Friday, December 22, 2006


Vacations are supposed to contrast your real life against your imaginary life and thus make you appreciate how lucky you are to get "away from it all." Sometimes the contrast is staggering, like our trip home.

Our last night on the beach was wonderful. We finally had a passable sunset, the weather was still pleasant (albeit cooling off) and the Christmas hordes had not yet arrived. We capped it with a nice dinner at our favorite place (Blackie's) and steeled ourselves for the long return to civilization.

Not much to say about the packing and the trip through Mexico. The sky became cloudy as we traveled into northern Sonora, agreeing with our understanding of the weather that was coming - a storm from the Pacific that was supposed to haunt us as we headed north. No weather along the road though, and no impediments either. Including a lucky avoidance of the 5 mile traffic jam at the Hermosillo military checkpoint that we had witnessed on the trip down.

The border was the border - a 1 hour wait made interesting by people trying to sell us stuff. One young man came up to the window and stood there yelling at us for a minute or so. Not sure what he wanted. We picked a line of cars as the traffic split and we were doing well compared to the other lines until a car 3 up from us had some sort of papers problems. Just when it seemed we were so close.

Taking our place at the interrogation, we were told to pull over. We had "mistakingly" been selected to be searched. So we pulled into the spot, opened all the doors and hood and stood there in the breezy cold while the Customs boys worked over the vehicle. We were told to go once it had been verified with Washington that blueberries were not on the recently (as in that day) updated contraband list.

Our overnight in Tucson was wonderful as always and we were surprised to see a light rain shower - more portents of the day to come.

Next morrning we were out the door and on the road with stops for green corn tamales and gasoline. The traffic leaving Tucson was obnoxious as always but we cleared it and rode on until we took a short break in Texas Canyon, where it started to snow. A bit.

But the weather held until we left I-10 at Deming and headed across the short cut to Hatch. Here it began to rain in earnest as the sky adopted a most foreboding look. Still nothing serious though. Leaving NM26 much to the gratification of my GPS which was still trying to tell me it was a mistake to leave I-10 forty-six miles ago, we turned the car into the wind and north towards home. The sky was now a leaden gray and it was obvious that various forms of precipitation had been moving through earlier.

As we moved on, the desert became dusted with snow. And then the fog started, no doubt due to the conflict between the moisture on the ground and the sinking temperature. Really dense, 10 yard visibility fog that would thin out only as we passed through dips in the road. The only entertainment in this gray world was a Bosque Farms policeman in his car, far from home, alternating leads of the traffic line with a young woman in a Saab who couldn't quite decide if it was okay to pass a police car. The fog would go thick, they would slow down. The fog would go thin, they would speed up. Apparently fog demands +/- 5 MPH.

The closer we came to home, the snowier it became. The road was pretty clear up until the last 80 or so miles when the slush began. A gray minivan that had been trying to pass me for 15 miles by going 1 MPH faster lost his nerve the minute the road got slick and disappeared into my murky rear view mirror.

By now it was clear we were headed for a monstrous traffic mess as rush hour Albuquerque always is when there is weather involved. We tried to decide whether to stick with the interstate or risk the back roads and finally decided to commit to the former. As we approached the city, traffic in the opposite direction suggested we were headed for a mess.

But no, the traffic gods were smiling upon us that night. Seems the snow had started earlier here and everyone had bailed out early so the highways were empty and we sailed right home to 6 inches of the white stuff and a wiggling dog turning himself inside out with glee.

Once again, there's no place like home.


Sunday, December 17, 2006

Reflections on the Nature of Vacation

It’s amazing how little can happen when you genuinely vacate your regular life in a place like this. The days simply blend together in a never ending filmstrip of sleep, carne machaca, birds, sleep, chitchat, sun, surf, dead squid, sunsets, breezes, bossy cats and sleep.

Yesterday we visited Guelaquetza our favorite little curio shop here in town. In the olden days it was a great place to find those colorful Oaxacan carvings of whimsical animals and we slowly built a decent collection based on their stock. They’re still there, but the prices have gone through the roof. I’m glad we have the ones we have, because starting a collection now would indeed be a costly undertaking. Using my best Spanish I told the proprietress how the rear view mirror in my car still sports a small carved jaguar’s head that I had bought in her store more than 10 years ago. She was pleased and responded in a most grave and sincere tone that I was entitled to a 10% discount on everything in the store. I tried to explain how it was my good luck charm for travel, failing to mention how poorly it worked considering the battery troubles we had down here last October.

