20 March 2007

Leaving On A Jet Plane

I’m sitting on my plane heading back to America feeling one part excited to see my family, one part sad to leave China, and three parts still shocked that it’s over. Already I’m feeling the return to the western world. The flight attendants have been insane about staying in your designated class and only using the toilets in your section, actually calling this an “FAA security measure.” So what, if I pee in first class that must mean I’m a terrorist? Then there’s the Sky Mall catalogue, full of really necessary stuff like the “Margarator,” (all one word) that solves that pesky problem of needing to make gallons and gallons of frozen Margaritas all at the same time. I’m bombarded with reminders of the world of excess from which I come, thinking constantly about those people in my Chinese neighborhood who were overjoyed at receiving a six-month old bathmat, or the look on the girl’s face when I gave her all my pocket change (around $5) on my last walk through the city. It’s like, does my cat really need the ultimate pet safety retractable travel tube, or would I rather this girl eat for the next six weeks?

At the same time I came to figure out this whole China thing. What’s it all about? Will they continue to rise or will it all go bust? Now, seven months later, I leave more confused that when I arrived, having added an additional twenty or thirty real-life variables to the equation. Yes, they’re growing at an astronomical rate, but can that be sustained? With more wealth comes a greater divide between rich and poor. Will those who are not feeling the impact of China’s opening get fed up with their place in society, demand a piece of the pie and eventually force a political collapse of the Communist regime? Is it really a Communist regime at all anymore? Everywhere I traveled, Capitalism and entrepreneurship were alive and well, from the billionaire who owns China’s largest chain of electronics stores to the man on the corner selling sugar cane. And lets not forget, the Chinese people are selfish! They want a better life! They want to reap the benefits of post-Mao, and I don’t blame them! After nearly fifty years of living under a scary Communist regime wouldn’t you want to build a better life too? Still, is it really possible for 1.3 billion people (more than the number of people in the Americas and Europe combined) to all be better off? I mean, that’s a lot of people. Right now they can afford to employ everyone for next to nothing, having people push buttons to open the elevator or stand at a store entrance to say hello. However, the more they develop and the more people at the top want to skim off the bottom, the fewer jobs there will be, which means growing unemployment, dissatisfaction and potential political disaster. People are greedy and the more money you’ve got, the more money it seems you want to have.

It’s still too early to answer any of these questions, but having some actual context from which to base my feelings on these matters is something remarkable. Indeed China is an enchanting place; ever changing, ever evolving and ever growing. It sure aint’ Kansas! I’ve survived a robbery, a mugging, being run over by a taxi, being screwed by a company, being screwed by a landlord and being screwed by cab drivers. I’ve been spit on, yelled at and discriminated against. At the same time, I’ve lived an entire lifetime of adventures and I’ve met people whom I know will be in my life forever. I spent my days teaching English to eager Chinese kids and my nights thinking about and discussing the future of China. There was no better time to be in China, both to experience the country and to grow as a person. I know this isn’t goodbye forever.

While China may have ended for now, my next adventure is just beginning! I’m traveling around the world beginning in April, so stay tuned for more ridiculous adventures, along with some incredible stories! The next six weeks will find me either on the beach in California, on the couch in California, or out with friends in Washington DC. Updates will continue, though on a less-frequent basis. I’m guessing my first few weeks back may be somewhat eye-opening (and equally hilarious). More soon, after a brief break in our regular programming. Be ready for a whole new channel, and check back often!

15 March 2007

A Real “China” Goodbye

My Last La Mien

I’ve been here seven months now and enjoyed my fair share of brow-beating which left me thinking that in my final days I might catch a wind of good luck. Wrong. Of course I had a great time touring with Anne (she’s a fantastic travel buddy) and the Shanghai crew made the very best of our last few days altogether in “Shangers,” but it seems Shanghai was really gunning for me. Unfortunately, for Shanghai, I had reached my limit and the gloves came off.

As soon as Anne and I arrived from Yichang it was go-time. We waited forty minutes in a cab line to get back to my place. After loading our own luggage I told the cab driver where we were going. “Oh no, I’m not going there. It’s not far enough,” he said. “Yes, you are going there,” I told him. “If you don’t I’ll call the Police.” He then proceeded to try and charge us some exorbitant fare because we were only going fifteen minutes away and apparently he had picked us up because he thought we were going to Pudong (where most of the foreigners live), which is a good hour and a half from the airport. “I waited for thirty minutes in line to get passengers. Either you pay what I would have made to drive to Pudong, or you get out,” he screamed at me, while pulling to the side of the highway. So here we are on the side of the highway, a cabbie trying to shove us out because our destination isn’t good enough for him. Anne is looking stunned because I’m yelling at the cab driver at the top of my lungs, calling him a thief, starting the meter myself and threatening to call the cops. Then the guy gets out and starts to take our bags out of the trunk. No help putting them in but as soon as he feels like it there’s no problem lifting and shifting. I get out and slam the trunk shut then tell him to get back in the car, which he does. He refuses to drive. At this point I’m enraged. I’ve been sick for three days on a Chinese cruise boat and just waited in line for forty minutes. All I want is to get home. I asked one last time and he refused again, so I picked up my phone, dialed the police and reported his sorry ass to the cops. Magically, within seconds, he was driving on the highway, meter running. “You are very good,” he says to me. It’s not abot being “good.” I just want to go home!

