Monday, January 30, 2006
Chinese New Year and Traditions
Kung Hei Fat Choi! That is Chinese for Happy New Year. Since a lot of the Chinese culture is based on the lunar calendar, Chinese New Year was celebrated on January 29th. Birthdays, weddings, openings and other important events, are based on when there is a new moon, not a specific date. For instance, if your birthday is July 7th, it may not be celebrated until there is a new moon which could be July 19th. It is a little confusing.
Several weeks leading up to Chinese New Year, things were being sold everywhere for people to prepare for it and buildings were being decorated. Chinese culture is hugely based on symbolism and myth, so all of a sudden, everywhere we look there are orange trees, firecrackers, fish, dogs (this is the year of the dog), dragons, long flowers plus so much more. There is meaning behind every one of these things. Such as firecrackers and dragons makes a lot of noise which scares away the bad spirits, oranges are a symbol of fortune, Koi fish represent prosperity, long flowers represent longevity. Everything represents something. Also, red is a very lucky color so there is red EVERYWHERE!
Hong Kong had a huge parade to celebrate the new year. We were able to buy tickets to the spectator stands to watch the opening ceremony and then we had a good seat to watch all the parade participants go through. It was a very culturally diverse parade. There were dance, acrobats, cheerleaders, bands etc from Venice, Mexico, South Africa, China, Japan, Korea, Czechoslovakia, and USA. USA had the marching band from UCLA and the Philadelphia Eagle's cheerleaders. Along with them were several mascots from other football teams, including the mascot from the Denver Broncos!!! That was the closest we got to a Bronco game all year plus being the highlight of the parade for us! The cheerleaders were also dressed in their usual skimpy two piece outfits. You could just hear the Chinese people around us gasp as the girls start groovin it to the music and you know they are saying things like "Good Gawd, is that what the Americans make their women wear?"
A huge Chinese New Year tradition is to give out Lai See envelopes while saying "Kung Hei Fat Choi" (happy new year). These are little red envelopes filled with money that you are to give to children, single Chinese friends and anyone of service. Troy and I decided to partake in this tradition because we didn't want to make anyone angry because we didn't give them money (the Chinese are very serious about this). So we gave envelopes to the doormen in our apartment building, one cleaning lady, the newspaper delivery man, the Starbucks guy who always remembers Troy's drink, Troy's travel agent (she got a lot!), and the dry cleaning lady who always remembers my name. The hard part was figuring out how much to give. We didn't know if $100HKD (about $12USD) is too much or too little. It actually caused us a little stress. A friend of ours told us to also have several envelopes with $20HKD in our pockets because in our apartment building and around the complex, children will run up to us and yell "Kung Hei Fat Choi" at that point you are suppose to give them a Lai See envelope. Troy says if a kid ran up to him and said that to him he would tell him "My name is Troy, not Choi and stop calling me fat!" We then found out we made a big Chinese boo boo.
The number 4 is very bad in their culture because in Catonese it sounds like the Catonese word for death, (buildings don't have floors with 4 in the number) where as 8 is a very good number because it sounds like prosperity . We made the big mistake of giving two of our doormen $40HKD! So I think we accidentally wished death upon them. The whole envelope giving thing was also kind of sad because as we would come out of our elevator the cleaning ladies would just be hanging out cleaning the same window over and over again hoping someone would give them something.
Over the weekend our apartment complex had a "Year of the Dog Spring Party". It was mostly kid activities but there was a lion dance at the beginning. From my understanding, these dances are performed at grand openings, weddings, and important events to scare away the bad monsters and spirits. The dance is accompanied by loud symbols and drums to help scare away the bad spirits. After the opening ceremony the dragon would go around to each building and basically bless it, bringing in good luck for the new year. Above the door way of each building, a bundle of vegetables would be hung for the lion to reach up and grab and eat. This symbolized feeding the lion to keep him happy to continue to keep the people and farmers safe.
It is all very confusing but very interesting at the same time. We try to ask as many questions as possible but sometimes people just don't get what we are saying and either look at us funny or give us directions to McDonalds (they obviously think that is what we are asking for).
Monday, January 16, 2006
Manta Rays, Seahorses and a 30 Knot Current
(Ok, I'm exaggerating on the speed of the current, but it was out of control at times on our diving trip to Myanmar!)
To view more photos of our trip, click here.
No sooner had we returned from New Zealand, that we turned around and headed out for a 9 day diving trip on a liveaboard departing from Phuket, Thailand. Our diving schedule had us diving off of the Thai coast for 3 days and the remaining days diving off the waters of Myanmar, (formerly known as Burma) which is a country northwest of Thailand. The area is called Mergui Archipelago and has been closed to foreigners since WWII. But it reopened in 1997 to select operators, and the company we dived with is one of the few allowed in the area to dive. We didn't care where we were diving, the boat was awesome, weather was fabulous and we had nothing to do for the next 8 days but dive, dive, dive. The best part about it is that Troy was not able to get e-mail access on his Blackberry so I think he actually got to relax on this trip.
