China 101

I’ve been back from China for two weeks exactly and I am feeling a little too overwhelmed with things to blog about, Spanish to learn, work to, well, work…? etc. (So much for a relaxing summer!) But alas, a free night has come along and it is time to jump back into the swing of things!
Anyway, I figured I would end my blogging hiatus and introduce Asia with some tips in case you ever feel the urge to head that way.  
1.  I guess I should start by pointing out the obvious:  you’re not in Kansas anymore…!  Bring your patience and maybe a map, because everything is written in Chinese or Cantonese. Hong Kong is a different (more western) story, but deep in the heart of China it is also EXTREMELY difficult to communicate. 
2.  Beware of the potties…
They’re not “weird,” they’re just eastern.  I laughed when my teacher suggested practicing squatting over toilets before we left.  Really though, it’s necessary.
3.  Those lovely squatty-potties usually do not have toilet paper.  It’s not like the stall just ran out, they literally just do not put toilet paper in them.  Unless you’re going to let it air dry, I found it convenient to keep a pack of wet wipes in my purse at all times.
4.  I can’t imagine having explosive diarrhea and attempting to maneuver myself over one of those toilets.  Luckily, I found that all of the handicap stalls are western toilets sent straight from the heavens!  I would recommend hightailing it over to one of those lifesavers if that wicked situation arises!  (Unfortunately, I’m only writing from experience here…)
5.  If you do not know how to use chopsticks, you will learn very quickly!  At a majority of restaurants you have to ask for forks, which tends to be an issue because it is almost impossible to communicate with most your waiters.  I was very chopstick illiterate before this trip and by the end of my time in China, I was the chopstick master!  Of course it is definitely a trial and error process.  After dropping broccoli in my professor’s purse at a banquet, let’s just say… I learned the art of chopsticking very quickly.  Luckily, she found it a couple days later.  I was beginning to worry that they may stop her in customs for smuggling vegetables into another country!
6. Pizza Hut will become your new best friend.  My friends and I could only handle so much Asian food, so we ate Pizza Hut for dinner almost every night.  But, Pizza Hut is much different there than what we are used to.  It’s a little swanky—velvet seats and all!  Also, don’t even think about ordering a personal pan pizza for just yourself.  “No, no, too much food!  Too much!” They literally will not let you, which leads me to tip #7.
7.  Apparently, we found this mostly in China, whoever is taking your order will decide how much food you will have.  If you ask for cold water, they will bring you boiling water or “Spirit” (Sprite).  If you want honey mustard and mayonnaise on your sandwich, they may tell you “no” but give it to the next person in line.  If you want one scoop of ice cream, they will give you and charge you for two.  Once again, only writing from experience here…
8.  If you are American, don’t be alarmed if Chinese people on the street stand very close to you and smile off into the distance.  It took a while to figure out that they were trying to take a picture with us, not pick-pocketing or just disregarding personal space.  Be ready to be photographed, video taped, stared at, etc. because it WILL happen on a daily basis.  It was actually a good (and slightly pathetic) self-esteem booster as everyday we were told we looked like celebrities!  So, just be a good sport, hold up your peace sign with your fingers (which actually means “victory” to them) and put on a smile because it will definitely make an Asian’s day.
9.  Lastly, be ready to climb a million stairs at any touristy place you visit.  Make it to the top, though, and I assure you it will be worth it!

AHHH.

I have been on a bit of an unofficial blogging hiatus as of late, but I really have valid reasons as to why:  finals week, dorm closedown, resident checkouts, moving myself out of the dorm, and packing for CHI CHI CHI CHINA, all while trying not to lose my mind.  
I guess what I am trying to say is that this unofficial blogging hiatus is about to become official due to my three-week adventure through Hong Kong and Beijing that begins tomorrow.  BUT have no fear—I know you have probably lost sleep over this awful blogging lull—I will have bigger and better things to write about in approximately three weeks!  


HERE GOES NOTHING! 

You Better Belize It!

