30 June 2008
6 weeks in Shanghai sipping on corn juice (YUM!) and now it's time to trek once more! This time it's Southeast Asia, and I'm cruising with this guy (also named Kyle, shockingly enough):
We're hitting the "rails" tomorrow en route to Hangzhou, where we'll catch a flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. From there it's on to the capital of Laos - Vientiane. Then we'll head south down the Mekong River through Pakse, Champasak and Four Thousand Dolphins, a collection of islands at the mouth of the Mekong River Delta.
That's all going to take about 10 days before we cross overland into Cambodia to see Angkor Wat in Siem Reap and Cambodia's capital, Phnom Phem Then it's overland into Vietnam, where we're disappearing on Phu Coq Island, one of the most remote places on the planet. We're finishing with a few days in Saigon and a few days in Hanoi. Kyle Long heads back to the US of A and I finish my trip in Beijing, hopefully camping on the Great Wall with Stacy, who is also a rock star.
So, updates whenever I have internet access! Maybe every day, maybe every few days. Only Southeast Asia knows. Hurray for falling off the map!
26 June 2008
When I’m not writing, running, physical therapy-ing or eating, I’m usually dressing up in some outfit for a Shanghai-esque theme party that’s shakin’ and groovin’ its way into the evening. It’s one part Halloween, one part simply Shanghai and two parts a pointless way to fill time and boost the local economy.
Theme parties mean theme costumes and theme costumes mean frequenting the coolest markets in town. So far this trip I’ve done roller-fabulous roller disco, New Wave 80’s skinny time trendy awesome and counter-fashion, all with Lianne, of course
The other perk of going all out? Prizes! Last year Lianne and I won 80’s night. This year she took home top prize for counter fashion. Sadly, “friends couldn’t win,” so they gave it to another guy...whatev.
I can honestly say that theme parties may very well be on my list of top five most amazing things about Shanghai. Only a few days left here…I can’t believe it’s over yet again. SO SAD.
25 June 2008
It comes part-time planned, part-time uninvited. Sometimes it leads to an afternoon of no productivity and other times it last for a few days. In that time, the mind is absolutely unable to A) have a coherent thought B) tell the fingers to type on the keyboard if said typing has anything at all to do with whatever it is I am trying to write C) be productive in any other task due to the writing block.
When the words come, they pour! Thoughts, ideas, stories, realizations – it’s witty, funny, clever, revealing, eye-opening, insert another positively conotated descriptive word here. When the words don’t come, it’s like the California drought that lasted nearly a decade – no end in sight, most things appear dull and you often believe the current situation will never pass. Substitute depression for dehydration.
In these moments I attempt to spark the mind with peanut butter m&m’s, watermelon and walking aimlessly about the apartment. This rarely works. Eventually, when the mind is ready, it turns back on, recommits to the keys and produces some magnificent vernacular. This wave of productivity must be ridden to its core, for you never know how long the next block will last. Fortunately, when the block is in session, windows get washed, floors get vacuumed, DVDs get viewed, dishes get scrubbed and cats get attention.
Writing is like no other “job” I’ve ever had. It is impossible to force it and even when it does come, it’s usually so intense that you’re only a few hours in before mental exhaustion floods in. I have a newfound respect for all those creative times who used to drive me up the wall when they said things like “I’m just not feeling inspired at the minute. I can’t make it come. It just comes when it comes, okay?”
Oh, the other thing that gets done when writer’s block is on – blogging. And now you know where I am RIGHT NOW. Please words, come to me!
23 June 2008
Entering the fine nations that comprise Southeast Asia is a fairly difficult task, due in large part to the intense (and expensive) VISA process. Malaysia and Laos offered VISAs on arrival but Vietnam was required in advance and, because we are planning to enter Cambodia via land and not air, we did not qualify for the e-VISA, leading to another visit to another Consulate.
I started Monday morning, thinking I could be home by noon with at least one of the two VISAs in-passport. The Cambodian Embassy website listed an address for their Consular General’s Office in Shanghai. Just a few blocks from the People’s Square metro stop. Perfect. So I head out, walk to subway to walk some more. I arrive at the official government’s stated address to find absolutely no sign of a Consulate. The floor where the office is supposed to be is filled with the offices of international freight shipping companies. The supposed suite is now a Trans-Pacific cargo company who, when I asked them if they knew where the Consulate was, asked me if I had a pet or large chair to ship to America. (First, I clearly did not want to ship anything. Second, how did they come up with pet and large chair in the same breath?). The guard has no idea either. Dejected, I head home, thoroughly confused.