This late in the game, we’ve managed to find most of the birds we were looking for and last night decided to cap the count with an attempt to get some owls. Out by the old Club Med there is a decent stand of Barrel Cactus that I thought might produce an Elf Owl. So we drove out. The Arctic Eagle was still sitting in the back harbor, brightly lit with strings of white lights. An acquaintance here told us that she’d heard that it was purchased and renovated by “someone” and that it had been sitting here for more than three months doing “something.” In addition to the motor yacht and runabout mentioned in the last blog entry, it also holds a jeep on its decks. Where the owners are currently, no one knows.

Continuing down the road, we came across a couple of Lesser Nighthawks working over the bugs under a tall streetlight in the middle of the median near the Algodones dunes. At Club Med there were no Elf Owls, but there were two pickup trucks that refused my entreaty to go in front of me as I idled in the traffic circle. One even went so far as to shoot around the back of the circle to come out behind me lest I had some nefarious intent in being courteous.

Driving on, we found a half dozen more Nighthawks flitting around the bright signs for the bars at Club Med. Pulling off to watch them, we were passed by a couple of people on dirt bikes and two in a stripped down dune buggy. Considering the dark and the isolation, it evoked a scene out of “Road Warrior” to be sure. A trip through the Ranchitos section of town also failed to produce an owl but we did see a tiny Siamese kitten playing in the ditch along the road at the base of a wall. In the headlights it looked like a ghost cat but judging from its good condition, it must have belonged to one of the wintering retirees. It almost came home with us.

Tomorrow it’s time to pack the car and head to town for our final vacation machaca breakfast and my grand opportunity to use my Spanish to order “cuatro ciento pesos” worth of gasoline at the local Pemex station. From there, back up the road we came down and across the border. Vacations are funny things, alternating between too short and too long. Today, this one feels too short.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Of Birds and Cats

There are two things we always do when visiting at Christmas – count birds and feed cats.

The cats here at Pilar are the remnants of vast herds of them that once roamed the desert in this vicinity. For a time, Pilar was the local dumping ground for unwanted kittens and there were dozens of them, both tame and completely feral. Over time, the flock thinned and the remaining cats were treated and neutered by a local vet. These days were down to about 5 cats, and all of them are hanging out on our patio waiting for a soft touch to provide them with dinner. Judging from the amount of fat they’re carrying around their backbones, they seem to be able to consistently judge which condos are occupied by suckers and to park themselves there, looking desperate. We always bring a couple of cans of the cheap food with us and I try to feed them once a day. This reliable meal results in cats hanging about languidly dripping over the edges of our camp chairs and regaling us with a chorus of “feed me, feed me” each and every time we enter or exit our place. This year we’re host to two calicos, two all blacks, one very athletic tortoise shell and a second tortoise shell with a white visage that we call “puffy face.”

Last night on our regular walk the entire troop must have decided that we were on the move, because the decided to walk with us. The sight of the shadows cast by the condo lights of two people and four cats – three following and one leading – tight roping down the seawall was one for the scrap books. They didn’t make it the entire way, as the sprinklers were running and I imagine they thought wet fur was not worth the risk of letting us slip away. This morning when I pulled back the drapes, they were there once again.

Yesterday we began to count birds in earnest with low tide visits to the local sewage ponds, Tular and Empalme. The former is here in town, the middle just over the hill and the latter is the tail end of a bay, extending back into some marshes.

Most people would not find a visit to the local sewage ponds high on their list of vacation goals, but for us it’s a special stop. The one place locally where we can almost be guaranteed the sight of the elusive Least Grebe. They were there this year along with eight or ten cows that could not decide whether to run or to attack. Moving on to Tular, hundreds of gulls and herons were present as would be expected as well as an uncommon Gray Hawk, a species normally found in riparian areas along the Santa Cruz river in Arizona. The gulls were all tucked in for a late afternoon nap arrayed across the mudflats like so many gray and white pillows. From there on to Empalme and many, many thousands of herons, pelicans and shorebirds.

I remember when I first located Empalme on the map and found the name so evocative – beaches, swaying trees, sun and palapas. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it meant “train repair yard” and the image at once changed to greasy engines belching steam in the morning haze. Today, the area where for so many years we have sidled up to a stinking polluted mudflat in hopes of finding some oddball bird is a busy intersection with an army checkpoint and groups of men selling cooked shrimp by the railroad crossing. Birding here used to be punctuated by a small band of feral dogs led by a dowager we called “Blackie.” Today, it’s traffic and noise.

