Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Ivan

As I was heading out of the hotel last night for a walk and a little fresh air, I met one of my pals going out to do the same thing. The hotel manager was waving her arms and talking about the gym and offering to show him the benefits of the place but I interceded and offered to take a spin on the jogging trail.

It was getting dark and pretty wet so we cut the adventure short. Besides the waning light, the trails were so overgrown that I really had a hard time figuring out where I’d been before when it dawned on me that I was here last in March, before the all-consuming Irish vegetation reclaimed the open areas. So went back up the hill, walked around the back of the place and went into the pub to get a bit of dinner.

I was not eating so I ordered a pint and watched while he consumed a nice looking Irish lamb shank. Judging from his name tag, our waiter's name was Ivan and he spoke as though he was from somewhere in eastern Europe, a not uncommon thing given that many of the hotels here bring people over from that region to fill these kinds of service jobs. This hotel chain in general moves people around quite a bit, and I had some fun with this when I checked in the other day.

The young woman at the desk was clearly from China so I asked her, in Chinese, if she a Chinese person. She looked up, completely flummoxed and said, “What!?!” I repeated my question in English and she replied in the positive, so I told her, again in Chinese, that I spoke a little bit of her language. She gave a giant smile and asked me if I had been to her country and I replied more than a dozen times. She asked where and told her and she informed me that she was from Beijing and that since she could understand my Chinese, she would not have to check me in using English. Another funny transcontinental moment.

But back to Ivan. While we were eating and chatting, he stopped by and asked how the food and beer were. We replied in the positive and he asked us where we were from. We told him America and he said he thought so based on our accents. I replied that when speaking English, we really didn’t have one and he agreed, commenting that he was now capable of singling out the British, the Irish, the Scots and the South Africans. He told me he was from Romania, confirming my earlier assumption and asked me if I knew where that was. I said yes, having read my fair share about the region, most recently in Robert D. Kaplan’s "Eastward to Tartary" and he smiled and replied that most Americans had never heard of his country. I told him I agreed, that most Americans were indeed geographically ignorant. He then went on to share an anecdote about our President and how when Mr. Bush visited Romania, he told the gathered audience that he was very glad to be visiting Budapest. He then broke out into a big laugh and said, “He didn’t even know that Budapest was the capital of Hungary!”

I asked Ivan not to judge me by my President.

Monday, September 29, 2008

I knew I was in trouble when I tried to buy a bottle of water and all I had was Euros

Preparing for this trip was much harder than usual. These days I have refined my packing strategies to the point where I have several decent approaches depending on the length of my trip. This has cost me dearly in the acquisition of many different suitcases but has offered such a banquet of options; it may be getting to where it’s just too hard to decide.

In the early days of my world travel, I purchased a nice sized duffle-like roll-around bag from Eagle Creek in what has since become my signature color – tree frog green. It was ideal for a 2-3 day international trip as I had the option of carrying it on or checking it if I didn’t feel like lugging it through the various airports on my itinerary. Accompanying it was a very nice over the shoulder bag from Tom Bihn, again in tree frog. Between the two I was able to go just about anywhere and bring anything.

As my trips got longer, I added another bigger bag to the family allowing me to travel in the 10 day range. When the trips became longer, I added one more. But as I did this, some holes in my rationale began to emerge. First of all, thee duffle style bags are hard to efficiently pack. They don’t have square corners and they are not a uniform height all the way around. They’re great if you’re traveling with a half dozen hemp dashikis and burlap draw string pants, but they’re not great if you don’t want to roll or ball things up. Secondly, that great over the shoulder bag was beginning to make me 5’5” on one side and 5’11” on the other.

Then one day I was killing time in the San Francisco international terminal and wandered in to the Tumi boutique and there before me was the most beautiful bag in the world. Black leather, a dozen pockets and sections, a handle system crafted from the finest aircraft aluminum and most importantly, wheels. Wheels that would restore my aching frame to its full, glorious height. So I suffered through that one last trip and returned home and bought that thing. And life was good.

Little by little I learned to use it to its full extent. Little bags and cases for my electronics. My computer in its own little section. My consumable trip supplies in their own little zip-bag in the front pocket. Another pocket for Altoids and one for the spare change I collect as I roam from concession stand to concession stand. In short, this bag was every peregrinators dream come true. Until that one morning that I got on the Barbie Jet to SFO and discovered that I could not jam it in the overhead bin. Like a rube on his first trip away from the home patch I stood there beating on the thing trying to get it in, working up a sweat and bruising my balled up fists. On that trip I sat there with my feet jammed up against the bag (now located under the seat in front of me) steaming that I had been so lulled into complacency by a stinking suitcase.

Eventually I got the better of the Barbie Jet by coming to the realization that if I took some of the stuff out of the front pockets; I could force it into the bin wheel side out. Life was good, once again.

In the meantime the duffle bags were becoming less and less utile so I went a step up and bought a grand sized aluminum Halliburton, one of the pinnacle products in the pantheon of show-off travel gear. It was wonderful, square corners, solid latches, satin dividers, a wonderful combination of art and technology. Its only disappointment coming when it appeared on the baggage carousel at SFO with two of the three latches open and its dainty inners on display for all the world. My companions got a good chuckle that day, “look, a $900 suitcase open on the conveyor, I wonder who that belongs to?” Well, I fixed that with a $7 baggage strap in…….tree frog green.

The battle for the hearts and minds of carry-on bags continued to rage though. I added a nice little Boyt bag to the collection as it had sections for clothes that would allow me to 1-bag a 1-2 day trip, something the Tumi never did well. And now I entered into the world of messenger bags as one needs something to carry one’s computer around once one arrives at one’s destination, doesn’t one? Some of those were imperfect (computer rattled around inside it) while others were better (computer had a nice corduroy pouch to live in.)

At this point, I was fully accoutered for whatever length, distance or type of trip I was about to have.

On a recent trip to my favorite luggage store, I saw a miraculous new Tumi that had a two button expansion system which turned it from carry-on legal to just slightly bigger. I played with it at the store for a good hour before I finally shelled out for it and took it home. Perfection can clearly sometimes be perfected again.

But this trip got me thinking again. 3 ½ days internationally to a country where I could easily get supplies should my health be compromised meant a couple of things. First of all, a smallish bag to carry my minimal clothing requirements, less electronics that normal and no first-aid kit. The new Tumi fit the bill perfectly, even without its expansion feature holding everything needed with room to spare. I was pretty much on the brink of being able to do the whole trip as carry-on, but the problem that arose was what to do with the gear I needed on the plane. Because of the tight connection in Chicago, I wanted to leave myself the opportunity to not check a bag if I was unable to get United to transfer to Aer Lingus. Two hours sounds like a lot unless you’re an hour late getting in and your next gate is in another state. All this mental arithmetic suggested that the best solution would be to pack a good sized shoulder bag rather than try to haul two roll-arounds across Illinois.

I started by packing my trust old Tom Bihn and once completed, took a brief walk around the house. All the reasons I had moved to wheeled bags came back in the form of a piercing pain that ran from my left elbow to my right ear. I realized that wasn’t going to work by the time I had completed my second circuit of the kitchen. Teddy looked at me as if to say “Even I, a dog, can see that this proposal is ill-considered.”

I headed back to my “Travel Room” and dug out my Boyt and packed it. But that bag was just not right either. It’s smaller than the Tumi but one section is clearly designed for clothes with crossover elastic straps. Not ideal for packing all those little cases full of stuff that long plane flights demand. So it was back to my trusty leather Tumi and carry-on rules be damned. I finally finished with my packing about midnight, another Saturday evening well spent in the life of a jet-setter.

One of the nice things about travel to Europe is that you don’t have to leave at the crack of dawn. My departure was a civilized 1 PM and so we had a nice relaxing morning reading the papers and chit-chatting before heading out at 11. I did have the brainstorm to check in to my Aer Lingus flight on line, figuring it would save me some time if I had any rush in Chicago. First stop was gasoline which got me wondering what the TSA would think if I showed up at security smelling as though I’d been putting together a fuel-oil bomb.

