Sunday, January 24, 2010

Factory 798, The Village, Heading Home - Beijing Part 4

We had another dinner at the Face Bar, this time Indian and among considerably more patrons to top off the day. Getting there was a challenge for the second time as the taxi driver insisted on dropping us off at the end of the wrong dark alley. My Chinese got us through.

Sunday was spent at Factory 798, an art colony out on the way to the airport. It’s a district of former munitions factories converted to lofts, galleries and ateliers. Modern art in China reminds me a lot of the publicity around Russia when it opened up back in the 1980’s. Lots of work that was both bizarre and political within limits. In most cases I’m sure the artist thought they were being crafty. But their message is often so blatant in its simplicity that it ends up coming across as snarky; in the way a teenager often thinks they’re being wry. For the most part, the government looks the other way as long as the message is not too pointed. And I didn’t see much of that on this day. The most interesting thing might have been the items for sale featuring a picture of our President, often in a Mao uniform and branded as “Maobama” or “Obamao.” Would our right-wing thinkers find that amusing?

I did have one interesting experience; I was interviewed by a young woman from Mexico City who was accompanied by a woman from Beijing. The Mexican was here learning Chinese and teaching Spanish at a language school. The Chinese was learning Spanish and English. Each of us was only fluent in our mother tongue. But the three of us chatted in all three languages for a half hour or so, them asking me the most ridiculous questions about modern art that in the words of my companion “Sounded like utter BS.” Well, sometimes it’s okay to wax like an Art Forum columnist when you’re having a tri-lingual conversation with two cute young women. We called it a day around noon; it was just so cold to be out wandering around. Interesting place, I’d like go back when it’s a bit warmer.

We grabbed a cab and headed back to Sanlitun, the bar street in the Chaoyang District that acts as a convenient beacon for cab drivers. The street itself is a dive, being nothing more than an endless strip of seedy bars filled with seedy bar girls. It’s hardly worth mentioning except for the fact that it runs between an upscale shopping center called The Village and the diplomatic district which contains all the consulates and embassies in Beijing, conveniently situated behind brick walls and barbed wire. Walking down Gongrentiyuchangbeilu, you can see the flags of all your favorite countries. We passed a group of young men in military uniforms, falling out of a bus and being lined up for inspection prior to manning the gates of the compound.

When I got out of the cab, I asked the driver for the Chinese name for this place; he said it to me but I forgot it almost instantly. So when we found a table at the Blue Frog, everyone’s favorite expat restaurant, I asked the waitress. She told me “This is the Village”, with “village” coming out more or less as “willage.” I told her that the cabbie had given me a Chinese name and she shook her head “no.” I asked again and she brought over a friend. They had a 15 second discussion in Chinese and the friend returned the same answer, “This is the Village.” It struck me at that moment that I was re-living an episode of “The Prisoner” that cult classic from the 1967 in which Patrick McGoohan is spirited away to some sort of re-education country club called, “The Village.” He tries and tries to break through the mindlessness of his fellow inhabitants, asking repeatedly where he is. And the answer is always the same – “This is the Village.” I never imagined that it would happen to me too.

The shopping here was pretty nice with many upscale stores including the biggest Apple Store I’d ever seen and a North Face boutique that featured, literally, an ice wall inside a giant refrigerator. The signs suggested that they might have ice climbing school but it wasn’t completely clear. If not, what could possibly be cooler than your very own ice wall, no pun intended? I suppose you could pull on the North Face expedition down jumper and hang out in there for an hour or so to see if it would keep you warm. Or what better way to test those gloves that I can’t seem to find. The ones that actually keep your hands warm. Well, no chance of that - this store didn’t sell gloves. But they did have a lot of nice shiny jackets that then Chinese girls were passing around and trying on.

The remainder of the day was spent getting to the airport. Two things of note here, the first was a Starbucks that had table service. We didn’t completely figure that out until after we had bought our drinks and sat down. Sure enough, the lounge had waitresses. I this the only Starbucks where they bring your stuff to you? It’s the only one I’ve ever seen.

The second was so very strange. We cleared security and went to the gate which was downstairs and so indicated a bus ride out to the plane. This particular flight is common for me – I use it whenever I return from the US and lately the bus ride has become the norm. Today we waited, boarded the bus, breathed our fair share of diesel exhaust and then departed on time. It was getting late and in the dusk I could see the planes lined up far out on the tarmac, silhouetted by the setting sun. When riding one of these conveyances I always try to figure out what plane will be mine, and how the bus will line up relative to the stairs. Of course I’m plotting the fastest route to the best door to get to the head of the queue because standing out there on the vast asphalt field in the Gobi winter is very unpleasant. This time though they threw me a curve ball – the bus pulled up at a set of stairs below a jet way that was attached to the terminal. We’d driven out to another gate. A gate which we could have walked to and waited at, inside.
There is no explanation, other than, “This is China.”

A Bit of Tourism - Beijing Part 3

My visits to Beijing have always been under restrictive circumstances. The first time I had a couple of hours to kill on my way to Barcelona and so I did little more than ride the subway a couple of stops, take a few photos of Tiananmen Square, wander through the free portion of the Forbidden City and then head off to the airport. The second trip wasn’t planned in the least – I missed my connection and so had only an afternoon to kill. That time I did try to maximize the benefit of my time by going to the Temple of Heaven. Of course it would have been more effectively used had I not gotten lost and taken 2 hours to travel 30 minutes worth of distance. This time, everything was planned and I was prepared right down to the sheet I’d typed up that told me what subway line to take, where to get off and where to walk once back above ground. In addition to that, I’d checked the maps and plotted the routes. I was ready to go.

Before leaving I downloaded a wonderful application for my iPhone called “Explore Beijing.” It’s a nicely detailed rendition of the complete subway system and all you have to do is highlight the station you’re leaving from and the one you want to go to and it plots a route and tells you how long it should take. This part of the day was laid out in exquisite detail – from Shuangjing Station near the hotel we would take the Blue #10 line north and then west to the Teal #4 line where we’d transfer at Haidan Huangzhuang Station and head northwest to Beigongmen Station, the closest my destination, the Summer Palace. It was a little bit disconcerting when the program returned a 54 minute transit time. But it couldn’t be worse than a taxi in Beijing traffic, so off we went.

One of the things about subway travel that may be universal is the grimness of the riders. No one seems happy, no one smiles. Everyone just sits there glowering at their shoes. I’m not sure if this comes from being underground and away from the nourishment of the sun, or from running errands or just because everyone, everywhere is really unhappy. It’s noticeable though and unfortunate because it casts a pall over the whole trip.

