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Friday, 01 January 2021

Fortunate Cookies: A Father-Daughter Adventure in China

Written by Eric D. Goodman
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Part 1: Beijing and the Great Wall

 

From Little China to Big

We make a great globetrotting team: a sixteen-year old high school student and a forty-something writer. With the rest of the family, we travel often, normally to places in Western, Central, and Eastern Europe. But this time, it’s a father-daughter trip. And this time, it’s west meets east. We consider ourselves fortunate cookies, to be able to take this exotic trip. Although, admittedly, we never once encountered a fortune cookie in China.

 

The last time we took a big father-daughter trip was about nine years prior when we went to Walt Disney World. At Epcot Center, we visited little China and imagined one day we’d make it to the big one. Finally, we did. The two weeks were even more packed than our line-hopping theme park adventure of nearly a decade before.

 

The weather in China was ideal (65 to 80 degrees the entire time we were there). Most days we got up around 6 a.m. and came back to the hotel around 9 or 10 p.m. We enjoyed delicious, filling breakfasts of east-meets-west each morning at the hotels, fortifying ourselves for the excursions of each day.

 

Glimpsing the Beijing ’Burbs

Our adventure began, as such trips usually do, with a day devoted to travel: a seemingly everlasting flight from New York’s JFK airport all the way to Beijing, China. The nonstop Air China flight took fourteen hours, so we were sleep-deprived when we arrived on the other side of the world. We took advantage of the Chinese movies and folk music selections on the in-flight entertainment, but it’s hard to get very comfortable on a crowded Boeing. At Peking International Airport, we met our tour guide, Lot, who escorted us to our hotel. After that we got a bite to eat and took a stroll around a local neighborhood, taking in the local park, buildings, cafes, and everything the urban suburb had to offer—including the mosquitos! Men and women walked their toy dogs, people did their grocery shopping, and the streets were crowded with scooters, bicycles, and vehicles on their way home from work. It was late when we got back to our hotel, and we were already exhausted from our flight halfway around the world, so we went directly to sleep, ready for our exiting next day exploring Beijing.

  

Nurtured Harmony

To begin our first full day in Beijing, we woke to a delicious breakfast (our favorite breakfast food on the trip) at the Beijing Four Points by Sheraton. The food there was part western style, and part Chinese—everything from eggs and bacon to sticky rice and noodles. The roasted snow plum flavored drinkable yogurt was sweet and tart, the many pastries and bacons delicious.

 

By 7:30 a.m. we were on our way to the Summer Palace, or Yihe Yuan. Originally an Imperial retreat from the bustling city, the palace and grounds are now a public park for all to enjoy. Empress Cixi, or the “dragon lady,” especially enjoyed the summer retreat. She had the palace rebuilt twice: in 1860 and 1902. Today, the palace and grounds form a public park for all to enjoy. Enjoy it we did.

 

It was beautiful and peaceful—easy to understand why an Emperor and Empress would want to escape the busy city for days at a time in a place like this. The Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha capped the slope known as Longevity Hill, an impressive, tree-filled mountain over the water. Statues and sculptures guarded the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, from dragons and deer to peacocks and mythical creatures. The Marble Boat looked magnificent, even if it is made only of wood, painted to appear like marble.

 

We explored the large courtyards with decorative stones, mosaics, trees, and statues of dragons and deer and cranes, natural rock formations that were works of art themselves, sculpted by nature, and the West Side Lake. The straight and narrow outdoor corridor (more than 2,000 feet long) featured thousands of scenic paintings decorating the beams: dragons and phoenixes among the golden and multi-colored images.

 

We climbed a hill to the Garden of Virtue and Harmony. There, a large and lively group of retired people celebrated the morning by playing traditional music, singing, and dancing. A full band sounded as dozens of singers read from songbooks and dozens more danced in circles before the conductor. We were pulled in by some of the older women and danced with them, hand-in-hand, in a circle. It was an exhilarating experience, and the smiles brightened the morning as the sun rose higher in the sky. After a few songs, we escaped the dancing ring and climbed a rocky path to a garden above the singing and dancing people. From there, we got a bird’s eye view of the scene. We learned that these gatherings of retired people happened almost every morning, and it seemed like a great way to start the day off on a positive note.

