Sunday, December 27, 2009

In Jimena's Wake

The National Audubon Christmas Bird Count has been conducted year every since 1900 and we’ve been covering San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico without interruption since 1993. Our December vacation on the beach has always been loosely based on the count with a lot of time dedicated to wandering around the environs looking for birds. And the area provides some interesting ones, species that are local and a whole host of visitors that has traveled from the Arctic and my back yard. Each fall, western North America is abandoned in favor of a little time down by the ocean where the temperatures are mild and the food supply less marginal. There are even some that “reverse migrate”, leaving homes in the rainforests of Panama to spend the winter where the Sonoran Desert falls into the ocean.

We’ve seen a lot of changes over the years – from the first count where Isla Blanca, a mile off shore, would start bare close to sunset and end up covered from one end to the other with a standing room only party of Brown Pelicans and Cormorants – to the recent counts, bereft of the thousands of Eared Grebes we used to see, all lost to Avian Cholera outbreaks far to the north on Mono Lake and the Salton Sea. While the CBC as it’s known has never been “scientific”, it has always provided insight into what’s really going on in the environment from the northernmost count at Point Barrow Alaska to the handful of counts that are held in southern Central America. And in our experience the patterns are not good – no longer does Isla Blanca fill up nightly and the thousands of Boobies that once plied the waters along Bahia San Francisco have either disappeared or moved on to more productive climes. Across the board, the birds have disappeared in our short time with them and it doesn’t take a statistician to draw that conclusion.

A couple of days on the beach forces you into a new pattern – breakfast on the seawall and a cursory count of the loons followed by a trip to town for a cup of coffee followed by a drive here and there to see what birds might be hanging around and whatever changes might have been made. Sometime breakfast starts at Rosa’s, our favorite place. Carne Machaca, tortillas and a Pepsi. Sometimes the trip to town is later, around ice cream bar time. But despite the minor changes, the days pretty much fall into the same routine. And sometimes a routine is a wonderful thing to fall into.

This year the place showed a lot changes due to Hurricane Jimena which rolled into town back in November. We were told that it had rained non-stop for 38 hours and the effects were obvious. The bridge on the main road was out forcing a paved detour through the desert for a mile or two. On the far side of that diversion the road had been damaged by water that had built up on the barren slopes of the stony mountains that surround the town and then rolled down the main arroyo in the area, scouring everything in its way. One of our more romantic stops – the San Carlos Sewage Ponds - was at first glance unaltered, but a walk down the levee in search of Least Grebes brought us to an amazing sight – one entire wall of the impoundment was gone which meant that years of sewage sediments had washed down the channel to the sea during the deluge.

Nacapule Canyon is one of our regular stops as it often provides us with some truly unusual birds. For years we had our favorite canyon just beyond town and far more accessible than Nacapule but over the course of the last decade it had been filled with construction debris and so has been degraded as a habitat. So much so that while we still drive in, we rarely bother to spend any time. A couple of years ago we met a fellow from Washington who was down for a week and he spent some time in Nacapule birding in earnest. His birds – Trogons, Orioles and Warblers – made it clear that it was a destination worth the drive, so one morning we went out early and took the road out of town after a fruitless stop at our adopted coffee shop which happened to be closed.

The bridge across the main drainage was gone. Long ago we had taken the traditional dirt road across the stream bed only to find once back up on the sandy pan that this bridge had replaced our accustomed 4-wheel track with a route both paved and shorter. Now we were back to the primitive way, driving slowly by to assess the damage. Blue plastic pipes that once held power and phone lines swung in the air where there had once been half of the span. A six foot diameter conduit had been pulled up and out of the rocks, its end crimped leaving it looking like a giant pastry bag tip. Heading out on the marked road we were slowed significantly by a constant series of small arroyos that cut diagonally through the dirt track forcing us to creep along at 10 or 12 miles per hour. Eventually we saw the canyon walls off to our left and we took the last dirt track heading towards our goal.

We had to cross the main channel one more time before heading up a small hill to the small parking lot. The destruction here was even more vivid – the walls of the stream were stripped of vegetation and now perfectly vertical to the stream bed which was littered with downed trees and boulders. A new road had been cut through and the climb out was easy. We parked the car and walked down the trail at the mouth.

The trail here was completely new and perhaps 10 feet below the surface that we had walked on in previous years. Like the channel below, the canyon was littered with broken palms, uprooted bushes and countless new boulders. The old path which once wound its way along the canyon walls was simply gone, remaining only in a few places where bigger rock forms had provided protection for the land downstream. In short, Nacapule looked nothing like it had before. An hour or so up the trail we found the old palm grove that once served as the crossroads for hikers planning on climbing up and over the mountains. Today, while still a small oasis among the red granite, the paths leading off to the other three cardinal points were simply disappeared beneath tons of rock and displaced vegetation. Unable to go further, we headed back down to the car, stopping to pick out some birds here and there.

On the way in we had crossed a second road, newly bladed and heading back in the general direction of town. I’d decided when we crossed it that we’d try it on the way back, one of the best things about vacation being a complete lack of schedule. And so when we came to it we took an angular right turn and headed back. For a dirt road it was pretty well tended and we were able to get up a good head of speed. A short time into the drive we found ourselves back at the wrecked bridge – the new road cut off across the desert in parallel to the road we’d struggled in on. Our thirty minute ride had been reduced to ten.

Monday, December 14, 2009

There is something special about having a machine gun pointed your way

The drive from Albuquerque to Tucson initially follows El Camino Real; the Royal Road of the colonies of Spain that stretched from the Valley of Mexico north to the southern part of what is now Colorado. First traveled in 1598 it extended Spain’s New World holdings far to the north, but unlike the wealth that was generated by Mexico, little came from that expansion. There was nothing to be found then along this route and today there is little more than Indian casinos, alfalfa farms, half empty reservoirs and a stark beauty that truly reaches its pinnacle in slanted winter light.

Food is a big part of every trip I take. On planes it boils down to the class I’m sitting in; Business is a nice filet mignon and Economy is a sad little salty pile of chicken and noodles. In our car though we have mastered the art of eating on the go, and this is in no small part due to the fact that My Lovely Wife also carries the appellation of Sandwich Queen. We even have a food preparation kit in the door of our car – cutting board, cheese spreader, sharp knife and napkins. Each trip includes a stop at a store for sandwich fixings; today it was Prosciutto, Swiss and Hot Pepper cheeses, cracked pepper turkey, croissants and mayonnaise. Trust me when I tell you that there are few better moments to be had than those behind the wheel, paper plate on your lap staring out the window at gorgeous scenery while stuffing your face with a sophisticated sandwich and getting croissant flakes all over yourself. If there is a heaven, sandwiches and SUV’s must be a part of it. Lunch preparation starts once we get past the last of the traffic at the city limits.

