My Vacation in Haiku

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It’s been one of those weeks when I’ve thought of several blog topics. Yet, nothing really gelled into anything coherent enough.  Since I’m still getting lots of positive feedback about my posts on Laos, particularly about my iPhone photography, I’ve settled on the easiest post of all: my vacation haiku interspersed with photos.

Most of these were written on the flight(s) back home, motivated by my disappointment that I had been on vacation for 10 days and hadn’t written a single poem to commemorate the journey.

I was traveling to visit my step-daughter and her friend, two professionals in their 20’s who wisely and boldly took a four-month sabbatical to enjoy life and create new experiences.  Fittingly, I took my trip to join them with a friend of my own from college, Angela Casey, with whom I had spent time in several Asian countries 20 years ago. Twenty years? Say it isn’t so!

The first haiku is about youth and how many experiences seem wasted on them. Of course, the motivation for this poem isn’t about Erin and Abby. It’s driven by my recent discovery of my old journals as I prepared to write my memoir, and, likewise, having thumbed through more than a thousand travel photos prior to Angela’s first visit here to Vermont to plan this trip.

“Regret” is wisdom
Condemning youth for missing
The signs. Damned hindsight!

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(Above: Me in rural southern China in 1997. Below: Me and Ange at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore in April 1995.)
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The next one is about my return with Angela to Beijing after so much time. Some of my feelings and opinions developed during the course of my nearly three years as an ex-pat in Beijing were chronicled in this post a month ago.

Beijing, have you changed?
Wi-Fi. Starbuck’s. House of Cards.
Emperor’s new clothes.

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(Above: Ange and me in a Beijing hotel lobby in 1994. Below: The two of us on Tian’anmen Square a few weeks ago.)

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(Above and below: After nearly 20 years, Beijing was different and the same, all at the same time.)

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Most of our trip was spent in Luang Prabang, Laos. This ancient capital and former French colony is situated along the Mekong River and is still home to dozens of active and well-preserved Buddhist temples. None of the four of us had been to Laos before, so we were all discovering new things. Every day was packed with enough bold color and interesting experiences to last a lifetime.

Many of the subjects that formed these haiku were also described in earlier blog posts. And, certainly, also caught in pictures. If you are interested in finding out more about the topics of these poems, be sure to use the links to get more info.

Along the Mekong,
Bold color and bounty spring
From the river banks.

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(Above: Despite the “dry season”, the Mekong banks were alive with crops and boats. Below: Members of a family that farms eggplant along the river. They graciously let us to use their lean-to for our lunch-time break from kayaking.)

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Morning market throng
Fruits, spices, meats of all hues,
Dizzy the senses.

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(Above: Spices at the Luang Prabang morning market. Below: Just a small section of the market.)

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Each temple yard yields
Countless monks by sunrise to
Walk tourist-lined streets.

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(Above and below: Different perspectives of the “tak bat” or morning alms-giving, a daily ritual at sunrise in Luang Prabang’s historic downtown.)

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Blazing orange robes
Catch sunbeams between the trees
To clothe patient monks.

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Fearful ride atop
Elegant, beautiful “beast.”
Wild elephant ride.

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(Above: My view from atop the elephant as we headed into the river at Elephant Village. Below: Our guide’s photo of me and Erin, after I moved from the seat to the elephant’s head.)

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With the months of preparation and research that went into the trip, including a reunion with Angela and a series of planning sessions, not to mention the work and household planning to accommodate it, it’s amazing how quickly the trip arrived and then was gone. With all of the unforgettable experiences that comprise the journey, there’s still nothing like coming back home to Vermont again.

There and back again.
Like Bilbo’s long adventure,
Nowhere else like home.

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A Wild Elephant Ride

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I’ve been back from Laos for exactly a week. The most common question I’m asked is: “What was the best part of your trip?” That’s a terribly difficult question to answer. There are at least 10 different answers, ranging from spending time with my step-daughter, to reconnecting with my old college friend, to traveling through rural Asia for the first time in over 16 years, to returning to my old stomping grounds — Beijing, to creating many unique memories in Luang Prabang, some of which I have already discussed on this blog. Here, I answer this question very narrowly.