It finished in similar fashion. My landlord came to collect keys and give me back my security deposit (well actually, it wasn’t the actual landlord. It was the guy who works for the guy who works for the landlord. He just manages the property). He arrived thirty minutes early and started laying into me because I wasn’t totally packed. “You’re early,” I said. Then he started punching away at his calculator, adding up all the additional make-believe fees I owed to end the contract. In the end he came up with nearly $125 that I apparently needed to pay him – an internet cancellation fee, a CATV user agreement fee and internet fees for the month of March because “I was leaving on the second and you must pay in full months.” Garbage. Complete garbage. Rather than roll over and play dead I just told him no. He was stunned. Stunned! I refused and laid into him for not fixing the water heater, DVD player or front door, all of which had been broken for months. Then I called him a thief. It seemed to work, as I only ended up paying about $7 in miscellaneous “fees.”

Then came the discussion of my furniture. I had bought a few pieces (chair, coffee table, some lamps) upon arrival because the apartment wasn’t fully furnished. They agreed to pay me $125 for the stuff (notice how this amount is miraculously the same as the miscellaneous fees) upon my departure, which I accepted even though I spent a great deal more, just because it would have difficult to move chairs, tables and lights. Well the landlord’s message wrote down on paper, in English, “no want for that money now. Too much.” Once again, I told him no way. He had promised that amount and he was going to pay. Rather than deal with the situation he called the she-devil who owns the apartment. She’s about 30, drives a massive Buick and has one of those whiny princess Chinese girl attitudes that literally drives you insane. I despise her. She overcharged me on rent, she never dealt with my legitimate problems in the apartment and she was always rude.

We sat around forty minutes waiting for little miss priss to show up. She sauntered in wearing something abominably tacky – as always – and began re-inspecting all the furniture before calling her English-speaking cousin who could act as message. After whining away into the phone for a while, she handed it over to me, wearing a stupid smile on her squinched up face. “Uh, uh, my cousin don’t want to pay 1000 anymore. She say you take some of the things you promise her (which I didn’t. In fact, I left more than I had promised) so she don’t want to pay it anymore. Now she will give you 500,” the cousin told me. “No. That’s not acceptable. She told me 1000 and that’s what she will pay me. You can tell her that. She has handled NONE of my problems and I will not be screwed. Tell her,” I said, before handing the phone back, no smile on my face. Some more whining and blabbering then the phone is back on my ear. “Uh, uh, she say the stuff is old and ugly and she will do you a favor and give you 700. She’s short of money and that’s all she can give you (she’s a cheap bitch is what she is), so I think you should take it.” Now I’m pissed. “Listen to me,” I told her. You tell her that she will pay me 1000 or I’ll take it all right now. I’ll completely empty the apartment. Don’t screw with me.” At this point my teeth were gritted and I was pointing at the landlord while talking to her cousin. My fuse was burnt out and what do you think the woman said to me next? “Well what you gonna do with the stuff? It’s not like you can take it with you.” Explosion. Clearly the landlord had been planning this all along. She knew I couldn’t really move the furniture since I was leaving the country in a matter of hours so she hooked me in with a (still horrible, pathetic, terrible) price of 1000 yuan, waited until the day I had to leave and then backed me into a corner with no options, offering a pitiful amount of money.

I hate being taken advantage of, especially by people who 1. Suck at life and 2. Were terrible to me for seven months, so I shoved it right back in her face. “I will break every last piece of furniture before I am screwed by her. I will give everything away to my neighbors before she steals from me again. Do you understand that? Do you? Translate that to your awful cousin.” I went to hand the phone back. Now the cousin was pleading. “Wait wait wait, maybe we can…” and I didn’t hear the end, because I flipped the phone shut. I walked right up to her, put my face six inches from her and just laid into her in Chinese, calling her a lying thief who was stealing from me. She made that stupid look like “what are you talking about? I didn’t do anything? What? Oh poor me I am the victim” and I just went on and on. The door was wide open and the neighbors starting appearing. I told her there was no deal and started collecting everything I had purchased, and I mean everything. I gutted the place. When I had finished it looked dark, vacant and baron, just like my landlord. Anne fully supported my decision and the two of us carried everything (including the chair, which I carried by myself on my back) down the stairs. I knocked on the door of the “neighborhood dad,” if you will and explained the situation. He had always been great to me, letting me know when I had mail, reminding me of trash day and just keeping an eye on my well-being. I told him I was leaving for America and that I would like him to have all of my things. He was overwhelmed at the sight of all stuff. He and his wife couldn’t stop thanking me.

