Saturday, May 19, 2007

A simple ride home - one of these times for sure.

Well here I am back at home once again. The trip back was a mixture of the mundane and the unusual, those two sides of the coin that seem to describe every day I spend on the road.

The trip to the airport was interesting mainly for the route taken. We had borrowed one of the Intel drivers for the drive out and I had tried to discuss our route given that I was aware of some serious traffic problems on one of the routes. Despite his comments on the high quality of my Chinese, I knew he didn’t understand what the heck I was talking about.

We headed out on city streets in a direction I recognized from our many trips to the design firm. Roughly in the direction of the airport but not a way I had gone before. Eventually we circled around what was pretty much a giant block of the local neighborhoods and then ended up heading in the opposite direction of where we should be going, along a road the cut across our regular walk home from Hongmeilu. I mentioned this and my companions were reluctant to believe me. We passed through a tunnel that had caught my eye on my earlier walks around town and came back into the daylight staring at a sign for the airport. The wrong airport. So I asked and he told me he knew where he was taking us and drew a large circle in the air indicating (I think) that we were heading out and around the city. This is exactly what we did, crossing swaths of Shanghai and Pudong that I had never seen before. One last adventure before heading back to the US.

The airport was the airport and the best thing I can say about it was that we made it through all the drills and boarded on time. I was lucky enough to have an empty seat next to me, at least until the people around me conducted a round of musical seats and I ended up sitting next to a couple from Mexico City. Another chance to practice my Spanish on this, my tri-lingual trip to the Far East.

Not much to say about the 10 hour ride except that the sound on the movies was sketchy once again and its failure was once again joined by apologies and claims that the planes are about to go in for remodeling. I thought Pan’s Labyrinth was an odd choice for a movie as it was shown in Spanish with English subtitles. Not much fun for the Chinese passengers I suspect.

San Francisco was there right according to schedule and the passage through customs was only made interesting by the fact that my bag was about the last one off the plane. Sometime I need spend some time back with the baggage guys in order to understand how they load these things. Occasionally your bag appearance shows a strong correlation of when you went to the airport (first on, last off) and sometimes it just seems random. I suppose I will never know.

Now the Albuquerque connection is known to be generally late or cancelled or adjusted in a way that makes the four hour wait futile. Today though we were just about on time. A large group of what appeared to be nurses cackled in the waiting area in a way that only a bunch of people on the same flight who know each other can. Given the small size of this plane, I figured that would play out unfortunately later.

We got off close to on time and I was dozing off when The Captain came on to tell us about the gentleman in Row 6 who had been placed on oxygen due to light-headedness. I took a look and sure enough it was one of the two guys that had managed to get on via standby. The Captain said “Looks like he’s feeling fine” so I started to nod off back into a nap.

Five minutes later The Captain was back on the microphone telling us that the light-headedness had evolved into chest pains and that we were going to start looking for a place to put down in order to connect this guy with medical care. One of the traveling nurses had moved into the seat next to him and was trying to make him feel better. She asked for aspirin and I gladly offered mine up as I always travel with them close at hand. The nurse asked me if they were chewable and I said “Sure, if you can stand the taste.” My good deed for the day.

Fresno was chosen due to proximity and we made the most amazing high speed corkscrew drop from altitude and landing. On the ground he was shuffled off the plane and into an ambulance.

And then we shifted into “airlines time.” The maintenance crew had to come out and inspect the plane as we had loaded above weight due to our fresh load of fuel. They said “15 minutes” it took 45. That being done next up was a replacement of the used oxygen bottle – “15 minutes” that took another 30. Petty gripes perhaps, but I was tired of this detour punctuated only by the roar of California National Guard F16s rocketing off the runway.

Eventually we were on our way and the rest of the flight was unexceptional – just the way I like it.

It’s with a bit of sadness that this last trip comes to a close, as it may very well be my final business trip to Shanghai. Our focus shifts north now as construction begins and it may be that all the future work takes place in Dalian. Shanghai has been great for me – wonderful experiences with the people, language and culture and I am going to miss it a great deal. It’s taken me from being a novice international traveler to someone happy to wander the streets in a foreign city in wide-eyed wonder without concern.

But as always, it’s great to be home.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Una noche en Barcelona

I made two women very happy today. The first was this afternoon.

Between work and dinner I came back to the room to pack and get organized for tomorrow’s departure. I was piddling around when my doorbell rang (yes, we have doorbells in this hotel) so I opened the door and the day maid was standing there with a Kit Kat candy bar in her hand. She smiled and said hello and rattled off something in Chinese and I nodded and she said “Minibar, Minibar, Minibar” and proceeded to invite herself into the room and head over to the cabinet that held said Minibar. On the way, she made some comment about the drapes being open that I interpreted as “they shouldn’t be open” and so I just stood their grinning stupidly in the doorway.

She opened the Minibar, took a look inside and shook her head and walked back out to her cart with the Kit Kat. Figuring we were done I went to close the door but she turned around and came back in, scanning the room. She walked over to my closet, opened it and rustled around, pulling out a piece of paper and an envelope. I just stood there grinning stupidly. She walked over and said something to me that I interpreted as “would you fill this out?” I agreed and said “5 minutes” in Chinese and she effusively acknowledged that with much head shaking and smiling. Handing me the paper – Chinese side up - I fumbled with it until I found the English side. Much to my surprise, she walked over to my desk, grabbed a pen and beckoned me to sit down. Which I did. She then stood by my side, just short of having her hand on my shoulder and nodded with her head for me to get busy filling it out. I was so stunned I just did what I was told.

Following the personal information section which appeared to fascinate her, I came to the multiple choice section and I checked the first box as “Very Satisfied,” pleasing her greatly. And so it went for two whole pages alternating between “Very Satisfied” and big smiles until I came down to the essay portion of the test when she offered something again in Chinese and pointed to her name tag. I must have looked as stupefied as I was so she repeated it. Simultaneously boldly and gingerly I reached up and lifted the tag to where I could read it and it said “Maria Wang.” I read it aloud and she smiled and nodded enthusiastically and I finally got it – she was asking for non-anonymous, real-time feedback on the job she’d done this week. So I wrote “Maria Wang Tai Hen Hao” in the comment section and I thought she would explode with joy. I guess Maria Wang is Very Very Good” was more than she could have hoped for.

Thanking me profusely she left me grinning stupidly in the doorway.

The second woman was over dinner.

We went back to Hongmeilu Pedestrian Entertainment Street for a stop at the Tapas Bar, an eponymous restaurant that some of the crew had visited during my sickness. I love tapas, it’s just such a civilized way to eat – a half dozen little dishes and a beer – in this case sitting outside amid the pedestrian stream, enjoying the people watching, the dusk sky and people yammering in a dozen dialects. Two Chinese women and the biggest un-dyed Bichon Frise I'd ever seen sat opposite us while Spanish world beat music boomed in the background. If I closed my eyes for a moment I could just extend my thoughts to a warm May night in a cafe along La Ronda Litoral Mar.

