Monday, December 31, 2007

Ah, Mexico

Well I’m going to have to write fast, because as luck would have it my computer’s battery charger has decided to cease functioning at the most inopportune moment. So what little I can say will have to be said while the battery meter still shows life.

Here we are again in Mexico although while sunny, it’s not terribly hot. Cool even considering the time of year. A little windy but plenty sunny and as always, a great place to be for the holidays.

We spent our first day marveling at the continuing building boom. New houses and condominiums everywhere. I suspect it’s the knock-on effect of the housing market in the US – just slightly out of phase. Will be interesting to see if it too comes to a screeching halt in the next year. Bird habitat continues to disappear for this reason, and I can see a time when our annual Christmas Count dwindles to the point of disinterest.

Nacapule Canyon

Not dissuaded by progress, we decided to visit Nacapule Canyon, a traditional place for a hike and some boulder scrambling. These days, it’s marked by signs that make the once arcane trip far easier. And the price of that are people.

It used to be an empty place, out in the desert, a canyon craved into the side of a large dike of volcanic rocks. Now it’s a destination with a parking lot and garbage cans overflowing with trash. Nice to have the cans though it would be even better if someone drove a garbage truck out there and collected it. But such is Mexico, where the first step is always easy and often in the right direction. The second step never comes.

We headed in and marveled at the fine collection of pictographs decorating the rocks. Unfortunately, they were not pre-Columbian, rather far more current and perhaps heralding the rich gang life of Nuevo Guaymas. Undeterred, we forged on, passing small bands of Mexicans out for a morning hike. We reached one of the spur canyons and headed up, thinking we would recreate one of the hikes from the family lore, up the canyon and over the top, coming down to a ranch below. Now I sometimes doubt these historic recollections, things change like paths and fences and such but I supported the team and continued up and up to the point where we had climbed over so many boulders and shimmied through so many water-carved rock chutes that there was no turning back. This despite two hours of daylight remaining.

The climb alternated between dry waterfalls and palm frond littered valley floors. We found a child’s sweatshirt tied to a tree and figured it was worth carrying out. I joked that we’d read about the skeletal remains of a family discovered many months from now, starved due to being lost, their trail markers carelessly removed. But we were so high up we never saw another soul. The sweater eventually came in handy has a means to tie together two water jugs and a Coke bottle left below one of the rock falls. If the original user wouldn’t carry it out, at least we could do our part.

Eventually though we found our way up to the saddle and miraculously discovered the gate through the cattle fence that gave passage to a path that scrambled down the other side of the mountain. And so we went to the welcome of a barking ranch dog, a few bleating goats and one lowing cow. Across their pens and under the barbed wire at the bottom of a wash and we were on the road to our car.

Google Earth Adventure

A few months ago I was wandering around Google Earth looking at the general Guaymas area. I do this to see if there are any potential birding sites worth investigation on the ground. The link between G-Earth and Panoramio offers the opportunity for people to post photos of places with a spot on G-Earth and associated GPS coordinates. I found some interesting pictures – big open ponds just off the bay in the city. Figuring I would print out some maps before I came down, I filed away the idea and then promptly forgot it until we arrived.

Trusting my infallible sense of direction and incredibly detailed memory, I decided to head out and find the place, without the benefit of modern technology. We headed into town and braved the Saturday traffic. Policemen were directing traffic at each major intersection in a manner that suggested the stop lights would be more effective. We finally cleared the downtown area and headed out along the bay, past the childhood home of one of our friends and in the direction of my Google Earth memory image.

As predicted by my mind's eye, we passed a soccer stadium and some open athletic fields, much to the shock of My (semi-incredulous) Lovely Wife. She knows deep down inside that I am a Master Geographer but I think she if often reluctant to admit it, lest my head swell too much,

Passing the fields the dirt road I expected came into view and we took it up into a small colonia. Off to the left I saw some large dump trucks heading up a gravel road through a cut in a ridge and decided that was the place to go so I headed down the rutted dirt residential streets and found my way up to the cut. Over the top and spread out below in a green canyon were three large saltwater ponds, dotting the path down to the ocean through a gap between two headlands. Three Ring-billed Gulls danced over the water near what seemed to be some sort of inflow. A small flock of Black-necked Stilts huddled in the corner of the closest pond. And then it hit us – the unmistakable smell of raw sewage. We’d found the municipal sewage ponds. The Gulls were delicately dancing over the burbling inflow pipe. The Stilts were bewildered at their poor choice of a place to spend the day. And the person who’d posted these shots on Google Earth was sitting in his casita chuckling at the small cosmic joke he’d played on the rest of the world.

It took several blocks with the windows rolled full down to replace the sewage odor with the more friendly aroma of bus exhaust.

Air to Air Missile

Yesterday I decided to take the kayak out in the estuary to scope for some birds. The tide heading out and so my paddling trip turned into a hike as much as a float but it was nice, dozens of egrets and herons huddled in the mangroves, a sole Roseate Spoonbill graced my vision from the top of a snag and hundreds of ducks – Buffleheads, Scaup, Pintail – allowed me to approach before blasting up into the sky and across the open water. As I rounded a bend my idyll was further enhanced by the sound of Latin American Techno blasting across the wave tops from three pick-up trucks parked on the far shore. I had it all, a cool breeze, a rising sun, hundreds of birds and a soundtrack consisting of thump-thump-thump-thump.

Leaving the music behind, I headed out into the back bay. Stopping occasionally to look at the ducks I discovered that the quickest route to sea-sickness is looking through a pair of 10x binoculars with your boat positioned with the wind across the beam. I carried on from there watching a large flock of White Pelicans work a school of fish that they’d driven into the back of the bay.

Off to my left I noticed an oddball standing on a sandbar, all puffed up like a banty chicken – a Peregrine Falcon. An amazing bird in the air, standing on the ground they look like a Chief Petty Officer just off the boat looking for a beer and a good fistfight. I took a couple of quick photos before he decided to cruise the duck flocks for breakfast.