Within minutes another fifteen people had showed up and “neighbhood dad” began distributing things to everyone. “You need a bathmat. I remember. You take this,” he instructed. “You need a light in your bedroom. This is for you.” Everyone was overjoyed and I felt great. My landlord just stood there watching as I gave every single thing from that apartment to my all my neighbors, for free. She didn’t know what to do. Total embarrassment. I collected my security deposit and they were on their way, only their walk became one of shame. Everyone in the building glared at her as she walked down the stairs and to her big minivan. “You chicken,” one woman said. “Go away,” another chimed in. Then I packed our luggage into the cab, showed the little lady next door had to use the touch light (to which she replied “oh my. So fancy!”) and just like thay, we were gone. Last day and I finally got to stick it to China.

14 March 2007

That Darn Dam - Day 3, Yangtze Cruise

The Awful, Evil Damn

12:06AM – To bed. Up at 7 tomorrow to catch a glimpse of the second gorge, then a nap before number three.

7:44PM – No updates today because I spent all night throwing up in our disgusting bathroom then all day in my disgusting bed hoping and wishing and praying that the boat would just stop moving. Thankfully Anne dragged me to the front of the boat to see gorges two and three. Our tour guide came in at 1PM and said we’d be arriving at the dam around 6PM. I nearly died, as the schedule had promised a 2PM arrival. She realized her mistake and corrected herself mid-sentence. Relief. We waited for the mob of people to deboat before dragging ourselves down, out and onto the Dam tour bus. This after crusing into port through piles of trash, debris and old clothes that were floating in the water.

The Dam was less than spectacular. While the dam itself is absolutely enormous, it’s really ugly and already looks about fifty years old. The “tour” consisted of three stops at “scenic” overlooks (essentially high plots of land that had been developed into gardens with look-out points to see the monstrous destroyer of ecosystems from different angles). The guide complemented these views with commentary that usually went something like this: “This is Three Gorges Dam from the east. It is the largest dam in the world. It shows China’s might in the world and its incredible strength of the People.” Never mind the fact that it is also the largest water polluter on the planet, has already sent a dozen species to extinction and is already showing signs of cracking. It was obvious, however, that most of the Chinese tourists were more impressed with dam than the three gorges themselves. Now that’s depressing.

In Yichang now (where we were once again screwed by a taxi driver) thinking back on the cruise and what I feel like I have learned. The scenery was absolutely incredible; some of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen, but the overall experience has left me somewhat disenfranchised with my adopted home. Tibet made me angry and the cruise has left me upset. You can only watch someone pee over the side of the boat or throw their trash right into the water so much before you start to get frustrated. This country is full of magnificent scenery and world treasures but instead of appreciating them they’ve decided to throw trash into the Yangtze and bury cities and historic relics under water, not to mention build a bobsled run on the Great Wall of China. Just so sad. I’m hoping for change, but I don’t have too much faith, to be honest. Only time will tell.

12 March 2007

The Love (Hate) Boat – Day Two, Yangtze Cruise

6:47AM – Our tour guide knocks on the door to make sure we’re up. We’re not, though we manage to get out the door by 7. We’re now 45 hours into not showering. Luckily, Anne brought some Giorgio Armani with her, so now it smells like Girogio Armani’s dirty socks.

10:22AM – Just back from the White Cloud Temple. Ten minutes into our wander the German girl ran up to me crying, asking for my help. She had set her bag down to take a picture, forgot about it, walked away for five minutes and by the time she came back, it was gone! I became their translator as we spent the next two hours asking everyone on the island if they had seen the bag. This included the island “Police,” every single tour guide, all the hawkers and the entire population of our cruise boat. Within 30 minutes our search party had turned into roughly 50 very concerned and very helpful people. It’s odd how this works. A girl is about to be thrown off of a bridge and no one does a thing. A girl loses her bag and it’s as if they lost their own bag. Is it because she is a foreigner? Is it because it’s not a major crisis? The better part of a year in China and I still have no idea. Unfortunately, no one found the bag, which means Nina (the German girl) has to make a pit-stop in Shanghai to have her passport replaced at the German consulate. She also lost about $250. Not good!

11:19AM – We just passed through the first of the three gorges, Wu Gorge. It was magnificent. Enormous peaks jutting out from the water. The sea level has already risen 250 feet! I can’t even imagine what this place must have looked like before the water rose, and I still can’t believe they’ve effectively destroyed this natural wonder. Nature doesn’t appear to be all that sacred in China. Our fellow Chinese passengers continue to throw their trash overboard while peeing directly into the river.

