Postcards of Argentina (Part 1)

image When we first arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina last week, we weren’t sure what to expect.  Then we discovered the explosion of color in the Boca area famous for its working class neighborhood; the friendliness of the locals including those who stopped us in the street to give us directions; delicious grilled meat everywhere; and the melange of European culture found in a fascinating city like BA.

Here are some snapshots of our first week:

 

"Parilla" or grilled meat is the Argentinian specialty and it's so tasty and super cheap

“Parilla” or grilled meat is the Argentinian specialty and it’s so tasty and super cheap

 

We saw some gorgeous series of water falls at Iguazu Park in northern Argentinia

We saw some gorgeous series of water falls at Iguazu Park in northern Argentinia

 

We discovered a string of open-grill Brazilian restaurants in Iguazu which borders Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina.  Great to try Brazilian style steaks and people-watch the locals

We discovered a string of open-grill Brazilian restaurants in Iguazu which borders Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. Great to try Brazilian style steaks and people-watch the locals

One of my highlights was watching these kids slide down the hill on flattened cardboard boxes.   Fun!

One of my highlights was watching these kids slide down the hill on flattened cardboard boxes. Fun!

 

 

My Last Day…After 7 Years

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We were given the “key” to the Beijing office.

After I said my goodbyes and stepped onto the elevator, I cried.  Big huge tears rolled down my cheeks, and I was surprised at how emotional I got.  7 years at my job!  And today was my last day.

I started at APCO in 2007 and I was hired to build a corporate university so that employees could take classes, sharpen their skills and become stronger consultants.  There wasn’t much training in place then, and it turned out to be the most challenging yet rewarding job I’ve ever had in my life.  I’m really proud of the APCO University we built.  And I hope that the learning will continue long after I leave.

Me teaching a class in Shanghai

Me teaching a class in Shanghai

Then there were the friendships which spurred me on when things got rough.  You get so close to people you work with day in and day out.  That’s the hardest part about leaving a job because you get used to venting with a colleague who can sympathize more than anyone else can.  You develop a connection, a bond with certain people, and long lasting unforgettable memories are formed.  Like the countless hours spent together to perfect a program for delivery.  Or how my famous nickname Webbie Dong was first created after an office manager in New Delhi got my name mixed up.  And the countless retelling of hilarious stories, including that time in Shanghai where someone reported out loud that a Chinese colleague couldn’t come to class because she had “diarrhea”.  No one noticed the absurdity of what was said except for me and our American COO.

At my farewell happy hour, my co-worker Liam made a sign of my famous nickname

At my farewell happy hour, my co-worker Liam made a sign of my famous nickname

Or how i experienced two earthquakes during my time at APCO:  at a  Beijing training where we felt the rumblings of the famous China earthquake miles away.  Half the participants ran out.   I clutched onto Philip who thought he was dizzy from jet lag when really the room was shaking.  The second earthquake was in DC when my co-worker Laurel and I suddenly saw our table move, and this time, I ran out.  Ah my earthquake buddies.

I will miss my colleagues.  It feels like leaving a family sometimes when leaving a job.

I’ll start my new job at Bloomberg in September and to be honest, I’m scared to death, yet excited.  I’m also rather irritated that I have to build work relationships all over again – why can’t I just bring my current colleagues over?  I know, I know.  Change is good.

Last week, out of the blue, my stepdaughter Prescilla said,  “You’re so outgoing.  Don’t worry.  You’ll make so many  friends at your new job.”  I was touched by that.  It’s true – I’ll make new friends.  And at least, in the meantime, I can still keep my old ones.

 

I love how goofy we can all get

I love how goofy we can all get

 

 

Arm-Wrestling with a Tibetan Monk

Who won this arm-wrestling match?

Who won this arm-wrestling match?

