The Shadow of Buddha, and, What my Students Want

Trip Start Aug 30, 2006
Trip End Feb 03, 2008

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

After my first visit, I was sure Hong Kong was all city.

Flying into the airport there, we saw some less-inhabited islands, but the initial impression of those was soon overtaken by the thicket of tall buildings making up the Hong Kong skyline.

On my second visit, Dan and I went around to the southern side of the main island and visited Repulse Bay and the tourist beaches there, relaxing a little in tropical foliage and combed sand.

Our third visit, we managed to take in Cheung Chau, an island with no cars and a little fishing village. But on our fourth visit, on the 11th with our fellow teacher David, we managed to get to Lantau island.

Lantau is also where the airport is, but although it's most visitors' first stop in Hong Kong, literally speaking, most of them beeline for the city and its urban sights.Lots of people go to Lantau's main attraction--Disneyland--but we opted for Ngong Ping, a mountaintop giant statue of a sitting Buddha, and the flower-festooned monastery attached to it.

We took a ferry over from Central in Hong Kong harbor to Tung Chung, a village on Lantau (called a village, but, as everywhere in China, with a population exceeding most cities I've been to in the USA) and then a bus up to the giant Buddha. Like many other places, it proclaims to be the largest Buddha of its kind in the world. We didn't measure it, but it certainly is impressive.

After bustling Hong Kong, where we stayed in a shoebox nestled among other shoebox-size rooms in the infamous ChungKing Mansions on Nathan Road, it was surprising how few people we saw outside as the bus wove along the road to the Buddha. There were occasional settlements, with flat orange roofs and whitewashed walls that reminded me of the fincas of Puerto Rico, but by and large along the one hour drive the hilly island was uninhabited.

Once at the top we walked around the Buddha taking pictures both of it and of the large parties of visiting monks.

Dan has given me a new digital camera for Christmas so I had fun trying out the zoom on it taking spy shots of the monks. Really, to capture a monastery, what's better, photographically speaking, than a group of monks and nuns all standing around? One group that I tried to catch on the stairs leading up to Buddha were wise to me though; they had a tour guide who would step in front of them every time I got a shot lined up. Then, once they descended to the bottom, where we were, they took out their own digital cameras and took photos of me. I just smiled. Fair is fair.

Once we'd taken a photo of everything we could think of, we set off down the seven-kilometer trail back to Tung Chung. For the three hours of the hike we only saw two other parties of hikers and a few silent monks and nuns at two monasteries that we passed.

 Both entrances to the monasteries had tri-lingual signs asking people to please keep silent, as meditation was in progress. We saw a few figures in the balconies of the buildings and a nun tending vegetables in the small gardens along the trail.

Although we left the pilgrim monks at the top of the mountain and we didn't linger long looking at the silent ones down hill, we saw several trail-side temples---some actual structures, a Buddha carved from a large stone and some very simple places to burn offerings.

There were also curiously empty buildings on intriguing off-trails and some ominous signs about squatters and mudslides.

We descended mostly quietly, happy to be "in nature" as the Czechs always phrase it. The trail head when we reached the flat outskirts of Tung Chung was shocking though. We transitioned from wild trees and a clean stream to well-tended star-fruit orchards and banana trees to a construction sight next door to a building that looked like a penitentiary on one side and a school on the other. I realized that no matter how ugly the multi-level apartment buildings we started to walk though are, at least they keep the sprawl from hitting the sides of the mountain.
That evening we continued back to Foshan, well tired out by our long walk downhill.

This week has been consumed by Christmas preparations. Dan hosted a school Christmas party for the kindergarten students at our school last Sunday, and then we had Christmas-themed lessons in class and tonight, the 24th, we have a Christmas party for the older children, involving games and candy.

My classes of six- and seven-year-olds wrote letters to Santa last weekend, some of them apparently hoping I had a line in to Santa Claus himself or, at least, that I'd buy them the presents.

We were learning counting, so they wrote some interesting lists: "Please give me, Dear Santa, one dog, two dolls, three cats, four beers, five French fries, six hot dogs, seven rabbits, eight cakes, nine chickens, ten hats. Thank you, Love Jason." And, "Give me a 100 candys, one gun, 40 hat, 2 clock, 20 books, one magic stick. Thank you. I love you. Ted boy."

Also, several of my students gave me some Christmas cards, or at least what passed as Christmas cards. One of them has a vampire and monsters on the front, saying "Jsut for you! (sic)"

Dan and I did our own card-making this year, probably inspired by the coloring marathons our students enjoy. We got some watercolors and paper and glitter pens and tried to spread holiday cheer with a bit of DIY.

For the holiday itself, we're leaving tomorrow on an early-morning flight to Xi'an in Shanxi province. We hope to see the terracotta warriors and the old, Muslim part of the city in a three-day trip with some of our fellow teachers here. The city is the historic end of the Silk Road and one of the top sights in China, so I'm looking forward to writing about that next.

Wishing you the best of the holiday spirit, no matter where you are!
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