I went on my way for a bit, seeing him and wondering if in fact I was seeing a pair. That supposition was confirmed as I struggled back into the wind to head out of the bay. A large flotilla of Scaup and Buffleheads was off to my left and as I turned back to my paddling, a gray missile shot straight across the bow of my boat with speed that was frankly stunning. He was making a pass at the ducks that, upon realizing what was coming their way burst into flight in a wild chaos of wings. So many in all directions that the falcon couldn’t choose and thus he veered off to gain altitude. But grabbing one wasn’t his plan. I looked up and saw his mate, lazily circling above trying to pick out the lame or the slow or the tired. One bird scatters; one drops like a rock and gathers the meal. Very smart and very efficient.

And so that’s it so far. A few more days, a few more meals of machaca and hopefully some interesting birds. My computer’s power wanes and so does my access. You’ll simply have to imagine the rest.

This being the last day of the year, a Happy New Year’s to one and all. I’ve tacked a few photos below just to give you a sense of what we’re seeing. (as always, click on the image for a bigger view)














.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Oregon

Well I haven’t been out on the road for a while, at least not a road that merits a blog entry. But I thought this trip had a few moments worth capturing. That and some nice fall pictures of Oregon.

Southwest has a new boarding process for those that have not been to the airport for a bit. You can learn about it from their web site where they have kindly created a section called “Boarding School”. I wonder who came up with that clever moniker?

Now you might think that it their old system of boarding was just fine for what it was. Socialism that rewarded those that were willing to come early and stand for a long time. Of course the lines eventually devolved into a line of suitcases, as the weak staked their claim but retired to local chairs when the standing got tough. What could anyone do to improve on that? Well, you asked.

They installed 6 steel poles in the boarding area leading up to the gate. Each pole is labeled: 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, etc. Up to 26-30. The flip side takes the numbers up to 60. We now have two boarding groups, A and B, each with 60 members. The plan is simple – line up between the poles that match the boarding pass number that you can obtain 24 hours in advance. Really pretty simple, and because you are guaranteed a place, +/- 5, there is no point to claiming your spot in the line early. Honestly? I like it. What’s especially cool though is the palpable pressure in the boarding area to remain seated. Southwest patrons are so trained, that everyone now sits there on the edge of their chair, trying their hardest to display a complete lack of caring as to fixing their place in the queue. Of course, there are always a few that buck that trend and stand up early anyway, even though it buys them nothing. Their body language is slightly different, they’re trying to say, “Oh, I prefer to stand and so I may as well just stand here.” The difference now though is that the first lemming does not precipitate a mass dive off the cliff.

The second element of Southwest’s revival is “Business Select”, a class that allows early boarding for the mere cost of paying twice the ticket price. What you get is a guaranteed spot in the first 20 boarding slots. And judging from the number of people standing in places 1-20, I’d say it’s not a smashing hit. If you refuse to pay, you’ll find yourself with a number greater than 21. If you take that and get in line, you’ll find that they may as well have given you #1, because there is no one in front of you. That’s happened to me 3 times now. So save your pennies unless you’re booking within 24 hours of the departure. In that situation, a coupla hundred moves you right to the front.

Oregon – what can I say? One of my favorite places. Just beautiful, if not freezing this time of year. I got in late and then braved the incredibly confusing drive from the airport to Hillsboro. It’s been 4 years since I was here last and although things have changed, the route remains the same. One of the most interesting things about traveling here is getting out of PDX and making your way down the dark slick highways, across town, across the bridges, up the loop, through the tunnel and out to the farmlands. It’s a tough haul after a long day, but who doesn’t love a challenge?

Missed the hotel on two passes as it is located down at the end of an unmarked street across from Orenco Station. Finally found it and checked in. The elevator is apparently used as a meat locker overnight, because for some reason it was well below freezing. Room was nice but sparse on blankets which required me to leave the heat running all night long, against my better judgment. And I had to unplug my clock radio because for some reason was channeling my Blackberry every time it did a send/receive.

The day started dreary, but by the time I was done with my meetings, the sun came out and the sky cleared up. Just gorgeous but pretty chilly. So got into my grubbies and headed out Highway 6 towards the coastal range to see if I could get a non-standard picture of the day. Many opportunities added below. I love driving in the pine forests here; it’s just so different than driving at home.

It was getting dark so I did a u-turn and headed back to the plains. As I came off of 6 and onto 26, there was a sight which eludes me just about every time I’m up here – Mt. Hood, blazing pink in the setting sun. Against all better judgment and multiple Oregon traffic laws I pulled onto the shoulder and squeezed off a couple of shots. Wrong camera and bad location, but better than nothing. At least now I have some evidence that I actually saw it.

From there, the day winds down. The last adventure of the day involved filling the rental car. No self-service gas stations? What’s up with that? I pulled into a slot behind a car that wouldn’t pull up to the second pump. I realized that the forward pump was broken. I got frustrated and turned around and headed out. But the traffic was so voluminous that I couldn’t get out of the station. So I did a u-turn and saw an open pump. And pulled in. Only to discover it was broken too. So I backed up and as I was about to just drive out through the shrubberies, saw another open pump. I pulled in and waited. The attendants all gave me weird looks, figuring I was going to a pain of a customer but when they finally showed up I handed the my card with a “please” and a “thank-you” and just sat there putting my gas station experience into the bucket of “adversity makes me a better person.” They pumped, I paid and that was that.

That’s it for this trip, next month it’s off to Mexico and early in the New Year I’ll be heading back to China for a winter-time visit. Check back then for the next round of journeys across the sea.









Saturday, August 11, 2007

Sparky the Fruit Sniffing Beagle


One last little tale before I consider this trip officially over.

I was surrounded by those orange shirted students from the plane while waiting for my bag to appear, they having cleared customs.

Off to my left, a small drama was unfolding. A Border Patrol officer with the cutest Beagle I'd ever seen was checking out one of the students. He told him to take off his backpack and the kid (of course) didn't understand. So the officer politely helped him remove it. He told the kid to set it on the floor, whereupon Sparky went to work sniffing and wagging.

Sure enough, the kid was holding - a dozen Chinese apples. Sparky looked on proudly as the officer told the kid "next time, no fruit." Sparky stood there beaming at his owner, clearly proud to be able to do his part to keep our borders safe.