11:54AM – I just learned that Mao himself actually rode on this boat back in 1963. That’s both interesting and a bit depressing. It means this boat is at least 44 years old…

6:53PM – Just back from our afternoon cruise through the Small Three Gorges. We boarded a smaller (250-person) boat for this portion of the journey. The “tour guide” spoke continuously for the entire five hours. True to form the Chinese were dumping cigarette butts, noodle bowls, napkins and anything else non-biodegradable into the water and we zoomed through some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. We stopped at a village that will be underwater within 10 months, speaking to people whose families had lived there for seven and eight generations. Imagine being told by the government that you have to relocate your entire life because they want to build a dam that will (as we learned) become the largest water polluter in the world, the construction of which has forced millions of people to higher ground. Completely devastating.

At the end of the Small Three Gorges we boarded even smaller boats (20 people per vessel) and cruised through the Small Small Three Gorges (that’s actually what they’re called). Our guide was adorable, and he sang while we puttered along. Life vests were a must for this tiny boat. As he said, “if we sink you will die. Unless you wear this vest.” As easy sell, I’d say. Back on the boat now, still reeling from the jagged peeks, hidden caves, and playing monkeys. This was definitely the highlight of the cruise thus far.

7:55PM – There was just an enormous ruckus outside. Anne and I darted to the “balcony” only to find a man on his knees pulling a small child from the water between the boat and the dock. Apparently he was trying to jump back and forth, slipped, and disappeared into the depths below. Everyone on the boat zoomed to that side and watched as the noodle salesman brought the eight-year-old to his feet. His parents were weeping and prostrating before the man, offering him what looked to be about 1000 yuan ($125) for saving their son’s life. That’s two near-death experiences for Anne and I in five days. Is it us?

8:02PM – Apparently we’re docking here overnight, as the kid incident has sparked a major investigation. The drunken police officer just stopped in to remind us to lock our doors and windows. Apparently there is a major problem with break-ins while people are actually sleeping in their 7-foot by 14-foot box (with a balcony, of course, up here in first class!).

8:05PM – I just realized it has now been 60 hours since my last shower. This realization came after washing my feet in the sink. Roughin’ it (with a balcony).

8:55PM – I just got back from the boat’s “7-Eleven” equivalent. The shopkeeper and I have a little arrangement. I come in and put a few drinks in the fridge then return the next day and buy them – cold. We’ve been doing this dance the past three days. He informed me that he actually had to fend off customers who wanted to buy the cold drinks, saving them for me. While I find this incredibly kind, I wonder why he didn’t just add some additional bottles to the fridge so there would be more cold drinks for other customers. Either way, I’m sipping on ice-cold orange juice, which makes me a happy camper. Off to play some poker with the Swedes.

11:42PM – Just back from peanut-betting poker night. It was a great time, though Anne and I are struggling with some major seasickness. It seems that floating in port is a lot worse on the stomach that actually cruising. I took some Dramamine and so did Anne. You may not hear from us again until Thursday.

Slow Boat To HELL – Day One, Yangtze Cruise

6:39AM – Alarms goes off. It’s time to get up! We’re docking at the Ghost Palace around 7AM. Anne did not sleep a single minute last night. Apparently the man next door had the television on full volume from midnight to 6 this morning. I heard nothing, though I did sleep through the Northridge earthquake back in the easrly 90’s. Her stomach isn’t feeling to hot either. Uh-oh. She just fell asleep in the bathroom. Speaking of the bathroom, we took a vote and agreed not to shower while on the boat. There is no hot water but beyond that, the whole bathroom morphs into the shower, which means major flooding should we decide to lather up under the freezing cold, slightly yellow, pressure-less flow. I can hear the Chinese people going crazy outside, which means we must be close.

9:23AM – Back from the Ghost Palace. I went against everything I believed in and joined a Chinese tour group. It seems we really had no choice. As this is a Chinese cruise ship (which explains our exceptional first-class cabin) there are only eight foreigners (2 Swedes, 4 Germans, 1 Belgian & 1 American) no one speaks English. Getting off the boat was typical China. Everyone pushed right up against the railing, a pseudo-line (more like a large lump of tangled human flesh) stretching through the boat and up the stairs. As soon as the gates opened the squawk boxes started, echo effect cranked to full. Anne and I were sporting our official “tour group” neck badges that matched our guides official “tour group” flag, which she waved rigorously back and forth. As soon as we hit land an onslaught of hawkers approached us. “Mister, mister! Hello! Cigarette? Noodle? Egg? Tea? Pretty Rock?” Of course they’re only after the eight odd-looking folks. Then came the miles of stalls, all selling the same thing – rocks, old Mao paraphernalia, “jade,” water, film (who uses film anymore, by the way) and “authentic piece of Ghost Palace.” It was kitsch with a capital K. Sadly, this set the tone for our entire visit.