I’ve already written about the Mekong River, Laotian food, and the impressive Buddhist influences in Luang Prabang. These are memorable parts of my trip that I will not soon forget. However, if I had to choose just one day among the 10 of my vacation to remember and cherish forever, it would be the one spent at the Elephant Village, an elephant sanctuary and tourist destination dedicated to the protection and rehabilitation of Laotian elephants.

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It’s difficult to impart the unique combination of exhilaration and fear that I felt riding on Mae San, a 35-year-old rescued elephant (read her story here).  Erin and I started out the hour-long ride on the bench atop the elephant — we had to mount by climbing up a platform and then jump onto the 10-foot tall animal! After a brief walk on level ground, Mae San, under the guidance of a Mr. Pan, purposefully headed downhill toward the river. We knew then that we weren’t in Kansas anymore, each wrapping both arms around the bench, holding on for dear life during the descent.

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Shortly after crossing the river, our guide jumped off and asked if one of us wanted to sit directly on Mae San. I turned to Erin who wildly shook her head “No!” So…I volunteered. To call it a “mistake” would indicate that I wouldn’t do it again if asked. I am truly glad I did it. It was amazing, terrifying, and wonderful, all at the same time. Had I known that I would be scared for my life nonstop for 40 minutes, that my quads would shake and pound uncontrollably for at least half of that time, or that the wiry hairs on Mae San’s head would feel like coarse sand paper filing the skin off my ankles ahead of time, I might have responded to the question exactly as Erin had. As it turned out, I am very glad that I was both blissfully ignorant and naively brave when the question was asked.

With the above said, I’ll let the photos that Mr. Pan and I took of this experience speak for themselves.

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Elephants have a long history in Laos and the current situation for the animal there is dire.  As I mentioned in my last post, the original name for much of what is now Laos (including the entire Luang Prabang region) was Lan Xang, which means “one million elephants.” The name indicates how prolific elephants used to be in the area. Today in Laos there are less than 600 elephants in the wild and just over 400 domesticated ones. Read more here.

Why have they essentially disappeared? Of course, many elephants fell victim to the ivory trade.  More info can be found here and here. And, many others were over-worked in the logging industry. Because female elephants are easier to domesticate, elephant cows did nearly all of this logging work. Under the stress of hard work, most became unable to reproduce. The Laos government reports that only 33 of the country’s elephant cows are under the age of 20 and thus safely able to reproduce.

After our exhilarating elephant ride, before our afternoon of kayaking, we boated up the river to see some nearby waterfalls. We were extremely fortunate on our way back down river to catch a glimpse of “Maxi”, a rare male elephant born at the Elephant Village last May.  Maxi is expected to have an important role in repopulating his species. Fortunately, the sanctuary we visited is just one among many organizations dedicated to protecting and repopulating elephants in Laos and neighboring countries.

Needless to say, visiting Elephant Village and riding Mae San are experiences I will never forget.

Land of Golden Buddha

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Even though I am now safely and happily back home in Vermont, there are a few topics related to my recent trip to Luang Prabang, Laos I’m still researching.  One of them is the prevalence of Buddhist temples and monks there. Of all of the items I posted on Facebook during my trip, the photos of monks in saffron colored robes were the most “liked.”

It turns out that the city of Luang Prabang gets its very name from Buddhism. Luang means “land” and “phra bang” means “golden Buddha” in Lao. It was changed to this name more than 300 years ago, after Cambodia gave a gold statue of the Buddha as a gift to the city. At that time, the city was the center of Buddhism for the entire region.

According to a Luang Prabang legend mentioned here by USESCO, “the Buddha smiled when he rested here for a day during his travels, prophesying that it would one day be the site of a rich and powerful capital city.” In case you’re wondering how they knew Buddha had stopped by, one of the temples built into the mountainside has Buddha’s footprint on display!