I went straight to the elite line at the United counter and was happily surprised to hear that I could check my bag all the way through to Dublin – problem one solved. Off to security where the woman in line behind be kept jumping back and forth between my line and the one next to me which was funny since they were the same length and we were moving right along. My choice of putting my watch in my shoe proved ill-fated when the x-ray tech pulled my bin off the line and rifled through trying to figure out what it was doing there. No problems with fuel oil, they thought I was bringing a shoe time bomb aboard. Nothing was said, she just through everything back on the conveyor. All in all, exactly 15 minutes from drop off to sitting and waiting at the gate.

My request for 1st class had been granted so I was the first person down the gangway. I knew this was another Barbie Jet, but different. Instead of 2x2 in the front cabin, this plane had 1 on the left side and two on the right. And I’d hit the jackpot with the solo seat. Plus, the overhead bin was ample enough to allow the Tumi to fit in without me disgorging it first. Things were looking up already.

I sat and watched the others board, paying particular attention to their bags. These “pay for luggage” policies have had an interesting effect on what gets brought on board. These days, the one carry-on bag tends to be a steamer trunk and the one personal item is almost always a Pullman. There was a guy in front of me at security today with two illegal bags. Some of the gate agents are challenging people but in general, everyone gets on board with these things that simply cannot fit overhead. And the result is lots of pushing and shoving and beating with balled up fists which leads to bags being “gate checked’ at the last minute. You’d think the bean counters at the airlines would have simply raised the ticket prices by $50 instead of opening themselves up to all these problems and the humiliating commercials that Southwest is using to mock them.

We got off on time despite the passenger in front of me who insisted on stowing his back pack in the overhead bin over the protestations of the flight attendant. Once aloft he immediately stood up to retrieve it allowing me to see what he was wearing – a black wife-beater t-shirt. This set me to wondering who wears a wife-beater to travel, and who actually owns a black one? I mean who makes black wife-beaters. Later I realized this was his base layer, he had a black linen short-sleeved shirt over it and under his black linen sport coat.

Flying up and out of Albuquerque I was able to see Santa Fe and golden pockets of turning Aspens on the sides of the Sangre de Christos. Dotting the mountainsides were dark little shadows that looked like scuttling crabs cast by small puffy clouds. As we passed from the mountains to the plains it struck me that out west, there are really two tree lines – one above which trees cannot grow because of the wind and the cold, and one below which they do not grow due to lack of water. Between the two are the deep green belts of pine and juniper, existing between these two barren expanses.

Snack service was nice today, a little box with Rondelle Parmesan Cheese Spread, a couple of crackers, a bag of Kettle potato chips, two Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies and of all things a tub of Mott’s Applesauce. I sat there spreading my cheese wondering what was going on back in the economy cabin.

The flight across the Great Plains was a bit lackluster aside from the occasional big water project and major river. Coming into Chicago where it was gray and bleak, it was clear that fall was on the way with the crowns of many big trees showing the first golds and reds of autumn.

We landed and drove for a long time, finally settling into a gate on Concourse C or Terminal One. O’Hare has the unique quality of looking old and tired from the outside despite its relative newness. It was designed to look sort of bleak Bauhaus and it wouldn’t be out of place in the Rhineland. Here it just looks worn.

I got off the plane and headed into the terminal looking for signs of how to get to Terminal 5, my departure point. I avoided getting on the moving walkway behind black wife-beater man because he had a funny gait, sort of what you would expect from someone who thinks it appropriate to wear a black wife-beater in public on an airplane. At the next juncture he got off and I got on, riding along marveling at the genuinely industrial nature of the inside of this place. Steel beams, giant bolts and arches, it imparted the feeling of re-use.

The sign told me to go down so I did, riding the escalator and chuckling at a lone young woman who for some reason took the stairs up rather than use the easier conveyance. At the bottom I was faced with a long moving walkway that moved along beneath a ceiling covered with strange geometric shapes done in multi-colored neon. It was as though you were riding in a video game arcade. In the background, and barely audible a fractured version of United’s Gershwin theme was playing behind faint messages for the pedestrians.

At the end of the tunnel I almost made the mistake of heading up to the B Concourse catching the path to the right of the escalator at the last second. I went down another long hall and out past security until I came to a halt at a single elevator. A grandma was waiting there, punching at the button. The display said “B”, then “C”, then “B” again without ever stopping at whatever floor we were on. I asked her if she knew what she was doing and she said “no” whereupon the door opened and we got in. A young man joined us and I asked him where we were going. Grandma pushed the “BL” button and the young man said that was correct, the train to the other terminals was on the Bridge Level. The display in the elevator continued to say “B” and “C” which matched none of the button choices on the panel. But the door opened and we got out and immediately went down another escalator to the train platform. The ride up to the Bridge Level and across said Bridge had essentially saved us the time of going out the door and walking across the street.

We waited a bit and a train pulled up and we got on. Directions on the floor insisted that those of us boarding do so in an outside pinscher movement allowing those departing to head straight out. Of course the first thing that happened was that a woman de-training walked straight into me. But I managed to get on board and the train pulled out at about 2 MPH, the driver apparently being worried about tipping over as we merged from one track to another.

Announcements as to our location in the grand scheme of terminals were again barely audible making me wonder if I was suffering some sort of hearing loss. We finally arrived at Terminal 5 and I made my way in and through security, about 30 minutes from gate to gate making me thankful that I did not have a rush. The lesson for changing to international in Chicago is this – leave yourself 3 hours.

I wandered around and tried to get into the Star Alliance Lounge and was rebuffed as I was not leaving on a Star Alliance partner, so much for being a 1K member. I found my traveling companions and settled in to wait for an hour.

About 40 minutes before boarding the gate agent asked us all to come up if we had managed to get there without talking to an Aer Lingus representative. I hadn’t so I went up and he marked my boarding pass with a yellow highlighter joking how the TSA people should not have allowed me to get this far. He failed to give me an entry card for Ireland so I went back and joked that he had given one to my friends but not me. He told me to point them out and walked back to where we were sitting and handed me my card while admonishing my pals for not picking one up for me in the first place.

I decided to get a bottle of water and went up to one of the kiosks. For some reason, this terminal is sorely lacking in facilities. I don’t know its story, but it appears someone woke up one morning and decided that Chicago needed an international terminal. And this was the best they could come up with, moving floors that go nowhere, a crowded hallway that is jammed with food carts and far too few places to sit.

As my turn came up to order my bottle of water, I opened my wallet and was surprised to find only Euros. I had failed to transfer my dollars from my “stay at home wallet” to my “travel wallet.” Usually it’s the other way around, lacking my REI card when I need it but now I’d manage to mess up in the other direction. I borrowed $2 from one of my chums and went back to sit down.

Twenty minutes before boarding we were all called to the center for carry-on bag check. Roderick, my friend with the entry card was put in charge of visually evaluating everyone’s bag. I didn’t see him reject anyone, but he did a very thorough job of looking each suitcase up and down before attaching a tag to the handle which said “good to go.”

We boarded on time and I settled into an aisle row next to a nice woman with whom I had a chat about Ireland and flying and China. All was fine and good until another woman came along and pointed out that I was sitting in the wrong seat. It seems that Aer Lingus designates the seats on their Airbus’ differently than United designates theirs on their 767’s. I was pretty shocked considering I had just ridden a 767 only two weeks prior and had the same seat (right side, aisle.) I apologized and moved, grateful in a small way because once you start chatting with someone; it often means 6 hours of trying to keep the conversation up. As it turned out, I ended up across the aisle with an empty next to me. And it was lucky it was empty because my overhead light was misaligned and would have illuminated the lap of the person next to me instead of whatever I was trying to read.

The plane left on time and it was quickly time for dinner. For amusement, I set the seatback entertainment center to the in-flight map so I could track our progress up and over the Great Lakes and northern Canada. (At the moment, we’re 1/3 of the way between Greenland and Iceland.)

Dinner was salad, peas, carrots beef stew and potatoes – traditional Irish cuisine, if there is such a thing. A couple of crackers and a slab of Tillamook cheddar rounded out the repast, the latter making me laugh as I was only a mile or so from the Tillamook factory the week before last. The further afield I go, the more little reminders of where I’ve just been seem to pop up.

The miracle of the Jet Stream is that it can help you get places pretty quick. We landed a full hour early, no doubt due to the 100 MPH tail wind we enjoyed for the full trip. I left the map up on the TV screen for the whole trip and watched the progress closely. Aside from a period in the middle of the Atlantic where the plane veered south off the prescribed route, we flew as straight and as fast as an arrow, landing at 7:15.

