Tag Archive: Travel Writing


I’m getting ready for the tour.

And SoCal sunshine.

It’s still there, right, sunshine?

Here’s a quick vid – enjoy!

(stay dry)


map of Thailand

map of Thailand

a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction —Virginia Woolf

*equally applicable to women who write and sing

SuratThani is Thailand’s largest southern province. It’s also, confusingly, the moniker of the region’s capital

blue betty, hot, hot, hot G ride!

Blue Betty

city which frequently gets a bad rap. Guide books profess there’s not much to do, little spoken English, and that it’s a dirty, working-class backwater. And partly that is Surat, but a lively night market—chock full of traditional Thai dishes, fresh fruits and veggies, roasted insects, larvae!—nice roads and bike lanes, low cost of living and many near-by tourist hot spots make this hard-working city of farmers and fishers a very nice place to live. Really. Maybe this southern almost-coastal city doesn’t have galleria shopping or medical spas, Sirocco’s or an abundance of blinged out temples like some up-north metropolises, but what Surat lacks in iconic Thai attractions, it makes up for with its location near some of the country’s most amazing natural wonders.
Ready for this? Check that map. Uh, huh:

Surat is a seven hour night boat ride from Koh Tao—spectacular diving, snorkeling in the Gulf of Thailand; a two hour ferry from Koh Phangnan—long, white beaches, clear water and full moon parties; less than two hours from Krabi—Thailand’s rock climbing and caving mecca; two hours from Kao Sok National Park—home to the world’s oldest evergreen rainforest, elephants, waterfalls and floating bungalows; an hour by motor bike from a series of waterfalls mostly known by Thai locals. And these are just a few of the

sunset koh phangan

sunset koh phangan

biggies. There’s so much more—monkey training camps, Buddhist meditation centers, coconut plantations, mountain biking everywhere—Surat’s a great, great place to live and work, well-suited as a centrally-located adventure base!

So, I live in a veritable adventure zone. This is great! But I also appreciate that Surat is a real Thai city. There are maybe 120 foreigners, roughly 40 are teachers. (In China, I was ‘laowai.’ In Thailand, I am ‘Farang.’ Foreigner.) Not a big ex-pat community, so I will have to learn and negotiate the culture if I am to thrive. 🙂  Embrace and thrive!

Are there places to play if there aren’t many westerners? Ahh, Yes! Maybe not as many as in Xi’an (for those just tuning in, I spent a year teaching college English in Xi’an, China, a city of nearly 10 million), but I know, now, of at least four places, and really, one is all you need! Just down the street is Old Coffee, and then of course, there’s Big’s Bar.  Big’s is my favorite so far and caters to the teacher crowd…it’s where I went last night…

saturday night market, surat thani

saturday night market, surat thani

…On my bike at night after the air had cooled and traffic subsided, was mostly me and my thoughts riding on Donnok over to Big’s. Pedaling and singing, in my blue flower tank, smiling and thinking, happy to be in light clothing, sandals, no sleeves. No hat! A lovely exercise.  Elegance. On two wheels and thinking of nine months past, returning from China, digging in, getting bearings to focus and be Humboldt and work and sing, make music.

And then the incline how it lifted slowly steeper, steeper, measured, steady, gradual. The slope, rise over run, then over-run and no rise but clinging, clawing, tearing to make it, to hang on. Just hang on. Grasping, gasping. Hang on!

But I slid the slide slowly, pieces falling, chunks, who I thought I was and thought I wanted, sloughing from me, burning, burnt, exhausted, cast off, vertical slipping, slide down. When I let go, I relinquished but didn’t give in.

(that tiny flame somewhere, so far inside— still there burning—white hot and searing)
and landed here, Thailand, teaching. No more pushing, striving—just be and be renewed, renewed for writing, singing, performing, loving. That little white heat inside held itself to me, my soul heart beating a torch forced, examined, to acknowledge, reconcile me to that thing I love most. Forced me to admit, acknowledge, embrace:
I love singing. I love performing. I love writing.

And the breath of that tiny flame roared back, “Girl, thank you, love these, honor them, DO them.”

And I promised I would never again deny that I can write, sing, and perform. I love these. LOVE. And I am good at them.
Love to word wrestle and melody make. Love practicing a song over and over until it is seared into me. Am smitten when wrapped in that silver chain connecting a soul and mind to the ether flame where forged all great lines, turns of phrase, melodies.

Money, profit are not connected, here, not related to this. Money, no relationship to love. I embrace the fact that honoring these truths—all this love—may not ever be profitable. I accept this.

But I must: love writing, love singing, love performing. That’s all I need to do.



No more money-competition-blah-blah-blah, who’s-who-what’s-what. NO MORE!
I love what I do and that is enough.

All this thinking and singing out loud on the bike in the short mile from home to Big’s bar… No one was there when I arrived, an empty 10 o’clock Tuesday. Roofed but open-sided, the night breezes pass gently, street noises drift subtle—this is not China, the air is not loud, but soft with easy bursts of laughter, sweet with big, whole-toned Thai pop…parked by the frog pond, the bike leaning against slightly leaking cement. The pond, cluttered with jungle plants, a desk, maybe, other random furniture?… sang to him, the frog, this new understanding of honor, love, expression— his low croaks, rhythmic and resonant, intoning agreement, like how butterflies know when you know of them and they flirt and hover so closely, teasing with their awareness…

a Steady Boat, part of the collaboration…Sam.