I did the ordering and as I did, the waitress repeated the names and numbers back to me in Spanish. Having gained great mental acuity from the survey drill earlier, I just went ahead and started ordering in Spanish. And so it went on.

When she brought the first dish, I asked her where she was from and she told me the Philippines. I told her that her Spanish was much more like that of Spain than Latin America and she agreed, her consonants were that soft and lispy Castilian that’s so easy on the ears. She returned the favor asking me where I was from and why being an American I spoke so well. I told her I was from New Mexico and that I live in San Carlos, Sonora for a month each year and she replied that she did the same back in the islands. From there, the rest of the evening was conducted in our shared tongue, much to our mutual amusement.

Dinner came in short courses – chicken grilled in chile oil, potato and cheese omelet, beef in white wine sauce, braised tenderloin kabobs, beef cubes with onions and chiles – served with garlic bread and washed down with Harbin Beer, two for one on tap due to Happy Hour. All of it great. The sky darkened, the temperature cooled, the neon signs twinkled on and it all summed up to another great evening.

Now tipping here is generally not done and if you include it on your credit card bill, the restaurant keeps it. If you really like your server, it’s a nice thing to hand them a 100 note. At the conclusion of the credit card ceremony, I handed her a 100 and said “Para ti” and I thought she was going to light up and explode. She graciously thanked me and took the receipt back into the bar and while doing so I saw her hold up the tip and point to it with her other, showing it off to her husband the manager. As we got up, he, she and all the other waiters came over and thanked us and doing that two handed Asian salute bid us on our way. I left them with “your restaurant is wonderful” in Spanish and they just kept on beaming.

So there you have it. I’ve done my bit today as a goodwill ambassador, hopefully predisposing a couple of people to like us better. It cost me little and the return (for me) was huge.

An evening in the 30s

Last night we decided to go out on a limb and try another new place. You hear about different restaurants from expats and visitors and you file them away for future reference but like all things this way, they get forgotten. For whatever reason this one popped back up and a bit of research brought it forward as a legitimate candidate.

The Face Bar as it is known, is located in the French Concession along Mingmao Lu. With locations in Shanghai, Jakarta, Bangkok and Beijing it promised to be interesting. This was a particularly nice part of the Concession as evidenced by big plane trees that completely spanned the street from sidewalk to sidewalk. Crossing Huahai Lu both sides of the street were lined with very fancy custom tailors and dressmakers interspersed among trendy boutiques.

The driver deposited us at the gate to the Rujin Hotel where the guard gave us some friendly directions and we were on our way.

To the left, the path and trees around a small lake were lined with yellow tube lighting. Finding another guard he urged us on, trumping our assessment that we were on the service road. Finally the main building came into view and what a masterpiece it was.

Wo Yin Lou the No.1 building and Huan Lou the No.2 building in were built in the 1920’s and are excellent representatives of the stone architecture of the era. The builder was a British businessman who operated a dog-racing course in the 1920’s. Following the war, it was converted into the Kuomintang’s (Nationalist Party) Headquarters. At the end of the civil war, the building was taken over by the East China Bureau of the Communist Party. The first Mayor of Shanghai Mr. Chen Yi used these buildings as his office.

We found some people from work and sat down to share a drink. Wicker chairs and tables, greenery spreading out in all directions, bats circling in the treetops, the setting sun and a complete lack of traffic noise made it easy to slide back in time to an early summer evening long ago sitting among the expats and enjoying the conversation European tongues, an ambience that ended forever when the Japanese came marching down Nanjing Lu with fixed bayonets.

It was getting dark so we decided to try one of the three restaurants in the complex. Thai was our first choice but “sir, seating is complete for the evening” and so we allowed ourselves to be shuffled off to Hazara, the Indian restaurant.

Located in what must have been one of the old service buildings, it was narrow and short in height and decorated in a manner that evoked a Munhall tent set up to support a tiger hunt. It simply continued the good vibe begun out on the terrace.

The food was easily the best of that genre I have ever eaten. Spicy Chicken Tikka, Kasmiri rice with raisins, saffron and cashews, garlic nan and Beef Curry. Absolutely outstanding. We sat at our table for a long time after the food was gone soaking up the smells and sights and having a laugh at the expense of the two guys across the aisle – one clearly a body builder who had gone a bit to seed – who were talking tech and sharing a meal. Every 5 or 10 minutes, the body builder would say to his friend “let’s take a break” and they would stop eating and talking, pick up their Blackberries and start texting like mad. Five minutes later, it was back to food and conversation.

Pulling ourselves reluctantly out of our chairs we made our way down the narrow stairs and out to the terrace. It was sprinkling a bit so we decided to walk out a different way and catch a cab. Rounding by the main entrance, a burgundy robed doorman asked us if we needed a cab and producing an umbrella proceeded to accompany us out the street under its protection. It wasn’t raining all that hard so it was a bit awkward but we obliged him and he crossed the street with us to wait. We thanked him graciously and told him we wanted to walk a bit receiving the same dumbfounded look we get whenever we make that statement but he understood and let us go and returned to his post.

We walked back in the direction we’d driven earlier, this time getting a closer look at the clothing stores along the lane. Store after store specializing in nothing more than those beautiful sleeveless, high-necked Chinese dresses that grace women the world over. Unlike the limited supply you find in the US, these came in a complete spectrum of patterns and colors. It was an amazing display of style and grace.

We turned the corner onto Huahai Lu and its assault of neon and stores and noticed a subway station at the base of a building. Unable to resist the call of the Subway Lorelei, down we went.

The stations on the #3 line are apparently not the same vintage as those on #2 because this one was hot, dark and dingy. The train came in about 5 minutes and much to our surprise it was absolutely mobbed. The surprise came from the fact that it was now 9:30 at night and this horde far surpassed any I had encountered at the traditional rush hour.

Cramming ourselves in we found a strong cold breeze emanating from the air-conditioning, almost suggesting that the front windows of the train were open. It was quite a relief, especially considering all the bodies occupying their own personal 2 square feet of space.

This trip called for a transfer and so three stops down the way we were off the train and heading up and down the escalators to the other lines. Many people ran past us, a fact that would become relevant in a few minutes.
Going down to the platform, someone appeared to be speaking from a megaphone (Megaphone Lady?) but no one was in sight. At the bottom of the escalator, a megaphone was lying on the metal plate between the rubber rails of the up and down sides. I joked that here they had managed to train the megaphone itself, the Megaphone Person having been made redundant but as we closed in, it became apparent it was not a jest – the megaphone was talking without human intervention.

A little stunned at that sight I slowly stepped of the stair and took a long look at it. Perhaps Megaphone technology has advance to where you can tape a message and just put in on infinite loop? I feel like such a Caveman sometimes.

A young man in what appeared to be the official Megaphone Person uniform was standing over by the loading spots. A Chinese family was staring at him in disbelief as the patriarch yelled at him. He looked sheepish. Matt was off looking at the digital clock to see when the next train was coming – 9 minutes – so I stood on the platform and waited. The young man spoke up in the softest and asked, “Where are you going sir?” I replied, “Ya’an Road.” He considered this for a few seconds and repeated my answer, “Ya’an Road?” I said yes. He said, “Train is finished.” I considered this for a few seconds and asked “No more trains?” and he repeated himself. He mumbled something about trains finishing at 10 PM which I found amusing as it was now 9:40.

