Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Tea Time

One summer during law school, I went to Cambodia to work for an organization doing poverty reduction and women's rights work. I fell in love with Phnom Penh, the French colonial architecture, the rubble strewn streets, and view from the F.C.C. looking out over the steamy Mekong River. Phnom Penh is an eclectic mix of the old and the new, with pockets of modernity catering to the expat community at phenomenally low prices, with exquisite attention to detail. Coffee and tea served in blue and white china, a flower petal decorating a lunch plate, the lazy hum of ceiling fans stirring the hot, humid air, and sunlight streaming through bamboo shades.

After spending 2 months in Cambodia, I traveled to other parts of South East Asia with my friend Wood for about a month. We went to Siem Riep and saw the ancient majesty of Angkor Wat - massive temple complexes rising up out of the jungle, covered with intricately carved dancing girls that make the Mayan ruins in Central America look like nothing more than melted sandcastles. From Angkor Wat, we went to Hanoi and shopped among its crooked, curving streets, and then went to see the tomb of Ho Chi Minh. Over Ho Chi Minh's tomb gleamed the red symbols of communism, but out on the streets North Vietnam was humming with Capitalism. Hawkers selling trinkets on the street, shop's bursting with goods for sale, gellato parlors, books, handmade silk dresses, leather goods, metal work, fine jewelry, and delicately beaded bags. Hanoi was completely different than anything I had ever heard about Vietnam. It's a shopping Mecca.

From Hanoi, Wood and I traveled to Southern China, where we spent two weeks exploring the picturesque mountain towns of Dali and Lijang, and some larger cities in the Yunnan Province. I had no idea that China was so vast. At one point, I took a 12-hour bus from one point to the next and for hours saw only fields and grass; it was like Kansas, but in China. In Dali, a city smack in the middle of the backpacker's route, we had chocolate banana pancake and peach lassies, almost every morning.

Lijang was my favorite. It was a fairyland set up in the mountains, ringed with fields of giant sunflowers, its buildings fashioned in the traditional Chinese style, its streets dotted with red lanterns in the evening. Wood and I stayed in a guest house run by a family who lived on the premises. Our room was simple and white - white walls, white sheets, and white frosty air in the mornings before the sun's warmth penetrated the stones. Between our two beds was a small table upon which stood a large metal thermos painted with pale pink flowers. Each morning and evening, the guest house refilled the thermos with tea. It was wonderful. So soothing, relaxing, and comforting, and such a hospitable touch. To the Chinese, it was normal, but to me it was special.

Today, at the office, instead of filling up my french press with coffee, I filled it with hot water and dropped in two tea bags of green and black tea with an essence of peach. Sipping the tea and refilling my mug, in between working on my document this morning, I found myself smiling, remembering sipping tea up in the mountains of China with Wood.


Starshine said...

Wow! What an amazing trip! I've never been to that part of the world, but reading your post makes me want to experience it, too.

Wood said...

I miss you.