I wish I had more to help me document our time in Belize.  At the time, I wasn’t obsessive enough about taking photos.  I also didn’t blog and obviously did not realize that it would be a great place to write about!  On the other hand, I definitely did not trust myself with taking my camera cave tubing in a river down a mountain.  It just didn’t sound like something I would be particularly good at.  Luckily, my uncle was crazy enough to think that that was a good idea and got some great shots! (Thanks, Uncle Kevin!)
Belize was the third stop on our Connolly Cruise. Talk about a breathtaking country.  I was desperate to spend more time there—that’s one downfall of cruises… I find them to be such a tease since typically only a few hours are spent in each place.
We started off by taking a good hour and a half bus ride from Belize City up to the lush mountain.  
The drive was so picturesque, as the culture was just lingering alongside the road. 
They have to build their graves above ground because of the high water levels and flooding.  An interesting concept I would have never considered… We actually found the same thing in New Orleans.
So, once we arrived at the mountains, the real fun began.  We picked up our tubes, put on our musty, vogue-esque helmets (seriously, ew.) and began the long, long, LONG trek to the river.  Sure, those tubes look nice, light, and inflatable, but I think someone snuck some small boulders into my tube when he or she blew it up… By the end of the hike, I was practically dragging my tube behind me, hoping itwould, err, wouldn’t catch on a thorn and, well, pop.
Although slightly miserable, muggy, and lengthy, the hike was not all that awful.  We stopped to eat termites (No, I did not try one… I hardly eat food… I sure as hell was not about to eat an insect), became enlightened on some interesting trees and critters, and reveled in some spectacular scenery .  
Once we reached the river, it became very evident that all of our efforts would soon become worthwhile.   
I am aware that the above translucent, untainted water looks very inviting…  I thought so too.  That was until I sunk my tube into it and finally fully understood the expression, “I froze my ass off”.  But hey, it’s all a part of the adventure, right?  So, between shivers, we formed an arm and leg train and drifted into the dark abyss.
This is where those charming little lights on our helmets came in handy.  Not only did they light the way, they also protected our heads from the bats and their feces as they rustled around above us.  Unfortunately, the bats weren’t the only thing to be cautious of.  I needed a helmet for my other end too, as the river was a bit low and we were scrapping our frozen butts against some high-quality rocks along the way.
Every now and then we would get a pleasant break from the darkness.  (The below picture does the scenery absolutely NO justice.  Just trust me when I say it was lovely.)
 
So, many miles later, we made it in and out of the caves and safely back down the mountain.  Numb and with bruised bums, we found ourselves back on the ship wishing for more time to dissect the unbelizeable Belize.
 
(Don’t worry, that wasn’t our cruise ship… but that IS my favorite picture I have ever taken!)

And I Just Can’t Seem to Get Enough Of…

Just like a rainbow, you know you set me free!  And I just can’t get enough, I just can’t get enough…
No?  That’s fine.  Not everyone seems to share the 80’s love like I do.  But, in all seriousness, I really couldn’t get enough of Canada!  Here is the tale of my first taste of Canada—a quick little jaunt to Vancouver:
 After having to rearrange flight plans at the very last minute—like, two-days-prior last minute (dicey standby flying is something I can get enough of)—my brilliant pops rerouted our layover in Seattle to a layover in Vancouver.  In all honesty, the change in plans worked out beautifully! 
We were off to an extremely good start, as we unexpectedly found a limo awaiting our arrival at the airport.  They may have had the wrong “Connolly, Party of 7,” but we were okay with that.
We definitely had time constraints, as we were to catch a fairy to Victoria the next day.  So in typical Connolly fashion, no time was to be wasted.  We checked in at our hotel and began to wander.
  
We hopped aboard a water taxi and jetted over to the quirky Granville Island Public Market.  
This place had shops for anything and everything.  Hat shops, umbrella stores, broom boutiques, toy emporiums… you name it!   
Come on now, get your mind out of the gutter!
We could find whatever our little hearts desired.
The people were congenial, the food was delectable, the weather was pleasant, and the flowers were plentiful.  Once again, what more could we ask for?!
Still feel like something’s missing?  That’s because I forgot to mention the totem pole making that occurs in the midst of the market…
It is definitely possible to kill some good time at the market.  The island is bubbling with culture and we could have used an extra day to meander through it all.  I would have loved to see more of Vancouver—the Olympic sites, Stanley Park, the Capilano Suspension Bridge, etc— but all the locals directed us straight to the island, and it was a good thing we trusted their advice!

