visiting museums: prolonging a journey | south asian galleries – philadelphia museum of art |

“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” ~ Pat Conroy

When an invitation to relive or extend a journey offers itself, I will always take it, no matter in what form.  Often, after visiting a foreign country, I will bask in a book set in that locale, extending my experience of that place.  When I come across buildings or gardens with particular architectural styles, those commonly found in exotic locales — European Gothic cathedrals, Chinese dragons or gates, Japanese gardens, Islamic mosques — my heart skips a beat; I ease back in time to my wanderings through those magical places.  Whenever I take urban hikes through cities or natural landscapes, I feel that same sense of adventure I had when immersing myself in an exotic place; I remember the anticipation as I set off to explore China’s Longji Rice Terraces or Nepal’s village to village trails.

I felt a sense of exhilaration, as well as nostalgia and longing, on visiting the new South Asian Galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  I was taken back to a not-so-long-ago time when I lived and traveled extensively in South Asia. I loved meandering through the happy reminders found in this place.

We had already visited the “Paint the Revolution” special exhibition and, rather than exhausting ourselves trying to see the rest of this great and sprawling museum, we picked one part of the permanent collection to visit.  We walked up to the second floor via the Great Stair Hall Balcony and headed for the reopened South Asian Galleries.

an archer at the top of the stairs
an archer at the top of the stairs

We passed through the European Art Gallery from 1100-1500 on our way to the South Asian Galleries.

First we came upon some mosaic tiles from Iran.  As these are Islamic, they reminded me of so many beautiful tiles I found in Oman, UAE, Egypt, and even in southern Spain, originating from the Moorish conquest.  These Tile Mosaic Panels from Iran (Isfahan) are from the Safavid dynasty, 1501-1736.

I visited what seemed like infinite numbers of Buddhist temples in Korea, Japan, China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Singapore, and Thailand, and, to this day, I always feel a sense of peace when I see Buddhist figures anywhere in the world.  Here, we found a gilded bronze White Tara, Buddhist Goddess of Compassion (1700s-1800s) from Inner Mongolia, Autonomous Region (Dolon Nor, Chahar province, China).  The compassionate Buddhist goddess Tara is a bodhisattva (Buddhist savior).  The eyes on her palms and forehead show that she sees and helps all living beings.

White Tara, Buddhist Goddess of Compassion
White Tara, Buddhist Goddess of Compassion

This Chinese cabinet is covered with symbols from ancient China: cranes as symbols of longevity and immortality; two deer, a stag and a doe, symbolic of domestic harmony between husband and wife; pot-shaped vase designs, painted in blue and green, suggestive of endless wealth; and lotuses representing purity.

Chinese cabinet
Chinese cabinet

The man in the detail of one panel is a successful merchant and the bolt of cloth next to him likely refers to his source of wealth.

Successful merchant on Chinese cabinet
Successful merchant on Chinese cabinet

In Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism, a mandala helps seekers of enlightenment along their spiritual path.  It represents both god’s palace and the entire cosmos in a geometric-circular format.  It may be two-dimensional (a drawing or painting) or three-dimensional (a sculpture or architectural space).

By meditating on a mandala, a person undertakes a mental journey, beginning in the outermost circle – which can hold human patrons, teachers and lesser deities – and progresses inward to become one with the god or divine couple at the mandala’s center (according to a sign at the museum).

This Satchakravarti Samvara Mandala from Tibet is made up of six smaller mandalas.  Each holds a different Buddha in sexual union with his female counterpart.

Mandalas are also found throughout Nepal; I bought a couple in Kathmandu to bring home.  I still need to find a place in my house to hang them.

Tibetan mandala
Tibetan mandala

A thangka is the Tibetan term for a painting made on cloth that can be rolled up for travel or storage and unrolled and hung for use.  Thangkas most often depict Buddhist deities, renowned religious teachers, or a mandala (a god’s cosmic palace).  In Nepal, these types of paintings are often called paubhas.  I bought one of these in Nepal, as a memento of my journey.

I cherish the mementos I have of my Asian travels, and of all my travels.  They preserve and extend my travel experience.  Collecting these items turns my travel into a collective experience of my repeated immersions into different cultures.  Displaying them in my house surrounds me with happy recollections of travel moments and what I gleaned from them – a sense of independence, resilience, adventurousness and camaraderie with fellow travelers. These mementos spark a yearning to return to places I’ve been, to explore them again with fresh eyes and a new depth of appreciation.

Tibetan thangka
Tibetan thangka

In a traditional residence of a Chinese nobleman, a reception hall was the most formal building, where official activities were conducted.  This Reception Hall from the Palace of Duke Zhou, displayed in its entirety here, was originally part of a Beijing palace built in the early 1640s.  The hall has a thirty-foot ceiling and brilliantly painted floral and animal motifs on its beams and brackets that convey auspicious wishes.  This hall is presently furnished with works of art dating between the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the period during which the hall was in use.

