I Survived a Chinese Hospital ~ Part 3

I Survived a Chinese Hospital ~ Part 3

I am in pain laying on a street in rural China….I am in an ambulance….I am in a hospital bed being told I have a broken back and need surgery…..It’s the middle of the night in the USA….I can’t reach anyone on the telephone…….Luckily, my future surgeon had spent 1 year studying in Seattle…..I remained calm as I told him I understand I need surgery but you have to understand I will not go under the knife until I can speak to Mark, my brother……I then spent 2 weeks in Dong’e People’s Hospital, Shandong China. My third experience with hospitals in China turned out to be rather serious.

Friday, September 7, 2018, I left my house at 11:40 am, not a care in the world.  I was on my way to my favorite noodle shop for Lanzhou LaMian.  In 15 days, I would be leaving to spend 2 weeks in Paris and beyond.  I would take in a Jimmy Buffett concert or 2 and enjoy my favorite city.  11:45 am, in a mere instant, everything changed.  As I was going down the road on my scooter, I passed a parked car.  With “perfect” or “not so perfect” timing, the rear driver side passenger flung her door open.  The force of her opening her door combined with the speed on my scooter created the perfect storm.  I went flying and my scooter landed partially on me.  As I was laying on the street in Dong’e China, a woman was trying to stand me up. I knew standing wasn’t going to happen and that I more than likely had a back injury.  I had my purse crossbody and managed to find my phone and call Peter (my sponsor in Dong’e).  I handed the phone to the woman who was still trying to get me to stand up and Peter explained to leave me on the road and an ambulance would arrive.   Peter and the ambulance arrived nearly together.  I was soon loaded in the ambulance along with Peter and the woman who hit me, also the one trying to get me to stand.  I later found a video of me being loaded into the ambulance on Chinese social media.

Let me explain that arriving at a hospital in China isn’t exactly like arriving at the ER in the USA.    There is no ER where an ambulance pulls in and unloads you to a room where you wait for a doctor. The ambulance pulled into a parking lot, a team arrives at the ambulance and you are transferred to a bed.  The bed is then wheeled through the parking lot and into the front door of the hospital where you stop at the reception desk and get checked in.  Now I’m assuming the procedure would be different in a life or death situation, but this is my experience. While at the desk, the woman that caused my accident had to pay my admissions fees.  From this point, I’m not sure of all the places I went.  I had x-rays, an MRI a CT scan, blood is drawn, urine sample you name it, I had it or gave it. I must admit, in all my years, I have never had anyone insert a needle so effortlessly, quickly and painlessly as I did here.  I finally ended up in a room and was able to get in contact with my brother, Mark.  Dr. Alex, my surgeon spoke with him on the phone and then forwarded copies of my x-rays and MRI to him to be looked at by a Dr. in the states.  Surgery was scheduled for the next day.  I had a T12 compression fracture and a broken tailbone.  The T12 would be fixed with screws at T11 and L1.  I was in considerable pain and finally received an injection.

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One of the first things I learned being admitted to the hospital here was you need to provide your own pajamas, pillow, and blanket.  One of my friends took care of my linens and pajamas for me.  Next thing I learned is that the hospital does not provide meals for patients, these too are provided by family, friends, or wei mei which translates to “beautiful takeout”, kind of like Uber Eats.

Finally, I got some relief from the pain. I didn’t have much of an appetite, but Peter brought me some noodles.  I also was not allowed anything after midnight since surgery was scheduled the next day.  I managed to get a decent night sleep before the early morning blood pressure and temperature wake up.  Next, I was off for an EKG.  The doctor felt there was a slight abnormality and sent me for an echocardiogram.  Once he was satisfied that my heart was okay, they started preparing me for surgery.  Peter, Kimi (my teaching assistant) and my friend Dee were all with me. Dee would call my brother, even though it was the middle of the night in the states, as soon as surgery started and again when it was over.

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My friends saw me off to surgery

Soon I was being wheeled away, I snapped a picture of my friends wishing me well and then they took my phone to keep Mark updated.  Next thing I knew I was in the OR.  It all happened so fast the only thing that bothered me was I hadn’t spoken to my brother or sent him a text before they put me under.  I knew my friends would be speaking to him, but I was a little upset I didn’t tell him I loved him.  I knew he knew I did, but something tugged at my heart and that “what if” was in the back of my mind.  I didn’t have much time to dwell on it because they were putting an IV in the back of my hand and I was about to breathe that stuff that would help knock me out.  Again, the IV insertion was a piece of cake.  They definitely know how to insert needles at this hospital.  I looked around at the team I was about to put my trust in and saw Dr. Alex. He asked if I had any questions and was I ready.  I gave him the thumbs up and he gave them back.  The next thing I remember was waking up and being asked to identify the people around me.

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Dr. Alex, Dr. Li, and my ICU nurse
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My hardware

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I spent 3 days in ICU.  Lucky for me, my student Lucy’s mom was the head doctor in ICU.  Lucy’s mom, Sonya, speaks good English as she has also spent time training in the USA.  She even spent several months at the Cleveland Clinic.  The first 24 hours in ICU was pretty much a blur.  I do know I was well cared for.  Someone even came in and brushed my teeth for me.  Once in a regular room, I insisted I could brush my own teeth.

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Day after surgery. Checking my incision and changing the dressing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My IV was easily moved hand to hand several times as they didn’t like the way it looked.  I had several visitors, and someone always provided me with food. Although, all I really wanted to do was sleep.  After 3 days, I was moved to a regular hospital room.

Once I was in a regular room, I quickly realized that nurses do exactly that, they nurse. They are there for your medical care/needs.  Everything else is taken care of by family and friends. Even medication is your responsibility.  The nurse would bring my meds morning and evening and tell me to take them 30 minutes after eating.

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My Caregiver
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Foot bath

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peter found a caregiver for me.  He also wanted someone to spend the night, but I refused.  I did need a little privacy/my time.  She came and spent approximately 10 hours per day with me in my room.  Slight overkill in my opinion but, that’s just the way it is in a Chinese hospital.  She even tried to hold my kindle for me while I read.  I know she meant well and was “doing her job”, but some things I had to back her off. Peter brought me my Vietnamese phin, coffee, condensed milk, and my mug.  Every morning when she arrived she would make me a cup of coffee.  She helped me when I needed the bedpan.  She helped bath me and wash my hair.    She made sure I had meals, although I often ordered from wei mei.  I had no dietary restrictions except Dr. Alex suggested I eat a lot of fruit.  You know, get those bowels moving. I received daily acupuncture.  Acupuncture treatment was on my abdomen and accompanied with electric stimulation and heat lamp.  This was also to help keep the bowels in working order.  There was also twice daily leg treatment to prevent blood clots.  Unlike American hospitals, the Chinese don’t believe in getting you up and walking immediately.  They feel bed rest is necessary and best. So, I spent 2 weeks in bed and at most having my bed raised to about a 45-degree angle for “sitting”.