So upstairs it was, out on the street and into a cab for the rest of the journey home.

All in all a wonderful evening with a minor adventure at the end. Who can ask for more than that?

Monday, May 14, 2007

“Dyed dogs are cute, but often depressed.”

Or so claims an article in the human interest section of the Shanghai Daily.

“A dog with highlights will not adapt to its brand-new looks and feeling immediately after neomg dyed. Though dogs are color-blind, they can feel the change. Typically, dogs will suffer from loss of appetite and depression.”

“The the owner should encourage his or her god to rebuild confidence. Several days later the owner’s constant praise should restore the dog’s good spirits.”

The horror! This fad seems to be sweeping prosperous China where little white poodles are now being subjected to this demeaning practice. Next time you’re over, you can check out the poodle supply at Shanghai Naughty Family Pet Co. LTD on Hongqiao Road. (No, I am not kidding.)

I must have done something to anger the night maid because last night I didn’t receive the regular turn down service. It doesn’t matter all that much aside from my dwindling water supply. Managing your water in a 4 star hotel is a lot like rationing it for a trek across the Australian Outback – you have to make sure you cache what comes in because sometimes it’s a long stretch between springs.

When you check in there are usually three bottles – one by the bed and two in the bathroom. I always take one of them and stick it in the minibar alongside the ones they charge $3 for. One bottle is then dedicated to brushing your teeth and one stays by the bed for night time drinking. The next morning the bedside bottle goes in my bag for work use and the bathroom bottle is extinguished. The maid returns and the restocking begins. But she isn’t always consistent, sometimes you get three, sometimes two, sometimes one. So you have to carefully manage the delicate balance of what goes where. Too many and the minibar gets stuffed.

The night maid though is the key – she’s as unpredictable as a Sonoran Monsoon and the bottles she may or may not leave at night can tip the critical balance between plenty and dehydration. Her largesse (or lack thereof) can actually send you down the spiral to where you’re going to end up having to break down and buy one.

Right now though I am still showing an inventory in the minibar of three in addition to what I have left for teeth brushing and the one for my backpack. As long as the day maid likes me, I’m fine.
Thought I would treat all of you to something different today by extending my addiction to all things Google to utilizing Youtube in my blog. The link below will bring up a video example of what it takes here to cross the street here during morning rush hour. This particular intersection is in between the hotel and Shanghai Mart, the building we work in during our visits. It's moderately mild by comparison - it's a tee into a one-way street and there is no construction going on - but it still shows the almost fluid dynamic of cars, people and scooters. Some people charge ahead, others hesitate. Some cars stop, others don't. Scooters tear off the sidewalk and weave in and out. Every crossing will force you to spend at least 10 seconds marooned in the middle of the street. Yet it works every morning because somehow all these competing masses manage to avoid occupying the same space at the same time. Which of course would be disasterous for all parties except the cars.

Click here and it should start playing:
Enjoy, and please don't try this at home. All these stunts were performed by professionals on a closed course.

Hot one today folks

This morning I was awakened by a call on my cell from a woman speaking rapid fire Spanish repeatedly yelling “Hola, hola, hola” into my drowsy ear. Wondering for a moment where the heck I was, I mustered my best “Tu tienes un numero incorrecto” but she wasn’t having it, switching instead to an equally emphatic “Hello, hello, hello.” Freidman is right, the world is flat.

Did I mention the other day that the street cleaning trucks here play the first four notes of “How Dry I Am” as a warning of their approach?

Still trying to kick the last of my weekend malaise, hoping to put the bugs to rest before I board the plane on Thursday. Looking at the IP Cluster map on the sidebar of my blog, I noticed we’ve added a viewer on the west side of Hudson Bay. Do they have internet access up there? It’s turning into an eclectic little community. On our side of the world we have Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico and somewhere in the middle of the country. That plus upstate and downstate New York, Massachusetts and southern Mexico. One reader visited from Brazil. On the far side, Ireland, Sweden, the UK, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Turkey. On the very far side, China of course and the Philippines. Our small world continues to shrink. I’m reproducing it before in an act of oddball recursiveness, but to check on it in the future, just click on it and so ye shall be delivered. When you do, spend a moment thinking out our visitor in the Arctic reaches of Canada.

Work ended early enough for me to consider an adventure. I was thinking of testing my hand at riding the other northern subway route to the end, but didn’t really feel like going solo, so I decided to walk to the zoo, it having been on my to-do list for more than a year.

One minor problem, it was a bit of a scorcher out there, the temperature hovering in the 310 C range (880 F) with humidity out the window. Not to be deterred, I put on a lot of sunscreen and went out.

The walk was long and tough, made longer and tougher by the fact that I had not ever really noticed that the zoo was not located on Ya’an like I thought it was. I finally snapped to the fact that I wasn’t getting there when the cross streets stopped matching so I got out the map and realized I’d been walking a parallel route to where I should have been. Not so bad, only a few blocks of divergence so I headed up Hanmi Lu and found myself near the entrance. At this point I was about to cave – there was a great deal of construction destruction between me and the entrance and I was hot and tired. But I took a deep breath and walked up to the next available crosswalk and decided to at least to go and have a closer look.

The entrance was very strange – a big arch that led you into an even bigger paved lot with the ticket booth about ½ miles across on the other side. I guess the lines get long on holidays? So I made my way across the burning surface and got in line. I was second. The guy in front of me appeared stunned when he turned around and saw me behind him. The vendor gave me a 2 RMB discount, no doubt due to the trek. Forming in the second leg of the triangle I headed back across the Plains of Despair and handed my ticket to the ticket-taker who didn’t seem to grasp the concept that ticket once given, he should stop blocking the entrance and let me in. I think the heat was frying everyone’s brain on this day.

The grounds were absolutely beautiful – clean, well tended and lush. Lots of opportunities to wander down shade lined paths "visiting" the animals.

The condition of the animals was another story. It was not bad, but not as enlightened as most modern zoos are today. The pens were clean; the animals appeared well fed and most had plenty of room. I would say though that this was much like an American zoo in the 60s or 70s, not yet improved by the desire of zoo managers to present a better product.

The selection was great and the zoo was very big so I decided to randomly wander and find some more interesting things.

I came upon a strange aquarium within which all the fish were those giant, porky goldfish you see in Petsmart. Goldfish I believe has a special significance to the Chinese and these fish were clearly treated well judging from their size. The aquarium itself was odd too – multiple water filled columns forming a Plexiglas Stonehenge around a big round tank in the center. All of this out in the sun.

I stopped and had a brief chat with this Cassowary “chick” who was very interested in me and the camera.

Next I paid a quick visit to the Butterfly Pavilion which was interesting both for the fact that the doors were wide open and that there were absolutely no butterflies.