True to the prediction we arrived at the station after about an hour of travel. Untrue to prediction, the entrance to the Summer Palace was not across the street from the station once again confirming that forming a vivid picture in your mind’s eye from a map is often a waste of time. The wall around the grounds was right there, but there were no gates or any indications of how to get into the place. Choosing not to try and climb the rock face, we started walking until we saw a street sign that suggested a right turn up ahead might be called for. When we arrived at the next intersection the telltale giveaway was the incredible number of buses converging on a parking lot down the way. We had another walk ahead of us, equal to what we’d just done but this time there was no sidewalk, just the road and the wall. As we motored on I kept wondering how many tourists get smashed up against the ancient bricks by some texting Chinese driver each year. But when faced with impending mashing, it’s best to file thoughts such as those and just keep moving ahead. Perhaps a half a mile down the road we veered off to the right and found the entrance.
Chinese imperial architecture is very apt in conveying a sense of just how special and isolated the royals were. The grounds of these places are vast, and beautiful, often the only “rural” areas within the confines of the city. Once you pass the gates, your surroundings become silent and peaceful and aside from the chatter of the tourists, the only things you hear are the birds in the pine trees. All the walkways were covered with ornately painted roofs that passed between the significant locations on the grounds. The stone pathways were made from smooth river rocks standing on end, and every few yards the pattern of an animal, flower or a mystical symbol was set in among the stones in contrasting rock shards. Overhead every square inch of roof was painted in bright colors with little portraits of mythical beasts on the flat surfaces between the poles. It was impossible not to imagine the Emperor and his attendants slowly walking along these paths, cloaked in gold and red, perhaps a few musicians following and playing softly, with no particular place to go or thing to do as their daily lives were on a celestial plain. Off to our left as we walked along, the big lake was frozen solid and people were out on it taken a straight shortcut to the other sites on the grounds, walks that would have taken hours in the warmer months.

We elected to climb some stairs heading up to the highest hill within the walls. Music was playing off to our left and once we crested the peak, we headed back down, letting our ears guide us. The first group we found was four old Chinese gentlemen using traditional instruments to play that squeaky classical music that we all know. One man was singing and another played a valve-less trumpet. The third man played a crude wooden flute and the fourth the Sheng, one of the oldest of the local instruments, first appearing in 551 AD. It consists of a bundle of 17 or more pipes or varying lengths seated on a bowl with a mouthpiece. It is capable of producing 6 independent notes at a time. I tried to watch them politely, but it never felt right, even when I came around the front of the little temple they were using and sat down on a bench. Often here you get the feeling that people don’t want to be part of a living history museum, rather they just want to be left alone. And so after a few moments I wandered a bit further down the hill to where a small brass band was playing more modern but still traditional Chinese anthems. They had quite a crowd and had handed out songbooks so dozens and dozens of people were singing along. A lone woman was leading the impromptu chorus from the front of the band, using deliberate but greatly overstated gestures, raising a lowering herself at her knees and waving her arms.

Looming large above the trees was the Temple of Buddhist Incense. Another classical piece of architecture it was on the second highest hill in the place and was reached by climbing an awful lot of stone stairs. At one platform a western tourist stood trying to catch her breath, having climbed perhaps 10% of the total distance. There were two ways up, opposing stone block stairs that went up the front or two very steep covered galleries that went up the sides. We went up the middle and at the top there was an old wooden Guanyin statue in the middle of the pagoda. An Italian couple was taking non-stop photographs in spite of the English sign that forbid it. The view from the pagoda platform was spectacular, tiled roofs of the other buildings far below and the frozen lake, crisscrossed by the paths of the people trudging through the snow. Far off in the distance, a steeply arched bridge connected an island to the mainland.

Having done the middle, we decided to go down the side. There we lots of photograph opportunities from the gallery we chose, so we took our time heading down, stopping to enjoy the details. Halfway to the bottom I noticed a family of 3 westerners standing on the bottommost platform, exuding impatience. I figured that dad must have been waiting to take a photo up the stairs, but didn’t want one with us in it. Knowing this and catching his obvious vibe, I really took my going down the last third of the way. When I reached them, he just glared in my general direction not making eye contact but still sending me his little waves of anger. Mom stood huddled in the corner, her fur trimmed hood pulled up and tight around her face. I looked her straight in the eye and she just stared ahead. Junior sat on a low wall talking to dad. As we went around the corner I heard dad say something about how important the perfect photo was and even though mom was freezing it was important enough to wait.

We took the time to wander over to see the famous Marble Boat, the never sailing, never floating stone launch of the Emperor. I guess the royal family and some lucky courtiers would sit on the decks and imagine what a sail would be like if the boat wasn’t impossibly heavy and completely incapable of moving. A virtual wind in the face and they pretended that the boat was visiting far off and exotic seaports. It didn’t look very good being in desperate need of a complete restoration.

The next stop of the day was the Olympic venue. I was really looking forward to the place, having just recently visited the Olympic site in Barcelona and having been really moved by the spirit of the place. The Chinese built a nice little subway spur that ran only to the Olympic Village so we caught it on the way back from our last stop. The stations along this line were sparkling and beautiful, instead of grimy beige brick all the surfaces here were covered in shiny blue and white porcelain tile in the classical Chrysanthemum motif of the Chinese emperors. Enough of a Delft feel to make you wonder if you’d somehow gotten off in Holland. We got off the train and made our way to the security detail that not only x-rayed our bags but wanded and patted us down individually.

To say that I was let down would be an understatement. I had expected so much, the beautiful buildings and stadiums atop Montjuic from the 1992 Games were inspiring in both their grandeur and simplicity. Here, the Bird’s Nest stood on the right looking like a big pile of ultra-modern stainless steel Pick-up Sticks and the Water Cube off on the left, invoked nothing more than a Sam’s Club back home. Perhaps it was the endless line of decorated artificial Christmas trees that stubbed out my flame. I don’t know but I wasn’t getting any sense of the triumph of the human spirit. Getting closer to the stadium didn’t help because from there you could see that it was in need of a good dusting, it being covered with an undisturbed coating of “stuff” from the notorious Beijing air. We chose not to go in as it was apparently set up in some sort of “winter wonderland” and I wasn’t sure what that even meant, nor where to buy tickets. I’ve heard that the next use is going to be a chocolate theme park with countless battalions of edible Terracotta Warriors. I suppose that a theme park is preferable to what the Water Cube is about to become – a shopping mall for top tier brands. It’s too bad that these places are going to lose their original use, but I suppose that the Chinese have every right to do with them what they want in order to turn a profit. On this day, there wasn’t much money to be made from the monuments as the visitors all seemed far more interested in Santa’s Village, replete with a couple of snowmen – one missing a nose – and a life-sized cutout of Cinderella. Such is the power of our western brands.

I had to drag myself back to the subway so burdened with disappointment was I. Back down into the cars with the grim people going who knows where. Having had enough of the sights, we went searching for lunch.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Face Bar - Beijing Part 2

I have to admit that I am certainly spoiled by the quality of hotels I stay in these days. Here, the equivalent of a $125 Marriott Courtyard in Chandler, Arizona is a Renaissance with a room on the 22nd floor featuring a super-modern bathroom enclosed in a glass cube, a king-sized bed the size of a football pitch, a fruit plate, a desk, a couch and an in-room safe. If that’s not enough to make you happy, you can spend your entire stay in the penthouse lounge drinking Irish whisky and watching action flicks on Cinemax. I’m not sure how I’ll ever go back to a regular hotel when I’m done with this life.

Dinner plans for our first night in the big city evolved into a trip to Face Bar, my favorite Asian hang-out. After many nights sitting on the patio at the Shanghai version, watching the sky slowly dim from pink to black as the bats hovered over the plane trees, I decided that there would be no more worthy dinner than one taken at the Beijing version, a new one on me. So we left the hotel, found a cabbie and after a bit of discussion we found ourselves pretty much on our way.