I came across this old photo and a flood of memories came back:  I was  arm-wrestling with a Tibetan monk at a Buddhist monastery just outside of Lhasa.  What started off as a joke turned into a serious arm-wrestling match.  And when I lost (even after using both arms), I had to down a cup of yak butter tea, which was a strange concoction of bitter tea with a thick film of yak butter on top.  Not too tasty.  But I was glad to drink it because all the monks I met were so good-natured and generous.  I found the Tibetans to have a wonderful sense of humor and a positive attitude, despite the hardships they often face.  Moments like these remind me of how the best parts of traveling are not so much the places we see, but the rich and heartfelt experiences we share with the locals.

Webbie Dong was Born

Me at the Taj Mahal

Me at the Taj Mahal

Years ago, on a business trip to New Delhi, I stumbled off the plane after a 16-hour flight in a dazed, dehydrated mess.  It was midnight, the air smelled stuffy and tired passengers swarmed all around me.
I just needed to find a bed and sleep for a million years.

I walked past customs, the fluorescent lights flickering above me, and I scanned the crowd for my driver.  It felt funny having one especially since I had spent part of my 20s backpacking through S.E. Asia on my own, living out of a bag.  But my Delhi office insisted on a driver for my own safety especially at that late hour.

Then I spotted a guy carrying a sign: “Welcome Mr. Webbie Dong”.

I squinted and shook my head.  What part of that sign is correct??  I dismissed the idea that it could be me, chalking it up to the possibility that there could indeed be a Webbie Dong.  After all, I was extremely jetlagged and who was I to second guess someone’s name so closely akin to mine?  I kept walking.

Wait a second…what if…?

I turned back and approached him.

Me:  Sir, I’m Debbie Wong.  I think you’re my driver.
Him:  (looking me up and down) I’m looking for Mr. Webbie Dong.
Me:  I think there’s been a spelling error.  Really, it’s me.
Him:  Oh.  What’s your good name?  (I love how they ask that question India!  Sounds cool.)
Me:  Wong.
Him: (looking at his placard sign)  But I’m looking for Dong.
Me:  That’s wrong.  I mean, I’m Wong.  And I’m not a Mister.
Him:  (laughing) oh yes, I see!  You are not a Mister.  My apologies.
Me:  (showing him my business card)  No problem.
Him:  Okay, follow me Webbie.  The car is just around the corner.
Me:  Um, my name is Debbie, not Webbie.
Him: (laughs again)  Oh yes, okay so sorry.  Ms. Dong, please follow me.

Clearly he was confused.  The rest of the week proved interesting.  He was assigned to not only be my driver, but also my “buddy” or helper throughout the week as I set up for training classes and meetings.  Still, he insisted on calling me Webbie.  I guess the name stuck.  Each morning, he shouted across the room, “Webbie, what kind of tea would you like?  Assam tea?”  I spent the first part of the week correcting him and he often chuckled and corrected himself.  But the next day, he reverted back to the beloved nickname Webbie.
He turned out to be really sweet, despite his naming disorder, and he checked on me constantly in between meetings to make sure I had enough tea or water.  Every day for lunch, he ordered me a chicken burger since “that’s what foreigners must like,” he confided with a wink.  It was as plain and hard as cardboard.  As a “guest”, he wanted me to feel special.  So I always sat in a different room for visitors to eat my lunch.  He decorated the table with nice flatware, folded napkins and a white plate where the  horrid chicken burger sat.
On the third day, I peeked into the staff kitchen and discovered the whole team sitting around a big clay pot of chicken biryani.  The wondrous smell of spices enticed me to stay.  I asked for some.  My buddy grew serious and said in a protective way, “Oh you are a guest.  This is too spicy for you.  You don’t like the chicken burger?”  I shook my head.  He scooped up some chicken biryani into a bowl and I scoffed down a few mouthfuls.  The heat rose instantly from my throat to my tongue until my lips burned.  My eyes watered as I gulped down water. Still, I persisted and finished my bowl.  My buddy laughed and bellowed, “Oh Webbie, you can eat spicy food!”  It was delicious and I helped myself to more.

I grew to really appreciate his little quirks and his heartfelt exchanges, and I stopped correcting his pronunciation of my name.   After all, he made a mean cup of assam tea.  In fact, he turned out to be my buddy every time I visited the Delhi office after that.

