Saturday, June 27, 2009

Miss Edie takes a stroll

Made in China

Well there’s a lot to catch you up on, given that we’ve been slacking in our posting lately. The whirlwind travel we’ve been taking has finally caught up to us, with Edie coming down with her first cold and Laura following to the sick ward soon after.

So what have we been up to? After our Vietnam experience we laid low for about a month, after which I left for China to attend the 9th Internat. Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant. And it truly was an international event, with attendees from over 40 countries, including many that are often poorly represented at these types of meetings such as eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia and southern Africa.

It was easy to be impressed with the Chinese eagerness to please their international visitors, as this conference could be considered a microcosm of the spectacle that was the Beijing Olympics. We attended banquets and rock concerts, dances and acrobatics shows.
Near the conference venue, every door was opened for us by smiling staff, when it was raining we were escorted under umbrellas across the parking lot, and our hotel rooms were cleaned every time we left them (not just the standard once a day). The Chinese certainly do possess people power.

After the confidence we gained from our Vietnam trip, I ate most of my meals on the street.
Typical cost was about 5-10 yuan (1-2 Australian dollars) for excellent food that included fried rice, pancakes, fried dough and of course the ubiquitous and delicious dumplings. Coincidentally, one meal I had was a kebab in a small market of Chinese Muslims, known as Uighurs, the same ethnic group that was recently in the news after Bermuda accepted former Uighur prisoners that were moved from Guantanamo Bay.

The best part of each day was early in the morning and late in the afternoon, when the throngs of schoolchildren would be on their way to and from their day’s lessons. Often accompanied by grandmothers, they appeared very cheery and in general are very adorable.

English is spoken very little in that part of China, but every so often I would hear someone call “Hullo!” and turn around to see giggling youngsters. It was all very endearing.

So my impression of China probably sounds pretty positive, and it’s fair to say that it was. However there were a couple of things that I must note to give a more balanced view. First of all, I was unable to access certain websites while I was there – namely this blog that you are reading. It was a gentle reminder that the Say Anything culture that we take for granted has not yet caught up to China, and information does not flow as freely as we hope that it would there and in other parts of the globe, a point driven home by recent events in Iran. No doubt there are ways around it, mobile phone cameras being one of them, but the authorities make you work for it, and there are risks involved in defying Big Brother.

The 2nd low point came from my visit to a park that contained a zoo.
The park was fascinating, mainly because it was less National Park and more Amusement Park. There was a Chinese rock band singing Bon Jovi on stage, and I got to see a macacque running wild, the first time I’ve seen a primate outside of captivity.
However, the zoo portion was depressing, with sad looking animals in bare concrete cages. Although my prejudice towards zoos was tempered after reading “Life of Pi” a few years ago, this was clearly an example of animals being used solely for the amusement of humans. Because I remain a meat eater, I have a very tenuous position when it comes to promoting animal welfare; I am aware of the hypocrisy of simultaneously being an animal lover and a carnivore. However, eating is at least a little more necessary than entertainment, and we try our best to buy meat from animals that were raised in humanitarian conditions. The Chinese have a very utilitarian view of animals, as noted repeatedly in Theroux’s book “Riding the Iron Rooster” and will cage and eat just about any animal, including the small and the rare. Is it cruelty? Perhaps. Certainly PETA would have more to work on there than they do in North America, where a President swatting a fly draws their ire.

Guizhou Province, where the conference was held, has the lowest GDP per capita of the 32 Chinese provinces, with a value (around $1,500) that places it on par with the African country of Djibouti. Yet there was plenty of evidence of wealth in the city. The main mode of transportation was the car (unlike the thousands of motorbikes we saw in Hanoi).
On the main strip downtown there were plenty of malls selling expensive Western goods – many of them made in China of course! And the hotels and higher-end restaurants have prices that are typical of Western cities ($100 per night, $10 for breakfast, etc.). So to balance out all this wealth, there is clearly a large number of Chinese that remain very poor in this province and elsewhere in the country. In the case of Guizhou Province, this would be the large number of gold and mercury miners – the reason we were here for the conference in the first place. In some instances the waste from these mines is used to irrigate rice crops and serves as a route of exposure to mercury, which in turn can cause health defects. In fact, small-scale gold mining is one of the major sources of mercury toxicity in humans worldwide (mercury is used to amalgamate the gold from the extracted ore and then burned off in gold shops), and gold mining areas are typically found in the poorest places – China, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Ghana, and rural Brazil to name a few. With China’s growing wealth comes the challenge of maintaining a healthy environment, something North America and Europe overlooked during their own rapid development stages. You only need to spend time in a few Asian cities and experience the smog to realize that human health may be compromised by industrial development. In China’s case, the more prosperous areas are on the threshold of being wealthy enough to exercise some pollution control, and are often seeking the advice of foreigners, including my supervisor here in Australia, to achieve these goals.

