Monday, September 08, 2008

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.

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