The Penguin sign grabbed me next as I didn’t think there was any way I could avoid seeing how the Penguins were handling the heat. I came around the corner and was hit in the face with a cool rolling fog smelling dankly of fish and rank water. Taking a deep breath of what fresh air was left, I charged ahead and found the Penguins standing on a rock platform while a worker power-sprayed their enclosure, this being the source of the cooling mist. Coughing up my too long held breath, I staggered back out to the fresh air zone realizing I had to have a picture of this. So I took another breath and sped in, got the shot and staggered out, exhaling a giant cloud of CO2, feeling a bit silly since all that dank mist didn’t seem to be bothering the 20 something woman and her child who were in there looking at the birds. Call me silly, but there is just something bothersome about decaying fish, Penguin poop and high pressure Shanghai water producing 2 micron sized water droplets ready for inhalation that just rubs me the wrong way.

Next stop was the aviary which was very nice, so nice that you wondered who was luckier, the birds inside or those trying to get in. Nothing too unusual about this exhibition other than the lung scorching smell of acetic acid that was associated with both the entrance and exit doors.

The sign indicating the presence of Pandas got me motivated and so I walked on, passing a lake and a pond, the former populated by the largest white pelicans (Dalmatian?) I’ve ever seen and the later by some cheery ducks. Hanging out with the pelicans were a dozen or more Black-crowned Night Herons, more than I’ve ever seen in any of the swamps I’ve visited looking for them back in North America. Some sort of black and white raptor flew overhead causing me to make a mental note to check it later. Which I forgot until right now and will probably forget again once I am on to the next paragraph.

The Pandas sadly turned out to be Red Pandas but cute nonetheless. He sat there gladly munching on the bamboo leaves that the park visitors were handing him.

Leaving the Panda Park I headed back towards the center of the zoo and saw a place where a vendor would allow your child to sit on a fake zebra and have its picture taken with a Peacock alongside. Figuring I had to check this out and much to my amazement (horror?) I realized the Zebra was actually a stuffed Zebra. As in a former resident of the zoo, Zebra. Couldn’t decide if I was violating some sort of franchise agreement but I needed the shot so I took it surreptitiously. No one yelled.

Still reeling from the Zebra encounter I sat on a bench and tried for a while to get a picture of an Azure-winged Magpie. They’re the common “jay” in these parts and I was thrilled the other day when I found one in Flower Pot Park. This place was dirty with them.

From here it was on to the grazers. I saw an Anoa, known and loved by crossword puzzle solvers the world over. It’s a big black cow-ox thing.

Their Giraffe collection was mighty impressive, a dozen or so animals. Like many others, this bunch was looking for some shade. All looked healthy and beautiful.

The Rhinos were passed out in the shade and hard to discern from the rocks they were sleeping with.

It was getting late and I was getting bushed so I started looking for an exit which I finally found, having deciphered the international sign for exit which looks something like an arrow bursting out of the side of a box.

The walk back was brutal. Take the heat and humidity of Borneo and out in the shadeless Sahara. Replace the jungle breezes and sounds of exotics birds with clouds of exhaust and honking cars. It was so hot that I hugged the wall around the endless subway construction project so that most of me could be in the two feet of shade on the sidewalk. It didn’t even bother me when a crane swung its big hook six feet over my head. The went on for a while until I hit the tree shaded sidewalks along the expansive Hongqiao State Guest House grounds and that respite was nice until I walked into a pine tree branch that had been snipped at just the right angle to spear me in the scalp. Not much damage being done, I kept on moving as the skyscrapers loomed and the hotel was no more than another mile or so up the burning pavement.

When I got back and chugged a large bottle of cool water it all seemed like a feverish dream, the only evidence being the ever so subtle hint of Penguin water lingering the back of my throat.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

"Your Map is Very Old"

Feeling a bit better today I decided to take the trip we’d planned for yesterday, the ride to the end of the northern subway line. It goes to a part of Shanghai that none of us had been to so we figured it would at least be worth the 50 cent fare to go and have a look around.

But first, Ikea beckoned. I’d not been to one and so it seemed only appropriate to have my inaugural visit here.

We caught the southbound train at Ya’an Station and rode it a couple of stops to Caobao Lu. Outside the station was a little clutch of street vendors selling rabbits, chicks, ducks and mice, none of which appeared to be doing all that well sitting in the late morning sun. Ikea was assessed to be identical to every other Ikea in the world and so I was now satisfied that I’d been there and done that. Interestingly, all the happy, smiling people in the in-store advertising were westerners. One might have thought that they would at least modify that aspect, but perhaps it works better for sales here? We headed out and back into the station for the long haul north.

It was many stops and the crowded train slowly emptied to the point where we could sit down. We joked that perhaps these people were so interested in what three westerners were doing in this part of town that they were waiting us out. Chatting, we ignored the stations as they passed by until our conversation was interrupted at a stop when a woman with a megaphone boarded and started yelling at everyone to get off the train. Interesting I thought.

So we got off and milled around on the platform looking at the map in the station trying to figure out what the heck was going on. Megaphone Woman came over and greeted us and pointed to our location which came as a bit of a surprise because not only was it many stations beyond our original goal, but it was completely off my map. So much for traveling out into the gray space. We had a conversation of sorts – she in Chinese and me in a struggle until we finally agreed that we wanted to go back downstairs, cross over and catch the train back a couple of stops. I thanked her and down we went.

Having a look at another map downstairs and still trying to get our bearings, a policeman walked over and said “Ni hao” and we greeted him return. He stared at us for a few moments before what must have been a traveler’s aide came over and greeted us in English. Kind of English because her question was, “What are you doing here?” We explained that we were sightseeing which elicited a blank stare and so we said “tourists” which sparked some glimmer of understanding. She wanted to know where we wanted to go so I showed her my map and pointed at Forest Park and she told us to take the train to Jiangwan Town and then to catch the 713 bus. I told her I didn’t want to take the bus, I wanted to walk. Now there is one thing I have learned here on more than one occasion and that is once you tell a Chinese person you want to walk, they immediately think you are nuts. She suggested a cab. I said walk. She was just beginning to look deeply troubled when along comes Megaphone Woman going on to the effect of “I already told these morons what to do.” We showed her the map again and pointed to the park and told her we wanted to walk and she began scolding me that it was too far and that we should take the bus. Traveler’s Aide continued to look at my map and finally pronounced it (and here is the source of today’s blog title) “Very old.” Figuring there was no way out of this mess, I thanked them both and agreed to take the train back to Jiangwan Town and just for fun we stepped outside the station for a look around, finding ourselves in an industrial area, not unsightly or threatening, but not all that appealing either. The entreaties of the pedicab drivers finally drove us back inside lest they think we were a legitimate business opportunity.

