Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Here I am...

In Sacramento. I'm busy learning (again) about how a bill becomes a law and finding a new grocery store. I lost my cell phone charger in the move, and my laptop is at the shop all week, so all of the people in my social world are new. I guess it's like going away to college, as a grown-up, in a blazer and heels.

I know that news is still coming from the rest of the world, but I'm missing it. Well I'm not really missing it, I'm just too obsessed with my own adjustment to have any thoughts about anything else. Oh, and I'm too exhausted to say anything about all of the other stuff that's really more important than me. Rosa Parks died today, Dick Cheney was implicated in the leak of a CIA agent's identity, and polls show that Hillary might have a shot at the Presidency. My response? Here I am in Sacramento. Oh, and the walls and ceilings of the Senate and Assembly floors look like frosting on a wedding cake.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Speaking of Birth Control

It looks like an Arkansas woman could have benefited from better birth control education. A good start would have been to tell her that it exists.

Being pro-choice and all, I would never condescend to tell another woman what she should do with her body, but I can't help it if my own body aches in sympathy pain for her.

And it's a relief to know that someone else is as startled by this as I am.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Want to help protect women's bodies? Stop talking about abortion. An argument in favor of a woman's personal right to choose an abortion isn't really going to trump an argument about preventing murder. Switch the topic to birth control, and it's easy to prove that the real sentiment behind anti-choice rhetoric has more to do with controlling women than it does supporting life.

Yesterday, Susan Wood reminded the nation that the same people who are trying to outlaw abortion are also engaged in campaign to cut women's access to birth control.

The former top women's health official at the FDA said Monday that she believes the agency's refusal to approve over-the-counter sales of a morning-after contraception pill was on orders from above.

I don't think FDA was acting independently,' said Susan Wood, who resigned in August after the Food and Drug Administration issued its decision on the contraceptive, called Plan B.
Hers is a serious charge for an agency that was chartered to base its decisions on science, not politics. Both an independent advisory committee and the agency's scientific staff had recommended Plan B as safe for over-the-counter sales.

Plan B is opposed by religious conservatives who say it will promote promiscuity, particularly in young people. It uses a large dose of a common birth-control drug that can prevent conception up to 72 hours after unprotected sex. It is not an abortion pill.

Last time I checked, educating women about contraception and providing them with access to affordable methods of birth control were still the most effective ways to reduce unintended pregnancies and abortions. Yet so many pro-lifers are opposed to birth control, too. Tsk. Tsk. Where are there priorities?

If I thought abortion was a heinous crime, I'd be all over increasing access to anything that lowers abortion rates. They aren't because this isn't really about life, or about protecting it. Besides supporting access to birth control, a real 'pro-lifer' would fight for well-funded social programs that help women feel less alone with the responsibility of parenting. If single motherhood were less difficult and less scary, some women might feel like an abortion is less necessary. Instead, many anti-choice leaders are the same people who promote a derogatory image of single mothers and who want to cut social programs that support pregnant women and children.

If we put all three things together, it looks like anti-choice leaders are more interested in sticking it to women that they are concerned about supporting life. It's something like: "no birth control, no abortion, and no help caring for your baby." The other tragic possibility is: "no birth control, no abortion, and no help dealing with the life-threatening consequences of a botched back-alley abortion." Either way, this is looks like an assault on women. And that's exactly what it is.

If we center anti-choice ideas within the context of all of the choices that 'lifers want to deny women, then they have to deal with being called the bad guys. Which means that they begin the debate with the disadvantage.

So let's stop talking about abortion. Let's go on the offensive, talk about choices, and shape a conversation that we can win.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Lost and Found

Our last few days in China were a blur. We flew from Yichang back to Beijing on Tuesday night and spent the next two days exploring Beijing. We spent our last day at the Great Wall.

It was in Yichang that we last spoke with Chinese nationals who weren't trying to close a sale. While resting in a park near the Yangtze, we were approached by two men who spoke English. Their language was rough, but Yichang is rarely frequented by Westerners, and I was impressed that they had learned so much with so few native English speakers to practice with. We talked about God, we talked about organized religion, we talked about quality of life and the hours most people work. We talked about family and about the real buying power of Chinese and American paychecks. We talked about Capitalism and American politics. My new Chinese friends even asked about what I thought of the Chinese government. I carefully explained that my guide book warned me against talking to Chinese people about their government because such a conversation might get them into trouble. They laughed and changed the subject.