True to form (going with mine & Anne’s incredible luck) the cable car broke as we approached the front of the line. That meant hiking up the side of yet another mountain, Anne dozing off here and there. We ditched our guide a good twenty minutes ago and still somehow managed to find the palace. Miracle! While we had hoped to find ancient relics dating back to 300 B.C., we instead stumbled upon what seems to be the defining feature of Chinese tourism – complete and utter destruction of history.

This site is thought to be one of the first places on earth where a society acknowledged and paid homage to the underworld (hell). Its importance to world history is unmatched in this area. Some of the buildings are 3000 years old and what do you think the Chinese government did? They replaced the entire interior with a walk-through tour telling the story of the depths of hell using wood manikins, bad lighting, and some really tacky special effects. Then, half way through, they installed a 20-second ride (that you have to pay extra for but can’t avoid) that zooms around a small circuit of more random ghosts, goblins and a “boat” riding on the “ocean,” which was recreated using a blue sheet and an industrial fan. The Chinese were loving every minute of it. Anne and I were cringing.

There seems to be no real interest in what sites and monuments actual mean. In fact, my feeling is that most people don’t even really know what they’re looking at. They just want to have fun, ignore their ride, take a picture, and be able to afford the experience in the first place. Whether that is a product of fifty years of Communist rule where anything and everything pre-Mao was either ignored or altered, I’m not sure. What I do know is that this is the general approach to Chinese tourism as a whole – kitsch. Toboggans and roller coasters at the Great Wall of China. A haunted house at an ancient relic. None of it is real, historic, or appreciated. To make matters worse, the entire Ghost City compound will be underwater within two years as the Yangtze rises and the new dam becomes fully operational! In fact, over 8000 archaeological sites, 280 villages & 19 towns with a population of 500,000 or more will be completely submerged by the end of 2007. Talk at tragic.

11:12AM – We came back to our cabin to find the front door and balcony door open, three crew members inside repairing the curtain Anne accidentally tore down last night. Definitely efficient, but does it really take three people? One guy is screwing, the second guy is holding the screws and the third person (a woman) seems to be supervising the situation. She’s standing about ten feet from them, pointing and shouting as they work.

11:47AM – The curtain-repair “dream team” just left. Thirty-five minutes to fix a curtain. Awesome.

12:38PM – Anne just woke from her nap/longest period of continuous sleep in two days. We swung open the door to our private balcony and the view is incredible. It seems natural beauty is everywhere in China. I just wonder how long that’s going to last. I can see the marker signs indicating where the water level will be by the end of the year. Thousands of homes and millions of people are still leaving in homes built below this line. Imagine your whole life washed away because the government felt like building a dam…

7:08PM – We just pulled into port, docked for five minutes, then pulled out of port. No explanation at all. Spent the late afternoon chatting with our new Swedish friends. They are on a NINE WEEK vacation. It would be great to be Swedish! “We had to shorten our summer holiday for the past three years,” the girl tells us. Only four weeks instead of six.” Bummer. Meanwhile, the Germans are working on drinking their 120 cans of beer they brought on board. Less than 24 hours and they’ve already gone through about 60.

9:22PM – We just pulled into another port, docked for about fifteen minutes, then pulled out of port. Again, no explanation. Anne and I are enjoying a nice conversation and bottled water on our very exclusive balcony.

10:55PM – Just about to hit the sack. We’ve discovered that the bathroom light only works if you flip the switch three times. Then you have to rattle the handle, flush the toilet, open the front door and turn three times.

Please Comment!

Dearest Readers,

The current blog site offers an awesome "Comment" feature that my own site, www.kyletaylor.net, did not! I love this feature because I can get feedback from you and hear what you've got to say about my adventures! If you have a few seconds here and there and you feel so inspired, please feel free to let me know what you think. I love dialogue. You can ask questions as well!

Alright, back to storytelling...

Thanks for reading,


07 March 2007

The World’s Biggest City & The Dock Disaster

After four and a half hours on the world’s hottest, sweatiest, most humid bus this side of the Pacific Anne and I arrived in Chongqing only to be screwed by three cab drivers before finding someone who would actually use their meter. This seems to be a theme outside of Shanghai. While it’s totally illegal and the driver could get fined thousands of yuan, they still risk it all to overcharge westerners while still refusing to help lift bags or give change. It’s the oddest situation. They pop their microscopic trunk that’s already eighty-percent filled by the ENORMOUS tank of natural gas that fuels the miniature car and let you struggle to wedge something the size of a small handbag into the back. Then you open the front passenger door and attempt to place a bag on that seat, only to be yelled out by the driver because you’re “ruffling the seat cover,” the once-white now yellow, stained, torn seat cover. Of course there’s no help, just whining.

