medellín, colombia

after leaving chengdu, i flew straight to medellín, with an eight-hour stop in athens to pack a suitcase (to replace the one that was still in beijing, but that’s another story). i went to medellín to attend a workshop on photographing with nonprofit organizations; my “client” was la fundación las golondrinas, a social services organization that provided child development services, education support, small business technical assistance, and other programs in the low-income communities of medellín.

like rio de janiero, the low-income areas of medellín are located in the hills above the city. the view is spectacular, but the conditions in the street are rough.

the city and the foundation have sponsored a lot of community improvements, but not everyone has been able to take full advantage of them.

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staff from the foundation told me that in these neighborhoods, there can be 8-12 members of a family living in one small apartment or shack. as a result, family members often suffer from abuse – physical abuse, substance abuse, sexual abuse. one way that the foundation tries to counter these problems is through its animal therapy program: social workers introduce children who have suffered abuse or trauma to therapy dogs, and the children learn first to confide in the dogs, and then to social workers. the dogs also work with children with mobility impairments, by leading the children through simple obstacle courses. (there is a video about the program here.)

each week, the program staff bring a dog to one of the local schools where they introduce him to the children, and then engage in a few skits and demonstrations. in one of the demonstrations, the program staff show the children a picture of two children fighting over a toy, and two children sharing it, and ask them to pick which situation is better. the dog then selects the “nice” picture. during one of the demonstrations i saw, the dog had to choose between a fighting family and a loving family, and instead of choosing the picture of the loving family that the children called for, he picked the fighting family; the staff were surprised, but i covered by calling out “he’s taking the bad picture away!”

the children meet the dog. the dog plays mailman during a skit (and gets a lot of snacks for his work!). with the help of a laser pointer, the dog picks the right picture. a child reads a simple illustrated description of the program.

next: schools

truck furniture maker

as in many countries i’ve visited, having an english-language t-shirt is a status symbol; it doesn’t matter what the t-shirt actually says. i passed a woman on the down escalator while i was going up whose t-shirt read “TRUCK FURNITURE MAKER.”  (there actually is someone called “truck furniture maker” on Facebook, so maybe she is also a truck furniture maker; but she probably isn’t.)

other notables included the woman with the “VENICE BTACH” t-shirt; the sweet-faced, adorable young couple on qingsheng mountain wearing t-shirts reading “WE LOVE TO DO THE WILD THING” and “YOU FUCK’N ASSHOLE” – and my favorite:

if anyone knows what this is supposed to mean, let me know.

le shan and the giant buddha

on of the weekend of the mid-autumn festival, i took the train to le shan, home of the giant buddha. the le shan buddha is more than 1,200 years old and was carved into the cliff facing the confluence of the three rivers flanking le shan. the statue is 71 meters tall, the largest stone buddha statue in the world. each ear alone is 7 meters tall.

first, some street photography, including a photo of what appears to be the largest cucumber i have ever seen:

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i went to the buddha park on the sunday of the weekend, and it was a cold, rainy day. also, because there had been some days off for the mid-autumn festival, the government had decreed that sunday to be a workday. as a result, when i arrived at 7:30 am, i was the only person there. imagine taking the ferry to the statue of liberty and being the only person there except for the maintenance crew: it was like that. instead of having to wait the typical two hours to get down the stairs to the base of the statue (and then wait for the selfie-taking tourists to move on so you can take your own selfie with the statue), i had the whole place to myself.

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beyond the buddha is wuyou temple, founded during the tang dynasty (a.d. 618-907). the most interesting part of the temple is its hall of 1000 arhats (buddhist saints). the hall is filled with terra-cotta statues, each individually molded and painted. the temple doesn’t allow photography inside – and they have cctv to monitor it – but i couldn’t leave without getting at least a few shots.

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next: t-shirts.

temples: daci temple

so, i’ve blogged about food, and i’ve blogged about pandas … what’s next? temples. mount qingcheng had taoist temples, but there were plenty of buddhist temples in and around chengdu as well.

first, we’ll look at daci temple, which is located in downtown chengdu. daci temple was built approximately 1600 years ago, and is now surrounded by high-rise buildings. the day i visited, there was some kind of celebration going on, possibly related to the mid-autumn festival (what we think of us the mooncake festival). the place was mobbed with people lighting candles and burning incense, listening to a buddhist monk preach, and generally hanging out.

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next: street photography in chengdu

more about food

in my first post, i mentioned sichuan hot pot. hot pot is a meal of meats and vegetables cooked on skewers in boiling, flavored oil. the best hot pot restaurant i visited had a brightly-lit refrigerated room full of food – as elegant as anything i’d find at trader joe’s, if trader joe’s did hot pot – and aprons on the back of each chair.

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most of the time, it was obvious what the meat on the skewer was. but not always; just because something is “chicken” doesn’t mean it’s the part of the chicken i normally eat.

this was a pretty nice hot pot place, as they go. others were less fancy. and then there were restaurants that i didn’t want to try at all.