Forty minutes on the internet and I am able to find a personal blog that says the Consulate has moved to another location as of September 2006. That’s right, the office moved in 2006 and nobody bothered to update the government website. Because Vietnam offers express service, I decide to handle that VISA on Tuesday then drop off my passport for the 5-day wait with Cambodian authorities.
The Vietnam Consulate is located way out in the middle of nowhere on the other side of town, so getting there and away is at least a half-day commitment. I set out early and join in the morning rush hour traffic gang. Forty minutes later I arrive at my station and do the last twenty minutes on foot in the pooring rain (it was raining Monday too) and enveloping humidity. I grab the elevator to the third car and exit to find a small group of people outside the Consulate. Not too surprising. Vietnam is all-of-a-sudden a very happening place. Lots of people want to go.
As I go to enter the Consulate a girl stops me and asks, “what do you need” in an overly sweet voice. “Just a VISA,” I tell her. “Oh, sorry, but no VISAs today for a special reason.” This statement is followed by pointing to a hand-written note on the wall outside the Consulate. “Oh, and what is the special reason,” I prod. “MM. Uh huh, yeah. It’s a very very special one.” Aware of the fact that I am not going to be obtaining my VISA today for some “very special reason” I head home, thoroughly irritated.
I wake up Wednesday and try again with Vietnam, enduring yet another hour-long trip to get there. I arrive to find that today, miraculously, VISAs are being issued. I fill out my forms, pay the exorbitant express price and wait it out. “Maybe 30 minutes, maybe an hour, maybe later today,” the man tells me. I need to drop this thing at Cambodia tomorrow so it’s either now or never. Shockingly, 40 minutes later my passport appears, VISA in tow. I do a mini happy dance in the elevator lobby and head home, too late to drop my VISA at the Cambodian Consulate (yes, I spent 6 hours getting my Vietnam VISA).
I wake up Thursday (the day of my birth – woo!) and head to the new address I have for the Cambodian Consulate, which is only 15 minutes from my place, a “short walk from the metro,” the website had said. Fifteen minutes on the subway and FORTY minutes on foot later, I arrive at the stated address – 267 Tianmu lu – to discover a bank. A BANK! Irritated beyond reason I start searching aimlessly for a Consulate. Now wandering through a parking lot adjacent to the building, my eyes wander upward and come across a Cambodian flag. I ask a few guards where the flag is coming from. One of them leads me to the back of the building, calls an elevator, pushes “twelve” and leaves me.
The bell “dings” and I arrive in the dark lobby of the twelth floor. A Chinese “guard” is there to take my passport information down. He then guides me into the “Consulate” or as I like to call it, a collection of deserted rooms all with bare walls and oddly luxurious leather furniture. At the end of a giant hall, through several different spaces all sparsely furnished, a husky Cambodian man appears. He has me sit at a desk and fill out a stack of paperwork. I then hand over my passport and two small photos, which are subsequently stamped about a million times and then put into a drawer. “Ready tomorrow after 4,” he tells me, pointing to a sign that says “4-5 business days for processing.” Tomorrow it is.
I head home and wait for the sun to rise yet again. It is now FRIDAY – a full five days after this process began and thankfully, as of 5pm, I have two VISAs. Why don’t things just work? Man, I miss Meiguo sometimes…
22 June 2008
Sometimes, you just need a burger. When that craving comes nothing in Shanghai fills it better than the Bleu Cheese Burger at Blue Frog, the most happening American food haven in Shanghai.
My only question now is, does it actually taste divine or is it just that I’m craving it so darn much that in context, it tastes divine? That first bite is always mouth-watering. Paired with delicious thick-cut French fries and a delectable cocktail, I am in utter bliss and stop caring altogether whether or not I like the burger because it’s actually good or just because I’m craving it.
