoy her time at what is one of the three holy lakes in Tibet....a lake of crystal clear blue water, which to Tibetans symbolizes godliness, and happiness and is thought to cleanse the souls of all who visit it.

Then it was time to say goodbye to Tibet, and head to their next adventure.....the Giant Pandas!  They arrived in Chengdu, and had a spicy dinner,...a local favorite, "Hot Pot".  After dinner they all got a much needed Western treat....McFlurries!  I'm sure they enjoyed those!

As I write, it it late evening in China, and Brianna has finished her day working at the Panda Breeding Center.  I have yet to get any details of her day, but can't wait to her about!  Keeping my fingers crossed that I'll get a phone call....really soon.  It's been six days since I've heard her live voice!  It's killing me.....even though I'm pretending (mostly to myself) that it's not, it is!

Friday, July 16, 2010


The decision to send Brianna away for a month, to the other side of the whole, came with several expectations. I expected that in some way it would better prepare her for her life away from home when she goes to college. After all, once you've navigated your way around a foreign country and through foreign airports for a month, finding your classroom on the other side of campus has to be a piece of cake! I expected that she'd mature and become somewhat more independent, and a lot more confident. All of these things would make her all the more ready when she leaves for college a year from now. What I didn't expect is how it would possibly prepare me! I didn't expect that DAYS would go by without hearing from her...leaving me wondering how she was, what she was doing. Sure, I knew that there would be times when cell phone service was non existent, but I didn't know that there would be times that she had service and still didn't call! I didn't expect that I would crave the details of her day and yet be left wondering how it went. I didn't expect that days would go by without hearing from her, and then a text would come asking for us to put more money in her checking account! I guess that's just a preview, and we'll get many similar text messages in the years to come :)

........I didn't expect that this trip would teach me how deal with missing to deal with worrying about her....and how to have complete faith that we're both growing and it's a good thing, it's a normal thing.

Yesterday an update was posted on the Travel Log. It simply said that they finished their three days of work at the orphanage and then gave a small detail about each student. It said that "Bri was an awesome leader of the day and got the kids involved in many activities. She was very energetic about it"! Each day they pick a "leader of the day", and I'm sure she was great working with the kids! But I kinda wanted a little more detail! Last night came an email from her saying that the trip leaders had collected their phones (something they tend to do to prevent the students from spending the day sending text messages). She said that she and a few other students have been a little nauseous. High altitude, foreign food, malaria prophylaxis....hmmmm OK, she's a little nauseous. She said she was excited about their upcoming trip up to Namsa Lake....and that was about it! It wrote back typing as quickly as I could, hoping she'd still be near the computer, would get and read my email right away, and answer my many questions. Nothing! UGH!

So, I wish I could share with you all the wonderful details of her time in Lhasa, but I don't have any! Maybe, if we all keep our fingers crossed, I'll get some today! And when I do, you will know it :)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Cultural Immersion

A small village, Napa Village, at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains. Tibetan style homes stand along the lake. Pigs, cows, and yaks roam about making it quite obvious that this is a farming village. The people here are very poor and live harsh lives. This was home for three nights for Brianna and the other students in her group. They lived the lives of the Napa people. They stayed in groups of five, with different families in this small rural village, eating every meal with them. During the day they worked with local builders to help build two recycling centers and ultimately completed experience I'm sure was quite rewarding. Here is an excerpt from the parent Travel Log:

"We’re on Day 2 of our village stay in Napa village. We have completed the foundation and the first few layers of bricks on both of our recycling centers here that we have constructed. Yesterday was an awesome day; we had great weather and everyone worked together really well. We finished off the afternoon by playing soccer and a few group games together, and then we went back to our individual homestay homes. We then all met back together later on that evening for a dance where we learned a bunch of Chinese and Tibetan traditional dances as a big group, which was a lot of fun!"

After many days of waiting for some kind of word from Brianna, I finally got an email from her yesterday after she returned to Shangri la. It's a special kind of excitement I feel when I see I've gotten an email, a text, or a phone call from her and boy was I excited to see her email! She said that it was "cool" and "awesome" being able to stay with the family in the village. She also made a couple of comments that make me believe she's liking the accommodations much better at the hotels she been at! Comments about things like bugs....lots of bugs, and not being able to take a shower....for many more days than she'd like! Like I said, they lived the lives of the people of Napa Village....I think it just may be a little different than here. She was very happy to be back in Shangri la where she says it's "nice", and "cute". She's still enjoying her group very much. She said that it's been very easy to make friends with the people in her group and she loves them. So far that comment has given me the most comfort :)

The group left Napa Village yesterday and headed to Tibet, the "roof of the world"! There they were greeted with traditional white scarves by their guide Tenzan. These white scarves, Khata, are given as a sign of respect, good will, and compassion. They then headed to their hotel in Lhasa where they got a much welcomed opportunity to do laundry!