After we lugged our own luggage to our room and spent forty minutes attempting to connect to the internet, dinner was in order. Chongqing is a collection of islands and peninsulas interconnected by bridges, cable cars, ferrys and tunnels, and we were unsure of our exact location within this web. So were the people who worked at the hotel. There wasn’t a soul in the building who knew where we were, using both my map and their own! I mean, seriously? Anne and I had a “ok guys, funny joke, now tell us where we are” moment, only to NOT be told where we were.

The rest of our twenty-four hours in Chongqing were largely uneventful. The city’s the most fascinating characteristic is the incredible divide in wealth. I have never seen urban poverty like the decay in Chongqing. Entire neighborhoods built on hills with no plumbing and no running water, held together by string, bamboo and pieces of plastic sheeting set on a backdrop of China’s largest indoor shopping mall that’s filled with stores like Prada and Max Mara.

It is the biggest, most-populated city on the planet but unlike Shanghai, it’s fairly untouched by western hands. There was only one Pizza Hut and one Starbucks in the city and no local western options, which left us in the most-popular neighborhood hotpot, possibly the first foreigners ever to walk inside. We climbed the stairs, I asked for a table and the ENTIRE restaurant (at least seventy-five people) turned to watch us. The place went completely silent, a rarity here in China. This fascination continued for the rest of our meal and for most of our stay. Twice Chinese men asked me if Anne was my lover, thoroughly confused by the idea of two people of different ages traveling together.

All remained fairly low-key, until we had to get to our cruise boat. Then, true to form, all hell broke loose. The travel agent had dropped our tickets off earlier in the day, telling us to call if we had any problems. By tickets I mean two small pieces of rice paper printed on one of those old machines that uses the paper with the holes along both sides (the holes that are really fun to perforate). By “call if you have problems” I mean “I’m turning off my phone and you’re totally alone at the docks, which have so directional signs in Chinese, much less English!

The cab driver dropped us off two blocks from the terminal, saying he “couldn’t stop there because then he would have to turn around later.” Heaven forbid we disrupt his future traffic pattern! No help with the luggage and we were off to the boat, or so I thought. The ticket taker told me I had to actually exchange these tickets for boarding pass tickets, which would later be punched, stamped and torn before being replaced by plastic dock cards, which we would then use to get our room keys. Those dock cards would be returned to us upon “deboating” and turned back in to receive our bus transfer tickets, also printed on cheap rice paper. Those same tickets would need to be kept as luggage retrieval indentification to get our bags off the bus after our last tour. Priceless.

Anyway, I headed to the desk to do the first swap. Per usual, madness ensued. There was obviously no line, which meant head down, elbows up as I burrowed my way to the front, no holds barred. Travel agents were exchanging stacks of thirty and forty tickets at a time, and the system was archaic. The woman behind the counter would write down each ticket number on a enormous ledger, followed by another six or seven different 5-digit numbers and either the letter A or B. Then she’d key in some crucial data into her green-screen dos computer, hit print, and wait for the new ticket to print out of the world’s first printer. This cycle had to be repeated for EVERY SINGLE TICKET. Then, once the ledger was full, she’d tear it off, throw it away and start the next one!

My head was on the verge of exploding as I waved my tickets frantically in front of the woman’s face. Finally she bit. While she was “busy” crunching numbers the man next to me began spouting off about me in Chinese. “Stupid foreigner not waiting in line. That is so rude.”

“Nobody is in line,” I replied. “Well you are a foreigner. You should line up,” he retorted. Yeah, great plan buddy. I’ll line up and wait patiently while the rest of you charge in front, making it impossible to be served. “Foreigners are supposed to be polite,” he said. “And what’s keeping you from being polite,” I asked. He turned away.

New tickets in hand I returned to Anne and we went back to the ticket-taker. “Ahh, you’re at dock six,” she said, in Chinese. You need to go out here, down, around, over the bridge and across the island. Super. Ten minutes of aimless wandering later some guy in a badge offered to help and I, for whatever reason, accepted. Another fifteen minutes later and we were in his tour company’s office. It turns out he had no idea where our boat was. He just wanted to sell us some overpriced temple tour garbage. After yelling at him in Chenglish we hit the streets once more, this time deciding to just scale down the 200 steps to the water, one step closer to the docks.