As the last bite nears and I have a sudden urge to unbutton my pants, I begin to wonder why I missed/craved this burger so much. Now I’m just feeling heavy and uncomfortable, longing for the sense of “satisfied but not stuffed” that always seems to fill me after scarfing on Asian cuisine. Still, I can’t bring myself to leave a scrap of the monster patty. I stuff it down, roll myself home and sit on the couch, waiting for the distention to fade away. “Man, that was totally worth it,” I say out loud. “At least, the first few bites were.”
NOTE: The burger pictured is the Montana BBQ Burger, topped with onion rings and real American BBQ sauce. Look out arteries, here I come!
20 June 2008
The truth is, I did have a scooter. I bought it the summer after my junior year in college for $1200 including shipping. It arrived in an enormous crate. I installed the brake pads and speedometer, screwed on the front wheel and even filled the battery with acid before charging it. Three weeks later it was stolen – chained to a fence – from the parking garage of my University in broad daylight. Man those were three great weeks.
Needless to say, the opportunity to cruise the streets on what appeared to be the exact same scooter was all too appealing, especially with the pain in tail bone still lingering from the day before. For $18 Lianne and I got our very own two-wheeled, gas-powered wonder for the entire day! In fact, we did the same thing the following day. While the details of our big adventure are at times mundane, we covered 250 miles in two days and visited a dozen or so surrounding towns and villages. From main highways to dirt roads, ferries to suspension bridges, we cruised the mean streets of Southern China in style.
Once again it felt like we had been thrown back in time. Family farms were chugging along like they seemingly did 100 years ago. Rice was being tended too, Oxen were cooling down in the streams (the sun was shining bright both days) and kids were playing in the fields. It could not have been more fascinating and really got me thinking about the idea of happiness. Many would see the way of life in this part of China as old, boring and depressing but I got none of that from our experiences. Families seemed intact, people warm and friendly. Meanwhile, I have been having existential crisis as a result of overexposure to the world and it’s incredible ups and downs. Who then is necessarily happier, and who are we in the west or in the modern world to a) judge a seemingly simpler way of life b) try and bring our complexity to this way of life and c) assume that our way is better?
They say the more you know the more you want to know, but that just leads to more questions that don’t have answers. Taking the opposite approach, the less you know the less you want to know, leading to fewer questions. Isn’t it questions that leave us feeling uncertain? Well then, fewer questions, you could posit, lead to an abundance of answers and in turn, contentment.
That said, there is still one question that I do need to answer for anyone and everyone. A rolling suitcase in China should cost no more than 100 kuai (roughly $13) even if it does have a “Samsonite” label on it. Post purchasing (and complexity adding) Lianne needed a suitcase, so we hit the shops, ready to bargain as we usually do in Shanghai. Seller gives outrageous price (for a bag like this, 200 kuai). Buyer gives outrageously low price (for a bag like this, 50 kuai). Seller and buyer do big dance, both aware that said bag will be sold for 100 kuai in approximately 4 minutes and 6 to 10 price exchanges. Here in Yanghsuo, however, the sellers have apparently been hit by the crazy stick. Every store we went into the insane girl, assuming we were fools, started at over 700 kuai for the same rolling suitcase! That’s $100. You could get a real one for that in the USA. Needless to say, I HATE being overtly taken advantage of so after giving these thieves a piece of my mind I vowed to let everyone know that a carry-on rolling suitcase purchased in China should not cost more than 100 kuai. Period.
Oh, and don’t buy anything from Nadine in store 23 on West Road in Yangshuo. Not nice. Not nice at all.
18 June 2008
Ok, there's no time for an ode (nor is there any ode that could adequately describe her greatness). Just a Happy Birthday to my favorite birthday twin. From Hot Wheels and Barbies to Anchorman Newsroom, we did it up right! Happy Birthday Reedster! The above is her rocking a mini-purse from Thailand. The below is her just plain rocking out with Al in the back seat. Cella and I were up front. AMAZING! Miss you!
I love bikes. Had one as kid. Went on “bike rides” with the fam. Launched myself over the handle bars and cracked my chin open…In Yangshuo it seemed that bikes were the “way” to see the countryside so Lianne and I bought into it and rented a bike each. At $1.25 for the day it was a fairly good deal. We also hired a guide, mainly because the woman running our hostel convinced us that we needed one. I would later discover that there was really nothing I could not have done without her. Still, at $13 for the day it was, yet again, a fairly good deal.