And so it goes, back home once again.


Here's a summary of my walking around pictures.........


























'

I'm done, I'm done, I'm done with the Beijing Run

Living in a crowded society drives some interesting behaviors. There is no decorum when it comes to driving or forming lines or waiting one’s turn. When 100s of people are faced with a single lane or door, a mob forms and it’s everyone for themselves. When it comes to delays, something always has to be done. The tiniest example of this occurs every time you enter an elevator in China the first thing someone entering does is to jam the door close button 15 times.

These facts are well known about living in China and Westerners commonly remark about the rudeness in public places when someone simply walks up and gets in front of them in line. Assuming there is a line at all. Typically it’s just an annoyance to those of us used to forming orderly queues. When it comes to air travel it gets downright aggravating.

Awoke to another downpour day in Dalian a city which does not wear well in gray drizzle. Checked out of the hotel and checked in with our driver. It was our last day with Jasper and I know I am going to miss him and his strange British-accented robotic English. He got us to the airport in plenty of time and I went in to the check-in lines. In China, the lines are not organized necessarily by airline, rather a sequence of agents in a long horizontal array is there for you. I walked up to one and stood behind a couple rattling away in Catalan with each other and English with a Chinese minder. A group of what were probably Africans came up behind me speaking in some tongue that was new to my ear. I stood there as we advanced until the Chinese minder came up to me and told me that the people in front of me and behind me were together and strongly implied it would be better if I just got out of their way. She was holding a stack of bright green passports and many tickets. I took the hint and moved to the next line, which actually worked to my advantage.

Cleared security and went looking for a pastry for breakfast which was not to be found. Instead I stocked up on Chinese Dove bars and passed on the 4 foot long freeze dried Tilefish for sale in the gift shop.

It was getting close to departure time and I was sitting at the gate waiting for the screen to announce it. I looked out the window to see if the brand on the jet was the correct one and it was. The screen now said “Flight 6525 to Zhengzhou” while I was waiting for 6127 to Beijing. The doors opened and they started to board the plane. I was confused so I asked a gentleman using my finest Chinese if this was the flight to Beijing. He had the same ticket as I did and he nodded yes. So I got on figuring I had at least a 50% chance of ending up where I needed to.

Chinese behavior on planes is interesting. Lots of people in incorrect seats, no one sits down until the attendants start yelling and invariably someone gets up to get something from the overhead just as we’re pulling away from the gate, delaying the departure.
We finally got up in the air and lunch was served, at 8:15 in the morning. An apple, a container of something labeled with little yellow chicks and a triple-decker sandwich consisting of white bread, some sort of ham and a few shreds of wilted lettuce. I passed.

It was a very rocky flight for the first twenty minutes, probably the roughest I have had in a long time. Eventually it leveled off and the glide into Capital Airport was easy.

Beijing airport was not quite as bad heading in this direction compared to the inbound last week. The flow was a bit more linear, at least until customs where a thousand people were all trying to jam themselves through 4 doorways in a vast blue-painted plywood wall. Once inside it was not so bad, security was neat and tidy and I was through in an instant.

Major international airports always amaze me for the incredible shopping opportunities and Beijing is no different. Any number of well-known Italian botique brands plus a stand-alone Omega watch store and several large and thoroughly stocked duty free stores.

We boarded on time after a cursory secondary security check and pulled backthe gate about ½ hour late with sad news that the jet stream was not blowing today and thus the flight would be extended by an additional hour.

A large group of orange-shirted students of early college age boarded the plane with us and scattered among the various cabins. Usually a large batch of anything people-wise is bad as groups tend to act poorly. And this one did not bode well given the length of the flight. As it turned out I was surrounded by them. Across from me was a couple traveling with their 4-year old boy who was already exhibiting all the signs of advance carb overload. He had an empty water bottle and was pounding on the seat in front of him. After the endless admonitions to sit down, we were airborne.

In general, the Shanghai flights are populated by business-people and frequent travlers by and large know how to behave during these flights. I think it come from understanding what annoys you and what it takes for this short term microcosm of civilization to work to everyone's advantage. Everyone learns by example and then incorporates habits and behaviors that work for everyone. It's true there are always a few outliers, but business traveler loaded flights are regularly pretty easy to tolerate.

Tourists on the other hand just don't get it. They don't realize it takes cooperation to keep everyone happy, and perhaps they just don't care. They travel infrequently and so they don't learn by example. Beijing seems to be heavily slanted towards the amatuers which means it's always going to be tougher to take. It ends up being a matter of whether in your regular course of travel you want to expose yourself to these kind of people and the challenges they present. I think I'm going to find another way of making this trip, and hence the title of today's blog.

As predicted, the next 12 hours was an endless series of one petty annoyance after another. The students behind me felt compelled to visit the bathrooms every 30 minutes or so, each time wrestling themselves to their feet by assaulting my chair back. One young woman insisted on jamming my headrest into the top of my dome each time she got up. I tried to give her the evil eye and she just looked at me dumbly. The young man behind me seemed to be stress testing his tray table given the amount of times he opened and closed it. He seemed to be in charge verifying its tolerance for slamming.

The parents of the kid across the aisle re-charged the boy’s batteries with a couple of danish about mid-flight. The guy in front of me turned his air jet to full bore and then edjusted to just brush the top of his brush cut and to blow directly in my face. I responded by burrowing in my blanket. The first meal service consisted of two choices – Pork in Red Chile Sauce or Beef with “Balsamical Sauce.” I had the pork which was not bad but the sauce was really nothing more than a combination of water, corn starch and chili powder which tasted exactly how you’d expect it to. I watched the first movie and then dozed off and on, my sleep punctuated by having my skull split by my descending headrest.

Another movie and my favorite Ramen noodles. I really managed to drop off soundly at about 8 hours but my dreams were haunted by the muffled sounds of people yelling at each other in Chinese. I awoke to find the source – one of the students came forward to yell at his friend. I went back to sleep.

The parents of the boy across the way apparently managed to get the hellion down as he was stretched out across three seats when I finally woke up for good. The last food service had stated and the attendant told her she needed to move the kid and get out of the way. She finally listened after being carts three times along with the accompanying scoldings.