We passed several thousand Snow Geese wheeling above an impoundment near the invisible town of Bernardo. The lower Rio Grande valley is the winter home to many thousands of ducks, geese and Sandhill Cranes in a region that stretches from just north of Albuquerque south to Texas. The highest concentrations can be found at Bosque Del Apache NWR where the legions of waterfowl are mesmerizing as they come in to roost after a day spent foraging on the farms that line the river. Beyond the birds though, the drive just grinds on until you exit the Interstate at Hatch and take a state road cut-off that will deliver you to I-10 at the town of Deming. Hatch is a great little burg, built entirely around the growing and marketing of its famous Chiles. Driving through town you see them hanging in ristras and drying on the tops of the tiny stores along the main street, patches of dark ruby red on an otherwise gray tableau.

We always stop in Tucson mainly to visit with family but also because it provides a nice break that falls just about midway between our home and the beach. The drive could be done in one day, but not the way we do it, getting off at noon and quitting just after dark. Instead it would require a much earlier departure and a lot more driving and neither of us has ever felt it was worthwhile. Not to mention the fact that we’d be sacrificing an excellent dinner and a great visit. Dinner and a bottle of wine put away, we retired to the guest cottage to get some sleep. Sometime after midnight I woke up to a horrible screeching outside the window. I assumed Barn Owl since that is their calling card. But once the screeching ceased, the bird changed its vocals into a “hoo hoo” that you’d expect from a Screech Owl or one of the cousins. I made a note to do some research and went back to sleep once the racket had subsided. In the morning my cousin asked if I had seen the mess it left. Normally Owls leave pellets – little furry balls they regurgitate that contain the indigestible parts of their prey. Skulls, bones and tails. No pellets this morning, rather a whole lot of matter that came out the other end – the patio looked as though someone had kicked over a can of white paint. Vocalizations notwithstanding, only a very big Owl would be capable of leaving us such a calling card. Barn Owl I’m sure.

Off the next morning to our first stop – Green Valley – for a little food shopping among America’s elite retired. They have a great Safeway and we always stop and stock up on the supplies we need for a week of vacation. Green Valley is one of those classic Southwestern retirement towns, although it differs in that it’s a big series of small developments instead of one giant one like the various incarnations of Sun City. It’s a real community with actual citizens and none of them are less than 100. This makes shopping quite interesting because you have to check your attitude at the door and expect to stand around in aisles while little blue-haired ladies berate the store staff for the lack of some product that everyone sold in Akron. From the dedicated golf cart parking to the really long lines for the shot clinic, the Safeway in Green Valley is a short documentary film depicting where we’re all headed.

For the third time in a row I somehow managed to unload our stuff on the belt of an Express Lane and for the third time in a row the checker told me not to worry about it. It’s an interesting error I make, it’s almost as though the collective reduced reasoning function of the ancient clientele somehow infects me. This never happens in my real life, only at the Green Valley Safeway. It might also be that all the lanes are empty and the sign designating “Express” is not very clear. I don’t know, but for some reason I keep making the same mistake year after year. We always compensate by apologizing profusely and bagging our own stuff, something I doubt anyone else does having made the same mistake. Maybe next year I’ll get it right.

Lunch had to be bought a second time as I had managed to forget our supplies from the previous day and our small cooler when we pulled out of Tucson. Didn’t matter – the Capacola I bought was far more appealing than the Prosciutto and the bread was less flaky than the croissants. Sometimes good things spring from blunders. We gassed up across the street from Safeway, having dodged the guy in the Lexus who felt the need to creep across three exit lanes in the parking lot in order to avoid having to wait for me to go by. The gas pump at the Chevron was one of those with a limit - $75 – which meant two separate credit card swipes and a re-iteration of my zip code. Who picked $75 as the limit? If the card is stolen, and the thief happens to know the zip code of the owner, is $75 more palatable than the $87 it took to completely fill my car? Another mystery of modern life to ponder.

We always use the commercial exit in Nogales to cross into Mexico. It’s fast, it’s easy and you don’t have to drive through town. I exited at Mariposa Road and climbed the hill that led up to the border and coming down the other side I was faced with the unexplainable – a back-up of cars leaving the US. Now I am completely accustomed to sitting for untold hours trying to get back into our fair land, but a delay in leaving was a new thing for me. I got in line and waited, trying to discern whether the two sun glassed guards knocking on the windows of the cars were Americans or Mexicans. Neither made any particular sense, why would Americans care why we were leaving? And since when did Mexicans care about us arriving? We poked along until it was our turn for an interrogation and we rolled past without a hitch – they were indeed our fellow countrymen but they didn’t want to talk to us. The reason for the slow down instantly became apparent – a serpentine roadblock of Jersey barriers arrayed in such a way to force you to slalom through at 2 miles per hour. It occurred to me that this might be their response to a recent shoot-out here in Nogales; drug runners trying to drive right though the checkpoint. Well, no one was going to drive right through this bottleneck, and I’ll say it was quite a challenge to simply creep through with my 22 foot long car. After five or so zigzags we were on our way.

A friend of mine asked me the other day if we were worried about the recent violence in Mexico. I’ll admit that I think about it, but it seems pretty abstract and there have not been any problems of note on the roads we take or the cities we visit. It’s a border town thing up north and a Sinaloa thing down south. The region in between has been pretty quiet and in driving along it became apparent why – every intersection on the way out of town was manned by a battalion of Mexican infantry and a host of Federales. They were stopping and questioning every car with Mexican plates, and they waved us right through. Travel in a country where the military is trying to control the roads is an interesting thing – completely and extraordinarily strange for Americans who are lucky to see an Army convoy on an interstate – and quite disconcerting. I’ve never had a 50-caliber machine gun mounted on the back of a black Humvee pointed at me before, and it was instantly obvious that if someone with a load of weed came careening down the road, he was going to open that thing up without a moment’s consideration for everyone else around him. Now that is a sobering thought. We drove on past the sandbag bunkers and soldiers standing around with no particular thing to do.

Getting your car into Mexico used to be a paperwork challenge. The process was created to keep track of cars going in lest they be sold for a profit down in Quintana Roo in a transaction that didn’t involve a cut for the government. Nice thought, but a process that relied on carbon paper and manila folders wasn’t controlling anything of that sort. We used to get a sticker for the car and then peel it off when we got home in spite of the dire stories of Canadians whose credit cards had been charged thousands of dollars in fines for not checking in with the agents on their way out of the country. Over the course of the years the process became more and more simple, and today there is no process for your car as long as you stay within 300 miles of the border. Beyond that I’ve not tested the system. Now you stop, practice your Spanish with the Immigration guys and walk out with a stamped visa. What often took hours now takes minutes.

I’ve been driving in Mexico for almost 20 years now and it’s become pretty easy for me. On my first trip I forced My Lovely Wife behind the wheel – I was simply too scared and unsure of the rules of the road. Now, it’s just another day in the car and compared to the chaos and mayhem I see every day in China, it’s almost boring. 250 miles straight south through the Sonoran Desert, a trip that’s only broken up by a meandering bypass of Hermosillo where the biggest threat are the gang of silly young men at the stop lights who first insist on washing your windshield and failing that stand there banging on your window demanding the money they would have gotten had you let them climb on your hood.