Birding today started on the early side in a canyon that we had discovered on our first Christmas Count twelve or more years ago. The Count here in San Carlos had been done once before by some New Jersey tourists back in the early 1980s. Because birding is not foremost on the minds of most Mexicans, it had laid dormant for about 10 years when I decided to pick it up. We’ve been far more reliable - missing only two since we started it. The original counters spelled out their locations and one was listed as a “palm-lined barranca.” Sea birding is easy down here, good land birding is less so, so we hunted high and low until we found this place and have visited it many times since, always with quirky changes and events. The first year we were busy counting when along came a friendly load of policemen in a pickup truck who proceeded to park at the end and open fire on a group of wild dogs. Gunfire and birding generally don’t mix so we departed in haste. The middle years were notable only for the fact that we always managed to pull some good birds out of there. Two years ago, fetid water had somehow rolled back into the canyon and the result was the overpowering smell of sewage. That year we stuck to birding the road. This year, it was construction debris. San Carlos has been undergoing quite a building boom and now we know where the detritus is being dumped. The birds loved it – myriad places to hide out and perch. To us, it was just another case of third world trying to be first world as fast as can be. Take what could be a beautiful spot for a park or picnics or hiking and turn it into the town dump. Of course, the tourists trying to find a more permanent attachment to this place don’t see it, and probably don’t care as long as they can find a little casita to roll their home equity money into. As usual, the birds were great if the scenery was sadly diminished. We stayed there until the sun crested the canyon walls and the birds headed into the shade.

In the back of the harbor this morning was a large pale blue converted trawler by the name of the Arctic Eagle. According to the stern, it hails from Sitka, Alaska. Aside from the color, what caught my eye was the large motor yacht sitting on its deck and a four person runabout sitting on that. Sort of a maritime marushka doll. According to Google, it may be a crab vessel although it looks like it's now better suited to research or touring. Guess we'll never know.

As the day winds down, we're here again at the Marina enjoying a quesadilla(this time with chicken) and an evening's margarita. From here it's out to see if we can find some owls and then home to yet another 2005 NYT Sunday Crossword Puzzle. Our never ending challenge to work off a year's backlog.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

What a difference two months makes

Well here we are again, happy hour at the Marina Cantina in sunny San Carlos. This time we're not skulking in the parking lot stealing the wireless signal, rather sitting in a booth enjoying a couple of margaritas and some appetizers - a quesadilla and a hollowed out loaf of french bread filled with artichoke dip. My Lovely Wife is scanning the joint and I am relating to you.

The trip down just gets easier and easier. Five minutes tops at the visa station and then the long haul across the desert. We made it in before sunset, unpacked and surveyed the place. And this is where the title comment comes in - recall last time and the hordes of Americans enjoying the Columbus Day break. This time - 4 condos with 10 or so people and nearly complete isolation. The perfect vacation conditions. Enjoying the 70 something air, the sea breeze and the QUIET, we headed out to our traditional dinner at Rosa's. Our friend Martin was there behind the counter and we had a nice chat in broken Spanish about the place, our kids (he said we must have had them young), carne machaca and life in brief. We ended the evening with our traditional walk around Pilar (in honor of Ted) and a sit on the seawall. I'd had this feeling that I was seeing things in the sky and it dawned on me that we might be in the middle of a meteor shower. So we switched positions and looked to the east and no sooner had we done so than we were treated to a big, bright, yellow trail that broke up into many smaller pieces as it entered the atmosphere. What better omen for a splendid time on the beach?

The surf was pretty rough which is unusual for this particular strand. What was unique about the breakers was the angle at which they were hitting the beach. Coming in obliquely, they would break at the closest point and then rocket along the shore. For lack of a better metaphor, they reminded me of the effect you get when you snap a long hose and the wave pattern starts at your hand and travels to the end.

Today was pretty much vacation standard. Breakfast of bolillos, some time sitting on the seawall looking at Loons, a nap and a walk down the beach, which has changed quite a bit from our last visit. Now the point has moved to the north and the channel to the west, quite a different conformation than October. Makes me wish I had been taking a picture of the same spot for the last 14 years. Birds all over the place which bodes well for our annual count.

Tomorrow we start in earnest - exploring the place, riding my bike, looking for birds and generally trying to get into the relaxed groove. Which is never too hard given what this place presents - balmy breezes and a low key vibe.

More later, and maybe some pictures

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Picture Post

Well the trip home was only memorable for its lack of memorableness. The connections were made, the flights were on time and once again there's no place like home.

Thought I'd close this adventure with some pictures from my last day in the park. Hope you enjoy them.


Back across the broad Pacific

Thursday was kind of an average day, nothing very exciting happened but there were lots of little things worth mentioning.

Lunch was Papa John’s pizza, worth mentioning just for the fact that it exists here. The pies were precisely what you would expect from PJ’s – not extraordinary but tasty. We had some time so we headed out for a walk around the big block. Found a bakery by the name of Croissant le France that was loaded with very attractive breads and pastries. Saw a bicyclist politely arguing with a motorist who had apparently hit them with their car. The driver was complaining that the bike had scratched his bumper and the rider was bemoaning the facts that his wheel was bent and that his foot hurt. An argument in the middle of a busy intersection that you would never see anywhere but here.