Tu(cs)on

Over spring break, the Bean (Nick) and I took a quick little trip to my birthplace, Tucson, Arizona, to visit good ole’ grandma and grandpa.  Although it was a brief two night, one day trip, we got to see a part of Arizona I’m not as familiar with. 
Right off the plane, we headed to a delicious little pizza joint.  It was there Tucson welcomed us with a high-speed police chase right across the street from where we were eating.  Nothing like a bank robbery and the SWAT team to start your day off right!
We then headed to my grandma and grandpa’s perfect little abode to do all the things that define our typical Tucson trips.
First we said hello to this guy (also proudly standing in the first picture):  
A saguaro cactus that has been around just as long as my grandpa! Over 200 years old (cheap shot, I know), it is just a matter of time before he topples over onto the street in front of my grandparent’s house—the cactus, not my grandpa.
Then, some more shots were fired around Tucson!
One thing I love about my grandparents’ house (besides them… awww) is how different the landscape is from our flat, barren Texas scenery.  There is no grass anywhere, really… just rocks, and cacti! 
 
  
Then, we went on a lovely evening stroll while the sun was setting. Nothing, and I do mean NOTHING, beats an Arizona sunset…
So, that is the usual beauty I get to see when I go to Tucson, but this time, we decided to embark on a little Connolly adventure up to Mount Lemon, located at the peak of the Catalina Mountains.
The cacti are everywhere as you start up the mountain, but the landscape very quickly changes into a little something that looks like this:
(I’m not too sure as to what these folk were doing, but I can tell you that they had on super hero capes, chicken hats, and an assortment of masks.)
And the view looks a little something like this:
There was a dreadful fire in 2003 that destroyed 85,000 acres of the beautiful mountain, and the recovery is still an obvious work in progress.
 
Nevertheless, the mountain still managed to be breathtaking and we were able to put another successful Connolly adventure under our belts. 

British Columbia, Canada: A Whale’s Tale

I was hesitant and oh, so nervous about this adventure.  As we were signing papers and meeting with our tour guides, they spoke about the group that went out an hour prior… they had only seen two or three whales.  Whale watching has always been on my bucket list, and I was NOT about to go home disappointed.  
As I sat with my eyes glued to the horizon, I swear, every wave seemed as though it was a whale breaching.  After cruising for about a half an hour, our captain got some sort of code message on his walkie-talkie and the boat slowed down.  And thar she blows… there was our first jumper!!  
The captain lightly treaded around the orca, keeping a safe distance.  I was taking picture after picture, mostly of the water, thinking that this would be one of the only guys we saw on our trip, but then Shamu submerged all too soon.  But before we knew it, we were cruising right over to the next location.  
This is where it all gets slightly blurry because I became a little too enraptured in the situation we encountered.  This is the point where I became “that tourist” I hate so much.  You know, the obnoxiously enthusiastic, thinking I’m the only one on the boat trying to snap a decent picture, kind of tourist.  The swearing in excitement and knocking people over as I ran from port to starboard and bow to stern in attempt to follow the whale’s trail, type of tourist.  I’m not proud, okay?  But it happened.  And I did manage to get a few good photos. 
Other boats began to make their way over to where we were located.  Then the captain began to get more and more of those code messages, and all of the sudden there were whales EVERYWHERE.  At this point, it would have been appropriate to call me a whale-doting, picture-taking, lunatic.
Little whale families were popping up left and right.  Only two or three whales were spotted on the earlier trip?!  How did we get so lucky?!  The captain informed us that there was an estimated 60 whales stretched up and down the coast!
They were coming RIGHT up to the boat.  At this point, I was almost peeing myself with excitement.  Tears were streaming down my face.
You know you are having an exceptionally lucky trip when even your guides who do this several times every day are enthralled!  The captain sat in idle and for a good while and let us bask in the spectacle unfolding in front of us.  It’s really a magical feeling watching such majestic, wild animals in their natural habitat.
I even learned something new:  When a whale is about to give birth, its pod ceremoniously gathers in a circle around the pregnant whale.  Once the baby is born, the sister of the new mom swims underneath the baby and pushes it up to the surface for its first breath.
Once our fingers were numb from taking so many pictures, we headed back toward Victoria.  I had finally collected myself when the captain got another one of those secret messages on his device and we started speeding off in a slightly different direction.  He informed us that Houdini, a young gray whale, was awaiting our arrival.
I mean really, COULD THIS DAY GET ANY BETTER?!
And there he was scanning the shallow waters for some lunch.  (Houdini is what the guides call him… Apparently some days he is there and others he is isn’t, but they have no idea where he goes when he leaves.)
 