The weather was still a concern but the woman running the hostel assured us that “maybe it won’t rain all day. Maybe not until the evening. So we set out (with our new umbrellas) on a biking adventure. The first 10 minutes were amazing! No rain, bikes-only paths and landscape like nothing I have ever seen. Then the rain started. And it rained nonstop for the rest of the day. We perfected the one-handed ride while holding an umbrella at a strategic angle so as not to get wet maneuver early on, leading our guide to complement us on our “non-foreigner skills,” telling us we “must be pretty good because usually the foreigners can’t ride with one hand.” Insert girlish giggle here.
Fortunately, biking was only part of the day. Our plan was to ride upstream a solid 40 minutes then float down the river on a bamboo raft before climbing 900 steps to the top of Moon Hill. Our guide Maria would drop us at the raft then take a took took downstream with our bikes. Lianne had to of course stop and purchase a flowered headband, which led her to refer to herself as the “Beautiful Flower Princess of Yanghsuo” for the rest of the day. She is, of course, all of those things.
The first hour of our bamboo journey was spent in complete solitude and, for the first time in China, we welcomed into our lives total silence, interrupted only by the splashing sound of our sampan man’s pole entering the water and pushing off of the river bottom. It was calm. It was peaceful. It was perfect. Then we reached tourist land.
Marked by an onslaught of rainbow beach umbrellas, yelling, screaming and the occasional man taking a swim, the tourist land portion of the journey, while not as quiet, was equally entertaining. Every 100 yards there was a floating 7-Eleven selling water, juice, soda, beer and a collection of meat-on-a-stick options. After each rapid (yes, there was the occasional whitewater) there was a floating internet café where you could pull in and purchase the photo just snapped of you making a ridiculous face you hope that your boat does not split into a dozen pieces.
The rain stopped just as we pulled into our overpriced lunch spot. An hour later we were prepping ourselves to scale Moon Hill. Moments after taking the first of 900 steps it started pouring rain again. Perfect. Around step 427 or so (but who’s counting) Lianne and I were joined by Elsa (at least, that’s what I decided her English name would be). She followed us the rest of the way up the mountain, shouting “watch your step” and “be careful” and “it’s very slippery” the entire way.
We reached the summit and were completely drenched in both rain water and sweat. I plopped my bag down on the ground, only to watch Elsa walk right up to Lianne and start fanning her. Elsa was, of course, not breathing hard at all. We started chatting her up and it turns out old Elsa is REALLY old. At 85 she climbs the 900 steps two and three times a day following tourists with postcards, water and yes, beer.
She pulled from her fanny pack (gotta love the fanny pack) a small journal that was filled with notes from people all the around the World who had visited Moon Hill and met Elsa. We gladly added to the collection and now, feeling rather guilty, asked Elsa if we could buy a water. “10 kuai,” she told us. Now, water usual costs 1.5 kuai so I was little perturbed. I started to try and bargain only to be told, in perfect English, that these waters had a “delivery surcharge,” as they were available ice cold at the top of 900 steps. Riddle with guilt (how can you not feel guilty when an 85 year old woman who climbs 900 steps 3 times a day and has no teeth stands in front of you asking to just spent $1.50 on a water) we bought one. She offered to snap our picture (first person I’ve ever met who knew exactly how to work my camera. I attempted to explain the shutter and she slapped my hands away shouting “I know. I know. I know. Gosh!”) and we started our descent.
Twenty minutes and one ice cold water later we were back on our bikes, umbrellas up and angled to battle the fierce rain. The only issue was, we had been riding all day and my seat was none too comfortable. Two minutes in my butt was asleep and my tail bone was thoroughly bruised, leading to the opening of what can only be described as the second most uncomfortable experience of my life (after that ride down the mountain from the coffee farm in Guaemala). Pedal. Coast. Push butt off seat using right leg. Ease pain. Balance umbrella. Pedal. Coast. Push butt off seat using left leg. Ease pain. Balance umbrella. Repeat. This carried on for the entire hour of our ride back and I was none to happy to hand that two-wheeled horror right over to the rental man, vowing to never again rent a bike in a rain. Or in the sun. Ever.