After a non-descript afternoon and a short stop at Starbucks we went out to the Hong Mei Leisure Pedestrian Street for dinner. It’s basically a narrow thoroughfare connecting two boulevards that has been given over to foot traffic and pedestrians. We stopped in the Little Bamboo Bar for a pre-dinner libation – they had one of those multi-page menus of drinks varying in degree of potential intoxication bearing names like “Cyclone” and “Tornado” and “Three-Mile Island.” I went simple, a Gimlet made only of lime juice and vodka. When it came to getting our orders concocted, we were surprised to discover that none of five bartenders knew how to make any of the drinks on the menu. This came to our attention as our waitress kept coming back to me for instructions on how to put the two ingredient drink together. Someone, sometime must have been traveling and taken with the notion of a fancy drink menu but never bothered to put the talent in place to actually pull it off. Another case of cultural transference that lost a little something in the translation.

Dinner was at Simply Thai where we shared some spring rolls and a variety of curry dishes varying in color from red to yellow to green. All outstanding.

Given it was only a mile to the hotel and that the night was pleasant, we decided to hoof it back. We witnessed the closest call between a car and a sidewalk riding cyclist that I’ve ever seen, the biker literally putting the bike in an off-camber angle as he passed the driver pulling out of a driveway in order to avoid landing on the hood. We also walked through a very dingy section of street – little alleys and warrens and shops under ugly yellow lights teeming with people. I was surprised, as this is a pretty nice part of town and despite several walks up and down the other side of the street, I’d never noticed this little patch. Turns out the whole little neighborhood was blocked from view by some big panels attached to the overhead road. Sort of a Chinese Potemkin village.

This morning dawned damp and misty for our daily hike and we headed down Ya’an Xilu to the last park on our agenda for this trip. As it turned out, it was the best one so far. Many little paths made from polished pebbles set on their sides in concrete wound their way up and down little hills through evergreen and philodendron forests. It was loaded with the normal horde of exercising people (as always) and singing birds. Of the latter, nothing new beyond the ubiquitous Eurasian Blackbirds and White-cheeked Bulbuls although I did see a dove that merits checking later. In the case of the former, I added a couple of new characters - tree bumpers and face scrubbers to my ever-growing list of oddball exercise practitioners. The tree bumpers were two women who stood opposite each other on either side of a tree and bumped it repeatedly with their shoulders. Again, don’t ask me why. The face scrubber was a man standing in the woods roughly rubbing his hands over and over his face while making a gape-mouthed grimace. We went around the place and took a lot of photos, none of which are prepared at the moment since I am writing this in the airport and cannot upload them.

While Badminton is popular in all the parks, this one held some serious ringers with hard serves and harder routines. One couple was playing with two racquets each, their purpose unclear to me until grandpa drove a liner into grandma’s forehead and she used the two like a pair of pliers to pick up the errant shuttlecock.

Coming around a corner, I met a couple of elderly people feeding a big calico cat. I observed “yi zhi mao” which elicited a chuckle from the woman. Apparently the park is the home of 100s of feral cats that the people come and feed every morning. Judging from the size and condition of the cats, it’s an arrangement that works. We saw several more instances of cats coming out of the bushes and eating from grocery bags.

Leaving the new park, we headed back and decided to take a quick spin through Tianshan Park before heading back to the hotel. On our visit here two days ago, we had heard dance music wafting through the trees and drawing closer, we’d come upon a dozen or so couples ballroom dancing off to the side on an old dance floor. At that time, they were doing the Russell One Step to Polka music. This time it was a waltz and it was just wonderful to see all these seniors gliding over the floor in the early morning light.

After the walk and the dinner it was time to pack up and head to the airport. Not much here to report aside from the nasty yellow haze hanging over the city which didn’t abate has I headed out to the ocean and the airport. Another opportunity to habla with a cab driver which was fun and I was standing in line at the gate.

Frequent flyer plans have their advantages as I made it through the Premier line very quickly, leaving behind the teeming hordes in the realm of the proletariat. Security was an easy pass although I did have to stand on the little pedestal to have my ankles squeezed. Then it just boiled down to waiting and people watching.

Shanghai airport is a little weird in that many of the gates are on a different level than the waiting area. You sort of stand around trying to decide if you want to go down below, or if you’re even allowed to. The 1st and Business class lounges are down there, but there really is nowhere to wait. Today, despite being in the Elite loading group I waited and wondered why so many people were heading down so far in advance of the loading call. Well, they were down there forming a line, of which I ended up at the end of when I finally went down the escalator. Stupid me, always following the rules. There was a second security check at the bottom which consisted of a young agent clearly in training that made me open my bag so that she could press down on my clothing. The only thing she appeared capable of saying in English was “any more bottles in there” and despite my answer of “no” she looked to her trainer for direction before sending me on.