I had a map and I had a direction card from their web site but these things really only provide approximations in this part of the world. It’s a funny situation – hotels and restaurants provide written directions because most travelers don’t speak the language. But the cabbies often have only the most basic understanding of where these places are, instructions or no instructions. And of course no Chinese driver can read a map. “Chinese Maps” are nothing more than driving around and asking people on the street if they happen to know where the place is. Often getting where you want to go involves a set of successive approximations which means if you have no idea where you’re going, and don’t have the language, you may very well find yourself God knows where. On this night our cabbie took us on a hugely circuitous route (I knew this because I take the time to familiarize myself with the city before I get into a cab) to a largely deserted boulevard in the general vicinity of the restaurant. He dropped us off in front of a long line of brightly lit bars, made more so by the lack of streetlights.

As I was paying him my friend was accosted by a couple of young women who happened to be mysteriously waiting there on the median.

“Are you going to a lady bar?” she asked.

“No”, he responded.

“Do you want some company to go to the lady bar?”

“No”, he responded.

Getting straight to the point she inquired, “Do you want sex?”

The answer was still “no” and so they left us alone and went back to waiting for the next cab.

We found ourselves in the area of the Beijing Worker’s Stadium. Where precisely it happened to be was not all that clear given the darkness, but the restaurant was on the south side of it so we just started walking. Street signs here are a bit odd, often they don’t reflect the street you’re on, rather if they occur at intersections they point the way to some other street down the way. I’m sure the system works if you grew up with it but it’s pretty alien to me. Heading down the block we found a most unusual thing – a giant street-side map of the district. It was of limited use though as it was only in Chinese, but it did show the major landmarks albeit in an arrangement that made no sense relative to the way we’d come and the “you are here” star at the center of the map.

At the next intersection I took another bearing and pretty much decided that we needed to turn left. It seemed we were on Gongrentiyuchangbeilu when we really needed to be on Gongrentiyuchangnanlu. The street at the intersection was almost certainly Gongrentiyuchangxilu and so it was completely clear that it would lead to the place we wanted to go. For the sake of edification, the only critical bit of information in each of those names happens to fall after letter #15. “Lu” is Chinese for “big street.” “Bei” is north, “Nan” is south and “Xi” is west. Since the Gongrentiyuchang or “Worker’s Stadium” stands in the middle of the three streets, all we needed to do was leave the north road, walk down the west road to the south road and turn left a second time. By the way, the cleverest of you might have now made the connection that “Beijing” is the north capital and “Nanjing” is in the south.

And sure enough there it was, right behind the Instituto Cervantes, the Spanish language school here in Beijing.

Face Bar takes its design from south Asia, originating in Jakarta with outlets in many of the major regional cities. All of them are decorated in a most exotic style with lots of antiques, Buddha, carpets, old stuffed chairs and funky wooden tables. The old one in Shanghai was situated in a 1930’s mansion in the French Concession and it oozed ambiance. This one was at the end of a dark alley, but no less atmospheric. The wall art featured quite a few prints of Che Guevara and José Martí. Dim lighting colorful paper lanterns and incense complete the illusion. We’d made a reservation and while the maitre d’ wanted to sit us when we stumbled in from the cold, we decided instead to sit in the bar and soak up some of the place. My standard drink here is a Vodka Gimlet, because I can’t think of a more colonial cocktail. We sat, imbibed and watched the Chinese 20-somethings play billiards.

There are usually 3 or 4 restaurants at each location - Thai, Indian and Moroccan with Chinese sometimes thrown in. The Indian room at the old Shanghai spot was located in a tent and decorated to look like it was set up for a Mughal hunting party. The Thai room was on the second floor of the mansion where I imagine the old British colonial administrator would sit and drink Gin and read the daily dispatches. Our reservation for the Thai dining room turned out to be useless because we were the only two people in the non-smoking room. There was a couple sitting on the other side of a partition in the smoking section, French I think, a young man and a young woman who consistently confused her napkin with her mini-skirt, the latter being that short. She had on shiny black stocking that glistened in the candle light; he had on a giant-sized wristwatch.

A couple of curries, Thai salad and a bowl of coconut milk soup and we left the place a hundred or so dollars lighter. But it was worth it because you simply can’t get that kind of dining experience anywhere but here. The cab ride back to the hotel was much less challenging – hotels are apparently easier to find, at least in my Chinese experience. We drove through the fancy shopping district marveling at the enormous Cartier store and planning for the next day’s adventures.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Hitting the road - Beijing Part 1

Dalian is a tough city to warm up to. I suppose it starts with the fact that the winter has two modes – opaque petrochemical ice fog or sunny blue Manchurian skies caused by hurricane winds and sub-zero temperatures. It presents a tough compromise – die of weather induced depression or simply freeze outright. Either of those extremes makes psychologically surviving the workweek a challenge even for the most grizzled professionals such as yours truly. I can only imagine how the less emotionally resolute survive. What keeps me going (in addition to constant emergency interventions by My Lovely Wife) is the prospect of getting out of town and wandering around some other city even if that city has the same aggressively unpleasant weather as this one. Last week, with escape in mind I made a plan to get out of Dodge for a couple of days.

Plane tickets in China are pretty much price fixed by zone. The major airports – Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Guangzhou – are like giant hubs in the center of a bicycle wheel with spokes heading out to the Tier 2 cities. From Dalian for example, I can fly pretty much to any one of them for about 700 Yuan or $110 one-way. It’s a great deal and it makes weekend getaways a genuine possibility. Couple those prices with the fact that a 5-star hotel in Beijing can be had for $115 a night including dinner and refreshments in the penthouse and you have a trip that is almost too cheap to not go on.

Friday afternoon found my traveling friend and me freezing at the airport. Like the lobby of my apartment building and just about every other public space in China, the main terminal is crafted almost entirely of marble which is not a very warm surface. I suppose in the summer it’s not so bad, but in the winter it conveys the impression that the whole place was carved from an ice berg. Given how obscenely common it is, it makes me wonder if there are giant marble fields somewhere out on the horizon where workers toil from sunrise to sunset hand prying naturally fabricated tiles from some vast marble glacier. The stuff just looks cold and brittle and it doesn’t help that every time a door opens a howling breeze that started somewhere near Irkutsk announces its gelid arrival. While the best strategy would be to get here late and avoid the deep freeze until the last possible moment, I am neither mentally capable of considering such an option nor is the airport reliable enough to allow it. Take for example the guy in front of me in the security line on this icy afternoon. A little old fellow although here it’s tough to know whether someone is actually old or simply looks that way from spending his life in the marble mines. He had on the standard old person uniform – a floppy blue Mao hat, a puffy coarse canvas jacket, black slacks and a pair of dress loafers inappropriate for the season. Over his shoulder he carried a red and white striped bag made out of what appeared to be mattress ticking. He made it past the identity check with no problem, announcing his success to his comrade who was watching from behind the barrier. The comrade, clearly from the same Red Army unit, had on a bright green surplus army greatcoat and one of those winter hats with the fur ear flaps and a big Red Star on the visor.