16 June 2008
It has not rained in weeks in Shanghai and it hardly every rains in Yangshuo. Alas, we were delayed by a massive thunderstorm in Shanghai and it appears the rain followed us down South in what the papers are calling “the worst rain Southern China has ever seen.” Undaunted by said horror stories, we board our mini bus from Guilin to Yangshuo, bound and determined to have a nice holiday, rain or no rain.
Arrival and navigating this charming backpacker haven couldn’t have been easier. We located our hostel of choice (Thank you Let’s Go) dropped our bags, had a delicious western sandwich on West Street (this plays loves the foreigners) and planned our next few days. We would start – in the rain – with a cruise from Xingping to Yiyang on the Li River. This stretch is supposed to be the most beautiful and therefore, it will be so. It’s still pouring and I have this bright idea that ponchos will be better than umbrellas. “But I think,” Lianne starts. “No no, we’ll be more mobile this way,” I say. Mobile and soaking wet, that is. Just as we leave the restaurant the rain really starts in. Our guide to the bus has no umbrella or poncho and is all but running a 100-yard dash to the bus. I’m struggling to keep up and Lianne is falling behind in her flip-flops. This is slowly becoming the longest, most miserable walk of my life thanks to this brilliant poncho plan. Mine now has a gaping whole in the cap and the left side of my head is soaked. Lianne’s front buttons have popped open and her entire front side is sopping wet. Water is running into our eyes and to top it all off, we’re sweating buckets because ponchos – shockingly - don’t breathe at all.
We finally get to our bus to find that there are no seats. “No problem,” the ticket lady says to me in Chinese. “Right here. Right here. Right here,” pointing to the wood casing over the engine. Perfect. We pay our 50 cents each for the 1-hour ride and plop down. There is an older Icelandic couple (I’m not certain they were from Iceland but they just had this whole Iceland thing about them) sitting next to us and we exchange that “look” you exchange with other foreigners when you both find yourselves in situations you would never have even considered in your home country. This looks says, “yeah, woo, sitting on an engine. Lets hope it doesn’t blow up.” [awkward] laugh and [awkward] smile.
It’s a bumpy ride full of a lot of horn honking and pot holes. Thankfully, the A/C is on and we’re drying out. Soon enough we’re exiting into a sea of tour guides who are doing their best to shuffle all the foreigners together in one corner. From there it’s onto the back of a took took which takes us only as far as bridge. Then it’s a 15-minute walk through a tiny little village, down a collection of rocks that I would loosely refer to as stairs and onto a boat that is lined with house-like windows and floating just inches above the surface of the water. And it’s still pouring rain. Oh god.
Fortunately, the clouds gave the entire cruise a sort-of “ah-ah-ah-ah-ah” mysterious feeling to the point where I think sunshine may have ruined it (at least, that’s what Lianne and I are telling ourselves). Massive peaks plunging out of the water, ox fording their way across, farmers working their rice fields with pushcarts and hand-made tools. It was like stepping back in time 100 years.
The cruise ended the way it began – up some rocks, walk for a while, took took to the bus station, bus to Yangshuo, walk in the rain to hostel. That was followed by a delicious Chinese food dinner, some night market shopping and an ice cream. What. A. Day.
15 June 2008
Or should I say, seemingly every time at the airport something goes wrong. While I was more hopeful for my trip to Guilin and Yanghshuo with Lianne, alas, it would not be so. It all began at lunch. The storm, that is. The thunderstorm that chucked 5 inches of water down in about three hours. It was complemented by thunder and lighting unlike any thunder and lighting I have ever seen, and that includes the wild thunderstorms in DC and torrential rains of monsoon in India. I mean, it was raining!
We called to check out 7:20pm departure and the agency said we were “on time, good to go.” So we grabbed a cab, hopeful of a swift departure. We were two hours early (I have a constant, innate fear of something going terribly wrong with my flight. I do believe I have a trip around the World with United to thank for that fear).
Just in time for the first incident to occur. There are absolutely NO liquids allowed on domestic flights in China. NONE AT ALL. Lianne and I had spent all day resorting luggage and slimming our necessities so we could avoid checking luggage. Alas, not so. We puttered over to the luggage zone and checked our tiny backpacks. Mine weighed all of 8 pounds. Who checks 8 pounds of luggage?