You know how people say they need a vacation from their vacation? This was exceptionally true for this one. We were woken up every morning at 6:30 with some days being in the water and diving by 7am. No, we're not looking for sympathy, but we were completely exhausted by 8pm after doing up to 5 dives on some days.
We departed Phuket at 8pm on Thursday and had about a 10 hour boat ride in front of us to the Similan Islands. We were a little disappointed when we woke Friday am to find us surrounded by about 6 other dive boats. Luckily most of the boats dive schedules varied by 30-45 minutes so we were never diving with big groups. We dived in this area the next day then headed up to Myanmar. From that point on, we were the only dive boat around. Sometimes we would come across the stray squid fishing boat, but for the most part, we were completely alone.
This was some truly amazing diving. We have never seen so many eels, not to mention the biggest eels we have ever seen. We would even see holes where 3 or 4 different species of eel would be hanging out together. We also saw our first seahorse which was very cool plus some other very rare creatures such as a frogfish, ghost pipefish and harlequin shrimp. We also saw our first Manta Ray which was so frickin' exciting I can't even explain. If you're a diver, you know what it's like to see a Manta with a 10' wing span swim gracefully over you for the first time. I sucked through my air rather quickly chasing after it and trying to touch it's fin? wing? (what would you call it) whenever I possibly could. Troy scolded me after the third time of touching the Manta Ray, with him giving me "the look"! He's just jealous!!! The next dive we saw two more. I initially thought it was just one ray because the visibility was so bad that I thought he would swim away then come back around. It was only later that I found out I was actually seeing two different ones. Double bonus!!
Some dives we had a little bit of a current, nothing major. But on one of the last dives we came across some currents that were just insane. We're diving in an area where there are huge (I mean humungous) submerged boulders. As we would swim around one, the current would catch you and whisk you away. At one area, there are two boulders converging to form a V and there is a major current coming through the V towards us. Troy is able to swim into the current past the two boulders. I just couldn't make it (my fins kind of suck), so I gave up because I was getting wiped out trying to swim as hard as I could. As soon as I stopped kicking the current immediately and forcefully pushed me back. I then had to quickly turn around and put up my hands to protect myself from getting my body and face bashed by a huge boulder that was directly behind me. After that I was done, and so was everyone else from the boat. Divers who come up 20 minutes after we do were already out of the water because they couldn't handle the current.
On one of the first dives in Myanmar, we would occasionally hear something that sounded like something being shot into the water. We later found out it was fisherman miles away dynamite fishing. There were several dive sights that there would be so many dead, bleached fish lying on the ocean floor. It was very, very sad. On one of our last dives, the dynamite fisherman were so close to us that we could feel the explosion in our chest, not to mention having it scare the crap out of us. We were never in danger because they were still far away. But with the way sound travels underwater, it was still very scary. Twice we found the clay pots that they use for this type of fishing. What they do is fill the pots with diesel fuel and fertilizer then seal the top inserting a waterproof blasting cap, they then light the fuse and throw the pot in the water. They then scoop up the dead fish that float to the surface. The really sad part is they throw back the dead fish they don't want or are unsellable.
The other thing about diving in Myanmar that made us a little uneasy was they kept our passports. Even though we were not going on land, we still had to fill out visa applications and pay money as if we were getting a visa for our passport to enter their country. The first day we entered the Myanmar waters, our main dive guide went on shore and gave some guy (how do you like that, "some guy") our passports. They were returned to us the day we left Myanmar. I completely misunderstood that and thought they were being kept together on the boat. Noooooo, Myanmar wanted them. That's what you get dealing with a totalitarian government.
We were allowed to go on land the day we left Myanmar. We were only allowed to stay 1.5 hours and no cameras were allowed. We were told one of the last times the dive boat docked there, the dive guests took pictures of a burning building and that pissed off the military, so cameras were forbidden by tourists after that. As our group was sitting having a beer, a major convoy of cars passed by. We were told the second highest ranking general in the army was visiting the burned down building. Talk about some serious, gun toting soldiers. Walking around this small, very poor town, we had kids following us begging for money. One boy wanted to sell Troy either cigarettes, whiskey or opium. Surprisingly Troy was not interested in buying anything he was selling. I for sure thought he would take the kid up on the opium. He probably would have got a screaming deal!
Our last night on the boat we docked in Phuket. Since there was nothing to do on the boat we decided to walk into town. It wasn't too long before we came across some of the guys from our boat who were talking to some gorgeous Thai girls, so gorgeous you almost didn't notice their Adam's Apple!! Gotta love Thailand!