Trapped in Paradise – the DC Edition

Part travel blog, part philosophical musings. All tongue-in-cheek ridiculousness.


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120 days in Tel Aviv

I’ve been in Israel for about two weeks now, so I suppose it’s time I blogged about it.

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Here at last! A view of Tel Aviv during one of my morning jogs.

Getting here was an adventure involving many stops in other continents, stories I’ll get to in due time. But since I’ll be starting my study abroad program tomorrow (finally!) I feel like I need to catch up on what’s been going on in since I arrived in Tel Aviv.

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A bit of visiting all the touristy places, such as the old city of Jaffa.

I got here well before the start of the school year so that I could find a place to live. Thanks to my contacts here, I had learned that apartment hunting in Israel is not like apartment hunting in other cities I’d lived in. Sure, they have Craigslist and Airbnb and a few of the other normal sites if you’re looking to rent or sublet, but that’s basically setting yourself up to get ripped off. Everything is done in person at the last minute, where someone might wake up and decide to rent out a room in their place, so they tell their friends, and by word of mouth (or via one of the many online groups) you might find out about it.

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“Hey, did you guys here about the new apartment on Bograshov Street? Don’t let those exchange students anywhere near it!”

For someone who likes to have plans worked out well in advance, this idea of just showing up with no idea of where to live was not sitting well. At least I was more prepared than many of my fellow exchange students, who decided not to arrive until days before our orientation started.

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Group projects are going to be interesting.

But in the end it worked out well for everyone, including the late-comers. No one ended up homeless in a cardboard box, and thanks to a realtor who randomly showed up in our class Facebook group with a bunch of apartments for rent, I wound up renting a flat with two other students that’s just two blocks from the beach. Perhaps this is a sign that I need to let go of my need for structure and just embrace the Israeli attitude of doing stuff on the fly.

'I joined a relaxation program, to help me overcome my type A behavior. Damit! I'm going to be the best, most relaxed, one in the group.'

Yeah right, this is not going to happen overnight, if at all. Get back to me in February.

Aside from that stress test, adjusting to life in a foreign country has been interesting (in a good way, of course.) I’m reminded of the adjustment I went through when I’d moved to Japan back in 2010, since there were many similarities: non-Indo-European language, completely different writing system, unfamiliar customs and mannerisms, physically sticking out like a sore thumb.

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At least I’m not this guy.

However, in Japan I’d had the built-in support network of the military that had helped me navigate everything from living arrangements to riding the train. Other than the handful of contacts I’d made during my trip here over spring break, I was kind of on my own. Especially since my school had decided to cancel the annual short-term study abroad trip to Israel, citing security concerns. (Apparently letting a group of students come here for ten days was too risky, but sending me to live on my own for four months is totally fine.)

It’s been a fun adventure, though. Overall, I’ve found the locals to be quite friendly and helpful, and even though I had arrived right in the middle of the Jewish holiday season (meaning the city shut down practically every other day, which made shopping for groceries difficult) I haven’t had too bad of a time exploring and getting to know my new home. Plus, the food here is quite amazing (and healthy!)

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Breakfast of champions! Where has shakshuka been all my life?!

Anyway, I’m looking forward to my time here, and am excited to be able to write about it.

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The Beijing tourist package

You know what was the best thing about being in Asia for three weeks? Getting to forget all about the clown show that is the U.S. presidential election.

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If only this were true, Random Guy on Whisper. If only…

Oh well, that’s what pictures and memories are for. I wanted to wrap up my trip to China by talking about the most fun (and admittedly touristy) part – Beijing!

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The Chairman says hey

Fresh off our final client presentations, we were now free to board an airplane to the nation’s capital and forget all about nanotechnology for the time being. We had worked hard over the last few months; now it was time to relax. I knew we would be hitting all the typical tourist sites that I think everyone sees when they visit Beijing: the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, and so on. Normally I’m averse to the canned tour group experience and prefer to go on my own program, but after spending so much time off the beaten path in Changsha (and probably sick from the experience, as I mentioned in my last post) I was happy to sit back and be led around for a while.

We started our Beijing leg with something rather awesome and unexpected.

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Riding in style

A rickshaw tour of one of the old city neighborhoods! I’d been on a rickshaw once before in Japan, but then it was mostly for the novelty of having a guy literally run you around the city. These, however, were driven by bicycles, so I felt a little less guilt. It was a really cool way to see the less-traveled parts of the city, and a lot of fun being in a caravan with a bunch of friends.

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Not even the rickshaws are exempt from the Beijing traffic!