Not much else to report from then on to landing except for the last few minutes in which all the personal fruit supplies came out for a rushed feeding frenzy. It’s illegal to bring it in, which everyone knows but they do it anyway and thus the food must be consumed before deplaning. The parents of the bad seed were busily peeling apples and eating them as fast as they could which is where I last saw them.

Per my regular routine, my bag was the last one up the shute but it didn’t matter as I had time to waste. It showed up and I rechecked it on US soil. Security stunk as it always does in SFO, they being one of the few major domestic airports that insist on continuing to use folding tables and plastic ropes with the fancy name of “Security Command Post 1.”

A sandwich and a gate change and here we are. The traditional delay to the flight back home.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Wandering around the city by the sea

Last night was spent winding down from our day at work. We had a plan to eat at a well-recommended Italian-Spanish-French restaurant but first decided to visit Dalian’s Irish pub, the Tin Whistle.

Opened up by an Irish expat a few years ago it is now owned by and American. As the story goes, the original owner got so drunk on St. Paddy’s Day that he fell down breaking his leg severely. Being unable to work, he had to sell the pub. Even if it’s not true, with a story like that how could we pass up an opportunity for a visit?

Two young Chinese men and a young Chinese woman were working the bar. We each had a Guinness and settled down to an awkward silence. So I pulled out my map the bar staff gathered around. It was the ultimate icebreaker and soon we were talking about Dalian and China in English and Chinese. The young woman brought out a map of Dublin and we spent some time showing her the places we stayed and where the Guinness brewery is and where all the good bars are. Would have stayed there for hours but dinner beckoned and so we headed on our way.

The Riviera Restaurant was quite cosmopolitan with a good wine list and a great menu. Just for the irony of it I had a gnocchi dish that used three sauces – green pesto, white cheese and red tomato. A nice little culinary doppelganger of one of my Garduno’s favorites – Tres Colores. In that case it’s green and red chile plus a white queso sauce. Sometimes we travel so far just to stay so near.

Decided that today was a good day for one of my famous treks and planned to head out about eight. Problem was, it was raining. After a penthouse breakfast of bacon, yogurt, watermelon juice and a muffin, I grabbed my raincoat and supplies and headed out of the hotel.

The first problem was that it was really raining. So badly that I had to put on my hood. The second problem was that it was really hot which served to turn my raincoat into a sauna. I stopped out in front of the park to allow my GPS to get its bearings and found that it was simply not happening as fast as normal. So there I was steaming myself like a dim sum staring at my GPS screen which was quickly getting covered with water.

But then it stopped. Labor park was very nice. It is set along the flank of a pretty big wooded hill and the chief feature is a long stairway that climbs up to a giant red and white soccer ball which I would later discover contains a disco. A big golden Buddha advertising some festival sits on a landing in the middle of the climb. Although the Buddha is not genuine, people still stop to pray in front of it and to touch its prayer beads.

Lining the walk are large bronze statues depicting the animals of the Chinese calendar. The verdigris on the more popular animals is worn away down to the bronze from people rubbing them for good luck.

At the beginning of the climb, a group of women in a pagoda were singing a song that started as Do-Re-Mi and then moved on to London Bridge and Rain Rain Go Away finally culminating in some sort of martial anthem. A small pond with large pink lotuses sat at the foot of the stairway.

Walking up, an old man with an umbrella looked at me and smiled. I said “Ni hao” and he answered. Taking a few steps and turning to smile again, he somehow managed to pull off a reasonable “Good Morning” in English. With a big beaming smile. I returned his greeting in kind.

I had hoped to kill more time in the park but aside from paths there wasn’t much to hold one’s attention so I headed back down the stairway and out onto Jiefang Lu figuring it was only 5 kilometers to the ocean and so, a good morning walk.

It had stopped raining, but the humidity was still very high and I quickly discovered that I was soaking my clothes through. And nothing is worse for one’s resolve than wet jeans and a t-shirt with a giant wet circle on the chest. But I forged on until I reached a street that allowed me to get my bearings on my map and I realized I was less than ½ ways there. So I crossed the street and headed back figuring I would improvise later.

I passed a dental clinic that had 5 or so chairs facing the window allowing me and the other passersby to stop and have a look in the mouths of the people being treated. I tried to think of a way to take a demure picture but couldn’t pull it off because the dentists were staring at me the foreigner staring at them cleaning teeth. So I moved on. It was an interesting walk through the neighborhoods with some places reminding me of San Francisco due to the steep little stairways that led up to apartment blocks.

Looking up a side street I saw what appeared to be an outdoor market so I headed up and went in. It turned out to be a growers market which all kinds of vegetables and fruits plus a big fish market featuring crab, shrimp, shellfish and eels, most of which were alive and squirming around on trays. At the end was a poultry stall and beyond that a butcher shop that looked like a ticket box office. The colors and sounds we quite amazing. I made a couple of passes up and down the aisles and headed back out onto the thoroughfare.

I made it back to Labor Park and cut through exiting on the far side. From there, I walked for a good hour and a half down to the river that runs out to the sea through Xinghai Square, one of the prominent tourist attractions in Dalian. As I walked along I passed the municipal government offices which were done in classic Communist style. A young woman directing traffic stood on a platform in the middle of the street going through her motions with hands bedecked in crisp white gloves. A stark comparison to my clothes, none of which were crisp at this point.

This section of town was quite nice, the buildings were newer and well kempt and portions of the street were lined with beautiful Plane Trees.

I was running out of time and so I headed back, completing perhaps 7 or 8 miles in total and so doused with condensation that even my watch band was soaked through.

Spent the second part of the day visiting the Development Area which is where our project will be done. It had started raining again and the traffic was accordingly miserable. We went out to the beaches and found vacationers trying to enjoy themselves in spite of the downpour. It looked like Maine on the worst possible day. So we headed back and sat in abominable traffic for the better part of two hours. One highlight though was a visit to a gas station. Four sets of pumps each controlled by a woman smartly dressed in a yellow Shell Oil uniform.