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Some of my care team

I was the only patient in my room, except every now and again an outpatient was put in the other bed to receive an IV.  They would be there for a couple of hours and then leave.

The second day I was in the room, someone came in and made a mold of my body, front, and back. About a week later a lovely blue ninja turtle suit arrived.  I say ninja turtle because the back brace I would be sent home in looked like a turtle shell.  Solid front and back pieces that adjusted with Velcro straps.  Chinese women don’t have much in the way of breasts, so when I put the brace on the first time I had to laugh at the cutouts made for my boobs.

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Leg treatment

 

For 2 weeks my routine was pretty much the same every day.  Wake up for temperature (thermometer in the armpit) and BP, doctors’ rounds, check my wound, dressing change, coffee, acupuncture, leg treatment, lunch, rest (nothing happens between 12 and 2:00 in China), leg treatment, read, watch movies, dinner and in the evening have visitors and more reading and movies.  I usually called for the nurse around 11pm for a final bedpan, lower my bed and lights out.  I had no bed controls or light switch at my bed, so someone had to come to take care of that. That was my life in Dong’e People’s Hospital.

One surprise, near the end of my hospital stay, I asked Alex if I could have a glass of wine at night.  He said, “sure, 1 small glass”.  My friends brought me a bottle of wine and I enjoyed a glass in the evening at the hospital.

 

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When they let you have a glass of wine in the hospital.

 

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Before I was released, I had another MRI and X-Rays.  My caregiver gathered all my belongings.  I had acquired quite a few. I had about 6 or 7 boxes of milk and yogurt.  I was told this is a typical “gift” brought to you in the hospital.  I also had bananas, dragon fruit, a watermelon, and a bag of apples. I was instructed to get dressed and a nurse came and helped me into my ninja turtle suit.  Still sitting on the edge of my bed, Dr. Alex came in.  He asked me how I felt.  I still haven’t stood or walked at this point.  I slowly stood and told him I felt a little light headed.  He told me that was normal and to try to take a few steps.  I asked if it was ok if I walked to the bathroom and used a “real toilet” for the first time in 2 weeks.  That was my first experience up and walking.  I came back into my room and sat on the bed.  He gave me my release instructions and said I was free to go.  Mostly, I was told no bending, twisting or lifting and if up for longer than 15 or 20 minutes to wear the back brace and to continue to get plenty of rest.  I was also given exercises to do while in bed.  I said okay, and we said our goodbyes until I would go back for a check up in about 1 month.

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All of my gifts, milk, fruit, and mooncakes, to take home.
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My ninja turtle shell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unlike in America, there is no wheelchair ride to a waiting vehicle.  My first big walk was out of the hospital and to the parking lot.  That walk seemed like a marathon, but I did it.  Its now been 6 weeks since my accident and I have no complaints about my treatment or recovery.  It is truly a different experience than I would have expected in the states.  I learned what to expect in a Chinese hospital. I can I happily say, “I Survived a Chinese Hospital”.

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A visit from one of my kindergarten buddies.

 

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Students and parents visiting

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bali ~ Island of the Gods ~ A Brief Journey into Balinese Hinduism, Part 3 The Ngaben Ceremony

Bali ~ Island of the Gods ~ A Brief Journey into Balinese Hinduism, Part 3 The Ngaben Ceremony

“The body is only an encasing for the soul which is eternal”.

2:30 am……my alarm sounds…..darkness surrounds me and I listen to the night sounds. I let my mind drift to the Kuburan or cremation grounds. I am about to participate in the “awakening of the dead” or ngagah.  We will be exhuming the body of Ketut’s mother to prepare it for the Ngaben or cremation ceremony. In Balinese, ngaben means turn to ash. I do nothing for several minutes but allow myself to reflect on the lives and deaths in my own life. Next, I do my best to properly attire myself in my kamen, kebaya and anteng and then make my way downstairs to wait for Koming and Ketut.

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Exhuming the body.

It’s a crisp, clear August night/morning as I travel to the Kuburan on the back of Ketut’s motorcycle.  We arrive at the Peyadnyan and I make my way to the Petak.  Family members are preparing the tools and supplies needed for exhuming and then cleansing the body/remains.  I follow the family to the Kuburan where some members of the family have already begun the exhumation process.  A solemnness hangs in the cool night air as young and old look on. No one is openly mourning as even this, “the awakening of the dead”, is the beginning of a celebration; a celebration of life.  A time to celebrate helping the soul of the deceased move on from their previous life.  Koming’s flashlight goes out, so I use the light on my phone to assist the young men digging at the gravesite.  A yell of joy comes from in front of me.  They have reached the body.  Some of the men now drop their tools and pull the dirt away with their hands until a once white sheet is lifted from the grave.  I brace myself as this is the first time I have seen a body that has been exhumed.

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Photo Credit to Elemental Productions.  Out of respect for the family, I did not photograph Ketut’s mother’s remains.  This is an unrelated exhumation.

First, I see the skull, then a torso still wrapped in funeral cloth and finally smaller bones of arms, legs, hands, and feet are added to the pile.  Water, water with flowers and coconut water are used as we wash the “body”.  The torso is placed on a fresh white sheet and the skull and other bones are placed as if a whole body.  It is a sight I will never forget, forever etched into my mind’s eye. It was not a morbid sight. The way the remains were so gently cleansed and lovingly cared for touched my soul.  Today, after all, is about the soul which will first be purified by fire which represents earth. Tomorrow it will be purified by water so it may return to heaven.  After the cleansed remains are wrapped in the white sheet, they are then placed and wrapped on a rattan mat, wrapped and moved to the burning area.  Before the grave is re-filled with dirt a pengiber iber or chicken representing the happiness of the Ngaben is released as we say masuryak or horray.  In the old tradition, the chicken was released into the grave and buried. New traditions allow the pengiber iber to be released free outside of the grave although it still represents replacing one soul with another.

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Around me, more shouts of masuryak went up. Soon all the remains of the 18 souls were in the burning area.  Time for the Ngaben to begin…..the “turning to ash”. As the community looked on, the black of the night took on an orange glow.  I looked around at the faces of those watching friends and loved ones’ physical body beginning the journey to return to the panca maha bhuta or 5 elements; pertiwi, apah, teja, bayu and akasa (earth, water, fire, air, and ether).  Pensive faces lit in the glow of the fire, young children looking on with wondering eyes, me filled with emotions, questions, and a sense of peace.

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We all stood quietly in the still of the morning and as the glowing embers were dying, the sun made its dramatic entrance.  Next, the ashes were gathered and placed on white sheets.  They would later be distributed to the families for the next steps in the ceremony.