…and then chatted with owners Big and Champ, who were busy working on their first edition of Surat’s new art, music and culture

passing it on

from one to the next

magazine—deliberately lo-fi and hand-drawn indie but assembled deftly in latest InDesign crack. These guys, four total, alties bent over screens, smoking cigarettes, gesturing and speaking fast Thai, a pause, exhale, laughter and cigarette smoke. Through the speakers, Dylan croaked Maggie’s Farm, and Marley wailed, then Brandi Carlyle.  Joni Mitchell.  Indigo Girls? And  Sarah Mclachlan—an ENTIRE Sarah McLachlan album/mix (the one with the rainbow connection). Girl music, these guys?  Softies for Sarah and the rainbow chicks…

Behind the counter Big turns down the music and  hands me his classical guitar: Play.

And so I did…sang for them until midnight while they worked on layout, ads and design. I let it all out, the real love …because I really,

really have to sing….because I love to sing…I love to share this love for singing, music…got lost in words and singing, the rhythmic frog honking, floor fans blowing. Two hours passed? Honest, unobtrusive, the sound tapestry for the working art-alti-writerly-Surat fringe trust.

As I gathered my things to leave, Big grabbed my hands and all alive and serious says, “You need to sing. Your voice can help people.”

koh tao super sunset

koh tao super sunset

Cannot speak words to respond.  Instead, a warm smile, pause, bow head: Gratitude, grateful for the compliment—perhaps the best thing ever heard after singing, really, like someone had faithfully peered through, knew and felt all the psychic battles, wars waged and recent reconciliation of the soul. That, really, more than anything I want this love—this singing, song, writing—to be soothing and healing. To help. As if Big got all of this and knew beyond the language and culture gap the kindest, most genuine thing to say—like he knew what my soul needed to hear.

That’s what love does. One of the things, anyway. It  helps people.

It does.

It transcends.

It heals.


12 plants 3 passenegrs 1 bike

12 plants 3 passenegrs 1 bike

The Story from Josephine Johnson on Vimeo.

Golden Gate at sunset, August 9, 2011

Golden Gate at sunset, August 9, 2011

Part of this post is about spirituality and the interconnectedness of all life, especially among animals including humans; the other part is about travel and how unexpected ‘setbacks’ are never really setbacks but opportunities for learning. Mostly, this post is about how spiritual insight, reverence and understanding often come through travel.

I was raised Christian, believe in God, Jesus and the Bible. But I also think there’s more to it, not that

Jos, Alcatraz, SF

Jos, Alcatraz, SF

Jesus and the Bible aren’t enough. I believe, though, that spiritual traditions in addition to Christianity possess important knowledge for growth.  For me, I can’t deny the profound connection I have with animals—birds, horses, cows, cats, dogs, snakes, bumble bees—all of them. Yet the flavor of Christianity I grew up with embraces the idea of human dominion, emphasizing how animals are at humans’ disposal to do with them as we will. This notion has NEVER set with me. Ever. To me it condones poor treatment and brutality.

And really, all living things respond positively to patience, kindness and calmness. They just do. If you want something to come to you, never yell for it. Think about that. Why would a run-away dog or cat ever return home to an angry voice calling its name?. This knowing, empathy and feeling of connected-ness when I interact with animals comes straight from God.  At least that’s how it feels, that animals are a gift requiring love, respect and kind treatment in the same way as any human.

The queen Mama who granted entry.

The queen Mama who granted entry.

In January 2011 I traveled in Laos and had two profound animal-focused experiences that I’m sure God, Jesus, Buddha and the Universe had everything to do with.

In a small rice paddy outside of Nong Kiew, I sat with thirteen or so water buffalo one afternoon.  After negotiating with the dominant cow—horns and all, snorting and stamping the ground—she let me close enough for the herd to smell and lick my face, hands, head.  A white calf rubbed against my back and lay down, dangling his hoof over my knee.  As if they were over-sized, cloven-hoofed puppies, they let me sit in their midst, and I felt an undeniable connection to God, the earth and the animals so close. I felt as if they, like me, were very much emotionally connected to the moment, that they really liked me.  And this realization moved me to tears: how similar life is on this planet, how our atoms and basic building blocks are all the same across species, how animals must have an emotional structure similar to humans’. How there is something holy and sacred connecting all life because when I look into the eye of a buffalo I see love and know that God is good.

Or perhaps I was just sweaty, and their enthusiasm for me was of a more practical design—maybe they so

The Utah hosts fabulous open-mic each Monday---sign-up starts at 7:00. Get there early to get on the list.

The Utah hosts fabulous open-mic each Monday---sign-up starts at 7:00. Get there early to get on the list.

liked me because I was at their disposal, a human salt lick.

The second animal-inspired moment happened a few days later in Luangphrabang, when I saw two men taking a hog off to slaughter. She was squealing high-pitched like a human. They were kicking her. In a flash it occurred that we should never treat poorly anything that will be taken into our bodies. An animal about to die for meat needs respect. Another flash—so long as I do not know how an animal is treated before and during its slaughter, I cannot take it into my body. Taking in mistreated and disrespectfully handled flesh dishonors the spirit of the animal.

These came so suddenly and with such force that they felt from God.

Pacific Trade Winds Hostel, in the heart of Chinatown, great staff!

Pacific Trade Winds Hostel, in the heart of Chinatown, great staff!

At the risk of sounding like a hokey-religio-spiritual-northern-California-fruit-nut-seed-eater (oh geeze), these experiences and the insight they brought made very clear part of my purpose in this life. I love animals. They are so close and similar to us, and I’m certain part of why I’m here is to honor all creatures and to help humans understand that, hello, we’re all animals, and we have way more in common with non-human life (yes, even plants) than not. Sitting with the buffalo, watching the pig taken to slaughter almost instantaneously altered my world view and how I consider the relationship between my body and the food I put into it. All drama aside, these experiences were pivotal in making me vegetarian.