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the markets had a lot to offer, too, including a good place to nap during the day.

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the most interesting “destination” restaurant i visited was in the city of le shan, a few hours away by train. le shan is the home of a giant buddha statue carved into a cliff (more on that later), and my guidebook included a listing for zhao family crispy duck:

foodies flock to this tiny barbecue stand for its speciality – sweet, crispy roast duck (jin ¥22). the draw is the skin, which is best described as duck candy, a miraculously ungreasy bite of heaven. eat it while it’s hot – in the middle of the sidewalk with your bare hands, if necessary.

naturally, i went. it was not “miraculously ungreasy,” but the proprietor hands out cellophane gloves with the bags of duck, so i could indeed eat it in the middle of the sidewalk. i didn’t get a “pretty” shot of the duck, but it was pretty awesome.

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so, food. eating is a pretty intimate affair – you can be elbow-to-elbow with the next table, or with passing cars, but everyone’s gonna eat. and for my money, a plate of pork dumplings with chili oil is about as close to heaven as you can get.

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the back side of mount qingcheng

whereas the front side of the mountain is known for taoist temples, the back side of the mountain is known for hiking. there are 20 km of pathways up and across the backside of the mountain.

scenes from tai an, the old town at the foot of the mountain:

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there wasn’t much sun on the day i went, but there was a lot of green.

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apiaries; lots of waterfalls; prayer flags

there are food vendors along the paths to cater to the hikers (also selling toys to distract the kids from being dragged up the side of a mountain). one of the snacks they sell is a pancake made from ground corn, freshly cooked in a wok. delicious.

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whereas the front side of the mountain is dedicated to taoism, the temples on the back side are buddhist.

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a few more shots of the hiking path:

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ferry across the lake. a good place to draw.

next: chengdu

the front side of mount qingcheng

mount qingcheng is one of the most important centers of taoism in china. according to myth, it was where the yellow emperor, a legendary ancient chinese ruler studied with ning fengzi, an also legendary taoist teacher. there are temples all the way to the top, 1,260 meters above sea level.

first, we have gates: the main gate to the park, the entrance to jianfu palace, and some temple gates.

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there was a lot of up to get to the good views.

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the sign next to the monkey reads “hey, kids, your parents keep saying ‘we’re almost at the top,’ but you’ve only been walking for five minutes – they’re lying.”

temples; decorative details.

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the temples have altars in front where worshippers burn candles and incense.

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“you call that a candle? this is a candle!”

next: the back side of mount qingcheng

three days of pandas

after spending the night in dujiangyan, i took the bus to the china conservation and research centre for the giant panda. the centre has a volunteer program, where for 700 yuan you can work for the centre (that is, you pay them the 700 yuan; they don’t pay you).

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panda crap. more panda crap.

the work involves clearing out the uneaten bamboo from a few panda enclosures in the morning, picking up panda crap – which is basically undigested bamboo shards bound together with some nasty stuff – and bringing in fresh bamboo; then there is free time; then you hand-feed some of the pandas; then there is lunch; then there is free time; then there’s a video documentary about the program to reintroduce pandas to the wild; then there’s a little free time before another round of cleaning the enclosures and hand-feeding the pandas, and then you’re done. there really isn’t a lot to do, which gives you a lot of time to walk around and look at the pandas. i didn’t know there would be so much down time, so i signed up for three days of volunteering. in the end, i didn’t mind, because hand-feeding the pandas never got old, and i was too jet-lagged to do much else anyway.

okay, let’s look at pandas:

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i got a million of ’em, folks.

feeding time:

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play time:

next: hiking

gone to chengdu

the state department sent me on a work assignment to the consulate in chengdu, china for the month of september, to help out in the consular section. two weeks before i was scheduled to fly out, they asked if i could start one week later and work only for three weeks. i said yes, but kept my original flight plan and traveled during the first week.

i left athens at 8:15 am on a sunday, landed in chengdu at 1 am (athens time) on monday, dropped my bag off with a colleague, and then went straight to dujiangyan, a short train ride outside of chengdu. dujiangyan is best known for a major water irrigation project, which i didn’t visit, and for one of the bases of the china conservation and research centre for the giant panda, which i did.


there will be more about this later.

first, however, i spent the day walking around the town itself. like many cities and towns in the area, dujiangyan has a rebuilt “old town” that is at oriented toward tourism, although there are plenty of places for locals to hang out as well.

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games – mahjong and checkers – are a big deal.

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so is food. every block has at least one restaurant in it, and some streets are devoted entirely to little stalls and eateries. one of my first meals was sichuan hotpot, where you choose raw food on skewers to take back to your table and cook in boiling oil that is flavored with chilies and spices, but there were plenty of grilled meats, dumplings, noodles and other items on offer.

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occasionally, i just pointed to a picture on the wall or to something that someone else was eating, and took my chances. this usually worked out pretty well.

next: pandas