It was dark in the room where this reception hall was exhibited, so it was difficult to get a photo of anything but one of the painted roof beams.  Beams such as these in China delighted me every time I encountered them and remembered to turn my eyes to the ceiling.

I love the grand vision of the museum’s Director Fiske Kimball (1888-1955), who envisioned architectural elements providing historical context to objects on display.  This whole reopened South Asian Gallery has architecture displayed in a grand way; I felt as if I were walking through ancient Asian cultures.

Painted bean in Reception Hall from the Palace of Duke Zhou
Painted bean in Reception Hall from the Palace of Duke Zhou

The hall in one large room is constructed as part of the Madana Gopala Swamy temple complex, dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and his avatar Krishna. Apparently a woman, Adeline Pepper Gibson, purchased sixty granite carvings she found piled in the temple compound from local authorities in 1912.  Most of the complex still stands in the famous temple-city of Madurai in southern India.

Madana Gopala Swamy temple complex from Madurai in southern India
Madana Gopala Swamy temple complex from Madurai in southern India

A visit to South Asian galleries wouldn’t be complete without something from Japan. Some Japanese tea houses were set up here, but it was hard to get decent pictures in the strong light.

Japanese tea house
Japanese tea house
Japanese tea house
Japanese tea house

Surihaku theatrical robes are used exclusively in Noh drama to symbolize the uncontrolled passions of certain female roles.  This Noh Costume from 1700s Japan is a silk satin weave decorated with patinated metallic leaf applied to a stenciled paste base (surihaku), representing the reptilian skin of the character, who has been transformed into a serpent or demon by the corrosive power of jealousy and hatred.

Noh Costume
Noh Costume

A modern piece from 2008, Kotodama (the soul of language), is embellished with word-filled fragments from antique books and accounting ledgers and layered scraps of red silk from kimono undergarments.  For the artist, Maio Motoko, words had spiritual power.  Here, the assembled fragments create a visual world of words.

Kotodama
Kotodama
Detail - Kotodama
Detail – Kotodama

Finally as we exited the South Asian galleries and made our way back out through the European galleries, we stopped to admire the French Gothic Chapel.  I am always enamored by decorative doors, and these doors I find particularly beautiful.  This one reminds me of doors I found during the two years I lived in Oman.

doors from French Gothic Chapel
doors from French Gothic Chapel
Detail - doors from French Gothic Chapel
Detail – doors from French Gothic Chapel

The chapel was composed of elements from two buildings that were part of a large religious community at Aumonieres near Dijon in central France that was administered by the Knights of Saint Anthony.  This nursing order, founded in the 11th century, established many hospices.

Stained glass window from French Gothic Chapel
Stained glass window from French Gothic Chapel

We finally walked out of the Philadelphia Museum of Art by 3:20, only an hour and a half after we entered.  It was a good visit and not too tiresome, and we were able to enjoy the special exhibition and one part of the permanent collection.  We used a number of suggestions from the compact but interesting book, How to Visit a Museum.  I hope to take to heart more of David Finn’s ideas for exploring museums during these winter months, when it’s too cold and generally miserable to explore outdoors.

View of Benjamin Franklin Parkway from the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
View of Benjamin Franklin Parkway from the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
View of Benjamin Franklin Parkway from the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
View of Benjamin Franklin Parkway from the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

 ~ Thursday, December 29, 2016

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weekly photo challenge: curve

Saturday, June 18:  This week’s Photo Challenge asks us to get inspired by the curves around us, from curves in architecture to bends in nature to man-made undulations.  I had a fun time looking through my happy memories to find photos for this challenge.

Curvy arches at ruins in Oman
Curvy arches at ruins in Oman
arches in Cordoba's Mezquita
arches in Cordoba’s Mezquita
Lotus
Lotus
sunflower
sunflower
the Li River near Yangshuo, China
the Li River near Yangshuo, China
The Longji Rice Terraces in Guangxi, China
The Longji Rice Terraces in Guangxi, China
a curvaceous flag at the cowboy museum in Oklahoma City
a curvaceous flag at the cowboy museum in Oklahoma City
curving staircase at a Virginia winery
curving staircase at Creek’s Edge winery in Virginia
Grassy curves at Chanticleer Garden in Philadelphia
Curving grasses at Chanticleer Garden in Philadelphia

weekly photo challenge: numbers

Sunday, June 5:  I love anything that promises a journey, like the distances to exotic locales shown on the directional signs below — found in Fenghuang, China.