The desert here is even more barren than that in New Mexico and Arizona and only things of interest are the tiny roadside “towns” that have sprung up around a government checkpoint, shrine or crossroad. A Carne Seca stand, a place to have your tires repaired or maybe a Pemex station, nothing to see and no reason to observe the government’s notion that the speed limit on this 4 lane highway should be reduced to 24 miles per hour. You look, you make sure a truck driver is not crossing the road and you barrel on. If there happens to be a speed bump, you do slow down because Mexican speed bumps are fully capable of ripping the bottom off of your car. And besides the Cruz Rosa is usually standing by these hazards collecting money. You give them a few Pesos because in this hard land you never know when those karma points are going to be called in.

As the geography becomes more and more raw and tortured you start to watch for a big mountain dead ahead and a series of volcanoes on your right, the latter being formed as this little piece of the Pacific Plate jammed itself under North America. When these two landforms align you’re almost there, seventy-five miles out of Hermosillo, San Carlos is just up the road. On today’s drive we began to see the devastation of Hurricane Jimena – scoured desert washes, a couple of ruined bridges. The highway itself was reduced to two lanes for a bit as the other side was simply gone. We made the turn off of MX15 and headed towards our landmark – the twin peaks of Tetakawi Mountain and our little home away from home. Another day on the road had come to an end and not at on a cold airport jet way but at the end of a rutted road that led to whitewashed buildings on the beach bathed in late winter tropical warmth and smelling of Bougainvillea.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Travel with 4 wheels on the ground, Part One.

When I was a little boy my father used to take me downtown every August to do a little clothes shopping before school began. His favorite store was called “The National” and it was one of the fancier shopping options in Rochester. It was housed in a big gray stone building that stood on the corner of Main and Stone, just up the block from where my dad held a second job parking cars. I used to love those trips because they generally ended with a hot dog and a chocolate malted from the small café on the first floor of Sibley’s, the pre-eminent department store in town which was across the street and up a block. These were the days when the bigger stores had been in business for generations, owned by families that had begun as “dry good merchants” in the early history of the city. Sibley’s was one of those, but to me it didn’t matter, Sibley’s was all about hot dogs and malts.

At the time stores like The National offered “revolving credit accounts” as the concept of using a piece of plastic to buy something when you had no money had not yet come into being. I suspect that these accounts were a holdover from the old dry goods days, when a person’s word was their bond at least until their tab got too bad and they had to leave town on the Oregon Trail. I never did understand what the “revolving” part of the account was, but that was the name and to a kid like me it just meant you signed a little piece of paper which the clerk then put into a plastic capsule that was in turn placed in a glass pipe charged with vacuum. The capsule went in, the door was closed and your signed piece of paper shot up and away to a dim and dusty room somewhere else in the building where men in striped shirts with arm gators and green visors opened them, took the slips and made little notations in big ledgers - your debt next to your name. I always suspected that they built the system out of glass tubes as a way to drive home the point that you were signing your life away – you could watch your money vanish as the system sucked it out of sight. It must have been a blow to my dad’s soul each and every time that little capsule spun off into the distance knowing that he was living beyond his means just to keep me in chinos and striped shirts. Being a kid though I never saw the darker side, I only saw the capsules fly away and that fascinated the heck out of me.

Those systems still exist, almost exclusively in drive-up banks but sitting in Beijing last week it occurred to me that airline travel is the same thing although on a grander scale. You go to the airport, you get put in a capsule and you get sent off to some other place where the capsule is opened up and you’re picked out. What transpires between departing and arriving is traveling per se, but it is travel whose interesting moments are limited to the seat back jammers, loud frat boys and thugs that smell like cigarette smoke. You don’t see the world in between aside from those idiots that open the sunshades just as you doze off.

Automobile travel is precisely the opposite – you get everything in between in the most minute detail. I suppose that walking offers an even richer experience, but it takes a really long time to walk just about anywhere outside of the mile circle around where you are presently standing. And of course in spite of the diminished quality of your travel experience, planes get you there a lot faster. Although driving to China in the early 21st century seems insane, cars do offer a nice alternative between speed and experience and with that in mind we decided to pack ours and head to Mexico.

We have this big old gas guzzling SUV that we keep around for two purposes. The first is buying really long stuff from Lowes or Home depot like the gutters I bought back in October to replace the ones that our mentally challenged geldings made a toy or over the course of the previous year. The second is to serve as our vessel to the beach – a capsule that can carry a bike, some foldable kayaks, a cooler, suitcases, bedding and whatever else we think we have to have for a week of vacation. Our SUV is like a cargo ship headed in the direction of fun and we bought it two days before just such a trip more than 10 years ago.

Similar to airline traffic cars too can have delays. Just like the 777 I most recently saw at PEK Gate 28, I had one when I pulled off the car-bag, hopped in and turned the ignition only to find my trusty boat dead again. I was surprised by this as it had been working a mere month ago for my gutter run. But I wasn’t terribly surprised since it’s happened before. A couple of years ago we went from battery charger to battery charger throughout our vacation, a hassle that culminated with a trip to Auto Zone in Guaymas, Sonora and the amazing discovery that we could be found in their computer by entering our phone number. How far the arm of technology extends these days. We subsequently found out two things after that trip - first, our wiring harness had rotted out and second that our Sears Diehard was just below the cranking power required to start such a mighty vehicle. I fixed the first and ignored the second.

Reasoning that it was the previous two weeks of subzero temperatures that drained the life from my power source I retrieved My Lovely Wife’s Toyota and gave the boat a jump. It started right up so I left it running for a half hour while I arranged the stuff to go in its cargo hold. Figuring it was charged I turned it off and tried it a second time – success, it came right to life. I turned it off and proceeded to pack.

I suppose that a second place where airline and car travel intersect is the stowing of the baggage. Of course the big difference with your car is that you have to do it. I wonder if everyone had to load their own baggage into the plane if they would pack more responsibly? I certainly do when I have to load my car. I view it as a giant three-dimensional puzzle and make every attempt to use all of the space efficiently and intelligently. I stick the bike tire pump down in the wheel well with the boom box. I tuck the life vests along the windows with the pillows. The bathroom bag goes on top for easy access at our midpoint stop. In the end you have a well laded cargo hold where everything makes the utmost sense until Your Lovely Wife tells you to grab that Christmas package out of the big suitcase which just happens to be serving as the stabilizing platform on which all of your packing relies. In that case you shrug and look for opportunities to do the re-packing even more effectively.

All that done and hugs given we hopped on board and prepared to leave. Turning the key once again I was greeted with that familiar “click click click” which means there is just enough juice for the starter solenoid to laugh in your face - our ship was dead once again. Did this mean another vacation metered by begging for battery jumps from strangers in far flung parking lots? Or had I just killed it a second time from leaving the doors open for 3 hours with the interior lights on? I retrieved the Toyota and jumped it again and got it going again.

A stop at the Post Office to inform them of our absence was followed by a stop at the gas station for refueling. A quick run to Sunflower Market for wine and lunch fixings led to one last diversion to Flying Star for an Iced Americano. At each stop our faithful conveyance started without so much as a sputter. The battery was charging, our stuff was loaded, we had food and coffee and we were on our way.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Always have a back-up route, because sometimes you need to use it.

