“China” & the Crystal Castle of Duke-Kunshan University

“China” & the Crystal Castle of Duke-Kunshan University

“How’s China?”, a friend Facebook chatted me. “Uhhh… I’m fine”.  I snuggled further in my sweater in my air conditioned room as I listened to Spotify, responded to work emails on Gmail and drank out of my water bottle.  “I’ll have to get back to you about China”, I responded.  Despite having lived five days at Duke-Kunshan University in China, I honestly have no idea what China is like. I landed in Shanghai’s Pudong airport which was like any airport but with infinitely more instructions- how to ride the escalator, how to board the train to the arrival terminal, how to get off the train, how to sit on the toilet, how to wash your hands… I waited for my co-workers in Starbucks, where I flipped through the Chinese version of Cosmopolitan.  Despite the foreign characters, the Western models and celebrity gossip in their version made the magazine familiar, even though there was a blaring void of sexy stuff, so much so that they renamed the publication “Cosmopolitan Success”.  Behind my magazine, I engaged in my favorite activity of people watching, which didn’t undercover anything too interesting.  The march of men in suits didn’t surprise me but I definitely giggled at teenage boys with sequin-splashed shirts and technicolor pants so colorful that I wanted a pair.  My boss encouraged us to grab dinner, so we went upstairs for pizza at an Italian Restaurant since we thought our access to Western Food might be limited (it isn’t… there’s a Western option for every meal on campus).  Besides the fact that the waitress insisted on unfolding our napkins onto our lap and pouring a shot-size glass of Evian water as if it were liquid gold (it almost costs that much), we could have been eating at any Italian chain restaurant in the US. A driver shuttled us to the Duke-Kunshan University campus which would be our home for the next month.  As a bit of background, Duke University has a Talent Identification Program where a talent search identifies gifted students who qualify for a 3-week academic summer camp (or as I affectionately call it, “nerd camp”).  I’ve taught for this program in India for two summers but this will be the first pilot of the China program, hosted at a brand new collaborative university developed under collaboration with Duke. Security guards in suits dramatically opened the doors to the “conference center”, whose white marble floors, spacious reception desk and colorful modern furniture made us all feel like CEOs.  Campus is located in an area of China known as the “Venice of the East” because of all the rivers in canals.  The architects designed the campus to appear floating on lakes with lily pads to embrace the ambiance of the surrounding area.  Staff helped us with our bags across the connecting bridges and directed us to suites so new that I had to check the wall to make sure the paint had dried.  Our two-floor room (designed for four people but inhabited by two for this program) had high ceilings, a flat screen TV, vanity sink section and so much space that I couldn’t even talk to my roommate without voyaging from one corner to another.  Instructions on the desk taught us to connect to the high speed internet without problems (although I first thought it was broken because Gmail, Facebook, Instagram and all the websites I normally go to were blocked by the government but a Duke VPN quickly took care of that) and provided a cup so we could take advantage of the filtered water spigot to quench our thirst.  I hopped in the shower, half bracing myself for cold water (as was typical in Vietnam and Hong Kong) but instantly relaxed with the warm stream coming from the “water massage” shower heads. All this felt great to my semi-homeless gypsy self, especially after living out of a backpack for so long.  I’ve enjoyed being able to enjoy a shower instead of view it as a necessary evil, to eat raw vegetables and put ice in beverages without having to worry about whether it’ll make me sick and to unpack for a bit in a place where I have access to all modern conveniences.  Staff from the university has even taken us out to the town to spoil us with a traditional Cantonese meal and allow us to stock up on supplies at the local shopping mall but all we saw were relatively empty streets, nice cars and modern looking buildings. Kushan feels like a wealthy suburb and business center, where everything is neat, organized and efficient.  Is this China? Not really.  We’re at an international university with top-tier resources and being able to drink the water, have consistent (and unfiltered) internet...

The Rescue: The Climatic End to Sailing the Florida Keys (Part 2)

The Rescue: The Climatic End to Sailing the Florida Keys (Part 2)

