Friday, June 5, 2009


Here is the video of this year's 4-Point trip. Thanks again to Lorenzo for organizing the trip and putting together this video.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

More Photos On-line - Chengdu 1

We are all home now and thinking back to the fond memories of our time in Chengdu. Using the Google web page translator on the host school's home site, I was able to find these web pages of photos posted by our host school.

Some of what we did is lost in the Google translation of the narrative, but the photos are great to see.

Copy and Paste:

Copy and Paste:

Copy and Paste:

Please let me know by email if you are not able to see the photos if you copy and paste in the above URLs. Thanks.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Farewell Xi'an

We’ve just returned from the farewell banquet hosted by the Head of School, Mr. Liu, and all are (hopefully) busily packing for our return to the States. What a last day it was. We began with a trip to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, built in the 7th Century AD to house Buddhist scriptures brought from India by a Tang monk, by way of the Silk Road. All made it to the top of the Pagoda, including those a bit squeamish about heights, and at least one Gouldie was heard to say “I’m thinking about becoming a Buddhist.”

From the Pagoda it was off to lunch and then a trip to the Ming Dynasty City Wall. Although the Ming established their capital in Beijing, Xi’an was still seen as an important city. In its heyday it was the largest city in the world, bigger even than Rome at its peak. The wall is intact, having been rebuilt many times through the ages, and has a total circumference of over 8 miles. We know because we road bicycles around the entire distance, taking in Xi’an from a very different perspective. After a successful circuit the kids hit the ice cream stand on the top of the wall while waiting for those of us who were a little slower to finish. It was a well deserved treat.

There was still time for a bit more shopping so we headed for the Muslim market street behind the Drum Tower. While some looked for last minute bargains, others had their names done in Chinese characters. The prize of the day has to go to Damian and Evan who somehow managed to get massages while the rest of us were in the market. After witnessing their efforts together on a tandem bicycle it is no wonder they were in need of massages.

We returned to school for another round of English corner and then it was off to the farewell banquet. We each sat with our Chinese hosts and by the laughter coming from the students’ tables stories of the week were being shared by all. What an experience.

We look forward to returning the hospitality in the fall when a group from Xi’an Foreign Language School heads to Maine and we would all like to thank our host one last time for treating us like family. So from Pete, Molly, Kristian, James, Eliana, Ellie, Evan, Jesse, Whitney, Jaimey, Damian and the Whittingtons: Xie Xie Xi’an.

Never Say Goodbye

Fresh off the home stay weekend, the students were full of stories this morning. One student attended a baby shower. Others went to Mt. E'mei, a Buddhist and Taoist Mountain famous for its hot springs and golden Buddha statue at the summit. It is one of the world heritage sites. Others went to see the Giant Buddha in Leshan. Still others explored more of the city of Chengdu with their host families. All were full of stories that reflected the bond that the students have developed with their host families.

To start our final full day in Chengdu the students went to visit primary school classrooms. Our students were the first foreigners these students have had the opportunity to meet. Students played games with the fifth and sixth graders, sang songs together, showed one another dances from our respective cultures, and answered questions about life in America.

Once again we had the feeling of being rock stars as the children asked for our signatures and email addresses. Truly, the students were rock stars in our eyes as they joyfully shared with the children their interests, talents, and culture.

After our visit with the primary school children, it was off to see the pandas at the research habitat.

We were all overcome by our love of these endangered species. They are so cute. We saw the black and white giant pandas as well as the smaller, raccoon-like red panda. The kids could not stop taking pictures and cooing at the sight of these bears. Even more panda gear was purchased to remember these special creatures.

Another amazing multi-course meal kicked off our afternoon in the ancient town of Huanglongxi. We all enjoyed looking at the classic architecture and doing some shopping to spend our last yuan before heading out of the country tomorrow. Our growing comfort and familiarity with the country is evident. One student remarked, "This feels like home. I'm not even surprised to see some of these things now" or when responding to a question about "your family" first taking this to mean "host family."

All the host families and students came together for a classic Sichuan meal of the hot pot. It is a boiling cauldron of hot oil, spices, meat, and vegetables. A trip to this area would not be complete without enjoying this local favorite. The Chinese characters that we translate into English as hot actually mean fire. This is not only because the cauldron is heated from below with a flame but also because of the fire within that these spices create. The energy in the room was delightful as we all came together for our last group meal in Chengdu.