You can only sit around an airport eating Kit Kats and drinking Cokes for so long before you start going a bit stir crazy. I can do it for a couple of hours, but five or more seems like an eternity. When you’re traveling you begin your day with a pre-conceived notion of how the time will flow – where you’ll be, what your transfers look like and which part of the time block you’ll spend sitting on the plane. In the past it used to be all about what time I arrived. Lately, with the travel I’ve been doing, it’s more about whether I’ll arrive at all.

While airport terminals are very busy places there really isn’t much of anything interesting happening. All the activity and motion that sometimes appears dizzying is really nothing more than people rushing here and there. And aside from that ever enjoyable pastime of analyzing the appearance of one’s fellow travelers, nothing of much interest comes from the movement of people. Unless someone falls down or walks into a pillar or something.

The isolation gets even worse when you spend your time in a lounge because the goal of those places is peace and quiet. Sitting in a lounge is all about snacking, waiting for lunch to show up and complaining about the performance of their wireless connection assuming they even have one. Sometimes you write a blog, or polish off a little work email. Or maybe you play a dozen games of Spider. In the end though you spend most of your time checking your watch and calculating how long it will take you to get to your gate, because you certainly don’t want to give up the lounge climate one second earlier than you have to.

After getting bored with taking photographs of the terminal ceiling – it is an interesting ceiling – I had a look at my watch and decided to have a walk down to the gate. Grabbing one last handful of Kit Kats I made my way down the escalator and across the concourse past all the a-list shops. Not too many people shopping this afternoon, maybe everyone was feeling stingy from being so delayed. Today all the shop girls were wearing what appeared to be some sort of gold uniform overcoat. It didn’t seem so cold on the ground floor, but with the Chinese you never know. Sometimes 75F is cold for them.

Over the course of the last year I have switched my standard route from China to home to the path through Beijing. I used to hate it because in the early, pre-Olympic days of the new airport, flying through here meant an unseemly bus ride from the old airport to this one. And the connections were always too close to spend time on an airport tour bus. But eventually Air China started to have a flight from Dalian that enabled me to catch the midday flight to San Francisco and so I started coming this way. Of course this route has not been without its perils – witness my day of forced tourism back in August. But on average, it has worked out well for me.

United Airlines Flight 888 always leaves from Gate 28 which just happened to be on my way to today’s departure point, Gate 23. Walking by, I saw the plane we should have had parked up within reach of the withdrawn jet way, both cowlings off of its left side engine. I figured that was the reason I was still wandering around here instead of being halfway across the Pacific by now. Later I heard that the plane had hit a bird and that was the cause for our delay. Its presence there got me wondering about what plane we would be departing on.

It was now about 3:45, twenty minutes before the boarding time that the geography-challenged agent had written on my boarding pass. Bad news waited at Gate 23 – there was no plane. Now it’s never good news when you’re scheduled to board in 20 minutes and you’re lacking as basic an ingredient as an aircraft. I asked the agent what was going on and she pointed to the runway and said “The plane is right there, it’s arriving.” It became clear right then and there that we would not be pulling back at 5:00, because they were planning to turn around the jet that normally arrives at 3:40. I’ve been on that flight when it has pulled in a full hour early. Normally it’s in at least 20 minutes before its scheduled arrival. But not today when I was waiting for it; no, today it was arriving 10 minutes late.

After standing around and watching the sun set over a Continental plane that was waiting to board for “somewhere” they started calling us up to the lines by the podium. Normally they board the 3 special classes first and together. Today though they decided to board the two classes higher than mine in advance, a move that simply caused more confusion since they’d lined us up all together. I stepped aside and let the more important people pass and then got on and got settled.

There is a certain class of Business traveler that drives me nuts. They tend to be loud and they tend to be aggressive and they tend to sit scattered around the cabin. They have a habit of standing up in their aisles and yelling across the way to their buddies, in a way that guarantees that everyone knows just how important they are and just how experienced a traveler they might be. The impression I get is that they have somehow managed to maintain this behavior from their time spent in their 3rd rate fraternity at their 2nd rate university. Today I had the great misfortune of being surrounded by them. Eventually though they shut up and sat down, one falling asleep and one crossing paths with me again later in the flight when he turned out additionally to be a Seat Button Jammer – one of those morons that thinks it’s best to just push the recliner button and jam the seat back as fast as possible. About midway home he did that and crushed my foot. Judging from the look on his face he didn’t appreciate the choice words I had for him at the time.

We pulled away from the gate a full 40 minutes later than expected and then proceeded to sit on the runway for an additional 40 while we waited for takeoff clearance. We were finally airborne at 6:20 PM. My Albuquerque connection was surely disappearing and my back-up route – San Francisco to Denver – was now in jeopardy as well.

The flight was like any other aside from the almost fisticuffs with the middle-aged frat boy. I flirted with the flight attendants, had a discussion with a Mexican about the desert agreeing that it was more like Flan than Tiramisu and spent some time watching movies and sleeping. A guy in the row ahead of me woke me up twice by yelling, really loudly, forgetting perhaps that he had sound abating headphones on. Don’t know if he was having a bad dream or yelling at the movie he was watching, but whatever the reason it’s disconcerting when people start yelling in a darkened plane cabin. The pilot did make up some time but we arrived about the time my original connection was leaving and so I was quickly into back-up mode – I needed to clear Immigration and Customs as quickly as possible.

Sometimes when you’re rushed and stressed, everything goes wrong. Once in a great while everything goes right. This particular morning was one of the latter – it was as though I was betting Rouge in Roulette and the ball was falling with every spin of the wheel.

I was past the last Border Patrol check in less than 15 minutes and rounding the corner to the United service desk I found it abandoned aside from 3 agents standing around just waiting to help me out. Boarding pass and a waitlist ticket for 1st Class in hand I tore off to the closest domestic security check and found that line short as well. I had 30 minutes to make a gate at the far end of the airport but things were going my way. After two passes through the metal detector I was on the homestretch and I made the gate with 15 minutes to spare. I boarded the plane with my 1st Class ticket in hand and settled in for the next challenge – making a 35 minute connection in Denver.

I sat and had a nice conversation with the guy in my row that had also been on the Beijing flight. Airplane conversations can sometimes be a bit dangerous, and I deftly avoided commenting on his statements regarding the state of our country and the recent political events. Eventually we went our separate ways by donning our headphones; I spent the rest of the flight watching the Great Basin float by. Another plane passed close beneath us, leaving a puffy contrail and mightily impressing me with how fast it appeared to be going when seen from above.

By now my luck had officially changed, we arrived on time and I was out on the concourse in a flash. I merely had to make my way from Gate 49 to Gate 93 and I had 30 minutes to do so.