On the topic of Chinese development, my favourite picture from the trip is below.
It’s a WalMart superstore that’s built in an old bomb shelter – completely underground. If you look closely to the right, you can see a statue of the well-known communist leader Mao Zedong in the background. Nothing captures the tumultuous history of modern China than this photo, the conflict between the desire to maintain old Chinese ideals of isolationism and the emerging need to connect with the Western world. No doubt Mao is turning over in his grave right now. If communism/socialism is what it says it is, then as China continues to develop it should become a shining example of how a prosperous nation can effectively distribute wealth across the entire spectrum of its population. Somehow I doubt this will happen, as already an economic class structure is apparent. Those who are well connected are likely becoming fabulously wealthy, while the miners and peasants continue to toil.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Lune in June is a Big Balloon

Hi folks,

Soccer training was canceled for the evening, little Edie is asleep, so I feel the need to at least let those who only know that we’re alive (doing well, etc., etc.) through our blog, know that we’re alive, doing well, etc., etc. This one will be short, there’s not a whole lot of energy to spare these days in the Jardine household.

It’s been a busy, busy month. At the last posting, Tim was just leaving for China. Since then, he’s been to China, dropped by for a little visit home for a night and then left again for fieldwork up north, from which he returns next week some time. Edie and I are missing that guy something awful. However, in the meantime Joy (old Newfie friend from undergrad) has been here visiting. So despite missing Tim, I’ve been having a blast catching up with Joy again and playing tourguide. We’ve done more sightseeing in a week and a half than Tim and I have done since we arrived…It’s been kind of exhausting, but so cool. Australia sure has a lot of amazing stuff going on. Edie’s loving it all too, especially because she gets to ride in the backpack carrier for most of it. She squeals like a little piggy when she’s happy, and that’s all we hear when she’s in the carrier. Sadly, the carseat has the opposite effect, so we’ve heard our share of wailing as well.

The most fun thing that I think we’ve done so far is a trip to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. If you remember back when Edie was still an embryo, Tim and I took a trip there thinking that we would see Koalas in the wild (which is not the case, it’s a glorified zoo…I remember being kind of disappointed). My mind was totally changed by taking Edie there as an infant. She LOVED it (and thus, so did I). She just wanted to touch every animal we saw, especially the kangaroos. Her squeal factor multiplied the closer we got to them. I’ll be posting pictures soon (I have to pinch them off of Joy’s camera in the next few days). Other than that trip, we’ve mostly been hiking. I’ve got to say, I will miss Australia’s many, many parks, rainforest walks and hiking trails when we get back to Canada. If you haven’t been convinced to come to Australia for any other reason, you’re missing out big-time on the nature on this end of the globe. Especially in Queensland. Pictures just don’t do it justice.

I haven’t heard from Tim directly since he arrived in Cairnes on Monday, but got word today through the program coordinator that everyone is ok and things are going well. Joy, Edie and I will be meeting up with Tim and his workmate in the Whitsunday Islands (Airlie Beach) next week. For Tim and Dominic, it will be halfway home on the long drive back from up north. For Edie, Joy and I, it will be a nice trip up the coast before Joy has to leave. Joy’s going to be getting some snorkeling in on the Great Barrier Reef, Edie and I will be content to splash around the many beaches up that way.

Tim and I will both catch up with you once things settle down around here. We’ve got lots of pictures and stories to fill your heads with. My favorite Edie trait of the moment is getting her ready for her bath in the nursery (i.e. stripping her down), leaving her there so that I can go fill the tub in the bathroom, and hearing the pitter-patter of a naked little bubby finding her way to the bathroom to join me. Then I get the big Edie smile when she discovers that she found me and the tub (her favorite area these days). She is priceless.

Lots of love,


Friday, June 5, 2009

Stay tuned.....

Hey folks,

Don't touch that dial, we'll be back with a good solid and informative post in a few weeks. It's been a little hectic in the Jardine household these past couple of weeks, and there's more to come, including my pending trip to China (I leave tomorrow morning) and some more field work in North Queensland that culminates in a rendezvous with Laura in Airlie Beach. And our great friend Joy arrives on Wednesday! All this and the usual Edie adventures make for busy times.

I got myself psyched for China by reading another Paul Theroux travel classic - "Riding the Iron Rooster" - that chronicles his journey across the country by rail. I'll be in Guiyang, a "small" southern city of around 3 million people. At the thought of spending time in another large city (after our Hanoi experience), I had a look the other day at the world's most populous cities and came to realize that I have only visited six of the top 100 (not counting airport stopovers). I think I'll try to keep it that way. Small cities and large towns are fine with me.