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Koming informed me we were finished for now.  I could join her at the market and then we would go home to have breakfast, shower and prepare for the next activities.  After the market, we stopped by a street vendor to get breakfast.  We picked up bubuh to take back to Kenari House. Bubuh is made with a rice congee base with various toppings added. It can be made spicy or not and is served in a banana leaf.   Tear off a piece of the leaf and make yourself a spoon if eating on the go. After breakfast, we showered and changed and headed back to the Kuburan.

 

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bubuh

 

 

 

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Upon returning to the ceremony grounds the sarcophagi were uncovered and ready for the next part of the ceremony.  A sarcophagus could be a lembu or bull or a singa mangaraja, a lion with wings.  The animals would be taken to the community of the deceased in celebration and then returned to the cremation grounds and placed on the wadah or structure for burning.

 

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Before the start of this part of the ceremony, there was a short service blessing the sarcophagi/animals.  As the animals were taken to the respective communities/compounds, I sat near the petak and watched and listened.  Friends and families, visiting, laughing and celebrating.  The gamelan played.  Soon, the sarcophaguses were making their way back.  They were taken to the Kuburan and placed on wadahs.  The family now filled the animals with items needed in the next life.  Once prepared, the priest checked and blessed with holy water.  The family gathered around with more offerings and circled the sarcophagus.  Finally, Ketut and Koming using incense sticks, lit the animal on fire.  Again, we all watched as flames engulfed the sarcophagus.  As the flames died down, we went back to the petak, had a lunch of nasi campur and satay followed by a frozen bean curd pop called es lilin.

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Around 3 pm, after what had been a long and emotional day, Koming said we were finished and I could return to Kenari House.  She wasn’t able to take me, so I took a leisurely stroll home where I enjoyed a glass of rose’ on my patio and thought about all I had experienced in this circle of life.

Next post-Nyekah and Nganyut

Ashes to ashes….dust to dust!

 

 

Bali ~ Island of the Gods A Brief Journey in Balinese Hinduism, Part 2 Ngening Ceremony

Bali ~ Island of the Gods                                  A Brief Journey in Balinese Hinduism, Part 2 Ngening Ceremony

I attended my first cremation in June of 2016 in Kathmandu, Nepal.  Although also Hindu, it was somewhat different from my experience with the Balinese Cremation.  It was here that I met a couple of Sadhus or wandering yogis.  I was able to take a photo, but for a price.

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Sadhus in Kathmandu

I was never pressured on Bali for money for taking a photo.  In Kathmandu, the body being cremated was recently deceased. Whereas on Bali, Ketut’s mother had died 2 years prior and had to exhumed.  The time factor is because the extensive cremation ceremonies on Bali are expensive and go on for several days.  Therefore, once every three years, the entire Banjar or community comes together for one mass cremation or Masal which saves money for the all the families involved.  Both ceremonies prepare the body or remains for cremation which includes cleansing, dressing, and wrapping.  Many flowers are used during this portion of the process.

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Preparing the body in Kathmandu
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Funeral Pyre in Kathmandu

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Kathmandu, after the body is prepared it is moved to Funeral Pyres of the banks of the sacred river Bagmati which later meets the holy river Ganges and set on fire.  After the cremation, the ashes are sent off down the river. I did not have the opportunity to learn as much about the cremation in Kathmandu as I did in Bali.  My experience with the Balinese was that there are specific parts to the cremation ceremony, of which the Ngaben is just one.  These ceremonies take place over many days.  I will begin with the Ngening Ceremony which is the first part I attended.

I arrived on Bali late Monday evening August 13th.  Planning on attending the Ngaben (cremation) Ceremony on the 16th, I woke up at a leisurely pace on Tuesday. I enjoyed a breakfast of bubur injin (black rice pudding with coconut milk), fresh fruit and Balinese coffee.

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My bubur injin

It was a beautiful morning on my balcony followed by a walk into Ubud.  After a trip to the supermarket, I returned late afternoon and enjoyed a G&T with some cheese and crackers again on my balcony.  Upon ordering Ayam Panggang (chicken and vegetables with red curry sauce) for dinner, I discovered the ceremony was not just one day.  Koming asked what I was doing Wednesday.  I told her I had no specific plans.  She suggested I go to the Ngening Ceremony with the family.  I questioned the Ngening Ceremony as I thought the ceremony was on Thursday.  She explained that that before the Ngaben Ceremony which is the actual burning, we had to collect the Holy Water or Tirta for use in the cremation and this ceremony is called Ngening.

Koming arrived at my room early Wednesday morning to “dress” me for the day’s events.  To participate I needed to be in traditional Balinese attire.  She provided me a Kamen (sarong/skirt), Kebaya (lace jacket) and an Anteng (sash).

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Kebaya

Her being quite a bit smaller than me, the jacket was a bit snug across my breasts. She suggested we not fasten it.  The kebaya was white because white signifies mourning. Although the color signifies mourning, the ceremony itself will be a joyous occasion, a celebration.

 

The death ritual is a time to celebrate and help the deceased move on from their previous life.  It is believed that everything in the universe, including the human body, is made up of “five great elements” or Pancha Mahabhuta.  These elements are as follows:

 

  1. Pertiwi (soil/earth)
  2. Apah (water)
  3. Teja (fire)
  4. Bayu (air)
  5. Akasa (space/ether)

Each of the Pancha Mahabhuta are made up of 5 Pancha Tanmatra or elements of the senses. They are as follows:

  1. Ganda (from the nose/smell)
  2. Rasa (from the tongue/taste)
  3. Rupa (from the eyes/vision)
  4. Sparsa (from the skin/touch)
  5. Sabda (from the ears/sound)

It is through these ceremonies/rituals over the next several days that the body is returned to its Pancha Mahabhuta.

Koming explained to me that she would not be able to be with me while at the Peyadnyan (ceremony area).  Ketut, being son number 4, it is his duty to ensure that a proper cremation ceremony is carried out for his mother. Koming, his wife would be there to assist.  She told me I was free to walk around and take photos. Fed and dressed, Koming put me on the back of her motorcycle and off we went to the Peyadnyan.

The first thing I noticed when we arrived was a giant sign/billboard.  It had the names and photos of 18 people/groups of people who would be cremated and a schedule of “events”. IMG_20180815_081111.jpg

Koming left me here and went about her duties. I took a moment and viewed the souls we would be celebrating, then made my way inside.  This was my first visit to the Peyadnyan, it was a feast for the senses.  Colorful offerings were everywhere, music was playing, the scent of flowers and incense filled the air, children were laughing and playing, the clothing of the women from the Banjar (community) who were helping was lively and colorful. Indeed, it had an air of celebration.  As I wandered around taking everything in, I was greeted with smiles and hellos from everyone.