Security line goes fine (you can keep your shoes on and leave your laptop in your bag here but you can’t bring an ounce of contact solution. Go figure) and now we’re searching for our gate. “Gate 9. Gate 9,” I’m saying as we walk past Gate 7 then Gate 8 before arriving at Gate 10. Hmm…Our eyes are reading everything in site for a clue as to where Gate 9 may have gone. “Mobile Phone Electizing.” No, that’s not it. “”If to over on, under and above.” No, that’s not it either. Finally Lianne notices a piece of A4 paper taped to a pole that reads only “9” with a hand-drawn arrow pointing down an auxiliary staircase. Super. Apparently Gate 9 leads to a path that allows you to walk to Guilin.
We leave the perfect temperature and calm atmosphere of the main terminal and descend into the depths of Chinese travel madness. This auxiliary terminal and hot and sweaty. Every seat is taken. Announcements are running constantly over the PA, repeating the same message again and again and again. There is no place to buy water but there is a luxury jeweler. A man stands up and we wedge ourselves onto one chair. A little girl in a pink skirt is doing donuts around our row of seats screaming and poking at people. She stops in front of us each time, looks at us as if we are aliens, sticks out her tongue, bites it, does some lamas breathing and scurries away. Donut. Tongue. Bite. Lamas. Donut. Tongue. Bite. Lamas. I am emtranced. The parents are nowhere to be found.
We watch the status screen as the word “Delayed” appears next to our flight. We’re now departing at 7:50pm, thirty minutes late. “Not too bad,” I concede. Lianne nods in agreement. We get to chatting in between lamas breaths and before we know it it’s 8:15pm. We’re still sitting in the waiting area. The announcer comes on. “For flight to Guilin, please wait a moment.” Will do. She makes this same announcement every minute on the dot for the next 15 minutes.
8:30pm rolls around and the woman mixes it up by announcing boarding. Then, all at once, as if there were fewer seats on the plane than there were people with assigned seats, every single Chinese traveler stands up and charges the gate. Pandemonium ensues. Pushing. Shoving. Wedging. Lianne and I linger back a while until the crowd dissipates. We then pass through and board the bus. I’m wondering to myself, “did we by plane tickets or bus tickets?” I can see planes all around us and I’m hoping this is just a shuttle to our aircraft. Hey, it’s China, you never know.
Our bus pulls up next to a plane sitting all alone out on the tarmac. Doors open and people run for the stairs, still not convinced that there are actually enough seats for every person. But wait, what’s this? There’s a hold-up! A woman at the stairs is rechecking every single ticket and passport, as if we could have somehow snuck out onto the tarmac, just dying to steal someone’s seat and offset the entire balance of this flight. Lianne and I linger again. The buses pull away and I begin to notice that we are literally alone out in the middle of the tarmac with nobody watching us or guiding us. We could easily turn and run in any direction. In fact, that littler girl in pink is doing just that. Donuts around the plane. Another flight takes off 50 feet to our right. I can’t help but wonder, “no contact solution but I can wander freely around the open tarmac?
Finally everyone else boards and we approach the ticket woman. She looks like she has been attacked by a pack of dogs. “Xie xie,” I say. Thank you. Shocked, she smiles in bewilderment. We take our seats and the waiting game begins. It’s now 9pm. The captain comes on. “Please wait for a moment.” Will do captain. Will do. The storm is firing back up and it appears that we have missed our window. Five minutes later they pop in a movie and I can smell food being cooked. The Captain returns to the airwaves: “Please wait a moment and enjoy some noshery.” Will do captain. Will do. The flight attendants proceed to serve dinner to us sitting on a plane in the middle of the tarmac. We’re approaching 10pm. We left the house at 5, which means we’ve been “traveling” for 5 hours and have made it a whopping 15 miles from the apartment to this airplane.
Post dinner Lianne and I nod off. Our plane finally takes off at 11pm after tow hours of sitting on board. We arrive in Guilin about 1am and our thankfully, so do our bags. Lianne’s is pristine. Mine looks like it was dragged through the mud for a few hours. We share a taxi with a French guy who was also on our much-delayed flight. We chit-chat while our driver spends the entire 40-minute drive talking – no screaming – on his cell phone, only to arrive at our hostel to discover that they have lost our reservation. Of course, there is no way of knowing what exactly that means, as there is no computer behind the desk to store reservation numbers. Just a giant paper ledger with a lot of boxes and lines on it. “You have reservation number,” She asks. “Let me get it,” I tell her. “I need reservation number,” she asks again. “I’m getting it. Just a second,” I say, a bit more insistent this time. “I have to have your reservation number,” she says again and again and again. “LISTEN LADY, HE’S GETTING IT. CALM DOWN,” Lianne says from behind me. She giggles. We look at each other, totally confused.