We spent nearly two hours talking in the park. Most of the time we were surrounded by crowds of Chinese people who couldn't understand us. Even so, they were curious. Occassionally the crowd would disperse and a new crowd would appear. Just as we had for the past week, we were learning about a new part of the world by living an afternoon there. I even learned a few more Mandarin words.

Returning to Beijing was a shock. Our time was mostly spent shopping and bar-hopping in the upscale touristy districts that we had missed two weeks earlier. At shopping markets and expensive lakeside night spots we were targeted by every Chinese person who could say "hello." The shopping was great. Prices were low and there were so many exciting mementos to choose from. Learning to bargain is an important part of learning life in China and I'm glad that I had a chance to try it, but our rapid-fire consumerism felt sadly familiar. It was in Beijing that the curious solitude of traveling in a foreign country began to melt away.

On our last day in China we made the four-hour trek from Beijing to the Great Wall. Hands down, this was the most breathtaking sight of our tour. The wall itself is settled proudly along the top of a mountain range. It separates the lush green of China and the golden rolling hills of inner Mongolia. We had plenty of experiences to rival seeing this wonder, but the Great Wall produced the best views and the best photos on our trip. Kodak moment? You bet it was.

We tried to venture off the beaten path and visit the Simatai section of the wall. Unlike the section which is nearest to Beijing, the Simatai section hasn't been restored and still stands in its ancient form. This section of the wall was still pretty touristy. When they are not needed on their farms, Chinese women earn extra money by escorting tourists along the Great Wall. They start following Westerners, refuse to go away, and guilt people into buying expensive souvenirs after assisting them across kilometers of the wall. Needless to say, Devin and I were not overlooked. Perhaps because we were the only Americans amongst many Europeans along the Great Wall, we actually ended up with two women guiding our trip.

The wall follows the peaks and rivets of the top of a mountain range, so traveling the wall involves a lot of climbing up and down. We were lead off of the wall by our guides who promised to show us a short-cut through the Chinese country side. They delivered. The walk through the country side was so interesting. I met skinny, wizened farmers and was allowed to pet their livestock. We returned to the Great Wall 17 towers ahead and well in time to catch our bus back. We were duly ripped off shortly before climbing back onto the wall. Our guides made us feel so badly about 'leading' them on a long hike that we paid 100 Yuan for a book and a T-Shirt. They need the money, and we were greatful for the shortcut, so I have no hard feelings. It's just hard to eventually say no after already buying several expensive things from poor people.

We climbed the last few towers in our tour and ziplined down the side of the mountain away from the Great Wall. Yes ziplined. As in, I flew by the seat of my pants down a cord several hundred feet in the air. Devin flew with me, so at least I wasn't alone.

We rode our bus back to Beijing and returned that evening to a shopping center to pick up suits and dresses from our tailor. We were targetted even harder to buy and spend. We rose early the next morning to visit the Beijing antique market. The goods were beautiful. Even more English speakers wrangled with us to buy and spend. A man actually grabbed me and tried to keep me from walking away from his booth. At noon, we boarded a twelve hour flight to San Francisco and arrived in the city at 8am on the same Saturday that began in Beijing 16 hours earlier.

As we moved into the English-speaking crowd I was overwhelmed by nearby conversations that I could understand. My cell phone signal picked up and I had messages to check. The steady whir of a familiar world filled my mind. Yet everything seemed less urgent than it had before I left.

Yesterday I washed my crummy old car and imagined what it would be like to have a new one. I won't for a while because I blew the money on China. But I didn't really blow it. A new car payment would strengthen the ties that hold me to the swarm of uneccesary obligations that buzz in my head. Get thin, find a showy job, make more money, buy a new car. Insyead, I spent some money on getting lost and I remembered to spend time finding myself.

In China, I remembered that the world is an awesome place, and I learned that no part of it is ever really out of reach. I always have options. So many of us do. I am so wonderfully and incredibly privileged. So many of us are. I've built my world as it is, and each of the decisions that I have made are important reflections of what I want. If they aren't, there is always room to begin a new path in life. And as long as I can go without a new car, the rest of the world and every opportunity it offers are never far away.

Photos, Photos, Photos!!

Everything you never wanted to read about but sorta wanted to see.
For the bored and the curious; the quicker versions of my thousand words.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Yangtse River,

Our Yangtse River tour was a great way to avoid the crowds during National Holiday. We left Chengdu at 6am on Friday morning. This was the big first day of the Holiday and transportation was already too crowded for English speakers to navigate on our own. The van that departed from our hostile took us to a bus-lined alley where we sat for nearly two ours with fellow Westerners while our ticket agent argued with scalpers and bus drivers until he was able to place us on a bus to Chongqing, where our cruise boat was docked.