The old guy tried to walk straight through the metal detector but the guard stopped him, explaining that he must put his bag in one of those conveyor bins. He took the bag off his shoulder and complied, taking the bin from the guard and turning around to walk through the metal detector, binned bag in hand. The guard stopped him again, this time apparently asking what he was carrying. The man kneeled down on the ground and began rummaging, removing various articles of clothing and whatnots spreading it all out on the floor. Reaching the bottom, the last thing to come out was a jar of what appeared to be pickled pig’s ears wrapped in an ancient and very gray pair of cotton long johns. All the while the search was going on, he was laughing and talking with his buddy while I stood in between and simply waited for all of it to end. I don’t know if the pig’s ears were confiscated or merely x-rayed. The guy didn’t complain, he just gathered up his stuff, said a happy goodbye to his buddy and went on his way.

It’s a one hour hop over the Bo Hai Sea to Beijing Capital Airport. Like Dalian, this airport doesn’t seem to have any climate control - it’s either roasting in the summer or freezing in the winter and naturally it’s made of……marble. We landed on time in the midst of the biggest crowd of people I’d ever seen here. Normally this place is pretty empty; it’s so vast that it can absorb a lot of people wandering around before you even notice them. Not tonight though, I guess every person in China had the same plan that I did about getting out of town. I fought my way to the head of the crowd and walked fast towards tonight’s destination, speed is never a problem when you’re in a crowd of people with ½ your inseam. Unlike every visit in the past, tonight I was not taking a cab, I was taking the subway.

Subway trips to the airport are the stuff of legend among my expatriate pals. Everyone knows how to do it, and claims to know someone who actually performed the feat. But no one seems to have actually accomplished it themselves. Rather, the tales are told over beers in smoky expat bars, each one more amazing that the last. Stories of mounting the trains with five suitcases and two children in strollers. Sagas of hour long rides to the most remote stations jammed cheek to jowl with 100,000 Chinese in each car. All the stuff of extreme travel. It was my goal to debunk the myth once and for all and so we boldly walked past the escalator down to the taxi stand and crossed the giant indoor (marble) pier to the station.

For some reason the architects had only bothered to install a handful of lights bathing the platform in kind of a dimmer than normal twilight. I suppose that was appropriate given that the sun had just gone down but you had to wonder whether a brighter venue would not have been better. Of course there was no heat and the fact that the far end of the platform was open to the elements didn’t make it any friendlier. However, the airport manager had installed a few of those white nylon four pole tents over what few benches there were. You know the kind that you see on beaches and backyards in America. I’m not sure why because after all, we were indoors. Perhaps condensation from the expanse of ceiling far overhead? Or maybe he was trying to convey a sense of the tropics to offset the arctic reality. I don’t know, but the tents unintentionally added an odd “trade show” feel to the platform and although they seemed to offer no respite from the non-weather, my fellow passengers chose to sit under them almost exclusively. There was a big line for tickets so we simply walked up to the automated system and bought ours. Why everyone was waiting was beyond me, perhaps they had no money and had to pay with debit cards.

Like the airports, subway stations in China also have x-ray machines. Perhaps some security zealot saw “The Taking of Pelham 123” on a trip to my fair land and so decided to avoid any potential high-jacking crisis. The net result of these checks is always to slow things down more than they need to be and I wonder how many militants they cull each day. Or maybe they’re simply trying to separate people from their pickled pig’s feet. I threw my bag on the belt and passed through to wait for the train to arrive.

There were a couple of television screens hanging on the railings showing some motorcycle rally in Africa. It was nice to know that somewhere in the world, people were warm. I watched the countdown timer and the train arrived right on time. We boarded with the few people on the platform, giving me the impression that perhaps we would ride into town without being crushed in a sea of rush hour commuters.

Before venturing on this most perilous journey I had taken a long look at the Beijing subway map. It looked pretty clear – a fast line shot out from one of the transfer stations in town straight to Terminal 3 where we had arrived and then on to Terminal 2, the old airport. It looped around in a giant arc and headed back to town. What didn’t seem to make sense was the fact that it didn’t loop back from 2 to 3 which of course would have made complete sense. I’ve transferred between these two on the official buses and the process is so incredibly horrible that I learned to avoid it like sushi from a neighborhood street food stand. I figured we’d find out soon enough as the train left the station for the 15 minute run to Terminal 2. We stopped and waited for a few minutes allowing for stragglers and then rather than continuing on, our train started backing out of the station in the direction from whence we had come. Now this was a bit perplexing and not a good feeling even as we picked up speed and we began analyzing what might be going on. The concern of course was that we were on an endless see-saw path between the two airports, but this fear was dispelled when the time it would have taken to get back to Terminal 3 came and went. The best I could figure was that indeed there was no loop between the two stations, instead a two-way train that came in, went out, stopped, backed out again and went on its way back to the city. Fine by me, looking out the window I could see the world’s densest traffic jam extending as far as the eye could see along the airport expressway. I was glad we’d made the choice we’d made.

There were no stops on the line between the airport and the first transfer station. The people we were traveling with were it – no crowding, plenty of breathing space, a vision of hope given the time of day which just happened to be the peak of the commuting hour. We rode on looking outside at the long lines of red taillights.

Our hotel was close to the Shuangjing Station in the Chaoyang District which made getting there pretty easy. We only had to change trains in one location and then take a straight shot down from there down to the end of Line 10. Knowing this line, I continued to be optimistic because not only was it one of the lesser used routes, the trains always empty out as you get towards the end. My spirits were buoyant; at least until the moment we pulled into Sanyuanqiao Station and faced a grim sea of humanity surpassing even my most dire expectations.

Because we were only able to purchase a ticket from the airport to this station, we had to buy a pass to get us on to our final destination. Buying tickets in the Beijing Subway is simple – there are plenty of machines and they have an English option. Well, simple enough if the machines are working. We got off the Airport Express and followed the horde in the direction of the bank of machines. For some reason, another security check was between us and our goal. This one seemed to run in both directions, attempting to capture both arriving and departing terrorists. I lowered my bag, tucked myself into a cluster of people and sped past. We got to the machines and elbowed our way into the queue only to find that all but one was flashing “Out of Service.” I got behind a young woman using the only good one and stood there and watched as its little electronic brain went into arrest. She pushed all the right buttons and it just stopped. After pondering her request, it simply changed its status to match its compatriots. Everyone turned on their heels and started to scatter.

Lots of people were now yelling and a young woman in a uniform stood off to the side of the exit escalators using a bull horn giving everyone what I assume were directions on where to go and what to do. It was a bit confusing because the counter-yelling was just as loud despite the lack of amplification. She kept repeating herself and waving her arms towards the security check. I mustered some Chinese and asked her if this was the way to some tickets. She more or less said, “Yea” so I eased back into the migratory flow and head back the way I’d come.

This time I had to get my bags scanned along with everyone else. Passing the check, we rounded the corner and came to yet another security check. Beyond that was a very long line stretching back from a ticket booth that actually had a person in it. I went to the back and waited. My traveling companion decided to go up the escalator to see if there were machines on the next floor. While he was gone, the line suddenly disappeared and I found myself about 3 people from the ticket agent. China is weird this way, solutions happen suddenly and being incapable of really understanding the language you rarely know why. This time it was due to the sudden appearance of the girl with the bull horn who was now selling tickets by hand off to the side of the booth like some scalper at a Laker’s game. I bolted and bought two just as my friend reappeared announcing that there were three more security checks upstairs. We passed through the gates and went to the platform.