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Soon, Koming messaged me and told me the procession was about to begin.  She instructed me to just walk with the crowd, but not in the line with the families carrying the offerings.  The guys in the band or Gamelan (traditional instrumental ensemble of Indonesia) seemed rather jovial so I fell in step with them. During Balinese death rituals, music is considered a form of offering.   With a police escort at the front, we left the Peyadnyan and the procession started down the main street.  We, the entire community, walked through the streets for about 20 minutes.  We ended at a riverbank and the priest conducted a short ceremony.  The procession then regrouped and walked back to the Peyadnyan.  The Gamelan music, again playing along the route, gave a festive atmosphere.

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The procession heading down the main street
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Arriving at the river

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The priest giving the service

 

 

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At the river, the Ngening Ceremony
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My buddies in the band aka gamelan
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Carrying offering in the procession

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upon returning to the Peyadnyan there was a flurry of activity setting up for the afternoon’s activities.  I sat down and was mesmerized as I took it all in.  Koming came to me and handed me a brown paper wrapped package.  “Lunch”, she told me.  Lunch was Nasi Campur. Nasi campur is a spicy street food consisting of a scoop of white rice, noodles, peanuts, an egg, vegetables and small pieces of meat. Eaten with the fingers, it is quite delicious.  Side note, when eating, the left hand is NEVER used to eat or pass food.

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Lunch
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Nasi Campur

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After lunch, another flurry of activity to finish setting up for the afternoon.  The afternoon would consist of the Topeng and Corong Corong.  I walked around a bit looking at the beautiful offerings and listening to the gamelan music.  Soon, Koming told me to move toward the entrance to the Peyadnyan the topeng dance was about to begin.  Topeng means mask in Indonesian.  The dance has several masked actors who perform, dance and tell ancient stories concerning ancient or mythical kings and heroes. The actors are adorned in colorful costumes and accompanied by lively gamelan music.

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Next was the Corong Corong also called Peras Perasan.  This is the ceremony for the grandchildren. One thing I noticed during the day’s events, the children actively participate in the ceremonies.  They understand this is a celebration and they are helping the deceased move on from their previous life.  During the corong corong a large basket filled with offerings is in front of the specific Petak (shrine/altar) for the deceased person. In this basket are things the deceased will need for the afterlife.  The family members, including the grandchildren of the deceased, form a procession and as the gamelan play, they walk around the offering box and in front of the petak.  In general, the symbolism of the corong corong is that the deceased spirit is going on a far journey like sailing the ocean. This spirit will return reincarnated to the grandchildren who live in the house and give them the inheritance of all they had.

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Koming

 

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The Priest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Around 5:00 pm, Koming told me the ceremony was finished and Ketut would take me home. She also asked if I still planned to attend the Ngaben (cremation) Ceremony tomorrow. My answer was yes, of course.  This meant a 2:30 am wake up to go to the Kuburan or cremation grounds. Ketut and Koming would sleep at the Peyadnyan and would come to Kenari House at 3:00 am to get me.  With me on the back and his older daughter on the front of his motorcycle, Ketut took us both home.

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Ketut and Kiara

I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am to Ketut and Koming for so graciously including me in every aspect of these most important ceremonies. It was an amazing day and I was physically and mentally exhausted.  What an honor.  Tomorrow we start with Ngagah or “awakening of the dead”, the exhumation of the deceased.

“The body is only an encasing for the soul which is eternal”.

 

3 short videos follow

Gamelan Music

 

 

Topeng Dance

 

Procession during the Corong Corong

Bali ~ Island of the Gods A Brief Journey into Balinese Hinduism, Part 1

Bali ~ Island of the Gods                                  A Brief Journey into Balinese Hinduism, Part 1

Before we tumble Down the Rabbit Hole directly to the Balinese Ngaben (cremation) Ceremony, I want to give a little history of how I ended up being invited to this ceremony and a little history of Bali and Hinduism.

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IMG_20180830_095100.jpgBali, Island of the Gods, is one of 17,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago.  A small island 95 miles east to west and 70 miles north to south, it is located 8°south of the equator and is inhabited by approximately 4 million people. Unlike the majority of Indonesian Islands which are Muslim, Bali is 85% Hindu.  So how did I end up visiting this island paradise?  We must travel back to Paris 2014……..

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As you may or may not know, I spent a period of 2014/15 living in Paris, France.  I fell in love with Montmartre and in Montmartre at the foot of Sacre Coeur had my “go to” café.  I became a regular and the staff got to know me and my “usual’s”.  Since I normally stopped by at least once a day for “un café” or “verre de vin rosé”, I often chatted with a waitress named Julie.  She talked to me about her desire to move to Bali. I left Paris to return to the States in February of 2015 and we said we would keep in touch via FB. I happened to return to Paris for a 2-week holiday in July of 2015 and of course one of my first stops was Café Chappe.  Lo and behold, Julie was there.  She had indeed gone to Bali, but had returned to Paris because of her youngest son, they planned to go back to Bali at the end of the summer and suggested I should visit her there.  In August of that same year, my adventures in the Middle Kingdom began.  I moved to China to teach English. Julie and I kept in touch over the next few years and finally in February of this year, 2018, I planned a trip to Bali.  Travel to Bali is quite convenient and relatively inexpensive from the Middle Kingdom. Julie was living in Seminyak which is a seaside community and was teaching yoga.  The first part of my holiday I planned to stay in Ubud, which is more north and inland, as there were several things I wanted to experience in that area.  The end of my holiday I would go to Canggu and finally meet up with my friend from Paris.  That my friends is how I ended up going to Bali for the first time.  The second part of the story is how I was invited to the Ngaben Ceremony.

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Drinking rose’ with Julie.  Sometimes you need to take a dip in the restaurant’s decorative pool……in your clothes.

In February, I had a homestay about a 20-30-minute walk from Central Ubud.  During my homestay, I had a room with a private bathroom in a family compound.  I say compound, because in Bali families usually live together.  Together meaning there are several free-standing homes often with a central kitchen in what is called a compound.  There is also always a family temple shared by all the households.  These compounds make up a tight-knit community.  The communities, in turn, make up a village.  Kenari House, my homestay was in the community or Banjar, Teges Yangloni the village of Peliatan.  My hosts, Ketut and Koming and their two young daughters immediately made me feel like part of the family.  Ketut, trained as a chef, would let me join him in the kitchen when he prepared my meals, explaining Balinese cooking and teaching me how to use traditional herbs and spices.  Finding them so open, I always seemed to have a dozen questions about Bali and Hinduism whenever I was with them.

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My Kenari House homestay family

Bali is an assault on your senses, vivid colors, temple music, fragrant flowers, and incense await you at every turn.  One of the first things you notice in Bali are small baskets with various flowers placed everywhere. They are on statues, bridges, steps, and in doorways.  I asked Koming about these colorful baskets with incense.  She told me they are canang sari or daily offerings.  Canang is a small woven basket from palm leaves and sari means essence.  Broken down further can = beauty (like you feel the view) nang = purpose and sari = source.  Typically, a family places about 15 offerings per day, more on special ceremony days.  The canang sari is handmade daily and it is considered self-sacrifice with the time it takes to make the offerings.