Dinner tonight was in another aquarium restaurant where we feasted on several fish dishes and one great rendition of Sichuan chicken. The beer was all warm, the restaurant for some reason serving it that way.

We cleared out of there and started the walk home. In Zhongshan Square an old man squatted on the sidewalk with an almost Baboon sized monkey on a leash. I had to have a picture of that so I tried to sneak one but he saw me and made the hand sign for 10 RMB. I told him yes, but to wait a minute but he was not having any of it and kept flashing the sign. While we were having this standoff, a passerby went around the back to get by and the monkey reached out and grabbed his pant leg and wouldn’t let go. The man furiously shook his leg, breaking the monkey’s grip. We paid him 5 RMB and took the picture.

No walk home is complete without a brief visit to the Underground City (once again) so we availed ourselves of it in order to cross under Zhongshan Lu. It was darn hot and sticky down there so once we were under the boulevard we hastened back to street level. Walking towards the hotel we spotted yet another street market and took a spin through it, taking in the sights and smells of charcoal roasted meats, birds and fish.























'

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Vancouver of Asia

I read that comparison somewhere and I have to say whoever coined it must have been in Vancouver on a day when all the nearby pine forests were on fire. The air here over the last two days is just that bad. Visibility is in the range of a quarter-mile and that nagging upper respiratory thing I developed the last time I was in Shanghai has come back in full force.

The question is – where does it come from? Some say it’s just damp marine air. Others, power plants. It’s probably not cars as there are not that many of them and the air lacks that distinctive leaded gas smell. Who knows, whatever it is it’s dense. We were joking yesterday about jumping off the roof and slowly gliding to the ground on the suspended particles.

A day of work yesterday bookended with a couple of commutes out of and into the city itself. Our driver is a great young man who speaks fluent English with a West End London accent, gained during his university studies in that city. His choice of music was interesting – Salsa and an Islamisized electronic version of Khachaturyan’s Saber Dance speeded up by 40%. On the way home it was techno-rave-house-disco dance music. We broke midday for lunch at an Italian restaurant that was really quite good. I went for Pizza Margherita, demurring on the “Pizza Moyonaisse”. The staff stood around us watching us eat and making it feel like we were a living Westerner Museum. In keeping with our exposure to varying musical styles we were regaled with ethnic instrumental versions of “Auld Lange Synge” and Mary Hopkins’ 70s hit “Those were the Days” as well as the complete Kenny G collection including his rousing rendition of “Greensleeves” and a cover of the 1961 Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen hit “Midnight in Moscow.” Local music selection I think is one of the chief contributors to the continuous feeling of bizarreness one gets while traveling.

After work we went exploring. Across the street from the hotel lies a very fancy mall – Versace, Zegna, Klein, Ferragamo – major labels in a sparkling white tiled interior. But that was not our goal, it was the celebrated “Underground City” that lies below the gritty streets. Trying to find out way there, we wandered through a meat/fish/poultry market, stopping to marvel at the various offerings - all manner of beef, pork, ox tails, eels, sea cucumbers. The ribs were like nothing I had ever seen; instead of the traditional rack we buy, these were just the spine. “Honey, let’s go out to Rudy’s for a couple pounds of spine!” Most amazing were small skewers of barbequed song birds, head and all. The smells varied from enticing to repulsing within a given aisle.

We finally found the way down to the underground and started riding escalators. Down and down we went, closer and closer to the center of the earth, stopping on the occasional floor for a brief reconnaissance. Hundreds of little 10x10 stalls lined corridors 10 feet wide and 7 feet high, all crowded with people. Everything you could imagine from clothes to jewelry to airbrushed tattoos to shoes to luggage was for sale there with no apparent logic to the order or contents. European women sat getting their nails done. Chinese women sat getting their hair curled. Kids jammed an arcade playing on the dancing machines. The sensual assault was remarkable. No shopping for me, it was too hard simply to think. Eventually I needed to just get out of there and so we returned to the street level where it was now evening.

Above the Underground City, vendors plied their wares. Different things than down below, in this case many options among telescopes and binoculars plus rows upon rows of fake antiquities. I was tempted by the selection of little bronze Buddhas but didn’t feel like haggling. Barbells for sale graced many of the small kiosks.

We made our way across Labor Park where an outdoor amphitheatre was jammed with Chinese enjoying a pair of singer/comedians doing a kind of Dean Martin – Jerry Lewis routine. It was hard to tell if they were funny, because no one was laughing. The lighting evoked the bridge scene from “Apocalypse Now.” Their singing was “interesting.” Off in the background, a steady techno beat emanated from the amusement park while bats skirted the trees above our heads.

By now it was pretty dark so we headed over to a known entity restaurant, the Café Igosso. The place was a quaint old storefront with dark wooden floors and plain, wood tables set with white linens. The menu was Italian and the choices myriad. The servers were all done up in white dress shirts and black slacks. It felt like Paris aside from the Mandarin. Continuing our musical adventure, the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack poured Cubana music out of two single element speakers from the 1950s perched on shelves near the ceiling. Italian food, Caribbean music in a restaurant in Liaoning Province. Right.

I ordered Chicken in cream sauce on linguine with mushrooms. My companions went for linguine with clams and pizza. A Tsingtao and Pellegrino each topped it off.

The clam dish was amazing with more than two dozen little necks decorating the pile of pasta. My dish was tasty, the sauce and pasta perfect but the chicken required some analysis. The pieces were each a uniform elongated circle and about 1/8” thick with what appeared to be embossed chicken meat patterns pressed into the surface. They suggested to me a Chicken McNugget without the breading. Either someone took a lot of time to cut them the same or they were some sort of processed chicken food product that was sliced from a long tube. The first one I ate tasted odd and the second one confirmed my suspicion, reminding me of that sweet smell that uncooked poultry has about two days too long in the fridge. I checked my watch to start the 3 hour countdown to food poisoning.

We finished up and headed back to the hotel which was conveniently across the street.



SFO to PEK

The flight over was pretty straightforward and memorable only for the fact that the videos all worked and the apoplectic nature of the guy sitting next to me.

We got off on time and I was pleased to learn that the flight to Beijing is actually close to an hour shorter than the one to Shanghai. Nothing exciting to report about the loading or the take-off, everything was done according to schedule.