The train pulled in and it was about as jammed with people as it could be. This was the moment when I realized why the subway-to-the-airport stories are apocryphal – it is exceedingly difficult to get on a rush hour train with suitcases. This in mind, we just forced our way in taking up our allocated space as well as a little bit more. At each station people behind us would try elbow their way past us to the exit and in doing so trip over our bags, causing a giant cascade of human dominos. But as I expected the throng thinned out as we approached our destination. By the time we got to Shuangjing there was almost enough room to sit down. We got out checked the station map to find the best possible exit, headed up the escalator past the blind man playing one of those traditional two-stringed Chinese violins known as the Erhu and went out into the freezing Beijing night.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Life's little moments suggest it's time for a break.

It’s been really, really cold here in Manchuria for the last couple of weeks, so cold that I haven’t been able to convince myself to drag a bicycle outside for a ride. The thought of putting on all those clothes and freezing for the first hour if not the entire ride is simply too daunting. I stand at the window, it’s a clear day and the flags down on the street are blowing straight across in the howling Siberian winds. So instead I’ve limited myself heading out for a walk when an errand beckons.

Saturday morning rolled around and after staring across the city for 20 minutes and becoming convinced that I would die if I didn’t have the proper clothing I bundled up and headed out of my apartment on the pretense of buying some vital things like butter, a dust pan and some wheat bread. One of the great things or perhaps terrible things depending on your perspective is that they don’t bother wasting heat on the elevator lobbies - they’re just about as cold as it is outside, maybe even more so when you consider that they’re completely clad in marble which leaves you with the impression that you’re standing inside a big pink and black refrigerator. While the sun here is a pale cousin to what you might find in a normal part of the world, it does make the outside just that little bit warmer than the shady interiors. Or at least it seems that way.

Down on the street level I knew immediately that it was smart that I had on so many layers. What told me this was the stabbing ice-cream headache in both eyes that came from simply breathing. When I was a kid and I would bolt my Carvel Soft Serve, I’d try to muster some warm air from down in my lungs and exhale, making the headache go away. But here there was no warm air to summon – I was frozen inside and out and I was no more than half a block down the street.

Walking along I saw a child all bundled up in what appeared to be dozens of puffy clothes. He reminded me of those indigenous steppe children from some National Geographic of my youth, telling the story of the horsemen of Mongolia or some such thing, people who live in yurts, wrap their kids in old Mao-style clothing and subsist through the winter on fermented mare’s milk. He was perhaps two years old and all covered in red and bright blue and he was eyeing my path to see where I was heading. He had a bowl, and he was going to demand some money. As I approached him I veered slightly to my left and he countered. I went right and so did he. I sped up and he fell back. I slowed down and he closed in for the intercept. I feinted left and then right and I realized we were locked in some sort of bizarre wintertime dance – the little beggar boy and the giant western human ATM pantomiming basketball coverage out on the sidewalk. We went back and forth like this five or ten times until his mother yelled something in some guttural language and shot across the sidewalk to scoop him up. I poured on the steam lest she become my next dance partner. He tried to grab my ear as I darted away.

The next morning I was summoned to accompany some friends to town on a custom clothing trip. I love going to the fabric/clothing market because it’s the place where all of the unsold extremely lower end clothing in America ends up. It seems that the path for unwanted soft goods starts down south in China’s manufacturing heartland around Hong Kong and Guangzhou. From there it crosses the Pacific Ocean neatly packed in giant steel containers and assuming the ship is lucky enough to not be taken by Somali pirates or mired in the North Pacific Trash Whorl, it docks in LA where the containers are loaded onto trains. Its next stop is Bentonville, Arkansas, the nexus of the Borg Retail Cube otherwise known as Wal-Mart. From there it’s distributed to stores from Point Barrow, Alaska to Punta Arenas, Chile. Failing to be sold it follows the same path back to LA where it is washed to remove the make-up and deodorant stains garnered from repeatedly being tried on and then dumped unceremoniously into containers and shipped to Dalian to be sorted and sold in the block-sized market on Erqi Lu. I know this sounds preposterous, but if you’ve seen the inventory, you know I’m telling the truth and why I like to there.

But I digress. While standing out in front of my building who should come along but my little friend in the puffy blue snow suit, this time strapped to the back of his mother papoose style. She waved the bowl in front of my face as if to say “You got away yesterday” and I, being the soft touch that I am fished around in my pocket for some paper money. I dropped a 5 in her bowl among the coins and she turned around and walked away without so much as a “thank you” in whatever archaic tongue she might call her first language. I shrugged and turned around to see her exact twin, papoose and all, zeroing in on me from across the parking lot. I veered slightly to my left and she countered. I went right and so did she. I sped up and she fell back. I slowed down and she closed in for the intercept, wait a second, didn’t I just do this yesterday with a much smaller version? I stopped and stared her down, telling her in no uncertain terms that I’d just compensated her friend and that she could go work it out with her. She waved the bowl at me. I turned around and headed towards the curb hoping my friends would show up but they didn’t and the beggar mother followed. Using some innocent pedestrians as a pick, I cut across their path and the beggar mother stopped to harass them. I was free, at least until those ingrates brushed her off and she was back on my case. I finally told her I didn’t have any more money and that she was making me really mad – all in Chinese. She resigned herself to finding another mark and headed down the street.

About this time I started thinking that it might be nice to get out of town.

Monday, January 11, 2010

An exercise in anti-moderation

I went out to dinner the other night with some friends. The place was a pretty fancy Japanese restaurant off Renmin Lu in downtown Dalian just across the street and up the block from my old digs at the Shangri La Hotel. This section of town has recently been recast as the luxury shopping district with two new steel and glass-clad modern malls featuring all the big names – Prada, Versace, Armani, etc. I’ve been to them once and the most noticeable thing at that time was their lack of shoppers. While the Chinese have an insatiable hunger for top tier brands, most of the salaries have not yet enabled that kind of consumption. And tonight was no different - it was cold in only the way a damp Manchurian seaport can be in January and the few people on the street were far more interested in when their bus was arriving than in looking at the fancy things in the windows.

The restaurant continued the neighborhood motif – lots of glass panels, marble stairs, low lighting and elegant wall coverings. We arrived and were escorted up 5 flights of stairs to our private room. Why they didn’t have an elevator, I do not know because normally the restaurateurs assume you come with an appetite and not that you need some time on the stair-stepper to develop one. But up we went, following our hostess who like all the other girls in the place was togged smartly in a long black skirt complemented on top by a snow-colored vest crafted from what must have been a Yak hide. Suede on the outside and furry on the inside with little white tufts bubbling out of the neck and arm holes. This being a Japanese restaurant there was a lot of bowing going on, with stops at each landing where we were greeted by that floor’s staff. You never know how low or how many times to bow because each time you do it, they do it too with even more solemn gusto. Eventually we got where we were going and took our seats, just a bit sore in the lower back from all the displays of politeness.

Private rooms are very common in Chinese restaurants and almost always provided when you have a party of more than four. They can be great if you’re all friends and you want to get rowdy or just have a lot of conversation going on. They can also be horrible if you don’t know the others very well and downright horrific if you’re the only one in the room that doesn’t speak Chinese very well. That was the story the first time I went out with my driver and I remember that my iPod ended up with a solid coating of lamb grease from me trying to translate with the same fingers I was eating with. In either case I don’t particularly like them because a big part of dining out for me is the people watching. Especially here, honestly where else can you see men remove their shirts when the food gets too spicy? So while the dining experience allows you a more intimate encounter with your friends, you lose the show the other diners provide.