 

Pearls Before the Americans

After strolling the morning away in the peaceful gardens of the Summer Palace, we went to a pearl factory. We learned how freshwater pearls are harvested and made into jewelry, art, and products. We had the opportunity to see the freshwater clams, and to see how the pearls appear inside. Sometimes a mutation occurs and several pearls grow together, creating a unique look. The pearls come in a multitude of naturally occurring colors. We learned that you can tell a pearl is real when you rub two pearls together—if it’s real, there should be no scratches, and when you wipe it on your thumb, there should be pearl dust. There were a number of unusual and attractive works of art and jewelry on display and for sale, ranging from necklaces and bracelets to inlayed pearl pictures and furniture. It was all for sale at discount prices at the official government-run gift shop exiting the factory tour.

 

I’ll bet Mom would love this.” Not the traditional pearl drops or spheres, but one of the more rare, more unusual, more expensive mutated pearl necklaces with each piece being a natural melding of several pearls into one.

 

Yes, I’ll bet she would.”

 

I like them too.”

 

Yes, I’ll bet you do.”

 

The good news was that the one-of-a-kind strand of pearls was on sale, 50 percent off. The bad news: the price tag, which was several thousand dollars.

 

China is famous for its pearls,” I say to Nicole. “We don’t want to buy the first ones we see.”

 

Rickshaw to a Cricket Lunch

There is a place in the middle, a part of Beijing where lifestyles of the past and of present meet. That part of Beijing is the Hutong.

 

Beijing’s Hutong, or “well water” settlements, are unique in that they present a picture of how everyday Chinese people lived prior to the rapid development of recent decades. The Hutong, located right in the middle of the city, are old alleyway neighborhoods (originally centered around a well) and among the few pre-communist era communities in the city that have not been demolished and rebuilt in the interest of modernization.

 

We enjoyed a rickshaw ride through the narrow Hutong alleyways, taking what once must have been the average Beijing neighborhood less than a hundred years ago. In the Hutong, we visited the courtyard home of Mr. “Cricket Leo,” a master cricket trainer. He introduced us to his champion crickets and grasshoppers, as well as his pet birds, turtles, and many other animals.

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Cricket Leo’s courtyard apartment is typical of Beijing’s courtyard houses. Traditionally, several families share a courtyard. The four walls around the open middle space include the homes of individual families. The walls allowed families to have privacy in their homes as well as moderate privacy outdoors, in their paved courtyards. Leo’s courtyard was paved, and it featured trees, vegetable gardens, flower gardens, and an array of animals such as various birds.

 

Ni Hao,” a few of his birds greeted us as we entered the courtyard garden.

 

Hello,” we said back to them.

 

We ate a traditional meal with lots of dishes, all cooked by Leo’s wife. Both Leo and his wife have been featured in international magazines and newspapers (including the New York Times—which he proudly showed us) for his work as a cricket master and hers as a cook. The lazy Susans on our table were on fire as we passed the dozens of delicious dishes around to share. This was our favorite lunch the entire trip, especially nice because we were being hosted in someone’s private home.

 

A white bust of Mao decked out in a communist red scarf looked down upon us as we ate. Chinese art and statues decorated the dining room. Plants and flowers, teapots and dinnerware—the place was packed. Not to mention the caged crickets, grasshoppers, and free dogs and cats.

 

As we finished our meal, Leo showed off his champion crickets and grasshoppers. He took them from their lavish boxes of polished, inlayed wood and handled them, offering to let us hold them. The grasshopper crawled on his face as he held the crickets in his hands. His prized champion cricket, in what must have been the luxury-apartment of cricket boxes, had top mating privileges, feeding menu, and got five-star treatment.

 

We stepped back into the courtyard with our bellies full, Leo’s birds singing to us from in the courtyard over the sounds of crickets serenading us and sending us on our way back to the two Beijings most people picture: modern city and Imperial past. For one traditional courtyard meal, we were pleased to enjoy a helping of both in one ding pot.