And what does this have to do with travel and San Francisco? Two days “stranded” in the City, and I met folks from different spiritual persuasions who were also vegetarians.

Traveling back from my friends and family in Georgia, my connecting flight from Dallas to San Francisco was delayed making it impossible to catch Greyhound to Humboldt. But it gets better. The flight attendants announced that the now-delayed flight was overbooked and asked if anyone would be willing to give up a seat? Yes, I raised my hand! Fifteen minutes later the Universe winked, God smiled and Buddha laughed—I scored a $300 ticket voucher good for a year anywhere in the U.S. Better still, at the SF airport information kiosk, there was a

Hosteling International, Fisherman's Wharf

Hosteling International, Fisherman's Wharf

list of every hostel in the City. The seventh phone call yielded the last dorm bed at the Pacific Trade Winds Hostel in Chinatown.

And then two days in SF turned into a random adventure of spiritual connections and conversations.

Breakfast at Fisherman's Wharf Hostel

Breakfast at Fisherman's Wharf Hostel

The gentleman on the BART was catholic (and vegetarian), and talked about how he loved the ritual and formality involved in his faith, and then he said, “Surely, you’re an old soul.”  To which I responded, “You’re Catholic. That doesn’t make any sense. Aren’t you declaring something outside of, contrary to, your faith?”

And we laughed at the apparent religious (cognitive?) dissonance—the ritual-loving, re-incarnation-believing Catholic . He responded with something like, “I don’t have the answers. A lot of it is beyond any human understanding, but I like Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is involved.” And then we launched into a discussion about the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, and we both agreed it best to bring forth what is within, to wear your soul on the outside. We laughed. Shove me in the shallow water, please, that 45 minute BART ride into the City. Wow.

Then, that evening the Jewish doctor at the Hotel Utah—after discussing zealous Christians, the debt debacle, China, whiteness as property,

mural, Chinatown

mural, Chinatown

and fishing rights on the Klamath River—he asked when I knew I was an artist. (Huh? But we weren’t talking about art. Wait, wha?) ”When did you know you were doing what you should be doing?” He asked more directly. “You came in here with a guitar. Your guitar.”

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, CA, August 9, 2011

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, CA, August 9, 2011

Ok, got me. That question. I think I’ve always known this and for too many years have refused to embrace it. I’ve banged my head against thick walls trying to be something I’m not. To Answer your question, Justin, it wasn’t until you backed me into the corner that I realized I’ve been an artist all my life, and yes, I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing—writing, thinking, singing, talking to animals and meeting people. You recognized it, and now I see it and am just now able to understand that it’s all art to me. Living my life is art. Got it. So, yeah, thanks.

market, Chinatown

market, Chinatown

On Tuesday the bus to Humboldt was sold out. I called every hostel in San Francisco—the last one had one dorm bed left for the night. On the #30 bus to Fisherman’s Wharf, I met a young man on his way to martial arts class. He knew where the hostel was, and since it was a few blocks from the bus stop he happily walked me there. He laughed at the stuff I had—a backpack, two shoulder bags and a guitar, really not much for 16 days of travel but a hefty load for a petit woman jockeying the bus and hiking San Francisco’s streets. I took some veggies from a bag and shared them. He was Buddhist and studying a form of martial arts that used swords. He knew all about the Shaolin Temple in China.

As we walked the discussion came around to food and what we put into our bodies. “The most sacred thing we do

Cosmic reminder: in Tan's "Joy Luck Club," Waverly Jong was named after this street. Waverly's family attended the First Chinese Baptist Church.

Cosmic reminder: in Tan's "Joy Luck Club," Waverly Jong was named after this street. Waverly's family attended the First Chinese Baptist Church.

each day is eat and drink,” Jon said, “being mindful of what I eat is an act of reverence.” And he continued. Buddhism for him is a lifestyle in which he strives to live in a way that minimizes suffering toward others.  “There is no separation,” he said, “our culture and technology creates barriers that haven’t always been.” (Yes, I wrote this down, his quote. I wanted to get his words right.) According to Jon, the fear, anger, and pain of slaughter are unhealthy for life—choosing not to eat meat helps keep these negative energies away. That’s what he thinks, what his faith advocates.

The point of all of this is how travel, if you let it, brings amazing opportunities to connect with and learn from people, and I think it significant that each of these conversations revealed something profoundly spiritual about the speaker. That each of these folks I met was vegetarian surely must be more than



coincidence. God, Buddha, Jesus and the Universe work in mysterious ways—in all of this I choose to see the adventures and insight gained as nothing less than the miracle of God working in my life. But I will leave it to you to draw your own conclusions from this story, leave it to you to find your own truth, leave it to you to make your life your own spiritual masterpiece. Living is art.

Peace & carrots,


“Let’s just be honest and open instead of burying our heads in the sand while huge companies do crappy things to creatures that are just as smart and personable as our cats or dogs.”  Sam McKee

impaired clearance

impaired clearance...yeah, right?

Buddha, Jesus Both Rode Donkeys

Here’s a cover of KT Tunstall’s ‘Through the Dark.’  Enjoy! by Josephine Johnson

Peace, Shaolin Temple

Phew, what a trip—I just returned from three days and two nights with twenty-five foreign teachers visiting the Longmen Grottoes, Shaolin Temple, White Horse Temple, and national Peony Festival in Hunan Province, China. Our university, XISU, provided the tour bus and planned the meals, over-night accommodations, itinerary, and guides. Pretty much all we had to do was show up each morning. It was good. And sometimes intense. Half the group was retired couples who are also Mormon while the rest of us were a ragtag collection of late 20 something-ers, early 30s folks, an outspoken Jewish man, and a law student from Australia. This range of age, experience, politics, and religious persuasions made for some heated conversations at times. Our bus garbage perhaps best conveys the potential for interpersonal meltdown—multiple cans Red Bull, empty Metamucil, one pair broken ipod ear buds, prunes (numerous pouches), one tube screamin’ pink mascara. Yeah, pink mascara. It’s baaack. (It was in the trash, though…)

I hung in the back while the Mormon couples and folks over 50 stayed to the front. In the back of the bus I

Buddha, White Horse Temple, Hunan China

got the low down on places to pick up attractive, no–strings-attached-yet-not-prostitute-Chinese-girls; where to go for best-eats-for-real-cheap Muslim food; and why renewing your visa in Hong Kong is better than renewing in Beijing (see above discussion points).