Numbers telling distances to exotic locales - Fenghuang, China
Numbers telling distances to exotic locales – Fenghuang, China

Too see more from the Weekly Photo Challenge: Numbers, click on the link. 🙂

weekly photo challenge: spare

Friday, May 27: Today’s Weekly Photo Challenge asks us to share photos representing spare:

(adjective) Additional to what is required for ordinary use.
(adjective) Elegantly simple.
(verb) To refrain from harming.

I’ve chosen some photos representing minimalist landscapes.  First, on a drive to the beaches on the south of Crete, I found this spare rolling landscape.

Southern Crete
Southern Crete

Anacapa Island, one of California’s Channel Islands is one of the most spare and desolate landscapes I’ve seen, except for the multitudes of seagulls dotting the horizon.

Anacapa Island off the coast of California
Anacapa Island off the coast of California

Weizhou Island in the south of China has some lava beaches that look pretty spare, yet elegantly curvaceous.

Weizhou Beach in the south of China
Weizhou Beach in the south of China

And finally, the marshland of Chincoteague Island in Virginia is spare, but beautiful.

Sea grasses on Chincoteague Island
Sea grasses on Chincoteague Island

return from china to los angeles & a day at anacapa island

Wednesday, July 15:  This morning at 6:30 a.m., I leave my humble abode in Nanning, China, locking the keys inside.  I feel a little strange leaving the place I’ve lived for the last year, knowing I will never see it again.  Outside, a car arranged by the university is waiting to drive me to the airport.  I get to the airport by about 7:30 and check in without incident at Shenzhen Airlines for my 9:40 flight.

Planes departing from Chinese airports are almost always late, but I don’t worry because I have a 3-hour and 20 minute layover in Beijing and I will check in to Air Canada at the same terminal where I arrive.  Today, when I have a nice long layover, my plane surprisingly leaves Nanning on time.  When I arrive in Beijing at 12:45 p.m., I pick up my bags from the baggage claim and make my way to Air Canada, where I must check my bags back in for the international flight.  There is a long, slow-moving line at Air Canada, so I get a little antsy as the time seems to be going by rather quickly.

Then I hit the line for Customs/Immigration in International Departures.  The lines are snaking queues with hundreds of people in them, and they’re barely moving.  I stand in that line for well over an hour!  By then I’m starting to get worried I will miss my plane in Beijing!  After I finally make it through and send my bags and tennis shoes and every possession through security, I have about a half hour before we board.

When I arrive at the gate, I have time to sit for about 5 minutes before we start boarding at 3:35 p.m. I get in the line for Group 5, which is already about 30 people long.  We board and are ready to take off on time; however, air traffic control tells the pilot we will have a 30-minute delay, which worries me as I only have a 1 1/2 hour layover in Vancouver.

I realize too late that I’m booked into a middle seat.  They can’t change me to an aisle seat because the flight is fully booked.  Misery!  I sit between two Chinese boys, one of whom speaks both fluent English and Chinese.  He’s from Los Angeles, but has spent his school years studying in China.  He is going to stay with his parents in Los Angeles for a month before attending Berkeley in the fall. He’s a very bright 18-year-old kid who plans to do a double major in mechanical engineering and economics.  He chats with me a long time about his plans and I’m very impressed.  When he talks to the boy on the other side of me, they speak over me in Chinese.  He says, “I hope you don’t mind us talking over you.” I say, half-jokingly, “I don’t mind but I’d rather you switch seats with me!”  After several hours, he luckily takes me up on my request and gives me his aisle seat, which I’m very happy about, although even that is uncomfortable on a 10-hour and 20-minute flight.

When we arrive in Vancouver at noon, the Chinese boy and I take off together toward our flight bound to L.A.  We come to a bottleneck where about 25 people are standing in a slow-moving line.  First, an Air Canada attendant asks us to identify our bags on a TV screen. One of my bags is visible on the screen, but the other isn’t, so she tells me to go sit into a room until I can verify both my bags.  I tell her we have a very short connection, but she doesn’t seem phased.  The Chinese boy has to wait to identify his bags as well.  When we finish, we are finally able to get into the slow-moving line, which has gotten longer while we’ve been held up.  I tell one of the officials from the airline that we have a very short connection, but she says, “There’s nothing I can do about it.  It’s U.S. Customs and I have nothing to do with that!”  The line is moving slowly and the boy, who is about 3 people behind me, and I are commiserating about how we’re never going to make our flight.   Suddenly he starts to go to the front of the line and I follow him.  He says, “I called my mother and she told me not to talk to the officials.  She says I should depend on the kindness of strangers.”  He goes to the front of the line with his bag, and I (who can’t stand people who cut in line, and would never do it myself under ordinary circumstances), follow him.  We beg the people at the front of the line to let us in so we won’t miss our flight.  Luckily, they kindly allow us to pass, although the poor people behind them have no say in the matter.