Our tickets said dock six, but these docks weren’t numbered. Abslutely no signs at all. Just pieces of rotting wood roped together to form a pseudo-ramp, pseudo Pirate’s plank leading to the lovely smelly river. By now we’re totally exhausted and still lost. I’m wearing my too-heavy backpack and carrying three other bags, Anne is lugging her rolling suitcase down the stairs. In the distance I can see some Swedes (I knew they were Swedes right away, no idea why). I ran toward them as if they were my parents and it was a dramatic homecoming. “Do you know where dock six might be,” I asked. “This is dock six,” they said in perfect, adorable Swedish union. I waved to Anne, who hunkered down once more, dragging the red beast (her huge suitcase) across the craggy rocks and eroded soil to the now growing line of hopeful travelers, waving off the bag-carrying men as she went. “I can do it!” she was yelling, in English and French. “I’m fine. Go away.”

Our boat was late (shocking), which meant plenty of time to make some friends and watch the other boat traffic. Right next to us (at what I presume was dock seven but can’t be sure as there are NO SIGNS AT ALL) was the Victoria Cruises boat. While we were waiting for our floating metal box we watched the wealthy, well-dressed foreigners board to the sound of live big band music, tuxedo-clad waiters handing out glasses of Champagne. I was wearing sweatpants. When we boarded our captain pumped screeching Beijing Opera through the hi-tech boat-wide PA system. A drunken police officer showed up to remind us to “lock door and mindfully be of passport” while offering a half-gone bottle of lukewarm green tea. Let the party begin.

06 March 2007

Panda Madness

Chengdu is home to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Center, which I actually visited twice (once with Robin & then again with Anne). When seeing Pandas anywhere in the world my initial feelings is always one of “Why Pandas? Why have we chosen to love and protect Pandas considering all the animals in the world that are near extinction?” My sense has always been that it’s because they’re cute and cuddly and likeable, a fact that is true of most things in this world. If you look nice, life is a little bit easier. We obsess over Hollywood stars because they’re attractive, so why not Pandas? That is, we as human beings have made the decision that Pandas are “worth saving,” for whatever reason. Needless to say, I entered the center with a little bit of resentment.

While my mind is still wrapped around this idea of being “worthy” of saving” I now understand why we humans like them so much. I mean, they’re really adorable. They have so many human traits that just make them so lovable. All they do is eat, sleep, roll around and poop. The adults sit around for three and four hours in the morning sprawled out on their backs peeling bamboo with their human-like paws. They don’t get up. The food is placed within arms reach, otherwise I think they might go hungry. Meanwhile, the tiny cubs play and wrestle while learning to climb trees. This is, of course, after they are bottle-fed by humans wearing what appears to bio-hazardous waste suits. Then they just fall asleep in a tree or something. No matter how hard I try, it’s hard to feel anything but love for the cute little guys. I’ve changed my stance – I support Pandas, I just support other animals too. Some photos of the big teddy bears. Your challenge? Find the Pandas!

05 March 2007

How To Save A Life

Robin and I arrived safely in Chengdu and after struggling to find our bags (the sign said carousel 4, the attendant told us carousel 2 and the bags ended up on carousel 1) we had a recovery day of Pizza Hut, Starbucks, & card-playing. I did teach two impromptu English lessons – one to the Starbuck’s barista who wanted to know how to say “ketchup” & “jam” and one to a family of four who stared Robin & I down on the river promenade before asking if we were lovers. The mother rambled on in incomprehensible Chinese while the father showed me his English book and the daughters giggled uncontrollably. They did ask me to name them, which I was happy to do – Amy and Lianne. They just looked liked Amy and Lianne. No real explanation beyond that.

Random staring and commenting seems to be the major theme here in Chengdu, which I can only describe as a faceless cookie-cutter urban center that lacks any real personality. For whatever reason, here in Chengdu, we foreigners are just watched. The Chinese watch us eat, walk, talk and smile in a way that I have not experienced here in China. When they notice that you are looking back at them there is no reaction. Just more blank stares.

The travel buddy switch went very smoothly - Robin headed home and my Belgian host mom joined me – and I even talked the airline representative into voiding Robin’s overweight baggage charge!

As expected, it’s been nothing but madness since Anne arrived. We’ve eaten duck, chilled at the local backpacker hotspot (which was way more hip than I) and devoured the most delicious brownie I have ever tasted in my entire life. The secret is oatmeal. It took three cab rides and literally seven conversations to get our bus tickets to Chongqing, and not a single cab driver or hotel staff member helped us with our bags. Most watched and some even laughed, but no one offered a hand.

Anne and I spent an entire day conquering Quingshenshan, one of China’s five sacred mountains. As has been the theme of most of this trip, the scenery was absolutely incredible. We arrived early and hiked through the morning mist to the very top of the mountain, where we climbed to the top of the Pagoda. From there we were nestled just above the cloud forest, a 360-degree view of the hilltops around us. It was gorgeous! In all, we climbed over 3,000 steps (both up and down) alongside a slew of enormous Chinese tour groups, none of whom were paying any attention to the thousands of people around them who could easily fall off the cliffs into the deep ravines below. It was like Survivor: Foreigners. Only the strong will survive!