Took a long bit to load the plane and finally when they closed the doors there were but two people in my four people row – me and the guy two seats away. No single travel related thing is better than to be granted that extra space on a haul like this. A woman two aisles up pitched a major fit when the attendant told her she was sitting in D when she should have been sitting in G. She copped an interesting attitude considering it was her reading skills that were clearly lacking. People are funny.

We got off on time and soon it was ready for meals. Once again the uncooked chicken entrée was offered up and once again refused by picky customers. Mine was fine and plenty hot.

Sat for a while and did a couple of crosswords and watch “Pirates of the Caribbean” with the sound off. Now it’s “My Super Ex-girlfriend” which I think I might just watch.

The rest of the flight rated a yawn. My favorite noodle bowl showed up sometime in the wee hours, the movie was dull, the next movie “Little Miss Sunshine” was interesting with the sound off and the intervening hours were filled with nodding and classical guitar music. The last meal of the trip was a spicy Shanghai noodle dish which always picks me up for the for the haul into the airport. Music switched over to something with a stronger bass beat and I’m ready to get off the plane and brave customs, security and finding my next gate.

We must have landed somewhere Oakland because the walk into the customs hall was long, long, long. Having no bag to claim and being one of the long strides, I made it through that routine quick and painlessly. Security was another matter, because like most airports the infrastructure has not kept up with the drill. It’s plainly not easy to juggle two pieces of luggage, a coat, shoes and my little personal baggie in a manner that reflects even the slightest degree of control. But I did it and getting sent back through the metal detector due to my belt didn’t set me back too badly. Unlike their Chinese counterparts, American security agents have no interest in squeezing my ankles. Outta there and off to the concourse where I now sit and wait for my flight to appear on the departure board. Such is the nature of 4 hour layovers. Hopefully it won’t be more than that.

This blog by the way is brought to you via a T-Mobile hot spot on the SFO concourse. Really pretty cool when you think of it - being able to sit and share your thoughts any time, any place. Years ago it was all journals tucked away for review in the twilight years. Now it's real time. Not sure something isn't lost in all this but perhaps the gains transcend. I certainly know it sure is fun.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Went out to lunch with the other IT guys – both local residents – yesterday and had quite a nice experience. Among other things, it was my first time driving with a resident in their personal car – all my other rides have been with personal drivers or taxis.

We started by heading to Pizza Hut. This chain and KFC are very popular among the Shanghaiese because they love chicken and both restaurants are chicken specialists. I found this to be pretty interesting, because while Americans frequent both chains, I wouldn’t say that they patronize them because of a reputation for doing any type of cuisine well. For us it’s more about speed and uniformity.

We had a short discussion and decided instead to have Shanghai food so we went around the Pizza Hut building and down a long driveway to a Chinese restaurant tucked into the back corner. The first thing that struck me was the plethora of cardboard Santa faces on every pane of glass.

The host brought us into the back room which was very modern and fancy. No neighborhood joint this. We were seated by a window (with Santa overlooking). They brought us wrapped towels to allow us to wash our hands and faces - a common practice in most restaurant – and they draped big cloth napkins over the tops of our coats which were hung on the back of our chairs. Green tea was served, and re-served with every waitress in the room coming over to fill my cup the minute it went down an inch or more. The young ladies were dressed in traditional Chinese suits with high collars and white gloves.

Three dishes were brought out for the first course, a soy curd that was very tasty despite being the consistency of a sponge, some slices of sweet, barbequed pork and potato salad. Yes, potato salad prepared in the Shanghai style which was no different than American style and just as tasty as any I have ever had.

I watched the way my two companions ate, very different than how we would approach shared meals in a Chinese restaurant at home. First, we ate off the serving plates communally and second, the pace was very slow. They would eat one bite and then rest their chopsticks on the blocks. Lots of conversation and no division of the spoils. I managed to get into that groove and enjoy it, despite my western urge to shovel it in. Another dish was brought out - cubes of pork served in a thick, sweet brown soy sauce, “Shanghai style.” It was very delicious and the flavor trumped the fact that it was steaming hot. So hot that the layer of fat in each cube instantly dissolved into a sticky coating on the inside of my mouth, burning off a couple of layers of skin. The pork was followed by a soup served in a paper filter sitting above a candle in a wire frame. Sort of a simple chafing dish. This was a hairy crab soup with soy and again quite tasty.