When I get to U.S. Customs the officer asks me where I’m staying, and where I live.  I tell him and then mention that we have a very short connection.  He says, in that way that people in positions such as these like to flex their power, “You can’t rush me, lady.  I will take as long as I need to take.”  I say, “Fine!”  Then he asks a few more questions and releases me.  I won’t mention the name I call him to the Chinese boy when I’m out of earshot.

At that point we see our gate #83 is at the far end of a long hall, and over the loudspeaker, I hear my name among a list of names for “last call.”  I panic: “That’s us!  We need to run!”  The boy and I go tearing through the airport, and barely manage to board the plane. The airline stewardesses close the door behind us and we take off as scheduled at 1:00 p.m.

I make it to LA right on time, by 4:00 p.m.  My sister Stephanie is waiting to pick me up right after I pick up my bags, and we head directly to dinner at a cozy sushi place.  We celebrate by drinking hot sake followed by cold Sapporo. I am happy to be with my sister on American soil after one of the longest days of my life.  It’s still Wednesday, July 15 when I arrive in LA around 4:00 p.m., having left China at 6:30 a.m. that same morning. 🙂

During our dinner, and after a few sips of Sapporo and sake, Steph asks what I’d like to do next.  I say I’d love to find my way to Morocco or Ecuador.  She says, “Oh. I wouldn’t want you to go to Morocco.  I wouldn’t want you to lose your head or anything like that.”  I say, “Well, yes, I really would prefer not to lose my head. Of course. I don’t think it would be in my best interest.” For some reason, maybe it’s the sake and Sapporo, but we find this hilarious and have quite a laugh over this ridiculous conversation. 🙂

Thursday, July 16:  We have quite a lazy day today, eating a healthy breakfast and lunch together, running out to Trader Joe’s, and watching movies and TV series.  Stephanie gets me interested in the Danish political series Borgen, and we watch a coupe of episodes.  After meeting her good friend Yvonne for more sushi, sake and Sapporo at another favorite sushi restaurant, we watch the The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which I’ve been dying to see. In my opinion, it isn’t nearly as good as the first one. 🙂

I really needed a day of rest!

Friday, July 17:  This morning, my sister drives us to Oxnard where we’re to catch an Island Packers boat to Anacapa Island, one of the islands in the Channel Islands National Park.  Yes, my British friends, we have our own Channel Islands here in the U.S. 🙂

At the Oxnard marina
At the Oxnard marina
me in Oxnard, California, preparing to go to Anacapa Island
me in Oxnard, California, preparing to go to Anacapa Island

We arrive in plenty of time for our 10:00 a.m. departure.  When we left Steph’s house in Reseda, it was warm and sunny, but here on the coast it’s cloudy and very cool.  I’m worried I’m going to be freezing on the boat.  I have no jackets or sweaters as I sent all of those home from China in boxes, thinking it would be hot and desert-like in L.A.

boats in Oxnard
boats in Oxnard

We board the boat with about 50 other people and take off through the marina and into the channel.

boats in the harbor
boats in the harbor
colorful sailboat
colorful sailboat
boat-friendly marina
boat-friendly marina

Luckily the seas are calm this morning, as Steph is worried she will get seasick.  I’m lucky that I don’t often get seasick; I’ve been on many boats in rough seas where people all around me are getting sick into plastic bags but I am just fine.

We pass a big oil rig.

Oil rig off the California coast
Oil rig off the California coast

According to Wikipedia, the Channel Islands of California are a chain of eight islands off the coast of southern California in the Pacific Ocean. Five of these islands are part of Channel Islands National Park.  The Islands were first colonized by the Chumash and Tongva Native Americans 13,000 years ago, who were then displaced by European settlers who used the islands for fishing and agriculture. The U.S. military uses the islands as training grounds, weapons test sites, and as a strategic defensive location (Wikipedia: Channel Islands of California).

Below is my sister on the boat bound for Anacapa Island.

Stephanie and strangers on the boat
Stephanie and strangers on the boat

We see a lot of dolphins playfully following in the wake of the boat, but I don’t seem to have luck capturing any of them in photos.

underwater dolphins
underwater dolphins

Anacapa Island’s name is derived from the Chumash Native American Indian name Anypakh, meaning deception or mirage. The three islets of Anacapa look almost like a mirage in the morning fog. These islets (appropriately named East, Middle, and West Anacapa Islands) stretch out over five miles and are inaccessible from each other except by boat. They are about a quarter-mile wide and have a total land area of about one square mile (700 acres) (National Park Service: Anacapa Island).