Approaching the ticket machine we looked at the options and another traveler’s aide stepped in to help us. Traveler’s Aide #1 came back and waded into the fray. At this point I figured the best bet was to simply ask what station was closest to Handan Lu, the road that led to the park in question. Neither could understand why I would want to go to a certain street. Traveler’s Aide #2 suggested we take a bus, I said no bus. I tried to get my map out and got totally flustered trying to find the correct side of it which greatly amused both Travelers’ Aides #1 and #2. At this point, Megaphone Woman showed up for a third time still going on about how dense these lao wei must be to need three sets of instructions when hers were just fine in the first place. Still failing to grasp the notion of riding to Handan Lu, Traveler’s Aide #2 asked whether we didn’t really just want to go to Tongji University and I figured that was the best we were going to get so I said “yes” and they told us to get back on and then off at Chifen Lu. We bought our tickets and departed amidst a flurry of “zai jians” and “xie xies”, we being happy to be on our way and they being happy to get us the heck out of their station.

Once back on the train, we decided to spite them so we got off one stop earlier than their recommendation which turned out to be just fine.

Back on the street it was getting a bit warm and we were getting a bit flagged so we wandered the neighborhoods a bit and stopped in a little shady park sending Matt off for Cokes and water. Two military jets streaked by overhead, causing us to wonder of the subway police had scrambled them to make sure we go off at the correct station.

I was sitting there reading the map when a man appeared and started talking to us in English. He informed us that he lived in the building across the street and that he had learned his English more than 30 years ago by listening to the radio and watching television. He said he also had a very thick dictionary that he read every day. English he said, was a very difficult language. He and I chatted a bit (a bit one-sidedly) in Chinese and he asked me how old I was. Turned out he was four years older and retired. We asked him about a nearby park called Luxun and gave us directions, and then waited until we were ready to go and accompanied us down the street to the turn-off. The second great moment of the day.

We found the park and had a nice conversation with a 5 year old being escorted by her mother. Mom spoke English, the little girl only had “Hello” in her vocabulary and we completely stunned her when we came back with “Ni Hao.”

The park was very nice. We wandered the shady paths, one along a little artificial mountain called “Bird Hill” that took you up into the treetops. Coming down we headed in the direction of some music and found some elderly women singing classical Chinese music, two joined by a band of musicians playing on authentic instruments. We circumnavigated one of the two large lakes and stopped to pay our respects at the tomb of Luxun, one of China’s most revered authors.

From there it was back out on the street and off to the subway for the ride across to Pudong, a bit of knock-off shopping being next on the agenda.

It took 3 transfers to get on the correct line and on the last train a westerner asked Matt if he was from Texas. This guy it turns out had been in China for more than 10 years and was a doctor of Chinese medicine. He explained how difficult it is to set up such a practice in the US and thus he remained here where he could have a successful business. He showed us the newspaper that young man was reading and I have captured the surprising headline below. Remember, you read it first here!

Shopping the knock-off market is fun, but not as exciting as it used to be so I sat in the hallway talking to the owner of the shop we’d been in while Barbara haggled over watch prices. For grins I sat there naming the colors of the clothing garments, in Chinese, of the various passersby. He thought this was a riot, unlike the young teenaged boy who couldn’t quite figure out why I was highlighting his white hat. The shop owner, busy with Barbara pronounced her friends “funny.”

That leg of the journey being completed, we decided to head topside to Century Park for a quick look around before heading back. People were flying kites and roller bladers were riding down the marble stairs.

Passing the taxi queue, we saw four or five young western women trying to hail a cab. They were each walking down the line of cars waving money and being ignored. They didn’t understand that you stood at the head of the line and waited for the cab to come to you. Matt kindly explained this and one of the girls told us she was sure they were simply discriminating against them. Matt led them back to the head of the line and hailed a cab when one of them unpleasantly yelled at him that this was their cab. Her friend informed her that Matt was merely helping them out.
And we wonder why Americans are hated the world over.

Back into the subway and back to the hotel and a hot shower before going out one more time for dinner, this time to a highly recommended Sichuan place called South Beauty.

Gang Bao chicken, pork on a mound of chilies, garlic green beans, eggplant, steamed whole anaheims with big cold bottles of Pellegrino and capped with a plate of fresh fruit. All of it excellent. The most amazing meal of all though was served at the next table. Raw strips of bacon fat served draped over a small swing set, a flower vase filled with long slices of carrot and zucchini and most amazingly a bowl of boiling oil delivered to the table into which whole hairy crabs were dumped. The fact that the large Pyrex bowl had passed right behind me while being carried down tile steps past a fountain where kids had been splashing a minute ago got me thinking about how fast I could get out of my shirt if the contents of said bowl came down on my back.

A cab ride home and here I am, chronicling the day. Another lesson in diplomacy and cross-cultural friendship safely in hand.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

"And then I realized I was getting sick"

Today’s title is a line by Michael Kelly borrowed from his definitive text on the Gulf War – Martyr’s Day. Following his coverage of the war in Kuwait, Kelly made his way north and continued writing on the situation in Kurdistan. At one point on his journey, he realized he had come down with some sort of malady and knew that he had to make his way to reasonable health care in a short time, or else. Through the help of his Kurd companions, he finally found himself in a refugee clinic before he succumbed to the dehydration that often comes with these types of diseases. As a postscript, Kelly was one of the first casualties in this current war in Iraq, having been killed while embedded with one of the advanced divisions.

I realized I was getting sick yesterday after breakfast. Something didn’t feel right and things went downhill from there. I’m guessing food poisoning – maybe an egg, maybe the custard in the little Danish I ate. Or maybe it was the whipped cream on the hot chocolate I had at Starbucks. I’ll never really know. But judging from the symptoms, it was virulent, whatever it was.

On a higher level, getting leveled with a sickness while you’re on the road raises the notion of just how much we take the simple parts of our life for granted. Now, being laid up in a 4 star hotel is far, far different than getting sick while trekking with the Peshmerga, but it is still darn inconvenient. You can’t just run to the store for chicken noodle soup, you don’t have anyone to give you a cold washcloth for your fevered brow and most importantly you are on your own. Completely. And it’s a bad thing to be sick and alone.

The other problem is that your recovery has to adjust itself to the rhythms of the hotel. You either don’t have your room cleaned or you find something else to do for a ½ hour or so. I chose the latter and chit-chatted with the maid when I heard her knocking around out in the hallway. I butchered my inquiry of “20 minutes or so” but she got the point so I headed out into the street figuring I’d go and sit in the park and spend a few minutes looking at birds.

Shanghai is busy all the time but today being Saturday you might expect a let up in the din. That was not the case. The streets were busy and the exhibition hall around the block was in gear putting on some sort of machine tools event. I walked down to the park and settled in on a bench. I saw this sign on the way it. It’s not uncommon for Chinese signs to be a combination of their language and English. I thought that “Spring Scenery all over the Yanhong” was a pretty funny combination.

Now I often speak about Light-vented Bulbuls, they are by far the most common easily seen bird in the parks. For being so common, they have a lot of personality. They’re sort of like a speeded up version of our Say’s Phoebe, acting a lot like a flycatcher but in their case, much busier and noisy. While sitting today I was able to spend a bit of time looking at them in detail which revealed a lot of their characteristics. They’re quite a beautiful bird with their puffy white nape a yellow wing edges.