A dish of what appeared to be stir fried meat appeared next and Ling informed me it was “fish that looks like snake”. In other words, eel. The eels were very small – about the length and diameter of a blade of grass – and again very delicious. This was followed by a clear soup comprised of carrots and lamb shanks, the latter presenting a real challenge in being finessed by chop sticks. The final dish was the most amazing of all, a big casserole of egg custard (read flan) loaded with cherrystone clams, in the shell, poking out of the surface. Clams in the shell are very difficult to consume with chopsticks and those big Chinese soup spoons. Fingers are demanded.

As we slowly stuffed ourselves, we had some great conversation about Chinese culture, living in Shanghai, food, genology and most interestingly the Chinese love affair with western holidays. The chit-chat was kind of interesting because two of us spoke pretty good English, two of us spoke pretty good Chinese and the individuals with the weaker language skills were different in both cases. I asked for the Chinese name for Santa Claus and Ling explained that it was Shengdanlaoren 圣诞老人, literally Holy Birthday Old Man. Seems appropriate. I asked about other holidays and was informed that Valentine’s Day is quite popular for obvious reasons and that Thanksgiving is also catching on, a fact that I find quite amusing. Turkeys are hard to find in China and their pumpkins are long and tubular instead of round, but those trivialities are not stopping anyone. We went on like this until I could muster the vocabulary to utter “hen bao”, very full, and so lunch drew to a close.

This little episode reminded me well of my Chongming Island visit – it’s fun and enlightening to break out of the norm and do something different from time to time. Would’ve been far easier to just hang with my pals from the US and get whatever was easy for lunch. Instead, I was able to try some new foods and learn a lot about these emerging cultural changes. A couple of hours well spent.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Another walk in the park

Went out just after dawn this morning to explore another park up the street from the hotel. Each time I’ve been to this hotel, I have expanded the radius of my morning walks to the point now where the out and back distance is beginning to challenge the amount of time I have to spend on them. But with each expansion, has come another park to visit and each one has been more interesting and beautiful than the last.

In this part of the city some land seems to be set aside at every major intersection. Sometimes it’s just a small amount with a few trees and perhaps a sculpture. Others are far more elaborate. This morning’s desitination – Tianshan Park - was certainly in the latter case. Not only braided with paths, it had many types of tree “gardens” a big lake and a lot of buildings. As the city has developed, these little oases have become hemmed in with tall buildings, creating sort of an artificial canyon amid towering spires.

Like all the others, this park was full of people doing all the regular park things – tai chi, backwards walking, head patting, fan dancing and badminton. Lots of badminton in fact. I did not hear any of the yelling people, perhaps this park has a noice ordinance, but I doubt it, perhaps the yellers simply prefer the more open spaces of New Century Park up the road.

This one had a much stronger Asian aesthetic than the others with more tailored gardens, arched bridges across the narrow parts of the lake, small pagodas tucked away in copses and a scuttled WWII vintage PT boat grounded in a small cove. People were everywhere and yet the place retained that sort of late fall serenity you’d expect from a place desgined to convey it. The paths were slippery depending on what they were made of, bricks being slick, pavement being walkable. Lots of birds here albeit of a small variety, the same Bulbuls, Eurasian Blackbirds and House Sparrows that populate the other groves around town.

We did a couple of circuits and took the pictures you see below. Most noteworthy is a shot of that rarest of avian species, a Least Chinese City Chicken that wandered out of one of the big apartment complexes and onto the sidewalk. Roaming the streets here you often hear roosters which is an odd sound considering the urbanization. But if you look closely through the fences that surround these places you find small rooms crammed with people lying in stark contrast to the modern nature of the buildings. I suspect that many come in from the countryside and live with friends and relatives in an apartment that is designed for only one family. With them comes some of the aspects of home – chickens for example, and so urban life is slightly modified by strongly held customs.


Typical Workday

Not really too much to say about today, it was spent working. Started the day out right with a grande Hot Chocolate from Starbucks (the world being flat and all) and had the normal commute in the normal morning traffic. Perhaps the highlight was an opportunity to tell the taxi driver to turn left when he wasn't sure which way to go. My response came naturally, perhaps a decent indicator that I'm making some progress with my language.

Had lunch on a nice little side street blocked to cars and dedicated to restaurants. Our place had a Santa Fe club sandwich on the menu, an interesting name considering there wasn't much Santa Fe about it. I had a spicy Thai beef wrap which was all those things.

Dinner once again at the 1221 restaurant, a western style chinese food establishment that is quite popular with expats and known for its excellent food. They even called a cab for us which we managed to walk past when we left. Didn't matter because we ended up sitting in it for 5 minutes being blinded by the headlights of a minivan trying to jam its 15 foot size into a 12 foot space.