First view of Anacapa Island
First view of Anacapa Island

As we approach the island, we can see the lighthouse and 40-foot-high Arch Rock, a symbol of Anacapa and Channel Islands National Park.

Anacapa Island
Anacapa Island
Dive boat off Anacapa Island
Dive boat off Anacapa Island

Our boat pulls up at a dock built into the side of a cliff and after disembarking, we must climb up several hundred steps to reach the top.

Island Outfitters
Island Packers

We are greeted immediately by some of the thousands of seagulls on the island.

seagulls of Anacapa
seagulls of Anacapa

According to the National Park Service, thousands of seabirds use Anacapa as a nesting area because of the relative lack of predators on the island. While the steep cliffs of West Anacapa are home to the largest breeding colony of endangered California brown pelicans, all the islets of Anacapa host the largest breeding colony of western gulls in the world. Western gulls begin their nesting efforts at the end of April, sometimes making their shallow nests just inches from island trails. Fluffy chicks hatch in May and June and fly away from the nest in July (National Park Service: Anacapa Island).

It’s a surreal experience walking through the squawking seagulls and their almost-full-grown grey fledglings.  It’s incredibly noisy and pungent, especially in certain areas.  I feel like we’re the aliens here in a bird world.  Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds” comes to mind.

seagulls and fledglings
seagulls and fledglings

The mission revival style buildings on the island are part of the 1932 light station.  They include the lighthouse, fog signal building, one of four original keeper’s quarters, a water tank building, and several other service buildings. One of the buildings is now the East Anacapa Visitor Center, which houses some informative exhibits, including the original lead-crystal Fresnel lens, which served as a beacon to ships until an automated light replaced it in 1990 (National Park Service: Anacapa Island).

the pathway to the museum
the pathway to the museum

We accompany a park guide on part of the two-mile figure-eight trail system to learn about the island’s native vegetation, wildlife, and cultural history. Apparently, the plants look drab and lifeless in summer but come alive with color in the winter.  Vibrant red paintbrush, island morning-glory, and pale buckwheat add touches of color to the island’s palette.

gulls of Anacapa
gulls of Anacapa
Anacapa Island
Anacapa Island
Ranger buildings on Anacapa Island
Ranger buildings on Anacapa Island
Anacapa Island
Anacapa Island
Anacapa Island and the Pacific Ocean
Anacapa Island and the Pacific Ocean
Stately seagulls
Stately seagulls

Steph and I leave the ranger-led hike and venture out on the trail to Cathedral Cove.

path to a view
path to a view

Looking down on Cathedral Cove, we can see the kelp forests and sea lions on the beach and the rocks below.

view from a lookout
view of Cathedral Cove
the Pacific Ocean from Anacapa Island
the Pacific Ocean from Anacapa Island

We backtrack along the same trail where we pass by the ranger and her followers.

Path along the island cliffs
Path along the island cliffs
sea gull city
sea gull city

The strange tree sunflower, or coreopsis, blossoms in winter with bright yellow bouquets.  You can see the dormant giant coreopsis below, topped with seagulls.

giant coreopsis
giant coreopsis
seagulls on giant coreopsis
seagulls on giant coreopsis

Stephanie and I stop at a picnic area near the figure-8 crossover on the trail and eat our Trader Joe’s lunch of lentil wraps and cherries.  There are no services on the island, so everyone must bring their own food and water.

seagull in bed
seagull in bed

At the far western end of East Anacapa Island, we stand in the breeze at Inspiration Point, where we can see the other two islets stretching out into the Pacific. Waves have eroded the volcanic island, creating towering sea cliffs and sea caves, where California sea lions droop themselves over rocks, sunning themselves.

Inspiration Point
Inspiration Point

We’re glad that the fog has lifted and the sun has come out, but then we find it gets hot rather quickly.  We’re both surprised that there are no trees on the island.

Stephanie and me at Inspiration Point
Stephanie and me at Inspiration Point
View from Inspiration Point on Anacapa Island
View from Inspiration Point on Anacapa Island
view from Inspiration Point
view from Inspiration Point
kelp forests
kelp forests
seagulls as vanguards
seagulls as vanguards

We continue walking back to the east, where we can see the old lighthouse.  The lighthouse blares its foghorn every 20 seconds or so.  The ranger has told us that we’re blocked from getting in near the lighthouse because its loud foghorn can hurt our eardrums.

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When I decide to take a 360 degree video of the island, my sister throws in a little surprise at the end.  I think the seagulls are rubbing off on her 🙂

We head back to the docking area to wait for the boat.

Sailboat at sea
Sailboat at sea
Anacapa's lighthouse
Anacapa’s lighthouse
sea gull and kelp forest
seagull and kelp forest

We board the boat at 3:30 p.m. and are back on our way back to Oxnard by 3:45.