I pull it up on my computer and they look at me as if I have doctored some online confirmation email. “Do you not have any rooms,” I ask. “Is that the problem?”
“Oh no,” she says. “We have plenty of rooms. Only two people staying.” I’m thinking to myself, then why are you creating an international crisis if the hostel is empty? Out of nowhere she says, “Oh yes, here it is,” while pointing to an empty box on her giant pad. No clue.
All we knew is that it meant keys, which meant sleep. Which was exactly what we needed.
12 June 2008
I mean, I’d like to think I’m still a funny person, but everything here in Shanghai is just so seemingly normal and not “shocking” anymore that I’m yearning for some decent material. It just “is” this time and I’m almost too adaptable to anything and everything that I often miss it, or it leaves me overly impressed and wondering why we too don’t do it.
Take carrying stuff on bikes, for example. At first, funny. It’s like, “how do they get so much stuff on such a tiny bike? Now, impressed. It’s like, “wow, I wish I could get all that stuff on a tiny bike and save all that gas carting it around.” Or the whole “is China a rising power of not,” debate. At first, of major interest and mentally exhausting. Now, just sort-of fascinating and intriguing. Or snot rockets. Oh wait. No, that’s still funny and gross. So yes, for the most part, I’m not funny anymore. Things either go totally unnoticed, or I now find them rather fascinating. Looks like I need to get myself back into that there yoga class. That was always ripe with humor.
By the way, that's me dressed up as "Roller Fabulous" doing the thriller dance. Pretty funny, right?
11 June 2008
So historically in life I have been a heavy packer. This I know and after numerous friends and significant others pointed this out I made a conscious effort to sort this out, and I do believe I have. When I first went abroad to Brussels I took three 70-pound bags. That’s 210 pounds of stuff! When I came to China the first time it was just two 70-pound bags. Then I traveled around the world with one 50-pound backpack and a rolling carry-on that weighted 40 pounds or so. Now I’ve returned to China with one 50 pound bag and a 25-pound bag. That means I continue to start with less and less. However, I have arrived and unpacked and find myself sitting here going, “why did I bring all this stuff?
The non-clothes goods are all essential – computer, camera, basic office supplies, journals, external hard drives, power converters, etc. It’s just the darn clothes! For example, who needs 20 pairs of socks? Or what’s with the 15 shirts? I’m gone for 75 days. That’s each shirt just five times. Can’t I wash them? Then, of course, I never ever pack enough relaxing gear. I’ve got two pairs of “sitting around” shorts and since I’m here writing a book, I spend most days inside “sitting around.”
Needless to say, if I want to get those 100 DVDs I’ve already bought along with pearls, bags and chopsticks back to America I may need to shuffle the contents of said bags. In the meantime, I’ve got a whole lot of peds and boxer briefs that will just have to enjoy their gorgeous Chinese armoir while I busily wash the same two pairs of lounge shorts over and over and over again.
06 June 2008
“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” - Nelson Mandela
Those words definitely speak the truth, though I wonder, is it really possible to find a place that remains unchanged anymore? I find myself wondering what, exactly, needs to stay the same for a place to be considered “unchanged.” Is it the people? The buildings? The general feeling? California is where I was born and raised and I will probably forever think of it as “home,” but it’s nothing like I remember it as a kid. My siblings have grown up, my parents are doing totally different things and only a few friends still live there. My brother now lives in my old room, so that place feels totally foreign.
I went to college in DC and spent five of the last six years there. Still, I left right after graduating and when I returned I tackled the city as a “real person,” which made it feel like somewhere completely different.