Tomorrow we set off early for our long journey back to see our friends and family. We are wiser, more worldly, and full of stories to share with those we love.


This morning we came together again after a weekend with host families. Many students were treated to special events like barbecue restaurants and Chinese opera, and others were fortunate to be folded right into family life as a part of the family – foot massages, shopping, ice skating, hiking in the mountains, even a memorial service for a family member. We have been the recipients of such a tremendous outpouring of kindness from everyone. Grandmothers have doted on us, clothes have been washed, special meals prepared, lunches packed every day, it is difficult to imagine that just one week ago these people were all strangers to us!

First thing this morning we headed north to the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, about an hour’s drive from school. A twenty seven hundred year old engineering marvel, the system was created to send water to Chengdu by diverting a river. In order to do this, a mountain was moved. The mountain was removed by setting the trees of it ablaze, and then pouring cold water on the heated, scorched earth. The cold water shattered the stones so they could be moved. This process took place many years before the invention of gunpowder. The shattered rocks were then removed to create a channel, and the rocks were moved to create an island. The water can be diverted seasonally through a system of weirs made of bamboo strips which incase stones. The system works perfectly to this day and the water is diverted for agriculture annually on April 5th of every year. To say that the mind boggles at this ancient achievement is an understatement. The system is so magnificent that the river’s bed, which was modified by human labor, cleans itself of debris, silt and sediment as it moves toward Chengdu. The system also withstood last year’s earthquake, although several ancient buildings at the site did not. They are under repair. It was sobering to see many broken buildings and many cracks in structures in that area from the earthquake. Many buildings are slated for demolition, and the inhabitants are living in temporary shelters that were described to us as “cold in winter, hot in summer.”

We ate lunch nearby at a restaurant along the river. The students quickly made the connection between the vegetables and livestock on display outside the restaurant and lunch itself.

After lunch we returned to Chengdu to visit the Jinsha Site Museum. In 2001 a construction company was excavating a site for a new building when it unearthed an astonishing number of gold, bronze, jade and elephant tusks in a previously unknown encampment, dating back at least three thousand years. The museum sits on this site, and you can walk among the excavations, and walk above many components be walking on glass floors. The museum opened last year, and it is elegant and informative. Our English speaking guide was very helpful.

We returned to school and participated in English Corner, a weekly meeting where students test their English speaking skills by speaking with one another for about an hour. We were the distinguished guests- you might say the experts from out of town. We were very popular! We were mobbed with friendly students who asked us questions like “Have you forgiven Michael Phelps for his indiscretion with drugs?” and “Have you seen High School Musical?” and “What is your opinion of Chinese education?” and “Has the economic downturn effected you personally?” and “What is your favorite movie?” Having your photo taken with us was very, very popular!

We ended the day with a delicious farewell dinner with our host students, and then back to host homes to pack. We are meeting at the airport tomorrow to head to Beijing, and then back to the US. It has been a wonderful journey, and we have learned so much about this place and one another, and Mr. Baker and I would go anywhere at any time with Tutu, Stephanie, Zach, Nick, Ben, Alex, Izzie, JaMin, Jonathan, Will, Marguerite, Nicole and Mitchell!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Sunday in Beijing

This morning we had a bit of a later start, up and out by 9:15. We hopped on the subway to head up to the northern part of the city and the 奥林匹克 (Aolinpike) Stadiums, 鸟巢 (Niaochao) and 水立方 (Shuilifang) [The Olympic Stadiums, The Bird's Nest and The Water Cube.]

After three transfers and a little over an hour on the subway, climbing the stairs, and getting a first view of the stadiums and the throungs of people around them was a pretty amazing site. They are a huge tourist attraction now 6 months after the Olympics; I wonder how much longer they will continue to draw the crowds...

The first view of the Bird's Nest from a distance.

The Water Cube, our first destination. After some adventures in ticket purchasing, we were in to the cube.

The sign reads:

The Timeless Art of Water

Art reflects life


the source of life
a form of art

and the woman somehow is interpreting that in her body language.

Where history was made!

A cross sectional view of the walls of the Water Cube. The ticket is worth the price if for nothing else but to see glimpses of the way the structure is put together.

After grabbing a quick lunch, it was off to the Bird's Nest.

A view of the Water Cube from inside the Bird's Nest.