It took a long time to get the jet way connected but once there I made my way through immigration in record time. My last bag off the plane karma continued, but at least it showed up. From there out to my rental car – a posh Volvo S80 – and into the morning rush hour, the price I paid for getting in early.

The M50 has gone through many permutations during my many visits here making it a continuing challenge to find my way around. Today presented a whole new set of opportunities for failure including merging lorries as large as container ships, multiple chicanes and a disappearing toll booth. I handled those with typical aplomb and made my way to the plant in 90 minutes.

My biggest learning of the day – a 7 hour trip now barely merits a whine compared to my normal 12 to 13 hour routes. I messed around, I ate, I messed around some more and when I finally decided to nod off, it was time for breakfast. If I’d been on my way to China, I’d still have had 5 hours to go. Ireland is now only a bit more taxing than a hop to Phoenix.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

It's always the short legs that get you

The remainder of my trip was classically United Airlines. It's funny, I had three good legs in a row this week, and I rewarded them by filling out positive surveys on line. But this one managed to wash it all away, having ended up 1 hour late on a 50 minute flight. Yes, I know I am a picky traveler, but sometimes I wish they would come into the gate area and announce, "Is there an efficiency expert in the lounge?"

I left my breakfast spot and headed down to the gate, discovering along the way that it had been changed. No big deal, I just walked on. Arriving there I saw all the appropriate Albuquerque information up on on the board, as expected as we were about 20 minutes prior to the planned boarding time. But something wasn't right, the gate agents were agitated and using a "tone" with people coming up to the podium with questions. In a moment it became clear - they were planning to load a plane to San Jose from this gate, despite nothing posted to that plan. They asked everyone not going to Albuquerque or San Jose to leave the gate area. No one did. They told everyone to stay away from the podium if they weren't going to San Jose. People got up to check whether this was the correct gate for Albuquerque. In short it was Chinese Chaos, just like Dalian, only with the Rockies in the background.

Eventually they straightened it out and got the San Jose plane boarded. It sat there for a long time, finally prompting the agents to announce that the Albuquerque plane was officially delayed. Apparently the Californians had hijacked our plane and they needed to bring another one over from "the maintenance hanger." Not words you want to hear.

Finally the Californians were on their way and our plane rolled up. Then came the next dreaded announcement, "They didn't clean the plane while it was sitting in the hanger, so now we must wait for the cleaning crew." Hmmm, I wonder who was supervising that little effort across the field in the maintenance hanger?

The crew showed up, they cleaned the plan and we boarded, about 35 minutes late against our original boarding time. Sadly, I had been bumped out of 1st class and no amount of eyelash batting would make the agent see things my way.

But being a "made flyer", I got on the plane first and settled in. A couple came and made me get up but aside from that it was just a matter of sitting there are the throngs filed past.

I noticed a man carrying a mandolin case and wearing a t-shirt that said "I Love Corridas", an interesting emotion I thought. With him was a woman, clearly Mexican fully decked out in embroidered fiesta wear and tall cowboy boots. As I was checking the two of them out I suddenly stopped breathing - she had clearly broken a bottle of perfume over her head before leaving the hotel. And unfortunately for me, the line of passengers placed her right next to me for what seemed like 30 minutes. I pinched my nostrils closed and hoped for the best, checking my pulse for signs of shock. She finally moved along. (As it turns out, I did a little detective work and discovered that she is a fairly famous Corrida performer on her way to a concert in Albuquerque, having completed one the night before in Boulder.)

With everyone seated and ready to go, the next announcement came. "Sorry folks, but the navigation module is not calibrating properly and we have to have a mechanic come over and check it out. And by the way, if we can't fix it we'll have to get another plane." Hmmm, I wonder what they were fixing over there across the field in the maintenance hanger? He told us he'd get back to us at 12:33 and I began to calculate how long it would take me to rent a car and drive home.

At 12:23 the purser announced that we were on our way. You could tell from his voice that he was very proud that they'd beaten the 12:33 deadline. And I guess he should be since they had kept the delay to only 60 minutes.

The flight was uneventful, I read and the only interesting thing happened when the guy in my row decided to pour the last of his Sprite just as we hit our only ugly patch of turbulence. He missed the glass by a good 3 inches and instead filled up the surface of his wife's tray table with the sticky liquid. For some reason she looked at my imploringly and I dutifully handed over the wad of Kleenex I had in my pocket, hoping to stem the rising tide of soda.

We landed, I drove home, and that was it.

I tried to load some photos of the Oregon coast after my short seacoast trip back on Wednesday. Unfortunately, Blogger was having one of its tantrums and the controls necessary to load them were non-functional. Now at home, Blogger is once again feeling cooperative and so here they are, late but still nice to look at. These were taken in and around Tillamook Bay.

And oh yes, I'm home for a whole week - next Sunday it's off to Ireland for the 4th time this year. Check back in for some stories from the Emerald Isle.







Friday, September 19, 2008

Traveling "Clear"

A few months ago I signed up for a product that allows me to cut past security lines in certain airports. It's an identification card that stores a scan of your retinas and your fingerprints that gate agents use to know you are who you say you are.

I've used it in San Francisco on once occasion, and SFO was the reason I was willing to pay $100 a year given their abysmal security set up. It's hard to believe that in all the years since the security processes changed, that SFO still thinks it's okay to operate on a bunch of folding tables. Even Albuquerque went ahead and built a modern security center.

In SFO, you enter via a different line and you're checked and plugged into a shorter bag check line. It's approximately the same here in Denver, where I tried it for the first time this morning, except that once your fingerprints are checked, and the Clear Valet had grabbed your bins of stuff, you are directed over to the regular line where the Valet asks some poor passenger if it's okay to cut the line since I am a "registered traveler." Of course the hapless dupe says "yes", what else are they going to say? But the thing I figured out and what is not clear to those being displaced is that "registered traveler" means nothing more than I've paid $100 for the privilege of stepping in front of anyone who hasn't paid it.

The extra checks I went through to qualify are not conducted on anyone else. The fact that they have to stand in that long serpentine (and today it was long) doesn't make them as secure as I am by virtue of my stored biometrics. It just means I have a bunch of data on file, and that I am willing to pay to cut the line. It's funny, because the system is a really good idea from a security standpoint, except that someone wanting to do something bad isn't about to apply, pay the fee and then cut line. Rather they'd probably like to stand in the long line with the rest of the anonymous travelers.

I guess it simply boils down to another case of rank hathing its privilege, because no matter how much I muse on this over my lemon poppy seed muffin, I can't figure out how it does anything but move me to the front.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing (wink, wink.)


Many airports are now offering free WiFi to travelers. Some have installed "hot spots" which require a credit card and others (ABQ, PDX) have done the nice thing and simply made it free. Denver has taken the middle ground - free access with annoying advertising.

When you first connect you're told you'll be watching a 30 second commercial prior to being given open access. Well, fine, I can do that. So I watched the commercial and clicked on my favorite page, Cyclingnews, to get an update on the Vuelta. It's not that easy. If you don't click on the special button that says "Begin FREE Internet Session NOW" you get dumped into the 30 second commercial loop a second time. I suppose the upside of that is that I now know what cell phone service I will never buy. Anyway, clicking on "Begin FREE Internet Service NOW" takes you to wherever you want to go, but with a tidy little banner across the screen offering a continuously changing palette of more advertising along with a couple of links to local shops, flight schedules and games.

Very cute, offer a free service and capture the audience. Smart thinking DIA!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Off to Oregon

We returned home to our beloved 75 degrees and 20% humidity and I genuinely enjoyed it for the 4 days I was there. Besides the contrast in time zones, this jetting back and forth between the jungle and the desert exacts its price as well. The next trip on the agenda was domestic and pretty short so I was in a reasonably good mood heading out the door on Monday.