Before we leave the island, we go by boat around the eastern end where we get a better view of Arch Rock.

the arch
the arch
arch at Anacapa
arch at Anacapa

The rocky shores are perfect resting and breeding areas for California sea lions and harbor seals. We can see them lounging on the rocks, but the light is so bad on this side of the island that I can’t get any decent pictures.

the glittering sea
the glittering sea
archway to the California coast
archway to the California coast
sailboat on the horizon
sailboat on the horizon

Finally we return to the marina in Oxnard. It has been a lovely yet strange and surreal day.

back at the Oxnard marina
back at the Oxnard marina

We end our day with beers and dinner at an outdoor cafe overlooking the marina.  Steph gets a blackened snapper sandwich and I have Mahi Mahi tacos with mango salsa.  I am so happy to be eating American food again! 🙂

Cheers!  My sister, Stephanie :-)
Cheers! My sister, Stephanie 🙂
Mahi Mahi Tacos
Mahi Mahi Tacos

We drive back to Reseda, about an hour’s drive, and relax in the evening, watching several more episodes of Borgen.

Saturday, July 18: The highlight of today is the cheese platter a la Stephanie. I love cheese, and I’ve missed it dearly while in China.  This one has cherries, cheeses, chutney, watercress, smoked oysters, Japanese cucumbers and healthy crackers. It’s one of the highlights of American cuisine. 🙂

Cheese platter a la Stephanie
Cheese platter a la Stephanie

I’m so happy to be back in the USA!! 🙂

the first half of twenty-fourteen: can a person really change?

Monday, June 30: At the beginning of every year, I’m always hopeful and enthusiastic about the chance to change myself, to become a better person, a more caring person, a more successful person.  I make goals for myself. I want to succeed, I really do.  But I wonder if I can ever really change.  Can I change my true nature or am I doomed to continue to fall back into my old habits, into the person I really am deep inside?

I resolved to be FOCUSED this year.  Granted, the year isn’t over yet, but as of the halfway point, I’ll recap where I am.  Not very focused, I admit.

One of the things I didn’t make a resolution about was my photography.  However, I had some nice things happen with my photography this year.  First, I joined the Vienna Photographic Society.  This is a group of hobbyists, most of whom are excellent photographers. I was inspired to push myself to excel, but ultimately, I realize I don’t have the technical expertise to be in their league.  I’m not even sure I want to have that much technical expertise. Neither do I have Photoshop, nor do I do much in the way of post-processing.  I understand now that many professional photographers do extensive post-processing. Maybe one day I’ll get into this, but at this point I don’t have the drive to attain such a level of accomplishment.

Each month the club has novice and advanced intra-club competitions in general photography and in themed contests using trained and experienced local photographers as judges.  I’m always in the novice category.

In my first competition, I won third place in the novice category for this picture.

Blue boats in Pokhara
Blue boats in Pokhara

In another competition, I won first place in the novice category for this picture “Our Soul is a Spray Can,” taken in Cascais, Portugal.  At the end of the year, when the club gave awards to everyone who entered competitions during the year, I also won Honorable Mention for this picture.

My Soul is a Spray Can
Our Soul is a Spray Can

In a PSA (Photographic Society of America) National competition for Nature, Round 2, I got 10 points for this picture of Acacia Trees in Lake Langano, Ethiopia. This meant it went on to the next round of judging, but I ultimately didn’t win anything.

Acacia trees at Lake Langano
Acacia trees at Lake Langano

One of the things I enjoyed doing was a 20-minute presentation to the club on Oman.  I put together a slide show about Oman and told stories about my life there.  I got a lot of compliments on this presentation and I loved doing it. 🙂

One of over 80 photos I showed in a 20 minute presentation on Oman
One of over 80 photos I showed in a 20 minute presentation on Oman

I also joined Instagram and have been posting a lot of my pictures on there.  At one point I started tagging my photos #natgeotravelpics.  This hashtag put my photos into National Geographic Travel magazine’s Instagram feed.  One week, they featured this photo and it got well over 20,000 likes and I got a lot of new followers on Instagram. It was a lot of fun for a couple of days.