I started walking, using the moving walkway whenever it was not clogged by the standing lazy. On and on I went for what seemed to be forever. The signs kept pointing the way ahead but I couldn’t understand how 30 more gates could be beyond the 60’s and when I reached the end of the concourse it was even more perplexing. As I stepped off the walkway, I saw one more sign that pointed a way off to the right. Taking that and heading down an escalator, I found myself in the shame of the Denver Airport – the Barbie Jet Departure Lounge. Apparently tacked onto an otherwise beautiful airport, this place was really little more than a cinder block bus station jammed with people who had nowhere to sit. I guess the little jets are not tall enough to use the rest of the airport and so this little ghetto had to be built to accommodate them. I stood and waited, getting asked to move by some guy who felt the need to walk between me and my luggage as opposed to going around. Go figure.

I was first on board and after stripping all the stuff out of the front pockets of my bag in order to squeeze it into the overhead bin; I plopped down for the ride. Two guys stinking of cigarette smoke sat in front of me, one was so fascinated with the cell phone wrist watch that he’d found in the Sky Mall catalog that he felt compelled to talk about it with the people across the aisle, even offering the page number for easy reference. His pal was going on about a fist fight he’d been in, offering a detailed analysis of the angle in which his fist had met the jaw of his opponent and relating how he was able to steal the guy’s sunglasses when the battle was done. A jovial plus-sized fellow with really short legs sat down next to me absorbing a lot of the space I had paid for but it didn’t matter, I leaned against the wall and dozed off until it was time to leave. The flight attendant literally read the safety and beverage instructions off of a script in “See Dick Run” cadence, making me wonder how she could not have memorized it by now.

We took off on time and hit a burst of air that made the plane violently rock from side to side. My neighbor commented that perhaps the pilots had the same experience level as the flight attendant, I countered that at least she wasn’t driving. All was well until I stretched my legs about the time we were getting ready to land and touched the leg of one of the thugs in front of me. He turned around and accused my neighbor of playing footsies with him; my neighbor responded by pointing out that his legs were too short. I volunteered that I’d done it and apologized, telling him the plane was just too cramped. He took a look at me and laughed, a second fist fight avoided. I guess 29 hours of travel and 10 days without shaving gave me the appearance of someone who was not going to forfeit his sunglasses at the end of the fight. Our little encounter brought to mind a paper I’d read away back in college explaining how violent criminals required more personal space than regular people. Case in point I guess.

In the end my 4+ hour delay in Beijing translated into being exactly 4 hours late arriving in Albuquerque. A good use of time I guess, with layovers being replaced by airport sprints and planes that could actually depart and arrive on time. Once in while you get lucky, once in a while you don’t. Today was my day and I was glad of it.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Sometimes the one you expect to get you, doesn't get you.

I’m think I may have found an even more gut wrenching set of words than the traditional, “We need to talk” that haunts our collective memories. My latest candidate is, “Good morning sir, I am sorry to tell you that your 13:40 flight will now be departing at 17:00. Please read this memo for details.” Couple that with the fact that it’s 9:25 and you’re not traveling alone and I think you’ll agree – my phrase is just as bad if not worse.

All week long I was worried that I was going to have a hard time getting out of Dalian. Our pea soup fog didn’t seem to want to go away and from what I’d heard my first stop, Beijing, was even worse. I had friends who left on Wednesday morning who had to do a diving catch at the airport and divert to Seoul because the Beijing route was closed. So when the temperature dropped 20 degrees and the wind picked up on Wednesday night, I crossed my fingers and hoped that it was a good sign. And it was; Thursday came in and went out with the same weather and when I left my apartment at 6:10 this morning I could even see Jupiter twinkling between the high-rises. I was on my way home - the setting full moon gave me a point to reflect on as we drove to the airport.

There was nothing exceptional about the process in the Dalian airport except for getting shoved out of line by a particularly aggressive grandmother. The sign above our departing gate continued to show the wrong flight right up to the moment they opened the doors – I heard the security guard tell an untrusting passenger that the sign was broken. We rode the bus out to the plane and I found space for all of my stuff – everything was falling into place. I had a nice chat with a fellow from Mexico who was heading home on Air China. I expressed my profound empathy.

We arrived on time in Beijing at the closest gate to international check-in I’d ever had. No long hike, just a shortcut through baggage claim and up the escalator where the bleak news awaited me. “The information is here on this printed sheet sir.” Lots of mumbo jumbo about how sorry they were and how they were treating us to a free lunch and how we’d be entitled to a voucher, the use of which is always suspect. The gate agent tried to offer me an alternative – Beijing to Narita, Japan to Washington, DC to Albuquerque. I declined, figuring I’d rather just go to San Francisco and find my way home from there knowing full well that I could always catch a cab to Oakland and grab a trip home on Southwest. Zigzagging across the polar ice cap seemed to me to be quite a bit of extra work so I took my boarding passes and headed to the lounge where I seem to be spending an inordinate amount of my life these days.

On a whim I took a look at the United web site and discovered that I could almost certainly make a connection to Denver followed by one to Albuquerque a far better option than the around the world jaunt the other agent had tried to give me. I guess the Chinese don’t have a good sense of North American geography. I called the reservations desk and put my name on the back-up list. At least I had somewhat of a solution that didn’t involve Bay Area cabs rides and stops in Las Vegas. I also asked if they would be kind enough to hold the Albuquerque plane if I was close and she simply laughed at me.

So now my life is reduced to Vitamin C-squared – Cokes and candy bars – while I sit here watching the time pass by. Hopefully the plane will be at the gate and ready to go when I head down there. If not, my next short tale will almost certainly be from a hotel in Beijing. Lemonades from lemons, as we seem to say a bit too frequently.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Maybe the difference between a whorehouse and a brothel is nothing more than a little fog and neon?

We seem to be in a foggy weather pattern these past few days. I don’t mind it that much, but it makes the driving a bit scarier and as I get closer to my next trip home it makes my nerves a bit edgy. You see, when I get close I don’t want trivial things like weather to get in my way; I want to go, and the daily closure of the airport and the skein of cancelled flights weren’t putting my mind at ease.

In spite of the soup we took a trip into town last night for dinner at a friend’s house. The promise of home cooked Sichuan was all it took to inspire me to make the drive in the zero visibility soup. It’s a weird thing to be motoring along on an essentially abandoned elevated highway when the only things you can see are the decorative lights on the concrete barriers. This was the new road into town, the one I’d actually seen built and which I’d hoped to try one of these days despite having no idea where it went. Jiang knew though and he told me it was generally empty because they’d set the speed limit so low. Cars didn’t use it because it took too long to get where they wanted to go in spite of it being a more direct and safer route. The Chinese are funny that way; everything has to be faster regardless of the quality of the experience. It’s why they punch the door closing button in the elevator the instant they get on. It’s an atavistic need that keeps them moving, just like their economy, their government and everything else around here.

The visibility was literally about a half a car length sometimes getting so bad that you couldn’t see the dashed lines between the lanes. The few cars that were alongside us had their emergency flashers on, creating little orange puffs of light in an otherwise uniformly gray universe. It made me think of bioluminescent fish, deep in the ocean signaling just to see if anyone else was around. Once in a while a car would come out of the cloud traveling too fast, assuming his lighting would keep him safe.