As I write this, it is now morning in Tibet. Today the group will be beginning their community service work at the Jatson Chumig School and Orphanage. They will spend the next three days working with the children there. This is the service project I've been most excited about, and I know that Brianna has been really looking forward to it too. Although it is not the orphanage that Owen spent almost two years in, I'm sure it will give her a glimpse into the life he had before coming home. Brianna and Owen already share a special bond, and something tells me that this experience will do nothing but strengthen that bond. I CAN NOT wait to hear about her day! I know that while part of what she does will be teaching English to the children, the lessons she will learn from these children will be far numerous and far greater than any amount of English she will teach them.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Word From the Other Side of the World

It's been four days, four looooong days since I've last heard from B. I've been waiting, checking my phone, checking the travel log set up by ARCC....and finally, today, word from the other side of the world! The following is the message we got today:

We just arrived in Shangri La, a beautiful town located at 10,500 feet!! The last time we caught up, our group was about to embark for the infamous Tiger Leaping Gorge hike. Now, three days later, we're stronger, happier, and a little more tired. The hike was absolutely incredible! We were all trying to come up with good words to describe our three-day hike, but couldn't entirely wrap our heads around it. The hike was difficult, yet rewarding, full of spectacular views of the steep gorge walls and rushing Yangtze River below.

After a few jam-packed days in Beijing, this hike also allowed us all a bit of down-time in the afternoon which had been much anticipated. We took an afternoon hike on Monday to check out some stunning views above our gorgeous guesthouse, and finished the night with a couple of great games over a delicious spread for dinner.

Tuesday, we awoke to a yummy breakfast of pancakes, and set out for our big uphill climb. After 28 switch-backs, we finally hit the downhill and ended at the Tea Horse Guesthouse which was equally as charming as the one the night before. Our Chinese guide, Jonathan, gave us the opportunity to kill a chicken for dinner! Max stepped up to the challenge, and the sight was indescribable! Alas, we had fresh chicken with dinner...(just wait for the pictures!). Today, we left our guesthouse and finished the remainder of the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike. Today's hike was full of beautiful views due to the sunshine that finally crept out for the entire morning. We ended with tired legs, but raised spirits, and ate a delicious lunch before heading to the Shangbala Tibetan Yard where we are now!

Tomorrow, we begin our first community service project in Napa Village, where we will be constructing a recycling center for the local community. There, we will be in groups of 4 or 5 staying with the local families and learning more about this interesting and unique culture"

Sounds incredible, and I can't wait to hear just how incredible it was....from her! It's been so hard waiting, wondering and worrying. Though I did shed a few tears at the airport witnessing Ella's breakdown regarding Brianna's departure, I've somehow managed to keep it together since then. So, consider this a of you...don't know who.... don't know when, but one day (I suspect very soon) someone will ask me how B is doing in China, and the floodgates will open. I'm overdue. Just thought I'd warn case that someone is you!

I do know that the group will remain in Shangri La Until July 11th. They will end their time there with a celebratory feast and traditional Tibetan dance in the town center. They will then be off to Lhasa, Tibet.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Music to My Ears

.......or should I say the beeping of my phone, alerting me that I have a text message....which has most definitely been music to my ears. For some reason, maybe because texting is the preferred means of communication for teens, Brianna has been sending text messages but has only called home once from China. Many times her text will say that she's unable to call right then, but then she'll continue to send several text messages. I answer each one thinking if you can text me WHY CAN'T YOU CALL ME!!!!! Regardless, the sound of those beeps, has been my favorite sound of the day! I take my cell phone everywhere just waiting to hear them.