We went in just expecting to be able to look around, but we were actually able to get right down on to the field. It was incredible!

The group standing on the field of The Bird's Nest!

The group with the Fuwa, the debatably cute mascots of the Beijing Olympics. The Fuwa's names (Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying, Nini) when put together form the sentence Beijing huanying ni (北京欢迎你, Beijing welcomes you). Each of the Fuwa has a great deal of symbolism and represents different aspects of the Chinese culture. [And as a side note, I, Colin Penley, am somewhat scared of the blue one, Beibei.]

A group shot in front of the Bird's Nest.
Merritt and Sarah, and all of the American students, were asked to pose for many pictures today with various individuals and groups of people. And when ever we stopped to take a group picture for ever one on my camera, at least four strangers also took our picture. We are famous! ;)

After the Olympic Venues, it was off to the silk market. Bargaining and gift buying were the order of the day. The silk market is four floors of "designer" clothing, arts and crafts, silk (obviously), tailors, bags, shoes, tea sets, games, swimsuits, sunglasses, watches, Buddhas, pearls, and much much more. The women work there selling stuff are aggressive. You can hardly walk three feet without someone asking you to look at their ties, or buy a pretty scarf for your wife (my "score" for the day was 4 wives and 6 girlfriends.) And then once you look at something and want to buy it, then the game of haggling begins. At some of the more touristy places, they attempt to up prices a few hundred percent. Items that you end up buying for 40RMB start well over 300RMB.

Once we were all shopped out, it was on to the Chaoyang Theatre for an acrobatics show. The skill and artistry of the performers was spectacular. It was well enjoyed by all.

A photo of one of the acrobats in his costume for the finale. I was able to snap this picture in the lobby. The big thing on the floor is his headdress.

Tomorrow morning we are up early and out the door by 7:30 so we can make it to school on time. We are going to be visiting The Second Middle School Affiliated to Beijing Normal University and spending a day visiting their classes. It should be an interesting day for our students to see what the average Chinese high school student's life is like. Then in the evening, we will feast on 北京烤鸭 (Beijing Duck) to celebrate our last night in Beijing and Mitchell's Birthday.

Tea for Two

Well, nearly two full days with only one student sighting. We ran into Eliana with her host in the Muslim market, doing a little last minute shopping. Our day started and ended the same way, with a delightful visit to a tea shop just a few doors down from the school. We stopped in to check out the tea and were in for a treat. After discussing the attributes of various teas, with help from Ms. Li, our host for the day, we were invited into the back of the shop by the owner to sample some flower tea. He was a gracious host who just kept pouring. Eventually we had to tear ourselves away to get to the primary business of the day, some last minute shopping our own. We agreed to pick up our tea at the end of the day, rather than tote it all over downtown Xi’an.

After a quick breakfast (more than we could possibly eat for less than $2, total, for all three of us) and the relaxing atmosphere of the tea shop, it was a quick trip to the other extreme of human existence, Chinese traffic. Imagine a country with over a billion people, a rapidly growing middle class, and very little experience with driving. Now imagine a crowded city sidewalk with people streaming in both directions, ducking and diving in and out of the tightest gaps imaginable. Only in this case, instead of people on a sidewalk it is cars, buses, scooters, and bikes in the middle of the road. The lines mean next to nothing as our taxis regularly crossed the double yellow line into oncoming traffic in order to gain an advantage on the bus or Audi just ahead. Apparently the only rule is that if your nose is ahead, even by a few inches, you have the right of way. Just when you think you can relax, a scooter will be cutting across four lanes of speeding cars going the wrong direction in an effort to make a side street, all while dodging the ever present pedestrians in the middle of the street. Liberal use of the horn, and a fearless willingness to do whatever it takes, seem to be the only requirements for driving a cab in China. It is truly an experience that has to be seen to be appreciated, though it is not for the faint of heart.

Anyway, we survived the drive and had a successful day of bartering. Martha and Nora (Ms. Li) had lots of laughs as they exchanged shopping stories. The folks from Xi’an Foreign Language School are such wonderful hosts it feels as if we have known them forever.

As I said earlier, our day ended as it began, in our local tea shop. We returned to pick up our tea and were once again ushered into the back for another cup (several actually) of tea. This time it was green tea, a fitting end to a wonderful day and the perfect tonic for Xi’an traffic.