You don’t see much of a variety of birds in the parks. A few interesting individuals but not the variety I see at home. Today though I was treated to an over flying Black-crowned Night Heron and a magnificent Azure-winged Magpie that glided out of the trees, landing on a tree limb nearby.

After an hour it was time to head back to my convalescence. I took an easy stroll down the street stopping at the crossing to sneak a picture of this woman with her child on a scooter. The kid had a mask, sunglasses and an adult jacket on, providing a makeshift cocoon protecting him from the exhaust.

It was starting to sprinkle so I was glad to get back to the hotel. The rest of the day was spent resting until my pals returned from their day on the town and dragged me out for a pizza.

Feeling better now, it’s time for bed and hopefully a bit more recovery tomorrow.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

If this is May it can't be Dublin

This morning was glorious - cool, dry, bright blue sky - unusual for urban Shanghai. You could actually sense the closeness of the sea in the air. I hit the street for an easy walk in the park pretty early – across Ya’an Xilu at 6AM. The park was not yet fully kicked into gear, the first time I’ve seen so few people involved in their daily activities.

One of the blue clad street cleaners was cleaning the marble insets in the sidewalks with a rag mop. “Mopping the park”, certainly fodder for some sort of future idiom. The ubiquitous White-vented Bulbuls, normally busy at their day were mostly sitting on bushes preening. Even they were not yet up to speed.

I followed the path among all the regular folks, up and across the Sky Mountain in the center of the park. It dawned on me at that moment that the landscape architect had done an interesting thing here, planting shorter trees and evergreens on this little urban bump to depict the flora expected at a high altitude. Interesting little twist that I had never noticed on any of my prior walks.

Went around once passing the caged bird field. My friend The Man in Black was there but did not see me. He was gathering things together with what might have been his grandson, a young boy in a school uniform. Perhaps he was taking a break from visiting with his friends to deliver the boy to school.

Having spent a grand total of 20 minutes, I decided to make a second pass, this time heading in the opposite direction of the walkers. A Brown Shrike bobbed in the long grass looking for breakfast.

With 30 minutes now having passed, I headed out and back to the hotel to prepare for work. A nice jaunt with nothing more spectacular than life going along its daily course.

After a normal day at work we headed out for dinner. Keeping in the spirit of our culinary trip around the world – Monday = Italian, Tuesday = Fusion, Wednesday = American – tonight it was on to Irish.

We had enough people for two cabs which presented a bit of a problem since none of us really knew where we were going. And it’s never good to not know where you’re going. But we went off anyway. Arriving, the others were not in sight and the streets didn’t match the map which didn’t matter since I didn’t know what street the place was on in any event. Last we’d heard, it was down at the end of a 1-way so given the choice of two of them we choice the second. A block or two later and it was clear that was not the correct one. My Blackberry chuckled and the other team had arrived. Using advanced SMS messaging technology, we cautiously headed back in the correct direction. But it still didn’t make sense so I turned around and looked at a young westerner woman who was clearly following us and said, “English?” She uncorked the earbuds from her ears and said, “What?”, I repeated myself, “English?” and she said, “No, I’m not English.” Realizing we were speaking the same tongue I asked directions and we both had a good laugh about that extraterrestrial encounter.

O’Malley’s is a classic – outside picnic tables and a cricket patch in the center of a big u-shaped building. Inside is an authentic pub that was clearly packed up and shipped over. The only thing not from the Fair Isle was the staff.

A cool, dry evening, beers, fish and chips and the entertainment – an expat trivia tournament – made for a nice night out.

We walked part way back along neighborhood streets lined with fruit stands, plumbing shops, wet markets featuring frogs and an interesting night club called the Party Palace that simultaneously beckoned and repelled. For some reason there was a giant red plastic apple in the foyer? Adam and Eve? New York City? Who knows what metaphor they were channeling?

The ride home was typical aside from an opportunity to exercise my new phrase (kindly taught to me by Ling) “xiang qian kai” – drive further. This one is necessary because the cabbies insist on delivering us to the Sheraton Grand instead of driving the extra block to our hotel.

This driver knew one English word – “okay” so we had a riotous, laughing exchange of “xiang qian kai, okay, xiang, qian kai, okay, xiang qian kai” for two blocks until he dropped us at the front door. I love the Chinese!


The Taxis of Shanghai

We often joke that there should be a Ninendo game called "Shanghai Taxi Driver" the goal being to get from the airport to Hongqiao as fast as possible but with a still running car. The driving these guys and gals produce is our inspiration for that little inside chuckle.

Shanghai has a bunch to choose from and they're pretty inexpensive. When it rains, they all disappear. The rest of the time it isn't hard to find one. I won't comment on the varying quality - would never want to cast aspersions on them individually. Let's just say they vary wildly and perhaps you can discern the hierarchy from the condition of the cars in the pictures.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Another regular day

Yesterday began with a fanfare – literally. Walking out of the hotel on our mission to find the Tianshan Road subway station, we heard a rather sketchy version of The Star Spangled Banner being produced by some sort of horn. We found the culprit almost immediately, a man sporting white gloves standing in front of the office building next door with a gleaming coronet, playing his heart out. I tried very hard to get a photograph but he finished just as we passed by. He was done playing and was now engaged in lovingly wiping down the horn with a white bath towel in preparation for loading into his bicycle basket. A small opportunity lost.

At midday I took my friend Ling to a part of Shanghai that he had not seen. This despite the fact that he grew up here. It wasn’t much though, just a weedy path that provides a shortcut between the skyscraper where we work and the skyscraper where we were heading for lunch. More exciting perhaps is the fact that I took him to a restaurant that he did not know about, one that he pronounced “good” and “reasonably priced.” Shanghaiese it seems have a predilection to Japanese food.

The rest of the day was pretty much a blur of meetings in uninspired rooms. Last night though was one of those fun ones that make all this geographical disassociation worthwhile. Nothing big, just a bunch of little things.

We took two cabs to the Hongmei Lu Pedestrian Entertainment Street. No, not that kind of entertainment, I’ve mentioned it before – it’s a line of restaurants between Hongmei Lu and Hongxu Lu. There are a few of these little thoroughfares scattered around Shanghai catering to diners interested in a variety of choices. This street offers (from west to east) Chinese, American, German, Persian, Expat, Thai, Spanish and American again. We were headed for Thai.

One of our co-workers had not yet received his luggage from the trip over and hence needed to stop at the local fashion/pearl/knock-off/video game mall see if there were some reasonably priced clothes to bolster his sparse wardrobe. Being tired of shopping in such places and having to deal with the constant entreaties of, “Hello Sir, you need new underpants?”, Matt and I decided to head on to restaurant row. This time of year there is a lot of outside seating so we stopped at the Baby Bamboo Bar and ordered a couple of Irish beers. We’d been to this place before and last time had a good laugh at the 20 minutes, with my personal instructions, that it took for them to produce the Vodka and Lime that I’d ordered. The bar is run by a great crew of young Chinese that are friendly, polite and always in a good mood.