 

After saying goodbye to Cricket Leo, we rickshawed back to our bus and went to inner Beijing to see more of the modern sights of Beijing (the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium, which is more impressive from the outside than inside), and the historic sights of Beijing (the Lama Temple, the Bell and Drum Towers). Then arrived to Beijing’s most popular meeting place and China’s most popular tourist destination, a place where Beijing’s current government rubs right up against it’s Imperial past.


 

The World’s Largest (and Most Controversial) Public Square

As we approached Tiananmen Square, our guide warned us not to talk to openly about politics. Although we saw no signs of oppression during our visit, it still exists today, and tempers flare when the subject of the student protests in the late 1980s is brought up. We were here to visit history, not create it, so we refrained from making any statements and simply looked for the sights to leave impressions on us.

 

Tiananmen Square is the world’s largest public square of its kind. Perhaps it’s most well-known feature is Mao’s Mausoleum, where the refrigerated body of Chairman Mao rests beneath rose-tinted glass and is raised for public viewing on a daily basis. In the center of the square is the picturesque obelisk, the Monument to the People’s heroes. Closing in the sides of the square on either side of the mausoleum and monument, are the China National Museum and the Great Hall of the People—a grand museum and seat of the Chinese legislature, respectively.

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On the far ends of People’s Square are perhaps more notable sites that date further back. On one end is the Qian Men, consisting of an Arrow Tower and the Zhengyang Men, together forming a double gate. The second is now home to a museum of Beijing history.

 

The other end of the square is Tiananmen—the Ming Dynasty gate to the Forbidden City, where Mao’s enormous portrait hangs. This is where Chairman Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It seems the appropriate place for such a declaration, appearing to draw a stark line between the concrete of industrial Tiananmen Square and the elaborate adornments of Imperial China’s Forbidden City.

 

Among the Chinese, it also happens to be the most desirable photo op. Vacationers have snapped photos of themselves and their families, friends, and colleagues with Mao’s portrait hanging on the Heavenly Gate behind them for decades. Most people think of the enormous portrait as “original,” but it actually needs to be repainted and replaced every year due to the effects of weather.

 

Today, Chinese tourists from around the nation asked to have their pictures taken in front of Mao’s portrait with us. Touristy Mao caps crowning us, we let them take some selfies.

 

Permitted Stroll through the Forbidden City

After we explored Tiananmen Square, we approached Mao’s enormous portrait, and walked through the Gate of Heavenly Peace, entering the Forbidden City.

 

Here in the heart of the city, we toured the main line down the center of the official Palace Museum. Completed in 1420 and designed with the harmonious principles of yin and yang, with an eye to nature, the Forbidden City is China’s most masterful work of architecture.

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Every building we crossed in this magnificent place looked fit for an Emperor, from the gates and halls to the offices and storehouses—all decorated in the same style. Even the bathrooms were beautiful. In fact, they were designed to be fit for an emperor.

 

After passing through Meridian Gate, we crossed one of the five marble bridges and proceeded up to the Gate of Supreme Harmony, where the Emperor would receive visitors and sometimes host banquets. Beyond the Gate of Supreme Harmony, we took in the larger courtyard and climbed the stairs to the Hall of Supreme Harmony—the largest hall in the palace and the Emperor’s main throne room. Between the sets of stairs was a long carriageway of carved marble; in the carvings were the images of dragons and pearls and clouds. This carriageway was for the Emperor alone.

 

At the top of the stairs and carriageway, outside the Hall of Supreme Harmony, we marveled at such details as the statues, sundial, bronze cauldrons, and the roof guardians that looked down from the corners of the halls like Chinese gargoyles.

 

Next in the imperial line was the Hall of Middle Harmony, a smaller hall where the Emperor would go before entering the Supreme Hall for ceremonies. All the while, as we took in the halls at the center of the long courtyard, the sides of the palace area was closed in by decorative walls of buildings, making this much like an much classier and more majestic version of the Hutong’s courtyard apartments. It’s said that the Forbidden City features 9,999 rooms and antechambers. It felt as though we stepped back in time to Imperial China.

 

Beyond the Hall of Middle Harmony, we passed by the Hall of Preserving Harmony, and then exited through the Gate of Heavenly Purity. As we left the Palace Museum, we were given one last glimpse as one of the four beautiful arrow towers towered above us and stayed with us—in the distance—for some time as we walked away.