But after a while I plugged in, tuned out, and sunk into ‘Lost on Planet China’, a travel narrative by J. Maarten Troost that accurately pegs contemporary, mainland China. Ah, the Chinese—loud, spitting, sometimes tacky and always occupied with making Yuan. I sound like a cultural bigot when I say this, but the author adeptly wraps this truth and ugliness in some fine humor and illustrative anecdote. I spent four of the six hours on the bus laughing out loud to Troost’s witty prose. It’s that real and on the mark. And very much backs up my experiences and thoughts on loogie hacking, squat toilets, and the general spiritual void in China. Check it out—Lost on Planet China, by J. Maarten Troost—It’s funny, honest, and more.

former Shaolin monk---spry at 83

As much as I wanted to take Troost with me to lunch, I had to put him down when we stopped at the Chinese truck stop. Yes, our tour group dined at the Chinese equivalent of the Flying J but with cafeteria-style noodles, rice, veggies, and meat instead of buffet mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, baby back ribs, and pork chops. No slot machines, belt buckles, troll doll key chains, or greasy blueberry muffins either. This was an authentic Chinese experience.

The Chinese eat and rest from noon to 2:00 every day. That’s just how it’s done. So, of course, since our driver was Chinese, we stopped a little past noon just as all the truck drivers and traveling families were also pulling off the road and readying for noodles, joudza, rice, lo mien, and stir-fried whatever. The truck stop was packed. Enter, then, a load of foreigners, clearly encroaching and disrupting the routine of these working Chinese men’s good lunch break. They were not happy with us.

We lined up with our metal trays and waited patiently as the serving line inched forward. But Chinese, especially Chinese men,

White Horse Temple, Hunan, China

are not keen to wait in line. Ever. According to some of my teacher friends who also worked on the 2008 Beijing Olympics, some Chinese had to have special training in line queuing. Forming a line and waiting one’s turn is not a common cultural practice in China. What most westerners learned in kindergarten, many Chinese are now having to learn as adults, especially as China becomes a global business nexus. The men at the truck stop apparently hadn’t been at the Beijing Olympics special queuing classes.

The great wizard, Buddha, Santa, Elf

So, there we were, twenty-five foreigners and some fifty, sixty Chinese truck drivers. They elbowed their way into our nice line, and some of the teachers elbowed right back. There was an explosion of angry Chinese, and two empty trays fell to the ground. Though I didn’t understand most of it I did catch ‘laowai’— Chinese for ‘outsider’—and this word was spat with much volume and vehemence.

After the serving line skirmish, we sat and ate the worst meal ever prepared in China. All that brawl and elbow defense for a meal too salty, oily, and soggy for consumption, albeit for westerners’ consumption. No one finished. Probably because all the teachers were too busy bitching about the food and “how base, rude, and ill-mannered they are”. Ok, if the Chinese are “rude” and “base,” then this is true, too—westerners are far too frequently elitist snobs expert at bitching— incessant bitching,—and pointless complaining (myself included).  Nothing is ever good enough for westerners. Ever. Ever. And though I can hold my own and bitch with the best of them, sometimes I just can’t. And this was one of those times.  So, I excused myself and went outside for a breather and to have a laugh at the all too real surrealism that was about to melt this Chinese truck stop.

And that’s when I saw the donkeys.

Kuan Yin, Buddhist goddess of compassion, White Horse Temple, Hunan China

Kuan Yin, Buddhist goddess of compassion, White Horse Temple, Hunan China

Here’s where this story takes a very different turn because I did not expect to go outside and see a hundred or more donkeys crammed into a livestock truck doubtless on their way to some one’s dinner plate (donkey is eaten here) via a barbarous Xi’an slaughter house. I just wanted to step outside, take a break, and have a laugh at the cultures duking it out back inside. I was not expecting to be called to minister as Mother Theresa to a truck load of sad, emaciated donkeys headed to the butcher. But that’s exactly what happened, or what I did, or who I was. Or something like that. I don’t know. But I do know that when I saw them, nothing else mattered, and I knew I had to go to them to talk, sing, and share happy thoughts with them because the donkeys were all too aware of where they were headed.

And I could feel that the best gift I could give at that moment was to be as kind and loving

Ya'll need some grace? Let's sing it. We'll be amazing. Love.

as possible. To be the best, happiest, and most loving Josephine I could be for those donkeys. Really, I felt this. As much as I would have liked, I could not cry. And yeah, my heart hurt, but I remained strong and laughing and sucked it up. For them. Some with their noses pointed toward the outside rails lifted their weak heads, nostrils gently flaring, and took in my scent. They wanted me to touch them. And so I did. I climbed the railing and touched their muzzles, flanks, backs, and tails and told them nice things and laughed and sang. I whispered to them, in effect, that not all humans sucked, that though many had drained the life from them, these now-broken, depleted donkeys, not all humans are crass, cruel, careless, and unloving. I promise, I said. Then I sang a funky, upbeat, soulful Amazing Grace. And they loved me, and I them.