If you are just learning about my sailing adventure, I’d recommend starting with the preface to how I end up spending two weeks on a sailboat with a guy I had never met followed by part 1 of my stories at sea.  The following describes the final moments of mour trip when things looked bleak but some adrenaline, ingenuity, the right companion and a stroke of luck got me safely to share.  I’ll close with a reflection on jumping into the deep end of a new experience and how it relates to where my life is going next. Setting the stage Back before we even set sail, when we were preparing the boat back at Boot Key Harbor, Brandon dropped me off at the marina one day to catch up on while he ran some errands to fill up the propane tank and such.  In the middle of checking my e-mails in a the marina common room, some wild winds started racing through the garage-sized doors throwing around newspapers.  A few seconds later, a deluge of rain crashed on the ceiling and my phone beeped with a text from Brandon, “On the boat, waiting for the storm to pass.  I’ll come get you as soon as it does.” As the rain poured and the winds blew, I happily typed away on my laptop for a couple hours before checking in with Brandon.  He picked up my phone call and briefly summarized, “Minor emergency.  Mostly taken care of.  I’ll come back to the marina when I can”.  An hour or two later, he arrived, dressed in a rain jacket with a massive appetite, “so just after I texted you, a gust of wind flipped the dingy, submerging the motor.  It took a couple hours but Fernando and I were able to recover most of the stuff that drifted down shore”.  Apparently word travels fast around a marina because as we stuffed our faces on creole rice AND a sandwich, everyone already seemed to know about the incident.  Brandon’s friend Joe arrived with some motor oil, other people were texting him with advice for reviving a submerged motor and everyone wanted to hear the detailed version of the story.  I watched the exchange of information with a smile.  Brandon always jokingly called his sailing buddies “a bunch of bums that just want to have fun” but honestly, I was incredibly impressed with the boating community.  Most of the people we talked to had left secure and stable jobs to pursue a life at sea, because they found dealing with the daily challenges and victories made life a lot more interesting and rewarding.  They were always willing to lend a hand, provide advice and share skills they picked up over the years because there’s no exact science to sailing and, no matter how nice their boat is, because everyone has been stranded at some point. After our feast, we were able to get the dingy operable enough to get halfway back to the Aloha and one of Brandon’s Australian friends was happy to give us a tow the rest of the way, dispensing more advice as he dropped us off.  With a bit more tinkering, Brandon got the dingy working to escort us to a delectable enchilada party on his friend’s boat and back.  Since it was time to set sail the next day, we tied it to the foredeck and didn’t have to worry about it until we got to Dry Tortugas. When we wanted to come ashore to visit the fort, we assembled the dingy but couldn’t get the motor to start.  We spent hours taking it apart, replacing the spark plug, cleaning the clutch, even lighting the fuel on fire to test our gasoline to no avail.  It wasn’t a huge deal when we were anchored at Dry Tortugas because we had oars to row the dingy to the Fort, friends on a James Bond boat to give us a tow during a miniature afternoon storm and we had a big boat with a working motor.   Our remaining goals for the trip was to return to Key West and find a way to get me to shore… the first part was relatively simple since the motor on the Aloha keeping us moving forward on a second, stormy night sail and working like a charm until we were in eyesight of the anchorage at Key West. Anchoring Under Sail After two days of empty ocean, entering the Key West channel is a shock. Party catamarans are packed to the gills with intoxicated tourists. Motorboats blaze through the waters, flying paragliders like flags. Jet skis blaze by...

A Million Miles At Sea: Ups and Downs of Sailing The Florida Keys (Part 1)

A Million Miles At Sea: Ups and Downs of Sailing The Florida Keys (Part 1)

The vision: “The stars at sea are unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.  180 degrees of complete illumination, hundreds of specks of light you never knew existed if you’ve only looked at the sky near cities.  And night sails are the best way to experience it… the winds are steady, the seas are calm, all you need to do is put the boat on autopilot and enjoy the view from the foredeck.” The reality: “You know what to do if one of us goes overboard, right?  You know where the ropes are?  You know how to press “man overboard” on the GPS?  First, you need to try to save me yourself, then you radio for help.  You know where the whistle is on the life jacket?  You’ll have to whistle like hell because the reality of the situation is, with the boat rocking like this, no light from the moon, the rain, there’s a very slight chance, I’ll even be able to see you out there”, Brandon hollers over the sounds of the gusting winds, clanking of the sails and crashing of the waves.  I grimace in a failed attempt to fake a confident smile and not puke, peering out of a crack in the cabin door where I have been placed to shout GPS directions since the torrential rains made it impossible to keep the tablet outdoors.  Brandon is decked out in the stereotypical sea captain yellow rubber overalls and headlamp, chained to the base of the wheel and has just given up trying to fight the sea.  We both hope that heading 270 degrees west won’t send us into any wrecks or rocks since that’s the only direction the boat will go.  In the cabin, my panicked thoughts race between praying that Brandon doesn’t get thrown overboard, trying to hold down my backpacker-bean-dinner and reprimanding my naivety for getting on a sailboat without realizing it could be the death of me.  Brandon calls me on deck to steer for a bit to relieve himself, realizes we’ve been dragging a crab trap for the past three hours and shouts over the wind, comes up with a  plan to remove it so we can move the wheel again.  He dangles over the edge, waving the gaff hook in the darkness to unhook the contraption.  He lets out a victorious yelp as we leave some of the trap behind, I feel the wheel get a little freer and tried to wiggle more strategically through the wild waves.  Apparently, I had been forgetting to breathe, release a huff of air and surprised myself with a weird sense of peace about the situation because despite all the chaos, he had a plan and I knew we were going to be ok. He takes over the wheel and I lie on the bench to calm my nausea, convinced that I would be too nervous and gripping on to the side of the boat too tight to sleep.  However,  at some point, I fall asleep on the bench, hanging on to side cabinet for dear life, and am surprised when the sunlight wakes me to significantly calmer seas.  A bit confused to awaken in such relaxed surroundings, I squint and see Brandon whistling to himself, relaxed behind the wheel.  “Good morning, sunshine” he greets me.  If our life belongings weren’t scattered around the floor of the cabin below and deck of the boat still damp, I’d barely believe what just happened.  Still overwhelmed, I give thanks that I was still alive, albeit a bit wary for another day at sea. “The difference between a fairy tale and a sea tale? A fairy tale starts with ‘Once upon a time’. A sea tale starts with ‘This ain’t no $hit’!” – Edith Widder If you read my preface sailing post about the events leading up to me spending two weeks on a sailboat with a guy I had never met, you’ll remember that I undertook this adventure wanting to feel alive.  Well, seeing my life flash before my eyes several times certainly accomplished that mission.  You’ll also remember that I stepped aboard knowing nothing about sailing but on a trip like this, I certainly learned a lot… fast!  When Brandon and I embarked on the week long sail from Marathon, Florida to Dry Tortugas National Park and back up to Key West, I had no idea what to expect.  Supposedly, we experienced more disasters in 7 days than he had in four months of owning the S/V Aloha.  Maybe it was bad luck?  Maybe sailing and I aren’t meant to be friends?  Either way, I thought I’d share with all you some of the stories of our sail, some pieces of...