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The type of Buddhism in Laos is unique. It is an offshoot of the Theravāda Buddhist tradition which is the oldest Buddhist branch and considered to be the most conservative. There are over 150 million followers worldwide of the Theravāda Buddhist branch.

In Laos, however, Buddhist beliefs are intertwined with native Animism.  One prevalent element of Animism is the idea that there are spirits that influence health and prosperity. Many of the offerings the Lao make at Buddhist temples are accompanied by requests to these spirits to make a positive influence in their lives or to reverse something negative. There are Buddhist statues of countless varieties, each with a different meaning.

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It is estimated that 65% of the Lao population is Buddhist.  And, when you take into consideration the Animism component, closer to 90% of the population are “nominal adherents of both Buddhism-Animism” (more info is here).

Shortly after our arrival in Luang Prabang, I was so excited to capture this photo of two monks walking down the street in front of our guest house, thinking that it was a rare sight:

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Little did I know that monks are quite literally everywhere in Luang Prabang. There are 32 Buddhist temples and more than 1,000 monks that serve the city. Because of the UNESCO World Heritage Site status, the temples are in excellent condition and most have already been restored to their original condition.

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Perhaps the most incredible experience from my entire trip was the morning I took part in the procession of the monks. Called “tak bat” or morning alms-giving, all of the monks that serve the local temples leave their temples before 6am and walk through the main streets to receive alms from the devout who line the street.

According to an article on About.com by Michael Aquino: “The ritual is done in silence; the almsgivers do not speak, nor do the monks. The monks walk in meditation, and the almsgivers reciprocate with respect by not disturbing the monk’s meditative peace. For hundreds of years, the ritual has cemented the symbiotic relationship between the monks and the almsgivers who maintain them – by feeding the monks and helping the laypeople make merit, tak bat supports both the monks (who need the food) and the almsgivers (who need spiritual redemption).”

Due to jet lag, I was awake every morning before sunrise. Therefore, walking the 3 blocks from our guest house to watch the procession was a no-brainer. Before I was even able to register that I was in the right location, I came under the powers of an authoritative and industrious local woman who directed me to take off my shoes, sit cross-legged on a mat, and pay 50,000 kip ($6.25) for sticky rice and crackers to give the monks.

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After giving alms to three groups of monks, I was out of food and decided to put my shoes back on and take photos of the rest of the procession.  Within half an hour, I had seen at least 10 groups of monks stream past, with no end in sight.  Satisfied that I had both observed and taken part in something really special, I sauntered off in the direction of our guest house, in search of a strong cup of Laotian coffee.

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Doing research for this post, I discovered that the original name for the entire Luang Prabang region was Lan Xang, which means “one million elephants.”  That is probably going to be my next topic. Stay tuned. 

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Tamarind and Sticky Rice

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One of the most popular restaurants in Luang Prabang is called Tamarind: A Taste for Laos (http://www.tamarindlaos.com/). It’s just a few doors down from the guest house where we stayed and it was always packed for both lunch and dinner. This was the case even during the “shoulder season” of our visit. In fact, it was the only place so busy that reservations were required. Ange had really done her homework before our trip and discovered that Tamarind also runs a day-long cooking class (http://www.tamarindlaos.com/cooking-school/).

Each day of our reunion trip back to Asia was really special to me for different reasons. However, the Tamarind cooking class enabled me to understand Laos and the Lao people on a deeper level, so much so that I expect it will leave a life-long impression.

The rice paddies along the Mekong River basin that I wrote about in my last blog (https://sharoncombesfarr.com/2014/03/11/the-mighty-mekong/) grow a special kind of rice called “sticky rice,” known elsewhere as “glutinous rice.” I thought sticky rice became so because of how it is cooked. That is not the case. It is actually a unique strain of rice and it is the driving force behind Lao cuisine.

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Relying on sticky as opposed to regular white rice means that many Lao foods are dips and not soupy or saucy — unlike Thai curries, for example. Laotians use three or four fingers to ball up the sticky rice and either dip it into pastes or dips or push meats and vegetables onto the sticky rice to eat it. Soupy dishes just won’t work for this and chop sticks are not conducive to eating it either.