Then there is Shanghai. I left a year and a bit ago and just returned. There are at least a thousand new buildings. More western venues are opening (like Coldstone – WHOA). Still, the people are the same minus a few major players (those darn Canadians). The food is still divine. My lifestyle remains almost identical, including my neighborhood. The only real difference is that nothing shocks me anymore. It all just feels normal. Regular. Unchanged. So then, maybe that’s why I came back here to reflect on the last year of constant change. Maybe this is the place that remains unchanged, at least in the way it feels. Maybe that quote should now read: “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains JUST AS YOU REMEMBER IT to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”
04 June 2008
While I took the more “independent traveler” approach to both my first and current stay in China Kyle Long, my name, alma mater and love for China twin took the “adventurous homestay” approach. That’s right, he’s spent the last ten months living with a Shanghai family in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment located right in the center of town.
Yes, you indeed heard me correctly. That’s an entire 3-person family PLUS Kyle living in about 500 square feet of space – Actwin, Shirley, Jerry and Long Hai (his Chinese name). Where might the daugher, Jerry, sleep you ask? Why, in the bed with her parents of course! Where else would an eleven-year-old catch some z’s?
I arrived a bit early for this supper, just in time to catch Papa Actwin (he chose that name because you need to take action to win in life) sporting the full Chinese man drift. When it gets warm in the summer most men roll up just the bottom of their shirts to catch the passing breeze through a window or fan, though the Chinese man drift is not limited to indoor occasions. No, said drift is fully permitted and even encouraged in public places. He offers me the couch and perches himself on a tiny plastic stool, finishing the gesture with a “No prob!” That’s Kyle’s favorite phrase and he has now indoctrinated this family with it. They use it often, even if it doesn’t fit, Kyle later tells me.
I peek into the dining room (it’s not far, as the apartment is extremely space conscious. In fact, I believe I may have been half in the dining room at this point. No wait, a quarter in the dining room, a quarter in the living room, a quarter in Kyle’s bedroom and a quarter in the bathroom. Yes, that’s it). Anyway, I peek into the dining room where Jerry is working diligently on her homework. She started at 4pm. It is now 7pm. She is 11. This is cruel and unusual punishment.
The housekeeper is working on dinner in the kitchen which, with a pivot of my hips, I am now in. Shirley joins us in the living room and we shoot the breeze for a while. What I do, how much I make, why I like Shanghai, etc. It’s the usual “first meeting” convo in China. The awkward pauses are broken by the housekeeper announcing dinner. Jerry moves her homework (which she will pick up after we eat) and the whole gang pull up chairs.
Dinner is the usual Chinese fair and I am incredibly overjoyed. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but I LOVE Chinese food. The meals continues on like most family dinners. Question asked by parent. Answer given by child or foreigner. Acknowledgment. Realization. Nod. Bite of food. Repeat. These back and forths are broken up by Actwin tapping his beer to table before every sip, insisting Kyle toast him then sipping. Jerry, who is sitting across from me, watches me eat then giggles. I attempt to make conversation, which lasts sporadically. I get my best replies from Jerry, whose English is exceptional. I tell Actwin and Shirley how great their daughter’s English is. “Oh no, I don’t think so,” Shirley replies. No praise. Cut back to Actwin, who taps his beer on the table but this time says, “bottoms up,” initiating a brief “chug” session with Kyle. They both finish their beers. Loud burps can be heard. Actwin pops another. One beer down and he is now completely trashed. I take a sip of my boxed ice tea. Yum.
Post beer number one Actwin decides to begin a conversation on the history of America, which leads to statements like “China is very open” and “Taiwan is part of China.” Brilliant. Dinner comes to a close, which means brief period of relaxation, code for Actwin watches TV furiously reading subtitles while Shirley cleans and Kyle and Jerry take turns playing the piano. Dishes done, songs played, subtitles read. It’s fruit time. The edible kind.
We each bring our own trash can to eat over and pull up a stool around the coffee table. The watermelon is cut and we proceed to scarf down slice after slice until the entire melon is gone. Very few words are spoken. Kyle and I then retire to his room for an hour to do some planning. Actwin goes back to reading subtitles while Jerry returns to her homework and Shirley supervises. I leave an hour later (10pm). Jerry is still hard at work. Actwin is in bed asleep. Shirley continues to supervise. “Thanks for having me,” I tell her. “No prob,” she replies.
Kyle later tells me that, upon asking her what she thought of me, Shirley’s replied by raising her arms and uttering a short, “Ahh.” Alas, I made a mighty first impression!