 

Although we were captivated all the while, we spent hours walking through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, not realizing how much time had passed until the sun was setting. All this after visiting the Imperial retreat at the Summer Palace. Such a day could only end with a meal fit for an Emperor. Back at the private dining area at our hotel, we were in for a treat.

 

Peking duck is the region’s specialty, and one of China’s favorite dishes—sort of like a holiday turkey dinner in the United States. After snacking on enough dishes spinning on our lazy Susan to make a meal in itself, our Peking duck was served. The duck was cooked to perfection in a painstakingly precise way to keep the inside juicy and the outside crispy—while allowing the grease to fall away.

 

Once we finished our feast, we were ready to sleep. Duck may not have the same reputation as turkey for making people sleepy, but combined with all of the impressive sights and activities of the day, it certainly sent us quickly on our way to a deep sleep fit for a king—or Emperor.

 

 

Jade-tinted Glasses

After another hearty breakfast, we began another eventful day in Beijing. At the Jade Museum, we learned how jade is harvested, intricately carved, painstakingly polished, and how to tell the difference between real and fake jade. (Notice a trend here? First lessons to detect fake pearls, then jade. Knock-off bags and watches aren’t the only counterfeit items readily available from Chinese street vendors—visitors must watch for fake jade, pearls, and jewelry as well.)

 

So how do tell whether your jade is true? Real jade is much colder and has a higher pitched sound when you flick it. Jade has the some of the same symbolism and emotion that the western world associates with diamonds. Our guide explained that when a Chinese man proposes, he uses a solid jade bangle (or bracelet) instead of a diamond ring.

 

And don’t worry if your jade bangle breaks—it’s actually good luck (especially for the store selling them). The longer you wear a jade bangle, the darker it becomes. The oil from your skin causes the color to change. That’s a far cry better than cheaper jewelry that can change the color of your skin green.


 

Our guide and the museum and shop curators showed us a multitude of items made out of jade, including huge monuments and carved statues and small paperweights and intricately carved statuettes. The pictures and large wall hangings of inlayed jade, depicting historic scenes and landscapes, were a marvel, as was the process of carving multiple items within items within items. Of course, the jade jewelry was popular with visitors. And not all jade is green—the rainbow of colors in some of the inlayed jay pictures was all natural jade. We marveled at pieces carved out of orange and red and purple jade. Now that’s a jade of a different color.

 

Jade comes in different grades as well, and are rated by how hard they are. Jadeite, a form of high-quality jade, is the second hardest substance in the world. A diamond is the first. After the jade tour, we exited through the state-operated gift shop.

 

After all of the sights, our favorite jade remained the traditional, deep green.

 

I’ll bet Mom would like one of these,” Nicole said.

 

I don’t know. It’s a little pricy for something she wouldn’t wear very often.”

 

I could wear it too, sometimes.”

 

Not exactly two for one, but . . .”

 

We ended up buying a traditional jadeite bangle for them to share, figuring there would never be a time when they would each need to wear one at the same time.

 

World’s Greatest Wall

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Locals in Beijing say that if you look to the sky and see blue, you should play your lottery numbers. Pollution has made air conditions harsh, and the forecast on most days—rain or shine—is smoggy.

 

That wasn’t the case on the morning that we left the busy city of Beijing for one of the most visited tourist attractions of China—and the very symbol of the ancient nation’s resolve to protect itself from the outside world.

 

The Great Wall of China was as great as we imagined it would be—and we only saw a tiny portion of it. “Tiny” didn’t seem like the right adjective at the time, however, as we approached and proceeded along a portion of the great stone walkway.

 

The full wall snakes through the mountains and valleys of foliage and desert for thousands of miles. The wall originated as a series of individual walls, but between 221 and 210 B.C., a unified China unified the wall, fortifying the smaller walls already there and connecting them with more wall. Today, it continues to stand as the largest man-made structure in the world.

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The genius of the wall was not that it was so tall and strong. It’s that every single section of the wall is within reach of a bowman’s arrow from a tower, meaning that no part of the wall went unprotected—and that the towers also served as beacons, so it made for an easy and fast way to send an alert from one part of the wall—or China—to another. Messages could be sent quickly from one tower to another by fire, smoke, flares, drums, and bells.