It lifted bit in town and by the time we’d polished off our dinner it was nearly clear. At least until we our trip back home where it miraculously rolled in just as we passed under an overhead traffic warning sign. Quite mysterious, it was as though the sign was holding it back and yet there was nothing about the lay of the land to suggest why it was somewhat clear on the leading edge and opaque on the trailing side. From there we had pretty much the same ride as we had on the way in - flashing lights and segments of near blindness – with the added interest of a number of pedestrians crisscrossing the highway near a container depot on the north side of the port. Dressed in black almost to a person, they would suddenly pop out of the mist and disappear almost as quickly as they’d come. The fact that none of them were sprawled dead in the road set me to thinking that the unspoken traffic rules that govern the mechanics of the road here are so bizarre that it often seems as though the dumbest infractions are protected by the strongest unseen forces. Of course this is not true – I’ve seen many wrecks – but tonight these foolish people seemed to have had a force field keeping them safe as they shuffled along in the fog.

Arriving in my neighborhood, I decided the weather was too interesting not do a little exploring so after sending Jiang back into the mist, I grabbed a camera and headed down the street towards the red light district.

Five Color City is about as weird a place as you can imagine on a clear day, and at night it takes on a whole new level of strangeness between the people on the streets, the neon and the lurking amusement park figures that cling to the sides of the building. Whoever thought this place up had a very warped notion of the role that the Mother Goose tales play in the lives of little western children. All the characters are there – mice, cats, dogs, teapots, foxes and frogs – but rendered in a way that makes them downright sinister instead of cute. I’ve heard that the place was built as a family oriented tourist attraction, now it was an endless line of bars, small restaurants and massage parlors. And I’ve been told on more than one occasion to stay out of there at night, but the lure of all that cheap neon in a dense watery air was too much to resist. Down the road I went past the miniature rendering of the Eiffel Tower in front of the Golden Imperial Hotel, crossing against the light and almost getting hit by a taxi on Liaohe Lu.

The streets are always dark, lit only by the signs for the bars. But tonight they instantly evoked any number of film noire movies I could think of that featured a foggy scene down at the docks in San Pedro, Philip Marlowe in a heavy trench, hat tipped forward and collar up against the damp, waiting for some damsel with evil intent to appear out of the dark. Walking along and looking into the bars, some of the taverns were full of expats trying to have fun, others only had a few bar girls waiting for some money to walk in the door. A few of those special Chinese boys with the bouffant hairdos milled around under the occasional security light. I passed a couple of small groups of girls – high heels and hot pants – walking to or from their work. What little eye contact I made with them was of the “what the heck are you doing out here?” nature.

Stopping here and there I grabbed a few photographs and kept walking. The neon and the mist created a wonderful watercolor effect – pools of reds and blues reflecting up from the dirty streets. I won’t it was beautiful, because above it all the place remained what it was. And no amount of polishing can change that. But tonight it was just a bit softer and maybe even a little bit friendlier in spite of the strange statues that would occasionally appear out of the dark as I turned a corner. A mermaid, an Atlas minus his world and giant teapot hovering overhead in the glow of a streetlight.

A few loud arguments between early drunks were happening off in the dark, their location not discernable because of the mist. I passed a couple of makeshift diners, kabobs cooking on the grills for the workers in the local stores. One was set in a bright red tent and was full of people crowded around the heat coming from the stove.

Unlike most evenings, tonight the place was dead. Those that were there were inside. Besides a few working girls and a person in an apron here and there the only other life I encountered was a group of young men wandering around looking for something to do. I decided I didn’t fit that bill and so took a side alley to a different lane. A few more photos and the place began to lose its allure. I tucked my camera in my pocket and headed back home, this time paying a bit more attention while crossing the road lest I come to rely on those unexplained guardian forces.

Monday, November 30, 2009

What do you do if you look outside an you can't see anything?

It occurred to me tonight that I might have lost most favored patron status at Starbucks. I ended up there following a quick trip to the department store to collect a bottle of wine for a dinner invitation (tomorrow night) and a box of grape juice to get me through the rest of the week. I’m down to one last liter of Blutorange and I hate to open it knowing full well that whatever is left behind will almost certainly not survive the 5 weeks I am about to spend in the US. And given that to me it’s a treasured resource, I’m not about to sacrifice the lion’s share for a single glass on Friday morning. So out I went to pick up those items and to have an iced Americano.

The traffic for tonight’s commute was absolutely horrid, a combination of an uncountable number of company owned commuter buses hogging the center lane, a single dead car and the normal amount of crazy Chinese driving. It was tough too because I had a passenger and so I was unable to spend any time talking to Jiang. He dealt with his stress by putting on his Backstreet Boys/Carpenters CD which has precisely the opposite effect on me. The three of us sat there commenting on the fog and looking for opportunities to advance our position in the jam.

Eventually I made it home and in the time it took for me to microwave the rabbit a friend’s wife had brought me from Chengdu, the lurking fog we’d had all day intensified to the point where I could no longer see the ground from my 24th floor window. It was so bad that I couldn’t catch a photo either as the camera had nothing to focus on. Even the neon on the buildings across the street was completely obscured. I decided to go outside right then and there, figuring that there would be some interesting photo ops down at street level. But before that I had my rabbit to eat accompanied by a big pile of Green Giant French Style Green Beans. This rabbit was quite different than the legs and thighs I normally have. It was more or less boned aside from its limbs and spine and it had lost its head somewhere in the process. I guess it had been braised and then re-cooked with the normal set of Sichuan spices because the meat was a deep crimson, but in the preparation someone had also taken the time to flatten it leaving it with the look of having been run through one of those old wringer washers. At least I suppose that’s what a rabbit run through one would look like, having never actually seen such a thing. They say looks don’t matter though and in the case of squashed bunny they might be right because it was darn delicious.

I loaded up and headed down the elevator. Outside everything was slick with a thick coat of dew. The cloud bank was not as thick as it was up at the level of my apartment, but it was still pretty opaque. The almost full Moon I’d seen when I left work had beaten it for more accommodating climes, knowing that no one in Kai Fa Qu would be enjoying its glamour on this evening. In my experience deep fog like this often has a damping effect on the sounds of the city, just like a heavy snowstorm. Here though I guess that is too much to expect because it was just as noisy as ever. I walked down the street stopping now and again to take a photograph and to answer my phone which for some reason had the idea that I was suddenly popular.

Winter here in northern China is governed by one of two styles of weather – incredibly cold, clear and windy or intolerably thick, gray and depressing. The latter is far more common, the product of too many wood fires, too many houses heated with trash and corn sheaves and too many uncontrolled power plant exhaust stacks. The fog associated with those producers always bears the characteristic odor of things on fire and I was quite surprised tonight that this batch didn’t stink too badly. Instead it had a mild aroma of conflagration that was held in check by rotting cabbage, car exhaust and plain old moisture.