Another interesting thing about Lao cuisine is how it is made and cooked. They do not need stoves or even woks. The four necessary implements for making Lao dishes are: fire — like a BBQ pit or any other open flame, a pot, a steaming cone, and a deep mortar and pestle set. Barbecued meats are very prevalent, as are steamed dishes made in little bamboo leaf packets to keep the meat moist and flavorful.
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Because the Mekong provides great soil, seemingly unlimited varieties or fruits and vegetables are available as ingredients to the cuisine. A few of the most prevalent flavors are tamarind (this is a fruit that tastes most similar to fig), small eggplants, lemongrass, Lao mint, and Lao lime. To give us an impression of the endless variations for ingredients, we began our cooking class at Luang Prabang’s morning market. As with all cuisines, starting with fresh local ingredients is fundamental.
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In terms of meats, Mekong River fish (some have described this as a type of catfish and others, as like tilapia), pork, chicken, and water buffalo are the most common. I personally found the fish and the water buffalo to be the tastiest.

In my day-long cooking class, I learned how to prepare sticky rice, and to make and cook four traditional Lao dishes: eggplant dip, buffalo laap, fish mak, and chicken stuffed lemongrass. The actual meal I made and ate is pictured below:

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Online, I found similar recipes to what we were taught fairly easily. A version of Lao eggplant dip can be found here: http://avocadopesto.com/2013/04/04/lao-eggplant-dip-jeow-mak-keua/. Here’s a great laap recipe from Epicurious: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Chicken-Laap-102260. This is an American adaptation of fish mak which uses aluminum foil instead of a banana leaf to make the pouch: http://nanthavongdouangsyfood1.blogspot.com/2012/12/mok-bha-lao-style-spicy-steamed-fish.html. And, finally, here’s a great chicken stuffed lemongrass recipe that includes a ton of great photos: http://avocadopesto.com/2013/04/07/chicken-stuffed-lemongrass/.

Knowing how to make the laap recipe is something that is probably going to change my life. It enables an endless and flavorful variety of healthy meals made from fresh herbs, vegetables, and ground meats that I expect to serve either as one dish salad-like meals or as lettuce wraps. I cannot wait to try it at home. I also cannot wait to show my husband a trick for cutting and squeezing limes.

If you also want to try cooking Lao cuisine at home, these are the best links I found around the Web:

1. http://www.tamarindlaos.com/about-lao-food/
2. http://www.sbs.com.au/food/cuisine/lao
3. http://www.tourismlaos.org/show.php?Cont_ID=9

But, better yet, get over to Luang Prabang at take the Tamarind cooking class yourself. You will not be disappointed.

The Mighty Mekong

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Laos is land-locked, bordered by Thailand to the east, China to the north, Vietnam to the west, Cambodia to the south, and just a tad by Myanmar (Burma) to the northwest. However, you wouldn’t know it where we are. That’s because the Mekong River, the 12th longest river in the world and the longest in Southeast Asia, after winding it’s way from Tibet through a chunk of China, also worms through western and southern Laos. And, it has a lot of tributaries, too.

The river creates very fertile soil in the extended river basin and also makes it easy to transport both goods and people. On land, rice is the biggest crop by far. Others include peanuts, corn, tamarind, soybeans, eggplant, and cucumbers, among many other fruits and vegetables. Local markets are plentiful with nature’s bounty in every hue.

I’m in Luang Prabang, the original capital of Laos that was founded in 1353, because of its fertile location along the Mekong. For the same reason, through the centuries, it came under the influence of various neighbors like the Siamese, Burmese, and Vietnamese, and, in the 20th Century, was a colony of France.

All of these cultures are evident here in many ways, including the architecture and the food, along with very strong influences from both Buddhism and Animism. It’s hard to detect that Laos is a Communist country, having become so after Vietnam defeated the French in 1954 — and that it did not open to tourism until the break-up of the Soviet empire in 1989. Due to its rich and evident culture and well-preserved history, Luang Prabang became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/479).