The night was cool and we were bathed in the scent of incense which ultimately turned out to be Raid Mosquito Coils, the flammable DDT kind we haven’t seen in the US since the sixties. Mosquitoes come early here and Japanese Encephalitis is a genuine concern. Something to ponder while sitting out nursing a beer. The waitress told me I was safe, my Marmot shell being impervious to the little bloodsuckers. Adding to the ambiance was the stream of loud 70s and 80s music pouring out of our spot and the one next door. Mostly it worked, but sometimes it didn’t, like when the base and percussion line from Credence Clearwater’s cover of “Susie Q” overlaid some forgettable ditty by ABBA.

Sitting along this lane is a great opportunity for people watching. Chinese strolling along chatting, foreigners doing the same but not quite carrying off their attempts to appear local.

The rest of the crew showed up and we debated moving on to the Thai place or just staying there, their menu of “Mexicali” favorites being hard to pass up. We chose the latter and scanned the menu. The Chimichangas, Quesadillas and Enchiladas were overshadowed by the Red Sea Burger. Not sure how a grilled Red Snapper served on a hamburger bun qualifies as Red Sea cuisine, but clearly struck the menu author as such.

I chose the Philly Cheese Steak seeing this as another poly-cultural experience in the making, if only for the name. It turned out to be quite good.

Food for six people in China can be a challenge of etiquette. The norm here is to bring the food as it’s ready and so invariably several people eat long before the others. This night not only did it come in shifts but it also came in types – the pair of Philly Cheese Steaks arriving first, much to my satisfaction.

Dinner over, two of the crew headed back to the tailor to collect our friend’s suit – A Giorgio Armani for only $100 – the pants being ready for delivery having been hemmed. The rest of us decided to walk home.

Clearing the lane, we came around to a building under renovation. Bill observed that there was a man and woman lying in bed in the second floor window. I went back and sure enough, there they were rolling around under the covers. Scanning the first floor, we found two more couples doing the same. It’s not uncommon for construction workers here to live where they work – temporary dormitories at work sites are a regular sight. But this is the first time I’ve seen anyone living in the building they were remodeling. So much for privacy in a country of 1.5 billion.

The walk back to the hotel is mostly under the Ya’an Elevated Road. It’s cool and pleasant in the evening even if you’re bombarded by the noise of the traffic. After the first crossing we saw a man on a scooter literally riding against the automobile traffic. That was a first. Moving on we saw a policeman yell and whistle at a van that had decided to back up to recover a missed exit. He stood in front of the car, in traffic, and tried to manhandle to car to the curb so that he could yell at them some more.

Part of the walk takes you through a dark alley that is created between a line of tiny restaurants, open store fronts really, and a large barrier constructed to block the view of all of it from the street. A Potemkin version of the restaurant lane we’d just left, with quite a stark contrast between a place serving people live us and those that live and work here.

We passed by our favorite object of tittering derision – Pinocchio Men’s Club – and marveled at the matching sets of beautiful young women dressed in black and white and waiting in the front foyer for the next well-heeled customer to come it. I was thinking a Martini might be on order, but we elected instead to stay outside and marvel at the yellow Ferrari parked in the lot.

My first close encounter with a car came at the next crossing, sort of an acceleration ramp entering the elevated road. Halfway across a large bunch of cars suddenly appeared and we really had to scoot to avoid being creamed.

One last comment, about the sidewalks. There is often a line of parallel bricks embedded in the tiles. Apparently it’s there to guide the seeing impaired with branches off to the crosswalks. The contrast feels different than the surrounding surface and so the thought is you can make your way down the street successfully. I tried it with my eyes closed and it really worked, I was even able to detect a slight chicane to the left. Problem with walking with your eyes closed is that you often feel like you’re going to fall over. Or maybe it was the two beers. We’ll never know.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

General stuff

I've always had a general liking for Garlic Toast, that is until it showed up on a desert platter as the partner of a blob of Yam flavored ice cream. But more about that as the tale wears on.

Late spring is upon us here and even this morning was pretty sticky as we headed out for a morning walk. Even at 6:3o, the streets were buzzing and it was easy to work up a patina with even the slightest notion of a power walk. We decided to head down to Rotting Patrol Boat Park but walked past and on to the bigger version across the street. It was busy in there today with many people waving flags and doing tai chi. Exiting on the far side and planning to re-enter on the other side of the block, I noticed the Carrefore store looming in the distance. Lo and behold I had discovered a short cut to Zhongshan Park. Let no challenge be left unaccepted is my motto and so off we went to the bigger, better greenspace up the road.

Zhongshan was even more mobbed but the walk was pleasant. Lots of kite flyers were plying their hobby including many with versions that resembled raptors. It was quite amusing to see how easily they were able to get theirs aloft, reminding me of all those coronaries narrowly avoided while running back and forth trying to get one up into the air. These guys know what they're doing.

From there, breakfast and work and planning for dinner.

Tonight's destination was People's 6, the minus one sibling of People's 7, the ultra-modern, concrete wonder bar in the French Concession. I like that place - it's so weird with the black clad waiters and the flashing lights they wear around their necks and in their hair. It took two cabs but we got there pretty much as a group and went in for a great dinner comprised of a dozen or so little dishes. The pictures below suggest the lighting which is very sparse, creating an atmosphere of I don't know what.

In the other place, the restroom doors are reverse hinged so that you can't get in by pushing on the side with the handles. Here, they're down at the end of a multi-turn mirror maze. Keep those desperate people guessing is a great approach to the restaurant business I reckon.

Which brings me to the desert tray. Aptly named "desert selection on a square tile" it was made up of a couple of pieces of chocolate pound cake, a little scoop of strawberry ice cream, a slice of citrus cheesecake, an amorphous, gelatinous blob that contained a red bean and the aforementioned garlic toast with yam ice cream. The toast appeared to be some sort of slim biscotti, until you popped it in your mouth and found it out for what it was. From there, it was a challenge to figure out which of the other deserts would cleanse the garlic flavor from your mouth. A flavor that should have been left with the last bite of Three Style Pork. I won't go into the yam ice cream other than to mention it was purple and didn't taste like yams.

The area around the restaurant is great for a stroll so we decided to walk off some of the food and headed out and down the street. Like every other neighborhood here, it was busy. Most interesting though was the violin shop we encountered, the walls lined with instruments and a few people sitting around a table busy in a flurry of re-stringing.

Tomorrow it's back to work but tonight it's off to bed, the burden of yesterday's travel pulling heavily on my eye lids.


Monday, May 07, 2007

Boy oh boy

It was a tough slog today.

We boarded for an on time departure and then waited. And waited. And waited some more. The captain came on and told us an interesting tale – while loading the baggage containers, the maintenance crew noted “damage” in the container pit. Now I don’t have a clue about what a pit is doing on a plane, but I do know that the word “damage” and the concept of keeping a multi-ton aircraft in the air might be considered at odds. At least those two terms would be at odds if I was running the show.

He told us we had a couple of options – try and assess the nature and threat of the damage or move everyone to the shiny, new 747 that was standing by out back. Neither good options, but perhaps the latter is a share better than the former? Which is no doubt why they chose the former. Goes to show what I know about running an airline.