In terms of temperature it’s either cold or colder and living within that range can be a challenge given the lack of control of the heat in one’s apartment. Plenty of hot water flows through the pipes, but there are no controls available to tune it to your liking. These days in my house I take advantage of the sun I get on the south side assuming it’s not too foggy and the rooms remain quite mild. Allowing the radiant floor heating do its work during the night ends up par boiling you under your covers because unfortunately it works a bit too well. Most evenings when I tuck myself in I turn on the air conditioner in my bedroom and set it to 65 degrees so that between it and the floor heating, the cold air and the blankets I get a nice approximation of my winter time bedroom back home, minus My Lovely Wife. Of course I could just open the window but I don’t like waking up covered in ash.

After my stop at the department store where I used my Chinese to put the little cashier girl into red-faced giggle shock, I headed under the street to get my cup of coffee. I say “under” because here at the intersection of Jinma Lu and Binhai Dajie the city government has kindly installed underground passages that allow you to reach any of the four corners of the intersection without having to brave the traffic. Recently they added huge arcs of Plexiglas and steel that look like the carapaces of some giant insect in the process of burrowing down into the Earth, their purpose I guess is to stop the elements from raining down on the marble steps that descend to the tunnels hopefully preventing them from becoming dangerously slippery. As in just how they were the last two winters I was here. The shells are a nice improvement, but I’d have been happier if they fixed the perpetually broken escalators which would allow one to avoid the marble steps in the first place. But no, those still stand silent and the stair treads are just as clogged with wet black garbage as they ever were even if their moisture content is not coming from the sky. At least the rain won’t go down my neck anymore.

None of the people I know from my favorite Starbucks crew were on duty tonight so I was just a regular customer. The place was full of 20-something Canadian boys going on about their local teaching assignments, or perhaps I should say “aboot”. They were interesting to listen to - so knowledgeable and expert in how to work the system to get temporary teaching assignments all over the world. At the same time they seemed blithely unaware that this place is hardly one that any of their peers back in the world would consider glamorous. Mostly the effect their conversation had on me was to make me wonder what the heck I was doing sitting here listening to them. But I know the answer to that; it’s all about the money and the Sichuan rabbit. Tonight though it was additionally about drinking iced coffee, taking some pictures of the fog and waiting for the end of the week to roll into view.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Have a lumpy roux? Use a cheese grater.

Unlike a regular US Thanksgiving, our Chinese version turned out to be a moveable feast and a pretty full weekend to boot.

A day of work after our great expat evening out led to a night of music and Sichuan cuisine. I had plans to attend the most recent installment at the Kai Fa Qu theatre, a string group by the name of Trio Broz. According to the musician’s biography, they are specialists in arrangements of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which I thought sounded pretty intriguing. When my regular music companions were laid low with what seems to be getting everyone around here I made plans with some other friends to pick up tickets and for them to collect me about a half hour before the concert for the short ride down the road. Normally I’d walk, but we were in the middle of a wind enhanced deep freeze so I though a ride might be in order.

As it turned out I would have been better off on foot since standing in place outside your building in the sub zero temperatures and a roaring wind while waiting for someone to show up has the undesirable effect of really freezing you to the bone as opposed to the mitigating influence you get from a power walk. Live and learn I guess, sometimes it just doesn’t pay to be downstairs on time particularly when people don’t show up and your lobby is only a couple of degrees warmer than your parking lot. Eventually I was in the car but by then I was pretty much frozen to the core and we all know how hard it is to overcome that, minus a hot tub.

The concerts here have been very good but you would never know it if you based part of your assessment on the ticket sales. I’ve never seen more than 50 people in the theatre and I know it must be hard for these performers to come half way around the world to this grease spot and stand on stage to receive an ovation from that few people. Their agents no doubt tell them this is their grand tour of Asia and it might be grand in terms of scope, but it looks hardly so in terms of attention. Tonight was no different – our tickets were purchased on the day of the show and we had the finest row in the orchestra section entirely to ourselves; the remainder of the concert goers were spread around the main floor.

I have to admire the Chinese parents who take the time and spend the money to bring their children to shows like this. We attend quite frequently in the US and you never see grade school kids at such performances. Here though you see them regularly and if only the parents could figure out a way to get them to sit still and pay attention the cultural impact would be profound. Instead the little boys crawl around on the floor, sit upside down on their chairs and generally cast their attention everywhere but towards the stage. Gratefully they normally leave at intermission.

The program indicated no Bach tonight; instead string quartets by Beethoven, Dohnanyi, Sibelius and Schubert in an unspecified order. While my favorite young woman always comes out and announces the next piece, you have to pay close attention to her rapid fire Chinese to catch the name of the composer. Generally you don’t and if you are not familiar with the piece you’re out of luck. Not that it really matters unless you want to rush home and buy it from iTunes.

Before the concert I had checked the Trio Broz web site and discovered an announcement about their tour - “From November 19 to 30 the trio will be for the first time in China, engaged in a tour in the most beautiful and prestigious halls of some of the main eastern megalopolis.” “Beautiful and prestigious,” enough to make you laugh if it wasn’t so sad. Barbara, Gaida and Klaus Broz make up the trio, playing together since 1993. Pretty amazing that a single family could produce three world class musicians and that they’d be willing to spend all their time together.

They came out on stage and you could see right away that ashen cloud of disappointment that washes over these sad people who show up here, passing across their faces as they squint through the floodlights wondering why the applause is so tepid. It isn’t that the audience doesn’t love them, there just isn’t any audience. They sat down on their patio chairs and the announcer girl came on stage. She is probably my favorite part of any show because her choice of clothing is always so interesting. Tonight, a plain brown top complimenting medium brown skin tight leather pants that were a bit too clingy in the wrong places. Finishing the ensemble was a pair of 5 inch diameter silver hoop earrings. I think she’s so sweet and so naïve that I’d like to strike up a conversation and buy her a cup of coffee.

Off in the distance I could hear a rhythmic thumping, no doubt some techno bleeding through from the badminton courts downstairs. I hoped it would stop.

The Beethoven piece was first and it was pretty well executed and lovely to listen to. At the end they stood up to take the applause and the middle sister, Barbara I think, had one of those looks on her face that must get her into trouble all the time. I know, because I have one too, sort of a “You have got to be kidding me, I flew all the way here and ate at the Inn Fine Hotel just to stand here and take this abuse?” She must wear her heart on her sleeve, because here innermost feelings were certainly pretty evident from her expression.

Sibelius was up next, appropriate I suppose since it was pretty much Finland outside. I didn’t like it all that well but the team gave it a good shot and they were rewarded with another solid albeit muted round of clapping.

After intermission they launched into the Dohnanyi work and it really didn’t do much for me being a bit too modern and way too frantic. But there were a few technical flourishes that made it interesting to watch. The Trio pulled a fast one on us after the third movement though, raising their bows in the universal sign of “we’re done, time to applaud” but it was a feint – they weren’t done and they were only tricking us into clapping to show what a bunch of rubes we were. And it worked, they even caught me. Barbara’s wry smirk passed to Gaida and Klaus this time.

Schubert closed the show and again I was not moved beyond the execution. Halfway through the piece the announcer gal came and sat right in front of me. I couldn’t have been happier because it meant I could distract myself from the music by paying attention to her.