Years later, I received an email from an unknown address to announce his departure from the company.  When I saw the first line “Hello Webbie…”, I knew it was him.

 

When The Bus Broke Down in Tibet

Prayer flags

Prayer flags

The bus slowed to a halt.  Then it lurched forward and coughed black fumes and stopped again. I was finally in Tibet and yet, our bus had officially died only twenty miles from the airport.  It seemed like we were never going to get to Lhasa.

A few Tibetan men with lit cigarettes dangling from their chapped lips stepped off the bus.  Their jackets were worn and faded by the sun, and lines of thread dangled from the frayed hems of their pants.  They squatted by the side of the road and played cards in the dirt.  The driver pulled tools from a box under his seat and immersed himself from the waist up under the hood, banging and twisting things.

I needed to go to the bathroom and I wasn’t sure about leaving.  The bus could get fixed any minute now.

I peered out the window to find the driver’s legs still sticking out from under the hood.  His friend tossed a part of the engine up and down in the air, higher and higher while his buddies laughed.  Tools were scattered all along the front of the bus and obviously, this was going to be more than just a short stop.  It was already afternoon and night would soon be coming.

Getting off the bus was like trying to walk up a crowded escalator.  Every seat was occupied, with three people crammed into the two-seater seats.  Others, who spilled into the aisles, brought their own wooden stools while carrying bags, live animals and fruit on their lap. I stepped over them and passed torn brown suitcases held together with string. Near the driver’s seat, live chickens, bound by their feet to a shabby straw basket, squawked.

When I stepped out, the sun’s intense rays glared down on me, cooking my black hair so my head was hot to the touch.  It did not really occur to me before that being at such a high altitude meant being closer to the sun.

The dirt road stretched out as far as I could see, and as I walked, I admired how smooth and bare the landscape was.  The sky was a brilliant deep blue, the kind of purity in color that I first discovered in my kindergarten paint set before learning of other shades like baby blue and peacock navy.

There were no houses, animals or people in sight.  The bus was a tiny speck at the bottom of the road and up ahead was just a straight line.  However, when I passed a bend in the road, I discovered a small wooden shack. I made a bee-line to it, each step of the way as excruciating as the next.  My bladder was going to burst.  A small outhouse was just off to the side.  It was a tiny concrete box with no doors and two holes in the ground divided by a waist-high wooden partition.  I ran in.  Relief.

With my pants still wrapped around my ankles, I hobbled out into the daylight; I couldn’t bear the stench any longer, and my eyes were starting to water.  As I bent over to pull up my pants, I heard a gasp from behind me.  I whipped around and tried to cover myself with my hands, but it was too late.

I had just mooned my first Tibetan.

She was a short but sturdy woman in her 30s with a full balloon-like dirt-brown skirt and a cream colored shirt.  Beautiful turquoise beads speckled her thick black locks. She carried a homemade broom made out of straw in her hand and a plastic dustpan in the other.

“I’m so sorry!” I exclaimed.  “I was just leaving!”

She eyed me up and down without any expression on her face.  And then  she repeatedly pointed towards her emaciated vegetables and then again at her outhouse.  Her face displayed not a hint of animosity but more curiosity with a slight tinge of fear in her eyes.  Her mouth was reduced to a tiny red dot below her nose.  Maybe she didn’t know how to take me since I was a foreigner but I looked Chinese.

I finally extended my hand out, but she didn’t shake it.  Remembering something I read in my guidebook, I clasped my hands together and bowed my head, the traditional gesture to greet a Tibetan, especially when entering a temple or someone’s home.

Then she smiled, showing her little brown stubs of teeth.  We laughed nervously, and I pulled out a bag of peanuts from the airplane for her.  She pushed it away from me, still maintaining her smile.

We stood there for several minutes grinning and nodding, until finally, I waved goodbye to her and began walking back to the bus.  Down the path, I turned around and she was still at the top of the road, waving away until she looked like a tiny grain blending into the background.

This excerpt is from my book THE SAME SKY – Chapter 4 Sparkler.  For more excerpts, click here.