The rooms generally have the same theme – a big round table with the world’s largest Lazy Susan in the middle, a small private bathroom, a sideboard in the corner for serving the beer and utensils and a big screen TV in case anyone is worried about missing their favorite Chinese variety show. Sometimes there is a Karaoke machine in the corner for those customers plowed enough to want to sing after dinner. This room followed the checklist to the letter except that one wall was a beautiful saltwater aquarium and the Lazy Susan was replaced by a big Japanese Teppan grill. Ringing the grill were alternating bands of red and white rose petals – a nice and unexpected touch.

Chef came in and started to do the whole Benihana thing with the oils and the spatulas and the knives and the spices, cooking without break for about 3 hours. We ended up browsing our way through 26 courses and an undefined quantity of those extra tall Chinese beers. Some of the dishes were for the record books, some merely normal.

Here they are, with comments –

1. Sea Urchin – I’ve had it before and every time I eat it I swear it will be the last. The first one I ever had tasted like a saltwater Mangrove estuary smells at low tide - an interesting blend of salt air, sand and decaying vegetable matter. In the third world you can throw in the slightest hint of untreated sewage. Tonight’s offering was not nearly so foul in taste and was actually pretty mild. If you get past the consistency and color which brings to mind chilled infant poo, you probably could choke it down.

2. Some Kind of Soup – it was cooking there when I arrived and we each had our own little teapot full of it sitting on a flame. My flame went out when the soup was tepid. They told me to squeeze a lemon in it and I did. It tasted like dilute lemon juice. My Lovely Wife might have liked it.

3. Sea Cucumber – the last one of these I had was intact – six inches long, charcoal gray, covered with knobs and the consistency of a boiled hot dog. Tonight’s was chopped up, swimming in vinegar, mostly tasteless and brought to mind little fragments of sun-dried garden hose.

4. Big Bowl O’ Sushi – Salmon, Tuna, Butterfish – I’m told it was delicious but I don’t eat Sushi anymore because I feel guilty pillaging the seas.

5. Dalian Rolls – the local version of a California Roll, I was turned off by the ketchup and mustard squirted hither and yon in an attempt to provide a festive turn on white rice.

6. Barbequed Cod – this….was….really….really….good! Tender white fish with a slightly sweet brazed finish. I ordered a second and third round.

7. Barbequed Eel – I tried it because I’d never eaten Eel. It wasn’t offensive.

8. Lamb Shank – tasty preparation, but really hard to eat for anyone other than Cavemen who might be used to eating right off the Big Horn Sheep. We all know that some things are so easy that a Caveman can do them but this one turned the tables in favor of our progenitors.

9. Brazed River Fish – the whole fish from head to tail cooked in some kind of brown sweet and sour sauce that was rich and sticky. Another win for the chef.

10. Stewed Pork Chunks – two inches on a side, 50/50 pure fat and the softest hunk of meat you ever had. Very good.

11. Big Brown Mushrooms – two inch diameter fungi pressed down onto the grill and held there until the escaping steam made them “scream.” Served with a big slug of sautéed garlic – no Vampires tonight.

12. Scallop in the Shell – a large sea scallop cooked in the shell. While it tasted okay, I now understand why they don’t sell them with all the sundry pieces and parts that are normally in there. The muscle is good, the rest is rubber bands.

13. Giant Shrimp – about the size of the handset on a cordless telephone it was served “head on” which I hate because I can’t stand those big black eyes staring at me. It tasted like a shrimp.

14. Beef Tongue – I’ll tell you this – while I love Cousin Barbara’s Tongue Rendition, the Chinese really know how to cook this cow part. It was as smooth as butter and tasted like heaven. Especially after that big black-eyed Shrimp.

15. Horny Fish – a skinny little dagger-like fish breaded and fried. They call it “horny” because it’s always full of fish eggs when you bite into it. It’s eaten bones, skin and all, but not by me. I tore off the head and looked at it until the waiter came around and took it away.

16. Soft Boiled Egg Surprise – an egg shell with the tip cut off re-filled with egg custard and a little chunk of goose pate. Cooked on the grill in a special wire stand and served in a crystal egg cup. Topped with a spoonful of caviar. It was a pretty darn tasty concoction and I liked it.

17. Bacon Wraps – a little piece of undercooked bacon wrapped around a piece of grilled celery and jammed on a toothpick. What could possibly be wrong with bacon, right?

18. Clams – cooked in the shell on the grill, I didn’t eat them because I don’t eat shellfish that comes from Dalian mudflats.

19. Crab Legs – I dunno, I used to think that crab legs were special. These days, no so much.

20. Hairy Crab – a big pile of soft-shell crab parts. I fished around in there for a while looking for something edible but couldn’t find it. The inside of the carapace was coated in something that looked like a cross between Sea Urchin and orange-colored soft-boiled eggs. I wasn’t about to waste a lot of time sucking whatever meat might be inside of all those tiny little legs. I took a picture of it and sent it on.

21. Beef Cubes – some kind of hand-massaged beef-backside that Japanese businessmen make a lot of noise about after 18 tiny pots of Sake. It sat marinating on the grill for the first two hours we were there and I was glad when it showed up, cooked to raw and served with tiny little desiccated slices of garlic. Another win.

22. Shrimp Balls – blender-ized shrimp parts rolled and breaded and deep fried and served in a gooey red sweet sauce. Garnished with that green stuff that comes in Easter baskets. Not nearly as bad as that might sound. And they had no eyeballs that you could see.

23. Oysters – See #18 “Clams”, above.

24. Straw Mushrooms – the fungus course I skipped because I wanted to save room for desert.

25. Bananas Flambé – coated in shredded coconut, grilled, and set on fire with brandy while the lights were out in the room. Topped with a little scoop of vanilla ice cream and certainly worth skipping the fungus course.

26. Fresh Fruit – that old Chinese standard, watermelon, honeydew and winter melon, a white fleshed version of our cantaloupe. The perfect end to the perfect meal.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Into the Deluge

One of the interesting things about international travel is your naïve expectation that all the spheres of the universe will magically align themselves into complete harmony, because that’s pretty much what it takes to get you where you want to go. It’s not enough to get to the airport in plenty of time to make it through security, because that part is one of the few you have complete control over. Rather it’s your ability to walk through the thermal imaging device after working up a sweat by hauling your tail down five miles of corridors that will make the real difference in whether your day leaves a smile on your face or finds you sleeping on a faux leather seat in some far-flung airport, or worse, a room with grimy green walls on Quarantine Island. And for every little thing you control, there are a hundred waiting to trip you up.

The most successful multi-city international trips are often those in which your layovers are so excruciatingly long that nothing is left to chance. All those little problems can easily be washed away by simply arranging your flights so that you have five or six hours on the ground in between them. That way, if the airline decides to hold your plane up for an extra half hour to allow some status-laden individual to make a late connection, your whole plan will not hinge on how fast you can get through Immigration at your final destination. Of course, no one in their right mind wants to spend multiple hours sitting around waiting (even with an unlimited Kit Kat supply) just to avoid some minor yet plan-threatening eventualities. And so we make our arrangements to try to balance the two extremes - sometimes the spheres coalesce in perfect harmony and sometimes they collide in cataclysmic ways.