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The offering must have certain elements representing the Trimurti or 3 major Hindu gods; white lime for Shiva, red betel nut for Vishnu and green gambier plant for Brahma.  On top of these are placed petals. White petals facing East for Iswara, red petals facing South for Brahma, yellow petals facing West for Mahadeva and blue or green facing North for Vishnu. The offerings also can contain food items, rice, crackers small cakes, etc. Along with an incense stick, these offerings are placed with a prayer ritual to deliver the sari (essence) of the canang to heaven.  A flower dipped in holy water is sprinkled over the canang along with a spoken prayer as in a symbolic merging of earth, fire, wind, and water.  The smoke from the incense carries the essence of the offering to the gods.  These offerings are to maintain balance and peace on earth amidst good and evil and between heaven and hell.  Within this ritual is an understanding that both positive and negative energies exist in the world.  It is up to us to seek balance and harmony in our personal lives, in our community, and in the world. What appeared to be a simple basket of flowers was my first taste of Balinese Hindu rituals.

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As my time at Kenari House was nearing the end, I wasn’t quite ready to leave.  I extended my stay by one day before heading south to Canggu.  Staying this extra day turned into my first experience with a Balinese Ceremony.  There was a wedding in the community.  Koming invited me to attend with her family.  What a privilege to have this opportunity.  Koming loaned me a Kamen (sarong/skirt) so I would be appropriately dressed.  It seemed the entire community was there, and they welcomed me with open arms.  I didn’t get to learn much about the wedding ceremony as I was leaving that afternoon.  As I was saying my goodbyes to Ketut and Koming, she told me since I enjoyed the wedding so much, I should return in August.  She explained that Ketut’s mother had died in 2016 and every 3 years the community held a Ngaben or Cremation Ceremony.  She would be part of the ceremony this August.  Would I like to come back for the ceremony?  I told her I would be honored to return and would do my best to make it happen.

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The Bride and Groom

Indeed, I made my way back to Bali and the Ngaben Ceremony.  I always thought my experience camping at EBC (Everest Base Camp) and watching the sun set and rise on the mighty mountain couldn’t be topped.  My experience with this beautiful Balinese ritual, the emotion of first hand exhuming a corpse, washing it and preparing it for cremation, witnessing the burning, understanding each step of the ceremony, and returning the ashes to the sea was truly overwhelming and something I will never forget.  I was included like family every step of the way.  I only hope I can put the sights, sounds, smells, and emotions into words as I next write about the Ngaben.

A couple of preview pictures from the Ngaben Ceremony

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Until my next post……The Ngaben Ceremony reminds the living to always create good karma in life. It shows us that Balinese Hinduism is not necessarily about getting to heaven but how to become one with Brahman or God.

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Mind Over Matter…..Did I Heal Myself or Was It the Balian?

Mind Over Matter…..Did I Heal Myself or Was It the Balian?

“Dad, I’m cold”, I said as I watched him shovel snow in shorts, a t-shirt, and a wool vest.  “It’s mind over matter”, he told me.  Mind over matter, a phrase if I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times from my father, along with “the mind is a powerful thing”.  Even as he lay dying of bone cancer, he tried to control his pain with his mind.  Does it work?  Eventually, he gave into the morphine drip.  I remember as a girl in Junior High on the gymnastics team struggling with a move on the uneven bars.  Mind over matter, mind over matter……I lay in bed visualizing myself doing the move.  Over and over, I pictured it.  Does it work?  Sure enough, the next day at practice, I nailed it.  Two totally different scenarios, but it is a phrase that still often lingers in the back of my thoughts.

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What you may ask does this have to do with my visit to Cok Rai, Balian, Master Healer?  Or you may be saying, she did this because of Eat, Pray, Love…….yes, I saw the movie, more than once…..yes, I loved it…..no influence whatsoever on my going to Bali or visiting the Balian.  My motivation for visiting Bali, I met a woman in Paris who worked at a café…..she moved to Bali…..she invited me to visit…..I did, in February.  I met a wonderful Balinese family at my homestay…..we became friends…..they invited me to return in August for the cremation ceremony for his mother…..I did this month.  The Ngaben (cremation) Ceremony took place over 6 days of which I attended 4 and I will address in a future blog.  Long days, one rising at 2:30 am for exhuming a body. Those days took their toll.  I was tired, mentally and physically.  Physically, my body ached, mostly my knees and ankle and low back.  I was mentally exhausted trying to wrap my head around and understand the meaning/significance/procedure of many ceremonies/rituals. Not even knowing the word Balian or truthfully anything about them, on the afternoon of the 3rd day I asked Ketut if there was a healer in the village.  “Yes, I know one, he is old now, but Putu can take you on Sunday morning. It is best to go early”, he told me. On Sunday at 9:00 am, without any research, an open mind and Putu, I headed down the rabbit hole…….

Balian ~ Balians are traditional healers who work with divine energy to treat physical and mental illnesses, remove spells and channel energy from ancestors. Some Balian have learned their art from studying the ancient scriptures called lontar and apprenticing with a master. Others have received wahyu or divine inspiration and heal from the heart.

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Putu picked me up at 9:00 Sunday morning.  We traveled to another community/village about 20 minutes from my homestay, Kenari House.  I knew nothing about the “healer” I was about to see.  I never asked his name or what manner he received his “power”.  I seriously knew next to nothing about Balinese healers.  I didn’t even know the word Balian until I returned home and started some research on the subject.  We arrived at his compound.  Putu spoke to someone and turned to me and said we are lucky, he is here and he will see you.  His compound was a serene quiet place.

 

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We were instructed to wait in an area that was his treatment space. Putu and I were the only people there.  I later found out that Cok Rai is basically retired.  Afterward, I realized what a privilege it was to see him. As I sat on the floor, I focused on the sights, sounds and smells that surrounded me.  My thoughts…..what would I say to him?……how should I greet him?…..next thing I knew he was in front of me.