The cruise was full and we were relieved that we payed the extra 500 yuen (about 65 dollars U.S.) to travel first class. This didn't buy us a lot of luxury but it meant that Devin and I had our own tiny room and didn't have to share an equally tiny room with four other people on a three night cruise. Having our own mini bathroom meant that we could finally wash the ultra dirty laundry that we had worn for a full two days during our sweaty climb up Mt. Emei. (You thought I would leave that kind of detail out, didn't you?).

The cruise stops were cute but super-touristy and the souveniers cost twice as much as they would anywhere else. We visited a "ghost-town" in Fengdu. The town on one side of the river has been evacuated and residents have been relocated across the river in new government apartments built on higher land. When the Three Gorges Dam is complete, the old Fengdu will be completely flooded. While we were there workers were tearing down remaining buldings and destroying gas and power lines so that the old city won't pollute the new river too badly. In the afternoon, we visited an ancient 12 story Taoist pagoda that was built into a cliff. I paid my respects to the Jade Empress just because I was happy to find a supreme god who is a woman.

On day two we entered the first of the Three Gorges. It was pretty magnificent, but it was also 5am, still dark out and freezing at the front of the boat so we didn't stay out long. Later that day we took a ferry through the mini Three Gorges and small wooden rafts through the mini mini Three Gorges. The real Three Gorges span 200 kilometers and are difficult to appreciate because they take 18 hours to travel through. The smaller sets of gorges were absolutely breathtaking. Traveling on a raft through a narrow river outlet with mossy cliffs and waterfalls overhead will be a lifelong memory for me.

Later in our second afternoon we visited a museum/shrine dedicated to Qu Yuan, a B.C. era warrior-poet who is a hero to the region. To celebrate Qu Yuan's life, we raced dragon boats across the Yangtse. This was not fun. All of the Westerners got into one little boat designed to float when filled with smaller Chinese people. Our big Westerner boat was riding pretty low in the water. The English tour of the shrine had taken longer and the Westerners left late, so we didn't even have other boats out there to race. Most of the people on our team also didn't want to row. The experience added up to a few people straining to paddle big Western tourists across a river in a boat that looked like it might sink, with our Chinese boat master yelling at us to "row! row!" I am sure that more than a few Chinese tourists were standing on the dock laughing at us. I can't blame them. If I had been on the dock, I would have been laughing at us too.

We passed through the second of the Three Gorges in the afternoon, and the third in the middle of the night. They were as amazing as they look in photos. We spent much of the afternoon and early evening watching for signs that mark the final height of the Yangste when the Three Gorges Dam is finished. It looks like many river cities will be moderately affected, and many peasant farmers are going to lose everything. People displaced by the water are supposed to receive between 2,000 and 4,000 Yuen. This is pretty fair and well over a year's earnings for most Chinese people. I hope it actually happens. Right now, between 60 and 600 million U.S. dollars earmarked for relocating people along the banks of the Yangtse have disappeared. This money was last accounted for with some very corrupt party officials.

We passed through the locks in the Three Gorges Dam in the middle of the night and were kicked off of our boat at 6am.

Devin and I are here at an internet cafe in Yichang. Our flight departs for Beijing at 9pm, so we have some time to spend here. Our Lonely Planet guide makes it clear that there are no must-sees in Yichang aside from the construction of the biggest Dam in the world. So, it looks like this afternoon we'll take a break from tourism and I'll have a chance to practice my Chinese over a Pi-Jou (beer).
Chongqing, take two

On Saturday, we left Chongqing for a cruise down the Yangtse River. I posted a pretty harsh impression of Chongqing before I left. Since then I've learned a little bit more about Chongqing and have a fuller perspective on why the city wasn't as fancy as Beijing or Chengdu.

Chongqing is a major Chinese industrial center built on the hills overlooking the intersection of two major Chinese rivers. It is one of the oldest major cities in China and has housed millions of refugees and been the center of fighting during China's war with Japan and Kuomintang's anti-communist wartime capital during the same period. The population in the city and surrounding metropolitan area is over 320 million and many consider Chongqing to be China's largest city.