She took a few photographs, turned her camera off and sat there playing with her fingers which I thought were unnaturally small - kind of a normal size at the base but tapering up to tiny little pads on the end that didn’t look adult. Sort of if you took a kids finger and grafted it to an adults at the middle knuckle. Bored with those, she took off those giant earrings and put them on her wrist like bracelets. And then she started playing with the skin on her neck, pulling it this way and that way in little pinches and folds. She pulled some sort of pins off of her shirt front and stuck them in her hair bun. Just as she started violently rocking her head back and forth, the music ended and she got up and went off to give a boot to the little kids with the bouquets.

At the end Trio Broz bravely took their bows, received their flowers and left the stage, never to be seen again. There simply weren’t enough people in the audience to bring them back for an encore. I was actually relieved; I couldn’t bear to watch poor Barbara’s suffering. And I’m sure they were even happier than I was.

We went from there to a favorite Sichuan place for too much food and 8% beer. I had my favorites – rabbit and green beans – along with a new duck dish that was excellent. My companions turned their noses up at my choices while imploring me to try their Tofu which I thought tasted like a kitchen sponge. When I sat, I had placed my coat on the back of my chair and the waitress had covered it was a cloth bag, no doubt to keep the food off. Nice touch except that it prevented me from putting in on when the current of cold air snaked its way from the open front door across the place to my lap. My core was still frozen and this wasn’t helping. But eating warms you up, especially food that is loaded with red peppers and Sichuan peppercorns. Your mouth gets so numb and burned simultaneously that you pretty much forget you’re shivering. I escaped the cold of the restaurant to the cold of the night just in time and my woes were solved later by soaking in a hot shower before bed.

Saturday dawned cold and windy but not enough of either to keep me off my bike. I went out to take my favorite loop along the ocean and suffered accordingly. It’s a tough ride and I was not up to it having been off the bike for 3 weeks due to illness and travel. But the day was sunny and I persevered, stopping at one point to chat with a man who was tending his flock of goats along the road. They were up on top of a road cut, slipping and sliding on the bright orange scree, one billygoat standing nobly at the top watching his flock. I told the man that his goat thought he was one of his mountain cousins, and the man laughed. To kill some time and gain a few miles I rode along another new road towards the city that parallels the ocean. The wind was bad now and I was getting genuinely cold but I did get to see big flocks of ducks on the bay and a Common Bustard, cousin to our big hawks, flew low across my path making my suffering worthwhile.

My second Thanksgiving was on Saturday night, this time forty or more people and lots of kids. Everyone pulled out the stops on the dinner, desert and wines and it was grand. I spent my time drinking a white wine that I’d brought only realizing at the end of the bottle that I was the only person working on it. One of the cool things about cooking and preparing here is the improvisation that takes place in the absence of things we take for granted. A white flour roux strained through a cheese grader and a bottle of red wine cleansed of its cork bits with a French coffee press. Sometimes you do what you have to do to get what you want.

We had one last bike ride for the weekend that was too hard and too long, the wind and the hills getting the better of me. We availed ourselves of a stretch of the Jinshitan road that was closed to traffic instead being used by hundreds of giant trucks ferrying loads of fill dirt from a spot up the road to a place where they are expanding the port. We had the right lane to ourselves while the trucks barreled along on the left, blowing their horns and proving Doppler right as the pitch of the sound changed by their proximity and position. At the loading zone backhoes were busily taking apart an entire mountain and putting it in the trucks to be dumped in the sea. Someone recently asked me if the world’s oceans were rising due to global warming or because of all the dirt the Chinese are dumping into them. We had to get off and walk a bit here because the road was truly broken. On the far side and wonderful peace set upon us as it was still officially closed to traffic but now with no trucks. When you get silence in China you notice it right away because it’s completely unusual. We had the wind at our backs and it was so quiet you could hear the dried Plane Tree leaves skittering down the pavement. At one point I rode parallel to a small red mesh bag, decorated with gold filigree that was silently tumbling end over end, buoyed by the wind.

We rode along the beach which was completely deserted, not a single person out for winter’s walk. At the end of the strand we climbed up from and along the sea to a new suspension bridge that spans a canyon in one of the headlands here. On the far side of it our plan became suspect because we were faced with a long steep slog into a howling wind that about ended my day right then and there. At the top we divided an energy bar and a bottle of water and wondered what the hell we were thinking.

Approaching the dirt depot from the other side, we rode gingerly in among the trucks themselves trying to stay upright in the mud while avoiding getting run over by the behemoths going this way and that. I had to get off the bike to cross a tall dirt barrier and one of the drivers laid in hard on his horn lest I slow his forward progress.

On the home stretch we came upon an accident – a minivan had driven off the road and into a bridge abutment. The front of the car was destroyed – pieces everywhere and a gang of men were standing around looking at the ground. When I finally took the whole scene in I realized they were staring at a man stretch out on the pavement, no doubt pulled from the car; or perhaps an unfortunate pedestrian in the wrong place at the wrong time. Dead or unconscious, I don’t know, but he certainly wasn’t moving. I looked quickly away and rode on.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving in China, 2009

Tonight was my second Thanksgiving in China and it made me think about how that had come to be.

Last year Thanksgiving fell about a week after I’d arrived, and it was the topic of one of my first serious essays telling the story of my China adventure. I remember that I was just getting my feet on the ground and making the transition from the natural born isolated, anti-social me to the expat me, one with friends and a social calendar. I debated at the time whether or not going to someone’s house, a co-worker to boot for such a traditional holiday was something that I really wanted to do. But at the urging of My Lovely Wife I decided to do it and so I arming myself with 4 or 5 bottles of wine and a big bouquet of flowers for the lady of the house and off I went. As it turned out, I had to be the “dad”, the carver of the turkey and the organizer of the dinner because no one else there had ever filled that role. And I had a great time; it was a true family day and just what I needed at the time.

This year was different. Our favorite expat bar entrepreneur Wayne Hou conceived of the brilliant idea of a traditional Thanksgiving meal for his favorite patrons. So we made our reservations, aligned our tables and went into town, braving the rush hour traffic to try and capture a bit of home in this dark corner of Asia. On the way in I practiced my Chinese, attempting to relate the tale of how Turkey is a big deal and the father stands at the head of the table while every sits around and observes his carving technique. Minus the tones, it comes out along the lines of “Tamen zou zhou de pangbian, baba zhan qie houqi”. Remember that for next year’s meal.

Tonight was wonderful in its own way, conjuring up scenes of people around the world, far away yet carrying on in a way that brings some regular life to their situation and location. A couple of tables of people, lots of wine and beer and the feast – roast turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, carrots and believe it or not, green bean casserole. Topping it off was as sophisticated an apple crisp as I’ve ever had. Between the laughter, the food and the drink, it was almost possible to forget where we were and why we were there. A great idea that bore itself out in the result, reminding me that real life can be just below the surface of this place. A thing that’s often hard to remember and yet one that can truly make or break any given day. A night like this will never replace being in my home with the ones I love, but at least it went quite a ways towards making this place seem just a bit better than it did yesterday.