The first meal service rolled around and the attendants delivered the special meals to those that had requested them. I was sitting next to a young-ish hippie couple and when we were asked about our meal choices the young woman told the attendant that she had requested a vegetarian meal. The attendant replied that they’d all been delivered and sorry, there were no more. Her boyfriend went completely off the scale at this loudly proclaiming that they’d requested it and that it simply wasn’t acceptable that hers was given to someone else. The attendant asked when they’d booked it and that didn’t help him one bit, the implication being that he had done something wrong. She finally offered the young woman a plate anyway, as there was a salad and plenty of white rice. The guy continued to swear about planes and airline companies and the injustice in the world and refused the food on behalf of his girlfriend as “there are pieces of ham in the salad and how can she eat lettuce that had been near ham.” Finally the attendant decided to move on leaving this guy mumbing obscenties under his breath while the young woman rubbed his back to calm him down. It took nearly all my self-control to not laugh out loud. Eventually he got over it and got down to the business of chain-drinking Chivas Regal.

The movie choices were once again odd – Shrek, The Last Mimsey, some Sandra Bullock vehicle in which she has a dream that she re-enacts ultimately bringing the dream events to occur which is bad for her husbanc as he ends up getting fried under an exploding oil tanker and The Hoax starring Richard Gere which tells the tale of the Clifford Irving Howard Hughes fake biography. It wasn’t bad.

We prepared to land in Beijing which was reporting cloudy with “light rain.” A slight exageration as we landed in pea soup. I suppose I should be grateful we landed at all because it was dense. As we descended I kept waiting for us to break through and we never seemed to be getting there. I thought I saw some terrestrial objects out the window but figured I was having flight-induced hallucinations. Until we touched down without ever seeing the ground and I realized I’d been seeing light posts and other planes.
We pulled into the terminal and headed out with the wonderful instructions provided in a slide show on the plane clearly planted in our little brains. Too bad they were a gross underestimate of the chaos we were about to face.

It was a long walk to Immigration which was a good thing because it gave time for a few of the thousands of people already in line to move through. There were about 30 or so stations, all open, in a giant room and the lines were so long that they stretched from the agent to the back wall and then started curling back on themselves. Forty minutes for a stamp in the passport. I’d hate to see it when it’s really busy.

From there another long haul to the health agents who collected our forms signed with a guarantee that we’d not been handling our pet chickens during the last seven days.

Baggage claim was fine aside from the 30 minutes it took for the last of the bags to come out. One at a time, with about 30 seconds between each one. Long enough to really make you wonder who you were going to report your lost bag to.

Out of there and onto Customs, both lanes of which were blocked by several dozen pink-shirted middle schoolers who were going nowhere but felt that standing around in front of the only two ways out of the airport was a great way to spend an early afternoon.

Customs – no problem and from there it was out to the main international concourse.

Having been to China a number of times over the past year, I’d pretty much figured I was used to Third World airport crowds. But none of that prepared me for this. Outside the exit doors was a crowd waiting for arriving passengers that was perhaps 20 people deep and 20 yards in both directions. The noise and visual spectacle was absolutely stunning to anyone now completing their first 20 hours of travel. It wasn’t clear where to go or how to break our way out of that scrum so we simply put our luggage carts in front of us and headed to the right. Woe be to any person with the temerity to get in our way.

We were looking for the way to the domestic terminal and knew from instructions it was off to the right. Weaving in and out of the crowds of people milling around we finally found a promising escalator marked by a sign indicating Departures. Abandoning our carts we headed up onto the next level and into a slightly less crowded hall. Moving on we found a second stash of carts next to a sign indicating a 10 minute walk to Terminal One.

Sometimes you just need to keep moving, so that’s what we did. I had the misfortune though of getting stuck behind a couple with two carts who were clearly not in a hurry judging from the leader’s behavior of turning around to carry on a moving conversation that stopped moving every time he turned around. She finally told him to move over and let me go by.

We split up and headed to the gate, two of us having tickets and one of us not.

I’d been warned not to accept help from anyone offering it, as it is a short trip to a demanded “tip.” But I managed to get snookered anyway.

Approaching the desk agent, a man came up dressed in what appeared to be an official uniform, even sporting a identification badge. He grabbed my ticket out of my hand and asked for my passport. It all happened so fast and in such an official manner that my brain simply complied. He took my papers to the agent, handed her my bag and collected the boarding pass and directed me to follow him to security. I started to wonder though when we veered off away from the screening area and stopped behind a pillar. At this point we were informed that we owed him 200 RMB ($30) for his help. I laughed and told him “tai gui le”, “too expensive.” He smiled and continued to argue with me. Finally I collected 20 RMB from my friend and added 20 of my own and told him that was it – no more. He continued to insist and I simply stood my ground. He relented and we went on our way, $6 poorer. I later learned that one of our people on an acceptance trip got rousted for $20.

I failed the security screening due to my belt and got the big pat down standing on the little dunce platform outside the metal detector. From there down to the gate, the only unusual thing on this part of the journey being one of those universal signs showing two children and the regular nuclear exposure icon. A child re-charging station? I dunno.

The airport experience led me to conclude that China is doing itself no favors by allowing this kind of mess to be foisted on the thousands of visitors who will find themselves in this airport next year. Getting accosted by tip seeking “officials” is just not something that should happen during an event of this magnitude. We’ll see how it goes.

Our plane was on time and we joined an orderly queue waiting to board. That lasted until they opened the gate and suddenly hundreds of people vectored in from all angles and blew the order all to hell. No sense of taking one’s turn when it comes to boarding a domestic flight in this country.

After taxiing for a good hour and driving a mile or so of the Dalian journey we finally took off. The-inflight meal was a steamed hot dog served wrapped in foil, just like you’d get at the stadium and the effect of 100s of these dogs on the interior atmosphere of the plane was to make one’s mind wonder if we weren’t in fact on the concession tier at the ball park.

The weather in Dalian was dark with torrential rains and so it was wonderful that one of our co-workers still had control of his driver and thus came to pick us up. It was a good thing because the hotel pick-up failed to materialize and the taxi stand was a disaster.