From there it was off to the Sichuan Opera. After asking seven police officers and security guards we thankfully stumbled upon the theater on our own (the last security guard was literally standing twelve feet from the theater entrance. His reply to my question? “Wo bu zhirdao” (I don’t know)). We were seated right next to the only other two foreigners, who were deep in a game of something using gypsy cards, their skull piercings hanging gently from their nostrils.

The show starts and the ear-cleaning crew disperses throughout the crowd, each equipped with a headlight-style flashlight similar to the one I used to repel into a bat cave in Guatemala. At some level I guess it’s similar work. It turns out, for roughly $4 you can have your ears professionally cleaned and massaged using the latest in ear-wax removal technology (a metal tong, tweezers, and a loose piece of cotton). Twenty minutes into the show and no one is paying attention.

This continues for 85 minutes, until it’s time for the audience participation time of the show – A knife thrower is going to place a guest against a wall and throw five knives at them. The host comes into the crowd and pretends to look around. We make eye contact and I know I am doomed. He navigates through the crowd until he is directly behind me. I feel a tap on my shoulder and look up. “Come with me please,” he says in perfect English. I stand and decide to totally ham it up. “Bu yao,” (I don’t want to) I say, totally selling it. The 500 or so Chinese people drop their sunflower seeds and bust into laughter. “Yao, yao” (You do want, you do want!”) they reply. Now everyone is paying attention. Apparently the thought of throwing a six-inch blade at a seemingly unknowing westerner excites them.

I spent the next ten minutes on stage fully milking every opportunity to make the crowd laugh. They stood me against the wall, put a blindfold on the knife-thrower and he pretended to aim. I made a scared face. Laughter. They mimed putting the blindfold on me. I made a scared face and shook my head. Laughter. Blindfold on, I begin to shake my knees, as if I am scared. Laughter. First knives thrown, blindfold comes off. I look at them and wipe my brow. Laughter. More knives, more brow, more laughter. Then comes the “pop the balloon with the knife” segment. They pretend to be unsure of where to put the balloon and look at me confused. I look down between my legs and shake my head. Laughter. Balloon placed between my legs, blindfold on, knife thrown, balloon pops, blindfold off, I look down, wipe my brow and look relieved. Laughter. All in all, a great time. My Chinese audience member counterparts definitely enjoyed the show, though I’m still unsure of whether or not they would have preferred that the knife had gone through my leg. Anne did an exceptional job of capturing the whole affair from the back of the theater.

The major event in Chengdu, however, occurred just moments after Anne arrived. We were crossing the street on a pedestrian bridge and came across a man literally trying to throw a woman over the ledge into oncoming traffic. She had her arms wrapped around the railing, one foot dangling over the edge, the other attempting to straddle the rails. She was crying and shaking more than any person I have ever seen. A crowd of at least 150 Chinese people was standing around watching this all unfold, not a single person doing a thing. I could tell that he was serious about throwing her over the edge and darted toward them, wrapping my arms around the girl's body while pushing the man away with my foot. I brought her to the ground. She wrapped her arms around me, buried her head in my shoulder, and said over and over again, "thank you" in English, crying uncontrollably. I yelled at the man in Chinese and told him to go away. He charged and attempted to grab the girl, but I kept myself between them, yelling at him, "go away!" A few minutes later her friends arrived, looking shocked by the whole affair. I made sure they went down to the ground before leaving, as the enormous audience thanked me one at a time for saving the girl's life.

What shocked me is the fact that not a single Chinese person did a thing about what was essentially attempted murder. No one even attempted to help! They just stood there, watching the scene unfold. This guy was committed to throwing her over the edge, and in the end, he just walked away. The police never came and he was never charged with anything. In the US this would have made CNN, for goodness sake! Experts would have been called in to assess his mental state and the "lasting impact" this would have on the girl. This situation definitely brought to light some major cultural differences.

I'm still having a difficult time understanding the passivity aspect of the crowd. In some Asian cultures it is customary for any person involved in a situation like this to then become responsible for the well-being of the entire family, though that is more true when the situation or incident involves the head of household.

Personally, I think a lingering fear of "involvement" and "responsibilty" still remains from the Mao-era. The entire culture is extremely hands-off. People are always finger pointing, blaming others for anything and everything. Under Mao, if you ever asked questions, you were marked as an "anti-revolutionary," and usually killed. Had this been someone questioned over their commitment to the Chairman and an individual had stepped in to say something, they would have been associated with the crime and therefore charged as well. It seems that no one really wants to feel responsible for anything, fearing repercussions. No matter how much China appears to have developed, I still come back to the point that by not focusing on the people and their personal development, their rapid growth will never be fully sustainable. In other words, there won’t always be a foreigner around to rescue the Chinese from dangerous overpasses. They’ve got to learn to do it themselves.