When I’m traveling, my mind constantly rolls through the statistical probability of whether I will or will not make that last connection. Like an old computer punch card sorter, my little brain shuffles and re-shuffles and recalculates with Newtonian precision. The computations begin the moment we pull away from the gate and the processing continues long into the trip, well beyond the point where I’m so sleep deprived as to be questionably capable of doing complex math that involves three time zones plus wind speed and outside air temperature. I usually doze off by doing yet another integration of arrival time, Immigration line length and processing time, time to retrieve bag and duration of the walk to the domestic transfer counter. The numbers roll around in my head like the little numbered lottery ping pong balls offering a continuous stream of more and more precise estimates of whether or not I will have to sprint the remaining 1000 meters to my last gate. The starting point is the time that we actually pull back from the gate, and on this day we were “on time” having squandered an early departure by kindly waiting for some joker running over from a delayed Denver connection. I like slop in the schedule, but only when it’s positive. And while not negative today, my plus column showed a big empty goose egg.

Aside from pointless math, fellow passengers are always the most prolific source of entertainment on a 12 hour flight. Today, a couple of them were worthy of attention.

The first was a youngish Chinese woman that I had first noticed in the lounge. Dressed in blue nylon sports pants with green trim and a bright pink fleece jacket, I’d seen her wandering back and forth while I was vacantly staring out the window waiting for my departure time to come. She was cute – her cheeks were rosy and she had her hair pulled back in a tight pony tail. I left and didn’t see her again until she showed up in the seat next to me on the plane.

She’d brought along four or five bags of Duty Free purchases and she was trying hard to get arranged before they told us to sit down and be still. Alternating between shuffling and re-shuffling the goods by her seat and putting and removing the things to and from the overhead bin, her high speed motions were resulting in her getting more and more flushed by the minute. She took off her fleece revealing a bright lime green thermal t-shirt marred by the fact that it was semi-see-through revealing bunches of little strawberries on her brassiere. Although the tee was a perfect color match to the piping that decorated her pants, the little fruits showing through her shirt were a complete fashion misstep – startling little dark spots in an otherwise pleasing expanse of tree frog green. She brought to mind something a friend had said recently in a newspaper interview about Chinese women - they were very stylish and chic - and I think they try to be. But they regularly miss on one little thing that is so blatant as to blow the entire package straight out of the water and this poor girl’s bra was that one thing.

She finally got the things she wanted stowed above and turned her attention to closing the bin. Mustering all her cute little might she jumped up in the air with both arms on the bottom of the bin and tried to get it to latch but unfortunately lacking the momentum to make the maneuver work, both she and the bin came right back down. Undaunted, she did this over and over again with each attempt ending in the same result. Up she went and own they came until the guy underneath her got up, gave the bin a shove and locked it in place. She sat down in the middle, grabbed the plastic coated safety information card and furiously fanned herself in a futile attempt to cool off. They turned on the seatbelt sign and we backed away, 30 minutes behind schedule.

I had dinner and a couple of glasses of wine and took a short snooze. Waking up I decided to watch a video so I got my gear and set things up, settling back for a couple of hours of entertainment. Apparently my neighbor had the same idea, only she was using a wide-screen laptop and she wasn’t watching network sitcoms - she was watching soft core Chinese porn. I wasn’t sure how offended I should be after watching the second or third encounter between the couple in her movie. I sat there with my right eye on my show and my left eye on hers while she sat there furiously spinning her hair around and around her little finger. The couple in the movie just kept on coupling and after a half hour or so a baby appeared. The dad spent the remainder of the movie playing soccer and the mom spent her time playing with her computer while the baby, now a toddler sat on the floor of their apartment. The movie ended and the second part of the double feature came on, this one considerably darker including one scene involving twist ties and kitchen knives. I stopped watching at that point.

The second person of the day was one of those yutzes that insist on opening the sunshade and blinding everyone else in the cabin. This guy was one row back behind my right side, and each time he let in the sunshine, he bleached my peripheral vision. He’d open, I’d turn and glare, he’d close. We got into this pattern until I tired of turning and glaring and instead put my hand up to shield my eyes. Figuring this out, he’d close the blind again. Until he started doing it just to get me to put my hand up. He’d open, I’d block, he’d close, and I’d lower. We went through this dance several times before I figured out what was going on and just sat there absorbing the light. He figured that my absorption rate was infinite and stopped opening the blind. I guess I won.

Despite my buffer being consumed away back at departure, I made my last connection with no pressure whatsoever. I even had time to chug a half a Diet Coke in the Air China lounge before heading down to the gate. Of course this only happened because I passed the thermal imaging gauntlet, picked a reasonably fast Immigration line, caught the inter-terminal train quickly and found my bag waiting for me at the carousel. But who’s complaining? The spheres aligned themselves as needed.

I’ve been out of all kinds of gates at Beijing Capital but never one down in the basement. 52 was the designation so I headed down the moving walkway towards the end of the C concourse. In most airports, the lower gate numbers are closer to the ticketing areas, but in China you just never know. And so I was not terribly surprised when gates 51 and 52 happened to fall between 17 and 18. I was surprised enough to have to back track because 52 also happened to fall ½ between the breaks in the walkways, but that was easy enough, I just circled back and took an escalator down two floors to the ground level – it seems we would be taking a bus to the plane. This was my first time leaving this way – I’d come in on a bus once before, a ride that cost me my connection. I milled around with the other passengers until they opened the doors, flooding the waiting area with diesel exhaust. We went out and boarded the transport buses, which too were full of fumes. There floors were wet and slick from the slush dragged in by the previous occupants. And it was cold. It occurred to me that the managers of the airport were trying very successfully to create the illusion of a bus station. In fact, they’d managed to out bus station just about every bus station I’d ever been in. We stood there with the doors open watching forlornly as the occasional late passenger would show up and join us amid the smoke, the slush and the frigid air. Eventually the gate agents tired of the trickle and signaled the driver to pull away. He closed the doors and we were on our way to the long climb up the stairs to the plane out on the subzero, windblown tarmac.

As always my trusty driver Jiang was waiting for me when I made my way out of the baggage claim area. We got in the car and headed out of the airport towards home. Once on the highway, he hit me with the news – the woman downstairs from me had called my relocation consultant to tell her that she could hear water running endlessly in my apartment. Making the sound of a waterfall and saying “Hua hua hua” over and over again to add some drama to his story, Jiang related how the consultant had called him, wondering where I was. When they figured out that I was not there, they called the landlord’s agent who in turn called the superintendent who then turned off the water. None of this was good news, as the weather had been unseasonably cold and broken pipes had reached plaque proportions. Of course I wondered why he had to tell me this five minutes into a 40 minute drive. I thought I was done with travel calculations and now I had to start all over again wondering whether tonight was going to end up with a missed connection of a different sort – an uninhabitable house.

I couldn’t get to the bottom of how long ago this had happened nor how long the water might have been running. I kept asking but the details were not emerging, a combination of my lame Chinese and his lack of details.