Cross town drive and up into the hotel. Twenty-six hours of motion behind me and time now for dinner in the Bavarian Brewhaus down in the basement where we enjoyed our schnitzle while being entertained by a four member Malay band covering Sade and and other 90’s pop icons. A group of rowdy Chinese sat opposite us playing a drinking game that involved sliding 12 inch beer steins along a wet table trying to see who could come closest to a wall of glasses without sending the whole set plummeting to the floor. That game was entertaining until the fifth or so broken mug. The noise, the music and the thick cigarette smoke all added up to get the heck out of there and so we did.

Another day crossing the globe behind us.

Monday, August 06, 2007

A very different approach

You might think that an airport in city the size of Albuquerque would be a peaceful place at 5 in the morning on a Monday.

One the contrary – it’s a beehive.

I fly in and out of here with some frequency, as you all know. Usually it’s a pretty laid back place with short lines, small crowds and a clear shot down the concourse. Today though, everyone seemed to be beating a path out of town as quickly and as early as they could.

I walked in and found myself 3rd in the Premier-International line which is basically unheard of. I’ve never been worse than 2nd. Topping it though was the group in front of me composed of the meek and the loud. The loud telling the meek to make sure that they divided their prescription medicines between checked and carry-on luggage, lest the checked bags disappear en route. The meek responding that they’d divided their prescriptions between carry-on and checked luggage for that very reason. One of the meek wasn’t quite following what was going on until one of the loud told him they were checking in. Up to that point he must have been wondering why they were standing in that particular line. The woman in front of me finally had enough and bullied her way up to a kiosk for manual check-in. I waited, Buddha-like.

Thankfully the agent took me next, ahead of all the other people who had been waiting far longer than I had. Sometimes it pays to have that little silver card.

She offered me a $65 1st class upgrade to Denver, which I declined as I was checking in for San Francisco. She told me someone named BRO was going to Denver. After a brief discussion about whether or not I would need to gather my bag in Beijing, I was on my way. Security was no big deal aside from the man with the Mac whom was made an example of (for all of us) because he had placed his baggie of liquids on top of his laptop before sending it through the scanner. The agent remarked that he really liked the decals on top of my PC and thanked me personally for putting my baggie in with my shoes.

From there down the concourse to the B gates which threw me into a complete spin as United always leaves from the A side.

We were about to commence boarding when a frantic middle-aged Chinese couple came hurtling down the hallway yelling in Mandarin. They ran up to the gate where the young, mohawked agent smiled and told them to wait while he went to check on the plane. Naturally they followed him and he stopped and gave the universal two-handed “stop” sign. This continued two or three times - he’d walk five feet, they’d follow, he’d say stop. Finally he curtailed their advance by slamming the jet way door in their face, with a smile of course. The woman was absolutely beside herself, slapping both sides of her head with her hands, jumping up and down, yelling at her husband. He finally gave her a cell phone which she began to yell into instead.

I mentioned to my companion that it was almost preordained that they would be sitting beside me on the plane.

We boarded and I got situated. Playing empty seat roulette, it looked like I was destined to have the whole row to myself – and then the last boarders entered the plane, the Chinese couple. They came down the aisle, she said “jiu” (9) and sat down next to me. Thankfully now, their crisis seemed to be over and I still had an empty seat next to me.

The flight to SFO was uneventful until the approach. The bay was completely socked in with the thickest, most continuous mat of dirty gray fog clouds I had ever seen. We made a few circuits of the area and started to descend. Another jet flew by miles underneath us on the same approach. For many minutes we neared the top of the fogbank and finally began to enter it. You could look out the window as we skimmed the top and see peaks and valleys of gray fluff; it reminded me of the photos taken across the plains of the Moon by the Apollo astronauts. Occasionally the shadow of our plane would skirt a couple of the peaks. And finally we went in.

Down and down we went, it getting darker as we moved into the center of the clouds. For a few moments the feeling was very strange – gray above and gray below. I imagined we would be on the ground when we finally broke through. Assuming we did.

I could see the occasional ground feature only to have it be consumed by the clouds. Then finally we were clear and I was surprised to see that we were still 1000s of feet in the air. The landing was textbook from that point on, touching down smoothly on my regular runway.

You have two choices to get to the international gates once you’re in the domestic terminal – out and through security or the 100 yard bus ride. I almost always take the bus because I just know I’m going to pick the wrong security line and get behind the guy who puts his baggie on his laptop.

So down the stairs and out onto the dreary runway I went to catch the bus. Today though was a bit different – they must have been working on commission because they kept filling and filling the bus until there was no room left, sitting or standing. Which is odd, because each and every one of us can afford the 5 minute wait for the bus to come back given our 3 hour layovers. This time though – no wait, just a crushing mob.

The bus loader stepped onto the platform and said in broken English – “Stop 1 United, Stop 2 Canada Air” and stepped off. The driver drove off. We had to wait a minute while a 737 crossed our path and then we made the regular u-turn to the disembarking area. We stopped and the driver said in broken English “United Stop 1.” The passengers looked dismayed and confused. A murmur went through the crowd, “is this United, I think he said United.” I cleared it up by loudly telling one lost soul that this in fact was United. Even the concerns of the guy wearing shants, a size XXL Hawaiian shirt and a crumpled straw cowboy hat was put to rest. I think he was on his way to Mexico.

From there, up the crammed elevator and onto the international concourse. It being early, everything is closed and the place is largely abandoned. My flight is not even yet on the board. So I wait, staring out the window eating a pain au chocolate and drinking a bottle of water. This water being “spring source” and not “tap.”



Friday, June 15, 2007

Picture Post

Some general shots from my day driving around.


















.

Into town and daylight at the North Pole

We headed out of Trim in the general direction of Dublin knowing that sooner or later we would find one of the motorways that headed into Centre City. Rolling country side punctuated by massive road work projects and their associated giant trucks flashed by as we made our way east.

Eventually we found the N3 and it rang enough of a bell with me to assume it was the way I knew into town. As it would turn out, I could not have been more wrong. This became clear as the landmarks did not appear and we drove into more and more congestion. Eventually we found ourselves on the wrong side of the River Liffey at the zenith of rush hour.