This one wanted to go to the temple with us. He loved us :)

He wanted to go to the temple with us. He loved us 🙂

Allergies and a nasty spring head cold had conspired to make me simultaneously runny-nosed and congested. So, when I turned my head to sneeze (didn’t want to offend or infect the donkeys—dignity in their final hours) did I realize that some of my Mormon colleagues were watching and listening. For a moment I was aware of how kooky-granola-northern-California I must look clinging to the rails of the truck clad in pink paisley skirt and bright yellow Steelhead SpecialT-shirt—clearly, the antithesis of wholesome Mormon conviction and spirituality.

But without missing a beat, and with much purpose, I said, “I’m singing to them. I’m giving them my love right now.”

“We know.” And they continued standing, my Mormon friends, keeping vigil with me.

In a few moments, Mary, my boss, slowly approached and said softly in my ear, “Just wash your hands when you’re done. This is China.”

This is China, right? Birthplace of SARS and avian flu—point made, point taken. Thanks, Mary.

Buddha was a teacher.

Surreal as it was, the whole situation proceeded as if it were the most natural thing for me to do—to go and comfort miserable animals as they headed toward death. I could feel the donkeys, and they could feel me, and most powerfully I could feel they needed the presence of something, someone, compassionate who could embrace the ugliness and still love them. And sing. That my colleagues—the Mormons—seemingly condoned all this was perhaps equally as surreal as my singing Amazing Grace through the rails of a vehicle laden with donkeys headed to a slaughter house in China.

It was all heart-breaking, gross, and so very modern China.

Just when you think all is lost and there's no use in speaking...

Well, if I haven’t completely creeped you out with all this donkey talking, death, and slaughter stuff, then perhaps…you’ll keep reading? I’ve more pictures below from this trip. I hope you enjoy, and please, go hug a donkey, sing to a tree, and love your neighbor. Don’t suck. 🙂 ~Jos

Mary, please don't hate me. But I had to do this--it was just too good a photo. Have fun in Kashgar. We will miss you. Rugs? Can you?! ~Jos 🙂

Student monk, Shaolin Temple, kung fu meditation

Buddha statuary, Longman Grotto, Louyang, China

Pagoda forest, Shaolin Temple

by Josephine Johnson

It’s 8:00 am Saturday, March 26th, and I’m waiting at the gate of Xi’an International Studies University for Professor Songtao Guo. Dr. Guo has invited me to join

Golden Monkey Research Station, village somewhere in the Qin Lings

him and a Beijing research team on a trip to the Golden Monkey Research Station in the Qin Ling Mountains. I’m at my university’s main gate. And so are 1000 or more students. There’s a national language exam today, and my university is one of the test sites—the plaza, sidewalk, and surrounding streets are jammed with impatient motorists and students rushing to the exam building. There’s no way the team will be able to pick me up here. After a quick call to Dr. Guo, we agree I should take a taxi to the highway ring road and meet there. A half hour later, I’m riding shot gun in a Toyota 4Runner headed to the research station.

Road to Research

For two hours we travel south. The Qin Lings to the east are discernibly jagged on this rare, very clear day, and as we turn and begin winding into the mountains, the paved highway gives way to gravel and dirt. We travel two more hours on a washboard one lane path, the 4Runner often within inches of the road’s edge. After a series of hairpins, deep ruts, and a steep climb, we arrive. The research station rests on a knoll in a valley within a village of approximately forty people.

Research Station

Dr. Guo has been researching the golden monkey, also called the snub-nosed monkey, for the past ten years and has made key behavioral and genetic observations of the species. He and his advising professor have worked tirelessly for more than twenty combined years to develop the research

Grand Views, Epic Food--Cooks Shed

station into a flagship for golden monkey research. Primatologists from all over the world, including researchers from Cornell and the San Diego Zoo, visit the station to observe the monkeys and learn. And today, two researchers from Beijing are on board to assist with new subcutaneous tracking equipment. The team from Beijing will help with data collection and processing that the tracking equipment monitors. The golden monkey is an endangered species and is threatened most by human encroachment and loss of habitat. The tracking equipment will aid the researchers in better understanding the range and habitat use of the monkey.

Primate Research

As Dr. Guo and the Beijing team

Dr. Gou & New Equipment

begin unpacking and cataloging the new equipment, I take a quick walk around the grounds. The research facility is spacious, tidy, and accommodates seven to eight researchers. Once the equipment is photographed, Dr. Guo, a graduate student, the Beijing researchers, and I hit the trail and head toward the monkeys.

“I remember my first winter in the field with two other undergraduates,” reminiscences Guo, “we only had tents. In the middle of the night they went down the mountain to get warm. They said they would be back in the morning, but they didn’t come back. They went home they got so cold. But I stayed.” Dr. Guo smiles, “Now, ten years later there’s a nice research facility with electricity, and it’s known all over the world.” He pauses, “OK, primatologists and researchers know about it.” He chuckles and walks ahead of me.

To the Monkeys

As we hike out of the village and into the forest, we encounter a black, four-door Volkswagen Jetta on the dirt trail. It pulls up to us, stops, and I see four policemen, under thirty, clad in neat black uniforms. Dr. Guo, ever smiling, approaches and hangs his head in the open back passenger window. They talk

The Village

for several minutes. Though he is still beaming, the twinkle is gone from Dr. Guo’s eye when he comes away from the vehicle. In a cheery voice he says we should keep walking. A bit further up the path we encounter several high-end, parked vehicles, one of which is a BMW. Another is a Lexus. As we pass by, Guo says nothing.

