Saturday, April 02, 2011

A birthday abroad

Through no plan of my own, My Lovely Wife’s birthday happened to fall on our final day in China. This was a nice turn as I had managed to miss her previous two. Little milestones like these are important to a romantic like me, and so I was happy that the string of misses was broken. And in such a nice way.

We started the day with another leisurely departure. A big breakfast meant to forestall the need for lunch and a taxi ride into town, my concession that our vacation was finally wearing me down. Sometimes the thought of a long walk to the subway station is reason enough to pay for a much easier ride in a car. Today’s taxi driver thought he was clever, zigzagging through the city streets in order to jack up the fare. It was obvious to me what was going on, and confirmed when he dropped us off on the south side of Yu Gardens, the touristy shopping district in the only remaining old district in Shanghai. The cost was almost double what it should have been, but still only an extra four dollars in our currency. Getting an unexpected tour in a cab is one of those things that are hard to address in a tough second language. I suppose I could have called him a thief, but honestly – if those extra 30 RMB made his day, perhaps it was one of those karma contributions that will pay off for me somewhere down the road.

I paid up and got out into a maelstrom of people on the street trying to interest us in their wares – bags, watches, DVDs. I got into my standard response of “Bu yao” until one of them started mocking me by repeating it over and over. I looked at him and smiled and laughed. Who is the joke really on when he’s not getting a cent of my money?

Our first stop was Pearl City, home to my old friend necklace stringing friend Anna. My friend Matt had discovered her via a recommendation of some anonymous lounge dweller at the Hongqiao Renaissance back in 2006. Over the course of our 3 years of work here, our core project team had built her business beyond anything she would have ever expected. Every trip to town meant a visit with Anna, and in the end the recommendations started echoing back to us from people who had heard third and fourth hand and somehow got the idea that they had discovered her. Today we had a few gifts in mind and I wanted something special for My Lovely Wife. We took the stairs and found her busy at work stringing away. After exchanging pleasantries we got down to shopping and she went to work on our choices. I needed some additional cash and she directed me to an ATM that she said was near “the number one gate” which I assumed meant one of the doors. I went downstairs not fully understanding where the particular “gate” was so I asked one of the ladies working behind the gold counters. She wasn’t much help, more or less gesturing that I should go across the street. We went outside and down to where I knew a machine used to be – it was gone, another victim of the constant urban renewal that rules this place. I went back into Pearl City and using my iPhone as a translator, asked another girl. She laughed and pointed over my right shoulder – it was right there by the door. Flush again we went back upstairs and settled up, taking time to take some photos and say goodbye.

I love the old city; it’s probably one of the last relatively authentic pieces left. While it is overloaded with tacky tourist shops, there are sections which are fun to visit. We stopped at a store that specializes in carved Mammoth tusks and admired a beautiful carving of running horses, displayed in the window. On some trip in the past I’d been invited into this shop to discuss that very piece. Tea was offered along with an assurance that the government regulations denying export of these treasures could be overcome. I was tempted, but left empty handed on that occasion. We wandered through an area that I call “the mineral street” where all the stalls offer products of the Earth – geodes, jade, fossils and amber.

I had a single destination in mind today, the Bird, Fish and Insect Market. Leaving the last neighborhoods of the old city behind, we made our way to Tibet Road and found the entrance. I’d stumbled upon this place on one of my wanderings many years ago and while it represents the worst of man’s inhumanity towards our animal friends, I just can’t resist visiting. It is such an anachronism in this modern city, probably the only place where a smidgen of traditional China remains among the gleaming skyscrapers and fancy villas. A fancy new façade had been added to the old structure, suggesting to me that my worries of its demise were unfounded. We walked in a spent a good hour looking at all the caged animals – wild birds from the tropics and the steppes, grimy little kittens that will never find a home, giant goldfish, pans of crawling mealworms whose purpose was a topic of discussion, and finally the crickets. The Chinese love to have songbirds in their homes, and so mist netting is a popular if illegal sport. Chinese men love cricket fighting and today the stalls were crowded with men carefully prodding prospective combatants into action with the spilt and mashed end of a blade of grass. I’m sure there are good and bad bugs, but those nuances escaped my untrained eye. Judging from the intensity of the buyers though, there must be subtleties that will mean success or failure in the ring. We walked along watching, the sound of insects singing overpowering our senses.

The Shanghai Antiquities Market lies across the street and we made our way over. It’s not much different that the Beijing version, being stocked with thousands of identical artifacts. I stopped at one stall to negotiate some trinket with a young lady. She looked at My Lovely Wife and produced a hair brush. With a somewhat sheepish smile, she asked My Lovely Wife if she could brush her hair. It seemed we’d encountered a new, more intimate version of the now famous “have your picture taken with a westerner” activity. My Lovely Wife turned her head and allowed the girl to brush out the ends. But that wasn’t what she really wanted – she wanted to brush her bangs. My Lovely Wife graciously allowed this too. The girl thanked her with a big smile. It was getting cold and the weather seemed to be changing.

We caught a cab to Xintiandi for another bout of coffee and tapas – fried baby artichokes, pork pate and skillet sautéed chicken this time around. The perfect birthday lunch. Another cab ride back across town and our vacation was pretty much behind us. All that remained was to pack and prepare for the long ride home. Outside the weather had gone downhill as predicted – a long line of misty fog rolled in across the delta of the Yangtze.


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