While I whine about having to leave at the crack of dawn for international travel, leaving later in the day exposes one to traveling with the amateurs. You know, Marjorie heading down to Roswell for Cousin Joey’s gall bladder operation. The people who don’t know the rules of the road make it difficult for the rest of us. Particularly the rest of us who have short fuses and no tolerance for anything innocent yet annoying. Like the women who continue to gab right up to the TSA agent before digging through their 58 gallon macramé handbag for their identification. And the guy who sends his boarding pass through the x-ray machine. Or better yet, the woman who crushed the fingers on my right hand by pushing all of the little gray trays forward in order to fit hers on the table. Wondering where the pain was coming from I looked back to see her, bent over so as to gain mechanical advantage, both arms locked at the elbows with both hands white-knuckled on her gray bin, pushing as hard as she could. She apologized when I screamed.

Even traveling 1st class is no guarantee of safety from injury and annoyance. I’m even partially guilty having misread the row number and sitting in the wrong seat only to be told by the rightful occupant I was in the wrong place. She paid me back a bit later, pushing her seat recline button and moving it back fast enough to catch my knee and thus cause my right thigh bone to dislocate from its hip socket. Didn’t matter though as that leg had already been damaged by the little man that had successfully managed to pin me between my seat rest and his roller bag a few moments earlier. Yes, this was a day of full-contact travel, a fact driven home when someone knocked my briefcase out of the overhead bin and down onto my shoulder.

But 1st class was nice, and I enjoyed a delightful deli plate with ham, cheese and fruit while the folks out back were shelling out $3 for a bag of potato chips.

All of my flights were early on Monday which brought me into Portland about 20 minutes to 5. Getting off the plane, I was once again hit in the face with that deadly combination of heat and humidity. For a brief moment I thought I was in Shanghai again, but mostly everyone was speaking English and the air didn’t smell of leaded gasoline exhaust. No, I’d flown into an Oregon heat wave.

Out on the highway to town I was taken back to the first time I arrived here, about the same time of day, to start my new job at Intel. Almost 20 years ago. Not a lot has changed along the ride to town, aside from the light rail system that has been added. Today, it seemed that every car was heading to Gresham, something must be going on there, or perhaps it’s just the end of the line.

The entrance to I84 was empty, a mockery of what would follow once I was past the city center and commuting with the traffic instead of against it. Sure enough, I made it across the bridge unhindered only to land in the usual bumper to bumper crawl at the beginning of Route 26. The climb up the hill and out of the city brought back the memory of SITS – Solar Induced Traffic Slowdowns – common on the far side of the tunnel and the site of fender-benders for more than one sun-blinded friend of mine.

This was to be a couple of days of work, at the site where I started, so my trip down memory lane continued the next morning, heading down 185th Street past my bachelor apartment and on to the plant in Aloha. I remember the endless line of cherry red Camry’s carrying me and the other seeds to work in what was then the shiny development fab for my company. I won’t say I was carried back to halcyon days, but the drive in was pretty nostalgic.

Part of this week’s get together was the inevitable team dinner, held last night at a tavern up in the hills between work and the mighty Columbia. Like many other microbreweries, something that Portland is now known for, this one was heaving on the wood and the hanging lamps and the musky, cloudy Pale Ales which drive beer-o-philes to states of ecstasy. I was a big fan at one time, but now these places and those beers seem a little trite and a bit twee, and so I don’t find myself having those same conversations about whose Porter is the muddiest. This place though offered a slightly different diversion – live music. A band consisting of a woman playing a standup base, a fellow holding a steel guitar in his lamp, a banjo guy and a chap sporting one of those haircut and beard combinations that say “Civil War Re-enactor” playing of all things, a dulcimer. When they finally started playing the most obscure Appalachian folk tunes, I knew I was fully emerged in the Oregon Experience.

Today, work ended up in time for me to make a trek to the sea, one of the mini-pilgrimages I like to make when the light in Oregon allows it. Being so far north, you can make a trip out to the ocean and back in daylight from the late spring to the early fall, and so I went.

Given that it was closing on 5 PM, I decided not to waste the 15 minutes it would take to stop by the hotel to get my shell, a decision that would end up to be fateful given the 40 degree difference between town and the shore.

The drive out Oregon 6 is beautiful. You follow a winding path bordered by streams cutting through the heavily timbered Coastal Range. Once in a while you get a longer vista that shows the effects of long-term logging, clear cut hillsides still littered with the graying remains of the trees not worth dragging down to the mill. The road out is mostly uninhabited with only a few houses and fewer towns. I know it well, because I used to do it quite regularly when I lived here. With nothing better to do on the weekends, the coast was always my Saturday destination, the aim being to ratchet up my birding lifelist as quickly as possible.

Relative to my decision to forego collecting my jacket, I knew I was in trouble when the tops of the mountains started to appear shrouded in fog. I cracked the window and stuck my fingers out, confirming that this trip would be mostly spent in the car – my dress shirt was not going to protect me from what was outside.

Clearing the forest, the first thing you see as you roll towards Tillamook is cows. Hundreds and hundreds of cows on both sides of the road in loud, green grass pastures, hemmed in by woody hills. Cows everywhere, this being Cheese Country, a fact know to everyone that shops the intermediately priced cheese blocks in grocery stores across the land.

A pair of Red-tailed Hawks in a half-dead pine surveyed a long line of Guernsey’s heading back to the barn for dinner. A flock of Holsteins stood gaping at the grain being shot at them from some sort of feeding cannon. Cows were ubiquitous.

Tillamook itself is a town well passed its prime. It looks boarded up, and the little neighborhoods on both sides of the road have homes running the gamut from pin neat to abandoned. I imagine this area peaked with lumber, and has since ebbed, leaving behind those with genuine roots and sending off the others, seeking better opportunities.

But once past the downtown area, you find yourself on the windy road around Tillamook Bay, one of my favorite places on earth. Here, the plethora of cows begins to mix with piles of discarded oyster shells and locals out fishing for salmon in the tidal estuary. It is said the Orca visit this bay, but I’m sad to say I’ve not had the good fortune to see one. Instead, I get the squadrons of cormorants, flying in big vees on their way out to see to feed. Great Blue Herons pepper the mud flats along with Gulls and the occasional Tern. We’re past the shorebird migration here, so what you see is what’s left for the winter.

I pulled off at the Bayocean Peninsula and took a few photos. Years ago this was the place I successfully stalked the illusive Wrentit, this being one of the few pockets where this bird lives outside of California. I parked and decided to make a run over the dunes to have a look at the ocean, but it was too cold for my poor coverings and so I settled for a few wild raspberries and a quick return to my warm car.

From there I headed up the hill to the Cape Meares lighthouse, another favorite spot of mine. The road up is tortured – it’s clear that nature is trying its best to push this blacktop affront down the side of the mountain and into the sea. The dips and holes and sections that have reverted to dirt show the power that gravity has over unstable, coastal soils. I won’t be surprised to come back someday and find to gone.

The road to the lighthouse is dark, mossy and hemmed in on both sides by huge Sitka Pines. This is classic, old growth northwestern rain forest. Every branch is covered with a thick coating of moss, bringing to mind Elk in the early season with their still velvet covered antlers.

I jumped out again to take a couple of shots of the haystacks jutting out of the sea. Now, in addition to being cold and windy, it was also raining. And so my idyll came to an end. I returned to the car for the ride back to town and the warm sandwich waiting for me at Panera.

Tomorrow it’s off to Colorado and a short visit with the kids. For now though, an evening made more peaceful by a short two hours in a beautiful place, one full of soul-refreshing air and sea. Even if it was pretty darn cold.

Monday, September 08, 2008

On our way home

This was a COD (crack of dawn) travel day, rising at 5:30 and out of the hotel by 6:00. A few things drive this kind of rigor among them a big unknown on checking out of the hotel (efficiency ranging from mechanical precision to pudding-like lameness), traffic jams due to overturned 3-wheeled motor-powered vegetable carts and the biggest variable of all – what’s happening at the airport.

Check-out was not that bad, a manager presented himself and allowed me to circumvent the line. The drive in was quick, probably due to the 3-wheeled vegetable cart carrying four men down the fast lane on the highway remaining upright. After a brief discussion with the taxi driver about where to stop, we decided on the single International door and went on in. After a swab of the bags and approval from the bomb-smelling system, we headed towards the counter.