There are families in the old neighborhood that open up their homes to visiting groups, partly to help offset the extreme cost of owning such a home. Mrs. Yuan was gracious enough to invite us in and talk to us a little bit about the culture while showing us around her house. She informed us that her house had been in her family for five generations, and that the home is worth about $30,000 per square meter. Insane!

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I know the inside courtyard is nice and all, but come on.

We did have to do one last business school thing, which was make a visit to the Beijing International Studies University. This school, we learned, has one of the top tourism & hospitality programs in the world, and it attracts many students from China and other parts of the world. I loved having the chance to meet them and learn their stories, especially since many of them come from countries that aren’t represented very well in DC, if at all. For instance, I’d never met anyone from Kazakhstan before, and after that day I knew three! Another student was from Myanmar, and was telling me about how he wants to help spearhead the effort to bring tourism there now that it’s becoming safer to travel. All in all, a really great experience, and they were kind enough to take us to a nightclub later (with VIP access and free drinks the whole night. Talk about hospitality!)

Over the next couple of days we visited several famous sites, as advertised.

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Many cities have a giant clock to announce the time; Beijing has the Drum Tower

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The Kung Fu show was awesome!

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I’m sure this didn’t help my food issues

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My favorite activity of the entire China trip – conquering the Great Wall! Here I am, catching my breath and trying to look elegant while doing so (but really, I was clinging onto the stones for dear life.)

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The Summer Palace, where the ancient 1% liked to chill and complain about those pesky peasants

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Inside the Forbidden City. So many people, so many square feet of concrete.

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It’s good luck to touch nine of the doorknobs when entering the Forbidden City (but only nine; if you only touch eight, it brings disaster upon your house, and if you touch ten you’ll be doomed to a life of neglect and unemployment.)

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The City was really cool, but I have to admit that after a while all of the 999 buildings started to look the same. I started to wonder if our tour guide was making up stories to keep us interested: “This is where the Emperor’s prostitutes used to stay. And over here was housed the Imperial Ping Pong team…”

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“…And here, a carving depicting the end of the world, when snakes creep out of the mountains and devour all the air pollution…” (Actually, considering Beijing’s air quality, that doesn’t sound so bad.)

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“…And down this ancient corridor lies the path to long life and the ability to devour mass quantities of animal parts that you normally wouldn’t ever consider eating…”

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“…And here are the Imperial Gardens, full of old rocks that symbolize the everlasting powers of ancient mud…”

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“…And in case you didn’t get a good enough view of the Royal Rock Garden, here is a close-up.”

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On our way to the Temple of Heaven, we walked through a park where some were practicing their ballroom dancing. Many of these people belonged to the generation affected by the Cultural Revolution, and are now out to reclaim their lost youth.

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Roses in bloom at the Temple of Heaven, with the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in the background. This building is remarkable for being completely built out of wood, and no nails or hardware.

My one real complaint – and this is a total “first world problems” moment, is that it’s demoralizing being part Asian and traveling with a bunch of westerners in China. They were treated like celebrities, and everywhere we went people would stop to take pictures with them. The girls in my group were called “the most beautiful” and the guys were treated like celebrities. Okay, no big deal and it was amusing to watch, except they would then turn to me and treat me like a third-class citizen! I don’t know how many times I was denied the same discounts and free handouts that they’d gotten, or told to get out of a group picture. It was a strange and unsettling experience; I’d traveled in Asia many times with other westerners while I was still in the military, and I don’t ever remember encountering this. Then again, I had never before been to China, and this country was definitely different from Thailand and the others I’d been to. Oh well. Not the worst thing in the world, but it did make me come back and immediately want to book a trip to England or southern Europe where the locals were friendly to me no matter who I was traveling with.

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“I want someone to call me pretty and take my picture too!”

All in all, it was a great experience. I don’t know that I’ll have the opportunity to visit China again anytime soon (although I should, considering how much it cost to get that tourist visa, and it’s good for ten years!) but I’m definitely glad I got to go! It was interesting being in a country that’s modernizing but still so disconnected from the rest of the world, if that makes sense. I had the opportunity to make new friends, even though I can only communicate with them through WeChat, one of the only social media apps that’s permitted in China and the primary form of communication there. I crossed another item off my bucket list by climbing the Great Wall. I got to learn a lot about an industry that’s new and interesting to me, and interact with high-level professionals. And I got to go into new territory (for me, and for many of my friends) by visiting Changsha, a place that’s still relatively unknown. It was great being back in that part of the world where I’d spent so many good years.

So… where to next?