All of the above, combined with the beautiful natural environment, make Luang Prabang a tremendous tourist destination. This has lifted up the economy of the entire province. Laos is still one of the poorest economies in all of Southeast Asia, but it grew by more than 8% annually in 2013 and is continuing at that pace (http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/lao). This province, certainly, is well above the average. The extended area of Luang Prabang has a population of 50,000. Our local guide that took us up the Mekong said that 90% of the folks here make their living through tourism.

You would not believe the tourist infrastructure here and yet there’s something about it that isn’t “touristy.” Even as you pass through markets that cater to visitors or visit villages with a tour guide, seemingly all of the Lao people have a friendly, laid back style and do not try to push you to make a purchase. The historic downtown is certainly almost all about tourism, with markets, storefronts, tuk-tuk drivers, restaurants with large English translations, and money exchange kiosks. But, you have to picture all of these things sending off a laid back vibe. So much so, that waiters don’t even come over to take your drink order, unless you ask. My theory is that they’re waiting for you to close the menu or that if you want something, you’ll let them know.

I strongly recommend that anyone traveling in SE Asia already or others just looking for a unique and unforgettable vacation experience come here. The only place I’ve been that is remotely similar was Guilin, China back in the 90s. That’s the best comparison I have. But Luang Prabang is more relaxing, more cultural, and has a much wider variety of amazing things to do.

Getting back to the subject of the Mekong River, my next blog post will feature how the agriculture that grows along it influences Lao cuisine.

For more information about the Mekong River, go here: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/373560/Mekong-River.

A great intro to Laos is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laos.

The best traveler’s resource on Luang Prabang I found is here: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/laos/northern-laos/luang-prabang.

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Starbucks and Baozi

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Friday was Ange’s birthday and she awoke, after only about 4 hours of sleep, on a mission. She went directly to the concierge and asked for directions from the Peninsula Hotel to two locations — the closest Starbuck’s and the closest shop with baozi. “Bao” means “bread.” This makes sense, since these small breakfast dumplings have a skin that is breadier than most Chinese dumplings (they also have delicious pork inside). Luckily, the concierge drew a handy little map, making both purveyors easy to locate. Of course, we went in search of the coffee first.

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As you might have guessed already, this post isn’t about our breakfast, per se. Instead, it’s about how the two components of our breakfast really reflect the dichotomy of modern China, at least for me. Having a Starbucks on many Beijing street corners is the inevitable evolution of things here. The quest for things foreign and the embrace of controlled capitalism, combined with the humongous domestic market, made it inevitable. It was Avon and McDonald’s back in the early 80’s. Then, it was General Motors and Motorola when I lived here in the 90’s. Now, it’s Starbucks and Apple stores, and, can you believe it, even “House of Cards?”

The common thread of most of the Western things found here, then and now, is that they are largely materialistic and deemed relatively harmless by the government. Why not give your growing population of consumers these foreign goods that are, in many cases, actually made in China? What the Chinese have been less welcoming of is free thinking and other threatening Western ideas. At the turn of the previous century there was a slogan “Chinese learning for fundamental principles and Western learning for practical application.” Learn more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhang_Zhidong.

That this sentiment hasn’t really changed all that much manifested itself during my short stopover in Beijing in an interesting way. It was amazing to find free Wi-Fi everywhere, along with the Starbucks and iPhones to go with it. However, imagine my frustration upon discovering that Facebook was blocked and I was unable to upload my selfies in front of the likeness of Chairman Mao and those cute lion statues. In short, China’s lack of tolerance prevented me from alerting my nearly 500 “friends” that I had returned to my old stomping ground.

Little did I know that the Chinese government has been blocking access to Facebook since 2009, when it figured out that separatists in its far northwestern Xinjiang province had been using it to communicate with its followers to coordinate demonstrations against the government.