Hot air balloons in Cappadocia
Hot air balloons in Cappadocia

Finally, I entered a photo competition at the Vienna Community Center, which was open to the public.  I won third prize in Architecture for this photo of the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Mosque
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Grand Mosque

It’s clear where I focused most of my energies!  Below are the goals I set on January 1, 2014.  As you can see, I seemed to FOCUS more on my photography than on the goals I actually set for myself. 🙂

1.  Pitch a travel article to at least one publication every week, beginning after January 13.

This is one goal I haven’t taken any steps toward achieving.  I started with an idea for the Washington Post Travel Section about a crazy trip I took from the chaotic spiritual city of Varanasi to the chill yoga capital of India, Rishikesh.  The story, already written in my blog, was about 12,000 words.  The Washington Post Travel Section seemed the perfect place for this story because they often publish personal experience stories. However, they do not take unsolicited pitches.  You can send a full story and they’ll decide if they like it and are interested in buying it.  But the word count on their stories must be from 1,500 to 2,500 words.  Mine required a LOT of cutting.  Besides, they generally don’t want to look at a story over a year old, and my story was from 2011.  I thought they might consider a story if it was  timeless, as mine was, so I worked on it for a while, cutting and cutting, until I got down to 5,000 words.  Still way too long.  Then I just abandoned it, slowly at first, as I continued to mull it over, and then all at once, as I dropped it altogether.  That was the only article I even attempted to write.

Why am I so easily waylaid?

Probably because I’m not sure I really want to be a travel writer.  I’m not interested in having to work on my holidays!  I want to enjoy, soak up the culture and the sights.  I want to enjoy the food and wine and the experience.  Travel writing is a job.  I’m not sure I want to make a job out of something I love doing for its own sake.

2.  Finish revising my novel by the end of February.  Spend March figuring out what steps to take to get it published and take those steps.  Begin a new book after I get that process underway.

I didn’t quite make my February deadline.  I did however finish my novel in May. Finally!  A dear friend of mine read it and gave me some great feedback.  I even came up with a title, The Scattering Dreams of Stars.  So most of the work is done.

The next step is to send out query letters to agents.  I wrote numerous drafts of a query letter and I posted a draft on a forum where fellow writers critique query letters.  Mine got ripped to shreds.  After many efforts to capture the essence of my story in a short two paragraphs, and to write a captivating hook, I let it sit.  And sit.  And sit some more. I have two friends who have offered to edit the letter, and I’ve made another attempt, but I’m still not happy with it.

I’ve decided it’s harder to write two paragraphs than to write a 350 page novel.  Some people say they write the hook and the summarizing paragraph before they write their novel.  Maybe I should have done that; it would have helped me to be more focused.

My goal is to finish that query letter and send it to agents in the next two months.  Oh dear.  Again, why am I so easily thrown off track, and sometimes by the simplest of setbacks?

As far as being a full-time writer, I now remember what I don’t enjoy about it.  During the last 6 months, while I took off the semester to write, I felt isolated and antsy.  It hit me that I function better with a schedule.  I need to get up in the morning and go to a job.  I need to interact with people.  I do better getting out and about, being around people, being accountable to someone.  I’m the kind of person who needs to squeeze in writing during the down times of a busy life.

3. Apply for at least 3 jobs a week in international development until I get one (Painful).

Yes, it was as painful as I thought it would be.  I applied for 40 jobs in the U.S. and after getting no response from any of them, I started putting feelers out abroad.  Even though I matched job descriptions exactly, I didn’t even get an acknowledgement on most of my applications.

As it’s very time-consuming to apply for jobs these days, I got disheartened very quickly.  It used to be you could send a resume and a cover letter, but these days, applicants must often fill out online applications, completing every detail of your job history on each company’s website.  It’s so ridiculous.  What’s LinkedIn for, anyway? I think there should be one central place where you post your resume and you can download from that central place to a company’s website.  You go through this cumbersome process and then you never hear ANYTHING back!  It’s so frustrating.

Finally, I got sick of never getting any acknowledgement and spending so much time spinning my wheels for nothing.  I don’t know the reason I don’t get short-listed.  Some people have told me I’m overqualified.  Others have told me I’m not qualified enough.  Or I don’t match every single qualification.  I have transferable skills, but employers seem to want you to have worked in that particular job, and they seem to want you to have no ambition to move from that job.  Also, there are so many young people with Master’s degrees in International Relations coming from the big schools in the area: George Washington University, Georgetown University, American University, Johns Hopkins.  Why would they hire an older person when they can hire a young person fresh out of college?

While I was in Oman, a woman contacted me through my Nizwa blog because she was considering working for the University of Nizwa. She ended up taking a job in China.  I wrote to ask about possible jobs at her university and she told me they had just instituted a mandatory retirement age of 60.  As I started looking at jobs in China, I saw many jobs with an age limit of 60. I figured since I only have one more year to work in China, I would focus my job search there.  I’ve always wanted to teach in China for a couple of reasons: 1) Asian students in general are hard-working and 2) there are a lot of amazing things to see in China.  I focused my job search there and in one week I had four interviews and I got three offers.  I accepted an offer to teach at SCIC (Sino-Canadian International Colleges), Guangxi University in Nanning, the capital city of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.  It’s not far from Vietnam and about a 3 1/2 hour bus ride from Guilin, where the movie The Painted Veil was filmed.