Thought I share a few pictures of the Christmas spirit, such an odd presence in a country thought to be religionless. I guess the emerging capitalism trumps all as the spirit here is even more commercial than it is back on the other side. But it's still fun and I can't imagine anything more bizarre than standing in the taxi queue over here listening to Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" through a giant amped boombox.

The first shot is the world's largest Advent Calendar, every night they draw a business card and some lucky guest wins the price behind the dated door. T'm told that there once was a larger one here in town. Apparently Siemens turned the front of their office building into one a couple of years ago and every day they would throw gifts out of the appropriately marked window. Doesn't seem like getting hit in the head with a DVD player tossed out of the 4th floor would feel particularly seasonal. In the case of our calendar, Silvio the manager told me that they can't leave the prizes behind the little doors because because some one was stealing them. This is why all the doors are closed despite the date, and therefore in strict violation of the entire raison d' etre for Advent Calendars. One of our party won tonight's round - a free massage in the spa.

The sax playing Santa is trapped in an alcove in the giant rotating entry door. He travels around and around backwards all day long plaintively playing Christmas songs for chain smoking hotel guests. At least he has some snow in there to keep him cool.

The other two shots are just a sampling of our cheery decorations.


Sunday, December 03, 2006

Tis the Season To Be Jolly - in Shanghai?

I’m not sure how to feel about my impressions from this latest trip across the sea. It’s now closing on 6 weeks spent in China over the course of the year and oddly it’s starting to feel like just any old trip. Like going to Phoenix. This struck me last night as I was waiting for my friends out in front of the Renaissance, maybe it was the cold air or the giant Christmas tree or maybe the twinkle lights in the potted plants or Santa’s sled and reindeer. I don’t know, it just didn’t feel special any more. I remember that first morning back in February when I bravely headed out to wander through New Century Park across Ya’an Xilu. It was like I was walking out on another planet. Now it’s just another home base.

This trip over was about as routine as one could possibly imagine. On the Albuquerque to San Francisco leg the most exciting thing was the guy who plopped down into the window seat next to me only to discover he should have been one row up. How you can get confused in the first 4 rows of a 10 row plane, I can only guess. But at least it broke up the monotony of loading. The only other moment came when someone in the back rang their flight attendant bell and the resulting sound was so loud that everyone on the plane jumped a foot out of their seats. We went into SFO without any further incident, not even any fog this time. Bought some books at a well stocked traveler bookstore and sat to people watch for a bit. I love people watching. Decided to take the shuttle across to the international terminal to avoid a second trip through security (although my Albuquerque search was easy, my bottle of hand sanitizer was gleefully approved by the TSA agent and there were no tractor parts salesmen or itinerant tinkers in line ahead of me. Everyone even had the correct sized baggie.)

The shuttle is good for a chuckle. You board it, drive 10 yards and get out. An easy walk, but since it’s below the jet way the powers that be must have decided that they don’t want to run the risk of having a grandma on a world tour getting sucked into a 747 engine. This time though they took us on a different route – more like 50 yards and unloaded us at the elevators. A 4 foot tall south Asian man with hennaed hair had the role of cramming us into the sole elevator for the 3 floor ride up to the concourse. “Please move forward, many more space up here. Many more room for passengers.” The elevator is one of those big, stainless steel lined freight jobbies and it is slow. Probably holds about a dozen people with their roll-arounds. We were pretty much relegated to the second group and standing there when some American woman in the back of the surge piped up and asked, “Aren’t there any stairs we can use?” She was ignored. The doors opened and the helpers pushed us into the cage using big poles wrapped in mattresses. Well, not really but it’s not the worst of ideas.

We headed for our favorite Japanese restaurant and a bowl of mouth-scalding Udon noodle soup. Next down the escalator to the boarding lounge where I ran into an old friend of mine, also heading to Shanghai. Odd that these days we run into friends in international boarding terminals the way our forbears ran into their friends at the General Store.

One advantage of traveling a lot is the upgraded status you get with the miles you accumulate. I used to be last on the plane, now I’m first. Had my favorite seat on this leg, an aisle in the center rank that butts up against the galley wall. You pay a bit of a price because the seat does not recline as far as it should, but you gain a bunch of undersea storage because there is no one behind you. This frees the area for your feet completely.

It takes a long time to board a 747 so I stood around and waited until my row filled up. Luckily I had a tiny man next to me so there was no chance of tween-seat overflow. Dodging this most dreaded product of our ever expanding society has become even more important than having on time departures.

The rest of the trip was de rigueur. Lunch after an hour or so was noteworthy only for the number of people around me complaining to the attendants that their chicken entrée was not cooked completely. Probably not the best idea, serving undercooked chicken dinners on a 13 hour flight.