 

Like an ancient instant-messaging app,” our guide offered, cell phone in hand.

 

The wall also offered a means of base and protection for troops traveling from one part of China to another. Camp always remained permanently set just beside them.

 

We felt something like troops ourselves as we sweated our way up the wall at Juyong Pass, perhaps the most popular section of the wall for tourists due to its proximity to Beijing. We climbed narrow and uneven stairs built centuries ago. We made it up through three towers, the crumbling stairs extremely steep and uneven. The railings were so low that only the smallest children could take advantage of them—unless you decided to crawl. It took a lot of effort and energy to walk the wall, even just for a couple hours. It’s a good thing our guide reminded us earlier that morning to wear good footwear (hiking shoes), and gave us water bottles to carry with us as we went. Those bottles were empty by the time we made it back down the wall.

 

We climbed to the top of one of the watchtowers. To get to the top, we had to navigate extremely narrow stairs that were so steep we had to use our hands and feet at the same time, balancing ourselves as we went up and down. They were more like stone ladders than stairs.

 

The most trying part of the wall hike was coming back down. It seemed dangerous, and the slightest slip could send you tumbling down what looked like an endless decent.

 

The view from atop the Great Wall was absolutely alluring and made it worth the risk and effort. We took in the blue sky, the mountains in the distance, trees and nature surrounding us. The wall took advantage of the natural terrain of the hillside, meaning that wherever you stood on the wall, you got the best view in the area. The best view of all: the snaking back and forth of the wall itself through the mountainous distance. Even the birds chirping in the breezy trees above us would probably agree with the panoramic views offered by the Great Wall of China. As a bird landed on the wall’s stone edge, I imagined their calls to one another from one watchtower to another—a love song spreading for thousands of miles.

 

More Cat than Bear

Giant pandas are the most popular animal in the Beijing Zoo, so we were thrilled to get to meet them. The Zoo in Beijing was different than the ones we’re used to in the United States and other western nations we’ve visited. You have to buy a ticket to see the animal you want to see. Tickets are for one animal, or one small group of animals. If you want to see more than one area, you have to buy additional tickets. We were here to focus on one unique species: China’s giant pandas.

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Perhaps we arrived at naptime, but the pandas appeared to be lazy when we visited them, rolling around and munching on bamboo. We tend to think of pandas as bears, but we learned that the giant panda is more related to a large cat than a bear. We exited through the gift shop and marveled at the numerous Giant Panda souvenirs almost as much as we marveled at the animals themselves. Almost.


 

Not Your Grandfather’s Opium Den

How do you top a day that includes the Great Wall of China, intricate monuments of jade, and Giant Pandas? Seeing so many impressionable icons of China in one day can be stressful, so we took a break to sample ancient Chinese medicine.

 

Of all the busy streets in Beijing, perhaps the most bustling of them we saw was the famous Wangfujing Street—Beijing’s original shopping street. It was packed with shopping just like any other metropolitan city, with department stores and malls. But the most interesting part of the street was the most unique, and it was there that we discovered the Night Market. Just behind the food stalls, we visited the Beijing Tong Ren Tang Wang Fu Jing Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine. (Say that three times fast!)

 

The ancient Beijing pharmacy we visited has been in business since 1699, and once served the Emperor of China. During our visit to the Imperial Pharmacy, we were treated to an interesting lecture on the practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine. It’s all about balance: heat and cold, liver and lung. And everything can be brought into balance with herbs, powders, and consumables that have been concocted for thousands of years.

 

After the lecture, a Chinese doctor diagnosed us individually in the way that practitioners of Chinese medicine traditionally do: the doctor checked the color of the tongue, color of the eyes, took a pulse, and asked a few basic questions. After we were diagnosed (bill of good health, but a bit jet-lagged and sleep-deprived), a specialist treated us to ten-minute back massages. A great relief after our excursion of the day—especially up and down the Great Wall.