In all, I applied for 70 jobs, beginning my job search when I returned from California at the end of January and ending on June 13, when I got the offer from GXU.  That was 21 weeks at over 3 jobs a week. I believe my days of trying to find a job in the U.S. are over.  It just doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.

Since I can’t get a job in my country, I’m thankful that someone will hire me from foreign lands.  Looks like I’m going to China!  Nǐ hǎo!!

4. Post no more than two posts a week to my blog. (This will be one of the hardest to keep!)

I actually did this.  I’ve posted 52 posts in 26 weeks, about two a week. I have neglected my fellow bloggers though, and for this I feel bad. 😦

5. Continue my explorations of the East Coast over the next year, after my trip to California in early January.  Venture to Pennsylvania, North Carolina, West Virginia, Delaware, Tennessee (Ann Patchett territory!).  Take a road trip.  And if I can get a job, or make some money freelancing, go to Costa Rica or one of the Caribbean islands. Pitch local travel articles to publications further afield.

I haven’t been to any of these places.  However, I am planning a trip to New Hampshire this week. 🙂

6. Read a lot: short stories, novels, the craft of writing, travel writing.

I love to read, so this has been easy.  I’ve read 22 books, mostly books on writing and novels.

7. Walk at least 5 times a week and eat healthier and smaller quantities of food.

I’ve been really good about the walking, but not so good about the eating smaller quantities of food.  I managed to lose 6 pounds, but then I gained back 4, so I’m only two pounds down from where I started.  Here’s a chart of my weight, which seems a kind of metaphor for my life.  I always end up right back where I started from!

My weight as a metaphor for my life
My weight as a metaphor for my life

In a way, I feel relieved to be going abroad again.  Taking a job here in the U.S. probably wouldn’t have allowed me to travel.  Besides, starting a new job in a corporation or a non-profit at this point would mean starting with only 2-3 weeks of vacation per year.  Teaching abroad allows me to have both the cultural immersion I crave and to have extensive time off to travel in the region where I’m based.  Overall, it’s a great solution to all my problems.  As I only have about 9 more years to work before I retire, and I still have my health, I may as well take advantage of teaching abroad.  Besides, my kids are nowhere close to settling down, getting married or having kids; by the time they are, I should be back in the U.S., ready to settle down and enjoy the extended family.  And best of all, they’re supportive of me having my adventures while I’m still young enough to have them!

The other thing I miss about being abroad are the expats and foreigners one meets when thrown into a foreign country.  Everyone is an adventurer of some sort.  Being in the U.S., I’m tired of having people’s eyes glaze over when I share my experiences living abroad.  I love the fellow nomads that tend to gravitate to each other in foreign lands. In addition, you meet wonderful natives of the country where you are a guest.  Two of my closest friends in Korea, Julie and Kim, were Koreans.  And I miss dearly friends I’ve made abroad, friends the likes of which I don’t have here in America.  I miss Mario, Sandy, Tahira, Kathy, Anna, Mona Lisa, Seth & Anna, Myrna… and the list goes on.  We share a common experience no one else will ever understand.

weekly photo challenge: infinite

Tuesday, October 15:  The WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge for this week is Infinite.  Writes Ben Huberman: We continue to encounter these moments of wonder as adults, too, when the infinite catches us by surprise. We stumble upon it in things both big and small: on the beach, staring into the horizon; in the depth of a loved one’s eyes; or even drowning in the emptiness of a Berlin subway car.

IN A NEW POST CREATED FOR THIS CHALLENGE, SHARE A PHOTO THAT SHOWS US A GLIMPSE OF THE INFINITE.

Infinity can produce contrasting effects on (and in) us: it might make us feel dwarfed or amplified, afraid or empowered. It might take the form of a wide panorama or a zoomed-in fraction of an object. A starry sky? A sea of commuters on a train platform? Rows of corn in a field? No pun intended, but the possibilities really are endless.

Infinite leaves on the Fairfax Cross County Trail
Infinite leaves on the Fairfax Cross County Trail
Infinite leaves and trees
Infinite leaves and trees
Infinite leaves
Infinite leaves
Infinite Torii gates in Kyoto, Japan
Infinite Torii gates in Kyoto, Japan
Infinite torii gates in Kyoto
Infinite torii gates in Kyoto
Infinite lotus blossoms at the Summer Palace in Beijing
Infinite lotus blossoms at the Summer Palace in Beijing
infinite arches in Cordoba's Mezquita
infinite arches in Cordoba’s Mezquita
Boseong Tea Plantations in South Korea
Boseong Tea Plantations in South Korea
Suncheon Ecological Bay in South Korea
Suncheon Ecological Bay in South Korea