Here, the primary variable kicked in. China Southern had one counter open and it was stocked very deeply, not so much with people but with dozens of suitcases. It was hard to imagine how so few people could have so much stuff. The agent was additionally tied up with a single customer who must have had some sort of oddball problem, because the work went on forever. Finally she walked away only to be chased down again and brought back from some additional adjustments to her travel plans. I was starting to come unglued while My Lovely Wife stood there Zen-like, as if crafted from alabaster. She often tells me that getting all worked up solves nothing and I often stare at her trying to understand just how women think. I have given up trying to tell her just how wrong she is.

A gang of young men came up from behind and went to an unmarked, open counter. They took a look at our languishing line and looked at the open counter and queued up there. That agent was pushing them through at the rate of 10 per minute while mine was still working on customer #1, now aided by a supervisor staring over her shoulder and reaching around every once in a while to type something in herself.

I walked over to the last of the young guys and asked if he was checking in for Seoul. Apparently there is a different word in Chinese for “Seoul” given his blank stare and lack of sound coming out of his lips which were attempting to form the Chinese for “What the heck are you saying?” His friend came by and I asked him and receiving the answer I wanted, I motioned My Lovely Wife to come over to my new-found express lane.

We were through in minutes and on our way to immigration while the old line still lazed along the traveler with the impossible problem.

Compared to Shanghai and Beijing, immigration was a complete and total non-event. No lines, no people, no questions, no nothing. The only snag came when My Lovely Wife was directed to stand behind the yellow line, she having nearly created an international incident by attempting to piggy-back on my stop at the desk. Security was next and it was nothing to mention aside from the very personal patting I always get from the Chinese agents.

We did a little shopping and waited around and I almost had a conversation with a man who asked if I was an American and then something else which I did not understand. Figuring I was just slow he asked couple of additional times and then attempted to make it clearer by drawing the question out invisibly on the palm of his hand with his finger. I just kept insisting that my Chinese was bad and he finally gave up and walked away.

The plane left on time. My Lovely Wife was bothered by the guy in front who jammed his seat back along with the guy next to her who kept cracking his knuckles and the general stench of the plane – body odor, cigarette smoke, stale breath – things I could care less about. I had a brief epiphany around this time, realizing the things that spin me up – like gate agents who open up and then sit there pretending they are not – don’t bother her a bit. Yet the little sanitary vagaries of travel as just described don’t merit the tiniest bit of attention for me. I guess we’re all wired differently for what bothers us and gets us spun up. I was happy to understand this because it might mean I am not crazy after all.

Arriving in Seoul we were once again faced with the challenge of going through the transfer security check without a pass. Clearly, there is something wrong with this process. I once again showed the security agent my luggage claim check which states I am passing through to the US as my means to prove my intent. I simply scoffed at the agents attempt to say “e-ticket”, pushing the claim check back in his hand. He gave up and waved me off to the metal detector. My Lovely Wife was not so lucky, as I had wisely purloined the check earlier in anticipation of just such a need. I went through the detector and she was held up behind with no proof of her destination. Sensing that I had a significant decision to make, perhaps life-altering, I handed my claim check to the guard and told him we were together. After clearing the situation with his supervisor, he allowed My Lovely Wife to pass.

The last time we were here we had passed on an opportunity to have a bite at a quaint little patisserie here on the food court - truly authentic right down to the trays and the tongs and the Asian Rap music blaring from the ceiling speakers. My Lovely Wife cringed, I ignored, another example of the superior capability of men to take things, important things, in stride. The score was clearly tipping in my favor following all the points I lost back in Dalian when I threw myself down and pounded my fists on the cold floor.

We wandered around for a bit in a fruitless search for a candy bar and ended back at the same place where we stocked up on some snacks for the plane. While they do feed you well in Business Class, there are occasional gaps in the gravy train that need to be filled with Dove bars. Unable to find those, I settled for Lindt.

Another hot day out in the streets

Last night we decided to go out for a romantic dinner at Barolo, a nice little restaurant in the hills overlooking the city. I have been there a few times in the past, the last visit being notable as the cab driver could not locate it. A couple of blogs ago I told the tale of having to marshal my best Chinese in order to recover from our lost condition. As it turned out, lightning does strike twice.

We stepped out into the humid evening to get a cab, but for some reason there was no doorman. I stood and looked and waited and he just wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Very strange, considering the bustle that is normal for the main entrance. Eventually he appeared from a dark spot down by the main street. Seeing us, he summoned a cab up from the queue. I had two cards, one from the restaurant itself and one from a binder full of locations provided by our relocation company. I didn’t like the restaurant card because it seemed to lack the complete address in comparison to the other. The first cabbie took one look, shook his head and drove off. The doorman told me he didn’t know where the place was. A tiny light bulb went off. While working this out, a few of my friends from work showed up and we got talking about places to eat. I gave my restaurant card to one of them, a decision that would end up being propitious.

The second cabbie was more willing, but it was clear that he was not that confident either. I told the doorman to tell him that if he could not find it, to just bring us back here and he did so. I knew we were in for an adventure when he headed off down the road in the wrong direction.

After a few blocks of that, I told him the place was off to the left. Now I don’t know precisely where everything is, but I always have a good sense of their general location and it was clear we were not heading there. He brushed me off and when we reached the first traffic rotary he did take the correct road out. Okay, so we’re just taking a circuitous path, never a problem in a country where the average taxi ride costs $3.

We drove along for a while, past places I recognized and past some that were new to me. But we were heading more or less the correct way so no panic was involved. At least not yet. After a few minutes of this, he pulled up in front of a brightly lit, fancy restaurant and pointed to it. Nice place, the problem being that it wasn’t the correct place. He called the valet over (is this starting to sound familiar?) and asked for help. The valet made a few motions and sent us on our way. Now we were cooking.

Five or so minutes later we pulled up in front of a second, brightly lit, fancy restaurant. Nice place, but again not the one we wanted; the irony being that this was the restaurant the cabbie brought us to when we were lost back in August. I guess the approach all these guys use is to just drive around in the general neighborhood and hope that we’ll find some place we want to go.

He motioned, I said “no” and took over the navigation, telling him to head down the road, vaguely recalling how I solved this problem the last time.

We went through a light and ended up in a dead end which I recognized as the back side of the Botanical Gardens. We were so, so close. I asked him to go back and take a left at the next light. Now we were heading in the correct direction, but still on the wrong side of the hill. He told me that nothing was up ahead and so we turned around into the parking lot of yet another brightly lit, fancy restaurant and asked yet another valet for help. This guy looked at the card and in the oddest high pitched voice more or less told us which was to go. So back down the road we went, and again I was recalling a bit of the puzzle.

At the next street I told him to take a right, recognizing not only the street name but a Chinese antiques store I had found back in April on one of my treks. We were almost there.

Around the corner and 50 yards up the road, we had found it.

Dinner was very nice, My Lovely Wife having Penne with Salmon while I dined on chicken in a white mushroom sauce. For grins I asked the waiter if the address on the card I had was correct and he confirmed that it was close, but not as accurate as the new business cards that he had (like the one I gave away.) He also told me that the taxi drivers at night had no idea where anything was, save the most prominent locations. Apparently the taxi companies put two people a day into their cars, the day shift being run by Dalian residents and the night time given over to men from Lushun and Jinzhou, two regional cities. He excused himself for a moment and came back with two business cards. Turning them over, he showed me a map, at which point the full impact of my earlier decision to divest myself of the “good” car became apparent. Ah well, had we had a map, we never would have had that adventure.

Finishing dinner, we made our way to the door and the waiter asked us to return to our table to wait for the taxi he had called for us. A few minutes later it showed up and we headed out. As we entered the car, the waiter joked that this driver knew his way to the restaurant. Down the hill we went and to the hotel, no additional navigation required.

Today was my health check, a requirement to obtain an employment license in China. I was met in the lobby by two representatives from the firm that conducts the immigration process for those of us relocating here over the next year.

As it turned out, the health clinic was just a block or so down the street so we took the short walk dodging the morning traffic and workers walking to their jobs in one of the many skyscrapers that line Renmin Lu.

We crossed the street and one of the girls took my arm to guide me out of the way of a car approaching along the arc of a left turn. I laughed and told her this was my 14th trip to China and was thus, quite familiar with getting across the street. It was a nice gesture though, saving the foreigner from impending doom.

Entering the building we encountered a young man who yelled at one of my companions about signing the guest book. We took the elevator up to the 10th floor and back 50 years in time.