 

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A slight man with long grey hair and a white mustache and goatee.  He had a soft comforting voice.  He sat in a wooden chair and instructed me to sit with my back against his legs. He placed a finger in each ear and applied pressure.  He also touched several pressure points on my head, temples, and base of my skull. He mumbled something about low back and then instructed me to lie down on the rattan mat which had a small bump for just under the base of my head.  He retrieved what appeared to be nothing more than a t-shaped stick.  Before doing anything with the stick, he just moved his hands over my arms and body, not quite touching them.  He said you have much energy, much electricity.  It may feel like a shock when I treat you.  I found this quite interesting because, in 2009, we were on a cruise of SE Asia (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam).  I don’t remember where we were, but I saw an acupuncturist.  They also told me my body gave off much electricity.  They told me they could feel it without even touching my body.  Next, the healer, using my left foot, pushed and poked first at my little toe and eventually all of my toes.  If I made a noise or implied I felt pain, he would say what part of the body it corresponded.  I am not sure which toes were which.  I do know at one point he pressed, and I let him know it hurt, he said: “stomach, you have had stomach problems”.  I told him, yes when I was in the states I had some issues with food that caused me troubles.   He then took the stick and followed what I believe are the corresponding channels or meridians for my stomach.  He then again poked the same toe and I felt no pain.  He said your stomach is healed.  I didn’t know it needed healing, but, ok.  Again, poked a toe, a little pain.  He said “female” and then moved his stick over my “female organs”.  He said, “can’t heal, don’t work, menopause”.  He then added, “but you still have passion, don’t lose it, it makes you happy.  You are happy now, don’t let the happiness go away”.  A few more pokes at my toes and a few more waves of his “magic wand” over my body until there was no pain in my toes.  He then had me sit up legs flat in front of me.  He asked what else he could do. I told him I had injured my right ankle in February and my left knee had been bothering me.  The prior 5 days with a lot of walking and standing, my left the knee and ankle were both quite sore, especially climbing steps.  He got up, went to a table on which was an urn.  He put his hands in the urn came back and rubbed oil and some type of leaf/herb which resembled tobacco leaves on both legs from the knees down to the toes.  One at a time he bent each knee and pounded my heel and then foot several times on the floor.  He then had me do the same without his assistance.  He then touched the big toes of each foot together, ran his hands from toes to knees and back down. On the down, he made like he was sending something out of my body.  I assume it was symbolic of sending the pain out.  He then instructed me to stand, which I did with minimal effort and no pain in the knee or ankle as I stood from a semi-squatting position.  He demonstrated deep knee bends while holding onto a post and then instructed me to do them. After several, he had me do without holding the post. He smiled at me and asked, “how does it feel”?  Surprisingly, I replied, “great”.  And it really did.  I thanked him for his time, gave him the “donation” of about $20 American.  Putu then took me back to Kenari House.  The climb to the 3rd floor was pain-free.  I later walked into Ubud. I had my tattoo touched up. I met some parrotheads from Paris for lunch. I walked around some more and went to Gin 1717 for a couple of cocktails and finally walked back home.  Over the next couple of days, I walked several times back and forth to Ubud. On my last day in Bali, I walked about 12K including a trek uphill on the Campuhan Ridge Walk to some lovely rice fields.  Amazingly, I had NO pain in my knees or ankle.  I was exhausted and decided an hour-long foot massage would be perfect.

It has now been 6 days since my experience with Cok Rai. I am pleased to say I am still totally pain-free.  I have since googled my Balian.  It seems he is one of the most famous healers in the Ubud area. The following link is to a short article on Balians.  http://www.taksuspa.com/page/balians-traditional-balinese-healers/

Did I heal myself or was it the Balian?  I can’t answer that question.  I am glad I went to visit Cok Rai and experienced a true Balinese Healer.  If the opportunity should present itself, I would do again.

Your strongest muscle and worst enemy is your mind.  Train it well.~unknown~spirit-over-mind-mind-over-matter-its-that-simple-quote-1.jpg

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I Discovered the Secret of 兰州拉米恩 Lánzhōu Lā Mǐan

I Discovered the Secret of 兰州拉米恩 Lánzhōu Lā Mǐan

Okay, so it isn’t really a secret considering there are over 1000 noodle shops selling over one million bowls of 牛肉面 Niúròu miàn (beef noodles) per day in Lanzhou alone, according to xinhuanet.com. The secret being, how do they make it look so simple? Noodle pulling, that is. Although, after reading many blogs and articles on Lánzhōu Lā Mǐan (Lanzhou pulled noodles), it appears you may have to give up your first born and sign off in blood to get the “true” recipe that has been passed down for centuries and is written on cowhide and hidden away in some Lanzhou grandma’s basement. Just kidding of course, but people from Lanzhou insist their noodles are the only authentic ones. Whenever I travel to a new city in China, I usually ask for a Lánzhōu Lā Mǐan shop. I can say that traveling far and wide every Lánzhōu Lā Mǐan shop I have where I have eaten, has served me almost identical soup. Taste, texture, ingredients have always been consistent. Before, I get into my attempt at Lā (pulled) Mǐan (noodles) a little of what I have learned in this endeavor.

Why noodles? I think most people in the Western World equate China with rice more so than noodles. It is true China produces more rice than any other grain. With 75% of China’s population being farmers, rice is just less than 50% of all crop cultivation. There is also a distinct agricultural dividing line, rice is predominantly grown in the south while wheat is grown in the north. I found it extremely interesting to learn that only 15% of China’s land can be cultivated. This 15% also supports 20% of the world’s population and leads with 30% of the world’s rice population. The divide of rice and wheat into north and south sectors goes as far back as the Han Dynasty which reigned from 207 BC to 200 ad. According to the Wall Street Journal, a study conducted by psychologists for the Journal of Science, there is a difference in personality and traits of people of the north and south. People in the north that grow wheat and are “noodle eaters” are more individualistic and are more analytical in thought while rice growers/eaters in the south tend to be more traditional and more holistic in thought with lower divorce rates. I do have rice occasionally but living in the north has fueled my noodle addiction.

Next, I need to explain the difference between 牛肉面 Niúròu miàn and 兰州拉面 Lánzhōu Lā Mǐan. Niúròu miàn is as translated, “beef noodles” or beef noodle soup. It can be a spicy, tomato, garlic or herbal medicine based broth. Although Lánzhōu Lā Mǐan is technically a beef noodle soup, it is different in the way it is prepared and the history of its origin. I love any type of Niúròu miàn, but am currently obsessed with Lánzhōu Lā Mǐan and that will be the focus of the remainder of my blog.

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Niúròu miàn
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Niúròu miàn

Lanzhou is the capital and largest city of Gansu Province in Northwest China. Many of the lamian restaurants are owned by Hui ethnic families from northwest China. The Hui people are predominantly composed of Han Chinese and adhere to the Muslim faith. Therefore, many lamian restaurants are also halal and are the most common halal restaurants in eastern China. Centuries ago, noodle makers in Gansu learned that certain kinds of ash, called peng, had the effect of tenderizing dough, but more about that later. A young Hui man who sold the hot soup noodles topped with beef on the streets of Lanzhou during the Qing Dynasty is credited with developing the dish in its current form. Mao Baozi’s noodles became so popular that they literally define the traditional characteristics of the dish! In 1919, Mao Baozi opened his first restaurant in the city, leading to the eventual growth of thousands of beef noodle restaurants in Lanzhou. Outside of Lanzhou and Sichuan province, such noodle shops carry the title of 兰州正宗拉面 (authentic Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles), while in Lanzhou itself they are simply called beef noodles (牛肉面).