We went out on time and headed up the coast – the board showing the plane’s progress (both heartening and depressing at the same time, depending on when you look at it) showed us slowly climbing the arc around the rim. We passed Juneau and headed towards the Aleutians.

The movies were mind-sucking as usual – Talladega Nights, some Robin Williams vehicle I’d not heard of along with an Ian McClellan piece of the same ilk. “The Lady in the Water”, a movie I’d had some interest in when it was in the theaters failed to engage me even as a captive audience. I focused instead on doing crosswords, reading the William Langeweische book (The Outlaw Sea) I’d picked up in SF and listening to the Stones. Nodded off for a while listening to Bach Lute Suites, the best possible music for zoning on long flights. The guy next to me sat there watching South Park on his iPod and laughing out loud.

Next up on the food regimen is the famous noodle bowl, the one part of the trip I always look forward to not only because of the pleasure of eating salty re-constituted meat but due to the delicious risk of the hot water being poured into your lap. I’ve now mastered the proper way to prepare them – leave the lid down on the bowl for at least 5 minutes to avoid eating crunchy noodles. And if you’re planning to eat them with chopsticks, it’s best to drink the broth first. Beats having to wipe off your MP3 player multiple times.

Read some more, drank some more, walked around and stopped to talk to my traveling companion, Matt some more. The bathrooms by now had developed especially sticky floors which made me wonder about the strategy of walking in there with bare or stockinged feet that most of my fellow passengers were employing. The hand towels ran out, as did the back up supply of Kleenex which meant you were now reduced to throwing the bolt and opening the latch with your cuff. Note to self - plan to put that shirt in the hotel laundry upon arrival.

The external battery I bought to drive my video iPod worked beyond expectations. I was able to watch 18 episodes of The Office while only consuming one light of four on the meter. We might not need to discuss why I chose to watch 18 consecutive episodes, let’s just leave it that the battery worked well. So well that it merrily re-charged its symbiotic friend while I was off visiting. Nice when gizmos work better than expected. Which also applied to my new 8 GB Nano – 10 or more hours of music played on it with a barely detectable decrease in overall battery reserve.

We slogged on, now making the left turn for the haul down the Pacific coast. This time we crossed the Kamchatka Peninsula to stunning views of rugged, snow clad peaks. Living in Albuquerque, every flight out takes you over the big empty, but you rarely see expanses of land without some identifiable presence of man – dirt tracks, the occasional ranch building, etc. This place was a raw as anything I had ever seen, and the view was greatly enhanced by the low angle illumination of a sinking sun. Although I was looking at it across the aisle and three intervening seats, it was about as beautiful a stretch of scenery as I have ever encountered from the air.

We crossed Japan and headed in for the landing which was very abrupt and rough and not fully expected because the monitor on the movie screen suggested that we were still 1000 feet in the air.

Off the plane and through customs without incident. I helped the 1st-timer woman in line ahead of me navigate the ATM and informed another fellow that the exchange rate was not 50 to 1 as he expected (it’s 7.7.) I educated her that here in China many of the ATMs require you to log off, lest you leave the machine available to the next person in line who in turn can help themselves to the contents of your account.

Waited a long time for our bags, generating that semi-nauseating feeling that yours isn’t coming out. Grabbed them and headed to the taxi queue which held about 1000 people. Deciding to take the Maglev train instead, we slogged back up the stairs and over to the station. Bought VIP tickets and ran our bags through the x-ray machines. Being simultaneously tired and dense, we entered passed through the entry gate before we realized that the bags exit the x-ray machine on the outside of the fenced area. A nice policeman came over and kindly tossed our bags across the fence.

We were the only two VIP travelers among 100 other riders so we had a personal escort to the VIP car. The young train lady told us to go down to the end and we dragged out bags through car after car. Finally we just sat down in an empty car of cheap seats figuring they were good enough. The train lady came up and told us “no”, the VIP section was further down the way so we headed off again. The nighttime speed on the train is “only” 300 kph so it took us a couple of extra seconds to reach the terminus in Pudong.

Construction at the station got us turned around but we found a cab and off we went. Little traffic on a Sunday night meant a quick trip across the Nangpu Bridge and out into Hongqiao and up to our hotel, festooned in the brightest holiday manner.

We unloaded, met in the penthouse and headed out to the local Italian restaurant where I had a nice dish of shells with thyme sauce – Profumata al Timo. It tasted precisely like the tomatoes and capacola dish my Mom used to make for me when I was but a lad and was loaded with small tomatoes, chunks of chicken and pancetta. Perfect remedy to the cold and blustery walk back to the hotel.

Collapsed in my room with 28 hours awake and 7000 miles under my belt, looking forward to another day in Shanghai.