The clinic was such a shock to me, bringing back my recollection of medicine in the US from my early childhood. The clinics we visit today are so clean, precise, bright and well-decorated, that those of us “of an age” have almost certainly forgotten what medicine was like in the 1950s. Well here it was and it looked like a Hollywood representation of a clinic in Uganda. Not scary or dirty or unsafe, simply old and shopworn and from a place that time had passed by.

I filled out a half-dozen forms chuckling at the size of the box provided for my name. Although bilingual, clearly these were designed for people whose names consist of two or three characters. I squeezed my ample appellation into these tiny boxes and my pals pasted my passport photos to each form and once done. I told them I was a handsome guy and they giggled profusely. Once done, they ushered me off to the first stop, the EKG room.

I was told to lie down on a bed covered with a clear, hard vinyl slip cover. The nurse motioned for me to lift my shirt and when I did so, my handlers again started giggling and rushed out of the room. The nurse took electrodes down from a rack on the wall and attached to my chest, wrists and ankles. Then she disappeared behind me and started the recorder. Thirty seconds later it was over and as she reviewed the data, I asked “Hao, bu hao?” - good or bad - and she smiled and said, “Hao.”

Next up was a blood pressure check using the same machine we use at the supermarket. There was some difficultly in getting me properly positioned - not to close and not too far – before the nurse would start the machine. I finally got it and sat there while it delivered results that were quite disappointing to me, but not unlike what I normally get when I have it checked at home. That done, she asked me to raise my shirt and once again my pals giggled loudly and rushed out of the room.

The eye check was simple, instead of individual letters you are asked to point the direction that an “E” is facing. I did okay, limited by the fact that I didn’t have my glasses.

From there to the X-ray room for a chest check. The room was old and precisely like what I recall from my youth. The technician put me up against the screen and gave me a lead apron to hold below my waist, down my back. He took the shot and told me that we were done, something that I guess I misunderstood since he had to say it again. Trying to figure out how to dispose of the lead apron proved challenging, given that I was holding it with my hands in a very backwards, awkward manner. I managed to do it without falling down.

The ultrasound room was busy so we went on to the blood sampling. The nurse pushed the needle in my arm and asked me if I “had any distress.” I answered in the negative and she responded that I “may as well sing a song”, so I did, giving my best rendition of Yi Ge Lao Hu, that Chinese children’s song about a tiger missing an ear that is set to the tune of Frère Jacques. She apparently didn’t find this amusing as she corrected me insisting that it was “liang ge lao hu”, two tigers, not “yi ge lao hu” as I was singing. I told her that was the first verse and she finally agreed, handing me a cup and a plastic test tube for the urine sample. This combination confused me, because the tube was very small and she pantomimed fill the big one and pour it in the little one.

We sat in the queue for the ultrasound, cutting line in front of an elderly gentleman who was there before me. I guess this makes up for all the people that have walked up and cut in front of me at the ATM machine. This check was pretty cursory and the technician did not find it amusing when I asked if it was good or bad.

Down on floor to the urine check where I was deposited in a little foyer with four doors, one marked “boys” and three marked “girls.” The boy’s room was busy judging from the shadows I saw moving back and forth in front of the frosted glass panel in the door. I waited a bit and finally it opened – four young men walked out, each staring me in the eye and saying, “Ni hao.”

I went in and tried to lock the door and failing that got down to the business at hand figuring I would be joined at any moment. Above the urinal was a cartoon of a boy pig opening up the blanket he had around his backside in the direction of a bushing girl pig. The caption read “Sex is fun, just be careful.” I quickly fulfilled my mission and went outside where a nurse pointed at a hole in a tray using a chopstick.

We were done, so I bid my farewells to my giggling associates and went back to the hotel. Total time – 45 minutes versus the 2 hours I was told to expect.

This being our last day we decided to visit the clothing market and so we gathered our gear and went for a walk. Today was our first genuinely clear day but the trade was heat for humidity. We passed the Banana Leaf restaurant and stopped to collect some business cards and a few photographs for our friends back in Rio Rancho at the New Mexico version of the restaurant with the same name.

Arriving at the clothing market we chose first to wander through the street food stalls taking in the sights and the smells. People were having an early lunch, sitting on buckets eating kabobs of squid, chicken and other less identifiable meats. The fruit selection was incredible with the largest peaches and grapes I have ever seen.

We had a specific goal in the clothing market but it was not to be, the quality in this place being just below what we were looking for. We stopped by a great little shop that offered Chinese goods – decorations, souvenirs – and picked up a few gifts. The place had so many bright red items hanging overhead that it was a bit hard on the eyes.

Tiring of the crowding and the heat, we decided to head out for the walk down to the other shopping area. It was a long hot walk but the sights were interesting and we stayed to the shady side of the street which made it bearable. We wandered through the Carrefour supermarket just for fun and moved along. At one intersection, a hundred or so primary school children in little blue and white sailor suits rushed across the street on their way to somewhere. Their laughing and the clopping of their shoes as they ran through the traffic were amusing.

As we neared our destination, we ran into our relocation agent, Maria walking along the street with a friend. How odd was that, in a city of 6 million to run into the single person you know?

Starbucks and an iced coffee got us back on track and the stroll we took through the shopping mall helped too. We had one last goal – a few more gifts – and so we headed back across the hot square into a short cut through a completely mobbed shopping mall and back to the street market where I haggled a bit and purchased our goods.

A cab presented itself; we came back to the hotel, complained that our room had not been cleaned and went instead up to the penthouse for a couple of cool drinks and an afternoon of relaxation.

Tomorrow we head back, so the next entry will be from whatever place between here and there that provides a decent wireless connection. Most likely the lounge in Seoul.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

A bit of work and a bit of fun

Saturday was house hunting day in preparation for my scheduled move in November. We had a long list of stops and so we rolled out of the Shangri La at 9:00 with Maria, our handler and her driver.

Like every other day here it was threatening to be sunny but coming up short due to the haze. The daily color of the sky in Dalian makes me wonder how they get those glorious blue skies that serve as a background in every promotional video and photography layout. Either it’s a whole load of Photoshop or they have video crews on 24 hour standby whenever it happens to be clear. Probably a combination of both.

Based on the commute time, I narrowed my hunting zone to within 20 or so minutes of work. A long time ago I lived on Long Island and I spent at least 1 hour twice a day commuting. I swore I would never do it again, and since that time (more than 20 years) I haven’t. In my business it pays to be close, because sometimes the call comes at 1 AM and it pays to be close to work.

I won’t go too far into the details other than to say that it is a strange experience to be apartment hunting after so many years of living in my own home. The last time I wandered through rentals with a long stay in mind was college; it was slightly displacing to be doing it again. Certainly wandering through a place while the current tenants, the landlord and the rental agent follow you is not something you’re used to. At least I wasn’t.

The floor plans are pretty much western, we didn’t find any strange combinations of rooms and hallways, but just about every place was furnished or provisioned in some strange way. For example, one development constructed by a Spanish firm had a 30 foot tall elephant with a golden pyramid on its back as a piece of lawn art. That didn’t register with me until I saw the Salvador Dali paintings decorating the hallways leading to the elevators. Right, Spain – Dali – Apartment Complex – China, got it.

One brand new apartment had a nice little modern galley kitchen with no refrigerator, at least not one in the place where it belonged. The landlord in an attempt to attract higher-end customers had bought a massive side by side and lacking a place to put it, went ahead and dropped it in the corner of the dining room. Another apartment, the one with tenants was furnished with the most gargantuan baroque furniture, bigger than anything I had ever seen. It was so big you might have had to plan on rappelling up and down from the seating surface. The wood was black and the coverings deep, red damask, a color that played well against the gold swirl brocade wallpaper. I thanked the residents profusely for their hospitality. One last stop at this particular location was a trip to a Barbie Dream House, all done in whites and pinks and blues with swans and butterflies and unicorns filling out the motif. It was as though anyone’s 10 year old daughter had been given a home with an unlimited decoration budget and sent out to the local Disney Furniture Store and told to “go wild.” The place was quite nice, but getting beyond the glitz was challenging and made my eyes hurt.

Taking a break in the middle of the day, we asked Maria to take us to whatever restaurant she would like, preferably something local but not to spicy in deference to My Lovely Wife’s food preference. She chose a famous seafood restaurant off the beaten path in Kai Fa Qu.