In order to be called authentic Lánzhōu Lā Mǐan, there are certain rules so to speak. Mao Baozi’s dish was said to be “1 clear, 2 white, 3 red, 4 green, 5 yellow” (一清、二白、三红、四绿、五黄) to signify respectively clear soup, white radish, red chili oil, green coriander, and yellow noodles. (Using the alkali ash or peng hui imparts a yellowish tint to the noodles, which actually do not use egg.)

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My Crack with a side of Spicy Cucumbers

This post came about because of the peng hui. I usually eat at my local shop at least twice a week. On Sundays, I am in the city of Liaocheng and go to a noodle shop there for Niúròu miàn. Although I have had many different beef noodle soups all over China, the Lánzhōu version is easily my favorite and I have on occasion called it my crack. When my Lā Mǐan shop in Dong’e closed last summer for well over 6 months, I became obsessed with finding Lánzhōu Lā Mǐan shops everywhere I traveled, not just any old beef noodle shop. I also started researching to find out what made the Lanzhou noodle soup so delicious and consistent wherever I had it. I enjoy making Italian noodles and decided a bucket list item for me was learning to hand-pull noodles. I always watched the noodle maker at my local noodle shop. It really didn’t look that hard. I watched many YouTube videos and had also purchased a book, “The Mystery of Noodles” while I was in Suzhou. The book, written in Chinese doesn’t do me a whole lot of good but has great photos. Well, I finally decided I needed to just make some dough and give it a whirl. I was a bit surprised how little information, in English anyways, there was on the internet as far as recipes, particularly for the noodle dough. Basically, what I discovered, it was a simple mix of flour, water, and salt, so I thought. Although some articles mentioned baking soda, baked baking soda and lye water. I went with the basic flour, salt, and water. I determined it should be kneaded for 20 to 30 minutes and then let rest for up to six hours or overnight. Really, the noodle shops always have giant piles of dough they grab a hunk, twirl, slam, stretch, fold and finally pull. Made my dough, kneaded for 30 minutes and let it rest for 6 hours as I had errands to do. I returned home, kneaded some more and started to pull…….didn’t pull it more than 4 or 6 inches before it broke. Kneaded some more and put it to rest overnight while I did some more research.

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The “secret”… Peng Hui
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My Noodle Master

There are several styles of twisting the dough but they all employ the same concept: a piece of dough is repeatedly stretched and folded onto itself in order to align the glutens and warm up the dough for stretching. Then it is rolled out to a workable thickness and cut into workable portions. The end pieces of the starting dough are never used because the glutens are not as aligned as the middle pieces. Gee, guess I should have paid more attention in chemistry and physics, who knew noodle making was so scientific. So, I twisted and stretched and folded till my wrists ached……no luck. Maybe there was something to the baking soda or lye water, which doesn’t sound exactly healthy. At this point, I decided to pack up my dough and take it to the noodle shop. I have google translate, no problem. He took one look at my dough, gave it a poke and shook his head. He said my dough was too soft and it needed “limestone” or at least that’s what the translation said. He also told me he studied the making of the soup and noodles for 1 year. I thought I better at least eat lunch while I was there and I saved the google translate Chinese part from him to take to the supermarket to find “limestone”. I showed them the Chinese that the noodle shop had told me. They said ahhhh, peng hui, and then said Lā Mǐan, so I knew I was on the right track. The girls I was speaking with told me 没有 méiyǒu, meaning they had none. I then asked them where I could get it simply by using the word哪里 nǎlǐ which means where. They sent me to go to the old vegetable market. The miracle of miracles, the first shop I went to had it. 2 bags for 8 RMB or $1.25. Ok, I better stop back at the noodle shop and find out how much to add to my mix. The noodle maker happened to be outside the shop when I arrived. Peng hui comes in a powder form. Through my translator, I asked how much to add if I use 500 grams of flour. He shook his head and tried to explain something to me. Finally, he took me into the shop and gave me a big hunk of dough and then instructed me to wait as he put some water in a bottle. I had my answer. You mix the peng hui with water and keep it on hand. The water is added to the dough and this is what breaks down the glutens and gives the dough elasticity. Okay, I don’t quite have the whole answer as I need to experiment as to how much of the peng hui/alkali water to add. But what a difference between his dough with the peng hui and mine. I do know that the amount you add must be small because it has a strong sulfur smell. Also, finding out the name peng hui, I was able to get more information from the internet. I hope to spend some time at the shop observing. Interestingly, from what I understand, peng hui is not available in the USA. I did find it on aliexpress shopping. The two bags I purchased for $1.25 were $45 online and currently unavailable.

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My dough
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My dough started to break apart almost immediately.
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Notice the yellowish tint to his dough.
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It pulled so nicely, even if I didn’t get any noodles from it.

 

 

Penghui originally comes from a plant called jianpengcao 碱蓬草 (Suaeda glauca) that grows in the highlands of Alashan (north of Lower Gansu, in Ningxia and Inner Mongolia). After this plant has been charred in a pit for several hours it is compressed into a dark crystal block. That is later processed with water to make a solution that noodle pullers use on mixed dough. Now that I know the “secret” to the dough, along with practicing pulling noodles, I am now working on the broth, which also has certain rules or ingredients. I may not have mastered the hand pulling of noodles by the time I get to Warren, Ohio in July, but even if I make the broth and used handmade, not pulled, noodles, you might understand my addiction. I will leave you with the recipe I found from Wei of Red House Spice. https://redhousespice.com/lanzhou-beef-noodle-soup/

Ingredients

1400g/3lb large chunks of beef, 2 beef bones, 3000 ml/13cups water, 1.5 tsp salt (or to taste)

Spices and Herbs

2 star anise, 1 small piece cassia cinnamon, 2 bay leaves, 1 tsp Sichuan pepper, 1 tsp white pepper, 1 pinch fennel seeds, 1 pinch cumin seeds, 1/2 tsp ground licorice or 4 slices licorice root, 2 pieces sand ginger, 3 dry chili (optional), 1 thumb sized ginger, 3 stalks spring onion

You will also need

500g/18oz daikon (aka mooli, Chinese white radish), 3.5oz noodles per person, coriander/cilantro (chopped), homemade chili oil

  1. Put beef chunks and beef bones into a pot filled with cold water. Bring to a full boil. Skim off the froth on the surface.
  2. Add all the herbs and spices (use a closed tea strainer or cheesecloth to easily discard later) This also keeps the broth clear. Leave to simmer about 2 hours (until the beef is cooked through).
  3. Take the beef out to cool and discard the bones, herbs and spices. When cold, cut the beef into either thin slices or cubes. It is suggested to leave the beef to cool completely(best to be in the fridge overnight). This way it won’t fall apart when cutting through.
  4. Cut daikon into thin slices. Put into the beef broth. Cook for 15 minutes or until very soft to the bite.
  5. Cook noodles and drain.
  6. Plac noodles in serving bowls. Pour in hot broth and daikon. Top with beef slices/cubes. Garnish with fresh coriander/cilantro and homemade chili oil.