Drying Corn

Dr. Guo begins telling me about the group of golden monkeys we’re about to see. He explains that there are two populations—the east population and the west population—and that we’ll be observing the west group. This population is more habituated to humans and we’ll be able to get very close to them. They might even approach us.

Guo continues, “The social structure of this species is unlike any other primate. The larger social group consists of smaller family groups headed

Two Female Golden Monkeys

by one male.” He explains that a family group will have one male, seven or eight females, and two or three babies or juveniles. The west group has ten primary males, so there are about one hundred animals total in this social group. There are also fifteen bachelor males outside the main social group. These males are waiting for their chance to take over a family unit.

And then there is a sound like a large house cat meowing.

The Big Guy

“There,” Guo stops abruptly. “That is the monkey.”

We continue hearing them though they remain hidden as we cross a dry wash. And then as we emerge from the boulders, I catch a glimpse of golden fur in bare branches.  Suddenly, all over I see monkeys. In the trees, on the ground, some stretched on rocks in the sun. Golden monkeys, everywhere.

There are also people, a bunch of people—sixteen, maybe eighteen people with huge cameras

Monkey Family

and telephoto lenses. They are crowding around the animals clicking and noise-making attempting to get them to look in their cameras.

“These are friends, rich friends, of the village officials. Part of Chinese culture,” says Guo. He’s steadfast in his smile but discernibly crestfallen. And I put it together. The SUVs must belong to these people.  The village police must have accepted some kind of payment so these people could come and take pictures of the monkeys. Ah, part of the culture. Typically, only researchers are allowed here not tourists or weekend photo vacationers.

Regardless, Dr. Guo is bent on making this awkward situation as educational as possible. He knows each individual monkey in this group and has known them for years, and he uses these years of study and observation as a springboard to educate the uninitiated photographers. I watch as he


goes from person to person pointing to the monkeys, presumably


explaining aspects of behavior and other bits of important biological information. His animated explanations can’t help but catch and demand attention.  The photographers relent and listen.

Eventually, Guo returns and explains in English to me and a Chinese graduate student his observations of one female monkey that set the social hierarchy on end. One female in this social group, he

Big Conversation

explains, is considered so desirable that she actually has more power than several of the primary males. And he knows this because she will be able to eat first or will have access to better tree branches and resting spots.

So Much Alike

Usually, he explains, the males hold the highest rank in a family group, and they eat first and generally direct the action of the family group. Then, among primary males of a social group, there is yet another hierarchical ranking. But this one female holds enough social sway to be akin to a middle-ranking primary male. I wonder what desirable attributes grant her so much power? But before I can pose this question, Guo is off to another group of people, pointing, explaining, smiling.  The grad student and I remain standing and smiling, positively beaming at how Dr. Guo has turned this research-wrecking photo-op into a finely managed, most important teachable moment.

Of course, behavioral research, genetic study, and close scrutiny of familial associations go a long way in developing a cohesive body of knowledge about a species, knowledge that will ultimately be used to protect and preserve it in the race against extinction. But maybe just as important as field research and scholarly publication, when it comes to protecting a species, is an adroit spokes person who can give voice to the story of an animal or species. Watching Dr. Guo flit from group to group gesticulating, smiling and explaining drives this point home. His work with the golden monkey, no

Not Just a Bump on a Log

doubt, provides baseline information crucial to the species survival. But Dr. Guo’s ability to translate years of observation into insightful, easily understood, and often witty anecdotes is just as important. He knows the monkey’s story. And because he is able to share these monkey tales with such accurate and unabashed enthusiasm—his adept story-telling ability will also go a long way toward protecting the golden monkey.

It’s after 4:00, and the sun has fallen behind the mountain. We walk back to the research station, and I’m in awe of how much I’ve learned, how close I’ve gotten to so many golden monkeys, how I am now (and so are you!) a small part of their story. And I’m thankful to have been invited on such an adventure. Thank you, Dr. Guo. You’re so much more than Professor and primatologist—you’re a primate protector, golden monkey savior, and perfect interspecies ambassador.  🙂  ~Jos


Oh, primates & their tools...

April marks six months of being here, so it’s probably time for that “what-have-I-learned-since-I’ve-been-in-China” post. I think

What did you just say?

this is that.  What I’ve learned. No quiz.

I Get Around

where I want to go by myself has been an adventure in communication.  Yep, I’ve learned how to negotiate the bus system and can pretty much get to gigs and other places as I need to. I’ve kind of learned how to take taxis to different parts of the city, too, though I’ve gotten lost a couple times. Once on the way to a gig—I thought I said one thing when in fact I didn’t. Oops. Arrived somewhere and had no idea where I was and couldn’t say anything to indicate where I really needed to be.  Thank goodness I have awesome colleagues I can call (put a mark on the wall: I have a cell phone) who not only speak Chinese but who are also willing to help me untangle transportational miscommunications regardless of the time. (Thank you, Josh, Krystal.)  But mostly I take the bus and get where I need to be no problem.

Work It Out


I’ve learned there are certain things I have to do every day or else I will go crazy. Really, I mean crazy.  It probably goes without saying that singing, playing guitar are daily requirements; writing, getting outside, socializing also gotta happen every day. But the biggie? I have to exercise.  In Humboldt, I ride my bike for miles and hours. I’m used to extended physical exertion, so of course, I would need to keep exercising in China. Duh, right? I thought I would buy a bike when I got here but had to re-think that. The traffic here is crazy—I mean crazy—crazier-than-I-am-if-I -don’t-exercise, crazy.  Because I know people at home love me and that I would be putting my life in extreme jeopardy were I to take these streets as an inexperienced rider, I decided against the bike. I joined a gym instead. It’s nothing like biking—especially nothing like riding in Humboldt—but it works for now. Plus, it provides fodder …

*Gym tangent—Gyms in China are a pretty new phenomenon. Mine’s only a year old. So, gym etiquette that I’ve come to expect (and appreciate!) just ain’t happening.