We arrived and I opened the front door expecting to see the results of a flood, but there were none. Going from room to room, things looked normal at least until I checked my hall bathroom. The signs there were interesting – nothing was wet but the floor was littered with little tiny crescents of dried dust-bunnies. Like so many sandbars on an ancient floodplain, the lint islands radiated out from the washing machine towards the drain at the back of the room under the shower head. I took some time to ponder this evidence; water had once been there and yet now was gone. Jiang went downstairs to get the super to turn the water back on. I dug deeper and found the culprit – the water feed line to the washer was sheared off right at the clamp. A mystery as to how, but not a mystery as to what – this was the source of the flood and my place had been saved from destruction by one thing only – this bathroom was once of those wall to wall to ceiling tiled cubes so curiously native to China. We laugh, but there is clearly a higher plan at work.

I closed the faucet and sent Jiang home. A half hour later the super showed up in slippers and sweatpants and turned the water back on. We chatted in Chinese and he showed me the secret water control compartment – a box hollowed out of the concrete core of the building holding 4 plastic pipes, each with a little orange plastic valve. Like my sprinkler system back home.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Once again into the Lounge

What do you think about when you’re driving to the airport at 4:20AM? It’s almost always the same poser for me – will the gas pumps at a closed station work with a credit card? Or is there a big switch inside that powers them down until the workers return in the morning. Just when I think I have this one figured out, I see a car at a pump and I wonder, are they getting after-hours gas?

It’s been a month since I set down on these shores and now I’m heading back to the other side. I can’t say I’m thrilled at the prospect – like Christmas leftovers, it’s time for this portion of my life to move on. But my enlistment has a few more months to run and so I’m diving in once again. Each departure gets that much tougher and each morning sitting in the lounge waiting for a plane gets that much less interesting.

My time in Mexico was well spent between counting birds, photographing Santa in downtown Guaymas and getting to the bottom of the cruise ship mystery. Two years ago we went down to the docks and stood in the hot October sunshine marveling at a beautiful sign depicting the giant cruise ship terminal that was going to be built right there amidst the rusting shrimp boats. There were hotels on manmade islands, yachts worthy of a Greek shipping magnate and promenades crisscrossing the sparkling blue harbor. Knowing Mexico, we had our doubts and they were more or less confirmed when we returned this year. There were no islands, there were no hotels. There were some yachts, of the garden variety American retiree style and while there was a promenade, there was only the one. The shrimp boats had been kicked to the curb so as to be out of sight, but the harbor was hardly a sparkling blue – it was the same old black, shiny water. The biggest change perhaps was the elevation of the formerly ground level bronze of El Pescadore – the fisherman. He now stood high up on a brick pylon, well above a new traffic circle to nowhere. His explanatory plaque no longer visible due to its newly found altitude.

Needless to say, there wasn’t a cruise ship in sight confirming our long held suspicions that no one in their right mind would let their passengers off the boat and onto the waterfront in Guaymas. However a little web surfing turned up several cruise lines with routes called “Tour of the Mexican Riviera” and one even talked about tours in the area. While the central seacoast of Sonora has its charms, “Riviera” hardly comes to mind especially when compared to the ports that actually form the heart of the tourist industry – Acapulco, Manzanillo and Mazatlan. This part of the country is scenic, but that’s about it. The tourist industry is very basic and caters more to people who drive down from Arizona than people from Minnesota in search of the “real Mexico.” The web site descriptions of the local sights and stops were of course belied by our experience - the “giant cactus forest” is really nothing more than a big stand of Cardons out in the middle of nowhere accessible through the local town dump via some power line roads and the “charming colonial seaport” is really a nice 19th century cathedral surrounded by boarded up bars. The more I read the more the more I wondered so we went to the best font of information we had, our friend who works the desk at our condo place.

Sure enough, the boats had been there. They didn’t dock where they were supposed to; they docked around the corner by the naval base. And yes, people actually got off the boat and did things. Junkets for scuba diving and sightseeing, shuffling people from boat to van to fun. It seems that a real fiesta was held each time a boat came in with people from all over the region motoring in, donning local costumes and greeting the gringos, creating just the spectacle that one might expect here on the Riviera. I suppose if you blow up enough balloons and have a big enough Mariachi band, the reality can be overlooked especially if you’re only ashore for a couple of hours. This question answered, it was time to head home.

Getting into Mexico is far easier than getting out, a statement I suppose is true whether you’re riding north in a giant SUV or walking across the line with a gallon jug of water. In our case, the risk is low but the frustration is high. The string of checkpoints manned by heavily armed men is bad enough. It seems we now have to run a gauntlet of ever more connected militias, starting with the State Police, followed by the Federales, moving on to the Army and ending up with black ski-masked Special Forces. I will say though that all are cheerful and genuinely interested in whether or not we had a nice vacation. We passed each checkpoint and kept forging north knowing full well what awaited us.

There is a landmark that I look for each time we approach the border from the Mexican side – a block of tropically painted apartment buildings off to the side of the road. In the old days, before the new “fiscal corridor” was built, we used to take a neighborhood road through the junk yards and flea markets up to the crossing. If the line of cars extended back to the colorful apartments, you were going to have a long wait. They’re no longer as good a time marker as they were, but they still have a purpose – once you see them, you know that you’re close. And sure enough, they came into sight just as we crawled into the end of the stopped traffic. We were in for a wait.

Sitting at the border is like being in the middle of a store whose good pass you instead of the other way around. People walk by, knocking on your windows carrying the excess from the little factories of Nogales. Every year the goods change, some things leave and some appear. A few things have always been available, like Nortena CDs and wooden plaques with a shiny praying Jesus appliqué. There used to be battery operated birds in flimsy wooden cages, a favorite of mine if only because their motion activated song was so loud and annoying. Today’s fare included sheepskin vests for little boys, foam jigsaw puzzle maps of the US, a banquet of Mexican snacks, Christmas ornaments and stamped leather wallets. The young women start at the border, walk by tolerating your polite refusal, get to the back of the line and then start anew offering the same things over and over as though each time they pass it’s with something you might have missed on the first go-around. They walk, you nod and they walk - an endless conveyor belt of the same old things. We sat and we waited and 1:39 later it was our turn to be interrogated.

When you pull up you never know who you’re going to get or what they’re going to want. The highlight of all of our crossings is the stuff of legend – a 6’3” transgendered agent who freaked out in full falsetto at the sole uncooked chicken breast she had found in our cold box. Other times it’s been nothing more than a nod. On a few occasions we’ve been pulled to the side so that Sparky the Beagle could smell our tires. On one of those we were asked if we knew the people in the car behind us, an odd question to which I was grateful that I could answer with an honest “No way!” This time was much like the others aside from the attention my passport now gets due no doubt to the 22 China exit stamps I possess. This agent was mostly interested in the condition of the fresh fish we had, asking me three times if I had said it was frozen. Maybe he was trying to trip me up? Once across though we turned the boat northwards and headed back into the southwestern winter, our idyll on the beach at an end once more.

And so today I complete the circle I started back in early December. I began this cycle by describing the generic nature of airplane travel in comparison to its more intimate cousin, travel by car. I’ve not seen a single machine gun today, which is nice. But my most exciting encounter by contrast was the woman this morning that was in such a rush to get to the metal detector that she crawled under the ropes at the identity check station to be first in line at a newly opened spot. Never mind that she and I were the only two people in the whole security area. Some annoying fellow travelers with status and another yogurt in the lounge – travel this way is pretty limited in its sensuality. But I suppose there is something to be said for sitting and looking out the window and watching the big jets line up in preparation to be filled. Mine is one of them and in a bit I’ll be on my way once again.