 

We were offered prescriptions to some beneficial herbs that have been successfully treating the locals for a thousand years. We opted to pass, but took their prescriptions with us in case we ever decide to look into the practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine stateside. It turns out that it was probably a good thing we decided to pass. According to other reports, almost every tourist to the pharmacy is diagnosed with something and offered a prescription of approximately the same price (a little more than $100).

 

No opium pipe was passed around in this den, no traditional herbs purchased, but we felt refreshed and relaxed after the visit, just the same.

 

Scorpion, Squid, or Snake?

Invigorated by the healthful visit, the last excursion of the day was a stroll along Beijing’s famous street food market along Wangfujing Street. The Night Market bustled with people—locals and visitors alike—and the chants and calls of the people staffing the food stalls overtook the noise of the vehicles along the street. Vendors sold (and customers ate) scorpions, bugs, squids, snakes, spiders, pidgins, crickets, and all sorts of exotic animals and insects. I wondered whether some of Cricket-Leo’s second and third place contestants ended up here. Our adventurous spirits didn’t go that far—although we did eat jellyfish, lotus root, and snow plums.

 

Shops behind the street vendors and their makeshift kitchens sold everything from cookies and sweets to electronics and spirits. We picked up some candy and cookies and a bottle of rice wine with a picture of the iconic Temple of Heaven labeling the front—just a little something to take back to the hotel.

 

At Wangjujing Street’s Night Market, we found something sweet and new: green bean ice cream. We started the day with green jade and ended with green bean ice cream. No one can accuse us of not getting our greens in for the day. The Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors would be proud.

 

 

Heavenly Temple

The green bean ice cream carried us through the night, but in the morning we were hungry for another full breakfast of east meets west. Before leaving Beijing for our next destination, we went on a little adventure.

 

One more important piece of Imperial China called to us, and we just had to see it for ourselves. We hailed a taxi from our hotel and raced—not to the airport—to the Temple of Heaven.

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Also known as Tian Tan, the Temple of Heaven was built during the Ming dynasty and is one of China’s biggest temples. It was in the round palace that the Emperor would pray, make sacrifices, and communicate with the gods and ancestors.

 

The architecture and details were amazing, from the marble platform to the golden finial at the top—especially the blue circular roof symbolizing the sky, and the elaborately decorated interior.

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The temple was constructed entirely of wood, with no nails holding it together. Inside, the beams and decorative boards were intricately painted in green, blue, red, and gold. At the center of the caisson ceiling was a gilded dragon and phoenix, representing the Emperor and Empress. The dragon well pillars—28 of them in all—were beautifully painted with red and gold. Inside and out, the style and the colors were similar to Forbidden City and Summer Palace. But something about the presence of this massive, cylinder building made it even more impressive.

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An expansive park system surrounded the beautiful Temple of Heaven, and it was full of people doing their peaceful morning activities: walking, playing cards, Chinese chess, badminton, doing tai chi, dance, yoga, and meditation. People played music on interesting Chinese instruments, sang, and danced. A large Tibetan dance troupe did a sort of line dance.

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We were only able to stay for an hour because we had to catch our flight. But the Temple of Heaven was an enlightening way to begin the day, so we could see why so many locals spent their mornings there.

 

©Eric D. Goodman with help from Nicole Goodman

 

Eric D. Goodman is a full-time writer who lives in Baltimore, Maryland with his wife, son, daughter, and Weimaraner. He is author of the new literary thriller, The Color of Jadeite, set in China. His other books include Setting the Family Free, Womb: a novel in utero, Tracks: A Novel in Stories, and Flightless Goose, a storybook for children. More than a hundred of his works of short fiction, travel stories, and articles about writing have been published in literary journals, magazines, and periodicals. When he’s not writing, Eric loves traveling, and most of the settings in his most recent novel, The Color of Jadeite, are places he has visited. Founder and curator of Baltimore’s popular Lit and Art Reading Series, Eric can be found at www.Facebook.com/EricDGoodman, www.Twitter.com/Edgewrite, and www.EricDGoodman.com.

 

Nicole Goodman, daughter of the author, helped with the notetaking and daily journaling for this travel story. Sixteen at the time of the travels, she is now a graduate of Towson University’s Honors College and enrolled in Towson’s graduate program for school psychology.

 

Last modified on Wednesday, 13 January 2021