...in front of spin room

 Example? The thigh abduct machine (you know the one) is located outside the entrance of the glass-fronted spin classroom. At 7:00 pm the class begins, and if you’ve poorly timed your

workout to be on the thigh machine at any point during spin class, you’ve set yourself up for an eighth degree ogling.  So, there it is, 7 o’clock, and I’m doing inner and outer thigh exercises in front of the spin room. Ladies behind me bent over stationary bikes, posteriors raised.  And there’s a line of eight, twelve, guys in front of me their eyes darting from the thigh master to the spinners behind me. They are nearly immobilized, standing, staring…drooling? Then one approaches me—while I’m on the machine, mid-thigh master motion—and in jerky English asks if I would play ping pong with him.  Yep, ping pong. Is this euphemism??

Humboldt, I Need You

But I think the greatest life lesson so far is fully understanding how important my relationships are at home.  Earlier this year a dear friend passed away unexpectedly, and it was not possible for me to get back to the States. The experience made me stop and examine how I express love and appreciation to the people I care about most. Admittedly, I’m not often the most demonstrative in my relationships. But I do care. A lot. And when you’re in a foreign country without any training in the language, no friends or people who know you, it makes you appreciate the folks at home who have taken the time to really get to know you, warts and glories.  And when you don’t have those folks around anymore, it


makes you realize that you probably had a lot of love that you took for granted.  It makes you appreciate how when you’re home you can go to Has Beans and strike up a conversation—in English!—with nearly anyone because you know just about everybody who’s there. Or how you can go to Old Town Coffee and Chocolates and spend Wednesdays with your music pals at open-mic with Sky. Or in Eureka how you can walk down A Street to the waterfront and stop and chat with your neighbors about their beautiful rhododendrons and spring iris. You can talk to their cats, too, and call out to the ravens on the light pole without anyone thinking you’re too weird. Even though you probably are, but because it’s Eureka, and you’re wearing an orange hat and cute calico skirt, they figure you must be harmless, which you are unless you haven’t exercised. In which case you’re crazy which is still perfectly acceptable in Eureka.

You can stay here. Visit.

But the point is I miss my home and all the people who have been kind and loving to me.


Terri, you, me ginger weasels, lunch.  Lyndsey, music!!!   Leslie, art night, your yard, making messes. Joe Shermis, poetic response always. Sarah, I miss your sweet voice. Seven-o-Heaven, I just miss your dorkiness? Something like that…Yo, Goff, bass? Guitar? Startare, drums, yes?  Valerie, do you know how many times you held my spirit? Frankie H. 🙂   Renee, January, tree spirits. Sabrina, voice of reason, rationale. Gretchen, hey you’re a ginger, too—lunch! Rose, scones and all your goodness—you’re a goddess.

I can’t wait to be that weird, geeky bird girl neighbor again, camera in hand, singing.  But in the meantime, I did raise my hand for this, and the brave little soldier remains steadfast.  I have a mission—preparing firs t year Chinese college students for Humboldt State.

I’ve geeks to make.

Geek on!

Much love from China, ~Jos

*Centered pic? It’s what it’s like taking the bus to gigs around Xi’an–they’re always packed!

the bus to Belgian Bar

With a hard-case guitar even...to the Belgian Bar, to music!

Back in China now, ready to rock, teach.

**Friday, February 25 I play a fundraiser for the Library Project.

8:00 to 10:00 pm Belgian Bar, South Gate Xi’an, China.**

If you’ve been following, you know from last month’s post (phew, a month!) that my friend and colleague

Josephine Johnson

Going to the bus station--Travelers: do not walk to Vientiane's north terminal...

sunset, Nong Khiew

sunset, Nong Khiew

Clinton Powell passed away quickly and unexpectedly at the beginning of the year. His passing overwhelmed me with more than a few dark nights of the soul here on the other side of the world. Being alone and grieving unable to get back to the States in honor of Clinton and all our goodtimes left me wondering what’s the point in my being in China? What do I really want to do? What am I doing here?

So, I got out of China to make sense of it all.

I traveled mostly in northern Laos exploring the countryside, visiting temples and learning about religious belief systems and tribal people. Buddhism, animism, and interestingly enough, Christianity are all present and

Special Tree

Special Tree, Nam Ou River on the way to Nong Khiew

in some places combined. In a village outside of Nong Khiew, I met people who seem to have combined the most positive attributes of all three systems—the best of Buddha, Jesus (Catholic-flavored Christ, remnant of French colonial presence late 19th/ early 20th century), and jungle and animal spirits. It seemed to make for very kind and compassionate people—hiking alone on trails, roads, and waterfalls I encountered people eager to share sticky rice and fruit and practice English. Most folks I met, if they spoke English, liked to tell me about their village, customs, and people and national history. I learned a lot.

For example, did you know that Laos is the most bombed country in the world? 2.8 million tons of ammunition were dropped on the country, especially around Phonsavahn and in Xieng Khouang Province, thanks to American involvement in Viet Nam in the 1960s and 1970s. Because the Laos government (still communist) supported Viet Nam’s communist regime, this justified U.S. bombers dumping bombs and

birdhouse in my soul

spirit shrine: Buddhism & animism meet *They Might Be Giants, proud

ammunition that was unable to be dropped on Viet Nam. It worked like this: The U.S. had an air base in northern Thailand where bombing missions were flown from. If a plane was unable to drop its payload on a target in Viet Nam, it would instead dump bombs over northern Laos as it returned to base in Thailand. Mission pilots were instructed to do this because it was allegedly too dangerous to land with a plane full of unexploded ordinance.