 
The captain said the young pup had been in the area for about a month and had since gained approximately 1,000 pounds.  
Once we had definitely overstayed our welcome, we headed back feeling BEYOND triumphant with our first ever whale watching experience. 

The Family that Drinks Together, Sinks Together…

Yes, that was my grandparent’s slogan for their 50th wedding anniversary cruise.  My immediate family, aunts, uncles, cousins and long time friends of my grandparents (a party of 60 or so…) celebrated their milestone on a 7-day cruise to Guatemala, Belize, Cozumel and Costa Maya last spring break.  I know, I know… 7 days trapped on a boat with your family and a bunch of “senior citizens” you don’t know… It would probably be best if that ship just went ahead and sunk, right?  ABSOLUTELY NOT.  I learned very quickly that “that’s not the way the Connolly’s roll…”
My grandparents requested that we all arrive a day early to have a “practice party” in New Orleans. We spent the majority of the night running around Bourbon Street and getting acquainted before we set sail early the next morning.  
  
The second night on our trip we had a formal party for my grandparents.  Norwegian Cruise Lines let us rent out a lounge with an open bar to host the festivities.  First of all, you know it’s a party when there are scandalous, naked shadows doing strip teases on all of the TVs mounted on the red and pink satin walls.  Who could appreciate that more than the elderly and all of my pre-teen cousins…?  I’m not sure that NCL really understood the kind of party we were having, but I found it quite humorous anyway.  
At the party, everyone who wanted to, gave speeches to my grandparents, and they gave a speech to each other.  Let’s just say my grandpa is one with the microphone… He worked the crowd like an old pro.
The night ended with some really touching and humorous speeches and my grandma dancing on top of tables…
Group dinners were also an entertaining event… With such a huge party, we were split into 8 or 9 large tables.  At the end of each meal my grandpa would start this loud, overbearing chant with whichever table he was sitting at— “WE ARE TABLE NUMBER ONE, NUMBER ONE, NUMBER ONE, WE ARE TABLE NUMBER ONE, WHERE THE HELL IS TWO?!” and then table two would repeat it, then three and, yeah, you can probably see where this is going.  Obnoxious?  Sure… but who is honestly going to stop such a large, rowdy sea of grey/balding heads?  After that would come the dancing and parading around the dining room.  We may have disturbed a few other tables here and there each night, sure, but I couldn’t get enough of it. 
  
On the final night came the “Juice-a-Leering.”  I, too, was unfamiliar with this concept, but my grandpa knew quite well what we were doing.  It all started with a small group.  We would knock on a member of our party’s door and perform a little song and dance my grandpa created (to the tune of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”):
“We wish you a happy cruise, we wish you a happy cruise, we wish you a happy cruise, and a gooood time too.  The Juice-a-leers have come to wish you the best of the cruising season and we hope that tonight’s party is the best yet to come!”
Then we would give them a beer, they would join in the line, and off we went to the next cruisers room.  Walking down those cramped corridors with so many people singing and drinking was another event I am sure was wildly appreciated by “non-Connolly members,” but once again, it seems that that grey hair or receded hairline is the golden ticket when it comes to getting away with that sort of nonsense… No way would that be okay for a group of kids my age.  We were given dirty looks here and there, but most people had to resist the urge to join in.  In fact, we did pick up a few strangers along the way.
If you still can’t tell, my grandparents are extraordinary people who have had a great life filled with wonderful friends and family.  I mean, really?  Look at that crowd!  I just hope to be as fortunate in life as they found themselves to be.
(Above photo courtesy of Bevan Bell)
It was hard to say our “see you laters,” (according to my grandpa, you never say goodbye to a senior citizen…) but I can’t wait for the next opportunity for such a grand affair.
Table Number 2, signing out.