The crew chief came on after a bit and told us that they’d solved the problem and that we’d be on our way in 15 minutes. They would move all the containers from the damaged back of the plane to the pit in the front of the plane. There they are with that “pit” word again. So as the plane slowly heated up (despite full bore air-conditioning and all the doors being wide open) those of us on the starboard side of the ship watched as they moved container after container from the back to the front. Two lone suitcases stood vigil on the tarmac, their owners no doubt hoping they wouldn’t be forgotten when the plane finally backed away from the gate.

While we waited, some enterprising guests decided to switch seats. A flight attendant interjected herself into the equation, informing the peregrinators that there were more people coming. She was waved off. These people were on a mission. And so a complex entente of five or six passengers finally settled in amidst a flourish of carry-ons and neck pillows. Each completely satisfied that they garnered the best possible deal in spite of that small-thinking flight attendant.

And it all came crashing down when another passenger showed up and said, “You’re in my seat.” Fifteen minutes later they were all back where they started, their mid-journey exercise brought to a screeching halt by the reality of ticketed traveling.

Which reminds me of a clue from a crossword puzzle I did today. “Approved for travel.” The answer – “visaed.” The crowd groans.

From there is got slightly more interesting. The plane, having heated up never really did cool off despite the reported -62F outside. The movies were a riot, they didn’t match the bill in the magazine and there was no sound. Instead of dialogue you sort of got this weird electronic in and out thing that sounded like the adults on the Charley Brown specials. The chief purser (no longer a flight attendant due to a recent round of promotions) professed her extreme embarrassment and offered an apology and the explanation that the plane is due to be “remodeled.” I can only hope that I get to ride on the improved version with the knotty pine paneling and the lack of damage in the rear pit. The first movie was one I had not heard of and involved Mia Farrow about to lose her farm unless her nephew can go down some telescope that these African warriors set up down into the ground, morph into some sort of cute elf-troll and defeat the mosquito riding bad guys having taken a space trip across the barnyard in a walnut. If anyone recognizes the plot, please leave a comment.

The second one was truly a choice worth remembering – “Letters from Iwo Jima.” A World War II epic seen from the side of the Japanese, the dialogue being completely in Japanese on a plane load of Chinese citizens with English subtitles that perhaps 10% of the plane cabin can actually see due to passenger heads. I guess United was using a second semester marketing intern to do the movie planning this month. That choice was so bad in so many ways it seems hard to believe it wasn’t stopped before being loaded in the VCR (which, did I mention had no sound?)

But we arrived and we got to have our Ramen noodles which almost makes the trip worthwhile.

Nothing special at the airport, no bats or any other rabid flying mammals. None of the ATMs were working which raises an interesting challenge to those that don’t do cash carry-over between trips. The baggage area was mobbed. One of my fellow travelers made a joke about stealing the tree frog green bag off the carousel since it bore a close resemblance to my carry-on. Which it should, because it was mine. First time ever my bag was one of the first off the plane.

We made a plan, got our bags and two of us got restless and headed to the Maglev train, a one hour taxi ride seeming to be a bit beyond our psychic energy reserve.

Rather than ride in the VIP section, we opted to ride among the proletariat. Not much difference aside from the crowd and the cloth seats. Ten minutes at 300 KPH and we were at the station. Luckily there was a skein of taxis waiting. Unluckily I counted which one was potentially ours and it turned out to be the one that was dead-dark with the hood open and a couple of guys feverishly working on it in order to not back up the line.

Of course, he got it going in time to pull up in front of us. I handed him the card for the hotel and he looked and sounded really unclear. I rattled off all the Chinese directions I could including “Ya’an” and “Honqiao” and off we went. To who knows where in a cab that moments ago was dead in line.

But the spirits were smiling and the cab kept running and he took the right route and 61RMB later we were deposited at our door. Check-in, up the lifts and into my room and ta-da – it’s my favorite one. It’s cold, it has glass on two walls overlooking the city and life is good once again.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Stuck in a loop?

If you're thinking I recycled my pictures from last month's first trip entry, you're mistaken - these are brand new and to prove it, I took the snapshot of the Tomokazu sign from the other direction.

Once again I find myself on the international concourse at SFO. Seems like only yesterday when in fact it's been 4 whole weeks!

Today's topic for musings is rituals. Things like saving little pencil nubs in drawers, taking time for a prayer or two at the temple, alternating brown and black leather fashion accessories on workdays and getting to the airport way too early relative to your departure. Rituals are good as long as they don't rule your life - they give comfort and they offer a sense of security, as in the "old folks at home" security that makes wandering off the home-place an okay thing to do.

Which brings us to today - off again to Shanghai. Thirty minutes from the driveway to the gate suggests it might be time to adjust my airport timing ritual, there was nothing remarkable this morning to hold me up. Interestingly, the long line at the gate actually moved faster than my special international check-in line which tells those of you that know me well that I was already treating myself to recriminations for not making the correct queue choice. Ah well. The agent made a comment to the effect of "everyone in Albuquerque seems to be going to Shanghai today" which took me aback. From there a stop at the coffee bar for a danish, electing to follow the advice of the clerk to go with almond as he claimed they were fresh out of the oven and extremely delicious, a claim later brought into consideration when I saw the same danishes at the satellite coffee bar far down by the gates.

Security was a breeze - I had my choice of lines - and chose to bypass the sniffer line because it really does add 45 seconds to one's transit. Having been burned at check-in, I didn't want to make the same mistake twice.

Arrived at the gate and sat down in a chair overlooking the broad, dawn-lit expanse of the tarmac. Two planes sat there, drowzily awaiting their day's assignment.

Thirty seconds and three bites later I was about plastered against the glass when an ample young man threw himself down into the chair behind be, launching me a good foot out of mine. What did happen to manners anyway? The rest of his family showed up and the three teenages boys started to argue about who had pushed whom in line and that was about it for me. I got up and moved to another gate. Where I was happy until the strobes and sirens went off due to a false fire alarm. So I got up again and moved even further down the hall.

We left on time and the flight was easy. The woman sharing my row introduced herself and told me she was on her way to Menlo Park to help with her "grandbaby." I did the two available crossword puzzles, listened to Beethoven's 9th and switched to his 6th when the first ended. I started to doze off and was brought back to consciousness when the music started to fade. Figured it was another dying battery but it turned out to be the music itself. I was coming into the part where the thunderstorm disrupts the frolicking peasants. No more sleep while the peasants were getting soaked.

We got in early, caught the Legionaire's Bus (recall many trips ago when the air conditioner dripped on my head during the ride) pulled out, did a u-turn, pulled back, got some additional riders and headed to the elevator. Getting off I noticed luggage whizzing by overhead on the airport material handling system. The man with the padded pitchfork herded us into the elevator and up we went to the shiny white off-to-see-the-world gates and my ritual bowl of udon noodles.

Which were great despite the fact that my Diet Coke bore a flavor that evoked pool water. Hmmm.

So here we are waiting to catch the next leg. One can only wonder about next week's adventures. Check back to see what they are.