As I listened to this explanation, I wondered why couldn’t pilots just drop the stuff in the ocean? Not a perfect

rice paddy

rice paddy, on the road between Luangphrabang & Phonsavahn, Laos

solution but so much better than dropping bombs on civilian subsistence rice farmers and villagers. In Xieng Phouang Province tons of unexploded ordinance remain from bombing missions run between 1964 and 1973. Currently, as many as 300 villagers are mortally wounded each year working their rice paddies—bombies, small explosives from cluster bombs that never exploded, remain buried in the mud, and in the springtime children, rice farmers, and water buffalo are the unfortunate ones to stumble upon and detonate them. Mostly, it’s children who find them.

If you want to learn more about this little-told story of American/ South East Asian history, check out this BBC documentary. And check out the British-based MAG website.

Plain of Jars, Phonsavahn, Laos

Plain of Jars, Phonsavahn, Laos

Phonsavahn also has its beauty. The Plain of Jars, multiple sites of large sandstone-carved funerary urns dating from 500 BCE, are especially inspiring. They are breathtaking and full of character, seemingly immovable in the higher, drier climate of Xieng Khouang—elevation here ranges between 3,600 and 5,500 feet making for azure skies, crisp clouds, and bright sun. The landscape is more like an African plain or western U.S. cowboy

Jars & blue skies

Jars & blue skies

outpost than the tropical jungles of South East Asia. But evidence of bombs and bombing remain. Hillsides are cratered from explosions, and cafes and restaurants display detonated bombies as a sort of grisly badge of honor, reminding citizens and tourists of what remains buried some thirty years after the war. Regardless of these scars, the area remains stunning, and the Jars transport the mind to ancient ceremony and respected ritual.

Remnants of the Secret War

Ordinance behind the counter of Phonsavahn guest house

Sobering Fun Facts:

Laos population = 6 million Xi’an, China population = somewhere between 7 & 9 million    China population = 1.3 billion   U.S. population = 300,000,000    Estimated number of cigarette smokers in China = 300,000,000


Little bombies inside big bombs dropped

Luangphrabang in the north central part of Laos is perhaps the best little ‘big’ city in South East Asia. Between 40,000 and 44,000 people live here and it boasts a great night market with quality, inexpensive Laos and Thai food. At the night market you can also find amazing textiles, jewelry, fresh fruits & veggies, all things tiger and elephant inspired. Oh yeah, and great, super-fresh fruit smoothies. I rented a bike here and explored the city and surrounding area.

Moving the Boat, Luangphrabang, Laos

Moving the Boat, Luangphrabang

But the best place for bike exploration is in the valley that cradles Luang Nam Tha in the north. If you’re going by bus from China to Laos and Northern Thailand, this is the first town you’ll encounter. And it’s great, known mostly for its diverse ethnic population—12 different tribes, or ‘ethnic minorities’ as the Laos government labels them, live in this region’s low and highlands.

I was lucky, very lucky. One afternoon I rented a bike and went around the valley and up into one of the highland areas. I ran out of water and had to stop at a Namu village (they sold bottled water). I caught my breath and re-hydrated. I sat and watched matriarchs and young girls gathering materials for making

More than Harvard

Tried to convince her I need to marry into her tribe...

brooms; I watched a woman cut long strips of bamboo for making baskets for steaming sticky rice. They let me recuperate and take photos. We had little language in common, but we exchanged smiles and good feelings. When I asked if there were any young men in the village who might be eligible for marriage, I know the old woman cutting strips of bamboo knew exactly what I’d asked. She smiled and broke into shoulder-shaking laughter. I nodded and said I was serious. She kept smiling and continued cutting bamboo.

collecting materials for brooms

Namu woman carrying materials for making brooms

I mean why not? I know it’s not easy living in a village—it’s hard work, and people die young from disease and malnutrition. I’m not all rose colored glasses about this, but being there for an afternoon sitting silent and watching people, learning what they do, how and why they do it, made me realize how backward we in the West, and in China, are. We spend all this time working to make money to buy food, clothing, shelter, while the Camu and other subsistence tribes work hard to grow their own food, make their own clothes, and build their own homes. I saw people working hard, but I also saw people laughing and engaged in games, some playing cards, some singing. Lots of singing.

You know, there’re mail order Thai, Russian, Chinese brides. Why not mail order American brides wanting to down shift, wanting out of the Western game of progress, more, more, more? Yeah, I know the rice paddies have leeches, and bathing’s always in cold mountain water, but I’d get over it. Yeah. I want to start a new trend—mail order American brides for small tribes. You think I’m joking?

star temple buddha, Luangphrabang

star temple buddha, Luangphrabang

But seriously, it was an amazing adventure, and I’m thankful for the escape and opportunity to meet new people, take photos, and live, breathe, love sunshine and warm temperatures. I thought the break would help me figure out a little better the purpose of being in China teaching right now. Still not so clear. But Being in China did give me the opportunity for this very life-changing adventure, gave me the chance to see an inspiring part of the world which very well may hold more for me in the future.

Josephine Johnson

Josephine Johnson, Village Cafe, Xi'an China, Dec. 2010

Oh, and I play Friday, February 25 at a fundraiser for the Library Project.  8:00 to 10:00 pm Belgian Bar, South Gate Xi’an, China.

*Not quite a mail order bride yet. Too much music in me.

:)Much love, Josephine

New website, too. www.josephine-johnson.com

Taidan River Festival, once every 3 years, Luangnamtha, Laos

Taidan River Festival, once every 3 years, Luangnamtha, Laos

Nong Khiew

Nong Khiew

Luangphrabang sunset

Luangphrabang sunset