The front of the place was done in a Chinese interpretation of Pirates of the Caribbean. A façade of logs, cannons and lions decorated the front, all wrapped in red bows to keep out the Devil Wind. Dumplings were the specialty but we were first shown to a room with 12x18” photographs of the dishes decorating two of the four walls. No one seemed to know what the food in the pictures were, including the very disinterested waitress who was paying more attention to yelling at her peers and looking at us with lightly disguised disgust. When asked for something mild, she recommended “deer meat” and when questioned what the story might be with that food stuff, we got a blank stare. I finally took charge and pointed at three and we were shown to a table.

Once there we were asked to order some dumplings (pot stickers) and deer meat was once again offered. We decided to throw caution to the wind and just go native, if only for a moment or two. The steamed version was ordered.

The first dish came, slices of pork in a clay pot covered with chopped scallions and a rich, clear broth - it was excellent. The second dish arrived and I would characterize it as “interesting.” In my effort to find a vegetable option, we had ended up with a stir fry of slices of tiny cucumber and some sort of local mushroom, one not unlike a gelatinous shitake. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t that great either. The dumplings finally arrived and they were grand - tender, juicy and very, very savory. Clearly this place knew its way around deer meat. Being sick of bottled water, we had ordered tea with our lunch and it was good if not boiling hot. But unlike every Chinese restaurant I had ever eaten in, the tea pot was not left on the table. Maria explained that in China, the waiters like to fill your cup when needed in a show of attention and respect. And that would be all fine and good if the vessels were not the size of demitasse espresso cups and if the waiter actually bothered to come around and check on whether that little cup was full or not.

The bill was a bit of a challenge too, Maria was required to pay her half so we had to get it split. She disappeared for a bit and while gone one of the waiters came by and started talking to me in Chinese. I explained that I didn’t speak it, and he pretty much stood there staring at me. I stared back, figuring I would wait him out. He smiled, I smiled. Maria came back and rescued me. On the way out I told My Lovely Wife that this had been an excellent choice and someone at a table we passed said, in perfect English, “This is an excellent choice.” I’m not sure what that was about.

We called it a day shortly after that having visited 8 or 10 spots. At some point, you just can’t look any more.

Today was Sunday and so our chance to go out and see the sights a bit. It was also a major wedding day judging from the vast number of red arches in front of the major hotels and the countless car caravans decorated with bunches of red flowers driving around town. One thing I’d not seen before – the bride and groom sitting up on the back of the car being led by an SUV with a video crew recording their day of joy. At one hotel we happened by when the fireworks were set off, covering the path into the restaurant with multi-colored confetti made from rolls of paper. The happy couple stepped out of a white stretch Lincoln and stopped at the entrance to stomp on balloons. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the number of weddings was the traffic they generated – the processions tied it up all the way from our hotel to Xinghai Square, our destination.

Overlooking the sea, Xinghai is a major stop for sightseers here in town. A large traffic circle with gardens and a tall stone totem pole, it is surrounded with large statues made of metal mesh that depict the various Olympic sports. On the edge, carriages with tired and in most cases lame horses wait for customers. A strange stone building that looked like a skateboard park invited visitors to fall off the back to their sure deaths below. People posed by bronze statues for family pictures and the rides at the two local amusement parks whirled around and around.

My target for the day was the Dalian Shell Museum, a place I had visited two year prior and one I figured that My Lovely Wife would like. It is located in a giant castle on the side of a hill overlooking the ocean. I’d heard that the castle was a failed luxury hotel, but I’m not sure if that tale is apocryphal. Whatever its origin, it was a strange thing to see.

We climbed the very steep driveway up to the entrance, hoping to benefit from the expected air conditioning and only to be disappointed when the cooling was more like a basement in the Northeastern US than the luxury hotel it was supposed to be. I was sweating like a sailor; My Lovely Wife glowed, as only women can do.

The Museum is a great place, with more examples of shells than you can imagine. We wandered from case to case marveling at nature’s crazy design schemes and picking out specimens that we had seen or collected in the past.

The trip down the hill was far easier than the one up and we headed back towards the main square to find a cab. Along the way we passed a couple of women with a big dog, one that looked like a cross between a Bernese Mountain Dog and a Newfoundland. I offered my admiration in Chinese and the owner gave me a thumb’s up and a big smile.

Walking along we passed couples who would stop and in many cases turn and watch us go by, again gawking at My Lovely Wife due to her height and blondness. Once while sitting a young woman came so close it was as though she wanted to put her face in My Lovely Wife’s blonde locks. It’s strange being this kind of center of attention, not disconcerting, just odd. Perhaps they think she’s a Russian.

We caught a cab and I tried to tell the driver where to go. He laughed at me so I showed him the card and he smiled. I asked him if my Chinese was bad, he smiled again and gave me a thumb’s up. Everyone seems to be giving me a thumb’s up today.

We stopped at Olympic Square and negotiated with a Moon Cake vendor. Today was apparently THE DAY for Moon Cake, at least according to Maria. All over town people could be seen with the maroon and gold bags that are provided for Moon Cake shoppers. I continued my quest to understand Moon Cake in the car with Maria yesterday. Like everyone else, Maria said she didn’t like it. I asked her where they go, and she told me people just save them, and that one can generally find last year’s Moon Cake in almost everyone’s house. All across China, Moon Cakes are changing hands, destined to be stored in closets for all eternity.

Wearing out from the heat and the humidity and the stench of sewage flowing across the square, we stopped in Starbucks to have a cold drink and to allow the air conditioning to dry out my soaked shirt. Having finally had enough, we decided it was time to head back to the hotel, just to have a break from the air and the city. But I did want to find the electronics mart that I knew was nearby so we went back out into the street and I found a guy to ask. Leave it to me, I found the only hearing-impaired guy sitting on a stoop in a city of 6 million and asked him. He shook his head, I showed him a card with the characters, and he nodded and pointed the way. I thanked him and went on to find that the directions were wrong. That was pretty much the last straw so we caught a cab and I had a nice chat in Chinese with the driver until he pushed my vocabulary to its limit and I was reduced to “I don’t understand, my Chinese stinks.”

I guess I need a bit more vocabulary.













Friday, September 05, 2008

Doing the Day in Dalian

We had a very long layover in Seoul – about 6 hours – and spent it mostly sitting around waiting for it to end. Since we had no boarding pass for our flight to China, we had to find the Transfer Desk and did so near Gate 114 in the International Terminal. I decided to go and check about getting the tickets, knowing full well that we would have to come back as they always have specific check-in periods, generally about 2 hours before departure. This varies from the standard US approach of being able to check in whenever you happen to show up at the airport.

I asked the young woman who happened to have a big pink puffy thing on the back of her head, sort of like a bedroom slipper, what time we could get our pass. She asked our names and when I gave them she smiled and said, “Oh, you must be from New Mexico.” I was so stunned by that response that I made her show me the piece of paper she was holding and sure enough there were our names and our original departure gates. I’m not often rendered speechless, but I was at that moment. She told us to come back at 7:30 so we went off and got a cup of coffee to wait it out.

The gate area was pretty much empty when we arrived and they boarded us about 30 minutes before departure. I was figuring on a half-empty flight, but people kept showing up in dribs and drabs and while it was far from full, there were far more people than I would have predicted. Like the last time I did this run, it looked to me like the bulk of these travelers were Chinese from Dalian who fly over just for the Duty Free shopping. I wonder how many of them ever leave the airport.

I was getting anxious to leave when one of the gate agents came on board and asked me my name. She did the same of My Lovely Wife and seemed satisfied with our answers. She thanked us and went back out the door. Ten minutes later she came back and asked us for our passports and our boarding passes. We wondered if this had anything to do with the two gentlemen who had the other seats in My Lovely Wife’s row, a confusion that was punctuated by the guy who was not supposed to be sitting there who told them to go sit somewhere else. Even wanting to avoid a confrontation, the flight attendant took them off to other seats.

The gate agent who asked for our passports looked them over and finally came to the conclusion that everything was okay. The confusion was caused by the fact that the girl at the Transfer Desk had printed both of the boarding passes with the name of My Lovely Wife. Interesting that they even caught that at all, and I guess due to the fact that the Transfer Desk girl had been more interested in the fact that my visa was expiring in two days than bothering to print out the correct names. Ah well, no consequences and another mini-adventure.