Explaining Chongqing culture by comparing it to the flavor of a Western city is a pretty strained description, since the city is far enough up the river that few foreigners have visited or impacted Chongqing over it's long history. I'm still going to try. People there reminded me of working Americans who live in rust belt cities. They are straight foward, hard and tired. The big difference between Chongqing and, say, Detroit is that Chongqing is still growing. City leaders expect big things to happen in Chongqing after the completion of the Three Gorges Dam. Cheap electricity is supposed to boost production in te city. I hope it works. The big risk is that the dam will slow the current in already filthy Yangtse. (Fast currents keep rivers clean.) If this happens, Chongqing will hover over the one of the biggest cespools in the world.

That's Chongqing. I think I've given it a fairer wrap or at least made up for ripping on it previously, so I think I can move on.
When in China

Chinese cities are crowded and city residents aren't shy about shoving their way through a crowd. I had been dealing with the pushing pretty well by reminding myself that ruthlessly elbowing past a fellow pedestrian isn't in poor manners here. I lost my cool when a woman actually tried to shove me down a flight of stairs. Now I'm pushing back. I don't seem to be insulting anyone by doing it and now that I'm willing to throw a few elbow blocks I can get through a crowd without getting trampled. This would be fine if I weren't worried that I'm developing the pedestrian version of road rage.

I caught bad driving manners while living in L.A. Two years later I'm still not fully cured and I often feel like a real jerk amongst relatively mellow Bay Area drivers. I hope that two weeks of shoving won't cause as much damage as four years of nasty traffic. The last thing I need is to return to the States and begin a new job with the habit of pushing people out of my way.

Saturday, October 01, 2005


After a five hour bus ride we've arrived in Chongqing, where we'll depart this evening on a cruise down the Yangtze river. Chongqing is the third major Chinese city we've visited, and I am beginning to notice some differences between the three cities. Of course, my experience as a foreign tourist in Beijing or Chongqing may not tell me much about what city residents are really like. But even as a tourist I observe some life in each city as it is really lived, and it feels like there is some connection between the culture of each city and the way that residents treat an outsider.

In Beijing I was somewhat of a novelty item. Chinese tourists wanted my photo and sophisticated Beijingers were almost insulted that I didn't say hello in English. In Chengdu people were less wealthy but often friendly and curious. Each city is full of people and each skyline is full of communist era dirty concrete apartment buildings and new high rises under construction, but Chongqing is poorer and meaner than Beijing or Chengdu. As our bus pulled into Chonqing this afternoon we passed blocks of shacks built from bamboo mats and cheap plywood. Very few people here look wealthy and far fewer people are interested in helping confused Westerners. Very few services cater to Western tourists and the few sales people who have approached us are mocking and aggressive. In Chongqing, it's difficult to tell if some tall buildings are actively under construction, if the project has been abandoned, or if they are being torn down. Chongqing's poverty lends the city an odd charm. Dilapidated buildings cover the city's rolling hills and trees line ancient streets. This tired city looks almost organic--as if it came out of the ground and will crumble back into it.

The trip from Beijing to Chonqing had been amazing. We spent the past several days in the Sichuan region of the country, with Chengdu as our nome base. On day one we visited a Panda breeding facility, where I actually held a panda cub. This cub was one big boy. He weighed about one hundred pounds. As massive as he was, he was as soft and gentle and fussy as any baby. Even the adult Pandas were incredibly gentle.

We left the reserve and had lunch at a Buddhist temple in Chengdu. Think big Budha, think classic temple, and you can guess what it looked like. It was great to enjoy some fantastic vegetarian food at a place that doesn't serve anything else.

We left the next morning for Mt Emei. Mt Emei is the tallest Buddhist holy mountain in China and stands about 3,000 meters high. Religious pilgrims climb the mountain to worship in the temple at the peak. I don't know why we climbed the mountain. Perhaps we have an appetite for pain. The difficulty of the climb was what made the experience so humbling and amazing. Buddhists have carved stairs all of the way up the mountain, and the ascent is about twenty one kilometers. Monkeys cover the path and have mastered the art of piracy. We were stopped more than once by a fifty-pound menace with bared teeth who expected us to hand over whatever we had in our pack. The babies were cute and oh-so-much fun to feed. But babies attracted big brothers who were seriously frightening.

We finished 15 kilometers in the first day of our climb and spent the night at a lower temple. Life in the temple was not what I had expected. The monks there were not particularly pious. The monk who checked us into our room was a social butterfly who stopped to chat with every person in the monastary before finally leading us to our bed. I suppose this is less of a shock than the monks in Chengdu who had cell phones. We finised the final five kilometers of the climb on the second day and travled back down the mountain.

My time's up. I'm off to sail down the Yangtze. More to come...