Homemade Chili Oil

Ingredients

For the Chili

1/2 to 3/4 cup chili flakes, 2 tbs toasted sesame seeds, pinch of salt, 1 tbs chili powder (optional)

For the Oil

1 cup vegetable oil, 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorn, 1 star anise, 1 bay leaf, 1 small piece cassia cinnamon, 1 spring onion (washed, dried, cut into big pieces) 3 slices ginger.

    1. In a bowl, mix all the ingredients for the chili. Have another empty bowl ready. The bowl should be heatproof and completely dry (glass or porcelain is best). Place a sieve over it.
    2. Pour oil in a cold pan or pot, add the ingredients for the oil. Cook it on low heat. Watch attentively. Turn off the heat immediately when spring onion turns brown (you should see smoke at that moment as well).
    3. Then pour the oil into the empty bowl through the sieve. Discard everything caught in the sieve. Put half of the chili mixture into the oil. You should see it bubbling intensively.

Add the rest of the chili mixture when the bubbling calms down. Stir well with a clean dry spoon.

  1. Leave it uncovered until completely cool. Wait at least 12 hours before using to allow all the flavors to combine. Then transfer to an airtight container(s). Chili oil will keep for about 1 month in the cupboard and up to 6 months in the fridge.

From Russia With Love, Part II or A 4 Hour Drive From Moscow to a “Golden Ring” Town

From Russia With Love, Part II or A 4 Hour Drive From Moscow to a “Golden Ring” Town

I have decided to jump to nearly the end of my journey in Russia and a visit to the small, ancient countryside town of Sudzal.  Probably nothing profound in the post, but just sharing some more of the history and beauty of the country I knew so little about.

Northeast of Moscow is a ring of ancient cities known as “The Golden Ring”.  These towns played a significant role in the formation of the Russian Orthodox Church.  The town of Sudzal, on the banks of the Volga River, is one of the oldest Russian towns dating to the 12th century.  It is also currently the smallest of the Golden Ring towns with a population of just under 10,000.   The last post, I introduced Yulia.  Yulia was my host, along with her mother, while I was in Russia.  She was also my roommate when I lived in Changning in Hunan Province.  Yulia’s father offered to drive us 4 hours to the town of Suzdal.  He wanted me to experience the Russian countryside.

 

 

On a beautiful morning with sapphire blue skies and sunshine, Yulia’s father picked us up bright and early to start our journey.  Note, I am a couple (insert a cough cough) years older than Yulia’s father.  For some reason, in his eyes, he had a couple of 10-year-old daughters on a drive in the country…..cotton candy, cheese puffs, and a giant pink stuffed rabbit just for me.  I giggled and said, “thank you”.  Yes, the pink stuffed rabbit traveled back to the USA with me when I left Moscow for Beijing and then on to the states.

With his 2 “little” girls in the back seat, we started out on our journey.  When we were outside of the hustle and bustle of Moscow traffic, we made our first stop of the day at a small roadside restaurant.  Here we had coffee homemade donuts and chebureki.  Chebureki is a deep fried turnover stuffed with minced meat, onions, and dill.  It was amazingly delicious.  We ate and continued our journey through the sleepy countryside.  I was enjoying the picturesque scenery dotted with the onion domes of Russian Churches when after about an hour, dad pulled to the side of the road and jumped out of the car.  He trotted to what looked like a roadside vendor.  He returned to the car with the infamous giant pink rabbit for me and cotton candy and cheese puffs for both me and Yulia.  It was at this point I realized that for today whenever we were with “dad”, I wasn’t a 54, at the time, year old woman, but a young girl on a drive in the country. Thank goodness I was a grownup again when we went to dinner as we sampled several types of Russian alcoholic beverages.

Arrival in Sudzal, Yulia had arranged for young and handsome Alexander to spend about 4 hours showing us around and giving us the history of the town.  I won’t get into everything he covered or this will become a long and possibly boring post, but I would like to hit the highlights.   Again, Russia surprised me and I fell in love.  In my mind’s eye, Russia was a cold, grey, unwelcoming country.  Each day I spent in the former Soviet Union as I remember it being called, I realized what I thought about Russia was entirely wrong.  It is a warm, (I’m not talking climate because Yulia tells me Russian winters are brutal), beautiful country which is full of history and culture.

Alexander started our walking tour at the sight of the Kremlin, now basically a hill.  The Kremlin sight is also home to the Cathedral of the Nativity.  Without going into a lot of detail, Sudzal is home to 305 monuments, 30 churches, 14 bell towers, and 5 monasteries and convents.  We visited the Convent of the Intercession, founded in 1364, where it is said in 1698, Peter the Great had his wife exiled after they divorced.  Alexander continued to share the history as we toured many of the sights, including climbing to the top of one of the Bell Towers which is being restored.  After getting past the babushka wearing lady at the entrance, we made our way to the top for a beautiful view of the Russian countryside.  This was our final sight to visit and Alexander returned us to Yulia’s waiting father.

I am inserting an FYI here, just because I found it interesting.  I noticed that often throughout the countryside, I saw 2 churches right next to each other.  Alexander asked if I knew why this was. My first thought was male and female. That possibly there were times men and women could not attend church together.  Wrong!  One church is generally smaller and “closer to the ground”.  The second church is sometimes larger with soaring, often onion dome, steeples.  The smaller church was easier to heat being low to the ground, so it was the winter church.  The usually taller, larger church was the summer church. Bottom line, one is heated, one is not.

Our “dad” suggested we eat in Sudzal for some typical local dishes and alcohol. This was fine by me.   Alexander directed us to a lovely restaurant where we had a nice table on the porch. I can’t tell you all the food we consumed as I didn’t take notes.  I just know I got a taste of very traditional local food.  I also know that I was not a fan of the caviar ordered by Yulia’s father.  It was served on a bed of shredded beets. We had a couple of appetizer platters with bread, meat, cheeses, veggies and a lot of dill. I had a chicken dish with a sour cream sauce and mashed potatoes that was out of this world.  Yulia had a meat stew.  Before the meal even started, I had 4 “traditional” alcoholic beverages in front of me.  One was a honey mead and the others were vodka based and infused with local herbs or fruit. If I recall, I slept on a bit of the long journey home.

We finished our meal and started the drive back to Dolgoprudny.  We had daylight during much of the journey home as the sun doesn’t set until nearly 10 pm.  Of course, it gets daylight around 4 am also.  We finally made it home around 11:30 pm.  Me with my pink rabbit in tow, we were both ready to fall into the bed for the night as we walked about 18 km over the course of the day.  I was very grateful to Yulia and her father for taking the long trip into the historic countryside.  It gave me a totally different view of the country I knew so little about.

 

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Arriving Home

 

James Michener said,  “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home”.  My eyes have been opened to the food, customs, religion, and people of Russia. What a beautiful, warm country.  I hope to see more of it in the future.

Some random photos from our day…….