I turned on my Nüvi personal navigation device figuring it was our very best hope at finding our way home. Emily, the voice of Nüvi gladly complied, asking me to turn on Atherton Place in .3 miles. What Emily didn’t know was that Dublin lacks the street signs necessary to make such a turn with any semblance of authority. Having missed the juncture, Emily issued a curt “recalculating” in her proper Londonian accent and asked me to make another turn. Again, no street sign. By now we were using all the technology available to us – our joint memories, the few street signs available, a plastic coated street map and Nüvi. Even these together, the golden acme of civilization was not enough. So we drove on at 5 MPH hoping that sooner or later Emily would make a recommendation that we could actually act on.

Church Street presented itself and being a big one, it was easy for us to follow her orders. We turned into yet a more complex morass of stopped autos. At this point it became obvious to me that every traffic engineer in Dublin deserved to be taken out and shot, the traffic was just that bad. Sitting watching one car make it through every 10 second green light made it clear that there was a significant problem with light synchronization. Eventually though our 10 seconds of freedom presented itself and we made our way across the bridge. From there it was easy sailing. We stormed down Kevin Street and rounded our way onto St. Stephen’s East knowing that the hotel was just around the park. Emily gleefully announced that we were approaching the Shelbourne Hotel on our right. What she didn’t know was that the hotel was on the other side of some mid-street barricades that prevented us from driving up to the front. The only approach appeared to be from an eastbound one-way street perpindicular to our present location that would require a significant around the block diversion. So off we went a second time into traffic choked side streets eventually making is back around and up to the hotel. The car parking guy grabbed my keys and luggage and escorted us into the lobby.

The Shelbourne is the hotel in Dublin and surprisingly on the Intel approved lodging list right alongside Motel 6 and Extended Stay America. Not to be diminished by this more proletarian company it is a grand hotel. Situated in a beautiful orange sandstone Georgian building, it’s what a hotel once was and should be again. Unfortunately, the personal cost of trying to get to it dampened our sense of awe and grandeur.

The staff was cheerful and friendly and helped us get on our way to our rooms which turned out to be quite pleasant and comfortable.

After a brief rest and refresh it was out on foot to find some food in the Temple Bar area. By now it was 8 PM and Dublin being at 53N latitude meant that the city was still bathed in sunlight. For grins, I have included this photograph taken at 9:12 PM simply to give you a sense of just how bright it is at that time of day. You walk the streets and you think it’s six o’clock, but it’s not. Why they further abuse the situation by employing daylight savings time is beyond me.



Dinner turned out to be some excellent Thai food and that coupled with a nice walk home gave the previous 24 hours worth of travel the chance to finally catch up to me. A coma it was and so the end of a really long, full day.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Trim Castle



I had one goal when I was here in March and that was to see Trim Castle. It’s considered the best preserved Norman castle in Europe. It was originally started around 1100 AD and work continued on it for the next three centuries before the shifting political climate caused it to fall into disrepair. Now it’s simply a wonderful remnant of a world gone by.

Often I find that the mind’s eye picture one forms of something based on reading and maps is in direct conflict with the reality of the place itself. In this case, I picture the castle located on a broad plain in farm country, hard on the River Boyne. When I went looking for it last time, I found myself on a bunch of one-way streets to nowhere that culminated in a dead end street that was choked with Land Rovers disgorging children for their day at school. I remember lots of cursing and backing up and running into God Knows What was I tried to maneuver out of that mess and back onto a civilized road. You know, one of those 60 MPH two lane nightmares. I was tired, fuzzy headed and jet lagged and after trying my best to find it, I caved in and asked a young man for the quickest route out of town and he gladly obliged. I could see the Yellow Steeple ruin off to my left, and it never occurred to me that it was connected with the castle itself. I figured the ruins were on the far side of town and that I had simple taken the worst possible route. I left Trim in a huff, drove for a bit, tried to go back and finally just gave up. It was a reasonable big disappointment to me, and a major affront to my infallible sense of direction.

This time I came armed with maps and a navigator, figuring nothing could go wrong. Using finely honed dead reckoning skills, I made my way through town making turn selections based completely on what my gut told me to do. The result of this was that we found ourselves on the fast road out of town and heading in the opposite direction of our goal. A quick u-turn and a couple of strikes on the curbs and we were heading back. The Yellow Steeple hove into view but still no castle. My previous understanding of the proximity of the two had been altered this trip around and I knew they faced each other across the Boyne. But as we drove, it quickly became apparent that my original mind’s eye approximation of a castle amidst the golden barley was woefully in conflict with the reality we were facing. The castle seemed to be in the middle of town.

Driving on, again using our advanced navigation skills bolstered with a dash of Newtonian successive approximations (in simpler terms, just keep turning left) we saw what must be the castle grounds. A couple more lefts and a couple of rights and there we were at the center of the spiral – Trim Castle itself. In the local tongue, Caisleán Bhaile Átha Troim. Right down at the end of Frenchie’s Lane pay by the minute car park and across from the Trim Pizzeria. So much for fields of gold.

Despite its prosaic location, it was darn inspiring, The Yellow Steeple, a ruined portion of an old cathedral stood majestically across the Boyne at the top of a grassy hill. The castle itself was arrayed on our bank at the top of a rise. Remnants of the curtain wall surrounded the rise and towering over the entire site was the original castle keep. We wandered about taking it in and snapping a lot of photographs. Between the sounds of Rooks cawing over head and a group of uniformed schoolboys shouting “F--- all” as they climbed on the posted-no-climbing walls, the tableau was quite remarkable. We paid a few Euros to go inside and combed the ruins. The keep is closed except for a guided tour but the outside was impressive enough. To the south, the remains of the original towers that framed the Barbican Gate stood silently, recalling their past grandeur. In its complete state, prior to its absorption by Trim village, it must have been an impressive sight, much like my original expectation. In all, an experience that far outweighed the inconvenience of getting there.

Time to find the hotel and put an end to a long day’s trip that began at early morning in the New World and culminated half a world and 1000 years distant.


















.