Of all the things that could frustrate me about Beijing (like taking over an hour to navigate the airport bureaucracy to track down our luggage, the ridiculously tight security presence on Tiananmen Square, and the prevalent line-cutting mentality of the Chinese), what does it reveal about me that blocking my access to Facebook was the only thing that really irked me?

Getting back to Starbucks, it strikes me that the green and white mermaid symbol alerting passers-by to the availability of little cups of familiar, high quality, but extremely high priced, “joe” is also a fitting symbol of the modern service industry, the new millennium, youth, and capitalism, all at once.

For all the ways that Beijing had changed over the 18 years that I was away, the essence of the city and the comfortable feeling it gives me were the same. The amazing food. The flashes of color. The welcoming nature of the people. It honestly still felt like home. When I asked, “Ni hao?” (“How are you?”) to nearly everyone I passed, they all paused, smiled broadly and said, “Ni hao.” Imagine if I had said, “How are you?” to everyone I passed in New York City. They would probably have me committed.

The little mom and pop shops nestled in between the larger modern stores, like the one where we ate our baozi, are further evidence that the essence of old China still remains. The friendly proprietors invited us to sit at their sole outdoor table, as if we were old friends. As we sat, happily drinking our Starbucks and eating our dumplings, dozens of well-dressed workers in their twenties and thirties stopped in to get baozi, soy milk, and other breakfast delicacies to go, as they hurried off to work.

After a very satisfying breakfast, in more ways than one, Angela stood up, turned to me and said, “Starbucks and baozi. My job is done. Sharon, you take it from here.” I steered us purposefully in the direction of the Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. And, it was not lost on me that this part of our morning’s itinerary represented another dichotomy in Chinese history, the legacies of feudal times and the Maoist era….

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Throwback Thursday

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It’s my ultimate “Throwback Thursday.” I landed in Beijing earlier today, after more than 17 years away. There’s at least one volume that could (and will) be written about the nearly three years of my life spent here. The short version is that I started out in a major depression and climbed my way out, bit by bit, until I started to resemble the confident woman that I am today. True story: In my first five months in Beijing, I went from obsessively watching the OJ Simpson trial on CNN to actually working for CNN. And, I still have my press pass to prove it.

Thankfully, I haven’t come back alone. I’m with an old college pal from my George Washington University days, Angela Casey. It’s odd that we took so many of the same courses with the same professors and were only one year apart in school, yet didn’t meet until my senior year. Ange graduated from GW with a degree in East Asia Studies (China Concentration) in 1991. Mandarin was also my language, but my degree was International Affairs (Mandarin Chinese) in 1990. Once we finally met, we became fast and close friends.

After school, to say that we kept in touch is an under-statement. We both fell for the same guy over the summer of 1991, in D.C. We met up in San Francisco in 1993, then Beijing in 1994, and Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore in 1995. And, finally, at my home in Vermont in 1996. After that, we inexplicably lost touch at some point in late 1999 or early 2000, when Ange went off to the UK and I moved to Arizona.

We credit Facebook for rekindling our friendship late last summer. There were several Angela Caseys on FB, but only one with the graphic of bamboo as a profile picture with the statement that she speaks Mandarin, Cantonese, and French. I knew immediately that she was my Ange.

Shortly after re-becoming friends, Ange drove up from her childhood home in the Poconos to stay with me and Bruce in Vermont. Over that October weekend, we plotted this Asia trip to meet up with my step-daughter Erin in Laos. It seemed only fitting to begin this new journey where we met up 20 years ago, right here in Beijing.

I still need to reflect on the vast differences — and the similarities — of the Beijing in 2014 with the one I knew well between 1994 and 1997, before I can say anything meaningful about it. Not to mention how different we both are as women in our mid-40’s compared to the exuberant self-proclaimed world travelers we were in our mid-20’s. However, what I can share now are a few photos and will add more soon.

And, I can say from the very bottom of my heart that there’s no one I’d rather come back to Asia with after all this time. Thanks, Ange, for stepping back into your role as willing partner in crime (so to speak) after such a long time.

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