It was through a text that I learned she trekked up and across the Great Wall of China the distance of 22 towers! Lets just say that Brian and I did not make if quite that far...not even close! It was also how I learned that she thought it was the hardest thing she's ever done, but that she thought it was "pretty cool". At 4:19am, my cell phone which was sitting right on my night table, beeped again and I learned she was sitting on a plane in Kumming China waiting to take off for Lijing. She said she was doing well, she felt good, she seems to be finding plenty to eat, and she misses us. But, my most favorite message and the one that makes me the most happy, was when she said "I love my group, everyone's so funny and nice". AHHHH......that was like medicine for my worried heart :)

As I write she is asleep in a guesthouse. She and her group will spend the next several days hiking along the Tiger Leaping Gorge which has spanning views of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain towering above the Yangzhe River below. As they hike from guesthouse to guesthouse they will pass the Naxi minority people who make up the population of that region. They will witness them going about their daily chores while they receive a glimpse of a world that has remained unchanged for centuries. After mornings of hiking they will enjoy the afternoons at guesthouses along the way where they will have time to drink tea and enjoy the scenery around them.

I'm not sure what the cell phone service will be there, but I am sure that I will be waiting for the beep of my phone.

Friday, July 2, 2010

A New Reason to Blog :)

A couple months ago, while looking for a summer service opportunity for Brianna, a company called Adventures Cross Country was brought to my attention. There were several opportunities Brianna and I were looking into, but this particular opportunity was quite interesting. A month long trip, to China and Tibet.....the other side of the world, where she would have the opportunity to see first hand all the history of China she loves so much, and also to serve the people of China and Tibet in various capacities. She would volunteer in an Elementary school, at a rice farm, at the Panda Breeding Center, and at an orphanage. The decision was not easy, not for this mom, or the sixteen year old who would be missing an entire month of her summer with friends. But God has funny ways of leading you toward the right decision, and for Brianna and I He couldn't of yelled it any louder!

There was one spot left on the trip and it was now the "deadline day" to get the group airfare rate for the flight to China. We needed to make a 6pm, and she wasn't due home from school until 2pm. We talked, she thought, she wasn't sure. Then a painter came to give us an estimate for some work we were having done. Brianna, trying to decide, was sitting in the kitchen at my laptop, looking at pictures and stories from past student's trips. She doesn't usually use my laptop, but the website was already open so she sat and looked at it there. The painter, finished looking at what we wanted done, and asked if he could sit at the kitchen table to write up his estimate. With that, Ella walked in the room wearing one of her dance costumes. This sparked a conversation about how expensive the dance costumes are, which lead the painter to mention how expensive his son's cap and gown was for his college graduation. His son had just graduated from Stony Brook. I asked what he majored in, he replied that he was a history major...Brianna's love. Brianna smiles at his answer. He then went on to tell us that because of his son's AP credits he was able to graduate in three years, and then proceeds to say......"but the best thing he ever did was go to China for six weeks"!!!!! Brianna and I looked at each other and knew there was nothing else to think about! What were the chances of that. All the surrounding circumstances just happened to fall perfectly into place to lead to that conversation and for him to say that???? We knew, that was our sign.

Knowing and feeling it was the right decision didn't mean it was going to make it easy to actually but her on a plane and send her to the other side of the world. In fact the entire trip was something that was making us step way out of "our box". She was to pack a month's worth of clothing and equipment in a backpack??? And speaking of backpacks, no one here knew the first thing about them (that is until I spent an ENTIRE day researching backpacks!). Hiking boots, rain gear, hostels, guesthouses.....all things that simply did not exist in our vocabulary...until now that is.

We managed to figure it all out and get everything, all 34lbs. of it, into her backpack, and then the day came. The day that I would put my first born onto a plane and send the other side of the world. I constantly reminded myself of the painter, his words, and what an incredibly wonderful opportunity this was for her, but I could literally feel the battle going on inside my head and my heart. A constant tug of war between emotions with my mind playing the coach to both sides....and I wondered if I would be strong enough to actually put her on that plane. It's hard, being strong, and it's hard to let go. But, I knew this would be an amazing experience for her and I knew it would change her....and I knew that that was probably what I was the most afraid of. She'd come back, a little more independent, a little more self confident having been "on her own" for a month and having had some world travel experience. And as much as I knew that was going to help her grow, I also knew she'd come home needing me just a little bit less, and I could feel everything inside me wanting to resist that. I reminded myself that being brave doesn't mean that you have no fear, it means doing something even though you are afraid and I told myself that it was OK to feel this way and let her go anyway.

So, she's there now.....on the other side of the world....having the time of her life, and I'm OK...mostly :)

She has spent today touring Beijing and will have another day there tomorrow. Then it will be off to Yunnan where they will spend four days hiking from guesthouse to guesthouse along the Tiger Leaping Gorge. I will continue to update this blog while she travels, though I'll probably have limited access to any pictures from the trip.

I just want to say thank you to everyone for their support, their kind words, and their interest in her trip :)