The plane left on time and we were surprised to get a meal on such a late and short flight. Sushi and a fruit plate were not terribly attractive to either of us at that late hour, but it must have been good as the people in my row ate everything but the box. I drank my warm Coke and read The New Yorker.

The plane landed, we rode the bus to the terminal, made it through immigration (the agent there caring far less about my expiring visa) retrieved the luggage and met our handlers from the relocation company. A quick drive into town followed by check-in and then off to bed, the weight of 29 hours of traveling finally took its toll.

We got out of bed, had a nice breakfast in the penthouse and met our relocation contact in the lobby. The goal for today was a drive around town to show us the wonders of living in Dalian. I don’t have a lot to offer since I have covered most of these places at one time or another in previous blogs. This being My Lovely Wife’s first trip though, it was fun to discuss all the regular stuff with someone having fresh eyes.

A few little things of note like the Chinese woman who about spit out her coffee in Starbucks when I greeted the barista in her native tongue and the Spicy Shrimp flavored Pringles at the Metro store where I attempted to get a membership card but failed since they had none to give - the impending Moon Festival had caused a rush on memberships. Those and the nice lunch we had in Kai Fa Qu where we were greeted by Sabrina, the new manager of the restaurant who told us that we looked like we belonged together. The tape loop in Sabrina's restaurant was a riot - The Carpenters, The Eagles, Elvis, Puff the Magic Dragon, Blowing in the Wind and Save the Last Waltz for Me (an old favorite of my Mom's) made the lunchtime atmosphere a bit on the nostalgic-odd side. A trip to the bank to open a local account for me was very entertaining between the requirement that I sign the forms with a signature that could actually be read to the interesting discussion we had about the proper order of western names (given-middle-surname vs. the Chinese method of surname-given) to the other requirement that I use my middle name as it appeared on my passport. How I will use this account is still confusing to me, and the offer of the bank to call me when transfers are posted was very perplexing.


We covered all the sights and made it back to the hotel after a nice long commute in rush hour traffic. The GPS I mentioned in my last blog about shopping in Shanghai provided some in-car entertainment to me. While I've been here many times it was interesting to see our progress on an actual map. Dinner was skipped due to the giant lunch Sabrina had sold us and we closed the day with a walk down to the market for a short visit to the underground shopping city and a little friendly haggling (in my perfect Chinese) with a street vendor over some souvenirs. On the walk home we stopped to look in the window of a local restaurant where four women in Red Army uniforms were doing a cabaret act composed of what appeared to be patriotic military songs. They were waving flags and marching in place and singing quite loudly. Given the location, I don't think it was genuinely military, instead more like dinner theater. What was funnier though was the attention we drew from the diners who turned their attention away from the show to point and giggle at us, standing out in the street. I waved at them and they laughed and waved back. A second time for me in this spot, the last being in April when a family at Sunday dinner also laughed at me when I went by in the pouring rain. Westerners are not uncommon, but they're still worth looking at and worth a chuckle apparently. And judging from the number of gawking women I saw tonight, a 6 foot blonde western woman is doubly interesting.

For me, just another day in the Middle Kingdom, for My Lovely Wife, an actual exposure to how I spend my time on this side of the world.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

On our way to Seoul

This was the second time I have taken the Seoul route instead of my regular path via Shanghai. And based on my recent experience with the normal way of getting to Dalian, I was hoping to break my string of delays and cancellations. I did, with an on-time departure flashing in the face of the oh, too regular update on the departure board of “US857 to Shanghai – Delayed.”

This was my first time in Economy Plus in many, many trips and I had forgotten just what you give up by not flying in Business. Actually, while the difference in service levels is huge, the way you feel getting off a 12 hour flight is not so much better than it makes the expense of the better class worthwhile. I like it, but it’s not a life changer. The Business cabin offers one thing in addition to more room and better food, and that is serenity. The regular cabin is just so much more noisy and busy.

We had a 2 seat aisle all to ourselves which was nice, as it meant we had complete control of all the comings and goings. For me, this is a key element in an enjoyable travel experience; not being trapped behind other fliers and not having trapped travelers constantly asking to get out is simply very nice. The aisle seat across from me was open and we debated whether I should stake it our early, an act of territoriality that would guarantee our mutual ability to really stretch out underway. While wracked with indecision, the little Grandma sitting behind me beat me to the punch and moved in there, putting an end to any expansionist aims I might have entertained. But she paid the price of embarrassment when at the very last instant – while they were about to close the doors – the owner of the seat showed up and thus Grandma was told to return to her original seat. I’m glad I was spared that mortification.

The new passenger though was a mom traveling with the most contrary baby I have ever encountered. We knew we were in for trouble when the tyke shot the flight attendant helping to seat her a look that was so steeped in rancor that it really belonged on a 57 year old man. And then she started screaming, an activity that continued off and on for the entire 11 hours despite mom pouring Baby Benadryl down her throat. Perhaps an infant IV would have been more effective. This kid was interesting, she wasn’t screaming due to frustration or distress; she screamed in short little bursts that really had nothing to do with any discomfort or external stimuli. She screamed to hear herself scream. And she also growled, which I found very interesting.

We got up in the air and on our way and settled in for the haul. My Lovely Wife was vexed with an inoperable reading light and ear buds, paving the way for my next excoriating survey for my friends at United. We worked around that well enough, watched some movies, had some cat naps and were both violently awakened by the overpowering stench of bathroom cleaner. It was as though the blue stuff from the toilet tanks was flowing down the aisle and it was so bad that the only thing I could come up with was that United was now piping air freshener into the cabin to overcome the funk of the riders. It would come in waves and then dissipate, only to flow again in a few minutes. I held on to that theory until I asked an attendant and she denied it but agreed with me that someone in the vicinity was using some product. It’s possible I suppose that someone had one of those jars of stinky crystals found in bathrooms across Middle America, but to what end. I noticed that the people in the rows nearby pricked up their ears while I was asking the crew, and believe it or not, it did diminish after that.

We had our Ramen break about mid-flight, something I genuinely look forward to on these flights. My Lovely Wife was not so moved, stating that this was the first time she had eaten it since college, and during those intervening years had never felt moved to break that hiatus.

Arriving on time we finessed our way through checkpoints requiring boarding passes (which we did not have) and wandered around checking the goods in the fancy boutiques before settling in the fanciest Star Alliance lounge I have ever visited. And so we sit, waiting for the next hop over to the mainland and our next adventure, house hunting in China.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

So here's a Blog for my Baby, and one more for the road

This is the first time I've taken the long haul with my lovely wife, and the differences are immediately noticeable.

First of all, it's never a nice thing to get up at 4 AM for that 6 AM flight, get ready and drive off into the dark by yourself. It just feels lonely. Having someone else is the car is so much nicer even though it means you have caused them the extreme penalty of getting up after 3 hours of sleep.

Secondly, that sense of bleak desolation you get by showing up at the neon light airport and communing with the other zombies is far less pronounced. In fact, I didn't feel bleakly desolate at all. We got there, I got to stand by while my lovely wife and the gate agent made fun of the condition of my passport, we went through security and then spent the remaining 45 minutes people watching as only an old married couple can do. People watching with the boys is not the same.

Our flight over was the same as it ever is on the little Barbie Jet, so much so that I wonder if anything ever changes on that flight. It's much nicer when there is a First Class seat waiting for me, but lately they haven't had one and so it was back among the people. No Bloody Mary swilling hillbillies this time though, just some guy eating a stinky hot dog with onions. And no one wearing latex gloves like the woman in front of me on this flight last week

Another nice item from the day is showing my lovely wife the finer side of international travel including a stop at Peet's for scalding coffee and relaxing in the lounge while the rest of the people press their noses against the frosted glass hoping for a peak at how we, the other half, live. I think she's impressed, but it's hard to tell.

Most importantly though is her ability to damp my normally uptempo travel style, something no one else can do. I'm so relaxed that I'm barely awake, even after 5 Diet Cokes and a Grande Americano. None of my regular traveling pals could ever bring me to that level of zen-like peace merely with their presence. I suppose she could conduct a seminar, but I doubt her calming influence would translate - you either have it or you don't.